2006-12-29

Recent readings: Orientalism

Edward Said is an American academic, he was born in Palestine and lived in Egypt for some time before immigrating to the United States.

Orientalism is a classic that Said had put with great care, the book had simply changed the way the West looks at the "Orient". It had even created a negative tone to the word "orientalism", modern western scholars are apparently distancing themselves from being called "orientalists".

The book re-examines the term "orient" and what it actually means to the Western reader, or maybe what it was made to mean to the Western reader. Orientalism argues that the West actually made its own Orient and that the Orient as know in the West is actually the Western discourse about it.

To illustrate the idea, Said gives as an example the way Orientalists made their "scholarly" analysis of the revolutions and rebellions against the colonial rule in Africa and Asia. For instance, in their analysis of the Arab revolt in Egypt, some Orientalists gave the impression that the Arab "violence", is somehow due to inherent tendencies to chaos rather than to legitimate pursuit of freedom and independence. Colonialism needed to be justified with orientalist theories like "Arabs/Africans/Indians are incapable of self-governance".

The book goes through the representations of the Orient since medieval times, this was essentially anti-Islam rant fuelled by the religious authorities in Europe. Said spends a good part of the book describing the orientalism of colonial times which is the period when "Oriental Studies" in Europe became of great importance to the colonial mouvements in Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and others. Indeed, one of the most central ideas in "Orientalism" is that the orientalists were essentially serving the colonial interests. Some critics blame Said for ignoring other orientalists who were not affiliated with colonial authorities and seemed to be solely interested into Oriental arts for instance. Mahmoud Darwish put this in his stunning beautiful symbolic style in a poem called Tibak (طباق):

نيويورك. إدوارد يصحو على كسل الفجر

يعزف لحناً لموتسارت

يركض في ملعب التِنِس الجامعيِّ.

يفكِّر في رحلة الفكر عبر الحدود

وفوق الحواجز

يقرأ نيويورك تايمز

يكتب تعليقَهُ المتوتِّر

يلعن مستشرقاً

يُرْشِدُ الجنرالَ الى نقطة الضعف في قلب شرقيّةٍ

يستحمُّ. ويختارُ بَدْلَتَهُ بأناقةِ دِيكٍ

ويشربُ قهوتَهُ بالحليب

ويصرخ بالفجر: لا تتلكأ

Orientalism, just like Said described, is still alive and well. Bernard Lewis, a British now living in the US is probably the best example of Said's orientalists. Despite his strong disagreement with Said, Lewis is regarded as a major figure of modern Middle Eastern studies. When Lewis justified the war in Iraq with "we free them or they destroy us", he summarised what Said has been trying to tell us in his book.

Despite my disagreement with some of Lewis analysis, I think his extensive research may give the Muslim world some very useful clues on how to regain more status and accelerate development. I will try to make my next politico-historical reading a Lewis.

2006-09-30

A Tunisian in the church

I have been living in Western countries for a few years now and I have never attended a mass, at a Christian church that is. Actually, I have been living close to several churches in Tunis for a decade and I always thought of visiting the Roman Catholic church in avenue Habib Bourguiba. It never happened for lack of time, lack of determination and mostly for the fear that it may appear inappropriate to the local Christians.

I talked about this to a co-worker and he invited me to attend the mass at the Guildford Saint Saviour's church which I did (with my wife) on 26 February 2006. It was a very worthwhile experience and I'd love to have it again.

To a muslim, the prayer ritual is obviously quite different. It consisted into a considerable amount of singing and music playing which would correspond more to a joyful adhkar (أذكار) session in the Islamic tradition. The person leading the prayer gave a speech about Jonas, that's Yunus (يونس) in Arabic. Except from the mention of the Trinity in the lyrics, I didn't see much conflicting with the Islamic teachings.

The common belief that muslims cannot pray at a church or at synagogue is not totally accurate. When Syria was conquered by Muslims in the 7th century, Christians and Muslims were praying at the same church (Saint John maybe) alternating services on Fridays and Sundays. Later when Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (عمر إبن الخطاب) conquered Jerusalem (القدس), he commanded that muslims shall not pray in Christian worship places for fear that it may establish a tradition of possessing churches in the future.

It happened the day of my visit that the church was ogranising a kind of informal meeting to discuss about "Is nothing sacred?". Assured by the ones who invited me, I attended; the discussions addressed several topics like some show I didn't know about but which appeared to be blasphemous, the muslims reaction to the Danish cartoons and so on. At the very end, I asked permission to comment on a question by one of the attendees: "do Muslims take their religion more seriously than us?" and (briefly) on the Danish cartoons affair.

My point of view was essentially that for muslims Islam has been a power that brought scientific, social, military and economical advances and it's still being regarded as the social system that turned a bunch of desert warring tribes into masters of the World. Islamic Civilisation owes all of its achievements to Islam, therefore, I think this is why the Islamic religion has this great esteem for Muslims. The US channel PBS used a nice expression to describe this: Islam -- Empire of Faith, it's a documentary which runs over 3 episodes: The Messenger, The Awakening and The Ottomans.

The Christian church in the West, on the other hand, was more regarded as an obstacle to Western advances. Tales of blasphemy charges against scientists are still vivid in the minds and I believe that this has costed the church a lot of credibility over the past centuries. That's obviously the opinion of someone who knows very little about the history of Christian church(es).

The Danish cartoons affair deserves a post by itself, but at the church I only pointed out that the violence the media has described happened in inherently violent and instable places, namely Gaza, Palestine, Nigeria, Pakistan and such. The cartoons were a mere trigger for communities already under tension.

The reactions to my visit were mixed, someone from the church's staff said that what I did was "brave", another attendee was staring at us for the whole session and gave the impression that he didn't like us being there. Many others expressed sympathy and escorted us on the way out, some even asked us to come again. Thank you all for the warm welcome.

2006-08-30

M. Ahmadi Nejad and G. W. Bush

The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad had called, in a press conference, for a public TV debate with United States president George W. Bush.

The White House dismissed the invitation as "just a diversion from the legitimate concerns that the international community, not just the US, has about Iran's behaviour." It's probably worth noting here that what the US speaker refers to as "the international community" is only a handful of countries, namely Great Britain, the US, France and Germany; that's only 4 (6 if you count Russian and China) countries out of about 200 and is, in my opinion, a very long way from being "the international community".

This is not the first invitation of direct discussions with the US Administration which the Iranian president made. President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad already wrote an 18-page letter to his American counterpart about a similar topic 4 months back. The letter had seen a similar fate to the public debate: turned down.

I think this could have been a golden opportunity to ease the tensions between Iran and the US. I'm sure there are tons of mis-understanding piled up on both sides, since we're still talking about the "Great Satan" on one side and the "Axis of Evil" on the other.

On a less serious note, I believe that the US Administration is right about avoiding this confrontation: George W. Bush, who is not well known for his eloquent speeches, will certainly have a hard time talking about World affairs with a Civil Engineer who holds a MSc and a PhD in transportation systems? Even the CNN readers think their president doesn't stand a chance.

2006-08-26

Childhood comics: Sinan - سنان

Sinan was one of the comics that marked the childhood of millions in the Arab World. My sister had a Sinan T-shirt when she was about 4. It's one of these comics made in the 70's and, very successfully, translated to Arabic. The translation of these Japanese anime is usually done in Syrian and Lebanese studios; Young Future and Space Toons are names that come to mind. I believe that Sinan's English name is Beaver.

The opening song is still vivid in my mind 25 years later, it goes like..

سنان يا سنان
يا خير الأصدقاء
في الغابة الخضراء
سنان يا سنان

شعارك الوفاء
يا خير الأصدقاء
ها نحن بإنتظارك
سنان يا سنان

سنان يا سنان
يا نفحة النسيم
بطبعك الكريم
سنان يا سنان
و رأيك الحكيم
يا خير الأصدقاء
ها نحن بإنتظارك
سنان يا سنان

سنان يا سنان
صديقنا الأمين
في غابة الحلوين
سنان يا سنان
الكل سالمين
يا خير الأصدقاء
ها نحن بإنتظارك
سنان يا سنان

The closing song, equally beautiful, goes like..

ما أحلى أن نعيش
في خير و سلام
ما أحلى أن نكون
في حب و وئام

لا شر يؤذينا
لا ظلم يؤذينا
و الدنيا تبقى تبقى
آمال للجميع

ما أحلى أن نعيش
في بيت واحد
ما أحلى أن نكون
في وطن واحد
الحب للجميع
و الخير للجميع

Sinan was a very brave young squirrel who always helped the needy and did all he could to bring happiness and joy to those in sadness. Every episode would address a typical social situation, no guns, no flying robots, just plain goodness and big-hearted behaviour. Sinan was supported by his friends Lala and a young bear (forgot the name). The bad guys were a gang of Foufou the fox and Farfour the bear, led by Sharshoor the wolf. The Sharshoor gang were not terribly bad, they were just a bunch of idiots giving Sinan a hard time.

I really cannot make any sense of the "modern" comics a la Pokemon, I just can't get the point.. or is it just me growing too old?

2006-08-03

President Habib Bourguiba 1903-2000

I still recall that text in the primary school describing the triumphant return of the Supreme Leader (المجاهد الأكبر) after the negociations with the French. The photo in the text was showing him riding on a military Jeep with a soldier sitting on the hood and plenty of people cheering him around.

That was Habib Bourguiba (الحبيب بورقيبة), the first president and founder of modern Tunisia. My grandmother used to break in tears remembering Bourguiba. "Si Lahbib", as some Tunisians like to call him, has been educated in the legendary Sadiki School (المدرسة الصادقية), then followed some higher education in law and political sciences in University of Paris, France. I don't know the curriculum by heart, but let's just retain that Bouguiba was a lawyer and a journalist. After graduation Bourguiba has quickly turned into political activism and managed to found a new party that headed to fight for independence from France. This costed him years in French jails, he was also too close to the firing squad at times.

What Tunisians find special about Bouguiba is his magical and charismatic way of addressing them: very open and improvised speeches in plain Tunisian dialect. In الحبيب بورقيبة - سيرة زعيم or Les Trois Decennies Bourguiba for the version in French, Tahar Belkhadja (الطاهر بلخوجة) descibes his experience and his relationship with the President in some very revealing ways. The book sums up quite nicely the personnality of Si Lahbib. Tahar Belkhodja gave an interview and appeared on another program on the Al-Jazeera channel some time back about his career in the government where he revealed yet more details about the President.

Habib Bourguiba was obviously not a perfect leader, he was still regarded as a dictator who didn't believe in sharing power. He almost publicly admitted his reponsibility for the assassination, in Germany, of Salah Ben Youssef who led the communist opposition. By the way, Tunisia has gone through a painful communism experience which turned to be catastrophic and the gaovernment had to pull back with a historic public apology from Bourguiba in the 60's. The last 10 years of Bouguiba's rule had plunged the country into a true mess and a dangerous political chaos.

The World still remembers Bourguiba for some pioneering initiatives like the Civil Status Code (مجلة الأحوال الشخصية) granting revolutionary rights to women: women gained their right to vote in Tunisia before Switzerland. Bourguiba was so proud of this achievement that the only mention on his grave is: "محرر المرأة" or "Liberator of the Woman". He also had a wiser approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict: despite acknowledging that the creation of Israel was a historic unjustice, he called Arabs to accept UN resolution 181 to secure the part proposed and keep fighting afterwards to free the occupied parts. Unfortunately, the answer to this offer was thrown tomatoes and burning of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Regardless, Bourguiba always stressed on the integrity of the Tunisian people: Jews and Muslims. In 1982, after the Beirut siege by Israel, the Bourguiba government (actually, his wife Wassila Bin Ammar) brought a resolution to the deadlock by offering to host the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and implement the agreement sponsored by the UN. The Bourguiba "government" maintained the Education allocation at around 30% of the budget, compared to 1.5% for Defense.

Another significant event in the career of Bourguiba is his his opposition to the German in WW2. Bourguiba was emprisoned by the French at the time and the Germans, after occupying Tunisia, offered to release him and push him to power in return of his support; amazingly, the Supreme Leader turned down the offer. He once said "I wouldn't have fought France so fiercly hadn't I loved France so much". In May 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy says about him:
Like President Washington, President Bourguiba is a revolutionary, and like President Washington he also, when the revolution was won, had the sense of judgment, self-discipline and strength to attempt to bring good will and peace among his people and to the people of the former occupiers of his country and his surrounding neighbours.

The relationship with Moammar Al-Gaddafi, leader of Libya, was flaky at times and one of the best remembered speeches was almost an impromptu interruption of the Colonel in the Palmarium, now a shopping centre in Tunis. Listening to this talk today makes me think that the person was a serious politician.

Based on a medical report declaring Habib Bouguiba senile to govern, he was dismissed on 7 November 1987 and spent the remaining 13 years of his life in a government-owned house. Just like the Godfather, like him or hate hime, Habib Bourguiba has marked modern Tunisian history for ever.

2006-03-20

50 years on..

In the middle of the 19th century, Tunisia was still ruled by the Husseinite dynasty which has Turkish roots. The Ottoman Empire had controlled, to different degrees, the political life in Tunisia for about 3 centuries and the similarities between the Turkish and the Tunisian flags are not accidental.

As the Ottoman Empire started to wane and the colonial mouvement was at it's highest, the Italians and the French started to eye Tunisia as a potential colony. The foreign debt started to weigh heavy on the Bey's Government and they had to give in to French pressures and sign the Bardo Treaty which established the French protectorate.

On 20 March 1956 a delegation of Tunisians signed the Protocol of Independence with France after 18 days of negociations. France recognised the right of Tunisia to manage its own foreign affairs, security and defense, effectively ending 75 years of French protectorate.

The country prides itself with a relatively high standard of living, a very wide middle-class base, pioneering women status and impressive economic achievements. An utmost priority was given to Education since the establishment of the republic in 1957. Tunisia has done a pretty good job at maintaining an identity shaped by 3000 years of history while embracing modernity and this does reflect in a very welcoming and open attitude of most Tunisians. Some work still needs to be done for a more efficient press and a more active political life, but we're almost there.

Today, with fellow Tunisians, I celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independence. An independence which we all owe to a few brave men who conducted a continuous Jihad in all its forms: political, cultural, unioninst and, to a lesser extent, military. The Government launched a website with a nice summary about the event.

Names like Habib Bourguiba, Farhat Hached, Mongi Slim, Habib Thamer, Mohammed Daghbagi, Hedi Ben Jaballah, Abu Al-Kassim Al-Chabbi, Moncef Bey and others will be remembered as heros..

2006-03-05

A Dream Deferred

Roheet Shah of the American Islamic Congress commented on a previous article with a note about an event organised by the Hands Across the Middle East Alliance (HAMSA).

The event is called The Dream Deferred Contest which calls for American and Middle Eastern youth to write an essay about what they think of the civil freedoms situation in the Middle East. I don't know of the motivations of this contest, but I think it's going to be an interesting opportunity to see how the situation is seen from different standpoints.

Unfortunately I don't qualify because of my age: I'm not a "youth" anymore. I wished I could contribute, but I will try to put some thoughts about the subject here.

First off, it's not very clear to me why Americans, or the West in general, are so concerned about freedoms in the Middle East: is it because some think that the lack of freedoms is causing trouble back home? is it by pure compassion? Then, what freedoms are we talking about here? Is it the freedom of speech? the freedom to live in peace? the equality between genders? and what's the "Middle East"?

I am very excited about this event because I'm sure that what the American youth will write is going to be very interesting; interesting, not only because the latest American attempt to bring freedom to the Middle East has been desasterous so far, but also because the image of the Middle East displayed by US media is so distorted and, in my opinion, amounts to lies at times.

It's interesting also to see what the other side of the river thinks. Many in the Middle East are reluctant to take the West for an example of freedom because they don't think that they really need a freedom that makes 42% of British babies born to single mothers, that makes 600,000 people in Europe die from Alcohol-related causes per year and that makes 40% of all registered marriages in a German city take place between gay couples. Wasn't it the same freedom of press and speech that established an anti-semetic atmosphere in Germany in the early 30's which led to an attempt to exterminate a whole People?

It's hard to imagine that someone sane can reject freedom and democracy, but on a second thought, one may question whether they are really worth the price. The French Revolution, a symbol for the modern, free and democratic republics, has rampaged through France behading people for pronouncing the word "King". Some bright minds of France were lost victims of an excessive quest for freedom. The United States had to exterminate the native Indians, fight a bloody war against the British rule and another bloody civil war to build a "free and democratic America".

Obviously all this comes in a global situation where it seems common sense to regard the West as the beacon of freedom and the Middle East as a hole of darkness. Although I don't agree to this black-and-white classification, I think that, generally speaking, it's a lot easier to communicate one's ideas in the West than it is in the Middle East.

I also believe that it's the freedom to express difering views that guarantees a reasonably good governance. Without a trusted justice system, there's very little room for any economic, social and technical development. I'm almost sure that the wide-spread corruption in many Middle Eastern countries is holding back development. In the 12th century, Abdu Ar-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (عبد الرحمان إبن خلدون) said that "العدل أساس العمران", that is "justice is the foundation of urban life".

In my opinion, the Western attempt to "bring freedom to the Middle East" are mostly making the situation worse. For some, it's enough reason to reject an idea because it comes from America.

In my humble opinion, I think that if the motivation America is to bring democracy, then I would beg them to leave their tanks home: help people get jobs and democracy will follow. If the intention is to keep the extremists from attacking America, then the fix is even easier: "if you want to fight terrorism, then just stop bombing people".

At times I just think that maybe it was better to just leave the Middle East alone. Muhandas Gandhi once said: "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

2006-02-01

United Kingdom -- First impressions

We have been in Great Britain for about 10 months now and I thought I should write down some of my first impressions about this place. This is definitely not pretending to be a scientific evaluation, but a mere side scratches of a newcomer. It's also worth noting that we only saw part of the South West (Surrey) which seems to be in a more favourable situation than the rest of the country.

The name
It's still a bit confusing for me to make a clear distinction between Britain, Great Britain, England and the United Kingdom. It seems like the official name is "United Kingdom" although the top-level Internet domain name for this country is actually GB (and not UK) as per ISO 3166. England seems to be used to indicate the largest island.

Food
Food was probably the most noticeable difference for me. The British seem to heavily consume ready-made and frozen meals, grocery stores contain huge sections of this type of food. The "hot food section" is usually a tiny corner that the shopper can barely spot, hot food is almost synonymous with roast chicken. The national junk food is fish and chips which is usually a portion of deep-fried, breaded Cod fish with potato fries.
The other significant food in the UK is alcohol, it seems to be an integral part of the social life and there are shops dedicated to nothing but selling beer, wine and spirits. It's very common that people head to the pub (bar) right after work, everyday at times.

"Bloody"
This seems to be the term to use to express anger while avoiding vulgar expressions. It appears to be socially acceptable.

Transportation
A very good roads network. The underground service is well-designed and reliable. There's a problem with the cost though; parking is very expensive at several GBP per day, gas is at an average of 0.90 GBP per litre and diesel is usually a little more expensive than gas. Trains tend, apparently for safety reasons, to run slower then in other European countries, a round-trip from Guildford to Cambridge costs about 36 GBP which is, by Tunisian standards, a lot.

Health Services
The National Health Service (NHS) is the public authority running the Government's health services. The state is controlling almost all aspects of health care, patients need to register with a local General Practitioner (GP) who coordinates all their health service needs. The first general impressions are not very positive so far, but we had a very good experience with the emergency service.

Queueing
Fellow Tunisians have a lot to learn from the British on this matter, everyone queues, everywhere.

Urban organisation
All buildings look exactly the same: red-brick walls with tiny rooms and really tight doors, I often wonder how they could take sofas inside the house. Actually, whe I moved I shipped a 3-seater sofa to my address in the UK, unfortunately I had to sell the item on e-Bay (for a fraction of the price) because I simply couldn't take it upstairs. Some modern buildings tend to use more metal and glass. Roads are usually a bit tight compared to Dubai or the US. Some of the roads suffer a little damage, clearly because of rain water.

Media
The Independent is my preferred newspaper. I don't have exposure to many popular TV channels, I only receive five of them. I listen to BBC 4 Radio daily and I find it great, Radio Tunis has to do a lot of restructuring to reach this high standard; too much music has exactly zero informational value.
The British media has the particularity of being shocking without turning politically incorrect. Showing body liquids and extreme nudity on TV is somehow a form of joking here and I recall seeing postcards with human genitals in London. I find it an interesting form of humour. Some say that the British were shocked so many times that they hardly find anything shocking.

No middle finger
Extending the middle finger as a vulgar sign of extreme offense does not work in Britain. The British express the same by extending both middle fingers of the same hand (the ones closest to the thumb). The legend says that in earlier times, when British archers were captured by the French, they had their fingers chopped, at least the ones used to throw arrows. Therefore, showing off the fingers is used as a sign of defiance.