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.