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.