Category: Uncategorized

My head is awash with thoughts and ideas -partly due to the fact that I’ve only had about 6 hours sleep in the last 48 hours, but partly due to being back in the mad melting pot of Dubai.

The journey from hell actually turned out to be not so bad – as in nothing went disasterously wrong. But blimey it was long.

I left Belfast at 5.30am and arrived (in real time) in Dubai at, I think around 11pm – but I’m not really sure to be honest. I had gone through two times zones, eaten a breakfast in Dublin, a lunch in Amsterdam and had dinner somewhere over Saudi Arabia. Flights were delayed and time began to concertina up and down in that way it does when you are exhausted, and when clocks cannot be relied apon. To complete the cultural overload, I watched The Great Gatsby on the plane. I was disappointed in the film, but it’s portrayal of times of excess and huge wealth – and the winners and losers – made me see another angle to my novel, The Game. In the post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan of 2003/4, the booming economy generated by aid and contract wealth contrasted sharply with the searing poverty faced by everyday Iraqis and Afghans.

So finally I arrived at Dubai and handed my hotel booking sheet (with map) to an uncomprehending taxi driver, who shook his head and said he did not know it. Is it just me, or is it not the job of a taxi drivers to find the places you want to go? (Although because I’d booked the hotel dirt cheap on the internet, part of me was worried it actually didn’t exist.)

Eventually we got there and it became apparent why it was so cheap. The lobby, at 12.30am Dubai time, was throbbing with music and full of single men. It’s clearly not the place single western women stay.

But the staff were so sweet.

When I begged for a room away from the nightclub the receptionist gave me one on the 7th floor and said “I give you a very good room. I think you will find it the best room in the hotel, insh’allah.”

And it was fine, and I did get some sleep.

But in the morning things nearly went wrong, when I hit the wrong button on my mobile and silenced the alarm. My exhausted body lost consciousness until I resurfaced at  7.30am, time I was supposed to be leaving the hotel. So I missed breakfast and had to throw on my clothes, but I arrived at the airport with time enough for a cup of tea.


And there I sat and people-watched and marvelled anew at the differences and similarities in our multi-cultural world. Next to me sat a woman, clad from head to foot in black – the hijab (head covering), the full black cloak/dress, called an abaya, and a face-veil – niqab. She had with her two small children – a boy of about 5 and a girl of about 3. Both had been given huge sticky lollies to occupy them, while she sat engrossed in her ipad. Eventually a bit of the boy’s lolly broke off and fell on the floor and he picked it up, ready to put it back in his mouth.

“La! La! La! La!” she barked in Arabic – “No!” – and pointed at the bin. He then stood, out of her reach, and held the piece up to his mouth, sticking his tongue out, almost touching the piece of lolly,  watching her face as she grimaced and called “La!” again. It could have been any airport, anywhere in the world.

But as she sat, swathed in black, her little girl scampered around, dressed in the disturbingly sexualised clothes of a western child – a tiny flounced skirt, short enough to reveal a glimpse of her matching nappy knickers underneath. Eventually she wanted her mother’s attention and stood next to her saying:  ”Mama? Mama?”

When she got no response she stamped her foot – “Mama!” until her mother looked up.  On another seat a tiny girl began to have a tantrum, screaming, until her father pulled her onto his knee and began comforting her. And I wondered when do the lives of these girl children change, when do they cease to be able to express how they feel, and what they want.

And then I marvelled at the arrogance of that thought – as if in my culture women are not constrained.

Last night when I arrived at that hotel, I looked every inch the exhausted 45 year old woman. I was wearing my oldest most shapeless jeans and a loose t-shirt. I had no make-up on and my lank hair was pinned up.  Yet why do I even feel the need to be attractive? Because even in my culture, one of the most liberal in the world, women are still required to be decorative.

This morning I got up and chose carefully my Afghan dress – loose trousers, a new shalwar and matching headscarf. The hotel staff admired my outfit, and at the airport, as he checked my ticket, one of the security staff smiled and said: “You are very Asian dress.” Was that a compliment or not? I wasn’t sure. While in the queue to put our baggage through the scanner a woman with her hair bound under her head-scarf openly looked me up and down.

As a white woman wearing Asian or Middle-eastern dress you are in quandary; you don’t know whether people think you look ridiculous, or attractive, or too showy  and the whole experience took me right back. I spent most of the time when I lived in Afghanistan before having a constant internal debate about whether I should or should not be wearing a headscarf.  This morning brought all that back. I don’t have to dress like this, but I do out of respect for the country I am going to. Yet I don’t agree with the way that country treats women. And I don’t agree with women having to cover their hair, so why don’t I challenge that?

But my overriding feeling,  as I regarded the women of Dubai, was joy – joy at seeing the impossibility of disguising women’s beauty, no matter how hard repressive regimes try. As I waited in the queue at passport control, the only parts of the woman clerk examining my passport showing were her hands and her face. She was dark-skinned, almost African looking – maybe a Somali Muslim. I watched as she looked down at my passport, and her long eyelashes lay on her cheeks. She was wearing no makeup, she had no adornment on her abaya, but she was beautiful.

So, here I am, trying to fit everything I need, or might possibly need, into a suitcase I can still carry! It’s never an easy task, and I find that the dozens of soaps, pens etc I have bought as presents for the women actually weigh a tonne when all put together.

I finally got myAfghan visa – after three days in London; I have edited the recordings from the women writers from Northern Ireland, mixing them with their interviews to create (hopefully) understandable recordings for the women in Afghanistan to listen to.

I have bought my insurance – covering me for various forms of dismemberment in a war zone – and maxed my credit card paying for everything. (I am eternally grateful to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for their contribution to this trip.)

And alongside all this I have also submitted my dissertation and had an interview.

I am tired, and, I confess it, a little scared.

But this trip to carry out the Women Spread the Word project will be the fullfillment of a lot of work and nervous energy, expended over the course of much of this year, so now is not the time to give up.

So, wish me bon voyage – and watch this space for how things go!

I’m in London – always stressful at the best of times I find – but I have (almost) finally got my Afghan visa. Today I trekked from the farthest reaches of the Northern Line to the grand residences of South Kensington and the Afghan embassy. It may be one of the most prestigious areas of one of the planet’s wealthiest cities, but the the peeling paintwork and scuffed walls of the embassy were a reminder that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. There I met the industrious woman who has been helping me apply for the visa, and handed over my passport. Now I have to go back on Thursday and then I am legal to go.

But even though I may not yet be physically on the road,  I am already feeling the culture lag. Last week I sat waiting for my appointment with the nurse at my doctor’s, in order for her to update my injections, and protect me against polio, tetanus, Hepititus A and Typhoid.  All of these injections were entirely free, despite the fact I have chosen to make this trip. And of course, they were all just topping up protection that I have already had all my life.

In Afghanistan, which still has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, one in 10 children dies before the age of five.

As I waited I flicked through the usual women’s magazines in the waiting room. My eye was caught by an article about a new beauty treatment – for your vagina. Apparently now you can have your labia ‘polished’ after waxing – for a handsome price of course.

In Afghanistan,  1 in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every 2 hours – more than almost any other country in the world. Nine out of ten women are illiterate, and life expectancy is 44, one of the lowest in the world.  Some of the women I will be meeting for the writing project will be lying to their families about what they are doing – because to write, for a woman, is shameful.

But somehow, in looking at the contrasts between their lives and ours, I’m more shocked by ours. The hedonism of spending the equivalent of a month’s salary in Kabul to make your vagina look like that of a child’s is, on so many levels, outrageous.

Of course, many women in the Uk and Ireland do not have the money for such luxuries. But I am starting to remember, when you visit places where the basic necessities of life, and basic rights we enjoy in the west, do not exist, just how much it teaches you about your own culture.




Me and some friends in Afghanistan in 2004

I am going back to Afghanistan!
It’s at least eight years since I was last there, and I can’t wait to catch up with all my friends, and see how things have changed.
But this is not just a holiday. I am making the trip in order to create links between women writers in Northern Ireland, and women writers in Afghanistan. I’ve called my project Women Spread the Word. It draws on my background as a broadcast journalist, and my newly acquired skills as a creative writer. And it is relying on the generosity and creativity of a lot of women.
I have been carrying out interviews and recordings with women writers here in Northern Ireland. When I asked them to take part in the project, I asked them to choose a selection of their creative writing. I then recorded them reading their work out loud, and interviewed them about their life and their writing.
Among the women who’ve agreed to take part are Belfast’s first Poet Laureate –  Dr Sinead Morrissey, a former women soldier who served in Afghanistan, a woman who grew up during the Troubles, and a young mum from America who’s studying and writing in Belfast.
But I have also spent months emailing women in Afghanistan to take part. I have been helped by some amazing organisations – most notably The Afghan Women’s Writing Project – who have already published a book, in English,  of work by Afghan women writers. You can read some of the work included in the book here
When I travel to Kabul early next month I will take the recordings from Northern Ireland and play them to the Afghan women I meet up with. Then I will record the Afghan women reading their work, and bring those recordings back to Belfast.
Once back here I hope to run some seminars to play the work I collect and hold discussions – so hopefully there will be a chance for more people to hear their work.
And on top of all this, I will also be doing research for my first novel – The Game, which is based loosely on my time working in Afghanistan as a journalism trainer.
But I have to also thank the organisations which have encouraged and supported me to keep pursuing this project, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland have allocated me money to pay for my flights and Queen’s University in Belfast have also contributed money towards my costs.
All I need now is my visa!

The teaching has finished, the final assignments are in, and suddenly all that remains of the MA is the dissertation. (Admittedly, that’s 15 thousand words, so no small challenge). But, as if by magic, my brave new year is nearly complete!

So, when we met for an event to read some of our work and show the short film that I and five other students had made, I think we were all a bit shell-shocked.

The combined nerves of around 15 people, in a small space, is a powerful thing. The evening was so charged you could have lit your fag by waving it around a bit carelessly.

And then it was my turn to step onto the makeshift ‘stage’ and stand, clutching my photocopied bits of paper, and read ‘my novel’.

I had argued to everyone that it was imperative that we all took part. I felt that reading our work out would somehow cement the status of ‘writer’ that we had been learning how to adopt all year.

But when it came to it, I was terrified. I now see that reading your ‘creation’ to a live audience is not the same as reading a news script – however much that felt like a creation at the time.

Of course it was all grand. I didn’t lose my voice; people were interested and kind – and then we all went off and got horribly drunk! And briefly it felt again like we were ‘real’ students!


A wish for the city

I saw Belfast in a new light last night.

And it was all thanks to this

It was clear, and admittedly cold, but up above the night sky was a deep velvet blue. In contrast, at ground level the streets were glittering with light and life. The shops were relatively busy, there were plenty of people, and the new art in the city centre seemed to come to life – the pennants and lights in Royal Avenue, the multi-coloured flood-lighting on one of the domes of the city hall. And I saw newly opened shops and cafes. It may have been that the dark obscured the pound shops, but the whole city centre suddenly looked vibrant and cool again.

And why did I suddenly see all this anew? Well because I was walking the streets listening to a unique broadcast, featuring the voices and experiences of more than sixty people – every-day people, not actors – all of whom talked about their feelings about the city. The result was a mesmerising mix of music and speech, providing a snapshot of the city at this moment in time, a Kaleidoscope.

The ‘audience’ listened to the piece on MP3 players as we walked around the city centre, and every so often we were given instructions – ‘walk this way’; ‘smile at other people wearing headphones’; ‘just sit and watch’. So the whole experience meant I had time to sit on a bench, in the centre of the city that has been my home now and off now for more than a decade, and just look around.

I have been feeling so depressed about the future of Belfast, about the politics that isn’t working, about the seemingly unstoppable destruction of the built heritage, that when the voice asked me to ‘make a wish for the city’, I almost felt like crying. But as I sat on Arthur Street, looking up into the night sky, another part of the performance appeared. From the top of one building, a series of glowing wish lanterns were released, their flaming hearts fluttering as they sailed higher and higher on the night breeze.

It was magical.




Just a quickie – this story illustrates exactly why it’s so difficult to write what you want to. The more you learn about the ‘art’ of writing, the more you realise how ignorant you are!


The creative zone chez Paul – where no one can hear you scream…

It’s a funny old thing, but when you are convinced you’ve always wanted to do something, and then you actually get to do it, sometimes the experience may not be quite what you expected. I hate that phrase – ‘Be careful what you wish for’, but like most hateful phrases, it has more than a grain of truth.

Could I be talking about writing a novel, I hear you cry? Well, maybe.

The first thing my course has taught me is that I have spent the last 38 odd years consuming books like fast food. When I used to travel for a living, I could read an average size novel in a day – a day of 14 hours of assorted aircraft journeys and endless queuing you understand. But even when my life settled down to a living-in-one-place, pile-of-books-by-the-bed type of existance I would still canter through novels. I would read anything and everything, seeing it as a challenge if I didn’t like a book. I’ve relaxed it now, because life’s too short, but for years I had a rule that if I started a book I had to finish it, no matter how long it took. And I truly believed that this huge consumption made me a literary expert. I’d read so much, I’d forgotten more books than most people had read.

But I’ve been brought up short.

Being asked to dissect passages of prose, not the themes mind, but the technique of the writing – and then asked what effect it has – has totally stumped me on more than one occasion. I’ve found myself mumbling like a fifteen year old English Lit pupil, “Erm, dunno, I just like it, like.” Suddenly, reading quickly and voraciously is not the skill I thought it was. Because while I have enjoyed probably 90 per cent of the books I have read, in my reading of every one of those books, I have been totally bewitched by the author. I am a novelist’s dream reader. I trust the narrative voice; I never question the way I’m being led through the novel, or what I’m being encouraged to think. Basically, a book has to be truly badly written before I even notice the way it’s written (any guesses?)

And when I talk about the way a book is written I don’t just mean the clever metaphors/ narrative voice/ passages of beautiful description type of thing - I mean things like the way the prose looks on the page. I mean the punctuation. I mean the typeface! Did you know that a novelist can choose to use single or double inverted commas to show speech? I thought there were rules to govern these type of things. But no, these are also ‘creative decisions’. Blimey.

So, while I knew writing would be hard work, and something one could be easily distracted from (hello blog) I had no idea I would be stumped by the mechanics. But really what did I expect? If it was easy I’d have done it by now. All these years that I’ve been saying ‘I will do it’, now I have to actually learn how to.

And the other strange thing? On some level, I don’t want to. I don’t want to unscrew all the nuts and bolts and take the back off and look at the workings. I remember when I started working in television and I learned the tricks of the trade when it came to filming and editing. Now when I watch some amazing footage I think ‘How did they get that shot?’ And in some ways I don’t want to unravel the mystic around the novel.

But, let’s face it, I am far from having to worry about that! The second big lesson from the course is to just get it down on the page – and keep on doing it – you can sort it all out later – but don’t even stop for a minute to think about later – just keep going. For the minute, that’s what I’m trying to do…

I’ve spent a couple of nights this weekend being well and truly entertained at the theatre, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queens. On Saturday I was gripped by Huzzies at The MAC , in jaw dropping awe at writer Stacey Gregg’s dialogue – sharp, stinging, hilarious . It’s a play about a band, so the music was a big part of it – and the actors managed to convince us they were shambling gauche youngsters, and would then let rip with these amazing voices. It was funny and incredibly sad in turns, and reminded me, again, what it is I’m trying to do this year. The Guardian wasn’t so impressed and I do agree that the plot left us hanging – but that dialogue!

But then, tonight, I saw Enquirer – a performance piece written using interviews carried out with dozens of  journalist, and set in a stylised newspaper office in an empty office block We, the audience, followed the actors around as they went from meeting, to desk, to water cooler chat – it was very cleverly done, and the ‘office’ was full of almost art-like installations, made from phones, shredded paper, over-flowing waste-paper bins, while we sat on piles of newspapers.  As the piece explored the crisis the press finds itself in, after the phone hacking scandal, it came up with some pretty repellent stories. But it also captured the humour, and bad language, that are endemic when you work in a newspaper office – and the dedication of those who don’t have the budget to bribe police officers, or schmooze with expense accounts.

For me, it’s nearly 20 years since I worked as a newspaper journalist, but it reminded me with a pang how exciting that job had sometimes been – and how I’d wanted to do it since I was 13. And for the first time since I left the BBC, I felt a pang that I am no longer a (practising) journalist (I don’t think you stop being something like a journalist just because you aren’t actually doing it). I suppose it part of my identity for too long for me to be able to just shed that skin so easily - and anyway, as I keep telling myself, it’s not set in stone that I won’t be a (practising) journalist again. But this was also yet another case of my past colliding with my future. Tomorrow, I begin teaching at Queen’s University on the MA in Broadcast Literacy -and I wouldn’t be doing that if I hadn’t worked a journalist.

But the play was also partly about the very real prospect of the death of newspapers. A lot of the content centred on the tension between online journalism, and the printed word. Last month one of my oldest friends, who I met at journalism college, and who works for a UK broadsheet, visited. He was full of tales of woe about circulation and in particular, doleful about the future of the printed version of The Guardian. It seemed fantasical to imagine a UK media without The Guardian – the newspaper that has just exposed one of the biggest scandals of the decade. But the very next day other newspapers were reporting that exact story.

However, as I walked back to my car in central Belfast, what did I see?

Monday’s newspapers in Belfast



Paper tigers?

I was reminded sharply this morning, of the time I spent in New York last year, with breakfast accompanied by the disturbing coverage of superstorm Sandy. The city that never sleeps was deserted, blacked-out and, in many areas, underwater. It was a chilling sight – and weirdly, almost as apocalyptic as 9/11. Thankfully, all our pals are ok, but that’s no consolation for the families of those who’ve died.

So, it seems churlish to complain about the weather here, but it’s definitely settling in for Winter proper, with cold drizzle and darkness now falling at 4.30pm. But despite that, I’ve had a really energising day! I’m trying to work out how to sum it up, because there seems to have been a tenuous common thread – and it’s something about preserving the past for the future – and how we do that.

This afternoon our class attended a talk at the new Public Records Office of NI, by the energetic writer and broadcaster Ian Sansom on his new book about Paper. Whilst it seems a slightly off-beat thing to write about, in the course of his talk, I realised I was listening to a kindred spirit. He talked of his enormous collection of all things paper – from receipts, postcards, photographs, timetables, birthday cards etc etc. Having just spent hours trying to shoe-horn what has turned into 10 of boxes of  what I grandly call ‘archive’ into my loft, I know all about collecting this stuff.  This may seem like rubbish to some, but, asked Ian, where would our civilisation be without paper? And when you think about that, it’s a bit like trying to comprehend infinity. However, the other side of that coin is that we are at a pivitol moment in our history, when the book as we know it, is ceasing to be the way we consume literature – Amazon selling more e-book than ‘real’ books for example. Which for a class of people engaged in trying to write books, is, I think you’ll agree, quite pertinent.

So, head spinning with all of these ground-breaking ideas, I then proceeded upstairs at PRONI, to examine some of the records kept there myself. ( ) It’s an amazing resource – and a sort of contradiction in terms. Preserved there are millions of ancient, yellowing, paper documents, but the way you access them is via a smart, brand new building, groaning with computerised equipment to enable you to find the paper document you want! So perhaps actually, rather than a contradiction in terms, maybe PRONI is more of a beautiful synthesis of the old and new?

Anyway, I ordered my documents and collected them and sat down at my allocated table to examine them. One was of no use to me, but was just incredible. A manila file, three inches thick, filled with requistion orders, hand penned notes, receipts, typed reports, anything you can think of, relating to timber supplies! I sifted through the hundreds of different shaped pieces of paper, admiring the ink-inscribed script of the hand-written notes, and wondered just when anyone’s hand had last touched these papers.

Then I found what I was looking for. In another file, all of the witness statements from the 1945 rail accident I am researching for a story. There were page after page of typed statements, and then hand-written ones, the bail note for the accused man, everything relating to the case, before it was taken to court. And again, while it was of great use to me, I wondered how many times it had been looked at since 1945. But, when you think about it, in a way that no longer matters. By simply existing for this long, it has become important - and now its very existance is creating work for someone. PRONI is bristling with librarians, security guards, stewards showing you where to go and how to use the equipment.

So as I try to weed the paper paraphanalia of my life, shredding and ripping up as many of the records of the last 44 years as I think I can do without, across town from me is an entire building dedicated to preserving just such records. Perhaps that’s an antedote to recurring nightmare of being buried under piles of ‘stuff’ – I can comfort myself that maybe one day someone will delighted that I didn’t throw it all away!


© JuliaPaul 2012 Powered by PCSShosting