Archive for November, 2013

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Rooftops

November 24, 2013

An Algerian film by celebrated Algerian director Merzak Allouache called Rooftops was probably my favorite film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year.  Of the films I saw, it’s the only one that kept my full attention.  Just like rooftops get my full attention in real life, especially in the Mediterranean areas of the once Arab/Moor empire.  Rooftops is about life as lived and viewed from the rooftops of Algiers.  People live, eat, sleep, fall in love, and kill themselves and others on rooftops.  That’s the Arab flair/flaw for melodrama in art and life.  Or if I were to do an ad campaign for them, I’d have a peppy announcer say rooftops are fun and informative places to get to know your neighborhood, with a little Flamenco music playing in the background as we watched a lady get confused while she watched a gay couple fighting three rooftops away as she hung up laundry.  In real life, I was the one watching the lady watching the couple.  I was watering plants.  Laundry, watering plants and carpet beating are the great “no excuse required” reasons for being on rooftops.    Palace

Granada's most famous rooftop

Granada’s most famous rooftop

In the past month, I’ve been to places with great rooftop viewing—Granada, Tangier, and Amman. From these rooftops, we know where life is more organized, what people eat, what they wear at home, who they hang out with.  We know where life is more regulated by what is openly allowed on rooftops, more “modern” if you will, and especially more aware of where TV is still king by the number of satellite dishes obstructing our views of each other.

I used to think as a kid in Beirut the best part of being a maid—maybe the only good part—would be hanging the laundry.  That’s when she could be on the rooftop or its poorer sister, the balcony –in fresh air—mixing with the othcloseup

Carpet Cleaning in Tangier

Carpet Cleaning in Tangier

er people inhabiting the neighboring rooftops.  I know this because I used to watch the maid across the way hang laundry while I hung laundry for my mom.  We both had our own music on our portable radios, but I still could see there were specific people she kept track of, including a guy always fixing a broken bike.  So I started to keep track of what she was keep track of.  I knew she was in love with the bike guy.  But rooftops don’t tell everything.  I never k

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Waiting for Bus in Amman

new if she got to see him other than when she was hanging laundry. The rooftop w

as also where we had to drag my aerospace obsessed brother away from perfect views of air raids.

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Morocco Looking at Spain

Windows are not the same. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Rear Window.  Jimmy Stewart was a voyeur looking into people’s apartments,

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Olive Groves from the Roof

being nosey.  But on a rooftop, you’re doing your life’s business, so you have a natural cover story.  Your voyeurism is legitimized.  They are the best observation points—not just for the military reasons of the great forts of Andalusia, but for observing everyone else’s business while doing your business.  I like that clothes dryers are still not the norm in this region because it gives us a chances to be on rooftops.

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BEING THE LUXURY ITEM OF A BRAND

November 5, 2013

I once asked the editor of the liberal newspaper where I was doing my undergraduate internship in Minneapolis to write a letter of recommendation for me.  The recommendation was sealed and it was a couple of years later before I would come across it in my file at work.

I had assumed the reference letter would be spectacularly glowing.  And it was, but not in the way that I had expected.  At 20-years old, I had come in as an intern but ended up  doing investigative pieces that landed more than once on the cover.  This was because soon after arriving, I was quickly asked to field the story leads that were intended for the paper’s star reporter, who had gone into rehab for longer than his usual time.  The other star reporter had quit because she wanted to have a life.  The rest of the staff specialized in arts coverage.  That just left the eager-to-prove-herself intern.  I dug deep and developed stories on a family crushed by mental illness,

One Brand Fits All

One Brand Fits All

Haitian drug dealers stuck in Minnesota prisons, and I interviewed the patients of the first heart and lung transplants in the world, who shared their stories publically for the first time with me.

None of that was mentioned in the letter of recommendation.  Instead, the editor wrote three moving paragraphs about how impressed she was with me–not with my stories but with my ability to do the stories at all– being as I was Muslim female.  I do not believe I ever once talked to her about religion nor do I remember anyone asking me about my religion.  Obviously, my Arab ethnicity came up always with the inevitable question, “What an interesting name.  Where did it come from?”  But there were never questions about my religion.  At least not in front of me.  And I wore no physical manifestations of my religion, and religion, mine or anyone else’s, wasn’t a subject I found remotely engaging at the time.  This was also years before 9-11, when you rarely even heard the word “Muslim.”

Yet I had been branded: a Muslim female, i.e. the most pitied female brand.  The editor wrote of how she had so much admiration for how I, a young Muslim female, could talk to just about anyone, even the strippers and hookers I befriended for a story.  Perhaps I was slightly shy around men but that was understood, implicit in my religion’s shunning of women—at least that’s what the subtext pretty clearly said.

So there was purity implied in my Muslimness—that explained why I wouldn’t be exposed to strippers and hookers as a Muslim, and I would get flustered around men.  If anyone had asked me, I could have told her Christians don’t have the domain on prostitution.  There are Muslim hookers out there.  But I wouldn’t have mixed with them either under normal circumstances.  Because I had grown up in middle class neighborhood that weren’t the chosen milieu for hookers, at least not publically, whatever their religion.  My face turned red talking to handsome men because I was a chubby girl with low self-esteem from years of fat jokes—Muslims make those, too.  I was glad, though, the editor appreciated how I dressed professionally, because somehow, I read between the lines, I had some fashion sense that didn’t involve a black cloak.

She admired me—I was an exclusive, limited edition designer brand of Muslim female, the token one who wasn’t afraid to break away from my oppression and work as a journalist who talked to non-Muslims.  I was brave, yes.  But so would any shy young woman who did those stories.  But it was my defiance of my religion, which I didn’t even know I was defying, that made me brave in her eyes. Proof that it is possible for one black cloth not to fit all.

I leaned more at that newspaper than in any of my classes that year, including the lessons from the abused women in homeless shelters whose stories I told.  (I never mentioned the religion of those women in those articles.  They were not Muslims, though.)  But I taught no one anything.  Because I didn’t know I was a poster girl for Muslim Women We Admire, and that we (the deprived sisterhood of Muslim women that I didn’t even know existed, let alone was a member of) are all viewed as an inferior brand and in need of saving and rebranding, unlike other types of women.

I hadn’t thought about this in years.   Until I saw this article by Lila Abu Lughod http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/do-muslim-women-need-saving/