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Dear Ducks,

For the past several months, I’ve given great thought to Son of a Duck, and for the time being, I feel that it is time to place the venerable quack into retirement. Writing as SOAD in America doesn’t feel quite right — and I will leave it up to Fate to determine whether or not I will resurrect it once I hit the Middle East once more. I have a feeling I will. Ducks are hardy things, after all.

But I mentioned a new beginning, didn’t I?

Bothered by fan messages (never!) and after looking with serious envy at the wonderful work of the Food Jihadist (masha’Allah!), I’ve decided to make a move, a renovation, and take on a new name.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Occidental Orientalist. Same friendly source, but with a new name, “new look.”

The blogging continues on the other side of the Atlantic, under new auspices, many of the same topics. Please renew your subscriptions there!

Until that day when this duck sets sail to parts unknown once more, I remain, quite fondly (and gratefully),

Yours,

Son of a Duck

 

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When eight o’clock rolls around in the evening, the Walrus King holds court. After dinner and the 3asha prayer, the men are released from their families to descend on the spit-and-sawdust coffeeshops across the street. Clouds of molasses-soaked tobacco smoke billow up, and the clatter of backgammon counters and dominoes rattle through the street. And there sits Mahmoud, taking in the air on his broken cafe chair, walrus-moustachioed and big-bellied in his gray shirt, sipping quarts of Turkish coffee one chipped demitasse at a time.

Each night, Walid, the kebab chef of The Basha on the corner opposite his shop, sends a dinner of kofta sandwiches and a vinegar-dressed salad to him on a battered tin platter, and the King dines on a tiny square stool that is both desk and checkout counter to his little grocery. The cafes down the street — with their retired men in long, dirty galabiyyas and immaculate white turbans — send their waiters to him for smaller notes, and Ali, whose smile is sugar-rotted, makes a pass at the shop’s corner every hour or so to check if Mahmoud’s cup is full or empty. Little boys from the surrounding neighborhood run to him when they pick up a twenty-five piaster note, eager for a paper-wrapped honey sweet or a little gold-wrapped chocolate biscuit.

He is joined every night by a number of others who, at one time or another, shout across the street for Ali to bring another chair. They loiter in front of the shop like street punks: standing, shuffling their feet, staring at nothing in particular, smoking cigarettes — Petrus, the retired electrician; Hussein, the bald, jean-jacketed oil engineer; Abu Hamid, who always reminding me his son works at a CVS in Pennsylvania and that I should visit him when I went back to the US; and Hamada, who taught sociology at the College of Arts, but has since consigned himself to swearing and hollering after girls about a fourth his age. To me they are the “bashawat” — the Pashas — and they had their hands on the crossroad-pulse of Sporting al-Kobra. They could tell you who was fighting with who, which girl was in love with which boy, what what’s-his-face’s son was up to these days, what looked suspicious — and they could spot in a moment if you were drunk — because for some reason or another, although they all prayed together at the tiny mosque a few doors down, they all had a youthful familiarity with Sheikh Ali’s bar downtown. And in the center of all the bustle and laughter and swearing and cigarette smoke was Mahmoud the Walrus King, who smiled quietly under his bristle-brush mustache and asked you if you were eating enough and made suggestions of what to try your hand at cooking. He was a perpetual friend, but his mind was never far from food.

*                          *                            *

I’ve probably written more about Mahmoud Selim than any other person in Egypt — if not on this blog, than as a general rule. A swarthy, salt-and-peppered haired walrus of a man, he waddles around his Teba Street ba2aal with all the imperialism of a benign dictator of a small country. And that country is a little corner grocery no bigger than my bedroom, stocked with cans and dry goods and eggs and bottles of sharabat (a very, very, baladi syrup of rose and strawberry that you mix with water and ice and — sometimes — milk for toasts at weddings). In fact, I’ve a theory that, like Lee Chong’s famous grocery on Cannery Row, everything can be had in Mahmoud’s little shop.

This past Sunday, Mahmoud suffered what has been described to me as a stroke: apparently, one of the boys at Fifo’s Instruments across the street were shouting after him, and when he didn’t respond, they went across the street to see why he was upset with them; it turns out he was unconscious. Most people on the street assumed that he was napping in his chair as he was wont to do.

Today, I visited him at the College of Medicine’s Hospital in Azarita and he is alive, but still far from well; he is unable to move his right side and cannot speak.

Keep him in your prayers, readers. Pray for the King of Teba Street.

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Ash Wednesday

Nothing much to report in recent days; I’ve been a bit of an old man for the past week and have holed myself up in my tower and tried to write. At the very least I’ve ended up grading papers, though I’m sure, ladies and gentlemen, you’re quite bored with hearing about that.

Teaching for the past few days has proved pretty challenging; despite the thrill of teaching a much larger group, I confess I miss last month, when I was teaching my six (very studious, attentive) students and could discuss things better at length. To that effect, a few have actually inquired about private lessons, which I would actually love to do for once (such things often end disastrously, but these really are wonderful girls).

I’ve turned up the volume on my headphones to drown out the maghreb.

The weather has been unusually mild, and these days I find myself setting up the day’s camp in shirt sleeves on the balcony to feel the warm air while working. I’ve developed that steady rhythm of grading papers and writing and reading, though I confess my French lessons with Imogen have been put on standby as a result.

Lent begins today. I had to explain the idea of “fasting and abstinence” to a pretty much all-Muslims crowd yesterday; when you break down the basics of it, most roll their eyes and declare victoriously, “That’s not fasting! That’s so easy!” (For those of you that are not Catholic, “fasting” means a reduction of one’s intake to one full meal and a “collation,” or meal equal to less than half a full meal, and no food in between meals. Drink, however, is permitted in moderation. Abstinence refers to the absence of meat from one’s diet on Fridays and Ash Wednesday). Thinking about it, however, it’s actually a little bit more difficult, I think: a Muslim fast doesn’t continue through the night — it’s all good after sunset. For Catholics, there is no time constraint — it’s actual quantity — and the dictates of the fast are usually prearranged with one’s confessor.

Hm.

Try explaining that to a class of 14 Muslims.

And 1 Copt. Copts are hardcore fasters, with more than 200 fast days on their liturgical calendar. The fact that Catholics only fast for Lent is laughable to them, and probably one of the things that makes the more strenuous Orthodox call Catholics “schismatics.”

I have succeeded in saying very little today. I leave you with one of my favorite passages from Eliot.

Please read aloud:

From “Ash Wednesday,” pt. 1

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

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Last night, Ahmed and I arrived late at Gareen Balaza (Green Plaza) to see Avatar. It was Friday night, and the place was absolutely packed. I mean, whoa. Crazy, crazy people. The front doors of the movie theater looked like a drain clogged with coffee grounds. Avatar, incidentally, has been here for weeks, and apparently the time hasn’t done anything to calm anyone down about it.

Needless to say, we didn’t get seats (Egyptian films have “reservations” bought at the front of the cinema, to which an usher escorts you once inside the theater), but decided to stick around for the 10 PM showing (the Green Plaza Mall is wicked deep in Smouha and a pain in the ass to get out to). We walked around, headed over the bridge across the Mahmoudiyya Canal, and found an ahwa at the foot of some rather ominous looking Soviet-esque buildings that reminded me too much of ‘umarat al-zabaat.

We talked for hours. I mean, hours. It was pretty awesome, and though the whole thing was a painful reminder of how my Arabic needs to stretch a little bit more while I’m here. I’ve been so caught up in the “teaching English” mentality that I’ve pretty much forgotten to use my Arabic sometimes.

Thank God for Ahmed, then.

And whoa, the things you talk about: the main topic on the table was cultural difference — which is always fun — but we touched on sex, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, losing one’s virginity, first kisses, the word “slut,” the and the philosophy of live and let live. Refreshing, to be quite frank. I really want to write it all down, but I was just so

We met Kareem (one of Ahmed’s friends) for the movie and got in the theater about five minutes after the start of the film. It was hilarious to look across the theater and see a packed cinema with every single person wearing white, cardboard glasses, but man oh man, what a film.

Much has already been said about Avatar, so I will confine my remarks to a few: the plot was shit. So was most of the dialogue. And that whole “video narrative” thing that the Marine does is a cheap excuse for a voiceover, which (thanks to Melissa) I’ve begun to detest as a cinematic device (that doesn’t sound pretentious). But I have never walked out of a film and looked around in confusion at the outside world. The movie is just an experience, and it really carries you away; I don’t really think I’m going to look at fantasy films in quite the same way, unless they do that. Not just the 3D thing; make me believe that the aliens are actually legitimately real. Crazy stuff.

We ended the evening on Port Said Street (how I love that little avenue!) in Camp Shezar, where we found this hole-in-the-wall that Ahmed knew sold fantastic sandwiches: these finger-thing sandwiches of shrimp and onions and sausages with a kind of spicy, creamy cheese I’ve never tried before. Holy mackeral, talk about hitting the spot.

Before I end, as the title promises, some literary follow-up, for which I redirect you to an article by The Daily Beast:

John Mayer’s Terrible Week, by Rob Tannenbaum.

In brief, JMay decided to toss out the N-word (something that, incidentally, I hear a lot here) during one of his interview with Playboy. His remarks throughout have provided Internet fodder for the past week, bloggers and New Media-types alike, though not without taking the remarks completely out of context. If you don’t mind a girlie-picture sidebar, you can read the interview transcription here, which I think is actually pretty fantastic, and you can decide for yourself.

What does this have to do with yesterday’s post?

Here is Tannenbaum’s relevant point:

Milan Kundera, who cherished novels as paradoxes of instability in a finite world, in 1988 cited “Rewriting as the spirit of the times.” Can we alter that now to “Retweeting as the spirit of the times”? The Internet has loosened the definition of writing, and now the online world is a limitless, unstable fiction. Per Kundera, tweets and blogs translate every link, adding ideology in the guise of summation. The reaction to Mayer contains many truths about race and celebrity, though nothing that fits in 140 characters. The Web is a series of filters, many of which narrow a story until it’s a negligible number of bytes.

For those of you with an acute sense of irony, you will note that I am doing precisely that by copy-and-pasting a section on my blog; the democratization of the written word — the availability of it to everyone, instantaneously — hands the Word over to people to be judged, changed, altered, and fitted to a different agenda at each turn. Imagine if Playboy were only still a magazine subscribed to by older, white men — one kept hidden under mattresses in college and in the back shelves of college; would this have done just as much damage to Mayer as it’s done in this week? Or would it simply have taken longer?

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I don’t really get angry. I get irritated, I get peeved. But anger — no. It’s just not my style. I pride myself on my sense of patience. My endurance of uncomfortable situation. My grace, if you will. This is not bragging, this is fact. I fail, naturally, on occasion, but Hemingway’s “grace under pressure” is a condition I’ve aspired to since reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time senior year of high school.

Alas, the past evening has tested and tried and broken that resolve, if ever briefly.

One never really knows how dependent one is on the Internet (capital I) until it goes. Ours has been patchy for the past week, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s been patchy at night, usually when I’m trying to call Melissa back home or discuss something with my bank or mutual funds or the loan collection agency that’s been sending me e-mails for the past month. It’s usually something important. And then it cuts. And gets back on. And cuts. And no matter how many times I call the guy, there is always something. A list of the most recent excuses:

– The elevator in the building the router is in isn’t working.

– It’s the weather.

– Someone has stolen your wireless. (By this, he literally meant that someone had hacked into our account, stolen our IP addresses, and booted us out. Pal-ease.)

– There are really bad winds today.

– Unplug the router and reconnect it (this is his answer for everything. If I tell him I’ve done this thirty-five times already, he insists that the 36th time will do it.

To be honest, I heard all of these excuses (in succession) last night, until said Muhammad said, “It’s working! I see it here! The problem is with your old computer, Michael.”

Response: None of us has Internet, Muhammad. (Translation: don’t blame my f-ing computer, bitch.)

I have a problem.

Despite my electronic impotence in the matter, I think I stared at my screen for a solid hour and fiddled with the router trying (in vain) to fix things. I watched an old episode of NCIS, looked over an old journal, set up the translation of a quatrain, and read an H.P. Lovecraft Story (I short one, I confess: “The History of the Necronomicon”). Still nothing. I stared for hours, and when Melissa called my cell phone and asked me what was up, I continued my distracted fiddling.

I woke up this morning and more of the same.

I don’t exist until I hit GoogleReader. It’s pretty terrible. It’s my window to the world, and ever since I hooked my regular sites up to it, I’ve been reading more and more online. Within a month I’ve become an information addict, and keeping a blog doesn’t help.

Seriously.

I used to think that bloggers were pretty arrogant for assuming that they have a particular insight into the way the world works. After all, who the hell am I? Mike Mewshaw imparted some interesting wisdom on to me once upon a time: if you don’t write it, who will? How many people are in your position, after all? Most people are pretty ordinary and the only way they’re going to “experience” anything is through writing. Isn’t that what you’ve done? Write for yourself. That’s what that means.

Hm.

On the surface, that seems pretty arrogant, I suppose, but it’s not to be dismissed. Sure, people can access the information without you — after all, this isn’t Iran, and you’re not coordinating protest movements through the streets of Tehran via Twitter — but for many people, you are their own window on the world. You’re positioned in a way that most people in your own community are not.

I get the impression that Ibn Battuta would have used Twitter and kept the Rihla in blog-form if he had the resources. Isn’t it interesting to make the parallel?

The hardest thing about blogging, I think, is writing about it. You can blog, sure, that’s no problem. But media is changing, the way people interact is changing. Photography changed the way that artists looked at the world; it no longer was about creating a realistic impression, art was no longer about accurately reflecting the world. It was about the artist’s perception, the act of creation. In the same way, with the Internet, with so much accessible to the world, the way we write, the way we view literature has to change. No longer is literature literature for the educated few, but for the masses. Books can be accessed in an instant. In my opinion, books, literature, novels, whatever, have two distinct paths that they can go down (shut up, Michael):

1. “Democratization”: This is the route that e-Books seem to be leading us to. Cell phones with books. A book at all time. You carry around all your photos on your iPhone, why not your favorite poetry, your favorite book? Think about what happened to music when you no longer needed CDs: it became cheap. I think about high school when I used to buy one CD: that would last me months. I would listen to each song and memorize practically everything before buying another CD — CDs were expensive, and I was on a limited budget. Nowadays, I’ve got music in my library I didn’t even know was there, because everything is bought in extremely cheap bulk (www.mp3fiesta.com) or is acquired from swaps, burns, or pirates.

Who listens to the radio anymore (aside from our parents)? New music is acquired through Pandora and other websites dedicated to the “customization” of your tastes. You need never listen to pop again. In fact, things like Pandora make me wonder if “pop” is actually a relevant category anymore.

Kindle, iPad, the Sony thingamareader (whatever), these are hailed as the “future of reading,” but I’m not sure. The Internet is. The Internet is free, and people will always read what is free and popular and spread easily and quickly by their friends. Literature’s future is on the Internet, only no one can figure out how in holy hell to make money out of it.

The problem with the freedom and accessibility of all that information is that it changes the way we view literature and the written word. Ours is a generation of multitaskers, chatting in one window, talking with a friend via Skype, writing an e-mail. There is no focus, no calm, for the traditional novel in this context. So writing must change from the fluidity of the longer narrative to the shorter, more succinct spitfire prose of online articles. Part of the reason why Dan Brown’s fiction is so successful is its readability — the short chapters make it easier to pick up and trek through and pause for a rest when we’ve had to much prose, too fast. It’s a result of information obesity: we need to stop for a breather on long narrative runs.

As a consequence, this kind of prose also appeals to the lower spectrum of the literary field. Some time back, Lev Grossman wrote a pretty terrible article for the WSJ on the “death of the literary novel.” It’s really bad. Grossman argued that plot had over taken “style” and “difficulty” as the priority in contemporary fiction, basically pushing forward thrill-fueled rides like The Da Vinci Code and romantic entanglements as Twilight as the “new literature” of the latter half of the twentieth century. People didn’t want beauty, they want interest. They don’t want difficulty in reading, either.

In large part, I can see Grossman’s point. It’s hard to imagine a world where it was easy to read “The Waste Land,” or pick up Joyce’s Ulysses for fun. It’s hard to imagine why they were successful when they remain closed or incomprehensible texts to so many. The Internet is the Great Democratizer. It levels the playing field, and while it makes all things accessible, it also makes clear that some things people just don’t want to access. If something doesn’t appeal to you, it’s not labeled as “boring,” but “bad.” The difference is pretty clear between the two. As a consequence, if the future of the novel is one based on plot, and not beauty, are we to see the decline of literature in the future?

That was a long tangent.

My point: how do you write about blogging in a literary fashion? I think the nature of the novel has to change drastically in the next fifty years and adapt to changing attitudes about the written word. People don’t read blogs for beauty; they read blogs for content. How will the next generation of writers adapt to the changes and incorporate new media into literature? If Hemingway had written about blogging the Spanish Civil War and Lt. Henry tweeting updates to Catherine Barkley, A Farewell to Arms might be a different story. High school reunions have become irrelevant; Facebook allows us to follow our entire high school/college class up until the point they die, really. Our ideas about writing and human relationships (the core subject, if not the foundation of literature) have changed so drastically in the past ten years with the advent of social networking and public-blogging that it is difficult to imagine the first novel that will incorporate those elements into its infrastructure with grace, poise, and sensibility.

2. “Decadence”: This post has actually gone on a little longer than I would like. But I can’t end this post with at least nodding to the other possibility: informational “decadence.” Analogize it to the music industry: when an indie band signs with a major record label, they are instantly shunned by the indie community (perhaps not the die-hards, but you understand). In the same manner, with the complete democratization of literature — a book on every phone, etc. — literature will cease to be about the words and will become confused with the objects. Books will become more and more valued as material objects, and literature pretension will reach heights never before imagined: “You read Shakespeare for class on your Kindle? Well, I read him out of a 2002 reprinting of the Oxford text on simulated vellum paper with gold edges in red morocco leather. Can you imagine? Reading Shakespeare bound in leather is the only way to read him, I think.” Those people that claim that Coltrane is better on vinyl (he is) — imagine that, times ten, with books. “True” enthusiasts don’t dip to the level of ebooks; they read real books. If the world suddenly turns paperless, the act of reading won’t matter — nor even the text — but rather the fact that the connoisseur is reading an actual, physical book.

Speaking of books, it’s time to get back to writing mine.

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Fagr

Cats shrieking. Dawn hasn’t broken yet. The echo of the muezzin from the loudspeakers from the mosque across the street, down the street, across the city. Cold creeping in between the shutters, damp and watery, as if the Mediterranean had flooded and was seeping in slowly underneath the doors, before the day burst in and melted it all—darkness, mist, and cold—in lash of the Egyptian sun. You throw the covers off and step onto the Greek-knotted balcony. A few lights. Some stars. The dry smell of the desert slapping the heavy breaths of the Mediterranean. It is the hour of the fagr, the morning prayer before dawn.

God is Great! God is Great!

Four times in the beginning, God is Great, and twice at the end, God is Great! God is Great! repeated five times a day, thirty-four times a day, the muezzins eject the phrase out into space. It screeches, it sings. The muezzins sing it out, they draw out the phrase, and the world knows. It warbles at first from the eastern end of the city, rising like a rush of wind, falling, rising, overlapping and never in chorus. The world sings with God is Great, and the people below the words scurry to prayer—some in the street, some in the back of the shops that have just sent their rusty, corrugated doors up, others in the mosques, the old men with long beards dyed with henna, the young men with shorter beards and leather jackets. God is Great!

The phrase in Arabic is Allahu akbar, which comes in shades of meanings: God is the greatest! He is the biggest! He comes into us and cannot be overtaken. He is everything! God is Great! No god but God! The deity himself is Absolute, and this Word made definite, without incarnation but with definition, the the added on in Arabic. No god (indefinite) but The God!

And the echo, it echoes, it reverbs through microphone effects, through the corridors tall with buildings, it bounces across pavement and iron and the streets until it reaches the innermost circles, the decay, the refuse, before tripping over the Corniche and emptying out onto the Mediterranean. God is Great, God is Great.

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Recently, I assigned my lower mid-level students a paper — a narrative essay on a fairytale. This was one of them:

Once upon a time, The sParrow love white rose and next decided to tell her he Love her. She said that, “I’m don’t Love you.” He siteling [no idea what that means] said that “I love you” in finally she said that “When become my colour is red, I’ll love you.” After some days, He comed and cut his wings and the blood down on the white rose, later The white rose become your color red. She knowed this time the sParrow love her somuch but the time is over and don the sParrow is die. In the end.

Fairytales are dark. Fairytales are scary. I mean, Bros. Grimm have the Little Mermaid walking on glass shards while she’s lost her voice, and eventually, she loses her soul in the sea foam. The real Sleeping Beauty wakes up not to a prince’s true love kiss, but her infant twins suckling at her breasts. And for crying out loud, Hansel and Gretel push the evil witch into an oven. This fairytale (which is pretty common, actually, in Islamic poetry) is relatively tame by comparison.

Oy.

Arabic poetry has claimed it, like the Arabian Nights, via Persian origins, in which the love of the nightingale (I suspect that this particular student mistranslated) for the rose is a pretty common them. Sufi-themed poets (most prominently Khayyam and Hafiz) use the trope as exemplary of love for the divine: God being the ultimate Beauty that the nightingale sacrifices himself for — he pierces himself on the thorns, and the dying song is the poet’s kasida. Since I know no Persian, I’ll quote you La Galliene’s rather imaginative translation of a  familiar quatrain from Omar Khayyam:

If only one dare tell the lovely things
The nightingale unto the red rose sings!
‘See! I am Yusuf’s flower,’ the red rose cries,
And wide and warm her sanguine bodice flings.

There are, admittedly, naughtier things in Persian and Arabic poetry, which is filled with images of passionate consummation and drunkenness in the Divine, but always with the understanding that poetry is….just poetry, right?

Prior to receiving this essay (and give the kid some credit, he’s only had a few months of English), I had never heard the “White Rose” variant, and rather than asking anyone to answer for it, I’ll

I’m not asking anyone to answer for this. My googling has turned this story up as a relatively popular variant of the story, a la the following blogs:

Death Ends Fun: Blood on the White Rose

Most interestingly, in the “Death Ends Fun” story, the rose is, in fact, masculine, and the sparrow (who first proposes) is the female.

More conventionally, here is a pretty bad poem that gives a little more detail:

The Sparrow and the White Rose

You get the idea.

It’s the stuff that hallmark camp is made out of and that Egyptians eat up. I cannot bring up the subject of love without someone saying something that would send the Emo boys of America packing their guitars and putting smiles on their faces. Hell, they’d probably stitch up their wrists themselves if they met someone like this:

That's my bleeding heart...and dignity...

That’s a pretty ouch picture right there. But pretty darn common.

When I first met Marym back in ancient history and beyond, she was pretty convinced that moving to Sporting from Miami was “leaving her family and friends behind forever.” There was a forever in there. THAT was what shocked me. Markous looked out the window longingly while listening to Celine Dion. My girls refer to their future spouses who they will be on intimate terms with as their “lovers.”

Love — when there is love — is about extremes. You love someone or you don’t. There’s a certain beauty to the simplicity, but it leaves no middle ground for what I think are the million little complexities. A girl, say my ladies, should not be friends with a man beyond work or studies; she can easily fall in love with him.

What if she’s already in love with someone else?

Then there is no danger, but her lover would not like that.

But if there’s no danger…?

Still. Just in case. And it’s our religion.

Oh, that’s the reason. “It’s our religion” is starting to sound to me like the “just because” of this country. I know Islam. I know Muslims. It’s your own interpretation, sure, but as soon as one girl in the class says that, the rest shut up tighter than Maine coldwater clams. I’ve heard arguments between women as to each others’ religiosity — it isn’t pretty what gets said — and I imagine that the silence is a way of avoiding a conflict. Students come up to me later on and say, “It’s not our religion, but people talk.”

Actual student. Not an actual poster. Women are not actually adoring his image and likeness.

There are interesting outlets for the obvious sexual tension that goes on. My last post mentioned something about the Madonna-whore complex perpetuated by male objectification of women — and the inherent paradox (hence picture), but this is something which is, unfortunately, also perpetuated by the women themselves.

For instance, Facebook.

I have a no-Facebook policy with current students: after they finish their last course at the center (i.e., graduate from the most advanced one), I approve the friend requests of the ones I like and am interested in — after all, my own teachers back home friended me. I also wait to be friended because it is damn near impossible to find someone on Facebook in Egypt. Not only are there millions on millions of Muhammads, there are tons of Mohameds and Mohammads and Mohamads. Spelling Arabic names is complete guesswork. Furthermore, many people (in particular, the girls) don’t even use their real names: they do cutesy variations on them like CuteHoba.

Even more baffling are the photographs. Most female students have no photographs of themselves — or if they do, they are absolutely lost among the photographs of other people. And by other people, I do not mean friends or family: I mean that they have pictures of Angelina Jolie and still shots from movies posted up in place of their own photos — often in pretty risque situations that the girls would not be caught dead in.

Steamy love.

Who IS this woman? She wasn't a student of mine.

I can understand not putting your photo up on Facebook for the world to see. People are creeps. The fact that I’m posting these here should say something, I suppose — except, wait: these PHOTOS ARE NOT OF ANYONE I KNOW. I mean, who are these people? Does this say anything about you as a person except the image you want to project, you own desire for love in the future?

In my confusion, I asked one particularly pious girl why people did this.

“It’s our religion.”

Aha. Yes. Your religion.

Here, I will refer back to Islam Q&A, which is pretty handy for fatwas in a pinch on particular subjects. One ruling on photography was of particular note, which states that the intent makes a thing haraam (forbidden) or not: pictures thus for the purpose of identification are permissible — those for the sake of “enjoying them” are not.

Granted, there are a lot of schools of Islamic jurisprudence on the subject. At Ask-Imam.com, Mufti Ebrahim Desai (though I want to see his certificates) says that it is only impermissible to take pictures of one’s self according the Shafi’i school of thought — the prevalent one in Egypt.

So, if images for “pleasure” (?) are not permissible…why are they using other peoples’ images?

It’s okay to objectify others, I suppose; just not yourself. Pictures of other women exhibiting sexual behavior forbidden in your society is not as bad as doing it yourself.

Religiously, isn’t it the same thing? If you’re so convinced of the correctness of the hijab and the niqab and the modest behavior of the genders prior to marriage, what on earth are you doing with pictures of Kirsten Dunst making out with Orlando Bloom on your profile pic?

Let's do this in public. On the Corniche. Let's see how much everyone says we're cute then.

I’m reminded of that time when a porno video was being passed around on a cell phone at a family party, and everyone laughed. Oh, isn’t that funny! Look at the woman objectify herself!

What I find interesting as a theoretician is that the cycle perpetuates itself in its avoidance; that women, seeking a way around it, are still casting themselves as sexpots — perhaps even more so than a simple photograph would. Could it be, that by avoiding the projection of a woman’s own image, she is actually provoking men to view her in a sexual manner?

Mansur once told me (in a similar Port Said conversation two years ago) that niqabiyya women were the worst sluts of them all (his words); that is, women hide their own infidelities behind the veil. Further, he added, you want to flirt with the niqabiyyas because they’re the ones with something to hide.

Clearly, I scoffed. You’re crazy, Mansur.

I’m reminded, fifteen hundred words later, of Sheikh Tantawi’s October controversy over the niqab: after telling a niqabiyya girl to remove her veil (and her refusing repeatedly, until at last giving in), the Sheikh was reported to have said, once he saw her (from Muslimmatters.org):

“Outdoing his crude expression of a few moments ago by a number of exponential notches, he said, “Ama law kunti hilwa shuwaya la-amilti eh?

A rough translation – albeit without the vulgar connotations of the Arabic (and my apologies to our English readers for the loss of the coarseness) – would be, “So if you were even a little beautiful, what would you have done then?” The implication, of course, was that the egotistical girl was presuming herself to be worthy of participating in a beauty pageant, hence covering her face out of fear of tempting others. Little did she realize that she was not even qualified to use the adjective ‘beautiful’ in the same sentence as her name!”

I don’t think we need to regard the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression. It’s already being used in quite the opposite direction, I think. Perhaps women aren’t flagging men down with short skirts, but they’re still getting men’s attention regardless.

A different culture?

Perhaps. Maybe men are just men everywhere.

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