Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Giving to Gaza

Okay - after a post of moaning and groaning, it's time to actually do something.

For those of you in the UAE, the UAE Red Crescent Society has set up a relief fund for Gaza. You can donate money through the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank by sending whatever you can to account number 20000417.

If you're interested in sending donations in the form of clothing, etc. please call 800-733. A representative from the Red Crescent Society will call you back within 48 hours to arrange when they can come by your home and pick up your donations.

For anyone who knows me personally, I'm collecting money for Gaza to send to the Red Crescent Society. If you want to donate money but don't have time to go through the procedure of sending money to the organization's bank account, feel free to contact me. I'll be collecting donations in an envelope for the next few days, and you can leave your donations with me to pass on to the organization.

For those of you outside the UAE, contact your local Red Cross/Crescent to see what donation programs they have going on for Gaza.

And for something a little unconventional, check out This is a group of human rights observers, aid workers, and journalists from around the world who are trying to break the siege of Gaza. Read through their mission and find out what you can do to help.

I know that what's going on in Palestine seems too big an issue for any one of us to be able to affect on our own. But just in the UAE, hundreds of people have called to donate whatever they can for those in Gaza. And around the world, there have been all sorts of protests and drives for the people of Gaza, from Saudi Arabia to England to Arizona. If each of us does something, no matter how small, all of our actions can add up and actually make a difference.

Now, one last thing. I was reading an article by Nir Rosen on Al Jazeera English, called "Israel's Failure to Learn". I don't know how much of it I agree with, but I found it very interesting and definitely recommend it to everyone reading this.

Below is an excerpt I found particularly good. Enjoy!

Terrorism is a normative term which is used to describe what the 'other' does, not what 'we' do.

Powerful nations such as Israel, the US, Russia or China will always describe their victims' struggle as terrorism.

However, they fail to acknowledge as acts of terror the destruction of Chechnya, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the repression of Tibetans, and the US
occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Normative rules and what is legal and permissible are determined by the powerful. They formulate the concept of terrorism in normative terms and make it appear as if a neutral court derived such definitions instead of the oppressors.

For the weak to resist becomes illegal by definition.

This excessive use of legal jargon actually undermines the fundamentals of what is truly legal and diminishes the credibility of international institutions such as the UN. The law becomes the enemy of those who struggle.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


It's all over the news: Gaza is being pounded into rubble by the Israeli army.

The statistics: over 230 targets hit by Israeli air strikes, over 275 Gazans dead (including women and children), over 600 injured, over 150 in critical condition, and unknown numbers of people lying beneath the carnage.

Everyone around me is angry. Furious. I was in the mall with my family this morning and ran into some old Emirati friends: everyone replaced the customary small talk with a torrent of exclamations about Gaza. Back at home, we got a phone call from our Palestinian neighbors: they asked us to pray for their family members, who were cowering in their apartments in Gaza. I spoke to some friends and family: they were cursing the Zionists left and right, asking God to "punish the unjust aggressors." I logged on to Facebook: nearly all of my friends had some sort of tribute to Gaza on their profiles. Some had replaced their profile pictures with images of Gaza, others had updated their status to mourn the dead, and still others had written notes describing their horror and anger at the massacre that was taking place in the city.

But me? How do I feel? I'm numb. There's this little scratchy feeling deep in my chest somewhere, but other than that, I can't really feel anything. I should be riled up. Angry and furious like the rest. But I'm not. Maybe its because I feel that this keeps happening in Palestine, that everything is just hopeless, that to get angry is to hope for a solution that could extinguish that anger when I don't see any solution coming for a long, long time. Maybe I've given up.

All this and I don't even live in Palestine. I have so much respect - so much respect - for the people who live under occupation there, day in and day out, and still manage to have hope. I'm here in Dubai, living in complete comfort, with final exams my biggest worry of the day. I cannot imagine being walled in Gaza, with rockets raining over my head, and still be able to stand and fight for my survival, much less for my land and my people.

Palestine is an open wound in the hearts of many. Not just Arabs and Muslims, but people all over this planet who see a balanced reporting of both sides of the conflict. And this is the biggest bloodbath Palestine has witnessed since the 1967 war. Words, or at least my words, cannot come close to describing what we as a group are feeling.

As I write this, I'm realizing that I do feel something: immense sadness. Anger is there too, just bubbling slowly away under the surface of that sadness. I don't know what to do with that anger yet, or where to direct it, so I'm just letting it simmer for the moment. Writing is all I can do, so I'm doing it.

Right now, I'm turning you over to a person much more qualified to speak about the bombings in Gaza than I am. It's Mohammad, a writer on KABOBfest. As a resident of Palestine, he's experiencing all of this in a way most of us can only imagine. The passion and clarity in his post are extremely impressive. But most of all, it is the hope that underlies those things that gets me. If he didn't have hope for a solution to the problems of Palestine, he wouldn't be spending hours writing articles like this up:

Gaza: the slaughter of a people.

Thank you Mohammad, for keeping a flame burning for Palestine, while you wait for the rest of us to have the courage to do the same.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Quick Peek at Poetry

It's exam week now, so this is going to be a quick post. A friend of mine came across some older poetry I published online that she said she enjoyed, so I've decided to share those poems with you.

They're three poems: Nalchik Headline, Double Entendre, and Snow Globe. (At the moment, I'm very much identifying with Snow Globe.)

Here's the link at Unlikely Stories.

I hope you guys enjoy them!

Oh, and happy holidays to you all!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The al-Zaidi Follow-up

Several news reports are saying that Muntadhar al-Zaidi has been beaten and possibly tortured while he was in custody after the shoe-throwing incident. This morning, I read reports that he has written an apology for his "ugly act." People are saying that the apology was written under the threat of further torture.

This is in no way tolerable. I don't personally agree with al-Zaidi's act (although I understand and sympathize with why he did it), but getting harassment like this is much, much worse. If I was saying that the power that comes with freedom of speech should be checked by responsibility, then what is there to say about the power that comes with physical and military might?

My last post, by the way, caused a huge comment war on my Facebook account. I was really impressed with all the different opinions people articulated - it's great to get conversations like this going. But on the other hand, I hope that we (myself included) don't get too sucked up in the media frenzy over flashy stories like this and forget about all the other things going on in Iraq.

There are lots of other, underreported incidents happening in the country that deserve the same attention, if not more. Just check out Haifa Zangana's City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance. That book shows you what's going on in Iraq from a mature and articulate Iraqi point of view - something you don't get to see too often in the mainstream media. Her articles in the Guardian are just as interesting.

What's important as we try to understand what's going on in Iraq is some form of balance and objectivity. Only then can we possibly work at creating solutions for the problems that have ravaged the country since (and before) 2003.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flying Shoes = Resistance?

I just read that an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush at a press conference earlier this morning. President Bush was on a surprise visit to Iraq, and had said that the Iraqi war was not over, but "it is decisively on its way to being won." An infuriated journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, jumped up calling the President a dog and yelling "this is the end." The President ducked just in time as the man's shoes flew over his head.

Watch a video of the incident here:

al-Zaidi was detained, but thousands of Iraqis are demonstrating for his freedom in Baghdad today. They claim that al-Zaidi's detention is a violation of the freedom of expression that the U.S. had promised it would bring into Iraq. Hundreds of lawyers, including various Americans and the man who defended Saddam Hussein, have offered to defend al-Zaidi for free.

Freedom of expression is important, yes. And, of course, the atrocities that have been committed in Iraq are horrible. But freedom is part of a package that includes responsibility. People who have the freedom to do and say what they want must be mature enough to act in a way that does not abuse that freedom. Muslims and Arabs should be the first people to support this statement, especially with their enraged reactions to the Danish cartoons. They can't demand that the West keep its freedom of expression within the boundaries of respect then turn around and support something like this.

I understand that the Bush administration has abused its power in Iraq, and that Iraqis have suffered tremendously because of the U.S.'s actions in the country. But that doesn't mean Iraqis must resist through pure insult. Doing so does not further the Iraqi cause or improve the image of Iraqi citizens in any way. It only makes it more difficult for them to legitimately resist U.S. presence within their borders.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eid Is Over, But Movies Aren't

Since I'm on the topic of movies, let me bring your attention to another film I recently heard about: Salt of This Sea. It's a story about a American of Palestinian descent who goes back to Palestine to rediscover her land and her identity. There, she meets and falls for a Palestinian man who wants nothing more than to get out of Palestine.

I haven't actually seen the film, so I don't know what happens next. But I have seen the trailer, and it looks pretty interesting. Salt of the Sea seems to mix politics, romance and self-discovery into a movie definitely worth watching. It gives the Palestinian issue a human face.

And that fact that it's a film by one of my favorite poets, Suheir Hammad, makes it all the more exciting.

Check out the trailer below:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Eid Mubarak!

It's Eid everyone! Go have fun! If you're in the mood for a movie, check out Traitor. It's about an Islamic "terrorist," but is actually one of the best film portrayals of Islam that I've ever seen. Plus, it's a great movie - which is always good.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Question of Culture

The United Arab Emirates is growing at an incredible pace. This tiny country spans just 83,600 square kilometers (an area slightly smaller than the state of Maine), but holds 5.6 million people - 85% of whom are expatriates. With the country's rapid industrial and economic development, as well as an influx of foreigners from all across the world, there is a fear that local UAE culture is becoming diluted and in danger of dying out.

Making up just 15% of the country's population, UAE nationals are trying to fight back against the erosion of their traditional culture. One way they're trying to salvage an Emirati identity is through Watani, a social development program aiming to engage Emirati youth in the preservation of local culture.

The program has done some interesting things in the three years since its inception. Among other things, it has hosted Ramadan iftars, set up summer camps promoting UAE culture among Emirati kids, launched a comic book series centering on an Emirati superhero, and created an Emirati version of YouTube to spread Emirati culture.

As the world moves towards becoming a global village, the question of identity is on many people's minds. Although any given culture is always changing, the speed at which that is happening today is causing alarm around the world. Usually it took generations for major changes in culture to become evident, so people within that culture did not feel that they were loosing a major part of themselves during their lifetime. This is no longer the case.

Experiments like Watani are interesting examples of where we will draw the line between keeping some semblance of our local identity and merging with the international community.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama and Clinton?

Obama has officially nominated Hillary Clinton as the U.S.'s Secretary of State. I don't really know how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm afraid of the baggage that Clinton will bring with her into the new administration. But on the other hand, the U.S. needs to have a government staffed by people with experience, as well as by people who come from all parts of the political spectrum. And I think that Obama is fulfilling those needs quite well with the appointments he's making for his national security team.

It's a tough balance to keep. I just hope Obama can bring all these different people into his administration without loosing sight of the direction he wants to steer America towards.

Some links:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

We Can Give Thanks After Thanksgiving

Okay, so this post is two days late - but I've had a hectic week turning in term papers, and as soon as that was done, I was cleaning the house and packing to leave for Saudi Arabia. But now, I'm in Jeddah, and although I still have more papers to do for school and articles to write for work, there's a full two weeks ahead of me to get it all done. So I can breathe again.

As I try to get myself back on track with all this work, keep yourself busy by reading this article I came across online: 17 Reasons To Give Thanks.

Happy belated Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I love that President-elect Obama is using YouTube. Yesterday he gave his second weekly address on his website, Here it is:

I personally preferred Obama's first address. He was more natural in it, he felt emotionally closer to the viewer, and was actually looking directly into the camera. In the second address, it seemed that his staff was trying to make him look like a more authoritative Commander-in-Chief.

But I dunno, see for yourselves. Here's the first address so you can compare it to the second:

Monday, November 17, 2008

What About Now?

The news we usually get in the media is nothing like the spoof New York Times paper I wrote about in the last post. All it shows us are the problems we have in today's world, and how those problems just seem to be getting bigger and bigger.

So seeing people take action to help bring an end to these problems is refreshing. It's a reminder of the capacity we have, each one of us, to make a difference.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Daughtry's "What About Now".

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Dream Paper

"War in Iraq Ends." "U.S. Patriot Act Repealed." "All Public Universities To Be Free." "Court Indicts Bush On High Treason Charge."

How would you feel if you saw those headlines splattered across your local newspaper? Well, Americans who got a spoof edition of the New York Times earlier this week can answer that question for you.

On November 12th, a group that calls themselves The Yes Men distributed fake copies of a New York Times paper across the country. The paper was dated July 4, 2009, and had articles that described the future as most of us would wish to see it.

The Yes Men, pranksters claiming to work in the service of humanity, used a blend of satire, political criticism, and utopian ideals to create a paper that makes you want to both laugh and cry. But if anything, the taste of seeing those headlines in print makes you want to turn them into a future reality.

July 4, 2009? Maybe that's a little over-ambitious. But a couple of years down the line, that's not too bad, is it?

Here's an article on the spoof NYT paper.

And for those of you outside the U.S. that couldn't get your hands on a copy, here's the spoof NYT website:


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"10 Minutes" in Sarajevo

I was doing research on the Bosnian War for a law project yesterday, and I came across this. It's a film about how differently 10 minutes can be experienced by a Japanese tourist in Rome and a Bosnian family in Sarajevo.

10 Minutes, by Ahmed Imamovic, actually won the 2002 award for Best European Short Film. Watch it when you have the time - it's so worth it. The Bosnian War may be over, but this film is timeless in that war is always happening, and we very often make our way through life forgetting that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Beginnings

"Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things."

These are the words of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s new chief of staff. Almost week into Obama's election, things are already starting to look up. The President-elect is already putting together a new staff, although he doesn't need to do so until January. And this staff is pushing forward with the same spirit that made Obama America's 44th President.

I, along with the rest of the world, am so excited about what changes this new term can bring. But patience, I keep reminding myself, nothing can happen overnight.

Check out the article below to see how Obama and his staff plan to ride out this transition.

Obama Team Weighs What to Take On First - NY Times

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We Did It!

I woke up in Dubai this morning to the sounds of cheers from halfway around the world. My mom had the TV on, and Barack Obama had just been announced America's next president.

I don't know what to say, really. I've been pretty mellowed-out this election, afraid (along with millions of others) that what happened in 2000 with Bush could happen again. But it didn't. Ladies and gentlemen, we are finally in the White House.

Now, I know that Obama is no saint. But, to quote Jamilah King,
The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States is an absurdly exciting historical moment. I can't get over the fact that for the first time in my life, I can actually be proud to call someone my president.

I know that the Democratic Party may not be as progressive as a third alternative like the Green Party, but having Obama in the White House amounts to light years of progress from the Bush Era. As Obama was giving his acceptance speech, all the people cheering and crying in the crowd showed that America felt the same way.

Okay, so we won. But now the real work begins. America, we can't forget that change takes time, and Obama is only one man. Change will not happen overnight, and there will be resistance by those who benefit from the current system. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and get going.

But for now, we celebrate. Check out Obama's victory speech here.

Yes we can!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Outvoted by the Electoral College

After coming home from voting at the U.S. consulate yesterday, I was really excited about exercising my political rights as an American citizen. I jumped online and started looking up how the voting system works, and I was - surprised, to say the least.

Basically, the United States is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. That I had known. But just how it was a representative democracy was what got me. There is a process in the U.S. system called the Electoral College. What happens in this process is that people elect a state representatives called "electors," and these electors are the people who actually choose who becomes president.

The system was supposed to be a compromise between writers of the Constitution who wanted the president to be elected by Congress and those who wanted the president to be elected by popular vote.

The problem is, although the electors pledge to vote for a particular candidate when voters are choosing them, they can always change their mind. And even scarier is the fact that a candidate who loses the popular vote but manages to win the electoral vote will still become president. That's what happened with George W. Bush in 2000.

Lots of people want the system to be changed, but so far none of the constitutional amendments that have been proposed on the issue have been passed.

Weird, no?

Some links:

And here's a funny video on how the American elections work:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

We DON'T Need School?!

Anyone who's ever woken up thinking, "man, I wish I didn't have to go to school today," is going to love this article I'm posting about.

"Against School," by John Taylor Gatto, talks about why the modern system of education is not necessarily the best way for people to gain knowledge. This quote from H. L. Mencken (one of the most influential American writers in the first half of the 20th century) that Gatto cites in the article gives a general idea about the direction Gatto aims to take the reader. According to Mencken, public education does not aim

to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. ... Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim ... is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States... and that is its aim everywhere else.

Gatto continues by stating that the foundation of our modern education system is based on the Prussian military system. Yes, you read that correctly. The Prussian military system.

I'm not calling for a revolt against public education here. But as a woman who has had her fair share of days feeling constricted by the high school system, I think it's important to note that the now internationalized system of public education is far from perfect. By recognizing that and understanding where the foundation for public education came from, maybe we can work towards adjusting the system so that it works better to accommodate the coming generations.

There's always room for improvement.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

Yesterday, a couple of friends and I were sitting outside under the stars, lamenting the sorry state of the world, but staying hopeful and wondering what role we could play in trying to make it all better. It was a really nice conversation, one of those that keeps you thinking for a long time afterwards. On my way back home, I had my iPod on shuffle in the car, and an old song I hadn't heard in forever came on.

How appropriate, I thought. It was Billy Bragg's "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward." I kept it on repeat all the way home, and enjoyed it so much I wanted to share it with you.

And here are the lyrics, if you're interested.


Monday, October 27, 2008

America Did Do It

The U.S. took credit for the attack on Syria. And Middle Eastern countries are not happy. Here are some reactions:

And for those interested, here's a timeline on attacks within Syria at Al Jazeera English.

U.S. Quickie in Syria

It seems that the rumors are true: The U.S. appears to have staged an attack on Syrian territory late yesterday.

The attack took place in the border town of al-Sukariyah near Iraq. According to eye-witnesses, two American helicopters landed on Syrian territory and 8 U.S. commandoes disembarked, killing at least 9 people and injuring 14 others, all of whom were civilian builders at their jobs. The American troops then boarded the helicopters and left.

Okay, this is completely bizarre. What is going on? How can American troops just enter Syria, kill a bunch of civilians and leave? Even if the attack was close to the Iraqi border. And no matter what stories come out about terrorist bases or whatnot on the Iraqi side of the border (which they already have), this does not excuse an attack on civilians, not to mention a U.S. act of aggression in a sovereign state.

Imagine this had been an attack by a foreign state on Americans near Mexico, with the excuse of trying to root out the drug trade on the border. If just one person had been killed, the U.S. government would have gone wild over another state killing its civilians and violating its sovereignty.

But never mind. These are just 9 nameless Syrian villagers. And Syrian sovereignty rights? What rights? Syria's just another one of those Middle Eastern countries that are always messy anyways.

We have a serious problem here. If the U.S. wants to be at all respected in the Middle East, which is necessary for peace in the region (and around the world), then it has got to stop randomly entering and attacking other states at its every whim. And an attempt at shaking up the elections doesn't make for a good excuse to do that either.

Here's a really good post at the LA Times' Middle Eastern blog, Babylon & Beyond that asks:

Syria: What's behind the U.S. raid?

I'll put up any updates if and when they come along.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reading Iran Through Shirin Ebadi

This has been a crazy two weeks. With midterms and papers all due at the same time, I feel like I've hardly had any time to breathe. But in the few moments I have off in times of chaos like these, I like to escape from my world by reading about someone else's life - be that "someone else" a fictional character in a novel or a real person.

Right now, the life I'm reading about is Shirin Ebadi's. A judge, an Iranian, a woman, and a Nobel Prize winner, I couldn't pass up the chance to learn about her. I don't know much about her work, but I do remember coming across articles she wrote this summer urging the U.S. not to attack Iran.

Ebadi's book, Iran Awakening, is eye-opening. It's nice to see the mainstream media promoting an Iranian woman who is objectively critical of certain aspects of Iranian society without bashing Iran altogether. She refuses to paint topics like the Islamic Revolution or Iranian traditions with a single brush of cliches, but rather exposes the complexities of Iranian society that lead to their creation.

I bought this book as a small present for myself on Eid. And what a good choice it was. Have I piqued your interest enough? Good. Get your hands on a copy and read it, ASAP. We need balanced information like Ebadi's to get a better understanding of Iran, especially as it's taking a position of greater and greater importance on the world stage.

Go on, grab a copy of that book. You won't regret it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Merhaba, Security Council!

Turkey just won a two-year term on the UN Security Council!

The UN Security Council is the part of the United Nations that maintains international peace and security, and can be likened to a state government's executive branch. There are 15 seats on the Security Council: 5 permanent members (the U.S., UK, France, Russia, China) and 10 rotating members.

The rotating members are chosen according to the number of seats allocated per region (i.e. Europe, Asia, Africa). The Turks, along with Austria, beat Iceland for the Security Council's European vacancies.

Having Turkey on the Security Council could not have come at a better time. Both "Western" and "Eastern," the country can play a major role in mediating between the two regions. Issues like Iran's nuclear program, for example, could potentially be more easily resolved through a Turkish mediator.

I'm not in any way implying that Turkey is perfect here. The country, like all countries, has certain setbacks and blemishes in its history. But it also has incredible potential. So seeing it in the Security Council after so long (the last time it had a seat there was 1961!) is pretty exciting. And it's definitely a bonus for EU membership.

Can't wait to see what Turkey does with its new role on the international stage. But for now, I'm celebrating with some Turkish coffee and Turkish delight.

Çok güsel, Türkiye!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Angry at the Economy

So to continue my survey of the coverage on the economic crisis, I've picked out an article that's both a little scary and ridiculously amusing.

The writer, David Michael Green, is angry. He's angry at the situation America and the world are in, he's angry at unrestrained capitalism, he's angry at greedy leadership, he's angry at America's generations of an insatiable appetite and shirked responsibilities.

And he lets you know it through an onslaught of sarcasm that doesn't fail to entertain.

For your reading pleasure, I present: "This Just In: Greed Is Not Good," by David Michael Green.

And if you enjoyed his article, check out his website at

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Another Economy Explanation

Oh! I just came across a pretty good article that tries to explain the economic crisis - by comparing it to a casino! I kept hearing about this whole "casino economy," and now I finally get it.

Here ya go:

"This Sucker Could Go Down," by Peter Constantini.

And here's an older, but interesting article by Ali Khan from Counterpunch (a leftist magazine, by the way) that critiques the economic crisis from the perspective of Islamic financing: "Meltdown in American Markets."

God, things look like they keep getting worse and worse. I wonder how bad this "Crash of 2008" is going to be by the time it's over.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Occupation 101

I just finished watching a GREAT documentary on Palestine called Occupation 101. But man, it left me depressed.

We sit around in our villas and apartments, with our couches and TVs, eating popcorn and chugging down cans of soda while watching people living a couple thousand miles away suffering in places like Palestine.

Their houses are being demolished, they're getting shot at, their culture is being eroded, and their children are suffering so much that psychologists are only beginning to understand the toll living under occupation and constant threat is having on them.

In the comfort of our secure homes and prosperous cities, it's hard to connect to something like that.

But connect we must. Because that's the only way we can feel enough empathy to help people who don't have the luxuries most of us have because we happened to be born in a particular place and time.

I know we might not be able to save the world at this very moment. But we can talk about wanting to save it. And if we do, maybe we can inspire others to do the same. With each additional voice, we'll get louder and louder. Loud enough, maybe, to actually make a difference.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


So I just discovered something pretty shocking in my anthropology course:

Race is culturally constructed.

It has nothing to do with biology. It's all cultural! Call me ignorant, but that was totally new to me.

The American Anthropological Association even has a whole website about it. Check it out!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

America Celebrates Eid

American? Yes. Muslim? Yes.

You can be both. People have been doing it for generations.

Wanna get a tiny glimpse of Islam in America? Check out the Empire State Building lit green for Eid!

Daisy Khan's open letter to America in the Washington Post reflects exactly how I felt when I heard about the Empire State Building going green. It is beyond exhilarating to feel my fellow Americans recognizing one of the most important days on the Muslim calender. Muslims across the country have been working so hard to enter mainstream America, and this is a small tribute to that effort.

Right here is another one of those "I love America" moments.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Eid Mania in Dubai

Eid in Dubai is just a little short of crazy. You're in the middle of a desert, so any outdoor activity is pretty much out of the question. What happens, then, is that everyone goes to malls and hotels. The streets are packed with cars trying to get to some air-conditioned destination, and once you get to that destination, you can hardly move because of the sheer numbers of human beings crammed into that space.

I was at Festival City today and yesterday, and I was nearly climbing over people to get to my seat in the restaurant or to move to another part of the mall. There were so many kids - screaming, laughing, crying, jumping around, showing off their new presents. Being stuck at university all the time, it's sometimes shocking to see so many people under the age of 18 at once. But despite the headaches that I got from all the noise (oh God, I sound like my grandmother), it was a nice change.

I guess that's what Eid, or any major holiday, is all about. Breaking out of our daily routine and submitting to life's blissful craziness. These are the days that stay with us when we get old and look back at our lives. So we might as well enjoy them!

Eid Mubarak!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not Syria!

What?! A car bomb went off in Damascus?

Syria is a gorgeous country, with a fascinating culture and heritage, but it's not exactly in a greatest place in the world pecking order at the moment. If it has any political advantage over its neighbors, though, that would be security. Unlike the often jittery streets of Lebanon, Palestine and even Jordan, Syria is ridiculously safe. Go out at nearly any time of day or night and you won't have anything to worry about.

But now we have this car bomb going off near a Shiite shrine and a government security checkpoint in Damascus. Where in the world did that come from? I'm going to be keeping an eye on this story and see what develops.

Check out this AFP article for a more in-depth look at the story, including political decisions that were made days before the attack and reactions of various world leaders to the attack.

And click here for a timeline of terrorist attacks in Syria.

17 people, all civilians, dead. And during the last ten days of Ramadan, the holiest days of the Muslim calender. Why do people do this to each other?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Global Financial Crisis for Dummies

Let me say here and now that business and economics have never exactly been my favorite subjects. But following all the craziness that's been going on in the financial world since last week, I felt like I had to do at least some reading on the subject.

Jumping from website to website, I tried to work my way through the economic jargon to figure out just what was going on. For a more literary-minded person like me, all this "money stuff" had to be seriously dumbed down.

And then I found it. The easiest, most readable article on the global financial crisis. Courtesy of Al Jazeera English. Enjoy.

If anyone has any other really good articles on the subject, please do put up a link to it in the comments section. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Institute for Policy Studies - A Nour Obsession

I've been looking up internships lately, and I came across a D.C. think tank called the "Institute for Policy Studies" (IPS). The organization is .. amazing, for lack of a more sophisticated word. Calling itself "Washington's first progressive multi-issue 'think tank,'" it focuses on providing alternative policies in three areas: peace, justice and the environment.

Founded in response to the Vietnam War, IPS devotes itself to helping pave the way towards social justice. A quick quote from their website gives you a small taste of what IPS is all about:

Washington is awash with dealmakers who pursue narrow, short-term interests. But who looks out for future generations? Who is responsible for the stewardship of the planet? Who seeks to go beyond temporary peace to a future without the possibility of war? Who says, “Let’s try an approach that protects human rights, meets human needs and that our resources can sustain over decades and centuries, not election cycles”?

The Institute for Policy Studies is the counterweight to the dealmakers. We work to reclaim democracy. We collaborate with grassroots movements to foster the conditions for long-term change. We promote relationships, linking activists and public officials who share our belief that a better world is possible ...

Who wouldn't want to work for an organization like this? The site's homepage is full of insightful articles on the issues IPS is currently working on. If you find them interesting, you might want to sign up for the IPS newsletter, "Unconventional Wisdom."

Anyhoo, that's my blurb today. If you found IPS as fascinating as I did, spread the word about it! We need to get these alternative news sources and organizations out there - ASAP!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Anis Mojgani - Good, Good Poetry

I love Anis Mojgani. And I want to share him with you.

Check out this interview to find out all about him.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seven Years (and a Day) On

Another 9/11 anniversary passed yesterday. I always have such conflicting feelings on that day.

2974 innocent people died, and millions more were traumatized when the Twin Towers fell. Horrible, I know, but what about the thousands that die every day from ongoing wars and diseases and lack of basic resources like shelter, food and water? And what about the countless people who’ve died as a result of the U.S.’s post-9/11 war on terror? Why doesn’t the world recognize the suffering they go through like it recognizes the suffering of America? Just because all those people don’t come from the most powerful country in the world doesn’t mean they hurt any less.

Here’s an article I came across on about “The Other 9/11” – one in which the U.S. was the bad guy. Kinda puts things in perspective.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The "I Love America" Post

Whenever I discuss issues that show America in a bad light (like in my last post), I always have this urge to censor myself. Lately in America, it’s been very difficult to critique the status quo without being branded anti-American or “unpatriotic” (I’ve always had a problem with that word). Add in being an Arab-American who is very visibly Muslim into the mix, and you suddenly have national security risk potential.

I love being American, but I hate having to reassure people of that fact. Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of Thanksgivings, Halloweens and Fourth of Julys. For me, an In-N-Out Burger is the best comfort food and Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth.

But love doesn’t replace justice and truth. Those are separate things. Just because I love America doesn’t mean I’m going to let its (often gigantic) mistakes slide. (Iraq, anyone?) If anything, loving America makes me hold it to a higher standard than someone who doesn’t care much for the country might.

I believe strongly in the ideals America was founded on. But, like most of my fellow countrymen (and women), these last eight years have made me very, very frustrated.

I know I keep tooting the Obama horn. But change, change, change. We need it. The whole world needs it. And it can’t come soon enough.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The First Middle Eastern Coup: The U.S. Starts It All in Syria

I'm right in the middle of looking for a topic write about for my "American and the Middle East" research paper. And I came across something... interesting.

Apparently, in the 1940s, the United States wanted to undertake a project called the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAPLINE). The enterprise, which would transport oil from Saudi Arabia to Europe and the eastern United States via Lebanon, was created to save millions of dollars in terms of oil transport costs. The pipeline’s route went through Jordan, over the Golan Heights in Syria, and ended at Sidon in Lebanon, rather than snaking along the original, significantly longer, transport route through the Persian Gulf and Suez Canal. It was the greatest industrial project of its time.

The terms of TAPLINE, however, weren't in the interests of the Syrian government. There was a democracy in Syria at the time, and the Syrian leaders collectively refused to support TAPLINE. Around that time, a magical coincidence occurred. A military coup by Husni al-Zaim overthrew the resisting Syrian government, replacing it with one much more compliant with American interests in the Middle East. The first act this new government took was to approve the pipeline, and construction went ahead through Syria.

Recent studies on America and the Middle East have shed light on the events that led to the al-Zaim coup. It now appears that the CIA was involved in this first coup in Syrian and Middle Eastern history. CIA agents Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade, acting military attachés in Damascus, helped al-Zaim orchestrate the event and sparked the necessary fires in domestic Syrian politics that allowed the coup to take place.

It was the beginning of Syrian-U.S. relations that would later turn very sour.

I can't wait to find out more about this early stepping stone in Syrian-American relations. With Damascus gaining ground on the international stage, studying Syria is becoming crucial to understanding just how the Middle East ticks, and how America has historically tried to deal with the region.

I'll post up any interesting updates as I make my way through this research paper over these next few weeks.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Taste of Iftar

Fifteen minutes to go and I’m rushing around the kitchen. The food is still cooking in pots, the radio isn’t tuned to the Quran station, and I haven’t put out dates or even incense. Thank god I had the sense to dress ahead of time, I think to myself as I lunge to tame a pot of boiling soup. They’ll be here any minute!

An alarm clock clangs to life on the other side of the kitchen. The scent of my finished cheese pastries floats through the air, hypnotizing. But I have no time for mulling over them. The moment I pull them out of the blazing oven, I hear a cackling back on the stove. In a flurry of skirts, I’m at the side of my burning rice. I manage to save the day by dumping it all in a porcelain bowl and scraping off the burned black layer.

All is not well for long. On my way to light the incense in the dining room after turning on the radio, the sizzling of chicken reaches my ears. I dart back into the kitchen, and take a sip of the chicken’s sauce. Just as the liquid scorches my tongue, I remember with a start that I’m fasting. Sunset is still five minutes away! I sprint to the sink and spew out the sauce.

Back in the dining room, I fumble with a wooden match that refuses to light until I get a green cigarette lighter that does the job. The spicy sent of the lit incense floats through the air, reminiscent of old bazaars and temples. I smile and stop for a moment to survey the room.

The dark mahogany chairs are arranged around a table heavy with set silver and the prospect of food. Soft light floats through the open window, from where I can see the sun, a large yellow cracker, dipping into a soupy orange sky. Quranic passages from the radio hover through the room, leaving behind traces of tranquility.

The doorbell rings. I walk swiftly to the kitchen, get the tray of dates and water waiting on the counter, and then place it on the dining table. All is set. I go to the door and turn the knob, letting in a drove of greetings and guests, followed by the sound of the call to maghrib prayer, signaling the end of the day’s fast.


Originally published in TimeOut Dubai.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ramadan Rambles

I love Ramadan. Sleepy suhoors before sunrise, lavish iftars at sunset, taraweeh prayers every evening at the mosque. This month really has its own unique atmosphere.

Even the fasting is enjoyable when you know that the people around you are doing it with you. You really feel a sense of community. There's nothing like sitting with friends around a table in the last few minutes before sunset and hearing the call to prayer go off. In those first few moments of eating dates and drinking water or coffee, you're all the happiest people in the world. It's an experience that becomes even better when you do it surrounded by the people closest to you.

While Ramadan food gets a lot of hype, it's not what makes this month so special. Ramadan is really a social event. You get to see people you haven't seen for ages (probably since last Ramadan), and almost every day there's someone inviting you to their house or out to a restaurant. Collective tarweeh prayers at the mosque give you a chance to meet new people or catch up with old friends. You're almost always with someone doing some thing or other.

And then, of course, there's the spiritual aspect of it all. Ramadan offers a time to step back from the whirlwind of daily life and consider your place in this universe we find ourselves in. Between all the religious traditions of Ramadan, there are those rare and special moments when everything falls in to place. It's as if all the planets align or something. You feel the universe fall at your feet, and you are One.

That's what Ramadan is really about, in the end. Those moments.

Wishing you all a blessed month.
Love it while it lasts!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin Doesn't Wow the Women (or the Men)

After a beautifully orchestrated acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last Thursday, it looks like nothing can stop the Obama campaign. McCain tried to shake things up by selecting Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, but apart from the initial surprise she caused, it doesn't look like Palin can do much to stand in Obama and Biden's way in the long run.

Palin was definitely a smart choice for the McCain campaign. She is young, sexy and charismatic. More importantly, perhaps, she is a woman, and a mother of five at that. By being some of the very things McCain is not, Palin might help him pull in select groups of voters he would otherwise be sure to lose to the Democrats.

But despite the above points in her favor, I (like many others) am surprised at McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate. To me, this choice shows how desperate he is to win. Just how prepared is Palin for the office of Vice-President? McCain seems to only have picked her to shock people into talking about his campaign again.

I would love to see a woman holding the office of President or Vice-President. But not if she's unqualified for the job. Pushing aside the better qualified candidates for one who satisfies a gender preference would be discrimination, let alone just plain stupid.

And it looks like a lot of women agree with me.

Obama, you're not perfect, but you're the best hope we've got right now. March on!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Arabic, Arabic, Arabic

Two days ago, I made a resolution to finally get my act together and become fluent in Arabic. After years of merely dipping my toes in the language, I decided that enough was enough. How can I claim to care about the Middle East and not master it's most widespread mode of communication?

I made my resolution a few days ago, but it was only tonight that I realized how important it was. I attended a concert by a musical group called "Drums of the World" at my university, which brought together a mishmash of musicians from around the world - from Ghana to Afghanistan.

As always, I fell in love with all the different cultures on display. Because of my American/Syrian/Circassian background, I don't identify with one particular culture (like most Third Culture Kids), and I'm constantly on the hunt for the perfect culture that I want to adopt. But I've never found one. I've had periods in my life where I've been very fond of certain cultures: there was a general European phase, a Turkish phase, an Iranian phase and now I'm slowly sliding into another general Latin American phase.

But as I watched and heard the "Drums of the World" musicians up on stage, I realized that I'm never going to settle on one particular culture. I love too many people and places to make up my mind on which culture to adopt.

But what about the question of identity? Where, or to what group, do I belong?

And then it hit me. There I was trying to find myself in exotic languages and countries when I had a background in three very different cultures that could accommodate all the different aspects of my personality. I realized that I had to stop running away from myself and start immersing myself in those three cultures.

Arab culture is one of those three.

The problem is, you can't "immerse" yourself in a culture without knowing the language. So mastering Arabic is key in this new quest. And the beauty of mastering Arabic is that not only will it help me get closer to who I am, but it's a tool that'll help me on one of my original goals: working for the benefit of the people in the Middle East.

My first step in mastering Arabic has already been taken: I signed up for a Contemporary Arabic Literature course, taught completely in Arabic. Now I just have to take the next steps: to survive all the pages upon pages of reading, and actually do well in the course.

This is going to be one interesting semester.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Getting Prepared

Ack! Back to school already! In between add/drop week's hectic running from class to class, here's a quick link to the news on the release of Palestinian prisoners being released. Just like we're preparing for a new semester, Israel's making it's own preparations for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's arrival.

Al Jazeera English - Israel frees Palestinian prisoners

Saturday, August 23, 2008

'Tis Biden!

So Obama finally picked Joe Biden as his running mate.

It looks like the Obama campaign is trying to steady its balance as it nears the final length of the 2008 elections tightrope. Biden is a well thought out choice for vice-president, filling in what some consider "gaps" in Obama's presidential resume. In addition, Biden's more "old school" background makes the Obama-Biden ticket appeal to a much wider range of voters.

Let's see just how Biden adds to the Obama campaign:
  • Biden is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That's the experience that Republicans claim is lacking in the Obama campaign.
  • Biden is well-acquainted with Congress and the D.C. world. Obama, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to Washington.
  • Biden is 65, and a seasoned lawmaker. He is someone the Obama campaign can trust to step in as president should the need arise.
  • Biden is a white Roman Catholic of a working class background. (His father was a car salesman.) He can appeal to blue-collar workers, something Obama has struggled with throughout the campaign.

It does indeed seem that, as Democratic strategist Toby Chaudhuri said, "the Obama-Biden ticket has a ring to it."

But hey, don't take it from me.
Check it out for yourselves at these links:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Philosophical Name-Calling

Ramadan's coming up and I'm fasting my last day of make-up fasts for this year. Fasting from sunrise to sunset isn't usually a problem for me. It's just a few hours with no food and water. But today, I'm beat. Maybe because I've been reading Sophie's World all morning. Too much philosophy in one day can really knock you out. Especially when you can't take in any form of nourishment for another few hours. How do all those monks and hermits do it?

Anyways, as I was reading Sophie's World I noticed something that the author, Jostein Gaarder, kept doing in the book. Whenever he mentioned Western philosophy, he did not limit it to Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophy. He purposely included Islamic philosophy under that label.

The categorization of Islamic philosophy as "Western" struck me. In the mainstream media and much of today's popular culture, Islam and the West are represented as the negations of one another. They are opposites destined to do no more than clash and destroy one another.

More enlightened individuals and groups have showed that this "clash of civilizations" theory doesn't have to take place. Instead, they focus on the shared culture, values and heritage of Islam and the West, subjects which cover an area far greater than the differences between the two identities. (For example, check out Michael Morgan's Lost History.)

After getting over my initial surprise, I realized that Gaarder's classification made sense. Islamic philosophy has so much more in common with Greek philosophy than, say, Buddhist or Hindu philosophy. Muslim scholars and philosophers have endlessly borrowed, preserved, and added to Greek philosophy. (Unfortunately, some classical theologians, like their counterparts in the Church, even adopted Aristotle's rather unflattering views of women.) So it makes more sense to call Islamic philosophy "Western" than "Eastern."

But wait. Should all these Western philosophies even be called "Western" in the first place? They all came, after all, from the Mediterranean region -a region that scholars from northern and western Europe later claimed as the basis for their own intellectual heritage.

Pshsh, all this categorization and claiming seems like we're making too big a deal out of this. It's back to Edward Said's essentialism. How about we just say that these ideas are of human origin and belong to all of us? But people tend to resist that. We all like to clearly mark out who we are. An often impossible, not to say dangerous, feat.

Or maybe I'm just an idealist that needs to be fed, ASAP.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"The Art of Written Works"

One of my goals this summer was to read as many books as was physically possible before the start of the next semester of college. During school, I get lots of reading done, but it's almost always readings that have been assigned by someone else, on subjects that may or may not interest me. So this summer, I cut myself loose - raiding my university library, borrowing books from friends and relatives, and rediscovering old treasures on my bookshelves at home.

I read about nearly anything: Iranian history, American politics, Islam, Christianity, theology, feminism, orientalism, philosophy. But then, about a week ago, I read Gabriel García Márquez's recently published autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. It was the first piece of literature I'd picked up all summer. And suddenly, everything changed.

Márquez's masterfully written autobiography let me live another life. I ran through the corridors of his childhood home, suffered with him through law school and smoked his endless cigarettes while writing away the day's hours at his typewriter. I shared in his obsessive hours of Kafka readings, and sat next to him at the daily literary circle he attended. With him, I loved and fought with his family, pushed for his independence and later sent a monthly "lifeboat" to keep his parents and siblings out of the marshes of poverty.

I did and learned so much in just one book - whereas in the other, more academic books I read, I was confined to a single subject or discipline. Finishing Living to Tell the Tale, I recognized something I had known as a kid, but had forgotten in my college attempts to aquire grown-up knowledge: stories are the essence of life.

Now, don't get me wrong. Specialized, academic writing is definitely important. But reading a single academic book takes you down a single, well-defined path. You pick up a book on anthropology, you learn about anthropology. Literature, on the other hand, (what Wikipedia calls "the art of written works") opens up worlds. Pick up a book like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and you get so much more than a story about boys stuck on an island.

Part of the reason I sank so deeply into Márquez's story was that some aspects of it mirror my own. Like Márquez, I've always wanted to be a writer. My childhood dream was to be a novelist. And like Márquez, journalism and more academic writing sort of just "happened" to me. I never thought I would consider working for a news agency or writing academic papers on the history of women in the Middle East. But, once again like Márquez, I've decided to use my writing experiences in other fields to hone my skills for the ultimate dream: literature.

So for now, I've decided to include a lot more fiction and poetry in my reading schedule. And to continue writing with a greater goal in mind.

On to the next book.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bedtime Stories

Ghosts in my bedroom tonight.
A sliver of silver light slips through
Curtains Mama put up years ago,
Shows them click on the stereo.
Airwaves crackle the radio man to life -
Always a man on this station.
Thunderstorm. My eyes milk-white
Watch the rain crawl down like black
Widows from cloud webs. The ghosts
Wait for radio man's voice to pop words
Like firecrackers. I shut my eyes.
"A funny, scrawny looking thing.
We have to hide her from the
Bears. Her hair glows, copper."

The ghosts pull the blanket
Soft against my skin like a body,
Whispering I'll be ready to hear
Him die tomorrow.


Some shameless self-promotion. =)
Originally published on Moondance.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Silent Revolution in Paraguay

What happened in Paraguay yesterday was akin to a silent revolution: Fernando Lugo was sworn in as President of Paraguay.

Nearly every aspect of Lugo's candidacy and election was touched by the unusual, or the "revolutionary." First of all, the man is a former bishop. After years of working for the Church, he resigned from the priesthood in order to run for president. His popularity in Paraguay forced the Roman Catholic Church, which is against its priests running for office, to accept his resignation and allow him to move into politics. A historic move for the Church.

Secondly, Lugo is the first Paraguayan President to come from outside the Colorado Party in 61 years, breaking what seemed to be the Party's iron grip on Paraguay's politics. Lugo is also Paraguay's first freely elected president, as well as the second leftist president to take office in the country's history. In addition, Lugo's presidency marked the first peaceful transition of power from the ruling party to a member of the opposition since Paraguayan independence in 1811. Most impressive, perhaps, is that the Presidency is Lugo's first elected office!

All these feats, however, couldn't have been achieved without Fernando Lugo being a man of the people. During his time with the Church, he committed himself completely to eradicating poverty, earning the nickname "the bishop for the poor." He's continuing that commitment in politics, as well as aiming to eliminate the corruption Paraguay is notorious for. Moments after taking office, he renounced his $40,000 presidential salary, saying it "belongs to more humble people." He then called on other politicians to do the same.

It's not for nothing that a recent poll marked his popularity at about 90%.

It looks like Paraguay could be heading down a road that many around the world may soon envy. When asked about the obstacles that will face him and his country on that road, Lugo replied with the following words: "It's not going to be easy. But it won't be impossible."

Now this is a guy to watch out for.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tamim al-Barghouti: The Next Darwish?

After Mahmoud Darwish's passing, it's appropriate to consider who will take up the torch that symbolizes the heart and soul of Palestine.

It may well be Tamim al-Barghouti, a young Palestinian poet who captured the attention of the Arab World in a poetry program, the Prince of Poets, a year ago. His poem, "In Jerusalem," launched him to fame in a region where poetry is still as much a part of daily life as drinking tea and eating bread.

I'll leave you with a reading of "In Jerusalem," and you can decide for yourself. (Sorry, but the only translation I could find was in German, I think. I'll post up any English translations if I find them.)


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Goodbye and Hello, Mahmoud Darwish

I'm ashamed to say that I never read any poetry by Mahmoud Darwish before yesterday. When I came across an Al Jazeera English article two days ago announcing Darwish's passing, I was not only upset at the news, but furious at myself for not being better acquainted with this icon of Palestinian literature. I resolved to sink my teeth into as many of his poems as possible.

Although I didn’t previously have a personal relationship with his work, I've long known that Darwish was one of the most recognized voices of the Palestinian struggle. He, according to Naomi Shihab Nye (a Palestinian-American poet whose work I have read), was "the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging."

His poems, besides winning various awards, have touched something essential in people around the world - to the extent that Israeli education minister Yossi Sarid (unsuccessfully) proposed that Darwish's work be incorporated into the Israeli high school curriculum in 2000. (After his death, a new debate on whether or not his work should be incorporated into high school curriculums has opened in Israel.) Darwish's work has also been praised by and incorporated into the work of various artists from both the Arab and Israeli worlds, and beyond.

What I really liked about Darwish as I read about him was his independence and his humanism. He never limited himself to a single audience, nor did he stick to a single political party for his whole life. He moved easily through a spectrum of people and ideas: intellectually, he cited poets as varied as Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Rimbaud and Yehuda Amichai as his influences; politically, he was involved with the Israeli communist party Rakah and the Palestine Liberation Organization; his personal life also followed this pattern, as he had both Arab and Jewish lovers, some of whom he dedicated poems to.

It's sad to think that an obituary was what it took for me to pay greater attention to this man. How many people struggling for noble causes are side-stepped during their lives, only to be truly appreciated after death? The situation seems to echo a line in one of Darwish's poems: "They want me to die so they can praise me."

As I researched Darwish and his poetry on the internet these last two days, one of his quotes caught my eye.

"I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, ... but now I think that poetry changes only the poet."

I'm sorry, Darwish. You were wrong. Your poetry speaks to us, helping us look beyond the boundaries of our privileged lives and into a world of anguish, beauty, and above all, struggle. That in itself is a change. You've done your work as a poet.

Now, it's up to us to decide how to respond to the vision of the world you've given us.

Some links:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Greed in the Caucuses: Another War

So I've been reading up on the Russia-Georgia war that's started over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Ossetians declared independence from Georgia in 1992, but the international community has refused to recognize that independence.

On the 8th of this month, the Ossetians and Georgians began fighting yet again. But this time, Russia has entered the fray, claiming that Georgia was committing "complete genocide" and hinting that it was ready to absorb South Ossetia into Russian territory - something that the Ossetians have been asking for since "independence," as the majority of Southern Ossetians hold Russian passports.

It's funny how major powers use lofty ideals like freedom and humanitarianism to justify their invasions of other lands. Like the U.S. in Iraq, Russia is forcing itself onto Ossetian territory to "free" the local peoples from some great tyrant.

While I totally respect the Ossetian calls for independence (the Ossetians are cousins of the Circassians, after all), I don't think the Russian government is particularly concerned about the "complete genocide" they accuse Georgia of committing. Especially when the Russians have been committing atrocities, including genocide, against the Chechnyans since the late 1800s. What Russia and U.S.-backed Georgia seem to care most about in this situation is not what the Ossetians want, but what works for the interests of their own governments.

For the Russians, and other major world powers, such situations are not a debate over humanitarian ideals. They are a fight for power.

Some links:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Waiting for Better Times" - The Movie

I've never been particularly fond of Arabic cinema. Growing up spoiled by Hollywood film standards, everything in Arabic movies seemed like it was lacking. The plots were thin and predictable, the camera work was poor, and the film quality was reminiscent of American films in the 1970s. There were always some good individual actors here and there, but very few directors who could pull together a whole cast and crew and create something truly inspiring.

And then I saw Heena Maysara, the film by Egyptian director Khaled Youssef that was recently released in the UAE. Translated as "Waiting for Better Times," the movie surpassed all the expectations I had of Arabic cinema. It covered real life in Egypt; showing the extreme poverty and abuse that plagued the lowest classes, government corruption, and the growth of terrorism within the country. The acting could have been better at certain moments and the final scene felt a little flat, but otherwise, the film was superb. No glitz and glamour, no Disney happily-ever-after. Just real, raw life.

The film generated a huge controversy, particularly for its sexual content, with a scene that hinted at lesbianism causing an uproar. Religious leaders at Al Azhar decried the film, calling for the director, as well as the two actresses in the "lesbian" scene, to be prosecuted.

Regardless of what authorities said about its sexual content, Heena Maysara was seen by nearly everyone with access to a movie theater in Egypt and the Arab world. They were drawn to the political and social realities the film reflected, not just the sex that the Al Azhar scholars have focused on.

I strongly encourage people to watch this film. It really changes the way you view Egypt, and with it the Arab world. It's one of those rare cinematic works that creates empathy between the viewer and Arabs, not sympathy or animosity.

I googled the trailer for you guys. (Sorry, but I couldn't find anything with English subtitles.) Check it out, and if you like it, go watch it now!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Finding Circassia

I was at a Circassian engagement party in Jordan last night. It was the first Circassian occasion I've ever been to in my life - which is kind of shocking since I'm half Circassian.

Circassians are originally from the Caucasus, the mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas, just south of Russia. In the late 19th century, Russia invaded the region and exiled many of them to Turkey, Syria and Jordan. My family is from the Kabardeh tribe, and half of them ended up in Syria, and the other half ended up in Jordan. I'm from the Syrian side.

At the moment, I'm visiting the other side of the family in Jordan. The engagement we went to yesterday was a family affair. But for Circassians, like for Arabs, "family" usually extends to second and third cousins, so the hall was packed.

Living as a third culture kid my whole life, it was unnerving to see so many people who looked like me and my father's immediate family. I blended in seamlessly - apparently I look quintessentially Circassian. Even weirder was that I was in a hall surrounded by white, Russian- and Eastern European-looking people right in the middle of Arab Amman!

Watching the guys and girls dance to the blasting Circassian music, I felt very much at home. And suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to stay here in Amman with these people. They represented a part of me that I wish I knew more about.

But like it or not, I'll have to go back to Dubai in a few days. So till then, I'm gonna try to take in as much Circassian culture as I can. Right now, for instance, I'm off to learn some Circassian dancing with the cousins.

Here's a video of some Circassian dance (called Jagu) for you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flobots - Handlebars

It's songs like these that make me really get annoyed with the Arabic music industry. Nearly every song we've got in the Middle East is about love, and every other word you hear on the radio is "habibi."

Don't get me wrong - I love Love. Who doesn't? I just think that music can be about so much more than the commercialized, sugar-coated version of romance. Especially here in the Middle East. We have so much more going on to sing about.

Check out this song by Flobots, "Handlebars." Gives me the shivers.

And here are the lyrics that make this song all the better:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Final Oriental Thoughts

So I finished reading Orientalism, and I just want to make a few quick notes on the book before moving on to another post.

In his Afterword, written 15 years after Orientalism was first published, Said addresses some of the issues that had been on my mind as I was reading the book. The major one was that it has been accused of being an expression of anti-Westernism. Said breaks down this accusation, then refutes it with a well-written explanation that declares his book to be “anti-essentialist [rather than anti-Western], radically skeptical about all categorical designations such as Orient and Occident” (p. 331).

I hope the following collage of excerpts from the Afterword accurately portrays his explanation:

“[H]uman identity is not only not natural and stable, but constructed, and occasionally even invented outright … [N]o one finds it easy to live uncomplainingly and fearlessly with the thesis that human reality is constantly being made and unmade, that anything like a stable essence is constantly under threat … We all need some foundation on which to stand; the question is how extreme and unchangeable is our formulation of what this foundation is …

“My objection to what I have called Orientalism is not that it is just the antiquarian study of Oriental languages, societies, and peoples, but that as a system of thought Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing but no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and from, so to speak, from above” (pp. 332 – 333).

I highly recommend the last 27 pages of Said’s book: his conclusion, which consists of the last four pages of the book’s final chapter; and his Afterword. I enjoyed these sections more than any other part of Orientalism, as they summarize his thesis and address what I felt were key issues he had left out of the body of his argument.

Oh, and the final gem I came across while reading Said’s conclusion:

“I would not have undertaken a book of this sort if I did not also believe that there is scholarship that is not as corrupt, or at least as blind to human reality, as the kind I have been mainly depicting. Today there are many individual scholars working in such fields as Islamic history, religion, civilization, sociology, and anthropology whose production is deeply valuable as scholarship. The trouble sets in when the guild tradition of Orientalism takes over the scholar who is not vigilant, whose individual consciousness as a scholar is not on guard against idées reçues all too easily handed down in the profession” (p.326).

Yes! Said has redeemed himself! Not all work done in the West is biased! People can move past their cultural boundaries! We can all sympathize and identify with “Others”!

God, am I one happy child.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Thoughts from the Orient

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book that no one interested in the Middle East can avoid. It’s been subject to so much debate, with conflicting praise and criticism raising it up to legendary status in the academic world. Picking it up off the library shelf earlier this summer, I felt like I was holding something akin to the Holy Grail.

I’m currently two-thirds into the book. While I’m in no position to make any sort of “professional” critique of it (I don’t know anywhere near enough about the Middle East and literary criticism to do that), the book did spur some ideas, and opinions, in my head.

Said’s main argument is that Orientalism is the West’s vision of the East, or the “Orient” – a vision that is a flawed shadow of the East’s reality. In studying the Orient, Said asserts, Westerners mistook their understanding of the region for the region itself. How the West saw the Orient became the only way to see it. And since (again, according to Said) the West has long politically and culturally dominated the Orient, any Western idea or action regarding the Orient was tinged with Western superiority, imperialism and ethnocentrism.

I picked up Said’s book thinking it was going to be about somewhat tangible historical events. I realize now that it is all about representations, or how we see things.

According to Said, we all see the world through ourselves. We are all ethnocentric – perhaps a better term would be self-centric. That makes sense to me to a certain extent. Each of us, after all, could not experience the world if we had no self to experience it through. The self is our medium for experiencing the world. And obviously, one’s self is largely molded by the culture that surrounds it.

But while Said’s breakdown of the West’s views of the Orient is eye-opening, I think he puts too much emphasis on a particular culture’s domination of the individual. (By culture here I mean the “shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior ,” in both general societies and particular institutions like academic disciplines.) The culture a person is born into, as depicted by Said, becomes an inescapable cage. Any attempt at experiencing life from a different perspective can only go so far, because in the end that person cannot truly move past the parameters of her own culture.

If we take this foundation for Said’s thesis to heart, then no Western study relating to anything non-Western can be considered truly reliable or authentic. This includes Said’s own Orientalism. Because Said was, in the end, a Western educated Arab-American. He left the Middle East as a child, and most of his intellectual growth was based in the Western tradition. His Westernized upbringing, Western education and position in a Western university all made him an heir to what he believed was the West’s inescapable ethnocentrism.

I like to believe that people can move past their cultural boundaries. Maybe that’s naïve, a characteristic of my youthful idealism. But as an Arab American living in the Middle East, especially one who is studying the Middle East through the American university system, I need to believe it’s possible. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Till the next post!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Mediterranean Union?

I've been doing some reading on the Union for the Mediterranean that French President Nicolas Sarkozy established earlier this July. I like the idea of a community linking Europe with the Middle East, but like most people I'm skeptical about its effectiveness. How much is it a real attempt at promoting peace and development in the Middle East? And how much of it is a display to satisfy the calls (from within and outside Europe) for a more constructive European role in the region?

Only time can tell.

Till then, here are two interesting articles about the subject for those interested:

Interview with Volker Perthes:
New Co-operation Opportunities for Europe and the Arab World

Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean:
France as a Centre of Political Gravity

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Stereotypical Side of Saudi

I hate Saudi bashing.

It’s everywhere – Saudi Arabia is an evil oil monger, Saudis are all spoiled rich kids, Saudi Arabia is the most backward country in the world, etc., etc., etc. To someone who’s always coming in and out of Saudi Arabia, those types of stereotypes are rash simplifications of what’s really going on in the country. A quick tour through local blogs like Saudi Jeans shows the many, often ignored, faces of Saudi.

But yesterday, I got a little taste of a more publicized, stereotypical side of Saudi Arabia. Walking home from the supermarket, my aunt, my two (female) cousins and I were harrassed by at least five different men. What's ridiculous about this is that we were on a well-lit main road, which was bustling with cars and people. And we were draped in black from head to toe - we even had our faces covered!

The harrassment was nothing physical - physical contact between the sexes in public is a strict taboo. It amounted to cat-calls and stalking in the street. But at one point, we had a whole gang of boys fresh out of their teens following us. We only managed to get out of that situation because a police car happened to pass by at that moment and scared them away.

It makes absolutely no sense for women who are completely covered to get harassed like the way we did. What does it say about the people, particularly the men, who make up this society?

The thing is, the situation isn't just the men’s fault. It’s the whole system. Extreme segregation of the sexes doesn't make for a healthy, harmonious society. It keeps men and women from learning how to interact on a general, everday basis, making most meetings between strange men and women highly sexually charged in situations they shouldn’t be. (Like walking home from the supermarket.) It also has a tendency to make some men more predatory, aggressively pursuing women with no respect for them as human beings.

I’m not in any way making generalizations about men in Saudi Arabia. This is just one experience I had here, and there are plenty of Saudi men who criticize the situation in the country. (Again, check out Saudi Jeans.)

But it’s frustrating how the way the social system is set up here makes it difficult for women to be comfortable as women in public. And this has nothing to do with Islam. Look at Damascus, Cairo, Amman. These are cities with Muslim governments and majority Muslim populations. But women there interact with men freely, and life for women outside the home is generally more comfortable.

Regardless of how fast a nation is advancing technologically and economically, it has to also keep in mind social development. Having tall buildings and stocking shopping malls with all the latest fashions are not the tools for measuring a progressive society. Without giving each other the respect we deserve as individuals, we’ll never get anywhere.

Thankfully though, society here is changing, and hopefully for the better. But reaping the fruits of those changes takes time. I guess we’re just gonna have to be patient till then.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Post the First

I’m on a quest. Or two quests.

Simply put, I want to better understand (1) the world and (2) my place in it.

Blogging, I realized, is the best way to do that. It forces me to write regularly, which is always a good thing. Writing helps me organize my thoughts and bring them into focus. Writing is also a productive act, letting me create something new out of my various experiences instead of passively internalizing them.

Finally, publishing what I write online means I’m sharing my thoughts with other people. There is interaction, synergy – and that always leads to something interesting. Plus it keeps me from turning into a lonely old crone who spends all her days huddled up reading in the dark corners of the library.

So I’m back to blogging, about a year later than I’d anticipated. But better late than never!