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!