Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

18 July 2015

Cowboys and Indians

Filed under: SWIP (Supposed Work-in-Progress),The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 5:04 pm

Pendleton-20150718-00472Pendleton-20150718-00473Pendleton-20150718-00474Pendleton-20150718-00475I’m just saying…I decided to explore the area around the Umatilla Reservation yesterday. There’s a tiny grocery store on the Rez called the Mission Market. “Mission” because that’s the name of the small town on the Rez. It’s actually not much more than a 4-way flashing red stoplight with an Appaloosa mare and her foal grazing nearby. Not going to comment on the irony of the name Mission, except to say, let’s hear it for manifest destiny. At the Mission Market I asked two lovely ladies where there might be more shops. “In town.” Which town? “Drive straight this way into Pendleton.” So I did, and 15 minutes outside of Mission, this is what I found. Couldn’t resist the Group Therapy sign (aiming for lowest prices). Then I walked into Garner’s Sporting Goods and holy shmoly, found myself in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie! Guys dressed in khaki all hanging around the door as I entered. They held it open for me, though. But these guns!!!! Ok, so I’m from a slightly different culture, and had to put on my social science hat and observe, not judge, right? When I tried to take these photos as unobtrusively as possible, the owner came up to me, “You’re not from some group, are you?” No, don’t worry, I smiled charmingly. And left quickly.

Great interviews yesterday. I won’t tell you what was said, though. Why? Because for the first time in my many years of listening to young people in post-conflict areas, I heard young people ask me about how the information they were sharing would be used. I reassured them that before anything they said was made public, I would clear it with them and with the Communication Director for the Tribes. They were aware of their rights! That was amazing cool thing number 1. Amazing cool thing number 2 was that the CTUIR Director of Department of Children and Family Services, who is herself a former member of the Board of Trustees (9 elected members who govern the Tribes), reassured these young people that I was safe to talk to and had been vetted. So I really am in.

So, though I can’t tell you what they said, I can say they were just back from Washington, D.C., where they met Michelle Obama and were told that both she and the President have their backs. (But what does that really mean, I’m wondering. They looked so proud when they told me this.) And I can say they were articulate and honest and gutsy. I was thinking, oh, these guys would have been so good to have along on Peace Lab. (That’s the course I taught in June when Erik and I took 21 students to Kosovo.)

Had an excellent interview with the woman who set up the Youth Council. It’s barely two years old. The language of the documents is straight out of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. When I asked her about this, she said they used the language from their own Board resolutions. So this tells me a rights discourse is embedded in their governance structure. Voice is very prominent in the language, that youth have a right to voice. And despite older tribal members saying when they were young they were told to keep quiet unless spoken to, these same elders now embrace and encourage their youth to speak up and bring about change. Youth, voice and agency. This makes my young heart happy.

11 May 2015

My TEDx AUCollege talk is online!

Filed under: Aids survival,PhD!,The Children's Voices,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 12:30 pm

me at tedx in audienceWhat a great privilege it was to speak at TEDx AUCollege on 6 March 2015. To get an idea of what makes me tick, watch what I say about The Children’s Voices. Click here!

A big thank you to everyone who made this magic evening come together, and especially to my family who were there as support. (You can see them in the front row!)

16 March 2012

Reflection

I’m home. I feel all mixed-up inside. I brought Cape Town back with me, it warms my heart as I stare at gray North European skies and put on yet another layer of clothes. No one knows my secret: I’m tan!! Well, my husband knows.

I hit the ground running, going into work for a week starting the day after I arrived, and working straight through the weekend. Then yesterday I heard myself telling our daughter that my emotions are all mixed up and bubbling. “My heart feels like a water balloon, rolling around and around, about to burst. I don’t know what to do.” She wisely asked (where does she get it from?), “What does your heart say?” And I suddenly knew what I had to do: geef het een plek (give it a place) and write down how I feel.

This blog came into being when I returned from another trip to Africa, much more battered than I am now. Putting down the truth and telling how I felt healed me then. The slow showing up to write every day for a half hour helped me breathe new life into a blocked writing habit. I don’t have that problem now. In fact, I’m all excited to be home and can’t wait to start teaching on Tuesday. I’m happy to see my colleagues and I love sleeping in my bed. The best part has been hanging out with my family and watching their eyes and memorizing their voices, now no longer skype distorted. No, I’m okay. But as a wise friend said to me on Wednesday, “You need to let it all settle.”

But it won’t. Memories lift me at the most surprising moments, like birds taking flight. Smiles on the street. The eyes of a 12-year-old I interviewed who said her dream is to get pregnant because then she will receive R200 (€20) per month. The smell of wood smoke and sewage inside a community. Air warm against my cheek while cool water caresses my ankles. Mountains rising across False Bay with a thousand shades of teal between the other side and me. The faces and voices of all those many interviews; their words still swirl though my heart.

It needs to be said that I have met children who have no hope. Struck down by poverty, orphaned, sexually abused–still they dared to tell me things like, “When I grow up I want to be a chartered accountant.” Where does that courage come from?

Oh, you want to know about my Thank-you Lunch! It was perfect. Three people didn’t show and one woman brought her two sons from the community, so we had just the right amount. We ate and laughed and at some point I moved my chair from one end of the table to the other. Then I asked the kids if they wanted milkshakes. Chocolate? Right. We ate some more. Beneath ancient trees sun dappled our long table full of roses and glasses. Who was there? Friends and family: a reverend, psychologist, student, anthropologist and her two little girls, a favorite little girl of mine who has the heart of a peacemaker, mentor and colleague, husbands, wives, think-tank program director, filmmaker, teacher-to-be and me. We did the usual de Graaf thing: ate and talked and laughed and told jokes and listened to stories. There was also a fair amount of exchanging phone numbers, so that was cool. I miss them, these friends and family.

I feel . . . mixed up. Sad and relieved. Sad that so many children seem left behind. “You can’t save them all.” No, but I can save one. And I’ll teach and write and use all the gifts I’ve received: listening and seeing, trying still to understand.

28 February 2012

Rainbow nation

I returned to Cape Town from the Free State a few weeks ago. Back to the mountain, the sea, the breathtaking beauty that is this city perched at the bottom of a continent where the next stop across the water is Antarctica. A poet friend told me that living in Cape Town gives you a whole new appreciation for gravity. Here we are dangling at the bottom of the world.

My days are full of words. I hear the most amazing things. Part of my research is about how to create listening spaces for young people. And this is one thing I have learned again and again…how to listen. How to listen to what is not being said: To hear the pain behind the small sigh, the despair when eyes don’t meet mine, the hope behind a blush. I meet with all sorts: teachers, youth politicians, wise old ANC lions, children, high school students, university students, poets, writers, artists, an imam, NGOs, and think tanks.

My first impression was that we are in mourning for the Mandela dream. People feel denial and anger about the betrayal of what they fought and hoped and voted for during the miracle in 1994, when the first free elections were held. So there is grief.

There is also terrible violence here: A rage like a volcano that erupts given the slightest provocation–murders, rapes, robberies, gangs, drugs.

What is terribly hard of course, are the disparities between rich and poor. The rich are fabulously wealthy, and the poor are truly hopeless. Sometimes only a highway separates communities (what used to be called townships) and a leafy gated suburb protected behind barbed wire. I have visited several communities and smelled the smells. No toilets, no running water, no electricity. Shacks. Some places are fairly clean; others had rats scuttling between the garbage on the streets in front of the shacks. People answer my questions in these places, trying not to stare at my hair, my shoes, my clothes, my camera, my tape recorder, my leather notebook, my pen, my sunglasses. All my possessions. My materials in this world where the losers have lost so very much.

“True wealth” is a term I heard during one of yesterday’s interviews. It is self-confidence, a sense of who you are, where you come from, where you are headed, and where you are. Being present. Interconnected with others and nature and the ancestors. A sense of community. This is what Africa can teach the rest of the world: An inherent dignity.

I am back where I was when I interviewed aids orphans in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I hear children talk of 11 people sleeping in 3 rooms. One student told me both her parents are seriously ill, so she must do the shopping and cooking for her siblings and nurse her parents and study for her exams. But even worse, there is an undercurrent of sexual abuse. One counsellor told me of a girl who is being raped by her father. These most vulnerable of the population know no protection.

Today I asked four 12-year olds what they liked most about school: “I feel safe here, Miss.” “At home the gangsters have guns and knives.” “I saw a man beaten in the head with a golf stick.” “We children can get in the way.”

So I am torn between heaven and hell. Words of courage and faith and trust swirl amongst the pain and fear. Walking along a pristine beach last week I realized I am standing in the gap between them all. In this deeply divided society where everyone has more thems than us, how to find the space in between, the place where an unexpected gift may be given at an unexpected time?

One answer is to do what you can do. Which is why I am throwing a party. Fourteen people are coming to a thank-you lunch on Saturday, my way of showing gratitude to new friends for the doors they have opened to me and my research. This could be the most diverse guest list this country has ever seen: all races and socio-economic backgrounds and ages. We will eat and drink and tell stories and laugh under the trees in the sunshine. And maybe a space for listening will open up and surprise us all with joy.

3 February 2012

Die Bittereinder

Filed under: PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 8:37 pm

I met an African-American today who told me for the first time in his life, in this place, he is no longer an African-American; he’s American.

I saw a sign along the Cape-Namibia highway that said: “No hooting! Ostriches being laid.” Of course my bent brain thought the words hooter and laid and it took another 10k before I understood what the sign meant.

I got on a plane and flew 90 minutes north to Bloemfontein, Free State, central South Africa. Came here for 10 days to listen to students and faculty at UFS, University of the Free State. It’s Afrikanerville here, Boer base. I speak Dutch and they tell me I’m talking funny. Baie dankie (thanks a lot). I feel like I’m walking around in a Dutch movie from the sixties. Men wear very short shorts. The shopping mall has two Christian bookstores, an embroidery shop and a fabric store.

UFS has done something unusual; they’ve created a space to wrestle with the messy issues of race and reconciliation. Incidents have happened, racial incidents, and the Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Jonathan Jansen, grabbed the opportunity and flipped it on its back to transform the university community into one that dares to ask the hard questions. Hostels (dormitories) are integrated and there’s an International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation, and Social Justice. That’s why I’m here. And to listen.

What else do you want to know about Bloem? It’s hot—5 degrees hotter than Cape Town, which means 37 degrees. This is the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien and they’ve redone his home to look like the “Lord of the Rings” (sort of).

Ah yes, and the world’s first concentration camp originates here. My Intro to IR students know this one; it was on their final. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the English could not defeat the Boers (farmers from Dutch ancestry), so introduced the “Scorched Earth” policy. They burned the homesteads and captured the farmers’ wives and children under 15 (boys aged 13 and 14 fought alongside their fathers and grandfathers=white African child soldiers—a new-old category) and put them into 39 concentration camps, where 29,000 women and children died. In addition, they put the black servants and farm workers into 65 concentration camps, where 24,000 people died.

“The English didn’t know how to battle the guerrilla warfare the Boers fought. The last time the English fought that kind of war was in Scotland.” Now I’m thinking “Braveheart,” and the old-new Scottish referendum for independence.

In the museum, my mind spinning, I asked out loud, “So, during the Boer war men shared the same race and religion as the women and children they incarcerated and starved and fed tins of food with chips of glass inside? But then this war was about. . . .” And the guide and I said the word at the same time: “Gold.”

In history we see it often; a society that is victimized, when it comes to power, then victimizes in turn. My class came up with the following examples: Israel, Liberia, America, South Africa. But we were thinking ANC. Now I wonder about the effect of losing all in a bitter, dirty war, then a generation later, coming into power. Were the seeds of apartheid sown by nations’ lust for gold and empire at any cost? Extrapolate that. Nations on this continent have learned that when oil or diamonds or gold are discovered, it almost certainly means war and famine.

Ignoring the Bosnian war has unleashed the Serb mafia (with many steps in between). Congo enjoys the involvement of seven nations in our generation’s own world war. Maybe there no longer is a “them” and “us.” We ignore others’ suffering at our own peril. We perpetrate human rights violations upon ourselves.

My new American friend shared a quote by Voltaire: “Because I am human, nothing human escapes me.” Maybe all the children really are our children.

31 January 2012

Passing

Filed under: Aids survival,PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 3:41 pm

Am thinking in terms of shared complicities and collective futures. No innocents involved. All share responsibility. Any society that buys into victimization forfeits its own power, handing its ability to reinvent itself to the perpetrators. So, (take a leap with me here), does the language of human rights equal victimhood, thereby disempowering the very people it’s meant to strengthen?

Am thinking critique is every society’s best friend.

Listened to a group of students a few days ago who talked about ignorance as the number-one problem in South Africa. Other songs on the Top Ten: lack of wise leadership, corruption, material disparity, and people not realizing how to reach their potential.

”What would it take?” I asked (you never know). They said, mentorship programs, more access to sports to level the playing field, a new identity to replace their parents’ broken record about colonialization and apartheid legacies, investment in civil society, community support. Oh yeah.

Then they told me stories of seeing people, really seeing them: seeing their pain and dreams and how sharing in fear or joy melted the divisions. “A friend of mine was raped by her uncle and gave birth as a result when she was 13. She went back to school and the community helped her keep her child. Now she runs a peer mentorship program and center for HIV and rape counseling.”

I already knew from previous trips that the shoulders of young people here must grow to bear adult-sized burdens. “Child-headed households” is the fancy name for kids who have no one but each other—an older brother or sister raising younger siblings, scraping together school fees, putting shoes on the little ones so they’ll still be allowed into school, worrying about where the one meal every day will come from, walking the tightrope between gang protection and drug markets. The aloneness is because my generation has more or less died out due to AIDS. So either the gogos, or grandmothers must raise their grandchildren, or worse, the orphans look after each other. During a previous trip here, Mbeki’s denials of the pandemic literally cost lives. Now some HIV patients have access to drugs, and there is more information about healthy diets, and children as young as 8 sometimes hear about the absolute necessity of using condoms. But it remains a taboo subject, and when I ask about a student’s family, they still look away and talk of fathers who died of TB or mothers who died of malaria. Never mind that this area is malaria-free.

So what would it mean to not see these young people as victims?

Life feels very close here because death treads so near.

29 January 2012

Hemayel Martina–In heaven for a year

Filed under: The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others,Write on — annedegraaf @ 11:32 am

It was a year ago.

Hemayel’s Words

If I go to Finder and type in hemayel a screen full of entries appears:

  • This photo
  • Various essays from his composition class with me
  • The different versions of his poetry book as we worked on the English translations of his poems
  • A Rwanda research proposal that looked more like PhD material than undergraduate work
  • Outlines of papers he was working on for other classes that I helped him with in the Writing Center.

Here is an excerpt from one of those papers, dated 17 September 2009:

Introduction: In post-armed conflict countries the active involvement of the youth in peace building from the ground up is a primary means of guaranteeing peace. This is based on the assumptions that: humans are creatures able to choose; disagreement is inevitable but resolvable through non-violent means; and that the youth have the potential to ensure transformation in the realm of resolving conflict. In this paper, the peace building process in Sierra Leone after the civil war will be used as an example, in addition to examples taken from conflicts in other geographical areas. The programs by and for the youth in Sierra Leone after the decades-long civil war, illustrate that the youth cannot only be used to perpetuate conflict, but to build peace as well. In partnership with the international community, (I)NGOs and UN, as facilitators. Besides that, the student uprising in Serbia shows that a non-violent approach to conflict is possible and that the young community does have a voice.

Conclusion: The youth should not only be seen as the victims or perpetuators of armed conflicts, rather, as one of the main means to ensure the absence of war. The challenge of the leaders today is to secure the absence of war, but the leaders of tomorrow face a greater challenge. The achievement of positive peace, where structural violence will be obliterated. Nevertheless, for that to happen tomorrow the seeds have to be planted today, if we do not want history to repeat itself.

So, as I read this in South Africa, where I’m conducting my own research for a PhD on the role of young people’s narratives in conflict and peacebuilding within a deeply divided society, goosebumps now cover my arms, despite the 34-degree heat. Hemayel’s words seem prophetic for my own research. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and his words act as a lodestar, pointing me toward the true North of understanding. And yet, this is true of all my students; the more I listen, the more I learn.

During this past Fall semester, students wandered into WRiSC (the writing center) and talked about Hemayel with me. “I dreamed about him.” “I heard his laughter.” “I’m writing a paper about a conversation I had with Hemayel—about how we cannot write about poverty until we’ve experienced it.” Some days he seemed more present than others. A few times the first-year students overheard these conversations. “Who is Hemayel?” they asked. It was a hard question to answer.

In the year since his death many have made him into whatever they needed him to be: prophet, saint, martyr, mentor, angel, idol, friend. I wonder what he would have said about all the fuss. To be honest, I see Hemayel as a reminder. I stand by what I said at his memorial: he was special, but so is each and every young person, searing with white-hot potential. For Hemayel then, if not for ourselves, learn all you can, reach deep and develop your potential to its fullest, face the fear and do it—whatever it is—going back to school, getting that degree, becoming a politician who is not corrupt, make your dream come true. Create a space for listening, to others, to young people, but most of all, listen to your own heart. He lives on in our hearts—if we listen there . . . we hear him still. Maybe everyone is a Hemayel, in his words.

29 June 2010

What I wanted to tell you is,

Filed under: Aids survival,The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 5:33 pm

This is me in my happy place–on the Cape Town beach in South Africa. That’s Table Mountain in the background. I’m here with seven students from Webster University Leiden, and two other instructors. We’re actually getting credit for going to the World Cup! Our class is called “Sports, Politics and Reconciliation.” To read more about this great group and all our doings, go to the Webster Leiden online publication The CANAL.

What I didn’t write in The CANAL article, but wanted to put “out there” is what it feels like to be back here after three-and-a-half years–back in South Africa, that is, since the last time I was in Cape Town was 14 years ago. Sure didn’t see any of the mixed couples, black, colored and women cops, or golden babies from mixed parents back then. Now they’re everywhere.

Three-and-a-half years ago I was in Kwa-Zulu Natal, far from cosmopolitan Cape Town, interviewing Aids orphans for a Dutch publisher who sent me here to write a book. The result was my teen novel Dance upon the Sea, which has since won a prize.

For those of you who have followed this blog and read the entries under the category to the right “Aids survival,” you will know that I came home from that trip in not-too-good shape. My interviews with aids orphans here in South Africa and Zimbabwe revealed appalling hopelessness: children struggling to care  for their younger brothers and sisters, and often suffering from sexual abuse as the most vulnerable segment of this fractured population. I cried a lot when I came home, and could not write about it, until I received help from a woman who advised me to write the truth. “The world needs to hear that these children have no hope.” Writing this blog broke the block and enabled me to finish that book and move into this new season of writing, studying and teaching.

A close friend asked me last week how I felt about returning to South Africa. It was the first time I had thought about the contrast of then and now. Then I travelled on my own. Now I am with students and colleagues whom I trust and respect. Then I crisscrossed some of the most impoverished parts of the country, where an estimated 60% of the population is HIV-infected. One induna, or Zulu chief, told me then that he spends all day Saturdays going to funerals. “Eighty percent of my people are dying.” Indeed, my generation has faded away. You just don’t see that many people in their forties and fifties. Instead, their orphans raise each other, or rely on grandparents or friends. Now I’m staying in a guesthouse called Cape Oasis, which pretty much says it all. There’s a shopping mall bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in The Netherlands just down the road.

My wise daughter says it’s a good thing to replace our bad memories with good ones. And whereas that trip was about sickness, this one is about health. This is what I wrote in my journal (and the first seven words are something I suggested the students use in a writing exercise as they struggled to articulate their own conflicting emotions):

What I wanted to tell you is, Today we went to a township, on a township tour, actually. If there is such a thing. Have the same bottomless-pit feeling in my gut. Memories of my Aids babies came flooding back. Their tight muscles in the back, soft hair. My own feelings of abandonment and vulnerability a reflection of what I heard and saw and understood from each day’s interviews. Today a smell of wood smoke mixed with sweet sweat and sewage ushered us along the tight quarters. This time, though, a well child chose me. Three years old, the niece of the driver Pele. Wide eyes, no smile, hand linked in mine. She fell asleep on my lap, heavy and slack. I wondered if this healthy child was given to me to ease the pain of my memories of unhealthy ones.

What I wanted to tell you is, I was back in that place again and holding a well child on my lap this time, and still I felt numb, numb and hollow. “You’ll have a hard time letting her go,” Tom said to me in the van. “No, it’ll be all right,” I said. What I thought was, “It’s the dying children I have a hard time letting go of.” My two-year-old Aids babies, their tight muscles from the steroids, sweaty hair from the infection for which there are no drugs at this young age. Born to dying-from-Aids parents, they are doomed to die before they turn five. They are dead now.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am healed. The poverty did not shock, the smells did not repulse. I walked through and breathed through my nose this time, yet still could open my heart wide to their pain and misery, joy and hope.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am not alone. These men, my friends from Nigeria, India, Holland, America, and South Africa, surround me with a wagon train of wonder, encircling me in laughter.

What I wanted to tell you is, I am safe.

Flying down the length of Africa
Africa like my body
The length and breadth of her
Tall and graceful.
I am cut with desert
Wilderness stretches my horizon
Rift Valley shadows
Cast a cut scar
Across my countenance.
Africa, my Africa
My heart beats to
The rhythm of wildebeest
Crossing the Serengeti.
My eyes see into cheetah’s speed.
I smell your grass,
Fly above the acacias,
Taste dust on my dry lips
And laugh in love.
(Written 24 June on the Amsterdam-Cape Town KLM flight)

1 April 2009

Between the lines

p7281283Power comes and goes in Lebanon, both electrical and political. Almost every day I found myself doing something in the dark and promising yet again never to take electricity for granted. Political power is a little more complicated.

During my 10 days in Beirut I heard some extraordinary stories. Sometimes it was said in passing, other times it happened during a formal interview. One woman told me how when growing up during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, she overheard her parents arguing about whether to kill her and her younger sister. “They wanted to save us from being captured. You don’t forget words like that.”

Invisible (to me) lines still carve up Beirut. Although I crisscrossed the city many times, I never could discern the border between West Beirut and East Beirut. The city stands united now, but I still heard people say they avoid “that part of Beirut.” During an interview with a peacebuilder who brings together the leaders of all the political parties’ youth movements, I heard how these men in their 20s from Hezbollah, Shi’ite, Sunni, Druze and Christian backgrounds spend regular time being with each other. “They learn that their enemy is human.”

You have to love a country that has a tree as its national symbol. The Cedars of Lebanon provided the wood for King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the trees (now protected in a national forest) are over a thousand years old. I come from the Redwood country of California. Redwoods grow tall and are only a few hundred years old. Cedars grow thick. Their branches stretch out like angel wings, all-embracing, a constant comfort.

If Lebanon works, it provides hope for the entire Middle East: a homegrown democracy with strong economy and multicultural tolerance. The Lebanese people can be found all over the world. They come from Phoenician stock, a business people who sailed the seas, not unlike the Dutch.

There is a longing for Lebanon which those who left during the wars (let’s not forget the summer-long one in 2006) exported. This poem, when read and translated into Arabic on the last day of the writers workshop I taught in Beirut, brought tears to some of the eyes of Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian participants. They represent those who stayed behind, and are the envy of their emigrated cousins. Yet their tortured souls manifest in death-wish driving as they careen across the city. Brain drain, a phrase I first heard in Ireland in the early eighties, is on everyone’s lips in Lebanon. Do I go, or do I stay? Who am I really? What does it mean to be . . . Lebanese?

Letters from Home
(To My Father)

Every time you weep, I feel the surface of a river
somewhere on Earth is breaking.
You wipe your eyes as you read
aloud a letter from the old country.
From the floor, I watch the curls of the words
through the sheer pages.
Your brother and sisters have gathered
around you. I don’t understand
the language but feel a single breath
of grief holding this room.

Your mother writes of her weakening body.
She walks to church but cannot leave
the village. When you sat with her,
You wanted her forgiveness for your absence
but did not ask. She took you to her closet
to show you the linens she had gathered
which have already yellowed. Her hands
seemed small through the lace. You kissed
her palms, smelling your own fragrance on her skin.

She tells you of the refuge people have found
in the village. Others have gone to Paris.
You have a niece who is a doctor,
a nephew, an architect. They sit in scattered apartments
where you can’t see your three daughters
gazing from their windows or your three sons
pacing the old wood of their rooms.
Yet you write to your mother,
they still pray.

You visit your mother now when you can.
Each summer you cross the Mediterranean;
each summer you stand behind her house
looking into the sea hoping she will not die,
this time. And when these letters come,
I run my finger across the pages.
I hope I can learn the languages
you have come to know.
–Elmaz Abi-Nader

22 March 2009

Babe in Beirut

Filed under: Lebanon,The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 3:19 pm

img_1246So, no sooner was I over my jetlag from visiting NY and Boston, and off I flew to Beirut, Lebanon. In February we weren’t even sure if the trip would happen as extremists in southern Lebanon were firing missiles on the Gaza strip in Israel. Many feared Israel might retaliate, as it did in 2006. “Why are you going?” my friends and family kept asking me.

This is why: One woman’s vision to better equip the writers of her country through a writers workshop accessible to all, no matter the religious background or financial limitations. Colette Ghassan is a magazine publisher in Beirut and way back in 1993 she started dreaming of a workshop that would unite writers of different backgrounds in her country under the banner of creativity. That phrase “of different backgrounds” means something in a country like Lebanon. Shi’ite, Sunni, Druze, Christian, Armenian–these are the political, cultural and religious threads that make the tapestry of Lebanon so rich–and the backgrounds of my workshop participants. As one man told me in Beirut, the cultural diversity of Lebanon “is our strength and our curse.” Tolerance and respect is on everyone’s agenda. Women pride themselves in Beirut as living in the Paris of the Middle East. I often saw veiled women walking and laughing with girlfriends who wore the latest fashion and showed more decollete than I would see in Amsterdam. It is a city of contrasts, and at night the lights of Beirut sparkle like a diamond necklace along the dark shore of the Mediterranean.

Thanks to John Maust, president of MAI (Media Associates International), Colette’s dream came true two weeks ago. They kindly invited me to co-teach the workshop and I learned as much from the participants as I hope they did from me. Our son Daniel came with me and carried books, thoroughly enjoyed the Lebanese cuisine, and made new friends as we both practiced our Arabic and navigated the troubled waters of Lebanese politics.

I arrived in Beirut a babe in the woods, spent three days co-teaching writing and journalism techniques to students and journalists from radio, television and print publications, and I gave a lecture on child soldiers at the university. Then Daniel and I got to know the country even better, and now I have become one of those countless millions who long to return to Lebanon. Since coming home, I’ve struggled with finding a place for all I experienced in Beirut. So I’m back at the blog. Please check back regularly in the weeks to come, as I hope to rest on the page and share some of the unexpected gifts I received in this unexpected time and place.

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