Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism

How ABC’s “Alice in Arabia” Is Racist?

Have you seen a US film that talk nice of “Arabs” or “Moslems”?

Have you seen a US movie or TV program that talk bad of Jews , Zionism or the State of Israel?

Do you think the narratives on Jews or about Jews are done by non Jews or anyone not supporting the State of Israel?

Do you know of a narrative on “Arabs” or Moslems in the US done by an “Arab” or a Moslem?

Do you know that the “Arab World” is constituted of two dozen independent States and this Arab World has at least four major differences, such as the North African countries, the Nile region States, the Arabic peninsula and the Gulf Emirates and the Syrian Nation (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine?)

The pilot, which riffs on the Alice in Wonderland tale, reinforces old racist tropes:   an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color.

American Muslims have lost control of their narratives both online and in the media.

While violent Islamic extremists have grown increasingly adept at using social media to craft their messages – as have anti-Muslim activists – more normative voices from Muslims have been drowned out.

Rabia Chaudry posted this March 19, 2014

The lack of control over self-articulated narratives was exemplified yesterday with the announcement of ABC Family’s new pilot programs, which include a show that got the attention of Arab and Muslim Americans across social media.

One such pilot, “Alice in Arabia” — a title cringe-worthy in itself — has been described as follows:

“Alice in Arabia” is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian.

Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation.

Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”

(Frequent regurgitated plot: no imagination when applied to the “Arab World” situation)

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Dieter Spears—Getty Images/Vetta

The Twittersphere exploded with the hashtag #AliceinArabia, as people tweeted their offense to ABC Family. The criticisms are plentiful and varied.

1. The show reinforces old racist tropes in which an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color.

Considering the sordid history of Americans vilifying Native American men and then black men as dangerous to white women, it is a completely understandable objection.

2. The entire framework of the show is through the kidnap plotline, confirming the kinds of fears about Arabs, Iranians and Muslims that the movie “Not Without My Daughter” established decades ago.

3. The show certainly pits Americans against “Arabs” (tweeters pointed out “Arabia” is not actually a place), and we can assume the “independent spirit and wit” of Alice the American will prevail as triumphant over the lesser evolved Arabians. Thus the plot both bolsters the highly troublesome binary of us vs. them (Muslims being them), a factor linked to the growth of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes in the US since 9/11, and confirms American superiority.

4. Not only will “Alice in Arabia” exacerbate the marginalization of Muslim and Arab men, it perfectly reflects Western attitudes towards Muslim women. Hear that sound?

It’s millions of Muslim women snorting as Alice attempts to survive “life behind the veil.”

The very idea that the veil is something to be survived strips Muslim women of their intellect and agency and makes them the subjects of this practice rather than sentient protagonists 5. of it.

5. The pilot uses the real-life difficulties faced by women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a platform for ratings, and diminishes the work of activists in and outside the country to effect meaningful reform.

An imported heroine, who is both the victim and the great white hope, not only smacks of Orientalism but frames serious issues through her narrative alone. In doing so, it reaffirms the fact that overwhelmingly the stories in the West of Muslims and Arabs are not actually being told by Muslims and Arabs.

The challenges of Muslims in the West are many, but there is no question that having control over our narratives and the messages about our faith are paramount.

These narratives shape public opinion, impact civil liberties, and even influence our foreign policy.

In failing to self-define ourselves, our culture and our faith we lose authority both to religious extremists and anti-Muslim bigots.

It can only be hoped that ABC Family and other media outlets are paying attention.

The American Muslim community is ripe with talent and voices who can actually tell these stories in relevant, meaningful, and authentic ways.

Portraying Muslims and Arabs as nuanced Americans instead of foreign caricatures would be a good first step for television.

Instead of reaching across the globe for “Alice in Arabia,” perhaps we should start here at home with “Ahmed in Austin”.

Questions Palestinian Queers are tired of hearing: 8 of them

You might think that the main goal of a group of queer activists in Palestine like us in Al-Qaws (The Bow) should be the seemingly endless task of dismantling sexual and gender hierarchy in one’s own society.

It is. But you might think otherwise, judging from the repetitive questions we get during our lectures and events, or from inquiries we receive from media and other international organizations.

Ghaith Hilal posted in The Electronic Intifada this November 27,  2013

131127-ramallah-graffiti.jpg

Graffiti in Ramallah reads “Queers passed through here.” (Image courtesy of Al-Qaws)

We intend to end this once and for all. Educating people about their own privilege is not our burden.

But before we announce our formal retirement from this task, here are the eight most frequent questions we get, and their definitive answers.

1. Doesn’t Israel provide Palestinian queers with a safe haven?

Of course it does: the apartheid wall has sparkly pink doors lining it, ready to admit those who strike a fabulous pose. In fact, Israel built the wall to keep Palestinian homophobes out and to protect Palestinian queers who seek refuge in it.

But seriously: “Israel creates refugees; it does not shelter refugees. There has never been a case of a Palestinian — a descendant of a family or families who were forcibly displaced, sometimes massacred, often thrown in jail without charge — magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.

If some people manage to cross the wall and end up in Tel Aviv, they are considered “illegal.” They end up working and living in horrible conditions, trying to avoid being arrested.

2. Aren’t all Palestinians homophobic?

Are all Americans homophobic? Of course not. Unfortunately, Western representations of Palestinians, particularly lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Palestinians, tend to ignore diversity in Palestinian society.

That being said, Palestinians are living under decades-long military occupation. The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.

However, homophobia is not the way we contextualize our struggle. This is a notion comes from specific type of activism in the global north.

How can we single out homophobia from a complex oppressive system (patriarchy) that oppresses women, and gender non-conforming people?

3. How do you deal with your main enemy, Islam?

Oh, we have a main enemy now? If we had to single out a main enemy that would be occupation, not religion — Islam or otherwise.

More fundamentalist forms of religion are presently enjoying a global resurgence, including in many Western societies.

We don’t view religion as our main exceptional challenge. Still, increased religious sentiment, regardless of which religion, almost always creates obstacles for those interested in promoting respect for gender and sexual diversity.

Palestinian nationalism has a long history of respect for secularism. This provides a set of cultural values useful in advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians.

Furthermore, religion is often an important part of Palestinian LGBTQ people’s identities. We respect all of our communities’ identities and make space for diversity.

4. Are there any out Palestinians?

I’m glad you asked that question. We have great Palestinian gay carpenters who build such amazing closets for queers with all the Western comforts you can dream of — we never want to leave.

Once again the notion of coming out — or the politics of visibility — is a strategy that has been adopted by some LGBT activists in the global north, due to specific circumstances. Imposing this strategy on the rest of the world, without understanding context, is a colonial project.

Ask us instead what social change strategies apply to our context, and whether the notion of coming out even makes sense.

5. Why are there no Israelis in al-Qaws?

Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money). Being super “good” doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.

Our organization works within Palestinian society, across borders imposed by the occupation. The challenges that LGBTQ Israelis face are nothing like the ones faced by Palestinians.

We are talking about two different societies with different cultures and histories; the fact that they are currently occupying our land doesn’t make us one society.

Being queer does not eliminate the power dynamic between the colonized and colonizer despite the best of intentions.

We resist the “global, pink, happy, gay family” sentiment. Palestinian-only organizing is essential to decolonizing and improving Palestinian society.

6. I saw this film about gay Palestinians (Invisible Men/Bubble/Out In The Dark, etc.) and I feel I learned a lot about your struggle

You mean the films that were made by privileged Israeli or Jewish filmmakers portraying white Israelis as saviors and Palestinians as victims that needed saving?

These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society.

These films rely on racist tropes of Arab men as volatile and dangerous.

These films are simply pinkwashing propaganda, funded by the Israeli government, with a poignant oppressed/oppressor love story the glitter on top.

If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites.

7. Isn’t fighting for gay rights a more pressing issue than pinkwashing?

Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia.

But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppression exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.

Furthermore, pinkwashing is a strategy used by the Brand Israel campaign to garner the support of queers in other parts of the world. It is simply an attempt to make the Zionist project more appealing to queer people.

This is another iteration of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy — that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves.

Pinkwashing strips away our voices, history and agency, telling the world that Israel knows what is best for us.

By targeting pinkwashing we are reclaiming our agency, history, voices and bodies, telling the world what we want and how to support us.

8. Why do you use terms from “the West” like LGBT or queer to describe your struggle? How do you answer that critique?

Though we have occasionally been branded as tokenized, complicit with Israel, naïve and Westernized (by those based in the West), our activists bring decades of experience and on-the-ground analysis of cultural imperialism and Orientalism.

This has provided the raw material for many an itinerant academic. However, the work of those in the Ivory Tower is rarely, if ever, accountable to those working in the field nor does it acknowledge its power (derived from the same colonial economy) on activists.

We are accountable to our local communities and the values developed over years of organizing.

Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do.

The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context.

The language that we use is always revisited and expanded through our work.

Language catalyzes discussions and pushes us to think more critically, but no word whether in English or Arabic can do the work. Only a movement can.

Ghaith Hilal is a queer Palestinian activist from the West Bank who has been part of Al-Qaws leadership since 2007.

Beirut Metropolis: Orientalism with a surgical twist

For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterized as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilized pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.

Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter.

In the introduction to his Orientalism, the late US/Palestinian author Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:

“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] ‘. This journalist was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (See link in note 2)

Belen Fernandez published in AlJazeera on Nov. 6, 2012 “Orientalism with a surgical twist: Beirut”

The ‘New York Times’ advertised Beirut as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009 [Reuters]
Can the representation of Beirut as a “Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth” function on behalf of imperialism?
“The civil war may indeed have upset a regional landscape constructed over time by European scholars, poets, travelers and other self-appointed authorities, who, as late Edward Said argues, helped institutionalize Eurocentric prejudice, deny agency to the actual inhabitants of the romanticized exotic lands and thus facilitate imperial and colonial conquest.

The civil war did not, however, halt Orientalist traditions – made quite clear in manuscripts like From Beirut to Jerusalem, unleashed to wide acclaim in 1989 by former New York Times Beirut bureau chief Thomas Friedman.According to Friedman’s account, civil war-era Lebanon was populated by “buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls“, whose presence threw invading Israeli soldiers for a loop:”This was not the Sinai, filled with cross-eyed Bedouins and shoeless Egyptian soldiers“.

That such caricatures were permitted to pass as insight, exposes the delusional nature of Friedman’s subsequent complaint that “a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies“.

Paris revisited 

In recent years, Beirut has reclaimed its image as the Paris of the Middle East, outfitted with expanded shopping opportunities and a spiffy new downtown erected on the former dividing line between the Muslim and Christian halves of the city.

A spate of Times articles about Beirut’s various amenities offers such trivia as that “[i]n a city of many faiths – Christian, Sunni, Shiaa, Druze – at least one religion is universally practiced: sun worship“.

The New York Times has dutifully taken on the role of PR firm for the resurgent Lebanese capital, advertising it as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009.

Given that the specified temples of worship are high-end beach clubs where “hordes of heliophiles absorb ultraviolet rays and cultivate their bronzed exteriors”, it would seem that said religion is not so universal after all

– either from an economic perspective or one that recognises the incompatibility of certain prominent faiths with public bronzed exterior cultivation.

On the new Zaitunay Bay waterfront promenade, a “luxury playground” where “tablecloths gleam white and bottles of wine sweat in silver coolers”, the Times observes that the boardwalk planks, “a nod to maritime authenticity, present a design flaw perhaps foreseeable in this city: Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks”.

Additional sights at Zaitunay Bay, itself described as “Lebanon’s latest effort to recapture the prewar 1960s – when Brigitte Bardot was a regular and Beirut was a fashionable port of call”, include an Iraqi immigrant in “leather miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a fur vest and whose fire-engine-red lipstick and long yellow hair” would have appeared out-of-place in her native land but “were right at home in Beirut”.

In other Beirut-centric dispatches, the Times raves about gay nightlife and restaurants offering beef and duck flown in from France.

The point of taking issue with such idealised odes to money and fashion is not to deny the affluence that exists in the city or the comparatively liberal nature of its society.

However, the marketing of a Beirut brand of “joie de vivre“, so blatantly equated with material wealth becomes morally problematic when we acknowledge the glaring economic disparity in the country, visible in the capital itself.

Consider, for example, the aesthetic differences between the refurbished downtown and the overcrowded and neglected Palestinian refugee camps and primarily Shia southern suburbs.

In these areas, recent infrastructure projects have included the rampant flattening of apartment blocks by the Israeli air force in 2006.

Needless to say, less sanitary aspects of life in Lebanon – such as the enslaved status of many migrants employed in the domestic help sector – have no place in the portrait of Beirut as a paradise of wealth, where tantalising opportunities await foreign visitors and their pocket-books.

Cleopatra on Botox 

Three decades after Thomas Friedman discovered buxom Cleopatra in Lebanon, another Western voyager by the name of David J Constable has confirmed that the women still “look like Cleopatra”, and that they have acquired new methods for enhancing their appearances – becoming in the process veritable ambulatory showcases for “tucks, lifts, firming, lipo, implants, grafting, tightening, otoplasty, mammoplasty, rhinoplasty and many other physical manipulations”.

A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Constable approaches his anthropological subjects with Orientalist vigour, compiling his findings in a Huffington Post report entitled “Boobs, Botox, and the Babes of Beirut“.

Constable dispatch begins with the curious hypothesis:

“For a largely Arab country it’s a bizarre thing that in Lebanon (Beirut specifically), women care more about their appearance than men.

Males lead a rather sullied existence, priming their closely cut mini-beards and, from my own observations, eating rather a lot.

The formula in Lebanon’s capital for women is fashion-forward, from their choice of cloth to the decisions they make surgically.”

Non-experts on Arab grooming habits might of course be surprised to deduce that men usually spend hours preening in front of the mirror while women mope about in filth.

Undeterred, Constable rumbles on: “Muslim, Christian and Druze women in Beirut dress surprisingly skimpy. There are vests and silks and bikinis and cashmere and come-hither off-the-shoulder numbers.

Constable warns, however, of occasional inauspicious outcomes among operated females: “Some look as if a drunken Picasso has drawn a face on to a balloon”.

In the very least, Picasso’s inebriated doodles attest to the European role in literally shaping the Orient.

Indeed, in 2006, the Israelis were presumably just as pleased as they’d been in 1982:  They discovered that not all Arabs were cross-eyed Bedouins, and Lebanon is still inhabited by bikini-clad plastic surgery recipients (and their slovenly overeating menfolk).

Field notes 

The Orient’s existence as a spectacle for the Westerner to behold and interpret is meanwhile made especially clear during Constable’s expedition to a nightclub “to witness the dolls and their dates myself”.

A power outage interrupts the exotic display but is fortunately resolved:

“The lights slowly raise and the permafixed smiles return. The waxed, toned limbs of party women begin to pop and gyrate again.

They’re back on show, electrified so their surgical enhancements, botoxed-brows and designer names can bounce off my eyes, competing in a variety of silk-cut blouses, Louboutin heels and over-night handbags.

At another rooftop bar, Constable surmises that “there are benefits to marrying/dating/having sex with a plastic surgeon, since surely no one can afford to spend that much of their own cash on reconstructive surgery and blow-me-up operations”. Case closed.

As with the New York Times‘ fixation with Beirut glamour, the effect of essays like Constable’s is to reduce the Lebanese to a superficial existence in which personal concerns are limited to inflating one’s lips and breasts and not getting one’s designer heels stuck in boardwalk planks.

Never mind that many Lebanese are faced with more pressing preoccupations, such as a southern neighbour with a penchant for massacring civilians, upending infrastructure and saturating portions of the country with unexploded cluster bombs to serve as post-conflict population control.

Some may argue that the Times Constable approach is less detrimental than other reductionist portrayals of the country, such as Lebanon equals terrorist den.

These reductionist statements helps propagate an ethnic stereotype that has been exploited to justify more than one imperial project in the Arab/Muslim world.

However, the representation of Beirut as a Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth and cleavage – a place the West can relate to on account of its fervent materialism – can also function on behalf of imperialism, eliminating as it does all context legitimizing other aspects of Lebanon’s identity, like resistance to Israeli regional designs.

Note 1: Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Workreleased by Verso in 2011.

She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogAl Akhbar English and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Note 2: https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2008/10/12/culture-and-resistance-by-edward-w-said/

Note 3: I think Miss Lebanon of 2012 is the one on the far left, the tall blonde one?

Around the World Social Event Miss Lebanon 2012 In Las Vegas Lebanon


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