Saturday, October 31, 2009

Modernization and the Arab Identity...

I have been working on my research project that I have been thinking about for the past year. I have settled somewhere between modernization in the Arab world , the western influence, and the role that women play. I have been conducting a series of interviews and so far my results are mind blowing. There is this torn feeling between feeling pride for your country and accepting western ideals. The girls here dress just like Americans. They watch American movies thinking this is the way girls in America dress. I walk around with my basketball shorts and Air Jordan backpack hoping they realize we don't. This whole concept of so many influences coming here but very few of them leaving is something I struggle to comprehend. I am attempting to be unbiased throughout these preliminary stages of research...really I just hope to find out more.

In the book I am reading, Dynamics of Arab Cultures there is a chapter titled Arab Thought: Problems of Renewal, Modernity, and Transformation. This chapter really made me decide that I wanted to explore this idea of modernity and tradition in the Arab world. The chapter takes the argument that the largest conflict is the idea of modernity being a concept of borrowed ideas and a relationship with the west, all while aiming to maintain an Arab identity within and without of the Arab world.

In the article Albert Hourani is quoted as saying “contemporary Arab thought began when educated Arabs became aware of the ideas and institutions of modern Europe and felt its power in the nineteenth century.” This is a fundamental ideal surrounding many of the debates between Arab scholars. The argument before them is whether or not modernization is solely a Western concept and that the maintenance of an Arab identity is based purely off of traditionalism. Many arguments have been made for and against this and even more trends of thoughts have developed in seeking an “alternative” modernization. Scholars can argue that the Arab world should embrace and join this western modernization. They make the argument that European ideas have been “liberating” on Arab thought. For countries that are post-colonial this seems almost inevitable from the legacy left by occupation. These scholars argue a “need” for modernization.

However, on the other side there are those who argue that Arab intellectuality has and can have its own content. Anouar Abdel-Malek says that it has two main tendencies Islamic fundamentalism and liberal modernism. Islamic fundamentalism itself is a call for Muslims to restore to this past glory and to be at a standard that they once were. In contrast, liberal modernism aspires to generate modern society similar to those of the west. The question is where does one who identifies as an Arab find the medial position? Abdel-Malek makes a vital point in stating that a difference in embracing modernization that Islamic fundamentalism plays a large role. Above all other transformations that could be made within the Arab world religion is would be the most difficult. In Morocco 99% of the population is Muslim. In the Western world those numbers do not even begin to compare. The western world is seen as “challenge” that exploits and represses. Issa Boullata argued that Arab intellectuals of some twenty or thirty years ago had three main trends. Those who called for a cultural revolution, those who called for a need to interpret traditional Arab culture within the spectrum of modernization, and those who are committed to the religious aspect of Arab culture. These three ideals are very much contradictory to one another and balance one another with a search for an “alternative order”.

As the world continues to change the Middle East struggles to find its place within the "modern" world. A struggle to maintain an identity of their own while transforming to "fit" will be the task at hand...I think.

Friday, October 30, 2009

You're Body is a Wonderland...

I have met some baller (and some not so baller) people here. It's really hard to decipher what is me not understanding Moroccan culture and what is someone just being plain old awkward. Because of this I have been giving a lot of thought into this concept of body language. It is so useful and yet can be very confusing. If I simply talk to a guy it could be taken the wrong way. Yet Morocco is a very embracive and touchy (supposedly) culture and so someone could grab your hand and it not mean anything. On top of this there are a lot of hand indications or signals (wtf, you’re crazy, repeat, etc.) that mean the complete opposite in the U.S. and it throws me, daily. It's ok to feel sorry for me :) We took a petit taxi yesterday and I understood perfectly (although he was only speaking French…I don't speak French) that he was telling us that the mosque was on the other side of the street. I asked him [in English] "oh on the other side?" He laughed in my face. But he understood my hand signals as well. We had a conversation not knowing any of the other's language. It was awesome.

I met this guy named Osama. He is an American-Pakistani student from Berkley who just finished a semester at a university in Ghana. He decided that he would bike up the coast of West Africa stopping in Mali and Senegal. He is in Morocco because he just decided to be. He is actually the one that opened my eyes to the power of body language. He does not know any languages spoken in any of the countries that he has visited, yet with the use of his body language and with the small gifts of mangos and water he has managed to never have to stay in a hotel. People always just open up their doors to him. This is just such a bizarre concept to me being from the U.S. Opening your home to someone you do not know and cannot communicate verbally with. I have heard only bit of the adventure that he has had…and it's amazing. He belongs in the group of baller people.

I'm going to make the following statement sound as diplomatic as I can: the driving in Morocco is wack! People honk non-stop. Everyone passes everyone. That whole "slowing down for pedestrians" doesn't exist here. I have almost died numerous times just crossing the street. Not to mention that there are just so many damn vehicles!!! Saturday I went to the Caspa with my friend Fouad. We spent some tiresome hours working on my Arabic homework fixing the many mistakes I had made. Afterwards Fouad, Dodge, Laura and I were standing in the middle of this narrow street getting ready to say our goodbyes. In the past when I have tried to move out of the way of moving cars I tend to put myself into further danger, so from this I have developed this habit of moving slightly to the left and just letting the car go around me. Worst idea I have ever had. The four of us (and some 50 American students visiting from Spain) heard a large crash. I tensed and the next thing I know Fouad is pushing me out of the way. This car comes zooming right through where we were standing, by a hair misses the American students and slams into this wall. I am pretty sure I stopped breathing for a full minute. The driver was new and couldn’t work the brakes. If he doesn’t slam into the initial car we never would have known he was coming. And you can imagine where I'm going with this…I tend not to dwell on things like this. But not gonna lie…I was scared sh*tless. It is not till later did I realize the situation. I owe Fouad at least three boxes of cookies and a yellow melon for saving my life and all.

When you sign up for IES you are given booklets that all have this statement "students will experience being a minority for the first time...". But the thing is for the first time I don't stick out. I'm not the only one. No I'm not Moroccan, but if I use minimal Darija Arabic I blend in and am often mistaken for a Moroccan. It's awesome. At dinner yesterday this concept of minority came up. The boys said they quite enjoyed the intrigue that occurred from being white in an Arab country, they said this was a great conversation starter and that it made them attractive. (I would debate this…but we won't get into that, lol). The girls were saying they didn't like the extra attention. The heckling, the starring, the grabbing, and the assumption that all American girls are easy was rough. It attracts the creepiest of guys being American, even being Mexican doesn't prevent this. All of a sudden all the heads turned and looked at me and my friend Ally (who is African, Italian, Irish-American). They asked us what we thought. Not that they meant it in this way at all but at that very moment it took me back to primary school. I remember being the only non-black student at one point and then the drastic turn around of being the only non-white student. It's like "who wants to sing the solo in Feliz Navidad?" or who wants to play the "Mexican President?" "Selina?" Yeah that sounds like a good idea. Random? I think not. I say all this as this as I am sitting in the study room and I am 95 percent sure that they all think I'm Moroccan. Badly dressed and lonerish, but Moroccan none the less. So minority in a racial sense is not something that I am exposed to here. However, for the first time I am seeing what it feels like to be a minority religion. Most of the time it isn't a big deal. The young girls at my internship always try to get me to say the shahadah (declaration that one must say in order to be Muslim). And usually I can get out of it and we call it a day. Wednesday they asked me "WHY?" I wasn't Muslim. I told them it was because I was Christian. They drew a cross on the board and I nodded yes. They scratched it out and said "bad". Then they drew Jesus on the board and said "fake". I don't know why this bothered me so much. These 15 year old girls were putting down my religion and it really hurt my feelings. I ended class early, but of course I won't hold it against them. I really felt for the first time that I was in a Muslim nation. I am the minority.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Last Days in Fes…

So apparently internet is not something over here. I am now settled into my dorm in Rabat. It’s been a very different experience here compared to Fes. Here is a recap of my experience of my last week of orientation. I have various posts that I have written so I will just start posting them one by one. Enjoy :)

Walking the medina while fasting not a good idea… The medina is very compact, crowded and has an assortment of smells (most of which are not good). Walking through the fish market part I just about passed out. A sign should hang outside the doors saying “WARNING: do not enter if you can’t stand germs, people, and harassment!” But that’s enough of me being dramatic.
After breaking the fast we went out to qahawa for my roomie’s birthday. After which she helped me haggle my first purchase of a sheesha (hooka) pipe for the price of 100 dirhams (roughly $12). Bartering is an art form and most hanoots (store keepers) are quite proud. My favorite quote from Armaan during my leather shoe purchase was “We’re students. We’re poor. It’s raining. WE NEED SHOES.” That got the price taken down another 15 d’s.

Every day kind of feels like I’m in a reality tv show. The most ridiculous things just happen to occur. Everyone is taking their turn being sick. Food poisoning, diarrhea, bug bites…you name it we get it. A girl did get mugged at knife point (they don’t have guns here). It’s hard for me to describe the situation seeing as how it wasn’t me but it shakes you up.

I’ve pretty much concluded that I suck at everything. I have fallen down the stairs (twice), our home stay parents gave us keys to the doors…that we can’t use. Armaan and I spent a significant amount of time trying to open the front door. Then we broke the door and popped in the necessary part that opens the door. We had to resort to yelling for our brother. I am pretty sure he thinks we’re incompetent. Plus I’m sure the whole family thinks we’re crazy. This family eats a very modest and mild dinner. And I mean MODEST. Fasting and not eating just isn’t mixing well…so we end up eating crackers, laughing cow, and soda in our rooms immediately after dinner. There is no doubt that we are giving the best American impression that we can.
Armaan and I do everything together. We hold hands when we cross the street. We sleep side by side. Same class, same everything. People always ask us even if we’re sisters.

This man came into our home stay who I had assumed was their family friend so I said “salam” and proceeded to my room. Next thing I know there is a deep translating party going on and Armaan is involved. I come and sit. Something is said to me and I just do the usual smile-n-nod and all I know is the professor thinks I’m Armaan’s sister. Next thing I know is I have a date with the professor and his family (and by date I mean ALL DAY event) for Sunday. The thing about the professor is he does not speak English. NADA. However, he is fluent in Spanish. So the next day is spent with me having to use some mean Spanish translating/thinking. I was a little afraid that we were going to be chopped up and placed strategically throughout the walls, but in the end I ended having a really great conversation with him. Most of what he said made sense. For most of the evening I thought he was calling me “Sunni” which I did not know if I should take offense to that or not and then I realized he was just saying “Missouri” which made a lot more sense. He talked about the western influence on Moroccan identity and how it leaves such an impression, yet there is no Moroccan influence on America. He described how a lot of their traditions seem primitive to Westerners, but to an Arab makes sense and encourages hospitality and togetherness. He used the internet as a reference to something that is good yet slowly removing their customs and invading their identity. He also did say that the man is the king of the house and gets to lounge around all day and that Ramadan was good thing for women, because they get to lose weight. The feminist in me really wish I knew all the Spanish words to tell him where to put that comment. But I decided against it.

During our conversation with the professor he told us that 5 percent of the country held 95 percent of the wealth. Which for a 3rd world country that’s pretty accurate. In America it’s not uncommon for people to own two or three houses…and here that concept is so alien and unreal.

Most times, in America, a person works hard for their money to do that, but here working hard means you’re middle class and can feed your family. There are a lot of things that we forget to think about, being Americans and having the luxuries that we do. Next door to my home-stay is a really large house (three of my houses in one). My home-stay brother Mouad was telling me that the house made him very sad. He said that an American millionaire owned the house and has only been there to visit one time. He said it made him sad because people were sleeping on the streets and yet no one was staying in this luxurious home.

At the end of the day…at least we have clean underwear. Folded and all.