I have taken two weeks off work. I cannot afford to go abroad on holiday so I have decided to chance my summer break in the British wilderness.
I have taken two weeks off work. I cannot afford to go abroad on holiday so I have decided to chance my summer break in the British wilderness.
I came across a story broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 TV the other day which, although rather disgusting, is quite revealing of the kind of people you will find in the British army.
A group of five British paratroopers are on trial for allegedly indecently assaulting a young soldier – also British – in Afghanistan.
The paratroopers, all believed to be in their 20s, "humiliated" a 19-year-old soldier, stripping him naked, handcuffing him, holding him down and then sexually molesting him while other soldiers looked on. They also filmed and photographed the incident. (Paratroopers 'humiliated' soldier)
The assailants included one paratrooper, Lance Corporal Peter McKinley, who had been awarded the Military Cross for alleged "bravery" in Afghanistan.
It is interesting that the perpetrators of the alleged assault chose a homosexual act to entertain themselves. According to the Channel 4 TV report, which contained more details of the alleged assault than the report posted on the Channel 4 News website, they took off their trousers and underpants and robbed their genitals against the face of the young handcuffed soldier .
This may seem bewildering to some, because the typical British soldier is often seen – and likes to portray himself – as the ultimate macho lady killer. However, the reality seems quite the opposite. As lots of former British servicemen will tell you, homosexuality among allegedly heterosexual men in the British army is rife.
Relating her experience in the British army, a former female soldier once told me that, when her male colleagues got drunk and couldn't find a woman to have sex with, they would often indulge in homosexual acts with one another. This wasn't confined to the public school-educated officers, for whom homosexuality was second nature, but was prevalent among ordinary "squaddies" – the lumpen, poorly-educated, half-brained "macho" soldiers.
So, another myth is debunked. The "squaddy" who commits aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan is not only not a hero, but is also likely to be as queer as a nine bob note.
This has been an emotional month. A close relative of mine arrived from home to begin research for a PhD. It was an event that triggered a whole host of emotions, feelings that had lain dormant, almost unbeknown to me.
First, there was the waiting at the airport, and seeing and hearing my compatriots expecting the arrival of friends and family. It brought home memories that a don't feel at liberty to describe here.
Second, there was the arrival of my relative himself. Like me some years ago, he is here temporarily, looking forward to starting and finishing his studies, and to eventually returning home, with memories of the long, lonely tedium of PhD research firmly behind him.
I wondered to myself: will his stay really be temporary or will his world, like mine, turn upside down and transform his transient stay into a blurred, semi-permanent twighlight existence in limboland?
I called my relative's mother soon after his arrival in the UK. She was still upset by his absence. She said that his temporary departure for Britain reminded her of my own temporary departure for that country many, many years earlier. The temporary departure that soon turned into purgatory.
When my relative first told me that he intended to go to Britain or the US to do research, I wanted to warn him against the idea, to ask him to think carefully about the costs and possible benefits of studying abroad. This is because, in my view, the potential benefits are vastly overrated – both those of a PhD and of studying in a foreign country. However, I could not bring myself to do so. For his own sake, I hope I don't regret it.
It's Friday afternoon and I am sitting in my lounge, looking at the dark grey clouds and the drizzle, the endless, endless drizzle. It's cold and the central heating is switched on. It's mid-summer.
Whenever I think of Britain, it is this depressing scene that comes to mind. When misfortune first brought me to this country, the picture that confronted me was similar to this one. It was cold, grey and unbelievably depressing. The only difference was that it was mid-winter, and there was some snow settled on the ground.
Indeed, whatever season it is in Britain, it looks and feels virtually the same. One can differentiate between "seasons" only by the length of daylight hours, the variation in the average temperature and the leaves on trees. Otherwise, spring, summer, autumn and winter merge seamlessly into one another almost unnoticed, bound together by a grey, sunless sky.
In the cold, dark British autumn, winter and spring, I long for summer, in some forlorn hope that "this" summer would be different and that it would bring with it some sun and wamth. But alas "this" summer is rarely different. In fact, what can pass for a real summer comes to Britain only about once in a decade.
The native Britons are, of course, quite accustomed to their dreary climate. One can surmise from the number of scantily-dressed people in the cold of winter, spring, autumn and summer that the natives are quite indifferent to the seasonlessness of their habitat. On a cold, wet summer day, while I am wrapped up in several layers of clothing, one would find British men in T-shirts and shorts and their womenfolk in tiny miniskirts and ultra-skimpy tops.
Be that as it may, "the weather" inevitably crops up in almost every British conversation, and one only has to see the gloomy, sullen faces when the British grey is particularly grey to understand that it occupies an especially central role in the British psyche. That's why in the spring and summer they flock in their millions to the Mediterranean and other warm places. Sometimes I even wonder whether Britain's depressing climate was the cause of British imperialism: the yearning for a normal habitat with proper seasons driving ruthless, mindless adventurists to steal other peoples' lands.
I no longer look forward to "summer" in Britain. Why be disappointed year after year? Why not look forward to winter instead? At least, one knows what to expect. I also feel that winter is the more appropriate season for Britain, it's long, dark, cold, wet days and nights quite fitting for a super-depressing country that has neither character nor soul.
An English civil servant asked a friend of mine recently how an Arab satellite TV channel portrays life in Britain for Arabs. My friend promised to keep an eye open for relevant programmes and to let him know the next time they meet.
Surely enough, after spotting a programme or two on life for Arabs in Britain, my friend took note and, in due course, relayed the gist of their content to his civil servant acquaintance.
According to my friend, the message of the programmes was not very flattering. In fact, the picture it painted was eerily similar to the one that I have tried to paint in this blog.
However, my friend said, the Englishman was not amused and expressed disappointment that the programmes were generally negative and paid little or no attention to “the positive aspects of life in Britain”.
I am somewhat surprised. Although the story described above took place a few weeks ago, ever since I have been wracking my brain, wondering what could the Englishmen have meant. Despite my own unflattering view of life in the British wilderness, a view that is born out of long, bitter experience, I have always tried to place myself in the native Britons' shoes, to understand how Britain looks and feels to its native inhabitants, in case I stumble upon something endearing that had hitherto escaped my attention.
In fact, I am surprised every time a native Briton says something endearing about, or indicative of an emotional tie to, Britain. For example, one thing that has always bewildered me is when Britons whom I meet while on holiday abroad say, towards the end of their holiday, "I am ready for home know." Other Britons whom I have met either on holiday or in my own country have said some truly perplexing things like "I miss home." Miss what, exactly, I ask myself?
Indeed, on a couple of occasions I plucked up the courage to ask my British interlocutors this very question. The replies did not surprise me. One couple were unable to answer the question, with one of them saying, to the best of my recollection: "I don't really know, that's a good question. I suppose I don't." On another occasion my British interlocutor hesitated while he thought of an answer and, after several minutes, said: "I miss going to the pub for a pint."
That just about sums it up. There is in fact very little to say about the British wilderness that can be described as positive. This is not a comment about the British people at an individual level but about the habitat, the country or physical entity known as Britain. However, as we all know, the physical habitat and its climate play a fundamental part in moulding attitudes, temperaments, behaviours and interactions of people at a societal level. Thus, while it would be fair to say that, on the whole, the native Britons are polite, reserved and respectful of privacy, the other side of this is their asocialness, coldness and perfidy.
So, all things considered, it's hard to know what the English civil servant had in mind when he regretted that an Arab satellite TV channel had omitted to mention anything positive about what Britain had to offer to Arabs. Perhaps if he comes across this blog he might care to enlighten me.
It's sad to see people who have taken early retirement, or accepted generous redundancy packages, return to work after a year or two.
Instead of endless leisure time and the opportunity to do those things they always wanted to do but never had the time to do them, they come back, tales between legs and dreams of utopia long since shattered under the weight of debt and boredom.
However, for those who reach actual retirement age and are unlucky enough to spend their twilight years in the British wilderness, an even worse fate awaits them, for no longer will they have the opportunity to fend off the inevitable avalanche of debt and escape the tedium of nothingness by creeping back to work. They will be truly lost in the wilderness and the only signposts they will see will be pointing towards poverty, boredom, decrepitude and loneliness.
This is the stark reality of living in Britain, where if you want a half-decent life you must work for as long as you can and where work serves as a means of escape from the debilitating boredom of the British wilderness. But, before you know it, you'll probably be too decrepit to do anything after retirement anyway, so, you'll be destined to spend the rest of your miserable life sitting by the fire in the lounge (assuming you can still afford the cost of gas or electricity), watching television or staring at the wall. Or you can spend most of your time in bed, waiting for the Grim Reaper to put you out of your misery.
Arabs and other foreigners reading this blog and unaccustomed to the British way of life will probably utter some nonsense such as "My children will take care of me." Dream on! For if your children were raised in this God-foresaken country they will probably do as the native British children do.
Your beloved children, dear compatriots and other foreigners, will leave home at the earliest opportunity, probably to do nothing worthy of mention. And, if you have become so decrepit that you can no longer look after yourself, they will seek to throw you into an old people's home, where you will spend your remaining years sitting in a circle with other discarded elderly people, saying nothing and doing nothing, until the Grim Reaper takes pity on you and relieves you of your misery. In the meantime, your little darlings will either try to persuade you to sell your home and give them the proceeds, or they will wait and pray for you to die so they can get the inheritance – and probably waste it on rubbish.
You might want to ask why am I writing this and what solution am I proposing?
I am writing this because it is a painful truth which, I am sure, most people know in their heart of hearts but prefer not to face up to or think about. As always, there are of course exceptions but, by definition, they are few and far between. Furthermore, this is not peculiar to Britain; however, it is more socially acceptable in Britain than in my part of the world, for instance.
And my solution? If you want to live, have and raise children and retire in Britain, there is no solution.You are more likely than not to experience the scenario I have outlined above. It's tough but it's true. However, if you try to control your destiny and escape from the British wilderness at the earliest opportunity, then you may still have a life to live.
We all make mistakes; that is not a crime, it's just human. But not to correct a mistake at the first opportunity is worse than a crime: it's plain stupid.
Escapism is, in my opinion, one of the worst human afflictions. It is the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by engaging in fantasy or seeking entertainment. It is bad because it provides superficial relief from problems without addressing the root causes of those problems. It is false and it is temporary.
One variant of escapism is the rejection of painful truths and bad news. Those who are inclined towards such rejection take comfort in the belief that their non-recognition of reality would make it more palatable or maybe even remove that reality altogether.
Thus, every now and then one hears of complaints to the media about the amount of bad news in news bulletins and the fact that the news rarely contains good news. The complainants would rather wallow in the illusion that everything is motherhood and apple pie. Rather than face up to harsh reality, they prefer to shut it out and live in a world of fantasy.
In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyite fantasists conned themselves into believing that the solution to these conflicts lies in inter-ethnic working class solidarity. This was classic escapism because it was easier to comfort oneself with an impractical romantic aspiration than to face up to the problems inherent in Jewish and Boar collective identity.
A few days ago I had my own experience of an escapist. I emailed the URL of this blog to someone whose website I visit from time to time. I was not seeking affirmation for the views expressed on the blog but wanted to ascertain whether or to what extent these views are consistent with his own experience.
I chose that particular person – let’s call him “Adam” – because I had learnt from articles previously posted on his website that he was of mixed Arab-European parentage and that he had taught himself Arabic and Arab culture.
The fact that he taught himself about his Arab heritage without the help or encouragement of his Arab parent, and that he did so in a European country that was hostile to Arab causes, earned him my respect.
Moreover, I assumed that, because of his hybrid backgound, Adam might be able to offer an interesting or challenging perspective on the views and observations expressed on my blog.
I was hoping that Adam respond to my initiative with the kind of reasoned critique that one would expect from a well-educated and cultured man who would not shirk from looking at unpleasant realities in the face. However, I could not have been more mistaken.
First, Adam didn't seem to understand that the views articulated on the blog are based on my experience and observations of the lives of Arabs and other Third World peoples in Britain. What's worse, he didn't appear to appreciate the principle that telling the truth, no matter how painful to oneself or to others, is a good thing.
"You seem to have made rather negative experiences," he began, adding: "You appear, well, not in a good light."
One of the things that offended Adam most was a recommendation contained in a post about relationships entitled "Arab men, British women". In it, I had advised Arab men against forming relationships with British women and exhorted them to keep to their own womenfolk. My reasoning was quite simple: we Arabs and the native Britons are culturally and fundamentally incompatible and, consequently, relationships between Arab men and British women are more likely than not to end in misery and divorce.
I suspect that, because the truth was stark and painful, Adam expected me to censor my own observations. "I think you can write more constructive things than this if you wanted to," he said, as if I should change my observations to fit a pre-conceived conclusion.
Adam was also offended by my strong sense of national identity, and here again there were tell-tale signs of fantasy in his response.
I am shocked by your nationalist separations: the British are this and the Arabs are that... Being a weltbuerger, a citizen of the world, I reject this attitude and find it harmful, maybe even inciting.
Well, Adam, rejecting reality won't change it. Weltbuerger or not, the truth is that we live in a world of nation states which, despite globalization, the "global village", the Schengen Area and so on, guard their national identity and sovereignty as jealously as ever. You should come to Britain and witness the natives wracking their brains trying to define "Britishness" and searching feverishly for an identity. Or try visiting any country, from Australia to the USA, and upon arrival proclaim yourself a weltbuerger. I wonder what they'd do to you, especially with your Arab name!
Given a choice, many people would choose a reality other than the one they're in. Certainly, if I could change my reality I wouldn't be living in the British wilderness.
However, the solution to unpleasant realities is not to engage in fantasies but to confront those realities head on. Otherwise nothing would ever change and we'd be condemning ourselves and others to a life of misery.
This morning I woke up cursing: "Another f.....g day!" In fact, every morning I wake up cursing, and I have been doing so for a very long time.
I don't like getting up, and I am almost beginning to forget the last time that I woke up looking forward to "a bright new day", as they say. It doesn't really matter whether I get up at dawn, as I do on working days, or at mid-day or even in the afternoon: I simply don't like getting up any more. It's worse, of course, during the autumn and winter, when it's dark in the morning, but even in the summer, I still don't like getting up.
Some would argue that this is a sign of depression or stress. I don't recognize either of these conditions. I was brought up in a society where one simply carries on toiling, whatever one's feeling. As with many living creatures, I get upset and the upset can last for days, and I also get overloaded with work-related and non-work-related problems and tasks, but I just carry on regardless, without a murmur. Besides, if the problem were depression or stress, I'd be absent from work frequently, and I'm seldom off sick.
Thus, I don't think depression or stress are the reasons why every morning I wake up cursing the morning and the day that lies ahead.
It hasn't always been like this. Back home, I rarely cursed the new day. I even remember the days when I used to make a special effort to get up at dawn because I loved having breakfast on the veranda in the cool air, seeing the sun rise and hearing the birds sing. Even in the British wilderness, I haven't always hated waking up, at least not with the regularity that I do now.
So, why have I come to hate waking up and to dread the dawning of a new day? The reason, I think, is twofold.
First, there is the dreariness of work, the place where I spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week. I work for one of Britain's most respected employers. But it's an organization with a false reputation, one that's living on its laurels. In my particular part of that organization, the situation is especially pathetic, with a shallow, narcissistic chief who has surrounded himself with "managers" ranging from the indifferent, to the ignorant, to the incompetent, the semi-educated and the rude.
Don't get me wrong, this is not sour grapes. I have never applied for any of the top positions in my organization, nor do I aspire to. And I am not a disgruntled under-performer. In fact, I am one of the highest performing employees and regularly receive annual bonuses in acknowledgement of this.
But it's almost impossible to summon any enthusiasm for work when your organization is led by uninspiring, self-serving, self-obsessed mediocrities. So, when I get up in the morning, precisely what am I supposed to look forward to, other than leaving work at the end of the day?
So, what about the so-called "leisure time", one's personal time after work and at weekends? Surely, there's something to look forward to there?
The answer is: exceptionally maybe but ordinarily no. And herein I think lies the second reason for my aversion to waking up. That is the social vacuum, the empty, sanitized, colourless character of living in Britain.
Life in the British wilderness is akin to being in a socially sterile bubble. The natives, and those migrants who have internalized their habits, pride themselves on being "private", i.e. asocial. For example, they don't like visiting or being visited, and they converse only after drinking vast amounts of alcohol. Genuine and lasting friendships are rare. In fact, what the natives define as friends are often nothing more than drinking partners, the essence of whose friendship is exchanging alcoholic beverages and nonsensical talk in the public house.
This means that, if one has grown out of regular evenings in the pub, then one is left pretty much with working and going home to watch television. Anything else would mean spending a lot of money in return for poor value. And in any case, what could this "anything else" be? Going to a restaurant? With whom? One's spouse, and carrying on the conversation begun at home? Or maybe one's work colleagues who, being native Britons, would invariably need to get drunk first before uttering a word? Alternatively, one can go to the cinema, again with one's spouse. But then why not purchase a DVD and stay at home!
Now I hope you are beginning to get the pictue. When all the "bright new day" (and British days are rarely bright) has in store is working for uninspiring mediocrities, watching television or socializing in an asocial setting, then what befits the new day better than a curse?
But in truth my curses belong elsewhere. First and foremost, I should be cursing the Arab rulers who have condemned thousands of people like me to live in the British wilderness and elsewhere abroad or face humiliation at home.
However, these rulers do not exist in a vacuum. So I should be also cursing the Arab people, yes, my kith and kin from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, whose acquiesence, collusion and cowardice has allowed these rulers to blight our landscape for so long.
Finally, I should also curse the British who, despite all the material advantages at their disposal, have created a social and environmental disaster zone of ugliness, automatons, misfits, illiterates, mediocrities and drunkards.
Weekends are among the main highlights in the lives of native Britons. The natives live for them, waiting all week for the weekend to come, and some work for them, so they can spend their earnings on going out to discotheques and public houses, and getting thoroughly drunk.
How Britons spend their weekends generally varies according to age and social class. Roughly speaking, younger people and those from the working class or lower middle class tend to go for activities involving heavy drinking, while there is no set pattern to what older people and those from the higher social strata do: some entertain in their homes, some go to the theatre, others indulge in activities such as washing their cars, shopping and gardening. Those with lots of money to spare might spend their weekends away, domestically in Britain or abroad.
For many years I found the concept of a weekend rather strange. To begin with, I come from a family where back home my father, who was the breadwinner, and all his friends and acquaintances only ever stopped working on Fridays and the first two days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The idea that people would take two days off work every week was, to me, an unheard of luxury.
In addition, until the 1990s Sundays in Britain were really like a curfew, with empty streets and closed shops and restaurants. The reason was that, because Sunday is a Christian holy day, life had to come to a stop. Well, Fridays are holy days for us Muslims but back home we always went out after Friday prayers and lunch to streets that were full of life.
Nowadays, I quite like weekends, mainly for the chance to rest and get away from work. I used to get annoyed by the mad shopping rush on Saturdays and the morgue-like Sundays but that doesn't bother me any more: most days are too cold and wet to go anywhere and, if I wanted to do anything, such as go out for a meal, I would have to pay a ridiculous price for sub-standard food and service, unless I go to an Indian or to some other foreign restaurant, where there is a better chance of getting value for money.
This weekend my wife and I went to see a film called "I for India". It left me quite shaken. If you haven't seen it, here is how the film's promotional website describes it:
In 1965 Yash Pal Suri left India for the UK. The first thing he does on his arrival in England is to buy two Super-8 cameras, two projectors and two reel-to-reel recorders. One set of equipment he sends to his family in India, the other he keeps for himself. For 40 years he uses it to share his new life abroad with those back home – images of snow, mini-skirted ladies dancing bare-legged, the first trip to an English supermarket – his taped thoughts and observations providing a unique chronicle of the eccentricities of his new English hosts. Back in India, his relatives in turn, respond with their own "cine-letters" telling tales of weddings, festivals and village life.
As time passes and the planned return to India becomes an increasingly remote possibility, the joy and curiosity of the early exchanges give way to the darker reality of alienation, racism and a family falling apart.
A bitter-sweet time capsule of alienation, discovery, racism and belonging, "I for India" is a chronicle of immigration in sixties Britain and beyond, seen through the eyes of one Asian family and their movie camera.
The film captures the sullen, cold, grey soullessness of Britain perfectly. It reminded me of that deep sinking feeling I had when I first came to this country, the same feeling I get every time I return from home or elsewhere abroad.
But what really shook me was the prospect of a fate like that of Yash Pal Suri befalling me, with the dream of release from the British wilderness becoming an increasingly remote possibility and the darker reality of alienation and drab, grey, soulless and asocial Britain, which I have patiently tolerated for so long through the belief that it is only temporary, becoming permanent. I do not want to rot in this graveyard of the living, and the possibility that I might depressed me profoundly.
On the way out of the cinema we bumped into an elderly, mainstream British couple whom we had known for a long time. They belonged to the ruling Labour Party and we had got to know them when my wife was a member of that party. However, ever since my wife resigned from Labour in protest at the Anglo-American aggression against Iraq and the Labour government's support of Israel, they had been cold-shouldering us whenever we met them.
On this occasion, although they spoke to my wife briefly, they looked right through me, as if I didn't exist, for which I am actually very grateful as I really have no time for idiots and political simpletons and am not a hypocrite. It's the kind of look I usually get from British racists who pretend otherwise. The reason for this rudeness, I think, is that they think I am to blame for my wife's leaving the Labour Party, the assumption being that she doesn't have a mind of her own.
Another reason, which I had suspected before the Iraq aggression, is my Arab and Muslim background. The couple, you see, believe in the myth of a "Judaeo-Christian" faith and, as a kind of very crude and primitive corollary, that Israel, being Jewish, is one of "us" (i.e. the couple) while I am an alien, one of "them" Arabs. While Arabs and Muslims can be tolerated in the eyes of such-like people, a political Arab of a Muslim background cannot, especially if he's against holy Israel and its sacred Zionists who can do no ill.
Bumping into this couple just after seeing "I for India" made me all the more aware of the profound differences between me and the British, especially the English, and increased my sense of dread at suffering a fate similar to that of Yash Pal Suri.
It's 3 January 2008 and the Christmas-New Year holiday is over.
For me, this holiday season always evokes mixed feelings. Climatically, it's a dark, cold and depressing time of year. But more than this, ever since my university days I have associated it mentally with boredom and loneliness: it was a time when my wind-swepped English campus was virtually closed down and vacated, except for a few dozen overseas students, too bored to study and too skint to do anything else.
Those days have long since gone. I have now been married and in full-time employment for many years and, come Christmas time, I go home to hibernate until after the New Year.
But the mixed feelings continue. For one thing, I cannot help but draw comparisons between the Christmas-New Year festivities and our own two main festivals, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and the contrast cannot be starker.
For the British, the Christmas-New Year holiday is a time of excess and self-indulgence, with many spending hundreds – some thousands – of mostly borrowed pounds on ever more expensive gifts, alcohol and food. It is also a time of adultery at alcohol-fuelled office parties, marital breakdown and domestic violence. For many – elderly people, single parents, youngsters from broken homes – it's a time of loneliness and depression. And outside, in the streets on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, it's as if a curfew had been imposed.
I am neither a prude nor an angel, and in Christmases past I have had more than my fair share of over-indulgence in alcohol and women, together and separately. However, neither then nor now could I see the joy and the elegance at Christmas time that I associate with our two Eids. To be sure, there's lots of joy among British children expecting gifts. But what I miss most is the very special atmosphere of the Eids: the friendliness and general feelings and expressions of goodwill, the people dressed up in new clothes to visit friends and family and, the happy, bustling streets. For us, the Eids are joyous, family and communal festivals, not a frenzy of greed, self-indulgence and drunkiness.
Sadly, the British people, who are naturally insular and asocial, become social animals only after consuming vast quantities of alcohol, often with terrible consequences. And after the hangover, they turn back into their asocial selves, finding it excruciatingly hard to say hello, or good morning or even to nod in acknowlegement of their neighbour, friend or colleague.
Be that as it may, I am beginning to quite like the Christmas-New Year period, but not for the gifts, the food, the drink or the office parties. For me, it's simply a time to get away from the debillitating routine of work, and from the ever growing number of mediocrities who inhabit the upper echelons of the public (and increasingly the private) sector in Britain.