Archive for the ‘Arab Americans’ Category

h1

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/

h1

Ketching Up With Freedom

September 14, 2013

Freedom is the gotcha word of the Middle East decade—it’s the reason everyone is claiming to be helping—i.e. bombing, maiming, spying on and killing–everyone else.  The definition of freedom (and its purpose) is a little vague under the circumstances.  But I was set straight this past summer.

ketchup

Ketchup in Jordan

I was on an airplane and sitting next to me was a 10-year old boy, born and raised in Houston, but his parents were born in Jordan.  It was a 10-hour flight and he had already seen all the inflight movies as he explained to me at length with a synopsis of each.  Thus, any time he could find a way to get me to play a video game with him or talk, he jumped at the chance.  My freedom was gone.

Generally speaking, I allow myself to lose very quickly at video games, mostly so I can stop playing them.  But at one point I was doing well despite myself.  So to break the game I started asking him questions.  This kid had answers for everything and so I was out of the game and into discussion.

After he told me he visits Jordan every other summer to see cousins, aunts and uncles, I asked him if he liked Jordan or Texas better.

“Texas for sure,” he said without hesitation.

I asked him why and he replied,  “It’s fun seeing family because we don’t have many relatives in Houston.  But there is a lot more freedom in the US.”

Apparently we moved from Temple Run to a discussion about how relatives in Jordan butt into your business all day or a socio political discussion.  “How is there more freedom in the US?” I ventured.

He shrugged like it was obvious.  “In Jordan at the McDonald’s you have to pay for the extra ketchup,” he said.  “In Houston you can have as much ketchup as you want and it is free.”

“At McDonald’s you mean?” I said.

“It’s free everywhere in America,” he said.  “Don’t you know that?”

I actually didn’t.  But now I do.  Or maybe I just never thought about ketchup beyond my French fries.  Forget heavily loaded uses of freedom, like Freedom Fries, which free ketchup services.  This boy made freedom simple—unless you want to ask yourself what gives McDonald’s the right to charge people in one country for ketchup and not in another.

h1

Go Ahead and Film Me—Nothing Changes

July 22, 2013

“So what are you here to film?” he asked from his battered bamboo chair, as he exhaled from the stub of the cigarette in his hand, the smoke blending in with the dust sweeping through the camp.  He was about 40, and had been sitting in that dark alley his entire life.   One of my students took his picture.  He looked at her, Shatila“You should ask me to smile,” he said and smiled, revealing crooked and broken teeth.  She got flustered.  He shrugged, “Film whatever you want.  People have been filming me since I was three-years old.  Me, my dead relatives nothing changes.  You make your film, you show everyone the sad poor people and I’m still sitting here in this chair.  Nothing changes.”

Almost anywhere else in the world, you would tell him, “Get a job, any job, have some pride,” but there are few legal jobs for people in the Shatila Refugee Camp.  They can work odd construction gigs under the table in Beirut, which many of them do, or they can operate a small business in the camp, such as a grocery store, where they can sell cheap food to people who can barely afford to pay for it. Or their parents in rare cases can somehow find the money so that they can go to a college outside the camp, and come back to work in a hospital or as a teacher in the declining education system.  Or they can just sit on a bamboo chair.  Nothing changes.  Unless perhaps they get immigration papers to go to Europe or America.   (For statics on life in the camps, check out Franklin Lamb’s article in Counterpunch:  http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/13/can-richard-falk-achieve-civil-rights-for-palestinians-in-lebanon/)

The father of the family we were going to film scavenges through junk piles in Beirut, bartering and trading junk to furnish their dim and dank cramped room/house.  His wife, Sabah, keeps the room meticulous, and we’re asked to take off our shoes as they are covered with dust from outside.  Sabah explains proudly how she decorated with her eldest daughter, Reem, 15, who dreams of being a designer but will not live long enough to realize her dreams would not have been attainable because she would never have had the opportunity or training required.

It’s the women in the camps that hang on to hope, despite being betrayed by either the stupidity or insincerity of the Palestinian leaders of their parents’ generation, who engaged in the Lebanese Civil War for no logical reason and sending them into further isolation and devastation, despite being the keepers of the rusty keys of their family homes in Palestine that their grandparents took with them during their expulsion from what is now is Israel.  They are the third generation born in these camps, and while the hope of a return home is almost beyond their grasp of those old keys, the hope that at least one of their children will find a way out allows them to live.

In Ain Al Helweh Camp, the women sew Palestinian embroidered pillows for sale abroad during the two hours the camp gets electricity.  The bright spring sun barely makes it through the clusters of blocks on top of blocks and even with the electricity, the women squint to see their stitches.  They are undisturbed by the two seven-year old boys outside beating each other up as an affordable form of entertainment.  They are not fazed when the camp goes into lockdown because the Lebanese army suspects a renegade group of having smuggled arms into the camp the night before.  As our Lebanese taxi driver warned us on the way, Ain Al Helweh is where the “criminals of the world” go to hide because there is no law here.  ShatillaCamp

In Bourj Al Barjneh Camp, when a Syrian man came into the crumbling hospital carrying his six-year old wounded son, the female nurses didn’t ask him who shot the boy.  They just did their best to prep him for surgery and calm the father down.  The women of the camps are born and then marry, feed their children and hope.

We were there that week because we were filming patients of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fun, a US organization that sends volunteer medical teams to operate on some of the sickest kids in the camps.  That week the team was two orthopedic surgeons and an anesthesiologist, all from Chile.

You can see the doctors in  “Dreams in Their Eyes” in Los Angeles.  I’m proud of what my students had the courage to explore with this film.  But I will leave you to this blurb.  Otherwise, it is hard to talk about because I always hear the man in the battered bamboo chair.

 The award-winning documentary (UAE/Lebanon)“Dreams in Their Eyes,” will play at the Evolution International Film Festival on Saturday, July 27, at 1.30.   The film portrays the stories of three children in different refugee camps around Lebanon suffering from diseases too costly to treat if not for the help of the US-based Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.  With unprecedented access to operating rooms and family homes, the film was shot over a week when a volunteer team of doctors from Chile came to treat Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children brought to the Bourj Al Barjneh Camp.  Three young Emirati women directed the film, the first Emiratis to film in the camps, and the film won “Best Emirati Film” at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in addition to having screened at festivals in the UK, India and Spain.

This year over 300 movies out of 26 countries, in 22 different languages were submitted to festival. The final selection includes 24 films in 10 different languages, many with a Middle East theme.

Saturday July 27th, 2013

1.30 to 3.30 pm 

Los Angeles Film School
6363 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

For more information: 

http://www.evolutionfilmfestival.com/

h1

Poetic Pomegranates

July 27, 2012

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

h1

Being Good Enough

January 16, 2012

OUR PLIGHT
By: Michael J. Oghia
June 2011
Beirut, Lebanon
Dedicated to all my Arab–American brothers and sisters that know exactly how I feel. 

Who am I, but a complex amalgam of contradictory identities?
Two, which exist paradoxically, yet never seem to make you feel complete.
They glare at you for one,
Snarl at you,
Insult you,
Hunt you down,
You stand up,
They knock you down,
Reduce you down
To hurtful names,
To animals,
To parasites,
To a disease,
Making you feel like the world would be better off without you,
Constantly resonating the bitter warning:
“You will never be one of us.”

Others say you are the reason for everything bad:
War,
Poverty,
Endless torment,
Destruction,
Eviction.
Stealing everything that can fit into a Black Hawk helicopter.
They fight you,
Spit on you,
Shame you,
Blame you,
Beat you,
Burn you,
Destroy you,
Knock down your buildings,
For what?
Why?
“Because habibi, you are the problem.”

Is this the plight I have to live with?
This constant burden of living as two things that cannot simultaneously exist,
Just because me and those like me were born this way?
As this apparent hybrid monstrosity of alienation?
We never asked for it,
We never begged for it,
It was ascribed to us on day one.
Why is this our fight?
Why can’t we ever go “home?”
Where is home!?
Why can’t we be proud of who we are?
How can we!?
Why can’t we just be normal?
We are always in the middle.
Misunderstood,
Trying to fit in,
But we are the new marginalized.
Patriotic on one hand,
Public enemy number one on the other,
We are the enemy,
Even in a place we call home.

Who wants us?
We are foreign both here and there,
Neglected,
Misfits,
Tainted,
Always an outsider,
No matter where we go:
Undesired,
Unwelcome,
Uninvited;
Constantly carrying a cross embossed with a crescent,
Chained to the baggage begotten to us by both nationalism and ethnicity;
Embodied by a passport that is our contrast,
Our weight,
Our contradiction,
Our privilege,
Our prison.
We are prisoners to our own country,
To our own identity.
To hyperbolic politics,
Empty shepherding,
And abandoned relics.

We belong nowhere…

We’re never good enough for anyone!
And no matter whom you ask,
Or where they’re from,
Regardless of their religion,
Their eye color,
Their skin,
Their accent,
Their ID card,
This is always who you are in their eyes:
Arab as a sickness,
American as a curse.