“I’m the luckiest. Look at what other people have gotten out of the Arab Spring? Some are jailed, others have their publisher booths raided and their books taken away. But, lucky me – I got you”. He said..
“And I got you, too”, She thought, with a content smile..
It’s been almost a year since I’ve written here. There were so many times I had something to say, but since starting Graduate School, one deadline or another always seemed to get in the way. Time has only now made itself available, over Winter Break, and since 2014 has come to an end anyway, I felt I owed this blog an update, a “Year In Review” kind of post. Or, more of a diary entry, really. What better day to do so, than on the 4th anniversary of Egypt’s revolution?
I already wrote in January, so I won’t re-hash that. Family health is in a much better state since then. There was a moment where I sat up in bed, listening to news I couldn’t understand. I’ll never forget my first thought, and my second. I looked at the shelves of my degrees. What did they mean? And I grew angry at them. Eventually, I tried to just take something hopeful from it: that every moment is precious, and one must make an effort to create them, and contemplate them. Then one must collect them, lest they find it’s too late one day and are left empty-handed, memory-less. Create, contemplate, collect.
It was just a time that was the best of times in some things, and the worst of times in other things. You feel a certain level of guilt at happiness amidst sorrow. But, that’s life: a mess of events that we’re just expected to figure out how to deal with, all at once – I guess.
In any case, months of passion and academia followed… it felt as though time just flew. It was pure fireworks, a confused euphoria. March brought its share of moments: I became a published author! A group of Saudi authors and I participated in a book that was released in the Riyadh Book Fair 2014, titled “On the Meaning of Arab Nationalism: Concepts and Challenges”. Each author contributed a chapter, mine was called “Nationalism and Feminism”. It took me around three months to write. The ideas that came to me while working through it will probably fuel my to-be Masters project/thesis.. We’ll see.
Very briefly: it’s basically on the intersection of feminism and nationalism, beginning first with deconstructive, historical analysis of “universal feminism”, its market-based and human rights-based discursive roots and tendencies. That portion is followed by a review and critique of its presence in the Middle East and the concluding portion examines a conflict-based approach to politics and proposes a potential regional, Arab alternative for feminism in the Middle East. It was mainly critical, so the last portion is what I was thinking of expanding on for my thesis and narrowing it to the Saudi feminism experience. Or, to use academics lexicon: I’m considering “unpacking” the last portion further. :)
I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translation quality of my chapter, hopefully that’ll be corrected very soon in the upcoming Second Edition. But all in all, the year’s Book Fair was mostly successful. Our book was sold out the first few days!
But by the third or fourth day, it was mysteriously “misplaced”, aka unofficially banned. Would-be readers complained they were told the book was “out” before anyone had a chance to buy it. Boxes of the book were also “misplaced”, and negotiation on our part was needed to get them back.. It’s funny, though. In a few cases we heard some managed to still buy the book at the Fair, they just had to ask the right sellers on site, rather than look conveniently on its designated shelves. After the Book Fair was over, our book was also allowed to be available at select bookstores. So it was a half-hearted ban, really. On the other hand, publisher and activists Nawaf al-Qudaimy’s booth was absolutely ransacked and its books confiscated, there was nothing half-hearted about it.. and it was the talk of the Book Fair.
The following months made up the rest of my Spring 2014 semester. I took a couple of history classes, which I loved. Both had a subaltern emphasis, as a lot of “history people” do. That’s another thing, I’ve decided each field dramatically shapes how one looks at people, things, and phenomena. It also affects how they discuss: history and anthropology people talk/write with a thick layer of jargon usually, I had the hardest time getting acquainted with it in my first history class (at a graduate-level, I mean). I had an amazing professor, Professor Khoury, though. She helped the process along as I finally figured it out. But it definitely does take some getting used to, especially when you have History PhD students in your class. They can be quite brilliant in their observations, since they’re so detailed. You just have to be patient…
Other times, though, they can read far too much into things and cast far too much theory onto them. I’ll never forget reading a text that (very briefly) explained somehow the structure of a building was a structure for colonizing the mind, and it clearly wasn’t the case (no one in the class was much convinced, either)… I mean, really. I know there’s an essential drive to come up with creative analysis in academia, but it can all just get out of hand and become a little *too* creative sometimes.
If anything, such “creativity” really teaches you the value of speaking and writing clearly, because you learn what it’s like to be on the receiving end of said jargon. Years ago I remember I had a writing teacher, one of the most influential teachers I’ve had, that told me how she made a habit out of writing clearly and simply, yet elegantly. Her vocabulary was boundless, yet she made a point of replacing fancy words with frank ones when possible. I used to think that was odd, maybe even a waste of language. But I understand where she was coming from now. The choice of using jargon is essentially a choice to set up a power structure with your words. Your readers are below, sifting through your thick layer of words, and you are above them, as creator of those words. It’s a pedestal the author places himself on. Sometimes even a shield against his own lack of clear thinking and understanding, too. Or sometimes it’s just the result of a grown-up type of peer-pressure to prove yourself that you have to learn it’s okay to say “no” to.
Political scientists (comparative and area studies) and international relations people often do without that same kind of jargon. It’s different than anthropology and history fields, since they tend to harbor heavy positivist tendencies that comes with its own jargon, where generalizable methods and models are everything. It’s not just that they’re much less concerned with particulars, because they tend to be less concerned with holistic approaches too. I guess I’d describe it as that they’re really about finding a middle ground that explains things in a useful manner. This sometimes hits the mark and turns out quite helpful for understanding the political world, and sometimes it just ends up amounting to dressed-up assumptions and intelligent guesses. It just depends. You just have to pick your political scientists and international relations experts wisely! :D
I haven’t taken any political psychology or sociology classes, but from what I can tell, they’re pretty much a cross between the two I’ve just discussed. They’re like anthropologists, with a heavier splash of positivism. I have, however, just taken a law class, and they’re a whole other worldview. But I’ll discuss that in a bit…
Anyway – then June rolled around, and my younger sister came by. We went on a NYC-DC trip, complete with a “land, sea, & sky” themed-tour of NYC: tour bus, mini-cruise and helicopter. I haven’t travelled much (something I’ve decided needs to change), so it was quite a thrill to experience new sights, smells, and collect pictures and memories.
Naturally, since it was just the two of us, I was “the adult” of the trip – which you’d think I’ve gotten the hang of by now. But, I haven’t. Because there’s a child inside that has never really grown up. I don’t know that it ever will. Frankly, I don’t think that’s really all that bad. You just can’t be enthralled by life if you let yourself be too jaded and aged by it..
So, I planned everything, nothing would “work” or move unless I had it in line to do so. This was surprisingly liberating, you create a world experience that is yours: what a true vacation should be. But it wasn’t just one of the most epic vacations I’ve experienced, it was more than that. It was facing fears, along with my sister. I did a lot of things I wouldn’t ordinarily do: I hate boats (I watched Titanic at far too young an age…) and I hate heights, but I did activities that involved both. For no other reason than I wanted to, and I was tired of being so afraid of everything. I say this as a confessed over-thinker: just doing, acting, can have a far greater positive impact on bettering one’s self and life.
Also, lesson learned: DO NOT wear a skirt for a helicopter ride! All the wispy winds had me almost having a Marilyn Monroe moment a few times while walking to and from at the heliport!
Then Fall 2014 semester began, I decided to mix it up and take a couple law classes, apparently I just can’t get enough of interdisciplinary-ness. I do think there’s a lot of value to it. You really see how fields talk right past each other. From what I could tell, theory and politics gets thrown out the window with law, unless it’s jurisprudence, there’s little time or interest for it. Law classes are like getting a healthy dose of the impositions of practice itself. Practitioners know how the most intellectually-mundane things can have influence: the type of court can determine a decision, the type of law that a case is brought under can dictate an outcome, for example. Legal experts and lawyers are only philosophers when discussing jurisprudence, I think, whereas legal opinions and decisions can be written in such a methodical manner that it’s barely any theory even though it uses similar theory-based language. It was an eye-opener as someone who favors deconstruction when analyzing things, because it didn’t seem that issues were thought of in the same way in law; words are looked at differently, they’re tools to reach a goal. This may seem straightforwardly negative, but when you deem the goal a just one, there is a very real temptation to just go with the flow of terminologies and paradigms, even if you’d disagree with them on other fronts, just so you can reach the end-goal. It is something I’ve struggled through in past writings. I’m not quite sure why, but I also utilized this semester (Sep-Nov) to give myself one of my self-taught courses. I’ve been doing this for a couple years now, it’s basically when I just find myself intellectually led to a topic and begin to read and/or watch anything and everything I can on it. This time around it was WWII, Nazism, and The Holocaust. I watched no less than 50 movies and documentaries in total on the subject, but I know I’ve only touched its surface.
Here’s a list of some, though I abandoned writing them all down after awhile: Uprising (sadly underrated), The Last of the Unjust, Amen, Conspiracy, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Grey Zone (most difficult to watch), Escape from Sobibor, Hitler: A Career, Judgement at Nuremberg, Playing for Time, Schindler’s List, God on Trial, Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals, The Search for Mengele, Escape from a Nazi Death Camp, The Night of the Broken Glass, Auschwitz (6 episodes), Auf Wiedersehen: Till We Meet Again, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Hitler’s Children, Inside the Holocaust, The Unknown Soldier, The Danish Solution, Defiance, Life Is Beautiful, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands, Into the Arms of Strangers, The Reckoning: Remembering the Dutch Resistance, Night and Fog, The Pianist, Sarah’s Key, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Out of the Ashes, and Fateless.
I’d never really read or seen anything on it. The cause mainly goes back to the days around the Second Intifada. During that time the air was extremely political. It was hard enough going to school as an 8-year-old Najdi-accented girl who’d just moved to Jeddah, temporarily, and was trying to learn their Hijazi ways, but add onto that my imperfect Arabic that left no doubt of my having an American mother. Or, “murderer of Palestinian children” as my fellow 8-year-old politically-aware classmates liked to call her. So, my parents just made a collective decision to not tell me anything about Palestine, The Holocaust, and Israel. So much so that it became an off-limits topic while growing up, as a sort of (misguided, I think) “protection” for my sake. As a result, I was just horrified of the subject or having any slight opinion on it for the longest and it felt like an embarrassing blind spot in my knowledge. Frankly the whole story/issue deserves it’s own post. So I’ll leave it at that for now.
Anyway, this self-taught course (still on-going) pushed me to do two things: First, I visited the Holocaust Museum, where I smelt the haunting scent of a pile of victims’ shoes, a pile I’d seen countless times in documentaries… I remember I kept asking if they were the actual shoes, the “real” shoes. I don’t know why I asked, repeatedly. It’s not as though seeing “the real thing” would somehow make it more graspable…
Second, I voted for a resolution at this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in November. The resolution passed, not without controversy, and it now protects: calls for BDS as free speech, members’ right to discussions on BDS, and deplores intimidation against such efforts and urges MESA to hold discussions on the academic boycott and future considerations of the association’s position.
Following this, Saudi author Sultan al-Amer wrote from an Arab nationalist perspective on the vote and potential boycott of local Saudi publishing house and author, here. It was covered by some local media.
More on MESA: This was my first time attending a conference like this one, my first shiny name tag, and my first year as a member – I loved it! It came just around the time I’d been thinking of how academics from each field had different world-views, languages, and inter-politics, and MESA showcases all of that and more. Just imagine see Middle East academics as a species; MESA would be their watering-hole.
Perhaps my favorite professor of all time was MESA’s president for the past two years: Nathan J. Brown. My biggest MESA regret will always be not being able to attend his presidential address. I cannot emphasize the degree at which Professor Brown is an excellent professor. He will believe in you when you can’t believe in yourself – and that’s all a student needs sometimes. An article he wrote about the MESA resolution and debate can be found here. A presidential biography that he wrote, which I identify with on quite a few points, can be found here.
However, I was fortunate enough to find my way to Jadaliyya’s booth, and meet a few of its people. I’d first discovered it while still in California, around 2012. So much love for them, particularly Rosie Bsheer. <3
Also at MESA: I attended a talk where the speaker’s laptop was “held” by Israeli authorities on her flight out to the conference, so she had to give an un-scheduled talk. I attended another talk where Qatar royalty at the undergraduate-level presented what was intellectually far below the average presenter on the panel, and I attended yet another talk where current Saudi events (some I’d been directly involved in) was the topic, and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling the whole time because of it. I recorded it and posted (with permission) here. Another talk (perhaps my favorite) mentioned the “third moment” that happens when a subject reads or hears what the analyst wrote about that subject, and the subject is changed as a result of this third moment. Listening to a talk on Saudi among non-Saudi scholars gives you that exact same “feeling”, the whole thing is absolutely fascinating.
And it is a feeling.
After attending one last talk at MESA, I got a card from a scholar after his talk, he thought I’d have an interesting perspective to offer. Later, I looked him up on Twitter, and I realized he’d contacted me earlier while he was writing his book (soon to be published). I just missed it somehow. Then it occurred to me: the card wasn’t for me as a student of his thoughts, on Saudi, it was for me as a subject for his thoughts, as a Saudi/Arab-American. Maybe even a bit of both: student and subject. I’ve lately been thinking about the relevance of just that feeling, the one you get when you’re looked at, “gazed” at. How does it feel when you “gaze” back? What if you gaze back, as you’re being gazed at? It’s a mind-trip!
I remember in First Year of my Masters program, a class was asked if the identity of the scholar or analyst was relevant: who knows more about the Middle East, we were asked, the taxi driver or the expert? Does it matter if you’re a native or not to have something interesting to say? Most answered no, myself included. The taxi driver does not have insider info that the expert cannot access with dedicated effort, nor does it matter who you are when studying something. At least that’s what the class thought at the time. I no longer think that’s entirely true. I think the class, and myself, answered what we wished was so. But it just isn’t.
We, as people, are thrown into this particular world and come with particular selves. That self has an origin, a gender, a skin color, a class, a look, sound, and smell. Even if some of these things about us are socially constructed, they’re still things about us. We’re irreducible to our particulars, yes. But we cannot step outside of ourselves. Who you are lingers on you. Especially when you’re among other selves. You cannot be blind to your self, to your reflection. Nor can these others.
I may have wanted to believe, in that First Year class, that being who you are doesn’t matter. I may have wanted a sort of “American/liberal Dream” in academia, where anyone could access and understand and produce anything perfectly, no matter where they came from or what they were. It makes sense, coming from a mixed background means sometimes all you want is to assimilate to the point of invisibility. But it’s just not how things are. Personally, I don’t know every cultural reference in America or Saudi, I cannot think of every Arabic or even English word. I have lighter skin, but my hair isn’t straight – it’s thick and curly. Things are just a jumble and that’s how they’ll stay. And in academia, I think that means academics are affected by who they are: their intellectual origin (academic field), and personal origin (nationality, race, class, gender, etc.), since that governs what they have access to and what they ultimately consider as relevant when attempting to understand the world, or Middle East specifically. I don’t mean deterministically, or essentially, I just mean that initially at least, if one remains thoughtless, these aspects can have their influence. I’ll write more on this some other time.
From this year’s slow, intellectual walk away from blindness, beginning with appreciating Arab nationalism, to growing as a woman and feminist, to thinking about the chaos of losing one’s identity as in the Holocaust, and peaking with reconsiderations on the position of the analyst and subject, theory and reality, I was lead to look at exclusion, particularly racism, in ways that I haven’t before…
This brings us to December, particularly the 13th. I’ll be brief here, as it definitely deserves its own post (I’ve promised how many future posts so far?!). It was a week or two after Mubarak’s acquittal, which frankly felt like the nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring, and the constant and persistent news of Black deaths were pulling at me, too.
I started to wonder, what must it be like? I know police brutality, that’s what revved up the Arab Spring: Khalid Said’s death a prime example. And the images coming out of Ferguson protests and the militarized response were so familiar, they could’ve easily been Egypt.
But, what does it mean to be discriminated against based on race, based on your skin color? This was another one of those topics I typically wouldn’t delve into because it’s simply politically incorrect. And really the way to work against racism is to pretend it isn’t there, right? If I act “as if” I’m color-blind, aren’t I staying clear away from racism – by disengaging from its existence, I’m cutting its life-line? That’s how I used to think about it.
It’s not enough to just repeat: biologically-based differences ought not be forms of political identification, since it has no place in the political realm. I need to think about it more, and consider further its complexity.
I don’t have all the answers right now. But what I have realized is that I have enough privilege to not have to be concerned with whether that’s all that matters to combat racism, because it’s simply not myself who faces it. So I thought – Is there anything close to it that I could understand it through? Orientalism, Islamophobia. I know those. I know them intimately. And then, it clicked.. it must be like that? #BlackLivesMatter as a response to the disregard for killings of Black lives is like the sentiment Arabs feel about the lives lost in wars and occupations. It’s just that in their case, the issue is that brown lives matter less than white lives.
I started reading up, and particularly on discussions of the intersection of Blackness and Arabness. I found articles on Black-Arab communities that I’d never heard of in various Arab countries, I found nurtured linkages between anti-colonial Arab efforts, Palestinians and Black Americans movements. But finding common ground doesn’t directly translate to “getting it”, since these forms of exclusion are not exactly the same. For one thing, there’s racism in Arab communities too, and Arabs can benefit from whiteness in some situations.
Ultimately, I don’t know what being Black is like, and I cannot know. Because it has never been my position (there’s that issue of position again, it’s quite persistent). Some protest chants simply don’t apply to me, it would be awkward for me to say them in a protest. I can try and understand, though. I can chant what do apply to me, though. And after much reading (still in-progress), this is when I learned about being an “ally” to a movement that isn’t mine. It’s brilliant terminology, it categorizes you, the supporter, not at the center, but at the periphery. But at the same time you’re not “gazing” at or “victimizing” the center, either. Alliance is supporting the center in a way that the center demands, such that power flows center-out. An example (via Twitter):
So, out of this non-Black “ally” motivation, and also out of desire to honor those Arabs who protested against police brutality and brought on the Arab Spring, I participated in my first protest. I was supposed to have a partner come along, but timing didn’t permit – though that didn’t spare me the endless laughs I got for admitting I’d then have to take a Taxi to the protest… :) What can I say? Again, my position (in this case in terms of class) is rather pervasive…
It was supposed to be a Millions March, but according to a controversial tweet by his daughter, it was Al Sharpton’s march. In any case, I missed that debacle entirely, and ended up joining by the time the unofficial portion of the protest started and just went on into the night. It had basically turned into a #DCFerguson protest.
And it was unlike anything.. It rekindled so much Arab Spring love and memories. It was a small, tiny taste of Tahrir. It even brought to mind all those previous questions and thoughts I’d been mulling over, the relation between analysts and subjects, between reality and theory. It also brought up two questions that stuck with me after writing my “Feminism and Nationalism” chapter: how can activism be done in the “best” way? What would “good allies” to a cause look like? Is there such a thing? This came at quite a timing, too. Right after Oct26Driving had revved up this year’s campaign and two Saudi women were jailed for the #Women2Drive cause.
But I also saw unexpected aspects at work while participating: like dynamics of a protest, its participants, its on-lookers, and the push-pull that plays out with police, whom also have their own dynamics and types, too. It’s all very subjective, and fluid. I also saw media cover events in an intimate way, it was odd seeing oneself on the subject side of tweets and news streams. I’ll leave the rest of my thoughts for a future post…
Basically this has been 2014’s lesson: identity and position matters. There are things I can’t avoid because they are who I am, I cannot step outside of myself, I have only lived as me. And there are things I simply don’t know because they are not me, I cannot fully step into another self, I have never lived as others. It can really apply in friendships and familial and romantic relationships, too.
But it’s in those moments that it’s your turn to take a seat for a minute, to be the listener. Because… “listening is loving” (a quote from probably my favorite movie of this year: Hector and the Search for Ha-ppiness).
The second lesson is that academia is where I live, it’s where I belong, but other perspectives, and ethics, and just ‘the real world’, must invade that space on a regular basis. To quote Edward Said (1994): “The intellectual, properly speaking, is not a functionary or an employee completely given up to the policy goals of a government or a large corporation, or even a guild of like-minded professionals. In such situations the temptations to turn off one’s moral sense or to think entirely from within the specialty, or to curtail skepticism in favor of conformity are far too great to be trusted.” And the Assata Shakur-inspired protest chant:
“It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
I’m making memories now.. and it’s a happy New Year.
Thank you, God. I cherish everything you’ve granted me.
My heart beats a thousand lights that seek a wall to shine on..
My tongue holds a thousand words that crave a page to fall on..
The Arab Spring was my life’s fling.. is my life’s dream.
It was the one thing, that changed every thing…
Other Honorable Mentions of 2014:
And, of course, saving the best for last: the surprise release of self-titled BEYONCÉ album and subsequent “On The Run” tour, which I followed like a pro-stalker. Beyoncé (whom I’ve been a fan of since 1999-2000, when I was 8-9!) has given EVERYTHING this year: feminism, femininity, womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, self-love, marital love, faith, loyalty, strength, just… EVERYTHING. And her timing matches life’s timing like no other. It was this year’s soundtrack, really.
Aaand – we’re here, at the start of 2015, and the day of Tahrir.
I recently returned from Saudi Arabia for Christmas break, after two years of missed trips back. I saw some newness and some constants. It is a home, among many homes I’ve had over the years.
Now, let’s see what else this year has in store..
“I love him”, She answered them.. And her words crashed against social norms she’d been blissfully unaware of, but of which her blushing cheeks must’ve instantly realized..