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“Maybe.” came my answer, much to his frustration.
“Maybe? What is maybe?” he would reply. “Yes is yes and no is no.”
My daughters’ father and I regularly use the Arabic word for ‘maybe’ in our conversations (‘imken’ in the Moroccan dialect), yet it never occurred to me that ‘maybe’ could be quite an abstract concept, a prime example of linguistic relativity.
For me the word ‘maybe’ speaks of possibilities, keeping one’s options open and looking out for chances. It’s about not ruling anything out.
Conversely, he was continually exasperated by my maybes.
I’m Mercurial and live in my head, occupying a land of dreams and ideas and a million maybes. To spend enough time with me is to be party to those ideas – whether or not they surface as tangible realities in the physical world is another matter entirely.
I enjoy the process of exploring new ideas and brainstorming logistics, often wondering out loud to those who happen to be in my company at the time, utilising that company as a form of feedback regarding the potential viability of a venture.
I may then completely discard the original idea and move on to the next distraction, leaving more earthy types floundering like fish who find themselves in a deserting riverbed. My girls’ father is one such flounder, precisely the sort of man who should never have pursued a Gemini woman.
Yet the idea of things only ‘maybe’ happening seemed to fit the relaxed Moroccan lifestyle quite well – you’re never quite sure something will happen until it actually does, with so many exchanges left hanging under the banner “insha allah” (“God willing”).
Upon asking him the word for ‘maybe’ he replied, “There is no word for this in my language.”
Well, that could explain a lot.
We think of our language as being capable of explaining all the realities and facts of the world around us, and yet there remain many concepts that are not succinctly contained within a single word – if the concept exists in our culture at all. Here are some examples.
Even though the English language has a vast amount of words compared to most others, it goes to show that they still don’t necessarily capture everything effectively, and that languages with less populous vocabularies will almost certainly not reflect our own lexicon.
Guy Deutscher explores the issue of language shaping our world views in his book Through The Language Glass, a fascinating insight into the way our vocabulary moulds our perspective.
Whilst some extol a need for a single world language (usually English) for business purposes in a global market, a monolingual world would be a dull world indeed. A single language quickly becomes a single culture, and with the loss of each language (thought to be about one per fortnight) comes the loss of world heritage.
Each and every word enshrines a wealth of history and preserves cultural artefacts in much the same way as a piece of pottery or an item of artwork. A word may not be palpable but it has undergone the processes of conception, growth and evolution, always reflecting the point in time in which it exists.
Deutscher explores such history in The Unfolding of Language, an inspiring read that led me to question my own snobbishness when it comes to topics such as grammar and ‘textspeak’. So much of what we consider ‘proper English’ is but a contraction of what it once was. Why, there even maybe grace in an ‘ain’t’.
The single word ‘maybe’ was itself, originally, two individual words . . . But to contract it out of existence to ensure we are only ever faced with the path of ‘yes’ or the path of ‘no’? Forget textspeak; within the broad spectrum of the English language, to get rid of the possibility of possibility would be tantamount to Newspeak – with a very big maybe dangling over the chances of such a phenomenon taking place given some of the other Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque goings on of late.
As if the act of learning a new language is not enough of a challenge, the skill of fluency really comes to the fore when you can interpret rather than just translate. Yet true interpretation relies heavily on cultural and linguistic knowledge that it can take years to acquire and perhaps a whole new mindset to truly understand.
So, it maybe that my “maybe” may not be as basic and self-explanatory a response as I once thought, but I hope that this piece goes to show the potential of a simple ‘maybe’ – maybe?
Other titles that explore translation and the interlinking of culture and language are:
And, as always, please feel free to share your thoughts about my thoughts by commenting below.
Educational Freedom Fighter: An Interview with Evangelos Vlachakis, Plitra, Greece, April 2016
Home education is illegal in Greece, yet my family and I have just attended the Worldschoolers Spring Edventure in a small Peloponnese town, hosted by cinematographer Evangelos Vlachakis along with his family and friends at the Porto Grana Hub in Laconia – a place for home educating and worldschooling families to meet, learn, share and discover life together.
I interviewed Evangelos to find out more about his vision for educational freedom in a country in which such freedoms are restricted.
How did the Porto Grana hub come about?
There was an old restaurant available, so we had the idea to use it as a recreational space for kids. Since there was a very limted budget, we tried to renovate it on our own. We tried to combine it with my idea to bring homeschooling families into contact with my family, as I was very concerned about my daughter’s schooling and I felt that having some inside information from families who already homeschool would be beneficial to us. So, it really came about through the combination of having the empty space to use and wanting to research homeschooling.
Is there a strong community of families in Greece who would like to home educate and does anyone practice it despite it being illegal?
I’ve been involved in [researching home education] over the last 3 years and I’ve come into contact with many Greek families that are already willing to homeschool, and also with families that already do it or have done it. Some of the families are doing it underground and only two that I know of have been prosecuted for it.
Some families decide to move abroad in order to pursue a home educating lifestyle when it isn’t legal in their home country – is that something that you ever considered doing or was it always much more important to you to try to develop something in Greece?
I’d like to stay where we live as I think it’s the ideal place for kids and for families – we have the sunshine about 90% of the year and the countryside here is so virgin and unspoilt that it’s an ideal place to grow up. We don’t want to leave this place – on the contrary, I would like to invite families that would like to live in this kind of place to join us here! Foreign families who visit can legally homeschool in Greece – my thought is that on some level we can form a network of foreign and Greek families around Porto Grana and collectively try to lobby the government for a change in law.
So in what way do you hope this more ‘global’ network will help with the lobbying and in the format of home education you present to the Greek government?
I’m trying to gather information about how it’s done because, whilst many people here want to home school, we don’t know how it works in practice, and that’s why we like to come into contact with home educating families so that we have more insight into how you home school the children. This would be beneficial in our attempts to lobby the government in terms of forming a proposal.
Is it in any way difficult looking in on families from elsewhere who have freedoms that you don’t have or does the closer contact with home educating families give you greater optimism that it is possible?
Yes, first of all, I can see that it is possible. I believe what would help is to build a community first, because it helps the families that feel isolated and who need the company of others to support them. I think that building a community will be an ideal base for pursuing home schooling in Greece, and a community also serves the children to more easily interact with one another and develop community projects.
Is it something you’re optimistic could potentially happen soon (as your daughter is already 10 years old and compulsory education in Greece is just until age 15) or are you looking ahead at future generations?
Yes, I’m looking at future generations, it’s not only about my daughter – I would love to home school, but the community-based home schooling I envisage might take some time to happen; we are just at the beginning but I think we have a lot of potential to make it a reality.
It takes some people a lot to take action just for their own children in terms of trying to change a law, maybe putting up with something even if it directly affects them as “that’s the way it is”, so the fact that you’re invested in this is admirable – I think you’ve probably picked up on the fact that for most home educating families it’s a huge lifestyle choice and the freedom to home educate is interlinked with so many other freedoms and our autonomy in the world. Have you got a written plan yet?
Not as yet. My main concern is with forming a community, starting with having families stay with us for a little while. The reason I organise the worldschoolers’ events is for families to come together and be able to live in the countryside and experience how it is to live here – in the future I would like to form an eco-community of worldschooling families who will be the network of people who show the government how community-based home schooling might look.
So the events you’ve set up so far are an experiment to see who’s out there with a view to a future eco-community here?
Yes. We’ve already planned the summer event for June 23rd-30th ,and also plan to have autumn and winter events in September  and January .
A poignant yet optimistic look at how conflict affects children comes in the shape of A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, an Amnesty International-endorsed picture book by Michael Foreman.
Today seems an appropriate day to feature this book, as it marks the first anniversary of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza – and the anniversary of my realisation of how ignorant I was to the history and politics of the Palestinian campaign.
Yes, I’d often observed the ‘Free Palestine’ posters over the years and the issues spoken of in the mainstream media were at the periphery of my awareness. Yet, really, I was uninformed and uninterested for a long time – it’s a sad fact that the amount of causes to campaign for and injustices out there mean we cannot lend our attention and time to everything that may deserve our recognition. And, in truth, certain issues tend to resonate with us more than others.
Yet last year, largely due to following independent press such as Scriptonite Daily via social media, I suddenly became aware of the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Watching a live stream of a journalist reporting from within Gaza as air strikes took place and she conveyed the horror of hearing children screaming in the streets below, it became more than ‘just another news story’.
Then I picked up A Child’s Garden during a browse of the children’s picture books in our local library. Although no specific conflict was explicitly mentioned in the blurb, it seemed to me that the inspiration was the issue of Israel-Palestine. The illustrations appeared to allude to Palestine for many reasons: one group of people clearly in a position of superiority over another; white-washed high-rise blocks looming beyond wire fencing; families living amidst rubble in a situation of oppression and segregation; people dreaming of their return to hills dotted with date palms.
It was very evident that the issue at stake was the repatriation of land.
I found this book both disturbing yet hopeful. For, indeed, what have the Palestinian people got at the moment without hope? The alternative is too sickening to contemplate, and especially at the hands of a group of people who were themselves persecuted by a regime bent on ethnic cleansing (whilst not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, et cetera, let’s not forget that the State of Israel was officially created after millions of Jewish people were killed or displaced by the Nazis – and that the topic of this post renders me immune to Godwin’s Law!).
The book reminded me of the character and fortitude of El-Phil, a vibrant Palestinian villager in Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and tragedy, there was still something or someone who could raise the energy and raise a smile, a child-like need to play in spite of the pain. There is also more than a hint of defiance – and the awareness that the alternative to hope is utter despair.
Illustrated to drive these points home, the symbols of peace and hope sit vibrantly in colour against a background of grey; the green and seeking tendrils of creeping plants teasing the fences, the rainbow wings of birds knowing the freedom of the skies. Through children and nature, differences are diminished and our true birth-rights brought forth.
A Child’s Garden was a thought-provoking yet gentle means by which to continue a conversation with FreeToBeP about war and oppressive regimes. The book works on many levels without introducing issues or images that are too harsh to present to a child, allowing parent and child to set their own tone for discussion. There is no bloodshed and no death, yet there are walls, sadness and segregation. The hardships of families living in war-torn countries may be softened but the emotiveness is not lost – personal loss is conveyed through the brutal removal of a lovingly-tended plant rather than the heart-breaking bereavement of beloved kin.
Call me naïve but the very fact that this issue can be so carefully and appropriately portrayed in a ‘mere’ picture book speaks volumes about the nature of war and peace.
The answer is simple if only we value other members of the human race. Is that really so hard to do?
Peace and freedom are natural states craved by the scarred yet innocent children in this book. There is a simplicity many of us would do well to emulate: the children do not wish to engage in complex politics about Zionism or Hamas or the IDF, they wish to engage with the land of their forebears.
Likewise, I won’t pretend to know all the politics but what I do know is that something which, technically, holds millions of people hostage whilst systematically stealing their land and slowly killing them off is not a situation a fellow human being should tolerate.
We know the big players are generally corrupt and do not necessarily stand for the wishes of the civilians. We know our own government pays lip service to peace-keeping as they simultaneously trade weapons or engage in wars that result in untold amounts of ‘collateral damage’ (talk about dehumanising – in layman’s terms, that’s the murder of innocent civilians).
Whatever Hamas or the IDF do, it is not a simple narrative of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Even as Israeli MPs demonise unborn Palestinian children, there are Israeli human rights activists fighting for the interests of people living in Gaza and the West Bank. As pro-Palestine campaigners are accused of anti-Semitism (in secular countries no less!), alongside them exist Jews against Zionism. For as many people who believe in the two-state solution there are probably just as many who don’t; those who will never recognise a Palestine and those who will never recognise an Israel.
Hence, we could go around in circles with the politics, just as the conflicts and ceasefires do. The crux of the matter is that there are thousands of innocent families being forced from their homes with nowhere to go, children forced to grow up in a blockaded war zone without even hope of escaping to the loftier status of asylum-seeker. Children like yours or mine who just happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some of those children will, with enough misery and pain to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the vengeful extremists of the future.
Some of those children will, with enough empathy and passion to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the peace-makers and peace-keepers of the future.
So, let’s at least stop feeding our own children stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about the ‘need’ for armaments and war. The world is already quick to tell them this.
Let’s instead teach them to see the humanity in everyone, irrespective of their nation, religion or culture.
I don’t want my children to grow up in fear and suspicion of the world, but I do pray that they see the people rather than the propaganda, that they think about making the world better rather than making do, that they recognise small ways to help make big differences, and – as per A Child’s Garden – that they give thanks when hope and simple pleasures sustain the dream of freedom.
And, in time, may that dream of freedom come true.
Congruence: in counselling terms, this refers to the outer self being in harmony with the inner self – that what you display to others reflects what is occurring in your inner world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you disclose your every thought or feeling, but that you find a way to present yourself authentically.
I have been reflecting on whether this blog is in accordance with the above.
Free To Be was inspired by my travels to Morocco and launched at a time when I was seriously considering emigration; I was expecting baby number 3 and investing in work that I could ultimately do from anywhere in the world. It felt like an exciting time and I knew I had to write about my travels and what it means to be part of the human family.
The themes of peace and freedom and adventure ran through those first posts.
The biggest questions I had when I began blogging were:
“Do I really want to share these personal stories with the whole world?”
“If I present myself as this person, don’t I have to continue to be her?”
How can I be honest and real without compromising my privacy or my Geminian tendency to, well, just change my mind about anything and everything? And not just change my mind, but my entire lifestyle on occasion (for I continue to shake off labels that I once upon a time made use of to shape my identity).
In the past I posted a personal social media status at least once per week, but this gradually diminished to big life events only (at least the birth of a child is a fact that can’t be altered!). My personal opinions can be garnered through calls to petitions and choice news stories – in someone else’s words of course.
It was from a sense of feeling more private that I decided to go public. I finally felt safe in my own skin and no longer needed my friends to comment on day-to-day trivialities for my sense of self-esteem. Hence, I gained the courage to invite strangers to comment on my writing; writing that is generally sourced from experience, sometimes garnished with facts yet often doused in personal philosophies and opinion – always an expression of one’s sense of self.
I just hoped to offer something that could inspire others or be a call to action, with a life of inspiration and action to provide such material – to walk the walk as I talk the talk.
Yet I occasionally feel, for as balanced and open as my accounts of our travels have been, our family circumstances have been less exotic and more excruciating than might be assumed. I have many articles drafted regarding travel advice for Morocco, being part of a mixed race family, language learning and other topics, all liberally seasoned with personal anecdotes which include many casual mentions of FreeToBeB as if our cross-border relationship is normal and sustainable – for it is neither. Between issues of finance, language, immigration law, culture and religion to downright personality clashes, it is – frankly – incredible that it survived its first year, let alone four years and two babies.
The question on everyone’s lips: When is the next trip to Morocco?
The answer: Sadly, less of a when and more of an if.
So, as I found myself at the mercy of a 6 year old’s distress at a 2 year old’s temper with a baby wailing in my arms at 8pm on a rainy winter’s night in Britain, seven months beyond any adventures abroad, feeling somewhat alone and isolated, and wondering why the universe was testing me in such a way (and breathe!), I pondered those themes.
Thus, from this low point, I questioned my congruence this week with regards to this blog, wondering how the person reading these posts perceives the person writing them; wondering if my current lifestyle lives up to what the blurb promises.
Where is the peace?
Where is the freedom?
Where is the adventure?
Well, the answer to these is right here.
Even as I castigated myself for yearning for the icing on the cake in the modern mother’s repertoire (i.e. time to myself), I also knew that was not the solution.
We don’t fight the monsters by running away; we don’t escape the inner demons by changing our outer environment.
For anyone who’s ever read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or even has a basic understanding of living mindfully, you will know that the power always resides in the very moment that you feel powerless.
And so I realised:
Where there is love, there is peace.
Where there is thought, there is freedom.
Where there are children, there is adventure.
Winter as a home educating single mum with a new baby has been challenging. But I like a challenge. And within that adventure, we are free to be family – for there is many a country where home educators or single mothers would fare a lot worse than I do in the UK.
And there is always, always peace when staring upon a sleeping baby’s face.
Yet as I centred myself and dealt with the siblings’ squabbles, I found that person.
FreeToBeP screamed (real tears and all) as his little sister angrily disagreed with something he said. He chose the misery of wanting everyone to agree with his stance – isn’t that how wars are started?
And so I thought of a quote that I’d spotted on my social media news feed earlier that day:
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…” (Aldous Huxley, Island)
“Choose the happy path, P.” I advised, before doling out suggestions on how to cope better (note to readers: I was taking my own advice as I said it – for I do not always handle such bickering with such grace!).
And as part of the happy path I tried to lead him upon, I thought of all the memories I hope to make with my children this year, all the opportunities we have to make life one big adventure . . .
Aha! Here comes that train of thought which includes getting the camping gear out, attending festivals, booking flights, travelling to new places, trying new things, meeting new people and, yes, perhaps even emigrating. Yes, here comes the fever of the travel bug.
If having children has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn. And as we learn, we grow. And as we grow, we change.
As such, I can always give my promise that at any moment my writing comes from the heart and that congruence exists despite a change of heart. If anything, it is all the more congruent in that I invite you along for the journey, as witness!
And I can always give my promise that for as long as this blog exists, I shall be striving towards those themes even as they seem to elude me:
Chicha morada is a Peruvian beverage and a non-alcoholic take on the traditional saliva-fermented chicha.
The term ‘morada’ is taken from the type of maize used in this recipe – maiz morado or, in plain English, purple sweetcorn.
As part of our Home Ed project on the Inca Empire we decided to host an Incan Feast and chicha morada seemed like the perfect drink to make for it – sweet, alcohol-free and delicious either hot or cold.
Unfortunately, I was unable to source any fresh or dried maiz morado in the UK, but I was able to get hold of some authentic Peruvian purple corn flour. Having found a couple of recipes online that used the flour opposed to the whole cob or dried kernals, I decided the flour was better than nothing – and the idea of purple flour was in itself a novelty!
Whatever the form, I’m always happy to try out new ‘superfoods’ – a title this particular type of corn can lay claim to thanks to its colour; the anthocyanin that produces the colour also acts as a powerful antioxidant.
These are the ingredients you will need to make approximately 2 litres of chicha morada:
2 ltrs water
1 fresh pineapple diced or sliced OR 800g tinned pineapple chunks or slices in juice
2 green apples
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp cloves
150g purple corn flour
6 tbsp honey
Juice of 5 limes
Put all the ingredients except for the flour, honey and lime into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally.
Next, add the flour – the mixture will immediately turn a deep, rich purple. Stir the mixture almost constantly as you bring this to the boil to prevent the flour sticking to the base of the pan and burning, and to get rid of any lumps.
Turn the heat down, cover the pan and leave it for an hour to simmer, stirring occasionally. If you want a thicker, smoothie-like drink, the apples can be mashed as they soften.
Once this hour is up, remove the heat and add the honey and lime juice. Stir well.
Find a suitable bowl or container to strain the mixture into. When I first started doing this I was aiming for a thin fluid and began by using muslin cloth to filter the mixture. However, this proved difficult and time-consuming, so I substituted the cloth for a basic strainer and accepted that the consistency would not be as expected.
The mixture may need a little teasing with a spoon to get it flowing through the strainer.
Finally, decant your drink into your vessel of choice – straight into a glass still warm for an immediate pick-me-up (this makes a perfect winter warmer), or into a sealable container where it can be cooled and left refrigerated for about a week.
Serve chilled with an extra squeeze of lime juice for a cool fruity refreshment.
This particular batch was a thick, smoothie-like drink and delicious both hot and cold. It initially reminded me of a spiced cider and the cinnamon and clove combination harkened to the treats of the Christmas season.
Whilst my attempt may not be a genuine chicha morada, the hallmark of this drink – its glorious purple colouring – was a delight to behold. I also wonder if the consistency makes this particular concoction less a chicha morada and more an ‘api’ or ‘Inca’s Dessert’ (a hot gruel of purple corn and fruit).
One day I hope to get a chance to try a ‘real’ chicha morada made with fresh maiz morada (anyone want to sponsor a trip to Peru?!), but the results of this first experience of something I call chicha morada were satisfying enough.
Quite apart from the taste sensation of this drink, we have enjoyed discovering and preparing new foodstuffs as a family and had the joy of sharing our learning journey with good friends through our Incan Feast.
Having found out about the candlelit vigil late in the afternoon, the children were given little warning of our unusual evening outing to Weymouth Pavilion. Yet they approached the small crowd beside the theatre in good spirits and were cautiously intrigued by the flickering flames. One attentive lady soon assigned FreeToBeP the task of keeping the candles alight as a gentle sea breeze ensured the steady snuffing out of the many tealights.
My children may not have understood why we were there, but their presence seemed poignant. It was one of those moments where I can understand (if not agree with) people who don’t wish to have children due to the sort of world that they would be being brought into.
FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ both adopted a natural reverence – whilst they may not have fully appreciated the occasion intellectually, they certainly seemed to intuitively.
Initially, it appeared difficult to know how much to disclose about such a case as Badawi’s to a child – I don’t want to wrap my kids in cotton wool, yet equally don’t want them fearing that the world is a cruel place. But, really, the explanations came naturally and in a language that FreeToBeP would understand.
I gently explained that in some countries, people can be punished for doing exactly what I do: expressing opinions publicly by way of an online blog and encouraging people to share information, think outside the box and question life, the universe and everything.
I gently explained that this man has children who know their daddy is being hurt, and that it’s important to try to free him so that he can be reunited with his family.
I gently explained that we were attending to show that we care about other human beings and don’t agree with people being treated cruelly, that when we know someone is being mistreated we must speak out against it.
Somewhat black and white explanations maybe, but more than sufficient for a six year old who is at liberty to ask further questions if my initial words don’t suffice.
I hope that by attending such events, I’m not merely focusing on the negative happenings of the world but showing my children how much compassion and hope there is between people despite the brutality of others; that through solidarity with our fellow humans – even a stranger in another country – we can affect change and our children will grow up to live that change.
The simple message was Yes, bad things happen, but good people rally together to make things better.
The children were a huge credit to me, FreeToBeP conscientiously being the flame-keeper and FreeToBeZ the observant bystander: both of them calm and contained and careful in both speech and action. I have no doubt that they, on some level, perceived the energy of the event and responded accordingly.
The general atmosphere was one of quiet respect – it was sociable, hopeful and yet suitably solemn. We were a fairly small gathering yet not insignificant – for if no one stood up in protest, the world would be a free for all in quite a different way to the one Raif Badawi calls for.
Yes, there are many atrocities taking place the world over – each and every day witnesses the suffering of numerous warzones and injustices against innocent people. But some stories captivate the collective consciousness more than others (or someone tell me this is due to media spin!) and call on us to respond, to take action, to say “enough is enough”.
As our candles stood as symbols of hope, so has Raif Badawi’s case become a symbol of the right to free speech.
He is just one of countless scapegoated people, yet in speaking out against the inhumanity shown towards one, we speak out against inhumanity in general.
As my children tended to the tiny flames, so I saw the tiny flames that they are – the next generation who will light the way forward.
In allowing our children to take part in peaceful activism and empowering them to believe that they can change the world, may they be the lights of hope that pave the way to a future where freedom of expression is a birthright the world over.
I compile this post as the festive season draws to an end, a time during which those who have wanted to spend time with their families have most likely had the chance to. Or have they?
Unfortunately, for many UK citizens, all that was wanted for Christmas is the right to live with their spouse and pursue a traditional family life in their own country. Yet for some corners of society this is not a right but a privilege – a privilege which depends on your spouse being of British or European citizenship or your personal income being at least £18,600.
The current family immigration rules, introduced in July 2012, prevent many non-EU family members from joining their loved ones in the UK. I feel sure that most of the families affected by these rules would agree that the propaganda machine repeating the “soft touch” and “open door” mantra when it comes to UK border control is a far cry from their experience.
Is it really ok to tell nearly 50% of British citizens that they are too poor to be able to fall in love and pursue a relationship with whomever in the world they wish to? That is effectively what the current immigration rules do.
The minimum income level of £18,600 doesn’t account for many variables, such as the difference in average pay in different areas of the country, the difference in average pay between women and men, and the reality of life for those who are parents. Anyone who is in a full-time job on the minimum wage would not be allowed to have a non-EU spouse join them in the UK.
From international students who meet and start relationships with British students in the UK, to British people posted abroad for work who find romance with people in far-flung places, to those who meet their future spouses whilst on holiday: there are people from all walks of life affected by these rules.
And don’t be fooled by being a British citizen in a job in another country that satisfies the visa application’s financial requirements: if you are living with your non-EU partner in a non-EU country, you will have to separate in order to be in work in the UK for at least 6 months before you can even apply for them to join you. Even if either or both of you are promised high paid work in the UK, this is not enough to satisfy the rules.
Where the non-EU partner is the main breadwinner – even in a high-earning, professional position – the onus is on the British citizen (and them alone) to fulfil the financial requirement.
Prior to these new rules introduced in 2012, the British citizen could call on the support of a sponsor to show that there were funds in place to support the immigrant partner and the financial requirement was also much lower. For example, a British student wanting to live with their American spouse could ask a parent to sponsor the visa application and the minimum income level stood below the £6000pa mark, making it very possible for students or single parents to show that they were economically active despite their commitments to study or children.
Add children to the mix and the situation is all the more dire. Some people state that the UK resident should “just do what they need to in order to earn £18,600 per year” or “if you’re that bothered about your family being together, you should just move to your partner’s country”. The naïvety and lack of compassion in these statements is, frankly, unbelievable to me. Without knowing a family’s specific situation, these are potentially harmful things to suggest.
I have heard of some British citizens struggling to get their Syrian family members over here. Would you suggest the British citizen take their children to a war zone rather than allow the non-EU spouse both asylum and their family in the UK?
There are mothers with children from previous relationships who are unable to emigrate due to the fathers of the older children (understandably) not wishing to see their children relocate to another country. All the while, married couples remain separated and any younger half-siblings in these families are unable to maintain a close relationship with the non-EU parent. Other situations involve children with specific needs who it would not be wise to move away from the support and healthcare we have in the UK. Should any British child to a British parent – wherever the other parent is from – effectively be forced into exile and potentially have to make do with lesser standards of living just because the Home Office decided to impose a high financial requirement on their parents sharing a life together?
The financial requirement is increased for any families whose children have been born outside the UK and are not classed as EEA citizens. These children potentially have the same proportion of British ancestry as my own mixed-race British daughters do, yet for the purpose of this visa, they would not be classed as British as they do not have British citizenship. For a British mother wishing to return to her home country with her family, this makes her wish close to impossible to achieve unless she not only leaves her spouse behind but also her children in order to focus on earning in excess of £22,000 within the UK (the figure rises depending on how many children are involved), the likelihood of the latter depending immensely on the mother’s qualifications and career history.
The argument about saving state benefits by curbing immigration is, for this visa category, a false and misleading one. For one, non-EU citizens entering the UK via this route are not even entitled to claim any benefits until they have been living and working (i.e. paying into the tax system) in the UK for 5 years.
Add to this the fact that these rules split up the traditional family unit and create many single parent families, and I fail to see the logic. My own personal circumstance falls into this category: I live in the UK as a single mother on a low income, entitling me to a number of state benefits. Yet if my daughters’ father were allowed to be in this country to be with us and support us, we would be much more likely – as a united family – to be able to lift ourselves out of benefits and function as an economically active unit. Even if he couldn’t find work, he would have no recourse to public funds.
As for the argument that the British citizen should ‘just’ gain the required income, this may be difficult for individuals without children, let alone parents who may have been out of the job market for a number of years whilst raising children. Looking at my local full-time job opportunities based on the work experience I can claim, there are very few jobs that exceed the £18,600 requirement – and those that do would no doubt be highly sought after by people who may be more attractive to employers than I (for all the talk about flexible working for parents, I’m cynical about the reality of it).
Encouraging single parents into full-time work is known to be psychologically detrimental to their children, particularly where an alternative close and affectionate caregiver doesn’t provide the majority of their care. In a situation where one parent is already separated from the child due to visa rules, it strikes me as particularly cruel that the resident parent should also be encouraged to spend a significant portion of time away from the child.
Instead of the parents’ desired situation of family unity, quite the opposite happens. And even once the British citizen has acquired 6 months’ worth of payslips showing that they earn the requisite amount, as well as the couple acquiring the substantial fee required for the visa application itself, there is still no guarantee of when the visa will be granted, if it is granted at all.
But not to worry if you’re not earning anything – there is another way: savings. Provided you have at least £62,500 cash sat in a bank account somewhere, your non-EU spouse may join you.
Oh, not forgetting another requirement first: submission of a certificate from the correct accredited English language test to prove that the non-EU spouse has intermediate level English.
This language requirement is also a controversy. I strongly support the notion that people should speak the language of the country they reside in – indeed, I find it acutely embarrassing just travelling through other countries with only English at my disposal (and my conversational Moroccan Arabic is only really useful in one country!).
However, both my own personal experience and research by language experts tell us that the best way to learn a language is by immersion in a native-speaking environment.
This requirement also assumes the skill of being able to perform speaking and listening tasks in a controlled, academic exam. Cultural imperialism is very apparent here.
My daughters’ father is multilingual, with English being the latest addition to the list of languages he can speak. I’m thoroughly impressed by the way he picks up language, and amused when he tells me to put my language dictionaries down and just use my brain. He has never sat a formal academic exam in his life. When attempting to take formal English classes at a language school in Marrakech, he felt his learning stalled; his mind went blank in class, yet only an hour later on the phone to me he’d be perplexed at how well his English flowed when engaged in natural conversation.
The reason for this is simple: put a person in a pressured and stressful situation, and their ability to think clearly will shut down. It quickly became apparent that the requirement to pass a formal exam may be an even more difficult requirement for him to fulfil than the financial requirement expected of me.
This leaves a particularly sour taste now I know another Moroccan national who recently came to the UK without any knowledge of the English language. Yet that family, her spouse with EU citizenship, took advantage of EU free movement rules in order to live in the UK.
The positive news is that British citizens can also take advantage of EU free movement rights, assuming they are free and willing to emigrate to another EU country in order to reside with their partner. Yes, just move across the Channel and your non-EU spouse automatically has the right to reside with you! And as long as the Brit moves their centre of life to another EU country and lives and works there for a number of months, they can later return to the UK with their family as an ‘EU citizen’ with the right to a family life that this citizenship of the Union upholds. As the partner or child (whatever their nationality) of an EU citizen (in this case the British national), this right entitles the whole family to the same freedom of movement into the UK as any other EU national exercising their EU treaty rights.
Yet be a British person trying to tick all the boxes from within the UK according to the government’s guidance for spousal visas, and you are up against a much more brutal system that puts economic status before a family’s needs. For many people, moving to Europe to be with their loved ones is the sensible option – and some have even suggested that, once there, they may even be happier in another EU country than in the UK. Having technically been exiled from their home country in order to pursue a life alongside their spouse, life may indeed feel much greener on the other side.
I do not believe in curbing EU migration and feel the current national feeling against such free movement is the result of a paranoid island mentality stirred up by the media to support the establishment’s use of the ‘divide and rule’ theory. A glance at the figures for British citizens who have themselves emigrated to other EU countries shows that millions of UK nationals take advantage of their right to live and work wherever in the EU that they wish to – the right to be an expat is not a one-way street. However, I do believe that British citizens should be afforded the same right to a family life in our home nation as we would be afforded if we chose to live in France, Germany, the Republic of Ireland or indeed any other EU country (take your pick!).
Sadly, for those who are not able to emigrate from the UK – however short-term – this light at the end of the tunnel is not visible.
The issues aren’t limited to the expensive and intensive spousal visa application. Many families (my own included) who have attempted to secure a mere visitor visa for a parent to visit their child in the UK have been refused on grounds of financial status and presumptions about an intent to overstay. So, despite the fact that it would be cheaper and easier for me to sponsor a visit to the UK than it is for me to travel with three young children to Morocco, the only way my daughters can see their father is through my commitment to doing the latter.
Whilst I’m quite a revolutionary thinker when it comes to global community and am open to entertaining ideas such as the No Borders movement, I know that many people affected by these rules would agree that certain limits on immigration are desirable. Yet none can fathom why it has to be families that suffer – if the government genuinely believe in marriage and family life as they say they do, there are many more visa categories that could be limited to affect migration figures whilst retaining children’s and families’ human rights to secure and maintain a family life together.
In 2013 a court case took place in which the judge branded these rules as “unjustifiable” and gave those affected some hope that these laws could be challenged.
However, for the time being and whilst the anti-immigration rhetoric in UK politics seems ever on the increase, a huge number of British people are left in limbo, wondering if they’ll ever be able to pursue the family life they want in their own home country.
Links to my sources, further information and sources of support can be found below.
Are you affected by these rules? Do you think there is a way for immigration rules to remain stringent without splitting families up? Can anyone support these rules whilst genuinely supporting the notion of a human right to a family life? I would be glad to hear your experiences and thoughts below.
So much for weekly posts: it seems three months have passed since my last offering on here. However, major happenings have taken place, one of which is nicely complemented by a book review that shall feature herein.
Many changes have taken place in our lives since September:
I have backed out of a big project which meant a great deal to me in order to concentrate on the things that mean a great deal more;
I have re-embarked on Home Education with FreeToBeP after nigh on two years’ in mainstream school;
Last but definitely not least, we’re celebrating the arrival of FreeToBeNumber3 (hereafter known as FreeToBeL) who is currently snuggled against me in the sling; a sweet, sleeping three-week old.
I delivered FreeToBeL myself in the birth pool at home – a quick, intense labour but a gentle water birth that I’m thoroughly glad I achieved for this precious new water sign. Just as her head was about to crown and she was making her way between two worlds, her siblings informed our dear friend who was taking care of them in FreeToBeP’s bedroom that they must see mummy right then.
Thus, they checked in with me at the perfect moment and were able to greet their little sister the very moment she entered the big, wide world.
In my opinion, this is the ideal welcome for a new life – in calm surroundings at home, directly into the comfort of a mother’s arms, and to the smiles and coos of friends and family.
First-born FreeToBeP had an elaborate pagan blessing ceremony at 3 months old after a long, hard labour to get him out left us both exhausted rather than celebratory. I also felt, as a single mother, that it was important to see him surrounded by supportive people and to be accepted into a community. My biggest fear as a single mum is that of isolation.
FreeToBeZ (who was out in 4 pushes accompanied by beatific smiles) had a similar experience to FreeToBeL, thanks to FreeToBeP’s timely entrance into the same living room where FreeToBeL was delivered. As the second-born, it felt like FreeToBeZ was born into a family; albeit an immediate and local family of only of a mother and a 4-year-old brother, it was a family with an established network of supportive friends, and a father who wanted to be involved even if immigration law meant he couldn’t be.
‘Welcoming Babies’ is an educational picture book which briefly describes many different ways in which babies are welcomed into the world depending on the country, culture and/or religion they’re born into. A double page of notes at the back of the book goes into greater detail about the customs and beliefs behind the ceremonies described. The full page illustrations are colourful, engaging and full of movement.
I found this a valuable book with regards to learning about global community; that whilst many things in our lives are determined by the country we grow up in or the religion of our family, babies – new human beings – are celebrated all the world over, recognised in a myriad of ways for the precious new instances of life that they are.
The importance of the rite of passage from womb to world is something that people of all nations and belief systems mark and respect. It also draws attention to the fact that – whatever one’s beliefs – we are all bound by ritual when it comes to birth and death.
My favourite ‘welcome’ of the book was the simple but symbolic Hopi greeting; regarding the dawn of a new day and the light of the sun rise as a fitting occasion and event for the blessing of a newborn child. This reflects the ‘elemental’ blessing ceremony that I wrote for FreeToBeP – honouring Mother Nature for the seemingly miraculous yet perfectly normal process that is creating new life, and recognising the symbols in the natural world that put the microcosm of our individual lives in balance with the macrocosm of the greater world and universe.
We borrowed ‘Welcoming Babies’ from our local library and, in my opinion, it is a really useful tool in the ‘teaching global citizenship’ toolbox. Many children can relate to the topic of new babies (indeed, it is a lovely book for introducing the issue of new siblings which bypasses the usual human biology and gets straight to the end result!), and it introduces concepts of religion, spirituality, community, family dynamics and culture without any of these complex subjects detracting from the main theme.
And thus, still in my baby moon, we continue with our own welcome:
The many occasions to express gratitude for being entrusted with the care and guidance of another human being, for the gifts and kindnesses of friends and family, for the smiles and love that surround the presence of a baby;
The protected time to exist in a bubble with few demands from the outside world and an invaluable opportunity to bond and to take joy in witnessing the newly established bonds of siblinghood;
The reminder to reflect on what is truly important in life, especially when it seemed like only yesterday that your first-born arrived and yet six and a half years have passed, and you live in the unsettling mix of guilt and hope that you have learnt from the errors you have so far made as a parent.
Thus a welcoming ceremony takes place each and every morning, where the light of each new day shines a light on the preciousness and precariousness of my children’s lives and I pledge to try my best to live our new family mantra . . .
Whatever the question, the answer is love.
How did you welcome your child(ren) into the world? Was a formal celebration an important way in which to mark the occasion? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with me.
In my desire to blog about what may be classed as more exotic family travel experiences, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that we live in an amazing part of the UK that is a tourist hotspot in itself.
Indeed, in the days since returning from our latest visit to Morocco, I’ve attended more events and indulged in more pastimes that could be compiled on a ‘Things to do in . . .’ list than I managed in Marrakech (my last post about Embracing the Ennui in Morocco no doubt drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t particularly adventurous and explorative on that particular trip).
Whilst Dorset may be ‘home’ to me, I shouldn’t take it for granted – there are potentially many local places and issues I could be writing about that would benefit other families on their travels for whom Dorset is actually a destination.
I’ve also started remembering to get the camera out at times other than trips to new locations. Hence, I hereby present yesterday’s full day of summer holiday activities:
In the morning we attended a children’s event at Dorset County Museum. This was a paid event (including a Lego gift – the design wasn’t genuine Lego, but the bricks themselves were), yet the museum often runs free sessions for kids during school holidays.
All we knew was that we’d be building a giant Lego dinosaur. As it happens, the ‘build’ was a mosaic – I’d been wondering how they were planning to get numerous kids to construct a single 3D creation! Each child had to help piece together the tiles that would eventually form the image using Lego bases of 16×16 studs and print outs of what each brick on that tile should be. The list of required bricks were coded (e.g. LGY – 15 equalled 15 light grey bricks) and for each new tile they came to do, the children had to go and find the required amounts from the coded boxes. They picked up the appropriately numbered base to match the number on their instructions, thus keeping track of where each tile should be placed on the huge mosaic base.
It didn’t occur to me at the time to take note of the total number of tiles, but it was made up of around 154 tiles (guessing that it measured about 14 by 11 bases).
FreeToBeP really enjoyed the event, but FreeToBeZ – tagging along as a little sister rather than a true participant – quickly became frustrated that she couldn’t just play with the Lego and protested loudly when we had to prise one of the final bases from her grip. It certainly wasn’t quite the ‘free for all’ experience that is encouraged in the brick pits at Legoland itself, but they had accurately advertised it as being suitable for ages 5+.
However, all in all, it was a fun event and it has definitely given me more ideas of different ways for us to make use of the vast amount of Lego that is in FreeToBeP’s possession.
Following on from this, it was carnival day in Weymouth.
I actually genuinely enjoyed our walk along the crowded seafront. Yes, it was exceptionally busy and therefore slow-going, but compared to the crush of people I’d been forced to walk up against in the crowds of Marrakech, I could actually breath and pretty much retain my personal space – or at least more personal space than the comparative experience!
It took us over an hour to wander from one end of the Esplanade to the spot on the beach we decided to head for. Usually, wandering past stalls full of cuddly toys and noisy, overpriced fairground rides would be enough to make me boycott Weymouth seafront on carnival day, yet it didn’t bother me at all this time.
FreeToBeZ was so in awe of everything that I was able to live through her eyes – as she gawped at the rows of stalls and insisted that she’d be going on the white-knuckle, adult-only fairground rides (giggling at the screeching people up in the air and announcing “Me go on later?!”), I found myself smiling at the things I’d usually be cynical about.
All the lights and colour brought back to me something I’ve just written about Morocco. I’d complained about how grey and drab British towns seem, and yet yesterday Weymouth (a town I usually consider to have more colour than most anyway) was vibrant and brimming with positive energy.
Our aim was to get to the community radio station’s stage in order to enjoy the live music with friends. As it happens, we found no familiar faces by the time we eventually got down there and the music just became a happy background noise to the job of supervising two kids on the beach. The sun had decided to come out to bless us for the latter half of the afternoon and everyone was in good spirits, FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ content with that desirable holiday trio of sun, sand and sea.
We’d decided on a mutually desired itinerary for the remainder of the day, and sat counting down the minutes until the Red Arrows’ display.
I’m not usually one for endorsing the glorification of military organisations, yet I must admit to having a soft spot for the RAF’s Acrobatic Team. A combination of nostalgia about my own childhood, plus the fact that they are actually bloody good, meant that I was genuinely as excited as my children at the prospect of seeing a display. You’d have to be blind to deny the skill and precision of those pilots, and there’s something quite touching about smoke trails shaped as hearts in the sky (yet as I type this, the environmentalist in me is balking!).
FreeToBeZ was particularly impressed by their presence. She has a ‘thing’ for planes at the moment following our own flight earlier this month, and greeted their arrival with a little dance. She voluntarily clapped in appreciation throughout the show.
“Me want go in that plane!” she exclaimed earnestly, as they performed one of their famous opposition passes. As nervous as it might make me – both now (on the climbing frame) and in the future (as a stunt pilot?!) – I do hope FreeToBeZ loses none of her braveness and boldness as she grows; for a fearless nature bodes well for a life lived fully when channelled into positive occupations.
Following this, we made a leisurely trip back along the seafront, stopping occasionally to satisfy the kids’ interest in the various stalls. I must have learnt something from my time spent relaxing in Morocco, for – once again – things I’d usually rush them past with excuses about whether we truly ‘need’ things, I instead looked upon in a more gentle, accepting light.
We got tickets for a tombola that FreeToBeP was determined to win on and – lo and behold – he most certainly got exactly what he wanted. FreeToBeZ didn’t have the same luck, yet her big brother was aware of the injustice of this and insisted he must purchase a floral headdress for her. With my money, of course. He confidently approached the headdress seller and told him he was buying it for his little sister, a gift she graciously accepted as the trader perched it on her head.
Many people enjoy watching the evening’s carnival procession – indeed, for some, this is the pinnacle of the event – yet we were all hungry and decided to go for dinner. We would return to the seafront after dark in order to watch the firework display.
Generally, I’m not a big fan of fireworks, but I do enjoy the odd organised display and I had high expectations of this one. The last time I watched a display on Weymouth seafront I’d had an extremely transcendental experience, being totally drawn into the way the light and patterns of some of the professional fireworks played the sky, seemingly falling towards the audience with an invite into the vortex to . . . somewhere!
“Do you remember the last time we watched the fireworks?” I said to FreeToBeP, “Some of them were like portals into outer space – like we were travelling through the stars!”
“Oh yeah!” he replied in agreement.
“I felt like I’d left the beach and was somewhere else.” I told him, wistfully.
“Yeah. It was like we went up into space, past all the stars!”
I don’t know how much was the power of suggestion, but I think he remembered. Yet I doubt he placed such significance on it. Young children are often living in states of transcendence through their power to live in the present, yet such peak experiences do not tend to happen as frequently in adult life.
The display this carnival night was also a good one, if not spiritually significant (I do feel I put high hopes on such simple things sometimes!). We sat in a cosy row a few metres from the calm sea, wrapped up against the somewhat autumnal chill and rapt with the light and colour and sparkles of the show.
FreeToBeZ didn’t want to leave the beach. Conversely, FreeToBeP was looking forward to going to bed (result!) with the cuddly toy he’d won.
It felt satisfying and soulful to truly appreciate our locality. No, there’s not a carnival every day but there’s always the sea and sand.
Today FreeToBeZ packed her little backpack, put on her shoes, unlocked the door to the outside world and told me she was going down to the beach to watch more planes.
“But we’re not going down to the beach now.” I told her, apologetically.
“Yeah, me like beach, me go myself! Mummy home, me go myself – ok?!” she informed me precociously.
Written early August 2014, a few days into our summer trip to Marrakech, Morocco.
Here I am. In Morocco.
Here I am, needing to refine my ability to ‘just be’. For someone who spends a lot of time reading about and agreeing with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, I’m not very good at it.
I’d been in Morocco for less than 24 hours before I began to sense the ennui that sometimes overcomes me here. I had to take a step back and recall some of the aims of my visit – the ‘3 Rs’:
At home I’m constantly busy, something FreeToBeB finds difficult to comprehend (despite it being obvious to me that between being a lone parent to two young children, running a household, engaging in various social and voluntary pursuits, working on creative endeavours, not to mention trying to pursue my many and varied interests, I am invariably burning the candle at both ends). Yet from his point of view, I appear to have better things to do than chat to him via Skype – for when I do find the time, I’m often distracted by the kids, trying to multitask with work on the computer, in the middle of cooking dinner or cutting our conversation short in order to pick FreeToBeP up from school.
In Morocco, the opposite happens to me: freed from most of my usual household duties, my social circle, the school routine and the variety of other things that usually keep me occupied, I find myself at a loose end here. This time, I don’t even have FreeToBeP with me to keep me on my toes.
I should be grateful for the rest.
But it’s all part of the culture shock, and there is a period of adjustment.
I keep thinking of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. I’m aware of my need for self-actualisation – the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human life, the gateway to transcendence – being unseen, unrecognised, unfulfilled. It’s a distinctly cultural issue, as I don’t think the idea of ‘hobbies’ and many concepts of personal development are particularly prevalent here.
And with the more simple way of life in Morocco, oftentimes my own thoughts turn to more basic needs rather than anything of a ‘higher nature’.
Rather than considering what educational activities I can come up with for the kids, I’m thinking about the need to boil water for a wash. Rather than having my hands and mind free to complete other tasks whilst keeping an eye on dinner cooking safely up on the stove and/or in the oven, I’m trying to figure out how to cook a full meal on a single hob over a gas cylinder on the floor whilst keeping intrigued children out of the way.
Up in FreeToBeB’s family home in the Atlas Mountains – without a bathroom or running water – I am quite literally functioning at the base of the pyramid (“Where can I find a private spot to go to the toilet [outdoors] tonight without risking the attention of wild boars?”).
Thus, time passes differently for many people here, especially for those who have grown up in the countryside.
This observation has been confirmed by a Moroccan author whose work I have been reading this week:
“When it’s hot, people go to ground in their homes until dusk, learning to wait, learning to do nothing. They don’t talk about the climate and its hardships. They sit cross-legged on mats, shifting positions, then changing places. They don’t even look at the sky . . . they forget about the hours that drag by. Instead of passing from one person to another, words seem to bump into the walls and crumble away. So no one speaks. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do . . . Life is simple, and simply terrible.” (Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village)
Yes, at least I can sit and read, something I can see as ‘productive relaxation’. Yet reading for pleasure does not seem to be a typical pastime for many people here, which may be directly linked to literacy rates in Morocco or perhaps it is our more secluded lives in the UK that allow us to partake in such pastimes.
Reading forms such a fundamental basis to my own learning and aspirations, that I can’t imagine life without written material to study, digest and philosophise over. I accept that this is my personal way to access my own ideas and dreams, and yet everyone needs something to inspire new ideas and dreams. Don’t they? To what extent do people in more traditional societies – not caught up in the same individualistic society as I am – even embrace their own ideas and dreams? Surely, I’ve thought, my striving for ‘something more’ is a normal, human drive to explore and discover and create? How indeed has the human race got where it is today without that drive?
And then I remember: life up in the Moroccan mountains is pretty much akin to how it must have been for centuries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sharp and sometimes grating contrast to my own lifestyle, full of my need for change and contrast, full of options and choices and everything around us telling us to personalise our content – create a unique identity and prove what we’re doing to make our way in the world.
There have always been trailblazers, explorers and inventors in the world who help push the human species into new territories. Yet for most of human history, these have been but a few faces upon backbones of larger communities. These days, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we are encouraged not to make our way as a community but as individuals, thinking about how best to progress life for I, Me, Myself.
And not forgetting Maslow’s hierarchy, we are lucky in the UK that most of us don’t have to worry about those bottom two layers, but can take it for granted that we have 3 meals a day and a doctor’s surgery, free at the point of service, just up the road. This isn’t true in places such as Morocco, where as many as 1 in 4 people have a hand-to-mouth existence and cannot afford basic medical care. What time or motivation is there for self-actualisation when your number one concern is ensuring you have a few coins in your hand at the end of the day in order to procure an evening meal?
And, whilst we have seemingly unlimited choice in what we choose for our intellectual and creative pursuits in Western nations, that’s not to say that those in less eclectic cultures can’t pursue valuable and valid personal projects. Who am I to say that a mountain woman making blankets or rugs is merely doing it for survival and following tradition? Yes, it is a tradition – but perhaps it is also her passion and her creative outlet that allows her to reach her own sense of self-actualisation? Who am I to say she isn’t creating her own individual style? Who am I to say that my own ideas of living a creative and fulfilled life have universal meaning across cultures? Of course they don’t.
And perhaps this is why, like a fish out of water, I struggle to adapt my ideals to my reality here. One has to work with what is at hand, and if the country you are in has different things at hand than the country you are used to, your ideas of how to work and what to work on may have to change.
The silly thing is that I feel I should be better equipped and better educated to deal with these differences than I seem to be. I’ve attended so many academic courses, meditated and prayed my way through so many spiritual traditions, owned and read so many books, that on the one hand I feel I “should know better” and on the other hand I’m not quite sure what to do with everything that crowds my restless mind. I have the unsettling feeling that I’m always missing the point.
Conversely, FreeToBeB spent about seven years in formal education as a child, being taught in a language that he had to pick up as he went along. The only books I’ve seen in his possession are bilingual dictionaries and other language-learning materials that actually seem quite surplus to his requirements as a polyglot who can speak seven languages to differing extents, self-taught through interactions with other speakers of those languages.
Occasionally the phrase “At the mosque they said . . .” will emerge from his mouth, but even this he says with detachment: he repeats what he’s heard but admits he doesn’t know enough about the subject at hand to either verify or deny the claims. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know. He shrugs and lets the subject go. He doesn’t understand why I’m always asking “Why?”, like an eternal child.
My point? FreeToBeB seems untroubled by the ever-changing thoughts and questions and the pervading restlessness that punctuates my own mental life. Yes, he sometimes feels fed up, but not in the desperate manner in which I do, whereby I feel selfish for sitting still and doing nothing when world peace has not yet been achieved (note to self: don’t hate – meditate!).
However, it’s now our fourth day here and I think I may well be settling into ‘relax’ mode at last. We were intending to attend a family wedding in Beni Mellal today (the marriage of one of FreeToBeB’s many nieces), but last night I felt ill and tired and worried, so I bailed out.
So much for an adventure! I’m afraid this bout of ‘travel blogging’ doesn’t involve a great deal of your typical traveller stories, much more concerned am I about taking the time to sit still for a while and look after my pregnant body.
Anyway, I couldn’t fathom if the nausea, dizziness and headache I was suffering were a psychosomatic response to heightened emotions (having allowed an issue with FreeToBeB to degenerate into an argument), whether the heat or some dodgy food was having its effect, or if I should be wracking my brains to recall the symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Whatever it was, it was enough to put me off a journey which would entail the generous use of Rescue Remedy in order to calm myself about the dubious road safety record in this country.
Yet I awoke today feeling just a little lethargic and checked myself to see if I was annoyed that I hadn’t committed to honouring the wedding and gone anyway. No, it’s fine; I’m not going to regret this missed opportunity on my deathbed.
We’d all had a late night and didn’t awaken properly until 2pm. We started the day slowly, still eating breakfast at 4pm, treating myself to a favourite yoghurt of cream and cereal which would be way too much of a guilty pleasure at home, where I adhere as much as possible to a vegan diet. I balance it out here knowing that my asthma (exacerbated by dairy products) is usually at bay in the dry heat where I don’t have my damp flat to contend with.
During our leisurely breakfast, I sat daydreaming about lush, green forests and clear, flowing streams of water. I’m yearning for the greenery of England and the seaside of my hometown. But here I am, in Abouab, Marrakech: I know I will exit the front door here to a view of dust and litter and ill-kept streets full of trip hazards. Am I looking on the negative side? No, I’m just looking; saying it as I see it. Here I am.
Despite the daydreams, I actually feel like they’ve come of a desire to ‘retreat and relax’. Let’s just sit here and observe my thoughts.
I’m glad I didn’t rush around purchasing fancy clothes and gifts in order to attend a wedding. Instead, I’m reading a book by a fellow ‘mum blogger’, a read I chanced upon whilst browsing the Kindle store for free downloads to keep me occupied (yes, always that need to be ‘occupied’!). [For those who may be interested, the book is Trees As Tall As Mountains by Rachel Devenish Ford].
This book is balancing. As this fellow mother talks of the joys and pains of parenting her 3 young children and her need to remember to connect to the divine in times of difficulty, it’s a good reminder to myself. Having exchanged some angry words with FreeToBeB last night, I feel I can live today in more grace.
Spontaneous smiles of love and contentment are blooming on my face as I watch FreeToBeZ playing exuberantly, a simple pleasure as I sip sweet, smooth coffee that tastes nothing like the bitter beverage I’m used to at home. The electric fan stirs the skirt of my dress around my ankles as it attempts to penetrate the stifling summer heat and, focusing on this gentle sensation, it’s enough to remind me: here I am; I am alive; what a wonderful world.
So, here I am: overcoming an inner battle of ‘shoulds’. I’m in another country, I ‘should’ be exploring, I ‘should’ go somewhere new. If I’m craving the sea, perhaps we ‘should’ hop on the coach to Agadir? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to see what it’s like. But at the moment it intuitively feels as likely a trip as saying “Ah, New Zealand – I’ve never been there.”
No, here I am trying to embrace the ennui and instead think of it in terms of those 3 R words: this is my retreat, my respite, my relaxation.
Last night I managed to find a place of peace as I prayed and visualised the amazing lifestyle of my dreams. It seemed all the more attainable thanks to being in a country that still relies so much on community and extended family, and due to the aforementioned book being based in an intentional community.
I saw myself amongst a group of people building together, cooking together, cleaning together, helping each other. Between us there were many children, playing as a pack outdoors, laughter streaming after them as they chased through meadows of tall, sun-browned grass . . .
What a cliché! All I need now are some John Lennon specs and flowers in my hair.
But the combination of my knowledge of the more communal, traditional Imazighen life here in Morocco and the impression made on me by an article a dear friend shared with me just before my trip (I Miss the Village) has watered a seed that has rested in my mind for a long time.
I notice that many of the challenges I experience stem from being an isolated single mother, which I keenly feel is not a natural, human state of being. And how ironic that within this isolation I never get the chance to rest and retreat, so consumed am I by being solely responsible for so many things, not least the two little people who depend on me 24/7.
I needed to get away to reflect on what I really want and need in my life. Our times in Morocco are such a contrast to our life in the UK that I can more easily see the pros and cons of both places and wonder how and where I can carve out an existence for my family that embodies the pros of both.
I always come to the conclusion that a commune in a warm climate is my ideal home.
Retreating into myself as FreeToBeP is cared for by my parents back in England and FreeToBeZ is entertained by her father across the room, I can sense my genuine needs, pick out the life ideals that may be desirable but not altogether attainable and/or necessary, and really sort all the wheat from the chaff.
I’m sitting still here, happily observing the mundane yet mighty moments of everyday life.
How can I be anything but appreciative as FreeToBeB cooks and serves me food and I temporarily escape from it being my own daily duty?
How can I be anything but appreciative as I soak up my daughter’s smiles? Such food for the soul. As I bask in them, I nourish myself in a way that I often neglect to do.
I’ve spent the past few hours thinking “Here I am – nowhere else but here”, reminding myself to be truly present in the moment, cherishing the little moments that make life a life lived.
FreeToBeZ just took both FreeToBeB and I in her tiny hands and led us to the shower room, wishing to play with water and wanting us both to witness her splashes. After performing the necessary ablutions to ensure her cleanliness, FreeToBeB blocked up the plughole with a plastic bag so she could sit in the water and enjoy a ‘bath’.
This is what I meant in Paltry Packing when I stated that kids are generally easy to entertain without all the toys and gadgets, providing you are present and patient. Rather than the rushed, pre-bedtime, functional ‘bathtime’ of home, I sat gazing adoringly at FreeToBeZ as she giggled each time she tipped a jug of cool water over herself. She doesn’t need Agadir.
Really: if some folks travel all the way to India to sit in a monastery on silent retreat, why can’t I have my own retreat in Morocco, a place where I have already enjoyed a significant amount of exploring?
Why must I be ‘doing’ when I could purely be ‘being’?
Perhaps, here, I can teach myself to relax. Surely that would be a worthwhile occupation? I may even (guiltily, self-consciously, apologetically) ask FreeToBeB for a shoulder massage later.
Quite apart from making my children aware of different traditions and lifestyles across the world, what better thing to teach them than effective self-care?
For there is no better springboard towards caring for and understanding others than to care for and understand one’s own self first.
I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.
I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).
Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, fried fish, bread and sweet pastries.
FreeToBeZ began devouring the fish, which I also found quite tempting – I usually avoid fish in Morocco, it being something that I’ve known to disagree even with native FreeToBeB, but it’s been one of my pregnancy cravings. Despite my precautionary perusal, I promptly managed to get a small bone stuck in my throat whilst 2-year-old FreeToBeZ continued to carefully stuff her bread with huge chunks of fish and greedily consume it without problem.
Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a dish of chicken and olives cooked in a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.
It’s a good job a vegan diet is something I just tend to practice from my own home for health purposes and that I can allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.
These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I tend to find it more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian diet in Morocco).
Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.
It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.
From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).
In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.
I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.
Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.
I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the dish of chicken, liver and onions in a pepper sauce (OK, I drew the line at the liver – if there’s one thing I consistently refuse to eat, it’s internal organs), I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.
“I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink,” said my host.
I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.
Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.
I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.
That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?
Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.
I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.
I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.
Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.
I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.
And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.
I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.
I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.
However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?
If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.
Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.
I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:
What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?
What do you, my child, believe?
Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.
An interesting read in relation to raising a multicultural family. The question of identity is something I wonder about a lot with regards to what my mixed race children’s sense of identity will be in the future, especially as there is also a chance that we will end up living in a country that is native to none of us. I find the concept of ‘belonging’ quite difficult myself, and my national/cultural background is quite straightforward, so I’m fascinated with how those of mixed heritage interpret their place in the world.
This week features a piece by Sara Salem, a PhD scholar based in Cairo.
Throughout my life I have gone through different phases in terms of relating to where I am from or where I belong. Growing up in Zambia with an Egyptian father and Dutch mother meant that a restless feeling of not quite being settled was always part of my life. During my teenage years I remember this expressing itself as a dramatic quest to find out “who I am” and “where I belong”—something that should probably be attributed to the fiction I liked to read or drama shows I liked to watch rather than some universal human need to belong somewhere. I quickly grew out of that and the question didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. When I was 16, I moved to Egypt, when I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands, and for now…