What If We Were All Visually Impaired?
On the first day of 1995 in Baghdad’s central hospital, a group of nurses huddled together in tears: “When shall we tell Aphra that God has given her a blind son?” This was Saddam’s postwar Iraq: resources were scarce, I was suffering from hypoxia, and my father was forced to bribe the doctors for more oxygen to keep me alive.
After I was discharged, my overjoyed mother took me back some 200km to our rural village in the heart of the motherland. When my older brother was born – my dad’s first (sighted) son – scenes of jubilation broke out in the village. Thirty lambs were killed to celebrate his arrival. But no lambs were killed for my return from the capital; I didn’t even get a chicken. After all, I was disabled. For the three months before we fled to the UK, the old women of the village – the gossips – would fall into my mother’s arms and sob: “I’m so sorry for you, Aphra.” “Don’t be sorry for me,” my mother assured them. “Without him, we wouldn’t be allowed to leave.”
For those were the days when refugees didn’t have to drown in the Mediterranean in search of a better life, the days when immigration officers smiled at the borders. We were given permission go to the UK, so that I could undergo surgery; Iraq was no place for sigat (Arabic for “crippled”) like me, whose disability brought shame upon the community. Of course, like the fleeing refugees today, we still had to sell everything we owned.
My mother sold her wedding ring. “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but you are no longer a girl, Aphra. You are a woman,” my grandmother told her sobbing daughter, my mother, at the pawnbrokers.
After a successful operation, I had a fraction of my sight restored. Today, I am blind in my right eye and have 10% sight in my left. At night – and when I hit the dancefloor – this goes down to 5%. But I’ve got enough to be thankful. Enough to travel the world alone. Enough to catch the pitying stares from strangers. I get them all the time; at the gym (yes, I go to the gym), supermarket, on the tube and even from experienced doctors at the eye hospital. But what these patronising bastards don’t realise is that being blind has many perks: with all our other senses heightened, us blindys are a force to be reckoned with. From sex to travel, blindness is a blessing in disguise.
People who know me call me Big Owl, partly for the reasons you’d already expect, partly because of my powerful ears. They have given me a heightened appreciation for my true love: music. As Andrea Bocelli puts it, “A voice is a very intimate instrument.” I can hear all the colours in Eva Cassidy’s Over the Rainbow. My spine tingles at the choir in Aretha Franklin’s Mary, Don’t You Weep. I cry at the honest harmonica in Bob Dylan’s The Times, They Are a-Changin’. And even silence is music: the pauses in the vulnerable guitar solo in Janis Joplin’s Get It While You Can tell such a painful story. It only takes one riff or run from Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady to fill me with both momentary euphoria and abject sorrow. Detail matters. I like to think about what distinguishes a husky voice from a raspy one.
The subtleties that the sighted filter out as background noise make all the difference.
While I could do with a nose job, I do love my hypersensitive sniffer. Pleasant smells are very pleasant; waking up to cooking bacon, clothes fresh out the washing machine, and Febreze air freshener in Dad’s ancient Toyota are blind delights. I am obsessed with cologne – birthday presents from friends were always the same. On every back-to-school shopping trip, I would force Mum to stop by at the Perfume Shop on Oxford Street. I’d spend hours in there sniffing the latest perfumes from Prada, Gucci and Armani. Of course, we would always leave empty-handed – Mum couldn’t afford £40 on Davidoff Cool Water. But I treasured the free samples!
My love for cologne helped to refine my sense of smell. At school, I was summoned to the lost-property box at the end of each term. There, I would take one whiff of a garment and reunite it with its longing owner. For my efforts, I was rewarded with Haribo.
When people talk of heightened senses, they speak in terms of “compensation”: my ears making up for what my eyes can’t do. But I do not see heightened senses as compensatory in nature because I do not see blindness as damage. In a court of law, compensation will only be awarded once damage is proven. I am not damaged. I am not disabled; I have a disability. I prefer the noun to the adjective because it highlights that my blindness does not define who I am; it is one tile in a complicated mosaic.
But it is all too easy for one to be blinded by my disability. One tile in the mosaic steals the show, leaving the others unnoticed. I am a law student, an aspiring human-rights barrister, journalist, writer, singer, gin-lover, brother and friend.
I love to backpack around the world, climb mountains, discuss constitutional law and get my groove on every now and then. There is one thing I especially like, which shocks most: sex.
During my first year at university, a rumour went around halls that had I got lucky the night before. The usual questions – Who? Where? When? Are they going out? – were never asked. Surprise and shock were the typical reactions. People sometimes forget – or try not to remember – that blind Iraqi refugees have libidos.
My sighted friends certainly try not to remember that I have a more active sex life than they do. Appearance is a red herring for the blind. I judge people on what they say and do rather than what they look like. And since the human race is, on the whole, a good and kind one, I am easily seduced. In their inspiring song Hope, there is a reason Twista and Faith Evans want to see the “vision of the world through the eyes of Stevie Wonder”: everyone wants a better sex life. To any interested readers, lest you forget, it is kindness and Davidoff Cool Water that will win my heart – not a tuxedo. Mind you, I do like a bit of silk or velvet, so choose your garms wisely.
As I stub out my last Marlboro Light of the day, I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if we were all visually impaired. Maybe the villagers would have killed a lamb for me. Maybe you would have a better sex life. Maybe David Cameron would open his heart to the refugees. Maybe – just maybe – the world wouldn’t be so ugly.