Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Forty rial fridges are a crapshoot

I just tried to crack an egg and it bounced off the wall like a golf ball and I had a weird moment of oh no the world is not supposed to work this way. And another of god I can’t even break an egg correctly when it rebounded several more times.
Turns out it was frozen. Which is frustrating, because the freezer compartment of this minifridge I bought two months ago does not freeze. But the fridge will randomly freeze things and confuse the heck out of me.

I bought a warranty and yes I could arrange for someone to drive me to the appliance store crammed into the backseat with my recalcitrant fridge, but I do not want to bother my friends, and let's face it it's a forty rial fridge.  It will probably never work right, even if they actually try to fix it, and in the meantime I would have to buy another fridge while I wait months for this one to be fixed-but-not-really, and then I would have two fridges, and have spent a whole lot of time asking people to drive me places and arguing with store staff.  

I can deal with a freezer that doesn't quite freeze.  I can't keep more meat than I can eat in a few days, which is inconvenient because a kilo of meat is considered a very small portion here and I am not a big eater, but I'm not used to having reliable refrigeration at all, so.  I'm continually surprised when I'm hungry and I open the fridge and lo and behold there is food in there, and it's not spoiled (unless it's something I forgot in the freezer).  It's like a magical food-preserving-and-dispensing box.  Refrigeration is pretty great. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Review: Animorphs 1: The Invasion

The Invasion (Animorphs, #1)The Invasion by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a lot of fun, fast-paced, suspenseful, and tightly plotted. The kids had good reasons not to want to fight; their fears were reasonable, and their sacrifices mattered. I thought the big villain’s grandstanding was a bit silly, but it might be the right tone for the target audience. I would have loved these books as a ten year old; I love them even reading them for the first time as a thirty year old.

Cassie’s characterization made me wince a little. She’s described on page 4 as ‘…quieter than Rachel, more peaceful, like she always understands everything on some different, more mystical level.’ If a white character was described that way, it would still be a weird thing to say about a person, but it wouldn’t play into the same tropes.

Cassie is the one black character in the book, and she’s described as having supernatural understanding (by a first-person narrator who’s in junior high, but still), she’s unusually insightful and calm, she’s far better than the other kids at morphing, she delivers a little speech about the old days and calling on the spirits of animals for protection, and because of her special interest in animals and her parents’ occupations, she can put the group of kids in contact with the larger and more unusual animals they morph into. None of the other (white) kids are special or essential to the plot the way Cassie is. 

I feel like the author tried to make Cassie extra-super-awesome, and fell into the magical black person trope.  She went too far, and the character became a plot device in a way that the other characters did not.

(Edit: someone pointed out that Marco is Latino, so not all the other kids are white, but the first book in the series at least didn't single out Marco the way it did Cassie).

Friday, 30 August 2013

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy, #1)The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think the best way to describe this book is 'layered.' The story centres around family disputes, mortal and godly, composed of layers of love and bitterness and jealousy and revenge, and the problems are never easily resolved. Neither are this world's political problems. The Arameri ruling family hide their cruelty under a layer of order and 'peace' which is really hegemony, and their mistreatment of other races under a veneer of false civility, which as Yeine says, mocks the suffering of their victims.

I loved how Jemisin didn't portray all parties as being equally at fault, or as simply needing to stop fighting and get along, because there is great injustice in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and that has to be acknowledged before it can begin to be changed.

This is a complex, first-person narrative, weaving together Yeine's childhood in Darr and her grandmother's stories and her commentary on her world and her short time in the Arameri capital. (view spoiler) This isn't always a happy book - it couldn't be, with all the terrible things happening in its world - but it's an effective and captivating one.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 25 August 2013

There is no joy but calm

I finally managed to reset my internal clock from the 'sleep after sunrise, wake at noon' Ramadan routine...by having a migraine.  I spent yesterday listening to podcasts, not really tracking, and trying really hard not to vomit or scream at the muazzin to shut up, because that would make me feel worse, and the neighbours would finally be sure that I was off my nut. 

Somewhere in there I must have gotten some sleep, because I woke up at eight-thirty this morning, and it was great.  The building was quiet, mysteriously devoid of screaming sprogs (are they still asleep, or have they travelled?  I'm hoping for the latter), and cool - less than thirty Celcius.  Sleeping in the day always makes me feel awful, which does not improve the Ramadan experience any.

I have The Lotos-Eaters (text) stuck in my head, although I haven't listened to it in ages.
"Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In the afternoon they came unto a land,
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

I think I may have discovered this poem in the last Twilight book.  Bella reads it as a lullaby to her horrifying spooky monster sprog, or something.  One benefit to those books' name-dropping of great works of literature of whose themes the author was unaware: I read a few things I'd never gotten around to before.

I really like the reading of The Lotos-Eaters in this Librivox poetry collection.  Kirsten Ferreri's voice is perfect for the poem, low and sleepy and a little resigned.  It's her voice reciting in my head.

Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
"There is no joy but calm!"
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
Theories about the poem's seating in attitudes toward work in the British Empire:

According David Reide, "Certainly Tennyson's relocation of excesses of eroticism to the edges of the imperial world provides a kind of outlet for overflow that might otherwise threaten the orderly authority at the imperial center." I believe, however, that "The Lotos-Eaters" is more of a critique of British work habits and imperial duty than an Orientalist fantasy. Tennyson repeatedly emphasizes that the lotus eaters do no work and bear no responsibility. "Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?" asks one sluggish Grecian. Figuratively at least, the land of the lotus-eaters is a romantic escape from a life of "enduring toil" that most industrial age Britons knew only too well. 

- From 'A Critique of Empire and Toil in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters"'

Friday, 23 August 2013

Poetry: Song for an Ancient City

I have loved this poem for a few years, and now it's up on the new Mythic Delirium site, in English and Arabic, with recordings in both languages.  Do take the time to listen to them.

Merchant, keep your attar of roses,
your ambers, your oud,
your myrrh and sandalwood. I need
nothing but this dust
palmed in my hand’s cup
like a coin, like a mustard seed,
like a rusted key.

I need
no more than this, this earth
that isn’t earth, but breath,
the exhalation of a living city, the song
of a flute-boned woman,
air and marrow on her lips.
 - Amal el-Mohtar, 'Song for an Ancient City.'
It's not my Damascus, quite, mine was candy and garbage and shawarma and eroding concrete and bus exhaust, but the sentiment could be mine.  It's especially poignant right now.

Damascus, how I miss it.

Here's another one:

I looked for you
in the Umayyad mosque
I saw your feet stamp the coriander dust
your fingers swinging old shoes
of leather and brass
back and forth, back and forth—
                                                hooded, grey, wondering and small,
two fingers hooked into the heels
of shoes I carried in one hand.
your hair was bound up, far off from me;
I bound mine, too,
a gesture of loyal symmetry.
I looked for you
I could not find you
in the sun-steeped mosaics,
in that city of silver and capsicum
the figures of fruit trees, bridges, vines.
of frankincense and raisins.
I saw whole cities blooming in the stone
I saw long veils stitched with hexameters
that would not speak to me, would not say
that lied when they breathed:
where they'd seen you last.
she is near.

 - 'Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or The City Is Never Finished' by Amal El-Mohtar and Catherynne M. Valente

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

On dying for one's beliefs, and on living.

There's an image going around Facebook and Tumblr (in Arabic, I don't know if there's one in English) of a woman in niqab and a man in a beard.  Yellow on black, like a yield sign, except the caption is to never yield and never give up your niqab/beard, not even if it costs you your life, because your fate is written.  This is in relation to the massacres in Egypt, where people have been killed who don't display those observances, but the ones who do are targeted especially.

The people I know who are sharing this are outside Egypt, and a few of them have put on niqab recently, and are encouraging others to do so.  I'm happy for them; I love my niqab and I understand how they feel about it.

I have to take my niqab off.

It's easy, to say that you would die for your beliefs, and it's exciting to resist, especially if you're young and the danger isn't immediate.  I understand.  I also understand that upper middle class girls in Amman aren't really risking anything when they put on niqab, except their neighbours' disapproval, and their families' puzzlement.  They won't lose their jobs, if they have them, or their housing, and they won't be shot.

I would gladly die for my beliefs, if it was a quick death, and if it would mean something.  What I won't do is give up my livelihood or accept a marriage I don't want.  I won't live a life of servitude or give up my autonomy. 

Given the choice between a beloved article of clothing and my larger principles, in this case, the clothing will have to go.

I feel guilty for thinking all of these things, when people are dying, but I don't think I've made the wrong choice.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords

I was backing up my files and found a pdf of J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories on my external hard drive.  I didn't like The Lord of the Rings as much as I wanted to (as much as I like The Hobbit), I don't think I read it at the right age, but at its best, Tolkien's prose is lovely.  Here are some excerpts:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Tolkien excludes fantastical travellers' tales, such as Gulliver's Travels, from the category of fairy-story, because "Such tales report many marvels, but they are marvels to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space; distance alone conceals them."

With respect to Tolkien, I think some of the above quote can be applied to travellers to foreign parts.  As far as our families are concerned, we peripatetics are in a perilous land.  They do not know the rules of the place, or where it's located to any degree of accuracy.  For all they know, we might be swallowed up or enchanted and never return.  We might as well be in faerie. 

We know the perils, and to us they are very ordinary - dishonest employers, landlords, corrupt officials, ever-changing immigration laws, annoyingly persistent matchmakers, stalkers in pointy boots and tight pants and too much hair oil.  No fairy lords here.  But there has been joy and sorrow as sharp as swords, and we will never be able to fully explain it to anyone who wasn't here with us. 

Tolkien wasn't fond of Shakespeare's pretty but dull fairies, or of the saccharine, moralising Victorian flower fairies.  He theorises about how this transformation from the wild fae of old happened:

Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.

And there's that thread from the LotR: the wonder that goes out of the world at the end of the age of elves and and the beginning of the age of men.

I think that's the right note to end on.  We are fortunate to have wandered, even if it won't last forever.  Nothing does.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Dreaming: Ice-Cream

All I remember now is that people were pointing at me and saying I was a huge ice-cream cone.  I may have actually been a huge swirly soft-serve ice-cream, but I'm not sure anymore.

It's hot and dusty and often late at night in Ramadan I walked down to the baqalah and got an ice-cream. 

You can get a good one for ten to thirty qirsh, a vanilla bar coated in brown chocolate-like product or a tube of fruit sherbet.  They're not real ice-cream, they're milk and vegetable oil and fillers, but we're used to it.  Everything in this country is a cheap imitation, unless you're rich, but it's been so long since we've tasted the real thing that we wouldn't recognise it any more.  It's cold and it's sweet and it's affordable and that's all we wanted.

Ramadan's over now, and I think the midnight ice-cream runs are too. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Book Review: From Pharaoh's Lips

(Posting this here for now because I can't get Goodreads or Amazon to load and if I don't post it I will forget about it).

From Pharaoh's Lips: Ancient Egyptian Language in the Arabic of Today

A fun introduction to Ancient Egyptian and Coptic words in modern Arabic, which tells the story of a day in the life of an Egyptian family in a manner suitable for elementary school children, using several Egyptian Arabic expressions per sentence.  On the pages facing the story are lists of the expressions used, in English transliteration, Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and hieroglyphs.  The book also provides lists of the letters of the Arabic and Coptic alphabets and hieroglyphs and brief instructions on how to read and pronounce them, and glossaries of expressions in those languages.

The main problem with this book is that it can't decide whether to be a children's book, or an academic text, and so it fails at both.  The authors state that a word or phrase comes from a particular language, but they don't show the etymology, or justify their statements, or provide any citations, or list more than one or two sources in the bibliography beyond basic language texts and dictionaries.

Written by an Egyptologist at al-Azhar, this book had a lot of potential, but it didn't live up to it.  Scholars of the languages concerned will want a more in-depth book, and children will not understand much of this one.

EDIT:  Many of the phrases in this book are also listed in this excerpt from Georgy Sobhy Bey's 1950 article 'Common Words in the Spoken Arabic of Egypt of Greek or Coptic Origin.'  It's difficult to be certain without citations, but Youssef appears to have drawn heavily on Bey's work.  I talked to an Egyptologist who said that some of the hieroglyphs in Bey were wrong, but it's an interesting read for anyone familiar with modern Arabic (my apologies to those who aren't!  But have a look at it anyway, it's visually interesting).

Copticsounds' resource page has an extensive bibliography of scholarly articles on Coptic Language, many of which deal with the Ancient Egyptian-Coptic-Arabic etymology, with links to PDFs.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

End of an era

It took me a long time to write this post.  I have a habit of hoping that if I just carry on and do the best I can and don't acknowledge that there's a problem I can't solve, it will work out okay, but that's not always true.  Pretending everything's perfectly fine when it isn't is not a good problem solving strategy. 

So, it looks like Jordan is no longer feasible for me.

I was taking (completely unnecessary) Arabic as a second language classes in the summer semester.  Or not taking, as happened more often, I registered and attended for a few weeks and then taking the bus and being around people and noise and sitting on a hard chair all day trying to pay attention with my back screaming at me and then taking the bus again and doing homework and then doing actual work and dealing with the usual bullpucky at home took their toll and I was no longer able to drag my carcass out of the house, which was not that big a deal because I graduated with honours from the last level at the language centre a few years ago.  I kept registering in the courses one semester (the shortest one) per year so I could renew my student visa and make contacts, I did a number of translations for teachers at the colleges I attended. 

The courses cost JD150 per semester, then JD250, and now JD750 (around a thousand dollars), and I would have to sign up for two semesters and actually attend, which is impossible for several reasons:

1. That is a stunning amount of money.  I have not made that much in all the time I've been here.  To put it into perspective, I have a decent apartment in a nice area in a quiet building close to a major university, and it costs me JD100 per month, utilities included.

2. I work, freelance, but I do work, and I have demonstrated several times that I am unable to work and attend school at the same time, and if I don't work I don't get paid and can't survive.

3. I was previously attending college classes, despite not being registered, because it's what I came here to do.  I wouldn't be able to do that if I had to go to classes at the language centre, and even if I had enormous amounts of money, I am not interested in sitting through basic Arabic lessons full time all year.

There are a few other options for renewing my visa in Jordan:

1. Enroll in university.  Not currently possible, because I have not been able to get the ministry of foreign affairs in Ottawa to authenticate my diplomas.  I have no idea what their problem even is, all they have to do is stamp them, this is not that difficult.  It was previously possible to register with unauthenticated documents while waiting for the documents to be authenticated, because it is a ridiculously byzantine process and commonly takes years, but the rules have apparently changed and Jordanian universities/colleges will not do that anymore.

Enrolling in university would also require me to find a scholarship, of which there do not appear to be any at this time.  Everyone I've talked to says they don't have any more to give out, partially because Jordan has been flooded with even more refugees in the past few years and non-Jordanian Arabs qualify for scholarships for foreign students.  Which I don't begrudge them at all.

There are plenty of people lining up with potential husbands for me, who they say would pay for my education (they frequently say that, and then don't.  I've seen this happen often enough.  Especially if they refuse access to birth control, and the girl gets pregnant immediately.  There goes that hope right out the window.  She could demand a divorce if she specified in the marriage contract that he would pay for her education and he didn't keep to the terms, but then she's divorced and has small children and no support, in a society that heavily stigmatises divorced women and has a huge surplus of poor unmarried girls). 

Marriage is my other option for renewing my visa, and my reaction to that is basically nopetopus.gif.  I am physically and constitutionally unable to fill that role, and I'm not interested in being treated like property again.  Been there, done that, ripped the T-shirt up for rags, it was a piece of junk anyhow.  If someone was willing to sign a marriage contract with me to put an end to my visa troubles, and let me live my life?  Maybe I'd do it, maybe we could be friends and partners, but people don't behave that way.  That's not what they want when they marry a lady.  Also, I'm not able to make enough money in Jordan to survive, nor am I able to go to college, so staying here would probably be locking myself into a dead end.

When I found out that the visa requirements had changed (without warning, as they always do), I began looking at options outside of Jordan.

 - Egypt: was tentatively planning on going there, but that's no longer an option.

 - Syria: hasn't been an option for a few years now.

 - Saudi Arabia: ahahahaha no, why do people keep suggesting this.

- Turkey: expensive, has actual standards and requires qualifications I don't have.

 - the UAE: had a couple job offers here, none of which I was qualified for or capable of doing.

 - Canada: I could possibly borrow money from family to go back, but I would have nowhere to go once I got there.  I can't go back to the places I used to live, the intelligence service there was a hassle, I have no means of financial support, there are people there who I'm very glad to be half a world away from. 

And I'm not ready to give up on my education and my beginnings of a career here.  I would feel terrible if I gave up and went back to a place where I wasn't safe and have no future.

This would be a lot easier if I was either wealthy, able-bodied and healthy, educated, or had Muslim family here.  As it is, I'm flat broke and not in good health and not interested in trading my body, so I've had to turn down all the offers I've had so far.  Yes, I could take a job I'm not capable of doing and hope it takes them a while to fire and deport me, but that is really a terrible idea (which hasn't stopped several people from suggesting it.  No, the problem is not that I'm not trying hard enough to succeed).  Also, I don't have money to travel.

And my visa expired nearly two months ago.  Damnit.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Dreaming: Pirates

I dreamed I was riding in an empty Greyhound-type bus around the logging roads of the town where I grew up, which were now paved, and empty of logging equipment and vehicles.  I had a little black cat clinging to my shirt.  The bus driver was a woman and speaking English.  People rarely speak English in my dreams anymore. 

I got off the bus and went through one cramped room after another in the little corner groceries on the outskirts of that town; they'd added on quite a few rooms since I'd last been there, with no obvious planning, and crammed them full of drygoods, mostly tins of fava beans and cellophane-wrapped yellow boxes of al-Ghazaleyn tea bags.

There were pirates, in the drygood stores, all of them male with multicoloured dandelion hair and sparkly teal eyeliner.  I wish I could pull off coloured eyeliner.  I only remember one pirate clearly, but he was a gentleman and a scholar and agreed with me that al-Ghazaleyn was way better than Lipton, even though it was cheaper.  Lipton is weak and insipid no matter how long you steep it, and it doesn't cover up the taste of the alkali in the water.  And to hell with supporting American brands anyhow.

I believe they were book pirates, rather than the maritime robbery sort of pirates.

I have no idea why I keep dreaming about riding in vehicles on the logging roads outside Bigotsville.  Those flamboyantly gender-presentation-ignoring pirates would definitely not have survived long there.  A shame.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Someone passed me a baby today, and after a while he started to cry, so I set him down figuring he would crawl around a bit.  He weighed about twenty pounds, they can crawl by that point, right?

 But he just lay there facedown on the rug like a piece of toast that landed peanut butter-side-down and started to cry even harder, and the whole room full of women turned and looked at me like what the hell did she just do to that baby.  He couldn’t even push himself up on his arms yet, or sit unsupported.


 Moral of the story: don't give me your baby, I am clueless and might break it.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Pirates of Barbary and Racism

I'm reading Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean by Adrian Tinniswood.  It's related to something I'm writing; I know a fair bit about how piracy in the Caribbean and privateering in the Atlantic worked, but next to nothing about piracy in the Middle East and North Africa.  I was looking for information about piracy and (incense) smuggling in the Red Sea specifically, but this book was the closest I could find.

It's a book by a non-Muslim white British man about piracy by mostly Muslim North Africans and Turks against Christian Europeans, so I didn't have terribly high hopes on the Western-gaze front.  On page 14, we have:

That winter, the winter of 2008-2009, marine insurers from all over the world gathered in London to discuss the problem of African piracy. Senior figures condemned the Somali pirates as the scourge of modern shipping, calling them “vermin” and demanding a concerted response from the international community—just as they had in seventeenth-century London.  [...]  Iranian and Pakistani nationals were reported to be joining the Somalis, raising the specter of jihad and links with al-Qaeda. In the summer of 2009 a Republican congressman introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives giving immunity to any American merchant sailor who wounded or killed a pirate in response to an attack.

Mention of jihad and links with al-Qaeda.  Uh-oh.  I don't really want to know what this author thinks about jihad.  It's not likely to be balanced or informed or realistic, and I'm only reading this book for historical information, and to figure out the economic system in that thing I'm writing.  Carrying on.

There is another parallel between the Barbary Coast corsairs of the seventeenth century and their twenty-first-century comrades in Somalia. In the West (although not in their own homelands) neither group has been able to boast the glamour of the buccaneers of the Caribbean—the Henry Morgans and the Captain Kidds, the swashbuckling Errol Flynns of old romance. Those pirates have been held up by historians as heroic rebels without a cause, cheerful anarchists or ardent democrats, proto-Marxists or proto-capitalists, promoters of gay rights and racial equality, praiseworthy dissidents rather than villains.

The pirates of Africa, past and present, have not. The white West regards them as the irreconcilable Other—not rebels against authority but plain criminals, not brave Robin Hoods (that would make us the Sheriff of Nottingham), but cowardly thieves. When the old pirates of Barbary described themselves as mujahideen on a sea-jihad against encroaching Christendom, Christendom portrayed them as demons bent on world domination; when modern-day Somali pirate chiefs say that the real sea-bandits are those who steal their fish stocks and pollute their coastal waters, we patronize them and then send a gunboat. An underlying racism and a more overt anti-Islamism make it hard to imagine Captain Blood or Jack Sparrow as North African Muslims, spilling over into contemporary popular culture. It would be difficult to imagine a modern-day pirate movie about a plucky little band of Somalis taking on the combined might of the world’s navies. We’re much more likely to see another Black Hawk Down, with the military battling against underwhelming odds in the Gulf of Aden.

The author makes accurate comments about racism and othering.  I was not expecting that at all.

I'm translating a book by an Orientalist about Islamic law, and I do a lot of related and unrelated reading.  I encounter so much blatant racism and bigotry passed off as enlightenment in academic writing  that I've come to expect it.  It's even worse when I encounter it in person from people I otherwise respect and care about. This happens so frequently that it seems like the default, I see it everywhere and so I expect it, and sometimes that's not fair to other people, sometimes when I least expect it I'm surprised by how decent they are.

Sometimes people who've never been dehumanised or marginalised do understand what it is and how it happens and that it's wrong.  That restores a little bit of my faith in humanity.