It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War – a book review

‘It’s what I do’ is an inspiring memoir of Lynsey Addario, an award-winning photojournalist who documents wars from the front lines. She risks her life to bear witness to the human costs of wars. Driven by a strong commitment for the pursuit of truth, she shares the stories of civilians trapped in or fleeing from conflict zones.  She also documents the Arab Spring and the struggle of people risking their lives for their freedom.

It's what I do

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lynsey herself, and that added more depth to the riveting story of her life journey. I felt like she was confiding me with her secrets, conflicting thoughts and worries. The book covers many themes of friendship, family, love, heartbreak, adventure, guilt, and the struggle of a woman finding her way in a men dominated profession.  I respect her honesty in sharing her personal and professional struggles. And I generally love stories of strong and humble women.

Armed only with her cameras, Lynsey travels to Afghan, Iraq, Darfur, Libyan and many other countries. She was kidnapped, harassed and injured while doing her job. And she still continues to cover wars in the hope that she can share the truth to open people’s hearts and minds. She also hope to influence policy makers and advocate human rights by her moving photos. Beside reporting the horror of war, she tries to capture beauty and optimism in her impressive photos . She explains: “Trying to convey beauty in war was a technique to try to prevent the reader from looking away or turning the page in response to something horrible. I wanted them to linger, to ask questions.”

Lynsey’s book helped me better understand the life of war reporters and the constant dilemmas of facing the horror of war, and the call of duty to share difficult stories with compassion, empathy and humanity. I especially appreciate her incredible work photographing women in dire situations. She described in her book “So many women were casualties of their birthplace. They had nothing when they were born and would have nothing when they died; they survived off the land and through their dedication to their families, their children. I interviewed dozens and dozens of African women who had endured more hardship and trauma than most Westerners even read about, and they plowed on. I often openly cried during interviews, unable to process this violence and hatred toward women I was witnessing.”

Being a war photographer carries a lot of challenges and sacrifices. Lynsey describes her feelings of guilt, fear, optimism, anger and determination to follow her call of duty. She is incredibly courageous to continue to do her job despite experiencing the tremendous danger. I was deeply moved with her account of being kidnapped along three other New York Time journalists in Libya by Quadaffi’s soldiers who also killed their driver. I was also very angry to her the story of Israeli soldiers at the Erez Crossing who forced her to go through X-ray scanners three times even though she had told them in advance that she was pregnant.

I was also very glad to read that She has received a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship for her incredible work, and that she met an understanding and supportive husband. She managed to have a happy family and a successful career.

Luckily, Lynsey’s story has a happy ending, unlike many journalists who sacrificed their lives for the sake of reporting the truth, such as Marie Colvin who was killed while reporting the siege on Homs city in Syria. She is a hero and her sacrifices and legacy will long live even though she is no longer with us.

These huge sacrifices of honest journalists who cover wars with integrity and sincerity are a big contrast to the unbelievable journalists who go under the protection of brutal regimes. They interview people while escorted by armed soldiers, then write misleading stories that support regimes’ propaganda. They cause so much harm and undermine the work of principled credible journalists.

Ethical journalism is not an easy career. It is definitely more than a career. It is a duty and a commitment. And it has a high cost. As Lynsey writes: “some of us do wreck our personal lives and hurt those who love us most. This work can destroy people. I have seen so many friends and colleagues become unrecognizable from trauma: short-tempered, sleepless, and alienated from friends. But after years of witnesses so much suffering in the world, we find it hard to acknowledge that lucky, free, prosperous people like us might be suffering, too. We feel more comfortable in the darkest places than we do back home, where life seems too simple and too easy. We don’t listen to that inner voice that says it is time to take a break from documenting other people’s lives and start building our own.”

I highly recommend this inspiring book. I heard that it is being turned into a movie but I always prefer books over movies. And if you choose to buy the audiobook, You will still have an opportunity to see Lynsey’s amazing photographs online.

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Cardamom and Date Cake Recipe

Today I am sharing the recipe to the most delicious cake I have ever had. I love the taste of dates, Cardamom and cinnamon together in this cake.  I first tried it at a charity cake sale when my brilliant friend Tom made it. Since then, I have made it many times, and friends and colleagues seem to really enjoy it. The original recipe was taken from a cook book but Tom could not remember its name.

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Ingredients:

175g pitted dates

1 freshly squeezed lemon juice

200g unsalted butter

225g light muscovado sugar ( I sometimes use just normal powder sugar)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons of crushed cardamom seeds (use pestle and mortar)

200g whole meal rye flour (can buy in Holland and Barretts) ( I also sometimes use normal ordinary flour)

Preparation:

  1. Put the dates in 200ml of water on low heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until soft. Stir in lemon juice and mix well until like a paste and then leave to cool.
  2. Set oven to 175C (325f/gas mark 3)
  3. Put the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and cream together (best with electric whisk) until fluffy and toffee like. Stir in the vanilla extract. Then add the eggs one at a time, whisking well.
  4. In separate bowl sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda and add the spices, then fold into the egg mixture. Then fold in the date paste until all is well combined
  5. Spoon the mixture into a prepared cake tin and smooth the top.
  6. Bake in oven for around fifty minutes, then Leave to cool for about 15 minutes before taking it out of the tin.

I sometimes sprinkle icing sugar on the top for a better presentation. Given that the cake has dates in it, it wont rise very high. So do not be surprised. And enjoy the heavenly taste!!!

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How to Find Love in a Bookshop: A Book review

I fell in Love with this book at first sight! I got it as a gift from my love last December, and it was the perfect holiday read! So I decided to start the book reviews series on my blog with this charming delightful book. It’s a feel good heart-warming book that celebrates books and book lovers.

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The story is set in the cosy Cotswold town of Peasebrook where Emilia Nightingale is dealing with the grief of losing her father and the burden of keeping the Nightingale Books open as she had promised him before his death.  Julius, Emilia’s father had opened the bookshop there and touched the life of people around him with his books and his generous soul. He believed “A town without a bookshop was a town without a heart” and soon his bookshop became a community centre for the town where Julius helped and charmed the town people.

In this compelling story with likeable characters, I enjoyed reading about books, music, a lover’s second chance, a secret love affair, a wedding preparation, and different life stories of ordinary people who share the love of books… I always dreamed of running a bookshop, but I wasn’t sure I will be able to manage the finances. So I could easily relate to the hard decision Emilia has to make whether she could keep the bookshop open and honour the legacy of her late father, or sell off.

I also loved reading about the power of reading and the changes a bookshop can bring to people’s lives. My favourite example is Jackson, a single dad who starts reading in the hope of connecting with his son through books. He then realized “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, and how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.”

I highly recommend this light-hearted tale of love, even though the plot does not have much of shocking twists or thrilling mysteries. This was my first book by Veronica Henry, and I will definitely read more of her writings!

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Reflections on the new Tunisian calls for equality between Muslim women and men.

The Tunisian President Beji Caed Essibsi has called for more gender equality in his speech for the National Women’s day last Sunday. He wants Muslim women to have a free choice to marry a Non-Muslim and to give women equal inheritance rights. The Tunisian Islamic scholarly body, Diwan al-Ifta has agreed to these changes. However, his statements has caused a wide range of reactions and controversial discussions in Tunisia and other the Arab countries. And for many of us Muslims living in the West, this is not something new and we already apply them in our lives.

In many Arab countries, a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man, while a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. Muslim ClergyMEN have ruled for centuries that this is the Islam Law even though there is nothing in the Quran that state this nor a logical justification for it. It is similar to the laws that a Syrian woman can’t give Syrian nationality to her children if she marries non-Syrian, while of course a man can! There is not a rational justification or heavenly ruling for such discrimination. It is not about religion; it is simply due to the patriarchal society!!

It’s mainly a bunch of clergyMEN imposing their own interpretations on what the Quran actually says and many women follow because they trust those clergyMEN and believe this is actually what God wants for them.

From a Western perspective, it is very similar to the outrageous decision of President Trump to sign off women reproductive rights in developing countries. The image of a powerful man surrounded by a bunch of men while signing a decision that deeply affect women’s lives resembles the way this ruling was established. However, Muslim women in the west have had the liberty to choose who to marry without these unacceptable restrictions. It is not always easy to find a Muslim Sheikh, again a ClergyMAN, who will happily perform the marriage ceremony. But luckily, there are still some Muslim Clergymen who agree to it. Also, very few Muslim women in Lebanon and other Arab countries have married non-Muslim, but they were forced to go to another country, mainly  to Cyprus to legally register their marriage.

The other issue that president Essibsi called for is equal inheritance rights for men and women. In many countries, the general ruling is that a brother gets double the inheritance of his sister. This ruling has been justified on the basis of financial needs and responsibilities. It is clearly stated in the Quran and therefore it is harder to convince people against it.

Many clergy-MEN argue that it is a fair distribution as a man is responsible to be the bread winner for the family and he is Islamicly obliged to support his female relatives such as his mother, sisters,  and wife. For them, it is reasonable to give him a bigger share to help ease that burden on his shoulders. While this might have been reasonable in the tribal societies in the desert when the Quran was revealed, it is harder to apply in our modern life. Many Muslim parents in the West choose in their death will to give equal rights for their children regardless of gender. Many years ago, I also made the decision to do the same thing once I have children.

In addition, while some clergyMEN insists on giving women half share only, there are no laws or regulations that hold a man responsible to support his mother or his sister. Therefore it is a flawed unfair argument. It reminds me of an incident that happened to me a few month ago in Saudi. I went with my husband to Mecca to perform Ummra, a ritual visit to the Islamic holy sites. After performing the prayers in the Kaaba we returned to our hotel. Then we went out to buy some stuff from the supermarket on the opposite side of the street. We had to cross the road and there was a pedestrian traffic light that alternated red and green. Ironically, there was no correspondent traffic lights that regulated the cars driving on that road. So even when the pedestrians light changed from red to green, cars kept passing in front of us because there was no lights to stop cars. Eventually, we had to rely on the courtesy of the men driving on that street to allow us to cross (yeah in Saudi, only men are allowed to drive). The first thing that came to my mind with this ridiculously terrifying and annoying experience is that it resembles the current status of women’s rights in Islam.

I do believe that Islam has granted women many rights. And if we go back to history and compare the status of women in Arabia before and after Islam, it is evident that Islam has liberated women – in that time standards – and granted them many rights and higher status. However, nowadays we are missing the correspondent traffic lights – and laws that guarantees these rights and we have to rely on men courtesy to be able to live our lives. And I have met many wonderful and devoted Muslim men who voluntarily give women’s their rights and even more than their rights. However, there are not many laws to stop men who abuse women or deprive them their rights.

Thanks President Essibsi for your calls for these changes. The adversary they have caused are not very surprising as usually people’s initial reactions to changes are to reject them. But I do believe many things urgently need to be change and it wont happen until women and men activists demand these changes and keep raising awareness. For me, being a Muslim means believing in a merciful knowledgeable and just God, and I do not accept any injustices committed under the claim of religion.

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Magnum Biggest Pop-Up Store Opens in Covent Garden

Colourful toppings, nice smell of melted chocolate and fun cheerful decoration are all in the new shop located at Seven Dials in the heart of London. You can create the “Magnum of your dreams” by choosing from your topping combination, a choice of dark, classic or white chocolate dip, and more chocolate drizzle during this short London summer. The store opens from 29 June – 10 September 2017

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I went there with friends. The store was crowded with people. The young Italian assistant manager, Alex told me “It is not just a store, it is a designed experience.”

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I chose raspberry coconuts and pistachios with a dip of dark chocolate. All was for £5.50.

Trying to spice it up, Magnum calls it the “Pleasure Shop!” But if you can get over the name, it is a fun shop with creative design by Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott. On the display windows, they have diamond studs Lollipops. They also sell colourful Moschino bags with special Magnum designs.

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The store is also trying to engage with the community life. Alex, the assistant store manager told me they had organized a one-day event for the LGBT parade, and donated the organization Mermaids UK that supports children with gender identity issues.

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From a Person of Faith: Congratulations Germany for Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

Today I have one more reason to respect and love Germany. In addition to opening their hearts to refugees and giving them a chance for a new life, Germany proves today it is a great functioning democracy that respects human rights. I am truly pleased to see love triumphs and people who choose to love and marry a person from the same gender are giving their rights to marry whom they wish to. It is also great to see that all of Germany’s Muslim MPs voted in favour of same-sex marriage

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But what does faith has to do this? Well, I am a practicing Muslim and I do believe that Islam teaches us mercy, justice, love, integrity and solidarity with the oppressed. I believe in a ‘just’ and ‘wise’ God who created us in the best form and Who loves us all regardless of sexual orientation. The love of God should inspire us to be live a life of virtues and to hold on to high ethical principles. It really angers me when I see discrimination against the LGBT community, and it angers me much more when I see that discrimination done under the name of religion. I am writing this blog in solidarity with LGBT communities and with the hope it might open the eyes of people of faith. Many Muslims have demonstrated support and solidarity with the LGBT community. The Mayor of London Sadik Khan is a brilliant example.

Coming from a conservative background, sex was not something that we would discuss much in public. Also, the religious teachings require that physical intimacy comes only after marriage. We were also taught to respect the choices of people who do not have the same religious restrictions. However, living here in the UK, I witness all types of reactions when I ask about the rights of gay people, and especially gay Muslims who wish to follow the religious teachings and get married.

In the US, there are many progressive Islamic scholars who support gays’ rights. Many of them are outspoken especially after the tragic attack in Orlando that was carried out by a gay Muslim man and killed many people. It is painful to think how many beautiful souls we could have saved had the perpetrator found love, support and acceptance from his family and his community.

But unfortunately there is still a big problem with the way Islamic teachings are interpreted in regards to homosexuality.  And we have a responsibility to speak up against it. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) once said – and here I am translating from Arabic- “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed. A man asked him: “I help him when he is oppressed. But how could I help him if he is an oppressor?” And the prophet explained that helping an oppressor is actually by stopping him from oppressing others.

I was once outraged with a highly educated friend who obtained a PhD from a prestigious UK university who said that “in Islam the ‘punishment of homosexuals’ is that they should be thrown from a high building so they die!” When I asked her where did she came up with this horrendous idea, she just said she had heard it somewhere. It was hard to believe that we both read the same book and believe in the same religion! So another friend called her father who is supposedly more knowledgeable about the Islamic teachings. He agreed that there isn’t any type of punishment mentioned in the Quran or in the life story of Prophet Muhammad for homosexuality.  He talked about the beautiful, tolerant and rational Islam.  He also narrated a funny story:

In a speech at a mosque, an imam said that the Quran has answers for all our problems. A man challenged him and said “I have a problem in my stomach and it is very painful. I’d like you to show me where in the Quran it shows the answer to my problem.” The imam promised to do some research and answer him the next day. And to the man’s amazement, the imam came the next day with a remedy. The imam explained that the Quran directs us to to ask people of knowledge if we do not know! Chapter 16, verse 43. So he asked a doctor regarding the man’s problem…

My friend’s father used this anecdote to explain how a practical life could be inspired from faith. However, to my frustration, he refused to agree with the rights of gay Muslims and completely dismissed my argument by telling me to first go and spend years studying the Quran and Arabic linguistics, even though I had told him I am already an Arabic linguist!

Sadly many people nowadays prefer to stick to what they were told rather than putting the efforts to understand the religion or even to ask the people of knowledge as the Quran teaches us. Almost all people of knowledge (i.e. doctors and psychologists) have agreed homosexuality is not a disorder and there is no treatments for it, nor does it requires a treatment.

Today, I am really happy with the victory of the German Parliament! I do hope a day will come when all people respect each other and stand in solidarity against all injustices. Also, I hope that Muslim scholars spend more time and efforts addressing the controversial misunderstanding of homosexuality in Islam.

 

-Last edited on 03/07/2017 to include the German Muslim MPs’ vote and the example of the Mayor of London solidarity with the LGBT.

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Love, Solidarity and Remembrance: Requiem for Aleppo

Last Sunday, Sadler’s Wells presented a fascinating evening of music, dance, poetry and testimonies dedicated to Aleppo. Requiem for Aleppo is a great show that brought Londoners and Syrians together with a global audience who watched it live online all over the world. All joined in solidarity to express their love, nostalgia, anguish, sorrow, hope and admiration for Aleppo. It is also a fundraiser for two charities, Syria Relief and Techfugees, for their educational projects inside Syria.

Inspired by the tragic events unfolding in Aleppo, the creator David Cazalet decided to compose the requiem to be “an act of remembrance created by the coming together of many nationalities, a means by which to reflect on the plight on an ancient city with thousands of year of history where people of different religion and ethnicities lived, by and large, in harmony – a place of culture, faith and tolerance, rich in diverse tradition.” He also hopes the Requiem for Aleppo will be “a reminder to those of us who feel we live in a similarly sophisticate society that we witnessed in a very short space of time, the utter and brutal destruction of what Aleppo and its people have built over thousands of years and we saw the death, despair, and scattering of its people, yet despite our horror we were able to do nothing” as he wrote in the programme descriptions.

This show is a powerful reminder that art is a great tool to express ourselves, to cope with tragedies, to reflect on events around us, and also to change them. It also inspire us to do something to make a difference in the world, no matter how small or simple our contribution might be.

Personally, I was humbled to be invited to share my testimony about Aleppo, the extraordinary beautiful city that I love. I want to remind the world about the Syrian dream of freedom and democracy. I also want to highlight the great solidarity I have witnessed from people everywhere as I said in my testimony: “It really touches my heart when I see people standing in solidarity with Syrians, when I see people welcoming refugees, doing all they can to help… but at the same time I question everything I knew about international law, about the UN, about Peace, and about negotiation. How did the world let something like this happen? Why? Can we still talk about shared humanity and universal human rights, about justice? We all want an ethical and durable solution. We want to bring these criminals to justice and we Syrians will go back to build our country.”

During the show, it was emotive to hear Arabic poetry and music combined with Requiem Mass music, and to see fascinating performance by dancers from different nationalities: Italy, Slovenia, Spain, South Korea, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Canada and the UK. I was delighted when I heard the Arabic chant “One One one, the Syrian people is one people” which is a very common chant during the peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolution.

My friend Sarah El Hadj, who also attended the show, told me “Requiem for Aleppo is proof that during a dark hour in our world, creativity is a powerful healing tool. Not losing hope and showing solidarity in humanity, not just a war-torn city’s people, is a message I drew from the exhilarating performance through the sound, movement, and lighting. It was an invaluable reminder that artistic expression transcends all of our differences and reiterates that we are all moved by emotive music and movement, and by words that are impossible to ignore and easily relatable. The most poignant part of the performance for me was hearing the testimonies from Aleppians that accompanied the beautiful scores, my father being one of them. I am proud to be a descendant of tolerance and antiquity, as he beautifully described the city.”

All in all, Requiem for Aleppo is a brilliant act of love, remembrance and empathy. It is a passionate expression of grief and a commemoration of lost lives. It is also a celebration of our common humanity, shared values and hope.

People can still watch the show online, and donate here to make a difference to the life of Syrians still inside Syria by supporting the work of Syria Relief and Techfugees.

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