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Wondering times

A few days ago I read an article by a Muslim American Doctor who was trying to prove to her readers that she is doing a great service to her adoptive country and should not be discriminated against because of her faith. It left me perplexed and saddened, that such an accomplished person would have to put in print every good deed she did in the recent past to convince people of her rightful place in the society in which she lives.

Today I read a blog post, by a fellow mom, who posted a picture of herself and a Muslim lady she met in a grocery store, with whom she started a conversation that she felt was worthwhile sharing with the world. This is great, for a non Muslim American who has quite a following on social media to come out and share this special moment at a time when Muslims are being attacked and threatened with nothing short of expulsion and exile, it does need to be commended. However, and I don’t know if this is because she is being affected by all the hatred around her, or if she is genuinely afraid that she will suffer negative consequences for being completely un-partisan, but I read the article from beginning to end, and I kept hoping that she would say something uplifting, but the more I read, the more I felt bogged down by the heaviness of the rhetoric that was chiming behind every sentence. It was depressing.

I am no stranger to racism and discrimination, I have seen and heard fellow citizens discriminate and say the unthinkable when they thought they were “among themselves” and I have seen a very clear difference in the way people talk, look and deal with me ever since I started wearing the headscarf, but beyond that, I have lived the residue of discrimination and its fear because I am Native American. I wasn’t taught the language, but I was taught the traditional stories, I didn’t live the traditional life but I was always fiercely proud of being Native. Despite having gotten into fights at school over my heritage, or race, I never once thought it was something I should hide or be ashamed of, until I moved to North America. I would get questions like: “Do you feel safe? Are you comfortable with them? Do you identify with their way of life?” As though I was being disassociated from the stereotype everyone else supposedly belonged to. I was constantly being slipped out of the lump, just so they could justify staying friends with me and simultaneously maintain their stereotypical views. It was an acrobatic feat to watch and quite awkward at that.

It gets silly after a while, why do they insist in this exercise? Shouldn’t there be a certain boundary for silliness beyond which you stop and reconsider your notions? Shouldn’t the racists be willing to prove their arguments? Shouldn’t we all be held up to a higher standard of scrutiny, rather than be satisfied to name such people ignorant? Simply allowing anyone to blurt out whatever association their minds can concoct is probably something we all put up with, but sometimes it goes too far, sometimes there are just too many people saying too many things that are just too nonsensical to ignore. Maybe this is why the Muslim Doctor felt compelled to write her article, maybe this is why the mom blogger felt she needed to post her encounter, all the while fiercely maintaining her love of country. Then, maybe, it is no longer enough to just label racist comments as being mouthed by ignorant people too lazy to do any actual research. When has it become acceptable to want to strip one’s affiliation to any particular group just because one doesn’t fit within the standard stereotype? Who decides if I am who I say I am and not who you think I am? Why is the onus on the accused to prove they aren’t guilty by association?  Why is it even relevant to any conversation? Why do people feel the need to blob together perceived difference from the self? And why should we “others” try to find ways in which we are not that different?

This woman, writing the blog in defense of the Muslim woman at the grocery store, states that she tries to teach her children not to discriminate. But how does she do it? How do we do it? Do we ask people’s religion (like she did) and then decide to be nice to them even though people around us say they’re not good? Or do we treat everyone with dignity and respect, assuming the best from the get-go, not knowing and then continue to treat them with the same respect and dignity when or if they reveal their “identity” to us? Or do we try to figure out “where they fit” and treat them accordingly, until we ascertain our “suspicions” and then try to give ourselves the credit for having been nice, despite this “difference?” Should we pat ourselves on the back for “being nice?” Or should we question why we think we are “being nice?” Is this not distinguishing on a superficial basis? Is this behavior really worthy of praise?

On social media it happens too frequently to ignore: some people will say “I have a Native friend,” “my sister is married to a black person,” “my best friend is gay,” “my neighbor is Sikh,” to somehow absolve what they inevitably say right after, which is usually prefaced by a “but” or “however.” This is really an attempt to justify some generalization they are about to make, which they know is wrong and thus warrants a formal explanation that will supposedly exclude them from the group of people who would normally state such sweeping generalizations: bigots. People preface such bigoted comments with “exculpatory notes” in order to gain credence for the statement they are about to make. Now, isn’t this actually worse than coming out and saying something stupid?

I always maintained that “tolerance” is no good, I don’t want to be “tolerated” for being Native, or Muslim because people around me feel “charitable” towards me. I never asked for this charity, I don’t want it. But I’m not desperate, perhaps, if I were, I would feel differently. Like someone recently pointed out, if you are in a dark hole and sinking deeper and everyone tries to keep you there or push you further down, if someone hands you a stick, or gives you a hand, you take it, you don’t ask what they want in return, you don’t check who is giving it to you, you just take it. And often, unfortunately, it turns out that it wasn’t a help you would have taken if you had known the purpose behind it. Unfortunately, sometimes, some people will seek out opportunities in which to take advantage of desperation, for their own gain.When people throw coins at beggars for entertainment, does that count as charity? Do the beggars participate in the charade by running after the coins out of sheer desperation, or are they admitting that this is a fun game they want to partake in? The exchange has occurred, the players plaid, but what is the net result? Is one diminished and the other exalted?

I may be an idealist, though I doubt it, I just kinda have read, heard and seen it often enough to want to believe in it. I believe that help, charity, smiles, compliments and all good acts should be given freely, without any expectations. These ought to be given not just because one wants to contribute to the betterment of society, but because one believes that sometimes people are in circumstances beyond their control and just need a little something to get back on track, for their own sake. I don’t want to change them, I don’t want them to pay me back, I don’t expect anything in return, and I don’t think I am better than them for being on the giving side rather than the receiving end. The roles could very well be reversed and there is very little worse than being reminded of favors one has accepted in times of hardship. I believe I have a right to exist and prosper, like anyone else, it’s not a privilege that I can be given by “nice” people around me who think I might be worth the risk. I don’t think I’m being charitable when I refuse to use race, ethnic, religious or class definitions when describing people, I simply happen to believe that there are better ways to describe people that don’t cluster them and confine them into artificial categorizations.

I don’t like to be smiled at by people because they fear me and want to “keep me on their good side,” or, perhaps worse, because they pity my circumstance and hope that I will “overcome.” I don’t mind people smiling at me, much better than a frown, sure, not that I pay much attention to how people look at me… but a fake smile? What am I supposed to do with that? Sneer? Give a fake smile back? Wonder why they feel obligated to smile at me even though they don’t want to? Wonder why they don’t smile sincerely? Feel happy that they are smiling and not frowning, even if it is forced? This is how I felt after reading the mom blogger’s article, I really don’t know if it was intentional, but I kept wondering about their conversation, was she being asked about other Muslims (all 1.6 billion of us) and trying to seamlessly slip her away from everyone else? Maybe not, but she didn’t share the details of the conversation in the blog. I still haven’t figured out what the most self respecting, decent, unequivocal, uncompromising, non-confrontational yet honest way to deal with unwanted charitable smiles is, so I just avoid looking at the people that I know have done that before, and avoid those who do it, the next time around. I have decided that I will smile if I am in a good mood and feel like I want to smile, regardless of who the person in front of me is, and not smile and simply look at the environment around me rather than the people around me when I am just not up for anyone’s “charitable smiles.” There are, of course, genuine smiles, and I am sorry that I miss some of those some times, but I do try to maintain good relations with those around me who have responded well to my approaches or who have shown a genuine interest in trying to get to know me. 

I sometimes can’t help wonder, though, if I am not giving more credit to the few bigots than the neutral, and even worse, the ones who actually give a hoot? That’s not fair, is it? These fake smiles should not change me, they are false, just like the premise behind them is, and if I am going to be honest with myself and the world, I should continue to be who I am, regardless of what’s around me. And I know many people in Libya can relate to this sentiment. Even, and perhaps especially when there is a lot of that falsehood going around, I… WE must continue to be true to ourselves and see ourselves in the eyes of those who really see the individual and believe them when they stand by us, not because their voice counts more than ours, but because when falsehood and egocentricity abound, efforts based on sincerity, honesty and humility mean so much more. Maybe this is the motive behind the many patient testimonials in the Doctor’s piece.  Desperate times can make people do extraordinary things, and I will not judge them, but I do wonder about those who exacerbate the pain of the downtrodden, under the guise of a charitable act. I wonder about those who believe they are above the desperate, simply for being in better circumstances. I wonder about those who take advantage of an unfortunate situation to boost their own ego. That I do wonder about.

 

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2

SPENSIERATEZZA

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Here we are again, the end of one month and the dawn of another. So much has happened at the Caterpillar Cafe in the last 5 months. We had 5 day/wk Freeplay to 4 day/wk English, monthly pass down to daily pass and now moms and kids under 1 enter free of charge. I was told nobody would put their kids in an apartment to play, but they were wrong. I was told nobody would pay to sit and watch their kids play, but they were wrong. I was told, Libyans only care about getting a baby sitter and English classes, but they were wrong. I was told expats and Libyans wouldn’t want to sit in the same room and chat with each other, but they were wrong. I didn’t believe them, not all the way. Because although I know old habits die hard, I do feel there are honest needs that aren’t being met here, and this was my way of meeting them. Libyans and foreigners came, they saw the space and they let their kids play, they paid for their time there and every single kid that came only left after their mom agreed to bring them back to play again. The kids loved it, the moms that took the time to sit and soak it all in alongside their kids enjoyed it as well. Some made lasting friendships. Some went out and told all their friends about it. And some didn’t. And that’s fine, because it’s not for everyone, and I respect that. English classes were an add-on, but ended up being the main focus for a few months. But now school is at its last leg and we are starting with Freeplay again. This time there are no monthly fees, sessions are daily, mornings and afternoons, 6 days per week and even when crafts are going on, the other kids can still play freely. If anyone needs English help, they can call me and book ahead, so I can put aside time for them. Flexibility is the word. I wish I had a big garden with an enormous tree for kids to climb, sand pits and a mud kitchen, a little water station, real tools for kids to tinker with and grass as well as plenty of space for kids to run around in. I don’t. This is what I can offer, and I gave it my 100%, my kids and I shared everything we have and plenty of our time and it paid off. We made some new friends, the kids and I always have a magical place to go to when we’re sick of staying at home and daddy can’t take them out. I have managed to paint and craft and read more than I could have ever imagined, because my kids were too busy playing in any one of the other rooms and I actually had the space and time and didn’t have to look at dirty dishes to wash, laundry to iron and whatever else and could fully put my mind on my project and my kids. NOTHING ELSE! And this is the main reason why I embarked in this. I counted the money I had saved up through my part time jobs over the years and decided that THIS was something worthwhile and I would gladly put all of it into it if it meant peace of mind for my kids and me and whoever else wanted to join us. I couldn’t afford to buy fancy furniture or rent a villa, this is what I could afford and it was extremely convenient, and convenience when you have 4 kids under 10 means it’s doable. So I leaped at it, and I am so happy we did. If nothing else can be drawn from this experience thus far, I know I have done everything I could have possibly dreamed of and gave it my all, I know I have gotten to love this special time away from my home, even if it did mean going to another apartment and not to a spa. I know my kids loved the idea of it and still, even 6 months after acquiring the space, they ask me daily if they can play at the Club (it’s the mom and kid club), and when we go they PLAY. The word to describe this is SPENSIERATEZZA, which is Italian and means without worry, without thought, but not careless, and full of joy and freedom. This is the treasure we’ve gained. No matter what goes on outside, whether school had to be cancelled due to strikes or the security situation, whether there was shooting in the city or not, we could just make this trip and feel SPENSIERATEZZA. And here, in Tripoli, in 2014, this is a gift. And we are grateful! Thank you to all who have contributed in one way or another, joined us through play, crafts or classes or even just for a chat, thank you for believing with us and sharing, somehow, this adventure with us. It has been a pleasure!

1

Hot chocolate… that’s life!

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There have been people wondering about life and its purpose for about as long as humans have had intellect and practiced its use in a leisurely manner. Theories have fluctuated from purely physical in nature to metaphysical throughout the centuries and across cultures, in ways that can probably be explained by our constant disillusion with our lack of perfection. Each one of us, I would like to think, goes through this phase of wondering about our own particular life, and why we are here and then, often, when we don’t find answers we look beyond ourselves and look at others to find such answers, sometimes we can look beyond differences and identify a path that suits us, other times we might get caught up in them and perhaps even fall into perpetual judgement mode (ie: nobody’s perfect, so why should I be?). Some find their answer in religion and others continue searching their whole lives, never quite satisfied with the answers they encounter. One could philosophize about the purpose of life in general, of the human presence and what each one of us is expected to do to fulfill his/her duty or we as a whole should do not only to guarantee the survival of humanity, but also to improve our existence and that of our offspring and beyond. Many theories have been brought forth and many variants are being practiced by people everywhere, with varying degrees of success and/or enthusiasm.

I have known people of dozens, if not hundreds of cultures, languages and religious affiliations and have found affinities with each one, and have noticed this internal struggle to a certain extent in most, if not all of them. I do not expect to have answers, not because I haven’t found any, but because I believe each one of our paths and natures and, consequently, our answers are different and, like everything else in life, they change with us and our surroundings. We have to adapt to what is around us, we may have been born Queens and find ourselves refugees in foreign lands, longing for something we can never recuperate. We may have been born into the most miserable poverty and somehow manage to work our way to satisfying not only our own material needs, but those of our extended families as well, finding great joy and satisfaction in what we do. We may have thought we would become influential lawyers or even judges and end up deciding to put all our studies and careers on hold to care for our families, and find out that motherhood, if done responsibly, is much harder than we ever anticipated. We may have thought we would be crushed under the pressure of life’s stresses and disappointments, instead we flourished in ways we never would have even dared to dream of. Life is full of unexpected turns and turmoils, joys and sadness, and how we deal with each one, paves the path for our continuation.

I was born into a middle class family, with a hard working dad and an astonishingly bright mom, who put her promising University career on hold when my dashing father swept her off her feet. She taught me the love of books before I could even read a single letter, she spent time crafting with me before I could even hold a pencil or handle scissors, she taught me to upcycle before that was even a word, she listened to my invented stories and made up fascinating endings with me to entice my imagination beyond my immediate perception. She answered my questions, she questioned my answers and took the time to hear every song, every tale, every excuse I ever came up with and she made sure I had a full tummy when I went to school, knew how to tie my shoe laces and tuck my shirt in. She went out of her way to ensure we had a connection with her culture, which was so far removed from where we lived, and would tell us about the news emerging from her neck of the woods and ancient stories she had learned from her mom. She even managed to get her Nation’s newspaper delivered to our home and got an illustrated copy of traditional stories so we could see pictures while she read the tales to us. This was decades ago, long before internet and way back when a holiday half a world away would cost nearly a whole year’s salary.

I appreciated this, but never as much as I do now, raising my kids a world away from my own cultures, where although we have skype and wikipedia, a holiday across the world costs about half a year’s salary, and given that the other half is going towards our kids’ schooling, it takes about as long as it did 30 years ago to be able to actually touch our loved ones and see the places with our own eyes. The irony is that I left my home young in order to find myself and pursue my studies and be able to sustain a lifestyle that would not keep me away from my family for as long as my mom had to stay away from hers. I pursued my studies as far as they go, and excelled, and absolutely loved everything I learned from every Professor and Teacher I had the honor of studying from, but I also knew that if I ever had kids, they would come first. I found bits of myself in my mother’s community, I found bits of answers in the literature I studied (and I have always had an affinity for literatures that dealt with identity in its various manifestations), I found great solace and serenity in religion, I found an amazing partner and friend in my husband and then put everything on hold when I had kids.

My personal development came to a dramatic shift; all the literary theory, the Islamic fundamentals and fiqh, the history, psychology and philosophy that I so loved and cherished were shelved, literally and almost completely, to focus 100% on how to be the best wife and mom I could be. I subscribed to the best journals in the country on parenting, I devoured all the information that crossed my line of vision, I invested all my time taking every course and reading everything I came across that would make me a better wife and mom; nutrition, toddler play, child development, child psychology, family dynamics, family structure in Islam, raising morally strong kids, boosting kids’ IQ through talk, music, play… you name it, it has crossed my line of vision.

Now, more than ever, I understand my mother. Now, more than ever, I can relate to the importance of sharing, belonging and making meaningful connections beyond our immediate surroundings. Now I know why it was important for my mother to read her Nation’s news, now I know why she would rather read Glooscap’s story a hundred times rather than pick up any old story book she would find at the grocery store. Now I know why she encouraged us to be friends with our Baha’i neighbors and our Protestant neighbors, and our strictly Catholic neighbors. I appreciate why she always welcomed Jehova’s witnesses and Are Krishnas in for tea, despite being an obedient, devout Catholic herself and religiously observing Sunday Mass with all of us. Now I understand that it’s not enough to be and to do, you must have a feeling of belonging, you must have a purpose, and it doesn’t matter if your purpose is the same as mine, or if you belong in the same groups or share the same ideas, what matters is that you do share and that you do make connections because this is what allows us to grow, to expand our horizons, to look beyond what is immediately available to us and dream bigger dreams. To go beyond our enclosures is surprisingly satisfying because we learn that we have a lot more in common at our meaningful chore than would ever meet the eye. To allow for the possibility of something new isn’t to reject what you have, it’s to embrace it and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to share it and in so doing we can appreciate and understand it in so many, so much more intricate and profound ways, than we ever could have imagined sitting in the comfort of our own solitude.

A friend recently shared a story, which I will briefly summarize to you here: A group of esteemed academics, who studied together, after years of pursuing their careers meet again at a revered and now retired Professor’s home, and all they could manage to do was complain about the stress and dissatisfaction of their busy lives. The Professor listened carefully and then offered them all a cup of hot chocolate, which they all eagerly accepted. But he didn’t pour it for them, he provided a wide variety of cups and a jug of hot chocolate and invited them to serve themselves. They all picked the most luxurious, most expensive, most beautiful cups and filled them with hot chocolate and then began looking at each other’s cups to see if they had made the right choice. To their surprise, the Professor confessed that this had been a simple representation of how they view their lives: concentrating on the look of the cup, rather than on drinking the hot chocolate. This is eerily similar to another story my sister quoted in a recent blog of hers on Zen, in which students searching for answers came from far and wide to consult with the Zen Master, who no matter what they said or how far they had come, invited them to have a cup of tea. The moral? Settle, mellow, dig in, carpe diem, live the moment, find your chore, center yourself, and you will find it, and when you do, share it.

Who’s up for a cup of tea or hot chocolate right about now?

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New Pricing

 

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To all those who have expressed an interest in Caterpillar Cafe’s activities, I think I need to explain to you the change in pricing that has just occurred. When I first thought of this project my idea was to have a monthly membership that would cover the cost of rent and other expenses, but as I realized that not all those who wished to come would be able to commit to coming every month, I decided to introduce further activities and a daily pricing, always prioritizing those who had agreed to commit to monthly passes. As the Cafe opened and activities started, the situation became such that I wasn’t sure if I could sustain this initial policy. I tried to encourage monthly applications for the other activities and introduced more English courses. Almost 2 months into this it became apparent to me that monthly commitments were just not practical for most moms, no matter how eager they were to make it a regular engagement. As a result I am lowering the daily prices for all activities. As a consequence of this though, I will no longer be able to provide 50% discounts on Crafts and Playgroup for monthly members. The price is nevertheless most convenient for monthly members, but so as not to discourage people who just cannot, no matter how much they would like to come on a regular basis, I have taken this difficult decision to shift in focus. I hope that this will cater to a wider audience and reach those who have been thus far looking in without daring to walk in. This is to let you know that you are indeed welcome to come in and bring all your kids 0-12, whether they eat, drink, play or not!

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Announcing an exciting new artistic collaboration!

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Art is the highest form of self expression, it transcends all boundaries and speaks to the heart and mind in mysterious, magical ways. It comes in many forms: music, graphic, plastic, literary, etc.. It breaks down barriers and communicates in a transcendental way messages that we might never dare speak. This magical language belongs to everyone, and children are the foremost beneficiaries of it. Children speak to us through their art all the time, their scribbles, drawings and plays (acting, with puppets, figurines, and virtually anything they can get their hands on) is their form of expression. It is through it that we get to see their inner souls, and if we listen carefully, we can understand what they are still too verbally inept to communicate in words, we can get to know what they like, what they want, what they love and what they fear, without a single word being spoken. Magically, also, they get to realize that their feelings are being heard and taken to heart, even when they are unable to name them. At Caterpillar Cafe we hope to allow for such communication to flourish, be it through open ended play, free style painting and drawing, puppet theater or craft making. It is with this in mind that I have approached a remarkable local artist, who was very excited to have the opportunity to share her expertise with young learners and has agreed to host every last Thursday of the month’s Craft session at the Caterpillar Cafe. I am elated about what this will mean for so many and can’t wait to see the children’s excitement when they get their first work of art taught by a professional artist in her own right! I hope this will be a memory to be cherished and carried on for many years to come!

Here is a preview of what this inspiring artist does on a regular basis: http://www.amiramade.com/

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Friendship

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Friendship is what makes life magical, it’s sharing what is special and valuable with someone who is happy to see you happy. It’s a unique bond, brought about through regular, meaningful interaction. For kids this might mean playing together, sharing toys, meeting frequently enough to create lasting memories. As we grow and become more sophisticated and in tune with the outer world, we start relating friendship to loyalty and commitment and these traits will pour over into adulthood. These bonds often happen haphazardly in school, playgrounds, neighborhoods, or within families. But what if you just moved to a new country, don’t have any neighbors or have no family close by? Or what if the neighbors or family that you do have, don’t share the same language or simply play significantly differently or spend all their free time studying? Kids go to school for 4-5 hours per day, 5 days per week and spend most of that time glued to desks, listening to the teacher.There is very little time to bond and share, and these relationships are often relegated to the school grounds, since kids live so far apart and don’t spend extra curricular time together. Then at home it can be all the more complicated to feel safe sending kids out into the yard, not knowing who might pop by, or what might be flying overhead. Supervised play may be available, but limited to bouncing around for an hour while moms get gocked at or even harassed, and in such environments, kids engage in physical play that doesn’t necessarily require interaction with other kids. They might see each other, exchange a word or two, such as “move” or “careful” and there you have it, play time is over and no bonds were created, no links made.

Friendship is characterized by mutual sympathy, honesty, altruism and understanding and is fostered by time spent in each other’s company, in the pursuit of enjoyable activities, feeling free to be oneself and make mistakes, without feeling judged. This becomes increasingly important as kids grow into young adults, valuing each other’s viewpoints and relish being a part of a bigger whole.

If at first geographical closeness might be the determining factor, parents can facilitate a more sophisticated outlook by seeking out further alliances with parents who share more than location, perhaps a philosophy, a way of life, a world view. These friendships can then blossom into life long relationships that can enrich one’s life in countless and invaluable ways. Making friends is a process, and it is facilitated by proximity, regular interaction and opportunities to share ideas, feelings and moments with each other. The Caterpillar Cafe aims at being this catalyst for moms seeking out meaningful interactions to enrich their kids’ lives as well as their own. But before you toss this blog to the side as a meager attempt at self promotion, let me share with you that I am in the same boat, a mom, seeking meaningful interactions for my kids and with like minded moms in this city that we now call our own. I know I am not alone, but after years of waiting for someone like me to make this opportunity available, I decided to facilitate it myself, and invite you to come along and see for yourself if it’s as valuable for you as it is for us.