Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When the world hands you lemons...


It was like any other Mediterranean resort. In fact the name of the resort, Florida Beach, simply did not do it justice. We pulled into the entrance, showing the guard our membership card, and parked among the other Mercedes and BMWs. After cutting in between the hotel and the chalets we took our spot on some chairs overlooking one of the three pools and the Sea. Yachts moored in the marina were spotless, and each boat was flying the Lebanese flag. The bar was stocked with beer and wine, most of which were made in the same mountains overlooking the resort. Bikini-clad women were in abundance, some awkwardly walking around in high-heels, and so were the gaudy gold crucifix chains. The resort even had its token anorexic, behind whose back everyone would whisper “ya haraam” (forbidden). The stereo was blaring horrendous pop music, and in spite of this it was one of the most magnificent places I’ve ever been. However, there were three things that one would not expect to experience at the normal resort on the North Mediterranean.

The first one was quite small. In between the songs by 50 cent, Beyonce, and Maroon 5 were songs by Arab pop stars (including our favorite, the one, the only, Amir Diab. Keegan you should break into singing right now). The second, more ironic than the first, was the occasional woman in a hijab. These ladies only stood out because they obviously were more dressed than everyone else on the beach, and of course in Lebanon no one including myself had a second thought about it.

The third thing was shells. Not seashells, but the sound of artillery shells. Fifteen kilometers north of Florida Beach is Nahr Al-Barad, the Palestinian refugee camp which three months ago turned into the battleground between the Lebanese Army and Fatah Al-Islam. The helicopters above were not touring choppers; they were Hueys flying reinforcements and supplies to the Army. While I’m sure everyone heard the noise of cannons blasting, I was the only one who seemed pay it any heed. I was in paradise, sunbathing, listening to a war. How could people, how could I, do this?

As I started to think about that question a lot of ideas came to mind. The first answer I thought of was the religious gap. As shown by the aforementioned gaudy chains, most of the patrons here were Christian, and maybe they simply wouldn’t care about an overwhelmingly Muslim camp. However, that would not explain why those Muslims here (see aforementioned hijabs) were just as comfortable as the Christians. In addition to that, more Lebanese soldiers have died in this battle than militants, and the Army is largely Christian (the current Lebanese Army is basically reformation of the Christian militias from the civil war). What about class differences? Once again, the Army being largely Christian means that many of its soldiers are from wealthy areas in Lebanon. The young men dying in the fight came from the same neighborhoods as these people. What could it be then that allows these people to share with me drinks and skin cancer while shells fall nearby?

When that thought crossed my mind, in those exact words, it hit me. The human psyche is a hard thing to break. One reason for this is because it can become, for lack of a better term, twisted very easily. I had only been hearing literal death in the distance for less than 15 minutes and I could already joke to myself about skin cancer.

If I could do this after such a short time, imagine what a lifetime would do. There is not one person in Lebanon under 60 years old who has lived more than 15 years without conflict in their country. The 1950’s saw political unrest and international intervention in Beirut. From 1975 until 1990 a civil war made Lebanon synonymous with violence, and the 2005 assassination of Hariri and last year’s fiasco between Hezbollah and Israel were by no means good to the country. If people did not learn to go about their daily lives, including extravagant recreation (which everyone does if they have the means; who among us can say that we’ve never done such a thing?), then Lebanon would be the biggest psychiatric ward in the world.

So when does the twisting go too far? Can it really go too far? I think it is important with this question to point out that the resort had a lot of kids as well. How should parents make their children confront the two faces of Lebanon? The only way to help them I feel is to present some sense of normality. In the best case, they’ll never have to experience the same paradox when they are raising their kids. In the worst case, they’ll know that there is a way for them to present a sense of normality in a world that is simply twisted. In this respect, given the situation, we would all do the same thing. Twisting of the psyche could never go “too far,” because if it broke then we would all be in much more trouble than we face today. Was this resort a display of wealth that would make most readers of this blog sick with the problems of the world? Of course it is. However I feel that the world has given Lebanon one of the biggest batches of lemons ever devised. At least the Lebanese know how to make really good lemonade.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Audio Culture of the Syrian Presidential Election


This post is long overdue, especially after Sam's posts on the posters of Mr. Bashar al-Assad around Syria. After attempting to cut corners and rent a cheaper car, our first rental car had air conditioning that didn't work, a dysfunctional radio, and a transmission that barely pulled us up the mountain from Aleppo to Latakia -- not to mention the six times we had to stop to have flat tires repaired. Our replacement rental car was delivered to us while we were visiting Saladin's Castle. Although we had to stop several times to have flats fixed with this car, and although after our trip to the Syrian Desert to visit Palmyra, the car refused to idle [a challenge in Damascus traffic!], it did have a functioning CD player.

This gem was found in that beautiful CD player. The CD was titled "Minhibak," we love you, in Syrian dialect. The last track of the CD was in English, and I'll allow you to imagine a group of four Americans (and Keegan's dad) driving around Syria blasting this music out the window, singing along. Sam, there's no question Bashar has a sense of humor.

Audio File: Bashar, We Love You

More download options here.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Free Palestine


It was the futility of it all that struck me the most.

Shock is a state that I now know.

I don't think cans of tear gas, gases that have no name, stones, guns or rockets could have affected me as much as this event.

It was the first round of gas that constricted my lungs, made my eyes wet and my nose water. Breathing was futile. But I gulped in gallons of traitorous air.

After a few minutes, my eyes cleared and my lungs took their first clean breathe.
I looked around to see a photographer choke on his own spit and then faint. He was carried away on a stretcher.

I saw a Palestinian man carrying his flag, resting at the olive tree. He rested and then sprang back to life, urging people to return to the smoky battle.

I walked back to the village after the protest was over. Over for me. It was a weird feeling of disconnection. I felt disconnected from my voice and from my head. My heart was beating but I couldn't feel it. I didn't stop. I walked. I passed by stores with people buying groceries, men lounging outside shops, cars blaring Arabic music as they passed by.

I was breathing heavy.

I stopped to see a little boy, probably 11-14 years old take a slingshot and swing a rock in the direction of a house. A Palestinian house.

Target practice I imagine.

Is this my cause? Is this my revolution?


Was I attached to it? Very much so.

I become attached to it everyday. Every interaction with a Palestinian, every proposal of marriage by the falafel shop guy, the women in the mosque who promise to set me up with someone, the look older women give me when I finish saying my prayers at the mosque. The free juice I get from the man selling honey juice next to Damascus gate. I had a lovely conversation with him once. About Pakistan and finding him a wife. A second wife, I'm sure.

Or the men on the bus who laugh about Musharraf with me, compare him to Mahmoud Abbas and talk about the potential of a “military” coup in Palestine.

I get attached to it whenever I see the Dome of the Rock or feel the peace in Al-Aqsa.

I am attached. With every smile. With every “hello, how are you” and every handshake and kiss on the cheek.

I am in love.

And today I felt my heart break.

I had hope for Palestine. Hope.

Its a dangerous word.

Ever since I have been here, every hope I had for this country was destroyed. Demolished.

Do I believe that there will be a Palestinian state?


Did I have hope that it would exist?

I did.

They extinguished my hopes today. I stood in a state of shock as I watched foreigners with cameras, tourists with point and shoots, Press with their camera sets. Among them I saw Palestinians. I saw flags. I saw hope in their eyes. Palestinian eyes.

And then I watched the game begin.

I can't talk about it. But I write about it today. Tomorrow I plan to push it out of my head. Because if I don't I will remember that the idealist in me has died. And I don't want that. I need to believe. In a cause. In a revolution. That isn't mine. But one that I am attached to and I am in love with.


It was a game. It was a dance.

It was Ben, Crystal and I that started out to the weekly demonstration in Bilin, a place near Ramallah. Every Friday, after Friday prayer, dozens of Internationals came out to Bilin to have a “non violent” protest against the occupation of Palestine. Organized mainly by the International Solidarity Movement and apparently the city council of Bilin. The area around Bilin has been illegally occupied by Israel and there is a military checkpoint near Bilin.

I can't talk about it. I can't write about it. I don't remember the faces of Internationals. I remember cameras raised instead of hands, I remember people prancing on the streets and soldiers sitting with their legs crossed watching the event unfold. It was a sport. It was a game. Commercial free.

I remember faces of boys. Palestinian boys. Hurling stones, smiling as they try selling me bands for Palestine, the boy who sold me falafel and the store that I bought water from.

I remember the old Palestinian woman who sat under a tree near her house, the children playing on the street.

I remember Minaal.

There was a canister of gas that hurled over my head. I looked up and started to run. I stopped as another one flew over my head and I changed directions. I turned to leave the area. I had had enough.

I remember Ben talking to a boy about the gas. I remember forcing myself to remember to take pictures. And I remember the clowns, the flashing of cameras, the tourists turning their camera around to see what shots they got.

Did you see that?

Did you get that shot?

Let me see what you got!


We got to Bilin around 12:30. My cab door was immediately yanked open by a man with big, friendly hands. He shook my hand and after finding out that I was American and Pakistani, he invited me to his place in Ramallah for tea. He was happy I had come to Bilin. The protest would take place in 2 hours.

Welcome to the Revolution.

I met people from all over who had come to free Palestine. Crystal and I went to the place where the protest took place before everyone else, planning to go up to the Israeli soldiers to tell them we were press.

We took no sides.

We believed in reporting both sides.

We were idealists.

We stood at least 100 feet from the Israeli police. After they told us to come no further, we headed back to rest at an olive tree with our guide who had brought us there. He was an Israeli who had participated in the Bilin demonstration 5 times. He came to show his solidarity with the Palestinians. He didn't believe in Israel's actions. He wanted to show the Palestinians that. That he was willing to fight for them.

And he also wanted to practice his Arabic.

We sat with him until we heard people from the press pass by. And behind them came the demonstration. Led by a group of five to six Palestinian men, carrying Palestinian flags, the entire demonstration consisted of probably 70-100 people. I saw cameras. Everyone had a camera in their hands. I saw three people dressed up like clowns. They were protesters. They were clowns. Clowns with cameras.

Press was there.

I weaved my way into the crowd to get audio for our multimedia project. People laughed, talked, protested.

The people chanting were right in the front. They chanted in Arabic. No one in the back of the demonstration spoke Arabic.

I got to the front of the group and we reached a long string of barbed wire that blocked off the road. Every Friday there was barbed wire. And every Friday protesters were not allowed to cross that piece of wire.

And they crossed it every week.

This is a non violent protest, a woman with the movement had told me before.

“Any advice?” I asked.

“Be ready to run.”

“Why? Do they gas people every week?”


Was it non violent? On the Palestinian side, yes.

Except people disobeyed and crossed a line when they were not supposed to.

Is Israel justified in gassing the demonstration?

I would think so. They cross the line. They have cameras. If they want a show, we should give them one.

Aim for the clown.

There, there, the one prancing on the road. Aim for the one in pink.

If I was an IDF soldier I would aim the canister right at the clown's face.

Target practice.

Its a joke. Its a game. Its a farce. Its fake. Its not hope.

Its disgusting.

Have you come to free Palestine? Have you come to show your solidarity with the people of Bilin? Then why are you degrading them, disrespecting their cause by making a fool out of yourselves and them? Why are you dressing up like clowns and frolicking on the street, urging IDF soldiers to throw more canisters at you?

There was gas everywhere.

They yelled at the soldiers. Yelled in English.

Yeah, Yeah, I want more gas. Give me more gas. I want more gas.

Just because you have gas doesn't mean that you are right.

Its true. They are not right. But they do have gas.

I write this and I forget the “they” I refer to. Is it the Israeli Defense Forces or is it the Internationals that attended the event. I think about trying to make this sound clearer. Make it feel coherent. But I don't think there is a difference between either of them. I no longer know the difference between the “they.” Both are just as bad.

Provoking a soldier to throw canisters of gas at you is just as bad as him throwing the gas at you.

I saw children throwing stones. Palestinian boys. They had slingshots.

The army had guns with rubber bullets.

Yalla ya Ahmad! I heard a Palestinian man yell across to the boys on the field. The boys throwing the stones at soldiers that stood 200-300 feet away.


I saw them swing stones. And I heard rubber bullets.

Fathers urging sons to throw rocks. Stones. Stones versus bullets.

Is this hope or is this madness?


Ahmad hurling stones. Ahmad a boy in his teenage years. He should be at school. He should be talking about girls with his friends, eating falafel and listening to music. He throws stones at soldiers and the media eggs him on. His father encourages him.

My brother's name is also Ahmad.

Did you see that?

Did you get a shot of that?

Hey! Come here! Look at this picture!

Cheese! Ahmad! Yalla!

I walked back to the “base” and waited for people to return. Disconnected. I saw women in shops buying groceries, a car passed by blaring Arabic music.

They all walked back showing each other the pictures they had gotten. A journalist showed me his footage. He heard a soldier tell his comrade to aim the canister at the ambulance.

I have been here 50 to 60 times he said. For 2 years. I do it for the adrenaline rush.

Sho Ismak, I asked a little boy.

Mahmoud was his name.

How old are you, I asked.


Is that your sister, I asked, pointing to the baby with the pretty smile.


Is everyone back, people asked.

Does anyone need a ride to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv???

Oh, it was so hard getting here from Tel Aviv. I hope we don't get into trouble on the way back, they said.

I saw the clowns come back. Licking ice cream cones.

Did you see that? Did you get that shot? Thats a great one!

Okay everyone going to Jerusalem, get into this car!


Tel Aviv??

Ice cream. They all ate ice cream. They got into cars and drove away. I could still taste the gas in my lungs.

Whats her name, I asked Mahmoud as I pointed to his sister.


How old is she?

One and a half.

They left. After 3 hours of protesting. And they will return next week. Cameras charged.

They left. And I watched Minaal smile. And breathe. She breathes. She breathes every Friday.

I can't analyze this. I don't want to. This might not make any sense to any one of you who read this. I will not edit this piece. I will try to forget this as soon as I can. I saw no hope in politics. I saw no hope in conflict. I saw hope in people. People who help. People who I thought, helped. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. I am no longer an idealist when it comes to this cause.

I am a realist.

I hate being one.

She has been breathing that gas every Friday since the day she was born.

Gas that was slammed in her village because of Internationals who came there to protest, for the adrenaline rush, for the pictures, for the story that they would tell all their friends. They leave her every Friday to go back to their lives, their fancy cars, their parties. And they talk about how they almost got hit by a bullet, gassed.

Oh man, it was so cool. I was at the protest and it was bad. Those bloody soldiers. Yeah, Free Palestine man.

She had a pretty smile.

The most beautiful Hell on Earth

Since this is my first post I guess I better start with a brief bio. My name is Clayton, and I am a double major in Economics and Arabic. I am here in the Middle East with the primary aspiration of getting ahead in my Arabic language studies and also to start my honors thesis, the topic of which will be Islamic finance. For now, however, I am in Beirut. While here, I plan on doing a little sightseeing but more importantly meeting with several professors from American University of Beirut to discuss private equity and Islamic finance in the Middle East. For this trip I will be keeping two blogs. In following with the footsteps of those who have posted before me on this blog, my posts here will be more of a critical analysis of certain situations. The other,, will be a day by day (or as close to that as possible, this was written last night due to lack of internet connection and for a while power all together) description of my first experience abroad.

I must start by saying that the first part of my journey had me worried. Never minding some of the conversations I had with individuals on the way over (more details on those on the other site), the first few hours in Beirut almost made me question why I came here in the first place. All started out well, with me not even paying for a visa (it’s amazing how you can slaughter someone’s language and they love you for it) but quickly went downhill from there. After having to track down my luggage due to it being placed on the wrong ramp, apparently I came from Tehran so don’t tell the government, I walk out into airport to find that the taxi I had arranged to pick me up was not there. Mind you, this is the first time that the blond hair blue eyed white kid had ever felt like the minority, and it took awhile for me to collect my senses. Finally I arrange for another taxi to pick me up and take a seat to wait.

Sitting down a young man starts talking to me. I am still cursing myself because I never caught his name, but he lives in one of the upper class neighborhoods of Beirut. His father was a lawyer, and he could not have been older than I. As we start to talk between his chain smoking, he finds out that I am from America. Of course this brings up what America thinks of Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the general political stalemate that this country is facing. When the topic turns to war, he bluntly states “I believe there will be another war soon. Nobody wants it, but nobody can do anything about it.” The tone of that statement was of utter depression. It amazed me that the youth of a country, a country that had pulled through so much in the past nonetheless, could be so disenchanted. What will happen to his generation? He says already that most of his friends have gone abroad. In 20 years, what will be left of this country? The matter particularly hit home when I stepped outside of the airport and the first vehicle that caught my eye was the UN heavy Armored Personnel Carrier complete with .50 machine guns. I wanted to take a picture, the mountains behind it made it look like the APC was being used for a calendar shoot, but it was recommended that I refrain. It’s amazing how this place could be on the brink of collapse, and yet it is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I Walked into Damascus! And My Sister Ripped My Heart Out!


About two weeks back, on a spur of the moment decision, after a four hour delay in which our group had to leave Marium at the Syrian border, and almost getting cheated by the shadiest chauffer in the Middle East, I walked into Damascus!

For me, this was the first time I’ve felt international adventure. Amongst this group of globe trekkers and international posters, I feel pretty juvenile. But slowly I’m learning the ropes that I have to learn in order to travel this part of the world and reconnect with my identity.

As the sook (market) opened up, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Mosque of Damascus. I had studied this building in an Islamic Architecture course in Hanes Art Center, ironically, the same building where Nasser taught me the little Arabic that is helping sustain me here. We walked into the front of the courtyard:

My sister, cousin, and friend must have thought I was crazy because I just stopped, looked around and kept turning the full 360 degrees not saying a word. Maybe it was because I knew this buildings significance or maybe it’s because I tend to over think things, but to stand there in that 1300 yr old building brought all these new thoughts to the surface.

I realized this building was built at a time when Arabs and Muslims were at the forefront of intellectual thought: math, philosophy, politics, medicine, arts, sociology. A time when the so called “West” was defining itself in relation to the Middle East. A time when Europeans would have been proud to study at Arab universities! A time when Arabs/Muslims were united! A time when Arabs/Muslims were tolerant! A time when the people I descended from were the model! Where have we come and how did we get to today? At what point did we lose ourselves? Now in Amman, I can’t get away from Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, Hardees, and designer jeans! Now in Amman, a degree from an American university is worth more and pays more than a degree from Amman itself. What happened to my dishdash and kefeeyah? What happened to debkah?

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to stand in front to the tomb of Salahuddin and realize that we have our own heroes! I’ll never take anything away from the great accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, but it’s refreshing to know that I have my own heroes, my own history, my own identity. Why are all the Arabs asleep here? I’m very happy for David Beckham, but seriously! Wake UP!

As we walked back to the hotel room from the historical site, it was getting pretty dark. Over a busy street in Damascus that we had to cross, there is a bridge that allows you to cross after first ascending about 25 steps on either side. The overcrowding of this city makes climbing these steps quite a task, even on foot. As we got to the top and began to cross, I passed by this old man in dirty, tattered clothes sitting next to the concrete rail. His face was grimy and had probably not seen a razor blade in months. He was missing the bottom portion of his left leg and he had metal rods bracing both sides of the remaining section of thigh. He was sitting there, head on the concrete, not saying a word. One hand open on his lap, as hundreds of people, including myself, passed him by emotionless. My sister grabbed my shirt as I passed him and asked me for my wallet. I said her name in a kind of way that brothers do when they are trying to be condescending. Softly but sternly she said “give me your wallet!” I took out all the money I had in my pockets (saving my wallet because I knew we needed it) and gave it to her. She went over to the old man and put the money in his hand, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and said “God Bless You” in Arabic. After we descended the steps, I was reflecting on what had just happened and felt bad that I didn’t feel for him. I’m an American: pampered, shelter, spoiled, and free. I looked over at my sister and tears were streaming down her cheeks but she was trying not to cry. I put my hand on shoulder and again said her name in a way to imply “Come on? Are you serious?” I was just trying to make her feel better. Without looking at me she said, “It must have been so hard for him to make it up those steps” I can honestly say with those words she ripped my heart out and fed it to me. I looked away and kept my eyes open so the tears would run into my nose and no one would notice me cry. I couldn’t help but ask myself where is Islam? I came here, the Middle East, knowing I would be surrounded by Muslims and the site of the faith’s inception. This can’t be Islam! What have we forgotten?

In a single day, from a 1300 yr old building built at a time when Arabs pioneered thought, to a homeless Syrian man that seems to have been passed by everyone except my sister, I started to realize that Arabs have forgotten almost everything.

It was the first time, I walked in Damascus!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Welcome to Amman


Okay guys this post is about 2 weeks over due, but I had a really hard time getting away from the family to actually post it. Here we go:

Wow! I’m only using the word “wow” because they have not created a word yet to describe my reaction to my first few days in Amman. There is so much to tell I’m not sure where to begin, but I’ll do my best to keep it brief. I guess it would be fitting to start where I left off.

As I finally walked out of the exit of the most disorganized baggage claim I’ve ever experienced, I heard a loud cheering coming from the center of the throngs of people standing there waiting for their loved ones. Now you have to understand, I had just traveled for over 35 hours with medicinally suppressed vertigo (on a plane…ehh). Within seconds of hearing the cheers, I was surrounded by those very people. If you can try to picture the scene: these people who I would come to know as my family, took my heavy bags right off my shoulders. I’m not sure if I can explain this in a way that would truly capture the emotion of the instant, but within moments I was receiving hugs, kisses, people touching my face and hair as if I was that cute five yr old that left 17 yrs ago! I believe that the truest sense of the word “catharsis” may be the word I’m searching for, but in all sincerity what I experienced is enough to bring any grown man to tears! I’m not going to go into the specifics of how after I was able to breath again, I was whisked away to the closest shawarma shop, but I did just want to mention that they (my family :)~ followed it up with something even better: After 17 years, I swallowed my first bite of Nablus style Kanefe! Oh and one more thing for any of you who read my last post, it happened just as I told you in my last post: My cousin Mahmoud gave me one of the strongest embraces I’ve ever known in my life.

My first impressions of Amman:

For someone such as myself who is not yet so well traveled, the culture shock is pretty profound. We take so much for granted in the United States. It’s truly a shame. The first thing that comes to mind is water. Good ole H2O! Water conservation is a joke in the United States. These guys (I’m staying with my mom’s oldest brother) get water pumped to their house only one day a week. They have to fill up their tank that day. After that if they use up all the water they have to wait until the next time the city pumps water!

The way people speak to each other here is very peculiar to me, and this can only be understood if you have a mild to medium understanding of the Arabic language. Unlike America, the gap between the rich and poor is very huge as well as the actual amount of people in the middle class is more limited than in the States. Jordan is not a poor country by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I’ve seen some houses (referred to here as palaces and villas) that are quite a rarity in the America, in terms of their grandeur and architectural style. But what I mean is that while the rich are excessively rich, most are either poor or strapped for cash. So when two people are speaking to each other (i.e. a taxi driver and passenger) they are doing this sort of dance with words. It doesn’t translate well and it especially happens when the conversation is about money but a conversation might end with this kind of back and forth:

“May God keep you for your kids”

“May God keep you for you kid’s kids, even”

“We are very happy to have met you”

“We are even happier”

It’s very off the cuff, and really funny to observe this because actually each person is trying to get more out of the other, but if you didn’t know you would think man, these people really love each other. Arabic sweet talking! In Arabic they call it Moo-Ja-Mal-At. There’s nothing like it!

Re: In the Name of Religion


*This originally started as a response to Mariam's post below but when i reached a page I decided that I should continue as a post even though I'm not in the Middle East at the present moment*

Mariam I read your post after a very long day of RA (resident advisor) training here in Chapel Hill. I'm tired from only four hours of sleep but with loads of still unfinished work on how to make sure my residents feel a sense of community.

and I'm crying.

It isn't sadness or even joy. Neither frustration nor anger.

It is catharsis.

Out of a staff of around 215 students who are resident advisers, only 4 are Muslim. This number itself seems large to me. But out of these 4 Muslims (all of them are my friends) I am the only one that is colorfully visibly Muslim when looking down at the packed auditorium. Those who know me know it helps that I'm also very loud and opinionated. :)

I sit in that auditorium happy about my hiring. I feel like a breakthrough has been made (though I don't know how accurate that is) for Muslim activism on Campus, or more bluntly, in regular life.

Everyday though I tire more and more from my battle to prove myself. All because of my hijab.

I feel the need to prove that I am not a stereotypical hijab wearing woman. I feel the need to completely break that stereotype. I am no longer only Maryam. I am now The Muslim Woman.

I am loud to prove that we are not quiet.

I am a leader to prove that we are not subservient.

I am smart to prove that we are not uneducated.

I am wise to prove that we are not ignorant.

And while I am proud that I can prove these things to the world, it is not why I wore the scarf.

I started wearing a scarf when I was 8 and by the time I was 10, I was abiding by hijab. It may seem extreme I know but it was completely by choice. My dad even tried to talk me out of it.
See my childhood was not ideal. It was hard. It was hurtful. It was lonely. It was sad. But through that, the innocence of my childhood shined. Accepting pain and hurt I connected to joy and happiness through God. He was the bigger picture. He was the one who would prove to me in the end that my suffering would not be in vain. He loved me, this caring God, loved me more than I could imagine all the people in my life put together. In my child's mind, the hijab felt like a big, warm, and loving hug from God. He felt like a father to me. A second parent.

So I would do anything for the only love I felt I had. To me it was worth the deepest sacrifices.

But all I had to do was abide by hijab. A partition.

That’s it? I thought. All this love from God and all I have to do is abide by a few simple rules?

You see, my upbringing made me realize from a very early age the scarcity but extreme importance of love.

And I accepted the hijab with a full, open, loving heart.

From that moment as a child to this very day my philosophy in life has always been one of self-responsibility.

It is not what life brings to you, but what you bring to life.

Each and every day I continue in this quest to discover what I can bring to life.

And if through the hijab I can break down of stereotypes to these 215 Resident Advisers this week then maybe I will have brought something to life.

But I need to remember why I first wore it.

Remember the eternal love that I can never lose.

Remember my gratefulness for this love.

Remember God.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

In the Name of Religion


The Hijab has always been a symbol of religion for me. I admire my friends who wear it and wish that I had the determination to wear it as they do.

I have never felt the "need" to wear it. I believe that I can be modest without it. I believe that religion is inward. And outward..but a lot more inward for me.

When entering a mosque, tombs of Prophets and holy places in Islam, one is required to wear a scarf on one's head as it signifies respect and modesty.

And in the House of God and the resting places of Prophets, I believe, as others do, that the hijab is a necessity.

Now, I'm sure there are some who agree with my opinion on the hijab and some who don't.

But this is not a blog about the hijab or its place in Islam.

Its about the hijab and its place in my life.
And in Israel.

It was Sarah and I that got to taste the difference that religion can make in one's life in Israel. Especially in a place like Hebron.

Hebron is the final resting place of Abraham or Ibrahim and his wife Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Joseph.

Sarah, Sam and I decided to visit their tomb after we spent the day in Ramallah.

We got to Hebron at 6 p.m. and the tomb was closed to everyone except Muslims and Jews.

After convincing the guard at the gate for the Muslim side of the tomb of my "Muslim-ness" I was allowed into the Muslim side.

I walked up to the door leading to the tomb and was stopped by two young Israeli guards. I fixed my green hijab on my head and stared at them for a second.

“Where are you from?” they asked.


Without a word I was let into the tomb.

It wasn't peaceful in there.

I didn't feel peace in resting place of Abraham, the father of Judaism and the Prophet that built the Ka'aba in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam.

There was an eerie kind of solitude. I peered into the tomb of Sarah and said a prayer. Walking towards the grave of Abraham, I was stopped by a man who took it upon himself to explain to me who and where each Prophet was.

He pointed to a closed door and told me that the grave of Joseph lay behind it.
“Is it not open to Muslims?” I asked, since Joseph is an important Prophet in Islam as well.

No, he said. It was part of the Jewish side of the tomb. There was a time when it was open. When Muslims and Jews mingled and prayed separately but in unison. That was before a man from the Jewish side came to the Muslim side and killed 29 Muslims.

While they were praying.

Ask a Muslim: Who is Abraham?
He is a Muslim. Obviously

Ask a Jew: Who is Abraham?
He is a Jew. Obviously

It wasn't that obvious in the tomb.

I reached up and grabbed the railings of the window that looked into the grave of Abraham. It is a large oval and rectangular shaped coffin with a green, rich cloth covering it.

It was sprinkled with words in Arabic. I read the name of Muhammad and the verses from the Quran.
I said a prayer and looked up to see my friend Sarah's face peering into the room from the other side. I yelled her name.

She didn't hear me.

I yelled out to her again.

And our eyes met.

and I felt the divide.

There stood one of my favorite people in the world. And I couldn't share this moment with her.

We silently looked at each other.

The Muslim and the Jew with a Prophet in the middle.

Is he mine? Or is he hers?

Does it even matter?

I walked out of the Muslim side to meet Sarah and Sam. I didn't take off my hijab as I walked down to the Palestinian shops where Sarah and Sam stood.

We met a Palestinian man, Jamal who said he would show us a birds eye view of Hebron from the roof of his apartment building. We agreed to go with him and as we walked towards his house, Sarah and I went on the main road.

Jamal and Sam walked off to the side road which was cut off by road blocks.

"She's Muslim, she's Muslim, she's Muslim," said an Israeli soldier to another as he poked him with the butt of his gun.

"Yes I am," I said.

"You can't go in there," he said pointing to the Jewish part of town.

Why not, I asked.

You're not Jewish.

Okay but I'm American.

Doesn't matter. You're not Jewish.

There was a fork in the road. I stood in the middle of it as these two guards told me where I could go and where I couldn't.

One side led to the Jewish part of town. One to the Muslim. and all that separated them was a couple of meters and two guards.

Sarah was allowed into the Muslim side but I was not allowed into the Jewish side. We walked over to the Muslim side.

After talking with our Palestinian friend, we headed back to the streets and to a bus stop. My hijab was still glued onto my head.

Two buses went by and didn't stop.

Our Palestinian friend didn't know why.

There was a group of soldiers that stood across from us, from what seemed to be a checkpoint into the Muslim side of town.

We saw boys, old men, women enter the checkpoint and stared as they were searched.

The first bus went by. And then another.

I wondered: Is this because of my hijab?

We asked Jamal and he said it might be.

I refused to take it off.

No way.

The hijab isn't and wasn't a part of my identity. So why did I feel the need to wear it here? I refused to take it off. And I don't exactly know why. All I know is that I refused to be discriminated against based on my religion.


It wasn't right and I wasn't going to give in.

I was not going to take the hijab off.

We waited and soon a group of 4 to 5 Israeli soldiers walked towards us.

I held my head high. My head covered with a green hijab.

I didn't smile.

But they did.

What's the matter, they asked. We told them we were trying to get a bus but it wouldn't stop.

They offered to stop one for us.

And they did. As soon as a bus went by, they stopped it and said something to the driver in Hebrew. We got on the bus and were on our way back to Jerusalem.

I'm not going to talk about the Israeli bus ride or the Jewish settlements we passed by.
The little green towns, people walking dogs, old women sitting on benches and children playing in parks.
I won't talk about the big train/bus station we were dropped off at or the woman who stared at me for at least half an hour on the bus.

This post is about identity as most of my posts are.

It's hard to deal with, the problem with identity and where it fits into our lives. And it gets harder everyday.

It bites at me as I leave the mosque, hide in a dark alley and take off my hijab.

It awakens when someone asks me what religion I am, what nationality.

Wearing a hijab is proclaiming that your identity is what you look like. You look Muslim, therefore it seems to be a big part of who you state you are.

Without a hijab, you merge into a crowd, faceless and unimportant.

You do not wear your identity.

And that in itself is a blessing. Especially in a country like Israel that is divided by nationalist and religious lines.

But in Hebron, it is not about nationality. It is just about religion.

I can now understand why some women would decide to wear the hijab for political reasons. It is a theory that has floated around the world as more women started wearing the hijab after 9/11. Some analysts have argued that more women started wearing the hijab after 9/11 to support their religion as they felt it was a religion that was under attack.

As Amin Maalouf explains in his book, “In the Name of Identity,” we as humans tend to cling to the identity that we feel is under attack.

Islam was/is under “attack,” so wearing the hijab signifies support for it.

I understand that.

Because if you are going to be prejudiced based on my religion. So be it.

I wear my religion and I wear it proud.

As I write this, I am sitting in an Israeli coffee shop in the New city in West Jerusalem.

I came here right after I went for the afternoon prayer to the mosque. I left the mosque with my hijab on my head and entered the coffee shop with my hair in a bun and my hijab in my bag.

I've heard stories about girls not being let into Israeli shops because they wear the hijab.

And I wanted to try and see whether the same thing would happen to me.

Would they stop me at the door if I was wearing a hijab?

Would I take it off if they told me I couldn't go in?

Or would they surprise me with a smile. And help me get to where I have to go?

Israel is a country of contradictions. A country where you expect interrogation and are given a smile in return.

Its a place where I see guns, a separation wall, inequality and discrimination. But it is also a place where an Israeli rabbi says to me that God is one; Muslims and Jews are one.

If we are one, why do we need walls?

I look around this new city and see children in baby carriages, soldiers with guns talking on cell phones, iced lattes and Mercedes'.

Life doesn't seem so bad. Until you remember that the coffee shop you are sitting in was probably once the home of a Palestinian. A Palestinian who probably still has the keys to his house. A house that no longer exists.

In its place is a coffee shop where I sit sipping an iced latte, my head uncovered and no one questions my right to be here.

Friday, August 3, 2007

An idea for Bashar's next poster



In a misguided attempt to promote readership on the blog, I promised to include a Will Ferrell reference in each of my posts.

I've failed miserably. But here is my attempt to make amends.

Does anyone else notice a likeness between "I think the camera caught him by surprise on this one" King Abdullah and a certain American actor well known for running around in his underwear? Well, if you never noticed it before, all you have to do is turn around (or just scroll down).

"I think the camera caught him by surprise on this one" Will Ferrell from Old School, care of the incomparable Joey Dolbee.

I've been bashing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for the lack of variety in his nationalist iconography. But I think it's safe to say that he could redeem himself with one shot like this.

If not, I can only think of one other image that could make up for all of his seriousness and Jean Claude Van Damme grimmaces. More cowbell and a giggling Jimmy Fallon figure prominently in it.

Pick a Border, Pick an Identity.


It was 4 AM when we got to the Syrian border. I was with Mike Mallah, his sister, cousin and his friend. Four Jordanians and a Pakistani.

I exited Jordan with my American passport and nervously entered the Syrian border security with my American passport carefully tucked away in my wallet, with my green Pakistani passport in my hand.

"Pakistani?" the tall syrian asked.


It was a reunion. A happy one. Syrians love Pakistanis apparently. They especially love the ones that speak broken Arabic.

"How long for a visa?" I asked.

The Syrian smiled and waved his hand.

Five minutes.

I glanced over at my Jordanian friends who were still in line.
Could it be? Could I really enter Syria without letting them know that I also had a blue passport?

Five syrian soldiers crowded around the window. A thin glass window seperated me and a group of Syrians. I felt warm, welcome and if there had been no window, I would have even expected a hug.

Yalla Ya Pakistan, they exclaimed.

"Where is your exit stamp from Jordan?"

Oh no. My heart dropped. I smiled. Gingerly taking out my American passport, I handed it to the Syrian and said, "Here."


He took my Pakistani passport and threw it at the window.

"You are American."

It wasn't a question.

No. I'm Pakistani. I'm not American. I dont live in America. My family lives in Pakistan. We might be going for Umrah (the smaller Hajj) in Ramadan to Saudi Arabia. I am Muslim. I am Pakistani.

"You are American."

"How long for a visa?" The American Pakistani asked.

"We dont know. Possibly 6 hours. 7 hours. 8. A day. Two days. Damascus has to give us clearance."

"How long for a visa?" the Pakistani had asked 5 minutes before.

"Five minutes."

I decided to wait for the visa. I watched as my American passport was put aside, forgotten and my Pakistani was given back to me.

I waited for 2 hours. I got up and went to the window that said "foreigners" and asked for my passport. I decided to go back to Amman. It wasn't worth it.

"Wait," the sympathetic Syrian said, "just wait a little while longer."

Im Pakistani, I told him. Im American, I told him. Im not shit, I told him.
Give me back my passport.

The cab driver who was driving me back to Amman asked me where I was from.

I am American, I replied.

Tomorrow I am going to Israel. I've been there before. Last year I was at the border for a very, very long time.

"You're Pakistani?" the Israelis asked.

"Im American," I said, "I'm not Pakistani."

I live in America. My family lives in America. I've come to see Jerusalem. I know very few Pakistanis. I dont live in Pakistan. I am American.

"How long will it take?" I asked the Israelis.
"We dont know. 6 hours, 7 hours, a day. We dont know."

But I'm American.

"You were born in a terrorist country." they replied.

Im American. Not Pakistani.
Im Pakistani. Not American.
In this world I can't be both.
Pick one.
Or just lie.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

(about more than football)


I wrote earlier about Iraq's victory in the quarterfinals of the Asia Cup and since then the side's success has continued.

As a result, last Sunday sweat dripped down my nose and I looked forward to the oscillating fan's next turn to my side of the room in a packed Aleppo cafe. The championship grudge match between Iraq and Saudi was about to begin.

If the crowd's loyalties were ever in doubt, the first few runs up the pitch removed it. A man in the front row uttered a guttural "helwa," literally meaning sweet, every time the Iraqis made an auspicious move. The rest of the cafe followed his lead, exhorting the Iraqis to pass the ball more precisely, run faster, and reach out their arms farther. The instructions provided to the Saudis mostly contained a message of, as Woody Allen once said, "'be fruitful and multiply' but not in those words."

There was a certain electricity in the room, even when the actual electricity briefly went out during the second half. Young men sat arm-in-arm on the edge of their seats and a constant stream of passerby poked their head in the door for score updates, which for a while consisted of "siphr, siphr," 0-0. At least until the Iraqis broke the gridlock in the second half with a header by Younes Mahmoud. Even "helwa" man in the front row was inaudible amidst the roar that marked the score. Traffic in the streets literally stopped.

The final minutes were tense, with the Saudis managing a few stoppage time attempts on goal.

But as the final whistle sounded, the celebration was on.

Honking cab drivers conceded the road to revelers as they marched to Aleppo's main square, waving the Iraqi flag and shouting for joy.

In the marble square Syrians and Iraqi refugees alike continued the celebration, which occurred, naturally, under the watchful eye of Bashar Al-Assad and other Syrian nationalist imagery.

(Bashar is always watching, this time from a lamp post)

Finally the crowd of merrymakers, ringed by a greater crowd of merrymaker-documenters armed with cell phones and cameras, gathered underneath a martyrs statue of some sort. Chants ensued as did political rhetoric, reminding us of the intricate connection between the ritual of sport and the political undercurrents of everyday life.

(Iraqi flag wavers beneath a billboard featuring the Syrian borders outlining a collage of Syrian flag wavers)

Proving, I suppose, that all politics are local, the first speeches praised Bashar (I wonder if Bashar had hired these guys to do it -- or maybe it was just his affinity for conservative suits and neckties that generated the outpouring of support). Israel and Hassan Nasrallah quickly followed. Finally they mentioned Iraq, this time in an iteration of "bidam, birooh, nifdayak ya iraq" with blood, with spirit, we will redeem you Iraq and only after that did America come up. At this point conspicuous American with camera and disgustingly sweat stained shirt made his way to the edge of the celebration.

But that didn't keep me from thinking about the larger implications of the day's events. Among them, how many people would die in Baghdad as a result of the team's success. Bombers had targeted the large celebrations after the team's victory in the semifinals and celebratory gunfire took even more lives. Sunday's victory didn't prove to be an exception.

More broadly, I think we are seeing Iraq becoming similar to Palestine as a lightning rod issue sure to elicit sympathy beyond the bounds of the narrow nation-state identity. Though Arab nationalism might be dying, breath still remains, symbolized by the black, green, and red of pan-Arabism still present in most flags. Even in Amman, where the Saudis have traditionally held a monopoly on street celebrations (I spoke with an Iraqi about this and he joked that since they don't work, waving the Saudi flag out the window of German luxury cars while rhythmically honking is all they can do to pass the time), Iraqis filled the streets.

The question for me is whether support of Iraq represents an act of personal-identity projection. That is, what does waving the Iraqi flag mean for a Syrian or a Jordanian? Does she or he view it as an act of solidarity with an embattled nation? An act of resistance against an occupying hegemon? Requiem for a powerful Sunni Arab state? How does this differ for an Iraqi Sunni or Shi'i? These acts of national imagination all rely on particular personal resonance.

Much is made of the unifying power of the football team's run to the championship. The archetypal image of this has been the fluttering Iraqi flag, symbolizing the unity of Kurds, Chaldeans, Turkomen, Sunni, and Shi'a. But if waving the flag represents something completely different for different groups, does the notion of a unified state hold?

I don't know. I suppose it is inevitable that different groups will understand ideas and the symbols that represent them in different ways.

But the most important point here is security, again underscored by the vehicle bans put in place in the capital before the final as well as the Captain Younes Mahmoud's concerns about security in Baghdad.

Away from the solidarity expressed by the regional celebrations, it seems the Asia Cup has provided Iraqis with a brief, if joyous, distraction from everyday life. But the point is that the currents and themes displayed within these celebrations - regional support of the Iraqi "idea," the prevalence of identity in expressions of national belonging - will remain absolutely essential components of the political and the human aspects of life in Iraq and within the region.

it's cold outside



You thought you were rid of me. But I'm back with a rant for your pleasure.

Many things have changed since my last post. For one, I’ve single handedly depleted Syria of its supplies of cherry kebabs and smoothies. That's not true. But I did my darnedest.

More ominously and certainly less deliciously, the Bush administration is, according to Columbia academic Gary Sick, engaging in martial arts with Iran, effectively signalling the start of a new Cold War. With a $ 20 billion (that’s right, with a b) arms deal, the United States has thrown its support behind (or, more accurately, increased it support of) conservative Arab regimes and Israel against the Iranian government.

The geo-political calculations behind this strategic decision are many, but one way to examine it is in the context of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy experts. Heralded as the Vulcans when Bush entered office, these men and women had cut their teeth in the waning days of the Cold War, when, depending on the source, America defeated the "Evil Empire" or a weak state-without-a-nation completed its slow motion collapse. Creating the familiar paradigm of moral clarity embodied by the former scenario seems to loom large in the thinking of Bush's foreign policy team. Remember the Long War?

But the differing nature of Al-Qaeda’s threat - as a non-state entity - threw a wrench into these formulations and they pulled a Gatsby (“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.”), seeking a return to wars with discrete nation states. See Iraq and, as it seems now, Iran, where the threat of a country with an economy smaller than that of the great state of Illinois seems to warrant dumping $20 billion worth (again, with a b) of arms into the region.

Where will these arms be in ten years? Who will they be pointed at? Which mothers, fathers, sons, or daughters will be killed by them?

Who is complicit?

If they’d read to the end of Gatsby (you and i both know that Mr. Bush never attended his American lit course at Yale, but I expected more from Ms. Rice) and learned about “what preyed upon him, what foul dust floated in his wake,” they may have known better.

Or they could have just listened to Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., aka one of Chicago’s finest MCs, aka Common, aka Common Sense, who would have told them, “It ain’t ’94 (’84) Joe, we can’t go back.”

Or they could have consulted the millions of human beings (largely in the third world) for whom the Cold War wasn’t so mercifully cold. But I suppose they're not around to say anything.

So it's back to business as usual, leaving some to wonder why we fight.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Are you listening MPAC?


Hello Good People,

I had a striking, nay stunning, realization the other day which undoubtedly merits sharing with you, the countless loyal readers of this blog. Adel, one of my Arabic teachers here in Cairo, recently had a beautiful baby boy (ma sha Allah!) by the name of Jaleel. When he mentioned the name, I didn't think much of it then, but it was impossible to shake the feeling that I already knew someone by that name.

Now by and large the vast majority of men in Cairo are named Muhammad or Ahmad which makes the phonebook in my cell phone a nightmare. The other day when I sat down for chess, there were 4 Muhammad's, 1 Ahmad, and a Rafeeq. Needless to say, last names are a must in this city. But I digress.

For whatever reason I kept mulling over the name Jaleel, until it hit me. There is only one other person in the world I know with that name: Steven Q. Urkel, star of the 1990's sitcom Family Matters and icon for all those kids who grew up watching TGIF on ABC, was played by Jaleel White.

A follow-up question came to mind. Was Steve Urkel Muslim? A little bit of legitimate research later (read Wikipedia) and the answer turned out to be yes. Who knew?

Perhaps I should prepare a letter to the Muslim Public Affairs Council giving my highest recommendation that Jaleel White become their new spokesman. Such a figure so ingrained in the television consciousness of America is sure to make inroads in inter-religious dialogue. Brilliant!

Thanks for reading.