Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Glor, gloooooorrrrr, glooo-o-rrrrr, gloo-o-o-o-ria...

I'll tell you something a little weird about me, something that no one probably knows. When I'm writing, I sometimes like to listen to a soundtrack that I've made for myself, compiled of various different versions of the song "Gloria In Excelsis Deo." I'm serious, I have versions from Pavarotti to Mariah Carey. A version by DJ Da Cut happens to be a favorite--still outranked, however, by Bach's Mass in B minor. You just don't get better music.

Anyway, I'm thinking about that because I've wanted to write tonight since I went to this talk last night by Susie Orbach, down at Southbank Center. She's just released a supposedly very powerful new book called Bodies and had a 'conversation' with another therapist on stage. I have to say, it was most likely the best intellectual event I've been to in my life. Instead of reading from prepared remarks or giving some off-the-cuff lecture about something very obscure, likely taken out of context and really inaccessible to people who are listening to information about it over 45 short minutes. This was an honest conversation between two therapists who think about gender and sexuality and psychoanalysis because they love it--and they were bouncing ideas off of each other while drinking wine under lights and in front of microphones. And we got to watch.

They talked about diets quite a bit, because of the general idea behind the book, which is that people basically do such awful things to their bodies that it suggests they don't act like they have them--therein lies the paradox, because what else does a dieter care about, besides her/his body?! She talked about eating disorders; she told us how her mother was the first person she knew who dieted (when no one did it) and now her daughter is the only one in her class who doesn't diet (when everyone does it). She questioned whether we could ever really engage with being human, if we denied any flaw, or obstacle, or abnormality that it included. To be a feminist, I think she would say, is to love your body no matter what it looks like--and, almost more importantly, to think others bodies are great, no matter what they look like.

Do I think I've achieved that level of feminist consciousness? No, I'll be the first one to admit I buy into image and appearances more than I'd like to. I know I'm lucky because I love food so much and yet I don't necessarily pay any costs. If I looked very different, I'm not sure how I'd feel about image and appearance. I do waiver back and forth what side of this issue I come down on, but, I could be better about it so I'm working on it, whatever that means. An issue that I am completely, 100% resolved on? Gender segregation (or "free mixing" as my interview respondents call it in London) and how wrong it is. I don't understand the arguments I hear in favor it: "Men and women are good at different things. Women are better at things in the home, and men just have to leave the house to provide for the family," or "If men and women are together, then men start looking at other men's wives and the women become really uncomfortable"....these were both uttered by women, by the way. It's really difficult for me to understand either point of views: either women who choose not to stay home are somehow defying some laws of nature or that men and women are so primordially attracted to each other, regardless of appearance or personality, that we can't trust them not to jump each other when they're left to their own devices?

The Koran actually only refers to segregation when the Prophet's wives are mentioned; they were so special and superior to everyone that you weren't allowed to speak to them without a curtain between you and them--not that they weren't allowed, you weren't, AND it was the Prophet's wives, not every-day Abeelah. It's something that's been interpreted in one way and launched to amazing degrees. And then this book that I'm reading right now--written by an ex-radical British Islamist who left Hizbut Tahrir and is now telling his story--tells of an interpretation of the Koran that a really educated economist who worked for J.P. Morgan in London and moonlighted as the head of one of Hizb's cells in the East End suggested at one of his sessions. He invoked an interpretation that said men were justified in examining the naked bodies of women before they agreed to marry them, because bodily abnormalities that might otherwise spawn divorce later on could be detected and the match could be avoided. And he interprets 'looking at them' to mean, in fact, raping them.

If people are free to interpret whatever the hell they may want from the scripture (ANY scripture--this applies across the board), then WHAT IS NOT OKAY IN GOD'S NAME? That's why I'm not religious. Because, while the idea may have been good in the beginning, it's been completely bastardized by its practice.

-----in exlesis deeee-ooooo....

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lemn Sissay

On Saturday night, I went with some friends to see Lemn Sissay perform his new one-man show, entitled "Why I Don't Hate White People" at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. While the piece posted above is meant to illustrate his incredibly lyrical quality (and perhaps ward off the miserable weather they forecast for the next couple of days here), the show we saw on Saturday focused on his personal journey to understand race relations growing up in northern England. Part Ethiopian/part Eritrean, and raised by white foster/adoptive parents after a bout with social services, Sissay chronicles the difficulties of being the only black person he'd ever known until he was eighteen years old.

Sissay hops around the black box experimental stage, wildly and beautifully impersonating key characters throughout his childhood--my favorites included the pub-going-rugby-playing meathead in Wigam and the old lady who sits next to him on the completely empty bus, lest she appear ignorant by not sitting next to him. The story that emerges is clear: Sissay grew up shouldering the burden of explaining to people what the other is like--answering questions about afros, weed, and anatomical sexuality that reveal the insidiousness of racism today—racism veiled behind curiosity, humor, and the arrogance of confidence.

D. emailed me a nasty review of the show that gets at the heart of exactly why this show is so important--namely, that some people think that we’re in a post-racist society because the lady on the bus didn’t accuse him of stealing her purse or because the meathead kept his fists tucked into his pockets. Apparently racism needs to leave some sort of physical proof of its brutality.

When B. and I were on our honeymoon in St. Lucia in July, we went to a ‘fish fry’ in a village across the bay— an attempt to market St.Lucian food and culture to a captive group of tourists who weren’t supposed to know any better (and we didn’t). The food was hideous and the same 3 dishes were served at every other stall: a combination of stuffed crab shells, overcooked garlicky shrimp and bland fried beignets. Point is, there were around 10 people on the boat for the 30 minutes it took to get over there, we were in close quarters in the market once we got there, and we joined each other again on the 30 minute trip back across the bay. Once we returned to our resort, B. and I went up to the office to get our bags, with the rest of the crew behind us, trekking up the 70-80 stairs it took to walk up to the cottages from the beach. I left the office to visit the bathroom and ran right into this obnoxious ball of lard who was from the States and had a sad new wife who used him for the money he threw around the place we were staying. He was drunk and panting profusely from 10 minutes of cardio, but he managed to stop me, place his six-pack on the bench and start mumbling about filling out a comment card and how we (meaning: staff at the resort) should build some sort of structure that mechanically lifted people from the beach. Quite honestly, I was stunned and walked away, leaving him speaking unclearly behind me. In the bathroom, I thought hard about what had just happened. For a stretch of 6 hours, this slob had failed to register any differences between myself and the resort’s staff--even the full uniforms that the latter wore around the clock weren’t enough of a signal. Because the only thing we shared in common was the color of our skin and that particular color made us invisible to this man. The shame that comes from feeling like you need to justify your existence or belonging at any place or point in time is still very much a serious racism—insidious because it seems impossible to legislate against humiliation.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dissertations and Drinks

It's already clear what kind of semester this is going to be. I'm going to have to scrap my routine of cooking at home and having meals planned to enjoy at the end of the day, in favor of remaining forever 'flexible'....meaning that I should never give up an opportunity to go out and continue an excellent conversation, even if that means I eat two dinners or leave meat defrosting in my kitchen.

Last night was the first taste of this spontaneity. I had drinks with the cast of the feminist play I'm in next month and before I know it, the entire group is debating the exact topic I'm studying--Islamic feminist mobilization in the second generation in the U.K. and U.S. It's clearly a topic that people here think about and--more importantly--become passionate about. So it leads to lively evenings and I really didn't want the evening to end just yet, so I joined a couple of women for a late night meal at a Malaysian restaurant in Russel Square. Each of us wanted a starter, to just tide us over a late night craving, but the waiter kindly informed us that it was a minimum of 5 pounds per patron. So I gave in and got a whole meal--Malaysian Chicken Curry and Rice that was out of this world. I have to say, creamy coconut curries are probably my biggest weakness. My cholesterol suffers, but I'm absolutely held hostage to those flavors. The kicker is that eating in London is actually very cheap for me--namely because I can't eat large portions so I *always* have leftovers. I don't try to ration, I love food too much; but I just can't put it all away, so I take it home. Even though they charge 50p here for the takeaway boxes, lest you dare not to eat it all on the premises, it still makes for a pretty good deal. Especially with the exchange rate in favor of the dollar the way it is.

Tomorrow I'll write about the wonderful night I just had with some old college people--sometimes I feel so far removed from that part of my life, that I forget how easy it is to connect with some of those old friends. I'm really looking forward to using this phase in London to rebuild certain friendships.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mangoes and Curry

I moved into my new flat on Sunday--a big open-plan studio with a full kitchen, high ceilings, lounge area and fireplace. I know that makes it sounds less like a studio and more like some sort of figment of my imagination, but I'm the one who started to memorize the listings on, recognize 11 digit numbers on my phone from agents returning calls, dream about missed viewings, and get bamboozled by 'wire-me-money' schemes, not unlike the Nigerian e-mail correspondence we all know and love. So I know it's very much real and very much appreciated at this point.

It's in the conservation area of a great neighborhood called Angel, a mere 4 blocks from a popular strip of restaurants, bars, theatres, boutiques and galleries. It's only a couple of blocks from a popular bus hub, a convenient tube stop, and it's walkable to the British Library. You might have heard it snowed here (blah, blah, blah), so the slushiness and slick streets threatened my ability to fully appreciate my neighborhood for the past few days. But today I said no more.

After finishing up in the BL today (I *finally* got a reader's pass, granting me access to the Social Sciences reading room for the next year), I went to a show called The Political Animal. It was part of a BL series called "Taking Liberties"--an exhibition meant to explore the history of freedoms and rights in the U.K. This show, however, was meant to be a comedy show, spotlighting 4 prominent comedic talents and their politically satirical material. I found out about it last minute, so I went alone and got chatted up by a slightly strange woman who claimed to be in love with New York. Now I've been to London more times than I can count, but I've *never* met as many people as I have already this time around who are absolutely thrilled by the idea of America, let alone my roots there. And when this lady asked me where I lived, and I said New York, and she asked me where, I--inexplicably--couldn't bring myself to say "Ithaca" and explain where that was. I mumbled "Brooklyn" and then numbly sat there, hating my dishonesty, while she hemorrhaged about buying a suit there once.

The show was pretty disappointing. Luckily, the two comedians I really wanted to see (Paul Sinha--an Indian ex-doctor who complained about terrorism and racial profiling, yet still made juvenile jokes about "Gah-nish, the el'phant god;" and Rory Bremmer, a truly amazing impressionist who saved his flops with particularly fantastic impersonations of Obama, Clinton and Gordon Brown) were the two acts before intermission, so I ducked out after they finished and the rest of the crowd hit the bar in the lobby.

I was starving so I took a bus home from Kings Cross and hit the Tesco Metro on the walk back to pick up some groceries to make Pork and Aubergine Green Curry Noodles. It was quick, delightfully easy, and will definitely be a go-to meal this term. I'd suggest adding a tbsp or two of fish sauce and brown sugar, each, but I didn't have any around. I used the noodles illustrated below, and they go straight into the wok from the bag, fully cooked. Pretty amazing, that Tesco.

Pork and Aubergine Green Curry Noodles

1tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground pork
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tsp soy sauce
1 medium aubergine (eggplant), sliced into half moons
3 tbsp thai green curry paste
noodles of your choice (4 servings worth)

Saute the pork in the oil and garlic until it loses its pinkness. Add curry paste, pepper, salt, and soy sauce and stir well. Cook for 5 minutes and then add the aubergine. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until the aubergine is tender. Meanwhile prepare the noodles of your choice separately; when they are done, add them to the curry, toss thoroughly, and stir-fry for another minute.
Serve warm.

And now I'm sitting at my coffee table, listening to the rain outside and starting a painting of mangoes. God help me, I love London, but I need something tropical in my place, right about NOW.