Time: An Over-Rated Healer

It’s commonly perceived that ‘time is a great healer’ of emotional pain. If we take this claim at face value, it would imply that the mere extension of sequenced events carries with it some intrinsic medicinal or healing value, which appropriates itself to remedy feelings of emotional pain. If time truly was a great healer, the human being would indeed exist in a state of great fortune. By definition of our space and time-bound existence, no human being would ever be outside the healing process so long as they were alive. We would all, by default, be in a state of constant emotional recovery.

Obviously, this is not true. Many people still deal with emotional pain or traumatic experiences from years in the past, which negatively impact upon their lives in the present. Sometimes a situation could appear to get better over time, but in reality, the pain has merely taken a different form. Tears and anguish might characterise a broken heart in the relatively short-term period, only to be followed by bitter resentment and anger in the long term. In such cases, the negative attitude is then often projected onto other individuals who have nothing to do with the experience, spreading the pain further.

Sometimes emotional pain worsens with time. The mere realisation that a certain problem has relentlessly continued to trouble an individual for so long can in fact accentuate the feeling of its burden. In other instances, the later discovery of how a personal problem affects other parts of one’s life – in a way previously unknown to the individual – can progressively complicate the emotional disorder, increasing its intensity, and further one’s loss of self esteem. In such examples, the individual doesn’t necessarily do anything self-harming to feel worse, yet one’s emotional state can quite easily deteriorate as time passes.

The confusion of the myth that time heals may lie in its false analogy with the healing experience of physical pain. Broken bones, cuts and bruises heal in time. The body possesses biochemical properties, which temporarily ‘address’ injuries immediately after they occur. Here one doesn’t need to do much. Chemical signals send the correct cells to perform their own consecutive tasks best suited to the problem. In the case of a cut, platelet cells instantly rush in to cause congealing at the opening to prevent bleeding, while white blood cells follow to kill any unwanted bacteria from the intruding instrument. After the area is cleared, other cells arrive to form new skin beneath the now dried congealed area (scab), and the area is well on its way to full recovery. What’s important here is that although the healing process occurs in temporal stages, time itself is actually not a cause of healing. In fact, time is no more of a cause to physical recovery than it is a cause to the building of a house, or to the winning of a tennis match. The causes are respectively, the biochemical processes and the skilled physical and mental activities involved in these occasions. Time, on the other hand, is impotent, having no causal or healing properties whatsoever.

So why is this now hopefully obvious fact important? Because the general assumption that ‘time heals’ makes people do nothing about their emotional pains. It validates the idea that prolonged anxiety or depression will eventually just go away. Even the language of ‘moving on’ implies that some kind of temporal ‘passing’ is required to get over something. This is simply not true.

Our ability to overcome an emotionally painful situation has little to do with time and much more to do with changing the way we think about the experience. This is the ‘healing process’ of the mind. Like the processes involved in physical healing, it’s active, characterised by various methods that address one’s thinking patterns. We don’t have the equivalent of automated cells to rush in at the scene of a problem and patch things up; hence, emotional healing is conscious, and comes down to our cognitive choices. In particular, it concerns how we interpret what an incident or circumstance means to us. It’s about keeping grounded in reality and not lost in baseless negative assumptions. Deeply seeking answers to questions such as: what can be learnt from this experience; what good can come from this, and thereafter, letting answers to those questions become the ultimate meaning of the situation by consistent review and repetition, can alter, quite profoundly, the way one feels. How you talk about the issue to yourself and to others, and the extent to which you interrogate the assumptions on which this speech is based, can also effectively cause your trail of thoughts and therefore your emotions, to break out of the limiting, negative, cognitive frame in which they are trapped. (Good friends, family members or psychiatrists can also help with this process.)

Such examples are just some of the ways in which one can begin to re-evaluate and re-organise one’s thoughts regarding a situation. Negative thoughts bouncing within falsely constructed frames do not just naturally break out after some time. However, it is possible that this may happen accidentally. That is, eventually, something may happen, or something might be learnt that naturally causes an empowering shift in one’s understanding of the situation, changing the way one feels. But there is no guarantee here. It could take years for a person to break out of a negative thought pattern in this way, and even still – given the accidental nature of this solution – it doesn’t equip the individual with the correct mental tools to prevent the same feelings or heartache from being experienced again and again in the future.

So, no. Time is not a healer. No one should leave his or her feelings to the mercy of time. Rather, we should take active control over our emotions by looking into the cognitive methods that re-interpret what our emotional experiences mean to us. The body may have its rescue functions to heal its pain, but when it comes to the mind, we really need to get to work ourselves. With enough training and conditioning, such healing can eventually occur naturally.

Advertisements

The Dogma of Advertising & Consumerism: What freedom are we calling for? P.4/5

As the call for freedom in the Middle-East cements itself into Western culture, some of us continue to question the extent to which a culture so consumed in consumerism is able to make such a call. This is considered in light of major and more nuanced social and psychological problems that arise from such ‘freedoms.’ In what follows I wish to highlight a few of these disturbances, which are often overlooked.

It’s not clear how many advertisements we are exposed to every day. Taking into account the average hours of TV viewing, radio listening, newspapers/magazine reading, internet surfing, public street and transport use; common estimates range from around 250 per day on the conservative side, to 3000 and above. Regardless of which is more accurate, there’s no doubt that being exposed to adverts is an extremely significantly common and almost necessary part of human experience in the modern world.

As well as showing us products, adverts also present us with values, ideals and social standards. They draw upon major personal themes such as beauty, happiness, love, companionship, sex, and self-image, in a positive but unrealistic light to promote their product. As a consequence, these adverts are potentially shaping us towards mental states, which are in fact, quite inhibiting, insecure, and unhealthy.

A common psychological principle used by advertisers is that repetition constitutes mental conditioning. Studies show that the more something is repeated to you, the more you will believe it. So whether it’s “I’m lovin’ it”, “Have a break, have a `Kit-Kat”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, the mere repetition of these messages is able to motivate potential buyers and construct certain ideas in their minds with added cognitive and emotional associations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such methods. Psychotherapy typically uses the brain’s ability to re-condition its associations to heal people and make their lives more fulfilling. This, however, is done with both consent and good clinical intention. Advertising is a different story altogether. A company’s main purpose is to sell a product and make money, even if that means falsely creating insecurities in people and offering their product as a solution.

The link between psychology and consumerism was expanded on in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s ideas regarding primitive hidden sexual and aggressive forces to show corporations how to link purchasable products to unconscious desires. As a result, the insatiable fantasy and anticipation of buying a product became more pleasurable than actually possessing it. This would ensure that people would keep buying irrationally, giving rise to a consumer culture.

Bernays, who worked closely with numerous US presidents and large corporations, was one of the first to use psychological methods such as celebrity association, product marketing in films, and to link products to male or female power. In his book Propaganda (later Public Relations) he causally explains how, in many instances throughout our daily lives, “we imagine ourselves free agents”, but are “ruled by dictators exercising great power”. “A man buying a suit of clothes” he explains, “imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London.” Bernays then explains how the gentleman tailor in London is part of a wider network utilising the psychological methods listed above. Thus, even our consumer choices are largely an illusion of freedom, as clarified by the official “Father of Public Relations” himself.

The values being presented to a nation through major advertising come in all shapes and sizes. Constant images of happy, smiling, healthy people with buyable products both insists on a materialistic existence, and promotes the idea that if you want fulfilment, you need to buy things. As a result, our worth is valued more and more by what we own as opposed to what we do, or who we are. Self-gratification is also excessively promoted by the advertising culture, encouraging a focus on our own immediate desires as opposed to our relations with others. Whenever displayed, family and friendship ties are seen as outlets for gift giving, while intimate and traditional ‘special occasions’ have been mutilated into wholesale consumer events. Not much is offered for the integrity of the self. Morally reflective messages are usually only found in charity ads, which, although might be sincere, share the principal goal of encouraging some partition with your finances. Thus, your worth still depends on what you can spend.

Sexualization and Body Dissatisfaction

An increasingly concerning issue regarding images in advertising is the consistent connection between women, sex, desire, beauty, thinness, and happiness. This collection of associations is one of the most oft-repeated and overtly used advertising methods that modern society is exposed to multiple times a day. It’s now so commonly used that we hardly even notice it.

The American Psychological Association defines ‘sexualization’ as: “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Sexual objectification shares a similar definition, and is theoretically accentuated in a consumer-advertising context, where, not only is the individual sexually objectified in the way the body is presented, but also in the fact that they are associated with a purchasable object. Moreover, studies have confirmed that images which sexually objectify women have led to them being seen as “less human”, lacking “mind” and morality, and has caused men to grow indifferent to women’s experience of pain.

The phenomenon of ‘body dissatisfaction’ is defined as the perceived difference between one’s own body image and the ideal body image established and maintained by commercial media. Countless psychological studies show that this ‘dissatisfaction’ is a precursor to both eating disorders and psychological disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, and even self-disgust. What permanently cements these disorders into Western culture is that the gap between the reality and the ideal can never actually be closed since the beauty standard set by popular culture is impossible to attain. It has been argued that the female body-type typically portrayed in adverts is genetically true to some 5% of the female population, while photoshopped images and the portrayal of eternal youth further distances the ideal into an ever-higher fantasy. Insecurities are moreover ignited by evidence showing that men who are exposed to “media-perfect” beautiful women tend to view real life average females as significantly less attractive. This would theoretically include their own partners.

Although men are not exempt from an increased sexualisation in advertising, it is still nowhere near as prevalent as the sexualisation of women. Moreover, due to both the dissimilar perceived ideals and physiological differences of each gender, it is highly unlikely that men will ever be affected in the same way, despite the rise of the metrosexual man. A longitudinal study shows that when girls reach puberty, natural increase in body mass at this age distances them from the thin ideal, significantly increasing the chance of psychological and eating disorders. Boys, on the other hand, tend to grow closer to their bulkier ideal at puberty and thus show no increase in body dissatisfaction during adolescence. The gender bias is further confirmed with national stats from the UK and US showing that around 90% of cosmetic procedures are carried out on women, with breast implants being the most common, and vaginal modification being one of the fastest growing.

Most critical to the concept of freedom is how the beauty standard is imposed upon children, especially young girls. As one psychologist puts it: “the current aesthetic model for women, characterised by skinniness, is internalised early on, before the age of 10, and remains throughout adolescence.” Since children are below the age of responsible choice, freedom is entirely undercut, directing them to a series of potentially life long social and personal disorders and harms. Although a causal link has not been confirmed, this may well contribute towards explaining the belief that women are at least twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.

Of course, for the majority of major towns and cities in the Middle East, the caution is too late. The presence of multi-national corporations and the electronic mediums through which they advertise, have long been a part of Arab urban culture. “Thin and sexy” images of women in public are indeed rising, and Arab manufactures are quick to create equivalent products, which are no doubt having the same effects on their own children as they are on children in the West (Fulla is just as abnormally thin as Barbie). But in many cases, it’s not to the same degree. Strict values of individualism haven’t completely taken over the culture in the Middle East and it’s fair to say that some inhabited areas are completely untouched by commercialism. Traditional values of selfless hospitality, genuine respect for elders, and community spirit, still strongly subsist in non-consumerist communities scattered throughout non-Western lands. The spreading of modern Western values of freedom – of which consumer choice and abundant advertising are integral parts – tends to inverse these values producing opposite social effects.

In conclusion, meaning is derived from our associations. And advertisers are proving incredibly successful at shaping these associations for the sake of commercial and financial interests. While they may not always anticipate the negative effects, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the spread of consumer culture, along with its accompanying adverts, promotes far more social problems and insecurities than it does freedoms.

India Part 4: The Night Break-Out

The rumors, idle chatting, and gossip were steadily seeping more and more into the camps existence. I wanted to leave. It was after dinner, which is promptly served at 7.00pm every night without fail. Chapati (bread) rice and lentils are served most commonly. I was itching to split. I wasn’t thinking of doing anything too extreme: just wonder out into the darkness alone for 20mins and come back.

Equipped with only my incredibly expensive and powerful tactical torch and a toothbrush, I made an announcement to some of my companions at the camp at dinner. “You’re gonna what!?”.. “I’m gonna wonder out of camp, get lost, and try to find my way back.” The large part of me was joking but a deeper part of me was serious. They found the thought funny, and didn’t appear to take me seriously.

Now, there is a Night Watchman here in charge of making sure no one strays out of camp after hours. He is of average build, incredibly dark skinned, wears shabby, dusty clothes and sports a long, twisty and unkempt mustache. He looks quite crazy and scary. He roams the outskirts of the camp alone at night with an old but powerful heavy-duty torch and speaks no word of English. There is a single dirt road that leads away from camp to concrete paths in the distance. That’s where I was headed. As I exited the main, open gate of the camp, I realised why they don’t bother closing it. There’s nothing outside but dry darkness. It would take hours and hours before you reached anything by foot. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself near the camp so I decided to go without lighting my torch until I was far enough away. I couldn’t see anything bar two shades of black; one darker – for ground, all the way into the distance; and a lighter black for the sky. However, the sky was filled with stars. I’d never seen so many. Path, poo and shrubs were all indistinguishable in the darkness. As I made my way around the outside of the camp’s barbed wire to break off onto the path, I heard a voice from the inside of the barbed wire. A torch beam shone out onto the sandy ground in front of me from the camp and I stopped dead in my tracks. Soon enough, the torch was shone directly into my face. It was the Night Watchman. He appeared to be talking, but not to me. He was actually on his mobile. Some “break out” – a minute in and I’m caught. But I figured, well, he’s seen me now – that’s probably another warning, I may as well just keep going – since he can only give me one warning for the single incident. And so I did. I compared it to getting a parking fine on your car – you may as well just leave your car there for as long as you want since the damage is done, right?

So the 20minute plan went out the window and I began to walk out onto a barely visible path until the camp was completely out of site. I was in total isolation. At this point, I switched on my torch and proceeded with some light. I had mentioned in my second email that from the camp, the horizon was scattered with large, isolated wind turbines (500m in height approx). In the distance at night, they were marked by tiny flashing red lights. As I looked to my left, I noticed that one of them seemed about an hours walk away. And so, I left the path I was on and trekked towards it across dry, thorny ground with my torch. It was uncomfortable and long, but well worth it. During certain points through the shrubs and sand, I would pan my torch across the ground like a moving stage spotlight. In the motion of doing this, I would see what appeared to be small birds that would ascend from the shrubs into the stars – kinda like a Mexican wave. It was quite spectacular. As I approached the foot of the gigantic wind turbine I felt like I’d just completed some sort of Pilgrimage. I was incredibly happy at this point. The deep, brooding sound of its turning blades made me think it was other-worldly. The abstract noise flooded the area. There was an unmanned concrete hut by the iron legs of the wind turbine with a roof light, which meant that the small area was lit up enough so I could put my torch away. I spotted a metal ladder that went up one of the mechanical structure’s giant legs and began to climb it without a second thought. This was a really difficult task and at that point I couldn’t think why. Every step felt like a pull-up. I got up about 3 story’s worth, which was about 5% of its height and climbed back down tired and aching. As I stood a good dozen meters away from its base to look at it, I was reminded of the animated film “The Iron Giant”; it felt like I was standing before a huge mechanical foe. Now as you may have supposed already, these emails are pretty much entirely uncensored, so please be easy on me for the following. You know my incredibly powerful torch? Well it’s so strong, that in the desert, with all the dust flying around, the light beam projected from it looks like a piercing light saber that extends strongly into the sky – literally. I drew my torch and started to beat head of the wind turbine 500 meters high. I thrashed at it from its sides, it’s front, twisting and blocking imaginary attacks from its deeply ominous sounding blades, with my own vocal buzzing sound effects. I was truly in a world of my own. I also thought that it would look pretty cool from camp, since if you can see the red lights at the head of the wind turbines, you could definitely see my torch.

After battling, reality kicked in. I had no idea where I was or how to get back, and I had no money or card. I didn’t even know what direction I had come from. I tried to climb the ladder once again to see if I could spot the camp, but there was nothing. Electricity cuts out an hour or so after lunch, so the camp would be in utter darkness. I figured I might have to sleep rough. At the very thought of sleeping under the turbine for the night, I heard distorted music fading in from the distance. It was an isolated tok tok (three-wheel small, cheap cab) passing by on an invisible road a good few hundred meters away. I shouted like a maniac and shone my torch at the vehicle trying to grab the driver’s attention. I ran across more thorny ground back into the utter darkness. I continued to scream and flash my torch for attention, but the tok tok beeped in joyful fashion and continued out of site. I figured I would make my way to the road it was on and hope another would pass by soon. Once I’d reached the concrete path, I begun to wait. Nothing and no one came by. It was totally dead and silent. The only thing that moved was the odd shooting star above me. I begun to make what I thought were SOS signals with my torch in the sky hoping that some volunteers from camp would see it, inform staff, and come to my rescue. I had tried so hard to keep my escape a secret from staff but now I really wanted them to just come and get me. I was ready to surrender and face the consequences. I shone the torch in the sky on and off for 45minutes. My situation was getting quite desperate. I made a prayer: “Please send a vehicle… it’s been fun but I just want to get back to camp now.” I quickly stared into each direction of the road expecting a tok tok to miraculously appear. But there was nothing.

Further time passed and I sat on the road waiting for anything to happen. I didn’t want to start walking again because there was nothing to be seen in any direction and I feared I would accidentally shift further away from camp. I soon felt sleepy and lay down on my back in the middle of the road. I figured if a tok tok did come, the driver would see me sleeping and help me. As I lay down, I was able to appreciate the star filled sky properly in still silence, for the first time. My eyes began to close and I was just about to fall asleep, when I was disturbed by a tapping noise about 100m down the road above my head. I sat up, looked behind me, but couldn’t make anything out in the blackness bar a weak torch slowly and steadily making it’s way towards me. I could have blinded whoever or whatever was approaching with my torch light (it’s actually designed as a weapon in this respect) but I felt it’d be rude to do that. So I stood up and shone my torch up into the sky and waved it around. I cautiously shouted out the Indian greeting: “Namastay!” My tone was very much on-guard. The like was responded. I then shot my torch at the floor in front of the on-comers to bounce light, revealing two disheveled male farmers who must have been walking home. I quickly switched on my signature Indian accent and gestured with my hands: “I lost… me wolunteer” (Indians can’t pronounce v’s). They looked at me clueless. “I want to go camp… camp, woluteer”. They looked at each other and shared a few Hindi words and stared back at me blankly. I continued: “I frrom England”. Something clicked with them: “England!?”.. “Yes!” I replied. The man then started pointing out into the direction they had come from. The other man took his tapping stick and drew a map in the sand beside the road. He ran his stick across the recommended route drawing a line that indicated straight for ages, then right for ages. I thanked them and moved on.

After walking straight in total isolation for some time, taking the right would mean departing from the concrete road back on to sand paths. I wasn’t even sure if they knew where I wanted to go, but I followed the advice. As fate would have it, about 150m into the sand path, a tok tok began to race across the road that I was just on for well over an hour. The inconvenience was remarkably precise. I turned around, shouted and screamed and tried to blind the driver with my torch, but again, the vehicle sped off. I couldn’t believe it. But at the same time, I felt that this “unluckiness” seemed a bit organised. I must have been on the right path. I continued to follow the direction that the farmers had advised and sure enough made it back to camp within a short space of time.

The reaction from the camp for my safety was quite touching. JJ thought the ordeal was cool, and was reassuring the girls that I would make it back safe. The boys were generally excited by it. Many of the girls were upset/worried and some even refused to speak to me for the rest of the night. Though the next morning they expressed their emotional relief. It turns out that some of the camp members did see my torch light in the distance but didn’t recognise it as a cry for help; and the reason why it was so hard to climb the wind turbine ladder was because I was climbing it on the inside of its gentle incline and not on it’s proper side. Everyone thought I was absolutely insane for choosing to sleep in the middle of the road as a rescue plan, and now that I think of it – I guess it was kinda reckless. Fortunately, news of the situation never seemed to reach the executives and so I was never issued another warning. I guess the Night Watchmen decided to let it go. It’s strange, since had he not caught me in the beginning I really would not have gone as far out as I did.

 I’ll be sending a more general update soon.

Attitudes to Disability: Islam, the West and the Middle East

Prophetic Attitude to Disability

Not a great deal of information can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammed or in the Qur’an regarding the issue of disability. But like many other issues within the Islamic tradition, a lot can be drawn from a single prophetic example. With this I have in mind the incident where a blind man asked if he could be exempt from the general obligation of attending congregational prayer at the mosque, and pray at home instead due to his disability. Now, given the endless examples of the Prophet’s leniency, gentleness, and patience with all members of his community – especially towards the old, sick, and the needy, one would reasonably expect that the Prophet would have permitted the exemption. However, the tradition goes on to tell us that the Prophet turned down the blind man’s request and encouraged him to attend like everyone else. To some, this may seem a little harsh, but a little insight into social disability theory offers an alternative understanding.

According to sociologist Victor Finkelstein (1980), western attitudes to disability have shifted through three major phases over time. The first phase is said to have existed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, where those with disabilities were neither segregated from society nor viewed as socially incapable. Instead, they were part of a lower social class along with paupers and the mentally ill who took on the ‘profession’ of begging. Finkelstein claims that negative attitudes towards such people with disabilities were not exclusive to them. Rather, they were seen to be as much to blame for not working as able-bodied poor people due to their own sins, laziness, or the sins of their parents. It was only when society began to distinguish between the able-bodied poor on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities on the other that attitudes between them became distinct. This marks the beginning of phase two – the institutional phase. With the growth of medical institutions and asylums in the 19th century, more and more emphasis was put on ‘caring’ for people with disabilities. What followed was a long and continuous process of physically segregating such people into asylums and special care, removing them from general social engagement and hiding them from the eyes of the public. A new passive identity of ‘otherness’ was thus being constructed for them, largely characterised by weakness and dependence. This paved the way for what disability theorist Mike Oliver has called the ‘personal tragedy theory of disability’ (Oliver 1990). The rise and emphasis of hospital environments facilitated the rapid increase in the number of nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, asylums, and charitable homes which, despite their apparent noble intent, only ensured the success of further segregating people with disabilities from society, and contributed heavily to their stigmatisation as alienated ‘objects of research and help’.

This was followed by phase three and the advent of the revolutionary ‘social model’ of disability in the mid-late 20th century, which was an approach that sought to both improve the way in which we perceive people with disabilities and to reintegrate them back into society. The new model, as an alternative to the previously prominent ‘medical model’ of disability, sees the disabling factor no longer in the individual person, but in the environment’s inability to accommodate them. What needed addressing were structural and technological issues which led to grand investments into the installation of ramps, lifts, automatic doors, better lighting in buildings, wider corridors, beeping signals at pedestrian crossings, audio announcements on public transport, computer aiding technology, and so on across the entire nation. This endeavour, which continues today, aims to reduce the phenomenon of disability as much as possible.

The negative effects of phase two – the institutional phase, however, are still with us. Studies continue to show that disability still exists as a form of social oppression and social exclusion (Oliver & Barnes 1998, Beart et al. 2005). Prejudiced assumptions remain deeply ingrained both in our common perceptions towards people with disabilities, as well as in our media portrayals of them, which are incredibly unflattering (Barnes 1992, Duncan 2002). And all this has been shown to contribute to their continuing lack of self-esteem and psychological distress (Abraham et al. 2002, Paterson 2007). Despite the positive goals of the social model, then, stigmatisation towards people with disabilities as incapable victims of tragedy has been stubbornly rigid in our minds since their construction in the institutional phase.

Coming back to the story about the Prophet, then; by encouraging the blind man to attend the daily congregational prayers – a rich and frequent activity of social cohesion – the Prophet sought to maintain integration amongst all members of the community. To be physically present and integrated denies the possibility of constructed alienation and otherness. Integration also reduces the scope of stigmatisation, insofar as the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity is kept to a minimum (Goffman 1969). Furthermore, the Prophet was known to give prominent roles and tasks to people with disabilities in order to further consolidate their involvement in society. Ultimately, the Prophet as ruler and statesman appeared to guide his community in a way which would by-pass the institutional phase of disability outlined by Finkelstein.

There are, of course, many other influences to be considered here, such as the phenomenon of ‘labelling’ in western medical institutions, as well as western society’s emphasis on and glorification of the ‘ideal’ body, which have also fuelled the stigmatisation of people with disabilities in our society – both of which are strongly countered in the Islamic tradition. What is being highlighted here, however, is that the primary solution for negative attitudes towards disability, should have been, and should always be, integration.

Attitudes in the Middle-East

So to what extent do Middle-Eastern Muslim countries follow the integrative attitude of the Prophet with regards to disability? Not very much at all, according to one visually impaired individual who grew up in Bahrain but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years. Yahye, a recent Masters graduate from the University of Westminster and freelance worker for disability integration social enterprise ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ tells me that despite the stigmatisation towards people with disabilities in the west, the implementation of the social model of disability in the UK is ‘head and shoulders’ above other countries in integrating people with disabilities back into society. It would seem that for the large part, the Middle-East is stuck in the institutional phase in which much money is spent on facilities for people with disabilities, but these usually take the form of exclusive ‘care institutes’ hidden from the eyes of the general public. Opportunities for people with disabilities are also incredibly narrow in the Middle East, resulting in degree graduates – of any subject – being destined to work in call centres, if they are fortunate enough to be employed for work at all. This has led many potential students with disabilities to not bother with university in the first place.

The ‘shame’ attached to families with disabled children is also more striking than it is in the west due to the comparative lack of social emphasis on disability equality and discrimination rights. People with disabilities often feel discouraged to even leave their homes due to such judgmental attitudes in society, as well as the lack of available practical assistance to travel. The sight of a disabled person walking or travelling alone is generally interpreted as such an individual being neglected by his or her family. For this reason, they are usually always accompanied by a family member or carer. The emphasis on hospitality and helpfulness typical to Muslim countries doesn’t help the situation either. Such well-meaning traits often only fuel patronising attitudes, unwanted assistance, and deny a disabled person’s independence. In fact, Yahye tells me that he feels much more dignified in the UK where they seem to have accomplished the right balance of allowing a person with disabilities to live and function independently, while at the same time, offering useful individual assistance only when required.

It should come as no surprise that yet another social failure in Muslim lands correlates with the departure from the Prophet’s example on the respective issue. So while the west continues to improve its policies to eliminate disability inequality and increase integration after its previous mistakes, the Middle-East still funds and builds institutes of exclusive care – exacerbating social stigma, and remain largely estranged to the social model of disability. They clearly have a very long way to go.

References
Abraham, C., Gregory, N., Wolf, L. & Pemberton, R. (2002). Self-esteem, stigma and community participation amongst people with learning difficulties living in the community, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 430-443
Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling imagery and the Media, an Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, Halifax: Ryburn Publishing
Beart, S., Hardy, G. & Buchan, L. (2005). How people with intellectual disabilities view their social identity: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 47-56
Duncan, B. (2002) Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes, Disability World: 09 June 2002
Finkelstein, V. (1980) Attitudes and Disabled People, New York: World Rehabilitation Fund
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oliver, M. & Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, London: Longman
Paterson, L. (2007) Stigma, social comparison and psychological distress in adults with a learning disability, The University of Edinburgh, Doctorate Thesis

India Part 3: Teaching and Camp Life

So day 1 with teaching started and I was quite clueless as to how to go about it. I began to question the founding intentions of Platform2: Why, for example, are we being made to teach these village kids English – that is, their ABC’s, when in all liklihood, they will work manual jobs in and around the village all their lives, and die – in and around the village – having no contact with tourists or ever need such language skills. “But if you get just one kid educated enough to move to Jaipur (the big city), and they work there, then they’ve made it, and you’ve made a difference.” These justifications from my fellow volunteers seemed quite naive and superficial. However, I wasn’t going to try and ideologically uproot this vast humanitarian project within which I am quite insignificant.

I figured that I would use my Muslim identity for teaching purposes – afterall, this is why they singled me out for the Muslim village. In particular, I was thinking of the wash for prayer since some kids are quite dirty. It’s common for the young ones especially to be half naked (this might be a potty training technique?); snot is usually encrusted on their faces on which flies settle without protest from their hosts. I still, for the life of me, can’t understand how the kids don’t seem to realise that three flies are crawling all around their eyelids. The older girls (8-10) dress very colourfully and are always enthusiastic to see us. Amida, the day care centre’s teacher who moves around on her arms due to her disability, is always dressed in a bright yellow modest Indian style dress with plaited hair. She’s 25 but looks 35 and is very thin. On my first day I performed the afternoon prayer and some boys – who should have been at the school – where quite eager to join . A couple of the girls did too. We all went outside in the dry sun and I called for some water to be fetched from the well (haha, I never thought I would ever say that). All 15 kids or so gathered around in their colourful dresses to watch me teach one of the boys how to do the wash for prayer. It seemed they had only seen their fathers and uncles do it but had never done it themselves. I went through the process with about 3 or 4 of the schoolboys. Some of the girls learnt it and poured water for themselves separately. We all then went back into the empty (but again, colourful) room where we prayed. This was a nice experience though it was a one off since the boys went back to school for the remainder of the week and the girls seemed too shy to do it on their own.

In terms of teaching English, I decided to take a little initiative and offer to teach Amida, the day care centre’s teacher, one on one, while my teaching buddies, Chloe and Amy teach and play with the kids. I just figure that Amida would learn faster and if I could spend everyday teaching her English, she could at least continue to teach the kids after we’re gone. She just about knows her ABC so it’s pretty much starting from scratch.

So we teach in the morning and do practical work in the afternoon. Our recent practical work consisted of going into a dirty well and emptying it. This literally meant climbing down inside a rectangular room underground, repeatedly filling up buckets of water and sending them up by rope. Only 3 of us went into the well, myself and two other girls. It was dark so we couldn’t see much if we weren’t standing beneath the well’s trap door above. The water was about calf-height and filthy. Our Indian supervisor had climbed down as well and shone a torch light against the back wall of the well to reveal at least 500 frogs on a dry inclined part of the floor that wasn’t immersed in water. It looked like something out of the Old Testament. We had to clear them out too. We literally picked them up with our bare hands, and threw about 30-50 of them into a bucket at a time. There was plenty of screaming and shouting, me included.

Camp life takes up 70% of our waking time. A lot of time wasted in my opinion. I’ve grown quite popular throughout the camp as I continue to be as helpful as I can. Some of the girls have called me “Jesus” or “a shepherd” because I always have a group of people around me. But it’s true. If I sit somewhere, a group forms quite rapidly. (This is ironic because I’m probably the only person who wants to be alone.) My slightly antagonising strong Christian friend has been quoted to have said “Why does Zee get so much respect, he’s not even speaking the truth”. Not sure what to say about that.

Having a “bedtime” at 11pm is proving quite good for me. I’m beginning to think that one of the keys to organising your life is organising your sleep. I wake up everyday at 6am without fail for morning prayer. At this time everyone is asleep so I head on out into the dry outskirts of the camp to pray. Every other morning after prayer I go for a run around the camp with a tall, slim blonde girl called Megan. She has claimed that she likes the way I think and is one of few girls here who does not seem to engage in gossip. I’m still big in the music scene and have somehow found myself as singer in the camps only band, “The Desert Boys” (I didn’t come up with the name). It consists of myself, JJ who plays guitar, and two other male guitarists/musicains. We’re all from London.

One of the 11 males here is a 20 year old boy from Bernley named Carl who has a shaved head and an athletic build. He has a few tattoos of his local football team around his body and has a thick ‘northen’ accent. He loves Eminem and sport. When he is with some of the other lads, things can begin to get incredibly immature. Half of the boys are quite into alcohol and women. I remember making a statement in the boys room at the very beginning that I didn’t want any alcohol in the room (this is a camp rule anyway). JJ was the only one who backed me on this as he doesn’t drink either. The other evening on a weekend, Carl had come up to me and pulled me aside with a very hesitant expression on his face. His tone was a little uncertain. As he took a second or two to find his words, I couldn’t help but think he was about to ask if it was OK if he and some of the lads could have a few drinks in the room for the night. His actual words were something like this: “I was wondering if I could come watch to do your prayer tonight, I’d really like to see what you do.” I felt like the world had turned upside down. I would have put money on him being the last to show any interest in this (at least 3 others have asked me the same thing). And so, I took him out to the outskirts of the camp at night and talked him though the prayer and Isamic ethics. I tried to sum it up for him: “Prefer others over yourself… So if you want something like water or whatever, and someone else does too, you give it to them first.” He liked the idea. The next day as we got off the bus with our provided lunch boxes, one girl cried out that she forgot hers. Without hesitation, Carl handed over his lunch box to her and kept his head down. I really respected him for this. He’s since been very quick to give up his seat on the daily bus to our placements from camp too. On being asked who his favourite person on camp was, despite us not hanging out that much, he said it was me.

With the girls things are becoming more complicated. “He makes me feel special, but then I know he makes all the other girls feel special so, I don’t know”. I’ve heard such quotes about me on a few occasions. One Catholic Scottish girl came up to me and apologized. I asked her what for, and she said “I thought you were the most insincere person ever, I just thought no one could be that nice.” Unfortunately I have been told that this girl still thinks I’m insincere, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. I’m told, however, that other girls strongly defend me. I had thought that going down the overtly Muslim route (Muslims hat, beard, public prayer) would avert sexual attraction. It doesn’t. My biggest guard is never going to hotels at the weekend with all the others. I am the only one who consistently stays on camp over the weekends since they always come back with stories about who has done what with who. This kind of talk makes up a big portion of general talk on camp.

I still can’t express enough thanks for JJ being here. With him I can be myself and make as many conceptual comments as I want. He does this too. With most of the others, if my conceptual comments aren’t about relationships, there’s not much interest. I kinda feel like I walk around camp enshrouded with veils that are quite suffocating. Being able to take them off now and then makes a big difference.

Till next time, all the best.