The only Iraqi man I’ve ever met.

I wrote this piece on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning when news of the withdrawal was still in the headlines. Today I clicked on to BBC news to see that co-ordinated bomb attacks in Bagdhad had killed 63 and injured around 185.

A couple of years ago, I sat opposite an Iraqi man while he cursed at me. I was volunteering with an asylum-seeker mentorship programme and I was supposed to be teaching him English. He was showing me video images of bombings in his town that he’d taken on his mobile phone. He had a brutal glare and I was scared of him. He was hissing something at me that I can’t recall. I remember his eyes were lit up and that I didn’t know what to say. There was another student at the table, fidgeting.

I thought of him when the war in Iraq was declared over last week. And then again when I listened to a commentator on Pat Kenny talk about how the withdrawal of American troops was muted, because the operation hadn’t been a success.

In 2006 the UN estimated that over one hundred Iraqi civilians a day were being killed. In the end the number for that year turned out to be 34,000, amounting to 93 per day. On a single day in November, 200 died in an attack on Baghdad. According to antiwar.com, 4484 US soldiers lost their lives since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The last fatality was on November 14, just before Thanksgiving.

And there was the suicide of David Kelly in July 2003. I remember watching the coverage of the Hutton Inquiry in my pyjamas and wondering what a “sexed-up” dossier was.

In 2006 I was starting university. I counted balancing writing essays on Jane Austen with late nights out as one of my greatest concerns. I didn’t lose sleep over the 93 a day.

And yet, like everyone else, one of my biggest fears is losing somebody I love. It’s impossible to imagine the suffering of war, the little dominoes of grief tumbling as one life after another falls to pieces.

I follow the official blog of the British troops in Afghanistan. They use a WordPress account, like this one. Every few days the death of a soldier is announced, with a short bio, featuring his or her military rank and how their death occurred. You can leave comments. People do.

It makes me realise how little I know about the world, how, against the odds, my life has occurred in a peaceful place at a peaceful time. I don’t give thanks for this often enough.

I’ve no idea if the Iraqi was granted asylum. Most likely, he’s still in a centre somewhere, awaiting his hearing and measuring his life out in insipid cantine meals.

Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.

“No. It’s AGGGGHRRR. Not “RRRRRR”.

“AAAAGRRR?”.

“No.”

This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.

H-A-L-A-L

Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.

Beauty? I just can’t nail it.

I found myself eating a sourdough sandwich alone on a bench in the Jervis Shopping Centre last week. From where I was sitting (right outside Forever 21) I had a perfect view of The Nail Bar, where two ladies were being treated to a French manicure and the attachment of gel nails.

The two clients, perched on stools with their hands stretched out in an arc before them bore an uncanny resemblance to a pair of begging lapdogs. The more I gazed at them the greater my desire to laugh and when I could bare it no longer, I let out a little giggle, which caused the man next to me, who was minding his teenage daughter’s shopping bags, to turn and stare.

I’m pretty confident that I’m the least nail-savvy woman in Ireland. I’m not sure if I even own nail polish, after my recent mass exodus of make-up of age ten years or more from my room. I’ve never had my nails done and the two or three attempts to paint my own in my early teenage years resulted in odd splashes of green glitter, which still pepper my carpet.

image from ftv12.tk

In case it seems as if I’m condemning the common cuticle, I promise you I am not. Sure we couldn’t do without them. They’re an anatomic necessity. Wikipedia puts it just beautifully:

“A nail is a horn-like envelope covering the dorsal aspect of the terminal phalanges of fingers and toes in humans, most non-human primates, and a few other mammals”.

Personally, I find them useful to pick at when nervous or for opening tricky plastic packaging.

I just don’t care how they look.

Don’t get me wrong. Perfectly-shaped contours are always nice. Anything well painted is a pleasure to look at.

The problem is, I don’t look at nails. I do not take sneaky downward glances to check out other women’s fingertips and I very rarely seek to improve the condition of my own.

Truth be told, their appearance is a matter of complete indifference to me.

It’s not for lack of vanity. I love clothes and good eye make-up and a gentle foundation. I flick through photographs of celebrities before I choose a haircut and I always turn to stare at interesting-looking people or those with beautiful clothes. I guess the reason that I’m indifferent to nails is that I think their cultivation is of little or no consequence to the overall appearance of a person.

I know, I know: I can already hear the cries of despair. It’s all about the detail. A real lady pays attention to her body from head to toenail. Each nail is a tapestry waiting to be coloured with exquisite strokes of blood red, deep blue and neon pink. A lady with fine nails is a lady with a well-kept mind.

Maybe so, but I just can’t see the point of it. Nails are tiny, breakable and their pinkish hue makes them naturally delicate and petal-like. Making them longer, or sharpening them or attaching sticky stuff to them seems to represent an awful lot of effort with little promise of reward.

I guess you have to be a connoisseur.

On my way out of the Jervis Centre I watched a pretty Spanish girl being stopped by a salesman in a black t-shirt. He asked her whether he could see her nails. She laughed a little and put out her hand. He took it in his and pretended to examine it carefully. Her nails were short enough, with a glimmer of pink sheen. He wasn’t pleased. He whipped out a special little square gadget and began rubbing her nails with it. Judging by his facial reaction, and her reluctant smile, they had been transformed. He swept her away to his stand, where she bought his tool. He popped in into the bag for her and she was on her way.

Talk about nailing your market.

Am I the only one that doesn’t get the hype? Are you a perfect-nails kind of gal? Are you a man with a penchant for well-painted lady-nails? Does the idea of breaking a nail fill you with fear? Is this another example of my inability to see the trees for the wood? Answers on a postcard, please.

Irish judges above the law? Objection!

A small and silent rebellion is taking place on our shores. Though they remain anonymous, the twenty-two dissenters are known to carry hammers. A number among them are purported to disguise themselves with a mass of white curls, which they pin to their heads. They are protected by Article 35 of the Constitution and the extent of that defence will be put to the Irish people in a referendum next September. Should it be passed, the band of twenty-two judges who have elected not to make a voluntary contribution to the revenue in lieu of the levies imposed upon all other public sector workers will be forced to take a cut in pay as their 126 colleagues have already seen fit to do.

The judiciary must remain independent, so for that reason Article 35.5 of Bunreacht na hEireann states simply that The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office. From a political, psychological and economic perspective such reasoning is utterly non sequential.

Given that the aim of such a clause appears to be to prevent judges from state influence, that purpose is itself contradicted by a notable omission. Judges’ pay may not be reduced but it may be increased at the whim of a minister looking for a favour, for example. The possibility of a salary rise is the principle behind performance-related pay, which employers use as an incentive in order to encourage workers to perform in line with their expectations and desires.

The difference between loss aversion; working to avoid a drop in salary and performance-related pay is trivial from a psychological perspective. As a motivating factor, the distinction lies in personality type: some people are more encouraged by risk avoidance and others by self-advancement. There is no reason why judges should be disproportionately oriented toward the former.

There is another principle that has been overlooked in the omission in Article 35.5 however, which is psychologically universal. You see, if somebody does you a good turn, you like to return the favour. If the Minister decides to increase pay, there’s a niggling, self-imposed obligation to display gratitude by performing in accordance with his desires. Social theorists have called it Reciprocal Determinism and in everyday parlance we say: I scratch your back; you scratch mine.

Of course, all of this speculation treats the individual as a machine: you put this in and you get that out. The prospect that judges will carry out their duties in relation to their salary is akin to considering that teachers will write report cards for students in accordance to their pay slip and that a nurse’s bedside manner fluctuates in tandem with his or her remuneration. It’s well known that poor conditions lead to sloppy work but in the case of judges, sloppy work results in poor decision making generally rather than in partiality.

Furthermore, where an entire class of workers is in question, an individual is less likely to respond with venom than in a case where their pay alone has been cut.

Where the issue of judicial partiality arises glaringly obviously is in the appointment procedure. Since candidates need to be selected by the Oireachtas and favoured by the president, the hope of a justice system independent of political influence is thwarted before it has any hope of being established.

This Septermber, when the people cast their votes to elect their president they are by extension influencing the selection of their future judges. It is this cosy relationship between politics and judicial administration which Article 35.5 sustains rather than prevents.

The measures taken by the new government to curb these relationships have so far been encouraging. Leo Varadkar’s threat not to reappoint all seven of the board members of the DAA should the bonus allotted to Chief Executive Brendan Collier not be reversed is a sign that a new era of political responsibility might be upon us. Brendan Howlin’s plan to cap salaries of future Chief Executives of Commercial state companies is also a signal that politics is moving away from its traditional links with largescale enterprise.

As they beat their hammers on their oak writing tables and whisper “Objection” in advance of September’s Referendum, the twenty-two dissenters will inevitably privately concede that the scrapping of Article 35.5 represents good riddance to bad rubbish. Objection over-ruled.

Why Philosophy is best on the bus

I never thought I would be reading Bertrand Russell on the bus. Having endured a term of Critical Theory at college and made an ill-conceived investment in the accompanying reader (I was a Fresher; young and naive), I came to the conclusion that part of a Philosopher’s delight lies in deliberately employing obscure words and a surplus of relative clauses and that the general intention is to make oneself incomprehensible.

Not so with Bertrand Russell. You can read his prose while listening to snippets of conversations from the St Mary’s boys, the hum of the engine and the relentless beat of rain against the window pane.

As I was reading his essay On Being Modern Minded last week, I was struck by how much I could relate what he was saying to my own relationship to the world around me. Russell’s main argument is that the modern (post first world war) mind is stifled by an ever-increasing reliance on trends in thinking and that as a result people are scared to form their own judgements; held back by the belief that a more ‘contemporarary’ (and accepted) view will appear before they have had the chance to formulate their own.

Russell’s observations were rooted in the growing popularity of new philosophies and the tendency to impose them retrospectively on texts. Russell writes: “I read some years ago a contemptuous review of a book by Santayana, mentioning an essay on Hamlet ‘dated, in every sense, 1908’- as if what has been discovered since then made any earlier appreciation of Shakespeare irrelevant and comparatively superficial. It did not occur to the reviewer that his review was ‘dated, in every sense, 1936′”.

Russell was writing pre-Internet of course but in his world, ideas were moving more quickly than they had ever done before and at a speed that meant they were evolving before they could be fully digested. That may be why the behaviourism of the 1960’s led to some dubious parenting practices and why literary texts developed Marxist, then Freudian undertones overnight.

Our generation has the great advantage of easy access to a vast quantity of information so that any new tenet may at the click of a button be analysed in relation to the belief that preceded it. However, with such a vast amount of information available, it has become easier and easier to quit thinking for yourself.

I’m definitely guilty of this. Look at this blog post for instance: it’s Bertrand’s, not my own. Sure, we’re supposed to learn from each other but the amount of times I encounter something that seems at first glance incomprehensible and resolve to “google it” makes me uncomfortable. Am I incapable of assessing the importance of a news story myself? Can I not figure out what Joyce was about by reading his words alone? Have I lost my originality? (Can I google it?..)

Skimming is a skill I’m now supposed to teach and it’s something I’m not quite comfortable with. Sure, it’s practically important to teach students to find relevant information at speed but doesn’t that take the joy away from the ultimately satifying slog of analysing a text to death identify grammatical structures and unusual vocabulary? Would we be as well as to teach them to use google translate to extract the main points of a text?

I love the internet. It’s enabling, democratic and wonderful. Without a lot of self discipline though, it can also be disabling and anti-democratic, with messages being spread and consumned at a rate the human brain is incapable of keeping track of. If BR thought in 1950 that “The emotional tone of the world changes with equal rapidity, as wars, depressions, and revolutions chase each other across the stage. And public events impinge upon private lives more forcibly than in former days”, I don’t know what he’d think of the world as it is today. One to google ponder.

A tribute to Kim Peek: megasavant who inspired Rain Man

As part of an assignment for a writing course I’m taking, we have to choose somebody who has already died and to write their obituary. This is pretty far outside of my comfort zone but I took the opportunity to do some research on the savant Kim Peek, whose story I find both fascinating and extremely moving. What follows is no more than the result of some online research but I hope that it conveys how privileged I think the world has been to be exposed to this man and his incredible mind:

The first neurologist to see the baby Kim Peek was late for a golf game and told his parents that their son was “mentally retarded” and that he should be put in an institution. Half a century later psychiatrist Dr Darold Treffert described him as “a living google” and a “stellar savant”. Born on November 11 1951, Peek was the son of Mormon parents Fran Peek and Jeanne Willey Peek who resolved -in spite of advice from doctors- to take care of Kim in their own home and “to keep him happy and healthy”. Jeanne Willey Peek enjoyed an uncomplicated pregnancy but when Peek was born it was discovered that his Corpus Callosum-the part of the brain joining the two hemispheres- was absent. This resulted in an impaired ability to carry out motor tasks and to communicate conventionally but also served to facilitate the storage of an immense quantity and variety of information. Peek was not only reading encyclopaedias before the age of two but was also memorising their contents. At that age he developed the habit, which he maintained until his death, of turning books upside down upon their completion. Peek would read twenty or thirty books a day and was the only person known to be able to read separate pages of text with his left and right eyes simultaneously, regardless of the angle at which the book was placed. Peek managed to memorise over 9000 volumes using this method and was able to recall the facts, figures and historical events contained in them with astounding accuracy.

At the age of six, Peek was sent to a mainstream school but was expelled on the first day on account of “disruptiveness”. Lacking support from the American social services of the 1950’s, Peek’s parents employed retired teachers to educate him at home. Although he completed the High School curriculum at age 14, he was refused a certificate by the local authorities.

Peek’s life took a dramatic turn in 1984 when he visited a conference of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Arlington, Texas and was accosted by screenwriter Barry Morrow, who was much taken by his exceptional ability. Morrow’s script, which was later to become the highly successful Rain Man film starring Dustin Hoffman, was inspired by this first encounter. Though Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt differed substantially from Peek, Hoffman spent six hours with Peek, studying his mannerisms and attempting to imitate his particular habits which included rocking motions and monotone utterances.

In spite of Fran Peek’s initial reluctance to put his son on ‘show’, Hoffman made a particular appeal to him to “take him out and show him to the world”. The opportunity to do just that arose when Hoffman paid tribute to Peek during his Oscar acceptance speech, which propelled him to the attention of the media.

Peek’s parents had separated in 1975 and after the success of Rain Man, Peek spent the remainder of his life with his father touring the world and speaking at conferences and schools. As a matter of principle, they did not accept money for these appearances. Peek loved to challenge audience members to ask him difficult questions and was delighted at the impressed response his great knowledge elicited. At one event a little girl ventured forth to the microphone with the question “Who built outer space?” to which Peek replied in monotone (and to great applause) “God made the heavens and the earth”. At each talk Peek and his father left a card behind them which read “”Learning to recognise and to respect differences in others and treating them like you want them to treat you will bring the joy we all hope for”. The unwavering commitment of Peek’s father to just that message and the willingness of people to listen to it ensured that he will be remembered (in psychologist Larry D Beal’s words) as “an amazing human being that life could have very well passed over”.

Reflections on the mirrors in Bewleys

Saturday was a day I’d like to bottle for future swigs when things are not so rosy. Like all great days, it began with a marvelous breakfast in bed, which my LSB prepared while I dozed. After that we ventured out to the Phoenix Park to visit the Bloom Garden Festival. The park was cloaked in intermittent sunshine and the people were out in their drones to soak it up. Even the deer seemed unusually contented; regarding the topless men passing by with their 99 cones with the graceful bemusement of which their species is only capable. Inside the Bloom exhibition, I divided my time between admiring the delightful lambs on “display”, lazing in the (promotional) hammock area and loitering by the vegy burger stand. In the evening, LSB and I spent a few hours in Bewleys, finalising our (provisional) life plans (more of which in future posts).

Having finished my hot chocolate orange and gobbled up the amaretto biscuit that had accompanied LSB’s mocha, the evening was drawing to a close and it was time to go home to announce details of my (now revised provisional) life plan to my parents. On our way out, we took a trip to the toilets.

While I was in the cubicle (third up), I heard somebody exclaim, “I know you from somewhere”. The voice was middle-aged; soft but firm. There was a pause and I was imagining a reunion between two ladies who had attended the same embroidery evening class some months ago. But the second voice said “No, I don’t think so”. Hers was a more confident, even voice.
There was another pause which I didn’t want to interrupt so I delayed flushing the toilet. The lighter voice spoke again “you must take great care of yourself”. At this point I flushed and made my exit. In the mirrors were two faces. One lady had sunken, hollow eyes and wispy grey hair. She was applying mascara. The other had carefully shaped eyebrows and a heap of dyed red hair, which sat on her head like Marge Simpson’s, minus the length.
I was washing my hands very thoroughly and casting my gaze into the two mirrors next to mine. It was the red lady’s turn to speak: “I do indeed. I take great care of myself. I go salsa dancing three times a week”.
“Do you?” the lady in grey exclaimed. “I love salsa dancing. I have done that myself”.
“Have you?” the red lady replied, looking at her now.
“It looks as if you take great care of yourself”, the grey lady repeated.
“Ha”, said the red lady, laughing now, “I have to match the young men I partner in my dancing”
“I’d say you do”, said the grey lady very seriously, turning to look at her from the side.
“Well, my husband says I look great”, said the Red Lady.
The grey lady stared at her. “Oh! Are you married?”
“I am”, said the red lady, suspiciously.
“Well you must take great care of yourself” said the lady in grey, replacing the cap of her mascara and zipping up her bag.
“Bye”, she said.
“Bye now” said the Lady in Red,turning to me as I was looking busy waving my hands beneath the hand dryer. She made a face as if to say “WEIRDO”.
“I’d take it as a compliment”, I said.
“I certainly will”, she retorted, “I think we’d both had a glass of wine”
“Maybe” I agreed, finally making my way out to LSB, who had been waiting patiently the whole time. “Keep up the salsa dancing”, I called back as we left and LSB asked sourly “so you’ve a new best friend then?”
“I do .. and she takes great care of herself” I tell him as we go our separate ways after a wonderful day out.