Meanderings on Culture in a Globalized Society

06 December 2006

Anniversary of 'Bloody Saturday'

Today in 1975, four Christian bodies were discovered in Beirut. Their deaths sparked the Phalange (Kata'ib) to put up road blocks across portions of the capital. When cars passed through the checkpoints, they were asked for their identification cards. If they were Muslim or Palestinian they were taken from their vehicles and had their throats slit. Muslims retaliated and reports say at least 600 people were slaughtered on the day, which is known as 'Bloody Saturday.' It was this day that sealed the fate of millions of Lebanese. The Civil War had arrived in its full horror.

Today, 31 years later, thousands of peaceful demonstrators are protesting a government they believe is not representing their views. It is a democratic right that Lebanese have, which has been used a few times in the past two years, especially during the 'Cedar Revolution' or Independence Intifada, as Lebanese refer to the ousting of the Syrian regime. What makes this different is the fact that Western and Arab governments are deploring the demonstrators, saying they are trying to force a coup in Lebanon against a legitimate government. They may be right. It is not my place to say if they are right, or wrong.

I still believe the action taken by the opposition (Hezbollah, Amal and their Christian and Druze allies) is within the bounds of Lebanese democratic activities and must be seen as such.

The killing on Sunday of a Shiite protester by a Sunni gunman is unnerving as the country is attempting to remain call in the face of what many Western journalists write as the beginning of a possible second civil war. They may be right, but I don't believe they are helping to stop the flames with the language they are using, such as 'coup' and 'topple the government' when explaining the events here.

We shall see what tonight brings, but as it is the anniversary of 'Bloody Saturday' I wonder if this will be the beginning of a new direction for Lebanon or a return to those times that made the civil war possible. The question, as yet, remains to be answered.

27 November 2006

Americans and Islam

America doesn’t understand Islam. Despite exponential growth in people purchasing the Qur’an in the United States, Americans still cannot comprehend the multi-faceted faith that has sprung into the face of so many of them in such a short time. Iranian President Ahmed Ahmedinejad’s letter to President Bush only highlighted the under developed understanding of the religion come to be synonymous with terror and murder.

“I came here to learn about their society, culture and religion,” Daniel Sheridan, a captain in the New York City fire department, said at the Libyan border last March. He was on a mission to promote peace throughout the world. The Breaking the Ice mission received little fanfare. A few articles here and there, but nothing substantial was said of the mission that started in Tel Aviv and ended by planting an olive tree on Mount Sinai as a symbol of peace.

“I came to here to see how a society could have perpetrated the attacks on 9-11, but I also wanted to show them that there are Americans that are ready to help and learn,” Sheridan admitted.

His story is similar to many Americans who attempt to learn about Islam. Like Sheridan, they are confused as to what is Islam. Is it the people that blow themselves up? Are they people on the street that are always urging the khawaga (foreigner) into their home for tea? Questions that need answering.

The last week of April brought Islam back into the limelight of westerners’ eyes. They saw Osama bin Laden repeat his call to attack “foreigners wherever they may be.” Only one day later, triple suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Egyptian resort town of Dahab, killing 20 and wounded dozens more. Unfortunately, that is the picture of Islam that is given to Americans on a daily basis.

It is no surprise that in Washington DC in July 2005, after multiple attacks in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, were announced on television in a bar, that a group of Americans were appalled at the fact that another group of Americans would be calling their friends in Egypt to see if they were okay.

“Why do you even care about those people,” one of the men screamed as one of the people tried to get in touch with friends in the Egypt. “They should all die anyway … they hate us and I hate them.”

This is not unique in America, which has been dealing with intolerance for most of its existence, but the lack of information about the ‘other’ Islam is missing. It is hard to find an American save for university professors or Middle East experts, who have an idea that resembles the dynamic nature of debate in the region.

There is no ‘Arab street’ as one New York Times columnist so avidly argues. What exists is an atmosphere of contention where one view is heard more than another. Not much different than the current political debates in the U.S.

19 November 2006

Who are westerners?

With the end of the Cold War almost 15 years ago, the world has seen a change in how the peoples of the world are being described. There now exists the ‘western’ world and the ‘other’ world. Often these terms have been synonymous with the first and third world. Democratic, wealthy and industrial are considered to be members of the west. On the flip side, the undeveloped, poor and unindustrialized nations have been grouped together as the third world, or non-western.

Many scholars argue that it is not necessarily a geographical definition. Instead, it is a cultural and economic distinction. If this truly encompasses the idea of what may be called westernism, then it is too ambiguous and becomes a very divisive term that should be re-examined in today’s political and social landscape.

Let us take three ideas that the western world believes are the cornerstone to their tradition. These are, but not limited to, deductive reasoning, rule of law and monotheism. Let us break these terms down, using the supposedly ‘other’ Middle East as an example of how the so-called western tradition breaks down.

The Middle East is a region that is deeply committed to the belief in one God, arguably more so than any other region on the planet. Their undying faith in God is historically founded. All the major monotheistic religions of the world were born out of the Middle East: Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. The Middle East can, in a sense, be called the homeland of monotheism. Without this region’s great history there may not have been monotheism, as we know it today. Test one passed.

The rule of law also had its beginnings in this region. While the Greeks are widely believed to be the founders of the rule of law, it is the Middle East that created the first rules of law. Hammurabi’s Code of Law is one of history’s first treatises on the rule of law. The Babylonian document is known to the world through the Old Testament, which was first written down in Babylon: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even while corruption is rampant in the Middle East the rule of law plays an important role in these nations and their societies. Despite these problems that exist in the region, the rule of law is a vital component for the developing region. Test two passed.

Deductive reasoning is a difficult cultural tradition to assess. By definition, deductive reasoning is the inference that the conclusion is of lesser or equal generality than the premises. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the where the conclusion is of greater generality than the premises. An example illustrates this better:

Deductive reasoning:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
The picture is above the desk.
The desk is above the floor.
Therefore the picture is above the floor.

Invalid:
Every criminal opposes the government.
Everyone in the opposition party opposes the government.
Therefore everyone in the opposition party is a criminal.

Middle Eastern nations have opened the doors of reform and change in recent years, including more liberal acceptance of opposition parties. If we look at the recent elections in Lebanon and Egypt, this is easily seen, despite their irregularities and shortcomings. While there is a lot of work to be done in this region, Middle Eastern nations are more likely to follow the former rather than the latter in their dealings with opposition groups. The words, “You’re either with us or against us,” were not spoken by a Middle Eastern leader rather they were spoken by the ‘western’ President George W. Bush. This is obviously not deductive reasoning. The Middle East passes test three as well.

It becomes apparent that no longer do the ideas that have historically been the tradition of the ‘west’ are solely in ‘western’ societies such as the United States, Europe, Japan, Canada, etc. Instead we see these ideas transparently in the Middle East, a region that has been looked down upon in recent years by calls from ‘western’ nations that they [the west] must bring democracy and freedom to the region. After this closer look at how the cultural tradition that is ‘western’ it should be obvious to all that there is no such thing as the west, at least culturally. What should be referred to instead be the idea of a global culture based on the world’s history, which has been transformed by numerous regions throughout this planet’s great history. A change in semantics will help heal the wounds that the ideas of westernism have on the ‘other’. This will lead to a more equitable way of approaching conflicts between the geographical west and the east. We cannot allow for orientalist or occidental approaches to cultures persist if there are to be real solutions to be had.

*portions of this article were published in PeaceJournalism, January 2006.

18 November 2006

Why Women Win, part deux

So I went out with a good friend of mine yesterday and we were a bit buzzed but the conversation turned toward relationships. She has just gotten out of a horrible relationship with an Egyptian guy who treated her like dirt and was the usual shauvinistic type that is too often found across the world. She was then, to myself and another guy, that there aren't any 'good' guys around. Of course I made some sarcastic comment about it and she laughed, but then she got all serious for a second.

"Look, American women don't leave the states to be in a relationship with an American ... if they wanted that they would have stayed in the U.S."

Fair enough, at least she was honest. It bewilders me how many American women, and men, go to a foreign country and 'search out' for the exotic. If it happens, great, but I am a firm believer that you can't be on the prowl for something and except it to work out. It just happens, especially when you don't expect it to happen.

Growing up in my house I was always interacting with people from all over (which in Idaho is something to write home about), so it is quite odd that I hear these types of views from people. At university we all intermixed with each other and it wasn't a matter of 'where you from' that was important. Yeah, this isn't making any sense. I guess my point is this: people shouldn't seek out a specific thing, whether it is nationality, the exotic because when it comes down to it, if you are attracted to someone where they come from or what their nationality is shouldn't matter.

I have two passports, American and Portuguese, so I guess I am used to being in the middle of so many conversations on differences.

*Disclaimer: I was wrong to say that money affects 'everyone.' That was rash and shouldn't have been categorized a bit better. I believe that my friends here don't put money before other things. That is why I like them. We might be part of the upper-class per se, but I don't think that affects our choices on a daily basis.

I don't think this made too much sense, but I tried. I think Forsoothsayer is right, gotsta be more pro-active so as not to fall into the friends category. The rant, by the way, felt good and I say to everyone to rant every once in a while. Even though I was wrong to make such rash statements.

17 November 2006

Rantings

We all need to rant everyone once in a while. Often we just need to get really pissed (in both ways) and write whatever is on our mind. Usually in the end we might not really think what we just said was right and probably shouldn't have said it, but who cares, they are just thoughts and our own. If, after the fact, we can't admit that we were wrong, then there is a problem. But if we do say, "yeah, I was stupid on that one, sorry," then it's all good.

Why Women Win

I wrote the title because I knew it would get some attention, even though not many people actually read this blog. Oh well, at least the thought counts. I think it does anyway. This is the first informal post I have written and it comes at a time in my day that I probably shouldn't be posting. But I will anyway because I think it is important. Sometimes people just need to write and right now that is what I need to do.

Today was a great day. Exactly. Today! From noon until midnight it was great. Then a friend of mine came over and told me that you have no chance. I was like, "what are you talking about?" He said that no matter what he knew that she didn't give two cents about me in that way and would rather be with some other guy, preferably Egyptian. "Okay," I asked, but "how certain are you that you know what you are talking about, I have gotten good vibes and know that it takes time for these kind of things." "Well, take a decimal situation, if you put a dot and then about ten zeros after, that would be your chance." Great.

But then another friend, not Egyptian came over and brought up the subject and asked what is up with you and so and so (not in those exact words). I said I only wished and wasn't trying anything. Maybe that is my fault, but in the long run someone will appreciate me for me. (I hate Eve 6 but it fits here). He said that things were looking good from his angle and he hoped that they would turn out for the better. If only I wished he would have prophecized something. Then a few Egyptian friends and a few non-Egyptian friends came over and said diametrically opposed opinions of my situation (which by the way wasn't supposed to be public knowledge to everyone). It got me thinking. And, however random, here are some thoughts about life in Egypt ... as a foreigner who is so often seen as a local or some other Arab, especially Lebanese.

Egyptian women want rich Egyptians and White girls want Egyptians. This is rule number one for those who live in Egypt and hang around both Egyptians and Ex-Pats (not simply foreigners). It doesn't matter that I honestly make about $2,500 a month as a young adult in his early twenties. That isn't money, that is a salary. Great. Egyptian women want the glamour and the ambience that being truly rich has to it. From my experience, I have had women, Egyptian and ex-pats tell me that I am attractive (as if that is a consolation) but that they are looking for something else. I have had Egyptian friends, female, say that I am a great boyfriend ... and then that same friend scoff at the fact that someone said that so and so would be a great fit with me. So much for that.

It doesn't matter how much money I make, I will never be rich. You know why? Because I didn't grow up rich and I am not Egyptian. In their minds only those 'rich' people are Egyptians. It doesn't matter if they have a job or care about others, the fact that they have money is really all the points that needed to be added up. Fine, except I do have money. I am going to buy a care, can rent any flat, really I could if I wanted, in Zamalek, and have designer clothes (although it doesn't look like it because I don't know how to 'act' rich).

Let's move on to white girls for a moment. I know three white girls (one is a lesbian) who have never hooked up or dated an Egyptian man. Of almost all of those girls, about 95% have never dated a non-Egyptian in their time in Egypt. Simply put, they search out the Egyptian man. No matter how horrible he is they would rather take him to bed for a time period than even think of that 'other' guy who isn't from Egypt even though they 'profess' that he is 'great, attractive and would be a perfect partner.' So much for honesty.

I am going to stop now for the night because I don't think people care and nobody reads this anyway, just like the fact that it is so easy to forget that I exist. I could almost guarentee that if I didn't show up tonight that it wouldn't have made a big deal. Honestly, it wouldn't have. In whose world do people care about a self-made freelance journalist who happens to be American? From my experience, no woman that is for sure. Granted the other night I met a few girls who seemed interested. The next day I got text messages from them asking to meet for lunch. I did that two days in a row and you know what, they weren't interested in me. They asked two questions, both of which I have gotten almost everytime from non-Egyptians:

1. Do you think you could give me some contacts with some papers you worked with? I really want to be a journalist.
2. How are your Egyptian male friends? I really want to date an Egyptian guy.

Great, thanks for that. Fuck off.

And Egyptian girls, dont' even get me started. I have only really liked a couple and now that I am in that zone again it just sucks. Because I am not Egyptian, not Muslim, not inherently wealthy, not a dominating guy and always manage to find the friends area so fast. Can't believe I have actually decided to live in this country for the next however many years.

15 November 2006

One Night During War in South Beirut

*This was written in early August in Lebanon

We arrived back to Beirut from Baalbek the day before and I was expecting a nice break and relaxing, but then Israel bombs woke me up early in the morning. At around 5:30, just as morning prayers were being called, the sound of the impact could be heard. I rushed to the roof of the hotel to see some of the planes as they were leaving south Beirut. The bombing was one of the worst in Beirut to date, destroying buildings and killing many. We were so tired from the day before that we all at the hotel decided it was best to let this one go, so we just watched and listened to what was going on.

After returning to bed around 6:30 I managed to get some sleep. I woke to a phone call from Refugees International, which they asked if I was interested in interviewing them. We scheduled a meeting for Wednesday. It was nice to actually not have to go out and find a story; it just walked into my lap.

The day went smoothly, had a few interviews and caught up on all the destruction in the south. It was at around 6 when a friend of mine called and asked if I wanted to grab some dinner. Not one to pass up free food, I hopped into a cab and heading for the Hamra area (near the Corniche), when a huge explosion reverberated throughout the city. I immediately turned around and headed back to the hotel. There I found a Spanish José, a Spanish photographer and he grabbed me and we headed to Shiah, the place of the bomb.

When we arrived there, the area was full of pandemonium. An entire building was gone and the building next to it was split in half. As we walked over to the destroyed building the smell of sulfur and flesh could be smelled. I had to cover my nose or I would probably have vomited. José and I went into the building that was still standing. Probably not the brightest decision we made, but Hezbollah men around guided us up the stairs. When we reached the second floor the sight was frightening. There, on the floor was an entire family. They were dead. The older man, probably the father, had been holding his daughter who couldn’t have been more than 10, in what was left of his body. He had taken the brunt of the blast, but it couldn’t stop the shrapnel from ripping his body apart and killing his daughter. I won’t even begin to describe the scene but it was powerful and even as I write the tears begin to well up. This is the cost of the war. The Israeli army says that there were Hezbollah fighters in the buildings they bombed. I can’t begin to believe a word that they say because of the more than 20 people that were killed in the bombs none of them were Hezbollah. They were families from the south who had already had their homes and lives destroyed. Now they are gone.

José and I went back to the hotel after being in the destruction for about an hour. Our clothes were covered in ash from the explosions. We didn’t say a word until we arrived at the hotel. It was our real first taste of this war. We had heard the bombs, but this was the first time we ventured out into the carnage. As we got to the hotel, a door slammed, making us jump back thinking it was a bomb. We ended up at the local bar for a few hours with a few other journalists and we all discussed what the point of this war is. We had no answer … maybe someone else does but I haven’t heard.

We found out what war was really about in about one hour. Those images will never leave my mind for as long as I live. It is sad to watch the faces of the Lebanese people as we describe to them what we witnessed. As a reporter we have to put the emotions away when we write, but is that possible? War is truly terrible and horrendous.

Inter-Faith Relationships

A friend of mine remarked the other day that although the world is becoming increasingly globalized, with people from different cultures and religions spread across the planet, it seems that more and more often those same individuals manage to find and consort with their fellow kin. Unfortunately, he is correct. The world may appear more diverse. Walking into a café in Beirut, Cairo, Washington D.C. or almost anywhere there are usually people of different faiths and ethnicities present. But, they are sitting separately from one another. The Muslims at one table, the Christians another, the Jews at yet another table and so on.

The people we choose to associate with are usually the ‘same.’ This is true also of those we consider dating or getting ‘involved’ with. This applies to almost every walk of life. It doesn’t matter where you live or what faith you come from, it happens. In the Muslim world, men are allowed to marry a non-Muslim because Islam is passed to the children via the father. However, female Muslims are forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim – assuming he doesn’t convert, at least on paper – because the faith cannot be passed to the children via the mother.

Ironically, in an Australian study conducted by Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a lecturer on shari’a (or Islamic law), Muslim women who married non-Muslim men – it must be noted that inter-faith marriages are acceptable under Australian law – 79% of the children considered themselves to be Muslim compared to only about 50% of Muslim men who married non-Muslim women. This makes one wonder what is more important, the legality of marriage under the state or faith.

Many Muslims quote the Qur’an as saying the marriage between a non-believer and a believer is haram (forbidden), yet the social context of the verses must be understood when dealing with any religious text. Verse 221 of Al Baqarah is often cited as prohibition of inter-faith marriages:

“You shall not wed idolatresses, unless they embrace the faith. A believing slave-girl is better than an idolatress, although she may please you. Nor shall you wed idolaters unless they embrace the faith. A believing slave is better than an idolater, although he may please you.”

It should be remembered that at the time of the Prophet, Islam was trying to break people away from worshipping a myriad of Gods and thus, by issuing such a proclamation to the followers of the early faith, this was a way of maintaining unity in the early beginnings of the new Religion. However, it does not forbid marriage with someone who believed in God. There were Jews and Christians during the time of the Prophet in Medina – where the sura was revealed – thus making it apparent that the prohibition was to be applied to ‘pagans,’ not followers of other faiths.

In today’s world, believers of different faiths meet and interact with members of diverse faiths on a daily basis. Is it all right then for a Muslim man to have no qualms about marrying a non-Muslim while a Muslim woman is unable to under Islamic law? In most Middle Eastern nations this is not even up for question. A Muslim woman cannot even think about marrying a non-Muslim under the law of the state.

To illustrate this point, let us take an example of how this may play out in a conversation. When a non-Muslim asked a friend of a girl he was interested in what her deal was, the friend replied, “if you are thinking of relationship, you have no chance … you aren’t Muslim and she doesn’t date non-Muslims.” It might be hard to swallow for non-Muslims, but this is the reality of the world that Muslim women live in.

Family restrictions and social traditions are as much responsible for the prohibition of non-Muslim men and Muslim women from getting together, but this does not mean that this is the way things must be. There are hundreds of cases in Egypt where Muslim women have fallen in love with a non-Muslim man. Some ended in disaster when the parents put pressure on the woman to end the relationship, while others have worked out like any other marriage. Mind you, a non-Muslim man must ‘convert’ in Egypt in order to marry a Muslim woman under state law.

The most important construct of a relationship should be love, respect and compromise. It doesn’t matter what Religion you have. That would be something the couple would have to discuss when the topic of marriage arises. With the success of inter-faith marriages across the globe in recent years, it seems more than likely that the couple will be able to sit down and discuss the issue at hand in a harmonious manner that allows their love to grow.

Religion is important. That is not being debated. What is being debated is the idea that simply by being a card carrying member of a similar religion does that the ‘other’ not suitable for a relationship? Many would argue that it is, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. It is the opinion of this observer that by denying the chance that two people could come together for a fruitful relationship despite being of differing faiths, racism and hate for the ‘other’ are the only possible outcomes.

*Note: Parts of this piece will soon be published in Egypt and the US, thus abide by copyrights, please.