When I Close My Eyes

When I close my eyes I often see a freshly dug mound of dirt. The soil is still damp and the stones still loose. There is a small bunch of flowers lying at one end. They are yellow like my old wellington boots and pale pink like the walls of my bedroom. It is the day that I leave Durham to return to Oxford for Trinity Term. I am staring down at this mound of dirt trying to say goodbye to Dad but I end up wondering how it’s possible that he fits here in the ground. The pile of dirt doesn’t seem big enough, somehow.

I keep my eyes closed and eventually I clear away the soil to find those happy memories of home that break my heart; softly, the words “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” sing me to sleep; silently, a melody that I can’t quite recall plays on the piano in the dining room; gently, unobtrusively, the hush of the cicadas on warm Canadian evenings mingles with the smell of sawdust.

But soon it is only the silence that remains and I am standing in the Chapel of Rest with the body that doesn’t look like it’s sleeping as, naively, I had imagined that it would. The body that is so obviously dead. The body that isn’t a person, that isn’t Dad, not at all.

Still, I keep my eyes closed. Recoiling from this image I once again search for the happy memories of home.

But they do not come.

Instead, lurking always, is the smile of the taxi driver and the suffocation of that nagging, nagging guilt. His eyes burn into my body as I open my own and prepare myself for the fog to descend, for that dizzy, lightheaded-feeling to return; the state of a brain that only  experiences now as if from behind a translucent screen.

I am exhausted. In November I was sexually assaulted in a taxi in Amman, Jordan, and then in March my Dad had a heart attack and died.

I want to explain the last eight months but the words are difficult to find. I feel as though I’m trying to give words to what is really a succession of screams in my head. And I don’t know how you convert screaming into words.

A lot of the screaming is frustration stemming from confusion. There’s a lot of useful (although still limited) information online about what to expect when you suffer bereavement or what to expect when you’re assaulted, but so far I can’t find anything about what to expect when the two collide, like they do in my head, day in day out.

I want to explain how it hurts. But like so many people who, for whatever reason, find that their head is in turmoil, I seem to be completely incapable of letting people in, of crying in front of anyone, of answering “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine”.  It’s getting lonely now in the void between the pain in my head and the image of “okay-ness” that I feel too scared to let slip; I’m hoping that I’ll be able to write about what I can’t speak about. I was so inspired by the number of people in Oxford this term who wrote and spoke about their experiences of a whole variety of different mental health issues. Each one reminded me that struggling in this way is not a sign of weakness, that it’s not something about which I should feel ashamed, that I’m not alone. I want to add my voice to these voices.

So here’s my struggle. Here’s me not being okay.

For me it’s about fear. Almost constant fear.

Being assaulted felt a little bit like not existing. In the taxi I felt myself being broken down into pieces, getting weaker and weaker as my fear grew stronger and stronger. When he pulled the car over and it was dark and I had no idea where I was and everything was getting worse and worse, my brain coped by taking me out of the situation; for the next few minutes it felt as though I was watching him do this to somebody else. I remember thinking, “That girl’s in danger,” completely disassociated from the fact that she was me.

My body didn’t feel like it belonged to me in that moment and that feeling of lacking autonomy over myself continued as the shock of the assault slowly began to take root within me: panic attacks, flashbacks, constant guilt, the inability to keep food down. By the time I went home for Christmas I wasn’t really speaking anymore.

I started to feel almost invincible. I thought I was coping with enough hurt and stress that nothing could really hurt me any further. But then Dad died.

As the muffled rustles of a of badly-connected skype call slowly became intelligible, my vision clouded, my head became fuzzy, my knees buckled under me and each of the pieces into which the taxi driver had torn me smashed into a thousand new fragments. I learnt in that second how incredibly wrong I was to ever have been fooled into thinking that pain makes you immune to further pain.

Being assaulted made me acutely aware of my own vulnerability and for a long time afterwards I frequently felt scared of being physically violated again. When Dad died I felt scared in a different sense, because now nowhere was safe. The taxi driver took away my security in certain situations — large crowds and public transport, for example — but I still had my home with my family where I could go and feel safe. Even when I was not physically there, the awareness of that stable, secure part of my life meant that it gave me a degree of safety in whatever physical situation I found myself. This safe space was what kept the assault manageable.

When Dad died I lost that safe space. One man hurt me and then the man who always protected me was ripped away. Rationally, I never believed in any sort of justice that human beings didn’t create themselves; I never saw the world as being kind or cruel. But this rationality couldn’t entirely fight the emotional response that felt this as a perverse triumph of evil over goodness. This was the bad guy winning over the good guy. The world seemed punitive and I was terrified of how badly it could make me hurt. Even the people I love no longer made me feel secure because I was petrified that they too might die and so aware that I was powerless to prevent it and utterly unable to get back up should another tragedy occur.

By the time I got back to Oxford in April I felt absolutely terrified all the time. I was in a near constant state of panic. Nowhere felt safe. Scared of the nightmares that came in the dark, I went for runs at night and only let myself sleep when I began to see light outside. Coming back from nights out I would sleep in the JCR in the hope that sleeping on a sofa instead of a bed might make it feel more like napping than really sleeping and this way maybe the nightmares would hold back. Scared of being alone and even more scared of being with people, I trod a precarious line between avoiding spending time on my own while also avoiding letting anyone become too close.

And then with all this came the dizziness. I would go to the library full of good intentions but then the dizziness would descend again with nausea and headaches and I’d have to abandon my work. The worst days were those when the tiredness and the numbness would set in, when just lifting my foot to move forwards became a terrible effort and I worried that I might forget how to be happy ever again.

At the end of the term now, I am getting back on my feet. I feel calmer; I can sleep; I am no longer conscious of any nightmares, although I suspect I still have them since I often wake with my pulse raised and my body covered in cold sweat; I can eat properly again; panic attacks have become manageable levels of nervousness; guilt persists but it is no longer a pervasive emotion; flashbacks have stopped altogether.

What remains most clearly now is that cold hard grief. I never really know when it’s going to take me. The pain is always there but most of the time I feel it like a dull ache and then sometimes it rises up and takes hold of me and there’s nothing I can do. I miss my Dad like there’s a part of my body missing. It hurts like someone’s draining all the strength from my bones. When I feel it coming on, I run away so that no one has to see when my knees give way and I can barely stand and I’m crying and shaking and all I want is for it to be different, for Dad to be back, to have our old life back, the five of us, Mum, Dad, Marianne, Ben and me.

But grief necessarily takes time. It’s a process of pain which I must undergo. Avoiding it now, if that were even possible, would only mean waiting for it to come back and take hold of me later. They say that time heals; I have yet to find out whether that is true. At the moment all I can say is that it has given me clarity which has given me calmness. When Dad died I moved backwards in my process of dealing with the assault and all the physical reactions that I’d begun to control suddenly came back. Trying to work out which issues were symptoms of which disaster (if they could ever be so easily distinguishable) proved a barrier to dealing with either trauma and led me to just shut down in relation to both. Thankfully, I feel like I understand my head and my body’s reactions a little better now.

Bereavement is often described as having ups and downs. While this may be misleading because it doesn’t emphasise that it never, ever goes away even for a second, it does sort of capture it. Of course many people who are bereaved also become depressed, but in general the two are not the same thing; for many grieving people, myself included, that numbness that feels like depression arrives for a period and then fades for a period. As weird as it sounds, you can feel happy sometimes as you hurt. Just as I don’t know when the pain is going to take me, I also don’t know when a little knot of happiness, albeit cautious and weary, is going to surface and remind me that it will get brighter again, that I will feel safe again.

Somehow, in spite of everything, there is still beauty in life: in that golden light that hits Oxford just before sunset that doesn’t seem quite the same anywhere else; in the scraps of trashing confetti collected in the gaps between the cobbles; in the bubbles that float down Cornmarket Street on sunny days, popping on the paving stones or being lifted up high and out of sight; in the faces of all the people who mean so much to me.

Every time I laugh it feels like a miracle. A wonderful little miracle contained within a giggle. And when I laugh so hard I cry there is such a strange yet beautiful, even somewhat perfect, irony in how my eyes will react in the same way to this intense happiness as to such intense pain. It is a reassuring reminder that real happiness and all-encompassing sadness can both coexist within one person, that if I can hurt this fiercely I can also love this fiercely, I can fight this fiercely, I can live this fiercely.

There is only one thing left to say now which is thank you. Thank you to everyone, from strangers to family, who has reached out to me, and particularly to those who have shared with me their own experiences and their own methods of coping; to everyone who made coming back to Oxford so much easier than I’d feared; to all my old friends who haven’t disappeared despite me keeping you at a distance; to Mum, Marianne and Ben for constantly understanding and keeping us together; and to everyone who made me laugh during an incredibly dark time in which laughter didn’t feel possible.

“The Winds of Strength” — Four Ammaners on ISIS’s Murder of Muath Al-Kasasbeh

On the evening of 3rd February 2015 I was in my apartment in Amman getting ready to meet a BBC journalist for dinner. I was just about to hop in a taxi when my phone rang. It was the journalist.

“Is this Emmeline?” He asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to cancel on this evening. The Jordanian pilot has just been killed by ISIS.”

The news was coming in right then and there. It was leaking out now.

About half an hour later, Amman erupted.

Outside of my apartment I could hear people yelling from their car windows, sounding their horns as they tore through the streets in anger. There were sirens in the distance. My facebook and twitter were filled with people expressing their shock and their anger. Profile pictures were changed to blank black squares of mourning. The hashtag #كلنا_معاذ (We are all Muath, the name of the pilot) was trending.

The protests over the next week or so were as usual focussed in the downtown area, Wasat al-Balad, but this time the whole city felt different. The streets were emptier. People seemed subdued, angry, scared. Across all the radio stations nationalist songs blared. Posters of Muath emerged all over the place. Large slogans appeared tied on to railings and roundabouts: they read, “This is not our Islam”, “Raise your head (Be proud) – You are Jordanian”, “We are all Jordanian”. This was absolute defiance. Soon we began to see planes flying overhead on their way to do reconnaissance work in Syria.

There are already thousands upon thousands of people in Jordan who have fled ISIS, unable to return to their homes (if their homes are still standing) because of the threat of torture, rape, murder and loss of freedom. The statistics for how many refugees fleeing ISIS have made their way into Jordan is still difficult for the UN to accurately establish as many people refuse to register formally, terrified of putting their names on a list from whence their whereabouts could be determined. When ISIS killed Muath it was a reminder that ISIS is very, very close, and for the people for whom this conflict is entirely real, ISIS’s murder of Muath was not a distant news story but a terrifying threat to their safety, a warning that ISIS was following them.

Being in Amman at this time, I found it was possible to get caught up in the mood of the city, to feel like I knew what was going on, like I got what people were feeling. But in reality my relationship with the crisis is one of comfortable privilege, very different from that of most other Amman residents. It’s not my homeland that’s under threat; it’s not my religion that’s being hijacked by extremists on one side and mercilessly criticised by ignorant outsiders on the other; it’s not my freedom that’s at stake — I have that all-important British passport that allows me to get the hell out when the going gets rough. In short, I’m not the person in Jordan from whom you should hear this story.

With this in mind, this post is not going to be me speaking. I’m going to pass you over to four Jordanians whom I interviewed following Mauth’s death. They can explain what Muath’s murder really means far more eloquently and accurately than I ever could.

*Note on translation: I have tried to translate their words as faithfully as possible while also rendering the English plausible. I’ve only included extracts of what they said, although I’ve tried to make sure that the extracts capture the overall message. My level of Arabic is still far from perfect and at times I may have misinterpreted my friends’ meanings. I’ve included the original Arabic and welcome suggestions for improvements to the translation.

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A typical poster. This one was displayed on Abdoun Circle in Amman in March 2015.
  1. Muhammad El-Abed

Muhammad is a Jordanian man whom I met through a friend of my father’s. He runs a tour company in Amman, where he lives with his wife and children. He has also written extensively on Palestinian rights, from where his family originally comes.

I don’t think that they are humans like us. For them, slaughtering, killing and punishment are like food and drink. I don’t think that they are defending religion and faith; they are destroying it and pushing people further and further away from it instead. It is as if they are dead and they are the only ones who think they’re living. They are evil souls who have returned to us from the Middle Ages. They were the ones who burnt the scholars, the philosophers and the thinkers, accusing them of witchcraft. Their souls have returned to us in a new form and under a new name, acting in the name of God as though they are his agents on earth. They think that they are the only ones who know the truth…

لا أعتقد بأن هؤلاء هم بشر مثلنا ، الذبح والقتل والتنكيل بالنسبة لهم كالأكل والشرب ، لا أعتقد بأنهم يدافعون عن الدين والعقيدة وإنما يدمرونها ويبعدون الناس عنها أكثر فأكثرهؤلاء ميتون وهم فقط من يعتقدون بأنهم أحياء , إنها أرواح شريرة عادت إلينا من العصور الوسطى ، أولئك هم أنفسهم من أحرقوا العلماء والفلاسفة ورجال الفكر بتهم الشعوذة ، عادت إلينا أرواحهم بحلل جديدة وتحت مسمى جديد ، يتصرفوا بإسم الرب وكأنهم وكلاءه على الأرض ، يعتقدون بأنهم وحدهم يملكون الحقيقة وهم فقط القادرون على  فرضها بالقوة والإكراه  على الاّخرين

إعدام الطيار الأردني بهذه القسوة وهذه الطريقة البربرية تذكرنا بالماضي الذي كان بداية نهايات الدكتاتوريت التطرف الديني ، وبتصرفهم هذا ، أجزم بأن نهايتهم قريبة

  1. Sara El Abed:

Sara is Muhammad’s daughter. She is studying in Amman to become an architect.

The cowards thought that by burning you they would break us apart and destroy our national unity. No, I swear to God that your martyrdom will serve only to increase our unity and our love for this country that gives birth to heroes like Muath al-Kaseasbeh. Oh hero, your name is engraved on our hearts and on the heart of every human regardless of their religion or their nationality. Although we boast about you as a Jordanian, you are actually a martyr for the whole human race. You taught humankind how to be brave.

Like the rest of the Jordanians, I am suffering with conflict and contradiction inside of me. Two conflicting feelings: one of them pride and glory, the other intense sadness for your suffering in the last seconds before your martyrdom.

You taught us that being Jordanian is not being a number; it’s being a soul and a body, it’s being a human. Oh hero, you lived as a man and died as a man.

Muath, your brutal murder will serve only to increase our unity, determination and defiance in the face of these sinister gangs. Mother of the martyr: have patience — he who killed our martyr is a coward on the run.

ظن الجبناء أنه بحرقك سيفرقوا صفوفنا و يدمرون وحدتنا الوطنية ، لا والله ، فإستشهادك لم يزدنا إلا تماسكاٌ و حباً لهذا الوطن الذي ربّى ابطالاً امثال معاذ الكساسبة, اسمك الان ايها البطل محفور في قلوبنا و قلب كل إنسان بغض النظر عن دينه و أصله و فصله ،و رغم فخرنا بك كأردني إلا أنك شهيد ألإنسانية جمعاء، فقد علمت البشر كيف تكون الشجاعة

كباقي الاردنيين أُعاني تضارب و تناقض داخلي، شعورين متناقضين أحدهما بالفخر والإعتزاز و ألاخر بالحزن الشديد لمعاناتك في الثواني الاخيرة التي سبقت إستشهادك

.علمتنا يا معاذ بأن ألاردني ليس رقماً ،إنهُ روحٌ و جسد،إنه إنسان. عشت يا بطل رجلاً و مت رجلاً

.قتلك يا معاذ بهذه الطريقة الهمجية لم و لن يزدنا الا تماسك و إصراراً و تحدياً لمواجهة عصابات الظلام.صبرا يا ام الشهيد ، من قتل شهيدنا مدان جبا

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Another popular poster. This one was displayed on First Circle in Amman in March 2015. The Arabic reads “Raise your head. You’re Jordanian”.

  1. Hasan Al-Sqoor

Hasan studies engineering at university in Zarqa, just outside of Amman, where he lives with his family. His mother is a teacher and his father works in the Jordanian Army.

I am from a military family. Muath was like my big brother. It could have been me or my Dad or my cousin in his place. I am so angry about what happened. ISIS is not connected in any way with Islam and only represents terrorism. What most inspired my anger was the end of the video when the names of Jordanian pilots were given and a reward offered to whoever kills them. One of them was in my class, two others were in my school and another lives my neighbourhood. This made me so angry because I could imagine myself in their place. God bless you, Muath.

انا من عائلة عسكرية معاذ كان يمثل اخي الكبير ، كان من الممكن ان أكون انا مكانه او ابي او أبن عمي
فعليا انا غاضب جدا على هذه الفعلة، داعش لا يمت للإسلام بأية صلة و لا يمثل سوا الارهاب ، ما اثار غضبي اكثر انه في نهاية الفيديو وضعو اسماء طيارين اردنيين و عرضوا جائزة لمن يقتلهم ، احد هؤلاء الأسماء كان ابن صفي و اثنين اخرين كانو في مدرستي و احدا اخر يسكن في نفس الحي ، هذا الامر اثار غضبي كثيرا كثيرا لاني اتخيل نفسي مكانهم.
رحمة الله عليك يا معاذ

  1. Elham Al-Sqoor

Elham is Hasan’s younger sister. She is studying English Literature at university.

For a month and a half there has been a shroud of anxiety over our house. We forgot to sleep – one of the basic aspects of life. For an entire month and a half we have wondered about Mauth’s state under his captor. How have they treated him?! What did they feed him?! Didn’t Muath long for the food of his mourning, crying mother? What about his wife with whom he never had the chance to spend his life, or even half his life? They didn’t get to finish painting their dreams together, or to decide how many children to have.

For a month and a half the hero’s family and the candles of hope lit our way until the news blew in on a wind that extinguished these candles. For a month and a half, until this news spread, we had been negotiating with blank paper [meaning that ISIS was never really willing to negotiate with the Jordanian government] burnt with the fire of Muath… We will not be able to turn back time and we will not be able to bring back Muath.

Not only did they burn Muath but they also burnt the heart of an entire people, whose tears were not enough to extinguish this fire. This night was one of the worst nights that the Jordanians have witnessed. My mother cried as though it was her own son — what must be the state of Muath’s own mother? Every Jordanian mother lost a son that night, every girl lost a brother and every father lost a son.  It was a collective bereavement for all Jordanians.

This organisation [ISIS] has proven that it is far from Islam and peace in every sense. Our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, forgave and pardoned the infidels in Mecca after they hurt him and his companions and forced them from their lands. Almighty God says the following about them in the Noble Qur’an “And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from you”. Our Islam is far away from evil and harshness. It is based on tolerance.

Muath, however, is gone, and with his departure came the winds of strength. The wind carried defiance and strength into the souls of the Jordanians. In Muath’s eyes we read the goodbye to his father, the longing for his mother and his wife, and the love for his homeland…

منذ شهر و نصف خيم القلق في بيوتنا ، و نسينا النوم عند احدى منعطفات الحياة ،منذ شهر و نصف لطالما تسائلنا عن حال معاذ بالاسر ،كيف عاملوه ! ماذا اطعموه ! الم يحن معاذ لطعام امه الحزينة الباكية ، ماذا عن زوجته التي لم يحظى بفرصة ليقضي معها عمرا او حتى نصف عمر ،لم يكملا رسم احلامهما سويا ،لم يقررا كم طفلا سينجبا … منذ شهر و نصف اسر البطل و شموع الامال تنير دروبنا الى ان هبت ريح الخبر الذي اطفأ هذه الشموع، منذ شهر و نصف الى ان انتشر الخبر كنا نتفاوض على اوراق فارغة احرقت مع حرق معاذ ، نعم احرق معاذ انتشر الخبر كلمح البصر كذب الكثيرون الخبر و الصور ولكن ما باليد حيلة رحل البطل و لن نتمكن من ارجاع الزمن و لن نتمكن من ارجاع معاذ

هم لم يحرقوا معاذا فقط بل احرقوا قلب شعب كامل لم تكفي دموعنا لاطفاء هذا الحريق . كانت هذه ليلة من اسوأ الليالي التي شهدها الاردنيون ،امي بكت كما لو كان ابنها فما حال امه … فقدت كل ام اردنية ابنا لها في تلك الليلة و كل فتاة فقدت اخا و كل اب فقد ابن. وكان عزاء للاردنيين جميعا .. و قد اثبت هذا التنظيم بانه بعيدا كل البعد عن الاسلام و السلام ، فها هو رسولنا محمد صلى الله عليه و سلم قد عفا و اصفح عن كفار مكة بعد ان آذوه و اصحابه و طردوهم من ديارهم ، و عنه قال الله تعالي في القرآن الكريم (ولو كنت فظا غليظ القلب لانفضو من حولك) اي ان اسلامنا بعيدا عن التعسير و الغلظة قائم على التسامح و التيسير ، ولكن ذهب معاذ و مع ذهابه عصفت رياح القوة …رياح تبث الاصرار و الثبات في نفوس الاردنيين ، قرأنا في عيني معاذ سلاما لابيه و شوقا لامه و زوحته ة حنينا لوطنه الذي لطالما تمنى الموت في احضانه … طلب من معاذ في وقفته ثأرا لما حل به  ، احرق معاذ و زئر وئرة حق ..  فلتشهد روحك الطهارة على ما كان و ما سيكون لاجلك يا معاذ فلتنم يا معاذ باطمئنان و هنيئا لك الشهادة

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Third Circle in Amman. The Arabic reads “God. The Homeland. The King”.
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Jordanian flags outside the Royal Hotel, Amman, March 2015.


Many thanks to Muhammad, Sara, Hasan and Elham for taking the time to speak to me.

“If it’s not about love, well… it’s not about anything” – A Tribute to my Dad

Dad and I always imagined that he would be the priest at my wedding, one distant day in the future. In fact, we joked about it just the day before he had the first heart attack. But instead, only a few weeks later, I’m standing here speaking at Dad’s funeral.

I know that this must seem like a horrible connection to draw, an ugly juxtaposition between one thing so hopeful and another so final, but as the stony reality of what’s happened begins to sink in, it is in this connection that I’ve found beauty. For when I sat down and began to think about what I wanted to say to you all today, I realised that what I want to say is not so very different from what Dad would have said at his children’s weddings, since really I just want to talk about love, because love is what, most of all, my father taught me.

Dad taught me about the eternal strength of love one afternoon in the living room. I remember very clearly, when I was around four or five years old, turning to Dad as we sat side by side on the sofa and asking him, completely earnestly, “Dad, how long would you be sad for if I died?”

Dad turned to me, equally seriously, and said, “I would never stop being sad. I would be sad for the rest of my life.”

I thought about this. His answer had surprised me. I’d been expecting something more easily quantifiable than “forever”. I’d been expecting something between six months and a couple of years — this is what, as a small child, I’d judged to be an acceptable period of grieving. But no, Dad was telling me that he would be sad forever, and I remember looking at him and thinking “Woah, Dad must really love me….”

Dad taught me that love is urgent, that it can burn itself into you and then slip away again as easily as a dream unless you really, really grip it tight. Dad taught me this one evening in front of the TV. We were watching “Love Actually” — I’m sure most of you have watched this film at Christmastime. In that nail-biting, heart-melting scene where the little boy is tearing through the airport so that he can tell the little girl he loves her before she moves to the USA, Dad turned to me, his eyes all misty, and said, “Emmeline, one day you’re going to fall in love and when you do you have to tell them, you have to, because otherwise you’ll regret it forever.”

I was about fourteen when Dad gave me this piece of advice and I think I mumbled something in response about him being all embarrassing and soppy; but for Dad this wasn’t something soppy and trivial. Dad lived his life by this rule. 

Indeed, one afternoon 22 years ago, my Mum was sitting in her office in Southampton when a man she’d met a few times showed up in the doorway.

“I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,” the man said, “but I just had to tell you that I’m crazy mad about you.”

Of course, this man was my Dad, seizing love. When I first heard this story of his impulsive words as he suddenly realised that he was in love, I was straight away reminded of one of my favourite quotations from E. M. Forster, which goes: “When I think of what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love… it is one of the moments for which the world was made.” Dad knew that this, that moment when you realise that you’re in love, is a moment for which the world was made.

Dad taught me about love in the way he cared for Marianne, Ben and me. We spent our summers in a Canadian town called Crystal Beach, just by Lake Erie. Practically every day Marianne, Ben and I would play in the lake together and my Dad would sit on the shore watching, almost not blinking, ready to run in and save us should any of us get into difficulty. My Dad was the sort of Dad who built us a treehouse in the back yard and then, when we outgrew it, pulled it down to make a special place in the trees for our Mum to read. He was the sort of Dad who taught us to ride our bikes, told us bedtime stories about a little girl called Fartalina and made us a strange floury watery concoction with which to have our very own food fight (much to my Mum’s horror).  

Dad taught me about love in his relationship with my Mum. I’m struggling to know what to say here, because I don’t know how to articulate the level of tragedy that occurs when two people who have promised to spend their lives together, looked forward to the rest of their lives together, spent the last two decades together as a team and a partnership, are so suddenly and so untimely ripped apart. I don’t know what to say here.

All I know is that my Dad did not want to leave my Mum, not at all, not ever. The house at the moment is covered in magazines and guidebooks about all the places Dad was going to visit with Mum after he retired. And even spending life together wasn’t going to be enough for Dad, because for him it never was “till death do us part”. My Dad believed in everlasting life in the Kingdom of God and for Dad this love and partnership that he had entered into with my Mum was not for life but for ever.

In fact, it was this type of love — committed, long-term, public love between two adults — that had such a great impact on my Dad’s entire understanding of the world. The death of my grandfather, my Dad’s father, when my Dad was 33 shook and reformed his understanding of his role in life. Dad remembered witnessing the last few moments that his parents spent together before his father died. It was one loving caress that stayed with my Dad more than anything else. In that touch my Dad saw the depth of their love, the goodness and the purity of their love and, more than anything, I think my Dad saw the bravery in their love — in a sense all love is scary because it carries with it the prospect of loss, and my Dad felt this as he was confronted with the incredible pain his parents felt in losing one another. 

At this time my Dad was a Jesuit and he later wrote that it was at this moment that he suddenly began to see his celibacy as a form of cowardice, because he would never know this love and in that way he was protecting himself from such painful and profound loss. 

A few years later my Dad left the Jesuits and then Catholicism altogether. This was not because my Dad no longer wanted to devote himself to God, indeed he always considered himself a Jesuit, but because of a change in his interpretation of the relationship between love of God and love between human beings. Watching the love and the loss that his parents shared, he saw that loving another human with all your heart and soul is no incompatibility with love of God. In 1 John we are told that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”. My Dad believed this: that there was no conflict, no divide, between his love of and faith in God and his love for my Mum, Marianne, Ben and me. It was never a question of loving God or loving us; the two were inseparable for Dad. They were two interwoven elements in a life governed by love.

I started speaking to you today by talking about weddings. The reason my Dad and I were talking about this just before he died was that he was writing a wedding sermon for our friends, Ashley and Julian. My Dad called me into the dining room to get me to read it through to see what I thought. This is what my Dad had written: “What I see today is a public statement… that life is ultimately all about love; that life must ultimately be about love; that, if it’s not about love, well… it’s not about anything.” This is the truth that my Dad lived by. Love and love and keep loving until you feel as though your heart might burst, as though you just can’t possibly love any more. This is what Dad believed and this is the principle that underpinned his life. We all knew my Dad in different ways and we all have different memories that we will cherish, but if there is one thing that we may collectively remember about my father, it is this: his overwhelming capacity for love. And even more importantly than simply remembering, we can take this truth and use it to inspire us, as it inspired my Dad, to really and truly open our hearts, to work for a fairer world. 

So now I just want to say, for one last time: I love you, Dad. We all love you. Forever. For always.

Love is Brave: Lessons in Loss

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Ten days ago I was on the bus on my way home from Zaatari Village where I’d been helping to run an activity day for Syrian refugee children living there.

I was sitting with my face pressed up against the window as I watched the crumbling homes and the UNHCR-provided tents whiz past me and out of sight. As always on this journey, I was berating myself for the inadequacy of my own experiences of pain as compared to those of the children in that village who have lost so much: homes, family, friends, futures.

What I didn’t realise is just how much I should have cherished that utter ignorance. I’d become so used to the guilt of being the lucky one, the one who’d never experienced loss, that I forgot that one day it would come for me too. Playing with the children in Zaatari Village, I never thought that it was my own family that was in danger. I didn’t know that back in the UK my Dad had just died.

How do you talk about grief? At the moment I don’t really feel. Mostly there is numbness and even when the tears come I know that I am tiptoeing around the real pain. My body is stubbornly protecting me; my head is too scared of the vulnerability to really dive down to those depths of human hurt. So at the moment I exist in a grey space in my head, where there are no feelings and where hours last for days.

In this strange space there is a lot of time to think. Mostly I think about my Dad, but I also find my thoughts returning again and again to the people who taught me about loss, and about its relationship to love and to hope. These people are all refugees and it is in their lessons that I find comfort now.

I was fifteen when I began working at a refugee service in Newcastle. I returned home from my first day there completely exhausted and fell into bed at 6pm. I’d been confronted with more human pain than I’d ever witnessed before. I remember one man I met that day particularly clearly. He was probably in his forties and had arrived in the UK only recently. He sat at the desk opposite the support worker.

“I just can’t find them,” he was saying, referring to his wife and children who were still in Uganda, as the support worker looked for more numbers he could ring.

The conversation continued for a while. It wasn’t particularly hopeful.

“They’re my children,” he said, quietly, before he left.

I remember that man because I remember thinking I had never seen a person more on the verge of collapse. His eyes were exhausted, frightened, shocked. His movements were gentle but quick as though he feared that his time was almost up. He sat slumped, almost defeated. He was not a small man but in that moment he looked tiny and frail on the chair.

This is just one person out of the many I met whose grief appeared like constant shadows on their faces.

It was a particularly cold winter that year. I remember another man, he was in his early twenties, sitting quietly, looking out the window.

He turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen snow before.”

But there was no excitement at the sight of these unfamiliar flakes — only exhaustion at the approach of yet another phenomenon that was new, strange and unfriendly. We spoke for another five minutes or so. In every word he said you could hear the ache for home, for all that he’d lost.

Working at the refugee service was the first time that I witnessed loss. At first it drained me, but then slowly I began to see something horribly, achingly beautiful in the way that human beings react to loss, in the way that we grieve. I don’t want this to sound dismissive or patronising because I know that grief does not feel beautiful to the griever and indeed in many ways it isn’t. But at the same time I do believe it is evidence of a heart being broken, and in that sense it is a potent reminder of our humanity. Grief, in all its horrendousness and pain, is a shocking proof of love.

It was this that taught me that love is brave, so incredibly brave. The men whom I mentioned earlier, they were hurting because their hearts were breaking, and their hearts were breaking because they had dared to love, and now they had to deal with loss.

All love carries with it the prospect of loss, and yet we do it anyway.

We continue to make ourselves fragile, vulnerable to this kind of pain. I saw it all the time at the refugee service and I see it in Zaatari Village: people who have lost people, and felt pain because they loved those people, continuing to love: this is bravery.

It was witnessing grief, then, that taught me so much about the the strength of love and, over the past few days, reading back through my Dad’s old sermons and speeches, it seems that he also learnt about love through loss.

My Dad’s father died when my Dad was in his thirties. He remembered watching his parents as they spent their last few moments together, and it was one loving caress from his father to his mother that stayed with him. In that touch he saw the depth of their love, the goodness and the purity in their love and, most importantly, he saw the bravery in their love because he could see how much it hurt them to say goodbye. He saw that daring to love another person this much requires a stoic acceptance that one day you may have to cope with a colossal loss.

At that time my Dad was a Jesuit, a type of Catholic monk, and he later wrote that it was at this moment that he started to see his celibacy almost as cowardice, because he would never know this love and in this way he was protecting himself from such painful and profound loss. This was what set my Dad re-thinking his role in life, re-thinking his choice to be a monk, and ultimately arriving (luckily for me) at the decision that having a family, being a loving husband and father, was not only the best and most brave thing that he could do but also totally in harmony with priesthood and his religious life. (When my Dad left the Jesuits he did not give up priesthood but entered the Anglican church instead.)

It was witnessing loss that led my Dad to see the incredible value in human love.

So as I said, I am in the grey space where there is nothing. I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. But as my family and I move through this, I will remember these lessons in loss taught to me by people who had lost almost everything: that it only hurts because we are human, because we love, and that in itself is beautiful.

This may sound like an odd way to deal with loss, but the only way I know to cope with the most horrible aspects of life is to try to create beauty in their place – to find something good.

So I will remember that there is no loss without love; that a heart can’t be broken if there was nothing there to break; and that this pain is really a reminder of all the beauty Dad brought to my life and to the lives of my Mum, my sister and my brother.

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Scattered Hearts: My Neighbours’ Story

People often ask me if I feel safe in Jordan. They are thinking about how close Jordan is to the war in Syria, ISIS and the Israel-Palestine conflict. They assume that this proximity to the violence must mean that Jordan, too, is dangerous.

I usually reply that, for me, the impact of being so close to these conflicts is not to do with physical safety but with mental awareness: I do not feel unsafe in Jordan but I do feel that the conflicts in the Middle East have become more real for me. I can’t ignore them in the same way I used to. I have lost the luxury of forgetting.

The conflicts feel close now. They felt close when I heard noises overhead and looked up to see a plane from the Jordanian airforce heading to Syria. They felt close when ISIS murdered Muath. The feel close every day because people all around me have lived, are living, through these conflicts. The conflicts are their reality. It is this, the presence of the refugees, that makes it impossible for me to forget.

Jordan’s total population is just 6.5 million — smaller than that of London. In 2012 an average of 1000 people crossed the border from Syria into Jordan every day and today the number of refugees continues to rise; the UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015 there will be 1.06 million refugees living in Jordan. 20% of the refugees are still living in camps without proper accommodation. With more people arriving and thirteen to fifteen babies born every single day in Zaatari Refugee Camp alone, the population of the camps is increasing much too fast for the Jordanian government to successfully provide adequate accommodation. Significantly, this current refugee crisis is only one part of Jordan’s long relationship with refugees. If we are to take a more historical perspective, over 50% of Jordan’s citizens are Palestinian refugees, having fled the country after the Nakbah in 1948. This is a country shaped by people seeking safety from the surrounding violence.

I could continue to bombard you with statistics about Jordan’s refugee crisis but I think one story can often hit you harder than even the most shocking statistics and so I want to tell you the story of my neighbours instead. It’s the story of a Syrian refugee family living in Amman, in a small apartment in an old area of the city. It’s the sort of fashionably crumbling neighbourhood that houses both the poor and the bohemian — where artists live next to refugees next to organic-food-only cafes next to small shop owners next to students. This is where I lived when I first moved to Amman.

I remember the day I met the family well. I’d had some bad news the evening before and had spent the morning channelling my anger into the treadmill at the gym. I was stomping back to the flat with angry music blasting through my headphones when I almost bumped into a little girl by the main entrance to our building.

I took my headphones out.

“Do you live here?” She asked me.

“Yes. On the second floor. Do you live here too?”

“Yes. On the first floor.”

“What’s your name?”

“Emmeline.”

“What’s yours?”

“Nour.”

Nour was ten but had the air of a girl much older. She was confident and spoke quickly and strongly with no hint of shyness. She seemed accustomed to speaking to people older than herself. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a pink Adidas tracksuit.

Nour’s mum, Zainab, walked through the door.

“Mama, this is Emmeline,” Nour said. “She lives on the second floor.”

“Nice to meet you,” Zainab said, smiling at me.

“And you,” I replied.

Nour took me by the hand and began pulling me towards the elevator.

“Come!” She insisted.

“Oh… no…” I protested, thinking Nour’s mother probably didn’t really want me to come round and bother them.

“Yes, please, come for coffee,” Zainab said to me.

I went back to their apartment where there were two more girls waiting. Fatima, who was twelve, and Arwa, who was six. The apartment was the same layout as my own: an open-plan living room and kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms.

The girls sat me down on the sofa while Zainab made the coffee.

“Can I do your hair?” Nour asked me.

“Go ahead,” I replied.

“Where are you from?” The girls asked as they plaited my hair.

“Britain.”

“We’re from Syria,” Zainab told me as she put the kettle on.

“From Damascus,” Fatima added.

“Yeah, Baba’s in Damascus,” Nour said.

I didn’t know how to respond. What do you say to someone whose father is in Damascus? I’m sorry? Is he safe?

In a second this little girl asking me if I wanted the pink sparkly scrunchie or the blue ribbon in my hair had put everything into perspective. I had spent a morning wrapped up in my own issues, feeling sorry for myself, when all that time three little girls in the apartment below me had been worrying about their father in a war zone.

“Really?” I said. “I’ve heard Syria is a beautiful country.”

They all beamed at me.

“It’s much prettier than Jordan. Amman is not a nice city. Damascus is much more beautiful.” They said this almost in a chorus. It was the enthusiastic response of four women who miss their home with all their hearts.

I stayed about an hour with Zainab and the girls that day. They showed me pictures of all their relatives and their home in Damascus and gave me origami swans that they’d made with the Japanese woman on the third floor. A few days later I went round for dinner and then I began to see them most days. Gradually we came to know each other well.

After a few weeks their father, Abdallah, came to Amman too. Zainab had been a teacher in Damascus and Abdallah had been a photojournalist and cameraman. Abdallah’s job meant that the family were targeted as soon as the civil war started and Zainab and the girls fled Syria in 2011. Abdallah had family in Jordan who were able to rent them this apartment cheaply and thus they managed to escape spending time in any of the refugee camps. Most of their family and friends have also fled Syria and are now scattered across the Middle East.

Some people, however, have remained behind. I remember once Zainab showed me a picture of an elderly woman.

“This is my mother,” she said, smiling faintly as though recalling happy memories. “I haven’t seen her for three years. She’s still in Syria.”

Zainab’s voice began to crack. “I don’t know if I will ever see her again…”

She began to cry.

“I’m never going to see her again,” she repeated.

There was nothing to say. I hugged her tight.

“We have nothing here,” she sobbed. “We used to have a home, a car, a life. We don’t have any money. We need the food coupons but they keep cutting them with no warning. We want to work but it’s illegal. None of us have anything.”

She showed me another picture. This time I was looking at a baby, around six months old, with chubby cheeks and those big wide baby eyes that make you feel simultaneously as though they cannot understand anything and as though they can see every little part of you.

“This is my friend’s baby girl.” Zainab said. “She’s sick but my friend can’t afford the medicines. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She was crying again.

“She’s so beautiful,” she said as she looked at the picture.

Just then Arwa stormed into the room in that melodramatic six year old way. She was upset about something. Zainab jumped up, wiped away her tears, and immediately saw to Arwa. Her children would never see her crying.

I became closer and closer to the family. I would play clapping games with the girls, watch Arab Idol with them and dance with them. Although I tried to refuse, knowing how little the family had, Zainab always fed me wonderful meals. When I was ill they gave me herbal medicines and teas. When I was sexually assaulted they comforted me: they gave me food but I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t get the fork to my mouth and when the tears came Zainab cried with me and hugged me. The girls, too young to understand what had happened, held my hands and showed me videos of Disney princess songs until I was smiling again.

This is a woman who has known pain, so much pain, yet she still has time for mine. These are children who have had everything taken from them, yet they still find the love within them to show me compassion.

The girls were entitled to free education in Amman. Zainab and Abdallah devoted themselves to the girls’ work, encouraging them in all their subjects, doing homework with them, instilling in them ambition and drive. The life of a Syrian refugee in Jordan often seems without opportunity or possibility; higher education is incredibly expensive for a non-Jordanian and therefore completely unattainable for most refugees. Employment is completely prohibited. As long as the family remained in Jordan, the girls had until they were eighteen to educate themselves and live as a relatively equal citizen. Once they reached eighteen their lives would halt, the world around them sealed off behind red tape. Zainab and Abdallah were painfully aware of that, but they never let the girls believe anything other than that the possibilities and the world were open to them.

It was obvious to the family, as it is obvious to many Syrian refugees, that Jordan, necessarily preoccupied with responding to the crisis in the short-term, trying to ensure that people have water and do not freeze to death in the tents in the winter, is not yet capable of providing the refugees with any meaningful long-term existence. They had to get out if they wanted a life.

They applied for asylum in Sweden and their application was accepted. I arrived at their home one day and they all rushed over to me excitedly.

“We’re leaving for Sweden at the end of the month!”

I believed them. We said an emotional goodbye when I left for the UK for Christmas. But when I got back to Amman in the new year they were still there.

By the third time they told me they were leaving, I no longer believed it.

Months passed and the promise of a new life in Sweden began to seem like another cruel method of torture designed to slowly drain them of their vitality. They had to wait for a phone call from the embassy to tell them that they could leave. The call could come at any time.

Abdallah looked increasingly exhausted. Zainab became quieter, more subdued. Unable to work, they were prevented from providing for their children as they yearned to, helpless to alter their situation.

It was heartbreaking seeing the suitcases waiting by the door, packed and ready for months on end. It was heartbreaking listening to the girls count from one to ten in Swedish, and heartbreaking watching Zainab sew a traditional Swedish dress for Arwa.

Then one day I turned up at their door:

“We’re leaving tonight!” They said.

It was actually happening. There was life in their eyes. The promise of a new start, of a home, a career, a future, was becoming a reality.

I can’t quite believe it, but the family is in Sweden now. It is not going to be easy. Zainab and Adballah will have to learn Swedish to a very good level before they can get a job that actually fits their experience and qualifications. The little girls will have to make friends in a new language and a new culture and deal with all the difficulties of being the one who’s “different”. They have never left the Arab World before — there is no doubt that this will be a tough adjustment.

But I have every faith that they will get there. Last week Zainab sent me a photo of the girls on Fatima’s thirteenth birthday, standing behind a fantastic cake that Zainab had baked herself, Arwa climbing on the chairs as usual.

This is how it should be: three little girls, who’ve been through pain that no child should ever suffer, smiling on a birthday, with access to all the opportunities that, for a few years, it looked as though they would be denied.

This is how it should be: when children are driven from their homes, we need follow Sweden’s example and show that we will not let this mark the end of their lives, that we will continue to care for the people on whom the world has turned its back. Syria’s neighbours are reaching breaking point with the influx of refugees; we need to play a part, we need to open our doors.

On one level, the endless stream of people looking to rebuild their broken lives in Jordan can remind you of the crueller side of humanity.  The wars, the oppression — it’s here and I can’t force it from my mind. Yes, I could get bogged down in this. I could look at the refugees from Syria and Iraq, the recent chemical weapons use by Assad, the atrocities committed by ISIS, the re-election of Netanyahu and wonder if human compassion exists at all.

But instead I have met the people behind the statistics and with them I wonder whether human kindness has any limits. How is it possible for people who have shed so many tears themselves to still have time for my own? How is it possible for someone living off food coupons to still insist on cooking for her guests? Life in Amman, a city and a country whose history has been shaped by refugees, is a daily reminder of all the hate, of Assad, ISIS, Netanyahu and the bombs we’ve dropped in the name of democracy, but it is also a daily reminder that people’s hearts are strong: you can crush bones but you cannot crush love.

(All names in this article are changed.)Featured image

Translating Mahmoud Darwish

I hadn’t heard of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish until last year when I visited the museum dedicated to him in Ramallah, Palestine. I bought a book of his poetry there and since then I’ve been making my way, very slowly, with an Arabic-English dictionary in tow, through the collection.

Edward Said, who knew Mahmoud Darwish well, called him “Palestine’s unofficial national poet”, while Naomi Shihab Nye, an American-Palestinian poet, referred to him as “the essential breath of the Palestinian people”.

I’ve attempted to translate a few of his poems into English. It’s the first time I’ve tried to translate poetry so I apologise in advance!

"From the homeland to Mahmoud Darwish", Ramallah, October 2014
“From the homeland to Mahmoud Darwish”, Ramallah, October 2014

 

The original Declaration of Independence document as drafted by Mahmoud Darwish.
The original Declaration of Independence document as drafted by Mahmoud Darwish.

To The Reader

The black lilies are in my heart,
and in my lip… the flame.
From which forest did come
all the hardness of anger?

I swore allegiance to my sorrows.
I greeted vagrancy and hunger.
The anger of my hand…
The anger of my mouth…
The blood of my veins is a juice of anger.
O, my reader!
Do not ask me to whisper!
Do not anticipate joy!

This is my torture:
A purposeless punch in the sand
and in the cloud!
Be wary of me because I am angry
and fire begins with anger.

Three Pictures

1

The moon was,
as he has been since our birth, cold.
The sadness in his brow glistened…
A stream… a stream
by a village fence.
It is a sad exodus,
a runaway…

2

My friend was,
as he has been since we met, grave-faced.
The cloud in his eyes
sows a fog in his vision…
And the fire in his lips
tells me of his bloody battle…
Even at night he reads poetry to dream.
He asks me which path he should take…
A line of poetry… tenderness!

3

My father endured,
as he always has done, pain.
He chases after bread wherever it has run out,
fighting against the evil people.
He fathers children …
And the earth…
And the planets…
My little brother’s clothes
were shabby… so he pleaded for more
while my sister bought socks.
And everyone in the house is making demands
and my father, as he always does,
reclaims his virtues
and grooms the ends of his moustache.
And he fathers children…
And the earth…
And the planets.

Identity Card

Write it down!
I am Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after summer
Are you angry?

*

Write it down!
I am Arab
And I work with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I provide bread for them
And clothes and notebooks
From the rocks
I don’t beg for charity at your door
And I don’t belittle myself
On your doorstep
Are you angry?

*

Write it down!
I am Arab
I have a name without a title
I am patient in a country
In which all who live there are fuming
My roots
Took hold before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
And before the cypress and the olive trees
And before the grass first grew
My father… he is from a family of ploughman
Not from a background of luxury
My grandfather was a farmer
With neither records nor lineage
He taught me the glory of the sun before teaching me to read
My house is like a janitor’s hut
Made from sticks and reeds
Are you happy with my status as it is?
I have a name without a title!

*

Write it down!
I am Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land that I cultivated
Along with all my children
And you left us and the grandchildren
Nothing but these rocks
And will your government
Take them, too, as is said?

Thus
Write down at the top of the first page
I do not hate people
And I do not steal from anyone
But if I become hungry
I will eat the flesh of the usurpers
Beware
Beware
Of my hunger
And of my anger!

“The Rebels of Amman”: An insight into being gay in Jordan’s capital

Last week I sat opposite Lena, a young Jordanian woman, in a cafe in downtown Amman. Almost casually, she took a sip of her coffee, placed the mug back on the table, looked me in the eye and said “Yes. I could be killed.”

Why?

“Because I’m gay.”

Naively, I had believed that being gay in Amman was not particularly controversial. Homosexuality in Jordan has been legal since 1951. The age of consent is the same for homosexual and heterosexual intercourse and, while government censorship controls how homosexuality is presented in the media, there are various Jordanian publications that are either aimed at an LGBTQ audience or are pro-LGBTQ rights.

But here was a woman telling me that she feared for her life. Behind the seemingly liberal legal system there is clearly a level of pain and fear that I drastically underestimated.

According to Lena, being gay is not really legal in Jordan, whatever the law may officially say.

“It’s the grey area… the thing that no one’s talking about.”

The reason she believes this is that homosexuality can still incur a heavy penalty.

“Honour killings are a big problem here,” she explained. “I know cases where it happened because the person was gay”.

This is then legitimised by the legal system’s refusal to properly sentence the perpetrators.

“Sometimes they get nothing… sometimes six months [in prison].” Lena’s anger was visible.

I asked Lena if it was honour killing that made her fear for her own life.

“No,” she replied. While Lena has not told her parents that she is gay because she is sure that they will not accept her, she does not fear that they would hurt her physically. Where physical violence is concerned, Lena fears the wider community, not her family – someone on her street who might hear something and take “justice” into their own hands. She even fears the police.

“If a policeman heard that I am gay I would be scared that he would beat me up in the street.”

Lena describes the police as an authority that sometimes enforces the written law and at other times enforces deeper cultural laws. For Lena and other young lesbians in Amman this has particular significance regarding the convention that unmarried women do not live alone – they go straight from their father’s home to their husband’s home. So what do you do if you’re gay? Live at home forever with parents who have no idea that you’re gay? Strictly there’s no legal prohibition against single women living alone and many richer women do choose this option, but this does not stop the police from helping parents to keep their adult daughters at home. Lena told me that one of her friends tried to move out on her own but her parents called the police, who dragged her back again.

I asked Lena what her plan is, if it’s a choice between marriage and living in her parents’ home for life.

“My parents are asking me when I’m going to marry. But we have back up marriages, where I marry a guy who I know is gay, and we both know we’re gay,” she explained.

The only other option is to leave Jordan.

“My family would let me leave if it was to study abroad. I want to go to Amsterdam.”

But even if she could find a scholarship, it would only be a temporary fix.

“I don’t actually want to leave Jordan. My life is here, my friends are here, my family are here.”

Not all gay people in Amman share Lena’s fears or feel the same restrictions, however.

“No, that would not happen,” Madian said, when I asked him whether he shared Lena’s fear of police harassment or violence. “The police are the police. They wouldn’t beat me up on the street.”

Madian is the founder and owner of Books@ Cafe, Amman’s most famous gay bar-cafe-restaurant and book shop, where I met him for the interview. He is openly gay and is well-known in Amman. He is an activist, holding talks at the cafe about LGBTQ rights and sexual health.

Madian does not fear for his life and he is able to own a gay bar playing music loud into the night without hassle from the police or from the government.

Why do Lena and Madian have such different experiences? I thought that maybe it is easier to be a gay man in Amman than a gay woman, but both Lena and Madian told me they think the opposite is true: it is easier for a woman to pass off a relationship as a close friendship without attracting suspicion. I wondered if their age difference could explain the discrepancy, but while Madian is twenty years older than Lena, he pointed out that many people he knows who work in or visit his cafe and are part of his social group are in their mid-twenties, like Lena. Madian suggested instead that how easy you find life as a gay person in Amman comes down to how easily those close to you and within your community can accept you.

So who are the tolerant people in Amman? Revealing my own cultural prejudice, I had equated “Western” with “liberal” and assumed that the most tolerant people regarding LGBTQ rights would be the most Westernised – wealthy young Ammaners who study in the UK and the US, speak flawless English and wear Western fashions.

I first suspected that I was wrong about this when I went out for drinks with two very rich, Western-educated Jordanian men. Chatting on the way home I told them that I often go to Books@.

“You know that’s a gay bar…?”

“Yeah…”

“Don’t you mind?”

“No… Why? Do you?”

“It’s forbidden in Islam.”

I am not Muslim and I don’t pretend to know what is or isn’t right in Islam, but I still wondered how they had decided that being gay was wrong, while they were happy to drink and have pre-marital sex — two things which many Muslims believe are forbidden.

One of the men answered: “I know that drinking is haraam [forbidden] but I do it anyway. I know that having sex is haraam but I do it anyway. But being gay is really, really haraam. It’s not okay.”

I asked Madian whether this exchange was representative. Were the rich, Westernised elite actually quite intolerant of homosexuality?

“Yes,” Madian answered. “The less exposed you are to the West, the more liberal you are about it.”

Amman can be roughly divided into East and West. East Amman is poorer, more conservative in terms of dress and alcohol, and sees fewer Western immigrants or tourists. West Amman is richer, dotted with malls and bars, and has a growing European and American population.

“The most liberal are the East Ammaners,” Madian told me. “They haven’t fallen into the trap of labelling and dissecting sexuality – they have a more fluid sexuality.”

Just as in all human civilisations, homosexuality has existed here as long as people have been attracted to one another. Homosexuality has never been entirely uncontroversial, but to an extent it was accepted as a fact of life. Now, the Western desire to define homosexuality has brought people and their sexualities under scrutiny.

“East Amman doesn’t talk about sex like the West does,” said Madian.

Lena agreed that the rich and the Westernised are not necessarily the tolerant. Both stressed, however, that it “really comes down to the individual” as no group is entirely tolerant or intolerant. Prejudice is found everywhere, just as open-minded people are. Both Lena and Madian live in West Amman and have open-minded, liberal friends.

So what is the barrier to tolerance in Amman? Without hesitation, Lena and Madian answered: “Religion”.

In Madian’s words, it is “our biggest enemy”.

He was quick to clarify that it is not Islam itself that is the issue because “Nothing in the Qur’an actually says that [homosexuality is wrong]. Politicised Islam is the issue.”

“Christianity is exactly the same,” he said, but asserted that Islam is the greater barrier simply because it is the dominant faith in Amman.

Lena explained why politicised Islam presents such a barrier.

“People are scared to criticise Islam,” she told me, and even those who dare to try are unsuccessful because there are “no channels” for such criticism.

Lena says that acceptance of the status quo is taught within schools.

“We need to change the children first,” she stressed. “The lessons are from the government. Children don’t think for themselves.”

Madian specified that it was the lack of sex education in schools that was particularly dangerous to the gay community.

“It wasn’t [a problem] until a few weeks ago,” Madian told me. “I noticed one of the guys at the cafe looked very ill so I said he had to go to the doctors and I took him there myself to get him tested for various illnesses. The results came back. He was HIV positive. He contracted the virus almost 10 years ago – he’s 25 now. I told him that he would have to make a list of all the people he’d had unprotected sex with. There were 13 names. I couldn’t tell those people without outing this man, so instead I created a general panic. Since then, I know four more men who’ve been diagnosed.”

Madian warned that AIDS will not be defeated as long as the public lack sexual health awareness.

“The people remain ignorant” but compulsory sex education is “not likely to get through government.”

So with barriers like education and political Islam very firmly in place, what are the prospects for the future?

“It’s going backwards,” Lena said, referring to social views in the Middle East more generally. “I don’t know what Jordan will be like after a few years. Maybe it will get better, maybe we’ll be like our neighbours, Syria and Iraq.”

The conflict and violence in bordering countries has made people cautious. Social change can be regarded with suspicion as a means of destabilising the country at such a volatile time.

“We want change, but safety and stability are the most important things,” Lena told me.

Madian, however, has a different perspective.

“You have to have age to view the trajectory. It’s much better than in 1997.” Madian opened Books@ in 1997. It was quickly infiltrated by government spies, concerned about the effect this establishment might have on “public morality”. These spies “outed” Madian to his family and friends. Now, nearly 20 years later, Madian says he has no trouble with the government or the police regarding his cafe and has since opened another branch in another neighbourhood.

Madian sees Amman as a city that is changing every day, still finding its feet.

“Amman is a melting pot. There are so many backgrounds. People don’t know their identities yet.”

In his view, this creates an ideal situation in which to take society to new places.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, he leant back slightly in his chair, completely at home in this safe space that he had created for those whom he terms “the rebels of Amman”, smiled and said, “We’re on our way.”