Monday, February 27, 2006

Beards and rucksacks

Years ago, I worked as a teacher of English on a Greek island. It was unsettling for the first six months when some people who didn't know me would cross the road from me, or hiss 'whore' as I passed. Sometimes men would try to grope me, or pester me. Eventually I worked out why: it was because I was English and they thought I was a tourist and therefore a slut, especially as I was a woman who had come out to the island alone. I was 23 years old. I didn't know what to do. I felt upset and angry. I reacted at first by mostly hanging out with the other English teachers, and I did not make many Greek friends unless I knew them through work or had been introduced, because I felt afraid and defensive. I dressed respectably and had a job at an Greek-owned independent school where I taught all ages from eight to sixteen years. I even worked for the Greek national examination board marking students for oral exams. But in the eyes of many people, I was a foreigner and so a whore and should be ostracised.

By the time I left, a year later, it had calmed down and I was generally accepted in the town. But I never forgot what it felt like to be such an outsider, and how my response was to shrink away, feeling ashamed and angry. I thought of this experience again today when I read a BBC magazine article about being an Asian man with a beard in London: Travels with my Beard

Being hissed at in the streets of Evia and thought a tart for six months was one thing, being thought a terrorist or murderer, another. I have tried to imagine what it must be like to live in London and deal with the stop-and-searches, the suspicious glances, the spaces left next to you on the tube and the bus. The hurt and anger that would build up in me if it kept happening to me.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I still get panic reactions on the tube, with a particularly bad one happening last week when I was honestly convinced I was going to die. There was no bomber on my carriage, but I had to get off the train because my body reacted as if it was about to be bombed and went into shock. When found myself still alive on the platform at Russell Square, shaking, I wanted to apologise to the bearded Asian man with the rucksack. Of course, I couldn't, the train had moved on, the man still on it, surrounded by crowds of other passengers. I don't know whether they were nervous as well. I don't know whether he felt nervous. I felt awful; guilty, shakey, weepy, ashamed.

Some tube journeys are worse than others. Last year, I was encouraged and cheered by Jag's post about being a dark-skinned man with a rucksack. For weeks I felt almost normal and I thought: I am better.
Then, bang, back in the panic zone. Right now, I find that Asian men with beards and rucksacks on a train is a massive challenge again. Seven months after July 7th, I find it very hard to control my physical response when I travel on a crowded rush hour tube. If a dark-skinned bloke - with a rucksack gets on - the panic-dial goes up to eleven. I try not to show my fear. It embarrasses me.

A few weeks ago, as I jumped up from my seat I forced myself to smile apologetically at the young man I was panic-reacting to. I probably looked like a maniac, sweaty, quivering, with a wide-eyed, rictus grin. He looked a bit scared of me. I was hot with shame as well as fear as I jumped off the bus.
I now go to NHS cognitive-behavioural therapy sessions for travel fear which I started in December. It is helping with some of the feelings I have. However, I am still specifically scared of rucksack-carrying men on tubes. I have established this reaction occurs when I am in a confined space, especially in a crowded tube carriage. I went to the Muslim demo a few weeks ago and got into conversations with several young Muslims ( with or without beards, several carrying rucksacks,) in Trafalgar Square. So above ground I am fine and I can also trust my reactions in buildings, in shops, restaurants, offices, bars and cars.

All this bloody liberal angst: I have had nasty anonymous comments left on the blog accusing me of being a racist after I wrote about the experience on the tube last week. I deleted them, which is what I have started doing with anonymous insults on my personal blog: I don't see why I should put up with trolls. I did want to address the accusation though, because it is something of an uncomfortable subject.

Racist adj 1: based on racial intolerance; "racist remarks" 2: discriminatory especially on the basis of race or religion [syn: antiblack, anti-Semitic, anti-Semite(a)] n : a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others [syn: racialist]

Am I a racist in the way I view the world? Is my reaction on tubes, racist? I think it is a fear reaction, not a racist reaction. I am reacting to a percieved, physically-experienced threat, not a race or religion. I will sit next to an older Muslim man or a Muslim woman of any age on the tube because I don't have any fear of them. I walk around London avoiding dark alleys, dodgy minicabs, on the look out for nutters like any other Londoner with a degree of street-sense, but feeling generally unpeturbed. I am very wary of youths if they look like they might approach me on the street, and will cross the road to avoid them, but that is a basic self-defence reaction of most women I know in London. I am frightened to open my door at night. But, well, that's because I was attacked before, in 2002, by a youth who followed me home and then rang my door at night and then attacked me and left me for dead. Yeah, yeah, I know. Random. Unlucky.

If I had been attacked and badly bitten by an Alsatian dog, as my friend was many years ago, I might well have a similar life to hers: she does not walk in parks where dogs run off the lead, she avoids dogs and crosses the road if she can to avoid them. And if she sees an Alsatian, she still has a violent physical, shaking, fearful reaction. Even though she is a very bright woman and she knows that just because one Alsatian mauled her, not all of them are about to do so.

It's all quite depressing and sad, and worrying. Many people in London were more jumpy after July 7th, whatever race or religion they were, despite us saying 'we are not afraid'. These feel like fearful times. And fear sells papers and strengthens governments' hands. But I know this: I don't want to be afraid, I don't like it, and I am doing what I can to overcome it; getting on the tube as often as I can, seeing the therapist, engaging with people and trying to move through the fear and past the fear and out the other side.

Fear is disabling. It makes us rigid, intolerant, stunts our enjoyment of life. I'm going to keep going: the more times I get on trains and arrive safely then the more I learn that it is only fear after all, the shadow of last summer brushing me, but not real, not now, not any more.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Joon Flowers said...

Your reactions are perfectly normal. If you were untouched by your experiences that would be abnormal. Maybe the fact that you write about what happened to you is helping other people. I once spent three days underground (I mean under the earth) while bombs were falling above. I now have a fear of being underground. Now that I have read that you are getting therapy for travel fear, I think I may do the same. So maybe you have helped me. And who knows how many others, maybe in different ways. I have always thought that people who have suffered should speak out about their experiences as it may help others. And what better way to live our lives than to help other people?

February 27, 2006 6:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to work with a woman from Somalia (originally). She couldn't stand meetings in small rooms with too many men present. Was she sexist? I think anyone who had suggested that would have been told to %^&* off by every man in the office.

The Anon

February 28, 2006 9:29 am  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I am a regular reader of your blog and admire the bravery and courage with which you face each day. It's really easy for anyone who hasn't been in your situation to judge and tell you how you should or should be handling things. I imagine that my reaction would be much like yours. And trauma stays with us for a long time it seems. So please don't let those negative comments make you feel badly for one moment (although I don't think they do!). You are a brave woman with very natural reactions after a traumatic event.

I say bravo to you!

March 01, 2006 7:55 pm  
Blogger Ally said...

Quite right about the anonymous commenters, no need to put up with that kind of abuse.

Panic reactions are something that one has no control over - your mind knows that logically there is no need to panic, but your adrenals take over. CBT *really* helped me with general panic reactions and I understand that the best effects with it are when there is a particular thing to work with. It's changing your programming to a more reasoned response, that's all.

Keep at it xx

March 02, 2006 6:25 pm  
Blogger Steve said...

I don't think your reactions are at all racist, and I don't think you need to tax yourself about them (though that, of course, is easier said than done). It's a conditioned response induced by one traumatic massively-negative feedback event, and as such perfectly understandable. I'm claustrophobic because I went potholing at the age of fifteen and while I was working along a vertical fissure they started blasting at a quarry less than a mile away. I realise it's not rational, but I can't help it.

Just getting through each day is bravery on your part, and your determination to continue living life normally is a direct rejection of the philosophy behind attacks such as the one you suffered. You are also on the front lines of "the war against the war against terrorism", and greatly to be admired. Stupid laws won't turn sensible people into racists either. Keep telling Tony Blair he's a pratt!

March 03, 2006 3:02 am  

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