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Shahs of Sunset and the Accidental Revolution

In Kippahs+Keffiyas, Popolitics on December 31, 2013 at 11:59 pm

New Year’s is about new beginnings. But it’s also about the closing of chapters. And with that said, it looks like the played out dirka-dirka-Mohammed-jihad era may finally be coming to an end… Thanks to a hit reality show on Bravo TV.

Currently in its third season, Shahs of Sunset is a sensationally scandalous yet fascinating “portrayal” of a privileged group of friends, all children of Iranian immigrants and refugees. On the surface, it’s a show about living the high life in Tehrangeles, but if you look closer it’s about so much more.

Videocrat shahs

When it first came out, Shahs shook the Iranian-American community like a Bam earthquake. Even West Hollywood’s City Council passed a resolution (a resolution!) in 2012 condemning the show. The uproar was exacting and predictable: It’s foul. It’s negative stereotyping. It’s racist.

I wonder if the critics bothered watching the show beyond the glam-tastic first few episodes. Season 1 started off outrageously enough: Private jets, petty fashion squabbles, way too much alcohol and a Vegas hotel suite situation (butler included) that would make Sheikh Mohammed jealous. And that’s just it: It’s more of an oil-money-Arab-stereotype than a Persian one. Even MJ said it quite brilliantly when describing the opulence of her own strip-club-themed birthday party: “It’s so Persian, it’s Saudi”.

Like a Purrrrsian...

Like a Purrrrsian…

Back to the haters: Shahs is not an ethnographic documentary series about Iranian identity in America. It’s a reality TV show — a format that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction in a civilization-eroding, dirty-look-driven formula that has nonetheless proven to be wildly popular across the globe. And I think that viewers are discerning enough to know the difference. Sure, it’s filled with (staged) cat fights and enough gold jewelry to save Greece from its economic woes, but there’s something to be said about all the stuff happening in between. Stuff about us “Middle Easterners” that needs to be addressed: Homosexuality, girl power, interfaith relationships and class.

Most of the cast members come from wealth (especially Golnesa “charge it to daddy’’ Gharachedaghi) except for one key character: Asa Soltani, the self-appointed ‘’Persian Pop Princess”. The only thing that seems to connect her to the others is the fact that she’s Iranian, loves gold and went to Beverly Hills High. Otherwise, she’s a cultural mutt (in LA via Iran and Germany) lives and works out of Venice as a multidisciplinary artist. She also dabbles in music and dresses like an MIA back up dancer. So Asa really doesn’t fit in to the spoiled brat stereotype that critics are up in arms about. In one episode, we see her humble background; a working class family supported by her mother, a full-time nurse. And Asa has repeatedly stated on the show that her top priority is to take care of her folks financially… by way of a magical liquid called ‘’Diamond Water”!

Holy water?

Holy water?

Despite the hippie chic and artistic inclination, Asa’s got some serious entrepreneurial ambition. Throughout the show, we get to witness the inner workings of successully creating a product we have all been waiting for: A luxury bottled water “infused” with the “powerful vibes” of a six-figure diamond, and she says “every single drop has been blessed with my love energy” (a scene to behold in season 2). Sounds ridiculous, right? But this is America, the land of opportunity… And when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty genius from a marketing perspective. Asa’s precious Diamond Water- as well as her Shahs salary- is probably the main reason she agreed to be on the show in the first place.

So with her worldly outlook and penchant for spiritual reinforcement, Asa is a necessary grounding force on the show. She’s rarely at the center of the drama but when she is, she just cuts right through the bullshit: When GG calls her “ghetto” for her unorthodox fashion choices, Asa snaps back: “What’s ghetto to you? “[the fact that] my daddy doesn’t bankroll my life?”. Clash of the classes at it’s finest!

I invented "swimgerie"

Lilly Ghalichi: Inventor of “swimgerie”

Lilly Ghalichi is another noteworthy outsider. Don’t let her Persian Barbie looks fool you. She may seem like the polar opposite of Asa, but they’re actually more similar to each other than any other cast member: Lilly is a Texan transplant who decided to forgo her law career to launch a swimwear line. She doesn’t drink and is often floored by the rest of the group’s antics. Her “boyfriend” is never on screen and any way – much like Asa – it’s pretty clear she’s only on the show to promote her brand. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see these beautiful Muslim women setting out in the world on their own and defying family expectations of becoming a doctor/wife/real estate agent. And the best thing is, religion is not part of the conversation! Which brings me to my next point:

Blogger Shana Weiss (from Jewcy.com) asked: Why don’t they ever discuss religion? The answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. Historically, the Middle East has been a melting pot of religions for millennia. It’s where Jesus, Mohamed and Moses made their world debut! So what ties people together there on the day-to-day is beyond religion. And one thing I love about Shahs is that it’s showing people that faith, for the most part, is not culture. Things like language and food are far more powerful on the social level.

When Mike Shouhed- a Jewish cast member- tells his beloved mother that he’s looking to settle down, she tells him ‘’inshallah’’ – the Muslim expression for “god willing”. Reza, an endless source of salacious one-liners, is the product of an interfaith marriage (Muslim mother, Jewish father). They divorced due to his father’s infidelities and we see Reza try to reconcile with him throughout the show.  In one episode, he invites the crew to New York to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Jewish side of his family. It’s so obvious from this meeting that what holds these people together is their Iranian – ahem, sorry Persian- culture. Aside from a couple of kippas and a Hebrew prayer, the get-together looks like any other on the show. And this is how I’ve seen it work in the Middle East and with my own multiconfessional group of friends in the West.

One of the more touching moments on Shahs– and there have been a few- is when Reza talks about how his parents’ divorce affected him. Because his father converted to Islam against his family’s wishes to marry his mom, he believes that the social pressure of the time made it impossible for them to have a fair shot as a couple. In one humanizing moment, Reza goes through old black and white photos of his folks in happier times and tearfully confesses: “I would trade all of it – the BMWs, the Rolexes the houses in Beverly Hills- for that peaceful home with two loving parents.” All that glitters ain’t gold, people. And that’s certainly the case on Shahs of Sunset.

Lately, one captivating storyline on Shahs has bolstered ratings by bringing up something we seldom discuss: While we (born and/or raised in the West) bemoan imposed stereotypes and the critical gaze of the white man in our “adoptive land”, we are also guilty of that very prejudice on our own people. To call someone “Fresh Off The Boat”, and we’ve all done it, is to judge a newcomer as a fumbling immigrant who can’t speak proper English, let alone understand “our culture”. An FOB is not clued in and most certainly is not cool. In this season of Shahs, we see this elitist nastiness in full force. When Reza’s boyfriend introduces him to their new neighbor Sasha- a gorgeous gay refugee from Iran – all hell breaks loose. Reza calls him an FOB, then kicks him out of his apartment. When they cross paths later at a nightclub, Reza loses his shit and calls Sasha and his brother another F-word: “fags”. The irony in all this is: While Sasha- with his toned physique and hip dress sense – fits in perfectly with the West Hollywood crowd, Reza’s retro-Saddam styling makes him look like… a well-fed Middle Eastern dictator.

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Sasha Fierce: Who knew they could come off the boat looking this fresh?

The two later reconcile after Reza sees a therapist to delve into his irrational behavior. He realizes that Sasha represents a painful time in his youth -growing up gay in a conservative community – and his disconnection from the motherland. Yes, it’s all so very pop psychology, but it’s an important subject to tackle within the context of a Middle Eastern viewers, and first generation audiences in general. And I commend Reza Farahan for outing himself on so many different levels.

On the cultural sensitivity tip, it’s also worth mentioning that the producers have made an impressive effort to enlighten viewers with some Farsi 101 in inserts like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 4.27.22 PM

Nomar Elmi, the director of community outreach for the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C., put it well when he had this to say about the show: “(…) the silver lining for me is that it will get people talking. Usually we are depicted as terrorists from the axis of evil. At least this is another side to the community. It isn’t the most positive or accurate, but it will get the American public talking.”

I doubt that executive producer Ryan Seacrest had any of this in mind when he was first blinded by the bling on this crew, but I think Shahs may be paving the way for alternative representations of Middle Eastern people in Western media: They can be gay and proud, they can be successful, they can be Jewish and Muslim, and they can get drunk together and love each other for who they are as individuals. Caviar vending machines aside, this is the world that I (and other children of immigrants in the West) come from, and it’s refreshing to finally see it (sort of) portrayed on TV. So although I don’t think Shahs of Sunset is essential viewing, to me it’s proof that the pendulum of representation has swung – albeit to the opposite extreme, but that’s the only way for it to eventually strike a balance. And I’m not ashamed to say it: I’m a fan.

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BYE BYE BAGHDAD

In Popolitics on December 18, 2011 at 12:18 am

"The New Iraqi Flag" by Hala Alsalman (2005)

2011 is almost over. While many across the globe believe that Armageddon is just around the corner, the world ended many years ago in Iraq. Unjust bombings, unjust sanctions and an unjust 8 year occupation have resulted in unimaginable death tolls, disease (social and otherwise), and the destruction of hope for at least two generations of Iraqis. While the pretext for war was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the car bombings that have mangled and dismembered thousands upon thousands of Iraqi citizens are part of a culture of terrorism that never existed in Iraq before the invasion. Things that we in the West take for granted, like electricity and garbage management, are at atrocious levels.

And so, what was once a beacon of progress and intellectual thought in the Middle East, has now become one of the worst places to live on Earth. As the last of US troops pull out of Iraq this month, lest we forget what the US government has left behind: One of the greatest crimes against humanity of our time.

In 2004, a 23 year-old Egyptian-American filmmaker by the name of Wesam Nassar traveled across Iraq for two months distributing video cameras to Iraqis for a documentary film project. What he saw has marked him to this day. This is an article he wrote upon his return to the United States:

REFLECTIONS OF A WITNESS

What you see my son is America’s three O’s: Occupation, Oppression, Opportunity.”

Salman Al-Berman (Adthamia, Baghdad)

One month since my return from Baghdad, the dark cloud that loomed over the country still remains in the nightmarish messages of despair electronically sent to me by my now extended family. I have been repeatedly asked by friends, family, and colleagues, why I waited a month to recount the tales of my journey to what many Iraqi’s call a country of destruction? I don’t know why exactly. Except to say that from the moment I flew out of Baghdad into Amman till this very minute, I find myself at times weeping without apparent cause or reason. Where does one begin, when reflections of the past impose the very despair seen in Iraqi eyes upon you?

As I sit here on the computer, I know that the fact of the matter is I am not an expert on international political affairs, a war analyst, or a religious figure. I am just a human being that has witnessed the ramifications of war with every one of my senses, yes including my sense of smell, as the odor of rotting flesh rose from a rooftop in Fallujah one mid-May morning.

I was told they were the remains of a young student who joined the Fallujah brigade, A.K.A. pretty much every able bodied man in Fallujah, and died when a mortar destroyed the rooftop he was posted on. Most of the perished have similar epitaphs of simply defending their loved ones. The only great victory I saw in the destroyed city of Fallujah were the mothers that survived, many of whom lost sons in April and again today.

My last day in Fallujah I ate lunch at the most famous restaurant in all of Iraq, Hajji Hussein’s. Hajji Hussein’s is known from Mosul to Basra and everywhere in between. Some Baghdadi’s make the hour-long drive to Fallujah for lunch to experience the fine dining of Kofta and Kebab. As my guide Keiser and I sat silently eating the juiciest Kebab in the world, I paused to look around. Everyone, every single person in the place was staring at the television, watching Al-Jazeera. But this is normal. In Gaza, Palestinians would be glued to the television 24/7. It makes sense. The thing that made this moment in Iraq a profound one, was that most of the men were either handicapped in wheelchairs or strapped with Kalashnikov’s (Russian Guns). Leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, it was a scene that even the best kebab in all of Iraq couldn’t cure. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think, These men sacrificed their limbs and lives for their families and neighbors, with the only reward being life. I can learn a lot from them.

It was hard to enjoy simple pleasures, for violence penetrated almost every moment of life. In Adthamia, Baghdad, my driver Salman invited me out for ice cream on account of the heat. As we stood together leaning against the ice cream stand eating the Mota ice cream and enjoying the relief of the shade, the mental oasis was interrupted abruptly. A tank and two hummers pulled up across the street and without warning began firing rounds into a house. Salman and I dropped our ice cream, and ran toward the car. Most people were running away from the violence, but some were running towards it with weapons. As we jumped into the car, some kids (undoubtedly under the age of 15) began firing on the Coalition troops from rooftops and the ice cream shop. As we sped off, my side view mirror revealed a hummer on fire, and a firebombed house. Within an hour we found out that a soldier died in the skirmish, as they were looking for an insurgent hiding at home.

It was hard for me to adjust to the sounds I wasn’t accustom to hearing living in the US. In Iraq, about every 5 minutes one hears some form of gunfire, an aircraft overhead, a crash in the distance, or a siren. I became shocked at myself when by the fifth night in Baghdad, I was able to ignore and sleep through nearby firefights, and parade of bullets passing through the neighborhood (some gunmen perched on nearby rooftops within sight). The unbelievable irony of hearing the morning call to prayer over the sound of tanks driving through the streets, returning to their bases after long nights of fighting.

Or what about driving on the freeway listening to Freedom Radio with DJ Sergeant Jon Clark who decides to play Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ all the while Salman and I watch as a Black Hawk helicopter fires on a crowded neighborhood. We pulled off the road and sat in awkward silence. What speech do you utter at that point? Except what Salman turned to me and said, “It’s a celebration? Okay then, let me buy you some fish.” We both laughed uncontrollably, masking our tears.

As we drove to the restaurant, I noticed that it became increasingly hard for Salman to hide his frustration, and little did we know that the opportunity would come for him to let it all out. Driving along the street he began to reminisce about the restaurant he was taking me to, saying that he would take his family there all the time on Fridays. “The best seafood in Iraq.” Then HONK!!!! Our car is hit from behind and pushes us to the side of the road. We hear “get the fuck off the road!” as a hummer drives by leading an envoy of tanks and trucks with the label Halliburton emblazoned on the sides. We sat in silence. After a couple of minutes Salman finally turned and looked at me. He said, “You know, we built these roads.”

You felt the occupation in every touch, whether that was the touch of a handshake, a hug, or a shake down. In route to Basra from Baghdad, the Muktada Sadr militia stopped us at a checkpoint. After getting all the details of who we are, where we were going, and checking our car, they invited us for tea. We drank tea. In the short time we stood amongst them, I came to learn that the majority of the men were farmers/laborers and joined the militia simply to defend their family and land. No, this is not an oversimplification; their seemingly simple intentions were devoid of grand illusions of defending the Nation. The moment, Abdel Karim, a fighter in his late fifties shook my hand and hugged me close, I knew that all that these men wanted was a space to love and maintain their families.

Was the encounter with Abdel Karim any different than the one I had the following day with Private Marco, a Philipino American soldier who held me against a fence and searched me? He would proudly talk of his military record, of having served in Grenada, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He finished patting me down, and I asked him what makes Iraq different from those other places. He paused and with disdain said that the difference was that ‘I knew my objective everywhere else.’ “After nine months of getting shot at 24/7, we don’t know why we are here anymore. Honestly, all I want to do is get out of this country and get back to my family. Just get my check and get out.” He let my driver and me pass through after he told me he has two kids and a wife waiting for him in New Jersey, and Iraq this would be the last place he would serve.

After two weeks of life in Iraq my eyes were the most abused of all senses. I saw enough violence, destruction, and chaos for ten lifetimes in under a month. And what made it even harder to bear was the constant reminder of my passport: I had the option of leaving. For my new friends and new extended family, Iraq was life. This country that was considered the gem of the world for hundreds of years, where European philosophers, scientists and theologians would come to study, a nation on the verge of being considered a member of the first world, is now reduced to rubble. I was unable to bear the sight of the historic national library, that was rebuilt hundreds of years ago after the Tartars burned it to the ground, returned to ruins, firebombed, looted, and abandoned. More disheartening however, were the nihilistic remarks of hopelessness uttered by children and young adults about the hope of the future.

This is what I smelled, tasted, heard, felt, and saw.

Occupation, Oppression, Opportunity.

Wesam Nassar

November 2004

The End of Manly Men?

In Popolitics on December 14, 2010 at 1:58 am

Once in a while you’ll come across an ad that actually says something to you. I was leafing through an issue of GQ magazine a few months ago when I found this gem:

Here’s the text:

Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to WEAR THE PANTS.

Amen! It’s a subject discussed endlessly among my girlfriends. Sometimes male friends bitch about it too. Amy Winehouse whined about it in her song “Stronger Than Me”. And now it seems to have become a major concern for the khaki industry. As far as pop culture goes with reflecting what’s going on in society, it’s officially official: Men are losing their manliness.

I won’t get into a detailed analysis of the print ad itself, but I think it may be worth mentioning that the brains behind this bold campaign is a high-powered American business woman. Jennifer Sey, VP of Marketing at Dockers and self-confessed home-bringer of the bacon, had this to say in her response to the online uproar (from the usual suspects : members of LGBT and feminist circles)

Our culture heralds the “man-baby” – best represented by the leads in beer commercials (he always chooses beer over his girlfriend) or Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, or Seth Rogen in anything – as a hero. He doesn’t conform. He doesn’t wear a suit. He does his own thing, which is apparently nothing. He loves video games and bongs and he shuns obligations. These pop culture man-babies are unkempt, unfit, have no direction and seemingly no pride. Sure they are funny. I laugh as much as anyone. But our culture has elevated this type of immaturity amongst men to unconscionable heights. Aren’t men insulted by this man-baby phenomenon? We thought they could use a little encouragement.” [link]

Another dimension of the decline of “real men” is due to the post-industrial economy, according to the widely circulated Atlantic Monthly article “The End of Men”. It went into detail about the future of men in Western society, seeing as women outnumbered them as of this year in the job market. The basis of that being the “rise of the robots” if you will: Physical labor, which is traditionally a male-dominated field, is being rendered obsolete thanks to developments in modern technology. Human relations skills are being sought after and apparently, women are innately better at that.

So what exactly is manliness anyway?

Many women I know feel like they’re living in a world overrun by boys- or men who are too metro/girly/gay (I’ll get to that later). To my friend Shahi, manliness simply means “taking care of the situation”. According to my girl Sandra in New York, a real man boils down to “haphazard/disheveled style but clean balls” – which she insists is a metaphor. To many women, a manly man is a guy who takes charge and knows what he wants. He’s a bit rough around the edges and totally comfortable with that. Above all, he’ll take his woman’s hand- not her tweezers- when she needs it most.

But how do men view themselves? My friend Jean-Philippe is a 31 year-old French Canadian and self-described alpha male. When I asked himvia email what his definition of manliness was, this is what I got as a reply:

Jean-Philippe’s always had a way with words, or in this case – pictures. He elaborated in a second email:

“For the Romans, “Virtue” and “Virility” were about the same thing. But today, men are being exponentially transformed into wimps by the combined forces of the welfare state, post-Christian hyper-Christianity and a post-industrial economy. They seek to achieve their ends without considering their own honor, and so end up submitting shamefully to all kinds of powers and doing tons of extremely base things. They compensate for their behavioral indignity by identifying themselves with beautiful abstract discourses about ecology, evil Americans, etc. But the rule of these men cannot last long. Soon, the barbarians will come to fuck their wives and replace them. Then again, maybe robots will be able to protect the first wimp civilization eternally. We’ll see…”

Robot revolutions aside, a common  perception from women and men alike is that a “real man” is a man of integrity and conviction… and that includes his sexual preference. I say this because I and some other friends of mine have been noticing a peculiar trend: Young men experimenting with the same sex for the sake of checking off a list and saying ‘been there, done that”. To me that’s a kind of hijacking of homosexual identity.

Aasif, 31, was among the first in my circle of male friends to broach the subject one summer in Montreal. Aasif is a heterosexual man who is sometimes mistaken for being gay due to his exquisite taste in clothes. He can pull off pea-green slacks like no man or woman I know. Being the fabulous Pakisdandy that he is, Aasif’s look is unique and effortless, but it can be confusing to those with a myopic fashion sense. In his view, the changing male has nothing to do with being gay:

“I believe a man TODAY or the Modern Man first of all is one who is comfortable and confident in the choices he makes, he is also one who understands, or tries to understand the feminine perspective regardless of how disjointed it is ;). He doesn’t make out with other dudes just to see how it feels, he knows what he wants (…) I know some gay dudes that are more a man than I am in traditional terms, until they choose their preference in cola which is diet penis.”

***

In the Middle East, where I’ve spent half my life, social constructs in terms of gender politics are still very much stuck in the 70s. An Arab man is expected to be dominant in the traditional sense of manliness. He has:

1. Authority / decisiveness

2. Financial power / agency

3. Sexual prowess: He beds countless women or claims to (but his woman has to be a virgin or at least “virgin-like”)

4. Possessiveness that can lead to violence in defense of his woman’s “honor” (ie. this)

And last but not least, his chivalry is as natural as is bountiful chest hair – and that’s what seems to be disappearing on this side of the world (the chivalry, not the chest hair) (no, come to think of it the chest hair too).

Effeminate men are largely frowned upon in the Middle East. In fact, being gay is unfortunately still a crime. But notions of manliness seem to be changing there too, especially with the upper-class.  However, it should be noted that in some Arab cultures, mainly in the Gulf, a man is only considered (to himself and his peers) homosexual if he’s a bottom. By that I mean that his so-called ‘manhood’ remains intact regardless of the amount of pretty young boys he sticks his kabab into. I blame this phenomenon on strict gender segregation.

In more liberal places like Lebanon, it’s a different story. During my summer stay in Beirut this year, I befriended a cosmopolitan young man of half Arab, half-European descent. We’ll call him D. At dinner one evening, D. and I got to talking about gender politics and dating. He told me about his experiences with women around the world, and despite my doubts about his sexual orientation (I’d detected a mildly camp side to him early on) there was no guy-on-guy action to report. Or at least he didn’t mention it. I could contain my curiosity no longer:

Me: “ So uh… Have you ever done anything with a guy?”

Him: “ You know… I’ve been in situations where the opportunity presented itself… but unfortunately, no.”

Me: “ … Unfortunately?”

Him: “ Well it’s just that I wish I was liberal enough to say that I’d been intimate with a man before, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

As if his exclusive heterosexuality were an embarrassing shortcoming. I put it down to his European upbringing, but upon another night out with his rowdy male friends, I was proven wrong. I met one of his closest compadres, a burly, bearded guy with a hefty dose of masculinity who was raised in the Middle East. He’s a wonderful guy known to show affection to his buddies in a tough guy kind of way. I found out later that he was also known for public make-out sessions with his male friends in the Beirut bar scene. And no, he’s not gay. My suspicions were further raised on another night out with said burly man when he looked at me disapprovingly for not ‘swinging both ways’. I wonder: When did choosing a sexual orientation and sticking with it become uncool?

***

Retrosexual: Mad Men's womanizer extraordinaire Don Draper

There’s also something to be said about the castrative effect of institutionalized feminist discourse in the post-feminist era. Earlier this year, the world’s first Foundation for Male Studies was launched in New York.  A consortium of scholars and academics from across the globe gathered to deliver an opening address via a web video that was broadcast in over 65 countries. Dr. Summers, a female professor (and one the few women on the panel) put it bluntly: “Somewhere along the line conventional masculinity became politically incorrect. In some circles it’s treated as a pathology in need of a cure. I mean there are gender experts at our universities who teach that masculinity and femininity are social constructs…”

My friend Aasif echoed Dr.Summer’s view in his email response. He thinks manliness is changing but it’s also becoming confusing thanks to modern women’s expectations:

“Our generation is definitely different than our fathers’. Regardless of where they are from they did things different back then. The biggest factor is the role of women in society. Since women have been empowered (…) they are influencing how men are adapting since their opinion of Mr. Right is being voiced, and that loud shrieking annoying sound is being fucking heard and echoed around the world….correction, Free World. Women want a man who still remains confident and a pillar of support when times are tough or the rag is red, but they still want a guy who understands them. Men are embracing fashion and grooming products because in the end this is what the ladies want, they want a guy with up-keep. The cowboy is dead. The dude ranch was the last stand. In the end women aren’t forced to be with a man or stay with a man and thus, the competition to stay Mr. Right is a battle within oneself.”

It’s an extreme point of view, but that’s how some men out there feel. Personally, I don’t think what women like me look for in a man is that complicated. Sure, we’re independent but we don’t mind our man taking charge. Afterall, are clean balls and haphazard/disheveled style too much to ask for?

OPEN LETTER TO LADY GAGA FROM A GAY IRAQI FAN

In Popolitics on October 11, 2010 at 5:06 am

Gaga don't preach...

It would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday yesterday. It was also the day I got an email forward that I think is worth sharing with you on The Videocrat. It’s a brilliant open letter to Lady Gaga from a disappointed gay Iraqi fan named Sa’ad. For those of you who don’t know, Lady Gaga has been on this fervent gay military rights bender in the media for the past few weeks. As a fan myself, the letter really confirmed what I’ve been thinking about it myself. It’s shocking that no one’s pointing out what Sa’ad has noticed. Please forward/re-post if you agree: 

Dear Gaga,

Let me begin by saying that I am an admirer of your work. You have made the past two years so much more interesting in pop culture. I met you backstage at your show in Toronto last year, and I was enamored by your warm energy and how down to Earth you were. When you fight for gay rights you’re fighting for me, it’s one of the reasons I adore you. But these days something’s a bit off . . .

Over the past month or so I have watched you make every public appearance revolve around the issue of allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the US military. It started with the release of the stunning music video for ALEJANDRO – a song that is an ode to gay men. The video portrays dancers in various military-inspired poses and dress. And that was the beginning of your strange new political campaign. However, your machine gun bra did not disappoint 🙂

At the VMAs your statement was clear: Ex-soldiers who had been discharged for being homosexual escorted you to the event. Later you appeared on stage in a raw meat outfit which you later explained on Ellen’s talk show as some kind of a metaphor for equal rights in the US army.

Shortly after that, you posted a black and white video message addressed to US senators and citizens, urging them to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy.

And then in late September, you attended a rally in Maine where you took to the podium with flair and passion to deliver a dramatic speech against ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’.

And now when I go to your website, the first page displays a photo of you at the rally, accompanied by a written message apologizing for not being successful at repealing the rule. Upon clicking, fans are automatically redirected to an anti- DADT lobby website.

My question to you (and I have a few) my dear Gaga is simple:

Why are you promoting war?

What about the peace sign tattooed on your wrist?

What about the message of peace and love that your idol John Lennon – a man you honor and pay tribute to frequently- brought to the world?

I can’t imagine there’s no Gaga, but lately I’m not so sure…

I am a gay man. But I am also an Iraqi. You should know that the actions of your country’s military have destroyed my country, my people and the new generation beyond repair. When you encourage the militarization of my brothers and sisters, you are saying that war is acceptable. You are basically telling them that they can and SHOULD kill ME.

I began to see your raw meat dress as a metaphor for the flesh of dead Iraqi children and soldiers. I began to doubt your sincerity.

Good people across the world do not want war under any circumstances. I’m sure deep down you feel the same way too . . .

I hope you understand how confusing it is to see one of my heroes, a uniquely talented artist who promotes love and tolerance between all people through her music, on this strange mission that is ultimately pro-war. As a result, you may have lost one of your little monsters forever . . .

Love regardless,

SAAD

I hope this letter gets to her somehow. I leave you with a music video released by another blond Italian-American icon at the eve of the Iraq War. Politically speaking, The Queen of Pop got it right. Peace!


Isaac

In Kippahs+Keffiyas on July 16, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Me. Karen Armstrong. A Hasidic bus ride to New York.

This was the peculiar circumstance that set off a chain of events that have lead me back to Lebanon this summer. I’d like to share the story with you:

It was the fall of 2008. My Israeli-Canadian friend Staav and I were due for a trip to New York and being on a tight budget, we just couldn’t fly. Staav had suggested the Montreal-Brooklyn Hasidic bus service (AKA Tov Travel) since we had no other red-eye options and didn’t want to waste a day on the road. I agreed right way of course, looking forward to a potentially interesting journey to the Big Apple with my favorite cousins.

As we waited under the kosher moonlight of Montreal’s Jewish district in Outremont, commuters began to show up in cute little Orthodox clans: Husband Wife. Husband Wife Baby. Husband Wife 2 Babies. Sometimes 3. As they slowly filed in, the heavy-set Hasid bus driver yelled at them in Brooklynese: “Fasta fasta! We haven’t got all night people!”

Maybe studying the Torah wasn't Yentl's only motivation to cross-dress...

I observed the women with utter fascination. I hadn’t come across many in Montreal and I guess that’s because, much like orthodox Muslims, the women tend to be invisible. I won’t elaborate too much on their unflattering uniform, only to say that it’s a grand shame in comparison to the haute couture stylings of their men: long formless skirts, loafers, loose shirts and those ghastly 80s local-TV-anchor type wigs.

On this trip, pastel shower turbans covered their shaved heads. Some had shaved eyebrows too, which gave their pale faces a strange, doughy look. (So unfair. The whole thing reminded me too much of the niqab.) They were all Ashkenazis, Jews from Europe.

And then there was us. The Iraqi Muslim and the Moroccan Jewess: With our curly heavy-metal manes and tight jeans, we stood out like two urban Jezebelles at a Bar Mitzvah. We headed straight for the back of the bus, as if in some form of self-imposed segregation.

Staav, a gorgeous woman of Moroccan descent, is a friend from my university days. I felt close to her from day one- as she did with me. She would always tell me how that hospitable Middle Eastern warmth she missed so much since coming to Canada could always be found during a gathering with me and our Arab crew. She felt at home around us. In fact, we were on our way to Brooklyn to visit Susie, our dear Palestinian-Canadian girlfriend.

Khabibti,” Staav murmured to me lovingly with her adorable mispronunciation of the Arabic word, “Let’s not talk politics on the ride, ok?”. She gave me a loving maternal look with her beguilingly wide-set forest green eyes. I responded with a knowing wink:

“Of course khatikha…

“By the way I want you to know that I’m proud of you, khabibti…

“Proud? What for?”

“Well you know… For taking this bus with me!”

I was perplexed. Years of knowing Staav- of Staav knowing me- didn’t make her really understand that this sort of thing never mattered to me.

As we settled into our seats, we watched a group of giggly, maybe not-so-observant Hasidic girls enter the bus. They wore their hair long and I figured it had something to do with being unmarried. Their attire was frumpy nevertheless. They took over two rows in front of us and chatted away in Hebrew in what must have been (judging from the intonations and wild hand gestures) serious girl-talk.

Our bus driver, with his bushy beard and huge Fedora, was clearly getting very impatient and spoke up: “ Fa cryin’ out loud!” Suddenly, a young man hurried onto the bus, dressed in an over-sized white tracksuit, rocking thick silver chains around his neck and wrist. It was a standard Hip Hop look aside from the black kippa on his head. The young ladies in front of us quieted down and perked up, as he dispensed a couple of sly shaloms on his way to the back. He threw down his sports bag and sat in the empty two-seater beside me.

“OK dat’s it people we’re movin’!!!” shouted the bus driver, and we were on our way.

Staav got comfortable with her pillow and her favorite blanket and dozed off right away on the row behind me. I busted out a book and tried to read, but was utterly distracted by the inevitable conversation that transpired between Avi G and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Maxiskirts. I didn’t understand a thing but it was interesting to assess the male-female dynamics within the context. He was a chatty kid, super-friendly and inquisitive but his vibe was harmless. He couldn’t have been older than 21. Much hair tossing ensued.

Meanwhile, I was asking myself why on Earth I brought Karen Armstrong’s political biography of the prophet Muhammad on an 8-hour bus ride where I would be surrounded by Orthodox Jews.

It was Ramadan and I wasn’t fasting. I hadn’t really fasted for years. But the guilt remains, a weight anchored deep in my soul since childhood. Maybe at a subconscious level, I had chosen this book in particular to somehow redeem myself. So I persevered; trying to take in Santa Karena’s noble work, all the while hiding the book cover from plain view.

My neighbor’s conversation with the girls died down and I could see him sneaking curious glances at me from the corner of my eye. Staav was fast asleep and I didn’t mind a little conversation. So I put the book down and said:

“Hello…”

“Hi! Looks like a good story… What are you reading?”

“Ummm…Yeah it is!” I smiled and reluctantly showed him the cover of the book. He was either going to stop talking to me and change seats or alert the bus driver that a terrorist was in the house. Either way Staav was going to kill me.

“Oh! Like Muslims Muhammad?”

“Yes! Muslims Muhammad!”

“Hmm…”

A pregnant pause.

“You know it’s important to read about religions. They’re all basically saying the same thing…”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Iraqi…”

“Oh cool! Iraqi Jew!”

“Umm no, well… I’m Muslim actually.”

His eyebrows were poised to jump right off his forehead until a quizzical look took over his face. He leaned in quickly and whispered:

And you don’t mind being on a bus with us??”

“Why would I mind? Do you mind?”

“Well uuhh personally no but… I don’t know! I thought Muslims didn’t like to be around Jews!”

“Well I’m here with my good Jewish friend Staav. I have many Jewish friends actually. Don’t you have any Muslim friends?”

“No… I don’t.”

“Oh that’s too bad… Well I guess you’ve made your first one! My name is Hala, nice to meet you.”

I offered my hand and he took it.

“I’m Isaac. Nice to meet you too!”

I caught a young Hasidic couple a few rows ahead, canoodling as their baby slept in a cot at their feet. They were clearly in love. Isaac continued:

“So do you speak Arabic?”

“Yes I do…”

Ana kaman! Ana Libnani! (Me too I’m Lebanese!)

It was now my eyebrows’ turn to do the dance.

Inta libnani yahoodi?!” (You’re a Lebanese Jew?!)

Eh! Ahli min Beirut!” (Yeah! Our family is from Beirut!)

I was floored. Iraqi Jews, Moroccan Jews, Syrian Jews, Yemeni… I’d read up on them a bit. But I’d never come across anything about the Jewish community of Lebanon, let alone met a member! The energy in our conversation surged. I asked a million questions about his family and their origins. He was thrilled to be able to show off his Arabic and I was fascinated with his story.

Isaac’s parents had left Beirut in the 70s when the civil war broke out, as many Lebanese citizens of other confessions did. They settled in Montreal where he and his siblings were born. They grew up speaking Arabic at home, and their parents had instilled in them a sense of belonging to their cultural heritage. It seemed to have been a priority. They were Lebanese first. I told him about my work and my travels in the Middle East.

“Have you ever been to Beirut?” He asked, wide-eyed.

“I have. Many times. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world!”

“Oh I’d love to see it with my own eyes…”

“You have to one day! You know you could go Isaac, you just can’t enter if your passport has an Israel visa stamp.”

“Yeah right, they’d probably shoot me at the airport!”

It’s true that Jewish people, reporters and business men were known to enter Beirut and other Arab countries, so long as their passports were Israel-free. But I kind of knew how he felt. I understood. Lebanon has been at war with Israel for decades. The words “Jewish” and “Israeli” have come to mean the same thing. I couldn’t fully imagine what it would be like for him, traveling across the motherland, hiding such an integral part of his identity.

“Maybe you’ll get to go there one day… I hope so for you.”

We passed out for a few hours and woke up as the bus began to pull up to the first stop, Manhattan. Isaac got ready to get off the bus. He was attending a Syrian Jewish wedding that night. He’d informed me that both communities were tight, New York and Montreal being their major centers.

He gave me his business card, “Come by anytime.” It read: SINDBAD JEWELLERY. He worked for his father at their downtown shop in Montreal.

As he walked away I tried to imagine the celebration that awaited him: Would they be dancing to George Wassouf’s music? Would there be mountains of baqlawa and other heavenly Syrian sweets? I looked down at the card again. Sindbad Jewellery. The irony (and the coincidence) that they had chosen a legendary name from Iraqi Muslim folklore did not escape me.

Jews. The Arab Kind.

In Kippahs+Keffiyas on July 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Straight Up: She's a Syrian Jew!

I must preface this post with a confession: I am a Muslim and I’m a bit obsessed with Jews. Not in a creepy Single White Female kind of way, it’s more like E.T. A loving fascination. Ask my good old friend Sahar Cohen. It takes up part of the same space in my brain that drives me to google Lady Gaga almost everyday because I’m captivated by everything about her persona, despite her mediocre music (sorry girlfriend, it’s got a lot of catching up to do with your style).

JewQ: A fine specimen of Hasidic chic

I’m fascinated by Judaism in all aspects, from its esoteric teachings to the Hebrew script. And in my opinion, Orthodox Jews have the most fashion-forward religious dress sense, hands down. Whenever I’m in Mile End, Montreal’s Jewish district, I find myself sneaking glances at Hasidic passers-by, mentally snapping Zohartorialist photos as the sidewalk transforms into a Holy runway: theatrical circle fur hats, structured suits, boxy wool coats, draping tallit scarves with their sometimes peekaboo tzi-tzi fringes. And Black is always in.  I mean how much more avant-garde can you get with accessorizing than Tefillin? Come to think of it, it’s totally Gaga, no?

But I digress… This little infatuation I have with our dear cousins has a more particular penchant: It’s the Jews from the Arab World that really intrigue me.

Once upon a time not so long ago, an Arab could be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc… Up until the 1950s, the Jewish community was an integral part of the fabric of Arab society. They spoke Arabic and contributed to the arts and sciences. They had been rooted in countries in like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Yemen for millenia. Growing up, my grandparents would recount fond memories of their Jewish neighbors and colleagues in the golden days of Basra and Baghdad, insisting that they were always considered – and considered themselves- Iraqi first. They would attend their weddings and parties and my paternal grandfather worked with them in municipal affairs during his career as the Mayor of Basra. And stories abound from Iraqi family friends, about how they, Muslim Iraqis, held their Jewish friends’ possessions for safekeeping when they had to flee. Theirs was a bond that seemed to go beyond friendship. For sure the history of Jews in the Arab World is a complex one that had its ups and downs, but once upon a time, they were brothers and sisters.

We now live in a time of capitalism and war, where The Dollar is the only God (the bottom line being its profit). We have an overwhelming media machine that can’t compute the pesky nuances of human culture and identity because it just doesn’t sell. Black and white is always sexier, be it in a news story or an evening outfit. So we should ask: When did a segment of our people stop being Arabs and exclusively “Jews”? Why and how? And what is an Arab anyway? A definition from Wikipedia online:

Arab people (عربي, arabi) or Arabs (العرب al-arab):  A  pan-ethnicity of peoples of various ancestral origins, religious backgrounds and historic identities, whose members, on an individual basis, identify as such on one or more of linguistic, cultural, political, or genealogical grounds.

In reality, the meaning of the word has boiled down to an exclusive, narrow and erroneous concept: Arab=Muslim. This is especially evident in Western as well as Middle Eastern media. Perhaps even world-wide.

Huda Nunu: Bahrain's US Ambassador is Jewish and 'out'.

Some Jews remain in the Arab World, although most of them are still “in the closet” and figures are virtually impossible to come by. One thing’s for sure: The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has raged on for over 60 years, created a dramatic shift in demographics and identity. Iraqi Jewish scholar Ella Shohat describes this quandary:

“To be an Arab Jew (was suddenly) seen as a kind of logical paradox (…). This binarism has led many Oriental Jews (our name in Israel referring to our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi) to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms”.

Something interesting is happening in the Arab World these days. Abandoned synagogues are being reborn in places like Egypt and Lebanon, reviving the history of Muslim-Jewish coexistence. The question is: Do these restoration projects signal the beginning of the possible return of Arab Jewish communities to the region?

And so I find myself back in Beirut after 4 years, embarking on a long-term project exploring this issue with a little research & development grant from La Belle Province, my home away from home, Quebec.

More on the Jews of Lebanon (and the sad state of Hasidic women’s wear) in my next post.

Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Published on GNN – Wed, 28 Mar 2007 12:32:31

Location: Dubai, U.A.E.

Ah Dubai with all its glitz and glam, looming cranes dance across the horizon and skyscrapers puncture the heavens with Babel-esque ambition. I’ve been living here for just over 4 years now and I’ve watched the population swell dramatically: The city is being developed so quickly that it can’t seem to keep up with all the young professionals and masses of Indian labor workers it’s luring in.  Educated Arabs and Westerners from across the globe are flocking to the Paris Hilton of the Middle East to build this desert dream and benefit from the lucrative opportunities and liberal lifestyle. While the foundations of many buildings are still setting, the Russian mafia have already bought out the penthouses. Almost anyone is invited to get a piece of the Dubai pie… But for Iraqi passport holders, it’s persona non-grata.

As you may know, there are no real career opportunities for the people of Iraq in their own country. The security situation is so fucked that people are fleeing in droves. We know by now that over a million have fled to Syria, and around 800 000 are in Jordan. Hundreds of thousands more have sought refuge in other countries. Just a few months ago the UN put out a startling statistic: 1 in every 8 Iraqis is now displaced, which has resulted in the largest population movement on Earth.

Gulf countries are taking a shameful stance: Saudi Arabia and Qatar refuse all Iraqi passport holders. The UAE is beginning to develop a stricter line  as well. And this is where it hit home.

My cousin Ahmed graduated university and fled Baghdad last year to Dubai to join his mother and sister in an attempt to build a future. Although he quickly found work at a local factory out here, he’s had to stay in nearby Oman for11 days waiting for a new visit visa to come through, granting him a legal two-month stay. Visit visas in Dubai last 2-3 months for everyone. Certain nationalities (North America and Europe) can just hit up any nearby border, get stamped and return to the UAE within a couple of hours. They call it the “visa hop”. For educated Iraqis trying to escape the chaos and to work in the UAE, it’s a drawn –out and nerve wracking process.

For reasons that are unclear, his company is having serious trouble sponsoring him to get residency status and so he’s been sent to the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Musandam, to wait for his visit visa application to be approved. Over the past 6 months, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and his waits in this picturesque province of Oman, are becoming longer and longer. After two visa rejections this time around, his mother – who has residency status here- was finally able to get him back in Dubai… For another two months that is. And the process repeats itself until one day, he might not be able to come back at all.

I’ve been hearing about this problem from family, friends and acquaintances for months now. Educated young Iraqis who are desperate for work are being rejected form entering the United Arab Emirates without explanation. Ahmed’s case, it seems, is one in thousands.

“I’m not the only one,” he told me on the phone from Oman last week “ There’s a group of 20 guys like me in my motel. Some of them have been waiting here for months…” I was told that there were almost 200 people with similar stories to Ahmed’s.

His sister and I drove for 3 hours to the border to see him and satisfy his craving for a Pizza Hut all-dressed thick cruster. I took my video camera along and intended to shoot interviews for a story with the other young men stranded there.

Upon our arrival, Ahmed tried to persuade the other guys to meet me. They were all understandably fearful of my videocamera (a lot of Iraqis avoid media for fear of reprisals on their relatives by fundies back home). In the end I was able to interview about 7 of them under anonymity. Their stories were utterly shocking. Here were a group of well-spoken and respectable young men between the ages of 25-30 who all had certified university degrees (one of them even had a Masters) suffering the same fate: although they had found work in Dubai within a matter of weeks, their companies could not sponsor them and their visit visas were getting increasingly difficult to approve because of their Iraqi passports. They are engineers, pharmacists, computer programmers and one architect. All of them have reached the end of the line; their visit visas to the UAE having been rejected after a period of waiting in this remote – albeit scenic- purgatory in Oman. All of them were left with no option but to pack up and go back to where they came from. The message is clear: Iraqis can (literally) ‘go to hell’.

“Dolfie”, 27, is a soft-spoken Basrawi with a Bachelors and a Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Basra. His latest ‘visa hop’ has had him stuck in Musandam for 50 days. He came to Dubai in September last year and soon found a job in his field. His company can’t find a way to sponsor him because of his Iraqi passport and although he was granted entry several times before, his visit visa is not being renewed, again, with no justification. The rejection has taken its toll: “I am so upset… I told my contacts in Dubai to not bother anymore. If they don’t want me or welcome me, I don’t want to live in their country either.” He’s being shipped back to Basra this week.

“Dolfie” and the other men had their degrees certified by the Iraqi foreign Ministry as well as the Iraqi Consulate in Dubai. He even showed me the documents. “Is this not enough?” he urged. Certified degrees are vital to granting residency in Dubai- or so the officials say- but for some strange reason, it didn’t help his case. “Do I have to get a PhD too?”

How is it that all of these young men- these educated young Iraqis- are being denied any sort of future in neighboring countries like the UAE? This is especially baffling to me when Dubai is still in the process of development and needs skilled labor in all sectors. The locals aren’t going to build the dream (they are a minority in the UAE), the expats are.

“Yazan” is an articulate 29 year-old with the same story. He was working at a pharmaceutical firm in Dubai for a few months, living in limbo between visas. He told me about his case, his tired blue eyes pleading for some kind of explanation: “We just don’t understand why this is happening. Is there some kind of official policy against us?” Yazan’s efforts to save his young family in Baghdad from living in constant fear and insecurity have been in vain. “I am so depressed. Sometimes I try to cry but I can’t… We are left with no solutions, no choices…” He has no choice but to return to Baghdad.

Are Iraqis being blacklisted? Is the US/puppet Iraqi government putting pressure on the UAE to deny these youth visas?  I went to the Interior Ministry of Dubai to try to get some answers. As I suspected, my investigation didn’t go very far. An Emirati lady in the PR department was kind enough to talk to me for a while. She told me that as far as she knew, the UAE government had issued a new law banning Iraqis who hadn’t entered the country prior to 2004. When I asked her why this was happening, she said she didn’t know and that they just followed orders. For more details I would have to talk to her director, who was conveniently out of the office and never available when I called to inquire afterwards.

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t handle anymore bad news about Iraq, more proof of how Iraqis not only get the short end of the stick, they get beaten into a bloody pulp with it.

“It’s like slow [social] asphyxiation,”  said Saad, a 29 year-old architecture graduate who’s also stuck between Iraq and a hard place in Oman, “ the Iraqi people are being strangled to death.”

“The Other Iraq” | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Published on GNN – Mon, 18 Jun 2007 14:53:29

Location: Slemaniya, Iraq.

The terrain in Northern Iraq.

Beige mountains, colossal and sage, sit quietly on the horizon, their peaks sprinkled with pine trees and patches of green. Nevermind the Barzanis and Talabinis, Kurdistan’s mountains are in charge.

So here I am, 29 years of age and my feet firmly planted on Iraqi soil for the first time in my adult life- or are they? I flew from Dubai to Slemaniya’s modest ‘Porta-Potty’ style airport with anticipation. I’ve traveled across to Irbil and PKK strongholds in the Qandeel mountains over the past week. Car bombings aside, this doesn’t feel like Iraq. Most Kurds don’t speak Arabic, especially the younger generation of the 90s, and the men roam the streets in high-waist grey sherwals, bright worry beads in hand. Despite the relative stability in the northern provinces of Iraq, there’s still a lot to worry about. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are acting up and sporadic violence is just a car ride way, in Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurdish government has succeeded in keeping extremists out thanks to their tremendous security apparatus and the Kurdish community’s deep sense of unity and cooperation. However, some of the locals I spoke to are still concerned about the influx of Arab refugees from the center and the south, and the violent fundy vibes they might bring with them. The internal refugee crisis in Iraq is visible, but more on that later…

I’m staying with a Christian family in Slemaniya and in typical Iraqi style, their home is inhabited by 4 generations, from a giggly newborn baby boy to his feisty 83 year-old great grandmother. The nucleus of the family are Mr. Jamal, a Christian man from Basra, and his wife Alya, a prominent architect in the Slemaniya community, who designed their home after she graduated from the University of Baghdad in the late 70s. The hallmarks of that era’s structural design is clear from the outside.

As soon as I finish unpacking we move into the kitchen and I watched her prepare lunch. Alya is a towering lady with piercing wide-set eyes. Her tough stance and sharp features conjured up images of a past life as a fierce warrior woman.  We talk politics (of course): “Even though I’m Kurdish and although I despised Saddam, I hate the Americans. They’ve destroyed Iraq”, she tells me sternly as the electricity goes out for the fourth time since the morning. “Khaled! The generator!” she yells to her son upstairs. She’s laboriously preparing a feast of ‘dolma’ (vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) in her colorful overcrowded kitchen and she’s worried that the civil war will spill over to Kurdistan.

A common sight in Iraq: A technicolor tangled mess of cables wrapped around an electricity pole in a Kurdish neighborhood. Each wire leads to a different house.

Later, her youngest daughter, 25 year-old Dalia, joins me on the rooftop as I smoke a cigarette and we watch in the dusk sky blanket the mountains in the distance. “We used to go down to Baghdad all the time. It used to be the trip we’d all look forward to, Baghdad was the center of the world for us,” she tells me as she adjusts the rollers in her cherry red hair. “The shops, the restaurants, the scenery, the people. We’d take boat rides on the Tigris at night and all you’d see is the oil lamps from other boats floating by… music everywhere. We’re all so sad about what’s happening.”

Mr. Jamal is sitting on the couch watching the movie Gladiator, for the 5th time he says, on Dubai’s satellite channel. He changes the channel and we watch the news. The minarets of the Mosque in Samarra have been blown up. Another day in the new Iraq. We both shake our heads. He tells me about the good old days and how Iraqis were considered the most cultured people in the Middle East up to just a couple of decades ago- almost 95% literacy rate at one point. He pushes a sigh: “You know, there was a saying: ‘Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads’… Look at where we are now.”

After lunch, the family prepares to go to church for Sunday mass and I tag along. They introduce me to some of their friends there, many of them Christians who fled Baghdad. The priest begins his sermon in Arabic and everyone stands up. Although I was born Muslim, I bow my head down as the worshippers cross their hearts, and pray for peace… for my country to be free.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

The Dirty South | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Published on GNN- Sat, 30 Sep 2006 15:40:48

Location: South Lebanon.

Southern Lebanon is: Dirt and dust, unexploded minefields, lush banana plantations lining the coast, UN convoys, ubiquitous martyr placards and green and yellow Hezbollah banners that declare: “This is your democracy”. Add to that some more dirt and dust and a tons of rubble in villages all over. Last but not least, if Hassan Nasrallah’s face isn’t smiling down on you from billboards and posters, his voice echoes through loud speakers from one destroyed village to the next. But mostly Nasrallah’s sermons were blaring from the CD player of our fixer’s car.

Video Still: A portrait of Hassan Nasrallah eerily stands out in the middle of a minefield in the south.

The population here is primarily Shiite and it surrounds pockets of mostly unscathed Christian towns. The South is also where Hezbollah communities are concentrated- and they are communities, not some covert groups of ninja-styled militiamen as the Western media likes to portray them. Hezbollah members are teachers, mothers, doctors, town mayors, taxi drivers and so on. I traveled all over the south in about 10 days, witnessing the extent of the destruction on the infrastructure and the effect on the community and it was clear the Israelis were trying to wipe out every Shiite village on the Lebanese map. Like I said, Hezbollah members / followers are also civilians, so all this talk from the Israeli side about the party using civilians as shields is, to me and a heck of a lot of people, bullshit. Seeing how this war helped Hezbollah’s popularity soar, if the Israeli government tries to annihilate them again, it would mean nuking most of Lebanon off the face of the Earth.

Video Still: A bombed out mosque in Bint Jbeil.

Bint Jbeil, one of the most battered towns, also with a heavy Hezbollah presence, was a heartbreaking experience to say the least…. Buildings and homes are crumbling and those left standing have been riddled with bullet holes from fierce ground battles between the Israelis and Hezbollah fighters. The Mayor took us on a walking tour with an EU delegation sent to assess the damage and the scenery was surreal. As we ventured onto a winding road, clumsily trying to make our way across the rubble, we passed a crumbling mosque, a flattened shoe factory and homes and shops reduced to mounds of concrete chunks. The Mayor and residents lambasted the government and its neglect of the area. Even the Ambassador of the EU delegation admitted that they were going ahead with reconstruction plans without the cooperation of the government because ‘it would be less complicated’.

Another home destroyed. The banner, part of Hezbollah's campaign, was strategically placed to get their message across in the foreign press.

And more disapproval about the foreign troops: Locals I’ve talked to during the daily treks across the South have their obvious reservations about the UNIFIL troops UNIfiling in. The Lebanese army couldn’t even fight back when the IDF attacked so in their minds, only Hezbollah can protect them. I don’t need to tell you how they feel about Israel nowadays. The anger is more than palpable.

Video Still: A residential building damaged from clashes with Israeli soldiers.

When I talked to our fixer about Israelis who protested against the war, the Refusenik movement and countless other Jews around the world who are against the occupation of Palestine, he looked at me as though I had told him the Qur’an was written by a woman. He and so many others in the Arab world can’t wrap their heads around the concept of a non-Zionist Jew. Decades of aggression perpetrated by the Jewish State, (Arabs do not see Israeli military maneuvers as virtuous acts of ‘self-defense’) coupled with Islamist propaganda, has put “anti-semitism” in the Arab World at an all time high. Is this what the Israeli government wanted all along?

I’ve never been more worried about what’s happening in the Middle East than now. Lebanon’s government and autonomy is falling apart… Dozens of dismembered bodies have been found in Baghdad over the past weeks, with Iraq diving into an even deeper bottomless well of despair… And the Palestinian problem looks farther away from a solution than ever before. And Bush still has the audacity to make like America’s invasion campaigns are successfully spreading democracy in the Middle East at his address during the UN’s General Assembly. “The Birth of the New Middle East” looks more like “The Murder of Arab Self-Determination”… We are so screwed. Not only by the US but also by our own deluded self-serving heads of states.

Forget about perceived divine victories. What we need now is divine intervention.

Hezbollah’s Victory Rally | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Published on GNN – Sat, 23 Sep 2006 15:59:36

Location: Beirut, Lebanon.

Nasrallah fans, young and old.

Got back to Beirut Wednesday… just in time Hezbolla’s post-war festivities!  My colleague and I braved the traffic to check out the “Victory Rally” in Dahieh on the 22nd.

People were pouring in by the hundreds, wrapped in Hezbollah flags and Nasrallah t-shirts. As I took photos, the crowd multiplied to what seemed like the size of a small nation-state (or a Madonna concert?).   We hung around the area for about 2 hours just taking it all in: Hundreds of thousands of men, women  and children chanting for Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah. The love for the man is clear, and above all, there’s a sense of deep respect.

I’ve watched interviews and listened to some speeches. Nasrallah’s charisma is undeniable (not to mention an adorable speech impediment that prevents him from prounouncing words like “Israel” properly – he says “Iswa’eel”). Despite the religious garb, his universal ideas of resistance and self-empowerment really resonate. When his eldest son died in combat against the Israelis in 1997, he declined an offer to have his corpse returned instead of living Lebanese prisoners. The legend goes that he felt his son’s body was not worth more than anyone else’s, for he was a son of the resitance.  The man has a proven track record: He says what he means and means what he says and that has won over supporters of various religious backgrounds and nationalities across the Arab World. Maybe even beyond.

Female supporters were everywhere.

When my colleague and I realized it would be impossible to get a glimpse of the Hezbollah leader, and maybe even difficult to hear his speech properly from the spot we found, we decided to leave and watch it live on Al Manar TV from the office. People were saying that Arabs from all over the Middle East had flown in to attend the event; This was Nasrallah’s first public appearance since the Syrian pullout last year.

Regardless of what his detractors say, one thing is for sure: Hassan Nasrallah has become the most captivating Arab figure of our times. That alone is a victory for Hezbollah.

Brand Power: Another defiant billboard from Hezbollah's slick "victory" ad campaign. (Yes, they hired an agency to produce it.) That's a photo of IDF soldiers crying.