Happiness Within Earshot of War

It was a situation I was used to. An event hall is an event hall after all, and photographers face the same obstacles in each one; tripping tablecloths, floral centre pieces, stray lawn chairs, loose wires, red and green lights. The tiered floor led down to the stage. On every table crumpled cigarettes lay in glass ashtrays gasping their last breaths.

Rebellious, isn’t it, to smoke inside nowadays? Well, how apt. We were in the city of Baalbek. Nestled in Lebanon’s North Bekaa Valley, this Iranian financed, Hezbollah controlled corner of the country is a launching pad for soldiers sympathetic to the Syrian regime.  That very afternoon, before the show, the streets were clogged by a funeral procession for a returning local.

But the flow of people across the mountainous border is far greater from the other direction. Over a million Syrian and re-re-located Palestinians are in Lebanon seeking shelter from the war next-door. Some of these people were sitting on the lawn chairs around the round tables, crumpling cigarettes in to the glass ashtrays and moving the flower pieces in order to see each other better in the red and green lights.


Selfie. Copyright: Jake Threadgould

A crowd had gathered in Baalbek’s function hall to see the final show of a year’s worth of film, theatre and music workshops facilitated by the NGO Better Together: Search for Common Ground. The program saw young Syrians and Lebanese come together to tell their stories of escaping war and accommodating those who have, respectively. As the name suggests, Better Together: Search for Common Ground seeks to iron out the tensions that inevitably arise when communities are involuntarily thrust upon one another.

Readers of Western media are, by now, accustomed to the images of those escaping terror; children peeking from behind tarpaulin doors, families being hauled onto dry land from rickety vessels, bodies on the sand. However, this event endowed the young participants with new creative skills and returned the power of representation back to those affected. This wasn’t swampy Macedonian fields nor was it hysterical parents. This was black-tie, crisp shirts, special occasion head-scarves, heavy make-up, laughter.

One film, done in the style of an old silent movie, told the story of a Syrian girl and her father’s struggle to earn money selling milk from their cow. The father became exhausted so the daughter started to sell milk herself, too. To avoid damaging her father’s pride, she would do it secretly; getting up early to milk the cow, walking to the shop and returning before her father woke up. The secret was out when the father found his daughter collapsed outside. She was stricken with exhaustion, too. Escaping the war is often just the beginning of the struggle.


Green Light, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Official discourse in the West is preoccupied with refugees on the move and how we divert these humans humanely.  We’re less bothered about the sedentary people in the refugee camps within ear-shot of the Syrian border. They’re safe, what more do they want? Refugees face the constant threat of fading into a statistic. For most Europeans, the humans who inhabit the camps that litter the Levant as well as the migrants trudging through the Balkan barriers are merely faceless blobs on a map.

I sat down next to Mahmoud, 21, who told me that in the dead of night in Baalbek, he can hear the dull thudding of shells on the other side of the mountain. His besieged home town, Zabadani, where the majority of his family remain, is a mere 32km away from our conversation. He made the difficult decision to leave two years ago. He told me he taught himself English by watching super-hero films, which became evident from the Hollywood twang in his voice as he reeled through a list of people he knew working at the NGO Action Aid. He wanted to see if I knew any of them. It’s a small world for the Syrians in Lebanon. There are restrictions on who is allowed to drive, curfews, and most of the jobs on offer are badly paid, arduous and illegal—something that the recruiters of Jihad use to their advantage.


Mahmoud, Copyright: Jake Threadgould

However, Mahmoud tells me that although it can be boring from time to time in Baalbek he at least has more to do than he did in Zabadani. He spends his days making films, taking photographs for Action Aid, playing music or otherwise “just doing as much as I can before I go to sleep”. He has aspirations to join his brother in Germany but, without the means, for now he is just trying to stay busy. For Mahmoud the show was an opportunity to break his routine and to forge friendships. How necessary companionship is.

But that night in Baalbek wasn’t just an opportunity to celebrate conviviality; it was an excuse to party. Shoulder to shoulder, arms around shoulders and, at one point, a tower of three people on each other’s shoulders. Mahmoud captured that for me on my camera as I no longer had free reign of my arms. The dancing was ferocious and the smiles were contagious. I stood still and took in the screams of joy, the greedy embraces and the dripping mascara. This was a shared history. A shared story. Perhaps the most important of our times.  Step outside the hall and the empty streets filled with rain. Drive for half an hour East and the streets are stained with blood.

This night to forget reality, if for just a couple of hours, was a night to remember. People are people, after all. What we have in common is revealed in the way we deal with the obstacles put in front of us.


Party in the Bekaa, Copyright Jake Threadgould






Lebanon´s political stalemate, where next?

Despite not knowing what she looked like, I spotted Nadine Moussa from the moment she walked into the Starbucks. Something about the way she carried herself.

I’d already bought a coffee so she matched it with one of her own and a Panini, kindly offering me a Panini, too. Lebanese hospitality.

Moussa is passionate and speaks the kind of punchy rhetoric that comes with almost three years of campaigning.  She leans forward and touches my arm on occasion to add emphasis: “that is not democracy”, she exclaims, inviting me to laugh in agreement.

I do. I feel like an imposter waiting to be caught out. I am interviewing Lebanon´s first ever female presidential candidate.

Nadine Moussa ran as an independent in the inconclusive 2014 elections. Her political party, Citizen´s Movement not only hopes to offer an alternative to Lebanon’s two mighty coalitions, the March 8th and March 14th Alliances, but to reform the Lebanese electoral system altogether.

Civil society is hostage to the failing government. State-scheduled electricity black-outs rotate daily around the neighbourhoods of Beirut to save money, infrastructure remains largely substandard and overly reliant on foreign financial aid and currently mounds of trash are being swept off the streets of the capital and buried underground. I am reminded that it´s not all doom and gloom; perhaps in a few million years Beirut will have its very own oilfields.

But for now, the stalling State squeezes the young and educated Lebanese towards the departure lounges. Lebanon simply has too little to offer. This is unfortunate for Nadine Moussa; whose reformist campaign targets the very demographic to which these fleeing graduates belong.

The government seems to abide by the old adage out of sight out of mind, will the status quo trudge along just because the President is nowhere to be seen?

She explains that what they need to start political reform is a platform for the “silent, unaffiliated majority”. As with anywhere, the silent majority is hard to entice out of the shadows towards political activism. Many young people prefer visa applications to protesting.  But Moussa reassures me that her voice of change is welcomed by the disgruntled young men and women on the street.

Lebanon’s partisan press, on the other hand, reserves little column space for dissenting voices. And Moussa herself risks being bound to the silent majority if she cannot carve out a space in the turgid and failing world of Lebanese media.  Her campaign is thus far largely restricted to social media and interviews in several international publications. This makes the process of mobilising local supporters slower. The national press, according to Moussa, is well aware of this. As are foreign powers.

Many regional heavy-weights such as Iran and Saudi Arabia use Lebanon’s sectarian electoral system to hold ideological sway over the region. Airbrushed photographs of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, punctuate the portraits of Hezbollah soldiers in North Beqaa. Drive forty-five minutes south and road signs don´t let you forget that the tarmac was laid thanks to the house of Saud. Where would you be without the Pan-Arab highway? Probably a military checkpoint on a road with another name. The Silk Road 2.0? Mullocracy Drive?

For those with their ears to the ground, this deepening sectarian monopoly is nothing less than alarming. As the confessional leaders bolster their feudal control over territories in the presidential vacuum, the crevasses in civil society may become wider. Christian, Shia and Sunni leaders preach the same message to different crowds: we must look out for our own interests. Moussa says that what is happening now is not dissimilar to what happened in Syria on the lead up to the Arab Spring. But where would different factions direct their anger in a country with no clear Head of State? At each other?

Civil unification is the key ingredient for reform. Many people’s political views stem from God. This is a question of education, of basic separation of Church and State. The confessional system doesn’t protect the rights of Lebanon’s diverse population; it merely picks at its war scabs.

Moussa is under no illusion that it will take time to achieve her political goals—two whole generations according to her, “but at least they’ll have something”, she jokes.  She tells me that although her progress is hard to gauge in this political flat-line, the sparks she sees in the eyes of young women motivate her.  It is at least, possible to change the stereotypical idea of femininity in a patriarchal society. “We offer a glimmer of hope in a long, dark tunnel”.

Nadine Moussa’s candidacy symbolises the struggle of the disheartened middle class. It symbolises the fight to put women on centre-stage. It symbolises the desire to put old politics and politicians to bed and for Lebanon to move confidently away from the civil war as one.


Nadine Moussa, photo by Jake Threadgould




Para Ser Humano


Crimes against humanity permeate all corners of our planet. I saw a kid with a mullet on the metro the other day. Every day I have to read inspirational quotes people have shared on Facebook. This morning I woke up with a mild hangover and had forgotten to put a bottle of water by my bed for the morning. It doesn´t bare thinking about does it?

I mean, would you just look at the bloody news?

Storm Imogen is being a right bastard. The Obamas aren’t satisfied with their Wi-Fi coverage in the White House. A leopard lost the bleeding plot in a school in India, police are interviewing him to determine the motive. Cameron is trying to reassure us that he will raise ferry prices to ensure the wild children from the Jungle, Nord-pas-de Calais, won´t ever see the blue birds of Dover. AK-47s raised their ugly nozzles once again in Ireland. 27 more nameless humans drowned of the Turkish coast. Prisoners in Syria are still being systematically murdered by Assad´s cronies…

There are wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Somalia, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.

We can only hope that our supreme leader and saviour, Donald Trump, will send us a divine message telling us how to clear this all up.

It´s easy to give up on humans. We´re crap. Total crap.

It doesn´t help that the people who represent us on the world stage are blighted with the same disease of being homo sapiens. It´s playground politics really, homo sapiens will forever want better shoes than their friends. There´s always that one kid who will punch you in the stomach for a cheese and onion crisp. Or the weirdo who tortures stray cats in their spare time.

We can pretend as much as we like that in our ever-enlightened world there is no place for racism, but imagine a “swarm” of migrants and what do you see?

Dehumanisation, too, comes in handy when squinting at reality. We can´t kill a human but we can kill a rat. We couldn´t bomb a human, but we could bomb the “scum”.  How could we possibly deal with a swarm of migrants, swarms of stuff are never good. Waves are dangerous, too.

We can´t imagine the horror that some people have to live day in and day out. So we often just don´t.

But I find it odd how the people who lose faith in humanity aren´t living the nightmare. We can edit our own reality; turn the news off if we find it too distressing, we can say “oh, god, I don´t want to know”, we can text a donation to plaster over the guilt.

What drives people to sail across the Mediterranean on raft? Desperation no doubt, but perhaps a faith in humanity, too? Faith that their fellow human beings will help them. And for a time that was the European mood, people went to train stations in Germany with toys and blankets and food to meet and greet their new arrivals. Sweden accommodated thousands of people. Then a migrant murdered an aid-worker, and then shelters were burned down and fascists took to the streets again. And then there were incidents of sexual harassments across Europe. And we reveal racist thinking by trying to find patterns and connections of culture in a mass of people with one identity: migrants.

People are great, I think. This morning Fi bought me bread. In Iran people invited me for dinner nearly every day. In Turkey a man paid for my bus-ride. Perhaps it´s just impossible to consider the human race as a whole, and when we do the patterns of behaviour we find, or at least concentrate on are largely negative. I´d argue that the forces for good are found in the individual and miniscule transactions of everyday-life. Saying hello to someone is nice. Tipping a waiter is nice. Parting with an object is nice. Squeezing someone´s arm mid-conversation is nice. Thinking about someone is nice. Being concerned about someone is nice. Being concerned about people you´ve never met is just as nice.

When I start to lose my faith in humanity, I just try to focus on the details.

I will remember to put that water bottle by my bed tonight, though.

Why I Support Donald Trump

1. Firstly, it would be hilarious. The image of this grinning, mouldy tea-bag of a man walking onto the stage against the backdrop of the Star-Spangled Banner is a source of endless entertainment.

2. There’s no room for sanity on the world-stage. Trump would be hoisted to the heady heights of Putin and Xi Jinping— two megalomaniacal autocrats whose iron knuckles scrape the floor. One subtle difference is that while Putin and Xinping like to swallow people and countries whole, Trump prefers to spit them out. He might have to consider invading Ottawa if he wants to gain any respect from those particular peers.

3. It would do justice to the American political system. When sensible Republican candidates sink to the bottom of the barrel leaving one rotten apple who probably kisses the bathroom mirror every morning and another who thinks the Pyramids were built by the Tony the Tiger, is it not time for a quick reassessment?

4.  Because money does equal power. If Trump didn’t get that million-dollar loan on which to build his Empire, he’d probably just be the drunken, racist driveller at your local bar complaining about the sober Mexican guy who took his job.  The only reason the world is subjected to his ill-formed opinions is because of the bulge in his back pocket.

5. Peace in Syria. He would most likely accidentally re-direct airstrikes towards Slovenia, ironically killing thousands of innocent Syrians queuing up at the border, clambering over each other for a dose of the racist indifference that awaits them.

6. Revolutionising men’s hair. Out with the Kim Jong-Un look, the kids of tomorrow will ask their barber to blow-dry the road-kill they have sellotaped to their head. Anything to look like our new Imperial overlord.

7. He’ll provide thousands of jobs to migrant bricklayers who will find themselves marveling at their achievement from their home country.

Complacency is a Virtue

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

I am militantly apathetic and therefore well acquainted with the confines of cynical complacency. I violently project my apathy towards most things that other people seem to get riled up about; the Scottish Indy Ref, Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron (oink), Catalonian independence, being productive, fulfilling dreams, waking up in the morning. I mean, whatever, all days end anyway.

This may sound like I have the sentience of phlegm, but I do care about some things— gay rights, women’s rights, Kurdish independence, Rioja— to name but a few. Perhaps a curious selection considering I am a hetero (?) male from the overcast climes of the Scottish north. Actually, not that curious at all if you believe in love and perhaps skim the news once in a while or, like me, read it so obsessively that it affects your social life: “no I can’t come out tonight, there’s been a landslide in Brazil”.

It also helps that I was raised by feminist social worker who would thankfully scorn me for saying someone’s shoes were totally gay from the day the nurse spanked my gender-neutral arse cheek until the day it sank in that it was totally gay to call something gay in a derogative, totally gay way.

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Today’s protest was of the feminist ilk: contra la violencia machista. It reminded me that looks can be deceiving. I was speaking with a guy in a bar not long ago and our conversation swiveled towards women’s rights. His key point was “go outside and you’ll see that women in Spain are equal”.  It may appear that way but just because women in Spain don’t have to wear hijab, can leave their house unaccompanied, can drive, can vote, can choose their partner, have access to tampons, condoms, education, aren’t stoned to death on a daily basis doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done.

Some people struggle to see the inequality because they don’t have to live it. If I go on a night out the chances of catcalling, being groped or forcibly kissed are pretty bloody slim. And just because I roll the bottom of my jeans up doesn’t mean I’m asking for it. It sounds ridiculous but I’d hesitate to guess that almost 100% of my female friends could relate to this. I have had to play the role of pretend boyfriend for people before in order to curb unsolicited attention. That should not be brushed off as the norm.

There should also be no reason why a woman can’t walk through a dark park at 4am after a night out. But there is. Until there isn’t, there will still be a place for global feminist movements.

But you know, whatever. Like I care.  All days end anyway.

Protesters, Gran Via

Copyright: Jake Threadgould

Circular Paths

This monologue was inspired by a series of conversations with a friend in Iran. Although I have taken a few of their points accurately, I have invented much of it. I do not claim to represent the views of my friend or anyone in particular.

Tehran Bazaar

Tehran Bazaar

“If someone in Iran denies having at least two lives they’re either lying or they’re boring”- A.

I am officially mentally ill. ‘Officially’ in this case, however, does not denote reality or scientific accuracy or anything genuine at all. In fact I’ve never even seen a doctor about it. There’s no point. Some people refer to my entire country— and countries like mine­­— as schizophrenic. I definitely don’t have that. Schizophrenia is the inability to decipher fantasy from reality. I know exactly what is real. And I know what’s not real. What the government spews out on television, in leaflets, on billboards is a manufactured reality that only a few truly believe in. Yet, in order to survive in this stolid and oppressive regime everyone must spend part of their daily life upholding these fantastical pretenses. This way we can appease the government and its arms purely in order to carry on living our realities.

How I conduct myself in public— under the gaze of the police— contrasts dramatically with how I conduct myself in my private lives. Yes, lives. I have a few. The one I choose to live on any given day depends on where and with whom I will be spending my time. I’ve mentioned one life already; my public persona, which is the more conservative mask I don in the busy parts of town. Very little of my true self is exposed in this environment for fear of harm. This façade bears no resemblance whatsoever to the personality I take on around my boyfriend in the privacy of my apartment. Well, I say boyfriend, he is in fact a married man but he’s just like me. Our kind of relationship is not uncommon in our community. My apartment is my sanctuary. It smells like cannabis from about 10am onwards. I love cannabis. At night, the silence of my room is prickled by the crackle of joints and the groans of sex.

I suppose that this is a kind of fantasy life. It can’t exist outside my room. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s a created world. A world fashioned by the coming together of him and me. It is where I indulge in my vices. I’m always high at the weekends, too, which adds to the unreality of the situation. This life never comes into contact with my others. Well, it did once. I managed to bump into him and his wife at the bazaar— quite the feat if you think about it. Of course I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t even wave, but I did smile. I doubt his wife would have been standing there if she knew I’d fucked him the night before. Then again, neither would I, probably.

Those are two of my lives. Overall I have five; first there is the life involving ‘it’, which is the gaze and the propaganda of the authorities, the same authorities who tell me that I am mentally ill. ‘Them’ is the second life, it represents the general public, strangers who don’t know me but are told of my kind and how to approach us, whether they take heed of this advice depends on the individual. Surrounded by ‘them’ I must carve out yet another, self-protective existence. Whether I’m in the queue at the bakery, at the bank or at university I deepen my voice slightly and straighten up. Then there is ‘him’, who I’ve already mentioned— my escape, my pleasure, and my vice. Then there is ‘you’. ‘You’ is you, the reader, ‘you’ is my sister, my confidant, the sphere of my life that comes closest to the final frontier of my true self— ‘me’. If you imagine four overlapping circles, ‘it’, ‘them’, ‘him’ and ‘you’, then ‘me’ is the opaque center.

Censored graffiti

Censored graffiti

‘Me’ is my real personality, a deftly veiled and disguised life that would be easily corroded in this toxic atmosphere. The authorities here in Iran make it difficult even for me to explore myself truly so I’m only going on what I think I know. To do what I want would be a crime against the values of the Islamic Republic. In fact, some of the things I do regularly are punishable by death. Only two people know this truth: me and my sister. I imagine that you are starting to get an idea, too, of whom I really am?

My secret truth is safe with my sister and I trust it’s safe with you. To expose my real personality would be to give myself into to systematic destruction that meets and greets people of my ilk. A reaction so volatile that my entire personality (and thereby me) could be snuffed out of existence, strung up by the neck in some grubby prison basement. I was born with this burden. It should be a celebration of love but I am not free to love. I am not free to express myself. I am not free

I. Am. Not. Free.

I am trapped, suffocated, hidden, invisible, gasping, in love, exhausted, desperate, in love. I am torn between fantasies. Fantastical future and fantastical present. Nothing is real. What is real is hidden in the recesses of my mind. I have a feigned past- an outward lie. No past. A past that I myself do not recognize as mine. No trace of me in my behavior. No proof of my reality. My past is ‘him’, ‘it’, ‘them’, not my own. An artificial existence. A pre-determined path of stale and unattractive opportunities. I can’t escape ‘it’. ‘It’ would kill me if it had the chance. I would be erased. But what would be erased? I don’t exist. Not really. Not yet. The government would kill me because I make love to another man, because I love another man, but they wouldn’t see it that way.

Did I choose to live this fantasy because of the reality in which I was born? Or did I choose to live this reality because of the fantasy in which I was born? Deciphering the two is a survival technique, not a symptom. I sometimes feel partially dead. Like I’ve never really existed. I would never renounce my Iranian nationality, which has nothing to do with it. I am fiercely proud to be Iranian. I am an Iranian who is gay. My country tells me that I’m mentally ill because of the way I am. It graciously offers a plethora of treatment, ranging from psychological realignment to gender realignment. Neither of which I need. Neither of which I want. I often find happiness in small things, with my friends and family, and with him. But I’m worried that this, too, is a survival technique.

Sanandaj, Kurdistan

Sanandaj, Kurdistan

My Stealthy Freedom: how women take to social media in their protest against compulsory hijab in Iran.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Masih Alinejad is well known in Iran not only to the followers of her writing but also to those whom she writes about. Alinejad became popular for her unabashed, campaigning style of journalism. However, it was this critical stance, with regards to political and social issues within the country, which eventually forced her into exile in 2009.

Now in the uncensored safety of the UK, Alinejad continues to criticize and highlight the injustices of the Iranian theocratic dictatorship, exposing the country’s social issues to a rapidly expanding international audience. In 2014, Alinejad created My Stealthy Freedom, a social media based platform that allows women in Iran to protest the strict law of obligatory hijab by posting pictures of themselves in public places without their headscarves.

I asked Alinejad when she first found herself becoming politically active.

“From my teenage years I [wondered] why my elder brothers, especially Ali […] could go swimming or ride a bike or have more freedoms than me. In high school, I joined a group to produce a samizdat newsletter about freedom and democracy— we were arrested!”

A campaigning journalist at heart, Alinejad reiterates that she does not represent the women of Iran; she merely facilitates the protest. Recently however, and with the aim to further promote the cause, Alinejad has become the figurehead of the movement with interviews in The Guardian, Vogue and many more.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Today, the page has upwards of 700,000 followers. The idea was inspired by the response to the pictures that Alinejad posted on her own Facebook page.

“I use Facebook as my medium, a way to disseminate news and opinions. I have my own pages and noticed that every time I posted a picture of myself especially without a hat or a veil I got a lot of comments and ‘likes’ […] then I posted a picture inside Iran of myself without hijab (I was in my car) and asked women if they also felt like taking off their hijab when no one could see them, especially the police. The response was overwhelming”.


Not only does My Stealthy Freedom provide a platform for peaceful protest, but it also affords the wider world a glimpse into the true sentiments of many Iranian women, an aspect of society that is censored by media outlets in Iran and often ignored in the West.

Scrolling deep into photographs on the page reveals some of the simple desires of those who have posted to My Stealthy Freedom.

“I like it when the wind blows through my hair”.

“Gender equality and empowerment of women? We are not even allowed to choose our own clothes!”

“Here is Iran, the touch of the sea, twisting the wind through the hair, feeling delicate and light, feeling of freedom”.

The wind is a recurring and powerful feature in the testimonies. Even the freedom to the feel the breeze through your hair is something denied to Iranian women. And it is often the accumulation of these side effects of compulsory hijab that drive the protest. A friend of mine once told me that she laughs every time she puts her headscarf on in the morning purely because it seems so ridiculous. She described the banalities of physical act of putting in on; of being late for work because of it; of smudged make-up and of it constantly falling off. The small, daily struggle with the headscarf is something that all women in Iran can identify with.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Not only is the headscarf a minute-by-minute struggle with a cumbersome garment but for many it is also a symbol of the regime and thus it becomes the embodiment of oppression. It is an involuntary physical addition to the body of a woman in Iran. The insignia of the inequality must be carried around at all times. Female friends in Iran have told me that they feel suffocated by it.

In Iran women test the boundaries of the law by opting for loose headscarves, wearing make-up and choosing shorter manteaus [a shapeless coat]. This is most evident in the middle class areas Tehran. Even small alterations to the dress code can lead to trouble with the police and the Revolutionary Guard.

The chador-clad, female branch of the Basij stalk the public areas and address those who they deem to be inappropriately dressed. These women are often indistinguishable from other conservative women who do the same on their own volition.

My Stealthy Freedom is by no means against the hijab in principal, only the obligation to wear it. It exists in order to cast a light onto what cannot be seen in Iran; an alternative to the politically crafted social ‘norms’ that are projected daily through the country’s propaganda machine.

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom

Credit: My Stealthy Freedom