Aysha Taryam's books on Goodreads
The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of CommentariesThe Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries
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Friday, 21 October 2016

The curious case of a Syrian refugee solved by the UAE

Time and time again the UAE has proved that there are no borders to the humanity of its leaders who at the mere knowledge of Sinjab’s case moved to offer him a safer life with no petitions or pleas needed 

n a daily basis the media is saturated with news about refugees escaping imminent death, heading towards unknown borders in hopes of finding a semblance of what their lives used to be. We read reports on the unfathomable numbers who will never reach the refuge they sought instead are drowned by the very waves they hoped would lead them to it. At times it seems as if the whole world has become a refugee and the few of us, who are privileged enough to wake up to the sound of an alarm clock instead of a siren, those of us who are enveloped by a veil of safety many of us fail to appreciate, have become desensitised to the migrating numbers, to the images of the dead, shrugging them away as a collective misery that this ailing part of the world must endure. 

In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being. This is where the obligation of the media lies, where it must shed light on the afflicted person and bring them to light as an individual and not a statistic. In a report done by the United Arab Emirates’ Al Khaleej Newspaper one such case was brought to the forefront. The story of Khaldoun Sinjab, a Syrian refugee residing in Lebanon, who at the age of 17 was rendered quadriplegic by a diving accident. Sinjab was not always bed-ridden for prior to this debilitating accident he graduated top of his class in Damascus and was a champion swimmer on the Syrian national team. Yet while the accident paralysed his body it did not halt his spirit for Sinjab continued to study, with books propped up on a glass table he managed to master the English language and become proficient in computer programming. He later found a job and married, persevering through every curveball life threw at him. Sinjab continued to live life as one should, one day at a time and to the fullest of his abilities. As the war in Syria began to rage Sinjab was uprooted, like many, from his home and sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon and while he continues to work he is continuously fearful for his life for in Lebanon electricity can shut down for almost 12 hours a day and with his complete dependence on a ventilator the threat of death by suffocation is very much an everyday reality. 

There are many petitions online for Sinjab’s relocation, he has applied for refuge to Canada and the UK but his case has been rejected on the grounds that if he is employed then he is not in dire need of relocation. Such is life now, a person becomes a figure on a chart and falls victim to a technicality. For years Sinjab’s endless pleas to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have gone unanswered until his salvation came from a place he never sought. 

After the report on Sinjab was published in the United Arab Emirates his case was immediately taken up by the government who has followed up on his condition and has taken no more than a few months to relocate him and his family to Abu Dhabi where he is currently being overseen at the Cleveland Clinic. The efforts of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed and the immediacy in response of the UAE’s diligent Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed has shown that the UAE media’s voice is not only heard but also heeded. Time and time again the UAE has proved that there are no borders to the humanity of its leaders who at the mere knowledge of Sinjab’s case moved to offer him a safer life with no petitions or pleas needed.

Upon landing, although exhausted from the flight and overwhelmed by the number of medical crew there to assist him, photographers were moved to see the wide-eyed smile that was drawn on Sinjab’s face.

It is at times like these that this writer does not only consider herself lucky but immensely proud to be a daughter of this greatly humane nation. 

This article first appeared in The Gulf Today newspaper on 21, October, 2016
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper

Sunday, 29 May 2016

UAE curriculums must lift the veil off female thinkers

As a young student enthusiastic about literature my school’s curriculum although included great works, it was noticeable to my young mind even then that they were mostly by male authors, poets, and philosophers. Being a young Arab girl the only rare glimpses of female works came in the form of novels by the Bronte sisters and other Western greats, and while I drank every drop of their ink I was mostly left unsatiated and ever yearning for a familiar female voice. For all the genius of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights neither their authors nor their protagonists shared much in common with this young Arab girl, although the cultural restrictions of England’s 1800s might have slightly resembled some of the aspects we as women lived through at the time, neither the political backdrop of my surroundings nor the struggles of my region were reflected in their foreign works, these women had never even felt that distinct burning that only the Arab sun can leave on one’s skin.

I experienced first hand the drought that our school curriculums suffered from when it came to the female mind. It left me searching for it on the stacked shelves of my school library and making the effort to hunt for those names that were not being introduced to me by the system. It is an ongoing search for after the many great female Arab minds that I have read I am still discovering greater ones that somehow I have still not come across. Since then the number of female Arab minds who have contributed generously to the literature, political and philosophical landscape of the region has more than doubled, yet the eager young ears today are still oblivious to these voices.

The UAE has seen impressive, one could even say unimaginable, advancements in all sectors and has cemented its position as a cultural hub for aspiring thinkers, artists and musicians from across the region and beyond. The Emirati woman has been offered opportunities that other women in neighbouring countries can only dream of, worse yet have to fight for, but it is not enough to give the opportunity without cultivating the mind. It is essential for the young generation to not only know that women can do anything they aspire to they must also understand the mindset that brought them there. Let them interpret and critique the ideas that brought about change, teach them to compare the poetry, the language and the stories and arm them with positive female examples that counter the assembly line of clich├ęs the media has to offer.

Impressionable young students must be given true examples of the Arab woman through her own words, and when I say students I do not mean young girls alone for in order to raise a generation that truly believes in gender equality it is the young boys that have to listen first, those boys who will grow up to have female rivals at every stage of their professional careers. In order to foster greater respect for their future interactions as equals at par with each other in every way we must introduce them both to those female thinkers, those female warriors who have fought to create a distinct voice, that voice that emanates from an agony, a sense of injustice and suffocation from years of silence, that no male thinker, no matter how great, can mimic.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper May 29, 2016
Arabic version of this article was published in Al Khaleej newspaper

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Syria — Is there anything left to salvage?

Since 2011 economists have been adding up the accumulating costs of the ongoing war in Syria. Year after year they have been recording the numbers that have come to point directly to the impending demise of the Syrian economy and studying what seems now an imaginable way to recovery. The latest estimate revealed by the World Bank predicts that $180 billion is needed to rebuild a war ravaged Syria. Another study by World Vision and Frontier Economics estimates that the war is costing Syria $4 billion a month in lost growth. The war has seen Syrian schools, hospitals and major infrastructure turned into rubble and with only 43% of the medical facilities functional the estimated life expectancy at birth has dropped to 15 years. World Vision is warning that without an internationally agreed reconstruction strategy ready to be implemented when the war is over, Syria’s fate would be no different than that of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Planning, reconstructing and rebuilding are all words that bring forth a ray of hope in an otherwise grim reality, a reality whose facts show that this hope is far-fetched. After the fall of Gaddafi’s Libya the United Kingdom alone has spent 13 times more on bombing than rebuilding the country. The United States Department of Defense boasts a daily cost of $11.5 million spent on bombing Iraq and in 2009 was spending about $7 billion a month in Afghanistan. Considering that history shows us time and again dark precedents we are almost promised a battered Syria that will not recover for at least another 50 years. The problem with history is that it tends to repeat itself and if mankind fails to learn from it then one after the other every Arab country is destined to perish.

Brick and mortar can be calculated, measured and rebuilt but what of lives lost? What of a nation of nomads that are roaming the world begging to be sheltered? What of the psychological damage that has befallen them as a result of this senseless chaos?

The cost of war is like an immeasurable tremor that knows no borders, its shockwaves reverberating across the world resulting in universal suffering.

Analysts have said the devastation caused by the Syrian war has reached World War II levels. With that in mind and the fact that there are mini wars happening in almost every other Arab country, that was unfortunate enough to be seduced by a false spring, this region is in fact going through the world’s third war. Once the dust settled on the Second World War much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, there was nothing left to rebuild and the year 1945 was dubbed “Year Zero”. Millions dead and millions more had fled their homes seeing the birth of a new term, the DP, or “displaced person.” In modern day terms it would be what is known to us as the “refugee.” Once again history shows us that while the terminology changes the vicious cycle of war is more or less the same.

The end of the Second World War saw great cities such as Warsaw, Tokyo and Berlin reduced to piles of ash and in our reality the great cities of Baghdad, Tripoli and Aleppo have succumbed to the same fate. The end also brought about the creation of new world superpowers, the once mighty Japan and Germany looked to be beyond recovery which left ample room for the United States and the Soviet Union to flex their political muscles. The war in Syria has resulted in an undeniable power shift in the Arab world as well where we witness the weakening of Iraq, Libya and Syria to have made room for other less geographically dominant countries to take the helm.

Nevertheless, what was once Europe’s dark reality of defeating Adolf Hitler was now well behind it, recovery was possible for them because they bound together forming a grand alliance that had one thing on its agenda, the resuscitation of Europe, all of Europe. If Syria is to rise from the ashes it needs a united Arab world which has one thing on its agenda, not the falling of a dictator for we have seen many of those fall, but the reemergence of a prosperous Arab nation, one that is not reliant on foreign aid but is self-sustained and set on its way to become powerful once again.

Let us assume that this hypothetical situation is not a mirage and that its existence is well within reach, the question remains, what would our history books teach? Will the truths be taught so that our future generations could learn from our past or will it be ignored, skipped over to better times just like post World War II Europe did, where Italy neglected to mention its fascist past and France’s history pages were freed from the pro-Nazi Vichy period?
History is not always pessimistic for if World War II Europe has taught us anything it is that the rebuilding of cities is possible and the mending of a nation’s spirit can be achieved and therefore we remain hopeful that the new Arab powers will strive to sift through the ashes and salvage what they can to bring back what was lost and breathe life into what we thought dead.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today on 24 April, 2016
Article also appeared in Arabic in Al Khaleej Newspaper

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Generation ‘Share’ knows nothing about privacy

It used to be that when one wanted to keep a conversation private all they had to do was shut the door, when one felt strong enough about a memory it was locked in a drawer and when moments were utterly precious they were appreciated instead of being documented for future enjoyment.

Those days are long gone, for the private generation is dwindling to make way for generation ‘share’. It is evolutionary I suppose, but with all the moments, memories and conversations being streamed, beamed and uploaded into clouds has the idea of privacy been mutilated? Slashed at and cut through by the hands of all the Tweeters, Instagramers and Snapchatters out there?

Having to explain to a child of today, who has learned to swipe before they can speak, that certain aspects of a person’s life must remain private for the preservation of one’s sanity is almost frivolous. At one point in time privacy was so sacred that the world agreed to make it a fundamental human right, we agreed then we forgot. The need for privacy is a universal human condition that is essential to the growth process of a human being yet somehow our obsession with sharing has blinded us to the most human of behaviours.

It used to be that the world had to come up with ingenious ploys to pry information out of our clenched hands. Privacy pirates even resorted to reverse psychology deploying efforts to convince us that having access to our information is in fact for our own safety. No schemes needed now for we divulge all without a care in the world, without a moment’s thought, because life is not lived if it’s not being shared.

Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc. was recently under fire for refusing to unlock and extract data from an iPhone at the request of the FBI. While the debate raged on whether or not Apple should adhere to the FBI request most people did not really care whether or not a company could hack into their personal devices and retrieve any information they wanted and more of them believed it was being done already! Let’s face it, nobody ever reads those lengthy privacy agreements and none of us really know what we are accepting when we eagerly click the ‘I Agree’ option on any of these products. We do that not because we are incapable of reading but rather because the lure of technology is such that it has made us indifferent about our once revered privacy.

The messaging service WhatsApp, which has been operating since 2010, has only last week assured its one billion users that their “private” conversations have now become “safe”. What that means for us users is that six years’ worth of private, intimate or critical information have been up for grabs to anyone, to WhatsApp’s defence they do mention that in their privacy agreement which of course none of us have read.

The question here is not whether or not companies are keeping our data secure once they have acquired it but rather do we really care if they are? Because in a world where one is identified and rewarded not by their productive input but rather for how much of their private lives they are willing to reveal, the more you share the more you become. And so it is inevitable that the day has come when we write about privacy with such nostalgia, analysing it as we would some unearthed fossil of a creature our human eyes had never fallen on. Our children might never understand why their parents’ conversations should not be broadcast and that their future selves would probably regret publishing every thought that ran through their young heads because privacy is a concept that must be relearned in an age where it has become a currency that cannot be cashed.

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 17 April, 2016
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper

Monday, 18 January 2016

I never said Je suis Charlie

There was a time before last year’s gruesome attack when not many outside Paris had heard of a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist shooting that left 11 people dead delivered a harsh blow to those of us who hold freedom of expression to be a birthright. The cold-blooded assassination of the Charlie Hebdo staff sent shockwaves throughout modern societies causing their leaders to flock to Paris and rally in solidarity with the French people in denouncing the attack on freedom of speech. It was also the reason the hashtag #JesuisCharlie trended worldwide with many Muslims using it to reiterate the fact that these monsters in no way represented the views of true Muslims.

The issue following the dark ordeal was published on schedule and in solidarity people, those who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo and those who do not agree with the publication’s opinions or find its “satire” funny, went out and bought the issue. The post-attack issue went on to sell one million copies.

Last week Charlie Hebdo was in the news again, not as a symbol of freedom of expression, but as an example of how racism can be deviously disguised as art. After the alleged harassment ordeal experienced by German women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve at the hands of migrants Charlie Hebdo published a caricature which depicts the body of 3-year-old Syrian migrant Alan Kurdi, which washed up on Turkish shores after his boat capsized while seeking refuge, as growing up to become a monkey-faced rapist attacking German women. The photo of young Alan’s tiny body lying face down on the shore shook the world to the core, it was the physical embodiment of the absolute horror that human greed, ego and lust for power can create. Somehow, while the world tried to make sense of this child’s unfathomable fate Charlie Hebdo’s artists thought it would be “funny” to point at this lifeless tiny bundle of innocence and call him a rapist. Soon social media was abuzz with shocked reactions to this heartless and racist caricature which could not be seen as anything other than a hate-mongering piece of propaganda which has no place in the world we are living today.

I was not shocked at seeing such filth being churned out by Charlie Hebdo, as a matter of fact I was not expecting anything less. Like I said, most people had not heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attack and therefore had no way of knowing how unimaginably vile its work can be. The work being published by Charlie Hebdo is not unlike that of white-supremacist or religious extremists’ propaganda, subjugating any idea which it considers as ‘other’ and inciting segregation. Today, the United States government is considering removing racist terms from great works of literature and is being pressured to take down statues of prominent figures in American history for their involvement in the slave trade. For even though the US amendment lists freedom of speech it specifies that it is not, and can never be absolute.

We are living in a world which is being torn apart by intolerance and hate therefore the utmost care and sensitivity should be taken when approaching issues of great social or political impact. That is exactly why although horrified by the viciousness and unjustness of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and despite the intense fear I felt at the thought of losing journalistic freedoms I never once said je suis Charlie because let’s face it, neither you nor I are Charlie. We would never walk into a room and at the sight of a person who is different hurl profanities at them comparing them to animals. We would never be sat with people from different faiths and insult one’s religious views and idols. And you and I would never in a million years think of a child’s lifeless body as a funny joke to laugh about. 

I never said je suis Charlie because I am not Charlie and will never be. 

This article was first published in The Gulf Today newspaper on 18 January, 2016
Arabic version of this article appeared in Al Khaleej newspaper