Friday, September 28, 2007

Being Palestinian: A Blessing or a Curse?

Even while on assignment in Cuba last week, my Palestinian origin caused a little bit of a stir. I guess it must be like coming across a rare species of bird that's about to go extinct... there aren't very many of us, less than 10 million in the whole world.

What was special about this stir was a comment from one of the reporters, an Argentine travel writer: "I would have liked to be Palestinian," he said.

The comment didn't surprise me because it's a notion I've wrestled with my entire life. Being Palestinian: love it or loathe it?

Being Palestinian isn't like being Egyptian, or Swedish, or Saudi Arabian, or Bolivian, or even Cuban. The closest thing I can think of is being Kurdish - a large nation with history and roots in the Middle East but denied a national territory - but even that's a little different.

When you are Palestinian, your mere birth is an act of rebellion.

For decades, entire PR campaigns put forth notions that the Palestinian people had no presence in history, and therefore no claim to any land. There were simply there, and one day they would all die, and with them the idea of Palestine as a modern nation. They would join the Moabites, Canaanites, Amorites of history - people who exist only in encyclopedias. Just like McDonald's came up with "I'm loving it", slogans like "A land without people for people without a land" or Golda Meir's bewildered: "Who are the Palestinians? They did not exist." were introduced and repeated throughout most of my parents' lives and my entire childhood. It took Yasser Arafat, the first and second Intifadas, and later Hamas, to keep the idea of Palestinians of flesh and blood alive and off the dusty pages of ancient history.

When you are a Palestinian, you are a defacto rebel. Che Guevara's steely stare will adorn your walls. You will read Norman Finklestein, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Said Aburish and George Orwell and you will always vote the lesser of two evils. You will be asked your opinion on pretty much any political topic under the sun and will be listened to with both awe and skepticism. People will say you are biased and so can't be trusted, and yet they will recognize that something lurks behind your eyes they will never be able to see for themselves.

To be Palestinian is not only to see the world as Che Guevara, Ernest Hemingway, or Simon Bolivar might have - it's to live it every single second of your existence. It's to fight against extinction.

So the socially conscious Argentine reporter might very well have liked to have in his blood that rebel gene rather than have to run after it, cultivate it with curiosity, exposure and empathy, but would he have been prepared to be Rebellion personified, from the day of his birth until the day he died, and every day in between?

I don't know. It's a heavy burden, one I can't say I've always wanted, But given the choice, would I chose to be reborn free of it? It has its good days and its bad days, but overall, yes it's a privilege to be a part of such an important piece of history.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith, Serendipity, and Eye Candy with your Complimentary Headphones

I lay my head back against the seat cushion and wince at the thought of cracking my laptop open. The latest Jane Green is burning a hole in my carry-on and frankly, I’d much rather spend three and half hours at 30,000 feet in the air with Ms. Green than with my own thoughts and the specter of a looming deadline . Suddenly, a faint smell I recognize from my childhood wafts through the cabin. I inhale sharply, the pressurized air stinging my nostrils, but I need to make sure… and sure enough, there it is, trailing behind that oh-so retro scent… the hot meal cart, complete with aluminum wrapped goodies (and not-so-goodies) but shocking just the same.

No, I wasn’t flying business class for the first time in years – this was Cubana, Cuba’s national carrier, economy class.

That Cubana, complete with a proper (free) meal, a (free) bar service, (free) headphones with which to watch Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and flight attendants who could double as cabana boys would turn out to be such a fabulous flying experience wasn’t even the most shocking part of my surreal week…

- “They’re sending you where?!”
- “Cuba, mom! A tiny little town called Baracoa…”

Just how tiny I wouldn’t know until the enormous tour bus had labored for four and a half hours across narrow, pothole-riddled roads behind ox carts, horse-drawn buggies, bicycles and entire families of wandering pigs.

Four months ago (or what it three? I can’t even remember anymore!), I sat in cubicle aaaaallll daaaaaayyyyy loooooooonnnng.

I was an accountant. It was my calling card to the world, my identity, my future. Even as I felt my soul was beginning to outgrow the label, straining against its suffocating confines, I still took perverse comfort in its shielding, sheltering walls.

But then on day, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I pushed back against those walls and found they weren’t nearly as thick, as solid or impenetrable as they’d seemed. The world beyond was huge, unpredictable, terrifying, lonely, and unbelievable exhilarating.

Once I was a bored, listless accountant, then I was a fledgling writer, and then, one day, I’m not quite sure how, I was a travel writer, on assignment in a tiny little Cuban town, wandering through streets Columbus had founded, puttering around cathedrals Velazquez had erected and Hatuey, the first rebel of the New World, had tried to destroy, listened to stories of farmers who gave aid and refuge to Castro, Che, and their band of revolutionaries, and trekked up mountains that have stood there for millennia and watched it all.

And I got to marvel at how a tiny little airline from a tiny little island-nation suffering under a nasty ol’ trade embargo could manage to serve me a hot meal on a short trip, a free glass of wine, and hot flight attendants with chocolate-dusted skin to boot.

I guess you really never know what you’re going to get, so you might as well close your eyes, jump, and hope for the best.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pornified or Free?

My roommate and I were watching a rerun of Fahrenheit 9/11 on the CBC and we got to talking about it, and somehow the chatter degenerated (or elevated? I guess it depends on how you see it...) to the Islamic Fundamentalist movement (Islamism for short, as so far, only a small minority of Muslims adhere to the fundamentalist version, but that minority has certainly grown from irrelevance to a stand-up-and-look-at-me force over my lifetime) and women's role in it. Don't ask.

My roommate is a Christian (Catholic) Palestinian, I am a Muslim (Sunni) Palestinian. Our parents are at the exact same place on the traditionalism vs. leniency axis, which is to say they're liberal by Middle Eastern standards and fairly conservative by Western ones.

Things got thorny when we hit the subject of the veil. My roommate, Arab and traditional though her upbringing was, could not understand how I could defend the wearing of the veil.

"I look at it, and the women who are wearing it with their five kids all under the age of six, and I wonder: how are these women free, how are they not subservient?"

It's not the first time I've had to defend the veil to liberal-minded people (I don't even try with conservative Westerners). It was a common theme at my high school, every once in a while some girl insisting on wearing the veil would make it into the papers, and there would be a debate in class. You can just imagine the debate in my college feminism class (all women) where the (really, really nice) teacher just looked at me with total disbelief when I said I supported the wearing of the veil. I'm used to that look now. What was nice about that particular class was that I wasn't the only Muslim girl in attendance - the other one stared back just as defiantly into the teacher's eyes and defended the veil too. And no, she wasn't veiled herself.

So what gives? I don't actually address this issue much (or as much as I should, maybe) because to me, it's self-evident: I defend a woman's right to wear the veil so I can protect my own right not to.

It's that simple. Something about doing unto others, blah blah blah. When I lived in Saudi Arabia and debates raged the other way (about the importance of protecting our values by not 'Westernizing' ourselves too much, wearing the veil in defence of women's rights, and against the 'pornification' of women, basic modesty, etc...), I, naturally, argued that it's not society's place to dictate how a woman interprets modesty. It's an individual choice. This stand was as popular in Jeddah as the-veil-is-not-a-symbol-of-female-oppression is in Montreal : )

But the veil is a symbol of female oppression! You say. Consider this story.

The idea of elementary-aged schoolgirls willingly blowing their classmates in bathroom stalls and having the whole thing camera-phone-taped for the entire Youtube viewing world to enjoy, is something that, honestly, makes me want to opt out of parenthood altogether. Call me close-minded.

I know this is extreme.(Then again, maybe not....) Whatever it is, it's not the 'feminism' I identified with and clung to as a kid, and hoped would lead women everywhere to self-awareness and power that had been denied us from the dawn of time.

But then, I grew up.

Here's a scenario for you: You meet a guy, let's pretend he's a waiter at the restaurant you and your girlfriends are having dinner at. You make eye contact, he's cute, you think he thinks you're cute, you flirt, and end up with his phone number. You text. He texts. A casual let's-just-hang-out-with-friends date-like rendez-vous is set. You go, you flirt some more, not really thinking ahead of the margarita in front of you. He drives you home, there's that moment of is-he-going-to-kiss-me tension, but you know (c'mon - just admit it) he will. He does. It's good - really good - but you're pretty sure you don't want to come off as easy. But hey - you're single and it's been a while. But still. You invite him up and say IT'S ONLY FOR A DRINK AND YOU'RE ACTUALLY REALLY REALLY SERIOUS. He shoots you that sly grin that just makes him annoyingly sexier, and you proceed upstairs, stopping for some heavy-duty make-out sessions along the way. You fumble with the lock, you are now inside.

You offer to make that drink, but it turns out Casanova was betting that given the right finessing, you'd be putty in his hands. He kisses you, you back off, but hey - it's good and he's nice and you definitely want to see him again, and did I mention it's been a while?

And so it goes. Maybe you have sex, maybe you don't, but it certainly wasn't what you had in mind but you "adjust" your behaviour to a blend of how far you're willing to go versus what you have to do for him to possibly call the next day.

Some women might cry bloody murder at this scenario, blaming the girl for not being forceful enough or clear enough in pushing the guy away, and that it's her fault if she went further than she wanted. Others would say no means no. I think the truth is these situations are so grey that no one really knows what goes on except the two people involved. And these situations happen because women are often complicit in their own objectification: the line between I'm-wearing-this-hoochie-mama-top-because-I'm-an-empowered-woman-in-control-of-her-own-sexuality and I-just-want-boys-to-like-me-and-this-is-the-only-way-I-know-how is so muddled that it's virtually impossible to get a good grasp of the issue.

I invite you to consider that we do have a problem with female objectification in the West, one that can't be placed solely on the shoulders of men, and that we have collectively decided that no matter the cost to our self-esteem, we are not willing to sacrifice, whether freedoms or pleasure, to try and correct this. Maybe it's okay to fall prey to our own weaknesses every once in a while if it means that we can do anything we want, and don't have to depend on anyone, especially not a man, for it.

Now let me invite you to consider another way of seeing things: that the objectification of women is a serious problem in a society where its men have not been properly 'conditioned' to see women as equals. Some men accept that they are not animals and do not behave as such, but other men think that a woman who puts herself on display is in effect, offering herself up, not so differently than our cute waiter scenario, albeit in a much more generalized context.

So the women in this society willingly choose to take the veil 1)as an external sign of their devotion to their faith, 2) because they feel more empowered by their self-inflicted de-sexualization, or 3) in a war/aggression situation where their values are under assault, people will exhibit extreme patriotism to protect their way of life. Wearing the veil becomes like flying the American flag on your lawn, a middle finger to the enemy.

It's a point of view that you can agree or disagree with - I happen to think we should work on "conditioning" men into better behavior - but I can objectively look at my own weaknesses and think: how can I be so smug, so self-assured that my way is the right way, when my version of feminism has somehow produced blow-job giving girls on school buses?

The perverse, radical consequences of regimes like Afghanistan's under the Taliban, or Saudi Arabia's under the Wahhabis for women are just that: extreme distortions of what happens when a group of people gives up some of its rights. In some places, without proper controls or with a citizenry too dehumanized by war or too lulled by riches to pay attention, this is what happens.

In other words, it's not the veil's fault. Please, cut it some slack, and stop inflating its importance as a symbol of oppression, and consider some genuine causes of oppression: poverty, war, theft of natural resources, bad leadership, short-sighted consumerism.

Bright, empowered Muslim women who wear the veil as a badge of honour will shut down if they see even a hint of pity in your eyes with regards to their decision to wear the veil. It's like telling them: you are a poor, stupid, backward girl with no backbone or ability to think for herself. Now let me tell how great America is....

Just like I imagine you would shut down if you thought Muslim women were forming their opinions of Western society based on a few blow jobs on a school bus.