Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Goat for Your Cucumber/Part Two

Watch the Cookie Crumble

Since 2008 insists on ending with cascades of howling, giggling images, I want to share with you a few more of these before final thoughts can take their place at the tail end of this year and perhaps—perhaps—that of an era. The surreal camera angles are not just snapshots of decay laced with black humor, they are markers of change, sly and yet far reaching.

Big words for such a small post, so let me tone down the drama by plainly stating that in the Middle East you can actually put lipstick on a pig. And we do. All the time. Every day.

In tomb-like Gaza, 500 to 600 secret tunnels link Gazans to Egypt and literally life itself. The border is so short and they are so many that barely a few centimeters separate one from the other. In the miserable old days, the goods that travelled through these tunnels went straight to the black market. But the more hellish Gaza became, the whiter they turned, finally becoming a very respectable, vanilla-white slice of its official, and officially, dead economy.

In recognition of their contribution to the struggle for Palestinian breath, the Ministry of Interior of Hamas has established a Tunnel Administration. The legal contracts between the property owners and diggers are called Underground Commercial Venues. This is how Hamas oversees the flow of material: “Typically, the government provides smugglers with a list of permitted items, regulates prices and collects taxes (fuel is taxed in kind). Hamas itself requests specific items, especially weapons, spare parts and medicine. The government films tunnel activity and posts monitors, who work eight-hour shifts…should smugglers cheat, they have to pay a penalty—‘or get shot in the legs’. Alternatively, Hamas might inform Egypt about the tunnel, which then would likely be destroyed.” (Crisis Group Report, “Round Two in Gaza, September 11, 2008, p. 14).

I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet that the tongues of the Crisis Group team were nowhere near their cheeks when they were writing this report.

The good news is that the tunnels are helping Gazans breathe. The bad news is that all they get to breathe is their own shit, millions of liters worth contaminating the Mediterranean Sea and fresh water reserves, infecting Palestinian hearts and souls along with them. I specifically mention the heart and soul because while the people may be respiring, precious air is fast seeping out of the education, transportation, health and private sectors.

I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet that Gazans are just dying to find out how Hamas plans to spin from an open, sewage-filled, hungry, work-deprived, unschooled, isolated, paralyzed, broken, warring prison--a free Palestine. Attaching adjectives to Israel and its siege is easy enough. The question is, how many of them is Israel happily lending to Hamas as lipstick for its own pig of a situation? I, like Ha'aretz’s Amira Haas, say a whole roast of them.

“The brutal siege…saves Hamas from having to cope with the contradiction between its platform (the liberation of all of Palestine) and its integration, despite its denials, into the institutions created by the Oslo Accords. If Israel jeopardizes the lives of premature babies and causes business owners, including supporters of Oslo and Yasser Arafat, to go broke, the Hamas government can present itself as resisting the occupation by its very nature. The extraordinary conditions of the extreme siege and the disconnection between Gaza and the West Bank (another intentional Israeli policy) have made the possibility of holding new Palestinian general elections a very distant one. Hamas can thus bolster its rule with coercion, wages, charity and the consoling power of religion. And perhaps that is exactly what the Shin Bet, Israel Defense Forces and government want?”

Batty realities in Gaza turn into embarrassingly laughable ones for us Lebanese. There they stood during Independence Day celebrations last Saturday: three men in silly white suits, pretending to be president, prime minister and speaker of parliament of a bubble pretending to be a state, saluting a collection of militarily clad men pretending to be an army and staring somberly at two 40-year-old jets that kept flying back and forth, to and fro, hither and thither, pretending to be an air force. All this for a mass of sniggering individuals pretending to be a nation. You couldn’t but feel nostalgic for that scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas, when Allen, exiting the dining room with El Presidente, turned to the balcony orchestra which had been playing without instruments throughout the whole dinner, and said, “Can you turn the music down? You’re giving me a headache.”

Of course, the whole of central Beirut came to a stop on Saturday in order for Lebanon to live as a fleeting figment in these people’s imagination.

Blood sister that it is, the absurdity that is Syria is no less absurd than the absurdity that is Lebanon. Recently, this self-professed beacon of Arab light has revealed itself, once again, for the very dark tale of whodunits that it actually is. First went the head of Hezbollah’s mercurial Imad Mughnieyh, then Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman gets it in both eyes while resting in his much-protected Chalet in Latakia, then two car bombs go off in Damascus. As usual, and very much in Libano-Syrian style, there are multiple plausible scenarios for these mysteries, each with winding, bushy, thorny roads leading to many winding, bushy, thorny paths to the future, by the end of which one is almost desperate for some of that Rumsfeldian prose.

As we know, There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know There are known unknowns.
That is to say We know there are some things We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know

Free verse that Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al Maktoum, the one-time visionary and current dunce of the Gulf, is probably reciting round the clock to reassure himself about his credit-fueled Dubai’s imperviousness to the financial meltdown. Who knows? The Sheikh might be under the very strong (and right) impression that Dubai has become too big, its debts too high and “services” too precious for its neighbors to let it down. And they most probably will not. But that’s not where the story is. When the dust has settled, Dubai, though trimmed and clipped and chastened, will still be standing; however, the pillars on which it was built will not.

Only last year, at a leadership conference sponsored by the London Business School, Niall Ferguson warned his audience that war in the Middle East was more likely than they thought. Asked to explain himself in full sight of the sparkling jewel that is Dubai, the historian retorted that he would not invest a penny in that tin city. Actually, there was a time—the early 1990s, to be exact—when one could trace the contours of interesting, bold possibilities in the desert. Soon enough, however, what looked like an intriguing vision morphed into the longest trip on LSD. When a few of us party poopers expressed skepticism about the longevity of a phantasmagoric city-state conceived by borrowed brains, financed by borrowed funds, constructed by borrowed hands, overseen by borrowed high management, run by borrowed middle management and floating on bubbles of hot air and a sea of angry contradictions, we were laughed out of the room as small people hooked on small schemes. Dubai was the future, and we were all about the past.

Well, the past has pretty much caught up with Dubai’s future, although it’s not clear whether the Sheikh and his men have begun to internalize the ugly facts. As things began to fall apart, Nakheel, a state-owned property development giant, announced plans at an event to build a one-kilometer tall building, which prompted a participant to stand up and finally—finally--ask the question that has long been on many a bemused mind: Why? The multimillion, star-studded extravaganza a few days ago to launch the appropriately named Atlantis Hotel was one very quizzical answer.

What the hell, this is sand country, and in the head-in-the-sand business we are pros: no people do it more or better. Our pain screams still, but rarely do we feel the direction of a headwind, sense an impending disaster, sniff an opportunity, catch the meaning of an absurdity staring us in the face. For those who feel like protesting right about now, I don’t want to rub it in, but I do have the urge to let slip 1967 by way of a teaser and, maybe for added flavor, bring in the latest shocker of how America ended up in Iraq and Saddam six feet under.

In closing this chapter, I suppose I could dwell for a while on the spectacle of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah holding forth recently on the need for religious tolerance and a dialogue between civilizations. But, frankly, we already know there is not enough lipstick in the world to smear on this one (I am talking about the Saudi initiative, not the king). Of course, good manners prevented attendees of the Saudi-sponsored Interfaith UN Conference from asking the monarch what genuine reforms he has passed as of late to address, oh, say, the delicate circumstance of women, or Shiites, or those who would like to worship the Christian way in his oasis. No one at the Conference thought to ask him either why Mr. Abdularahman al-Lahem, the lawyer of the Qatif rape girl was denied permission to leave Saudi Arabia, the very same week of the UN deliberations, for a Human Rights Watch gathering in London.
It could be that we Arabs seem little aware of the meaning of the weirdness that permeates our days because we really don’t feel it’s ours alone. We may have an abundance of moronic leaders and salivating Savonarolas issuing tragic-comic fatwas which obsess about all that threatens to moan and groan under the belt, but our chiefs are not the only ones who have perfected the art of appearing at their creepiest when they’re being at their most serious. It’s a straight, short walk that takes us from them to doggon-it, say-it-aint-so-Joe, Pentecostal Sarah Palin and the Imam-Mahdi-is-my-best-friend, I-the-divine, we-have-no homosexuals-in-Iran, alhamdulillah Ahmadenijad. And it’s literally no leap of faith (or nationality, for that matter) from that one to bring-me-70-Palestinian-corpses-a-day Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s minister of transportation and IDF Chief of Staff during the second intifada.

Deliciously ironic as well are the modesty patrols in Haredi quarters in Israel which are very busy bridging the “cultural” divide between the Jewish state and the neighborhood. Leave it to us women to bring together in perfect harmony mortal enemies everywhere else. And, for all their ugliness, Haredi patrols are hardly Israel’s most dire prospect. Of all the wars raging inside it, the most riveting is the one between two sets of religious fanatics, one as mortified by Jewish converts as the other is desperate for them. In this furious face-off, it appears that sex during menstruation for Israel’s Ultra Orthodox Rabbinical Courts is more than enough to declare not Jewish the errant converts religious Zionists are eagerly minting in their frantic race against the tireless energy of the Palestinian libido. According to the miffed Moshe Gafni of the Ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, “There is something more important than the state of Israel and Zionism… Unlike Christians, we Jews are not missionaries. If someone really wants to join the Jewish people, we're going to make it difficult for them." (WP, August 30, 2008). Here’s a piece of good news for Palestinians in a life of awful one!

In the midst of all this nuttiness, nervous Israelis might well be cheered by all the impressive statistics and ingenious qualities that tell them they are still different from, way better than, the rest of us sourpuss Arabs. Or they might want to mull over the infinitely more terrifying likelihood that they actually are not. So many little Israels, so many clashing visions, and such little room for all of them to play without wrecking each other’s sandcastles.

It all looks Middle Eastern enough to me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Goat for Your Cucumber/Part One

“They killed female goats because their reproductive organs were uncovered and their tails were pointed upward, which they said was haram (profane). They branded cucumbers as male and tomatoes as female, and they forbade our women from buying cucumbers….”
(Hameed al Hayess, one of Anbar’s tribal chiefs on the wondrous teachings of al Qaeda. Quoted in a Reuters article in August).

Heartbreaking, isn’t it, how madness cackles atop our tragedies: hundreds of thousands slain, a people terrorized, a nation shellshocked by a gang of sexually disturbed, God-obsessed suicidal lunatics whose derangement is finally exposed by the bare-assed goat and the perpetually erect cucumber.

Twenty years from now as we all look back on (hopefully) the eclipse of al Qaeda in Sunni Iraq, it might well be the cucumbers and tomatoes we thank although you would not know it from all the recent coverage on the supposed extrication of Anbar (and other provinces) from a terrible predicament. Because, well, where can serious thinkers fit such lunacy in their somber analyses? And so, when time comes to blast, for example, the trumpets for Anbar, death is stripped of its clown suit and sexually harassed goats, allowed to graze in earlier scenes, are airbrushed out of the grand finale, where Petraeus’s genius, the Iraqi army’s revival and awakened tribalism are all given the space to--pardon the pun--surge triumphantly forward. To be fair, al Qaeda’s travails are mentioned but the cucumbers are recycled as strategic mistakes and the killing of cock-teasing goats is touched up as indiscriminate cruelty. This way, mayhem gets to keep its good name and we get to paper over the idiocy that afflicts many of this region’s troublemakers, lest the “silly” talk make light of the genuine catastrophes they helped bring about.

Some jaded observers might protest that this is an old, much covered story. Our sagas have long offered a mélange of filth and flimsiness which always made Western types positively giddy from the seediness of it all. And zany Marquezian characters like Muammar Qaddafi, who are just as good at provoking laughter as they are at snuffing out a life, have been around for decades now. True. But this is not about exotica in deadly locales, this is about a public arena that has become almost totally beholden to a ruinous lot. The cultural malaise that one can sniff everywhere in the air, the political discourse that has deteriorated into farce, the drivel from the pseudo-religious brigades and the sphinxes at the top which insult the mind and deflate the spirit, the perverseness that obsesses about all things sexual; it’s as if this place—this whole Arab dominion—has finally reconciled itself to an existence as jejune as it is indecent. Look under any current high-stakes political game, religious fatwa, draft law, or campaign that promises (or threatens) to leave footprints deep in our mud and you will very likely see a queue of blithering idiots churning out the scripts.

Witness withering Palestine: two failed liberation movements shoved this way and that by a remorseless occupation; fundamentalist currents nibbling on Hamas now, much like Hamas nibbled on Fatah before; rampant poverty; fratricide; a cause in absolute tatters… In full view of this torment, Hamas’s Mahmoud Zahar offers this flash of brilliance in a meeting with a group of journalists last month: “The party that is in Ramallah (Abbas) does not want reconciliation until the American pond dries up and the frogs in it are counted.” Reading these words, I couldn’t but remember another place, another siege and the face of Arafat memorably telling a TV interviewer in 1982: “Put cat in corner...Tiger.”

In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) claim a solid following and where an estimated 80 percent of women are veiled, it appears that sexual harassment has reached epidemic levels. In the latest survey conducted by the Center for Women’s Rights, 62 percent of interviewed men admitted to harassing women, and the overwhelming majority of surveyed women reported suffering sexual harassment. All this, however, is nowhere near as intriguing as the revelation that veiled women actually encountered higher incidents of harassment after covering up. One such furious soul told Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post (August 17, 2008), “These guys are animals. If they saw a female dog, they would harass it.”

But all this bad news for the veil, for Egypt’s ostensibly conservative values, for the MB’s promise of respect through modesty, for female dogs, has not discouraged an anonymous group of Egyptian do-gooders from launching an on-line campaign to promote the hijab by likening the female to a lollipop and—yup, you guessed it--men to flies. Are you catching on how literally beastly our position has become?

You Cannot Stop Them, But You Can
Protect Yourself

I don’t know? Every time I look at this ad, I think to myself, why cover up when you can just zap the suckers.

While the Egyptian MB were no doubt trying to figure out how a society can be at one and the same time more devout and more predatory towards its women, the head of the Doctor’s Syndicate, a fellow with strong ties to the “Brothers,” proposed a law that would restrict organ transplants to family members and prohibit them between people from different religions and nationalities. Under attack by human rights organizations, the good doctor insisted that the law is meant to address the problem of trafficking in human organs. Which kind of makes you wonder, because if the law restricts transplants to family members, why add nationality and religion?

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s religious police last July came up with yet another gem. They banned the sale of pet cats and dogs and walking those already sold in public places in Riyadh because they are used by men—here we go again—“as a chick magnet.”

Only two days ago, Al Lihedan, the primo shaikh of KSA, fatwaed (might as well make of the damn thing a verb, it’s practically English now) that owners of TV satellites should be killed because they “broadcast bad programs…Those calling for corrupt beliefs, certainly it's permissible to kill them. Those calling for sedition, those who are able to prevent it but don't, it is permissible to kill them."

Alas, howls and giggles have become the flip sides of Arab life: flip it this way, you get anguish, flip it that way and it's masquerade party.

More to come.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Welcome to Lebanon!

There was mention of a livable abyss in this Lebanon, in an earlier post (Jan.9, 08)): not like Zimbabwe, not like Haiti, not like Iraq, not that kind of carnage, not that side of turmoil. Something much kinder in fact: death a la carte, chaos on a tight leash, violence that leaks from the kitchen faucet as opposed to that which floods the entire house. In political speak: a tacit agreement between the warring parties to inflict pain but stay away from wholesale torture, to peacefully divvy up the place and sink deep in red ink the sharp, clear lines, the dos and don’ts, that drive its politics.

I pronounced Lebanon dead. Dead because it never could figure our why it must be. Dead because from the start it was made up of tiny dreams, of small calculations, of trivial ambitions, of narrow visions all at odds, all happy to embrace any idea but that of Lebanon. Dead because the cynicism of its shepherds comes in abundance, their wisdom in dribs and drabs. Dead because, for all its blemishes, to its many suitors it remained beautiful, ready to be had again, and again, and again.

But it seemed to me that the so longs and as ifs in this enclave on the Levantine coast might just be enough for a semblance of an afterlife. Perhaps mine was nothing more than fascination with a people who were collectively finished but individually very much alive, going about the business of life while their screaming politics, a mad Mrs. Rochester, let loose dreadful sounds and lunatic giggles every once in a while from the attic reminding the residents below of an ominous moment yet to come. And here it is with us now. This house burns.

Last week’s fury has shown how buffoonery can at a moment’s notice morph into madness. Sacrosanct, sky-high red walls have been brought down. We, Lebanese, are sitting stunned, the politically astute amongst us unable to predict tomorrow or fathom exactly what happened yesterday, the most cynical confidently churning out tactics and chess moves so utterly devilish, so pitch-perfect, you’d think the gods are in this fight and the rest of us are just poor, hapless, stupid humans lining up for the usual ritual sacrifice.

Such is the price of ignorance when you are asked to think your way out of near-total darkness: facts appear to you as shadows would, the tangibles fading in and out of the mind’s eye. And such is the price of ignorance in a Lebanon where the givens are so temperamental and politics is at once unbearably crude and ridiculously complicated. That is why our facial expressions keep changing as we bear witness to a country that keeps swinging between seismic shifts and stasis.

Eventually, and maybe very soon, events will point to the shape of our future. Into it, they are sure to pour the residues of the cruel pounding our realities have just received; realities dictated by sectarian taboos and fed by age-old parochial sentiments; realities sustained by a very fragile regional and local balance of wills and a resistance movement’s multiple identities and grand ambitions.

I don’t know what will happen next, but the latest disturbances were more than replays of Lebanon’s morbidly familiar sectarian discords. They were the last rung in the ladder that has taken the Party of God to the bottom of the Lebanese morass. These past five days have finally ushered in a very provincial Hezbollah--its nationalist credentials now muddied and strategic weight made much lighter. However powerful it shall remain within the political confines of Lebanon, against Israel its status has become perceptibly more vulnerable. For what resistance movement in history has thrived and fought well and won when its own people were deeply suspicious of its intentions and actively hostile to its cause.

It is not clear which ally incited, or which enemy provoked, Hezbollah’s military offensive, but what is unmistakable is that the gambit has failed. I hear its aftershocks are already reverberating in the Southern Suburbs. If this is true, then Damascus and Tehran and Tel Aviv are well into evaluating their impact.

The sad irony for Hezbollah is that it would not have ended up so very small and Lebanese had its grasp of the country’s confessional mosaic not been so mystifyingly weak. I suspect that the party genuinely believed that it had enough cross-sectarian support to bless its assault on the Sunni and Druze pillars of March 14 and the frustrating status quo that has held against its best efforts in the past 18 months. Hezbollah must have been convinced that the Lebanese people, across the divides, are just as taken as the movement is with its exceptionalism, not realizing that in Lebanon no one, however mighty, can ever be an exception to the rules. And hence during a week of crass muscle flexing, the earth shook but time-honored mind-sets and practices barely stirred. Only the sanctity of Hezbollah’s weapons died on the streets of Sunni Beirut and in the villages of the Druze mountains. Only the dignity of its purpose took a serious drubbing.

What a rude awakening!

As of this moment, I have only one message for Siyyid Hassan Nassrallah: Welcome to Lebanon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

So, Who’s the Bimbo? Part Two

I’ve been staring at this swinging Haifa and these floating black swans for weeks on end. Even in private thought I catch myself tiptoeing around these women and the fabrics that clad them. That’s the trouble with our veil: it has become radioactive. On it hang the prospects of a debate that is as contrived and fatuous in certain circles as it is serious and consequential in others. Of all our items of clothing, it carries within it a symbolism that is as political as it is sexual, as chauvinistic as it is emancipatory, as regressive as it is contemporary.

Not for the squeamish, therefore, talk about this precious veil! You have to sew your sentences ever so carefully and stitch your ideas together with such delicacy, although the image you’re finally embroidering deep into the surface of this issue is anything but pretty.
There is no doubt they’re special, these women—iconic, really. For many, they tell tales about dissonance and malaise, about rough endings and radical departures, modishness and piety when they are read backward or worn upside down. In conversations here and elsewhere Haifa and the black swans are often tagged as the human summations of our confused sense of Arab Muslim self, testimonies of our inability or unwillingness to write a meaningful narrative that neither plagiarizes from the West nor seeks inspiration in a distressingly introverted Islam.

Haifa, well, Haifa’s story is plain enough—at least to the eye: bimboism, as a supracultural trend, bimboism by the cookie cutter, if you like, and, inevitably, the female as sex object. Wherever you see her, however sassy or attractive she may be, she is everywhere the same. Of course, in her own backyard—the Arab world—poor Haifa carries even heavier baggage for most of the region’s religiously devout: she is visual proof of our drooling mimicry of the West, our susceptibility to its lasciviousness, our flouting, and with such scandalous nonchalance, the very clear commands of Islam. She is the very reason we need to turn back and inward and (for the most zealous among the faithful) fade our femaleness into black.

Which brings me to the lovely ladies traveling by her side. By looks alone, you would think that they and Haifa are worlds apart, that they pray to clashing deities, live by colliding value systems. The dress code alone would make any arguments to the contrary rather cheeky. They themselves would probably bristle at the suggestion that the one thing that makes them appear so physically different from one another is what actually makes of them the best of sisters: sex. Their sex, to be more precise, and the sheer lure of it which Haifa flaunts with such relish and which they hide with such zeal.

Mind you, there are plenty of us women populating the space between Haifa and the niqabis. We all spend fractions of our mornings and evenings determining how much we want to expose of ourselves. Call it our daily give-and-take with our femaleness. Sexuality, shi’na am abaina (whether we want it or not), is the first hanger we take out from a closet crowded with moods, tastes and identities. And here’s where Islamism pretends to leave the premises, all while installing itself king of the house: contrary to its contention that the veil is the Muslim woman’s path away from such potentially demeaning chitchats, it is a march smack into the heart of them, as screaming a voice for the objectification of female sexuality as Haifa’s zigzagging black rope without which her dress and she can never be one. For in that act that a woman takes to cover up in order to render more bearable her seductiveness, to temper—so to speak--the Eve in her, she is not authoring new rules for this ageless game, she’s playing by the oldest of them: like the famous chanteuse, she is embracing her sexuality’s wicked sway over men but is dutifully opting to switch it off rather than turn it on. And so, after traveling long and hard away from Haifa, she finds herself at the end of the trip right where she started: standing very close to the flaming tigress herself.

But of course, in these nervous times these musings are tantamount to petty rabblerousing, akin to pissing on someone’s party. It would defeat the objective of all this name calling inside and out, wouldn’t it, if these symbols of our cultural waywardness (Haifa) or religious atavisms (the black swans) turn out to be the creative handiwork of the very same mindset? A sharboukeh, we call this quandary in Arabic, a real tangle, because entire civilizations have been mobilized, enough books have been churned out to stack up libraries, intellectual powerhouses have been called in, eyebrows are in permanent mating, mouths are salivating all around their angry rim…You want to laugh at all this, but somehow something about the sorry sight kills the glib in you.

So, I don’t want to be glib about any of it, and I especially don’t want to be glib about the veil. Not the veil! Because here’s a piece of fabric that might well be as old as Gilgamesh himself and yet is forever young and vibrant. It has lived in so many countries and travelled to so many places, no more than a formality in that culture, no less than chastity itself in this one. It’s a chameleon: to some, soft and colorful and ever so light on the face; to others, heavy and immovable, wrapping bodies the way death swallows up life. It is versatile: to that daughter a quiet, even tentative, negotiation with “modernity;” to this one, pitchfork-angry, despotic and sadistic. It can play uncle, protecting its weary women from the incessant harassments of idiotic men, or be the best disguise for naughty girls in need of the perfect cover on illicit outings. It also can be out-and-out political, as the last few decades have shown. Yes, this perennial hallmark of female virtue has entered the political fray, in certain neighborhoods willingly, in others with its feet kicking and dragging. It has become a basic matter of identity--not all of it, to be sure, but enough of it for many of us to wear it as an act of cultural and political rebellion. It is no small irony, of course, that by willfully choosing to make our sexuality so inconspicuous we have rendered it the most conspicuous marker of this supposedly new identity.

Impressive, this remarkable ability of a piece of fabric to straddle so many realms and crown so many heads! How cleverly it mixes sexuality with politics with jingoism with culture with religion, and makes of the female the most valuable currency in this endless haggling over who we are. To talk about the veil today as a mere religious requirement would in fact be a violation of its civil and political rights: it strips it from much of its substance, denies its actual appeal and silences the crowds of motivations that have carried it triumphant out of its religious bounds. In countries that have made of diversity and pluralism umbrellas for feuding lifestyles and conflicting belief systems, the veil can be pretty much whatever it wants to be. However widespread and assertive it is in its own milieu, at its most ambitious it would be only one among many chapters on the challenges of assimilation and tolerance. But in instinctively conservative societies, the more popular it is, the more unnerving it becomes. Just by showing up, it has the capacity to harass women whose sexuality is as irreligious as it is apolitical. Watch it in Turkey become a victim of its resounding success everywhere in the region: no matter how loud or truthful its protestations that it is nothing more than a fulfillment of a scriptural obligation, no one will believe it. And with good reason, because if Islam’s manifest destiny is to colonize every dominion of life—or if it is in fact life itself, as its Islamist champions openly claim
--then the veil is the most vivid demonstration of its irredentist tendencies.

None of us has to spend too much time figuring out the reasons for the veil and its glory. They run around in rowdy packs screaming their way down our history. One is about a frazzled people’s hope that their religion will help them crawl out of their deep well of impotence. One is about how fickle we Middle Easterners always were about our secularism and how little we appreciated the beauty of it. One is about the search for companionship in landscapes emptied from every lover but religion. Yet another is nothing more than misogyny calling itself the word of God. Still others are about the need to believe that Islam can offer its own version of modernity, that there is more than one way to feel liberated and free, even if it means living in tomb-like darkness. That our womanhood should become so hopelessly entangled in an entire region’s convulsive relationship with its faith, its history, its place in the here and now, its political masters, the West, tells you how utterly indispensible we are in this struggle and how confounding our situation is because of it.

But don’t go around mocking those women who think they have set themselves free by covering up. That they have stood emancipation on its head in this day and age is no easy feat. And kid yourself not, most of them are no pushovers—sort of like Haifa herself. Research (see Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shii Lebanon, and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate) reveals that younger generations of educated women from secular middle and upper middle class families have enthusiastically taken up the veil to create for themselves a life that is self-consciously skeptical about a Westernism that comes in all or nothing packages. They want to pick and choose their way through things contemporary, mix and match PhDs’ and careers and financial independence with a white veil and tight black skirt today, a mauve one and jeans tomorrow. On many an intrepid face, you see lipstick accentuating the color of humility, bright eye liner complimenting it. In marveling at these women, we rarely compute that their rather imaginatively veiled displays are actually far more demanding of Islamism (yes, the ism is deliberate) than they are of the modern life. The latter is happy to indulge them as much as it tolerates all of us, all the way to Haifa’s side of the bargain. It is the former that is being asked to concede much because it is infinitely more particular about what it wants from its women. It is being asked to concede that the veil speaks with more than one tongue, likes having more than one interpretation, enjoys more than one standard, boasts more than one cultural accent, even if it dwells happily within the shifting walls of its faith.

Still, as a woman of this place and of this religion, as someone who, without hesitation, insists on every woman’s right to live with the veil or without it, I cannot but wonder at the astounding cleverness of this piece of cloth. All these twists and turns and layers and upon layers of emotions and thoughts and expectations and disappointments and heartbreaks suffusing it and imbuing it with such meaning, when, in truth, it has always been, by its own admission, about one very crude supposition: the sinful magnetism of the female and the burden we shoulder in physically shielding men from her.

Had I been, strictly speaking, a woman of faith, I might have lingered momentarily, as other woman have before me, at the obvious notion that since God went through all this trouble to create all this attractiveness in the female, the last thing he would want her to do is wrap it up. And since this life presumably is one long test of human will, I would have puzzled over why the onus then is not on the man to get over it and control his ups and downs. Not very rigorous intellectual or theological observations, I admit, and yet somehow they seem more than enough--at least for this female.  

Sunday, January 27, 2008

So, Who’s the Bimbo? Part One

Our politics is a narcissistic, shrill creature, isn’t she? There is no hope for perils of the tight-lipped kind in her presence. She raves and rants and kills, shoving shyer tragedies to the back pages, as if our center stage is only for cataclysms that come with ticking bombs. And what an ungrateful prima donna she is, for where would she be, who would love her, who would even give her a second glance if it were not for the shushed chronic injustices that make her so bloody and passionate.

But every once in a while, a wrong too terrible to hide or an offense too titillating to keep under wraps screams its way into the open, and suddenly the world lets out fleeting cries for the many sad souls inhabiting this place.

They’re writing about us Middle Eastern women—again. We’re news once more, along with quick death in Lebanon, slow death in Gaza, every kind of death in Iraq, and "yo mama" shouting matches between the US and Iran, between Syria and Lebanon, Hamas and Fatah, Hezbollah and March 14th…

A heinous honor killing, a particularly gruesome rape, loud heartbreak, and we’re back.
And why shouldn’t we enjoy the limelight every now and then! We have become exhibit A, the primo piatto, the weapon of choice for lovers and enemies in this furious orgy of loathing between East and West. Not that our looks have not been bandied about many a time in the past to give license to bigotry or justification for misogyny. But one would have thought our use-by date as pictographs had pretty much passed, we had been poked and picked on for so long. Instead, here we are in a new century, with new hairdos, living with the same old rage, the same old slogans, the same old effigies, on the same old terrain.

For an offended and humiliated East, we are the barometer for Eastern submissiveness to Western temptation. For an offended and mortified West, we are the caption that leads every conversation about Islam’s perennial backwardness. Many have literally drawn the lines of battle across our bodies and faces, as if our visage, and how much we reveal of it, is the only arbiter of who and what we are. Clothes have emerged as markers of our distance from or proximity to the West, ciphers of what is right and wrong about us--for both sides. Through such expedient visual abbreviations, a slit miniskirt has become either a shortcut to modernity or a sprint towards blasphemy, the niqab an appalling denial of the female self or an explicit expression of purity. Whichever way you turn us now, we are, by the sheer power of our appearance, the shield against imperial lust or the most telling piece of evidence of Islamic tyranny.

In this way, very complicated, inconvenient realities are tamed and made simple-- ironically for all those who have chosen this fight. In this way, the chauvinism that makes one of repressive states and Islamists is brushed out of the debate, moderation is rendered in photoplay and the hard work of progress is replaced with grand gestures. For evidence of a modernizing Dubai, you no longer have to waste your time researching family and personal status laws, review the fatwas that help set them, suffer long visits with actual cases, or check police archives; just go to the beach and ogle the bikinis while your downing those martinis. For proof of Egypt’s secularism, the public spats between Husni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood more than suffice; you don’t need to dig deep into the myriad civil-cum-religious statutes and court rulings that chain up women the way manacles shackle their prisoners. For portraitures of westernized emancipation, my free-falling hair need only speak to my freedom, the veil against hers; for Islamic-inspired liberation, the exact same symbol will do, only in reverse. Now are these pictures not worth more than a thousand words?

Forgotten in these burning trenches are the minutia of female subjugation and the web of tribal customs,  laws and sacred Islamic (and yes, Christian) writs that connive to give them absolute sanction: the rapes that almost always go unpunished, the victims of honor killings that are cut down and committed to collective memory as agents of disgrace, the mother who will never get custody of her pubescent children, the divorce that will never happen unless he wants it to, the wife who cannot open a business without her husband’s permission, the physical violence that passes for patriarchal prerogative, the sexual abuse that races out of the closet only when it is chased out by scandal.

But then, this is terror at its most efficient and subtle, quietly ruining lives and targeting mostly female prey. It minds its own business and asks others to mind theirs. It takes place in private arenas—back alleys, bedrooms, courtrooms—far from the madding crowd. It is smart, has age-old traditions for dear friends, the silence of the mighty as an accessory, a callous system as enabler. Why disown it when the stakes seem so small, the sufferers so expendable, the rewards so mercurial? Why pay the heavy price of what is sure to be a vicious squabble, when the label of modernity or liberalism or secularism can be had for much cheaper?

Especially when the war on terror itself, launched in the name of every nifty ideal it could conjure, has in mind much bigger fish to fry. In pursuit of the forces of darkness, it seeks out only that evil with a penchant for visual effects and mass fear. In its playbook, only a lunatic, wired-up Islam qualifies as fanaticism, only suicide bombings, televised beheadings and variations thereof constitute Horrorism, as Martin Amis coined it for them and us. With such high bars set for villainy, breezy is the test of tolerance for any regime, however reactionary, any fundamentalism, however vile, so long as they stick to discreet forms of wickedness in their own little backyards. And let’s face it, the beauty of women’s oppression, ugly as it is, is its capacity to be so ordinary because it is so commonplace. Juxtaposed against streets soaked in blood, heads rolling, towers falling, our pain pales as do our cries of protest, because this struggle is not about the substance of extremism, just the violence of it, and not all expressions of it, just that one that runs after the powerful and their interests.

Notice the sighs of relief when Sayyid Imam al Sharif, the first emir of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, recently published from his Cairene cell a series of ten lectures that called for an end to “suicidal” Jihad and described Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri as feeble-minded imposters who are “ignorant in their religion.” Sunni radicalism finally could boast its hawks and doves: Jihadi ideologues were breaking ranks with al Qaeda and the canons of murder were being rethought. And yet, the only genuine break between Imam al Sharif and his old comrades is in his revised how-to manual. The rest of the lectures are just as frighteningly zealous and monomaniacal as all the other extremist diatribes. Of women, needless to say, there is nary a mention in the lectures because there was nary a demand for it from the outside.

And so the story goes with the gang-raped girl from Qatif. If mercy had not come in the garish shape of a scandal, we would not have been able to marvel at the sight of a most enlightened Saudi king wrist-slapping his Wahhabi judiciary with a public pardon. Even in quick, antiseptic takes, the girl’s ordeal horrifies just as much as it astounds: a married girl of eighteen from the Eastern province is coaxed by her blackmailing ex-boyfriend into an afternoon car ride in order to retrieve an old photograph. The car is intercepted by seven men who drive the two into a remote location and gang-rape them into the evening’s twilight. Instead of remaining silent as she heals, the bride tells her husband she wants legal relief. Although rape in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death, the Sharia court hands out lashings and prison sentences of varying strictness, the severest not exceeding a few years worth of incarceration. For “illegally mingling” with a male, the girl herself gets 90 lashes which, as punishment for her appeal, increase to 200 and jail time. Incensed by the verdict, her unusually sympathetic husband and her intrepid lawyer decide to take this pubic; the media pick up the story, people everywhere are outraged, the regime is shamed, enter His Majesty and his much needed forgiveness to lighten up the red faces. The nightmare now begins to relax slowly into something less hellish.

From horrendous start to fairytale finish, this story blends the harshest of facts with the worst of fictions. If it were not for the husband’s support, this rape would have gone silently the way of countless others into oblivion. And humane though it was, the royal pardon was infinitely more merciful on Wahhabism than it was on the girl. Otherwise, why opt for a pardon and let the court’s decision stand as correct and defensible? Why insist that a monarch’s selective compassion and rhetorical devotion to reforms somehow render more forgiving this hate-filled Wahhabism which he espouses?

But such are the paths to salvation in countries where misogyny is visceral and the Sharia courts are predatory. Had the infuriated parents of the gang-raped French boy not scratched the slick veneer of Dubai, the very soft prison terms for his rapists would not have turned hard. Had women really mattered in Iraq, hundreds of them would not be falling in the north and south in an epidemic of honor crimes.
The Sorbonne and Louvre in Abu Dhabi, Cornell in Qatar, legoland in Dubai: all are examples of how cash can magically recast primeval desert-sheikhdoms as hip, modern-day princedoms. Here’s a conflict that is shot almost entirely in pictures and fought with big guns, big bucks and eye-catching tokenisms. Under the cover of glitz and marble live societies which are nothing more than props in a charade of progress, women who are told to live life as a photo op.

On the battlefield of this war on terror, we women are what we were in every previous contrived quarrel between East and West: a powerful symbol, a singular image, through which the difference between the two, at an instance, with a dash of the pen or the click of the camera, can be had. More than that we are as irrelevant to this battle as is every one of those lofty notions for which each side is pretending to fight.

Of course, thoughtful minds are not welcome anywhere near this infernal wrangle. For them, no doubt, this whole debacle would be hilarious were it not so noxious. What, after all, could be scarier than demagoguery and ignorance sermonizing to us on behalf of entire civilizations and setting the rules of engagement between them?

Which, on a lighter note, brings me to these sisters.
More on So, Who's the Bimbo, later.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


I am not sure how to greet this 2008 and I don’t know what to call this post. Flipping through pontifications for some insight about this East is like hunting for shy meanings in a world ravaged by blah-blah-blah. But they are there, in that unspoken bit or that gliding mention of a skidding fact which perk up the mornings just when they are about to slide into a murderous ennui.

In this manner Lebanon has been splintering daily on the front page of newspapers and in living rooms. We have no president, our parliament is in hibernation, our government is a paraplegic and our recent past is a repository of wars, assassinations, Israeli cluster bombs crippling our south and a near-empty tent-city crippling our center. If doom had an army, it would conquer thus.

Absent from this screaming tragedy is the whirr of a divided nation purring its way through calamity. It’s as if the Lebanese people had finally descended into the abyss and found it, after all, livable. The state, struck dumb by the political class, parades around practically naked and headless and the implausible becomes an embarrassing fact: we have no need of a Maronite president, a Shiite speaker of the house, a Sunni prime minister and council of ministers because we have no need of the state. So long as each sect has its generous chief and each tribe its caring father; so long as each municipality can pretend to breathe on its own; so long as basic services, such as garbage collection and electricity and water, don’t cease; so long as the army keeps deploying its youngsters here and there to calm and reassure the jittery, Lebanon has no practical need of its politicians. To boot, it turns out that we, the parts, do not need to be the sum of anything in order to add up to something. This country has not been one or whole for a long time now, and while the people seem to have accepted this reality quietly and moved on, our “statesmen” are sounding like Johnny’s-come-lately, warning us that the dire end may yet arrive when, in truth, it has come and gone.

This is the way we live but, admittedly, it is not the way we think because the mind is a creature of habit. Conventional wisdom does not know what to make of a people who seem to have outgrown their myths, and so it sees Lebanon’s latest trouble as a political crisis rather than the last gasps of a state playing catch-up with a country that already functions in pieces. Of course, you would not know this from our hacks because, well, where would they go, what would they do, if this upheaval is exposed for what it actually is: pure political theater that is of no worth to us beyond its entertainment value. It is the sheer audacity of this truth that explains the dissonance between a paralyzed political elite and the hustle and bustle on the streets, the busy shops, the parties, the record sales, the happy balance sheets, the humming factories, the soaring price of real estate, the sects mingling with each other peacefully if, at times, nervously. That this place can chug along in the midst of political turmoil says as much about the state’s insignificance to us as it does about our indifference to it.

All this does not mean that our poor are not hurting, or downtown’s businesses are not suffering, or our peripheries are not limping, or our sectarianism is not alive and kicking. It does not mean that we have become less attractive to the Syrians, or less relevant to the Israelis, or less susceptible to Shaker Abssi’s (remember him of Fath al Islam?) terrorism, or less moved by the region’s whims and wishes. It just means that, for us, for our dreams, our hopes, the Lebanese state is today as it was yesterday and shall be tomorrow: inconsequential on the best of days, a bungler on the worst.

Amr Musa, the maestro of the Arab League, arrives today with a new Arab initiative supposedly blessed by every power that matters to Lebanon: Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the US. No doubt it comes as well with an Israeli nod. It might succeed this time not because there is anything new or original about it, but because the parties appear to have milked the standoff for all it’s worth. Sadly, whatever comes next, it will mean nothing for the future of Lebanon, for Lebanon is dead.