Archive for May, 2011

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The Right To Drive Well

May 25, 2011

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

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Tor’s Palestinian Photographs: 1967 and 1977

May 16, 2011

Today my friend and photographer Tor Eigland sent me two of his photographs as his way of remembering 63 years of the Palestinian Naqba (Catastrophe).  Tor is Norwegian and he’s covered events around the world since the 1960s, but his most amazing stuff is of the Middle East (aside from his photo of Castro on his day of coming to power–which is pretty the much the photo of Castro coming to power).

Palestinian Refugees 1967

Tel al Zaatar 1977

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Talking Poetry, Not Osama

May 12, 2011

Because Abu Dhabi has become such a crossroads of the world since I have lived here, I find myself having a lot of “how did I get here” moments. For example in the years since 9-11, I’ve never sat around picturing where I’d be the day after Osama bin Ladin was put to rest, relatively speaking.  However, had I done so, I probably wouldn’t have come up this: at the home of the the Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs of the Embassy of the United States of America in Abu Dhabi, celebrating poetry with three acclaimed poets who had just gotten out of Nepal on a rickety plane that morning and were leaving for Afghanistan the next day, having begun their journey in Iowa.

Poetry is the bread and butter of Arab art and culture, and no country has nurtured the arts in modern times more than the US, so it was one of those positive cross cultural meetings, especially given the news of the day wasn’t quite settling in the same for the two peoples.  That the Osama news was so different depending on where you got your information also had its upside, as the reception was also recognizing World Press Freedom Day.

Poets Nathalie Handal, Bob Holman and Christopher Merrill were in Abu Dhabi as part of the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa.  Here’s the official explanation:  “The International Writing Program is the flagship cultural partner of the U.S. Department of State.  For more than 30 years, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program has brought together more than 1,000 rising and established literary stars from 120 countries to spend a semester exploring the creative writing process. Authors, screenwriters, journalists, and other participants benefit from the rich literary heritage and resources of Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature. On the road, IWP writers carry out programming, often in collaboration with U.S. embassies and cultural centers, that helps audiences around the world think about the role the arts, and especially literature, can playing in building bridges of international communication.”  Take that anyone who thinks Iowa is just cornfields and pig farms.

Christopher Merrill, who directs the International Writing Program, read a poem in which a semi-hidden rattlesnake is an easily recognized metaphor.  Bob Holman, who studies dying languages for fun and has appeared on shows like HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, improvised in free verse on the possibility of writing from the other person’s side at the rapid, off tangent rate most of us find thoughts running through our head when we try to write.  Nathalie Handal, Palestinian American poet and one of the editors of the acclaimed anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) read her poem, “Peace.”

I leave you with her latest poem, Freedom, about the current Arab revolutions.

http://www.guernicamag.com/poetry/2612/handal_poem_5_1_11/

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The First Female Superhero

May 5, 2011

I spoke at TEDx Abu Dhabi last week.  TED is hard, writing is hard–being a superhero is even harder.  But that’s what I talked about at TEDx:  My favorite female superhero, Scherhazade.  I also consider her the first female superheroine.  I’ll post the video in which I explain why when I’m feeling more heroic and therefore not afraid of looking at videos that have me in them.  In the meantime, here’s an article that is  the result of a nice chat I had with National report Manal Ismail after the talk.

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/arabian-nights-character-scheherazade-a-role-model-for-women 

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Osama’s Other Legacy: Conspiracy Buffs

May 3, 2011

Osama Bin Ladin is credited with being the mastermind behind 9/11. But he

Arab Spring

should also be given credit for giving birth to a world of conspiracy theory masterminds. Whether you believe Osama bin Ladin was indeed the brains of 9/11 or not (I live in the Middle East, remember), whether you are conservative or liberal, American, Arab, or any other identifier, you have a theory on 9/11 and a now a theory on his death.

Timing, death tolls, targets, presidential elections, presidential dictators, and even scientific experimentation have been elements of conspiracy theories that seem to have become an individual right to self-expression when it comes to Osama bin Ladin–although whispered self-expression, in true conspiracy style.

I was in multicultural LA during 9/11. While I remember the fear and the heavy strides in everyone’s walk and the furrowed foreheads in the days following 9/11 with still stomach churning clarity—and still am haunted by the stories of my friends who were there on that day and the price so many people have paid ever since in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and US military families– I also remember the conspiracy theories.  None of them have gone away, they have just expanded and multiplied, turning most of us in conspiracy buffs.

In the multicultural Abu Dhabi yesterday, I heard conspiracy plots from Americans, Australians, Europeans, Indians, and Arabs of all socio economic strata.  Only once did I hear anyone say, “The U.S. took a long time to find him but now it did and it killed him. And that’s that.”  That’s that?  That’s all you got, dude? And then there it was, a few seconds later.  He was off on a tangent about the conspiracy of conspiracy theories about US powers.

I think we prefer our theories on 9/11 because they are the way explain something that simple facts—19 people drove airplanes into the World Trade Center and killed thousands of innocent people–seem to defy human behavior, no matter your political or religious beliefs.

I have my own theories, too, of course.  But I’m not going to share them because it doesn’t matter what I think.  Osama bin Ladin was already a part of the past before he became officially dead yesterday.  He was the past because the Middle East buried his ideas and power over the people a while ago—even when Qaddafi blamed Al Qaeda for stirring up trouble in Libya, it didn’t cause a ripple of interest, even felt dated, as if Qaddafi was the one hiding out in a cave.  The people have finally spoken in the Middle East and none of them are holding up posters of Osama bin Ladin.