Living robots and the meaning of life

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By Khaled Diab

The advent of ‘living robots’, or biobots, not only poses grave risks for which we must be prepared but also raises profound questions about the future and what it means to be human.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Scientists have created what have been described as the first living robots in the lab, and they did so by first trying out different combinations using an “evolutionary algorithm”, what you can call e-evolution.

Before readers start imagining androids made of flesh and made flesh, I should point out that these “xenobots” are less than a millimetre across and the nearest they possess to limbs are two stumps that they use to swim through liquids for up to weeks at a time without requiring additional nutrition. They are made up of embryonic stem cells taken from the African clawed frog, known scientifically as Xenopus laevis, which inspired the name for the minute bots.

Scientists utilised heart cells that act like miniature pistons and skin cells which hold the package together. The level of sophistication involved in this bioengineering feat suggest that, whereas the technological glories of the past lay in grand monuments and mega-projects, the greatest achievements of the 21st century are to be found at the microscopic, nano and quantum scales.

Developed by researchers from Tufts University, the University of Vermont, and the Wyss Institute at Harvard, these impressive miniature biological machines (or should one refer to them as creatures?), which can repair or heal themselves when damaged, have potentially multiple beneficial uses.

These include the cleaning up of the microplastics polluting our oceans and other toxic materials, as well as vectors to deliver drugs inside our bodies, to perform surgical procedures and other medical applications. Unlike conventional robots and machine which can pollute the environment for a long time after their useful lifetimes have expired, xenobots have the added bonus that they are entirely biodegradable, breaking down harmlessly after they “die”.

In addition, such “biological machines” are, in principle, more versatile and robust than their inanimate counterparts. “If living systems could be continuously and rapidly designed ab initio and deployed to serve novel functions, their innate ability to resist entropy might enable them to far surpass the useful lifetimes of our strongest yet static technologies,” the researchers posit.

Nevertheless, while I would not quite class myself as xenobotphobic, I find the possible fallout of biobots and their future negative potential uses rather unsettling and troubling, despite the exciting possibilities they present.

Neither the researchers in their scientific paper outlining the results nor the news coverage of the xenobots appear to have considered the damaging and destructive potential of this technology. However, this does exist and it must be carefully considered in order to avoid the dangerous pitfalls which lie ahead.

The wrong hands could transform biobots from healing machines to bio-weapons. Instead of delivering healing drugs to the body, they could be used to maim or kill. They could be utilised to act as the ideal hitmen, committing the perfect murder.

Given the pace of technological progress, the day cannot be too far off when biobots will be developed that can deliver deadly toxins or viruses deep into the body, attack vulnerabilities in an individual with custom-made DNA, simulate a terminal disease or even carry out deadly microsurgery before a self-destruct mechanism causes them to dissolve into the bloodstream, rendering these invisible assassins untraceable. They could also be designed and utilised to attack entire populations, either as acts of biowarfare or bioterrorism.

Even if we manage to control the potential for intentional mischief and misuse, there is also the potential for accidental damage. For example, the researchers point to the future possibility of equipping biobots with reproductive systems to ensure they can be (re)produced to scale. However, how can we be certain that they will stick to the script of their programming and produce only the requisite numbers of offspring which will live the required lifespan?

Do we understand evolution enough to be certain that these novel lifeforms we will create will not break free of the constraints we have designed for them and mutate in unexpected, and potentially risky, ways?

Beyond the practical applications and misapplications, there are the far-reaching ethical dimensions, not to mention the socio-economic and cultural implications for humanity.

By (further) blurring the lines between the inanimate and animate, how will we define life in the future? Will everything made out of organic tissue, no matter how simple and synthetic, continue to be regarded as life forms, or will we need new categories?

How about the relative value of life/machines? Is a simple xenobot superior to a highly sophisticated synthetic robot, such as Asimo and other skilled robots, because one is “alive” and the other is presumably not?

The word “robot” is derived from the Czech for “forced labour” or “serfdom”. However, if intelligence, sentience and knowledge are the hallmarks of humanity, can we continue to keep robots in servitude or will we need to start granting intelligent machines equal rights , as “artificial intelligence” continues to catch up with and even surpass its human form?

One of the most controversial tech issues of the moment is data privacy rights. But could we reach a point in the future where data itself will need and have rights? For example, if robots and computers are one day considered to have become truly intelligent and sentient, then their data systems will presumably require protection from malicious erasure, which would be tantamount to murder, or involuntary modification, which would violate their freedom of choice.

Then there are the existential questions this technological progress raises. Although technology has long made the labour of untold millions of professions obsolete, it has generally acted as a booster and aid for a humanity in control of innovation. However, we are rapidly reaching the stage where our technological creations not only dwarf our physical abilities but also our mental capabilities and, soon, intellectual capacities.

When we finally build or evolve machines that are not only clearly more intelligent than we are but also possess a clear sense of self and autonomy, will we be able to continue to control them and, if we do, will this be an unjust form of subjugation or even slavery?

In order to escape the possible inevitability of our own obsolescence and the physical limitations of our bodies, we may decide to merge with our technological creations. We may upgrade or modify our bodies in part or in full, as well as upload or update our mental operating systems. Who knows, some may even decide to escape the physical constraints imposed by our mortal, vulnerable bodies, and download their mind and “spirit” into a simulated virtual (after)world, transforming themselves into pure, metaphysical code.

Future radical modifications to our physical or mental states, especially if they are divergent across the species, will raise the greatest, most fundamental question of all: what does it mean to be human?


This article was first published by Al Jazeera on 7 February 2020.

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The unlikely demonisation of Salman Rushdie

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By Khaled Diab

Salman Rushdie made a very unlikely target for the fury of conservative Muslims, which is why the opportunistic fatwa issued by a Khomeini in serious decline took the novelist and the world by surprise.

A burning ‘Satanic Verses’ in Bradford, UK. Photo: Asadour Guzelian

Thursday 21 February 2019

On 14 February 1989, Salman Rushdie may or may not have received a Valentine’s card from a secret admirer. If he did, I imagine he quickly forgot about it when Ruhollah Khomeini, the self-appointed Supreme Leader of the self-described Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute the British-Kashmiri novelist for alleged offences to Islam in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses (for in-depth insight into the Rushdie controversy, listen to the informative new BBC Radio 4 series ‘Fatwa’).

Although fatwas are technically non-binding theological opinions, Khomeini’s edict had the force of law in the eyes of fanatical conservative Muslims – at the time, even Sunni fundamentalists who dreamed of creating a modern ‘Islamic state’ or reviving the ‘caliphate’ admired this revolutionary Shi’a cleric.

By turning what had been isolated local protests into global fury, the licence to kill issued by Khomeini had the immediate and terrifying effect of turning Salman Rushdie’s life upside down, forcing the writer to vanish into the thin air of police protection, only to suddenly reappear, like a genie from a police van, for snatched visits to family and friends, like that of fellow writer and friend Hanif Kureishi, or rocking up on the stage of U2 concerts, as though Rushdie had become a character in one of his own books of magical realism.

Despite the self-righteous outrage of Muslim conservatives, Salman Rushdie actually made a very unlikely target for their ire, especially the allegations that he was a Western stooge and an agent of imperialism. He had been, after all, not only a harsh critic of the Shah in Iran and but had also recently published a book condemning US involvement in Nicaragua. A Persian translation of Rushdie’s book Shame was available in Persian translation as was, initially, The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie’s previous works, such as the sublime Midnight’s Children, were a sympathetic but critical reading of post-colonial reality, exploring issues of migration, identity and the tensions between and within ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Even the Satanic Verses, despite its allegorical irreverence, was not actually disrespectful of Muhammad, whom it portrayed quite sympathetically, I found, just sceptical about religion. The novel was not even about Islam, Rushdie insisted but about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay,” not to mention “a castigation of western materialism”.

The credibility and admiration Rushdie had previously enjoyed in British Asian circles did not shield him from the indignation of Muslim conservatives and the impressionable, marginalised youth they managed to brainwash on the back of this manufactured controversy, which took Rushdie, his publishers and friends by complete surprise. Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea even what a fatwa was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a “fat twit”.

“I found it odd that people were reading aubergines and burning books,” confessed Hanif Kureishi, referring to the absurdity of fundamentalists intimating Quranic verses in the humble vegetable, which is delicious when roasted, while setting light to Rushdie’s novel, which is not. But as has been the case throughout history, book burnings rarely have anything to do with the book being burnt, which the burners had not read, and is often a deflection of other grievances and/or a proxy for other conflicts.

Although the Satanic Verses controversy seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it only came to pass due to political expediency and opportunism. Author, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik outlines how it took months of incitement by Muslim religious radicals, first in India, then in Britain, before any semblance of an outraged reaction emerged. At the time, my teenage self had just moved back from the UK to Egypt, and I do not recall much interest in or anger towards Rushdie.

It even reportedly took two fanatical British Muslims to sway the Iranian regime to issue this fatwa, which appears to have been motivated far more by political expediency than religious fervour. It not only fed into the long-standing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also helped Khomeini to shore up support and silence dissent following the disastrous, devastating and costly war with neighbouring Iraq, and the Supreme Leader’s unstable mental state. This was reflected in another, less famous 1988 Khomeini fatwa which led to the execution by “Death Committees” of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran.

The Rushdie affair also enabled a false narrative to emerge among Western and Islamic bigots that there is a cultural war of values between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ or ‘Christendom’. In reality, the true conflict is between the forces of secularism versus religion, the forces of intolerance versus tolerance, the forces of pluralism versus mono-culturalism, the forces of rationality versus irrationality, the forces of supremacy versus egalitarianism, and the forces of modernity versus perceived tradition.

In fact, as I have endeavoured to show in my journalism and in my latest book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have a centuries-old tradition of scepticism and outright unbelief, something which I discovered during my own journey towards atheism.

In fact, more irreverent and sacrilegious works of literature have been published in Arabic than The Satanic Verses. For example, The Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) published, in 1931, Revolution in Hell, more than half a century before Rushdie’s novel. In this epic poem, which was inspired by a significant medieval work of scepticism, The Epistle of Forgiveness, humanity’s most daring and original thinkers have been condemned to eternal damnation as punishment for their courage, while the obedient and pro-establishment are rewarded with everlasting paradise, in a clear allegory of how Arab patriarchal dictatorships operate. The subversive inhabitants of hell storm heaven and claim it as their rightful abode.

Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism in recent decades, the non-believers and atheists of the Muslim world have been regrouping and have found a new level of assertiveness, often at great personal risk to their freedom and even lives. In secular Muslim countries, such as Albania and Tunisia, this is legal and tolerated. Even in Muslim countries where “apostasy” and “blasphemy” are outlawed, such as in the Gulf region, there are vibrant, albeit clandestine, groups of non-believers and sceptics.

Regardless of this relative progress, we still live in dangerous times for atheists and sceptics in many Muslim societies and even for those who have a different interpretation of Islam, both from conservative governments and from vigilantes and terrorists.

It is high time for conservative Muslim societies and fanatical Muslims to respect the freedom of belief, conscience and expression of others, both legally and socially, and to abandon their delusional self-appointed role as “defenders of the faith”. Not only is the insinuation that their religion needs their protection an insult to the almighty God they believe in, faith is an immensely personal and private matter that cannot and must not be imposed by force and fear.


This article was first published by The New Arab on 14 February 2019.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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By Khaled Diab

“I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza… But then…”

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 7 October 2016

Alone and lonely, I feel a deep sense of melancholy overcome me. How could I have expected my prison guard to understand my predicament and release me? I scold myself for my naïve streak. I feel an immense fatigue wash over me and, despite everything or perhaps because of it, I succumb to the comforting embrace of slumber. I curl up as best I can on the hard bunk and am immediately overwhelmed by blank darkness. While asleep, I sense we have hit rocky waters… or perhaps it is my rocky dreams that have suddenly erupted upon my inner eye. On the verge of waking, the rocking subsides and rocks me back to sleep.

When I awaken, I am not sure how much time has elapsed. It feels like hours but it could have been minutes. I sit and patiently await a return visit, during which I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza, where the chains binding my soul bound to feel thicker and heavier after having come so close to escape.

But the moment refuses to arrive. I wait and I wait and I wonder how it can take so long to reach an Israeli port.

Eventually, I hear the clanking thud of boots on metal and I know my time has arrived. I brace myself. The door swings open to reveal Major Beige and a couple of his subordinates. “Follow me,” he instructs in a neutral tone. When we come up on deck, I am surprised to discover we are still in open waters.

But where?!

My inner compass cannot determine. I interrogate Major Beige with my eyes.

“I’ve never accepted my lot,” he says cryptically, “and neither should you. You’ve done nothing wrong and you’ve wronged no-one. You don’t deserve prison, so I’m returning you to the sea.”

Disbelieving, I stare wordlessly at him, while his comrades look on, some with supportive gazes, others with barely concealed disgust and contempt.

“Over there is Cyprus,” he points, though I can’t see any land in sight. “I can’t get you any closer without infiltrating Cyprus’s territorial waters, and I’m in enough trouble…

“So you’ll have to swim from here,” he says. “If you can,” he adds, his eyes betraying doubt and concern.

“Thank you,” I say, wondering what comeuppance awaits him for his act of mutiny, trying to convey my concern with my eyes.

Discomforted by my gaze, he motions to me with his eyes to move closer.

The officer unlocks my shackles and leads me towards the edge of the ship. I climb back into the sea, barely able to believe that my insane scheme is on the verge of succeeding, unless I drown on the home stretch, and that in a short time I will be taking off my skinsuit to reveal the bikini underneath for the first time ever on a beach.

I turn in the water, drag in a deep breath, and dance ahead. As I head towards my salvation, my mind drifts and swims to the places and, more importantly, the people I’m leaving behind. I wonder when I’ll next see my parents, family and friends and under what circumstances. As I swim towards my escape, I am buoyed by the prospect of possibility after all the impossibility I have lived through, but I am also pulled down by the sinking realisation that even if I survive the sea and find freedom, I will never truly be free.

[The end]

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

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By Khaled Diab

My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions… “Don’t move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 30 September 2016

Gobsmacked, I realise I must have already swum at least six nautical miles. I hold my breath and hope this fast-moving ship, which I presume is Israeli navy, will just race past me. But as the ghost boat grows in size and clarity, it begins to slow down. I wonder whether they have somehow spotted me, perhaps with some kind of high-tech equipment I’m unaware of, or whether it is just a part of their patrolling routine.

The silver spectre comes to a halt in the water before it reaches me. Suddenly, a powerful beam hits the water a few hundred metres away, like a spotlight on a dark stage, or a fallen moon. A distorted, metallic voice shatters the stillness of the night and drowns out the sound of the waves. The incomprehensible words  fall on deaf ears. The engines roar back into action and the ship slices slowly through the dark water, like World War II search lights. Like an actor with stage fright who wants to escape the limelight, I ditch my bag, take in a lung-full of air and dive under the water. The beam remains suspended above me for what feels like an eternity. My lungs protest; they are on the verge of exploding. I feel the impulse to breathe. I want to suck in air. I sense the pull of the surface, but I fear death awaits me there. But death awaits me here, in this gloomy aquatic tomb. With the enemy above and the deep dark sea below, I realise that there is only one course of action. Metaphorically taking a deep breath, I struggle to the surface, where I am caught in the glare of the spotlight as I involuntarily cough, splutter and choke.

I hear the same metallic voice barking what I assume to be commands or instructions in Hebrew. Not comprehending what the voice wants me to do, I swim on the spot in an effort not to provoke any hostile actions. An unexpectedly high wave knocks me off kilter and pushes me away from the searchlight. A barrage of shots hit the water nearby. Terrified and shivering, I shout out in a quivering voice: “Stop shooting. Stop shooting. I surrender.”

Surprisingly, the fire dies out almost instantly and the bright light finds me again. I raise my hands above the water to show they are empty, in the international gesture of surrender. The light beam disappears back into the boat, rather like a spaceship in a science-fiction movie, or like a light sabre being re-sheathed, and a weaker, wider light illuminates the water around me.

A life ring is flung towards me by a dark silhouette. “Grab hold of the buoy,” the voice instructs me with a heavy Hebrew accent. Momentarily confused, my mind skips back to Faris before I realise he meant the ring. I swim towards the ring and the figure reels me in, as though I were a giant fish.

Shakily and wetly, I climb the short ladder onto the rocking boat. There, I am greeted by the steely cold, intimidating eyes of the barrels of half a dozen guns pointing at me in the slowly brightening gloom. My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions. I don’t know if the tremors are due to terror, the cold pre-dawn air making contact with my wet skinsuit, or both.

“Don’t move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons. The voice belongs to the silhouette who had thrown me the life ring. Aboard, his features become somewhat clearer. He is half a head taller than the others, giving him an air of superiority, even if he wasn’t their superior. His fatigues look beige, as does his hair. He is the only one dressed in just a shirt; the others all have waterproof coats on.

Despite the convulsions, or perhaps because of them, I find myself involuntarily wondering whether he isn’t cold. “Freeze,” he barks, as if he is ignorant of how the human body functions, or perhaps he was simply describing the state of my cold body.

“Tell that to my body,” I bark back, my voice quivering, despite my defiant tone.

“Who are you? What is your name? What are you doing out here? Where are the rest?” he asks in rapid fire.

“Mona… The rest?” I inquire, baffled, trying to regain control of my muscles.

“You’re a Khamas commando,” he says confidently. “Where are the others in your unit? Our Aqua Shield only detected you.”

Barely over the shakes, my body is again convulsed, this time by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Me? Hamas?” I manage between my giggles.

I hear the loud bang of a shot, which stops my laughter in its tracks. Luckily, it was a warning shot in the air.

“Remove your mask,” the beige officer orders.

I do as I am told, releasing my drenched, salted, knotted hair, which drops to my shoulders like a nest of Egyptian asps.

“You’re a woman,” he mumbles in obvious shock, even though he’s heard my voice several times. “How did you get here?”

“I swam.”

“You swam,” he repeats, doubtfully. “This far?”

“Yes, I’m a long-distance swimmer,” I explain.

“And where are you heading? To Israel? To take part in an attack?”

“No, to Cyprus, to start a new life,” I respond, with a calm certainty that belies the insanity of my project.

“Cyprus?” he asks in disbelief. “Do you really expect us to believe that? You must be on some kind of reconnaissance or infiltration mission.”

“And if I were, why would I have swum out this far?” This seems to stump him for a moment.

“But it’s impossible to swim to Cyprus,” he said, a tone of uncertainty creeping into his commanding voice.

“I know,” I reply knowingly.

“But that’s suicidal,” he adds, confused.

“I know,” I respond death-defyingly.

“So, why do it?”

“I may be breathing but I’m dead anyway. If I die for real, it’s no big loss for me or humanity,” I respond suicidally. “If, by some miracle, I make it or get rescued, then I will be reincarnated in a better, friendlier world.”

Looking at me like I’d just escaped a psychiatric hospital, he says something in Hebrew. A couple of the others holster their weapons, retrieve what look like handcuffs for giants, cuff my hands in front of me and lead me off into the bowels of the ship. There I am placed inside a small room or cell and left alone, my hands still cuffed. I feel the urge to rest my aching, sore, wet body on the neat bunk which has been made with such military precision that it seems almost a shame to mess up the bedclothes.

Wishing I could put on something drier, I lie down on the narrow bunk and get as comfortable as I can with the handcuffs restricting my mobility. I desperately want to sleep on my front and have my dry, warm comfortable pyjamas embracing me.

After what seems like a few seconds of complete blackness, I am awoken by shuffling and movement around. I open my eyes to find the beige officer beside me. In the  morning light, I now see that it is not just his fatigues and hair that look beige, his skin has a beigey hue to it and his eyes are somewhere between beige and hazel. Despite his rather unsettling monochromatic features, he has rather handsome classical features, as if he’s just stepped out of an old photo from World War II, with his beret tucked neatly under his shoulder strap. He is holding a tray with a steaming drink and a sandwich – my stomach growls in approval.

The tastiness of bland food is directly correlated to the severity of your hunger. And to my famished innards, which had swallowed a little too much salt water, it felt like I was consuming a mini banquet.

I thank Mr Beige. He flashes a smile, the first I’ve seen since I was hauled aboard. He begins to ask me again about the “real” purpose of my “mission”.

“Perhaps if you lived in Gaza, you would understand,” I tried patiently, while his back straightened in defensive irritation. “What I’m doing is no more futile than people who escape through the few unsafe tunnels left, put their safety in the hands of unscrupulous and criminal smugglers, and their lives on the cusp of unseaworthy boats that offer about as much protection as the open sea.”

“Tell me about these tunnels,” the officer requests, ignoring my comments. “How many of them enter Israel?”

Perplexed by his single-mindedness, I am momentarily at a loss for words. “I don’t know about any tunnels,” I say, deflated. “But you have tunnel vision,” I add angrily.

Unexpectedly, Major Beige erupts into  uncontrollable laughter, spraying sound bullets that ricochet and echo deafeningly around the tiny, tinny cabin. And the onslaught doesn’t stop. His long, loud haw-haws mutate into short giggly bursts, as his eyes tear up and he loses control of his breathing. There is something infectious about laughter. Even though I feel terrified, I too sense pressure build up in my belly before bursting through my lips. When his face turns an alarming shade of purple-blue, I point to his face, feeling a little giddy-headed myself. Unable to say anything, I giggle harder. Slowly, he regains control and I follow suit.

Looking self-conscious after his un-soldier-like outburst, the officer seems, nonetheless, to warm to me. “Can your life really be so desperate that you would attempt this hopeless mission?” he asked, curious on a personal level for the first time.

“I am immensely hopeful, perhaps delusionally so,” I explain. “That is why I am doing this.”

Seeing the confused look in his surprisingly gentle eyes, I elaborate: “In Gaza, hope has died. People call it an open-air prison. It’s much worse than that. It’s an open-air cemetery and we’re all slowly turning into zombies, even all those who bury themselves in their work and try desperately to cling on to purpose, they too are slowly succumbing.”

“I don’t want to be a zombie. And so I’ve decided to escape. I want to liberate my body and soul, but if that doesn’t work, then my soul is enough.”

Visibly moved, Major Beige goes on the defensive: “C’mon. Life can’t be that bad. We’ve loosened the blockade. You have shopping malls and smart restaurants.”

“And thousands of ruins and trauma and unemployment…” I stop myself. “Could you imagine yourself living like we do?”

“But we’re only defending our…”

“Can you imagine yourself in my shoes?” I interrupt, staring, flaring into his eyes. “Would you accept your lot or would you break out of your coffin?”

He falls silent for many long moments, as if struggling both with my demons and his own. “I don’t want to imagine myself in your shoes,” he snaps, causing me to experience a profound and unexpected sense of disappointment. Despite the bizarre scene; despite standing in the presence of a soldier who may well have fought in the war, who may well have fired some of the shells which landed near us, which shell-shocked us; despite his status as my enemy, I felt a strange bond, an intangible connection between us, but it must have been an illusion, a fantasy entertained by a woman who thinks she can swim her way to freedom.

“No, I don’t want to imagine myself in your shoes because it’s hard enough to do my job as it is,” he says, lifting my spirits. “Do you think I enjoy doing this?” Now it is my turn to battle with his demons, as well as mine. Until this moment, it had not occurred to me that behind the rain of fire that pelts down around us there could be those with doubt blazing in their consciences.

“I’ve never accepted my lot,” he admits, his eyes clouding over with a hurricane of thoughts and emotions which he remarkably manages to contain and stop from spreading to the rest of his face. I wonder what it is about his lot which creates such internal tumult and turmoil. “And I wouldn’t accept yours. I’d flee too.”

“So why don’t you release me?” I ask hopefully.

“I can’t do that,” he says simply, dashing my hopes against the rocks. “I have to take you back to shore, where you will be interrogated, detained for a while and most probably sent back to Gaza.”

“I can’t do that,” I say, parroting him. “I have to get out of here. I can’t bear the thought of spending any time in an Israeli prison or returning to my daily jail.”

Silence. His mouth twitches a little. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied,” he says, a split second before realising that, at least physically, it is my hands which are tied. The officer gazes down at my wrists, then looks into my eyes apologetically before silently vacating the cabin.

To be continued…

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl


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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

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By Khaled Diab

We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 1 September 2016

Read Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

I launch out, under the cover of the dimming light, but after just a few minutes of swimming the toes of one foot curl up in an excruciating bout of cramp. I float in place for a time, waiting for the spasm to pass, as it often does. “Focus,” I urge my scattered mind. Overriding the numbness in my extremities, I search out the rhythm where my body seems to move in perfect counterbalance to the waves, where my limbs beat in perfect time to one another.

Like an aquatic Icarus, I swim towards the setting sun, as it appears to head towards its marine bed on the dark seafloor, where it illuminates the lives of those merfolk and mythical sea monsters of ancient mythology for a few hours while we landlubbers slumber.

Will the salmon pink sunlight evaporate my delusion like it melted the wax binding Icarus to his feathers?

Only half an hour in and my limbs are already feeling tired and sore, leaving me longing for the oasis of my room, which doubles up as my capsule for travelling through time and space, thanks to my laptop, books, music collection and a hard-disk full of movies.

Being a hermit is not just for saints escaping the world’s trappings, it is also for the young trapped by the world seeking escape in the only place left to them, within themselves. Had I been a monk, my beard would have grown long and unruly by now – instead, my hair has. Once, I maintained my hair immaculately. I used to love to restyle regularly as a kind of barometer of my mood and as an unspoken rebellion against the pressure to cover up – while stylish hijabi friends went for different coloured scarves to cover their hair, I was more daring and rebellious, going for different hair colours and lengths, raising eyebrows on the streets and the occasional ire of the Hamas police. Although I have stopped caring about and styling my hair, I still raise the same eyebrows which had grown accustomed to my bright, rainbowy presence, but now out of concern and worry.

Even those who disapproved of me preferred me as the bright, colourful rebel who floated past on the cloud of her own confidence, though it was actually bravado, than this wild-haired depressive who trudges past, increasingly rarely, under a dark cloud. But I have not become a complete recluse. For social sustenance, I have become part of the electronic cloud, connecting with others like me around the world. In the digital age, I have discovered that great minds link alike. I also go out to pursue my passion of long-distance swimming.

Very early in the morning, I often make it first to el-Sadaqa, Gaza’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, to do a couple of hours of laps, in peace, without anyone eyeing me up or commenting on whether or not my tight skinsuit is “appropriate”, to which I usually retort that it covers my entire body, even my hair.

I occasionally go swimming at a nearby club during the women’s afternoon hours. But I find that distracting. The better-off ladies who frequent the pool there come to flee the tedium of home and to socialise. This means I have to weave a beeline around the archipelago of clustered bodies standing in the shallower water or floating in the deeper parts like chattering, gesticulating islands in colourful burkinis, as they call them in the West. While I don’t begrudge them their precious moments of escape from their domestic routine, it does make it difficult, and annoying, to train seriously, especially when some of the older women seem perplexed by my constant to-ing and fro-ing, my changing of pace and stroke, but if they were soaking-pools, they’d be called that.

My true passion is training in the sea. Abu Halim, the fisherman who has been selling choice pieces from his catch to my family for as long as I can remember, was recruited by my father to help me train – and to compensate him a little for his inability to go out to fish like before. Abu Halim would take his fading turquoise and yellow boat out to a pre-agreed distance and wait for me to arrive. On the way back, he would row, instead of using the inboard motor, so we could chat like we did when I was a child and he would bewitch me with stories of his aquatic adventures, both true and imaginary. The way this gentle, almost mythical creature of the sea praised my swimming and stamina to the heavens made my heart swell with pride and my cheeks burn with embarrassment, even if he was exaggerating.

“Remember when I told you that you’d grow into a beautiful dolphin?” he once shouted as his boat accompanied me on a longer endurance swim. “See, now you’ve even grown dolphin skin,” he chuckled in his raspy way.

And with dolphins who routinely save humans and penguins who swim thousands of miles for annual reunions with their human friends, I sometimes feel that, despite its perilous reputation, the sea can be a friendlier and more welcoming place than land.

I try to conjure Abu Halim up now, to accompany me through the dark lonely stream to freedom. As my arms pound the water, my mind drifts towards his ageing boat, with his ageing face, weathered like an elephant’s and stubbled like a bandit’s, gazing over the starboard edge of his vessel.

“Don’t forget: swim like a dancer and dance like a swimmer,” I hear him giggle mysteriously, his face breaking into a tempest of wrinkles. “Ya eniee, ya leili (My eyes, my night),” he sings out repeatedly, in praise and to help me time my strokes and to help him time his rows. 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…

But Abu Halim’s voice grows distant. It’s as if he has stopped rowing. Then his encouraging chant stops altogether. I’m all alone again.

I persevere. But after some time, I lose my rhythm and my arm and leg muscles suddenly feel on the verge of collapse. I realise that it is time to pause. I float in place and look back to assess the distance I’ve travelled. I estimate that I’ve done a couple of kilometres. “Only a few hundred to go, then,” I reflect grimly, as my heart sinks.

Gaza flickers in the distance like an electric eel on life support. A little to its north, I see Ashkelon, my ancestral home which I’ve never visited, and Ashdod burn bright like a fireworks display. Glowing in the distance, I see what I think is Tel Aviv. Israelis like to call it a “bubble” because it is disconnected and detached from its surroundings, and cushioned against the conflict. And as a Gazan, I am painfully aware of this bubble, this invisible screen, surrounding this city that makes many of its hip beach-loving inhabitants worry about the welfare of dogs they’ve never met but live oblivious to the bipedal feral dogs living amid the rubble and dodging missiles just 70km down the beach. But there are some Tel Avivites who try to escape the bubble and penetrate ours in Gaza, as the regular friend requests I get on Facebook show.

As I look back towards Gaza, I conclude that, yes, we too live in a bubble of sorts, albeit one made of concrete and barbed wire, not the silky, luxuriant chiffon surrounding Tel Aviv. Our bubble is stifling, suffocating, and binds our world tight, shrinking our horizons and minds. It is hard for me to conceive that older people were able to go freely to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Egypt, let alone to dare to imagine the world beyond them… except in my books and online.

Like a restless sleeper, I turn on my back. And what a star-studded gala awaits me. The sky is even brighter than in the darkened neighbourhoods of Gaza City during the rolling blackouts.

“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well,” involuntarily flashes in my head, “That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”

The feeling is mutual for the most part.

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

And we city dwellers have certainly learned to live without them, though in cities like New York, the stars seem to have fallen to the ground to illuminate the skyscrapers and Times Square.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

But floating here on my own, I promise myself never to forget these twinkling stars again and pledge to seek them out and admire them, whether I make it to freedom or through the figurative window of my metaphorical prison.

WH Auden is one of the goldmines which made choosing to study English literature feel like the best academic decision I had ever  made.

He even helped me to wallow in eloquent self-pity following my break up. “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,” I grunted, as Abdel-Halim Hafez sang Touba (“Never again”) in the background. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

“Pour away the ocean,” I was even willing to contemplate, despite my love of its mysterious depths, as the essence drained from my soul. “And sweep up the wood… For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

But it did come good, as my mother promised it would.

“You know, I’m not just a medical doctor,” she said, as if confessing to a secret vice. “At college, they used to call me Dr Ishq. And I had a cure for every broken heart.”

“Is that why you became a cardiothoracic surgeon?” I joked gloomily, my bloodshot eyes trying to smile.

“I like to mend every type of heart,” she quipped with her tongue, but her emerald eyes had lost their shine since the last war and looked like they’d been replaced by cheap imitations which were of the same colour but lacked none of the original’s lustre.

“Tell me what happened?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Mama is my confidante in everything… except boys. I suspected she’d understand and be cool, but I didn’t want to risk our relationship, especially as what use was a confidante if you couldn’t be entirely open and honest.

How could I tell her that I’d initiated sex? Well, tried to. After a lot of agony and soul-searching, I decided that I believed in sex before marriage. But like a secret convert, I was terrified to act on my new convictions. Because I was afraid. Of society. Of family. Actually, I wasn’t really scared of my parents. I was more afraid of what it would do to them. I didn’t want them to feel shame towards their daughter. I knew they wouldn’t kick me out or kill me to restore the family’s honour. But the wounded look of disappointment and disapproval I pictured would’ve killed me… a thousand times over… inside. And even if they turned out to be all right with it, I didn’t want them to be shamed by our neighbours and relatives.

But our bodies and rebellious souls move in mysterious ways. Just when I thought I’d contained my drives and urges, they somehow managed to break out of the siege I’d imposed and, like an insurgent army, brought me to my knees in a barrage of lethal hormones. Armed with the conviction that sex is my natural right, and prodded on by the unruly oestrogen masses dragging their testosterone partners to storm the bastille of my genitals, I mutated into a walking biological sex bomb who was bound to explode upon contact with my boyfriend.

Which I did. And despite the fallout, my lips couldn’t help but register a slight smile, puzzling my mother, who could not penetrate into my mind’s eye. Poor Faris, he didn’t know what had hit him. Reserved and just this side of shy, he’d only just started to surreptitiously touch my hands – discreetly, out of sight, during lectures. And I hadn’t a clue about what his views about sex were. But I was determined to find out.

But where? And when? We live in a fish bowl. It would be more likely for a pink elephant to fall out of the sky than for me to get Faris alone somewhere. But the pink elephant somehow managed to land right next to me, and I found myself alone with Faris in a study room. Don’t ask me how, but it happened. It was as though the stars were aligned or something. Filled with trepidation and a sense of urgency, even emergency, that the moment should pass unseized, I seized him.

Faris initially succumbed to my kiss, but when my hand drifted to the rising mound between his legs, he was jolted as if I’d applied electric wires to his genitals. Even here in the cooling night water, feeling like a damp squid, my lips and body recall with pleasure the heat of that short-lived embrace.

What happened next was not what I’d expected or pined for. “Forgive me God,” he yelped involuntarily. “What are you doing? This is haram.”

I hadn’t realised he was so religious. I was hoping he’d jump at the chance. Then, he did the worst thing possible. He unsheathed his tongue and impaled me with his words.  “Only a slut does that,” Faris screamed at me. “I thought you were a decent girl from a decent family. How many men have you tried this on? I never want to see you again, you prostitute,” he spat as he stormed out.

“Mama, I’d rather not speak about it,” I said finally. “Maybe I should be more like dad. ‘Love is a bourgeois invention,’” I added in my best baba voice.

Mama laughed. “Your father may not believe in love, but, like his hero, Marx, he lives love and does love, and that is far more important,” she said matter-of-factly. “He may be an austere communist on the outside, but inside he is a hopeless, poetic romantic. Why else do you think I love him so? Why else do you think he does all he does for me and for you? Why else do you think he has stuck with his Marxist buddies, even as their movement died, people misunderstood them, and the Islamists treated them with suspicion and disdain?”

A distant droning sound rouses me from my night-daydream. At first, my land legs make me think the humming is a drone. Then I begin to feel mild vibrations under the water, and I realise what it must be just as I see a hazy phantom of a shadow, luminous in the moonlight, slicing through the water and hurtling towards me as if it can see me.

To be continued…

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 1: Hell from the heavens

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By Khaled Diab

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the heavens are where hell resides. People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

The sun setting over the Mediterranean is a magnificent sight. It is also the perfect optical illusion. When I feel I need a moment of escape, I often return to this very spot, about as secluded as you can get around here, and watch the fading light as it shifts from a hot, unforgiving yellow, to a warm, caressing orange.

Looking out to sea, I feel myself transported from the land-bound misery on terror firma behind me, that land of fear, misery and hopelessness. For a few, short, glorious moments, I can even imagine myself as someone else, in another time, another place, the product of a different accident of birth – one that involves relaxed holidays with my best friends, cocktails at sundown, selfies of our other selves, rather than the salafis constraining our current selves, and even kissing and telling. I can see myself on a beautiful Mediterranean island, idling on the beach roasting my olive skin until it’s almost ebony, dressed in the bikini that I have only ever worn in the bathroom, but which I now have on under my wetsuit, and which my mother bought me during a rare trip abroad to attend a medical conference.

“I couldn’t book you that holiday you’ve been dreaming of but I got you the next best thing,” she giggled conspiratorially as she passed me the package, her emerald eyes twinkling in a beam of sunlight that had entered the room. Despite her evident fatigue, she reminded me of those gorgeous Red Sea lagoons I also fantasised of floating on and under, like a carefree mermaid and good friend of the rainbow nation of the nearby coral reef.

The sea is my tormenter. Like its illusionary promise of quenching the thirst of the parched desert dweller, it rubs salt in the wounds of my longing to be free. The vast oceans in their depths and breadths contain the prospect of liberation, of release from this fenced-in prison. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being carried away by an irresistible current to a far-away land where people live in peace of mind and body, where the only ruins are those being conserved by the antiquities authorities. Or better still, plunging into a submerged world, an aquatic Atlantis.

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the sky for me has lost its allure. The heavens are where hell resides, our infernal graveyards, where death rains down, where a superhuman force greater than ourselves keeps watch over us, its numerous eyes droning high above our heads, buzzing intolerably like giant wasps.

People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish, return to the waters from which we came, even if some sheikhs say it’s haram to believe in evolution. Perhaps I don’t wish to devolve into our scaly ancestor but to evolve into a mermaid, with the boundless ocean my oyster, instead of this land-bound coffin in which I dwell.

Once, during a particularly intense bombardment of the last war, I cracked like the plasterwork in my room and something inside me snapped. The winds of blind rage carried me in a hurricane of hysterical screams to the nearby beach where I pummelled my fists and mocked the killing birds ripping through the darkness above. With explosions sounding from every direction and the cool sand vibrating, sometimes violently, under my bare feet, I saw a phantom emerge from the shadows and, at that moment, I was ready for it to snatch my soul. Instead, it snatched desperately at my arm, like the hopeless life I lead, trying to keep me away from the dark clutches of death. In the moonlight, I saw my father’s panic-stricken eyes search my face for a clue to my dark madness. “Maha, have you been possessed by jinn?” he said, shaking me angrily in a way that simulated an exorcism.

But you don’t believe in jinn, baba, was the involuntary thought that infiltrated my deranged brain, which was knocking about inside my rocking skull.

When I burst into tears, baba regained his senses, even though the mayhem in the sky was growing. Unrushed and apparently unperturbed by the missiles and shells, he gave me the kind of deep cuddle I could never get enough off as a child, the kind that crushed love deep into your bones.

Then it hit me. How did baba get here? Since the war before last, he has hardly been able to move his left leg, whose calf is sore and swollen, causing him bursts of excruciating pain every time he tries to walk on it, often flooring him. No doctor has been able to find anything wrong with him. A psychologist friend of my father’s suggested that it was in his head, caused by unprocessed trauma and depression – and urged him to seek professional help. Needless to say, baba refused. He has a stubborn streak that is bone-headed even by Gazan standards. On top of that, he believes psychology and psychiatry are bourgeois dark arts, indulgences for the rich and pampered, not legitimate medical disciplines to cure the underprivileged and destitute. I think he also secretly feared the traditional “you’re crazy” stigma attached to the field.

“Baba, your leg?” I yelled over the explosions, breaking loose of his embrace.

Surprised, he looked down at his swollen calf ballooning out of his trouser leg, and laughed in astonishment. “You know it doesn’t hurt. The pain of my fear for you is stronger than physical pain,” he said, taking me back in his warm embrace.

As he did so, I looked out towards the Mediterranean, hearing only the rhythmic waves, obliviously lapping away, unaware of the inferno metres away on the land.

The sea taunts me. Despite my deep azure love for it, it waves at me from afar, swishing and swooshing derisively in the distance. But today I will conquer you. I will ride your tide and your blue jinn will not be able to stop me. During the last war, I regularly felt the urge to take flight, to flee, that is, into the oblivious embrace of the sea. But the invisible hand of family and community held me back. Though I could not protect my parents and kid brother from the missiles, bombs and shells shaking the foundations of our lives, again, I was determined to shield them from the emotional shrapnel ripping away at their hearts and shredding their minds.

Though the world sits up and pays attention when the explosions are audible and death dramatic, it turns its gaze away when the implosions are emotional and the deaths are of the soul, not the body. Of course, war is traumatic, everyone knows or can imagine that. But what comes after can be far worse, especially here in Gaza, where our looped history has repeated itself so much that hope too escaped from our particular Pandora’s jar, to soar into the heavens, which have become our hell, unlikely ever to return.

And deprived of external hope, I have decided to create my own, to fashion it out of the abundant radioactive elements of despondency all around me, to modify genetically the DNA letters which spell despair and engineer them into hope.

I stand waist-high in water, dressed in my wet suit and a life jacket for the rest stops I’ll inevitably need to take, with a lightweight waterproof bag containing snorkels and some supplies. In a bright corner of my darkened brain, the scheme I have devised strikes me as preposterous, suicidal even. I silence my doubts and fears by telling my limbs, which stand frozen in the still-warm water, that death awaits us anyway – better to die pursuing your dreams than to die pursued by your nightmares.

Read part 2: Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.


Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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Fiction: Us old guys

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By Christian Nielsen

“We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The old guy was watching me. I could feel it.

It was hotter than usual out, and we were looking for somewhere shady to kill some time before the Diakofto train. I bought a warm beer and Dave, my Canadian friend, took a cold coffee. I think he asked for it that way. I didn’t.

We chatted about this and that. The fig tree in Patras. The girls in Nafplion. The one he went home with and the one that I argued with near the port.

The wooden bench was so upright. It felt like waiting outside the Principal’s office with the teacher sitting opposite. I tried stretching out but I was feeling too self-conscious.

The old guy kept looking at me and I could swear he tittered when I told Dave about the hairy arms on the girl in Nafplion. I imagined that his woollen tam-o’-shanter (I think that’s what you call it) concealed a shiny sun-spotted head. His cat-like eyes followed movement and noises like a trained assassin.

He was joined by another well-worn old guy. The friend flicked the bobble on his cap as he sat down. Silent, they watched the people traffic … in stereo now. The hat was like an antenna that wobbled up and down when someone needed examining from top to toe or sideways as new sources of interest walked by.

“Dirty old coots,” I said to Dave.

He laughed. “You’ll be the same when you get to that age,” he said.

“We’ll never get to their age … we’ll be working till we drop to pay for them and everyone else here,” I said with unexpected vitriol.

I finished my warm beer and went for a cold coffee. Dave opted for a hot coffee. He was always one step ahead.

“What part of Australia do you come from?” I heard from behind as I waited to be served. It was old guy number one. Unusually good English, I thought.

“Um, I guess Melbourne,” I told him.

“I lived in Footscray for 30 years,” he said. “Colourful back then, but it was all we could afford when we got there in the 60s,” he added.

“I wish I bought in South Melbourne,” he winked. “Then I’d be laughing the other side!”

“Yeah, probably. Even Footscray has come along since then,” I told him. “It used to be total Romper Stomper, but it’s changing. The western suburbs are getting snazzier as young families move out there; it’s too expensive in the city and south-side.” I added in clearly way too much detail.

“Haven’t been back since years,” he said. “It’s a good life here with the Aussie pension … Not the same for everyone in Greece, though. Many people are not doing so well. It’s that bloody perestroika that’s making Greeks pay for everything!”

I laughed. In the meantime, Dave had started chatting to his own Greek émigré who had spent 20 years in Toronto and returned on a similar pension deal as my Greek.

“You know Ireland, Portugal and Spain are also going through this imposed austerity programme like Greece and they’re all clearing their debts. Why should Europe feel sorry for Greece? They had it good on EU money for decades. And now it’s time to pay their dues and Greeks just complain,” I immediately regretted pointing out.

“My friend …” he said slowly and patiently “you don’t know nothing about it here. I’ve seen how hard work can make you rich, in Melbourne, you know. I bought my house, I put my kids through school and university. They all got good jobs now, not dirty hands work like me. We left a broken Greece and came back to something better,” he gestured to his friend, or maybe towards the old steam engine near the depot.

“I tell you, young people want to work, and now look … they have to do what we did and start again somewhere else,” he continued, “But it’s not like it was for us.”

They can go to Germany or other places in Europe to work, he suggested, but everywhere is harder for younger people these days. He said something about the economic or social system favouring older generations. I got distracted by a small child teetering on the edge of the platform.

“You saying the baby-boomers rigged the system?” I came back.

“Yeess,” he slapped his thigh, “… the grey ones who got fat after the war and want to keep all their money. They make the system good for them not for the young ones,” stressing ‘young’ each time he said it. “They grew up hungry and they still think like hungry people. Me first!”

The Patras train had pulled in and people started gathering their things. I gestured to Dave that it was time to wind up our new friendships.

I slung my pack on and headed to the carriages. “Do you regret coming back?” I asked over my shoulder as I passed my Greek.

But it was the Canadian’s Greek who answered, as though he’d been having the same conversation: “We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

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Fiction: Don’t, don’t, don’t!

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By Christian Nielsen

Don’t verbalise! Don’t try to be clever! Don’t try to organise me! Don’t sort things out! Don’t stop fights!

Wednesday 3 September 2014

“It’s the constant feeling of being wronged,” I told him. “That’s no way to live, is it?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure I know enough about living to comment.”

“Jesus, that’s such a copout – I’d expect more from you … but now that I think about it, why should I?”

He shoos a wasp away from his beer. Thinking.

“I mean, here we are … two guys who’re supposed to be friends, and you give nothing. Zip. How d’you think that makes me feel?”

“Like a bit of a girl,” he came back like a whip, turned to the waitress and ordered another beer, as though the quip was part of the same action. The thirst-reflex.

I thought if he put those powers towards getting a job, he’d be some kind of time-and-motion guru. I should have been offended, I suppose. But I knew he’s always seen me as a bit of a sissy, when it comes to ‘feelings’, but his threshold is pretty low for that.

We watched the opening matches of the FIFA World Cup together. The first goal scored in the competition was an own-goal by Brazil’s Marcelo. I said: “Look! He’s about to cry!”

“Trust you to notice that,” he replied.

I threw chips at him – not really a guy thing to do, I know, but the comments stung a bit. Those sorts of remarks always do. Sure, you know all guys, or most of them, are only half as hard as they make out to be, but the other half are probably half as much as me.

Why do you worry so much about what I do or say, anyway?” he seemed to say almost without words after paying the waitress for the round.

“Because I do… it’s just the way I am,” I answered whether he actually asked the question or not. “I don’t say anywhere near what I’d like to about you, or any of these people here,” I made a circle gesture with my hand.

“What makes you think that’s so special?” he said faster than the usual nonchalant drawl.

That’s the spark of the old friend I knew. “I don’t think I’m special,” I told him. “I guess I just feel I have to verbalise these things,” I added as I waved to an ex-girlfriend getting off her new man’s motorbike.

“Yeah, well that’s where you go wrong,” he threw back at me. “Don’t verbalise! Don’t try to be clever! Don’t try to organise me! Don’t sort things out! Don’t stop fights!” he seemed to want to go on, but ran out of don’ts.

“So, don’t be your friend! Is that what you’re saying?” As I said this I realised I was doing don’t number two but at the same time, just verbalising it (don’t number one) was an epiphany. Maybe I don’t want to be friends any more, but in doing don’t number three and four, I wasn’t letting this friendship go the way it should. I wanted it and maybe he did too.

I got up, felt no urge to pay for the rounds I’d tabbed, went over to my ex and gave her a smooch. The boyfriend jumped on me like he’d been waiting for it and pounded me three or four times … I lost count … in the head.

I woke up in a hospital bed and my friend was there reading the New Yorker in the corner. I felt round for my glasses. I could just make out his bruised knuckles.

“Don’t say anything,” he said as he turned the page.

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Fiction: Football

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By Christian Nielsen

I ask if he is making friends… She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance. 

Thursday 19 June 2014

“How have you been?” I ask as she takes off her headscarf and hangs it up to dry.

“Oh, you know … fine,” she answers, not looking at me.

“And how is your boy doing?”

“Yes … fine,” she says while changing shoes.

I ask if I can get her a cup of tea and she doesn’t refuse.

While the kettle boils, she sits at the kitchen table and lets out a small marsupial-sounding noise, a sigh that ends with a wet click inside the cheek.

“He wants to play football, you know … and I tell him he must finish his classes and get good grades.”

“Is he any good?” I ask, as only a man can focus on the specifics of his footballing talent.

“I don’t know. I heard of it just now. He wants to play for the student team, but I say he must not waste time or he will have to go back …” she whispers “… if it is football he wants why did I bring him here to me; he can stay in Zimbabwe?”

I ask how much time the football would take up. She says training in the week and matches on Saturday … she thinks he already plays because he is never around when she comes back from French classes.

I ask how old he is and tell her how difficult it is to hold him back; he’s an adult after all.

She tells me it is for his own good, that if he gets bad grades or fails he can’t stay in the country.

I ask if he is making friends, spending much time with people outside class. She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance, and says it is hard.

“If you hold him back, you have no guarantees his grades will continue to be good,” I offer, “and if you let him play you don’t know for sure his studies will suffer.”

She nods silently and takes a sip of her tea.

“You have to show you trust him but set conditions … tell him he can play but it would be a trial,” I continue.

“Yes, you think so?” she reflects.

“I do. It’s going to be hard enough for him to get a job once he finishes studying, so he will need the social contacts … people from the football club can help him. An employer looks for well-balanced young people and he’ll need to show he’s a team player … not just good at school.”

She brightens up and takes another sip of her tea. The doorbell rings. I don’t feel the urge to answer it.

“Perhaps tell him you agree to the football providing his grades stay good and that it is a positive thing for his CV.”

“Football yes, I can show I trust him … Do you have sugar, Mr Melisma?”


This story is taken from Mr Melisma, please, Christian Nielsen’s debut collection of short fiction.  Also read The Box. You can order your copy from Amazon

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