30 April 2012

Too Many Stories

We are the first generation bombarded with so many stories from so many authorities, none of which are our own. The parable of the postmodern mind is the person surrounded by a media center: three television screens in front of them giving three sets of stories; fax machines bringing in other stories; newspapers providing still more stories. In a sense, we are saturated with stories; we’re saturated with points of view. But the effect of being bombarded with all of these points of view is that we don’t have a point of view and we don’t have a story. We lose the continuity of our experiences; we become people who are written on from the outside. 
—Sam Keen

29 April 2012

¿Qué es la vida?

La vida no es la que uno
vivió, sino la que uno
recuerda y cómo la recuerda
para contarla
[Life is not the one you live,
but the one you remember
as you remember it
when you tell it]
Gabriel García Márquez

27 April 2012

A Year Gone

Last year Morocco seemed for a while to be following the path of its eastern neighbours. Protests were proliferating, with public participation unseen since the 1970s. King Mohammed VI, whose legitimacy was never targeted by the protests – even if that of his regime was – deftly retook the initiative by proposing, and hurriedly passing, a new constitution. Elections that followed led, for the first time, to victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), which is now in office
I was there for the above developments, but what happened while I was gone?

Was there, or will there be a Second Spring?

My feelings about last year are mixed.  At first, I was very vocal about encouraging the 20th of February, and most protests.  On principle, I usually agree with protestors, especially after having spent so long living in a place, and so long actively trying to figure out what was going on.

But after a few weeks, I was accused of Orientalism, and told that this wasn't my country, so I didn't have a right to an opinion - because I hadn't suffered through the food shortages and the hard times in the late 80s and early 90s.  I also was accused of wishing the fates of Syria and Egypt upon Morocco.  It hurt, but I did begin to understand the opposing view.  Maybe not accept it, but I began to understand that people had finally, only recently gotten comfortable, and so rocking the boat was not something they wanted, having the memory of widespread poverty so fresh in their minds.

So, although my opinions didn't change, I kept more quiet, and started listening more.  Or rather, reading more.  But then I came back to the states, where the news is less focused on Moroccan politics, and more focused on broader, surface-level analyses of the Arab world.  And so keeping quiet has actually served to keep me isolated.

Thus, this is why I am confused about how to speak, feel, and act.  My social justice education always tells me to speak out against injustice, wherever I see it, no matter what.  But the practical repercussions of that, especially in a country into which I have been warmly accepted and from which I have been harsly rejected, simply by virtue of my birthplace, are much more difficult to deal with than I had originally thought.

So, now, since I have been away for months, I believe that I have to sit back and listen again.  Maybe I can do something more effective in the future, but not yet.  Not yet.

26 April 2012

Olympic Soccer

On Monday (April 23rd), Senegal beat Oman in men's soccer to qualify for the last spot in the Olympic tournament for this summer.  I am not glad that Oman lost, but it makes my rooting easier, because Morocco qualified in December after hosting the qualifying tournament for Africa.  I can't be for the US, because they didn't qualify, and this is one of the sports where I'll side with them because they are always the underdog.

For the women, it's fairly cut and dry, but I haven't decided who to support.

After the Iranian headscarf debacle, and the subsequent arguments about women's bodies, FIFA, and anti-Islamist organizations of old white men, I'm less inclined to trust FIFA in general, but it is the Olympics, and this is the world's game...


Evangelists have always been fascinating to me.  I remember standing on the stairwell as a child, peeking through the bannister at the Jehovah's Witnesses who had come to our door.  I remember staring out the window on the T in Boston, five stops before my stop, and when I saw Mormon missionaries walk by, in their white, short-sleeved, collared shits and thin dark ties, and I got off and walked back to talk to them.  I even went out of my way on a pep band trip to Salt Lake City to go visit the Mormon brothers and sisters working at the temple.

And I remember the scores of friends, neighbors, coworkers, and, above all, taxi drivers who would tell me that I should "slm" (convert, literally, submit) or "dkhli Islam" (enter Islam).  Because why not?  I already spoke and read Arabic, my name was already Zineb, and didn't you know that Jesus is a Muslim?

I don't mean to sound irreverent here.  It strikes me as interesting, more than amusing, that there are so many people who are so convinced that their religion is the true path to salvation.  When people close to me, and even people I don't know very well, try to convince me to convert so that I can be with them in Heaven, I feel at once very honored, and uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because...  Because I can feel unaccepted, or looked down upon.  Not good enough for this person.  It's clearly my own insecurities, but still, I wonder.  Why am I attracted to all evangelistic conversations and why do I even seek them out sometimes?

I think it was because I wanted to feel something.  It reminds me of the beginning of Dogma, one of my favorite irreverent-but-poignant movies, where a character says:

"He said that faith is like a glass of water. When you're young, the glass is small, and it's easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn't fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled."

I think that, in talking to evangelists, I want my glass of faith to be refilled, but yet, the older I get, and the less childlike in my belief, trust, and acceptance I get, the harder it is to fill the glass.  But it's not that I don't want the glass to be full, it's more like the glass is cracked (How did that happen? I used to go to church twice a week!) and I don't know how to patch it up anymore.

Why do I bring this up on the-blog-formerly-known-as-Moroccan-Musings-now-reflections-on-Oman?  Shouldn't I just focus on the news from Oman and my travels there?  Well, I'm wondering now what will happen to me this summer.  Who will try to convert me?  Will I find something to fix my glass?  Will I find "better water" to fill my glass?

Many people tell me that the Islam in Arabia (the Arabian Peninsula) is more pure, that the Foosha (Modern Standard Arabic) is better there, that the accent is purer too, because they speak the Arabic and they live in the place where it all started.  And I have talked to many Westerners, heard many stories of people traveling to Arabia, traveling to the Middle East, and converting.  They are taken in, something reaches up, grabs their soul, and won't let go.

I have a love of all things incomplete, different, complicated, misunderstood, and that is what I want to see in Oman.  What are the minorities, numerically and effectually?  Who are the people who are different?  Who are the outliers?  What languages and cultures there exist besides Arabic and Arabs?

We shall see, we shall see.

20 April 2012

نمر عربي/The Arabian Leopard

Recently on Al-Jazeera English, a story was posted about the Arabian Leopard.  I had never heard of the animal before, but apparently, they are the most endangered of all big cats in the world, with only 200 or so left in the wild, living primarily in Yemen, and (hey hey!) Oman.  They are endangered mostly because they have been historically seen as a threat, to livestock and to human life.

Saving the Leopard - Go here to watch the 25 minute video... it may seem long, but it's worth your time.

Check out some amazing pictures and backstory here.

Wikipedia on the Arabian Leopard

This video shows a race to find the leopard in the Omani mountains above Salalah, where I will be living for the summer!  What I truly enjoyed about this video, however, was the spirit of bonding, humor, and a shared purpose that everyone working on the project seemed to have.  There were Americans, Indians, Omanis, and Yemenis, all working together and learning from each other.  It was refreshing to watch a news story about the Arab/Muslim world that was not about bloodshed or violence or religious strife.  A mainstream news channel showing a story where you feel as if you really get to know the two Yemeni men, expect leopard trackers, who are learning to use new motion-sensor cameras in order to track leopards.

These men not only became real to me, but they reminded me of some of the countryside Amazigh young and old, that I met in my four years in Morocco.  Polite, respectful, fun-loving, and, most of all, curious about new things and excited for their possibilities in the future.  If only more Americans could see what I see as the true nature of Arabs/Muslims, reflecting the true nature of human beings.

19 April 2012

Studying Late

A great song to keep me going as I write some really important final papers late at night!

17 April 2012

A Sultan, a King and a President Walk into a Café

HM greets Bashar 

 Muscat: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has sent a cable of greetings to President Dr Bashar Al Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic on the occasion of his country’s National Day. 

 In his cable, His Majesty expressed his greetings along with his best wishes of good health, happiness and a long life to President Al Assad, praying Allah the Almighty to achieve security, stability and prosperity for the Syrian people.

Hmmmmmm.  The was one of the more interesting articles in the Times of Oman today.  Not that a routine cable from one... powerful ...leader to another is all that interesting, except for it makes me wonder (as I have been taught so well to think critically) what the historical relationship is between Syria and Oman?  What does this "greetings on the occasion of his country's National Day" mean in the larger scope of things?  How do the Omani people see Syrian leadership?  How does the country as a whole view the Arab Spring?  These will be some of the more delicate questions I hope to have the chance to ask when I go to Oman.  

I am guessing, based on how Moroccan's view their king, that it is not legally okay to publicly criticize Sultan Qaboos.  I am also guessing it is not culturally okay because I have heard that he is generally rather popular with his people, and because how little I have heard about Oman over this last year and a half of Arab Spring.  

Still, it makes me wonder what kind of routine diplomacy is going on between all of these leaders who survived the Arab Spring, and what Sultan Q (and I guess 'Mo 6' too) would think if he heard the song below:

(Song: #Syria (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام), Artist: Omar Offendum ft. The Narcicyst)

14 April 2012

Thoughts of Home

Bon Iver

"Someway, baby, it's part of me, apart from me."
You're laying waste to Halloween
You fucked it friend, it's on it's head, it struck the street
You're in Milwaukee, off your feet

... and at once I knew I was not magnificent
Strayed above the highway aisle
Jagged vacant, thick without us
I could see for miles, miles, miles

3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway
Was where we learned to celebrate
Automatic bought the years you'd talk for me
That night you played me ʻLip Paradeʼ
Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree
Saying nothing, that's enough for me

... and at once I knew I was not magnificent
Hulled far from the highway aisle
(Jagged, vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles

Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright
Above my brother, I entangled spines
We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
Now to know it in my memory:

... and at once I knew I was not magnificent
High above the highway aisle
(Jagged vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles

A Letter from a Friend

Hi Zineb,

Congratulations!  Thats great news that you will be studying in Oman this summer.  Oman will be quite different than your experiences in Morocco.  I am actually doing research in Tunis right now on a Fulbright and had an opportunity to travel to Morocco last month.  It was wonderful!

My first question is where in Oman will you be studying?  I hope that you will be outside of the capital since Muscat is flooded with foreign workers, most of whom speak Urdu (Omanization is being taken more seriously I think now since the recent riots).  I know there has been previous language programs in Nizwa and Salalah.  I studied in Nizwa, the former capital and still considered the religious capital of Oman.  Everyone spoke Khaliji arabic so you will certainly get the language and cultural immersion you are looking for if you are in Nizwa.  It is a gorgeous country and I encourage you to travel around as much as you can with a group or with a man.

Suggestions: Jabel Shems, Barakat al-mouz, ramal al-wahiba, Souwar have a picnic along the many irrigation channels, Jabel al-akhdar, Salahlah and so many more.  Generally speaking, the demeanor of the Omani people is very calm and laid back.  Traffic is more organized and less chaotic.  I found the Omani's I interacted with to be a little bit sensitive.  If you have an issue or would like to voice a complaint, try to positively criticize or approach it softly.  They don't respond well to the American way of addressing a problem bluntly and straight to the point.  Regionly, I have had many Khalijis tell me Oman is the "get away" in the gulf for various reason and to my knowledge it is viewed positively.  People typically mention something about Sultan Qaboos being a homosexual and haram.

Linguistically, Foosha is not spoken but is very much appreciated when heard as well as really nice handwriting, especially from a foreigner.  No one I met had any working knowledge of French and some Omani students commented that they probably wouldn't understand Moroccan dialect.  Having been in Tunis and Morocco I think this would probably be true. Though some things are bound to overlap so you shouldn't be completely in the dark.  I know that I had to play charades a few times with Tunisians at first to get my idea across :)

In regards to being an blonde American, it is not expected that you cover.  Some students I studied with went natural, some wore a lose scarf or the traditional hijab style to show respect or other reasons.  You will certainly attract a lot of attention with or without the scarf so it is your personal preference and comfort level (loose conservative clothing is highly recommended; long sleeves and long loose skirts).  I was never harassed though people would stare or if out at night maybe a group of young men would whistle or make some other noise or comment.

Generally, I found Omanis to be very respectful.  The most difficult part for me was the level of segregation.  In Nizwa, here are a few things that men and women don't do together: walk on campus, study together, eat together, converse for long periods (except if in group), cheek kisses, any touching, out late at night, and many more.  Some Omani females commented on being very bored however as a foreigner I am sure you will be granted leniency in many things.  Omani woman also speak very quietly.  I could barely hear them at first but my ears adjusted.

You will most likely not find women outside at night alone past 5-6pm.  The Friday goat market in Nizwa is mainly for men, though some women (many bedouin) would be watching from the perimeter.  I started making my way through the biding circle but felt very uncomfortable.  The time that I spent with women in the house eating, cooking, or just chatting are some of my best memories of Oman.  The women were very inquisitive, overly generous, and will want you to spend the night.  Many of the women I met were very ambitious though they had found very few outlets to pursue their aspirations.  When I was there the amount of women pursuing higher degrees exceeded that of men mainly due to the high cost of marriage.  Women often bring their education home and educate their husbands and children.

Random last thoughts: Omani oil money is new and is not expected to last.  Some people rumored that the Omani's historical memory only goes back to the mid 1950's or after the Jabel al-akhdar war.  Bahla is known for the practicing of black magic.  It was (still currently i think) illegal for people to form women's organizations so community programs typically take place in family compounds.  Women don't like their pictures taken and many females do not have fb.  There is a large population of Swahili speakers that have migrated from Zanzibar.    

I hope this has been somewhat informative.  If you have any more specific questions I will certainly try to answer them.  Good luck and have fun!


12 April 2012

Amman Critical Language Scholarship (Originally posted in Jadaliyya)

Mar 24 2012
by Ghassan Husseinali 

[Students at ancient Roman ruins in Northern Jordan. Image from author.] 

Following the September 11 attacks, the US government designated a number of languages as “critical need languages”; Arabic was and still is, of course, on top of the list. In order to ensure enough Americans are learning these “critical need languages” and to ensure higher proficiency levels and deeper understandings of target cultures, the US government established the Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS) program. Administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with partner institutions, CLS students spend seven to ten weeks in the summer speaking and learning the target language. What follows is a reflection on one CLS Arabic immersion program: CLS Amman, Jordan 2011. 

CLS Amman began in 2006. Traditionally, and before the start of the Arab Spring, the Amman program accepted around thirty students. However, due to the revolution in Egypt, the Alexandria CLS program was diverted to Jordan, and the Amman program ended up with a total of fifty-six students. After contemplation, CLS Amman administrators decided to run one single program instead of two parallel ones, each with its own administration. However, for pedagogical and management reasons, we divided the 2011 group into two distinct subgroups: advanced learners (those originally destined to Alexandria) and beginner learners (those selected for Amman).

Students arrived in Jordan two days prior to the start of the program, during which they were kept busy attending a number of orientations and a ten-hour Jordanian dialect foundation course. They were also introduced to key sites and locations in the city of Amman that they later visited on their own. The program lasted eight weeks and integrated three key aspects of learning Arabic in Jordan: modern standard Arabic (MSA), the Jordanian dialect, and Jordanian culture. The program’s focus was intended to enable students to learn and use as much Arabic (MSA and dialect) as possible and to gain a deeper understanding of Jordanian cultural perspectives. From my perspective as Academic Director, I wanted to provide as much opportunity as possible to maximize learning of the Arabic language (standard and dialect) and to provide activities to ensure student interaction with local communities to gain insight into local perspectives.

Every day, students had four-and-a-half hours of instruction in Arabic: three hours of MSA, one hour of Jordanian dialect, and half an hour of one-on-one conversation with a native speaking partner. All MSA and dialect classes were conducted at the Qasid Institute in Amman, a fifteen-minute drive from the students’ residence at the American Council on Oriental Research (ACOR), in west Amman. 

[Academic Director Ghassan Husseinali in conversation with a student.]

In addition to classroom instruction, key educational components took place outside of classrooms. One such component was Language Socialization. Once a week, students visited local sites such as museums, art galleries, shopping areas or the downtowns of different Jordanian cities. These mandatory weekly field trips were meant to give students everyday opportunities to interact with Jordanians in Arabic. In order to ensure completion of associated tasks in a timely manner, they were linked to in-class presentations and CLS blog postings.

Initially, students “hated Language Socialization” because the sites they were asked to visit—museums and art galleries— were not places they had expected or wanted to see. Sensing their frustration, I met with both student groups and listened to their comments on this matter. Based on their feedback, I directed advanced learners to choose, themselves, the sites or organizations they wished to visit. Subsequently, advanced students started visiting charities, football games, and families. They also took trips with their Jordanian friends. This change made Language Socialization more fun and more productive for advanced students. 

For beginner Arabic students, I changed locales for weekly outings from places of high art and culture to more popular places such as markets and downtowns without, however, giving students the option to choose and make arrangements by themselves. Keeping a structure was necessary for this group because their Arabic language skills initially were not high enough to allow them to conduct visits, without assistance from our staff. However, toward the end of the program, beginner students were gradually given the option to choose their own site visits. This worked perfectly for everyone in the program. Students’ blogs and presentations became more lively, using more Arabic on a variety of topics. This video shows beginner students shopping for traditional Jordanian women’s clothes. 

[A student makes pottery at the Taybeh women's cooperative.]

Another structured cultural learning component involved weekly culture club events. Students in each group (advanced and beginners) were asked to enroll in one of four cultural clubs set up by the CLS Amman program: Dabke (traditional folk dancing), Cooking, Calligraphy, and Drama. Each club was supervised and led taught by an expert instructor hired from the local community, for that purpose only. The Dabke and Drama Clubs were the most successful, while the Calligraphy Club was the least successful. The calligraphy instructor—though an expert calligrapher—had no pedagogical training and did not know how to teach calligraphy to foreign students. This newsletter update illustrates the kinds of activities each club embarked upon. 

At the end of CLS Amman 2011, students participated in a talent show combined with an Iftar party attended by local guests, teachers, and US embassy personnel. Despite initial skepticism when I first suggested it, the talent show was a hit—especially the Dabke and Drama Club shows. The talent show gave students a unique platform to show how hard they had worked towards gaining Arabic mastery and allowed them to see themselves and us not merely as administrators, teachers or speaking partners but as fellow human beings. I think it would make perfect sense not only to have a final talent show but also to have a mid-program mini-talent show as a socialization event in the future. 

Despite all of the program’s successes, I feel that it would have been even more effective if the language pledge was mandatory and enforced more strictly. Two weeks into the program, it became apparent that students were not always speaking in Arabic between themselves, even when they were supposed to. English was spoken during recess times between classes, in the bus on the way to class, and at lunch and dinner. 

There were also some complaints about the dialect classes being less organized than MSA classes. I agree that this was the case, for pragmatic reasons. First, we did not have a good Jordanian dialect textbook to follow, so all the dialect materials had to be developed quickly by our staff. Another reason was the proficiency variation within each class, resulting from the merger of two programs into one. 

Another area of possible improvement would be to reduce the stress on students by not requiring over-the-phone Oral Proficiency Interviews during the program’s final week. We ran into endless problems of scheduling, phone line breaks, and very poor voice quality. It would have been better to have held these interviews one week after students had returned to the United States. 

Finally, I cannot conclude without praising Jordan as an exceptionally welcoming and safe country for CLS Arabic language learning. As our student Reedy Swanson told The Jordan Times, ”The unbelievable hospitality of the people here makes me want to return.” To the surprise of students, “strangers” were always very helpful. As Swanson puts it, “The best advice you can get here is to rely on the kindness of strangers.” Jordanians are a warm and friendly people who are always fascinated by foreigners learning their language and culture. One time, I took a taxi that had just dropped off some of our students, and the driver told me how impressed he was with “these foreigners who speak Arabic better than we do.” Of course, he did not know that I was associated with “these foreigners.” It was the greatest compliment an Arabic teacher can ever get. 

Throughout the eight week period, I heard many stories about students making friends with Jordanians, visiting their homes, playing chess with them or how they had become friends with hookah store staff. By the program’s end, CLS students could travel and do anything they wanted to do in Amman and elsewhere in Jordan, using Arabic only. To me, speaking the Arabic language and connecting with its people and culture are the true measures of a successful language immersion experience. And CLS Amman, Jordan 2011 was a success indeed.

09 April 2012

Migration to the Gulf

In learning more about Oman, much of the news I see is about the Gulf as a whole.  One of the most informative blogs I read on the Arab world is Jadaliyya.com, which I would recommend to anyone who has a little more time to invest in longer, but much more thorough articles in Arabic, French, and English about the North Africa and the Middle East.

Recently, they published a quite poignant article on the phenomenon of migration to the Gulf.  The article is not a complete look, but it is food for thought, especially for a student of immigration.  

02 April 2012

Women are Trash?

There's been a fight going on in the blogosphere over the last year or so (maybe more, I'm not a regular here, so I don't really know) and it's over Muslim women's bodies.  I, of course, am no Muslim woman, but, I have - here, on this blog, and on other forums - spoken about it before.  It's about the veil, and how Muslim women's bodies have become the source for a kind of "East-meets-West" battle.

It may seem like a new argument, but it's been around as long as colonialism has been mucking up the world.  Spivak coined the phrase "white men saving brown women from brown men" as a way of describing the British abolishing the practice of suttee (widows burning themselves on their husbands' funeral pires) in colonial India, but it can be - and often has been - used to describe the more current battle over the headscarf (hijab) and the full face veil (niqab).  Instead of giving Muslim women agency, instead of asking them why and how and all the other "wh" questions, Western men AND women increasingly argue against the covering of the body with no contextual knowledge, no cultural knowledge, and, honestly, no experience living amongst or even talk to Muslim women.

The picture below is a case in point:

What words come to mind when you see this image?  For one blogger, it was the following:
Anyone sees a difference? I don’t.. What sadness, what shame to not exist. I am tolerant, and supportive of any Religion and Faith.. as long as it brings humanity goodness and spiritual comfort. In Islam I have no problem at all, with Hijab (headscarf/ veil), as it exists in Christianity and Judaism. But this takes the cake, WTF is this? Sorry, NO.. and don’t get on that hype of the handful (brainwashed) women that choses this over hijab, the majority of women opposes this.
Got No problem, when women chose to dress modestly, show less skin, it’s all good, I am not advocating nudity and walking around with your stuff exposed and hanging around, but this… come on now!!!!! gimme a f*cking break.
PS: pay attention to the Child abuse! or did you think that child next to that Dementor, is wearing it out of free will.
But many bloggers responded in this manner:
It's a tricky subject.  But I tend to fall on the side of the second argument.  And yet, I could never picture myself wearing niqab, and I would want to have serious conversations with a woman who did choose to wear it.  And, that is what I'm hoping to do!  Oman is known for being much more conservative, in clothing choice among other things, than Morocco, and so I am hoping to make friends who wear niqab - a rather lofty goal because of my own biases - and see what life for them is truly like.