Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rick Steves in Iran: An Empty Trip?

Rick Steves's documentary program on traveling in Iran is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Unlike other travel shows, there seems to be a lack of perspective, of purpose in Steves's reporting. Normally, Steves travels Europe on camera and writes travel guides in order to encourage independent travel and tourism. However, his angle on Iran is quite different. He does not address the viewer directly in terms of travel tips such as lodging, dining, and cost. The likelihood of an American taking a vacation in Iran, he implicitly accepts, is remote and therefore complicates his role as host. What, then, is Steves's intention in creating this episode?

I would argue that, as a well-respected and popular travel writer and television host, Steves has an obligation to educate the general public on unfamiliar places. In the case of Iran, this means taking some sort of stand on the nation in relation to America. He attempts this task, but falls victim to the Orientalist habit of comparing Iran to America, using the latter as the unmarked term. I believe that his intentions are noble, that he wishes to be fair, to disprove misconceptions that Americans harbor regarding this area of the world, but his general attitude is strictly informative and lacks any depth of focus or critical analysis. The show reminds me of those small sections in history textbooks that appear every once in a while in the middle of a chapter. Soundbites, if you will. They might say something like "Shi'ite v. Sunni: What's the difference?" and then, in a few paragraphs, summarize in the most detached, clinical, expository style possible. Steves's program is a collection of these summations, and he offers no thread, no analytical message to bind the scenes together.

The perpetual elephant in the room throughout the episode is that fact that Americans fear this place. Some people probably hate it without knowing exactly why, just that there are Muslims there, and Muslims attacked New York, and they have nuclear weapons, and they're in the axis of evil. These are generalizations put forth by the media and consumed by an embarrassingly underinformed general public. Why didn't Steves take direct issue with this strained relationship? Did he fear that politicizing himself in this way could jeopardize his popularity? I did a little background reading and found that Steves is interested in politics, particularly marijuana legislation. He openly supports legalization of the the drug and uses his experience abroad to support this position. Why not take a stand on something a bit more global, Rick? I think you missed your chance.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Veiled Sexuality and Obsession in Two Women

The film Two Women rehashes many of the themes that we have discussed in regard to women in the Middle East. We should keep in mind when discussing this film that Iran, like Saudi Arabia, must be investigated in context, with attention paid to the Islamic Regime that works as an oppressive force throughout the nation, especially in terms of women. This film is a study, not a microcosm of women's issues in the Middle East as a whole.

Though not featured overtly as an article of clothing, the veil as a concept is at the center of Two Women. Most of the protagonist's problems stem from her desirability, a quality meant to be protected and stifled by state mandated dress code. Her persistent suitor on the motorbike is so crazed by his want for her that he throws acid on her cousin because he thinks he's her boyfriend and then follows her from Tehran all the way to the village of her birth. After running her off the road and causing an accident that results in the death of a child, he is convicted of harassment and manslaughter, then thrown in jail, only to return at the end of the film to seek his revenge. During his testimony in court, he cites his passionate love for the protagonist as the reason for his behavior. He appeals to the emotions of those in the courtroom and expects the men, especially, to sympathize. That this defense could even be a possibility is ludicrous and demonstrates the institutionalization of such beliefs regarding women. The men in this film, including the protagonist's eventual husband, seem hypnotized by the female entity. By casting these characters as such, the film works to point out the hypersexualization that occurs when women are forbidden by virtue of their veiled-ness.

Pardon me, but is that my identity you're wearing?.

Lipstick Jihad is an interesting work to consider for a number of reasons. For one, it's popular. Unlike some of the other books we've read, the more obscure harder to get from Amazon.com types, this work can be found at Borders. It is popular in America. It has a sexy title and a cute cover. It sells. I find this work to be valuable, but, before I get into its merits as a piece of literature, I do want make a few observations from the craft perspective. Currently, I am participating a non-fiction workshop, so I've been intimately engaged in the process of memoir-making this semester. I have been reading a lot of lovely nonfiction by women including The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Carr, I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl, A Little More About Me by Pam Houston, and a number of short pieces by others such as Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, as a piece of literary nonfiction, Maoveni's work is not quite reaching the bar.

The book reads like a two hundred and some page magazine article. Moaveni does not hesitate to lapse into long, dry descriptions of political situations and Iranian history. There is no light hand, no feathering in of the necessary context and detail. I find this technique to be clunky and difficult to get through. On the other hand, perhaps this is precisely what people like about this memoir. It tells the actual truth, sans generalization. The sections that fill us in on historical matters are researched and reported, not reckoned and remembered. In my opinion, this tactic renders the narrative lifeless and impersonal. There are tender moments between characters that fall flat because the book has been more about politics and journalism than relationships. The characters, even Moaveni herself, seem conspicuous and out of place when granted center stage, like poorly sewn hand puppets thrust onto a million dollar movie set.

However, there are moments in the text that shed light upon the condition that we have been so interested in these past few weeks -- Middle Eastern womanhood. Moaveni is bright and honest despite her melancholy neuroticism, and achieves moments in this narrative that illuminate the human condition regardless of gender, race, or geography. She deals quite elegantly with the issue of hybridity that is central to the immigrant condition. Is she American or Iranian? Both? How is identity constructed? Who is in charge? Can we be the keepers of our own personhood or is it a community project? Moaveni inquires,

"I thought of my family in California and superimposed the question on them. What if they woke up one day, and decided they were really American? Even if they felt it with all the force of their being, did that mean Americans would suddenly stop considering them foreigners? Maybe identity, to an extent, was an interior condition. But wasn't it also in the eye of the beholder?" (Moaveni 115)

Until reading this passage, I had not considered the exteriority of identity to be so tantamount. No matter how an individual feels in realtion to himself, his identity, to a certain point, is dependant upon the perceptions of others. I feel like this question is at the center of our project this semester. In the process of trying to learn and form insights about the Middle East through its art, we are helping to construct a particular identity. We struggle, but are delighted when we come upon something that we did not expect about this area of the world and its people. No matter how the Middle East exists as an entity, our study of it will always be a mere projection. When we, through literature and film, try to understand the experience of another human being, we strive for sympathy. We wish that we could empathize, but we cannot. The experience is too foreign. Through our quest for understanding, we examine the characters' identity as insight into the human experience. We listen to the characters and authors as they speak about themselves, then attempt to make a judgment or form an opinion. Can a character or author truly know himself and can we trust what he tells us? Writers are just as capable of lying as any other human being on this earth, and we should keep this in mind when reading, especially if the work in question is memoir. If the text seems disengenous, then it may very well be. The problem when sorting this out in postcolonial lit or any other imported work is to discern between instances in which the author is lying and when we just fail to understand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Decisions, Decisions...Are Middle Eastern Women "Oppressed"?

The chapter entitled "The Eternal Forough: the Voice of Our Earthly Rebellion" from Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran does well to ground us in our consideration of women in the Middle East. Because both Salwa Bakr and Marjane Satrapi highlight the hardship of living female in Iran and Egypt, it is important to temper those experiences with diverse further reading and research. Keshavarz's work helps us to do that. Particularly, the author takes issue with Reading Lolita in Tehran, claiming that it "expose(s) despicable acts but...often associate(s) the root causes of these corruptions with the local religion, Islam. RLT places these incidents consistently in the familiar context of the savage, overly sexual, and duplicitous Oriental who in public projects an image of purity and piety" (Keshavarz 50). She is right when she assumes that the Western reader will readily accept this stereotype of the Muslim man. Bakr's stories that feature only oppressed or dejected women certainly affirm this notion. Satrapi, however, offers a more prismatic portrayal of the Iranian man, of Iranians in general, for that matter.

Having read a number of postcolonial works that emphasize the plight of women -- Season of Migration to the North, The God of Small Things, The Yacoubian Building, any number of texts that we have explored this semester -- I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective. Imagine, if you will, reading a cross-section of Western literature that includes only Gone with the Wind, the collected works of Morrison and Faulkner, and The Great Gatsby. If this was all you knew of American culture then you would probably think that we are also oppressive to women, and racists and classists to boot! As Said warned us in Orientalism, literature is more than an art, it's an industry, meaning that someone must decide what will be published, translated, and distributed. By his calculations, Middle Eastern texts that make it through translation and into the U.S. sometimes serve the purpose of preserving pre-existing stereotypes.

Another facet of Keshavarz's argument stems from the assumption that Iranians are not familiar with Western literature. Of course, she would notice the number of Western books available at the Iranian equivalent of Borders, but that does not mean that they are widely read by the general public. People in our own country are deprived of Western literature, for God's sake. Keshavarz is from the middle class, a cross-section of society that is deceiving in its name. The majority of people in most nations are not middle class, in fact, they are typically poor. So, when she postures herself as the average Jane going to public school, she is being disingenuous. In all fairness, though I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective, Persepolis takes care to present many sides of the Iranian story, including the historical fact of the religious regime. It is hard for me to take Keshavarz seriously in light of the information presented in Persepolis. Sure, women can defy authority and swim against the current of social propriety, but the fact that these standards of dress, behavior, and rights even exist legally is the overarching problem and the actual "elephant in the room" that Keshavarz refuses to acknowledge.

Persona, Tone, and Genre in Persepolis

In both volumes of her graphic novel, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi accomplishes something revolutionary by way of tone and authorial agency. The experience of reading this memoir is akin to sitting down with Satrapi herself to smoke a cigarette and enjoy a glass of tea while she flips through photo albums. The narration is that frank, that conversational, that raw. To be sure, at first, I viewed this work as a piece meant for children, a sophisticated lens through which a young audience might be able to grasp heady concepts -- revolution, violence, social stratification, Marx. As a didactic device, it is priceless. However, once Satrapi herself is no longer a child, then neither is the narrative persona. She swears, smokes, trips on drugs, and has sex in the second volume, and her drawings work as memorabilia of these acts, each frame a metaphorical snapshot of her life incarnate. What is the effect of her tone, then? What do we make of this brave feminine voice that matures before our eyes?

This breed of honesty, of unabashed explicitness, may in fact be the direct result of the chosen genre -- graphic novel. I noticed, especially in the childhood portions, a common image -- that of young Marji engaging the viewer through a direct gaze from the frame, holding one finger up in an "aha!" or "now listen, here" gesture -- that effectively allowed her to speak in direct address without risking vulgarity. She bothered not with prosaic gymnastics, but instead capitalized upon the fullest potential of her genre. If I am drawing myself, speaking directly to a reader, then why not etch into the speech bubble what I would actually say? The result of this inversion of literary nuance -- what we in the biz call "writing with a light hand," or "show, don't tell" -- is a refreshingly frank, even experiemental perspective that one doesn't often see in literary writing. To be sure, the only other graphic novel that I have studied extensively is Alan Moore's masterpiece, Watchmen, which is anything but straightforward, so please correct me if I'm wrong in my analysis of this particular genre.

From an ethical perspective, which is also a craft perspective in this case, this graphic novel calls into question the issue of a memoirist's persona. Because we are experiencing Marjane's life through the filters of her recollection and process of composition, it is not ostensibly authentic. Marjane is a character in her own memoir and is selective about which pictures from her scrapbook she is wiling to post on Flickr, if you will. We do not witness her taking a shit or having chicken pox or telling her mother that she needs Kotex. For that matter, we don't ever see her saying something that is anything other than insightful, articulate, and poignant. Because the narration is so earnest, it seems natural to take this work at face value. However, in our academic consideration of the memoir, we must remember that there is posturing involved, as well as the setting forth of an agenda. I am not saying that anything about Persepolis is false or disengenuous, quite the contrary in fact, but that when assessing the general condition of any group of people, we have to be careful of privileging certain perspectives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gender Studies, Deep Fried

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is an outstanding program because it seeks to uncover all aspects of a given culture. Tony is not afraid to experience the entire spectrum when he travels to a strange land, and his articulate, profound voice-overs provide thoughtful insight from the perspective of a visitor in a foreign land. I also happen to love learning about food. I think it's so revealing. At the beginning of the Saudi Arabia episode, Tony is candid in his thoughts regarding the treatment of women who are expected to cover themselves head-to-toe in black, remaining hidden from view while in plain sight. He is disturbed, as most Westerners tend to be, by this custom. By the end of his trip, Tony remains skeptical, but seems placated, generally responsive to the explanations provided to him by his guide. As a viewer, I am not totally satisfied.

Danya takes great care to emphasize the ways in which Saudi Arabia is "normal," inherently referring to the unmarked term "normal" that is defined by Western standards and values. She tells us that Saudi people do all the same stuff that we do in the states, watch Boston Legal and Scrubs on a flat screen TV, sit on couches, hang out in shopping malls, purchase cheap and oh-so-tasteful clothing at fine establishments such as Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. She has not eaten the street food of the Saudi working class. She lives in a very nice home in an up-scale district in Jetta. She is one of the only women in Saudi Arabia permitted to make films. What does she have to complain about, aside from sweating her lady parts off in the unrelenting desert heat, shrouded in a blanket of black?

During their meal at the Saudi version of KFC, Danya reveals her feelings on the status of women, proclaiming that Saudi culture is family-oriented and that it's really single men who are being marginalized and excluded (Which is somehow okay? Marked vs. unmarked terms become probematic here, yet again). All restaurants in Saudi Arabia have separate sections, one for families and one for single men. Men behave badly, Danya says, and need to be isolated from women and children. Similarly, female beauty is a thing to be protected, hence the abaya. Besides, things have always been this way in Saudi Arabia, so change, if it happens at all, will be slow. Danya, it seems, doesn't see any need for reform. Does this, as Diane suggested a couple of weeks ago, translate as a class issue? Would an impoverished or lower-class woman who is oppressed in other, completely universal ways, agree with Danya on this set of issues? Or, are we, as liberal-minded scholars, simply so used to questioning the status quo that we can't possibly fathom the notion that an age-old custom is valid? In class tomorrow, I'd like to talk about how Danya responds to this "elephant in the room" on the show. Are you satisfied with her explanation?

Women as Children in The Wiles of Men

In Salwa Bakr's The Wiles of Men, we find a collective of misunderstood women who are marginalized for being different, discriminated against, in some cases, to the point of complete annihilation. With the exception of "An Occasion for Happiness" which deals primarily with the theme of nationalism, particularly how it is embedded in quotidienne Egyptian life, all of these stories feature female main characters who are effectively infantilized and forced to relinquish some facet of individual identity against their will. For Bakr's women, peculiarity is the ultimate downfall, marked uniqueness an act of symbolic suicide.

In "Thirty-one Beautiful Green Trees," Kareema is ostracized for a number of social trangressions -- kissing a man forwardly and in public, failing to wear a brassiere, painting her work desk red, and making a demonstration on election day. For the final offense, she is forced into confinement and eventually into an asylum. Essentially, she is being punished for taking a stake in her own well-being, and that of others. All she desires is to propogate happiness through beauty, hence the compulsion to preserve the thirty-one trees and brighten the office decor. Because her actions are out of the ordinary and draw untoward attention, her mother scolds her, "Have you reached the stage when you'll ruin the future of your brother?" (Bakr 24). Kareema, a sensitive soul, reasons that the only way to wrest herself and her family from turmoil and shame is to remove her own tongue, a task that seems bearable when compared to the circumcision that she endured at the age of nine (Bakr 25). Though she does not succeed in this endeavor, the implications are resonant. To be unable to speak is to be thrust back into early childhood, into helplessness. The best solution, Kareema asserts, is to silence herself, for those who have no voice can do no harm.

Voicelessness is a recurring theme throughout Bakr's collection, most poignantly in "That Beautiful Undiscovered Voice" in which housewife Sayyida suddenly inherits a heavenly, melodic singing voice. The tragedy in this story is that no one in Sayyida's life will believe her, or even take time to listen to her new talent. All she seeks is validation, a nod from outside herself that will prove her worth. Instead, she is met with scorn. Importantly, a major impediment is that she has no female friends to which she can turn. Her confinement, then, becomes two-fold. Not only is she trapped inside herself, the knowledge of this secret overflowing from her consciousness, but she is also isolated in the house, the private sphere. Unlike her husband who may visit public cafes and share his thoughts and frustrations with an array of male friends, Sayyida is expected to remain content within the confines of domestcity (Bakr 65). Furthermore, the men in which she chooses to confide -- Isa the grocer, her husband, the psychiatrist -- don't even concede the decency to let her explain. She is treated like a child, like some imaginitive little girl indulging in an elaborate fantasy. The joy that Sayyida garners from the discovery of this beautiful voice is symptomatic of a deeper cultural desire to be perceived in the public sphere and taken seriously. When she flushes the medications that quell the voice at the end of the story, she effectively makes a stand against traditional gender roles (Bakr 70).

"Dotty Noona" deals explicitly with a theme that underlies much of Bakr's work -- the institution of marriage. A peculiar girl, Noona has been denied the luxury of an education, so she lives vicariously through the children in whose home she is the maid, and also by listening to the school goings on across the street. Her mistress considers Noona abnormal because of her obsession with appropriating mundane, juvenile knowledge. She takes solace in the process of learning by dropping eaves, and the simplicity of this task works to infantilize her in the eyes of her adult peers. Specifically, when her father informs her that she is to be married, she breaks down in a tantrum, horrified by the prospect of being married off and "rooted in suffering" (Bakr 48). In this case, complying with social norms would result in the worst type of punishment for Noona who is content as an inward, solitary being.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who needs an ethos?

Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul is a brilliantly crafted textile woven of a collection of narratives that come together seamlessly and with great power. This novel truly lives up to the mouth-watering expectation set up by its organization that divides the work into chapters, each named after a food, drink, or flavor. I find myself devouring it voraciously. In line with our work last week regarding Etgar Keret's collection, I would like to speak directly to the most blatantly existential chapter in Shafak's book so far. Entitled "Vanilla," this section describes the seductive, smoky, and mysterious Cafe Kundera where young Asya meets with her intellectual friends to drink, smoke, and muse on the nature of existence. The whole set-up evokes the romanticism of the American expatriates pontificating at Les Deux Magots, post-Impressionist painters guzzling Absinthe in Montmartre, the entire catalogue of vague imagery associated with the prowess of Western intellectuals and artists. The chapter is a throwback, though Asya seems blissfully unaware of the repetition. In her self-proclaimed nihilism, she attempts to obliterate all memory, though, here, she participates in one of the oldest, most decadent of Euro-American tropes.

The conversation that takes place here is as overwrought as its setting. To be sure, Shafak is completely aware of this as she writes. Says the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist (the names in this chapter are priceless!), "Boredom is the summary of our lives. Day after day we wallow in ennui" (Shafak 81). In this chapter, the characters express what Keret's suicide victims leave to the imagination. The glaring difference is that Shafak's haughty intellectuals take refuge in philosophy, nihilism to be exact, while Keret's "happy campers" choose to take their own lives. In both stories, the overwhelming sense of ennui proves corrosive. The Cartoonist continues, citing Kundera himself, "The whole idea of lightness permeates our lives in the form of meaningless emptiness. Our existence is kitsch, a beautiful lie, which helps us to defy the reality of death and mortality" (Shafak 82). The act of existing, as Kundera puts it, is simple, too simple to be exact. Or, as our colleague Diane suggests, it is a socialized behavior. Existence as compliance with social norm speaks to the idea of nihilism. Nihilists, as Shafak casts them here, are simply too apathetic to take the next step. They realize the pointlessness our Sisyphian task here on Earth, but they are unwilling to allow the boulder to roll over them, ending the monotony.

"'There is an afterlife and it's going to be worse than here,' was the general opinion in the group. 'So enjoy whatever time you have left'" (Shafak 88). Perhaps these nihilists already know what Keret's characters only discovered after committing suicide. Would this outlook have changed their decision? Who's the "bigger" nihilist, then? One who despairs over a pointless life that will surely end, or one who has such little regard for existence he terminates himself?

More wisdom from Walter Sobchak. You've seen him on my blog before. I really think there is a Big Lebowski quote for every occasion. Try one at your next party, baby shower, or board meeting.

"Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."
-Walter Sobchak

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Keret's Handbook for Success in Death

Etgar Keret's collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories is a delightful assortment of experimental vignettes that resonate deeply on a number of levels. Overtly, the pieces are blackly hilarious, sinister in the disturbing scenes we are asked to imagine, audacious in that we must suspend disbelief at all costs and put trust in twisted narrators who force us to navigate the darkness of the human psyche. When taken in kind with the novella that appears at the end of the collection, "Kneller's Happy Campers," these pieces force us to question the validity and quality of life on Earth. Keret confronts that classic and singular existential question, What's the point of all this? His unique take on this age-old query leads us to the afterlife. What is Heaven like? Hell? What actually transpires once someone takes her own life? Though clearly indebted to the tradition of magical realism, once we allow ourselves to believe in these places beyond the grave, Keret's work reveals provocative truths derivative of the basic problem of existence.

The very premise of "Kneller's Happy Campers" is beyond hilarious. Imagine the scenario. A dejected, misunderstood human being reaches the proverbial end of his rope and desires nothing more than the comfort of oblivion, freedom from the suffering that is everyday life. Where does he go once he leaves this world? A place that resembles the planet whence he came, just a little bit crappier. The concept is brilliant. Is this a punishment for suicide? A reward? The characters, once they reach this bizarre purgatory, can still eat, sleep, work, have sex. How bad could it be? Once through the gateway of death, these characters are thrust back into life, thus obliterating the very point of their self-destruction. Perhaps that, in itself, constitutes punishment.

Though Keret's prose is indeed interesting enough in its own right to be discussed more explicitly, I want to take a chance in this venue to muse upon some broader, more philosophical questions; for what is the point of literature if not to encourage the reader to ponder the big questions in life? I wonder if this special afterlife that Keret portrays is like one of Dante's levels of Hell. I am reminded of the film Fried Green Tomatoes in which Ruth insists that there is a separate God for children. Is there a separate Hell for rapists? Abusers? Murderers? Kickers of cats and dogs and children? Keret positions himself precariously in reference to religion as nearly every tradition classifies suicide as one of the worst offenses. It would make sense, then, that these most blasphemous criminals should be sent to an awful, unbearable place. Ironically, the setting in this novella doesn't actually seem too bad at all. Perhaps, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, off-ers are pardoned to some extent because Jesus himself could be considered a suicide. At least, Keret implies as much near the end of the novella.

The "Messiah King," conveniently named "J," could easily serve as a Christ figure. Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus was aware that he was to be betrayed and killed. He could have split town and avoided his own martyrdom. His death, then, registers as suicide in the same way that Lihi's does. Lihi used heroin, fully aware that it could kill her. However, she feels that she is in the wrong place because she didn't want to die. In Christian mythology, Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind; therefore, his agency in his own demise could be interepreted as suicide. Interestingly enough, this type of sacrifice recalls any suicide mission, most poignantly that of the suicide bomber who is represented in Keret's imagined landscape as the bartender at Djin. Here, Keret really strikes a blow to traditional Judeo-Christian values.

"Say," Uzi pressed on, "is it true that when you people go out on a job they promise you seventy nymphomaniac virgins in Kingdom Come? All for you, solico?" "Sure they promise," Nasser said, "and look what it got me. Lukewarm vodka." "So you're just a sucker in the end, eh, ya Nasser," Uzi gloated. "Sure thing," Nasser nodded. "And you, what did they promise you?" (Keret 106)

Both perspectives in this scene, that of an assumed Arab religious fanatic and an Israeli Jew who is suspicious of Arabs and never actually served in the IDF, support Freud's assertion that religion is, above all, a palliative measure for human beings. For centuries, people have used religion as justification for acts ranging from feeding the hungry to committing genocide against entire groups. In addition to the power religious ideology to compel action, faith and belief in an afterlife work together to ease the pain of death's inevitability. The notion of seventy willing virgins awaiting heroic Muslim males in the afterlife is absurd on its own, but when fortified with religious doctrine, it becomes viable. Uzi feels that he has conquered the moral high ground when he casts Nasser as a fool, after which, Nasser strikes back. Though we know nothing of Uzi's personal relationship to religion, we might assume that he belongs to the Jewish tradition that condemns suicide. With his powerful last words in this scene, Nasser unveils Uzi as a hypocrite, and worse, as a cowardly traitor to his own faith. Uzi committed suicide without expectation of reward. He was simply unable to cope with existence any longer. Who, then, is the is the winner of this morbid battle -- one who dies for a cause or one who runs away from life?

I am not necessarily picking a winner here. I simply delight in Keret's ability to pull the rug out from under us, for creating a text that asks us to make decisions about what sort of death is most acceptable, most glorious, most preferable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turkey -- Land of Mosaic and Mosque

Some of my favorite art is derivative in some way of Turkey. The era in which Istanbul was known as Constantinople produced some of the most stunning, provocative iconography, most notably in the form of mosaic. Below are some links to general information on Emperor Justinian and his role as patron to the arts.

The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)

Justinian I (This link discusses the superlative mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get behind me now, any way

Beaufort is an Israeli film that delves into the psyche of the IDF soldier -- his quotidienne existence, his desires, his relation (or lack there of) to the Israeli cause. Most of the young men depicted in this film, it seems, are completing their service as required of them by the state of Israel. That said, their situations are much different from the religious, Zionist oriented characters in Time of Favor. Lofty ideals, religious extremism, heroic glorification, all of this seems beside the point in this gritty examination of the mundane terror that is war. Stationed inside a moutain fortress in Lebanese territory, Beaufort Castle, the characters are mostly concerned with their proximity to discharge. They long for home. This desire somes as no shock, for who, in their right mind, feels comfortable on the battlefield? However, the coneptual reasons for the soldiers' disenchantment are more complex and speak not only to the contemporary conflict in Palestine/Israel, but also to the US presence in the Middle East.

Early in the film, we get a sense that none of the characters have a vested interest in any sort of cause. They are jaded, cynical, and unsentimental regarding their allegiance to the state of Israel. Such ennui, I woul argue, stems from their participation in a conflict that seems indefinite; the fighting has been going on for generations, and these men see no end in sight. At the beginning, while keeping watch, one soldier says to another that their children will one day occupy the same post at this very same castle when they grow up. Another chimes in with the naive notion that their children will visit Beaufort as tourists, not as occupiers. No one is convinced, least of all the viewer. In addition to the agony of not knowing how long a war may last, some of the soldiers in Beaufort lament the fact that they have no concept of a specific enemy. One young man suggests that there may be an order from higher up not to conquer. Listlessness ensues. The men want for purpose.

The parallel between such conditions and our current conflict in Iraq are evident. Weren't we supposed to be in and out like Desert Storm? Have we, too, learned to accept "at war" as our nation's natural and indefinite state? It's been so long, some probably don't even think about it. I don't wake up and think, here we are, at war another day. I have to watch TV or look at a newspaper to remember. These confused, embittered characters in Beaufort can serve as warnings, reflections of American soldiers. Do we deploy troops who know nothing of their cause? Worse, do we deploy troops equipped with no more than the knowledge available to the average American; that poor, uninformed, reactionary soul who believes we are over there fighting some conglomerate bogey man of Saddam-bin-Laden-Al Qaeda proportion? All wars are too complicated, too political and bureaucratic to be grasped in full by just anyone. It's easier, I suppose, to use fear and sensationalism to create a facile conflict that everyone can understand and jump behind.

**Image: Beaufort Castle, 2007.

The heart is in Jerusalem

Time of Favor is an Israeli film that explores the politics within a particular Zionist settlement or "Yeshiva" run by the conservative, charismatic Rabbi Meltzer. There is a certain hierarchy in place within the community as demonstrated in the relationship between two friends, Menachem and Pini. In a rivalry that recalls the classic play, Cyrano de Bergerac, both compete for the affection of Michal, the lovely daughter of the powerful Rabbi Meltzer. Though Pini is respected as the most intelligent, promising member of the Yeshiva, and favored by the rabbi himself as a match for his daughter, his friend Menachem, a brawny commander in the IDF, steals Michal's heart. The emergent feud between these men escalates until Pini, in an attempt to prove that he too possesses bravery and physical strength, attempts a suicide bombing on a mosque in Jerusalem that results in his death, sans victory. That the lives of these three young people are placed in jeopardy over the lofty idealism of Rabbi Meltzer's radical, Zionist leanings is a testament to a recurring theme that we have discussed from literature and film in this part of the world -- namely, the unwavering willingness of the older generation to sacrifice its youth in the name of an ancient and incendiary cause.

Michal, with much disdain, repeats her father's mantra to Menachem, "The land of Israel is bought with pain." She goes on to say that the more pain her father experiences and witnesses, the more worth he assigns to this mission. Throughout the film, we witness, along with members of the IDF and other residents of the Yeshiva, the rabbi's impassioned speeches in the name of the cause. "We abhor the word 'war,'" he says. "Killing is not our job." Yet, the purpose of his boisterous sermons is to instill pride and a sense of duty in his followers. He encourages them to remember, "The dead lion is more alive than the living dog." Much like the leaders of the suicide bombing operation that we viewed in Paradise Now, Rabbi Meltzer encourages his soldiers and students with great fervor from within a fortress built of words and shiny ideas. He succeeds his father who waxed poetic on the notion of "The Third Temple." In a conflict as lengthy and convoluted as that between Palestine and Israel has become, ideology as high-minded as Rabbi Meltzer's seems inevitable. How else can generation after defeated generation justify the hopeless situation which they offer their children as inheritance? It is the young and strong who must sacrifice their lives while their superiors in religion and politics make the decisions. Subtly, Time of Favor makes light of this injustice. Near the end of the film, after Pini's death in his failed suicide bombing attempt, Rabbi Meltzer is escorted away from the scene. He protests, insisting that his presence is necessary as the soldiers' spiritual leader. Ultimately, however, words and ideas are of no use. What's done is done, and the defeated rabbi must step aside so that others may clean up the mess left behind by the mis-execution of his very vision.

**Image: An artist's depiction of the sacred Third Temple.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Woman's Lament

"As for the rest of the world, it sees women's stories as effusive writings, not novels. In other words, they are seen as memoirs, confessions, scraps, a woman's way of unburdening herself and telling the world: This is all I've got; this is my pain; this is who I am, a victim" (Khalifeh 156).

The Image, the Icon, and the Covenant by Sahar Khalifeh unfolds from the first person perspective of Ibrahim, a Palestinian, Muslim writer. Consequently, this novel is as much about the creation of art itself as it is about the political, social, and cultural setting. Authorship implies a position of power, authority over information, ideas, and, ultimately, over the inner lives of the audience reading your work. For Ibrahim, writing is an act of self-affirmation, an endeavor that ebbs and flows in corresponadance with his general vitatlity. Once stricken lovesick, his artistic impetus dwindles. Furthermore, once devastated by the disappearance of his true love, he loses all creative drive and faith in humanity. "I am not sure anymore if I believe in people...I did not know if we were the soul, and if not, who was the soul?" (Khalifeh 96). Ibrahim settles for life as an entrepreneur, capitalizing on U.S. demands in the Middle East. Is there a profession greater removed from artistic ambition? He resigns himself to a life of misery, wallowing in old age and malcontent. Finally, after years of unsuccessful romances, Ibrahim decides to re-embark on his lifelong search for his lost love, Marian.

What he finds of Marian comes as a shock. Rummaging around in an attic containing remnants of her life, he stumbles upon her writings. Are these pages part of a novel? A memoir? He is deeply disturbed that she never revealed to him her writerly alter-ego. He is puzzled by the fact that this connection between them was never uncovered, that this additional aspect of their relationship never came to fruition. Once recovered from the initial surprise, Ibrahim, it seems turns bitter and egomaniacal. "...wasn't she mesmerized by my writing?" he asks (Khalifeh156). His reaction is both self-centered and misogynistic. He implies that it should have been enough for Marian to experience a writer's life vicariously through him. He is infuriated by the fact that she kept this aspect of her person concealed. As promised by the title of the first section, Marian was nothing more than an image to him. He, as he admits repeatedly near the beginning of the novel, created in his mind the Marian that he wanted to love, a facade of a human that fulfilled his every desire. That she too is an artist undermines Ibrahim's conception while also encroaching upon his writerly space in the universe.

Why didn't Marian reveal to Ibrahim her secret writerly ambitions? I wonder if she wanted to seem non-threatening to Ibrahim to aid in the process of seduction. Her behavior during their brief love affair -- her feigned weakness, the red dress, the perfect performance of the feminine ideal -- demonstrates that she knew exactly what Ibrahim desired of her. She had never planned to marry him or engage in any type of conventional relationship. Ibrahim, in the end, is betrayed, and all of his anger and resentment becomes clear when he uncovers Marian's writings. He is unable to accept the fact of a woman's creativity. Furthermore, the subtext of this scene reveals that he may even find her particular writings to be dangerously subversive.

Marian is responding to a tradition of subdued women -- quiet mothers and obedient housekeepers. Ibrahim characterizes women's literature as victim's literature. The plight, it seems, is the curse of Eve; the burden: motherhood. Ibrahim does not sympathize, for men can only consider birth a vehicle for male heirs. Women lament their existence because they are doomed to do so, and the fact that Ibrahim cannot fathom a woman's literature that expresses something other than pain and self-pity is a testament to his self-centeredness and bigotry. He cannot believe that Marian, a woman who has borne children, left a husband, and seduced a priest, would have anything to express aside from regret. To Ibrahim, if he is too miserable to create, then everyone in this world should share in his grief.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Acts of Faith in Paradise Now

Newman and Falah's scholarly article outlining the Palestinian-Israeli conflict informs intellectually the emotionally charged film Paradise Now. The explication of terms including top-down v. bottom-up organization, autonomy v. self-determination, and nation-state v. nation is vital to our conversation on this topic since we want to be as precise and sophisticated as possible. In this article, we are given the conceptual underpinning for the sentiments expressed in the film, particularly those demonstrated by Said. Near the end of the film, he says that he feels trapped as a Palestinian who is hardly ever authorized to leave the West Bank. In addition, he must contend with the legacy of his father who was executed as a collaborator. In essence, he feels that he must pay penance for his father's betrayal of the Palestinian nation. This burden weighs heavy and oppressive on him, emphaizing the extent of his entrapment. Furthermore, he feels rendered powerless in his position as victim, emphasizing that Israel, as the "occupier" defies victimization. This prospect runs deep among the men comprising the resistence. Says Jamal, "Death is better than inferiority." He puts faith in the power of the individual to enact change.

Due to its topic, suicide bombing, this film raises the question; is the ultimate sacrifice possible without faith in a higher power? To be sure, I am not speaking about Islam in particular here, for there are fundamentalists in all religions. Both Said and Khaled feel that they are pleasing their god through their actions. Jamal continually reminds them of the glory awaiting them in heaven, in addition to the status as heroes that they will assume posthumously. Is the concept of a reward beyond this life the driving force behind this sort of sacrifice? Despite their devout faith, when the time comes for Khaled and Said to carry out their mission, they begin to ask a series of unanswerable questions directed at no one in particular. Are you sure God will be pleased? Are you sure the angels will take us away immediately? Are you sure we will be remembered? The sense of desperation that pevades this moment in the film is overwhleming. It is at once disturbing and deeply moving that there are people in this world willing to die for a given cause. What's more, the notion of religious fervor passionate enough to incite the ultimate sacrifice is both beautiful and incredibly frightening.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Remembering Nuha Al-Radi

By the end of her brilliant, provocative diary chronicling both US invasions in Iraq, Nuha Al-Radi's prose takes on a new tone. Her entries become much more topical, political, taking on a sense of urgency that her previous journaling on quotidienne life did not possess. Al-Radi has become a nomad, an expatriate wandering the globe exhibiting her visual and literary arts. At once, she ponders her place in the world, with the help of a lecture given by Edward Said, as an aging artist. The morbidity of this thought is overwhelming for any being invested in the creation of art. As a writer, I find it unbearable that my time on this earth is limited, that my perspective will dwell only within this small cubicle of history that I am destined to inhabit. I feel reflective in this way after having learned that Al-Radi is no longer with us. She succombed to leukemia in 2004, a self-fulfilling prophecy that she predicted throughout her writing on the war. Though I have been intimate with her for only these past few weeks through her diary, I feel deeply the space she leaves behind.

As the author became more aware of her own mortality, she invigorated her prose. The end of the diary offers a wealth of wisdom on the general horrors of war augmented by a studious attention to world affairs. She also becomes more overtly angry with the nation of Israel. I find myself equally livid. It is unfathomable to me that we share this earth with human beings who say things like, "The 'missiles will destroy everything that makes life in Baghdad liveable...We want them to quit; we want them not to fight...You take the city down...You have the simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima -- not taking days or weeks, but minutes'"(407). Thus spoke Harlan Ullman in regards to the technique of "shock and awe" employed in our current conflict. The overt comparison to Hiroshima is what disturbs me most deeply. Imagine a leader proposing some other grand concept and prefacing it with, "rather like the Jewish Holocaust" or "rather like the Salem Witch Trials." Perhaps Al-Radi is right when she claims that no one has learned anything from history.

Hiroshima in mind, I feel that many, myself included, are ignorant to the environmental effects of the bombs dropped on Iraq during the two US invasions. Al-Radi speaks often of depleted uranium, cancer on the rise, innumerable children born with defects. Her own demise came at the hand of these contaminants left behind, the detritus of war. What have we gained from such destruction? What do we, as a nation, have to show for our arrogant escapades in the Middle East? Rubble. Murdered civilians. Entire landscapes, water sources poisoned. A slew of young American boys crippled and disfigured. I mourn for our brave and determined troops abroad. I mourn for the fate of our nation caught in deceit.

**Image excerpted from an artwork by Al-Radi.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How did we let this happen?

Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War provides insight on the wealth of details that went into constructing the public artifice necessary to go to war with Iraq. Though I was aware, to an extent, of the problematic intelligence and virtual fabrication that went into the Bush administration's justification for war, it was interesting to hear from the experts who were directly involved in government organizations associated with intelligence.

This video brought up a few questions and issues regarding the conflict in Iraq that I had not thought about in great detail before. Asks one of the experts, Does accumulation of intelligence justify declaration of war? The U.S., it seems, has set the example for this sort of preemptive maneuver, a decision very much frowned upon in the world theatre. Later in the video, we see how skewed this intelligence actually was, that one of the documents claiming that Iraq purchased enriched uranium (yellow cake) from Niger was a forgery. In fact, CIA analysts were completely embarrassed by the information being presented and the ways in which it was gathered and corroborated.

Secondly, it is frightening to think about the many ways in which the Bush administration attempted to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes in order to justify their actions. For example, many Americans believed and still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly linked to the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Interestingly enough, bin Laden and Saddam were arch enemies, bin Laden having called Saddam an "infidel" in anger against him for supporting a secular state. These two figures couldn't be further apart in terms of ideology, yet they occupy common space in the minds of many Americans.

This video also asserts that the war in Iraq was simply a diversion meant to distract from unfinished business in Afghanistan. That this strategy was indeed effective in tricking most Americans proves the point that, to the Western mind, an Arab is an Arab no matter where he comes from, and he's probably a terrorist and a Muslim fundamentalist. Was our testosterone laden president simply "blowing off steam" to quote Rush Limbaugh? Hopefully in the future our leaders find tools other than military force in their tool boxes. And, to answer the question posed at the end of the documentary, the true patriot is a citizen or leader who is not afraid to admit when he is wrong, a person who has the strength of character to shelve his pride and do what is right for the greater good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Art and Culture in the Baghdad Diaries

Nuha Al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile is a personal, yet straightforward account of an upper class woman artist's experience during the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, or the Gulf War. I am particularly struck by the structure of this narrative, in terms of tone and prose style. The language is pared down and elegant, demonstrating the artistic capacity of the journal entry as a genre. While reading, I notice that Al-Radi takes full advantage her genre's conventions, utilizing short sentence structures that are often without subject -- the implied subject being "I". That removal of the "I" is quite telling in that the author herself often feels dehumanized, a condition reflected in the robotic nature of some of her entries. This dismissal of the "I" also works to make the prose flow more easily; and, of course, communicates a sense of urgency to the reader. The style is very impressive. As a writer of fiction who tends to be long-winded, I admire this author's ability to write with beautiful simplicity.

Though I have many notes on the text so far, having read to the halfway point, there are two items (for length's sake) that I would like to bring up in this post that I will identify first using quotes from the text. Both have to do with specific cultural dilemmas associated with the Middle East.

1) "Ma says she feels like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind...except we are far from starving" (52-53).
It is important, especially when reading a piece of creative nonfiction, to understand the speaker's point of view, her general station in life and and attitude toward her material. At this point in the narrative, it becomes abundantly clear that our author is of the upper-middle/upper class in Baghdad. She continually makes comparisons that involve high brow knowledge (like her reference to art critic Arthur Danto later on) or, in the least, a familiarity with Western culture. This reference to Gone With The Wind is quite loaded. Are the women in this story aware that they were quite spoiled before the war? Do they, like dear Scarlett, sense the ending of an era? Of course, this reference does provide comic relief, however, I find myself wondering about the plight of those who had next to nothing before the war began. What type of person is most adaptable in a wartime scenario? Are we all simply reduced to our basic humanity?

2)"Archaeological sites have also been hit..." (64)
At this point in the text, Al-Radi, an artist herself, relates a painful lament for the works of art that have themselves become casualties of war. We don't often think about the repositories of art that are destroyed in times of war. I am reminded of the devastating damage done to the museums in Baghdad as the result of our current conflict in Iraq. Looting, black market sales, and general destruction befell some extremely important works of art under our watch as occupiers of that country. One legacy of colonialism is the diaspora of artworks, estranged from their countries of origin. Many of the most important works of art from Persia, Sumeria, Assyria, and Egypt rest in European or American museums. This cultural robbery speaks directly to the doctrine of Orientalism, that we do not trust this strange "other" to take care of artworks that are rightfully his. Consequently, when we bomb these distant places, we might believe that any works of major importance -- those works that the West has already confiscated, artifacts that contribute to our homogenizing narrative associated with these cultures -- will be safe because we had the foresight to remove them years ago.

Of course, there is much more to talk about in this fascinating diary. I look forward to finishing the book and sharing ideas with all of you in class.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Categorical Problem

I found the introduction of Magda M. Al-Nowaihi's article "The 'Middle East'? Or.../Arabic Literature and the Postcolonial Predicament" to be particularly informative. Here, the author addresses the problem of the academy -- the generator of our most trusted knowledge -- and its culpability in terms of inclusiveness. Though the task of being always politically correct can be exhausting and, at times, disingenuous, I would think that we should expect our institutions of higher learning to set the ultimate example of tact. The issue of Middle Eastern Studies departments, as Al-Nowaihi mentions, exposes the depth to which that area of the world and its culture has been disenfranchised. The term "Middle East" itself is a colonial appellation not useful to those who actually reside in the region, unless they are speaking to a member of the Western hegemony. Furthermore, the professors within such departments are effectively "ghettoized," to borrow Al-Nowaihi's term, as their individual specialties may or may not overlap with those of their departmental colleagues. This is one example among many of how bureaucratic university administrations foster professional tensions through attempted logical organization.

Those professors working in Middle Eastern studies, it seems, have their work cut out for them without the additional problem of being lumped together beneath less than adequate nomenclature. As the aforementioned article asserts, those working with literature from the Middle East must deal with the politics of translation, a process that requires input from both creating and receiving ends of the exchange. Some works sent westward could be privileged because of its home country's, often elitist, canon. Furthermore, the decision to translate tends to privilege works that will reinforce preexisting American stereotypes. An example of the ways in which translated works are perpetually marked by their "otherness" can be found in the novel by Salwa Bakr mentioned in the article. Beneath the title, The Golden Chariot, reads the subtitle, "A Modern Arabic Novel." Let us not allow the reader to embark on reading this book without bringing with her all of the mental and emotional baggage that she associates with the term "Arabic." I have a hard time believing that we would attach such a subtitle to a book coming from any other part of the world.

I have been exploring Bakr's work for the past couple of weeks, particularly her collection of short stories entitled, The Wiles of Men. In this collection, she directly addresses this notion of the Other through the perspectives of her female protagonists. In many cases, the women inhabiting her stories are labeled by their friends, relatives, and neighbors as mentally ill. Most of the time, these women simply refuse to conform to the expected norms required of them by a patriarchal society. Attaching the terms "crazy" or "dotty" or "not normal" to these women allows outsiders to "other" them. This process absolves the labeler of the guilt he or she might experience when mistreating another human being. Categorizing anything helps us to better understand it. Middle Eastern Studies. A Modern Arabic Novel. An Insane Woman. Categorization also causes us to employ conventions specific to that category when internalizing whatever lies within it. Considering the connotations with which many Westerners associate the Middle East, it seems that, for the time being, existing within that category inheres particular handicaps.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Intolerance & Technology

The short history of Palestine as presented in this YouTube clip echoes the main thesis of our assigned video from last week, Reel Bad Arabs, namely that it is quite easy to accept unalienable truths without being critical of their origins or particular nuances. To be clear, last week we talked about how many of us failed to notice how deplorably Arab characters in film are often portrayed. Blacks, Jews, Native Americans, women -- these groups are on our radar. We have been taught to be alert and critical when considering their representation. Arab peoples, however, we do not treat with the same sensitivity. That said, the same sort of ignorance applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I had never even considered Palestinian rights in terms of this issue before studying the conflict in more depth in a World Literature course during my undergraduate work. In American media and general consciousness, it is implied that we are on the side of the Jew. Is this a way for us, in the West, to absolve ourselves of guilt related to the Holocaust? Are we afraid that we might appear anti-Semitic if we show sympathy for the "other side"? What of anti-Arab sentiment, then? Why is that more acceptable, more politically correct?

What goes without saying is that the above questions are rhetorical. Once given the resources to examine the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a critical, intellectual eye, the issue is no longer so cut and dry. Any rational human being would come to the conclusion that the Arabs, the classic "villains" as we have cast them, have been wronged on the European watch. Nothing earth-shattering here. We watch the YouTube video. We feel the record, in our own intellectually curious minds, has been set straight. However, below the video in the comment thread, we encounter the feedback of your everyday YouTube user...and it is frightening.

The comments begin in a way that you might expect -- a few people seem enlightened and appreciate the new knowledge that they have gained from this clip. Most of the comments claiming that the information presented in the video is false or biased are inflammatory and emotional. People don't like change, and it's hard to consider a new viewpoint on an issue that is still relatively "hot button." To get to the point, more disheartening than the typical anti-Arab sentiment (which was, don't get me wrong, infuriating) was the anti-Semitism that came out in some of the comments. This one was my favorite:

"look dude...lighten up...rape happens, i do it, you do it, everyone does it, so what if a few jews died? means less risk of money being stolen from us right? dont get me wrong...jews are good people. but hitler did us all a favour"

Hopefully, this guy was on something when he wrote this. In a broad sense, what disturbs me so deeply about this post is that it demonstrates how even socially unacceptable prejudices, like anti-Semitism, still exist quite prominently. To be perfectly clear, I am speaking to the fact that, as students in America, we spend countless history lessons lamenting the plight of the original Americans, the black slave, the Jew. Each of us is taught that prejudice is wrong. If there are people on the internet willing to expose themselves as racists, as anti-Semites, at this juncture in history, then how long will it take us as a culture to come to terms with the story of the Middle East, whose victims suffer just as acutely as those with which we already sympathize?

To conclude, my experience of reading the posts associated with the video begs the question, does open dialogue like that facilitated by informal spaces such as threaded discussion provide too much space for uncritical, inflammatory commentary? Shouldn't technology bring us, as a global community, closer to understanding one another? I get nervous about people encouranging one another in the open range of internet discussion. The fact that such offensive statements can and do exist unchecked on the web makes me sad.

**A note on the photo: I included this image of Walter from The Big Lebowski because he did not tolerate anti-Semitism. Walter didn't hate anyone...except Nihilists. Okay, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but what's the harm in lightening up this heavy blog a bit? Here's to you, Walter.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Uncovering Injustice in Popular Film

Continuing in the same vein as the post below regarding Said, the short film summarizing the book Reel Bad Arabs challenged me to realize, for the first time, that stereotypes of Arabs, in American culture especially, go unnoticed and un-indicted. I never before stopped to think about the staggering extent to which contemporary media inundates the general public with negative portrayals of Arabs. As mentioned in the film, we are always critical of the ways black people, women, and Jews are represented, so why do Arabs get the cold shoulder?

I can't fully express how totally embarrassed I felt, since I consider myself a sensitive and intlligent person, that I had never noticed how unabashedly racist the Disney version of Aladdin is. Granted, it has been at least five years since I have watched the film, but still, there is no excuse. This brings me to an ancillary idea that I have been considering since viewing the film earlier today. To what extent are our cultural prejudices shaped by the media we encounter as young children? I have always loved the animated films produced by Disney. Can I blame the fact that I watched Aladdin dozens of times as a child for my current obliviousness to the ubiquitous Arabic villain in film today? As an adult, to my credit, when I view Disney films that I haven't seen since childhood, I am usually quick to pick up any problematic imagery and dialogue therein (Pocahontas was a particularly painful viewing...). However, I know that I have watched Father of the Bride II in the last year and never given a second thought to the stereotype advanced by Eugene Levy's character. Perhaps, and this is wishful thinking, because I have grown up without considering racial prejudice as a personal option, what I above referred to as oblivion is actually a form of innocuous carelessness. Regardless, in the future I will view films with a more critical eye, especially when Arab characters are represented.

To conclude, I would like to draw attention to what I felt to be the most unsettling portion of the film -- the archival footage of newcasts directly after the Oklahoma City bombing. I felt physically ill when I heard one of the reporters say of the style of bombing, "It has Middle East written all over it." It is unfortunate that, in the minds of so many, images of terror and destruction are the first to materialize in association with the mention of "Middle East." This film elucidates quite powerfully the ways in which all consumers of mass media are unconsciously encouraged to fear and despise the Arab.

The Dialectic of Information and Control

I am at once delighted and startled by the fact that, despite its age, Edward Said's Orientalism is still applicable to contemporary studies of literature and culture. The longevity and grandeur of this text amazes me, while I am simultaneously deeply disturbed by its contemporary relevance. How is it that so many of the misunderstandings regarding the Eastern world, or Orient, that Said enumerates still dominate the popular imagination? Orientalism is a strange doctrine in that it promotes the gathering of vast amounts of knowledge for the express purpose of shaping foreign cultures into bite-sized, digestible pieces for the Western consumer. Said asserts, "...knowledge of a subject race or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control" (36). This notion illuminates our current situation in Iraq and the typically "American" way of asserting dominance. When dealing with anything new, I would argue, the first step to success is admitting that you know nothing about said item. The U.S., especially during the previous president's administration, has no concept of humility. God forbid we admit that we might have something to learn. Arrogance, delusions of infallibility, and a sense of entitlement characterize the American image as a world power, qualities which sunk us face first into a quagmire of misunderstanding that prevents any real progress in our current conflict. Because U.S. officials in charge of intelligence assume that we understand the Arab world, they feel comfortable assuming that we can also control it.

Said reprises this idea near the end of his main argument, reminding us that while other branches of "area study" underwent revision by the 1970s, Arabist and Islamist ideology remained unaltered (301). Furthermore, burgeoning intellectuals in the Arab world aspired to study with Western Orientalists, leading to what Said identifies as "the modern Orient...participat[ing] in its own Orientalizing" (325). Does this still occur in contemporary academia? It is indeed clear that, as a whole, the Arab world has been unable to wrest itself from the bonds of the very stereotypes discussed throughout Said's book. The same fear and ignorance regarding that region and culture persists. It is a staggering shock to me that, despite the fact that Said's text has existed for three decades, contemporary academia has allowed this disservice to proceed. It will, indeed, be the charge of our course in post-colonial lit to help right this wrong to the best of our humble ability.

Friday, September 11, 2009

One half of the people who have ever lived on this earth died of malaria.

What a wild statistic. This is me doing a test run on the blogging.