UK Anti-Slavery Day: SCEME On Sex Trafficking In The Middle East

Human trafficking today is considered one of six types that manifest modern-day slavery; and, especially of sex trafficking. The other ways are bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early forced marriage and descent-based slavery.

On the occasion of the UK Anti-Slavery Day 18 October, also coinciding with EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I spoke with Iman Abou-Atta, Founder of the London-based charity SCEME (Social Change through Education in the Middle East) and her colleague Sarah Barnes, to highlight what is happening today in the female sex trafficking situation in the Middle East.

The official definition of human trafficking according to the UN Palermo Protocol: “The recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person by threat, force, coercion, abduction, deception, or abuse of their vulnerability with the aim to exploit them.”

SCEME: Karamatuna Programme & Consequences of the Arab Spring

Iman Abou-Atta: “We were one of the first NGOs to ever speak in the UK about the trafficking of Arab girls in the Middle East; and, in particular, the plight of Iraqi young girls who were either being trafficked within Iraq itself or were refugees in the camps across the borders.

“The topic had brief coverage in the British newspapers before we published the Karamatuna Report in 2011, but it somehow didn’t capture as much attention as it deserved. At the time, our research team discovered that Iraqi girls as young as 10 or 12 were being taken into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation.

“Whereas today as a consequence of the Arab Spring our focus is on the women and underage girls this time being trafficked out of Syria. It is our most urgent task to complete a second phase of the Karamatuna Programme so we can gather all the facts, proof and evidence before we can act and make recommendations.”

In March this year, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Syrians either registered as refugees or waiting to be registered as refugees has now exceeded 1 million.

SCEME: “We are very concerned about Syria especially because so many of the refugees from Iraq went into Syria. So we have a huge group of vulnerable people there who were victims of trafficking or domestic slavery before the conflict in Syria broke out. So now you don’t only have the Syrians themselves who are potentially vulnerable but you have the existing refugees as well.

“Currently, we are hearing lots of stories about what is going on in the camps where the war displaced end up and in particular those based in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In the Summer 2012, we heard of adverts being posted by men looking for Syrian brides.

“We know that some of these Syrian girls in the camps in Jordan are ending up in Saudi Arabia through the use of the unofficial and temporary Muta’a marriages that are legalised in parts of the Middle East.”

Muta’a marriage is also known as the ‘pleasure marriage’. It is a fixed and usually short-term contract where a specific duration and a monetary compensation are agreed upon in advance. It is a private and verbal exchange marriage between a man and a woman.

SCEME: “This set-up of a sham marriage can last for a couple of weeks, days or even just hours and what is worse is that after they’ve taken away and used, they are then discarded and sent back to their families in the camps and potentially pregnant.

“So you end up having an initial problem of a girl who is sold to an older man for a small amount of money possibly between US $130-250 that the family obviously needs; but then she is pregnant and the family has to deal with the maintenance of her and the child. This girl now cannot even get remarried which is another big problem in the community.

“We have even some anecdotal evidence coming from Lebanon where muta’a marriage is used as just another word for prostitution, so it is literally a two to three hour arrangement.

“The girls involved will have left the refugee camps and become vulnerable in the cities for so many different reasons; but effectively, they end up in forced prostitution. This is something we need to look into further, as at the moment it is anecdotal.”

The SCEME Report on Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations

SCEME will soon be launching their ‘Report on Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations’, which has already been prepared by their legal team and finalised in June 2013.

This looks at how different countries deal with the issue of human trafficking and related laws in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. It also considers European Union standards on trafficking, labour and domestic violence and makes a best to worst comparison analysis.

SCEME: “The aim of this Report will be to help us and other interested organisations to better understand the laws especially on trafficking and domestic slavery on an international level. In particular, we want to know how we can more effectively implement projects and to be able to campaign and lobby so that the laws can better protect women.

“It does a best practice comparison at the end and is a subtle way to lobby Middle Eastern countries so they can get a better ranking and to improve their status in other ways. This is an independent report done by our legal volunteers.

“Yes, it is hard to push the governments, but at least they can become more aware and aim to improve. Ironically, the Report had initially showed Syria as one of the higher ranking places before it fell. Now it has become one of the worst in under a year.”

Note: SCEME is a not-for-profit organisation based in London, established in 2010. SCEME has developed programmes to promote the rights and liberties of women and their children; particularly, those who are refugees or migrants in the MENA region. It also aims to support the same to become active citizens of the world through the provision of educational workshops, training and mentorship.

For more information and how you can get involved: https://www.sce-me.org/

For more information on UK Anti-Slavery Day: https://www.antislaveryday.com/

Note: This article was first publisher circa October 2013

An Existential Encounter: Photographer Marwah Almugait’s Mood Diary

According to the American existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, Existentialism is the philosophic notion of self awareness and its form of therapy explores the facts of life and how they affect the individual without  judgement or bias. It enables one to approach the issues relevant to all feeling and thinking human beings at different consciousness or awareness levels, that might otherwise be labeled morbid.

At such an intersection, one is forced to face and resolve the predicament of aloneness, mortality and impending death, suffering, the case of a frightening freedom and our entailed responsibility.

In ‘the Mood Diary’, Saudi Arabian photographer Marwah Almugait makes a brave attempt to observe and be witness to the inner subjective experience of her subject Mona as she battles the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

One extra challenge is the location of the project in Saudi Arabia, a conservative country that doesn’t promote the exposure of difficult psychological truths as they impact on the local individual. Rather the culture would substitutes therapy terms within a religious framework that causes the personal burden to be much heavier to carry with an added stigma.

Through Almugait’s moving and powerful images, we see Mona grapple with her inner demons at home and in her day to day reality. With an afflicted mind, the pictures reflect the highs of her mania and the lows of depression, the cyclical nature of mood swings, the anguish, despair, sense of loss and grief for a life that could or couldn’t have been lived.

There are images that show the fragility and delicateness of the subject’s psychological identity within the disorder. Also, the role of the past on influencing the present and regrets are hinted at, as well as the sense of revolving realities where the manic energy and depression are played out.

Still we must not take the subject as an object in this photographic project or confine Mona to her illness. She is a living, breathing and moving human being who has affected the photographer in ways only possible within an existential encounter.

One can make an analogy here with the practice of psychotherapy. It occurs between a qualified person and a client in a formal setting, just as the photographer here rises to the challenge. Its objective is to help the client come to terms with her situation by examining her choices and learning to positively change them by reflecting back with words or as in this case with pictures. The good therapist also validates the personal struggle and aids the client to move forwards with the insights gained.

Underlying existential therapy is the need to alleviate conditions and symptoms that we all share and experience to some extent or other: the sense of anxiety, panic, dread, nihilism, carrying shame and guilt, apathy, alienation, rage, resentment, addiction, violent emotions and ultimately madness. Through the process of reflection, we can get to a place where we accept the realities of death and finitude, and knowing that we have the freedom to take responsibility for our lives. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “We are our choices.”

Looking into the techniques used in existential therapy, the therapist during a formal session has to firstly create the safe setting for the client and put aside any preconceptions or dogma regarding the client’s condition. The therapist can thus interact to discover and explore the client’s subjective experience of ‘being’ and reality. Whilst the usual methods are to listen, reflect back and gently nudge the client through verbal exchange and body language, it is also possible to utilise more creative ways to achieve similar insight.

In this project it is evident that Mona was open and receptive to the artistic experiment and happy to express herself in a way that perhaps she wasn’t able to do so before alone or with others. She took a proactive role in choosing concepts for the images that the photographer took and the photographer followed, by directing the shots whilst suspending judgement and focusing on the personal client story.

Through the images and clever use of camera, lens and lighting, we are invited to enter the subject’s inner reality. We also come to realise that the photographer took an approach that was without denial, without avoidance and without distortion of her subject.

It brings to mind Rollo May, a leader in the existential therapy movement, who wrote: “I do not believe in toning down the daimonic. This gives a sense of false comfort. The real comfort can come only in the relationship of the therapist and the client or patient.”

According to May: “The encounter with the being of another person has the power to shake one profoundly and may potentially be very anxiety-provoking. It may also be joy-creating. In either case, it has the power to grasp and move one deeply.”

The therapeutic relationship thus requires the building of a sacred trust to let in a closeness, a warmth and honesty moving both participants to human and psychological awareness. In this way, the Mood Diary has been, for the photographer and muse, such a powerful exchange that will affect both of them for quite some time.

For Almugait: “This project opened my mind into the darkness and I wanted to put the light to see what is really inside. It was like having the keys to a locked room and I’ve seen the unseen. Through the photographic process, I felt like I was x-raying what was in the mind of my subject. Truly, with photojournalism, you never know where you might end up.”

To quote Yalom again: “The realization and knowledge that we influence others in ways that are positive can provide a sense of meaning in our lives. That is also why loneliness is so deadly.”

Note: This article was originally written as a foreword to a photographic exhibition by the Saudi Arabian Marwah Almugait.

Note: This article was first published circa September 2012

Are Libyans Ready for Therapy?

Very few Libyans are familiar with the talking cure. They know little about its theories and almost nothing of its practice. Perhaps they never felt the need to rely on its wisdom and have dismissed its potential benefits. In our culture, one’s emotional and mental states are seen as a part of their spiritual character. If they complain of psychological distress, it is seen as a failure in not finding peace in God or religion.

But in Libya today, in every town and city, there is plenty of walking wounded whose pain is not visible; but whose lives are blighted with personal misery and unhappiness. When you look close, there is every case of mild to severe depression, anxiety and panic, unrequited grief from loss, nightmares and flashbacks of trauma. All of these are identifiable psychological and psychiatric disorders. In truth, they don’t even need an expert to recognise the damage.

Instead of letting them suffer for longer, we can perhaps turn to therapy as a viable option to help the Libyans gain perspective. The aim of therapy is to address negative emotional and mental symptoms in an intelligent, humane and sensitive manner and resolve inner turmoil and conflict. It would indeed be a fatal error if Libya does not to explore the possibility. One would hope also that a Ministry of Health would sooner or later deal with the crisis.

Ideally it should provide the knowledge, application and access required to support patients, as therapy has been shown to improve lives with its gentle intervention. There is much good and great benefit for individuals to have private time and a safe space to speak to a trusted practitioner to help them gain closure and be able to move on.

In Libya we’ve never grasped the usefulness of such a method, but the obvious impact of the revolution on certain groups of individuals cannot be denied nor swept under the carpet.

In the aftermath of war, we have male and female rape victims, ex-prisoners, ex-rebel soldiers, young and old widowed women and many others carrying heavy burdens. Being human and vulnerable, they need collective support and non-judgement. The culture has to change its wrong attitude and prejudice towards mental health issues and discard ignorant taboos and stigmas.

One new project to help has been proposed by 40-year-old British-Libyan cognitive behavioural therapist, Taregh Shaban. With his extensive experience in the UK in psychological therapies, he now wants to take the practice of CBT to Libya. Funded by the World Medical Camp for Libya charity based in London, he will head to Misrata sometime in the New Year to train twenty psychology graduates in this model.

Shaban explained: “There is plenty of need and few of us around. There is also a serious lack of expertise and training in what is called ‘evidence-based’ psychological therapies. In Misrata, for example, there are only two psychiatrists for a population of approximately 400,000; and, the psychology graduates are only a little better informed than a layperson. I personally wouldn’t have them see people, as they can presently do more damage than good.”

With a budget of £30,000, he is waiting for the green light so he can ask for a work sabbatical from his job in Oxford and commit to the project. He will work in conjunction with the Libyan psychiatrists, Dr Ahmed Sewehli and Dr Mustafa Shuqmani, at the University of Misrata and take with him a qualified mental health nurse and two other CBT practitioners from the UK.

At the same time, Shaban is proud that the CBT pioneer of the low-intensity psychological intervention, Professor Dave Richards, has agreed to provide the teaching material and advice on the phone free of charge.

I asked Shaban to give me his full take on this project. 

Shaban said: “Based on extensive research, we know that the CBT model is very effective in treating depression and anxiety disorders. Another advantage is that it can deliver results in a relatively short time span. Primarily based on helping the patient challenge the way he thinks about himself, the world and people around him, he is allowed to replace any erroneous thoughts and beliefs with more realistic ones – leading him, hopefully, to behave in a more helpful way and ultimately to feel better.

“CBT also focuses on the here and now – as opposed to other therapies that look to the past – and includes the patient doing homework between sessions so that he can practice and develop the techniques learned in therapy. The ultimate aim of any good CBT therapist is to make himself redundant and for the patient to become his own therapist. CBT is therefore quite demanding and requires commitment.

“There are now several levels of qualification and training in CBT interventions and I believe we can train the Libyan graduates to deliver Steps I and II of the system. Within 45 days of workshops, trainees can begin the work and I envisage that each will eventually have a caseload of up to 40 patients.

‘Our goal is to teach the modules directly relevant to Libya with the view of building capacity for the future. I will stay on to supervise and make sure the trainees apply the knowledge correctly. After three months, we will evaluate the project; and, if we do well, we can then think about rolling it out to other towns and cities.

“Mainly, we will deal with individuals exhibiting trauma-type symptoms, having depression and a whole host of anxiety disorders. We will also help some to deal with grief and others suffering from the effects of negative intra-familial and social relationships and adjustment to tragic life events.

“These latter types of cases are not strictly speaking within the training brief we have set ourselves, but I suspect we will do some sort of training in supportive-counselling skills towards the end of the project.

“Importantly, we want access to our services through initial consultations at the poly-clinics and general hospitals in Misrata – so that we can perhaps mediate some of the stigma attached to visiting specialist mental health establishments.

“For the rebel freedom fighters, of course, we face a tougher task. We are concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder and rehabilitation. Under usual circumstances, professional soldiers are trained and gradually exposed to the stress, anxiety and fear associated with live combat. Most professional soldiers also get a month out somewhere calm to decompress. This is done to reduce arousal levels and for them to re-acclimatise to a civilian lifestyle.

“Our fighters have had no such preparation and no subsequent period for readjustment. Some will still be on a high from the adrenaline rushes they experienced during the fighting and will need time in a safe rehabilitation environment; where they can have structured activity programmes, group therapy and offered skills training to prepare them to return back to normal life.

“Rape victims are another group who will need specialised help. One cannot begin to imagine the level of distress and awful feelings of self-guilt and shame- though unfounded – these very unfortunate people must be enduring. We need to reach them and work with them in a discrete and trusted environment.

“From my professional experience, I believe we should take advantage of these evidence-based therapy and counselling models offered in the West. CBT has proved to be very effective for common emotional difficulties in randomised controlled trials and is now recommended as the treatment of choice by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK.

“Yes, such models will need adaptation in a new cultural context, such as Libya, but they are a very useful starting point. My hope really is to offer these culturally sensitive psychological therapies to every Libyan who needs them, and to build capacity and resources in the country itself. I don’t know if this is too wild a dream but I sometimes think we have to aim for the absurd in order to reach the possible.”

One wishes Shaban every success, with the hope that those in most dire need get the treatment they deserve.

Note: This article was first published in The Libyan Magazine circa February 2012

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Benshatwan: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library. This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017.

For more information about Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017

Saleem Haddad: Author Opens Up About Debut Novel ‘Guapa’

Living in a politically volatile city in the Middle East, a young Arab drag queen – who is by day a tireless human rights activist – is arrested by the police in the early hours of the morning for being at a cinema which is a cruising spot for working class men. He is subjected to intrusive questioning and cruel abuse by the insertion of an egg-like contraption into his rectum to test and gage his homosexuality.

Once released, though, he doesn’t make a fuss of what has happened to him. Rather, he continues with his work via an international NGO to expose local government human rights’ violations. He is also not afraid to keep performing his drag queen act at Guapa, the queer nightclub that is home to all outcasts. A brave and proud soul, he will never deny his alternative sexuality even in a hostile environment and putting his life at further risk.

The drag queen is, of course, Maj and he is both real and not real, just like all the other characters and the events in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel ‘Guapa’. Written in the vulnerable male voice of Rasa, who confides about his gay love pain, Haddad expertly creates imaginary figures to reflect on the competing facets of Arab society, the culture and its conservative mores. It also depicts the political, economic and religious forces at war in the MENA region today.

‘Guapa’ readers will sense many a déjà vu moment as the unnamed city in the background can just as easily be Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis or Cairo, that we have all either visited, lived in or seen through our computers and TV screens. This Arab city, its inhabitants and the dynamics at large are all in our collective subconscious anyway and don’t’ need to be pinned down to one place, as Haddad rightly makes this literary choice in an engaging and timely tale.

Rasa’s emotional torment and the unrequited love which threatens his reason and sanity is the main theme that enables Haddad to firstly capture our hearts – for love is love and it doesn’t’ discriminate. But as gay relations are taboo in most Middle Eastern countries, Haddad explores the not so public but private terrain from an insider perspective, as he himself is a gay Arab male who had to keep his sexuality hidden throughout his young adulthood until one day he found the courage to come out to his family and friends.

Connecting with our intellect too ‘Guapa’ features the arguments of the great known thinkers like Edward Said and Amin Maalouf on what influences the Arab identity vis-à-vis the Western world. When Rasa finds himself at a university in America in the aftermath of 9/11, he becomes the victim of ignorant prejudice and distrust by fellow students and it makes him realise that he may never be able to fully fit in there.

From Berlin, Haddad was kind enough to answer my questions in anticipation of taking part in the Shubbak Literature talk titled ‘A New Confidence’, where he will be joined by Alexandra Chreiteh, Amahl Khouri and Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss recent queer writings.

Nahla: What is it really like for the LGBT communities in the Middle East? Is there more freedom in some countries and not others or would you say it is oppressive in all of them?

Haddad: “What are we talking about when we talk about ‘freedom’? Freedom from what exactly? Freedom from community? From government? From society? And what do we lose when we free ourselves from society? That sort of freedom can be very lonely and these are the sorts of dilemmas the characters in Guapa are grappling with. And what about the concept of ‘oppression’? Oppression is multi-faceted and is not as simple as victim and perpetrator. I find it more useful to look at oppression as systems and structures that are dynamic and constantly changing.

“I also believe that the binary of ‘freedom’ and ‘oppression’ is not a useful way of looking at any situation, including that of LGBT communities in the Middle East. In any case, it’s impossible to speak on behalf of millions of LGBT individuals across the Arab world. I think it’s important to recognise the diversity of experiences and how elements like social class, geography and politics play into the experiences of LGBT communities. This is certainly something I tried to do in the book.”

Nahla: Rasa is self-loathing both when he is living in the Middle East and when he is in the West. Is this unique to his character or is it a common emotional experience for people of alternative sexualities in the Middle East due to the wide spread concept of shame and sin?

Haddad: “Rasa is a sensitive and self-aware character and in my experience sensitivity and self-awareness always bring a certain degree of self-loathing. But certainly he is battling shame, particularly around his sexuality, which he had to keep hidden from a very young age. I think gay shame is a universal phenomenon, not limited to the Arab world. I was certainly interested in exploring shame from a Middle Eastern communal context. But gay shame, sadly, remains a facet of the global LGBT community in various forms.”

Nahla: Tell me about Taymour’s character and the choice he makes to get married, deny his homosexuality and reject Rasa. Is he an archetype of something?

Haddad: “Taymour represents a certain type of fear that drives citizens to conform. It’s the same type of fear that propels Arab parents to make sure their sons study medicine or engineering and the fear that drives them to push their daughters into marrying into the ‘right’ kind of family.

“It’s the fear that drives citizens to support someone like Egypt’s President Sisi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad or any of the sectarian militias-cum-political-parties in Lebanon. Taymour is a representation of that sort of fear, the fear that compels people to social and political conformity. I wanted to sympathise with this conformity, I wanted to understand it, and understand why someone like Rasa might gravitate towards it.”

Nahla: The background city in Guapa experiences uprisings and a civil war situation. How were you involved in the movements circa 2011 in the Middle East?

Haddad: “I was in Beirut when the uprisings began in Tunisia and in London when the Egyptian uprising began—which is when coverage was the highest. Once the protests started in Yemen, a country I spent a lot of time working in, I tried to use my knowledge of the country to lobby British politicians and policymakers to support the uprisings. And as they progressed, I began to work with an NGO that worked with youth and women activists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But in many cases I found myself stuck in an odd position, as both an outsider and an insider. In many ways, it was a good position from which to write this sort of novel.”

Nahla: Do you see yourself as an LGBT activist? What are the challenges facing the LGBT rights movement in the MENA region?

Haddad: “I don’t see myself as an LGBT activist, though I recognise that having published the novel I am a voice for the community. Still, it is not a title I am comfortable with. In the end, I am a writer and if I am seen as a representative of anything, I will only disappoint. There are many brave LGBT activists and allies of the LGBT community who are working tirelessly through the region that are doing fantastic work, much more than anything I have ever done – they are too many to name.

“But I have heard from the LGBT community in the region that the novel has struck a chord with many of them, and so I’m proud for the novel to be part of a growing queer Arab culture.”

Nahla: In the novel, Rasa entertains the fantasy of escape with his lover to a Western country where he thinks their sexuality won’t be a problem. And, in your own life, you live in the UK with your partner. But what is it really like for the gay Arab person who is unable to make such an escape and is bombarded by religious and cultural forces that negate his homosexuality?

Haddad: “Is my sexuality not an issue in the UK? The only time I have been called a faggot and threatened with violence was in London, just fifteen metres from my house in Hackney. Though certainly, the situation for LGBT communities in the West is much better than in the Arab world. And from my own experience, growing up as a sensitive and slightly effeminate young boy in Kuwait and Jordan, I faced some relentless bullying and violence at the hands of other boys who sought to punish me for not fulfilling social ideals of masculinity.

“But I think we should try to avoid simplistic binaries that assume the West equals freedom and the Arab world equals violence and death. As for how to tackle homophobia in the Arab world, I would caution any sweeping statements about homophobia in the Arab world being driven purely by religion. I think homophobia in the Arab world is best understood by examining the unique cocktail of authoritarianism, ignorance, and misogyny – which affects all people in the region in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees. Thus, in tackling homophobia, I think we need to tackle all three of these elements.”

Nahla: I was very intrigued by the character of the mother who runs away from her son and husband without an explanation as to why. Can you tell me what inspired her personality and which archetype does she represent?

Haddad; “The mother character was probably the hardest character to write. I suppose because in many ways she represents a certain sensitivity and radical truth that I myself had to hide from society at a very young age. I learned the hard way that to be a man in the Arab world, one must not show sensitivity, and to be a citizen in the Arab world, one must shy away from the pursuit of truth at any cost. So in many ways, the fate of Rasa’s mother is reflective of how the characters – not just Teta, but Rasa and his father as well – chose to deal with their sensitivity and their fear of facing truth.”

Nahla: One last question. Who inspired the character of Maj?

Haddad: “Many friends inspired the character of Maj; but, fundamentally, I suppose Maj was inspired by the kind of person I aspire to be.”

——-

Note: This article was first published circa July 2017 in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival

For more information on the Shubbak Festival: http://www.shubbak.co.uk/

Karl reMarks: And Then God Created The Middle East And Said: ‘Let There Be Breaking News’

Includes: Insight from the Karl reMarks Creator

Penned by online sensation and the Karl reMarks persona, this little book had me in stitches, thinking, confused, saddened and wondering from where does the self-styled avatar get the genius inspiration. Composed of a collection of quotes and illustrations that originally appeared on Twitter beginning circa 2011, it was the arrival of the Arab Spring that got London-based architect and real name Karl Sharro satirising on the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East and North Africa region.

Exposing worrying gaps in the reportage of an admittedly volatile part of the world, the jokes and poking fun turn upside down many preconceived myths, non-true wisdom and stereotypes of the Arab world. The material reflects and brings to light, with wry and sharp humour, some of the historical complexities that are at play in the MENA region and warning against the over-simplification by pundits and commentators. But even the Arabs are not spared the satire with reMarks’s astute and directed observations.

Referring to Eastern versus Western opinions on extremism, ISIS, war, religion, geography, economics, democracy and much more, the one-liners humble the reader into accepting the preposterousness of easy equations and how fruitless much of the analysis is regarding the region’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Whichever quote or tweet you find, there are nuggets of truth in each of them. My particular favourite is this one: “We’re actually very proud of God in the Middle East. He’s the local guy who went on to acquire international fame’!

Having attended the sold-out book launch in London, below are some selected quotes from the evening, in which Sharro offers insight into his alter ego. With 135,000 followers on Twitter and an active blog – where one can find lengthier political satire – I highly recommend getting a hold of the book and a visit to the website, wherein our collective despair about the Arab world can be assuaged by the reMarks treatment.

On his motivation, Sharro said: “I never had any serious pretentions about the role I am doing. My writing and tweeting was a response to the coverage of the Middle East and about resisting certain stereotypes and narratives. But I was never trying to present a different image of the Middle East. My attitude was that I want to respond and poke fun at those people who are misrepresenting the Middle East. Ultimately my motivation was that I want people to smile and laugh.”

On the use of political satire, Sharro: “I am a part-time political satirist and everyone knows that what I do is in my lunch break. It is about appropriating certain stereotypes and to present a more progressive image. Part of it also is being comfortable enough to talk about things that you might not like about your culture.”

On Twitter and Tweeting, Sharro: “It is a fine balance between reality and satire. There is something about being on Twitter where, especially if you are tweeting a lot and you are always following the events and you are almost like naked in front of your audience. Sometimes things happen that are beyond your comprehension and I think that is when language stops cooperating with you or the medium of satire stops cooperating with you and there is nothing really that can be said.

“You can see a sense of frustration and you can see a sense of futility, but I think that is the great thing about this medium, we have such a close relationship with the events around us. And it is not like going away to shut yourself somewhere to write a book where you can create layers between yourself and the events that are happening. We are learning new ways with this medium and tweets reflect that.”

About the idea that the Middle East is prone to catastrophe, fighting and war, Sharro: “A lot of it is something that is created in the Western imagination and particularly a class of punditry when we talk about the Middle East as if it is always subject for news. But in reality it is not necessarily different to any other part of the world.”

On approaching taboo subjects, Sharro: “I was writing satire and a lot of it was dark and scathing. For example, I wrote about ISIS when they first came and one blog post was done in this style. My rule was to write it and see what people would say. Some might miss the point that I am not actually stereotyping Arabs, but I am using stereotypes and inverting them and trying to say something different. I learnt my instinct was to trust the audience and there will always be one or two people who don’t get it.”

On whether being outside the Arab world gives him more freedom to do what he does, Sharro: “I don’t’ think it is easier for the obvious reasons. Some people think I am more free here to say what I want to say and I don’t’ think that is actually true. I feel that there are more taboos here than in the Middle East and you can say more things over there.

“But what it gave me was a sense of coldness. If you are living the situation in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, you are living that and it is your reality. Everything you say or do is an existential struggle and it all depends on it. It gave me the luxury of not having to, when I write, that I am not dealing with that reality.

“But that is when I made my decision that I can’t be a political activist or I can’t be lecturing people about what to do in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, because I am not in that situation. I think it is completely wrong for anyone to consciously decide to go out and live in the West to then take this position that I am going to lecture people. You have removed yourself from that context and you can do what I do which is non-consequential in a way.”

On political correctness and taboos in the West, Sharro: “I think there is an intellectual construct that is definitely, from a liberal sense, quite self-censoring under the pretence that this kind of censorship is for the social good… I worry about this tendency in the West because for me confronting ideas openly is a much healthier way than retreating into mistakes, controlling speech and people practising self-censorship.”

A member of the audience also asked Sharro what he would write as a manifesto for the Middle East. His response was: “I actually wrote these manifestos back in 2011 when I was blogging, but nobody read them. So here I am, a failed political activist turned satirist because that is what worked. Essentially, if I were to hijack this event and promote a political message, it is that I have always been a big believer in autonomy and self-determination. I find them foundational ideas for how we move politics in the Middle East and I think these are important aspects to base our politics on.”

There was, of course, much else that was said at the launch and food for thought. But what I came away with was respect for Sharro’s dynamism – as he successfully juggles being an architect, a political satirist, a cultural commentator, a stand-up comedian, a cartoonist, a public speaker and a contributing author to several publications! – and, the ability of his alter ego to push us into reconsidering the important relationship between reality and how we may be digesting it through different news mediums.

In some ways, reMarks magically takes away a lot of our fears, anxieties and frustrations about the world that we live in – whether we are in the MENA region or living outside it – even if this can only be done through one tweet or one blog post at a time.

You can purchase the book from Al Saqi Bookshop: http://www.alsaqibookshop.com/shopexd.asp?id=47970

You can follow the Karl reMarks website: http://www.karlremarks.com/

You can follow the Karl reMarks Twitter account: https://twitter.com/KarlreMarks

Note: This article was first published circa June 2018