Friday, October 28, 2011

Portions of beauty and suffering

"They" say a lot of things. "They" say we should drink 8 glasses of water a day. Or not. "They" say finding a geico in your home is good luck. We rarely know who they are and sometimes we acknowledge that "they" often stands for popular wisdom or an unverified statistic that we still seek to quote because it brings us comfort.

Well, "they" say that "of the 10 portions of beauty that came down to the world, 9 went to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world." The next verse reads "of the 10 portions of suffering that came down to the world, 9 went to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world." The 'they' in this case would be Talmud scholars.

I find myself in Jerusalem and my heart has no room for suffering this week. And so, on my first walk, I photograph what is beautiful, what is curious, what is giving me hope. If "they" are right about this city, the beauty and the suffering walk hand-in-hand and cannot be divorced from one another.

For today, though, world -- please, let me just savor the beautiful light.

Only in Jerusalem: a sheesha in front of an icon of Mary (for sale, both of them).

A city wrapped in nargileh - sheesha smoke

I asked the man who runs the pita stand if I can take a photo of the bread. He said "sure!" Two minutes later, he put his arm around me, cut up some pita, scooped up some of his lunch and shoved it in my mouth. Jerusalem and Greece -- not entirely dissimilar.
Challah for Shabbat and thorny bread in the background
Friday afternoon light in St. Andrew's Scottish Church

Smiling love on the Via Dolorosa
A war memorial reflects the sky
When I was a baby, my father called these flowers "τα ματάκια της Ρω." "Roxanne's eyes" and I meet again in Jerusalem.

I have just created a Facebook page for Stories of Conflict and Love, where I will post updates on my life and work, as well as links related to storytelling, creativity, photography, writing, conflict, international development, gender and travel. You can also see more photographs there if you "Like" the page. If Facebook is not your cup of tea -- worry not. This will remain my beloved online home and it is a privilege to share it with you.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking a cue from Joan Didion

In Blue Nights, her most recent memoir about the death of her daughter 18 months after the passing of her husband, Joan Didion writes:

"What if I can never again locate the words that work?" 

In "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop writes that the art of losing isn't hard to master. But the art of losing gracefully, or even of losing all grace in grief, the art of unravelling in grief to reveal beauty and insight alongside the pain -- that art is a hard one to master and Didion has perfected it. She has lent her voice to grief. A friend cheekily remarked recently that Joan Didion can embody the dictum "my grief is more articulate than yours." I doubt anyone begins her life by wishing to become a Universal Spokesperson for Grief, Pain, and All Things Tear-Worthy. Yet, in writing through her grief, Joan Didion made magic for many by revealing that, in the case of grief,  the magic lies in putting words to pain, in sitting with it and through it. Didion wrote her way through sadness - perhaps back to happiness, perhaps simply back to a new, different place of softness, vulnerability, honesty and, why not, love and joy.

These days, Joan Didion's words ring more true than ever: "What if I can never again find the words that work?"

I need to answer a series of why's. Why am I the best candidate for this graduate program? Why am I best prepared for this degree? Why am I a good match? The biggest challenge through this process has been placing myself at the centre of my own narrative.

There is an online portal called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. The gist of it is that we are all carbon copies of one another: individuals with a knights-in-shining-armor complex who helicopter into conflict-ridden places to save ourselves from ourselves. What we like, according to this portal, are acronyms and aid jargon, "trainings of trainers", airport horror stories, untreated PTSD,  talking about poop, having had malaria, finding ourselves, describing ourselves as nomads, and Randomized Control Trials.


I see myself in those stories.

I have lived those stories too.

I have tweeted about the quintessential Friday night dilemma in a Middle Eastern conflict zone: Is it fireworks or gunshots? Ironically, I have written about the need for conflict professionals and storytellers to carve out some room for themselves in their stories. There is a certain kind of hyper-awareness that makes me hit the brakes before submitting to an admissions committee a collection of acronyms and jargon as the story of myself. My story cannot be a Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog post. My biggest hesitation with the portal is that it prizes cynicism; indeed, cynicism is listed among Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Maybe, rather than rewarding it, the portal merely reflects the existence of cynicism in this field. There is a jadedness to the narrative about aid and development, a mechanical tone: wash, rinse, repeat, pause to laugh at yourself, wash, rinse, repeat.

I have been warned about jadedness; I have been cautioned that distance and even cynicism may be central to one's professional and emotional survival. I have been told, by colleagues and bosses and fellow writers, that one day I will not be so "green behind the ears" -- although I must admit that as an English as a Second Language speaker, I had to--with some horror--look up what that meant. I am not there yet, though. I am still an optimist and an idealist. I look for the magic, believe in it, and write about it. It is the magic that keeps me doing the work that I do.

Why did I apply for the fellowship that took me out of my scholarly and professional pursuits in the United States and put me in the middle of conflict and post-conflict zones for the first time? Because I desperately wanted to be moved by the world. I desperately needed to be shaken by the shoulders, to feel alive. I had been a scholar of conflict starting with my fascination with Otto von Bismarck and the wars of the German Unification at the age of 16 and culminating in my thesis on the topic of visual representations of leadership in film and photography of the Second Reich. That very first step 'in the field' was motivated as much by a desire to serve as by a personal need to experience conflict more immediately -- to demystify it. That first step was about me in many senses, about my feelings, about my need to zero the distance between scholarly narratives about war and the realities of conflict. Some may say that was selfish, quintessentially "save myself from myself", and they would not be wrong.

Why have I stayed? Because of the magical thinking. Because somewhere between the acronyms and the jargon, between "writing a curriculum for the training of Egyptian women parliamentarians in negotiation and public speaking" and "training trainers in the implementation of a post-conflict reintegration workshop for female ex-combatants in Colombia", I learned about compassion and empathy. Because I have experienced kindness in its purest form and believed in it as a way to lead life. Because between the hurricanes and the shoveling of mud, between the grief and anger and gross injustice, I encountered people whose resilience, determination and spirit inspire me to the core.

I have stayed because I have found a way to serve that feels true to the person I am now.
I have stayed because this is the work that makes me come alive. I have stayed because I am shaken by the shoulders to the point that the world spins like a washing machine on its last rinse. I have stayed because, though disoriented and tired and whiny sometimes, I still savor the spinning.
I have stayed because I wake up in the morning with two new questions for every question I think I have answered.
I have stayed because the stories of the people I have met along the way, be they participants in a program, local partners, community leaders or colleagues, fuel my faith in humanity.

There is a danger to believing your own story when you are in a service-oriented field. You can become bigger than the story, bigger than the service itself... and then priorities and perspective and all the different actors at play become warped and you end up jaded or self-involved or self-deprecating or just utterly lost, recently broken up with, and full of malarial parasites in East Africa. How do you stop that from happening? In my mind, by asking the questions. To me, it is important that I be part of something bigger than myself - it is important that I continue to find this work dwarfing, and humbling and inspiring, even if that sometimes comes with an off-tune dose of self-aggrandizement or a touch of jadedness that creeps up even on Eternal Optimists.

"What if I can never again find the words that work?", Joan Didion asks. I write one sentence in my application essays, I erase two. I dislike the girl in them who is a collection of I-Did-This and I-Went-There. I also dislike the girl in them who may be "showing, not telling", but the showing still feels like incongruous bragging about acts of service. I also dislike the navel-gazing that is inherent in this exercise and that imbues this very post. It becomes very difficult to find the words that work when the process of assembling them sketches a portrait of yourself you either do not recognize or do not love.

I recognize myself these days when I am vulnerable, when I uncover the soft places that do not often see the light. Yet, I feel like it is taboo to write a story of myself that is so full of feelings. Feelings are not the currency of applications and achievements and admissions. Where do feelings fit in the narrative of law, diplomacy, conflict management, conflict resolution and post-conflict development?  "What are you going to write your essays about? Mush?," a friend asked. Even Elijah, the biggest Proponent of Feelings and my own teacher in them, said "Darling, you need to assume that Danielle Steel won't be on that committee reading your essays."

These questions of feelings and words and application packaging would not have concerned me years ago. When I set out to start my first field work assignment, I had the emotional maturity of a coffee table. Grief and self-sheltering had rendered me a fairly emotionally stunted human being. The past couple of years have thawed me, shaken me and breathed life back into me. As I result, I have shattered and reassembled my own mold as many times as I have used an acronym. I am struggling to find the words that work for the mold of applications -- and that work for me, for all of me, for my feelings, for the person I am now: for the woman who is proud to have feelings and to write about them.

I want to argue with myself here. I want to make it my business to carve out space for the softness, for the emotional and the unquantifiable in the academic study and professional pursuit of conflict-oriented service. My goal is to study international negotiation, conflict resolution and diplomacy -- and I want to make room for empathy and compassion as instruments in the process. I want to continue my exploration of the intersection of gender and conflict and I wish to bring my passion for stories into this journey. I wish to academically explore storytelling as a vehicle of peace-making and conflict resolution. And for me to get there, perhaps I need to churn out a final draft of an application essay that has not been robbed of its every "I feel."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Season's first pomegranate -  captured with Instagram
I am at a place where I cannot string together more than two sentences about my life.

The pomegranates have returned, as has the fear. I heard a noise the other night. "Armed burglars! Hide!," I was mocked. "Nah, I'm not worried. There is an armed soldier with an M-16 standing outside a few steps down the block." That was my response. Since when do I find normalcy, nonchalance and even comfort in armed soldiers and M-16s?

Brrrrr, in Arabic
I live in a house that has no two walls at a perfect right angle with each other. I find comfort in the patterned floors, in the way the light filters in through the gauzy white curtain, in the crackling sound the seeds of the pomegranate make when they separate from the peel.

I know how to say cockroach in Arabic and Hebrew now. Sarsoor, the Arabic word, sounds like an onomatopoeia, as though the word is imitating the insect's shuffling. The latest word I can read in Arabic is "brrrrrr!", a lesson courtesy of a Coca-Cola can that seems to suggest that no matter where you are in the world, "this beverage is best enjoyed cold." 

I am observing, gliding quietly through my days, attempting to carve a place for myself. Thank you for being patient with me while I look for my words.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Gender Effect

In which I ask: Where are the men in gender advocacy campaigns? Is gender diversity significant for the success of gender advocacy campaigns? And if so, how do we engage with people of all genders to promote the message? Click on to my PolicyMic piece to find out. You may comment by signing in with Facebook or by creating a free, quick and easy PolicyMic account of your own.
The Girl Effect Blogging Campaign is still unfolding. Reading reflections from nearly 500 writers and activists around the world has been eye-opening, touching and enlightening. Have you added your own?

Thursday, October 6, 2011


If you've ever waited for a dial-up modem to connect, you understand anticipation.

When I was 12, my father declared one day that "we need to get Roxanne on the internet." In Greece at the time, that involved a lot of clunkiness: A computer monitor the size of a coffee table, a noisy and tortuously slow dial-up connection, WordPad documents. Neither my mother nor I quite understood what I was meant to do with a computer and "the internet", so I spent a lot of time becoming very, very good at minesweeper and browsing Encarta, the online MSN encyclopedia. There was an Encarta game in which I excelled: figuring out which of the multiple choices that showed up on my screen was not a dog name. I was 12, English was my second language, I did not understand the colloquial expression "to chill", but I knew dog breeds.

I got my first email account to keep in touch with my friends from camp. Inna signed me up for Hotmail. We ended our every email with two emoticons of girls wearing the same pink dress.The icons may have looked a little like bathroom signs, but it was our way of indicating we were still there for one another, even from afar. 

That Hotmail account still houses the emails from my first love. He had asked for my debate partner's email address so they could keep in touch at the end of an international debating competition and I scribbled mine on the same napkin because I was a bolder teenager then than young adult now. He lived on the other side of the world from Greece and we wrote each other nearly every night, so that we would both have something to wake up to in the morning or come home to after school. It feels like the dial-up is taking extra long to connect, just to annoy you, when you are a 16-year-old in love.

When I got admitted to Harvard, I received a welcome packet that included cookie dough and a Harvard cookie cutter to make H-shaped cookies. More usefully, the welcome packet suggested that students would really benefit from the use of a laptop. I arrived in Cambridge, MA by myself, with two suitcases, and a laptop that weighed nearly as much as I did.

I did not have a bag big enough to carry that first laptop to class, so I took notes by hand, a habit I maintained even after being clued in to the Apple revolution. That freshman spring, white laptops with apples on the cover populated Harvard classrooms. There was even a promotional offer: buy one with a student discount and get one of those first early iPods for free. The little white iBook, my silver iPod and I went to class every day. I started using Mac Mail and raving about iCal. I became one of those iPeople. Because a romantic still lived inside me, I did not delete the Hotmail account. When I felt bold, I still sent an email or two from it.

My other-side-of-the-world friend turned into a full-fledged Apple aficionado that year. He kept a sparse, sharply-designed blog, white as an iBook in the era before they released the black ones. Every time Steve Jobs made a public statement, he would quote from it and comment "Amazing." A new product is released? "Genius." He would queue up for the new products like people do outside stores on Thanksgiving to buy a microwave on sale, but there was something more mystical and devotional about the Apple products than there ever will be about microwaves. A lot made my friend dream, and Steve Jobs was certainly one of the factors that had that effect on him.

He was my first friend to own an iPhone. I used to dislike receiving emails from it. "Sent from my iPhone" to me felt like code for "I am not making writing to you a mindful and thoughtful practice." It felt quick and easy. It felt like something you could multi-task, in the way those Hotmail emails did not. I was too hip to lament that technology eroded romance, but I was too romantic for "Sent from my iPhone" emails.

In the years that passed, the romance faded, the iPhone emails won, and I got asked out on a date by one of the technicians at the Apple store whose job was to resuscitate my laptop. I always found it a little curious, a touch arrogant, that they called the repair shop a "genius bar", but I was thankful for the genius at work. I graduated from college, graduated to a silver Mac, graduated to life outside America. In Egypt, my colleagues would ask me about my laptop and I'd say, as though I knew what that really meant, that "it was cut from one brick of aluminum."

Mac Mail open in the background of one of my workshops in Colombia
Many of the aid workers had Mac laptops, but I somehow felt self-conscious about it, the same way I felt uncomfortable listening to my iPod in a too-crowded and not-safe-enough bus in East Africa. It felt incongruous in a conflict zone. In Northern Uganda, the keyboard turned bright red from the dust. In Colombia, one of the women participating in the post-conflict reintegration initiative I was leading cautioned her son not to break my laptop: "It's expensive. It has a fruit on the cover!" The computer with the fruit on the cover died during Hurricane Agatha in Guatemala when water rushed into my bedroom from the roof. Ironically, the only thing insurance did not cover was... water damage. Many people died in that hurricane, some of them in horrific mudslides, so it felt inappropriate to mourn a laptop.

Another computer in the mud in Guatemala after Hurricane Agatha
Last week, the NYT published a much-criticized piece titled "You Love Your iPhone, Literally." The article cited neuroimaging research that suggested the relationship between people and their iDevices resembled the chemical reactions of a brain in love. I facetiously forwarded the link to my friend on the other side of the world. He commented that he was concerned at the number of people who forwarded the same link to him, and made an astute remark: Your cortex is not responding to your iPhone or Nokia or device -- it is responding to the email you get, the communication with someone or something you care about.

Steve Jobs did not invent the internet. He did not create email. But he imagined technology in a way that was beautiful. He made technology that could inspire dreams. He inspired the kind of following that would have men on the other side of the world proclaim "genius" and "amazing" at his every statement and creation. He created the kind of technology that can inspire love. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Girls, boys and dignity

Today marks the beginning of the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign 2011. There are at least twelve tabs open on my browser, as I browse the thoughts of writers and activists on the importance of focusing on girls as a development strategy. This week, I will be contributing to this debate by asking two sets of questions: 

How do we talk about the plight, needs and challenges women and girls face while preserving their dignity? 

And is the inclusion of people of all genders in the advocacy of gender campaigns central to these campaigns' success? 

Click here for the first set of my answers. 
To read other posts that are part of the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign, click here. You can still write your own post; the incredibly inspiring Tara Mohr has lined up resources to help you do that. Join the conversation.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

If a place can make you cry

Book and author: If a place can make you cry: Dispatches from an anxious state, by Daniel Gordis
When I read it: Spring 2011, in an anxious state
Where I read it: In Jerusalem, fittingly.
Favorite phrase: "For after all, if there's a place in this world that can make you cry, isn't that where you ought to be?"
Barbed wire sunsets, here I come again.
Daniel Gordis writes: "After all, if you focused on every victim these days, you'd never be able to get out of bed in the morning. You survive only because you can forget."

It is the eve of my return to the Middle East, my return to the places where you survive only because you can forget. Gordis rightfully reminds me of the centrality of forgetting for my own survival, but I have so far led a life of remembrance. I like to catalogue, to scribble notes on unlined pages by which to mark the days, to photograph, to document, to tell. My stomach is clenched today. My beloved friend Erin had asked a while ago how I know I am truly passionate about something. I told her there is a certain kind of nausea associated with passion for me - it is as though my stomach knows I am about to dive into my element. The clenched stomach today suggests not only the exhilaration of returning to work I feel passionately about, but also the fear, hesitation, reluctance and trauma associated with the next steps of the journey.

Right before the second Intifada broke out, Daniel Gordis and his family moved to Jerusalem. He, too, felt the desire to catalogue and remember:
So, as we lived through that year, I instinctively chronicled many of our experiences in e-mails to friends, some letters to my family, and many other little vignettes that I didn't actually send anywhere, but just wrote for the sake of making some sense of everything I was seeing and feeling.
This pastiche, which mirrors some of the reasons I write as well, became the book If A Place Can Make You Cry. Gordis and I have experienced Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East in different capacities and with different loyalties and attachments, thus naturally yielding distinct, often conflicting, narratives. There is one assessment of his with which I agree whole-heartedly:
This just isn't a normal place. To live here is not to tell a story, but to live one. Living here, you become the story, and it takes over. There's no avoiding, there's no escaping. There's no way not to repeat it. The story is here to stay, and we're part of it, like it or not.
That is what I have found inspiring and suffocating about life and work in the Middle East: It is so much bigger than you and me. It feels entrenched. Having lived there long enough, it is hard to escape the feeling of resignation and helplessness as your faith in humanity is fueled and challenged on the same day.

How does Gordis cope? In his own words: "I flip on the cruise control -- the ultimate statement that life is predictable, even, calm." I have been there. I have focused my energies on picking the perfect lamp for the tiny, sand-filled bedroom, as though the country's survival depends on the glow of the just right light. But cruise control is not a good mode for me. It fundamentally requires forfeiting some part of being alive. When I set out on my professional journey in conflict and post-conflict zones, I was craving being moved. I wanted to feel deeply alive, and I have. But what do you do with the places that are so vibrant, so alive, so full of their own story that they swallow you up and the only way you can survive is by forgetting and by turning on the cruise control?

For one, you turn to beauty. "You probably don't move to a place just because it's beautiful, but the beauty certainly adds a layer to the love that both of us [Gordis and his wife] feel for Israel." I am on a quest for beauty, and the quest sustains me. From the obvious beauty of a Jerusalem sunset to the more complex, hidden beauty in the darkest places, I seek to embrace all of it. Once I believe in a place's sadness and despair, it claws me in and spits me out in a million pieces. Survival does not hinge on forgetting for me; it, instead, requires - as Arundhati Roy would have it - "pursuing beauty to its lair."

I am apprehensive about returning. I am afraid that, even if I am armed with beauty and hope and a desire to "seek joy in the saddest places", as Arundhati Roy would also have it, it will not be enough and I will end up on the bottom of a well of injustice and personal despair. When violence erupted in Jerusalem during the second Intifada, Gordis wrote:
Sometimes, these days, I wonder what's happening to us. Can a land emit a poison, a toxin that confuses, that obfuscates, that virtually guarantees that we become something other than what we want to be? Is there something about this land, or our passion for it, that blurs the vision? What is it about this land that blinds us to the very real and often devastating cost of our love for it, that leads us to ignore the horrific and repeated story of death for the sake of keeping it, a death that often inexplicably robs us of our children, and our children of their lives? 
If Gordis is full of questions, I cannot purport to have the answers myself. A question I wish to live in is one Al Giordano posed at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study on Non-Violent Conflict: "Where is the ray of hope in your stories?" He urged journalists, conflict professionals and activists alike to not tell stories that are entirely void of hope -- to keep digging until they find it.

It is time to dig anew.