Thursday, June 28, 2007

Istanbul to Jerusalem

Brian Phelps

This summer, I have been traveling with Keegan from Istanbul to Jerusalem – following the route of the first crusades. Along the way, Keegan, two others, and I have been attempting to create a documentary/travelogue of sorts on the modern day legacy of the crusades – whether the history of the crusades is still alive and meaningful for the people who live here or whether it is a dead history whose images are conjured by religious and national leaders for political gain.

I write from Damascus, Syria, and I will attempt to summarize the Turkey portion of our trip in this post, write about Syria in subsequent posts, and in the future, post more regularly. However, it has been tough to post frequently when moving from place to place every few days. Not being able to settle in one town or city for very long has made communication difficult. My apologies to our friends and to the readers for not posting yet.

* * * *

Many of my friends have traveled to or lived in Turkey, and while I have been to many countries in the Middle East, this was my first visit to Turkey. Naturally, they had told me stories about how wonderful Turkey is, how welcoming its people are, and how beautiful its sights are. My expectations were exceeded within the first week.

Turkey is a perfect introduction to the Middle East, and for the purposes of our trip – following the route of the first crusaders – it was apropos for us to enter the region in Istanbul, which was at one time Constantinople, considered by many to be the greatest city in the world. By many measures, Istanbul is half Asian/Middle Eastern and half European. Geographically, the city itself rests on two continents – separated by the Bosphorus Strait.

From the moment I arrived in Istanbul, I could see both the European and Middle Eastern influences on the city. My first experience with Istanbul outside the airport was with the traffic. Turkish traffic exhibits all of the usual Middle Eastern signs: drivers ignore traffic lights, lane markings seem to only be painted on the roads for decoration, and any living pedestrian will tell you that cars have the right-of-way (in fact, the right of way goes to the biggest and heaviest vehicle on the road). However, my fare had all the signs of a twenty-minute cab ride in London.

As I stepped out of my taxi, as I was searching for the small backpacker hostel where my three friends and I had agreed to meet, the call to prayer serenely echoed across the skyline filled with minarets. For Muslims, it announced the high-noon time to pray. However, for me, it served as a reminder that I was marching around the city in the heat of the day with a 40 pound backpack, trying to navigate unsigned streets with an inadequate guidebook, and ask directions in a language I did not speak.

I did eventually find my hostel, and very soon after arrival, I was offered a beer at the hostel’s streetside café. As I looked up and down the street, I noticed several bars and several convenience stores that sold beer. And I couldn’t help but notice the already-intoxicated Kiwis a couple of tables down from me. [These were the same Kiwis who later that night would be singing on the rooftop bar with their pants on their heads. While embarrassed for them, I couldn’t help but think: “Thank God they’re not Americans.”] In Istanbul – and almost everywhere I visited in Turkey – beer and alcohol were available almost everywhere. Nowhere else is this more evident than Istiqlal Cadessi, a long cobblestone street filled with clubs, smoky pubs, discos, and swanky rooftop bars. This is the place where Turks come to party.

To me, this should seem normal for a big city. Except, I was in a country where 97% of the population considers themselves Muslim, and Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol. This dichotomy between my greeting to Istanbul from the muezzin in the Blue Mosque and my goodnight lullaby from D.J. Koray was somewhat jarring. And for me, it epitomizes the intentional secularism of Turkey in a way that perhaps goes even further than what some European nations would be comfortable with.

Although there are many people who choose to be religiously conservative, there are also many people who do not consider themselves practicing Muslims. But, in Turkey, most people tend not to pry into others’ religious practices or judge others harshly for what they decide to do. Religion nowadays, for most of the people who we spoke with, is a private matter – between the believer and his or her god. This is a country with a deep Islamic history topped with a unique flavor of European secularism as well.

But Turks don't see this as two opposing forces. Turks are a proud people, and they see the secularism, the Ottomon-style mosques, and their hospitality as distinctly Turkish. There is no contradiction when on a weekend, the most happening clubs are closing up just as the morning call to prayer begins to sound. Turks, some who are of Kurdish or Arab origins, see themselves as distinctly Turkish, and are proud of the liberalism and tolerance that allows people of different backgrounds and beliefs to integrate into Turkish society.

I could go on with some fun (and some stereotypical) examples of the different European and Middle Eastern flairs in Istanbul and Turkey. I will talk about the uncomfortable hospitality we were shown by many of the people we met along the way, but I promise to incorporate that into another post. And perhaps, that post will be a bit shorter.

For now, it’s on to Syria, a place that I expect to be very different...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

a rose by any other name


For those who are lucky enough to have been to Syria know the feelings that cause me to declare, oh Damascus is Syria and Syria is Damascus. She is a city I have visited many occasions over the years. As I come back to her in the different stages of mental development I cannot help but fall in love with her over and over again for different reasons every time. And yes, I cannot refer to Damascus but in the pronoun she, because in Arabic it is a feminine word. But also, I think the affection refers to that of a captain to his ship. The affection between us is one that has existed through the ages, for Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city.

The first time I remember falling in love with Damascus was the summer of 8th grade. I fell in love with her beauty, her romantic charm and her incredible etiquette. My cousins used to take me on walks through the city at nights during that summer. At first the proximity of the ancient city with the modern additions took my breath away. The mixture of the two seemed to be a perfectly balanced blend of the two worlds that I was living in. The image that I fell most deeply in love with is the rise of the ancient Mt. Qasoon at the edge of the old city, littered with tiny old-fashioned cement block houses. The mountain as a part of the city, a mountain that paraded the feeling of eternity with its very presence, a mountain that lessened the division between the heavens of the almighty and the poor mortals of the ancient earth; well, that mountain proved to me the special place that Damascus has in God’s heart.

At that age all I could concentrate on was her unique beauty. I did not notice the intense poverty in the areas surrounding Damascus. The result of rapid modernization without a thought to city planning and the people’s welfare was lost to me. Looking at Damascus now I cannot help but be reminded of the favalas of Rio in Brazil (for those who haven’t experienced seeing such images, you must watch Favala Rising immediately). Walking through Damascus now, I cannot help but wonder how this incredible city used to be a beautiful oasis in the middle of the Syrian Desert. I sigh for the cut down beautiful forests that was said to be a literal paradise on Earth. When I remember that all this destruction happened in the last 50 years, I feel like collapsing in a fit of tears. My insane, incredible and persistent hope for a better future though helps me accept the torture that has been done to my lovely city as I look for ways to restore her health.

The last time I was in Damascus was last year. I graduated early from high school and a semester and a summer here before I started college. As I awaited the beauty and charm that drew me to Damascus, I knew that I could no longer look at her the same. I didn’t love her less, for it is impossible to fall out of love with her, but her faults were thrown constantly in my face. The pollution, poverty and political insanity followed me wherever I went. While I was in Damascus, the Danish cartoon incident happened. For those who didn’t hear, a parade of young, angry Prophet Muhammad loving men stormed through Damascus and burned the Danish embassy along with its neighbors just for fun. Easy to believe that a group of angry Arabs could do something as crazy as burn an embassy, but here is the catch: the embassy caught fire before the crowd was even close to it. When I realized this, it opened the bag of worms for me about Arab political affairs. Everything turned into a Kennedy assassination conspiracy. From wondering why the electricity always goes out for an hour a day (some people say that companies pay off the electric company so that appliances will break with the electric surges and people will have to buy new ones) I started to give everything I had taken for granted in Syria a deeper observation.
Despite the betrayal and hypocrisy of the country, I could not dismiss my love Damascus from my mind. She had become a part of who I was and by throwing her away; I would be throwing away a significant part of myself. The result of which caused a race for a cure for my sanity. I felt like two souls were vying for control of one body. I was Maryam, an American citizen, or Maryam, an Arab Syrian. I could not be both for each wanted to live in a different part of the world. I will save you the details of this struggle but only recently have I come to terms with this tug of war.

Coming to terms with all of her faults, and discovering my own identity, I have fallen in love with Damascus all over again. This trip has turned out to be one of healing as once again I can walk through the cobbled streets of old Damascus during the day and tour through the malls of new Damascus at night. I love the sound of the Mosques calling to prayer and I also love the shake-your-hip belly dancing music that blares from stores and passing cars.

I love watching Hummers try to navigate the narrow ancient haras or neighborhood streets.

I love hitting the cafés with my cousins then running home to catch Isha’a prayer.

I love watching the ancient etiquettes of Arabs played out in high-tech scenarios of Internet cafés and Four Season hotels.

I simply love Damascus.

I’ve never known a person who has seen her breathtaking face without falling head over feet for her.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

all the world's a stage


I’ve been in Lima since last Sunday and with each day we’re becoming better acquainted. It was a formal introduction at first, a well-groomed interaction with the tidy politeness of a distant stranger. Over the week, formalities have been deliberately subtracted from the context and already we’re forging a bond through insightful chats with comic taxi drivers, warm chocolate churros and spontaneous street theatre.

My relationship with the city has flourished through the language experience. Beyond a progressing familiarity with street Spanish I’m gaining a clarity and honesty that comes through a disarmed simplification of expression. I find fluidity in conversations with taxi drivers, on minibuses, at street cafes, with market vendors and local artists chatting away with unguarded ease. I love taking on an accent, slurring the vowels, playing with words and tossing in the occasional idiomatic expression.

In professional settings, however, when I try to impose a calculated deliberateness to my thoughts, intended articulations come out butchered and sloppy. It’s humbling to see the meager truth of my ideas when they’re not dressed up in poised rhetoric. The pursuit of quality will surely be a long one.

As I’m taking on roles and trying out scripts in this city, I enjoy the occasional break as a spectator. I love people watching. In Lima my favored vantage point is a lower step of the amphitheatre in Kennedy Park. Sitting in the hub of Miraflores district I’ve gotten to know the old man who comes to visit his pigeon friends. I’ve seen young love stories spark and old ones fizzle out. I’ve watched family outings, temper tantrums and the occasional mid-life crisis. I love opening my senses and soaking in the vibrant surroundings. On long afternoons and late evenings I get lost on rambling trails of thought while inventing stories to piece together the scraps and fragments of passing strangers.

In continuation of my nomadic theme for this summer, I find myself freer and more penetrable in this unpaved journey. It’s an escape from passive consciousness with its surface impervious to the details of daily activity. Traffic jams that were once annoying inconveniences become primetime for people watching, crammed mini-buses offer wisps of juicy conversation, and no matter how trivial the discussion my rough language skill demands complete focus, eliminating a lapse into passive listening.

Friday was my first venture into the industrial region on the far side of the city. As fellow bloggers have expressed, the visual juxtaposition is astounding between the modern and the traditional. Heading into the heart of a bustling district on a chaotic minibus I stumbled over outstretched feet and into the last vacancy in the back seat. Ten minutes into the ride I was sparked into conversation by a solemn looking Peruvian in his early 50s. Carlos Vera dove right into discussion and analysis of Peruvian politics, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the recent elections in Egypt and the role of the United States in the Middle East. Carlos attempted a simplification of events to a bottom line of deteriorating human culture. “It’s the capitalist spirit that eats us from the inside; each person pops the top to his own individual Inca Kola, fights for his entitlements, and pursues his personal rights - this global mess we’re in is the product of self-interest, and where does that leave the masses?”

As the bus stop approached, our conversation wound down to an all-too familiar question. “Have you been to visit Machu Pichu?” He asked. “You must remember to vote for the 7 wonders of the world! You remember Machu Pichu and I’ll remember the pyramids,” he smiled.

For a bit of thematic relevance, my ‘Arab experience’ has certainly been unique. To date I’ve incited a fan club of 60-year old chess players, in a 15 minute span I received requests for 3 photo-ops, on a regular basis I cause double-takes and literal jaw drops, I’ve held my own against stare-downs of the masses, and for the eighth day now I've withstood round after round of the ‘top to bottom sneer’ as coined in Egyptian dialect. I often feel like the three headed woman in a circus freak show, but more on that will follow shortly…

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On legitimacy


Granted, political rhetoric is by nature reductive and simplistic, concealing the true intentions of actors beneath a discourse acceptable to the audience. But allow me some venting.

As Hamas has taken co
ntrol of Gaza, relegating Fatah officials to nervous chain smoking in the lobbies of Ramallah hotels, the tide of empty rhetoric lies has become overwhelming.

Here's one of the more egregious examples, found in a New York Times article today previewing Monday's meeting of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Israel's Ehud Olmert, Jordan's King Abdullah II, and the Palestinian Authority President/Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas:

“We are following closely the fallout from the coup against Palestinian legitimacy,” Mr. Mubarak said in a statement to members of his party.
(my emphasis)

Legitimacy, Hosni? Legitimacy? We're talking about legitimacy? Sorry to sound like Allen Iverson. But let's talk about the legitimacy which, Mubarak insinuates, Hamas lacks.

In the elections of January 2006, the Palestinian people propelled Hamas to 76 of the 132 parliamentary positions, with secular Fatah coming in second with 43 seats. The vote was complicated. On the one hand, it represented a repudiation of Fatah's complacency and corruption as well as a recognition of Hamas's efficient social services and centralized organization. For some, it was also an affirmation of a harder line - especially rhetorically but also militarily - against the Israeli occupation. What is clear, however, is the election's certification by international election observers.

Even George W. Bush seemed caught up in the the moment, noting at the time that "the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy." Or maybe Mr. Bush was just confused, thinking of all the time he's been able to spend on vacation in Crawford, Texas as a result of his experience with the power of democracy.

The point is, Hamas was legitimately elected to power, in something of a land slide at that. As such, it seems they must figure into Palestinian legitimacy in some way, at least more than Hosni Mubarak would like to admit.

But at the end of the day, Mubarak is scared. Scared of the possibility of a refugee exodus coming over his border from Gaza. Scared of Hamas's success emboldening the Brotherhood.

His short term domestic concerns trump any clear eyed assessment of what constitutes legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians or, for that matter, a legitimate peace. If he did, he would recognize that the alienation of a powerful, primary stake holder lays the foundation for a creaky peace, if any at all. As a wise Israeli whose last name rhymes with kalamari noted, this was one of the significant flaws of the Oslo Accords - it was an agreement between Labor and Fatah to the exclusion of the Likud and Hamas. More recently, refer to Bush and co.'s reluctance to heed the recommendations of the so-called "wise men" of the Iraq Study Group to engage Iran and Syria in the effort to secure Iraq as exhibit b in the failure of alienation as a viable strategy.

Reminding us of Hegel's contention that "the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history," it seems the powers that be are nevertheless intent on bulldozing forward. Which, the Economist notes, could lead to a choice between "martyrs or traitors" for the Palestinian people.

And - sparing you any extended reference to a certain Bay Area rapper of early 90s fame - you can probably guess which side will be seen as legit.

Friday, June 22, 2007



Matt asked me to elaborate more on the idea of cousins marrying cousins. I mentioned it briefly in my last entry. To ease his confusion, I will oblige. However, there are some disclaimers:
1. Cousins marrying cousins is a tradition that still exists to this day in the West. Even though it is looked down upon in the main stream culture, it is found in places that we refer to with high regards, mostly royal families. Also, it was a part of main stream culture in Europe all the way to the 1800s.
2. Whatever generalizations I make do not refer to all Arabs. There are definitely many families that do no allow the intermarriage of cousins.
3. The generalizations I make refer to the Arab culture, not the Muslim culture. Many Arab Christians hold onto this tradition as well.
4. Whatever generalizations I make does not necessarily refer to my family.

So, the intermarriage of cousins. Don’t be so grossed out. As I mentioned before, it is fairly common despite it being illegal in 25 states in the USA.
To start out with, let’s talk about why it became a tradition. Arabs are, as many other cultures also are, a family orientated society. The intermarriage of cousins is a way to keep the family together. It saves the family name. For example, when a girl gets married, for all purposes she becomes a part of her husband’s family more than her original one. Even if she does not take up his last name as hers, her children will have their father’s last name. In her original family’s eyes, she and her children are lost. Rather than loose members of the family, some families will marry their daughters to their cousins so that when they marry, they will be leaving the family only to come back into it since her husband’s family is hers. This way the girl’s children will keep the family’s last name.
Is that confusing? That really sums up the most basic why of the issue. In the olden times, the unspoken rule was that the cousin of girl had more rights to marry her than an outsider. If the guy wanted to marry her, any other guy stood no chance. But if the cousin didn’t want to, then she was free to marry outside of the family. Many times the cousin didn’t want to marry his cousin, but is pressured by the older members of his family to not let his cousin ‘be lost.’
To lessen the gross factor for the readers, let me explain the relationship between cousins in the Arab culture. Some families think of their cousins as their brothers and sisters. If this is so, then the intermarriage of cousins is NOT allowed in this family, because if you think of someone as your brother or sister and marry them, well that is just incestuous. For most families, cousins are people you know as you know your friends, people you can trust to watch out for you and you watch out for them, and people you are comfortable with. However, there always exists an unspoken partition between the girl and guy cousins. They are not allowed to be alone together and if you are a Muslim, the hijab barrier exists between them. Cousins are your family but are really like close family friends. What if you fell in love with the daughter or son of a close family friend? Sure there would be complications but it wouldn’t be gross would it?
Now society today has been greatly affected by Western ideology, where it is considered wrong to marry your cousin. So most families today generally do not hold very much to this tradition. Cousins are becoming more and more as siblings and less as strangers. In fact, it is actually hard to find people from my generation who would accept marrying their cousins. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist anymore, only that it is definitely less common.
I hope that covers everything. If you have any questions, please leave a comment. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions about this topic or any other topic.
The most important thing to remember when looking at issues in the Middle East, is that the people here have a totally different frame of reference than you do. Trust me. I’ve had discussions with members of family that leave me speechless (and those who know me know how hard that is). For example when talking to my aunts how I don’t want to get married or at least don’t feel the need to get married anytime in the near future they ask me about things that I didn’t think of as an issue before. Like where I was going to live. I hadn’t considered before that I needed to be married to move out of my parents’ home, but they thought it was scandalous that I wanted to get an apartment by myself after college. Not scandalous as in unIslamic or morally wrong, but scandalous as in what will society think?
I’ve learned to accept the different modes of thinking because mistake number one is to think that your way of thinking makes the most sense. Maybe it makes the most sense for you but you cannot push your way of thinking on the world. Me moving out is something that will work out for me (God willing) but I would not recommend it for my girl cousins here.
Sorry if I sound a little preachy but I learned these lessons the hard way so I can definitely imagine people reading this who would not have thought of this before. Just some words of advice.
Well, this update has certainly been longer than the others. But please, don’t shy out of asking me any questions that you might have on Arabs, Arab culture or Muslims. I really would love to answer them. Trust me, I don’t have anything else to do ☺

Take care everyone,

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Slapping hands


Dining with a group of Jordanian and American friends several nights ago, I unleashed a force whose magnitude, in all my thinking, can only be compared to what happened when they crossed the streams in Ghost Busters. The spur of this tidal wave seemed pretty innocuous. I simply noted that in my three-ish weeks in Jordan, we hadn't really discussed politics yet. Before I had closed my mouth, the juice was loose. What followed, a rousing, fist-pounding-on-table discussion of Palestinian statehood, Iranian influence, and American conspiracies, among other things, ended in agreement on not much more than the belief that the situation in the Middle East is as complicated as ever.

Recent developments in the region are overwhelming, among them: Mahmoud Abbas channeling Ronald Reagan in discussing what he called a Hamas military coup in Gaza and what the U.S. seems to hope will be a Fatah political coup in the West Bank; the challenge of Fath al Islam in Lebanon; new accusations of Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics; the continued strangle-hold on political freedom in Egypt; rumors of Turkish military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan; not to mention the greater issues of Iraq, it seems few would disagree with our contention regarding the complexity and magnitude of current events.

If anything seems to be evident from our work so far on this blog, it is the tension between these issues of geopolitical strife and the content of everyday life, at once more "mundane" and "humane," to quote Ilan Pappe, than the larger systems of ideology, authority, and force at work in the region. I've especially appreciated being privy to sharp humor.

I struck up a conversation with a cab driver the other day on my way home. His people were from Ramla (different than Ramallah), where in 1948 tens of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly dispossessed by Israeli forces under the leadership of a young officer named Yitzhak Rabin. I asked my cab driver what he thought about the current Civil War between Hamas and Fatah. "Ma feesh hal," he lamented. There is no solution.

As we sat in traffic, a line of cars zoomed past in the other direction, young people hanging out of the windows and dancing, horns blaring. Jordan University holds separate graduation ceremonies for each of its faculties, so these episodes of rhythmic honking and clapping had been pretty commonplace over the previous week or so.

The cab driver, laughing, looked over to another idling driver and shouted, "Look! Palestine must be free! We can return!" I couldn't help but laugh. He punctuated the moment with the half hand-shake, half hand-slap preferred by joke tellers all over the Arab world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Pulitzer Prize Photo

Marium Chaudhry

Snap. Stop. Stare.

As an amateur photojournalist I tend to do the first of the three actions rather than the last two.

On our trip to the Sinai, I decided to try something new. I decided that I would leave my camera in my bag and try to venture out into the desert without my beloved partner.

There is power in the shutter of one's eyes. Forget the big lens that straps itself on the hollow body of a camera. Using a camera to capture a moment is like a strong, healthy man using a cane to walk. Cameras are a curse if you don't know when to put them down and a blessing if you realize that your eyes are stronger than any camera lens.

I saw the most amazing sights in the Sinai.

From nights of utter blackness strewn with stars, from bedioun men calmly comforting camels and mountains enamating holiness, I saw Egypt's beauty in the span of 48 hours.

And I have nothing to show for it.

But I do have the pictures in my head. In this blog, I will try to show you my pictures of my Egypt, my images of its essence. For I am jealous of the camera that speaks for me. And this is my moment to shine.

But in the nights of the Sinai, shining is a feat left to the stars of the Arab world. In the pitch dark of hallowed desert winds, the sky speaks for itself. I have heard the black ink sky being compared to black velvet and stars to diamonds. I disagree with this analogy.
The sky in the Arab world is as dark as you want it to be. At first glance it is like black ink. But the longer you look at the sky, the color glistens from black to dark blue and to slight shades of white.


The stars are not like diamonds. They are strewn in the sky like marbles that fall out of a child's hands. Glassy and clear. They twinkle like diamonds but are not as capricious as diamonds. Diamonds are fickle mistresses that shine for anyone that lays their eyes on them.
Stars in the Egyptian sky shine for those who take the time to look at them. They twinkle for a second and then quietly stop blinking as if waiting to see if one is really staring into their eyes.


My camel stopped right at the edge of a bundle of rocks on Mount Sinai. My camel, who was named Asfour, and who, my camel driver, Sobh, swore was sent for me from heaven, was in love with wandering off to the edge of the mountain. I rode a camel for two hours to the top of Mount Sinai in darkness.
All I could see was the light from Sobh's flashlight and the stars in the sky. Sobh animately started talking about his camel's digestive problems as I felt Asfour's stomach rumble beneath me.

Stricken with fear of falling off the camel and equally scared that my camel was going to throw me off the mountain I held on for dear life and took a picture.

It is the most beautiful picture I've taken yet. Worthy of a Pulitzer. And its all in my head.

Asfour crunched her feet on the ground as Sobh grinned, his old face, brown with lines that crisscrossed from the edges of his eyes to the cleft in his chin. His eyes were brown and old, his beard, shaven and white. My green bag hung on the bright red saddle that was strapped on Asfour's back. My red and brown embroidered shawl covered my head as it lazily wrapped itself around my shoulders. The mountain looked sinisterly brown. The sky looked white with the blaze of stars. And at that one moment all the stars twinkled together.

There is some thing about Egyptian nights that even cameras can't capture. A feeling of utter beauty that cannot be translated onto film. There is not one person that travels in the orbit of these nights who is not touched by its winsome path. Unless they walk through it with their eyes closed.
For there are moments that are lost in adjusting the speed of a camera's lens, moments like the grin of a bedioun camel driver as he explains that camels drink water after three days, seconds when a shooting star races through a sky illuminated by galaxies, and a split second when you think to yourself, “did that camel just turn its head around and smile at me?”

Moments. And it can take exactly that moment, the one that you actually take to look at the picture around you instead of holding an artificial lens next to your eye that can define your entire journey.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Turkish Delight

Hey party people!

Well, for my first blog post (actually my first use of a blog ever!) I should probably introduce myself. My name is Keegan de Lancie, a senior at UNC from Los Angeles, and an Arabic dork along with everyone else on this site. I lived in Egypt two years ago now, and I'm currently traveling from Istanbul to Cairo chasing the legacy of the Crusades. I'm visiting historical sites and interviewing academics, but I'm also talking to people I meet along the way, your everyday average Jameel who runs the kebab shop underneath the Crusader fortress. I want to know how people approach religious violence today - whether the legacy of the Crusades is as pervasive and gripping as we hear, or just empty political rhetoric.

I will try to post my progress as often as I can, but I am subject to the whims of chance in the internet cafes I come across. Some are speedy - some are just a step above an old man yelling into a rusty can on a string.

With all of that said, our progress in Turkey has been, well, progressing. We've visited Istanbul, Bursa, Ankara, Göreme, Şanlıurfa, and Antakya, and have found ourselves feeling progressively more foreign the further east we travel. The coastal cities, even as far as Ankara, have a distinctly European feel. Tourists receive no more than a look or two, provided you don't show any interest in a carpet. English is often the second language, and people dress like a cross between a 70's pop star and the entire population of Italy (though considerably less lecherous). However, as we crossed the Euphrates towards Urfa, we suddenly felt like we were back in the Arab Middle East we know and love. Traffic inexplicably went crazy, men fit their entire family and pets on to a 2-stroke motorcycle, and syrupy-sweet baklava became a semi-official currency. We were surprised to find that Hammer pants are still very much in fashion in this part of the world, and even got a number of tobacco merchants to shout "Hammer time!" with us and shuffle around. "Makes me say, Oh mah lawd! Ohhh Ohhh!"

We could also finally communicate in Arabic, albeit in a crazy half-Iraqi, half-Syrian, half-freaking-Martian dialect that threw me for a loop. Zein. Shnoo. Moo. What? Speak Egyptian!

Our travels have been peppered with spontaneous friends-for-life and hospitality that defies explanation. We had been given contact numbers for people along the way, but in typical Crusades-trip fashion we neglected to write down where we'd received the contact information from. Here in Antakya for instance, we're being shown around and treated to lunch by a group of people from a local high school. We have no idea how we know them, especially considering that they speak nearly no English and only a slight bit of Arabic. Only in the Middle East would I ever jump into the car of someone I'd just met on the street, communicated with using a poorly articulated mixture of 4 languages, and be still left not really knowing who they were.

I'm off to Syria tomorrow, inshallah. Word on the street is that they're really keen on a group of twenty-something American men wandering around their country, interviewing people on camera about religious violence and politics. We've been trying to get official permission to do the filming, but after talking to multiple ministries it appears that Syrian bureaucrats went to the same schools of administration as Egyptians. Maybe it's something in the tea...

Peace and blessings be upon all ya'll. Ma'a salaama until the Sham!


Maryam- outspokenarab

So i saw that I haven't really introduced myself yet. I am a rising sophomore at UNC studying International relations and Arabic. I am half Arab and the other half is a mixture of Irish and German. I'm staying in Syria for the summer visiting family and 'relaxing.' But any Arab can tell you that when you add the rest of the extended family in the picture (and mine easily counts to 75) then it is not very relaxing.
Because I wear a scarf, people in Syria automatically take for a Syrian. And it doesn't help that I have become fluent in Arabic slang from my last stay in Syria last year. But sometimes it gets annoying. Like when I'm at a restaurant and I'm getting the Syrian service, which is to ignore you and wait for the foreigners to come and wait so they can make big bucks. At times I want to scream, "Hey! I'm an American!" I'm sure my experiences are unlike the experiences of the rest of the Tar Heels on this blog.
For example, because I'm somewhat smart and pretty (you can see the modesty right?) and because most importantly, I have an American passport, my older aunts and uncles all think of me as (taking the words from Jasmine in Aladdin) 'a prize to be won.' They would give anything for me to marry one of their sons. Thankfully my cousins don't think this way so we just ignore and make fun of the attempts made by older members of the family.
And also, I don't have easy access to the Internet so my updates will unfortunately always be short.

Until next time,

Scattered Thoughts

Matthew Garza

Hello All,

Belatedly I realized that I was not as thorough in introducing myself as I should have been, so here goes. Sophomore year is over and my longest stay outside the country has begun. The original plan was to spend all my time in Egypt (July-December), but then Sam and Sarah (of Tar Heel Travelers fame) invited me to come and stay with them in Jordan for the month of June. So on a whim I bought the early ticket and here I am! The plan thus far has been to spend some time pseudo-interning with FINCA, the microfinance organization where I interned last summer. Their Jordan office is still in the development phase, but should be completely operational by October. Exciting work with an exciting organization. And in less than two weeks time I will be on a plane to Cairo where I will begin formal language study, perform some terrorism research, and explore other opportunities.

This post ran a little long, so the second installment will appear in the next few days. Enjoy.

1. It is easy to distinguish between the real Jordanian patriots and those who are simply along for the ride. How you ask? The prominence with which they display the flag. But we’re not talking about some sissy American magnet or a token bumper sticker. No, patriotism here approaches a whole new level. The Jordanian who loves his king more than himself will affix the Jordanian flag to the dashboard of his car with the point firmly directed at his face. What better way to affirm love of country than by risking near-certain death every time you start that engine? And seatbelts? They laugh at the thought of it. If you’re not prepared to impale yourself with a slight tap of the brakes, well then I hear Syria has some cheap real estate.

2. The work week begins on Sunday and continues through to Thursday. Friday is the day when all the shops close up and people head to mosque for Jumua', the Friday sermon from the mosque leader. Saturday is a second day of rest for some, but many Jordanians work a six-day week. I am in the former category at FINCA. It’s exciting to get off work on Thursday. That is until the harsh reality of Saturday night sets in. Work on Sunday?! Oy…

3. Satellite TV has arrived in a big way throughout the Middle East. Governments which seek to control the flow of information inside their country now face a barrage of 200 channels in every home. And that’s just the standard package. Outlets like Al-Jazeera, often the victim of unfounded criticism in the US, are just as disliked by the establishment here. Extensive and oftentimes quality reporting on issues pertinent to the region is helping bring information to the people. Furthermore, every house and apartment looks capable of commanding NORAD from the couch. Technology marches on.

As a small side note, several countries have their own channel. So you can tune in to Kuwait, Bahrain, or Saudi TV when Euro ’96 is on repeat. Curiously enough, the Sudan channel tends to play a lot of cartoons. Guess there isn’t much to report on over there.

4. Photos of King Abdullah II are not mandatory items for the household or office, but people hang them regardless. Upon first inspection, it does not appear that these photos are ploys to improve business or brighten the store front. In conversations thus far, everyone seems to genuinely like him. So as you parade down the street, the king is to be found dressed in fatigues, an air force uniform, or a sharp, tailored suit. A limited edition portrait, found in the KFC near my office, features his highness with the wife and kids at home.

That's all for now. Check back soon for more updates.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Lost in Translation


Like Sarah, I want to learn beauty salon Arabic. Of course in my case I should say that I want to learn the Arabic of the “saloon,” a sort of ricochet word - the English transliteration of the Arabized version of the English word salon.

But first I have a confession to make. I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t disappointed when I learned that saloons were simply barber shops. Seeing ubiquitous signage for these places during my first trip to the Arab world, I imagined a happy slice of the Wild West in the Middle East, complete with frequent quick draw duels, busy five card stud tables, a blind rag-time piano player who always knew to duck when fists or bullets started flying, and a large brass spittoon for chewing tobacco in the center of the floor. I imagined tying up my horse, pushing open those window shutter-esque doors, sidling into the saloon, and declaring, with one hand on my pistol, that I was looking for the man who shot my pa.

I revisited this reverie yesterday as I walked into the barber shop on my block, Omar Saloon. I sidled in and growled, “I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.” I then summoned a fantastically large quantity of saliva and propelled it into the brass spittoon in the middle of the floor. Actually, I didn’t do this at all. But I really thought about it. I was so caught up in my day dream, in fact, that I momentarily forgot the words for hair cut. The barber looked at me blankly as I stuttered a little bit. Was my Arabic really that incomprehensible? (Or was he just trying to play it cool, concealing the fact that he’d killed my pa?) These are the questions that ran through my head. But as I would soon find out, if anyone had a right to suspect another of killing his pa, it was probably the barber. But I get ahead of myself.

After some more of my mumbling, the barber made a scissor motion through his own amply gelled hair. I nodded. At this point, I’m thinking, “This whole saloon Arabic thing isn’t going well.” But my unease was misguided. He motioned to a chair and I sat down. As he covered my clothes and wrapped starch around my neck, he asked how I would like my hair cut, katheer or shwaya, a lot or a little. I told him, “Shwaya but in the fashion which is loved profoundly by the girls of today.” You’ve got to love Modern Standard Arabic. The barber, named Muhammad, got a kick out of this one.

We continued to talk as he snipped away, making eye contact through the mirror facing us from the opposite wall. He asked me about Chicago and mentioned that he loved Michael Jordan. But Muhammad was especially curious about my work in Amman. Which is kind of a tough point for me because I’ve yet to discover how to explain NGOs. Recently I’ve resorted to telling people outlandish things, like my job is to eat falafel or grow buteekh. But I played it honestly this time, telling him that I was working with a group that promotes “human rights, political liberalization, and press freedom.” Interested, he asked if it was “al-umum al-mutahida,” the United Nations (warning: Arabic language study joke…al-umum al-mutahida is one of the first vocabulary words taught in Al-Kitaab, probably the most popular Arabic textbook in the U.S., so if an Arabic student knows anything, it is probably how to say United Nations. And given the cowboy nature of American actions in the Arab speaking world over the past few years, teaching future Middle East specialists how to say al-umum al-mutahida right off the bat is probably a good thing. Kristen Brustad is a crafty one, she is!) But back to the story. I told him I didn’t work for the UN. He put down his scissors and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his wallet. It indeed bore the stamp of Al-Umum Al-Mutahida. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be exact.

Muhammad used to be a barber in Baquba, an Iraqi town located 50 kilometers north-east of Baghdad. It is just outside of the region called the Sunni Triangle. It has frequently been termed the heart of the Sunni insurgency. A lot closer to theWild West than our humble saloon. Muhammad left in 2004 after things got really bad. He hoped to resettle in the U.S., Europe, or Canada. But the prospects for this appear grim. The U.S. recently agreed to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees out of a larger total of 2 million scattered throughout the region and another 2 million internally displaced within Iraq.

I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, ya Muhammad,” I mustered. From my comfortable bourgeois life, how could I possibly appreciate his experience? And how could I fight the sense that I was complicit? But he quickly responded with the deep differentiation – perhaps even undeserved – that I’ve come to expect from residents of the Middle East. “Politics are different than people,” he said, adding with a laugh, “And hair is the same everywhere.”

But, as I learned yesterday, although hair might be the same everywhere, styles certainly aren’t.

My initial direction of shwaya had quickly disappeared into a substantial pile of hair in my lap and on the floor. As Muhammad held a mirror behind my head, revealing a final product that exposed a lot more of my neck than was visible before I sauntered into the saloon, he asked “Shwaya jeel?” I wasn’t really sure what he meant, so I answered with my usual non-commital / I have no idea what you said “mumkin,” it is possible.

I realized the meaning of “shwaya jeel” as he filled his hand with a much more than shwaya - some might say copious - amount of hair gel. He proceeded to douse me in it. Now, loyal readers, you probably didn’t expect to receive stock tips from this humble record of discovery and learning. Nonetheless, Tar Heel Travelers Stock Tip #1: don’t buy stock in Jordanian hair gel companies because there is absolutely no room for growth (or perhaps this is why you should buy…help me, business majors , Economist readers, and Republicans!) – the market is just like my head after the application of “shwaya” gel: flooded, which is also the prevailing style among youth here.

So I looked like this when it was all said and done.

(this is the fashion preferred profoundly by the girls of today?? Mumkin.)

Writing can be framed to make us feel a certain way. But life doesn’t really work this way. It’s sometimes complex, sometimes simple, sometimes somewhere in between (my apologies for sounding a little Zach Braff-ish). And sometimes it affords you opportunities to indulge your egotistical vanity, skirting the discussion of graver issues that frighten and confuse you in favor of bad haircuts.

I shook Muhammad's hand as I left and he smiled, intoning, “Allah m'ak,” God be with you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Peace in the Middle East

Marium Chaudhry

We're writing for the Arizona Daily Star on their blog website.
Its called "Cairo Calling."
my blog is up!
check it out
sam, stop eating those watermelons.

Middle East Movement

Matthew Garza

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported on the massive Iraqi refugee situation here in Jordan. Most estimates put the population at somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people who have fled the rages of war across the eastern border, all the more remarkable considering this country’s entire population is 5.8 million. In Jordan, it is common that they face challenges of poverty and discrimination (remember that colloquial dialects make different Arabs easily recognizable). One of many unfortunate consequences of the recent war in Iraq.

The magnitude of the Iraqi refugee population here is shocking at first, but this story is sadly all too common throughout the history of Jordan. Fully 65 percent of Jordanians are Palestinian, and while not all of them are refugees (Jordan has had several programs to grant citizenship to Palestinians in the past), the second half of the 20th century has seen several massive influxes of Palestinians seeking asylum. Following the creation of Israel in 1948, Jordanian troops took control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank after which 100,000 Palestinians fleeing to the kingdom doubled the population. When Israel captured these lands in the 1967 Six Day War, another 350,000 found their across the border. Finally, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait forced 500,000 people working in the Gulf to flee to Jordan, a significant number of which were Palestinian. All in all, some 700,000 Palestinians have arrived in Jordan over the last fifty years.

Recently I took part in a FINCA-sponsored expedition to look for office space close to the people who will receive our loans. Naturally we spent time exploring the refugee camps (largely located on the outer limits of the capital city), but these camps do not quite conform to images I have seen of refugees in Sudan and Tanzania. No tents. No huts. No endless food lines for the World Food Programme. The camps here look strikingly like many other neighborhoods in Amman with their own apartments, commercial buildings, and schools. I guess refugees settle down after a half century or so away from home. The catch is, refugees cannot own land in Jordan. They are forced to rent and thus suffer from a lack of capital (no loans against the home). Also, the children do not attend schools with other Jordanians. The UN operates its own school system for refugees here in Amman. And these are just two of countless structural disadvantages of being a refugee in Jordan.

Living life as second-class citizens, Palestinian refugees can find solace in one recent success. There are two soccer clubs here in Jordan: Faisaly, supported predominantly by Jordanians, and Wahadat, a team based in one of Amman’s larger refugee camps, a perfect athletic complement to mirror the societal divisions. Last Wednesday Wahadat took glory in the most recent meeting of these cross-town rivals and the streets went wild. A small victory in an otherwise trying existence. Don’t be surprised if an Iraqi team springs up in the next few years.


As a small extension of this post, check out this article from the New York Times about the Iraqi refugee population in Syria and their role in the burgeoning Middle East sex trade.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Prelude to a Journey

Aisha Saad

Summer is beautiful – possibilities for travel are infinite. I’m a hopeless romantic for the excitement of discovery, the adrenaline of adventure, the liberation of geographic independence.

As the date of departure nears, a part of me grows more and more restless for autonomous mobility. I think time is due to match the thrill of trekking and experiencing with some legitimate introspection.

Since wrapping up the spring semester, I’ve been reading and thinking. In trying to make sense of life I’m putting aside a more methodical analysis for the pleasure of organic wonder and curiosity. I've become fascinated with the nomadic ideology - for the dominion it extents over all places. Birthed from a seed of humility, it claims neither roots nor submission to a grounded earth. It is a transcendental unity of space, a geographic tawhid [one-ness] flowering into the communion of life experience.

Perhaps this rambling is just a reaction to nearly four weeks in a very grounding suburbia. Nonetheless, I hope to adopt such a nomadic mentality for the next nine weeks as I take a slow step through the Andes, across the Southern Cone, and make my way over the Atlantic to spend fall semester in Cairo.

Conditioned by pursuits of purpose, I’ve learned to travel to a destination; to a city, to a friend, to family, to a campsite, to the X on a map, to an answer... In the spirit of growth and in pursuit of quality, this summer I leave behind self-affirming travel. I hope to wander with an openness that gives value to the impressionability of process. In the spirit of deconstruction, I intend to move and to evolve in a destination-less journey.

Why South America?

For indulgence of the soul; for the freedom to wander where my image does not carry a string of immediate assumptions. By visual definition I am clearly a Muslim, Arab woman. Through travel, or rather through wandering, I find the freedom to define myself outside of a context. I can only attempt a weak articulation of that surging apprehension and anticipation for a whirlwind of sensory experience; mountains and glaciers, beaches and markets, tastes and sounds, immersion in language.

I love language; Arabic is incontestably my preference. Among a selection of flat acrylics, it stands out as a frescoed mural. Perhaps out of loyalty to the mother tongue, I am awed by an infinite potential for expression. My thoughts are dwarfed by its vivid and layered intricacy. I think I am not alone, however, in appreciating the novel excitement of carrying a foreign language back to its homeland.

This summer I’m letting go of command and assurance in communication and am eager to live in Spanish; to take a new brush into my awkward grasp and to paint like a child. I imagine that such a linguistic reveal may expose raw beauty of new and untamed expression. I’ll try to hold on to that thought as inevitably I face frustration and awkwardness sifting through eight years of mental flashcards and struggling for a natural coherence.

My summer is not entirely amorphous; the realist in me acknowledges relevance of Travelocity and Lonely Planet to the budget of a 21st century nomad. That being said, I’ve booked a loose itinerary, secured housing, and am working under the directive of a research project to lend academic value to my journey. Meanwhile, I hope to adopt a nomadic subconscious to escape suffocating in the closed loop of a round-trip vacation.

I’m not yet sure if this blog is the appropriate outlet for my postings. In consideration of the thematic integrity of a Middle Eastern Travel blog, perhaps I’ll hold off on my contributions until Cairo in the fall. On the other hand, it may be relevant to share my travels “from the perspective of a native daughter of the Middle East” [thanks Matt]. Whenever and wherever it may be, I am glad to be a part of this community.

Modernity v. Tradition, Round 1

Hi everyone. My name is Sam. I'm living in Amman for the summer, proofreading grants for an NGO (but mostly reading internet news) and doing research on Jordanian identity in the late 1950s (but mostly trying to figure out what the hell Joe Massad is saying). I studied as part of the UNC program in Amman two summers ago and at the American University in Cairo last fall. I enjoy eating watermelon, visiting roadside watermelon stands, and listening to socially conscious hip hop while eating watermelon.
(seriously, I like visiting roadside watermelon stands)

I should also note that it is with considerable consternation that I post my usual crassness on the same page as Aisha's eloquent prose. If you haven't read her piece yet, read it. If you have, read it again.

Anyway, here goes.

Last Christmas Eve as I wandered the tight side streets of Jebel Amman, I was invited to sit by an old man in a shop-front holding his hands to a space-heater. I obliged. Hunched against the cold, we talked about Amman and the King and life. He fashioned himself the Jordanian Voltaire, reciting long lines of poetry from memory, mixing French, English, and Arabic. At one point, when I noted the prodigious amount of construction being conducted in West Amman, he jokingly claimed that you need a passport to get from East Amman to West Amman.

Indeed, sometimes it feels this way. The car license plates in my neighborhood reveal many Saudi and Kuwaiti residents, here for the summer to, among other things, wear their pristine white thobes and get away from the 110 degree heat (note: this is in early June. Imagine August!)

(in front of Al-Bayt Al-Kuwaiti on my street)

The antiseptic, air-conditioned malls they/I/we visit in the new part of town seem worlds away from the dingy but bustling markets of Wast al-Balad. Some have suggested that the nature of community in these respective areas differs as well. After one cab driver ascertained that we were trying to learn Arabic and living in West Amman, he clucked his tongue. “West Amman very bad for learning Arabic. In West Amman people no talk with each other…they talk on their mobiles alone…they watch satellite alone…they speak English alone. You should come to East Amman to learn Arabic. Very better.”

Which raises an interesting question. Does development necessarily break down community? I don’t know. As Sarah wisely observed, maybe the break down of real communities (that the cab driver posited existed in East Amman) simply gives way to the formation of virtual communities, where people might watch al-Jazeera solitarily but as part of a larger community of solitary al-Jazeera viewers.

For me, these questions are intricately tied up with questions of authenticity, as well. Am I getting the 'true' Arab experience in West Amman? What is the 'true' Arab experience anyway?

A few nights ago the owner of a Syrian restaurant that I went to in hip Shmeisani lamented that business was slow, as only foreigners came to his place to eat, the intricate designs on the walls and 'authentic' meals presumably exemplifying 'real' Arab culture. In contrast, most Jordanian young people headed straight for Burger King, MacDonald’s, and, as they say, Bobeye’s (no p sound in Arabic).

(across from Jordan University, notice the minaret in the distance)

Of course, this is only the case for those who can afford it. Far more expensive and exotic than street food, fast food carries a distinctly different cultural meaning here than in the original fast food nation, assuming the role of a bright, clean, well-staffed place for upper middle class people to eat.

But while I understand this academically, my avoidance of these places is as sure as the King being on the front page of Al-Ra'i every day. Instead, just as all of the starry eyed foreigners visiting the Syrian restaurant, I've sought what I imagine to be "authentic" or "real" Jordanian culture.

This concept, however, is quite limited in and of itself. To divide the complexity of Jordan into clean boxes of tradition and modernity and to pose as the objective arbiter of what constitutes the "real" Jordanian experience is to assume a quasi-colonial epistemological role of power. Besides, it just isn't accurate: such a critical lens ignores what the great Omid Safi calls "the gloriously messy middle where real folks live and breathe." And perhaps most importantly for you, oh dear legions of readers, is that it is to ignore the very real, very meaningful, and very interesting cultural intersections that occur in the space that I crudely compartmentalize as Western and modern.

Although chances are that I won't be offered a stake in a curse-protected buried treasure hunt if I visit McDonald's (as I was last week while in search of the mythic traditional Jordanian experience up in the mountains), I might see something else that is interesting. After all, everyday life isn't divided into boxes of tradition and modernity. It's composed of integration and interaction, conspicuous consumption and, well, not so conspicuous consumption, often right across the street from one another.

(at left, H2. at right, pickup truck full of tomatoes. I bet that H2 cost a lot of tomatoes.)

Understanding this unique cultural space is vital to understanding the complexity and diversity of Jordan and, for that matter, any other country.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I want to speak beauty salon arabic

First, an introduction.
I’m Sarah Grossblatt, a rising senior International Studies (Middle East) & Public Policy major. After a year of Arabic classes with ustaz Nasser and a summer study abroad program in Jordan, I’m back in Amman working on some independent research, interning with Sharakah, and taking Arabic classes at the University of Jordan.

Despite my (limited) previous exposure to Arabic, this year has presented yet another round of language obstacles. And I might have found the solution: the beauty salon.

The beauty salon? Sarah, you just want excuses to indulge in a 5 dollar pedicure.
Not so, my friends! And now allow me to explain. Amman has quite a fair share of tourists here, especially in the summer, meaning that English is widespread. From the grocery store to the taxis to the internet cafes, more often than not your funny sounding fusha or not-quite-there ammiya will be interrupted with a “Speak English?”. This, in fact, is one of the things I find most frustrating about foreign travel in general. How are we supposed to be practicing our language skills if at every corner there is a Jordanian with a healthy knowledge of and urge to speak English?

Answer: get off the beaten track. While the tourists use the internet cafes and taxis, I bet not too many of them want to spend their vacation time getting a haircut. And this is where the salon comes in. I was on a mission to get some beauty “services” when I encountered this lovely phenomenon. None of the women in the salon spoke English. So I was allowed to struggle all I needed to in my fusha/ammiya combo to ask my questions, and learn that I would have to go elsewhere. Same result at the second salon, but being turned away was less disappointing when the conversation leading up to it was held in Arabic. Third try’s a charm, and I’m in the chair ready to go. The stylist doesn’t speak English, so the entire 40 minutes I’m in the salon is a personal one-on-one chat in Arabic.
(Side note: Besides the Arabic, beauty salons are especially interesting for girls. No windows and no men means that as the women come inside they strip off their hijabs, bearing the forbidden fruit of their Arab hair. I felt like a spy, infiltrating a secret territory).

So girls, if you need to work on that Arabic, sign yourself up for a manicure. Nothing wrong with killing two birds with one stone.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Maryam- outspokenarab

Observing the recent "elections" in Syria have been an experience. I have a few words to say but I tend to write them from the point of view of a story so bear with my writings. Here is some of what happened here with me and my cousins.

Posters of his face, Bashar al-Asad, screened every house, window and open space of air. The promise of peace, hope and future forcefully glittered in every direction. The sight gave her heart a jump a hope for an untouched future without the seeping encroachment of corruption. But she knew no such future existed, despite what the posters promised. Purity cannot be built upon corruption. And like always promises here were never kept, whether it was your father promising to take you tp the park or a promise of justice and equality in a dictatorship only slighted coveted with a thin drape of democracy.

Back in the taxi the conversation centered on the best places to buy scarves. The evil hands that extended from the posters and signs seemed as if nonexistent to the inhabitants of the car.

"There is a store at the end of the Hamadiya market. Do you remember it? We bought scarves from there last year. They have really nice scarves," suggested one cousin.

The others quickly agreed.

"You know, my boss was telling us yesterday," began one cousin, "that he'll give 1000 pounds to anyone who votes.

The only male in the car looked up, "Really? Then I'm gonna vote! Man, a 1000 pounds!"

She sat thinking she'd vote to, a civic duty sure. But a 1000 pounds? Even better. She opened her mouth to agree but then was tackled by a thought that made her stop cold. 'Who would she vote for?' And like that the hilarity of the moment, the joy of the shopping trip disintegrated in her frozen mind. She was left with the cold reality of being told she had the freedom to vote, but not the freedom to choose anyone but him.

Here is where my cousins and I get caught up in a demonstration for the President in my cousin's car.

They rushed by in their cars, chanting, screaming, whisatling, clapping. You name it. They had left the cafe to head home when the madness started. Cars stopped and started all around them with flags attached and posters waving. A march to support him for sure, his picture loomed in every direction like the darkness of the night sky above them.

Music shook from every car, sporadically switching from military beat nationalistic songs to gangster rap. The air was filled with joyfullnes and laughter and despite the chants for God, President and Country, no one's mind was on the future of the country or the upcoming election. They screamed their youth, sung their boundless hope and clapped for the moment.

She sat in the back, amazed and quiet at first. The reality of the occasin slowly began to sink in and she started to understand the laughter that peeked from her cousins' faces. They hated him. They always made sure to steer far away from topics that easily led to jail sentences without trials. Yet the young of the family were quickly becoming ocercome with the emotions of the moment. Soon she even found herself shouting cheers from the car and desperatly looking for a flag to wave. The moment seemed like it would never end as the night held to her ferstive mind and the tears of despair from the eyes of the oppresed in the country were silneced by the please of youth for joy in a time of utter helplessness.

In solidarity,
Maryam Al-Zoubi

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Ode to Ola

Marium Chaudhry

Before I write about my latest epiphany, I thought I would introduce myself (or rather cuz Matt said we should :)). Born and raised in Pakistan, I studied at Carolina and graduated this May. Now I'm traveling through Egypt for the summer with 11 journalism students from Arizona, Nebraska, Utah and Maryland, taking pictures, writing stories, talking to people and pretty much having a good time. We 're all here on the Fulbright program, doing different stories on the Middle East and learning how to be journalists in the Middle East. Even though I am a broadcast journalism major, I opted to work in photojournalism since I enjoy that a lot more. Its hard being part of a group of journalists that all pretty much have preconceived stereotypes of the Middle East, dont drink tap water, complain about the heat and are absolutely horrified about the intense amount of smoking in the region.
I am guilty of enforcing this stereotypes as well. Which leads me to my next blog.

Journalists think that they know everything.

As a group of people that work around the world, most journalists tend to think that since they write about something, they know more about it than others, aren't sensitive to other people's opinions and feelings, and don't realize that their actions might be offensive and judgemental towards others.

I am guilty of this stereotype as well.

Ola taught me differently.

I met Ola yesterday at the Cairo tower, a high rise in Cairo from where you can pretty much see most of the city, even the pyramids in Giza. The midday sun is one of my seven plagues. It never leaves you alone, takes the longest time to go away and is the most awful lighting for any kind of photography. Needless to say, pollution and the light made the majestic pyramids look like tiny specks of brown mud. So I sauntered around the tower, cursing the sun and complaining about the pollution, when I was pulled aside by a little girl who was probably around 6 years old. She took me to her parents and her two other sisters and then proceeded to tell me how beautiful I was. We then started to fight about who was the prettier one, me or her. "anti gamila, la anti gamila"...I met her father and her mother, who were from Cairo. I started snapping photos of the little girls, chatting with their father about Pakistan, America and Egypt. Out of the corner of my eye I saw their mother walk to the side of the tower staring at the suffocating city below.
She is a Niqaabi, meaning that she wore the black Muslim dress that covered everything but her eyes. I didn't think she would let me take photos of her since most women wearing the Niqaab (and we had been warned about taking photos of them at a journalism briefing before) are not very susceptible to being photographed. Nevertheless, I tentatively walked over to her, started talking to her and asked if I could take her photo. She said ok.

Her name was Ola.

I took a multitude of photos of her, most of which were washed out because of my archenemy. I started feeling uncomfortable as some of the students on my trip, when they saw me taking photos of Ola, started snapping away as well. Sensitive to the fact that she might be uncomfortable, I thanked her, told her her eyes were beautiful (basically because I couldn't see anything else) and walked away.

She spoke to me while I photoshoped. I sat and stared at her photo for a good 15 minutes before I actually started to work on it. Here I was, snapping photos of a woman who was all covered, was not an anomaly from where I was from, but I took atleast twenty pictures of her because I knew that the stereotypical image of a covered woman is what sells. People exclaim in shock when they realize that a photog was able to get close to a niqaabi and take her picture. What we don't realize is that these shrouds in black are actually women. They are real. There is someone behind all that black and there are eyes that peek through the tiny slights of black. Ola taught me to be humble and to realize that the best picture may not necessarily be the one that shows the most humanity. So this is my salute to the women in black.

Ola and her daughter at a cafe in the Cairo tower. They are holding parchments, souvenirs from the Cairo tower that have a person's name in hieroglyphics and your fortune.


I like to think of this picture as the younger version of Ola. Like daughter, like mother in this case. Perhaps if I ever run into Ola again, I might get to know her and she might be as amazing as her daughters.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Man of the Nile

Marium Chaudhry

His name is Jamil. I instantly knew Jamil was not from Egypt. Why? He said his name was Jamil and not Gamil, a phonetic difference that separates Egyptians from all other Arabs. As we swayed back and forth on the Nile, with 12 journalists drinking beer and smoking, Jamil and I spoke about his home, his family and his job.
Riding a Fallukha, the name given to the boats that reign over the Nile, I chatted with Jamil about his a job that rewarded him with around 50 Egyptian pounds (almost 10 dollars) per ride. He told me he was from Iskanderiyah and lived with his wife in Cairo. His two sons and daughter were still in Iskandariyah. He moved to Cairo to earn money to send to them.
Strange, I thought. I had heard about Egyptians leaving Cairo to go to other Arab countries to make money but had rarely heard of it being the other way around.
What I didn't realize at the time was that Iskandariyah is a city in Iraq. He never mentioned it and my limited knowledge of cities in the Middle East resulted in the question, "Where is Iskandariyah?" He obligingly answered drawing imaginary lines in the air as he explained where it was. I nodded and listened while thinking, "God, I'm really bad with directions and geography...did he just say Bahr Al-Abiyad or Bait Al-Abiyad??"
Oh well, we continued to talk about his life and his job. I now realize that he must have come to Cairo as a possible refugee from Iraq and was captain of his fallukha after escaping war and leaving his children behind.

Its not a lot of money, he said, referring to his job, but its a living.

Here are some of the pictures I took of him. I think they tell more about him and his new life than I can.

A boat pulls into the dock as the manager of the fleet of fallukhas watches on. The Fallukha is the main way tourists can enjoy a scenic and serene ride on the Nile. One ride usually costs around $10.

Jamil prepares the boat for the next load of tourists that are waiting to board the Fallukha.

Jamil pulls the rope to adjust the mast (that nearly hit me on the head) as we prepare to venture out to the river.

Jamil waits until the sun sets before he turns the boat around.

As the sun sets and the city lights bloom, Jamil silently watches the tourists on his Fallukha. This ride will be the first of a long list of Fallukha rides on his list for that night.

Monday, June 4, 2007

why are we here?


A lot of people ask me why I’m interested in the Middle East. Some combination of cultural-linguistic fascination and current events, I suppose. I sometimes try to interrogate myself as well, in order to facilitate more articulate answers. Unfortunately, conversations with my ego about the Middle East usually go something like this:

Id: Why am I studying the Middle East? What brings me to this far away region? Did an opthamologist really secure 97% of the vote in the recent Syrian presidential election? Who killed ‘Ali? Why did I choose a language with glottal stops?

Superego: Is that cherry shisha I smell?

Given the depth of my internal dialogue, you can imagine the trouble I have in more formal settings. When I visit the Middle East or, more frequently, apply for schemes that will allow me to visit the Middle East, I’m forced to grapple with this. Once on a boat in the Bosphorous a Syrian man asked me this same devilish question and I (do many things say naïve better than fosha?) answered, “Ureed an afham al-sharq al-awsat,” which, for you non-scribbly speakers out there, means “I want to understand the Middle East,” in the most pretentious formal Arabic possible. The man laughed and said pointedly in English, “I’ve lived in the Middle East all my life and still don’t understand it.”

As for my various applications, I usually dress up an Edward Said quote, expressing my desire to promote cross-cultural understanding in the name of moving past the essentialized caricatures that justify military aggression. It’s sort of like that line from Talladega Nights about baby Jesus – you know, “I like to picture baby Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says I wanna be formal but I'm here to party” – except in this case the Said quote says I’m formal and the opposition to military aggression means I’m a hippie – which pretty much means I’m ready to party.

But seriously, I’d like to think – in my own little Ivory Tower way - that I’m somehow battling hegemonic and neo-colonial discourses of power through my education. Who knows, though? In the midst of intellectual theorizing and, well, not-so intellectual theorizing (see Ricky Bobby quote above), I sometimes lose sight of what’s at stake.

What I do know is this. The guy sitting next to me on the flight from New York to Amsterdam had a standard issue pixilated desert camo back pack with his last name printed on it beneath his seat. Before the flight started he flipped up his phone, speaking in rapid Spanish to his mother. Once we lifted off, he pulled out his PSP, playing what appeared to be Space Invaders for the duration of the flight. Squinting behind his glasses and clad in an Old Navy polo shirt, he might have been younger than me. He spoke with a man across the aisle about his imminent deployment. “I don’t see us getting out for the next five years at least,” the man across the aisle said, in the type of voice that’s usually followed by a low whistle. “Well I’m locked in for the next 5 years. That means at least three tours left,” the Space Invader killer said.

I bore this in mind during my first few days in Amman, a city no stranger to the scars of war either, with an influx of between 400,000 (the word on the street) and 750,000 (government estimated) Iraqi refugees prompting some Jordanians to refer to upscale ‘Abdoun by the name of ‘Adhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. And, of course, these are the lucky ones. They join over a million refugees to the north in Syria as those who have temporarily escaped a maelstrom that has killed upwards of 650,000, if you listen to academics.

Now, this isn’t about setting up a binary of suffering or some calculus of misery. After all, we all lose in situations of human suffering. And this is the point, I suppose: that no one is winning here, nor will anyone ever win. Not the bespectacled GI rolling the dice for his remaining tours of duty, not the Iraqi refugees forced to desperate measures.

I’m still trying to comprehend the enormity of the situation. And I’m struggling. And I don’t know if a “better” (whatever that means) or a larger cadre of Middle East specialists could have overcome the quixotic idealism of the neo-conservative movement, the lockstep jingoism of the American media, or the climate of fear among the American public. Colossal efforts by peace groups and rational thinkers came up short. So I don’t know.

But maybe we can keep this in mind as we commence our journeys of learning. It can give us pause, it can give us perspective, and it can give us purpose. Or maybe just a new line for applications.