Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Just because I’m pro-anti doesn’t mean I’m anti-pro

My mom got a call this fall from a political surveyor who wanted to know if she was anti-abortion. She answers the question this way: “I’m not anti-abortion, but I am pro-life.” And the political surveyor probably just about dropped the phone from his gaping mouth. How could she possibly be pro-one thing but not-anti-its opposite? Even more shocking is her oft-stated comment, “I’m not anti-abortion, but I’m not pro-abortion, either.” Because how could anyone be psyched about going out and aborting some fetuses? It’s a fact of life. There are shades of grey.

Recently, I’ve found myself in this same dilemma, but on a topic much more divisive, at least in the New York academic community. Of course, I’m talking about Israel and Palestine. Having decided to take my history seminar in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department, I am at times horrified by the statements I read that have permeated the history American Middle East Policy. If you’re pro-Arab, then you must be anti-Israel. If you’re anti-Israel, you must also be anti-Semitic. And maybe—MAYBE—if we were right in the throes of it, on the West Bank in 1967, that would be at least accurate of not logical. But 40 years and 5600 miles away, I think we should have enough distance to break these terms down a bit more.

I, for one, am certainly pro-Arab. I like Arab food, I like Arab culture, and I certainly like many many Arab people. Heavens knows I’m pro-Palestine; the Palestinian people have suffered from oppression and abuse for 60 years now. I have a hard time understanding how anyone can NOT support a people who have been denied basic human rights like freedom of movement and access to potable drinking water. I want those things even for people I don’t like.

But here’s the shocking thing: I’m also pro-Israel—as in Eretz Y’Israel. I accept the historical arguments. The Jews have historically gotten screwed time and again and, after facing a decade of ethnic cleansing, needed a safe space to call their own. Would I have gone about it as was done in 1947? Probably not.

What I am not is pro-Israeli expansionism, pro-Bibi (Netanyahu), pro-settlement, pro-terrorist, or anti-Semitic. And yet somehow, these labels tend to get thrown around in tandem with what I do believe. The language, in this case, makes things especially messy. Israel refers both to the Biblical Jewish “homeland” and the state apparatus in place there. Jew is used to reference both a religion found worldwide and the particular group of people who inhabit that chunk of land between Lebanon and Egypt.

As the conflict in Israel Palestine rages on more than 60 years later, as the U.S. gets increasingly involved in the Middle East, and as more and more innocent civilians get caught in the middle, I think its increasingly important that we use our language specifically. That we talk through things carefully. There are shades of grey. If someone tells you he is pro-Arab and you jump to the conclusion that he is, therefore, anti-Semitic, well…. That says a lot more about you than about him.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Beginning of the End

From the almost-finished series, “A Failed Adventure”

The next day, I made plans to hit up some of the city’s most tourist-friendly attractions. First, I visited the Ummayyad, or Grand, Mosque. Next, I headed to Al-Azzem Palace, both visually stunning and amusingly entertaining. I was distracted by the long display descriptions, which I first read in full in English and then tested my Arabic by stumbling through the translations. Before I knew it, the time had passed 3 in the afternoon. I headed over to ‘Omr’s shop, but when I got there he was gone. I felt bad for having missed our appointment, but needed to continue my day.

And continue I did, as I went in search of the last item I needed to buy for my family back home. My father and brother had asked specifically for Damascene steel, which was remarkably hard to find in a city once made famous for it. But I managed to find a small shop displaying antique damascene steel daggers and letter openers. The proprietor, a heavy-set middle-aged Beiruti popped out the door. “Come in!” he said. He knew right away that I was an American. He asked if I had traveled to Beirut, and I responded that I had not. “I love Syria,” he said, “but I do miss Beirut. They are much less conservative there. People can do what they want.”

After presenting me with dozens of options to choose from, I chose two small daggers and haggled him only a little to lower the price to 900 pounds each. But before I could pay him, he began bringing out refurbished antique jewelry. I was astounded at their beauty. “Would you like to try them on?” he asked. I asked the price, but he insisted that I try them on now and we would talk price later. He picked up a jade-beaded chain from which hung a huge silver medallion. As held it, rubbing my thumbs over the engraved Arabic characters, he closed the shop door, revealing a mirror on its back.

“Here,” he said, “ I’ll help you put it on.” He clasped the chain around my neck from behind and encouraged me to look in the mirror. I sighed as I admired it. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed as he stepped between me and the mirror, looking me up and down like I might expect from a ubiquitous gay salesman in New York. “It would look even better in America, if these were up here, like this,” he said as he grabbed my breasts and lifted them up to a Whitney Houston-like look.

I didn’t know what to do. I stepped back immediately, and looked uncomfortably at the floor. I had never been in such a situation before and was feeling small and guilty. But he moved on as though nothing has happened. I moved back toward the closed door as I tried to count 1800 pounds out of my wallet to take my daggers and go. “Wait!”he said. “please, let me give you a gift.” I refused, but he took out a tray of rings and looked quickly through them. He handed me the silver and turquoise ring as I pushed my two thousand pound notes at him and rushed out the door.

I tried to hold it together as I worked my way back to the house, fighting back tears. I struggled to get my key in the door before Bruce, my 40-something roommate, opened it. “Well hello,” he said, smiling, before sensing anything was wrong. “Oh, is everything ok?” I forced a smiled and walked slowly to my room, then lay on my bed and let the tears fall. I was already homesick. I felt alone. I scheduled a return flight to the U.S. for two days later.

I slept for several hours before waking up with a growling stomach. I looked out my window and saw the Umayyad Mosque glowing against the dark sky. I knew it wasn’t smart to go out this long after dark, but I hadn’t any food in the house. So I decided to go for more ice cream. Along the way, I passed the Lebanese shopkeeper, who waved and smiled at me as he closed up his shop for the night. I continued quickly to the market for a little comfort food.

The view of the mosque from my room at night

I took the long way back to my house, through the shops, restaurants, and falafel stands that lined the outer edge of the mosque, taking in the safety of heavy foot traffic and the beauty of this bustling city I was both sad and relieved to be leaving. Suddenly, I heard my name called out from the line of an orange juice stand. It was ‘Omr.

“Sarah, Sarah, “ he said, “I am sad you did not come by my shop today.”

“I did!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry I was late. You were gone by the time I got there.”

“I had made a reservation for us and everything. You did not come. I know that Americans say Arabs are liars but that is not true. You think I am a liar, but I think you are a liar.”

“I am sorry, really. And I don’t think you’re a liar, I’ve never heard anyone say Arabs are liars. I’m sorry, I have to go home now, it is late and I have to be up early in the morning.”

“No, you don’t have to be up that early, I’m sure. Please, you can make it up to me. Let us go out. You can stay up for another couple of hours and still get up early.”

I continued to protest, until finally making a deal that I would join ‘Omr for one drink before I needed to go home. He agreed that we would go to a restaurant near my house. But as we walked, he started again to hassle me about my missing our appointment that evening. When we reached the corner of my street, I stopped. “‘Omr,” I said, “if you are just going to give me a hard time about this, I do not want to go. I have not had a good day.”

‘Omr took my hands there in the street. “Sarah, I am not trying to give you a hard time,” he said, and just as I was about to continue walking, he put his arm snuggly around my neck and approached my face to kiss me, right there in the Old City. “Nonononono,” I stuttered quickly and turned my head. He rushed off angrily.

The decision to go home was the right one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Idiot Abroad

No, this post isn't about me - though there really is no shortage of superbly stupid moments from my travels. I'm just not interested in making it a matter of public record just yet. An Idiot Abroad is latest endeavor of The Office co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, a travel show in which they send one of their more "unworldly" friends, Karl Pilkington, around the globe to see the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World just for the sheer fun of seeing him struggle with it all.  Really, that is the entire premise of the show.  While Merchant expressed his hope that traveling will help broaden Pilkington's horizons and change his outlook on the world, Gervais cackled that he hopes Karl will hate it, adding: "This is one of the funniest, most expensive practical jokes I've ever done."

Indeed, when Karl heads off to Jordan to see Petra, along with a side trip to Israel, there are plenty of moments when he appears to be hating his life. But overall he is good sport, and is open to learning. In many ways, watching an "idiot" such as Pilkington is refreshing - he isn't a pretentious know-it-all showing off how knowledgeable and worldly he is. Viewers are able to watch him take everything in, process it, and begin to form his own opinions.

For example, within the first few minutes of the episode Karl is ambushed and kidnapped by "terrorists" in a paranoid Israeli-run "Extreme Scenario" training session...because, you know, sight-seeing in Jerusalem is extremely dangerous and everyone should be prepared to be held for ransom by Palestinian militants. Riiiiight. Pilkington caught on to this, however, commenting when he was in the Old City: "It can't be that dodgy, can it? Look at all the tourists...You don't queue up to go to a danger zone...is it all part of it, though, do they do that for the tourists? Make them feel like ooooh it's a bit edgy when really it's not going to kick off." Pilkington also heads off to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where he his impacted more by the Separation Wall than he is by the birthplace of Jesus: "I got more of a feeling from that wall than from where Jesus was born...go over there, that's where you can have a tear, it's depressing." So, even an "idiot" such as Pilkington can see through some of the performances that are put on for tourists in a "hot spot" like the Holy Land and form his own opinions.

As can be expected, the episode wasn't without its fair share of cringeworthy/facepalm moments. After a detour to the Dead Sea, Karl reaches Jordan where he trades in the car for a camel, and begins the trek to Petra. He's relieved when, after eight hours, the camels tucker out and won't walk any further, and they have to load them onto trucks and drive to a Bedouin camp for the evening. This is perhaps the most awkward scene of the episode - Karl and the Bedouin - as you can tell he really has no idea what to think of it all and, given the fact that he'd spent eight hours on a camel that day, his patience and graciousness are lacking (more in the video below). After nearly throwing a temper tantrum the next morning when they try to make him ride a camel the rest of the way to Petra, Pilkington is driven to site where he actually ends up enjoying himself. After spending the night in a cave, he later remarked: "I think being a caveman would have suited me down to the ground. I think my brain would have suited that time more as it can't keep up with stuff these days. I think I was born too late."

I found it odd that throughout the Jordan portion of the episode, you don't see Karl in Amman or any other Jordanian city for that matter, giving the impression that Jordan is just all desert and camels. Though Karl felt well suited to a "caveman" lifestyle, I'm sure he would have spent at least one day in Amman if only for the sole purpose of catching a flight back to England, and I think that it wouldn't have been so terrible to include some footage of Jordan's capital city in the episode. Still, I suppose the "Petra Experience" is what most people are looking for when they travel to Jordan, and Amman wouldn't have been as "challenging" of a place for Karl - so there would have been fewer uncomfortable moments to get Ricky Gervais cackling.

Below are some of the episode's "Best Bits" - which, in my opinion, aren't actually the highlights. It seems like these are these scenes when Karl is the most annoyed and not enjoying himself (which, in Gervais's view, ARE the highlights):