Our latest Phone Home workshop in Athens happened to coincide with Valentine’s Day. Not one to give too much meaning into a day, which has been clearly commercialized for the sake of profit, I was indeed intrigued to find out Yannis and Alexia had actually decided to let the theme of love rule our workshop. It turned out to be the most surreal and educational Valentine’s Day all of us had ever experienced!
We started by talking about whether and how the holiday was commemorated in each participant’s country, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that in some cities in Pakistan in the past years, this is the only day when lovers can openly express their love, by offering flowers to each other or writing cards with poems. On the other hand, in Afghanistan, where religion is even more strict and prohibits any such kind of open interaction between young couples, there is only one easy approach: SMS or email. Talking about being on point with our project’s theme!
One of our participants from Afghanistan, however, mentioned that there used to be a legend similar to that of Saint Valentine, passing from generation to generation as a symbol and paradigm of true love. But everything changed after the Taliban rule. And now he could not remember exactly how the story went. I took a mental note of looking into it…
Introducing the theme of ‘expressing love in various forms in different countries‘, the group was then asked to present improvised stories around the issue, commenting on what would be perceived as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ in their country of origin and what would be considered as ‘weird’, ‘unacceptable’ or downright provocative.
We started with a group improvisation, during which issues of ‘couples perception’ ensued. We were not that surprised to find out that two men holding hands in Greece is an uncommon sight, which brings about talk of ‘manhood’ and ‘queers’ and ‘come on now, man, are you serious?’ On the other hand, two men holding hands is a very common sight in Pakistan or Afghanistan, signifying that the men in question are close friends or relatives. The issue of closeted gay people taking full advantage of the custom was also discussed, begging the mention of theinfamous quote from the Iranian president who stated recently that the homosexual ‘phenomenon’ does not exist in his country. Finally, we were shocked to learn than in a Paris, the so-called city of love, the sight of two girls holding hands and showing affection, be it friendly or otherwise, is still causing heads to turn. As is in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
After the second improvisation, based on the theme ‘unexpected couples’, the group discussed a new set of conclusions. Cousins of different sex in Pakistan could be mistaken for a couple by foreigners, since they can appear intimate but avoid touching – just like regular couples do when seen in public. On a more positive note, in some major cities in Afghanistan, efforts are consciously made towards more ‘European’ behavioural tactics, with couples feeling free to go to the market holding hands, the wives not even wearing the hijab or other kind of headscarf. Finally, rejecting a man’s advances translates the same almost in every country – especially if he is a sleazeball…
Probably the most interesting part of the workshop was when everyone was asked to freely express their thoughts about what they perceive as strange and unacceptable according to their own personal standards. And then try and ascertain to what extend this perception is a result of social, cultural and religious standards.
Coming from a family that taught me to respect all human choices, even in the rather conservative society that is Greece, while also seeking solace in specific rituals performed by the Orthodox church, I believe that I am in no position to criticise anyone’s decisions and thought process. My fellow countrymen only just voted for civil partnership to become legal a couple of months ago – while the Church declared national mourning on that same day. Yet I was strangely moved during my conversation with a participant from Bangladesh. We were discussing how preposterous it seemed to us ‘Westerners’ (including Muslims now living in European countries) for a religion to prohibit the showing of affection between a man and woman in public and the abhorrent consequences that could result for an unmarried woman finding out she is pregnant. But when I asked him how he or his family would react if that were to happen to him, while living in Greece, his answer was disarming: ‘That would never happen to me, because I would never have that kind of relationship with a girl before getting married.’ And this from a modern boy with a hoody, joking his way out of bad circumstances, hellbent on spending the rest of his life in Europe and never going back to Bangladesh. Brainwashing or chivalry? My thoughts wandered outside the window from our workshop space, to the neighbourhood where the houses with the lights hanging above their entrances, always on day and night, are more numerous than the shops and the cafeterias. And the diversity of the men visiting them…
Where do remnants of old habits stop and personal ethics begin? How much are we a product of our age, our culture, our family, our religion? To what extent do our personal, emotional and bodily cravings cloud or clear our judgment? The group kept on talking and I soon came up short of remarks, when another participant, a man from Afghanistan, strongly rejected his country’s outlawing a man and woman lovers to express themselves in public. Because he thought that this promotes the other custom, of man and man holding hands in the streets. And that, according to his opinion, could lead to more. And there, he thought, lies the true danger to the nation’s traditions. That is another way to look at it.
There is always another way to look at it. Yours. Mine. Theirs. Who’s to say whose is right? Or if there should be a right answer to any question. Why should we kill ourselves for it? Figuratively or literally? If ‘all you need is love’, why should there be bounds on how we choose to express it?
Fast forward to my research. I had to look into the Afghani Saint Valentine alternative. Didn’t have luck with it, though. Instead I came across other interesting facts. Among them, the fact that the Pakistani President asked young people to refrain from celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, because it had no connection to their culture. No argument there, but why should that be prohibitive? Conservative religious groups in the same country have been campaigning for the banishment of Valentine’s Day for years. In Afghanistan, 60%-80% of all marriages are arranged or involve underage brides. My neighbourhood church newsletter the week before Valentine’s Day included a “call to action” in order to resist the commercialisation of love by informing people to participate to the church’s monthly blood-drive. This, according to them, is the true meaning of love. Again, why should the two things be mutually exclusive?
Searching on, I came across folklore and legends. It seems that wherever literacy is scarce and religion misconceived, tales take the place of schools and enlightened ministers. No one and nothing can underestimate their power or dare outlaw them. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on Leila and Majnun. Salim and Anarkali seem to come from the same line as Orpheus and Eurydice.
Figures of old, feelings of new. We all learn how to play the game. Only the rules change.
But we all hope to be saved from our demons just the same.