Post-ISIS Mosul, pt 2: Home is where the hurt is

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Despite the destruction, pain, trauma and dread for the future, Mosul’s tough and long-suffering are returning to the ruins of their devastated city.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Read part 1

Thursday 21 October 2017

Before the offensive to seize back Mosul  from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), almost 2.5 million people had been living in Iraq’s second-largest city. Since then, over a million have been evacuated, especially from the western Sunni districts. A joint effort by the Iraqi security forces and local humanitarian organisations, this was  one of the greatest humanitarian evacuations in human history. The evacuation may have saved a huge number of lives, but hundreds of thousands still lost their homes.

Some 5.8 million Iraqis were driven from their homes after the Islamic State, in 2014, conquered huge and mostly undefended swathes of territory. As things stand, 3.2 million remain displaced, and 600,000 of them are from Mosul.

These people literally have no place to go back to, or they are rightly fearful of returning to the crater that used to be their city, dreading the next wave of violent vengeance – this time of the sectarian variety. During my travels across the refugee camps in northern Iraq, I met numerous people who were actively prevented from returning by the security forces and the Shia militias. In all this chaos, everyone agrees on one thing: Mosul is never going to be itself again.

The western parts of the city remain monstrously empty. Life may be flowing back into the eastern part of town, but west Mosul has been sacrificed. It was clear in advance it was going to be erased. It would be impossible to describe the sheer kinetic force employed to tear down this old and once proudly independent city. The immensity of the destruction can only be grasped first-hand.

Two boys are staring off into space amid the rubble. Not much beside the great absence of things that used to be is on display. It feels like even time itself has died here. The past has been erased, the present is a flat line going nowhere, and no one can imagine anything resembling a tolerable future.

Yet in spite of all this, some of the residents have decided to return. And like the trees that have sprouted up through the cracks in the concrete, these people are now subsisting on crumbs amid the wreckage of their homes. There are no stray dogs to be glimpsed around here. Even the smartest and toughest of alley cats seem to have been eliminated.

During the final weeks of the campaign, a great hunger had descended over west Mosul. People ate whatever they could get their hands on to survive. The Islamic State had confiscated most of the food. What was available was savagely expensive – a kilogram of sugar could set one back as much as $50. In many places, there was no electricity or drinking water. West Mosul, especially its old city centre, had been turned into a constantly bombarded, open-air concentration camp. Caught in the crossfire, the city’s inhabitants were slowly turned into yet another tool of war.

“We were very lucky. All of us survived. But we lost everything we had. My son used to have a shop in the old part of town. The entire family was dependent on that shop. Now it is gone. Everything is gone,” described Ahmed Haji Jasim, 70, who had spent the entire offensive here in Mosul. We were talking to him in the spacious and relatively undamaged guest room in his flat in the al-Rifai quarter. Jasim and his family managed to survive thanks to the bunker they had built in the building’s basement. During the worst of the bombardment, they didn’t leave their hideout for five days. They had to stay put even as they heard most of their belongings above them burning away.

“The worst of it was that we knew we could die at any moment,” the old and tired-looking gentleman told us, sitting under a giant busted clock. “It took such a long time for things to calm down. We were terrified all the time. The food was extremely expensive.”

Before the offensive, Jasim used to be a reasonably well-off man. Now he and his family are facing destitution. “But we’re set to remain here. Where else can we go? After 35 years of bloody conflict, I can no longer trust anyone. No, this was not a liberation. It is clear that the future for both Iraq and Mosul is going to be grim.”

Besieged by death

As if everything else they had done was not bad enough, ISIS fanatics, in a crime against the future, had purposefully worked to dismantle the local medical infrastructure. “What you see here is not rebuilding; it is reanimation,” said Hasan Ibrahim, the new managing director of the West Mosul General Hospital, the main hospital in west Mosul, flashing us a rueful smile. Our meeting took place in Ibrahim’s improvised office somewhere in the maze of charred walls and gutted recovery rooms, the consequence of the Islamic State’s decision to burn the hospital to the ground.

This badly damaged wonder of resilience is currently the only functioning major healthcare institution in the ransacked urban desert. As soon as the Iraqi forces took control of the district on 15 May 2017, the remaining hospital staff took to resurrecting the facilities. With the assistance of the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) and ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian agency, this stupendous project has managed to get off the ground.

“We’ve seen almost total destruction of the premises,” Ibrahim continued. “ISIS took out all our equipment. The demand for our services is staggering. As we re-entered the hospital, the fighting was still going on. Right here, very, very close to us. It was terrifying.”

The hospital’s managing director still serves as an active surgeon. In the past, he had been arrested four times by ISIS thugs. He had been put on trial twice. The first time because his trousers were too long, the second time, because they were deemed too short after he had dutifully shortened them. This is not a joke. But Dr Ibrahim still managed to laugh as he recounted the story. He was also quick to add he had been exceptionally lucky to escape unharmed.

“For the last two months, we functioned as an ER unit. It was horrible, just horrible… Even before all this madness, our staff hadn’t been receiving their paychecks for three years. I can tell you, they’re not receiving them now, but they’re still performing their duties with exemplary dedication.”

As things stood, 25 people were ’employed’ at the hospital. After our interview, the managing director led us up a flight of soot-streaked stairs for a tour of the hospital’s burnt-out upper floors. We ended up on the roof, from where one could survey the totality of west Mosul’s devastation.

The main and only hospital in west Mosul is doing what it can to help some life persevere amid the rubble. The hospital’s underground facilities may be in dire need of complete renovation, but that has not stopped the staff from using it as an improvised maternity ward. Opened at the beginning of June 2017, it was allocated a team of one doctor and two midwives.

During our visit, the modest premises, which were reminiscent of the field hospitals of yore, were a hive of lively activity. It wasn’t yet noon, and the world was already two infant souls richer. That morning, Suria Shaab Ahmad, 42, had given birth to the little girl she was now clutching to her breast on her bed.

It was her fifth child. “Five is enough,” Suria laughed merrily in spite of her apparent exhaustion, a mere two hours after the delivery. Then she told me she had been escorted to the hospital by her 62-year-old mother. Suria’s husband had simply disappeared – or, much more probably, been disappeared… Like hundreds of other Sunni men who had vanished without a trace.

“We come from the Bousefa quarter in west Mosul,” Suria’s mother informed, as she sat patiently next to her daughter and her tiny granddaughter. “Thirteen months ago when the offensive started, we were forced to run. Our house had been burned down. Everything we owned had gone up in flames. We moved to the old city centre.”

Grandma had, herself, brought six children into the world. Five of them are still alive – only her son Mohammed, a member of the Iraqi army, had been gunned down by the extremists. His family searched for him for a long time. He had been hiding in a hole under the house that Suria’s family had fled to. “It was horrible… They had killed my son and burned down that house as well. Following the liberation, we returned to Bousefa to live in a house where Daesh supporters used to live. Where else were we supposed to go?”

Suria’s mother spoke in a forceful, seemingly unruffled manner. But then she could hardly afford to seem ruffled. This robust matronly lady knew very well, as I was also aware, that the survival of an entire family hinged on her fortitude.

“Today is a nice day. We are happy. Life is starting over again. I’m trying to find a name for my little girl. Perhaps you’ve got a suggestion?” Suria Shaab Ahmad asked me.

Nur? Light?

“Ha ha, that’s going to be tough – we already have four girls named Nur in the family,” Suria smiled and kept stroking her precious newborn daughter.

Still and in spite of everything, let there be Light.

Read part 1

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Millet in the Middle East: Disunity in diversity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Middle Eastern practice of assigning a faith to every citizen and a separate court system for each religion promotes division and sectarianism.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, drawing inspiration from Persian and Islamic precedents, created what was known as the “millet” (nation or community) system which granted each recognised religion or sect a great deal of autonomy in managing its own affairs, from setting laws to collecting and distributing taxes.

In its heyday, the millet system – which was progressive by the standards of the time – enabled the Ottomans to prosper as a patchwork of languages and cultures.

However, under strain from imperial decline and growing nationalism, the millet system was creaking and seriously showing its age by the 19th century, prompting a series of reforms, known as “tanzimat”, aimed at creating a uniform and equal Ottoman citizenship.

Across the region today – even in Israel personal status and family laws are partially based on or inspired by the millet system. This means that, in the Middle East, we are destined – or doomed, depending on your perspective – to be born into a pre-determined religion or sect, regardless of what an individual actually believes.

With the exception of Tunisia, where identity papers do not mention religion and courts are civil, this accident of birth shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives, including marriage, divorce, inheritance and death.

If you happily belong to your designated community and are satisfied to live by its religious laws, then your life will be a contented one.

However, if you reject some of the traditional tenets of your faith, such as Christians who believe in divorce or Muslims who believe in equal inheritance rights for men and women, then life may prove difficult.

Women, who are discriminated against by pretty much every religion and sect, are particularly vulnerable when disputes arise, such as Christian women battling husbands who have converted to Islam for custody of their children.

In addition, if you belong to an unrecognised religious minority, such as Bahais, Hindus or Buddhists, then you may have trouble practising your faith.

Now if you don’t believe in God, you are still stuck with the religious label attached to you at birth, and face the risk of prosecution or even persecution in some countries.

Fortunately, in Egypt, there is no law against atheism and atheists are coming out of the closet, despite piecemeal attempts at repression. Syria once allowed complete freedom of belief, including atheism, though it severely restricted political expression. At the other end of the scale, in Saudi Arabia, atheism is classified as “terrorism”, despite the huge underground atheist movement there.

One curious effect of the millet system was that three neighbours and friends – for example, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew – living in, say, Cairo might have shared the same language, culture and social reference points, yet they officially belonged to different “nations”.

Conversely, Christians, Muslims and Jews from opposing ends of the empire, who would not be able to comprehend each other’s speech and even culture, would have been members of the same “nation”.

In its early days, this system was workable in a vast and diverse empire confident in its variety, but in the contemporary, embattled nation-states of the region the modern vestiges of the millet system have proved an obstacle to forging a common national identity.

No matter how much nationalists insist that God is for the individual and the nation is for everyone, the confessional courts, even if they only deal with personal and family law, suggest otherwise, particularly in the minds of religious conservatives and radicals.

I would hazard to say that the religious and sectarian strife we are witnessing in the Middle East is, in part, down to these divisions. This is because defining a person’s religion and sect from birth, and providing them with differential treatment because of it, leads to social rigidity, identity politics and the difficulty in forming hybrid identities.

A classic example of this is Lebanon, where religion and sect do not just govern issues of personal status, but define the country’s political landscape, with its strict laws on which political positions go to which community. This perpetuates the small nation’s divisions.

The modern manifestation of the millet system also encourages institutionalised discrimination against minorities, by blocking minorities from the upper echelons of politics in many countries and enabling unscrupulous civil servants and security officials to mistreat those who are different.

In extreme cases, it even facilitates persecution. For example, the religion field on Iraqi identity cards has been misused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other militias to target citizens who belong to other religions and sects.

Fortunately, there are reformers who are striving for change, and they have scored a number of recent successes. This includes the introduction of civil marriages in Lebanon and the removal of the religion field fromTurkish ID cards.

It is time for Middle Eastern countries to remove all mention of religious and sectarian affiliation from official documents, and to abolish religious family courts.

This would not only be good for the freedom of belief – not to mention love and the equality of citizens – it would also reinforce a sense of common national identity among communities within a country, promoting a sense of unity in diversity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 April 2016.

 

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Religious freedom from birth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Unlike eye colour and skin tone, religion is not hereditary. This reality must be reflected in Egyptian identity documents and personal status laws.

Monday 29 July 2013

In Egypt, like in many other traditional societies, the idea that religion is hereditary is so widespread that it is written into the law and children are stamped with the seal of their faith, on their birth certificates, from the very moment they are born.

But unlike eye colour and skin tone, children cannot naturally inherit their parents’ beliefs. Even the controversial idea of a ‘God gene’, if it were ever to be proven, does not predispose a person to a particular religion but to spirituality in general. In addition, it is a well-known worldwide phenomenon that youngsters reject and rebel against the beliefs of their parents and elders.

Yet millions of Muslims are entirely convinced that not only are the offspring of Muslims automatically Muslim but that the natural state of all newborns is Islam, presumably before the world ‘corrupts’ them.

But does Islam itself back up this belief? Well, the Qur’an, as on so many other controversial subjects, is actually silent on the matter. Those who advocate the idea of Islam as a birthright base their belief on a hadith which states: “There is none born but is created to his true nature.” The Arabic word used is “fitra” (“innate nature”), which is certainly so ambiguous as to possibly signify anything.

Moreover, the notion that a child is born a Muslim, even if the parents are Muslim, contradicts the Quran’s own injunctions guaranteeing freedom of belief. “There is no compulsion in religion,” the Muslim holy book tells believers. And following the same example, Mohamad’s own Constitution of Medina guaranteed equal political and social rights to non-Muslims, including pagans.

And what greater “compulsion” can there be than to force an innocent mind unready to make the most serious commitment in life, its greatest leap of faith: to adopt a belief system before (s)he has the intellectual, emotional and cognitive capacities to do so?

Of course, it is not just Islam that sees religion as hereditary. In many ways, Christianity does too. No child becomes truly a Christian until (s)he is baptised and undergoes the holy rite of confirmation, which suggests freedom of belief. However, since the Church expects every God-fearing parent to do this shortly after their child’s birth, then this innocent baby has also had a faith thrust upon it before it can fairly be asked to make its own mind up.

So, what is behind this phenomenon? It is partly a manifestation of the common instinct people have that their children should grow up like them. Just as individuals often want their offspring to inherit the family business, they also want their children to adopt their dearest and most cherished beliefs.

Collectively, it is a kind of numbers game. In the ideological arena, the number of followers a particular faith commands has significance in the eyes of believers, and what more effective way to guarantee “natural growth” than through the automatic passing on of the flame of belief from one generation to the next. For a growing religion, continued growth adds to its self-confidence, while for a shrinking or minority faith, it helps arrest the attrition, boosting the community’s confidence.

But is this fair to children, and to the eventual adults they become? Absolutely not. Religion is not a birthright, and suggesting it is wrongs both those who would have chosen this path of their own volition, by depriving them of agency, and those who would have followed another path, by robbing them of choice.

While there is a fair chance that a child raised in a particular belief system will adopt it voluntarily as an adult, there is no way of knowing if this is the case in Egypt. In addition, the current system makes no allowance for those who wish to live by another religion or none.

It would be far better for all Egyptians to be born without a formal religious affiliation and then to choose the faith system that suits them once they come of age. This true freedom of belief is not only good for individuals but also for Egypt’s various faith communities, and society as a whole.

As an Arabic expression suggests, numbers in and of themselves are as meaningless as counting lemons. What matters more is the quality behind these numbers. What good is counting X million believers if these believers did not choose their faith freely?

In fact, it opens the door to deceitfulness and hypocrisy, as those who do not truly believe are afraid to voice their doubts due to social (and sometimes even legal) censure. Rather than having the dead wood of uncommitted believers or even non-believers, would a religion not be far stronger and more robust if the community was made up of voluntary believers? Society is also far stronger and better off when citizens can live honestly and express their convictions without fear of stigmatisation or worse.

Moreover, rather than a sign of supreme confidence, forcing a belief system upon newborns can be interpreted as an indication of weakness. After all, if a religion is confident that it illuminates the true path and that its truth is self-evident, then surely it would prefer that its followers make a conscious decision to adhere to it. And those who choose the “false” path have only themselves to blame and, if proven wrong, will get their comeuppance in the afterlife.

So, how do we translate this freedom of conscience to a workable reality in the Egyptian context?

A good first step would be to remove the religion field in birth certificates and other identification papers. This would not only safeguard an individual’s freedom of belief, it would also protect citizens against arbitrary or systemic discrimination based on their religious convictions.

Like in many other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s personal status and family law is still largely based on the Ottoman millet system. While this system of confessional self-rule was once a leading example of religious pluralism and tolerance in action, it is showing its age in the 21stcentury.

Today, the array of beliefs goes far beyond the “three heavenly beliefs” recognised by Egyptian law. In addition to outright non-believers, you have those who belong to other faiths, such as Baha’is and Shi’a Muslims, those who wish to convert but find it hard to do so now and those who interpret their faith in a non-traditional fashion.

To accommodate all these groups and give them equal rights to Egypt’s conventional religious communities, I propose the creation of a parallel civil court system based on modern universal values to run in parallel with the three established family court systems.

Once these civil courts are in place, Egyptians, regardless of the religious affiliations of their ancestors, will have the freedom to choose which personal status system to follow based on their convictions. In order to avoid the risk of ‘shopping around’, a citizen must choose a single court system in its entirety, and not the part that suits him/her. For example, a couple should not marry under Canon law and then divorce under Shari’a.

Naturally, given the emotive nature of religion in Egyptian public discourse and the controversy surrounding apostates, we are probably a long way away from adopting such a pluralistic system. But if Egypt wishes to live up to its revolutionary commitment of equality in deed and not just in words, then it needs to find a fair way to deal with those who subscribe to other belief systems, even if they happen to be a minority.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 23 July 2013.

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Papa’s got a secondhand car…

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Is buying a secondhand car after nine months of contemplation akin to becoming a father or a lover?

Tuesday 7 February 2012

I had to call my wife with the great news. “Congratulations, we are now the proud ‘parents’ of a sprightly little Volvo,” I announced as I tickled the latch to the bonnet of the V40 I’d been planning to buy for nearly nine months.

She was pleased of course (mostly for me) but admitted she wished it was a real baby. I laughed nervously, muttering “for guys this is probably as good as it gets”. But the notion of buying cars being akin to second-hand birthing – the trepidation, the anticipation, the happy arrival – started to take form.

The internet has made the whole process so much easier. The ability to filter online searches by price, make, model, colour, engine and a dashboard of other options are like eugenics for prospective car-owners.

I spent hours scouring car photos – close-ups of the mileage, the service books, the tyres, or that little ding the seller wants you to see so you know he’s ‘not hiding anything’. I add dozens to my favourites, in case I want to contact them.

It’s around this time that the worries, like pending fatherhood, really kick in. I’m afraid to take the plunge.

I tell myself that ‘new’ is just ‘old’ with more scary parts, but for a digital non-native like myself  the internet is like the toss of a coin. It has two sides: the cornucopian side and the dodgy side made up of people looking to con you or use your details to cheat someone else.

I make some enquiries and perhaps an appointment or two. And then I mull things over: why did the seller black out his registration plate and photograph the car in a field?

I arrange to meet in a dodgy suburb and think, do I need to put the cricket bat in the boot? From there, I drift further into the waiting room of doubt. But then I’ll need to put in a ball or the police will think the bat is a weapon? Do I have it there as a weapon? And that’s not even considering the true state of the car itself, and the money I’m about to part with.

Deeper into the delivery suite of nagging thoughts I shuffle. Should I bring the whole sum asked for or just a deposit? What assurances will I get, what documents should I take with me, do I have to haggle, should I put a few hundred in a different pocket?

Or the Hagelian reversal: will he trust me?

I get to the meeting point (not his house!) early. The seller is on time. Does that mean something? He’s wearing a tracksuit. Is it a tracky-with-matching-gold-chain look or keen-jogger-on-Sunday look? He opens the boot and moves a pair of expensive trainers to show me the spare. So he is a jogger, or went to the trouble to seem so …

The car is a little dirtier than the picture. He apologises for this straight off: “I washed it for the photos, but it’s been raining … sorry.” I want him to like me, too. I say: “It’s not a showroom, I’m not expecting perfection. So long as everything that should work works, I’ll be happy.”

We wander around the car. I pretend to know something about engines, taking a torch with me to inspect the fan-belt thing, for effect. I tickle switches and bounce the suspension. “Can I take her for a spin?”

Mental notes while driving:  soggy clutch, strange smell (perhaps not), oil temperature is okay (I guess), brakes are good … “What do you do?” I ask in order to be conversational, but perhaps a bit more. “I teach philosophy,” he says. I want to believe him despite the unlikelihood such professions still exist.

Next, he tells me lots of traders have seen it but they keep trying to haggle and pick faults in his little baby. I can see this upsets him and tell him that’s not my style. If I take it, it will be as God intended. Truth be known, it’s everything I’d hoped for, everything I’d been thinking of.

“Let’s do this,” I say. He is palpably relieved.

So now the whole documentation dance starts. What papers go to who for the deposit? When to meet for the final exchange, and so on? But by this time, I’m feeling confident, a sense that I can’t possibly lose on this – what psychologists might call ‘rational utility’, the urge to justify my decision for consistency sake. Or it’s ‘invincible gambler’ hour, that time between making a bet and when the horses leave the gate … I can’t lose!

The invincibility passes by the time I’m heading home and the doubts return – my money is probably long gone and the whole jogging philosopher persona is an elegant ruse.

Of course, life is never that intriguing, and the seller and his wife deliver the car to my house three days later, as promised, on their way to picking up the Volvo V50 they bought nearby. Nice people.

So the big day finally arrives. All the months spent searching, wondering, hoping and now she’s all mine. I hold the keys gently in my hand, sit in the driver seat, then the passenger seat, then the back seat, for good measure. I kick her over a few times, look under the bonnet again, put in my New Order CD, and Love Will Tear Us Apart sounds better than ever.

I put her in a cozy corner of the garage that I cleared. I make excuses to go into the garage and there she is. Peaceful. Waiting to be taken out. All the worries now gone. She’s mine now, and I’ll accept what ever comes with that.

 

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Why do men leave?

 
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By Evo Steele*

Marriage and fatherhood bring out the best in some. But for many its an unbearable weight, and so they leave.Why is this?

1 April 2010

“Oh, you know your wife won’t be interested in anything apart from that little one,” the maternity nurse blurted out during my first solo newborn bathing lesson. “So, I may as well take off until he’s finished high school,” I joked back. The laughing promptly stopped. She excused herself and left.

My first lesson in the secret society that is motherhood. Had I touched a raw nerve? Is it that common for new dads to do a bunk after having kids? Some simple research reveals it may well be.

In his essay, Why men leave – a hidden epidemic, Dr John Travis suggests that the birth of a child can trigger a withdrawal by men with tenuous emotional relationships or poor bonds with – wait for it! – their mothers, that Oedipal elephant in the room.

He suggests an “unbonded” man like this can manage pretty well in marriages for a while, but when “mommy” gives birth and shifts her focus from her man-child to her newborn, the nurturing they need is lost. Jealousy and alienation kick in and you know what happens next.

There could be something to this Freudian stuff. But there could also be deeper biological answers. Look at all the mammal species where the male doesn’t share in the parenting. Powerful instincts urge them to sow their seed in pastures new. Sure, there are species, especially birds, that do pair for life and share the parenting admirably. But the point is still valid.

Now add to this cocktail of psychology and biology, sleepless nights, very short tempers, raging hormones and emotions, and you have a less than harmonious household. Men have gone to war and found peace in the quiet of the trenches. Jokes aside, some seek jobs abroad, or turn to booze, other women and assorted distractions – just leaving by another name.

Of course, we mustn’t forget sex, or lack of it. Modern men pretty much know the days of conjugal rights are dead. But for some, the weeks of abstinence become months, and the months drag into years of interrupted sex – when tiny feet will patter into the bedroom at an awkward moment.

At the opposite extreme, you get husbands who struggle to find the ‘mother of their child’ sexy like before. Memories of the birth, breasts-as-food-not-fun, physical changes… you get the idea.

It’s impossible to get into the head of every man who contemplates leaving his wife and young child. Surely, it’s never an easy decision. Yet the silver lining in the divorce statistics is that, for every man who leaves, there is another who stays. He may experience the above instincts, toils and emotions, but the laughter and love of a child – his child – makes it worth sticking around.

More info:

Divorce statistics: www.nationmaster.com/country/be-belgium/peo-people

Why men leave: http://wellness.thewellspring.com/WhyMen

Oedipal Complex: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Oedipal_complex

*Evo Steele is a Brussels-based journalist.

This article first appeared in the March issue of (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Evo Steele. All rights reserved.

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Labouring under a false premise

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barring men from the delivery room will not make giving birth any easier. In fact, it is a case of throwing out the father with the bathwater.

14 December 2009

Iskander, shortly after his birth.

Iskander, shortly after his birth.

Saturday 28 November was the best birthday I have ever had. The sight of our son, Iskander, breathing his first, after a long and taxing journey for both mother and child, has to count as the single most emotional and moving moment of my life.

The memory of his cries mixing with our tears is one neither my wife nor I are ever likely to forget. But this magical moment, this three-way bonding experience, this blind date with our new life partner is apparently one I shouldn’t have savoured, according to French obstetrician Michel Odent, who is against what he bizarrely derides as the “masculinisation of the birth environment”.

The eminent obstetrician even links the rising number of emergency caesarean sections to the presence of fathers in the delivery room. While this, at first sight, appears to be a troubling side effect of our modern lifestyle choices, I find it does not stand up to scrutiny. Pregnancy and birth are complex biological processes and so linking a rise in C-sections to the possible inhibition of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, caused by the presence of a nervous male strikes me as somewhat tenuous.

If this were true, then one would expect fewer emergency C-sections in societies where men are barred or discouraged from attending the birth. But this does not appear to be the case. C-sections, including emergency ones, are on the rise not just in rich, liberal societies, but across the globe, including in China (where men are generally not welcome in the delivery room), Iran (where some husbands have only just been allowed to attend), Saudi Arabia and India.

And what about all those other factors? Surely, one of the reasons why more caesareans are performed is largely thanks to the massive advances in medical technology that have transformed what was once a potentially lethal intervention for the mother to a relatively low-risk life-saver.

In addition, not only can doctors better monitor what goes on during labour for danger signals and react rapidly when they are exhibited, the medical community is rightly averse to putting the lives of the mother or child at undue risk. Also, the increasing levels of obesity are making natural births more difficult, while the growing stature and head size of babies has not really been matched by pelvic size.

My wife was forced to undergo an emergency C-section, but the reason for it had little to do with my presence. It was due to pre-eclampsia and foetal distress caused by a loosening of the placenta, leading our baby’s heart rate to fluctuate dangerously, reaching worrying lows.

Had we not been there for each other, the endless, agonising crawl of the clock as the surgeon on weekend call dashed to my wife’s aid would have been unbearable torture – Katleen, alone, hearing Iskander’s weakening heartbeats and me, outside, wearing away the floor with my apprehension. Instead, we gave each other strength and took it in turns to offer reassurance when one of our spirits flagged.

My presence in the operating theatre was also useful. Katleen, whose anxiety for the baby had completely eclipsed any possible concerns about her own wellbeing, as she admitted to me later, was somewhat reassured by the fact that I could see what the surgeons were doing and could communicate that everything was going okay to her with my eyes.

I was also able to hold the fort while the surgeons performed the more laborious post-op procedures. Instead of our newborn son spending that time in an impersonal neo-natal unit with minimal human contact, I held him to my bare chest to give him some of that essential, reassuring skin contact he needed at the start of his life. In return, he gave me one of the most extraordinary feelings I’ve ever experienced. When his mother was ready to take him to her breast, the moment was overwhelming for her and for me, out of both joy and relief.

Although Odent may be wrong to link the presence of men in the delivery room with the rising rate of emergency C-sections, he does have a point when he says that nervous dads are a hindrance.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 12 December 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Birth of a new order

 
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By Khaled Diab

A revolution is on the way and it’s going to change everything – in our house.

21 July 2009

Fertility dollSleeper cells are awakening and an embryonic plot is taking shape. Small but powerful underground forces are massing – even the occasional lashing out has been reported. Great change is on the horizon.

No, this is not some movement to overthrow the government or bring in a new world order. In fact, the revolution is so localised that its ripples are unlikely to reach far outside our house. This revolutionary force is positioning itself to turn our lives upside down; to subjugate us and liberate us; to plunder our resources, but win our hearts and minds.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re having a baby.

I realise that the two opening paragraphs sound melodramatic but that’s kind of how it feels. For years, I’ve smiled indulgently when friends told me how having a child completely changed their lives. Of course we were aware, on a theoretical level, of some of the transformations that accompany parenthood.

That is partly why we took so long – the good part of a decade together – before we decided to take the giant leap from recreation to procreation. We bravely resisted the bangs of the baby boom surrounding us.

With the familial urge failing to swell up inside my bosom, I was even beginning to reconcile myself to the prospect of being forever childless. Some see this as selfish, and at some level it is.

But isn’t having a child also selfish in other ways?

Concerns aside, something imperceptible, like a continental drift, recently began to shift inside us. Then, one day, we decided to leave it to fate and, judging by her speed, Lady Fortune was in a hurry. But her timing was a little rotten.

The evening we discovered that we had crossed a very thin but significant blue line, our contemplations of the probable life forming inside my wife were cut short by her departure the very next morning for a fortnight with mine survivors in the Far East, where she had to deal with the immensity of the changes about to beset her by herself.

Even when still an embryo a few cells across, it’s amazing how much influence an unborn child exerts. There are the lifestyle changes, like cutting out booze and caffeine (my two favourite drugs), full-time for my wife; part-time for me.

You also begin to notice things that had obviously existed in another dimension before, but have now managed to worm themselves through time-space to cross your path, including prenatal shops and gynaecology wards. Then, there are all the practicalities, such as booking creches well in advance because of the waiting lists.

There’s also the gradual shifting of physical and visual centres of gravity. Suddenly, navel-gazing becomes the most entertaining pastime in the world, and my wife’s slowly swelling tummy has grown, quite literally, into an object of immense fascination to us as we try to connect with the impenetrable netherworld of the womb.

Of course, the inevitable speculations about how the child will look kick in – and with our transcontinental backgrounds, the palette of possibilities is quite broad. Our main hope is that the baby will bear something of both of us. Given that my role during the pregnancy is largely that of an observer and assistant, I’ve had more space to let the wild horses of my imagination gallop.

A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but a child’s name can actually have a significant impact on their lives. In our case, if it is too Arab-sounding, it will overlook the child’s European heritage – and vice-versa. Meanwhile, the range of names common to both cultures is quite limited and, in many cases, overused by people in our situation – so the hunt continues.

Language is another issue. Between us, we speak half a dozen languages, and we want to raise our child to be fluent in three of them. So is culture. We want our child to grow up with a keen awareness of its different cultural heritages, and to be comfortable with them. Later in life, (s)he can choose to belong to all of them, one of them or none of them.

The idea of becoming parents still sounds outlandish to us. For the first 35 years of my life, parents were other people, and I was just plain old “Khaled”. Now when our kid starts referring to me as “dad” or “baba” or even “pffft”, I will feel like a bit of an impostor! But for our future child, our status as parents will seem like the most natural, and perhaps irritating, thing in the world – and (s)he will also think parents are other people.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

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