A Tale of Two Countries

I usually studiously avoid political commentary (outside feminism) on this blog, but like many, I am moved to write about what I’m thinking in a post-EU-referendum world.

From my privileged London position, I’m thinking ‘let’s stop victim-blaming those that voted against my wishes and start blaming those who caused it.’ I can rail all I like against Welsh people who, in my opinion, scored a huge own goal against their own future by voting Leave, but there are reasons why they did so and they all point back towards Westminster and those who control the tabloid media.

Outside Scotland and Northern Ireland, the pattern of Remain voting was so starkly based in the UK cities, with Leeds, York, Liverpool, Cardiff and Manchester all voting IN with London, against the wishes of a majority vote in the rest of the country. There couldn’t be more of a statement about privilege versus need, about those who have, and those who have not, and we have to listen to that.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I grew up in North Wales and in the ’80s, things were grim. Mass unemployment, people living hand-to-mouth, no money for life’s extras. I experienced an epiphany in 1989 and knew I had to move out and live my life elsewhere. I moved to London to go to uni at twenty-two and although at the time it was like ripping a limb off, I knew it had been the right decision for me. I am now relatively well-off.

I wonder back then how I would’ve voted in the EU Referendum. We were a Sun-reading household so the message would have firmly been OUT. Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech had been mentioned in my family home during the seventies so I knew what the score was in my Conservative-voting family, even though they’d enjoyed the privilege of living in an East African British colony for ten years. Oh the irony.

I remember, when I was a senior ballet student and teacher in North Wales during my late teens and having members of the only black family in the area attending classes. I remember someone shouting the ‘N’ word through our changing-room window and the friend they were targeting looking humiliated and ashamed, and how much shame I felt at what had happened. I didn’t agree with it, but it was all around me, latent. And I didn’t say anything. (I remember seeing a glimpse of my friend’s art sketch book one evening – it was full of pictures of black activists like Malcolm X.)

It’s completely wrong to think these views and incidents only exist outside cities and they’re only happening now – they’re everywhere, they always have been, and now they’re being validated by the campaigns waged by pro-Brexit campaigners, that focused on demonising immigrants, and more specifically, Muslim immigrants. Time and time again we hear about Leave voters telling us they’re ok with European immigrants (ok, except maybe Polish people) – they only voted to keep Turkish or Iraqi people out. Let’s just say what they actually meant – Muslim people.

Many of the Leave voters I know have spouses or partners that are immigrants, yet they seem painfully unaware of the irony of their vote. The important point is that they are ‘Christian’ immigrants, the ‘right’ sort of immigrants. What they really mean is they want to keep Muslims out.

Islamophobia is a fear that is sweeping the world and leading to a rise in fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. In an historic moment that feels like 1930s Europe on the brink of Naziism, we’ve got hate figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen congratulating us on ‘getting our country back’. ISIS are delighted that Europe is fracturing.

It makes me sick. Physically sick.

I have a handful of friends who are Brexiteers who are able to tell me why they voted, and there is no trace of racism in their answers. I want to understand their reasoning, and I think there are very valid points being raised about a non-Brussels administration that I need to know more about, and that I wish we’d all known more about.

It’s very clear that both sides in the referendum are only now finding out what the real outcomes are of Brexit. The Leave campaign are already admitting that the central elements of their argument are on shaky ground, mainly that the NHS won’t receive £350 million and that immigration won’t be reduced. Wales and Cornwall are surprised to find that their former EU subsidies might not be supported by a Leave administration.

I feel that we’ve all been royally shafted by a load of public schoolboys in Westminster, fighting for supremacy. There has been no clarity around the realities of what we’re facing and both sides have led campaigns that have fed on people’s fears of the unknown. It’s an act of such astonishing irresponsibility that it puts the banking crisis into the shade.

I still can’t quite believe that Cameron gambled an entire country’s future in a game of political Russian Roulette with his own party and the Brexiteers. Clearly not one of them expected Leave to win. That they have left the country with no clear leadership back-up plan in the last forty-eight hours is breathtaking.

Let’s not forget who created the ‘austerity Britain’ that the protest voters came out in force against. It wasn’t the Polish immigrant living next door to us or the Muslim we work alongside (or fear turning up on our doorsteps). It was this government, with its focus on privatisation. As I say, I’m going to stop blaming Brexit voters for this crisis and start pointing the finger at those who are truly in the wrong.

At times like this, I find it’s useful to remember that people are only human, with sets of hopes and fears that sometimes dovetail, sometimes they don’t. I spoke to a woman around my age who runs a local cafe about it all, on the devastating Day After. She brightly said that it was the first time she’d voted and that she’d watched some of the debates and felt she had to vote for her children’s sake. Vote out, that is.

I have to live with the fact that hers, and other people’s opinions are different to mine (whilst wondering how the hell a middle-aged woman has never got round to voting because she didn’t know how…). I am going to try and continue to live my life as I was living it before – trying to be as open-minded and inclusive as possible, campaigning against Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing fascism.

If anything, this crisis has galvanised me into wanting to be my best self and to look harder for the humanity in others. If people voted Leave and didn’t realise it would actually happen, then I have to realise that these are people who are used to their voices not being heard. And now my voice is one of them and I don’t like it.

Whatever happens with Article 50s, petitions, general elections, or further referenda, I’m going to be engaged with politics like never before.

I think we’ll survive this, but we won’t be the same again.

Good luck, Britain.

 

 

 

Goodbye to Dahab

I’m writing this in my final few hours in Dahab, once more struggling with the idea of leaving this amazing town. The wind is softening the heat of the sun today, and I’m just sitting by the pool, hearing my last call-to-prayer (I think) and mentally preparing for the trip back to Sharm El Sheikh airport.

Whenever I say I’m coming here people say to me, “ooh isn’t it dangerous?” No. No, it really isn’t. I’m pretty sure it’s more dangerous living in London, where only recently someone got shot on a road near to mine, and various members of ISIS in Syria have been recruited from a local school.

To get to Dahab you have to get a taxi from Sharm airport and drive for about an hour through the mountains on quiet roads. There are two police checkpoints on the way, and depending if your driver is friends with them or not (or well known) then you simply pass through after the usual Arabic pleasantries. Given that the queue for passport control is about a tenth as busy as at a London airport, I’m fine with this. At one point, you had to join a convoy of cars to drive through the checkpoints, now this is not the case.

Southern Sinai is perhaps the most security conscious of all the Egyptian governorates because it houses the all-important tourist industry. Hence the police presence. ISIS are active in one tiny corner of this 1 million-square-km country, in the northernmost part of Sinai, bordering Israel. Whenever I mention this to a local friend, they express surprise that it’s even a consideration to tourists given that it is so far away.

I fly with Easyjet to get here and at 4hrs 45mins outbound, it feels quicker and quicker every time I do it. Almost always, I’m the only passenger going to Dahab – thankfully – but I always think, “Oh you have no idea what you’re missing out on…”

I’ve written a lot already about how scared I was of everything here, and how those fears have eroded over time. I now know that I am incredibly safe here, from walking alone in the dark, to leaving valuables lying around in a cafe or by the beach. People respect my person and my belongings and I know that they would drop everything to help if I found myself in a ‘situation’.

It’s all too easy to translate the shopfront ‘hassle’ as something more insidious, as I did previously when I had a panic attack inside one, but it’s just the way things work here. However, even the locals are learning that the less they hassle, the more likely it is they’ll get tourists to come in to their businesses.

Now I’ve just got to adjust to the culture of nothing quite being what you think it’s going to be. This applies to the timing of things, the cost of things, and what you expect things (like day trips) to be. At first you think you’re being taken for a ride, but you soon realise that this is just the way things are here. Nothing is quite what it seems at first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often an improvement, if you let yourself go with it. You can save yourself a whole lot of bother if you just adopt the local, ‘what can you do?’ shrug and get on with it.

So once again I’m leaving here knowing full well that I’ll be back. The only fear is that something will prevent me, but I somehow know I’ll find a way to return to this magical place.

I’m stopping now because a cat wants to climb on my keyboard… See you on the other side.

————–

I’m writing this on the other side, filled with horror and sadness at the news about the Russian Metrojet plane crash. Not only for the deaths of innocent people and the grief of their families, but also for my friends in Dahab who rely on tourism for their livelihoods. As they say, I hope all will be ok, inshallah.

The Sound of Silence

The other night two Egyptian football teams were playing each other. I found this out after hearing intermittent roars echoing around the hotel before I left to walk into town. It was probably the best walk past all the shops I’ve ever had, in that no one was interested in selling anything to me – they were all crowded around a series of tiny television sets on the street and punching the air with glee.

After a frustrating night trying to find a restaurant with wifi, we ended up on the roof terrace of Jasmine, lounging on cushions, listening to the soft crash of the waves and looking at the stars. Santana’s Oye Como Va came on the sound system. What a perfect soundtrack to this hippy heaven, I thought. The restaurant manager said Carlos Santana was his all-time favourite musician. Can’t argue with his choice.

This cat is a regular at Sheikh Ali - he decided to join me poolside...

This cat is a regular at Sheikh Ali – he decided to join me poolside…

Yesterday I thought I’d have a lazy day by the hotel pool, just reading and chilling out. At around 10.30am the sound of one voice singing started coming from a mosque near the hotel. It was quickly joined by another from a different mosque. It was so beautiful, and I did try and Periscope it, but the wifi wasn’t enough for the app to register the sound. After a while the singing turned to impassioned declarations, then singing again before it stopped at midday. I was later told that this happens every Friday. This is the equivalent of Sunday morning church bells – every Muslim should attend the mosque, if they can, and they are excused from work to do so if they need to.

I began to think about all the sounds of Dahab and how I love all of them. The music, calls to prayer, the dogs barking at each other, the crash of the sea at night, the cat fights, the sound of the wind in the flames of a fire in the desert, the friendly shouts between Dahabeyans (if that’s the word for them), even the fake bird tweets in restaurants that signify a dish to be picked up from the kitchen.

And then there’s the silence of the mountains. I visited Wadi Qunai in the evening with a Bedouin guide and once the air-conditioning in the 4×4 had switched off, there was a profound presence in the air. I realised that the silence was almost a sound in itself. I could hear the buzz of my own circulating blood in my ears just above it. It wasn’t until it turned dark that the desert black beetle started up its peeping, joined by others round the canyon. We drew our cushions up on our rug and lay down to look at the stars. I could see the Milky Way, and track satellites passing across it on the same orbit.

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Before this, our Bedouin guide had made bread for us, the traditional way. He had been taught how to do it by his father, who still lives in the mountains, and when I asked if he’d taught his sons the same method, he said that they were too interested in their phones… This sounds familiar.

First, he put a handful of salt in a bowl, added water, and swished it around until the salt was dissolved. Then he added flour – a special one for baking in sand, apparently – and began to knead.

The Great Bedouin Bake Off begins.

The Great Bedouin Bake Off begins.

IMG_9444

Once the dough was in a soft, but tight ball, he flattened it out on a tray. The fire he’d built had calmed down to glowing coals, which were slowly sifted until he’d moved the top layer away. Then the bread was placed on top and covered over with coals using a stick.

IMG_9443

After about ten minutes, the coals were removed, and the loaf scraped, wiped and banged to remove any traces of sand or gravel from it. He cut the bread into pieces and we dipped it in soft feta drowned in olive oil.

IMG_9453 IMG_9440

He showed us how to slurp sweet tea with the mixture still in our mouths. The combination of this sweetness, with the salty, chargrilled bread, and the savouriness of the cheese tasted like the best pizza I’ve ever had. Eating it below the stars was an added bonus.

As the guide baked, I told him about Nadiya Hussain, who has recently helped to change perceptions of British Muslimhood through her baking abilities and good nature. We talked about Islamophobia and he suggested that ISIS are the problem, “They have given Islam a bad name”, he said. “I don’t know what book they are reading. Mohammed lived like this [gestures at fire and bread] – the simple life. He would not even kill an ant if it walked by. He tells us we have to let it go by. To let it live.”

Live and let live.

That seems to be a pretty good mantra to me.