Friday, October 17, 2008

"This one"

I want to start today with a little lesson about Islam. We are all familiar with the expression “mecca”, for example as in “Tofino is a surfing mecca”…but do you know where the expression comes from?

“Makkah” or “Mecca” is actually a city on the Western coast of Saudi Arabia which is the centre of Islamic religion. Makkah is “the holy city” at the centre of which lies the “Kabba”. The Kabba is a large cube-like structure (see centre of the depressed portion of the plaza on the far side of the above image), and from what I understand, is thought to be in line with the centre of Heaven. Five times a day, thousands of pilgrims (every one of those tiny white dots in the image is a person!) make their way into the gates and form commendably organized concentric circles around the Kabba to pray to Allah (God). I want to emphasize at this point that Muslims do not pray TO the Kabba – the Kabba is simply the marker for the central point of Heaven, and is thus the most logical place to pray to Allah (any of my Muslim friends reading this, please feel free to add-in or correct me in the comments at the bottom!). No matter where a Muslim may be in the world, whenever they pray, they pray in the direction of the Kabba. In the hospital here, each room has an arrow on the ceiling indicating in which direction the Kabba lies. I watched the evening prayer in Makkah on TV (non-Muslims are not permitted into the Holy City) during Ramadan, and it was one of the most mesmerizing, beautiful experiences I have EVER seen. Thousands of people moving at exactly the same time, the chanting of the Qur’an (kind of like the Bible for Muslims) by the Imam (kind of like a priest, but not really) while it is all going on.

Now back to the point of the lesson: Makkah is the central place for Islam – people with the same passion drawn to the same place to share it and experience the exponential intensity of the large number of others around them there for the same reason. Thus, the next time you hear the expression “mecca” in English, you can think about the much deeper meaning actually attached to it!

And now, a story. This is something that happened just yesterday. Here’s the background:

The patient is a long termer who has been on our ward since I started. He is quite possibly one of the surliest men I have EVER met. From the start, he had it out for me. Before I could speak Arabic, he didn’t even want me in the room, and would wave me away like a mosquito with an impatient flick of his wrist every time I entered. The only time I ever got any acknowledgement was when he wanted something, in which case he would snap his fingers, and point at the desired object without looking at me…and of course he always wanted it faster than I could bring it to him, so a string of Arabic was forcefully unleashed into the airspace between us. Of course, the fact that I had no idea what he was saying served only to compound the "mushkala" (problem), and simply gave him an excuse (not that he really needed one) to be even more annoyed...Ok ok, so maybe my humming and my constant broken English/Arabic chatter whenever I went in didn’t help matters, but that is beside the point…

His son, who is in his room pretty much around the clock is a little more personable, but also speaks only Arabic. As my own grasp on the language has improved improved, Baba’s (“Baba” is the Arabic word for “father”, and can also be used to refer to an older man) disdain slowly morphed to a sort of low-level tolerance, and though I was still studiously ignored, at least the “go away” waves were reduced to a minimum.

Yesterday, I went into Baba’s room and was going about my business (yes, humming some Bob Marley, and proudly stumbling over my latest Arabic words to a very un-captive audience), when all of a sudden, Baba’s son blurted out “this one!”. I stopped in my tracks at this rare attempt to communicate, thinking that I must have done something SUPER “haram” (forbidden) if he was going to the extent of using the language so openly abhorred by his father. Baba himself was sitting in his usual position on his bed, slouched forward, towel over his head, corners of his mouth downturned, with eyes so caustic, I’m surprised the paint wasn’t peeling off the wall he was glaring at.

I started to go through all the possibilities of what “this one” could be in reference to: The pills? Change the bed? The IV? The son, then smiled (also very rare), then paused, and said my name (which I had no idea he even knew) followed by a string of Arabic which included “momareda” (nurse), “kooloo” (all), “kwayes” (good), and something about “Baba saying”, and then repeated “this one” and pointed at me. Suddenly it dawned on me what he was trying to say, and I think I still have a bruise on my chin from where my jaw dropped on the floor. I looked at Baba, and just for a split second, he looked in my direction, gave a curt, surly nod, and returned to melting the wall. Apparently, somewhere along the way, I had crossed the threshold into the realm of approval with this man who I had been so sure vehemently resented the fact that we shared the same breathing air. As I had no words in my vocabulary to express that he had just made my day (which is probably just as well), I simply nodded back, smiling slightly, and said “shukkran, Baba” (thank you), and continued about my work – but a barrier had been broken down. Despite his surliness, Baba was utterly compliant for the rest of the day, even going as far as muttering “mafe mushkala” (no problem) when I accidentally spilled a few drops of saline on his arm while flushing his IV – a situation which, 3 weeks ago, may very well have elicited apocalyptic Richter scale-tipping roars.

Small steps, my friends, small steps.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Who are you?

I know I said that this next blog post would be about my trip into the desert, but am going to hold that story for a bit and reflect instead on a something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Though this issue has been on my mind for a while, an incident the other day ripped open a curtain on a window which allowed me to see landscapes I was not aware existed. As I cannot tell you exactly what happened for reasons which will become obvious, I will relate instead the parameters of the situation in as specifically non-specific a manner possible.

I want to talk about identity.

You are plunged alone into the middle of a new culture, country and environment. You don’t know anyone and they don’t know you. No one is able to speak to your strengths or view your weaknesses with endearment (because I know you all find my over-analytical views endearing…right?). No one knows what you’ve done, or what you stand for. All you are is a physical body with a name who is supposed to be competent to carry out a job. How do you create an impression? What will that impression be, and is it consistent with who you see yourself to be? Bear in mind that the challenge of creating a good first impression is compounded by the judgment of your actions from many different cultural frames of reference, none of which you are too familiar with. How will your identity change in this situation, or will it? You no longer have your past experiences to hide behind. No one from the Philipines cares you were a sponsored elite cyclist back home. No one from the general Saudi population accedes work done with IV drug users, especially in a harm reduction capacity (“haram kateer” – highly forbidden!). All you have from these past experiences are the core lessons you learned, and the values which were created or modified in the process.

We too often define ourselves by what we have done, and forget, or worse, fail to discover who we ARE. Too much, we emphasize “accomplishment” itself as a single event, an endpoint, and forget to reflect on WHY we did it, what we learned from it, and how we can apply this information in different capacities to future situations. Failure to achieve a set goal is seen as a negative, because we cannot “add the attained goal to our list” and are thus left to make empty excuses to ourselves and others as to why we can’t say “I did that”…yet what we have really failed at it to see the process as an extremely rich resource in experience gained. It is what we choose to take from these situations, despite our disappointment that makes us who we are.

What do you say when someone asks you who you are? Do you tend to urgently list off a list of your personal and career accomplishments early on in a “getting to know you” conversation? Do you sit back, listen, process and respond to what the other person has to say, let THEM ask YOU the questions, and let your “true self” come through slowly in your choice of response? Are your “listable” experiences events which occurred as a result of your intrinsic pursuing of what truly interests you and gives you pleasure? Or are they just one more thing to put on your “list” whose length is directly proportional to the recognition you believe you are owed from those with whom you share that list?

Do you care more about being able to say you did it, or can you see the importance in talking about what you learned from it either directly or indirectly, even if the actual event is not mentioned?

I want to make perfectly clear that I am just as guilty of many of the abovementioned behaviours as the next person, but it is something that I am aware of and working on every day.

Now picture yourself in a situation where you are working hard to establish a good, carefully calculated first impression on your new community. You know you have been doing well so far, but you have also seen how quickly an impression can turn, and are doing your best to merge at a matching speed, with plenty of shoulder checking. You have learned how to roll with and absorb the many small challenges you face while trying to assimilate into your new environment, and though you have had to bite your tongue a few times, you know that ultimately, it is only your own loss of control which has been compromised in most situations (ie, “their” way is not better or worse…just “different”).

Then, suddenly, someone is asking you to do something that is so completely against everything you believe in, and that you believe you stand for, it becomes “un-absorbable”. You refuse outright (with what you think is a very strong, valid argument). You are asked to comply several more times. You stand your ground. You can literally see the otherwise demure, unassuming impression you have worked so hard to build, evaporating in the rising heat. You can also see that the challengers know you are right despite them pushing you the other way – the “easier” way (a fact which, unfortunately, does not actually make your immediate situation any better).

Ok, let’s talk about me. In the end (as I am sure you figured out that this hypothetical non-specific situation pertains directly to yours truly), I am very very happy to say that I stood my ground, advocacy muscles rippling, and truly stood up for what I believed in. Most importantly, given the chance to go back and make that decision again, I would not have changed a thing.

Lesson learned:
Part of self discovery, getting to know your TRUE self, is being placed in a situation where all EXTRINSIC frames of reference defining “you” as YOU are absent, and subsequently making a decision opposing ALL external pressures, based only on the strength of your own moral intrinsic belief that you are RIGHT.

I will end with an analogy because you all know how much I LOVE analogies…

Some areas of personal boundaries are like lycra – Easily supports large changes in conformity, but still keeps things within the same general shape

Other areas of personal boundaries are like jeans - Stiff at first, but after being worn a few times, they stretch out comfortably, and you pretty much forget how stiff and hard to get into they were when you first got them.

Still other areas are like a suit of armour – No stretch or give. Instead, rigid and indestructible, custom made to fit you exactly because you know the dimensions will never change. You also know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it will protect what is inside of it against any attempted extrinsic insult, be it physical, psychological, or moral.

Thanks for listening
Love to all (and congratulations if you actually made it this far in the post!)