What do you do when you have no choices left?

Last night I invited a couple of girlfriends over to watch a film with a glass of vino and some Doritos. What do you think I treated them to? Well it wasn’t “Mama Mia!” It was a film I saw about 17 years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. The final scene in particular.

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Had The Brave not popped into my head about a week ago it certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice. After all, the premise is hardly cheery (young Native American man with no hope for the future sells himself to a snuff movie director then has seven days to say goodbye to his life). Written, directed and staring Johnny Depp there is nothing quirky or colourful about this film, and it’s certainly not what I was used to from Depp.

So why did The Brave suddenly enter my consciousness on a dull Sunday afternoon? Well not feeling particularly cheery myself I was thinking about the isolation someone would feel when facing death. In the run up to Easter I tend to get a bit morose and look for films that reflect the Easter story: Jesus’ conquering death to save humanity. Mega themes that both beguile and excite in equal measures. The unnerving thing about this film is that the viewer doesn’t know whether Raphael (Depp) conquered death or not because the ending remains suitably ambiguous, whereas Christian believers are left in no doubt in Mel Gibson’s equally gruesome, The Passion of Christ, that Jesus did conquer death.

However for me The Brave’s appeal is not in the plot, for which there is precious little (needless to say it was completely slated at the Cannes 1997 Film Festival), but in what it represents: The sacrificial nature of someone living in a trash-pit, ghetto community inhabited by those on the fringes of society and for which there appears to be no escape. Raphael has no job, no money and no future – a ‘three times loser’ as he is described. Sacrificing his life to ensure his family are freed from the cycle of poverty – which of course is by no means a cert given the fact that he has just sold his soul to the devil (snuff movie director, Mr McCarthy played by Marlon Brando) – may seem a bit extreme and unrealistic to a white, middle class viewer in today’s Britain but utterly feasible elsewhere in the world for those living on the edges of humanity.

Whilst the film seems to suggest that facing death is the ultimate bravery, Raphael’s actions in the seven days he has left on earth would seem to say otherwise as we witness his newfound willingness to stand up to life, embracing his family and spreading a little joy throughout the whole ghetto community. Having had our spirits lifted momentarily we come to the eighth day when Raphael enters the elevator that marks his lonely decent into hell and into McCarthy’s warehouse film set. And there the film ends.

I hope I haven’t spoilt it for you because it’s a film I would encourage you to see. If only to see Depp in that last scene because it lingers as one of the most poignant of the whole film leaving the viewer with a choice to make. Do I believe that death is certain with no hope of escape or do I choose to believe that there is escape from death through Jesus’ resurrected life? Depp doesn’t attempt to make that choice for us he just offers the premise – whether he knew it or not.

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Robbing Peter to pay Paul: I don’t think so!

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Photo from Sophie Partridge’s post on Because We R Worth It!” INDEPENDENT LIVING

It isn’t often that I get political in these blogs but I feel the need to vent.

Not satisfied with wreaking havoc on disabled people resident here with its welfare and independent living reforms, the UK Government are going back on its protection commitments to disabled people elsewhere – namely Syria.

Under David Cameron’s leadership, the Government reluctantly pledged to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees from camps adjacent to Syria’s borders. That sounds a lot until we look at the numbers. 20,000 over a period of 5 years and split between 392 local authorities making an annual intake of around 10 people (2-3 families) per local authority per year. Not so threatening when put in those terms. Or so you would think? Sadly though in the 2 years since launch of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme in 2014 to August 2016 just 68 local authorities have ‘re-homed’ refugees.

So what does that tells us? Well it tells me that the battle for hearts and minds in the local authority sector charged with the responsibility to do the rehoming has yet to be won. Many will say lack of central funding to local authorities is the main issue. Some will say it’s the lack of affordable accommodation. And others will say there isn’t enough ‘appropriate’ support – whatever that means. But I say it is simpler than that, and far, far more crafty.

The apparent U-turn in the Government’s original position to accept disabled Syrians under the SVPR programme has been justified by fact that disabled people’s needs are “too complex”, and by implication too costly for local authorities to accommodate. Conversely the aim of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 sought to ‘target’ spend on disabled people requiring a higher level of support. The net result of this reform actually plunged thousands of disabled peoples lives into chaos overnight as those with less severe disabilities, but limiting nonetheless, had funding for their care and mobility cut drastically.

Its a cheap shot, but what the Government is doing with these changes is playing one set of vulnerable people off against another. In other words it is using changes within one area of tricky, foreign policy to stem the flow of unpopular public opinion in an area of domestic policy which is closer to home.  Don’t let them win!

It might be crap for us, but rest assured it’s a lot crappier if you have a disability and are stuck in a refugee camp for 23 years which, says the World Bank , is the average length of stay in one. That is twenty-three years living in makeshift accommodation (usually tents) with no running water and long walks to supply tents; limited access to education (mostly this is primary education and generally not available to disabled children); and few opportunities to earn a livelihood let alone develop any sort of career.

Sound familiar? Thirty years ago I could certainly relate to some of that, although gladly not the tent part.  So I say, if the battle for hearts and minds can be won anywhere it can be won between those with a shared experience and a desire to see justice is done.

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A Safe Space

One of the truly disheartening things about being displaced is that you start to believe that you will never find a place to settle and resume normal life. Most people in the UK have an image of a refugee living in squalid camps and dependand on handouts from benevolent charities. And for the most part its a pretty accurate image for many thousands of people fleeing the Syrian War.

However there is also many, many refugees who struggle with the stigma of displacement even after they moved on from the camps and have found a place to settle. Over the past few years I have witnessed within my own family what the desolation of a seemingly hopeless situation can have – right to the point where they stop hoping for the best and settle for the adequate, and then in many cases, the inadequate.

images-1.jpegIn 2011 the neighbourhood where my sister’s house was in Duma was flatten in a bombing raid forcing Suzan and her family to seek sanctuary in nearby Damascus. Twelve lived in a four roomed apartment for nearly three years paying hugely inflated rents as landlords cashed in on a crisis few believed would last longer than a few months. Amid the chaos created by seven adults and five children Suzan still managed to commandeer a room of her own. The building she had lost in Duma had, in recent years, enabled her to have her own room after she moved to an  upstairs apartment with her son’s family, and she wasn’t about to give up her newfound independence that easily.

Suzan told me, “Even though there were many of us living in that house in Damascus I must have my own room. In it I have my own bed – just me sleep in it. I have my own cupboard and table – just put my things on it. All of it just for me. It was small but I was happy there because it was for me. From that time [2014] until now I have lived in seven houses. Now I don’t care if I have a room or not, I just want to stay.”

I take for granted having my own space. For the briefest of times I was homeless and had to live out of a suitcase and on the kindness of others, but I always believed that I would find a safe space again. For many Syrian refugees coming to the UK and finding a safe space is a hope they cling to. More often than not it is less than adequate. Some have even said the refugee camps offer better living conditions (The Refugee Diaries, BBC3).

As we approach the 6th Anniversary of the Syrian War where 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced, providing a safe space for 20,000 people over 5 years across the entirety of Britain is a drop in the ocean.  But it is a start and we can help.

If you have property to let, money to spare, or time to give check out Bicester Refugee Support and help a Syrian family find a safe space.

 

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Goodbye 2016. Hello 2017!

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That’s it! Gone! Never to return. Goodbye to 2016. Hello 2017.

Yes ok, I know most New Year’s Days indicate that the passing year is never to return, well not in our lifetime anyway.  Unless of course, you are Princess Leia from Star Wars and I suspect she too will make a miraculous come back in another gallaxy far, far away, and almost certainly in the next instalment.

I leave 2016 with seriously mixed feelings though, so I’m glad it has gone even if the fallout from it will remain with us for some years to come. Lets face it, it has been a pretty crap, topsy turvy sort of a year and that crapness seems to have hit every corner of the globe, promising little by way of stability as we move into a new year.

A right-wing government, Brexit, the deconstruction of the NHS, a Trump presidency (not that that should effect us, but of course it does), and the death of David Bowie all threaten to plunge us back into the dark ages. If feudal wars, land-grabs and the subjugation of the poor were part of a grand plan to create a utopia that the rich minority could enjoy without the inconvenience of tending to the less fortunates of their society, then they were much mistaken because along came great reformers such as Oliver Cromwell, Annie Kenney, William Wilberforce and Robin Hood. I’m not sure about historical legitimacy of that last one but Historic UK cites Robin Hood as popular folk hero because of his generosity to the poor and down-trodden peasants, and that makes him a hero in my book.

Yet what I take with me in to this new year is the optimistic hope that 2017 will be an good year.  That those who should know better will pull up their socks and work for the betterment of all. I think I said the same thing last year, and mostly likely the year before. Winston Churchill once said, “a Pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an Optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” And I tend to agree with him. While I’m not a optimist by nature, more often than not imagining a challenging situation to its worst possible ending, I have learned to apply an optimists approach in working through a problem in the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil intent.

If you believe as I do – and I’m willing to accept that many probably don’t – God grants favour to those that are humble enough to believe they can’t get through life without Him, then a favorable outcome becomes possible. Furthermore, increasing optimism has been proven to improve the immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope with unfortunate news.

So as I awaken bleary eyed on the dawn of 2017 I bring with me the hope that the best in human nature will prevail and that genuine heroes are still out there. My prayer is that these heroes are brave enough to stick their head above the parapet to do something to even up the odds and a shine a light in the dark corners of this world we find ourselves in. Will it be you? Will it be me?

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Not Another Coup

There was always going to be another. The question was “When?” Even as I got on the plane for Istanbul I wasn’t sure if I had another book in me. Or in Suzan for that matter. But given her world had imploded as well as exploded as I typed the first sentence to Road to Damascus it seemed inevitable that there would be more to tell.

Six years later things are a thousand times worse than they were in 2011. During this time we have seen each other twice. Syria was out of bounds, but we were able to meet in neighbouring countries. Jordan. Lebanon. Turkey. We were treading around one gigantic war zone, each destination having seen its share of conflict, and in our lifetime. We knew all too well that peace when you arrived might not mean there would be peace when you departed.

When my plane landed in Istanbul on 15 July this year I was met with blistering sunshine and smiling faces. Within eight hours the chill of unrest hit the city and Turkey was once again at war with itself. Bombs, demonstrations, helicopter gunships and marshall law about to be imposed, and all in what had been a relatively stable, democratic county with its eyes on Europe.

I slept through it all. Well most of it. I awoke briefly around 3am to the sound of sirens. Nothing new there. Sirens in the dead of night in a Middle East country is compulsory. More often than not there is no emergency, just a need to get somewhere quickly. However these sirens did go on. And on. Deciding that it was in fact a multi-car accident and the emergency services had just forgotten to turn off their sirens in the excitement (a very real possibility even at that time), I turned my deaf ear to the ceiling and drifted off to sleep again.

When I awoke in the morning and checked my phone, for no other reason than to check my phone (a very pointless contemporary habit for which I am thoroughly ashamed), there was a text from a friend back home telling me Turkey was under attack and I had to get out of there fast. More British than Jordanian, I decided it was too early to panic. I called Suzan. If she was panicking then I might have a problem.

Suzan took a while to pick up and when she did she was irritated. I had woken her up. A good sign I felt. Her apartment was eight floors up overlooking the city. If it really had gone up in smoke she would have had a bird’s eye view of it. But I did detect a quake in her voice as told me that the army had attempted to take over the country during the night, but it had failed. Deciding I needed a more reliable source of information I checked the web. It wasn’t difficult to find, Turkey was headline news: “As it Happened: Turkey Coup”. The fifth in just under half a century. This one lasted just 9 hours, but had left 300 dead.

The coup attempt had had little impact on me personally. If anything it created a sharper atmosphere in which to write, but seeing the faces of Suzan and her family when I joined them later that day I could see it had been a long night for them. She had every right to be irritated at being woken up, she had just watched Duma all over again.

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Left on the Shelf

photo-2 copyHaving made the decision to write a sequel to Road to Damascus (RtD from here on in) I needed to find some material to fill its pages. But in actual fact it wasn’t even the question of what goes into a sequel that rendered my fevered brain inactive, but rather the  questions of, do I really want to do all that work again? Does it really need to be the 449 pages:111.625 words long? And what’s a dual memoir anyway?

The short answer to these and the countless other delay tactics I created is of course, no. That said, a smart writer promoting a sequel would at least make some attempt to ensure a link to the previous book (for not to do so would render the aim of writing a sequel meaningless).  But having established the link a writer can do what they like with the structure and content. I hope.

Those that have read RtD will know that it is a memoir written in the first person from two points of view creating, what I coined, a ‘duel memoir’. However, I soon discovered that it wasn’t a term many publishers actually recognised. “So where do you see this book sitting on the shelf?” became a question I came to dread because I really didn’t have an answer other than the one I had.

“It will sit on the non-fiction, dual memoir shelf.” I would reply with a nervous smile. And they would respond pityingly, having heard it all before, “There is no such shelf Ms Shaban, a memoir can only be from one point of view.”  We would then debate this for around five minutes, which is generally the length of time it takes for a publisher to decide whether your a crackpot or just wildly deluded, after which the conversation ends without so much as an ink cartridge offered.

So it is fair to say RtD was doomed from the start from a traditional publishing point of view. However, as more and more writers are going down the self publishing route, made easy by the explosion of online support and publishing software, I decided it was easier to cut out the middle man and write what, and how, I liked.

RtD has two stories that had to be told. Each story having a distinctive voice which the reader needs to sympathise with, and hopefully care enough about, in order to read through to the end. Thus the temptation to fly in the face of tradition again and write a multifaceted memoir told through a myriad of voices is huge. However, this time, as reality hits, there really is only one perspective from which RtD’s sequel can be done, and that’s my own.

I haven’t been bombed out of my home. I haven’t been shot at, threatened, chased, or displaced. But I’ve experienced the Syrian war as if I’ve lived through it myself: Through those near to me that are still living through it despite having escaped Damascus a year ago. The stories are theirs, but the words will be mine.

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Saved for a Purpose

“I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (Nehemiah 6:3)

Its me! I’m back.  I am not even going to begin to apologise for the year’s silence here, but lets just say I got called away and needed some time to regroup.

After the success of “Road to Damascus” I wasn’t sure what to do next. I couldn’t continue to write meandering blogs for the rest of my life and I didn’t have a firm idea for another book.  Well I did.  That was the problem, I had too many ideas.  In such situations my default position tends to kick in – when I don’t know where to start, I don’t start at all. But as a wise friend once said to me, “Everybody ends up somewhere in life, so you might as well end up somewhere on purpose.”

I have a destiny to fulfill. And in my head I have multifaceted mental picture of my preferred future in relation to that destiny.  However, visioneering requires patience, investigation, and planning.  Unfortunately all three have been in short supply this past year when it came to realising my vision of becoming an accomplished writer and generally brilliant intellectual (you need to have seen ITV’s “The Durrels” to get that one).  Ok I’m getting carried away, but you can see where I’m going with this.

So here’s the thing: Make the blog about the book. Not a new idea I know. Julia Powell’s hit “Julia & Julia” started out as a blog.  So if she can do it by serialising how to make the perfect Beef Bourguignon, I can serialise the journey to becoming a brilliant Writer – albeit open ended as it is likely to be a blog that will go on for decades.

Sounds corny.  Implausible even.  But I figure it’s the only way I am going to get a head start (or to be accurate, a behind start) on a book I should have started two years ago and develop a readership along the way.  Well that’s the theory anyway. And make no mistake I do have a readership, all 20 of you and I promise to be hopelessly faithful to each and everyone of you.

So what am I calling this new book? Take a wild guess. It starts in the ear-splitting city of Istanbul and will hopefully provide some answers to the many, many times I have been asked, “So what’s happened to Suzan?”

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I don’t promise that this will be a weekly blog as before.  To do so, alongside getting started on a book while in near-full-time employment, would be a challenge too far for this work-shy fop.  However, my intention is to test the research, testimonies and story line with you in real-time and see where it leads.  So please be interactive and send in comments and ideas. (I can always delete them if I don’t like them before they go live).

 

 

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