Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Thing About Being Jeddahwi

In Jeddah, I had the privilege (or the curse, according to the elders) of being part of a circle of open-minded young people who can discuss and accept non-Jeddahwi concepts, such as being non-Muslim, non-male/female, non-conservative, non-traditional, non-Arab, non-Saudi, non-whatever WE were.

Being outside of Jeddah as that person means complications – I'm so open-minded, why am I, deep down inside, such a traditionally Jeddahwi chick? This double-think, these double standards, are so alien to people in the free world. So hypocritical.

The truth is that however open I am, there are major parts of who I am that believes in the culture of Saudi/Jeddah. My ideals on Respect, Love, Acceptance – they are all Jeddahwi.

I can adapt to different cultures because of where I'm from. I can respect anyone's close-minded culture because of how I was raised. I can understand people and their demons because of Jeddah.

If there was any place, any time, when you can have a group of deeply intelligent and confused people in space, it was Jeddah when I was there. It doesn't matter who I've become now, I was shaped by my past, by the place that held me in its closed off little area, to "protect".

I am NOT protected. In the outside world, I am a hypocrite. A weirdo. A double-thinker. A walking contradiction. A judger. A person who, one minute can expertly cover every part of herself, a fake muhajibah with my veil on so perfectly, and another minute is a drunk truck driver with a potty mouth.

No one can fuck you up like your hometown can.

And no one can understand you better than the very same people who grew up with you, in that very same godforsaken place.

For a very long time, I worried about what people think about me, in this foreign, outside world. I still do. I'm so concerned that people would think I'm weak, especially because I'm a woman, especially because I'm a woman FROM SAUDI ARABIA. For a very long time, until just an hour ago, I couldn't even BE myself, because it's so much easier to be someone else. It would be so much easier for people to read me if I was familiar to them.

But I understand something now, after some assurance from my Jeddahwi family. That I can only be myself. That if I wasn't good enough for the people who meet me, then they're not good enough for me. That if they can't understand and they don't even try, then it's time to move on.

And it's time to move on.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Humans of Bukit Bintang [Malaysia]

A Letter to Humans

I need to learn to love myself wherever I may be, any place, any space in time.

I need to respect my existence, my spot on earth.

To respect the years I've lived and the things that had to happen to me so that time might move forward and life might happen to those that surround me.

To respect the Butterfly Effect of All Things.

To respect the unpredictability of human existence, and the predictability of THAT.

I need to learn to bring closer to myself the things I own, that I've acquired through work – hard or easy – and to understand the beauty of having belongings and belonging to things in return.

I need to give credit to the people in my life – the ones who stay even when they don't have to, the ones who left because they just couldn't. The ones that tried to understand my demons and the ones that ran away in terror. The ones that are like me and those that aren't.

The bottomless pit of love and goodness that is the human heart, and the limitations of that very same soul.

I need to forgive. Myself for my fallibility, others for theirs.

To understand the sameness that we all possess, manifested only in emotions that, whether we accept it or not, bind us together.

We all love and hurt and rejoice and mourn in the same way.

The flowers don't bloom for me, but they wouldn't be as important if not for my existence.


Last weekend, my friends humored me and tagged along in one of my creeping sessions, this time at Bukit Bintang in KL. I learned that there were two types of people: those who smile and attempt to make a connection with me after/before I snap their photo, and everyone else.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Watching People [Photography]

I haven't played with a camera in years. Now that I have the freedom to shoot what and who I want, I don't have my DSLR with me. #Life

Couple weeks ago, I went to the Central Market in Kotaraya (Malaysia) with friends, armed with Kathryn's Canon, and did what we would never have been able to do in Jeddah - creep on people and take photos of them. 

The trip yielded these. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Getting Grown [Life and Other Things]

Hey, it's already February.

Exactly one year ago today, I was...

Well, I was in Jeddah. I was watching the season finale of Fringe, and was so invested in it. I lived and breathed science fiction and I was so completely convinced that there was no way in the world I would ever go survive without it.

I was so incredibly fit one year ago today. I kicked endurance and strength and core, right in the ass. Interval training, cross-fit, boot camp, circuit, I squatted like a motherfucker and STAYED THERE and my leg muscles shamed the boys to submission. Don't get me wrong, I was convinced that I was a fatass, but I could run at 7m/h for 45 minutes straight and I could go vegetarian for weeks, and I did push ups with my chest touching the floor and my knees off the ground. I didn't have Rest Days, I had Yoga Days, when I melted my heart to the sky and saluted the sun.

I was also learning Spanish with my friends. Si queremos esposas, no debes jugaremos MTG. I can still read Spanish like a pro, but all the words that used to roll off my tongue like a fierce Boriqua, Morena, Columbiana, Mexicana, none of them exist anymore.

I was knee-deep in creative writing. I was surrounded by friends who were obsessed with telling stories. I would spend 6 hours straight in one sitting just discussing writing, doing writing, smoking while writing, fighting about writing, laughing at each other's writing, with friends.

I also loved. I loved everything and everyone. I was in love with all the things around me, and every single one of them broke my heart into tiny pieces. I used to sit in the back, the driver quiet, this little fake princess mourning her poor little golden cage, and I would look up into the sky and inhale one deep breath and cry silent tears of wonder. I had complex love and depression and hate and oppression and everything was clear and nothing made sense.

I could afford to be unemployed, I was broke but never poor, I would spend money on a pair of shoes I didn't really like all that much, and that money could have fed three families.

That was Jeddah.

One year later, I'm out in the real world, and my life has been completely, inevitably, inconclusively, irretrievably and irrevocably turned around 360 degrees.

This is my New Year's post.

I long to tell you the story of my present life, the friends I have here and the lives we live, how we pass time and how time passes us by. The total immersion we have in each other's businesses, and how we've found comfort in the most hopeless of places - in our hearts, our breaking hearts, and our broken souls. How lost we all are, and how found. How found we are in each other. The colors of our skins and the textures of our hair, the hurts we hide and the words we spit out, the wines we drink and the anger with which we so fiercely protect each other and hold each other in our small, insignificant but strong hands.

Perhaps it is Proximity that brought us together, right here, right now, but it is the Solidarity of our Screwed Up Minds that glues us together as one unit, our scars and our war wounds that have made us so, so careful, so considerate, so very, very careful of each other's existence that we hold it like candles, like wine glasses, so close to the chest, that we handle with so much care, because who knows?

Who knows why the caged bird sings?

Now that we've gotten some of the poetry out of the way, here are facts.

I walk. I walk the streets with Beyonce in my ears and my hip flexors in such good form. I put one foot in front of the other and I just glide over that sidewalk and I walk around in circles and I UNDERSTAND. I understand and I love and I put aside all that bitterness and hate and I hug the universe. Freedom is the most seductive of all. Have you met Freedom? Have you run your hands along Freedom's grooves? Have you placed your palm over Freedom's chest and felt Freedom's heartbeat, 60 beats per minute?

If there was ever, in all of life's existence, one thing that has ever protected me, and this house, it is love. I gravitate towards people who know only to love me, to adore the ground I step on, to absorb every word that I utter. I love people who love me. It is non-negotiable, and it is automatic.

I can never shake it off. It's in my blood. Fiction is the key word, not so much science. It's my constant, and it keeps me grounded. It's what I choose to believe, and it's what tethers me to my surroundings. I am fully entertained by it, wowed, cowed. I quiver in its presence and I hug my knees to my chest and I rock myself back and forth in the name of sci-fi. I am blanketed by its stories in the weekends and slammed into the sidewalks on road trips by its confusing clarity.

I am 30 years old. In 30 more years, I'll be 60. My skin will have wrinkled, my eyes sunken, my eyebrows just tufts of hair that barely makes a statement.

My flesh will have outlived itself, and my voice a whimper.

In 2044, I will have sucked the marrow out of life, and absorbed a different accent, and loved a different man.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Dat Free Education [Career]

Living in Jeddah, where everything is just so difficult to do, always meant that, outside of work, you have two choices for activity: 1) Go to underground parties or gatherings or workshops, or 2) Stay at home and watch TV shows or have a relationship with the internet. Of course, if you don't know the right people, you really only have Choice #2. You and the internet probably already have many children.

Me, I enjoyed both options in equal amounts.

In 2011, I just got bored of it all, so much that I discovered I bored myself. I suddenly fancied going back to school. I missed the exhilaration of projects, assignments, professors, goals and beer-induced pseudo-intellectual discussions. University life was so enchanting like that, the ultimate period of youth and stupidity cocooned in academia.

But more than that, what I really missed was sharpened talent and skill, both of which I severely lacked. It's so easy to be stagnated in Jeddah because of all the restrictions and the fear of restriction, and I was paralyzed under it. I couldn't afford (and strongly didn't desire) an under-challenging Bachelor's or Master's Degree in any one of the universities and colleges we had, and besides, they didn't offer what I needed (wanted?) at the time - state-of-the-art, blow-your-brains-out writing courses.

Now, studying writing is tricky. It revolves mostly around the shattering of fears, on pushing the envelope, on trying new things, on standing everything on its head - everything that was the opposite of Jeddah's culture. No way in hell anyone would disturb the peace of the delicate cultural fabric with this... this public invitation to sin.

And then I met free online education.

There is a wealth of free courses floating online, discredited by the spam messages we receive on a regular basis. Look hard enough, though - click enough links - and you will find the right one.

I went to crazy town with websites like Open Culture (a resource for free educational media), MIT OpenCourseWare (education giant Massachusetts Institute of Technology's initiative to share their course materials online for free), Coursera (a partner of Stanford University that offers courses from other top universities for free) and the sleek Udacity (free computer science courses offered by industry experts, including its head honcho Sebastian Thrun, the Google VP responsible for the driverless car).

These massive online open courses, or MOOCs, involve hundreds of thousands of students studying a free structured course that usually has downloadable course material and a relatively flexible timetable for assignments.

It was infinitely more than I had imagined. I took courses left and right - I learned the basics of web development (nothing wild, just your old HTML/5 and CSS) to help me understand blogging more, I took some refresher Journalism courses (some I'd already taken in university) and I even dabbled in Psychology.

I enjoyed being spoilt for choice on what courses to take, with set structures and lesson plans, plus the fact that probably the only expense I threw at it was my monthly 200-riyal broadband internet bill.

MOOCs are not without issues, of course, as seen in this infographic. Nothing is ever handed to us on a silver platter; it's just human nature to constantly be unfortunate.

Source: David Hopkins

Still, in a feature I recently read on Fast Company (my new favorite publication, I'm so obsessed), Sebastian Thrun talks about how MOOCs are changing the way we are moving forward in education - an obvious factor of which is open and free access to anyone and everyone in the world who has an internet connection.

Add to this the freedom to choose what course you want to study, paving the way for an education model that focuses more on developing professional skills, rather than the traditional way of hoarding chunks of knowledge that will most likely be of no use to you. (Remember complaining about having to study algebra when it would so obviously not help with our future? Guys, we were right, at least in my case. Algebra has no place in my life right now.)

So what is stopping you from acquiring knowledge? Money? Culture? Geography? Lack of time? Jeddah? Nothing. Nothing is stopping you now. You have internet connection, you speak English and you can make time, the same way you make time to stalk people on Facebook and Twitter. The question really is how badly you want education.

That's something that Thrun is contemplating now - whether the fact that MOOCs are free is actually the reason why it's not quite living up to its full potential. Because the truth is, a free online course is really only beneficial to the person who FINISHES it, sees the course through to its end.

Thrun started Udacity with a noble vision - to provide Ivy League calibre education to those who can't afford it, whose circumstances may not allow them to get it. But this "failure", this very small amount of people among hundreds of thousands getting to the finish line, is so disappointing that we might well see these Udacity courses charging students starting 2014.

But would a paying student really finish a course?

Add water to enlarge image

Perhaps the problem is that MOOCs' target audience are those people who need quality education the most (and who at the very least can afford internet access), and yet, the people benefitting from them are the ones who have already had some form of quality education, at least in the sense that they are skilled enough to manage their time, hunt for resources, persevere and squeeze all they possibly can from these courses.

The skilled are only getting more skillful, and the unskilled are left at the curb. Again.

I say WHY NOT. I say why the hell not. Doesn't the world belong to those who not only sharpen their skills, but also find ways to own that sharpener? Don't their existence and success serve as inspiration enough to others?

Has the playing field not been leveled enough? Which side of the fence are you on?

Very recently, I joined iversity's Future of Storytelling course, a fantastic romp through the basics of the different genres of writing, with such assignments as watching videos, joining forums and collaborating on projects with people from literally around the world. All of this happened in my living room, and usually after a 12-hour work day (I work in publishing, it gets hectic).

Aside from enjoying the course, I use whatever I learned at work. I see absolutely nothing wrong with being a professional and continuing to study. In fact, I can only see good things about it. It's additional training, another step towards excellence, something that companies and organizations should encourage.

We're (very, very slowly) getting over the whole college-degree-required mentality, with skills and experience trumping a piece of paper in many creative industries. MOOCs are one of the many answers to the development of these qualifications. Are we not seeing this? 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Islamic Fashion [Also, Writing]

I went to the 2013 Islamic Fashion Festival held in KL last month (November) at the Marriott, because that's the kind of thing I do now apparently, and of course, as with anything that is predicated with the word "Islamic", it raised all kinds of heated, almost hateful questions within my circle, me being officially Muslim and coming from both the Arab world and the Muslim-Asian one. Everyone just getting their tar7as all up in a twist. I don't blame them, but I'm also a little detached.

Why can't we all just enjoy some nice fashion style coupled with some religion-influenced culture without discussing who's going to hell and who's not?

No? Kk.

So, the Islamic Fashion Festival (IFF) was founded by Malaysian royalty Raja Rezza Shah, an entrepreneur, fashion enthusiast and jet-setter, as one would expect. When the infamous 9/11 disaster cast an evil glow on Muslims and Islam far and wide, he repurposed this glow into a spotlight on a catwalk and brought out armies of beautiful Islamic-inspired fashion creations, cranking up our PR, at least in the style arena. And why not? We all do what we can to help the cause.

Photo from the 2011 IFF, by photographer Shahril Badri. Visit his blog for more awesome pics.

The result is a playground of Muslim-culture patterns and layers of bright material draped on good-looking people, which is the regular fare for any fashion show. What it accomplished is a statement: Muslims can be stylish, too! Did it raise awareness, did it make people friendlier towards Muslims, and did it make them want to find out more about Islam? Yes, definitely. Not all people, but definitely a lot of people that go to these fashion events. In that sense, I'd say it was a success.

Did it paint the wrong picture of what the hijab is? Oh, shush. People have to start somewhere. Isn't that the basic principle of effective teaching, to start with something familiar, hold the student's hand (metaphorically!) and lead them slowly into the unknown? There's your Something Familiar - a fashion show that has reach.

The event itself was nice, because what event attended by the elites isn't? The IFF has been held in London, New York and Paris in the past, attended by Charlize Theron, Robert de Niro (really, Bob? Movie offers slowing down, buddy?) and Jamie Foxx to name a few celebrities. Needless to say, these shindigs go for broke - fine food and drinks and glamorous venues all.

One can't help but straighten up a bit and put on some extra mascara when surrounded by the confidence of the wealthy and the beautiful.

So yes, it was nice. Interesting? Yes. World-changing? Meh. It didn't change mine. I was reminded of my culture, yes, and of the girls of my hometown for whom these outfits are regular wear, yes. And for a second I missed my hijab, yes, but I'd be lying if I said it was something religious that I felt.

It was culture.

In this day and age, who can make out the difference?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

50 Television Years [Doctor Who]

There's a ripple going through the fabric of internet space-time continuum as nerds and non-nerds across the web's multiverses scramble to get a piece of the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special. Mine is sitting on my desktop, just waiting to be stared at and wept for, which I will do in just a few minutes.

But first, a tribute to two magnificent otherworldly men - The Doctor and Thor. 

Here are the top 10 reasons why I loved Thor: The Dark World.

10. The Train Scene. The troubled demigod needs to get to Greenwich, and the only way he could do it is by catching the train, where some lucky woman standing next to him had to steady herself against his chest when the train lurches. That woman could have been any one of us. This woman, and not Natalie Portman, symbolizes hope for us mere humans.

9. Shirtless Thor. There is justice in a world where Thor can only contemplate his life and the worlds he wants to save while looking out a vast balcony with nary a piece of clothing on his upper body.

8. Rene Russo's Fight Scene. Rene Russo plays the All-Motherhen Frigga, and she does it very well - such an underrated actress - but she really shows her chops when she gets her very own fight scene with the Dark Elf. If I ever have daughters, they will all be required to learn how to fight like this, with grace, and only after marrying an all-father, as their lone purpose in life.

Here, let me make you a sandwich.

7. Portals! My brief foray into the gaming world saw me dabbling for hours in Portal and Portal 2, and I thoroughly enjoyed imagining GLaDOS lol-ing at the massive fight scene with the portals.

6. The All-Father's Narrative Voice. The slight dragging of breath that is so distinctly Anthony Hopkins as a prelude to the Asgardian kingdom, dripping with grandfatherly authority. Is it going to be his Asgardian King, or his Silence of the Lambs psycho? WATCH TO FIND OUT.

5. The Girl Everyone Ignores. That will be Sif, Asgardian warrior and Thor's Plan B girl (what an asshole). Very few women are Natalie Portman's Jane Foster character, majority of us are Sifs, always gunning for the blond, blue-eyed demigod who has friendzoned us, and constantly ignoring our nice friend Balder who has always been in love with us.

I don't believe in Friendzones.

4. Benicio del Toro, who appears in the easter egg end-credits as the Collector. Benicio del Toro has always been on my list of Bad-Looking Men Who Are So Strangely Attractive, and his appearance in that 3-minute scene was my reward for keeping him on that list for close to 12 years.

Benicio del Toro: Not sure if ugly, or fugly.

3. The Dark Elves' Ships. They took my breath away when they first appeared in the movie, probably because I am a cylon with a hard-on for spaceships, or probably because I'm due for another rewatch of the Battlestar Galactica series. I swear villains have all the fun.

Imagine driving this to work. 

2. Loki, the Ticking Bomb. This guy. His multitudes of mommy-daddy issues makes him so deeply intriguing and many-sided, and I know that if he would just let me love him, I would be the one to fix him.

- Thor and all women

1. Malekith. Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor might have been my least favorite, but in this movie, he completely kills it. He so magnificently plays the part - I could feel the pride of the Dark Elves through my 3D glasses as I watched his pale face, spitting as he labored through his Druhir speeches. I promptly watched a few episodes of Doctor Who Series 1 to 3 afterwards to find an inkling of the Dark Ruler he would become, and yes, definitely. DEFINITELY.

TRUST ME, I'M THE DOCTOR.  - translated from Druhir

It's hard to believe, but Christoper Eccleston's Malekith, and not Chris Hemsworth's Thor, is the reason I will watch this movie again.

Happy birthday, Doctor. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Food Post [Malaysia]

Two Things

So I find myself in a place where I am so utterly on my own that I have to forage for food. Two things:

a) I don't cook. This wasn't so much a problem back when I wasn't living by myself and either my parents or my siblings made my food. Actually, it's not really a problem right now, either.

I have a non-functioning kitchen that a friend says reminds her of those vacation houses that we go stay at temporarily on beach weekends (istira7as, really) - it's super empty and the gas stove doesn't really work because there isn't a... gas... thing, whatever that's called. I don't have pots or pans, nothing.

This empty kitchen is the reason I will never
get a husband. My mom agrees.

b) I'm not big on taking food pictures, and in fact, I started the hashtag #aftermeal as a passive aggressive stand against those who do (the hashtag is not dead, but it has evolved into something completely different. Don't check it.), where I encouraged people to post pictures of their plates after they'd finished eating because HEY, THAT'S INTERESTING, TOO. Polished clean plates. Hotdaymm.

Now though, every time I'd take a photo of my food, my friends here would say "OMG you're one of those people!" and I'm like "No no, you guys, I want to show this to my friends back home! They really, really want to see it! For serious!" and they're all "WHATEVS." My friends don't actually talk like that.

Forrealz, tho. I show the pics to my siblings and my friends, and because they're actually into food, they proceed to guess what kind of food it is, and what's in it. I have no way of confirming since I'm clueless, but it keeps communication lines open and NURTURES RELATIONSHIPS, OKAY?

Malaysia has 3 major cultures - Malay, Indian and Chinese, so it follows that there are 3 major cuisines available here, aside from the requisite American fare. Western food is pricey, and if you're like me, you can't afford to eat your 3 meals per day eating American, no matter how much you love the fatty foods.

It wasn't very hard for me to adjust to Malay food because a) I'm Maranao and we're basically the bastard children of the Malays, and b) at the risk of rage from my Southeast Asian friends, it's very similar to Indonesian food - WSUP GADO GADO! They're big on rice, beef randang, chicken in turmeric sauce, and satay.

There's only one that I've gotten myself super attached to, though, and it's called Chicken Garlic Rice. It's like the cure to all life's ills, loneliness, and homesickness. And hangovers.

Served with clear soup, this is hot steamed chicken garnished with
caramelised (ok, I dunno if it's caramelised but it sure tastes like it) garlic,
fried garlic rice, and hot, spicy salsa. Wallahi, lazeez ah. 
Malay food here is halal, so no pork, nothing haraam. They call it mamak. I tend to go for it because it's my comfort zone. Here are other examples of mamak.

Nasi Lemak with chicken curry is served with egg,
 a spicy salad, and fried peanuts and anchovies. A side of chili
in oil for extra fire. I'm not a fan, though. 

Mixed fried rice with fish patties and a spicy salad.

This is their version of fast food. Spicy ground chicken
with a fried egg and steamed white rice. Don't be
fooled - this whole thing lies on a bed of sweet
chilli sauce found at the bottom of the bowl

These dishes cost about SR 8 each. That's pricey here.

Oodles of Noodles

When it comes to Chinese food, I'm not really a big fan, but then again, I'd only ever been subjected to Saudi's version of Chinese food, which is essentially Filipino food. THAT'S RIGHT, MY SAUDI BRETHREN, all that Chinese food you eat is so super Filipino, and that "chef" who cooks it? HE'S FILIPINO. Here, though, they're legit. I've tried a few and they're alright, except they're all so serious about the chopsticks. I've had to learn to use those things. It's not pretty. Let's just say I understand now why they tend not to be obese. If you have to work out just to eat, it's no small wonder.

This hot mess is my favorite. It's called "mixed mee". I know, it's lols.
That's 3 different kids of noodles swimming in soup, egg, veggies,
and seafood. Also great with hangovers.

It took me 3 hours to eat this dish using chopsticks. That's noodles
and chicken strips on chilli sauce with a side of fishball soup. Cray. 

Thank You, India

In Jeddah, we're mostly exposed to North Indian food, and the Indian restaurants' waiters all speak Urdu. Here in Malaysia, they're mostly Southern Indian and they speak Tamil. It's seriously like a lesson in culture. The food is not the same, except for some few staples, like roti, and palak paneer my all-time favorite South Asian food, but everything else is different. I have to be honest, I don't have pictures of Indian food because I devour that stuff as soon as my order comes in. I am discovering that I am a fan.

Buy You a Drank

This would be an incomplete post if I didn't show you the drinks. They have everything here, duh, but they have something that Saudi doesn't.

I'm no stranger to Denmark.

This is Southeast Asian beer. 
Malaysia is like a child of two different-cultured parents, for serious. Her dad is Saudi, and so there's mutaw3een prowling the streets here, too, just not as bad as back home, but her mom is non-Saudi and so yeah, there's alcohol every few shops down.

I think this is why I can relate to this place. Most days when I get home from work, I just have a cup of coffee because I'm too tired to eat, or too broke to go down to the restaurants, but that's alright, because the novelty is keeping me busy. I stand by the balcony and take in the fact that I just shared the elevator with an unmarried couple holding hands and now I can hear the adhaan from the mosque next to my building.

We co-exist. Me and this place.