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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 http://awwproject.org/our-writers/
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 http://www.primecutproductions.co.uk/

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.

 

 

 

Today I am feeling the sort of self-righteous glow that comes with managing to go about your daily business while ticking several important boxes.

This morning I got up and caught the bus to St George’s Market in Belfast. I saved myself money and wear and tear on my car, and boosted the income of the local public transport system. At the market I bought a great value meat pack from a local butcher – saving myself money and ensuring that I will not be eating horsemeat any time soon. Included in the pack was a free range chicken and free range eggs. I then bought some stationary from my friend who runs Arbee Cards http://www.arbeecards.co.uk/ – a successful local small business run by a woman. And then I caught the bus home.

Ok, so it may not seem like much. But I have been energised into trying so much harder to make these sorts of choices after attending a terrifying presentation at Stormont by this man – http://www.mace.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/academic/profile/index.html?staffId=8 . Organised by Friends of the Earth http://www.foe.co.uk/northern_ireland/northern_ireland_index.html, it was a coldly (no pun intended) factual look at exactly what we are facing when it comes to global warming. And the really terrifying part? It’s already too late to limit the effects.

In case you, like me, are not up to speed on the latest developments around this, let me summarise.

Since the 1990s it has generally been agreed by the developed countries that in order to avoid dangerous climate change, the sort of global warming that would see large parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, we need to limit the warming of the earth’s temperature to no more than two degrees. However, due to developments in the science around global warming, scientists now believe a rise of two degrees would already be taking us into dangerous territory. Ideally, they believe, we should be aiming for no more than a one degree rise in temperature.

If you don’t know what the effects, the real effects, of global warming are, have a look at this site – http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/fcons.asp

However, Professor Kevin Anderson says that it is too late to limit temperature rise to two degrees, due to the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere. He argues that therefore, avoiding dangerous climate in the conventional sense is no longer possible. In fact, he believes that we are on course for a temperature rise of 4°C by 2060 – and even that isn’t the worst it could get, as, once temperatures hit a certain level, and the rainforests die, and soil starts breaking down, even more carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

2060 – that’s not that long away.

And it’s not just Professor Anderson saying this. Look at this:

“This year we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2ºC warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, from now to 2050.

We have passed a critical threshold – not once since 1950 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation in a single year, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.

The 2011 rate of improvement in carbon intensity was 0.8%. Even doubling our rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with six degrees of warming (my emphasis). To give ourselves a more than 50% chance of avoiding two degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.

In the Emerging Markets, where the E7 now emit more than the G7, improvements in carbon intensity have largely stalled, with strong GDP growth closely coupled with rapid emissions growth.

Meanwhile the policy context for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and nuclear, critical technologies for low carbon energy generation, remains uncertain.

As negotiators convene every year to attempt to agree a global deal, carbon emissions continue to rise in most parts of the world. The urgency for a global binding and meaningful policy commitments has reached a tipping point.

Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2ºC, but 4ºC and, at our current rates, 6ºC.”

That is from PricewaterhouseCooper’s Carbon Economy Index http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/sustainability/publications/low-carbon-economy-index/index.jhtml .

Now my self-righteous morning isn’t going to save us from any of this – that’s up to governments and politicians (so good luck with that).

But everyone can do something.

If every one of us here in Northern Ireland halved the number of car journeys we made, turned the central heating down by a degree, or took every electrical appliance off stand-by, it would make a difference.

Otherwise, I’d start planning to make sure you’re long gone by 2060.

 

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!

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

 

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…

Poetry and Pints

Ok, I’m stealing the very clever title for the gatherings held by the English Society at Queen’s – but I’m stealing it because it so aptly describes a recent night.

This week I went to a poetry reading. I’ve been to prose readings before, but up until a few months ago you’d have been as likely to find me at a poetry reading as a football match. (I have been to both you understand, but neither would be high on my list of top entertainments). We were there en masse from the MA course – partly because we’re all ‘writers’ now, and partly to support one of the readers – poet Paul Maddern, who teaches us http://www.templarpoetry.co.uk/paulmaddern/index.html. He was reading, along with Alex Wylie.

So, there we all were, crammed into the Crescent Arts Centre auditorium. It was another reminder of the shift in orbit my life has taken. The gathering was like a Who’s Who of the literary world of the Seamus Heaney centre – writers, journalists, poets, lecturers – and students of all the above. Not a politician to be seen though.

I was there to show my support too, and not really expecting to be really engaged with the whole thing – but it was amazing. Alex Wylie http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SeamusHeaneyCentreforPoetry/pal/alexwylie/ is clearly one of the bright young stars of the Seamus Heaney centre. Listening to and reading poetry again, after so many years, has made me realise it’s not a test – you can just enjoy it on whatever level you access it. I would love to read Alex’s work though, as on first hearing I was sometimes running to catch up.

Paul read some of The Beachcomber’s Report from the collection of the same name and absolutely spirited me away. As I gushed to him afterwards: “It was like a novel!” High praise indeed from me, whereas one suspects probably not what most poets want to hear. But what I meant was,  that it took us on a journey – a journey that ranged from Donegal to London and in between – and it compelling and engaging – rather than leaving us wondering what it was all about. I loved it.

So, bouyed up by literary enthusiasm and cheap red wine, our ‘group’ – the young’uns, the Carrick Lovely, and me – sat and chatted and eventually drifted to a nearby bar. Now here’s the worst thing about being a student – everyone shuffles up to the bar and orders their own drink. Of course totally sensible when we’re all living on a shoestring, but it seems so anti-social! But, even so, one drink led to another, and the chat ebbed and flowed, until, perhaps unsurprisingly in such a diverse group, age came up. I actually thought the young’uns were in theri mid-twenties, they seemed so mature. But no, it transpired they were all 21. The Carrick Lovely was admitting to early thirties I think, and then came my turn. I think, by the time you’re in your mid-forties, age has become pretty irrelevant, so I blithely spilt the beans. Most gratifyingly, there were disbelieving looks all round. “We thought you were 35!” gasped one of the young’uns. I was delighted, until I thought about it and realised that at 21, you can’t really imagine age beyond 35!

 

 

 

 

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