Which color do you want?
Outside this unfamiliar building, we're not sure what to expect,
and even less certain of what is expected from us.
Foyer Selah is a home for asylum seekers waiting for permission to stay in Belgium.
We, a group of well-meaning whites, with worries like "why hasn't he called yet?" or "hope it won't rain tonight";
I'm wondering if they really want us here or if this is just an imperative that we've invented.
We're invited up to a living room, and it is big and bright and ridicilously over-heated.
It has the familiar feeling of a communal space, sparsely decorated but welcomingly colorful.
There is no suspicion, but big smiles, vivid hand gestures and repeated attempts at finding a common language;
Arabic, French, Tigrinya, English and Somali are bouncing against the walls, looking for somewhere to land.
We have come armed with props, games, nail polish and curiosity.
At first it seems surreal, to meet someone for the first time and ask to paint their nails.
- Which color do you want?
Silvana, the smallest 18-year-old I have ever seen, cannot make up her mind.
She looks over to her friend, a veiled Somali woman with a contagious smile who points to the turquoise bottle.
This intimate act becomes a way of interaction, of breaking down barriers too large to think about.
Or maybe reducing barriers that exist mainly in my mind.
Silvana is married. She doesn't speak much English, but she can say "husband", and she says it a lot.
Her phone is full of photos of the two of them together, looking young, beautiful and happy.
In between them are photos of luxury shoes, glittery dresses and very exotic nail art.
She shows me a turquoise nail decorated with zebra stripes and miniature stones and looks hopeful.
I'm thinking how extremely normal yet absurdly abnormal this all is.
A young girl busting out into the world, hoping to land somewhere less hostile than what she escaped.
A young husband who follows but ends up on another shore.
Weddings gowns, high-healed shoes and a world of uncertainty and loss are all contained within Silvana.
She fingers the wooden cross around her neck and explains: "Orthodox".
- Are you a muslim? she asks as she starts to paint my nails with a shade of light pink.
A few hours later when it's time to leave, we hug each other and the girls are taking pictures.
I slip Silvana a small thank you note, and I wonder if she can tell that my head is raging with confusion and calm.
She asks her friend to help her write a reply and says Yekenyeley.
It means 'thank you' in Tigrinya, she explains.
It's a story as old as the world.
We try to make a change in the life of others, and they end up changing ours.
What was it I wanted?
On the plurality of worlds (or Being Human)
On the second floor of a comfortably alternative cafè, I am sipping my coffee.
Soar throat, knitted scarf around my neck, head buried in my most recent bibliophilic treasure,
Traffic outside is busy, but inside there is the smell of coffee beans and the seductive voice of Katie Melua.
Across the room, two peculiar characters are involved in a strange dance of awkward interaction.
Their incompatibility makes it impossible not to notice them.
One of them loudly dictates English words, spitting them out, twisted and tainted with a thick French accent.
Adorned with a bomber jacket, his hair cut as close as possible without drawing blood from his scalp,
he looks vaguely intimidating, if it weren't for his comical attempts at a foreign language.
"Art is my life, but money makes a difference", he proclaims, ending the phrase with an odd question mark.
His partner in crimes nods emphatically as he caresses his buoyant moustache (if ever there was such a thing).
He has the look of someone who walked into a vintage store and walked out with all he could carry.
Hipster glasses, worn-out shoes, a coat much too elegant to wear casually on a Saturday afternoon in town.
There is something curiously fascinating in the way they talk to each other,
completely disconnected, yet firmly locked into a relationship only they've got figured out
and one that I am left to imagine.
Turning back to my book, the protaginist is trying to save an ethiopian refugee camp from a locust infestation.
And it seems suddenly absurd, that these three worlds should be colliding here in a Brussels coffee parlor.
Mine, the enigmatic gentlemen's and that of Helen Fielding's publisher-cum-aid worker.
On my home I walk past a hairdresser ceremoniously named "Casa Hair Chez Icham",
and I smile and think that maybe there is no such thing as one world.
We are constantly invaded by other realities, our attention always drawn away from the story in front of us,
forcing our synapses to spread out in all directions at once, juggling truths and universes.
And maybe the miracle of life is that this does not break us.
This makes us human. This is life.
Some emotions require German verbs.
I am an unreliable, selfish narrator.
This world is all skewed.
My narrative biased, my worldview zoomed in on me like a big, narcissistic art project,
Copying, pasting and editing as I see fit, nevermind whose lives I portray, rewrite, berate.
And yet I claim to have something to say.
(Maybe what brings us all together is our inability to see past our own noses?
We mourn those we identify with, we shame those who are different,
we protest those who we cannot understand and we cry over our own misery,
forgetting our biggest worry is the definitive definition of "free speech".)
One day filled with good news and hopes for the future, the phone rang and it was him.
No apologies, he said we wouldn't be seeing each other any more.
"gotta focus on my relationship", were his actual words and I sat there in a thunderstorm of reverse denial.
Nevermind that lately he'd been staying over until 03 am to escape his "relationship",
Or that I had been fooling myself all this time that the blonde girl in his facebook pictures was just an actress.
So, I did what I had to do.
The phone broke into three pieces when it hit the ground, and I felt a guilty hint of smugness
at the imaginary scenario of him not being able to reach me when I'd be forced to change my number.
Eventually, it all blurred into self-pity and eased with the force of forgetting.
And the years passed...
Then one day, a cold winter day without expectations of life-changing news or emotional readjustment
my e-mail makes a noise and it's you.
There won't be any time to see each other, you say. Gotta focus on my relationship.
And I know it's not the same, because you think you are being polite and it's so much worse.
You think if only you can get the wording right, the wrongs you are doing will be righted, obliterated, zilch.
Not sure if I am remembering, re-remembering or if life is just a finite set of loops on repeat.
Perhaps some people are deemed to be the cotton candy fluff in between other people's signposts.
Periodically standing in for whatever dream they haven't yet achieved, but awaits them right around the corner.
If so, I sincerely hope that the consequential diabetes and obesity will befall them; not me.
Write the world.
In 2014 I left Europe for the first time.
In New York, I lied to Joyce Carol Oats about being Belgian, and she gave me her autograph.
A man on a park bench wrote me a poem more true to my spirit than had I written it myself,
and some friends made me drink a shot of pickled garlic liquor (don't try this at home!).
On a boat along the Boston coastline I watched a Pakistani and an Iranian reenact the "I'm the king of the world"-scene from Titanic. It was glorious. In a restaurant on Elm Street, I talked about arranged marriages and feminism with an Indian friend who just a week ago had been a stranger.
Upon return to Brussels, I listened to Barack Obama speak to the youth of Europe. In a beautiful concert hall of red and gold, he said "Do not think for a moment that your freedom, your prosperity, your moral imagination is bound by the limits of your community, your ethnicity or your country." and I tried to imagine a European leader speak as though our souls were at stake, not just our economy.
I met a man who said my words are dangerous, that they take people to the darkest places and that I need to be held accountable for that. As I rolled up my sheet of paper, I wondered- just for a minute- if he was right.
Is there too much hardship in this world to make room for my difficult questions?
In 2014 I thought a lot about the world.
I was told stories of violence, war and discrimination. Stories about people who fight back.
Hiding notes of hope written for the universe, I imagined that small words can make a big impact.
I studied postcolonialism. I read Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie,
and I wanted to be a warrior poet.
I listened to messages of peace by someone who knew Martin Luther King.
I watched the news and I thought to myself:
Write the word; Write the world; right the world.
Hegel for beginners
These floors are covered by letters, notes, scribbles and maps,
Handwritten shapes in black on white,
Blank slates sacrificed for the sake of synthesization.
My footprints in the corners, smudging the meaning of a noun, changing the tense of a verb.
Scattered coffee stains testifying my nocturnal attempts at amateur philosophy.
Covering the ground with unanswered questions, asking one after the other, asking for dear life
Proving and disproving myself, rebutting the thought before it reaches my tongue and sending it back
Back before language happens.
I wrote an essay on Hegel once.
There was nothing much that I really understood, but I memorized an exquisite phrase.
For anything to happen, everything must be in place.
Maniacally, I rip out hundreds of pieces of paper and I write in clear, red swirls
Let the puzzle begin.
Smile, what else can you do?
I put them there.
Letters in bright white on a soft, dark blackboard.
The curve of the question mark mocking me, disguising the final blow behind its causual rhetorics.
- Where's the eraser?
And I am thinking,
that if I hadn't opened this abyss between us,
I'd be telling you about the movie I saw last night, the one which shifted my world a little.
Maybe we'd fight about the meaning, you'd challenge my opinion, but I wouldn't care.
Then I'd show you the shop just around the corner from here,
the one that sells the most exquisite Moroccan porcelain, the one I know you'd love.
And I imagine,
that if I hadn't drawn this line and watched it fall between us,
We wouldn't go about our days like two strangers who sometimes meet, accidentally.
With nothing to say, we politely ask about each others' lives as though we cared.
The air heavy with things we will not say.
But then I remember.
that some walls were built to crumble.
And all we can do is run for cover when the bricks come falling down.
An intergalactic somersault for absolution
when black bodies are butchered because- why?
when daftly diverging deities demand beheadings, and
when only those with the more gluttonous genitals are granted the word 'genius',
Life shows no sign of the apocalypse we know must be coming.
A world so weighed down by gargantuan pain and gaudy pleasures,
so tarnished by its own ineptitude, by the wounds of battles avoided, by its useless charades.
Surely, this world will break the snare?
shoot far, far away, catapulted by a slingshot across the universe to make amends?
An intergalactic somersault for absolution.
But here we are.
The ground beneath us stained by the blood of butchered bodies, severed heads, humans cast aside.
No catapults or black holes to save us.
Not a shadow of the gloriously dangerous cloud of a nuclear bomb, nor its promised oblivion.
No, in the midst of its deepest, maddening moments,
the world does not stir.
If my body had to do all the talking,
the twist of my wrist, the curves of my lips and those of my hips,
would I be able to say all the things that resist being formed into words?
Would a pirouette convey the state of my heart better,
than all those shy sentences which -invariably- I never end.
Could a sharp tap with my toes finally render words obsolete?
Of mice and men
A cleverly crafted calculation,
offered to me as a generous gift.
Your hands stretched out, your face relieved as though after long laborious hours,
working on an impossible equation.
A problem can't be solved by putting it in an envelope,
the shakily licked stamp curls up, demanding action; satisfaction.
do not be surprised to see the orange colored ink running, leaving words halved, amputated in mid-thought.
Thousands of thoughts cut off at the waist. A sea of feelings desperately, feebly swimming to shore.
What's in half a word?
Statistical analysis and aggregation are your weapons of choice,
Taking to my orange mess as a scientist, eager to discover the root cause of an enigmatic disease.
Correlation, Causality? Choose capriciously.
I used to say that I write emotional algebra.
So why am I surprised to be treated like a mathematical problem?
objects in the mirror are closer than they appear
There's your name.
Attentively I observe each letter forming you out of strange shapes.
By now, the signifier has become confused with the signified.
Saussure would not approve. Signs are not supposed to cross over.
There are rules, you know, in semiology. Taxonomy, hierarchy, structure.
It is an analogy, not a metaphor.
Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
I always knew that it was dangerous. The way we spoke of nothing and of everything.
Disguising heavy significance as unbearable lightness, and trivia as philosophical problems.
Was language really given us to enable us to conceal our thoughts?
There is something I want to say, but I've forgotten how to talk other than in cryptography.
No longer capable of speaking unmetaphorically, unequivocally, unintentionally.
If I force us down to earth, will we fall into mediocrity?
Or will we thrawl the streets like two strangers together in exile,
looking for hidden meaning in the excruciatingly mundane?
Don't run away, it's only life.
You had this idea,
that you are more broken than me,
that your breaking point is more precious than mine, somehow.
Recounting your thoughts, convincing yourself they are larger than life.
these emotions that cannot find peace within the boundaries of you,
you are just barely containing your words,
encircling me, disregarding proportionality and propriety.
I am the mirror at the end of a corridor,
a ghost playing along with your capricious guessing game.
What destroyed you? What cures your pain?
Why are you here in the middle of the night without explanation?
Don't break the spell, you said.
Don't break, I thought, holding my breath for you. For you?
It was a rehearsal, of course.
It was a mutual dress-up, with lines in a foreign language.
Your dark words made everything beautiful.
Even the imbalances between us.
I would have sensed your silent desperation.
Hesitation, exclamation, deprivation. In English.
The persuasive verses
My mind- a prison; a straightjacket,
a tightrope stretched between us,
slackening- tightening, slackening- tightening; ripping...-
More than 18 floors down we go,
like the beginning of a Salman Rushdie novel
falling through imaginary centuries of historical bantering.
Would we be like Gibreel and Saladin,
hopelessly trying to shout louder one than the other,
not realizing we're saying the same thing?
Would it turn us into fallen angels or opportunist devils?
Can we land on our feet without destroying everything?
Can we break the rules and be redeemed?
Will I ever reveal what I value, and risk it.
Risk it all.
To walk this tightrope?
A Dreamcatcher's Manifesto
Some of us are dreamers.
Living in many spaces; the past, the future, in parallel worlds, on imaginary planets, all at once.
Some of you tell us that we need to put our feet on the ground.
That life is about being present (you sometimes use this as a pun ).
About seizing the moment, living in the now.
But what if nostalgia is not about living in the past.
What if it's simply marvel at our memory.
At our capability to perfectly reconstruct a single moment in time.
And if we weren't present, how could we possibly remember nows, even years after the present became past?
We carry them all with us because we scooped them up, saved them
bottled them up for a rainy day that keeps on coming.
And what if imagining another world is not escapism, but creation.
What if it's an exercise in what-if? instead of merely reacting to the one scenario offered by your Reality.
How does anything, anybody, evolve without rejecting what is?
Without choosing what we dream over what we see, nothing ever changes.
We think new worlds because that is how the limits of life expand and become elastic.
You should try it.
So, indulge in your nostalgia.
Immerse yourself in the bliss of recalling the tiniest, unimportant details of a mundane memory.
Make other worlds, create images that others cannot see, build a treehouse out of nothing but imagination.
Maybe once in a while you'll catch yourself not being fully present in the now.
And maybe you will smile to yourself, not remembering what all the fuss was about.
On the verge of something amazing
It was half a lifetime ago.
We were young, so young.
And we did not know that good things come to those who wait and those who don't alike.
Anyways, we weren't going to wait.
Promises had not yet been broken, life was still new.
Writing our hearts out, pouring our hopes onto paper, telling our lives in love songs.
We sent letters across countries and we felt less alone, less confused. More alive.
Your life in another world- a different language- was the source of all my daydreams.
I grew up learning to love your foreign words; pazza, scema, strana...
I wore them like charms on a bracelet, letting them embrace me and define me.
Our letters read like the interactive diaries of two hopeless romantics on the verge of something amazing.
"Diaries are our lives, aren't they?", you wrote me in august 2001.
For a 16 year-old, you were pretty clever.
On the compartmentalization of dating
In the light of the fashionable mensplaining,
- anecdotes of condescending men explaining "complex" things to supposedly less capable women- ,
I am trying to come up with a word for its not-so-distant cousin.
Men who patronizingly try to explain, analyze or criticize the behavior of the women they are dating.
- for the women's own good, of course.
Obviously, in any relationship there must be space for constructive criticism.
My fascination lies in the kind of things that men feel they should and must, point out as flaws with women.
Have you ever been called too independent, too clever, too ambitious?
Too deep, too complicated, over-thinking?
Did he call you a coward because you did not give up everything for him?
It means stop challenging my authority. It means stay in your place.
It means don't forget what you are, what you are supposed to be.
And we- women- are all accomplices in this.
One friend told me to just pretend a little. To be a little more like a woman.
What does that mean?
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the Nigerian expression "bottom power",
the treacherous and false sense of power women wield when we use our sexuality to persuade men.
False because we are just making a small dent in his authority, buying into the idea that the power is indeed his.
"it is easy", my friend said. Works every time.
I am torn between a profound sadness at the cynicism
of a world in which a woman knowingly cuts off her edges,
as to not hurt the fragile ego of a man who supposedly loves her,
And the anger at knowing that women cope with these ridiculous demands by inventing an insane logic
that diminishes men and women alike.
We expect nothing more than what we get,
in this world where everything is pardoned in advance
and therefore everything cynically permitted.