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Edgware Road, Global Icon

This is my weekly newspaper column published in Abu Dhabi for The National.

Edgware Road greets you first with its fragrance. The sweet mellow caramel scent wafts gently along the street, invisibly kissing your clothes, and claiming you long after you return home.

Its every paving stone seemingly filled with shisha smokers, Edgware Road runs between Marble Arch and the Marylebone flyover in central London. Some call it Little Beirut or Little Cairo. Once it may have needed these namesakes as reminders of home for the Arab migrants who came to London as early as the 19th century as a result of increased trade with the Ottoman Empire; or the Egyptians in the 1950s, the Lebanese during the civil war, or the Iranians and Algerians after periods of unrest. Whether it is the mix of nationalities and cultures, the British setting or some other factor, Edgware no longer needs an alter ego. It stands as a global icon.

As a Londoner, I visit Edgware Road regularly. The area is always busy, from the Odeon Cinema where Edgware Road meets the arch, past the various sonorously named Ranouches, Marouches and Fattoushes. The eateries, which are part of such large chains as Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero and McDonald’s, feel different here than elsewhere. Veiled female customers chide children. “Mohammed!” “Fatima!” They stop running around. With customers spilling onto the streets until late in the night, it seems even Middle Eastern opening hours prevail. Some of the little shwarma outlets open their doors only as evening starts to set in, as their trade is most ebullient once the young men and women swarm along the road at night, chatting, eyeing, laughing, smoking, sipping.

Outside the summer months, these pavements and restaurants are populated by young hip things, usually Muslim, coming for a halal night out. They race their cars in the frosty November air for Eid al Adha, the men sporting Indian sherwanis and interspersing Arabic street slang in their conversations, the women in colourful Indian clothes, their veils tossed fashionably over their hair. On the weekends, Muslims congregate for shai bi na’na and a shared puff of the scented smoke.

This is the time of year when Edgware bursts into activity as visitors from the Gulf migrate to the fashionable London district to escape the summer heat. As dusk falls, women in achingly glamorous abayas glide along the road, the smell of bukhoor trailing them. Young men gesticulate as they speak on their mobiles arranging the evening’s activities with friends. Fathers march forward furiously, wives and offspring in their wake.

Londoners watch as Edgware Road is taken over, and we, its main actors for most of the year, are overlooked. Are we invisible to the visitors, we wonder? Spend a little time to get to know the local culture and people, we cry.

One of the great charms of Edgware Road is the variety of cultures, languages and ethnicities that populate it. Once, it may have been Little Arabia, but today if you cast your gaze around any cafe you will observe faces, clothing and dialects from as far as China, through Somalia and Sudan, across the Middle East, to North Africa, Europe and the Americas. Edgware Road may have its roots in another world, but now it has its own persona.

I say to those visiting: take a moment to look at its history, its present and its people today. Edgware Road’s microculture hints at an intriguing global multicultural future for the Arab and Muslim worlds.


Neither Bin Laden nor dictatorships: Arab youth choose their own models of leadership

This is a very belated posting of my weekly newspaper column written the week that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

Courtesy of Cartoonmovement.com

Osama bin Laden is dead. Bogeyman of western nightmares, and a figure of revulsion for many Muslims, his death brings to a close the ghoulish and virtual reign of an icon – loathed and despised, but an icon nonetheless – of leadership.

This is not to say he was a leader to be emulated, simply that he held a degree of influence. Witness the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre based in Jordan, which placed him on its list of 500 Most Influential Muslims under the category “Radicals”.

His death comes during sweeping changes in the Middle East. Bin Laden wanted these populations to rise up under his charge against the West, but they did it without him. Mubarak is gone. Ben Ali, too. Qaddafi fights for survival. The Arab people didn’t want them, and they didn’t want bin Laden, his philosophy consigned to a compound in Pakistan, his influence diminishing, his ideology rejected by the very people he sought to lead and who on the streets wanted the very democracy he reviled.

But what kind of leadership do Arabs, particularly young Arabs, actually want?

The urge for “participation and representation in the political life of their country of residence” remains a “priority” for young Arabs, according to Asda’a Burson Marsteller’s survey of 2,500 Arab youths in 10 countries, conducted during the recent events. “Arab youth have a deep and enduring desire for democracy” was one of their conclusions, obvious in light of events.

This change is self-driven. The youth are resigned to the fact that their current – and outgoing – leaders do nothing for them. Few bother to voice their opinions to public officials, according to the fourth Silatech Index “Voices of Young Arabs”, published in March, of 20 countries and 36,000 people and produced jointly by the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and Silatech, a social enterprise addressing opportunities for young Arabs. They are not convinced their leaders are maximising the potential of young people. Instead, they wish to determine their own lives. This trend is clear in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.

OgilvyNoor, the Islamic branding and marketing consultancy division of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm, calls the movers and shakers of the current changes “futurists”, who are “fearless” and “vocal in their beliefs”.

“Their worldview is fundamentally meritocratic, backed by their faith in Islam’s principles of equal brotherhood. Authority is not solely top-down any more. It must make room for equal dialogue,” writes Nazia Hussain, head of strategy for the unit.

It is worth noting that the drive for self-determination, the desire for democracy and the demand that leaders should engage in dialogue are derived from Islam. Additionally, 70 per cent of “futurists” are extremely proud to be Muslim, according to OgilvyNoor’s research.

These young people have come of age in the shadow of September 11 and Osama bin Laden. The war on terrorism offered them two mutually exclusive choices: western democracy or bin Laden’s toxic leadership. They have rejected this bipolar caricature, instead creating their own models of leadership for their future: a future that takes pride in both Islam and democracy, a future fuelled by their belief that change is up to them, a future they can and will make happen.


The Blue Screen of Death has come for me

This is my weekly newspaper column for The National (UAE) published yesterday.

cartoon by Richard Thompson

The Blue Screen of Death came a’knocking at my door this week. The gruesome bright azure of his face, the hissing finality of his breath and the blankness of his unapologetic gaze are his hallmarks, and he used them to stare me straight in the eye. My computer was no more.

I was in the middle of an innocuous task, when suddenly everything froze. I wiggled my mouse, first in annoyance, then frustration, then fear. No. Please. No, I muttered to myself. Not now. Please not now.

My eyes grew wider, and I could feel tears pricking the corners of my eyes. My heart beat faster and my fingers started to twitch. This couldn’t be happening to me. I had a top of the range laptop. I hadn’t installed any bootleg software. I hadn’t been browsing anywhere off the beaten track. I was a good girl as far as my computer life went.

So why was this bad thing happening to me?

The Blue Screen blinked at me. “If this is the first time you are seeing this screen …” it said. Phew. It was the first time. So, I rebooted. I even used “Safe Mode”. As a non-techie I congratulated myself on not just knowing that Safe Mode exists, but that I knew how to access it. There on my screen I could see all my files and documents, and even the piece of writing that I had been working on, whose potential loss was causing me to panic.

Just as my palpitations subsided, the computer started whirring, like the shutting down of the last power station on earth. It hummed, then roared like a lion seeing its cubs about to be attacked, and suddenly it vanished into a void. The Blue Screen disappeared. No goodbyes, no warning, no “nice to have met you”. And with it, my latest work – literally – was sucked into the ether. Goodbye, computer. Goodbye, Shelina.

The Urban Dictionary, which is like Wikipedia but for street speak, has as its top definition of the Blue Screen of Death as “Microsoft’s most successful program”. Ha ha. I’m not laughing. There is even the claim that the Blue Screen’s name itself was a joke: the “blue” referring not just to the colour of the error screen but also to IBM in whose operating system the screen had first appeared, and which industry followers called “Big Blue.” It’s still not funny.

In the past two weeks, computer geeks who have had access to beta versions of Microsoft’s Windows 8 have been saying that the Blue Screen is no more, and the kiss of computer death has become black.

This is top-notch geek-gossip. Black might be a more appropriate colour to signal the demise of your beloved, but it’s less of a visual shock.

The geeks say the use of black by Microsoft is clever, because it will allow them to retain the BSOD abbreviation. Some even say they will miss the Blue Screen of Death. Strange, masochistic fools.

What I miss is having a computer that works. Now I will have to call technical support to perform a resurrection. The operative will have just the slightest whiff of condescension at my lack of technical knowledge. Have you tried switching it off and on again? He will ask.

If he does, this time the response will be my own blue scream of bloody murder. Just make it work. Just make the pesky thing work.


You say burqa, I say burqini

This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper.

Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

Nigella Lawson has unwittingly moved forward the debate about Muslim women and the way they choose to cover their bodies.

Lawson, a celebrity TV chef, is famed for being proud of her curves and for eschewing the pressure on female stars to show off skinny bodies.

Last week, she was spotted on Australia’s famous Bondi Beach sporting a “burqini”. This is an all-over black bodysuit with cap that covers almost every inch of the female form apart from the face, hands and feet. Islamic swimwear like the burqini is something that has seen a rapid rise in popularity in recent years, usually worn by Muslim women wanting modest dress by the beach.

Newspapers are keen to plaster their pages with photos of female celebrities in bikinis, commenting on either how “hot” she looks, or disparaging unsightly flesh as unsuitable for public display.

So what would the press make of the voluptuous chef covering herself up and denying the paparazzi their expected moneyshots?

A columnist in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper indulged in some mockery at the supposed horror of Lawson’s attire: “The world stopped spinning this week when a woman wore some clothes on to a beach … You can’t just turn up on a beach in this day and age covered from head to toe and showing only the bare minimum of flesh. It’s offensive, and this so-called woman needs to realise that.”

That’s obviously what Muslim women are told all the time – that covering up is offensive to “our” values, in today’s “modern” and “liberal” age. Yet, here was one of their own, covered unapologetically from head to foot.

The surprise of the whole incident was that alongside the expressions of horror and criticism at Lawson’s level of covering was the begrudging hankering to follow Lawson’s lead, to which many female commentators admitted.

Some echoed Lawson’s own logic behind wearing the all-in-one: to protect sun-sensitive skin. Others suggested her choice was a snub to the media piranhas who feast on female bodies. But there was one additional thread of realisation: that maybe, just maybe, here was an escape for women from relentless body fascism.

“This must be what people mean by the “liberation” and “privacy” of the burkini – by refusing to strip to what is effectively skimpy underwear, non-Muslim women such as Lawson are saying: “To hell with your fake tans, diets, ‘bikini-readiness’,” wrote one commentator in the liberal Guardian.

And that is the whole point of the realisation that Lawson’s actions have prompted: that women don’t have to submit to baring all.

“Was there a woman in Britain, I wonder, who didn’t feast their gaze on Nigella and who didn’t on some level think … I wish I was brave enough to do that?” asked Rachel Johnson, sister of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, in The Times, a conservative tabloid. “Nigella’s capacious burkini has clearly liberated her, and there must be a positive message for us all in there somewhere.”

Lawson’s fear of sunburn may have inadvertently prompted the realisation that there is liberation in covering. This is something that Muslim women like me have expended much effort in explaining and defending. But maybe we can now move on from this constant need for explanation, defensiveness and the vague sense of liberal apologetics that occasionally appears. Perhaps it’s time to be a bit naughtily smug and say: we already told you so.