Friday, 29 April 2011

Calling home

Our home, photo by Mandy Merzaban

This is our family home in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, captured in a photo my younger sister shared with me yesterday upon arriving home with our mom. My sisters and I have not been home for almost two years, the 24-hour travel time and 12-hour time difference discouraging frequent visits. This was among the first images I saw of the fresh coat of paint, new front door and outdoor lamps my mother picked out last year. Celebrating the fact that we had paid off the mortgage for this house a year prior, she decided to renovate the exterior, which had become rundown after more than two decades with limited repair.

How we came to own this house was a something of a miracle, one of those events in life that enhances one's faith in God-granted destiny.

It was, initially, the home of a close high school friend of my older sister. Her family had rented the house for years. I remember visiting it the day of my sister’s high school graduation party. Before heading downtown for the banquet, my sister, dressed in an elegant fuchsia-coloured party dress, and her girlfriends had assembled in the backyard of this friend’s home decked in their gowns to take some photographs on a sunny afternoon in June 1996, two years after we moved to Richmond.

At the time, we were renting a small bungalow about a 15-minute drive away and I recall that day my mom admiring the two-storey house with its well-groomed backyard and rose bushes, quaint wooden kitchen, modest-yet-charming family room, and pleasing separate living and dining rooms. She wished to God she could own such a home someday.

Renting properties was a nuisance we had gotten all too used to. The houses were typically over-priced and poorly maintained. Leasing a house often places you at the whim of a landlord who could decide at any time he wanted to sell the unit for a profit, leaving a parent scrambling to find a new abode in the middle of the school year. Yet buying a property in the mid-1990s in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia was a bit like seeking a castle in Spain for the average middle-class family. Property prices were soaring and supply was sparse.

My mom, tenacious as she is, must have gone through five or six real estate agents trying to find the perfect home to buy: the right place for the right price was her motto. I recall once we made an offer on a recently renovated 30-year-old traditional house with a flat roof on “Mortfield Road” in Richmond. The home’s new decor was impressive and the price was reasonable enough to warrant consideration. In the end, we backed out because of the roof – the rationale being that in a city that rains for what feels like two-thirds of the year, it's probably better to live in a house with a slanted roof so water does not accumulate on top. I have no clue if any architectural justification supports that assumption. Personally, I was more uneasy about the French word for “death” (Mort) embedded in the name of the street.

The neighbourhood at a distance
We had several other near hits in the following years, but circumstances were consistently not in our favour, and transactions would not go through sometimes for the oddest reasons. One house we quite liked until we learned there was an easement on the property, giving the municipality right of use over part of the land. Another time we found a lovely, almost-brand-new and spacious house in a neighbourhood a ways out of the city centre. On the verge of sealing the deal, we decided against it after a property assessor said the house suffered from a design flaw and was erected at a slant, not flat as it should be.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The three-letter word that taught me how to respect my parents

There is a brilliant and somewhat amusing line in the Holy Quran where God advises us concisely and clearly on how to treat our parents. Under no circumstances, even if we are entrusted with caring for our parents in old age or illness, should we say to them “uff” – the Arabic equivalent to an expression of annoyance such as “argh” or “ugh”.

I admit that when I read that line for the first time last year, I was humoured to see this colloquialism used in the pages of the Quran, Arabic for “The Recitation” – a series of messages and admonitions from God for humankind recited through the Last Prophet .

“And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] "uff," and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small’." (17: 23-24)

Mandy Merzaban, "Family Album" 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 300 x 150 cm
The simplicity of these phrases made me smile, but also served as a reality check. The three-letter-word shook me instantly, changing my outlook on how to treat my parents and familial obligations. Besides worshiping and loving God, very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with warmth and watching one's tongue.

Family has always been central for me and I was someone who was widely viewed as a good daughter. Yet, many times I would regard financial and moral obligations to my parents as a burden rather than a pleasure. Due to a series of circumstances – including illness and financial strain – I had perhaps more responsibilities than the average child from a young age. I understood the moral duty to care for family and endeavoured my best to perform these duties.

But I cannot say that my actions were always inspired by compassion and understanding. I would at times disagree with my parents, quarrel with them and fail to deal with them in tenderness. I think many of us can be negligent of our parents as we pursue our careers, travel, and search for love and friendship. We can also be unforgiving of mistakes they have made.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Facing the veil

The debate over niqab currently ensuing as France enforces a ban on face veils somewhat bewilders me, mainly because I live in Dubai, a city of striking contrasts that attempts to cater to the values of many of its varied residents who hail from countries around the world. Dubai has become a “salad bowl” of cultures that strive to co-exist while maintaining traditional practices, including attire. On some occasions, I have sensed that women are more liberated in their clothing choices in Dubai than they are in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

During a visit to one of Dubai’s many malls, one can pass by scantily clad women wearing mini-skirts and provocative tops and, a few seconds later, walk beside a woman of Gulf Arab nationality donning a black abaya (robe) and full face veil, sometimes accompanied by her husband and children, sometimes with other female relatives or friends and sometimes on her own. 

Diverse attire worn in Dubai shopping mall, courtesy Gulf News
Despite warnings in malls about ensuring that people dress modestly, women are able to buy and wear a diverse array of clothing. Some dress in stylish and modest Western dress, others wear decorative abayas with or without a head-covering, some wear Western-style attire with hair covering, and still others wear traditional Asian attire such as the Indian sari or Pakistani shalwar kameez.

I suppose living in this nuanced environment for a number of years has desensitised me to the issue of women’s attire. I am pretty much fine with what a woman wears so long as she is comfortable. In my view, clothing choices to a large degree are not independently reached. Rather, women are conditioned by the familial and cultural influences they were exposed to growing up. Many women believe their individual liberty can be expressed by exercising their freedom to wear revealing clothing. Many others feel they derive liberty from modest attire that distracts attention away from their physical manifestation and forces people they interact with to focus on their intellect.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Matrimonial penalty box

There is a scene in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary where the single Bridget is attending a couples dinner party at the home of her only married girlfriend and is warned that she’d better hurry up and “get sprugged up” because the ubiquitous ‘clock is ticking’. Bridget is then asked the question that women like her – over 30 and unmarried bachelorettes across the world – dread to answer.

“Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?” asks the smug husband of an acquaintance from across the table, with his pregnant wife at his side. Silence falls on the dining room as everyone sets down their utensils and all eyes converge on Bridget, almost expecting her to answer on behalf of every single woman in her thirties, everywhere.

Bridget belts a brief chuckle at the absurdity of the question, and says with a smile, “Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.”

Sometimes I wish I could respond as she did at that moment when emotions of anxiety and embarrassment come together in piercingly sharp force in the centre of even many a resolute woman’s chest. Yet it is not always easy to take questions of postponed marriage in jest and good cheer. The stigma attached to being a single woman above 30 prevails in various cultures, which is why many of us can relate to Bridget, even if the cultural circumstances may differ tremendously.

Arab communities are particularly unforgiving of women who have not tied the knot by 30, and preferably many years younger. I was dismayed by the marriage question six years ago at 25 and I still wince when it is asked today at 31.

The obsession with marriage has made women view forming a family as the only culturally and religiously acceptable way to live their lives. Under this logic, no matter what she may have accomplished, a young Arab woman is doomed to be pitied and feel incomplete without a husband and kids. Some women are pressured to marry early and, as the years pass, to regard any man who has a job, is single and under 45–regardless of whether he happens to have a complementary personality– as a suitable match.

The preoccupation with marriage has caused many women to focus their happiness and fulfilment on securing another person's affection, rather than realising peace within themselves beforehand. There is no use in crushing women’s self esteem as they get further into their 20s and enter their 30s simply because they have failed to cross paths with suitable men.