18 August, 2007

Random Reads

I am finishing my application for the CELTA in Cairo and interviewing with the Istanbul program today. Just some things of note from the last few days, including a the loss of a great sound, the power of the image, and paddling out for peace.

Doc Rocks!
Even I've heard of Doc. Some people may say his gift is frivolous. To me, it's someone who saw a need, knew they could help, and helped. Simple as that. And, there's no telling where this could lead. When I was a kayak guide, working with kids from the rougher parts of town was the best part, to see their confidence and smiles grow as they learned the strokes and managed to handle a 3 meter long kayak. Who knows what can come from teaching the children of Gaza to surf.

The drumming circle in heaven got sweeter last week. R.I.P., Max. You will be missed.

I attended the exhibit Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 at the High Museum on Friday. Leibovitz is most well-known for her celebrity portraits. In fact, until Friday I only had a vague idea of her other works. I'd heard she was in Sarajevo during the war, but didn't know much about her journalistic or personal work. That's why the show was a revelation to me. In her artist's statement she states her professional and personal work should be considered one body of work because she considers her life unified; that there's not this part of her life over here and that part over there. That's my philosophy of life, too, or at least what I strive for, so I appreciated that and the way it was reflected in the staging of the exhibition. Most striking, one wall is bracketed by a large print of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss formally posed in bed and the chilling image of a yellow wall in a Rwandan Tutsi school streaked with bloody foot and hand prints, the remnants of a massacre. In between are small, intimate images of Leibovitz's partner, the late writer Susan Sontag, on a trip to Venice, and a series of four simple images of Leibovitz's parents' morning routine in their kitchen. I sat in front of the the wall and watched people's reactions. Most people were drawn to the Depp print and repulsed by the Rwanda print. One woman walked up to the Rwanda print, gasped, snapped to attention, and scampered away. The personal photos, being much smaller, required closer inspection. The arrangement struck me somehow. This is life, or at least how it is presented to us: while people are being butchered in some far off place, a woman makes coffee for her husband, people go on vacation, and the press tries to wave celebrity in front of us as an ideal. I even have to give Leibovitz credit for her celebrity work, which isn't really of interest to me. There was a photo of a shirtless Mick Jagger sitting alone on a bed, staring at something outside the frame, that managed to convey a sort of vulnerability that one doesn't normally associate with Jagger. My favorites were a photo of the slot canyon at Petra opening onto the site, a bright crack in the dark rock walls leading your eyes into the image, with Sontag standing in silhouette at the entrance for scale; the fallen bicycle of a boy killed by a mortar in Sarajevo, his blood arced across the pavement conveying the brevity and fragility of life as well as the brutality of war; a bold, high contrast image in close-up of a pregnant woman's belly with the father's hands resting on the woman's belly in the form of a heart and the woman's arms cradling his. The exhibit closes September 2, so if you're in or around Atlanta, be sure to catch it.

Sadly, the U.S. is losing one of its most important publications of record. Who will cover Batboy, the alien members of the U.S. Congress, Bigfoot and Satan now? And what of their vital reporting on religious issues? Om-Taromeet and I used to buy issues to read aloud on long road trips, an unparalleled form of entertainment. Be sure to check out This Week in History.


14 August, 2007

Khalil Gibran Academy - "We Have Nothing to Fear, But Fear Itself"

UPDATE II: (AFP 9/5) New York's First Arabic School Opens Under Police Guard
Congratulations to the students and faculty of Khalil Gibran. May they have a safe and successful school year. - A.Q.

UPDATE: (NYT 08/21) Protesters Seek Leader's Return to Arabic School
(Haaretz 8/21) U.S. Rabbi Defends NY Arab School

The Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn is a madrassa. That’s the one thing its critics, fighting to keep the school from opening next month, are correct about. It is indeed a madrassa because in Arabic the word madrassa means school, religious or secular.

The battle against Khalil Gibran International Academy has been raging ever since the idea for a public charter school school focusing on Arabic language and culture was first proposed to the New York City Department of Education last fall. Its critics make wild claims that the school will be a training ground for extremist Muslims, an incubator for radical Islam, has ties to every extremist organization you can think of, and is simply the beginning of the end of this country and the new Caliphate. Kufi Girl posted a well-written piece about the controversy earlier this year.

The fight continued this week as Principal Deborah Almontaser stepped down in the face an overblown controversy following statements she made in an interview to the New York Post regarding use of the word intifada. Danielle Salzberg, was named interim principal. You can read more about Almontaser's resignation on Democracy Now!

Here is what Almontaser said to the New York Post in regards to the controversial "Intifada NYC" shirts being sold by Asian Women Active in Arts and Media: "The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off,' " she said. While acknowledging its "negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas," she said she thought the shirt was not intended to spark violence but inspire girls to shake off "oppression."

She subsequently issued an apology: "By minimizing the word's historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work."

Almontaser received support from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch in today’s New York Times. “They were too quick to fire her though. I thought she apologized and gave what she thought was an adequate response and is believable.”

The Times claimed the good intentions behind the development of the school "ran straight into the treacherous ethnic and ideological political currents of New York and were overwhelmed by poor planning, inadequate support for the principal and relentless criticism from some quarters of the news media, primarily The New York Post and The New York Sun."

The school is due to open next month with a 6th grade class of 44 students, eventually expanding through the 12th grade. The school will join other New York City public schools that focus on specific languages and cultures, including Russian, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Yet, only Khalil Gibran has incited such controversy. One only has to look at who is doing the criticizing to understand the real issue - fear. Daniel Pipes, Michelle Malkin, and a group calling itself Stop the Madrassa are just some of those who have spoken out against the school and Almontaser, even before the Intifada Affair.

The first thing that needs to be understood: not all Arabs are Muslims and most Muslims are not Arab. Read it again, people, and let it sink in.

There are also Christians, Jews, Druze, Yazidi, Bahai, Mandaeans, and Alawis in the Arab world. And the majority of Muslims are Asian - 69% of them. Indonesia and Pakistan, for example, are not Arab countries. Only about 15% of Muslims are Arab or of Arab-descent. Arab does not always equal Muslim.

The Arabic language predates Islam and is in the same linguistic family as Aramaic and Hebrew. It has never been a solely Islamic language and, in fact, a majority of the world's Muslims cannot speak Arabic. The language is considered sacred to Muslims because the Quran, considered the direct word of God, was revealed to Muhammad in Arabic. There is a long literary history in Arabic from the pre-Islamic poet Antar to Abdelrahman Munif and Daisy al-Amir. Arab culture, too, has a rich history of arts and sciences and is not limited to one religion or the other.

However, the smear campaign against a language, culture, and school continues.

“The Islamist dimension worries me as well. An organization that lobbies for Arabic instruction, the Arabic Language Institute Foundation, claims knowledge of Islam's holy language can help the West recover from what its leader, Akhtar Emon, calls its "moral decay." In other words, Muslims tend to see non-Muslims learning Arabic as a step toward an eventual conversion to Islam, an expectation I encountered while studying Arabic in Cairo in the 1970s,” wrote Pipes in the New York Sun.

I am not sure whom Pipes studied with in Cairo that made him feel this way. When I travelled to Damascus to study Arabic, my decisions, as an American, to study the language and travel to the Middle East were lauded by the people I met as hopeful sign for building bridges between peoples. Most taxi drivers, upon finally guessing I was American, would insist with a smile and laugh, “You cannot be American! You speak Arabic!”

Also, Pipes should stick to those actually involved with the Khalil Gibran Academy, such as the board of directors. According to The Jewish Week, three rabbis serve on its board. The same article states that Joel Levy, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group not known for being popular with violent extremists, has written letters in defense of Almontaser and the school. The ADL is also providing curriculum for Khalil Gibran dealing with discrimination.

The second thing that must be understood: this school falls under the auspices of the New York City Department of Education.

The Department said all teachers are certified and those hired so far represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds including "Irish, Greek, Jewish and West Indian", according to the Brooklyn Eagle, just like at the Department's 1,200 other schools.

According to Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, interviewed by the Eagle, "The school has chosen from curricula that has been approved and designated for New York City public schools…They’re using the same curriculum packages as other New York City public schools."

The Post and other critics have vilified Almontaser, a long-time educator and community activist well-known for her involvement in interfaith projects, and made her out to be some sort of Adam Gadahn. Their reporter, Chuck Bennett, describes his visit to the headquarters of Asian Women Active in Arts and Media thus: "At the time of the visit, more than a dozen young women were watching an Almontaser lecture on a DVD." No explanation of the subject of the lecture is given and readers are left to fill in that blank with their own imagination.

According to the New York Times, Salzberg has been “shocked” by the personal scrutiny she now finds herself under because of her new position. She has been involved in the process of developing the school, however, and is not a stranger. Some have gone so far as to raise her faith as an issue, as they did with Almontaser. To point out that Salzberg is Jewish and then claim that this makes her unfit to administer the school is outrageous. I wish she spoke Arabic, but my primary concern is that she be an effective leader.

What is to be made of the tasteless headlines related to the latest story, such as "Intif-Adios", “Hebrew-Ha-Ha”, “Taking a Jew Turn”, and “Jihad-ya Later”? I believe the help expose the real roots of this so-called controversy.

Arabic is a critical language in today’s world, just as Russian was during the Cold War. It is rich, beautiful, ancient language. Understanding Arab culture, or any other culture, is imperative to bring about positive change in the world and build ties between peoples. The voices in opposition to this school would prefer people remain ignorant and divided. Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and his department need to take a much firmer stand in support of this school and its staff.

The quote in my title comes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, given in 1933 at the height of the Depression. The full quote, from the fifth sentence of his speech, is, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Once again, what this country should fear most today is that same kind of fear Roosevelt described over 70 years ago. People in the U.S. must fight against the simplistic thinking, divisiveness, fear-mongering, isolationism, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia that are very much on the rise here and threatening the very ideals this country was founded on.


Gül 2.0 and Gaza E.R.

On Monday the ruling AKP resubmitted the name of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as their candidate for President. Oddly, the NY Times refers to him as simply "an economist and practicing Muslim...a moderate politician," not bothering to note his current post. It was Gül's nomination earlier this year, seen by some members of the opposition and military as a threat to the country's constitutionally-entrenched secularism, which led to the massive protests and political upheavals resulting in the government calling early parliamentary elections last month. The AKP won overwhelmingly with 47% of the vote. We'll see how things go this time. We do not get much in-depth news from Turkey in the U.S., at least not on a regular basis. Many people I speak to here, sadly, yet not surprisingly, cannot find Turkey on a map. (sigh) At which point in our conversations I have to walk off, count to ten, and try not to kick something. As I noted to a Turkish friend, "for most people in the U.S. an Ottoman is something you put your feet on." Anyway, I remembered seeing Gül on Charlie Rose last fall (9/27/06) and thought it would be something worth sharing. And here's the BBC's quick review in translation of the response from the Turkish press.

I hope those of you who are able will tune into PBS tonight for Gaza E.R., a documentary airing on the program Wide Angle (check for your local listings at the PBS site). I haven't seen it, but I believe it should be worth checking out. Here's a brief review from the NY Times. You can go to this page to watch previous documentaries in their entirety, including ones about the first female graduates of a school for imams in Morocco, Turkey's changing society and the evolving Islamic identity, and Arabic satellite channel MBC's popular program Kalam Nawaem. The pages for each documentary also include lots of resources to learn more and, sometimes, to get engaged in the subject.


12 August, 2007

Weekly Reader

Read up, kids. It's been hotter than Hades here this week. At least the garden is full of bamiya, badthinjan, and fasuliya. Here are some random readings and rantings from me to you to close out the week.

What I'm listening to: Burhan Öçal
What I am reading: Aeschylus, Nazim Hikmet, and (still) History of the Arab Peoples
What I am looking for: a good translation of the poems of Rabi'a

Andi got a big hug from me on Saturday for his piece, The War on Terror™, So Far, which made it to Cursor's sidebar. Kudos, Andi.

Keep up to date with what US Congressman from Colorado, US Presidential hopeful, and all-around crazy man Tom Tancredo is up to at this blog, Tancredo Watch, the author of which has been threatened by pro-Tancredo forces, but continues to print the truth. As Tancredo continues to trumpet his platform of madness, even other Republicans are backing slowly away from him, trying not to make direct eye contact. Listen to Tancredo explain his plan to the people of Iowa. Even the U.S. State Department spoke out against Tancredo's idea of a retaliatory strike on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As the great Juan Cole at Informed Comment puts it, "Tom Tancredo, an inspiration to the criminally insane that they, too, could run for President."

Tancredo's easy pickings. What the heck happened to Richardson and Obama recently? Anybody? I am now completely devoid of hope for substantive political change here. Not so much based on their gaffs, but because the debates I've seen have brought up little in the way of concrete policy ideas that make me sit up and take notice. Nobody has an idea of what to do about Iraq. Most experts say even if we cut and ran now it would take 2 years just to physically withdraw all the troops and gear. I just want somebody to say something that sounds like it comes from them, not a focus group or handler. And quit parroting the Republicans: war is peace; it's not "torture", it's "interrogating"; the Israeli government = 2 good 2 B 4 gotten...And, once again, we're down in the weeds with divisive social issues nobody will ever agree on while the middle class shrinks, housing foreclosures skyrocket, a recession looms. Oh, and I think there are a few isolated pockets of people that still respect this country. You know, isolated villages in deep mountain valleys with little contact with the outside world. Bravo.

With all the calls for "Me first!" between states as to who will host the first primary, one obvious idea was missing: let Florida go first because my home state has a less than stellar track record with elections. There may be a race or two still being contested in the courts from the last Congressional election. Seriously, they need time, people, to start working out all those inevitable kinks - paper or electronic, paper trail or Diebold-style....

I told Om-Taromeet that once I return to the Middle East and she calls me overseas, from now on, she'll have to begin each call with a greeting to whatever branch of government is listening in. Someday I can file a Freedom of Information Act request to view my file, which will be filled with emails from mom about her neurotic pound dog, Precious. Please understand, you don't even have to be suspected of terrorism or being one of those pesky "evil-doers" to be spied on now. The USA, after all, is all about equal opportunity for all. For the record, the Democrats folded on this one, too. I would complain that we, the voting public, didn't get a chance to debate the bill, but given the underwhelming response by the majority.....

For those of you who are o.k. with torture, read Jane Mayer's piece in the New Yorker about the CIA's "Black Sites" and the tactics involved. If you read one thing this week, make it this.

And follow the downward spiral that has been the war in Afghanistan in this important piece from the NY Times.

O.K., don't stop with Mayer. Be sure to read Newsweek's remarkable history of the global warming denial industry. Yup, industry.

Andrew Stephen, writing in the New Statesman, lays bare the truth of America today. Those bootstraps just aren't strong enough these days to pull most of us up.

Catch up with one of my photography heroes, Susan Meiselas.

What's with all the critters in carry-on? I love that TSA missed the monkey. How do you miss a monkey, people?!

I love that Fox News and The Right are freaking out about the Freakonomics blog post about "WWTTD?" That's "What Would The Terrorists Do?". You know, because I know somewhere al-Qaeda members are surfing the Web, reading the NY Times website (after checking their MySpace pages), and telling each other, "Hey, this is brilliant! I cannot believe we didn't think of this first!"

Golaniya just returned from a trip to Turkey with some interesting thoughts and lovely photos.
Time for another glass of tea from my çaydanlık.....