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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/

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Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight)

October 20, 2013

It’s plane…No, it’s a bird…No, it’s a bird on a plane…

At the Amman airport yesterday, I ran into an old childhood friend and her family. Coincidence as neither one of us lives in Amman.  Then we all ran into Arab Idol winner Mohammad Assaf and posed for a photo with him.

My Fellow Passenger

My Fellow Passenger

Small world that got smaller when I realized 14 of the passengers on my return flight to Abu Dhabi had also been on my flight to Amman.  Eleven of them were sitting in business class when I boarded.  There was no mistaking them. Handsome dudes, I thought.  But I was about to learn they weren’t dudes when three of them got bumped down to coach.

It was a full flight, and I had thought I was lucky having the only empty middle seat, which lay bare between me and the Islamic fundamentalist on the other side, each of us sizing up who would claim the seat as his or her storage space.

But then one of the three bumped down from business flapped its wings as it crawled over me with its trainer and claimed the seat with a spray of pee (bird not trainer).  I didn’t scream or demand to be bumped up like the lady in the emergency row in front of me when the other two downgraded falcons joined her.  After all, the rearranging of these falcons had already delayed the flight almost an hour and their poop, which sparkled down the aisle, was beginning to stink.

Normally I respect that the person sitting next to me on the airplane probably doesn’t want to talk with me.  But with the trainer carefully petting the falcon on his arm, so that we could take off without any hysteria, I couldn’t resist.

Just as I had heard Mohammad Assaf, also in business class, far from his home in Gaza, ask his friend how it is that falcons travel business class, I asked the trainer what they had been doing in Jordan.  Unlike Assaf, I have lived in the Gulf long enough to know how venerated the falcon is—symbol of the UAE and the falcon hospital is one of the top medical facilities in the country.  The trainer, who was dressed like an Emirati but was actually Bangladeshi, said they had been hunting in Jordan.  But sometimes they hunt in Saudi, Pakistan, many places.  Syria used to be good but now too much hunting of people.  Their favorite hunting spot is Morocco.  Our conversation proceeded with a mix of pigeon Arabic and English.  I can’t resist using the word pigeon because that was what the falcon had for breakfast, one pigeon a day.

Movie Time

Movie Time

Baggage Claim

Baggage Claim

We were joined in our conversation by the Muslim fundamentalist, who wasn’t really a fundamentalist but a charming, bright science professor.  The falcon didn’t say much, just pooped on the floor and on the trainer’s dishdash from time to time and turned HER head very now and then as if that might help HER see through HER leather blinders.

Indeed one of the first things we learned from the trainer was that female falcons are the real hunters.  Bigger and more focused than the male falcons.  (This reminds of a turtle I met in South Africa, but that is a different story.)  The trainer told us his falcon was one of the top ones in the group.  She was eight months old.  He had been taking care of her since she was born, and I don’t think he could love his own child more. This falcon wouldn’t be having any babies until she was three or four and she would probably live to be around 10-years old, the age he was when he began learning the falcon training trade.  She was worth $50,000, and maybe one day would be worth as much as $280,000, like falcon that a friend of his boss had.

Waiting to Board

Waiting to Board

We also learned that the bird has full medical check up once a week.  This was his indignant response to both the professor and I declining lunch service.  I was thinking about the falcon pooping digested pigeon and remembering avian flu, but the falcon apparently was getting better health care than we were.  We still didn’t eat, though.

The falcon is a majestic, beautiful thing, like the adorable babies that you sometimes find yourself next to on flights.  But when take off and landing freaks them out and you can’t get the smell of their poop off of you, then some of the majestic charm is gone.   I don’t remember too many of the babies I’ve sat next to—but I’ll always remember my two trips with this lady and her personal trainer.  I wondered if Mohammad Assaf was humming his hit Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight) for the other eight ladies still in business class.

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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.

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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.

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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/

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The Green Food Season

April 7, 2013

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

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What Film Directors Look Like

February 4, 2013

As kids, we grow up with clear imagery of what professionals in certain professions look like.  In my Sesame Street days, I learned farmers wear overalls with checkered shirts, nannies are British and carry parasols, and professional Arabs wear white robes and headdresses accessorized with grenade belts.  These images came to me from film and television, and I bought most of them, even with real live Arab parents there to counterbalance the TV Arab.

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

Photo by Fahd Mohammed, 1978

(Okay, there are some exceptions in which my childhood TV holds true—like waitresses at diners wear white aprons that tie at the waist.  This one persists as the whole diner concept has evolved into nostalgia for an imagined memory of American utopia.)

I wanted to make films, too.  But then I learned from TV that directors-are flamboyant, European, wear berets and ascots, have a cigar and carry megaphones when they talk—and are men.  So I thought about other possible dreams, as I knew that I could be convinced to shout in a megaphone but had no hope of being a man.

Then a person grows up and moves to Hollywood and finds out farmers, at least the organic ones, have pretty hip jeans and cool t-shirts, often with a marijuana leaf on them, the accent that nannies have is Spanish, and Arabs are the mostly like to wear overalls to work at the gas stations, if not wearing polo shirts as engineers.  And directors are indistinguishable from the rest of the angst-ridden people in Los Angeles—although they’re still most likely men.

But every once in while, your Hollywood childhood imagery is a pleasant memory that comes

Photo by Ebla Maleh

Photo by Ebla Maleh

back to you– like it did when I interviewed Syria’s most acclaimed director Nabil Maleh, during which he gave me a photo of himself as a young director.  There was the beret, megaphone, and still to this day an endearingly larger than life personality.   He has never been a farmer, but on the day of our interview he was the one wearing the checkered shirt.

A Leopard in Winter:  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/9845/a-leopard-in-winter_an-interview-with-syrian-direcn