When our class arrived to the cluster of assigned readings on Gender and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, as a similar exercise to another that I have described on the blog, I asked my section to write down the first thing they imagine when I say, “Identify a stereotype regarding Muslim women.” This time, I decided to ask directly to identify stereotypes rather than what first comes to mind when I say “Muslim woman.”
Again, I wanted them to be honest so I asked the students to submit their answers anonymously. As I expected, it was a much easier and faster exercise for them than the one about fictional Muslim characters. However erroneous the narratives about Muslim women may be, they are ample and accessible.*
I collected the slips of paper and read them out loud so the class could hear what their colleagues wrote. This is what they wrote, exactly how they wrote it:
First stereotype of Muslim women that comes to mind
Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
Malcolm X: 2 students**
Scheherazade: 2 students
Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
Jasmine (Disney princess)
Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
Changez in TheReluctant Fundamentalist
Abu Nazir in Homeland
*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.
**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi). Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?
***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa. It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”
The events unfolding around the political arrest of an apolitical businessman tells the story of a politically troubled country. The author of Guban, Abdi Latif Ega, cleverly weaves the social, environmental, cultural and political provisions of Somalia to voice the journey of a largely misunderstood country that came to be viewed as predestined to failure because of its culture. The author impressively debunks this preconception by offering an urgently needed alternate narrative, not only to grasp the circumstances through which Somalia came to be “a failing state” but also to construe the histories of many African countries.
The author represents a rare voice that goes contrary to a great number of African authors who take a cathartic mode of writing through which they try to appeal to Western mainstream audiences confirming the prejudices about the savagery, inhumanity, poverty, famine, diseases and violence of African societies. He, however, does not go to the extreme opposite of that cathartic mode to talk about “the positive” through cultural enchantment. The author provides a compelling story of Somalia that humanizes and historicizes its political struggle. Guban is not a novel to be read for entertainment although it generously fulfills that requisite; rather, it is a story to be read for reflection and political learning.
In Covarrubia’s seventeenth century dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Castellana O Española, moro (from the Latin Maurus) is defined as “one from the province of Mauritania.” The term is meant to be used pejoratively as in the proverb, “A Moro muerto, gran lanzada” (p.1150). The Real Academia Española offers more than eleven definitions, including the natural border of North Africa and Spain; one who professes the religion of Islam; a Muslim who lived in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth century; a black mare with a star on the forehead and shoes on one or two limbs; Muslims of Mindanoa and Malaysia; etc. In the Oxford English Dictionary, moor is defined as “originally a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania” and “later usually a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the eighth century conquered Spain.”
In An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612), Sosa devotes an entire chapter—“The Inhabitants and Neighbors of Algiers”—to defining the “Moor” as a category of people among other inhabitants in Algiers, including Jews, Turks and Christians. The rest of the text, however, does not always use the term in the same way; rather, its usage reveals and reproduces the conflation of race, ethnicity and religion in the early modern period.
Dr. Livingstone, may not be such the hero we once presumed.
New digital imaging technology and a team of scholars have recovered David Livingstone’s faded journal entries from the period when the colonial era explorer had lost contact with his European benefactors 140 years ago.
While on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, Livingstone encountered illness and other types of hardships. He had lost contact with his European suppliers and required the benevolence of traders and locals to survive. His experiences would be later immortalized by Henry Morton Stanley’s dispatches to the New York Herald. The journal materials cover his most challenging crisis, the one that helped encourage the Crown’s crackdown on the slave trade in East Africa and thus, cementing Britain’s dominance in the region.
Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.
“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.
The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.
In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.
This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.
The story of Ekalavya is one of the many stories in the epic Mahabharata about the Bharata dynasty, and Vyasa is regarded as its author. Vyasa told Ganesha that he had to take the time to understand everything before he wrote it. It is the longest Sanskrit epic and was completed around 4th century CE.
Ekalavya is the son of a tribal chief. He wants to be an archer and wishes to become a disciple of the guru (or teacher) Dronacharya (Drona). Drona is the royal teacher to the Pandava and Kaurava princes. He is a Brahman and Ekalavya is a shudra. Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya, because Ekalavya wasn’t a kshtriya (warrior). Ekalavya returns dejected to the forest. He makes a clay figure of Drona and practices alone in front of it. In time, with practice, he becomes an excellent archer.
One day, when he’s practicing in the forest, the incessant barking of a dog disturbs him. He shoots arrows into the mouth of the dog without injuring it. When Drona sees the dog with its mouth full of arrows, he is amazed at the skill of the archer. Along with his disciples, the Pandava and Kaurava princes, Drona looks around the forest for the archer. When they come across Ekalavya, Drona praises him and asks him how he learned the art of archery. Ekalavya tells Drona that he learned it from him. He explains that he practices in front of a clay figure of Drona and he considers him his teacher. Continue reading Ekalavya Retold→