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!