Archive for the ‘Islam/Muslim’ 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

Saudi Sombreros

August 6, 2013
AsirWomen

Bargaining

And the lady in the big hat is….?

Having a bargaining competition at the souq over the

CuttingVeggies

Herbs of the Day

Selling hats and ghee

Selling hats and ghee

price of a heavy Yemeni clay pot with a woman covered in black,

including her face and hands, is not easy—you can’t hear what she’s saying through her niqab so well and you’re not sure what she’s thinking about your price offer because her only visible body part, her eyes, are already squinting from the sun.

And when she’s wearing a sombrero on top of all that….she wins.  Your whole Middle East fashion sense is turned upside down and the price of the clay pot is less important than asking her where did she—and all the other ladies at the souq—get that hat because the black scarf on your head is sucking up all the sun and you wish you had that glorious large hat to shield you from its menace.

Perhaps the more accurate question would be, “When did you get that abaya and niqab?”  (The Arabic words for the black robe and face cover).  Because in ‘Asir, in southeastern Saudi Arabia, the straw hat i

HoneySelller

Yemeni Honey Seller

s traditional, not the abaya and niqab.

Clothes are politics, and in Asir, a fertile, mountainous beautiful part of the world, the abaya and niqab only started to be worn by women in the 1970s when ‘Asir’s rulers were asked to come closer to following the dictates of the national government in order to receive funding for modernization.  Modernization ironically enough included covering up their women.  The covering up was only a physical manifestation of an increase in the embrace of the Saudi government’s definition of Islam that exists here today in combination with its more liberal past.

Retired School Teacher

Retired School Teacher

Asir Souq

Asir Souq

Ibrahim

This is home to a vibrant artist colony, the only one in Saudi Arabia, a place where a young painter looked at me fiddling to get my hijab to stay in place and said, “Just take it off.  You’re making a mess of it.”  On the other hand, this is also a center of militant Islam.  “When I was in Afghanistan…” a Saudi farmer casually started in response to a question related to the article I was working on.  He also pointed to my headscarf to let me know a piece of hair was sticking out—not okay.  Had I asked why he had been in Afghanistan, the answer wouldn’t have been to paint the mountain vistas.  Plenty of those at home in ‘Asir.

But in the honey scented souq of the capital city of Abha, business is business—and the price of vendor’s prized goods—spices, dates, clay pots, goat–is negotiable, and you win if you’re the one confident in what you’re wearing.  I am not very confident in an abaya and hijab.  Still, I was able to capture some of these faces and lack there of, in this most beautiful and fascinating of places.

h1

My Very Short Middle East Movie List

September 29, 2012

Recently a professor in the US asked me if I could put together a list of Arabic language films she might be able to use in her women’s studies and global studies classes.   This is only a short excursion around 20 plus countries sharing a common language and multiple problems and plenty of quirkiness.   Some countries have only one or two features, like Jordan and the UAE, so those were pretty easy to do.  Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, I apologize to all the wonderful films I didn’t list–and to Iraq, the Arab cinema I know almost nothing about yet.  The Middle East also includes Iran, which may have the most powerful films of all, but that’s a whole other list.  For that, see the link below.

EGYPT :

Cairo Station/The Iron Gate (Youssef Chahine, 1958):  A memorable love triangle amongst the workers at a Cairo train station.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Mohamed Khan, 1988):  Two maids in Cairo struggle with their employers and family.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)

Asma (Amr Salama, 2011)  A woman struggles with the shame of AIDS

 

LEBANON

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)  Daily life of five women at a beauty salon in Lebanon.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)  Award-winning film that takes a lighter, simplified  look at the start of the Lebanese civil war.

West Beirut (1998)  Probably the best narrative film on the Lebanese civil war as it affected the middle class

PALESTINE

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, 2005)  Oscar nominated, two young men are sent on a suicide mission.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Najwa Najjar, 2008) A newlywed copes with the sudden imprisonment of her husband.

Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) A Palestinian American goes back to see what was once her family’s home.

PALESTINE/LEBANON/ISRAEL

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)  Israeli animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Under the Bombs (Philippe Aractingi, 2007) One woman’s struggle to find her missing child in the midst of Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel.

SYRIA 

The Leopard (Nabil Maleh, 1973) Freedom fighters as revolutionaries

The Extras (Nabil Maleh, 1993)  Life and love under a police state

MORROCCO

Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, 2011)  The difficulty of proving your innocence when your guilty by ethnicity.

Le Grand Voyage (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2004), A young man goes with his father from France to Mecca on an emotionally challenging road trip.

ALGERIA

Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002):  A woman faces down a group asking her to commit a terrorist act at home.

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966):  An epic about one of the most heroic and bloody fights for independence in modern history.

TUNISIA

Silence of the Palace (Moufida Tlalti, 1994)  A masterful look at the manipulation of  poor women in mid-20th century Middle East.

UAE

City of Life (Ali Mostafa, 2010)  The lives of two young Emirati men collide with the lives of a variety of expats living in Dubai.

Sea Shadow (Nawaf Al Janahi, 2011) A young man tries to understand what love is in a seaside town.

JORDAN

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007)  A janitor pretends to be an airplane pilot to entertain the kids in his neighborhood.
*For a bit of a taste of the grand cinema of Iran, check out this short list from the website Your Middle East  http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/5-great-iranian-films_8295

h1

Not So Much Like a Virgin

June 8, 2012

Madonna’s self-proclaimed world peace tour arrived in Abu Dhabi via Tel Aviv and opened with the Material Girl mowing down with her assault rifle as many minimally dressed, mostly black men with well-oiled muscles as possible while repeating for at least five minutes, “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”  Fake blood included.  Peace. It’s something to get you into the groove.

There was also Madonna swigging from a Jack Daniels bottle, a parade of monks, herself kneeled in prayer in the nativity position of her namesake, a cross, and a lot of toned flesh and cursing.  Heck, more than half the things Madonna did on stage would have gotten a UAE resident arrested.  But Madonna became known for always being able to strut her stuff where others can’t:  For example, she did what she wanted on stage in Abu Dhabi but the Sex in the City ladies were banned from the big screen here.

I’m used to pop stars in the US calling the audience motherf….and stripping down to their black lace bras.  I’ve been used to that since the 1980s, when Madonna pioneered the shock-over-substance approach to superstardom.  It was unbecoming yet charmingly unique 25 years ago when she was in her 20s.  Now it just feels unbecoming because of time and place—hers and her audience’s.

While she kept her 25,000 waiting for three hours in the 100 plus degree weather (okay, by the time she came on it, it was only in the low 90s, so maybe we have no right to complain), we had plenty of time to watch young women who had passed out from heat and alcohol get carried out in stretchers to the first aid center in back of us, little girls arrive in matching Madonna clothes, and the multinational gay brigade come out in full homage.  It was just like being in LA—but in Abu Dhabi.  What I was seeing seemed even less likely to be an outdoor event in the Gulf than if Michael Jackson had eventually taken to the stage instead of Madonna (Given how that the looped track of his greatest hits kept playing while we waited and sweated, it did begin to seem like a possibility).  But Michael Jackson didn’t make it.  She finally did, and that’s when a lot of people left.  It was a mix of the lousy acoustics of the DU Arena, her off sync lip syncing, the general fatigue of standing in the heat that long, boredom with all the tired routines, and people taking offense.

The shock value in LA would have been zero—aside from thinking, “Really? Same old stuff?  Nothing new to do? Fanning your crotch in your majorette outfit for the benefit of the audience isn’t so cute on you at 54-years old.”  At the same time, there’s something admirable about someone who can’t still do the same thing 25 years, like lip sync, pretend to play the guitar and dance all at once–and all in spike heels.  Especially for those of us who couldn’t have done it then or now.

But in Abu Dhabi, the concert seemed not so much out of time, but out of place.  Or maybe it was in place—after all it did really happen—and time is changing the place.  Certainly more than time has changed Madonna.  So how much should time change things?  Too big of a question of us with heads still throbbing to the beat of  “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”   Peace out.

h1

The Most Joyous Time of the Year to be a Muslim

December 17, 2011

Gingerbread Palace in Abu Dhabi, Xmas Arabian Style

When I was a child in Minnesota, I used to get worked up into a Christmas nightmare over the fact that my family’s house wasn’t decorated and festooned, that we had no huge Christmas plans, no big gathering with our relatives planned.  All the merry was not for us, the secular Muslims who never seemed to have anywhere to go or anything to do during the holidays.  The Weirdos on the block–that’s what the child saw.

Today, the adult me finds Christmas a joyful time, a day off from work, a slow month at work to catch up on life, get some extra yoga time in.  It’s my celebrating friends that seem to be stressed. Most of the Great American Christmas has nothing to really do with religion, Christian or Muslim or otherwise, but Islam makes a fine excuse to avoid the all the merry pressures.

It was years of having variations of these conversations with my friends, starting around college and into my late twenties, normally sane young women who took on a chic lit aura, becoming more hysterical than an elf getting stepped on by Paul Bunyan, that made me embrace Islam at Christmas:

Friend:  I can’t afford to buy everyone everything they want.  I’m going to be in more debt than the U.S.      government.

Me:  I’m not buying anyone anything.  I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  Seeing everyone again reminds of all the crap my parents put us through.

Me:  My family is not doing a big gathering thing, so I will not have a meltdown remembering my childhood anymore than I usually do.  I’m a Muslim

Friend:  Everyone is going to keep asking me why I’m not married until I cry.

Me:  This is the one day of the year no one, aside from my mother, will ask me as I will be invisible.  I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  What am I going to wear?  I want to look like life is going well, that I’m okay about not being married.

Me:  I shall be wearing sweats.  They suit my apartment.  I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  When am I going to find the time to decorate?

Me:  I don’t decorate except for weddings.  I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  What am I going to do if they delay my flight any longer? I’ve already had to make five different connections to get this far.

Me:  Sorry, not traveling…now can I go back to “It’s a Wonderful Life” DVD?  I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  I’m going to gain so much weight sitting around eating all day

Me:  Got to go.  They’re waiting for me at the Chinese restaurant—the Muslims, the Jews, the other misfits.

Friend:  If anyone else asks me one more time what do you have planned for New Year’s Eve, I’ll cry.

Me:  I just tell people I don’t celebrate that either, and no one questions me…because no one has a clue what I mean when I say I’m a Muslim.

Friend:  Who should I re-gift my presents to?

Me:  Not moi.  I don’t have the need to do re-gifting or be re-gifted.  I’m a Muslim.

Friend: (sometime around the end of January)  I need some help taking down the Christmas tree before it sets itself on fire.

Me:  Oh, okay, time to get into the spirit.  I’ll be right over.  Being a good friend is the right thing to do, especially right before Valentine’s Day.  Which I don’t have to celebrate either:)   I’m a Muslim.

There are wonderful things about holiday celebrations, about connecting with old friends and family, but feeling bad about not being merry enough isn’t one of them.  So if Islam gives me my excuse, I’ll take it.

h1

The Only Muslim I Agree With

September 10, 2011

The only Muslim I agree with 100% (well, more like 90% of the time) is me.  Sometimes I question by dusk religious thoughts that at dawn seemed prophetic. But mostly I agree with myself about God, Mohammed, Jesus, the five pillars of Islam–and yes, the Muslim cliché the hijab, and all other things attributed to Muslims but not really about Muslims, like women driving in Saudi Arabia.

I have a lot of Muslim friends that agree and disagree with me on all of the above.  Most of the Muslims I know have no idea what I think about my religion, although some have tried to tell me what I think (“You don’t drink because you’re trying to be a good Muslim” someone once told me, and I didn’t bother to explain that I wouldn’t drink no matter what my religion was and I don’t actually think Islam categorically forbids alcohol).

Just as few Christians, Jews and others know what I think about my religion, although some of them have also tried to tell me. (“You’re one of those white Muslims, so we know you’re not like the others,” was the comfort I got from a co-worker on 9/11, as apparently I didn’t appear brown enough to be bad.)

No one ever asked me, not even other Muslims, until after 9/11, what I thought about Islam.  I’d venture to say many of my American friends could barely recall I was a Muslim.  For a while after 9/11, I felt it was something that like Mona Eltahawy said in a recent op ed piece for the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/09/muslim-post-9-11-america) I had to mention early on in a conversation.  In my case, so no one would say anything bad in front of me and feel like crap later when I then I told them I was a Muslim.

I don’t look like a Muslim not because of the color of my skin but because I don’t wear a hijab.  That’s the giveaway in the post-9/11 US and Europe, but not in much of the Middle East, where many choose not to wear the hijab.  (Actually, more correctly is that many women choose to wear it).

As a non-wearer, I’ve really come to appreciate the hijab because it gives me a chance to always be the undercover Muslim:  In crowded rooms, classrooms, and parties, I get to hear what other people really think about Islam because they don’t think I’m one one of them.  And mostly what I hear shocks me, almost as shocking as the dangerous radicalization of Islam in disenfranchised parts of the Muslim world that led to 9/11.  Horrific as the terrorism is, it comes from ignorance, from people deprived of education and hope.  That’s not something you expect in the West, and yet most of what I hear about Islam is pretty ignorant, mostly boogey man like.

Maybe one day, Muslims will be transformed like the Russians, who under communism could only produce women in our social studies class textbooks were sullen peasant wrapped in fur skin hats, to their general acceptance in all media as hot babes, for better or worse, in a variety of professions.

That’s not necessarily something to aspire to, but until then, here is some Pew polling on American Muslims that might be a little more enlightening.  Muslim seem to be more upbeat about being American than others, not that I disagree or agree with any of  them. (http://people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/)

For further readings on Arab Americans 10 years later, I recommend the following:

Alia Malek in Granta:  http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Of-Moustaches-and-Megalomaniacs

Moustafa Bayoumi in the Nation  http://www.thenation.com/blog/163284/rites-and-rights-citizenship

Carmel Alyaa Delshad  http://bustedhalo.com/features/being-the-%E2%80%9Cother%E2%80%9D-on-september-11-2001

h1

How To Behave in the UAE

July 3, 2011

Today I read on the regular old Internet that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is making his website available as an iPhone application. 

It’s pretty cool to be an iPhone application.  At least it may be my only public appearance that impressed my Apple-a-day-keeps-the-meltdown-away nephews. On these International Herald Tribune apps,  I share Apple time with several others, including my friend David Chaudoir, in these videos directed by Sonya Edelman, all about how to live and do business in the UAE.

And one thing I wished I’d mentioned and which I discovered this week:  If you sometimes feel the need to yell at the phone company, which is not how to behave in UAE, remember that if the phone company doesn’t get you in one country, the electrical company will get you in another.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/iht-business-navigator-uae/id429691020?mt=8

or you can just peek at the videos here:

http://www.vimeo.com/20975323

http://www.vimeo.com/20974707