Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Seven Year Itch

Seven years ago, a taxi driver in a certain City told me that in “six to seven years, this place will be like New York”. I remember grinning and nodding in a “oh yeah” kind of way. Back in town recently for a whirlwind contract with my beloved UNICEF and, while not New York, this City has definitely changed. Changed in more than one way. Almost as soon as I arrived, it felt different.

It was his absence. I didn’t realise how much my City had been defined by his presence. I don’t mean to be coy or dramatically elusive in mentioning “him” like this; it’s just that I don’t know how else to refer to him, concerned more than anything to protect his identity (which is also why I haven’t named the City). So let me just explain who he was…

The first man I ever fell in love with.

Until him, I was terrified of being gay, didn’t want to be gay, felt ashamed of being gay and, because of all of that, didn’t even think that I could fall in love. But then I did and, by some miracle, I think he fell in love with me. It was quite a revelation to realise that I could love someone at all, let alone love with such intensity. So, I finally, in my own quiet way, came out. Knowing that I could love, and loving the fact that I could love, gave me strength enough to do it. I was actually happy to be gay. If I hadn’t been gay, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with this extraordinary man. Imagine?!

Anyway, it is exactly seven years ago that we said goodbye to each other, through sobbing tears, kisses, laughter, hugs and the saddest smiles I’ve ever known. I was moving to a new country, he couldn’t leave his.

I know parts of the world hate me and my LGBT+ sisters and brothers, but clearly love – the need to love, the drive to love, the capacity to love – cannot only survive such hate, but render it impotent. When I think of gay pride, that’s what I think of: I’m proud that I can love.

I’m not usually disposed to share such personal things on social media. I tell schoolkids part of this story in my work with the extraordinary charity ‘Diversity Role Models’ – and as it’s LGBT History Month, I wanted to share a little of my own history with friends. Because it is history now: it’s seven years. Seven years since I stopped lying to myself, stopped judging myself and stopped wishing I was some other self.

Flying back to London, I was flicking through the airline’s movie choices and there, pride of place in the Classics section was Marilyn Monroe’s ‘The Seven Year Itch’. As melancholy as I was feeling, I had to crack a smile.

PS: I realise that I’ve been unintentionally dramatic: I’ve said he’s not in the City anymore without saying what happened to him. He’s alive and as far as I know, healthy and happy. My heart sings to know that he’s lighting up another part of the world with his smile.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Dream, Take One

As some of you know, I worked in Sudan several years ago. It's a country that has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) in the world. With the Girl Summit taking place at the moment in London - focusing on FGM and child marriage - I have again been contemplating this violation of girls, and children's rights more broadly. Rather than climb onto my well-worn soap box, I wanted to share a short story I wrote a while ago. It was inspired by a photograph a colleague sent me for a report I was writing in Sudan. It was of a little girl who looked to be asleep, but had died of infection following her cutting. The description further down the story is my memory of that photograph and the story, hopefully, speaks for itself.


It’s like looking into mirror. A mirror that is curving slightly with a question mark. You. That’s you.

Most people do not know your name and probably few people in Sudan will ever know it. 
Probably no one in the world, that’s for sure.

But right now you know. And you have a special dream.

You want to go to school. In two years, your mummy says that you will be old enough to go to school, just like your brothers.

Everyday you watch them go off to school. The maid in the house, the really black girl from Southern Sudan, helps your mama to get the boys ready for school. You always watch her as she makes sure their school uniforms are clean and ready to wear. She’s not allowed to help them get dressed, but sometimes you see her trying to spy on Osama, but that’s probably okay because you see him watching her wash herself around the back of the house sometimes.

The boys look so smart in their uniforms, like army men. The uniforms are green. Not as green as the police uniform that the men wear on the street, more like the green of the grass that the maid has to water every night in the garden. And they have little patches all over them, a lot like the patches the army men have on their uniforms. When you asked your daddy why they had the messy patches there, he told you that it was called ‘camel-fly’. You think that’s what he said, but you don’t have any camels in the house – because your daddy has a car to use – so you’re still a bit confused and besides, you are not allowed to ask daddy too many questions. You remember that you did ride on a camel once when we went out to the Meroe pyramids outside the gates of Khartoum one day. But you didn’t have to wear a uniform. And the camel didn’t fly.

Everyday you get to ride in a car with mummy when the boys go to school. How you love watching all the children at the school! They are all in their uniforms; the boys like your brothers, the girls in the same sort of thing, but with a matching headscarf. You don’t have to wear a headscarf yet, but you will when you go to school. When they all walk through the school gates, the boys all go into their own groups and the girls go into theirs. They don’t seem to like each other much. Maybe the boys hit the girls a lot, like your brothers hit you and your daddy hits your mummy. Would you like to be in a group with girls so they wouldn’t hit you like your brothers do? And they look like they even have fun with each other, talking and holding hands. You imagine they’re talking to each other about things they are learning and maybe they talk about their toys and share news about the books they are reading.

When your brothers aren’t playing with each other or in a mood to hit you, Osama will sometimes read books to you and he has even started teaching you how to read. When Shabi isn’t in the room, Osama will even tell you how good you are at reading and how smart he thinks you are. But then Shabi walks in to drag Osama away to play a computer game. But by then you need time to look at the funny pictures – that look like an ink-dipped mosquito has dragged itself across the page – that Osama read from. You try to piece together the words.

At the school, sometimes you go in with your mummy when she has to talk to the teachers. They are all so kind and smile at you and ask you when you will be going to school. “Soon”, you tell them. You will be going to school very soon. And you tell them that you will read to them and ask if they can teach you how to write. They laugh when you say that. You don’t see what’s funny, but their eyes are still kind, so you smile anyway.

On the way home sometimes, you talk to your mummy about school. She asks you why you want to go to school so much. You tell her that it’s your dream. You get bored at the house all day and love looking at the schoolgirls and wonder what they’re learning all day, everyday. They go to school six days every week and there are only seven days altogether. That’s a lot of days. There must be so much to learn. The boys always come back from school talking about something new they learned. One day, Osama told you that the world was round like a grapefruit. You asked him why it looked flat and he just shook his head at you and ran off. You tell mummy that you want to go to school because you have so many questions to ask and you think school is the place to ask them. She told you that that was a very clever thing to say. She said that you can go to school and a place called “universe-city” and that you could be a doctor or a teacher or something. “Yes, habibti, you can do anything you want to do.”

Yes you can. You have so much potential.

That’s part of your dream too now, isn’t it? To go to universe-city. Your mummy told you it was a big school where you go to learn about being a doctor and a teacher and lots of other things grown-ups do. Right now, you want to be a doctor. Mummy said that there aren’t many lady doctors in Sudan and that needed to change. She said you could also be a doctor with the United Nations. That’s where your daddy works and she said that the United Nations wanted more women too in their offices and maybe you could be one of those women and help make the world peaceful. That seems like a big job to do, so you think you can maybe just focus on one or two people – at least to start with. You like caring for people. Yes, you are perfect for jobs like that. Doctor-ing and United Nations-ing. When you’re at home sometimes and your brothers can’t see, you look after your dolly and your other toys because they need looking after. You need to practice for when you’re older and working, like mummy says you can.

It’s also practice for when you’re a mummy like your mummy. You don’t understand how it happens and mummy told you that you’re too young to understand yet but you want to be a mummy. One day, your dolly will be a living dolly and she’ll grow up like you and you will talk to her like your mummy talks to you. “You will be a great woman, one day, habibti. You’ll be a woman very soon.”

Yes, you will achieve great things.

So much ahead of you. Such a wonderful dream. You sometimes have dreams where you’re flying and you can see yourself sleeping in bed with your dolly next to you, remember? Now you’re having the same dream and you can see yourself. It’s like looking into a mirror. You look very pretty. But you feel like you’re not you anymore. You’re looking at yourself as if it was someone else. Another little girl; except it is you.

Your wispy hair has been gently teased with something shiny, giving spring to your little black curls that are poking out from under a headscarf, gently and daring. The hijab – a deep, heavy green – has a gold trim and shimmering silver stars dotted all over. Your fingertips – so little – are dyed red with henna, resting gently on your belly. Your gown is a lighter shade of green, plain but for a little golden belt around your waist. There are no shoes on your feet, but your ankle is adorned with a thin gilt band and your toes match your fingertips, painted with henna and turned gracefully out from your body.

Your eyelids are tinted with blue and eyelashes are flecked with gold paint. Your lips are a bright, fun red, turned slightly in a silent smile. Your little face is the picture of calm, childish serenity. Odd to think that only days before it had been contorted in agony when your clitoris was being sliced off with a blunt razorblade.

Also strange to think that these fine clothes, that would so delight a living little girl, are your funeral costume and would delight no one.

Stranger yet to think that your parents, who allowed you no dignity in life, showered you with finery for your final act in this world. 

Some people call it circumcision. Others “female genital mutilation”. Genitals mutilated, life ended, dreams dead. But all you have is the pain of a certain fate.

I do not know your name. I can’t remember it. Probably there are few people in the world now who do remember it. The name of a four year old girl in the middle of Sudan who succumbed to infection – too weak to survive her parents’ attempts to preserve her purity. Too young to ask the question “can purity exist in such a world, anyway?” Too young to know that the most perfect dreams are the ones that never come true. You dreamed perfectly, habibti.

Inshallah. If God wills it. Cut.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

After the deluge

I heard a story once – could have been a couple of months ago, could have been a couple of years ago – and my retelling is as vague as my memory of the first telling, but I don’t think that diminishes the story… A few years ago there were floods in Mozambique; floods that destroyed whole villages, livelihoods and lives. The humanitarian response from the UK was generous, with the public – not to mention the Government and NGOs – donating millions of pounds for the relief and recovery efforts. 

The following year, floods affected parts of Yorkshire. Homes were ruined and lives were thrown into disarray. The scale of the disaster could not hold a candle to the devastation in Mozambique. Government funding, in addition to insurance, covered the material loss. Nevertheless, the affected communities from Mozambique – in solidarity with the victims of floods and in response to the generosity of their northern hemisphere friends – sent a reported forty pounds to contribute to the relief and recovery effort. 

I know that the financially figureless nature of generosity is the main point here, but I love that it turns the oft-patronising nature of Western aid on its head – and equalises international relationships a little. 

And, when I’m in the right mood, it makes me well up a little. Not that that’s patronising. No. Oh shut up. I’m a product of my society. 

Anyway, that’s a good story, isn’t it?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Australia Day / Another Day

What if we were to celebrate Australia Day on a more significant day? Sure, white people weighing anchor and deciding to “settle” is a significant day in our history, but is it really the best we can do in marking out a day that celebrates our wonderful nation and all that it was, is and can be? 

Some have argued that the day we federated (1 January) and legally become a nation – more than a cluster of states/colonies – would be a good option. I agree – except we lose a public holiday. Others have suggested Anzac Day (25 April). As significant as that was to setting apart Australians in an international context and respecting the enormous sacrifice many Australians made on that day, do we want a day so closely associated with conflict to be the defining feature in a day that celebrates everything about Australia (not to mention the fact the “NZ” part of Anzac means it’s a day not entirely our own).

What about 27 May, when an Australian referendum (1967) gave the Government power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people – effectively recognizing them as equal in the eyes of the national law. This also marked the date from which indigenous people could be counted in the Census.

Or 30 November, the first time Aboriginal voters could vote in federal elections (1963) on the same basis as the rest of the electorate. I know that Aborigines were recognized as citizens in 1949, but their full participation as citizens, in law, was limited until the progress I mentioned above. This is what could be exciting for Australia Day: a time in which Australia removed any human rights impediment to being Australian. Surely that’s a date – or an achievement – worth celebrating.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Little Socialist

Political education always starts young. Whether your parents are left, right, somewhere in between or simply apathetic, one’s political views begin shaping themselves from childhood. Must be something to do with a kid’s awareness of the world around them. And how keenly they listen. And how much they want to learn. And whether they’re blessed with the smarts. Well, a whole lot of factors, really, but I digress.

In any event, I was not expecting a shot of political discourse in Sunday School this morning (don’t even… I am one of the teachers). There we were, with a particularly relevant reading about nations fighting nations and the leader was asking the kids what they thought about it.

A girl put up her hand. I can’t mention her real name here, but I really want to because it was the kind of name that suited her style – honest and down-to-earth – so instead, I’ll call her “Gertrude”, which conjures the same kind of strength. So, Gert put up her hand and said: 

Well, I think if all the Presidents in the world were good people, then there wouldn’t be any more wars. And they should be like President Obama, who is billing the rich people to pay more than poor people so that he can spread around the riches to make things more equal and fair for everyone. And that’s the right thing to do.”

I wanted to cheer right then and there. I wanted to slap a red rosette on her. I wanted to meet Gert’s parents and teachers. I wanted to call David Cameron and tell him to get down here and listen to Gert’s keynote speech. I wanted to call Nick Clegg, because there seemed to be things that Gert was espousing that he’s clearly forgotten. I wanted to vote for her. Little socialist.

Gert had such a clear idea about how she thought the world should be. And she had the guts to say it. I don't mean this to be patronising; it was just a brilliant little moment that I wanted to share. I don't remember being like that or knowing kids like that when I was in primary school. I hope she doesn’t lose her confidence as she chalks up the years and starts noticing the sense of entitlement of the ruling class in this country.

No, not Gert. She’s going to be alright. You go, girl.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Aporia the Bold

Several months ago I was in a workshop with the Artistic Director of the Soho Theatre, Steve Marmion. The workshop was lively, engaging and inspiring. Steve had us prepare pieces from a play, as weird as it is wonderful, and he took great delight in recounting his production of the play from a few years ago; describing a veritable visual feast of theatrical experience. He then went on to wonder at the state of a lot of new writing – and theatre in general – in the UK, questioning the value of shows that played it safe, wondering aloud where boldness had gone in British theatre.

I’ve been reflecting on this lately during my involvement with the Aporia Theatre Collective’s production of ‘Cardenio’, the “lost” play of Shakespeare (with healthy contributions from Fletcher and Middleton, it seems). Here is a theatre company that is unapologetically bold: setting a controversial play (in providence, although the necrophilia is touchy too) from Shakespearean times in Japanese style theatre at the archaeological site of the oldest-known theatre in the country (“The Rose”).

I’ve had anxieties about this production (an appropriate state, considering the etymology of “aporia”), but good ones: how do I tell this story?; how do I fit in with an inordinately talented group of people to create something so fresh and interesting and bold? How can I be brave enough? Actually, these anxieties are staples for the kind of actor I want to be and how wonderful that I can be included in a production that inspires me to be that anxious. Yes, there is something to be said for boldness of attack.

Before our first performance, the director let us know that whatever people think, we should know that we have been bold and brave in our efforts and he was proud. And I realised I was proud; proud to be working with these artists – this Aporia Theatre Collective – who had reminded me that theatre was a place of daring and risk-taking, a sort of circus in which no one should feel entirely safe and in which the primary objectives are to have fun, create and entertain. Yes, I am proud of that and grateful for it. These theatrical experiences don’t come along very often – for actors or audiences alike.

‘Nuff said.