Protected: How Not To Be A Monkey*

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Must this be said?

The measure of one’s spirituality should not be the rigour of religious practices, nor the amount of hatred one harbours towards those who have wronged their god. It must not be the number of times one kowtows to idols, it cannot be the strength with which one clenches onto traditionalistic superstitions and it must never be the willingness to die (is not god merciful?) It shouldn’t be the right god, or the right temple; how can it be known when the place you are born in almost always determines the religion you will embrace.

The measure of one’s spirituality should be one’s willingness to love. Empathize. To be compassionate. To understand why we worship different idols, deities and gods. To cherish one another, to fight for one another, regardless of race and religion. To honestly wish someone well, and not secretly take pity on someone just because their faith differs from yours. If you find it contradictory, then you should revisit your faith’s teachings and think about whether they are truly compatible with your inner principles. Whether they make true sense. To not be afraid to break from convention, tradition (once upon a time, slavery was tradition) and share true peace with our brothers and sisters on Earth. To share moments of happiness with our brothers and sisters who display romantic affinity for their own gender, because they love cars too. They love clothes too. They love a good book by the beach, like you too. To be humble and know that we don’t know all the answers. To know that religion is arbitrarily ascribed to everyone depending on where they were born and that as we grow up, we may find different truths from what our parents told us ages ago. One may swap Islam for Judaism. One may shed religion altogether. One may also pick up religion in her golden years for the first time in her life. Why not?

Must this be said?

I wish it didn’t have to be.

Slut shaming, prudes and self-respect

The prying eyes. The judgmental stares. The scandalous whispers. All of which can be found in our bias-ridden society who is fooled into believing that morality is absolute and that everyday is a crusade against evil. Women and men both get it pretty bad based solely on their genders, although some may argue that one gets it worse than the other, the degree of discrimination on either side can vary throughout various cultures. Persistent men who often end up in the reject bin are easily called creeps. There is hardly a female equivalent for that term. On the other side of the spectrum, women who openly have flings are sluts and men who do the same are studs. Now I’ve been quite intrigued by these complex social problems, but on with my rant.

I want to talk about having to act prudish. Why am I complaining about a virtue? Let me clarify. Earlier today I found myself in a position in which I stopped to reflect about gender roles in society and my humble place in the big bad sea. On a post in a group I patronize Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and their friends (MAFA in short), someone asked, ‘What would you do if it was really the end of the world?’ My instant reaction was to giggle at it and type the first thing that sprung to mind – and the most honest answer – was sex. Out of all the other remarks I could have thought of (and maybe even spontaneously create the bucket list I’ve always wanted) I chose to let the most base activity leap forward to the front of my mind. After the self-induced amusement subsided I started to type. So instead of writing ‘I want to have raw sex’, I ended up with something really awful like ‘I want cherry cream cheese pie (I know it looks awful. I heaped too many words onto the tray. Don’t judge my linguistic inferiority)

So, why did I choose the less frank (and terribly watered down) version? It’s because of the nature of our society. We make split-second judgement calls, whether called for or not. The former could earn me a derogative label of ‘shameless’, ‘ill-mannered’, ‘sleazy’ and the works. Of course to give my friends some credit, they would just shrug it off as a silly remark,  if not jump on the jollywagon with me. That’s not the point though. Females are charged with much more degree of sin than men in this respect. I want to address the elusive female sexual frustration.

Yes, females can feel sexually frustrated too!Thanks to the surge in trend of clubs like the Obedient Wives Club (OWC) (who has a pretty large following within the Muslim community) female pleasure continues to be overlooked by the masses, especially in more conservative countries like Malaysia. In the medical literature of the 19th century, female hysteria was widely discussed as a medical condition only displayed by – you guessed it – women. Its symptoms were terribly similar to PMS-

faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”

It seems all good and dandy until you learn what the cure for this diagnosis was: Hysterical paroxym. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about orgasm? The cure was a sort of pelvic massage which was essentially the manual stimulation of genitalia with the help of tools. These tools led to the conception of the electrical vibrator, an ingenious home appliance. It was one of the most popular inventions of its time, arriving at doorsteps 9 years before the electrical vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electrical iron. Of course this was before they appeared in pornos in the 1920s, in the greasy hands of fake medical professionals.

Shocking, isn’t it?

While all of this seems like a fictional story straight from, it is absolutely true and its truth raises a startling question. Did the wives get any sexual pleasure from their husbands? It is obvious that if the cure could be administered at home for free, they would have no need for such contraptions. It could be argued that the women nowadays do it too, including many liberals who are open with their sexuality. However it is a sobering thought that in the past, marriage was seen to be ‘transferring the ownership of an asset’. The women who visited the doctor were clearly clueless as to what was wrong with their bodies. They didn’t have sex-ed in the past, just a lot of suppressed giggles in the pantry. Unfortunately this culture is still prevalent in the 21st century. We ignore the importance of discovering our sexuality like these sex-starved societies in the past and we take it for granted.

It’s as if women needed permission to pleasure themselves. Guess what? There are those who still do.

My favourite intelligent, piping-hot sex-ed private tutor is Laci Green. Her previous YouTube channel used to focus on atheism but progressed towards sex education. She then charged full-on against sexual ignorance with her very own website and activism. This is one of her latest videos in which she talks about slut-shaming and gets us to question the judgments we impose on people. Is it really fair that we decide a person’s worth according to how many people she dates/sleeps with? Laci Green is spot on (and so hot) on the topic of slut-shaming and doesn’t forget to discuss promiscuity and bad sex decisions like she always does, in exasperation.

Society’s expectations on women to be frigid cows until marriage? No. Forever? Close. I’m not just talking about women who have had multiple partners. Here is a wonderful definition from a very educational post on skewed societal perception of sexuality and its implications.

Slut-shaming, also known as slut-bashing, is the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. Furthermore, it’s “about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior” (Alon Levy, Slut Shaming). It is damaging not only to the girls and women targeted, but to women in general an society as a whole. It should be noted that slut-shaming can occur even if the term “slut” itself is not used.

Finally, I now have settled into my point.

Women have sexual desires like men too. I don’t have to go into any details. It’s so matter-of-fact, yet even some WOMEN would be appalled at such a statement. These people probably haven’t tried pleasuring themselves before, because gurrrrl, you need to get some. Religion has helped to perpetuate the notion of the objective morality of sexuality, what is considered right and wrong in black and white terms. Married, heterosexual sex for procreation is where the fun’s at – not forgetting the religious effigy beside the bed.  Of course most moderates obviously don’t do it for procreation (or at least unintentionally – ‘whoops!’) and some make a generous attempt at excusing homosexuals, but when it comes to other sexual choices, they flare up like a self-appointed Imam.

This is why I was reluctant to say that I wanted to have sex before the world ended. I realize that this is conservative Malaysia and to accept the notion of being open about one’s sexuality is far-off. This is one of the reasons we are so reluctant about sex ed, because we glorify the modest a little too much, we forget our own personal needs and desires.

What I can do to help reduce slut-shaming is to recommend you girls out there is to explore your bodies. It does not have to be in a sexual way. Realize your capabilities as a woman and read up about your reproductive health. Reproductive anatomy in Form 3 classes will not be sufficient. Love your body and fend off all VERBAL and PHYSICAL attacks towards it. Watch Laci Green. If you disagree with her views, talk about it with someone. Find dissenting views because you don’t want to preach to the choir and figure out for yourself what is a good justification and what is a bad one.

TALK about sex, with your parents, your friends. READ about sex. It is more relevant in your life than you think. Don’t let men make all the decisions for you. The instant you ignore your responsibility towards your own reprodutive health, you can be taken advantage of. Whatever your sexual choices, be safe. Have self-respect by loving yourself and give respect to others where it is due; take away respect when it is NECESSARY. Try not to call people sluts for being open about their sex lives. Those who incessantly post sexual material on their Facebook news feeds are probably just craving for attention, so apply judgement where it is due.

Most importantly: Love, love, love, yourself, despite all the shit in female magazines and MTV.

The discourse on sex is sorely needed in Malaysia and I do not intend to stand back and let it be.

Stop messing with our children

It’s the eve of my Moral Studies paper, more commonly known as Pendidikan Moral. As a student with enough good sense to not fail such a plain-sailing paper, I have already taken the pains to prepare for it. I have the one and only key to acing it – by memorizing 36 sentences (moral values and their definitions) and their keywords. I can recite them flawlessly, half-conscious of the stream of words rolling down my tongue, but don’t get me wrong – it didn’t take an hour for me to do it. I am simply adept at summoning concentration. I truly think that most students can do it too if they put their minds to it. But I digress.

Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan
Keyakinan wujudnya Tuhan sebagai pencipta alam dan mematuhi segala suruhan-Nya berlandaskan pegangan agama masing-masing selaras dengan prinsip Rukun Negara

Never mind that I am an atheist. Never mind that most Malaysians probably don’t adhere to the fourth line of the Rukun Negara. I typed that down, verbatim. I never hesitated. This is what the Malaysian education system is creating. I am neutral and undecided on Pendidikan Moral (PM) subject, but I have a bone to pick with the paper that we sit for in SPM. It is a compulsory paper and any educator who has a shred of concern for the future of our Malaysian children will be surprised at the level of maturity the paper-setters have. Even the slightest mismatch in the ‘answer format’ will penalise the candidate. Never mind that the candidate is intelligent, mature and morally upright. One may argue that it is common for candidates to be penalized for not following the exam format in other papers. But think about it – is there any other paper that has a format so rigid and so merciless? Not to mention that this is a paper for a subject that is most subjective in nature, with literature spanning centuries and its questions plaguing the minds of philosophers ever since we can remember.

Memorize all of this and you get A+ for the subject.

Bersikap tidak keterlaluan dalam membuat pertimbangan sama ada dalam pemikiran, pertuturan atau perlakuan tanpa mengabaikan kepentingan diri atau orang lain

Then there are people who claim that what you memorize will be ingrained in your habits and behaviour. I wouldn’t claim to know any research done on this. There has been increasing support for ‘fun learning’, as opposed to rote learning. I do not wish to dismiss the benefits of both methods, but my general opinion is this: Rote learning must be emphasised in the early stages while accommodating a fair amount of ‘fun learning’. Just as there must be solid foundation before you build a skyscraper that will reach the heavens, memorization has a place in the heart of education. In this case however, you have 16, 17 and 18-year-olds – pretty big boys and girls from what I can see – who are sitting for the paper. Is this how we teach our children? Do we imbue a sense of achievement and love for education by compelling children to memorize things that are, frankly not helpful in any way at all? Will memorizing these definitions make a person more moral? I did it, but I don’t feel any more virtuous, nor do I feel any revelation when I recite the list of moral values. What do you say to that?

Melindungi Hak Pengguna
Membela dan memelihara hak individu untuk menjadi pengguna yang berilmu, mendapat perkhidmatan serta barangan yang berkualiti dan tidak mudah dieksploitasi.

By the way, if you get one word wrong, you are not even entitled to half a mark. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

Although throughout 2 years of upper secondary education, the kids are not forced to recite the 36 definitions in the classroom, although there may be teachers who actually do that. Usually, they are told to go home and memorize it for their exams. I say this because I do not wish to create the misconception that we chant those verses like monks all day long. Here, it is very tempting to ignore the problem and you may want to say that I am making a mountain of a molehill. Unfortunately you are sorely mistaken.

Citing a case study, Namasoo said that none of the about 100 non-Muslim students who sat the SPM at the SMK Tarcisian Convent in Ipoh had obtained an A+ for Moral Studies.

“Some 38 students sent their papers for a re-check but their grades were only upgraded one notch higher than their previous result. These students scored A+ for Moral studies for their trials and even scored A+ for tougher subjects such as Maths and Physics,” he said.

Welcome to Malaysia. Where candidates who have worked their asses off for all of their subjects, including Pendidikan Moral, are disqualified for a government scholarship. 559 candidates of SPM 2011 scored straight A+s. That is the highest score one can achieve, equivalent to a 4.0 GPA. So you see the conundrum. Students are being unfairly stymied based on the stupidest paper in the history of the Malaysian education system. The general consensus is that this is an issue of race (and religion; the two inextricably intertwined in Malaysia) but I will not wade into those dark waters. It is a topic for another time and another piece of my mind.

While I do not object to the syllabus that is being taught for Moral, I hope that this dastardly paper is pulled off the SPM slate. It is an embarrassment to the progress of the nation and the recently tabled blueprint that has been diagung-agungkan by the ministry, one that has also come under a lot of fire for reasons that have beset Malaysians for eons.

Then again it’s okay, our education system is one of the best in the world. 

I call bullshit

Bullshit would be synonymous with ‘bad science’, although people tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the latter because the mainstream media’s journalists have trigger fingers, their left hands on their notebooks and their right hands in the public’s pants scratching their asses for a few pennies. Bad science also happens to be the title of a very well-written book that painstakingly (and painfully) sifts through the ugly of sensationalised scientific news which mislead the scientifically illiterate and feed on money of those who are shameless about one thing – being utterly wrong. That is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. It explores the tantalising surface of cheap tricks like detox scams, exposes the blatant lies of nutritionists that make ridiculous claims and give a bad name to scientific investigation and also mutilates the sham of homeopathy. Goldacre is quick-witted and sharp to pick up on the false claims of pseudo-intellectuals who are quick to change their game once he burns their reputation with a pinch of common sense.

Thanks a great deal to this book, I have been introduced to the rough terrain of scientific study and general scepticism. A few weeks after reading it came both the monsoon and the exam season. Though the smell of bullshit is around all-year long, it was particularly pungent during this time of the year, when people tell me rain gives you a cold (people do, but if you disagree I’d like to hear what you have to say). Out of all the myths that I have taken note of, nothing gets me going (read: irritated) more than the claim that supplements will boost your academic performance.

It’s the exam season. The perfect time for tuition centres to make a quick buck by herding 200 students into a pe- room with a single projector and promise to help them achieve success! Too bad this doesn’t happen at pre-university level and above (or does it?). It is at this stage where the blinds are put up and a show is put on. What can else can we milk from these students? In exchange for confidence, let’s sell them a food supplement and convince them that it will increase their brain performance. Let’s.

This is how I view X product – sceptically. I don’t want to name it in fear of legal implications, although virtually no one views this site. Packaged in green (I won’t say more), this product has virtually no competitors and has successfully led a nation of parents who – sorry to say – grossly overestimate their children’s capabilities to believe that this product will help. I have a bone to pick with not the truth of it because after searching through online journals and reliable sources I cannot find a single independent study on the effects of their ingredients, hence I have no evidence whatsoever of the falsity of it. Mind you, a couple of studies by the same company whose main source of income is dependent on the sales of the same bloody product is NOT AT ALL convincing.

I put it up to a group on Facebook called Advocates of the Propagation of Science Literacy (APOSL) and I got a bunch of startling (and startled) replies.

Smells funny to me. Not just literally.

Even if this stuff actually works (although I will never relent until MORE PROOF of its effectiveness shows up and not just by market-driven crazies) in the sense that it enhances brain performance, memory yada yada yada, I wouldn’t buy it. A box of such stuff is too bloody expensive for a humble home maker. I would rather invest in fruits and vegetables, food items that will aid the growth and maintenance of my child’s health. I wouldn’t treat it as a magic potion. Trust me, there are parents who do and even advise their children to take it before they eat their breakfast (didn’t we learn that food stays in the stomach in a mixed, gooey lump BEFORE absorption? Some drugs are taken after/before food for several other reasons). Why? So the brain absorbs it first. *coughs blood*

Some may argue that it works as a placebo and that it will boost one’s confidence levels. This is true to some extent because even coloured water can do the same. However when we rely on a supplement, we are merely deluding ourselves and ignoring the real problem. We forget that activities like exercising, eating well, avoiding dangerous situations, hard work and passion are also important components of academic success. A bottle of black liquid will not make up for the lack thereof of the above. Blinded by the flurry of pretty advertisements and persuasive salespeople we must not give in to the childish dreams of ‘shortcuts’ in life that greedy people make. Unfortunately too many are too quick to grab onto the promise of an easier way – and get scammed in the process, due to either their ignorance or wishful thinking. Social media makes their job a much easier one when ignoramuses move in droves.

Clench firmly to your wallets people, because they’re not done with you yet.

The taste of death

She burned a hole through the cool membrane I was creating for myself, a temporary sanctuary I was settling into, in preparation for my impending public examination, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. It was hotter than any sambal belacan that she had ever made and more spicy than her best laksa. She had a character tougher than the chicken livers which none of us in the household had ever wanted to eat – but she did anyway, for she also led a remarkably frugal existence. My family members had bitter times aplenty with her whining and intolerable antics, until we were practically immune to it. Maybe that was why we didn’t mind chomping up the stir-fried bitter gourd dishes she made. However her death left an abhorrent taste in my mouth, and on the tongues of many others. Like a bowl of petai gone bad.

My late grandaunt, whom I call ‘apo’, is far from the sweet-little-grandmother picture that is portrayed in storybooks and fairy tales. She isn’t even my grandmother. Most people know their grandaunts as ‘that vague figure of a relative’ that happens to be the mother of their mother’s cousin. Or some relative who lives in Penang. Some distant relative. I don’t. She was the grandmother of my childhood, my diaper-changer, my pacifier. I was one of the many children in the Tee family that she witnessed trade-in black pinafores for blue ones, and nagged for not listening to her. I was the best kind of ‘manja-pot’, because I knew exactly when to grow out of my childish antics. She was like the smelly pillow I used to chim every night.

Apo used to rattle on about how adorable I was when I was a baby, and liked to recollect the times when I missed ‘seven’ in my arduous struggle to count from 1 to 20. It seemed as if only she savoured my childhood moments, like someone stopping to pick up sea shells, not minding that she was far behind. Whenever she told me about the mispronunciations I used to make when I was a toddler, her face would light up in delight. Those were one of the many times when her plain Jane face was undoubtedly pleasing to look at. Almost like a real fairytale grandmother.

To say that she was economical would be a huge understatement. Apo was a terrible, terrible hoarder. She kept stacks of unusable items, things that she kept insisting ‘eh sai eong la’ (‘still can be used). This sparked many arguments, especially between her and my mother, who acquired her father’s tendency to make sure nothing rots and goes to waste (lots of plastic containers were beginning to turn sticky). I once thought of building a plastic fortress instead of the usual pillow fortress, but decided otherwise when I thought of apo’s bouts of rage.

My grandaunt picked fights. Oh boy, she did. And these were not just ordinary fights, because she knew little of surrender. She often spoke badly of people behind their backs, making people uneasy with her complaints about each family member. Everybody was aware of it. As the Malays would put it, she had a mulut laser. Her bitterness was sometimes contagious, which was the worst part. Thankfully I never learned the ‘dark art’ of backstabbing. All we could do is to shake our heads in unison and wait for each storm to pass. We understood the reasons behind her behaviour. Her actions were definitely inexcusable, only because we knew that she had an unhappy past, one that involved a failed arranged marriage and a disowned daughter.

‘Mai hao siang gak lu eh lao peh si liao’ (‘Don’t cry as if your father just died’)

She taught me that being too emotional never rewarded anyone. She cooked and cleaned willingly for all of her brother’s descendants, as a sign of graciousness for taking her in and saving her from possible homelessness. If there was a respectable equivalent of the word ‘asshole’, she was one.

A few days ago, I found myself holding her cold, bony hands and telling her that Yok Yi and Benjamin (my cousins, both no more than 3 years) were waiting for her, that she needed to wait for them to come home. My uncle and I were kneeling on the tikar, making futile attempts at saving her from imminent death. I did what I was told, and tried to circulate blood through her body by massaging her palms and body. Her sarong was falling off of her stomach, showing the bloated tummy that formed during the past few days in her sickly condition. Apo’s face was falling. Her body was failing her. And the rest does not need to be said.

My apo, the rebel, the hoarder, my pseudo-grandmother, is gone.

I am still recovering from the initial shock as I become more aware that my days are equally numbered. I yearn to feel her presence, but my actions betray me as I clear her personal belongings and pack them up in bags ready for disposal, or to be given away for charity. I feel weary and mentally exhausted from going through the motions of a traditional Buddhist wake and seek momentary respite in sugar. I have lost a grandmother – that is what I shall tell people from now on. I have lost my chow chow (smelly pillow). My apo.

KL Series: Smoke, Sand, Syria

His arabic features stood out, as any other middle-eastern would have in a mixed crowd of Malaysians and Indonesians. The sunlight hit his face mercilessly in spite of the roofs above us that stretched along Kasturi Walk. A cigarette was carefully lit. The volume of noise was suddenly raised as the bazaar reached its peak hour. He raised the cigarette up high as if it was a drink to be toasted, and flashed me an Arabian smile.

‘After 30 over years, this is my only friend,’ he remarked. We both nodded.

‘Ssssmoke and ssssand?’ I said in jest. Thankfully my effort was not in vain. He puffed rings of smoke in delight. It seemed as if the topics we discussed were strangely related, alphabetically – smoke, sand, Syria.

‘I hope you don’t mind…’ he trailed off and let the rest of his sentence drown in the din around us. I casually waved a hand to mean that it was okay. Normally at this point, a voice inside me would be narrating the opening lines of an eulogy. Evidently, like the bustling crowd around me, that voice was out to lunch. I perceived his cigarette to be a minimal threat, but later I would find out that his enthusiasm and ciggy, teamed with the occasional spittle, proved to be a deadly combination.

A little while before, we were inside the air-conditioned refuge of Central Market, yet to be touched by the sweltering heat. He was telling me about history, his humble life as the son of a merchant who did sand art – decorative bottles of intricate designs, filled with nothing but coloured sand. He never received any formal education because that was the norm for children who lived in the vast expanse of Syrian desert. The sand art he marks everyday for a living has been his one and only source of income for the past 30 or so years. In action, one would certainly attest to his fantastic competence. He says that it’s a matter of practising a particular design, one at a time.

‘I can make something different, but it would take additional time to finish because it needs practise. What I’m used to can take 5 minutes. The most difficult design takes me 30 minutes’

His job pays well enough for him to travel to different countries. He has been to Italy, Africa and most of the Arab world and aspires to work in China and Singapore next. Talk of his home inevitably lead to the Syrian war and the Arab Spring. His cheerfulness subsided a little and made way for a more serious character. He struggled to express himself. It was then that he suggested we step outside (which was only a few feet away from his stall) to facilitate his habit. I also learned that his name was Ahmed.

The way he pronounced ‘Ahmed’ was bizarre to me. It had a foreign ring to it. The letter ‘h’ silenced. It was refreshing to hear an Islamic name pronounced differently, kind of like the new perspective he gave me on the war. Ahmed inhaled a few deep drafts before he unleashed a long speech on the current affairs of his homeland’s war. He emphasised a few points through repetition: that on average, 200 civilians are killed everyday by the army and the Syrian tyrants are stupid behemoths.

‘Yesterday, 45 people died. At any day, it could be 100. Or 200. It’s a war against innocent civilians. We have 7000 years of civilised history. So much richness of culture. Look at Malaysia, only 40 years and you — you made something out of almost nothing! But war must come first now, we have waken up.’
‘Sacrifices must be made.’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘It’s alright. Er, to have something good, there must be some bad first.’
‘Ah, a price.’
“A lot to pay.’

I couldn’t tell if his eyes were red from the high-riding emotions, the scorching sun or the smoke. Every time he wanted to make a point, he swung his arms about, causing some of the ash from his ciggy to fall away. I had to watch my distance; I didn’t like burns.

I wanted to say something along the lines of, ‘we young punks here don’t quite like our government too, albeit for individual reasons.’ But it came out as ‘I don’t really like the Malaysian government.’

‘Ah, I like your Mahathir Mohamad. He did many things for your country. Do you know how many bridges you have? Thousands. In Syria, we have a few bridges, and even those most of us can’t really get to.’

I chewed on that for a moment. About how dire the situation is in Syria. His stories of women being raped and the dead being mercilessly chopped up and young men being denied their most basic rights. How extremely incomparable the situation of these two countries are. He sensed my discomfort and tried to lighten up the mood.

‘Even though my best customers are Chinese, the Chinese government back Bashar. And Russia.’
‘Oh, god. Power?’
‘What else is there? Oil. Gas. Our own government will only take. And take. They do not care for us. Even the Muslims wage war against their own brothers. I’m sorry, do you understand the war between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia Muslims?’

So he explained to me, very concisely – and impressively, given his limited vocabulary – about the fundamental difference between the two. A very messy and bloody clash of beliefs.

‘The funny thing is, in Syria, the Sunnis are the majority. Shias are minority, but they are very powerful.’
‘Bullying. That’s bad.’
‘Very bad. Did you know a Muslim means to be… I’m not sure how to say this… to make peace with one another? This makes the government very stupid people. Even Iran supports the president, because Iran follows the same denomination.’

I was at loss for words. It was too much information in a short period of time. Probably my punishment for not reading up enough. But I did not care much before. I did try to care, I did buy last year’s last edition of TIME, which featured Ahmed’s people. However, I found myself right then and there, struck by the full force of his words. His cigarette butt’s end in crumbs on his lap and sweat trickling down his neck. Never have I seen such fear in a person’s eyes and determination to survive. My bubble used to extend, at its furthest, to near-death experiences with irresponsible drivers while on my bike, roadkill and my father’s dolled-up corpse.

Although Ahmed left his country in time, just before the Arab Spring, he tries his best to help the younger and more tech-savvy Syrians through the media and facebook, helping circulate relevant and pressing news and updating other expatriates like him on both good news and bad news.

‘If I went to school and realised the importance of education earlier, I would have become a journalist.’