Posts Tagged ‘stereotypes’

Rumi tuned me in yesterday to the controversy surrounding the Swiss popular vote to ban minarets. As usual, there’s what he termed “twitrage” about the decision, though for me, it raises some interesting questions about churches here.

Naturally, I’m outraged.

Interestingly, the character known to me only as “Sandmonkey” (see his amazingly crazy rants here) twittered in response to the ban: “Switzerland is banning the phalic extension of a mosque. Not building the mosque itself. Muslim countries do that, to churches.”

Kind of what I think.

Fadhila posted a really level-headed article by Tariq Ramadan of The Guardian on the ban’s motivation by fear: the Swiss fear “Islamization,” and that a variety of Islamic symbols are targeted as a result of fear — which is implied to be the product of ignorance among non-Muslims. I’m a fan of Ramadan’s articles in general (not his one on Benedict XVI, though), but I think that his assertion that the Swiss have voted “not against towers, but Muslims” is taking the matter entirely too far. And again, I’m outraged. I really am. I hate having to censor myself, I hate that I can’t hear church bells. I hate that being Christian in a Muslim country makes me feel a little under siege. And I don’t want anyone to experience that — ever — in any other country. But I’m not really asking if it’s really ethical, because we all know it’s not; I’m asking if we’re at all surprised at the decision.

When Hamas won the majority vote in the Palestinian legislative assembly in 2006, the rest of the world trembled a little, fearing that the election of the party would escalate the already simmering issue of Palestine. During the Bush administration, the atmosphere surrounding such election results was made to sound like evil was slowly taking over; that within years, the US would become embroiled not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in some tragic, painful conflict in Palestine. But no one interfered. Interference would mean compromising the electoral principle that, when people vote, they vote for a reason: neither the United States nor anyone else could eliminate that fact. Does the same principle apply? (Serious question)

When authors cannot freely publish critical books without incurring death threats and are forced into years of hiding (Salman Rushdie)…

When the publication of the positive portrayals of Islam in The Jewel of Medina (about the life of Aisha) is cancelled and delayed for fear of outcry against the publisher and threats against the author

When the director of (an albeit tasteless) film criticizing the verse from the Qur’an that a man has a right to beat his wife if she is disobedient is murdered in reaction to its release

Protestors outside the Danish embassy in London, c. 2006 following the cartoon controversy

When protesters to the Danish cartoon controversy react with violence against the cartoon depiction of Muhammad, portraying Islam as a violent religion….

When filmmakers are afraid to destroy the Ka’aba in a stupid blockbuster about the end of the world but are more than willing to topple the Basilica of St. Peter’s…

When underage girls in Antwerp feel as though they need to veil and be accompanied by their brothers to be socially accepted by their classmates…

When the display of Christian icons, crosses (even on one’s person!), or the open worship of Christianity is expressly forbidden by law and carries a prison sentence…

When all this happens, are we surprised by Ramadan’s assertion that such a controversy is “fuelled by fear”?

Of course it’s fueled by fear. Fear that we cannot criticize, fear that we cannot unveil, fear that we cannot protect our right to free speech. The public face of Islam is one that advocates itself as the True Faith and a unifying religion of peace; and yet, these items are at odds with the idea of free speech contained within liberal democracy. Shari’a law does do permit public worship of other religions, it requires other adherents to pay taxes: where Christianity conceives itself as a separate political identity (“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…”), Islam is conceived as an umma, a nation of believers that is spread in a diaspora across the world, to be governed ideally by a caliph under shari’a law. Hence, as Bernard Lewis notes:

The penalty for apostasy, in Islamic law, is death. Islam is conceived as a polity, not just as a religious community. It follows therefore that apostasy is treason. It is a withdrawal, a denial of allegiance as well as of religious belief and loyalty. Any sustained and principled opposition to the existing regime or order almost inevitably involves such a withdrawal.

I too am a little afraid. When such potentials are so essential to the practice of the religion, what is the religion itself? Is Islam really how the theologians would have it? Or is it how the people practice it — how it is visible, perceived, and read?

Isn’t that always the question in religion?



Bikya’s article on the ban makes me SO ANGRY in that it fails to address similar issues within Egypt:


Read Full Post »

Yesterday, much to my ire, I received a new student mid-term for my lower-level conversation class: her name is Hind, and she is something of a walking, old-school Bahari stereotype (Bahari, I’ve come to understand, is the word that most Egyptians use to describe the Northerners, while everyone south of the Delta is referred to as a Sa’idi). While most of my students are pretty conservative — what I’ve come to understand from Mahmoud as a recent trend (most girls in his heyday never wore hijab, much less the niqab) — with a couple of niqabis, and the majority of them wearing the more conservative version of the hijab, which resembles a headscarf-cloak combination, opposed to just a scarf.

Not so with Hind. Skinny jeans, spandex, bright colors (pink and yellow are what’s in this season), a lot of lace, insanely high heels. Made-up to the point of looking like a clown in the right light (read: rouge), and (shocker) nail polish. Here, I should note that nail polish is seen as interfering with ritual purification in Islam, and women (if they wear it) are required to remove it before they perform ablutions. I’ve never seen a Muslim girl with nail polish on — and toenail polish, too. I should also note that everything coordinated a little too much. Nail polish with lacy pink hijab. Bag with belt. Eyeliner with shirt (yellow). She had color contacts in, and all in all, she looked like a comic-book hijabi version of Barbie. Shudder. This kind of girl is the exact kind of girl my Egyptian friends in Cairo rave about. Banat bahari; the girls of Alexandria long past that are “elegant” and “flirty” and very very stylish.

Too stylish. I wince a little for my inner fashion sense.

Sayyid Darwish's famous painting of "The Girls of Bahari." They are something of an endangered Alexandrian stereotype, though still a stereotype cemented in Egyptians' minds nonetheless.

Sayyid Darwish's famous painting of "The Girls of Bahari." They are something of an endangered Alexandrian stereotype, though still a stereotype cemented in Egyptians' minds nonetheless.

I saw the other girls roll their eyes when she walked in the room: I have never seen such looks of evil intent. It was as if they were hexing her with all the evil eyes they could summon up — and then, they grew angry that they didn’t have more.

Anyhow, after the interruption, class goes on (yesterday I attempted to explain “I feel like…” and “I’m in the mood for…” partly because I was extremely hungry). And like always, I ask for examples to make sure they’re not just nodding their heads and saying, “Of course I understand.” So I ask them, “What do you feel like eating for dinner? Hind responds laconically, “Pepsi.”

After cracking a joke about that being all she has for dinner, she smiles and revises her sentence:



I ask again. Whiskey, she says.

I pause. Surely this can’t actually be what she means. I ask again, this time reiterating her question.

She nods confidently.

“Do you know what you’re saying? You’re saying you feel like having Pepsi and alcohol for dinner.”

A look of horror passes over her face.

“No! No! Wiss kay. Wiss kay!”


She says “m3a tort,” which is Egyptian for with cake. Of course! Most Egyptians pronounce th as an s! Of course!

With cake! Pepsi with cake!

The class laughs for a solid two minutes.

Oh Hind. I suppose that evil eye got to you.

Read Full Post »

Give me a break!

The thing that has been making me mad for days: read the article entitled “New Age Orientalism,” by a BikyaMasr columnist, Joseph Mayton. SO angry. Glad that the comments are what they are. Here is mine:

While I don’t doubt this article was well-intentioned, there are a number of serious inconsistencies and flaws with the author’s argument. I agree (for the most part) with the preceding comments above, but I’d also like to point out that Mr. Mayton has become an Orientalist himself through the execution of his own anti-Orientalist article.

First of all, this article relies far too heavily on Said out of context—especially scholarship of the last twenty-five years in which Said has come under serious academic fire. He selects the elements of history that fit his argument and neglects a wider context of scholarship; Orientalism, for him, is defined by a Foucaultian model of knowledge as directly correlative to power: i.e., by describing and cataloguing something (a culture, a people), one exercises power over it. Thus, the prolific writings of British imperial Orientalists furthered their colonial agendas of political control by giving them intellectual power over conquered cultures. Most recently, though, Ibn Warraq points out that Said neglected the contributions of German and Italian Orientalists, who had little colonial influence or ambition in the Arab world at that same period – or even certain elements of French scholarship which stood to gain nothing in the realm of colonial influence (because it didn’t exist yet). This gross neglect of entire spheres of historical background has led Warraq to call into question the real gravity of Said’s scholarship.

That aside, Mr. Mayton completely neglects the context at hand, thereby falling victim to the very philosophy he claims to criticize. The first great “sin” of Orientalism is the generalization of multiple, nuanced cultures into a single, vast “Orient” of “the Other.” And yet here, the author blurs cultural lines whose dignity he claims to preserve. By calling opening his article with references to “a new Middle East,” he obscures national and cultural boundaries, defining what is effectively “an Orient” of sorts (a vague, amorphous geographical region). Let me be clear: I am not saying we shouldn’t say “Middle East”; I am saying that by calling it a “new Middle East,” he is effectively redrawing the boundaries, uniting places via the choices of the author’s “irreverent study abroad American who has chosen Cairo, Amman, or Beirut […] replacing Paris and London.” These are very different places, but Mr. Mayton’s implication is that they are now the same because “droves” of Americans have descended upon them.

Furthermore, there is also the issue of insight. The author has taken three students and turned them into a single, representative “Student Abroad” that drinks to much and is a product of a beer-guzzling, resume-padding, collegiate culture—he makes a point of making them cartoonish, faceless, anonymous, and most certainly backwards. He has created an Other out of the American Student Abroad, using almost the same criteria as Said, and the implication is that the author (who clearly cannot be associated with them) is the direct opposite of such a foreigner. And yet, these caricatures become the central representation of an entire culture—American study abroad culture. Essentially, Mr. Mayton has orientalized them. No only have they been “othered,” but the author alone knows better. He alone has insight to this particular problem; he has even “penetrated” the veil as an eavesdropper in a café, and sees into the seeming backwardness of the study abroad experience, bringing it to us, the reader, for our enlightenment. We are meant to pity those three students—a sentiment that the author condemns.

Now, I don’t deny that such students exist, but to make them representative of students abroad everywhere is a bit much. I also tend to think (from my own experience once upon a time) that students that study in Arab countries tend to be pretty different. By focusing on these three, faceless, anonymous students – by making their conversation the conversation that “every” or “most” American students have about Egypt and Egyptians – the author neglects students that spend hours in baladi ahwas playing backgammon with old men, or girls that go niqabiyya on a daily basis their entire time here; students that have studied poetry and literature and religion and vetted themselves as much as the author probably thinks they should have before coming to the Mother of the World.

Mr. Mayton might have done better to leave the confines of his downtown area and expand beyond a single encounter before claiming to have encountered something representative of the American abroad experience. He might have gone to the stuffy apartments around Bab Zwayla, where English teachers and graduate students abound; or venture to the newer, ever-expanding Flagship and Middlebury College abroad programs in Alexandria, where students live in rotting university dorms and working-class neighborhoods in Muharram Bey. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the author’s encounter at the café (though I agree, it sounds a little canned), it seems to me less representative of American study abroad and more indicative of the author’s own bitterness at having his “exclusive” (and perhaps deep and hard-won) personal insight into another country trampled on by the invasion of the next generation who come and go in a few months. We all get that way sometimes. But it doesn’t mean the incoming class at AUC is chock-full of neocolonialists.


It’s still wicked hot in Alex.

Read Full Post »

Some time ago I figured out somehow that if I taught for five days a week, two classes a session, I would actually be doing pretty well for myself — unfortunately, teaching here doesn’t quite pay what it deserves, what with all the preparation that goes into every hour. Everyone kind of forgets that; every hour in the classroom has a corresponding hour of preparation.

Anyhow, I’m getting there: this week has me booked every day, at every level. I have a new large class in Sidi Bishr, with fifteen different students from college, master’s programs, and random walks of life. They’re shy types and I overestimated their abilities with their first class; I think this scared a few of them away. This also means that I’m going to have to fall back on the awful book that they keep insisting that I use (and so far I’ve gotten away with not using with my conversation classes). By awful, I mean awful: it doesn’t have any reinforcement, and the cartoon illustrations are terrible combination of the eighties at their worst and the racist caricatures of Little Black Sambo. All textbooks seem to take the form of photocopies, re-bound with the International British Academy cover on them.

I’ve started teaching at the branch out in Stanley, just past the big neo-Ottoman bridge and beach of Durrell fame, just around the corner from Costa Coffee. It’s actually a pretty nice place, though the classroom has literal pews, and echoes with every phrase I use. Though I’ve only had one class with this group (about seven students), I already feel like it’s my best one — perhaps that’s just because I finally figured out a structure. Much to my chagrin (and recalling that I hated this back in high school), I’ve started giving quizzes with the start of every class to make sure that not only do my students show up on time, but that they review last session’s lessons diligently. Moderate success so far: the medical students flipped out last time — including Mohammad Samir, who practically had a heart attack — but I’m confident that results will show in a few weeks.

Lately, I’ve been trying to study for the GRE, and failing miserably. Suddenly, I remember that I haven’t taken any math since high school — and it shows.

Read Full Post »

Ahmed Shukri was a sailor with the oil companies for about thirty-five years. He hunches over, but is actually quite tall and, in contrast to most Egyptians, who tend to be olive-skinned, he is pale and soft — his face never seems to have a bristle of hair on it, which atop his head is a kind of pompadour of waxy whiteness. He wears striped polo shirts and bowling shifts, and his fingers are permanently knurled around a cigarette: when he walks, when he sits, when he laughs, and he never ashes it — as if the force of his shaking hands automatically does so. He is extremely eager to speak English. He is even more eager to speak German, which I tell him I can’t speak, but this never seems to stop him.

Ahmed Shukri must pass the ahwa on the corner of Delta Street near the tram station about fifteen times a day, and each time he does, he ducks his head into the shadows, squinting behind his giant black sunglasses. He looks for people he knows, and hollers, waves with both hands in the air, and walks on. I’ve noticed that he also looks in the corner that I sit the most often, and when he sees me (and other random people), he walks over and says hello. It’s not just a Hello-How-are-you? gig, but usually one consists of the following programmatical formula:

Hello! Michael! (English) How are you?

(Arabic) Good, Ahmed. How are you?

(English) You are good? Yes? You are good?

(Arabic) Yes, Ahmed. I’m excellent. How are you?

(He says something in German. I laugh. He laughs).

Okay, Michael. I call you later, no? Goodbye.

If Ahmed’s conversational skills strike you as a bit one-sided, you’re not alone. This represents about half of my conversations in Arabic; especially when your deal with hot-shot shop owners who think they can put a sentence together and insist on using English when you are clearly trying to speak to them in Arabic. OR you clearly speak Arabic better than their English. I’ve decided that when someone makes up their mind to not understand you (i.e., because you are a foreigner), they will not.

Much as in life at large.

Read Full Post »

Last night, Sarah called up and told me that the nurses had put some pressure on her to go down to the municipal courthouse to mitigate Sa’id’s sentence. Apparently, he gets three to seven years maximum for assaulting a foreigner– three to seven years in an Egyptian prison, which is a fate I wish on no one. Depictions of the treatment of prisoners (The Yacoubian Building, Heyna Maysara) can put one off to the excesses of Oriental “justice.” That in mind, Sarah and Katie have been having doubts. Three to seven years is a long, long time, and the man did get his guts rearranged twice.

That said, the officers of the court apparently wanted a confirmation of statement, so Sarah, Tom, and I piled into a taxi around 9 PM and headed to the Manshaya courthouse. It’s an old neo-classical remnant — lots of columns, cast-iron balstruades, galleries of arcades — that looks like a decaying bit of Paris that washed up on our little outcropping of Africa. Checkered marble floors in black and white, scratched and dirty; winged white marble staircases so scratched and old it looked as if the marble were tipping forward– the edges were so worn from a centuries’ scuffle of hard, formal shoes that they looked ready to break off at any moment. Garbage lined the corridors — dark, tar-coated passageways with chipping paint lit by a succession of naked light bulbs from the ceiling — and groups of people huddled in corners (leathery women in gaudy patterns, hairy-handed policemen in ragged white uniforms and cracked black leather boots, lawyers in threadbare soutanes), staring (I imagine) at three foreigners (and Sarah’s blazing red hair especially) marching down to the municipal offices of Bab al-Sharq, the district where the incident took place. Yet the way they punctuated the corridors (we climbed up a maze of stairs and turned down switchback corners) at the corners, it seemed like they had just finished whispering something secret, and had been discovered — that for a moment, we had intruded on something private that had taken place between whispers, and were unwelcome. Fingers pointed the way, and mumbled salaams.

A polished lawyer type with wiry glasses checked over sheafs of notebook paper, all written in an indecipherable hand. Nothing was typed on his desk. After initial confusion over the incidents in question (the lawyer thought Sarah was Katie) we narrated things as they happened; I say we because this was my first simultaneous translation — Sarah talking to me while I translated for the lawyer, Tom catching my back if I didn’t get something. The man seemed surprised that we were concerned about Sa’id, and wished to think over his sentence. He said it was up to us whether he went free or was put in prison for however long.

To my mind, this almost makes the situation even harder than it was. The purpose of an impartial justice system is to enforce the rules of a society, both so that no one is endangered and that no one is to blame; that is why vengeance — although it resembles justice and even possibly achieves equalization of the status quo — is not actual justice. And perhaps this is why the victim of any crime is not given an actual say in the punishment of the criminal. He or she remains apart, because then the burden of punishment falls on the victim. By his or her edict — his or her determination — the criminal is punished, and I wonder if anyone is so just (or at least honestly confident enough in their sense of justice) to measure out the smallest punishment for the smallest crime. Because then the burden falls on you as the cause of someone else’s despair — someone else’s pain. And pain is the reason you brought the criminal before Justice to begin with.

I know that the American justice system is flawed, but at least it avoids that.

Right now, I hate Egypt because it puts contradictory pressures on the girls involved; to my mind, they are quite just in letting the man lie where he is, and yet at the same time, quite just in letting him go. But both situations perpetuate two very different evils; by letting him go, it means going soft on crime — by not letting him go, you potentially ruin a man’s life.

The girls have four days to think it over.

I seriously welcome opinions on this subject.

Read Full Post »

A few days ago, Sarah and I had to take Katie (Brits downstairs, check out Sarah’s blog here) to the hospital for serious stomach pains that didn’t quite fit the profile of ordinary “entry” digestive diseases, nor food poisoning. We checked her in to the university hospital (which was the same hospital that Andrea checked into two years ago after her accident), where hours later, they determined she had appendicitis. Seeing as Katie has no Arabic, it came as a complete surprise to her when, hours later (when Tom and I were visiting), that we told her that we had to leave because she needed to be prepped for her operation.

“Yeah. Wait, you didn’t hear about this before?”

We left and came back later– Katie looks good and is really trooping it out. I will never forget the arabic word for appendix now — za’ida (الزائدة), (incidentally, a linguistically amusing word, as it comes from the root for “excess,” or “extra”).

In the midst of all this, there was Sa’id. Initially a very helpful orderly on the floor Katie checked into, he turned out to be an exemplar of my previous post on harassment. After Sarah had left the hospital, she later how he  told me he wanted to take a few pictures of her and then tried to kiss her hand– which she brushed off as being the usual creepiness. However, when she returned the next day, Katie brought up how she had caught him taking pictures of her with his phone (post-op), and trying to kiss her. They promptly informed the head nurse, who brought in the head of the hospital and a few others, and proceeded the beat the daylights out of Sa’id in front of her. They later brought him back with a number of police officers (and a translator) who beat him up a second time while they took down her statement.

This is not what was expected– naturally, Katie said she cried and told them to stop, but the translator’s response was, “People like him are not human.”

My sympathies are with Katie, and Tom seems to believe unquestioningly that such actions were warranted (Read Tom’s thoughts and colorful narrative here). In the final analysis, I think so too, but there is something in me that is made uncomfortable by beating a man into a pulp in retribution. I myself have wanted to kick the tar out of shabaab when they’ve belittled women. So why the discomfort?

What is the “appropriate” punishment for something like this? When we (I, expats, foreigners) get enraged by sexual or any kind of harassment, how would we turn the tables?  We want to be left alone. We want nothing to have happened in the first place; we wish for the status quo of living and letting others live — the real moral atrocity in harassment I think is that it removes that, it takes away someone’s dignity and makes them into something inhuman and provokes them into an animal-like state of defense. We snap, we are provoked to violence — to swearing, and the desire for vengeance. It’s horrifically ironic that, by response, the victim becomes the reality of what the criminal would have her be.

Rather, we want a moral victory — in which the perpetrator is shamed into  betterment, if just on the level of not bothering anyone — not retribution, blood payment for the single act that has been done to us. Deep down inside, I think we want to change the things in the society that make it acceptable for something like that to be birthed into the world. No one who has ever been harassed has simply stated that they want it to stop to just them. We want the man to be held up in front of the masses, act and identities revealed, and some great Voice to say: “This is dishonorable and such acts are disgraceful, and you must take responsibility for them, because they are of you and among you.”

And silently, each person in the crowd will turn their backs and walk away, shamed by the presence of something they allowed to grow in their midst.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »