Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A night at the Opera

Since the day I  realized Dubai Opera's first musical would be Les Misérables, my imagination has been buzzing and building up extraordinary expectations of what the show would be. With hubby's travels, it was difficult to find a date that suited everyone as we were double-dating with another couple. I carefully refrained from reading any review but by the time I had reached Downtown that night, those expectations had peaked to unimaginable heights so I slowly attempted to pace myself for a little bit of reality check.

Photo: Dubai Opera

I walked out of the car thinking, "what a great job they did with the parking organization" and took the lift up to the box office trying not to get excited about the show. But as we were collecting our tickets, the fountains behind us exploded with beautiful lights and the promise that something magical was about to happen. What can I say? The universe told me.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

And indeed, it did feel magical walking in that building. 

Maybe the beautiful night and the prospect of being at The Opera awoke the starry-eyed girl within. Or the wind that suddenly surprised us brought back with a fresh breeze the romantic dreamer I had been missing and an air of Beirut and those nights at the theater. 

I am not sure what it was but I know for certain that everything converged and aligned perfectly to remind me of the person I was... and still am. That girl who loves the theater with a passion and who had been missing it without even realizing. Everyday life can sneak up on you like that. Then some moments will just transport you in time to a place that matters and that happens to be right there, within your soul, and which you simply had forgotten even existed. 

Video: R. Abouzeid

As we entered the Opera I felt like it was much smaller than I had imagined. Which was a ridiculous thought when you consider the theater's capacity which can accommodate up to 2,000 guests! Then again, my imagination pushed so far through the wilderness of my mind, I think I would have felt Versailles to be miniscule in that instant. Worry not about my sanity, this state did not last.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

The lights went out and the Opera majestically expanded in a second. It was like someone had slipped some of Alice's "Drink Me Potion" in my glass! I felt so small. The music and the voices shattered like a storm and filled the room and my entire person. It was the most beautiful manifestation I had witnessed on a stage in a long while. 

So much in fact, all I wanted to do was to run backstage and beg them to take me. I would do anything. Sweep the floor of the dressing rooms. Run errands and make coffee. Anything! Just to be close to that stage and that much magic every night.

Video: R. Abouzeid

The performers were phenomenal. The voices of John Owen-Jones, Hayden Tee and Carrie Hope Fletcher still echo. 

The orchestra was brilliant as well and deserved a standing ovation of their own.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

The entire direction was absolute perfection. The set, the costumes, the make-up, the lighting, the sound, the special effects and the amazing projections... Even the smells. That is one sense you cannot really awake when you are watching a screen. But the theater? It is something else. And what would a revolution be without the scent of rifle powder and explosions? Every detail was thought of and executed in harmony, even the most gut wrenching and disturbing moments of the story. Akin to an exceptional piece of music.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

The story is well-known and the musical probably even more. I am not worried about spoilers but I do not want to fill your heads with preconceived images.  

I will confess though, I cried. Three times. These spectacular humans, with nothing other than their voices managed to stir emotions I could not contain. Well, their voices, piercing words, and superb music of course. But still. I am always left like a little girl in awe when I go to the theater. The power of the raw performance is mesmerizing. That human presence completely naked in front of our eyes, larger than life and yet so fragile. There is something magnificent about what happens on a stage.

We understand we are watching a play. We are aware none of it is real. We know the story and the ending. And yet, sure enough, I cried repeatedly. That is the superpower of actors. They can transport us to another plane, a parallel reality which can be as sharp as the actual world we live in.

And to be honest, it is in fact incredibly sad that Les Misérables strikes as a painfully depictive reflection of that very actual world we live in. Wars. Senseless deaths. Children. Humans. Lovers. Enemies. And that glorious urge to rise against injustice. Les Misérables remains as contemporary and relatable as ever. The themes are timeless. History repeats itself. Lessons are leaned and forgotten and taught again. For as long as humans will be humans I guess. There is something painfully eternal and universal about this story and its characters. And it is all the more beautiful because of how it speaks and will continue to speak to all generations.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

The entire experience was massively impressive and days later, I find myself still captivated by the fascination of it all. 

So, why not give yourself the gift of magic too? Les Misérables is still on throughout this long weekend until December 2. Well worth your time if you are staying in Dubai.  



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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Making the Mommy Case

I have recently found myself in a couple of frustrating situations that have led me to question at first myself and then, with more objectivity, those around me. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a workaholic.  

I started working my very first semester at university and by the time I was done with my studies, I was already out of the country on a great venture and missed my graduation. Not that I regret it. I actually never thought about this as a "miss". I guess at the time, I had already moved on to exciting professional opportunities and I did not think twice when I could not make it back on time for what seems like just a party. By then some of my best friends who were older had already graduated before me and I had made new connections and welcomed new people into my life. Work and this fresh start seemed so much more important. And in retrospect, it was. 

I met my husband at that job, so I guess this decision also shaped my entire life as I know it today. It helped we have the same work ethics and he is as much an addict as I am. We would reach the office first and leave last. We literally had the keys to the door. I loved it. Back then, I remember well how I used to think: "even when I have a family, I will never stop working". How could I? 

Work was literally what defined me as a person

I feel like I married young. Or at least way younger than I had planned and that is why I never thought of having kids from the get go. I used to feel like I had so much growing up to do myself, I was not about to take that leap yet. In fact, it wasn't before I turned twenty-nine that I started to sense something was missing. I don't know if getting closer to thirty had anything to do with it, but none of that matters now. The bottom line is: we tried twice and ended up with two back to back miscarriages in less than a year. 

This is when the shift happened. This is when I understood that to me, jobs and work and promotions were all exciting and rewarding but that they would never be all that there is. In fact, what had always been my number one priority had not only lost its place, it was nowhere to be found on the grid. And this lasted for quite some time. 

I am quite proud of what I have achieved professionally. I was young and given heavy responsibilities and I raised to all the challenges that came my way, with distinction if I may say so myself. And this is an enormous and crucial part of my person and my life. I would not change a thing.

But when starting a family proved to be difficult and the need grew stronger than anything else (blame it on the hormones, blame it on emotions, blame it on depression, or on that primitive instinct to reproduce and save the specie from extinction, I don't know) everything fell into place differently. 

Six months following my second miscarriage I got pregnant and this time, I needed it to happen. And it did. We were blessed with the most beautiful and loving daughter anyone could ask for. 

My pregnancies are quite challenging physically and even though I thought I could continue working, I quickly realized the only places I would be going were my bed, the bathroom and my bed again. Basically, each time I got pregnant, it boiled down to the same: Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I get it from my mom who gets it from hers. I was vomiting dozens of time a day and I was too miserable and weak to do anything. Needless to say work was out of the question. Simply put, I was crippled for the whole nine months. In fact, the midwife thought I was joking when she wheeled me into the Delivery Room and I asked her for a bucket. She had never seen such severe morning sickness right before giving birth apparently.

As I evaluated the whole experience, I quickly gathered it would be impossible to commit to any job if I ever wanted to conceive again as no company would ever allow me such a long time off. So I made the decision to try for a second child immediately and we got lucky because Mia was only seven months old when I got pregnant again. Thankfully, we were blessed once more with the most perfect little boy and another nine months of sickness turned out to be quite worth the trauma. My son is now four. He just started school a few weeks ago. 

The plan was simple: 

I stay at home, take care of the little munchkins and when they start nursery, I can resume work. In spite of my most tenacious attempts to not become my mother, I turned out to be just as overprotective as she was (is). And I say this with the utmost affection and admiration to the woman who literally sacrificed her person to become the catalyst of ours. She made us her life. I am eternally grateful for everything and I am in awe of those mothers who let go of it all and just give. 

I am not as generous as she is and I still dream of work almost every day. But right now is not the time. Jad has autism. No matter how hard we try to put things into place, they keep getting off track each time in a different way. 

The "Mommy Case"

I apologize for the long introduction but I feel like I need to fully disclose who I was and who I am before I focus on what I have learned from all of that. 

I do not judge and I completely respect women who opt not to work. I think it is tragic when women choose (or are forced) to refuse education regardless of whether they plan to work later on or not. Education is so much more than just a ticket to a career. It is what raises us as individuals to become the fullest and best version of our person.

That being said, I can recognize the differences in each one of us and the reality that some women long for families and do not care for a career. I can understand this is what they dream of, they choose and they undertake. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

But I was never one of those. I had always seen myself as someone who works. Someone who would always work. Someone with passion and in time, hopefully, a successful career. Even when family became all that I wanted, I always felt like I would soon return to work, once everyone's roles were sorted. 

I guess, even if work was not the only feature defining me anymore, I always thought it would still be a substantial part of my definition. 

So it is as someone who loves work, someone who longs for work that I write this. 

I have been part of organizations and a manager long enough to understand what being professional means. I have even gone through the whole entrepreneurial journey and launched my own company some years ago. So I know very well what it entails to succeed (and not to). 

And although I don't claim to be some sort of a business expert, far from it, it is with certainty that I say mothers are true assets

They gain and develop key skills that could be transferred to the workplace and almost any market depending of course on previous academic knowledge and work experience. I don't claim I can suddenly engineer roads. But I know what I have learned being a mother can definitely add to what I used to do before what many consider a "stop". 

Mothers are risk takers, flexible and quick learners

Mothers are forced into a journey they know nothing about and yet they must navigate and somehow complete it successfully without prior learning, experience or training. This ability alone is commendable. No company manager in their right mind would send assets to a project without ensuring these talents had some sort of skills that could ensure a successful outcome. First time mothers get pregnant and have to learn quickly how to adapt to this new situation without having experienced or practiced it before. And even when they have experienced pregnancies before, each new "project" is completely unique and adaptation is constantly needed. On a monthly basis! And when they feel like the most difficult time is finally done and they can proceed to some sort of normalcy (whatever that means), they suddenly must face the ever changing environment of caring for a baby. A project that will probably last a lifetime and which requires continuous flexibility and adaptability.  

Mothers are dedicated and work with heart

I guess this one goes without saying. Mothers learn to completely and entirely let go of their person to cater to their "project" wholly. They push aside their own personal needs, dreams and comfort to be able to give their all. Dedication is an instinctive quality and it kicks in naturally when women become mothers no matter how difficult, exhausting or frustrating things may get. But then comes a time when the "project" at hand requires less time (never less effort, but definitely less hands on intervention) and mothers can start to make room for new projects. This time on the professional end. What leader would decline dedicated coworkers ready to become real partners and willing to engage wholeheartedly? Work ethics and dedication are not easy to come by.

The Mother of all Multitasking is a mother

As stay at home moms, we always love to joke about how the world perceives our "job". Apparently, some might still think, even in this day and age, that we sit around the house looking cute, drinking coffee, practicing our most impressive yoga pose and brunching with friends after a good massage and mani-pedi while our husbands slave at work and our kids are at school. Sure we do. But while we have coffee, we are organizing doctors' appointments, gym classes, music classes, children therapy sessions, birthdays, lunches, car pools, and much more. We can hold a conference call and cook at the same time. We can review emails and documents while waiting in the car for a child pickup or at a doctor's waiting room. We can finish work from the playground or while waiting for children activities to end. We can supervise homework of Child One while building towers with Child Two and mentally going through tomorrow's checklist. We shower and clean the shower at the same time. We load laundry and dishes while picking up toys, packing tomorrow's lunch boxes and sewing a child's costume for Book Day at school. We watch cooking videos, arts and crafts videos, home improvement videos, do it yourself videos and Pinterest the kids next Halloween get-up while feeding the baby at night. We do everything and anything all at once. And it is a factual fact that we are constantly interrupted by something more important. Best scenarios usually imply holding two coherent conversations simultaneously while each ear dumps completely unrelated information to be processed at the same time. Daily, multiple times. Worse scenarios mean juggling two or more situations while one or more could lead to a little human being badly injured or even a life being threatened. And yet, we manage to complete all that is necessary for our household and those living in it to run smoothly.

Mothers are lifelong learners and experts

When I decided to become a mom, the first task I undertook was to get my driver's license. I had never needed to drive but I knew that overnight, I was about to turn into Chauffeur ExtraordinaireNurse Extraordinaire who can make booboos disappear with magic kisses or who can actually mend a massive bump in the middle of a tiny forehead or even a bleeding wound. Paramedic Extraordinaire who can quickly tend to an injury, safely drive to the ER and clearly explain the events that led to said injury while listing allergies, medical histories and previous accidents, surgeries and procedures and literally Okaying or banning certain actions by the ER staff. Therapist Extraordinaire who can support a son with ASD be it during fun and engaging learning activities or in the middle of the night when things get a little bit tougher and I am more sleep-deprived mummy than mommy and he still needs me to sort of manage his loud cries, kicking and screaming. Autism has definitely taught me a lot and I have acquired the knowledge to be able to speak of Autism and with Autism experts coherently and with ease. I can hold conversations with educators, physicians and therapists in their own language. When you are presented with a new need for your child, you man up and you do what you need to do to make it work. You learn. You educate yourself. You educate those around you. And you try to make the world or at least your child's world a bit more understanding and kind. It's definitely not easy. It can get tricky. It is exhausting. But mothers know that giving up is not an option. Determination and perseverance are the only acceptable options.

Mothers are supermanagers and natural leaders

The whole multitasking argument is just above and says it all. But most importantly, mothers know intuitively how to prioritize, budget, plan and manage their time (and that of their "team"). They are extremely resourceful and they know who to build support systems of like-minded teammates (other mothers) to help them move forward. Managers are expected to master skills to administer and control groups of people. But leaders kick it up a notch. They strive to be managers with heart. They need to inspire and guide. They help others, not only themselves, grow into better professionals. And what is the main role of mothers? To shape little humans and help them grow into the best individuals they can become. But more than this, they are generous. I cannot believe the amount of support groups out there created by mothers to offer guidance, support and all kinds of help to other mothers, whether online or in the real physical world. Stereotypes on women always lean towards the hostile and offensive misconception that women are inherently jealous of their peers and hate each other. Nothing could be further from the truth and I have found this inclination towards sisterhood to be so strong within communities of mothers. They are there for each other, they offer tips and even actual options to alleviate challenges and difficulties. They will go the extra mile and cook, drive, and babysit for each other. They will be there in times of struggle but also even just to give an overwhelmed friend a chance to get some time for herself, just for fun. Mothers are truly team leaders and team builders.

Mothers are patient, strong negotiators with stamina 

Have you ever tried to hold your own with a... Toddler? They are small, cute, adorable little stress machines! They will drive the sanest, most objective, brilliant mind to insanity. It sounds completely absurd and funny but it is absolutely true. Children have no real responsibility. Their worries revolve around the few needs they have identified for themselves in a certain point in time. They have the ability to continue nagging and arguing about one trivial issue for hours. Even days (oh they do not forget a thing)! I am not saying mothers are saints who will keep their shit together at all times. Oh, we will lose it. That's for certain (and that's also for sanity and survival purposes). However, we will also learn to become more patient. Endurance is a skill you train for. And boy, do we train for it. Every day. And it is not about learning to shut off or ignore (which can be the best self-preservation instinct sometimes). It is about active listening and communication. It is about learning to negotiate by truly hearing the other. An other who could not be farther from your reality, your overwhelming responsibilities and your needs. An other who is innocently selfish, but selfish nonetheless and who thinks his needs trump anything and anyone. However, to teach that person how to listen and acknowledge the existence of others and their needs and respect that truth is a long process which can only be achieved with time, patience, repetition but mostly leading by example. Listening, understanding and making informed decisions. It is a daily exercise we have to master several times a day. Sometimes we fail. But most times, we will nail it!

Mother are tough 

Mothers are tough. They will go through childbirth and no matter how you look at it and the choices or inevitable routes they take, this alone is one of the hardest and painful human achievements. Let me be clear: yes, we do have it better than our grandmothers. The invention of the epidural (which was not initially for the benefit of women by the way) is definitely an advantage. However, it is not a guarantee. Sometimes the epidural does not work. In my case, it worked on one side only and I felt literally everything, and I mean every single finger, I mean thing that happened to happen where everything was happening. It bloody hurts. Like hell. That was my second time around. The first time I gave birth, my anesthetist was not available due to an emergency with another woman in critical condition that I ended up getting the epidural when I was already completely dilated. That means I felt all the labor, and it felt like, you guessed it, hell (again, yes). C-sections are not an easy way out either as many thing think. It is a full-fledge surgery with all the dangers and consequences on the human body it entails. Some mothers can literally not hold their babies due to complications or pain following childbirth. Some of us cannot sit down for two weeks. The pain is not restricted to the birth itself. It extends to weeks after that. And somehow, most of us will do it again. Why? Because we are badass, that's why! Also, because we understand the pain and by extension, anything that is bad is only temporary. That is a great life lesson. But that doesn't change the fact that childbirth is one of the most dangerous and life-threatening process a human will go through. And even in this day and age and with all the great progress of modern medicine, some women will still lose this battle and their life during or because of child birth. This may seem irrelevant in the workplace (unless you're a boxer) but it is actually a skill to overcome physical pain. It is a skill to rise to the physical, emotional and mental maturity to be able to cope with such pain and get over it. I will not deny our hormones play a huge part in the "forgetting" aspect of this whole process. However, it still takes strength and power to get through it all.

Mothers are thick-skinned

We live with criticism. Daily. From relatives, from friends and even from strangers. And sometimes it gets to us but with time, we learn to not only let go but also handle it like a boss. Somehow, society does not frown on mothers being targets. Complete strangers feel it is socially acceptable to give us looks, advice and even scolding as, when and where they see fit. People who know nothing about our reality, day in, day out, still assume they know enough to bestow their wisdom upon us, without prior request. And somehow, social etiquette does not even slightly disapprove of that. On the bus, at the supermarket, on the road, at the park, at parties, anywhere where other humans roam really. They will school us on how to feed, dress, parent. They will tell us we are bad mothers for not breastfeeding and then they will tell us we are offensive and exhibitionists if they see us breastfeeding. They will tell us our children are ill behaved and we are too lenient and if we so much raise our voices they will accuse us of badgering and even abusing our kids. They will tell us not to give in to our kids tantrums and turn them into unbearable brats all while judging us when we ignore a creaming child who just wants yet another toy he already owns in another color. But criticism doesn't scare us. We can take it. We do everyday. And sometimes, when we're in the mood, we can even respond and put people in their places. But most importantly, we know how to handle it all and move on. We know how to not let it get to us. We know how to take constructive criticism and turn it to our advantage and we know how to not let unwarranted destructive judgement take us down.

Mothers are challengers 

Put simply: competition doesn't scare us. Everything around us seems like a continuous competition. We strive to be the best mother. It is instinctive. We don't really think about it. It is just how we become wired. We just want the best for our children and to get there, we know we have to be the best too. That's why we take on life and challenges fearlessly. That is why we learn all the skills mentioned above and make them our own. That is how all these qualities become inherent to us. We do not back down from challenges. We deal.

We tend to joke about Mommy Brain as being this crippling handicap. But it can also be our biggest asset. The brain of a mother has learnt to acquire and implement wonderful qualities such as resilience, endurance, efficiency, leadership, motivation, strength, emotional intelligence and team playing that translate as strong skills in the workplace too.

When your primary role in life is to ensure the safety and survival of another human, you learn to become a well-rounded, powerful, responsible authority. 

So when mothers feel they are ready to get back to work, employers should not look at that "gap" as a loss. They should look at it as one hell of a boot camp during which women were turned into warriors and acquired unique skills and talents they can now transfer to the benefit of a company.

End hostility.
End condescendence.
Empower women.
Encourage them to take any road they desire without making them feel they are giving up on something else.

And then, sit back, relax, and watch them give back to you and your organization. You will not regret it.  

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Angry Birds with my Baby Birds

Why so angry?

If you are anything like our family then you too might also know a couple of crazy birdies in your nest addicted to the insane slingshooting of colorful bird-balls onto green pigs villages. In our case, papa-bird and his graceful daughter spent hours perfecting their aim and demolishing pig homes. 

But why? Why so angry, little birdies?

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Well my happy-angry crew and I were lucky enough to be invited to the premiere of Angry Birds The Movie yesterday at Reel Cinemas in City Walk 2 and the answer to that question was finally revealed.

Photo: R. Abouzeid
The red carpet treatment is always a blast and we got to pose with the stars of the film which was the highlight of my five year old's day. And let me tell you, she is not easily pleased. If you own one of those at home, you probably know they have very particular opinions on things and events and they are not easily impressed. But we were greeted with essentials which made all the difference: a pair of sunglasses and a micro coloring kit (so cool). She was sold. I mean, who does not like a funky pair of glasses, right?

Photo: R. Abouzeid

And bonus for mommy, the formidable photo booth by Fishfayce which transforms regular snaps into brilliant little flip books!

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Photo: R. Abouzeid

My talented daughter also seized the opportunity to release the artist within at the coloring tables which she categorically refused to leave before her chef-d'oeuvre was completed, not even to try face painting or Angry Birds Yoga which looked like so much fun. Seriously, those poses were brilliant!

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Armed with snacks and excitement, we entered the theater and took our seats. Pop corn, water and seat booster in places, we were ready.

Photo: TOH Public Relations

"The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis, We're the Millers, Horrible Bosses), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad in his first animated role since Frozen), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride, This is the End, Eastbound and Down) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to."

Photo: TOH Public Relations
Turns out, those birds are not just furious because of their unfortunate disproportionate eyebrows. They happen to have good reasons! 

No spoilers here, you will have to head to the cinemas on May 12 and find out what those reasons are for yourself!

Photo: TOH Public Relations

The kids had loads of fun and we all had great laughs. The script is funny and appeals to audiences of all ages with not only jokes for the grown-ups but also a soundtrack that will take you back in time with remixes of oldies and classics.

Photo: R. Abouzeid

Absolute bonus: the film is released in both English and Arabic and quite frankly, this is a refreshing change. Initiatives of the sort are a real need in the region and Arab audiences always welcome localized content. But so far, this has been very limited and mostly produced for television. Hopefully, more investments will follow that direction and bring Arab audiences the blockbusters they love in Arabic, simultaneously with the releases of original versions.

Photo: TOH Public Relations

Raya Abi Rached (Scoop With Raya, Arabs Got Talent), who features as the voice of Souka in the Arabic version (Mathilda in English), said: “It is hugely important to have these films localised. It happens in every big movie market in the world like Germany, France and Italy. They always have a localized performance for the local audience. This transformation will give Arab audiences a chance to engage more with the film alongside their English speaking counterparts.”

Mario Jr. Haddad, Vice President, Empire International Gulf adds: “Empire is honored to bring The Angry Birds Movie to the Middle-East in English and Arabic. We have made a strategic decision to invest in Arabic content and we believe that this is just the beginning of a major shift in the way that the local market consumes Hollywood made blockbusters,” he continued, “with more than 45% of the GCC population (excluding Saudi Arabia) being movie goers, there is a lot of room for growth and development.”

Photo: R. Abouzeid

About Rovio 
Rovio Entertainment Ltd. is a global entertainment media company. Headquartered in Finland and with studios across the world, Rovio is the creator of Angry Birds, the casual mobile game that changed an industry and became an international phenomenon. Today Angry Birds is not only the most downloaded game of all time, it is a renowned entertainment brand that has branched out into animation, books, licensing and more. The Angry Birds Movie is slated for release in the Middle-East on May 12th, 2016. www.rovio.com

About Sony Pictures Entertainment 
Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of Tokyo- based Sony Corporation. SPE's global operations encompass motion picture production, acquisition and distribution; television production, acquisition and distribution; television networks; digital content creation and distribution; operation of studio facilities; and development of new entertainment products, services and technologies. http://www.sonypictures.com.

About Empire International Gulf
Established and headquartered in Beirut since 1919, Empire International is a leading movie distributor in the Middle East. The company is the exclusive distributor for Sony Pictures Releasing International, 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks Animation titles in the region.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Going beyond April

Today is April 15, that means Autism Awareness Month is halfway through and in a couple of weeks, the word "Autism" will start to fade on our computer and mobile screens and consequently, in the lives of many. I am not trying to be dramatic for effect, but it is the reality. Autism Awareness Month is indeed coming to an end and soon, most lives will be free from that concern. 

But there is one thing families with Autism know for a fact: we have Autism all year round, all the time. No expiry date in sight. It is a reality we have to live with. 

Following April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day, all I could see on Facebook and Twitter were articles and blogs on Autism (which was amazing, emotional and inspiring all at once). I found myself scrolling frantically, attempting to filter those I thought were really worth sharing without spamming the friends who followed my posts on social media. Inevitably, I ended up jamming a million posts in only a couple of days and naturally, as time passed, fewer articles were showing and I had to actually search for new ones to be able to share at least one story a day.

So how do we keep the momentum going? 

How do we continue educating others and bettering society for all of us, not just the families affected by Autism?

An open-mind, an open heart
First and foremost we learn Empathy and we teach it. Just like any other skill, it can be taught, it can be learnt and it can be perfected. There is nothing weird about that, really. Ideally, humans should be able to feel with their peers and other creatures and know right from wrong. We expect these abilities to be innate. They really are not. Growing and bettering one's soul is just the same as developing our physical and intellectual competences. If good health implies a healthy mind in a healthy body, then Empathy is an exercise for the soul equally important to workouts that keep our bodies fit or intellectual stimulation and challenges that keep our minds sharp. We must seek it. We must enforce it. We must practice it. Being a responsible human being implies so much and it is not easy but it is a must. Responsibility towards our Earth, our peers and all living creatures will ensure our survival on this planet. We need to understand we are all connected and the pain of one is the pain of us all. Or at least it should be. In this way, ignoring others is betraying one's self and solidarity with one is solidarity with all, and with one's self. I am not speaking of religions or spirituality here (not that there is anything wrong with that) and nurturing one's soul is not a distant abstract concept. Empathy is real and universal to all.

Less judging, more acting
The ability to understand and share another person's pain is commendable but it is not enough. We must act too. So when we see a child (or an adult for that matter) literally exploding in one of those terrifying tantrums, or suddenly running away for no apparent reason, or expressing violence towards another or himself, let us refrain from judging. I hear it too often here in Dubai: "kids in this country are spoiled and their parents are not doing their job and setting boundaries". That is so unfair and absolutely not true on so many levels. Each human being is a different independent person. Children are not robots. The assumption that because a child is acting out of societal norms, it automatically means parents have failed and that child is "bad" is outrageous. Let us spare ourselves and others the waste of time that is blame. It is not conductive to positive change or constructive efforts. It simply dumps responsibility on others so we do not have to bother ourselves with the burden. But that burden is ours, all of us. Society is ours. And when society outcasts people because of their differences, it makes it harder for those individuals or families to help themselves. However, when we all feel it is our role to act and try to rectify a certain situation for the better, then things start to fall into place naturally and everyone's lives become easier. Condemnation and vilification are easy. Involvement on the other hand, is much trickier. Be present and be involved. For your own sake and that of others.  

Being involved and transforming our society into one that is more accepting and open-minded will lead to better integration of all its members. As parents of children with Special Needs, we are always actively looking for organizations and institutions that offer inclusive programs and policies. In academia, in sports, in arts. In Dubai, it is illegal for schools to reject students because they have special needs. That does not mean that it does not happen. But as parents you think, why would I want to force a school to accept my child when I know too well that they refuse to help him? Luckily we also have a wide array of mainstream nurseries and schools that offer integration within certain frameworks like shadow teachers assisting on site. That is definitely a blessing, but a costly one. Therapy, shadowing and schools tuitions are not covered by insurances and it can get quite expensive, very quickly. In my humble opinion, I think all institutions, public and private should be inclusive. It should be done in a proper way so that the child with special needs, the classmates and the school's staff and faculty all feel comfortable and can build, teach and learn efficiently. Ultimately, schools are like micro-societies where children learn how to behave within their communities. It is how they grow to become well adjusted, functioning adults. If we want our children with Autism or other special needs to be able to live happily as adults, they need to experience these micro-societies too and they need to learn how to navigate social situations. This understanding of communal behavior can only come from exposure to others. 

Special Needs Centers
Sometimes, special needs and disabilities can make integration difficult. Some children might pose dangers to themselves or to others and they need to be cared for by experts within specialized, safe environments where understanding and help are constants. These options are wonderful and allow children and even adults to discover talents and hobbies they enjoy and maybe even build skills that can lead them to become a little bit more independent, be it for daily tasks like eating or using the bathroom to more complex abilities like achieving a certain financial autonomy (some institutions even secure jobs and placements within suitable workplaces that welcome special needs). In that way, special needs centers are admirable. However, we need to always be careful and make sure the organizations we choose are indeed providing all of the above and more. 

And as a society we need to remember that these centers are not an easy way to alleviate guilt and relieve ourselves from responsibility. It is not because these centers provide a safe, constructive environment to people with special needs that we are no longer responsible for being supportive in mainstream places and situations. 

Special needs are not annoyances that interrupts our daily lives. The solution is not to just place these people in specialized centers. They spend a great deal of their day there but at the end of the day, they get out to the "outside world" and they have to face, well, us. 

Special needs are realities of our daily lives. We cannot dismiss them. We cannot avoid them. We must learn to open up to them and to the wonderful array of possibilities and potential they can bring to our world. 

This is how we go beyond April. This is how we push further than just a single month a year. Educating, raising awareness and dedicating a day or a month is truly commendable but it is only a stepping stone to inspire, stimulate and cultivate new ways of thinking and acting and hopefully on the long run, create new policies and behaviors. 

This testimonial was written for Mums Like Us.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016


Jad turned four a few weeks ago. In a day, all media around us will start talking about Autism and featuring stories of other children and adults and families living "on the spectrum". Because incidentally, Jad's birthday is closely followed by Autism Awareness Month/Day.

It is good. It helps. We need more awareness and we need to educate people because there is still so much to be done for our society to be truly whole and equal. Integration should not be a particular effort we are praised for.  Integration of all people, all kinds of people, should be the natural order of things in our modern, informed world. It is not though. And this is why Autism Awareness is so important.

But every time I want to write objectively on what Autism is and what it means and maybe how and what to do, I just freeze.

All I can think about right now is Jad is four. Jad is growing. He is absolutely beautiful. But he is growing. And as much as it brings me joy and pride to see him grow into a loving, fantastic little boy, to me right now, it also means, another year has passed and Jad remains non verbal.

Of course the reasonable part of me has accepted that Jad may never be fully verbal, or not at all. I have read enough to understand that this is a possibility.

It is a good thing I am typing right now because usually, at this point of the conversation my voice is already breaking and burning tears are rolling down my cheeks even though I truly do not mean to cry. So I guess I am grateful for that other part of me.

The mommy part that still hopes in spite of all the reasoning. It is timid. It does its praying on the inside,  in silence. Maybe it doesn't want to jinx it. I don't know. But that part hangs on to that story of a few children who finally said their first words at eight. Eight is a good number. I like it. It is arbitrary. It means nothing from a scientific standpoint. But I like it. It gives us time. It gives us another four whole years. Who knows what could happen in four years, right?

And then there is the reality. Not the pessimistic me. Not the hopeful me. Just the every day me. The one who lives with Jad in every moment of his life.

That me is sad today.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a sad person. Jad gives me joy a thousand times a day.

But still, if I have to sum up and rate my day in one word, the rating would be "sad" for today.

I can't help but play that one afternoon over and over again in my mind. We walked by the marina at Festival City and there was this awesome set up of games and food stands for kids. Mia insisted on playing mini-golf so her dad took her while Jad and I stayed on the improvised wooden stairs that served as benches in front of a small stage. He loved it. He was free to run along while I could be at peace knowing the space for this freedom was well defined within actual wooden borders. All he did was run back and forth on one bench. Over and over and over again. He seemed happy. He was laughing and "saying things". I don't know what. Not words. Just sounds. But I was relieved he seemed and sounded content. And then he suddenly stopped. He just sat there, staring in the distance, babbling calmly now, almost whispering to himself. So I looked to see what might have caught his attention. I couldn't tell. I asked him and of course that was silly. He had no way of telling me and I had no indication  he had even understood my question. Still I touched his hand and asked again. He just continued his babbling as he released his little hand from under my fingers. And my heart broke.  I stared at him in silence while he babbled staring in the distance. And I fought the tears because you don't want to break down and cry in front of your children. Or an entire crowd of strangers for that matter. I just kept on doing the only thing I could do. I watched him talking to himself in his little bubble and I just prayed. I just prayed he was happy.  I wanted so badly to know what he was feeling in that moment because as a parent, all you want is for your kids to be happy and to be able to be there should they need you. And for lack of better options like, I don't know, read his mind or something, I just sat on that silly bench praying he knew I was there and hoping he didn't need more than that in that moment. And hopefully, that he was happy or at the very least not sad.

All this talk about me and my feelings. While I know it is not about me. But I guess today I need to let some of it out because it is stuck in my throat and I am suffocating. Tomorrow is another day and things will be better.

Jad may be the one on the spectrum but our entire family has autism. And if there is one thing people can take from this testimonial, it is this. Be kind and understanding to families with special needs. We run out of patience with the world because patience is a luxury we need to save for our difficult moments at home. Give us space. Give us understanding. And most importantly, love our children. Because the one fear we have is to one day leave this world and abandon our children at the mercy of a tough and often cold society.

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