Tag Archives: women

But sure lookit…


It’s something I’ve wanted to say all week but when?

Anyway, Women’s Mini Marathon is on today in Dublin and Elverys Sports has some great energising posters along the route – especially towards the end where they’re needed. Here are a few: Don’t give up when you’re tired – give up when you’re done….Pain is just a way of letting weakness escape…Challenges are often the things that define us…Tough times don’t go on forever but tough people do.

And then my favourite: I’m not at the finish but I’m a lot nearer than I was before.

There’ll be about 40.000 women taking part, all raising money for hospices, cancer research, Motor Neurone Disease and other causes too numerous to list.
They’re already massing near the start line, all getting ready to walk, jog or run the 10 k. The off is at 14:00 Greenwich Mean Time so good luck to them and all the support people especially those operating the water dispensers and the portaloo cabins. ( You can’t have one without the other.)
In case you’re wondering, I’ve just fallen in the door of the pub after completing the route which I walked. I’m not great with crowds so I did it solo early on.
What was my time? Well, if I’d gone any more slowly, the people who haven’t yet started would be overtaking me. But sure lookit…

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Freud, the godless Jew.

Today, I visited the Freud Museum in London’s Swiss Cottage. It’s close to the Finchley Road. Finchley is a place that fills me with gloom, a place of overpowering conformity, of closed doors. A place where I might die of boredom.

  The door to Freud’s house, however, is a bright, cheerful blue. Lovely.



But once inside, the gloom returns. Dark corners, heavy drapes,dark-brown books – row after row of them. The only bright place is the landing which gets the fullness of the afternoon sun and where Freud’s wife Martha and her sister, used to sit to take tea. Freud never sat there. He had a lift specially made which took him from his study to his ( and I assume her) bedroom.

 There was an air of reverential hush to the museum and I longed to hear a greeting or a laugh but we were all inhibited by the felt presence of the great psychiatrist with his cigar and his watch fob. Not a ball of fun, I’d say. He called himself a godless Jew.

If you want a laugh though, you’ll get it at the Museum which currently has an exhibition of Freudian drawings by that great, witty  cartoonist, Calman.

 He spent only a year in his new London home before dying of cancer of the jaw, in 1939.



Freud gave us all the must-use ideas like repression, dream interpretation, guilt, penis envy. That last was him wasn’t it? But his focus seemed so often to be on women. In fact, the reason I went today was to see an exhibition called Mad Bad Sad: Women and the mind doctors, partly curated by Lisa Appiganaesi whose book on the subject I hope to read.The exhibition, I discovered, ended a week ago.

To console myself, I bought a shot glass engraved with the word Ego and a do not disturb note to hang on your door which says DISTURBED. That’ll do for me.

 If you enjoyed reading this, maybe have a look at my website: http://www.maryrussell.info

The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SXis open Wed – Sunday noon – 5pm.0044(0)2074352002

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Oh dear god.Not another one…

Yes, another book about writing and motherhood self-defined, according to a writer in the Guardian, as an “intimate memoir” of a “post-partum depression.”

The book is Black Milk, and in it the author seeks to answer a question put to her by another writer: “Do you think a woman could manage motherhood and a career at the same time and equally well?”

There is absolutely no need to write a whole book in response to this – unless as a form of therapy for the author.

Shortly and simply, the answer is no. Next question.

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You’ve got hair? Hide it!

The veiled and the unveiled

 The other day I watched a mother and her little daughter walk along the street. The girl – about five – was skipping along in a pair of red shoes, her silver hemmed dress whirling out around her, her red sequined scarf as sparkling as her eyes. Her Arab mother was dressed in black, black abaya, black hijab, her face completely covered but for her eyes.



Later that same day, a young woman walked towards me wearing a purple scarf wrapped round her head turban-like and knotted at the back, with the tails flying out behind her. She strode through the crowd with the walk of a queen. They were two women required by their religion to hide their hair if not their face.

What is it about women’s hair that it must be concealed? The practice is not confined to any one of the monotheistic religions. As a child, in a Catholic boarding school, we girls got a frisson of delight if a nun’s veil slipped and a coil of hair was revealed. The word spread like wildfire: “She’s got black hair,” we whispered in awe, “pass it on.”

We ourselves were required to wear a school beret in order to walk from our dormitory across the carpeted landing to the small chapel for Mass. On Sundays, we wore a white veil secured to our hair with hair clips. If the veil slipped from head to shoulders, it was shameful and embarrassing, akin to someone seeing your knickers. As Saint Paul implied, an uncovered head was a terrible thing – for a woman.

In Cairo, an Egyptian woman explained that she wore a veil so that the men couldn’t pull her hair. In Damascus, a father told me that wearing an abaya and hijab was a sign of his teenage daughter’s modesty.

Over time, rules about covering the head have lapsed in many places. Will the same thing happen to women who wear the hijab?


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Calligraphy, the Louvre and a startling debut novel: it’s all here.

Calligraphy, the Louvre and a marvellous read.

There’s an on-going exhibition at the Louvre which should not be missed. Called Islamic Art, so wide-ranging is it that it might just as well and more properly be called Arabic art.

If you go, take some sustenance with you or have a coffee break and be prepared to spend a whole day there wandering between the two floors. You won’t need a guide book as everything is well displayed and comes with excellent and detailed notes covering exhibits from silk carpets and crystal ewers to brass bowls and portable sets of weights and measures including a major display of the ceramics to be found at the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. So be warned, we’re looking here at the lifestyles of the great and the good – of the popes, emperors and caliphs of the day or what the Louvre calls the urban elite.

My favourite section, however, has got to be the section related to calligraphy. The Umayyad dynasty, which flourished 661 to 750, ran a tight ship from their stronghold in Damascus and one of the very important things they did was standardise arabic spelling thus shrewdly arabising their expanding empire.

So, what to see? Well, there’s a writer’s low table, gleaming with inlaid mother-of-pearl, a set of calligrapher’s tools and, best of all, dramatically projected on to the wall,  a series of different styles of writing, all saying the same thing: Bismillah al rahman al Rahim – one of the most-quoted phrases from the Quran.

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The Quran, of course, was in much demand but until the 19th century, there was a ban on mechanised copying of it – ie printing it – which is why calligraphers were so much in demand until such a recent date and why their craft was valued so highly. The closest we might get to something similar, in Ireland, are the illuminated manuscripts the most famous being the Book of Kells.

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Calligraphers were mainly men who passed their skills on to younger men and this is why The Calligraphers’ Night is such an interesting novel.

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Written by Yasmine Ghata, the biographical novel is based on the life of her Lebanese grandmother who was herself a calligrapher. Ghata studied Islamic art at the Sorbonne and at the Louvre and her novel is a breath-taking evocation of the contemplative life of a calligrapher in Istanbul where the story is set.We learn about the calligrapher’s family but also about the inks she uses, the miniatures she has to restore. About the jade pitcher she comes across which once belonged to the son of Tamerlaine. He poured all his drinks into it as a precautionary measure: jade will break into tiny pieces if it detects even a minute drop of poison. We encounter some of the great calligraphers of the time –  their idiosyncrasies, their failings, their distaste for women, their silences, their skills. Reading this book, you’ll find yourself turning the page softly so as not to disturb the calligrapher.

Ghata has one thing left that once belonged to her grandmother: her paint brush which contained only two hairs…

117 pages long, this is a book to be read slowly – and then reread. As I am now doing.

The Calligraphers’ Night By Yasmine Ghata Hesperus Press

If you want to take something home with you from the Louvre, buy the paperback guide full of colour, history and text. Islamic Art at the Musee du Louvre.  Well worth 11 euro.

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Carol Ann Duffy nominated Syrian writer, Samar Yazbeg, for Pinter prize. Read my review of her book in The Irish Times

A Woman in the Crossfire Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

by Samar Yazbek Translated by  Max Weiss  Published by Haus 269pp £12.99 stg


Syrian novelist, Samar Yazbek, belongs to the Alawite sect but is vehemently opposed to Bashar Assad and his government. For that, she is ostracised by her family. Labled an “unveiled infidel, an Alawite apostate”, she is summoned for questioning, led away blindfold, slapped in the face and knocked to the ground more than once by army officers. “Isn’t it awful when that angelic face gets hit,” says one of them. But this woman with long blond hair and soft blue eyes is no angel as this book reveals. A Woman In The Crossfire is a collection of valuable interviews she did with activists, which are interspersed with a daily account of her life during those first fearful months of the revolution. Yazbek (43) is that unusual phenomenon – a single mother, living on her own, chain-smoking her way to survival. The threat of arrest and of harm to her teenage daughter is a living nightmare. What keeps her going is her political involvement in the revolution.

This is a handbook for non-violent activists. Co-ordinating committees are set up, internet contacts  made and maintained, posters printed, videos filmed and aired on the social media. The bleakness of her life, however, is on every page. When she requests permission to take her daughter out of the country, she must apply to a sharia judge even though Syria is ostensibly secular. She is aware of the  conflicts within Syrian society: “The murderers and I,” she writes, “are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in mine.” She maintains sectarianism is a red herring introduced by government supporters and counteracts it with instances when imams of different sects have walked hand in hand in demonstrations. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of another Syria when she writes wistfully of childhood visits to the town of al Tabka, on the legendary Euphrates.

Sometimes, her mood is lightened by those early mornings when she takes a quiet, pre-dawn smoke on her balcony overlooking the timeless city of Damascus. But in the end, the death threats in leaflets distributed among her own Alawite community get to her and, together with her daughter, she leaves her beloved country. She now lives in Paris where she wrote this book.

Mary Russell’s latest book is My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria.

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Abu Nawas has memories of the village lass with the well-rounded ass

It’s Literature Night tonight in Dublin so here’s a little something from one of the Arab world’s greatest and most intriguing non-conformist poets – Abu Nawas.
Abu Nawas (756-814) lived in Baghdad during the reign of Haroun al Rashid. Born to a Persian mother and an Arab father who was absent, Abu Nawas was put in the care of a male relative in Basra who set about seducing him. Back in Baghdad, the young poet was charged with teaching the children of the Caliph but was run out of town when Haroun al Rashid took a dislike to the outspoken tutor who sometimes satirised the Caliph. Then Haroun died and his 22-year-old son, a bit of a libertine, found a place back in Baghdad for his old teacher.
Abu Nawas saw himself as an individualist, a one-man revolutionary.
“…the vanguard of depravity
The spearhead of debauchery
Arch-enemy of chastity
And all that smacks of sanctity.”
Like a lot of dreamers, he had the idea that were he to go out into the desert and live the good life – learning celestial navigation, riding camels, philosophising through the night by the camp fire etc – that inspiration would surely follow. But it didn’t and he hightailed it back to the hedonistic life of Baghad:
“For this is the life,
Not desert tents,
Not camel’s milk.”
Devoted to the joys of sex – with wine a close second – his big problem was deciding did he prefer boys to girls. Though the former won the day, in his poetry, he often expresses a certain regret for what he gave up:

“Now, a toast to those days which have long passed away
I can no longer enjoy the sweet fare
Of that bold village lass with the well-rounded ass
But the memory soothes my despair.”
Abu Nawas was a law unto himself and that included Islam which his poetry mocks for its rules and regulations. Nor had he much time for those religions that encouraged the worship of idols and strange gods.
His own view of religion was one that was open, generous and benign, preferring an Islam ruled by an Allah who was not judgemental but compassionate – especially of people like himself who so often fell by the wayside:
“Almost everything God, in his mercy, abhors
You may see in my person and possibly more.
But while I pay no heed to religious decree
You can never accuse me of idolatry.”

Nearly every Arab city worth its salt has an Abu Nawas Street. Damascus has one and the one in Baghdad runs alongside the Tigris. If you Google the name, you’ll find countless references to him. I like him because he was his own man…I raise my glass of red wine to him tonight. We want more writers like him.

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