A Life Lived Five Years at a Time

Me, 2008, that's a doctoral 'hood'.

January 2012 marks my return to a place I prepared for academically but never mentally: teaching university students. I went from undergrad straight into graduate school and then on to finish a PhD. Along the way I lost sight of what I really wanted because of the grumpy academics that lined the walls of the English departments I studied in. Their officiousness (and multiple marriages) were not desirable qualities.

If I had been honest with my twentysomething self, I would have also known that my academic persona didn’t jell with the person I thought myself to be. I was in a small circle of friends who married immediately out of college and began the business of setting up their own households. I had no such prospects in sight: only scholarships for more degrees.

“I’m never going to use this degree,” I said. “I’m getting it because I’m young, not married, and I can do it now.”

The Revolution Within

It started on January 25 and hasn’t ended yet: the revolution that was 30 years in the making –the popular uprising of millions, young/old, male/female, in Egypt. What the peaceful protesters in Tahrir – Liberation – square want is the remove of the 82 year old dictator Hosni Mubarak. Implicit in his stepping down is the conclusion that his son, Gamal, will not be immediately ushered into office, or indeed ever hold an official position in the Egyptian government. It is the end of an era — of U.S. backed foreign interests in the Middle East, of a population so downtrodden many described them as “lazy”, of life long dictators siphoning national funds to finance their vacation homes abroad.

Living in Qatar brings me geographically closer to the eleven day old uprising than my home base on the East coast of the U.S. Working for a Middle Eastern company and with a largely Arab staff (three people from Egypt) brings it directly into daily conversation about the well being of loved ones, fact versus rumor, waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting that “he” (aka Mubarak) will leave.

Add to this the larger circle of friends and colleagues at surrounding universities with ties to Egypt, mix in the excellent 24 hour coverage by Al Jazeera English on TV, the radio, via Twitter, and bake in the heat of friends posting status updates live from Egypt and you have a region more or less glued to the breaking-news ticker.

Against the backdrop of this history-making bravery, people I know personally are writing in international newspapers like The Guardian about being teargassed while trying to protest peacefully. Against this milieu of people saying what they mean, standing for what they believe, and in general living while they are alive, my petty irritations and conflicts seem so small.

In the midst of  international tumult and the constant broadcasts of pent up desire for freedom, it’s not entirely surprisingly that this week, after a long self-enforced silence, I broke and said what I was really thinking.

What I actually said may not be that important ( this isn’t like saying don’t think about elephants) but rather the way that I came to say it.

I had enough with the lack of respectful practices, disorder and chaos a particular set of people kept bringing into my life.

Since July I thought of ways to get out of being tied to them: over maternity leave, I was hoping we’d grow apart.

And as we started sleeping regularly again, I realized nothing had changed – though I had a seismic shift in my own life with the introduction of our new baby. With said baby, an odd thing happened. Instead of making me the crazy person everyone warned me of, the baby actually brought stability. Suddenly I wasn’t checking email all day and most of the night; I was home for meals instead of wandering from event to event. His presence called me home>

But more than being around. He gave me a reason to live a better life. I wanted to be more for him – happy, present, living up to my ideals.

Yet the difficult group relationship continued, with them walking through personal boundaries and in general wrecking havoc in a way that kept me fighting to stay positive and upbeat.

A long Christmas vacation during which I contemplated how to end this increasingly negative interaction. Returning from a long holiday — was difficult but I was much stronger than I thought. I was able to minimize the ever present irritations better than before. Though things were not perfect, I convinced myself to make the best of it, holding the baby close, and real friends closer – the rest receded a bit.

In the background though, like piano keys stuck together, a discordant note kept plunking.

They weren’t going to change. And my ability to ignore them was wearing thin as their discord further intruded into my resolution to live a life worth living while alive.

Last weekend the world couldn’t look away, and I was no different, watching mouth agape as pro-government thugs storm into the square astride horses and even on the backs of camels, beating those they came across with whips. It brought back childhood memories of students standing in front of tanks in another T-named square, Tienanmen. Unlike the Chinese, the pro-Mubarak supporters, paid thugs or undercover police, didn’t have the honesty to wear their uniforms into the square but came in dressed like everyone else to dilute the reputation of the peaceful protesters.

Like the Egyptians over the years, I had grumbled and complained about this group crowding my happy days and happiness. But I wasn’t ready for action. I wanted change but I didn’t know if I could deal with the discomfort. Was it easier for things to stay as they were? Could I weather the storm that this major shift would bring in my life, the life of my family?

In the middle of this week I, alongside  the example of millions of Egyptians who had finally tired of dictatorship above all else, had enough. We were ready to pay the price, come what may of having our say and reaching for impossible dreams. That of self-sovereignty.

I finally said what I had to say. Without emotion or drama or shouting. In a clear, unshakable voice, I spoke what had been on my mind for several months.

As the flags wave in Tharir square, we don’t know what will happen. And without this toxic group in my life, I’m not sure what will come next.

But the sight of Christians protecting Muslims gives me hope that Egypt won’t be overrun by the islamists as everyone is saying. Rather, unlike Iran or Iraq, Egypt will rise out of this revolution strengthened and renewed for the first time in three decades. This may sound idealistic, and no one is saying it won’t be messy. If you haven’t already seen the images of protesters with blood soaked handkerchiefs, then you don’t know the lengths people are willing to go to have their say.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt and have inspired me and even youth all over the Middle East region.

We can all create a life that we want, rather than the script the West (read: those who thought they were in charge of us) write. We don’t have to be puppets of anyone. It won’t be easy. In fact, it will be the hardest thing we’ve done.

But we know what life under dictatorships is like. The promise of freedom is too compelling to turn away any longer. Live the best life you can. After all, you know what the other option is like.

In what areas do you need to have a personal revolution? And from what parts of current or past history can you garner strength?

Being on Vaction in Your City

My mom is visiting us as we await the birth of our baby and she is the first visitor we have had in a year. The last one was stopping through on her way back from Nepal with a boyfriend and sister. It was one night and two days — in the midst of a work schedule that I couldn’t move because of visitors from our London office.

This month long visit is completely different: my mom is here to hang out and that’s exactly what we have been doing. She’s showing our nanny how to make certain dishes and available to run errands, or to start recipes while I’m still upstairs sleeping. She typed up my birth plan – something on my to-do list for at least two weeks and fields calls from my insistent auntie in India who wants to know exactly what is going on.

In short: it’s amazing. For someone who has spent 75% of her time alone over the last five years, having company has been an unexpected joy. We go to have tea with my former students and lunch with friends who have a one month old. She waits patiently in the doctor’s office as we are an hour past the scheduled time to meet with the doctor.

It’s such a luxury to have companionship. And if I hadn’t spent so many afternoons alone over the years, toiling at my desk, writing one project or another, or in the office, trying to cram in the last bit of efficiency, I think I would take this completely for granted.

For now, I’m enjoying it, rather than feeling crowded as I worried I would, between the nanny, mommy, my belly, and me. Rather than climbing the walls and chewing my nails in the last five days before our due date, I’m eating well, enjoying movies, hanging out with the neighbors, taking time to meet new arrivals.

In short: I’m living my life in Doha which I rarely get to do during the year when I’m working like a gerbil on her wheel, trying to get to the carrot.

It hasn’t all been easy, as the temperatures and dust have been climbing outside. But since Mom has jet lag, our naps are synchronized as well.

Yesterday my husband said: “Why doesn’t she watch T.V.?”

Because since arriving on Saturday, the sight of her sitting on the sofa with a 400+ page book is now familiar.

“This is the difference in how we grew up,” I said to him, “that’s why I love reading.” (Became a writer, work for a publishing house, went to graduate school in literature).

I told this story to my mom and it turned out she was actually intimidated by the three remotes it took to turn on the various functions of the TV, DVD player and cable! She prefers a mix of movies (catching up on the OCEANS series over the last two days while I’m in the slow process of waking up or at Arabic class) AND reading.

It’s the calm before the storm and she’s on vacation as much as I am.

We are creatures made for fellowship. We love to exist in community.

And I’m so glad that this one has found me at this moment.

Are there moments you have felt particularly connected to others? Celebrate them for what they are: glimpses of the divine.