Friday, 20 June 2014

Amira's story

Every night, when Amira goes to bed in the crowded room that she shares with her five young children, she lies awake, frantically worrying about what the following day has in store for them.

Will she be able to find food? Will the children be safe if they venture out, into streets where gunmen, bombs and bullets are a constant threat?

Amira's husband disappeared more than six months ago. He may have been arrested, or kidnapped, or murdered. She has begged and pleaded for information in hospitals, police stations, army barracks -- but everywhere she has been met with the same dead eyes, the same blank stares, the same cold indifference.

"What makes you so special?" they ask her. "There are thousands like your husband. No one knows what has happened to them. Go home and look after your children."

Sometimes they taunt her, or grab at her. "What will you give us if we help you? Will you give us what you gave your husband?" And they leer at her as she bursts into tears of fury and runs back out into the street.

Amira no longer lives at home. In truth, she no longer knows whether her home still exists. The country in which she grew up has been destroyed. In its place is chaos, anarchy, and fear.

As a child, Amira was bright: she did well at school, went to college and trained to be a teacher. Her mother could barely read or write; her father, who died when Amira was still a child, had been a trader, hardly able to earn enough to support his nine children.

But he believed in education, for his daughters as well as for his sons -- and Amira will always honour him for that. They all did well, but now both her parents are dead and she has lost touch with her brothers -- some, she knows, became fighters. Perhaps by now they are dead too.

Amira sometimes finds it hard these days to believe that she still has a future. All she sees around her is death and destruction -- and suspicion. She doesn't know whom she can trust, so she trusts no one.  Her aunts, uncles, and cousins have scattered to the four winds. Some have managed to move abroad, others are in squalid camps for "internally displaced people".

Soon, Amira and her children will probably be in a camp too. The half-destroyed apartment building in which they have found shelter is dangerous and unsafe. The windows have been blown out and there are no safety rails on the stairs. But the water truck, when it comes, stops nearby, and there's a still functioning baker at the end of the street. Bread and water -- the necessities of life. That's what it has come down to.

But Amira refuses to give up. When the anti-government protests started, she rushed to join them, confident that there really was a chance that her generation could sweep away the old corrupt political elite and start to forge a new future for their country.

Night after night, she joined her friends in the main square, chanting their slogans, singing their songs. At first, the police stood by and did nothing. Some even joined in. But then the mood changed. Protest leaders were arrested, some disappeared, terrible tales of torture emerged from deep inside the system's jails. And then the men with guns appeared, and everything changed.

The rumours spread like a plague: foreign powers -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, the US, Israel -- were said to be flooding the country with cash and arms, stirring up tribal and sectarian rivalries in pursuit of their own regional self-interest. No one can prove anything, but everyone believes the rumours anyway. Amira is dimly aware that far away there are important-sounding meetings of important-sounding men -- in New York, Geneva, Paris. They issue their communiqués, and in her street, more people die.

Yet despite everything, somewhere deep in Amira's soul, a spark of that old confidence in the possibility of change still flickers. In the stillness of the night, when the silence is punctured only by the occasional rattle of machine-gun fire, she repeats to herself, over and over: "I will not let them win. I will not let them win."

She worries that she will forget the English that she used to teach, the English she loved listening to on the BBC, that she loved reading in her books. And she worries that she will forget the hope that was in her heart when the old order started to fracture. So a few nights ago, she sat down and wrote, in English, in a tattered exercise book.

"I am Amira. I am a strong, educated woman. I believe in progress and in democracy. I believe in our country and that it can have a better future. I believe in the power of people, acting together, to force change. And I believe that women must be a part of that change, to insist on equal opportunities of education, health care and employment."

So who is Amira? The truth is that she doesn't exist, except in my imagination and, now, I hope, in yours. Yet this story, or a story very like it, is the story of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of women. Amira could be Iraqi, or Syrian, or Libyan. She doesn't exist, and yet she does.

She is the Everywoman of the Arab world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written & apply to all war torn countries where there is no one to turn to- no authority, relatives, social leaders- Only arm chair analysts sitting in ivory towers scheming your surrounding's power structure without giving a damn about you.