Neo Orientalists: Sugar Coat it all you want, it’s still Orientalism

Why are you teaching me about my own culture?

Rajesh Guthrappali to Sheldon Cooper

Living in the Middle East, it’s interesting to listen to different interpretation of the region and to try to keep an open mind, which believe you me, given the content and the source of many aformentionned interpretation, is pretty challenging in itself. 

So here I’m compiling some things that made me look for Edward Said to give a good old lecture about Orientalism (By the way, there should definitely be an App for that. Imagine, listening to some aggravating comment, you’d take your phone out of your pocket and a Said-like voice would boom:eeerrrrr ORIENTALISM! SHUT UP SHUT UP RIGHT NOW OR THE ANTI ORIENTALIST BRIGADES WILL ARREST YOU!). God. I’d love that.

Anyway, before we start, here’s a brief explanantion of what Orientalism is. Orientalism, as per Said’s thinking, is a  “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” Orientalists interpret the region according to a set of -often- romanticized prejudices that serve to differentiate the ‘West’ from the ‘East”, the result of this interpretation being of course that the East is inferior to the West. Orientalists see Middle Eastern societies as similar to one another and dissimilar to western societies. This stance allows for domination of the economically and militarily most powerful over weaker States and participates to the imperialist effort of the former.   In other words, it is the patronizing onlooker commenting on the, say, Lebanese political life, smiling to himself and thinking Aahhh those Arabs, such barbarian people. Their food is good and their women lovely, all in all they’re cute, but they’re just not cut out for politics. Thank God we’re here to help them sort themselves out (and make a couple of good deals out of it).

My issue is that, even though their consider themselves leftists and despise the orientalist position usually associated with conservatives and neocolonial forces, some  leftist europeans and north americans seem to have a hard time distancing themselves from the romantic view of a Middle East principally defined by Islam. This is particularly striking when it comes to political Islam groups: they are seen by leftist north analysts as quintessential revolutionary groups who are the primary anti-imperialists in the region, and if you dare to disagree (after all you kind of thought for one second you had your say, you know, being a lebanese and all) you’ re a conservative reactionary sell out, or they’d just shrug your arguments off with a snigger of ‘oh you don’t have a PhD, therefore your opinion doesn’t count: we told you, analyse everything through the prism of Islam’ the subtitle of such a point of view being that Middle Eastern societies can’t have secular ant-imperialist regimes, just as their own countries do. Now don’t get me wrong, aformentionned academics and co won’t want for a minute such a regime for their own country: it ‘s good enough for the Arabs, you know, for whom the struggle against imperialism should only pass through religion, us, we’re more evolved, we’re secular.

Underlining the collaboration of some political islam groups with imperialist powers while outlining the absence of any social justice discourse or action (coupled with an official and public discourse of revolution, resistance and equality) won’t go down too well with the KnowItAll bunch. They’re fighting the Empire, therefore they’re anti imperialists. Khalas, that’s it, and there is little room for nuance in that analysis. Such positions might stem from european and north american conservative reactions that automatically assimilate political Islam groups to terrorists: there is however no need to sacralise such groups either. In both cases, this is Orientalism.So guys, you might not be aware of this, but this is pretty much the message you re sending out. You might want to think again before the Anti Orientalist Brigades arrest you.

The plight doesn’t stop at leftists analysts and scholars. International NGOs and International organisations people know more than you do about solving the Middle East development issues, the current upheavals and revolutions and how to make Mouloukhieh. The fact that it’s people on the ground taking the violence and the bullets while they’re savantly analyzing the situation safely tucked away in Hamra trrendy cafes isn’t relevant, as examplified (true story) by a German woman I witnessed in Bread Republic. She worked for an international organisation I won’t name and spent a good half hour explaining to a Syrian young women how the SYrian people were not doing things properly and that the peaceful demonstrations wan’t the way to go, all the while sipping away at her organic cappuccino while my blood was boiling and the people of Syria dying.

The list could go on, but it is our job, like Said did, to reclaim our own History and our own internal affairs, welcoming constructive debate as a way to advance rights and find solutions while rejection patronizing attitudes, shedding the internalized orientalism. And of course, not falling into the traps of orientalism in reverse.

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The Guilt Factor

I would be tempted to say that for me feeling guilty is a total pleonasm: after all, I do have an Arab mother, meaning I’ve been injected with Drops of Guilt for the past 27 years.

It all started quite straightforwardly: you know, you’d be a brat and your mother wouldn’t merely tell you you shouldn’t behave this way, but rather, she’d yell herself hoarse asking God Almighty why YOU were doing this against HER (Lesh 3am bet a3zbineh hek?) , as if you were badly behaving to spite her. Which you weren’t, honestly, you just enjoyed knocking things down and having a good old cry, no personal offence meant to anyone.

Growing up, you’d naively think the guilt would abate, which is, with a bit of closure, frankly laughable. Now that your parents had instillated the right soil to make feeling guilty all the time grow, the seeds of guilt were showered daily with messages sent by society, espcially designed to make you feel guilty and awful about yourself. I mean, first of all, religion – or at least how it is taught in its vast majority- doesn’t exactly scream Non-Judgment, but rather, you WILL burn in Hell for all eternity for not Obeying and Observing what God says. Such a feel good motto.

And since I have filed no application to Sainthood, chances are, I WILL most likely burn in Hell.

Oh well.

But I doesn’t just stop at religion. Advertising and women’s magasines have made a splendid job (not to mention a thriving business) at making people feel guilty. As we say in French, c’est bien simple ma chère amie, if you eat, you should be ashamed of yourself, how could you be so weak, the right thing to do is to starve yourself, now go buy all the slimming drinks I’m adverstising for. If you wear last season’s coat, you’re not good enough, if you don’t perform enough, if you’re not top of the class, if you’re not popular enough then you’re basically a failure. The pressure we currently live under is somewhat very close to unbearable, yet challenging it has to be the toughest job there is out there.

Because it’s not only the evil capitalist world that makes people feel guilty: sometimes, ideology kills too. Let’s take the ideology I subscribe to, for lack of better word and example: feminism. I sometimes feel like I’m a traitor to the cause because I’m married and I cook, but I don’t do it because my husband bites me if I don’t, I do it because i Love it, but nevermind, It doesn’t stop me feeling a tad guilty while I’m chopping onions, ruining all the fun. I also feel like I’m a fraud when I wear a dress and high heels and lipstick, I feel guilty for what seems like letting my sisters down. That’s it, khalas, I love a man and I’m happy to do things for him sometimes, I’m a Geisha and should be banned from the Sisterhood. The odd looks other feminists give you and the remarks you get (you look different in real life than in your Facebook photos, you know the ones with the red lipstick and very high heels: errrr ok?!) kinda don’t help either.

I’ve heard guilt gets worse once you have children, as in, you don’t lose baby fat quick enough, you don’t see enough of your child if you work, you’re a brainless half wit if you quit working. I can’t wait.

In brief, in the words of the Great Samantha Jones (from Sex and the City, Need I say it), AHHHH Coulda Woulda Shoulda. Maybe we should stop shoulding ourselves all the time and just accept who we are in all our complexities. Acceptance. Now that’s a nice word.

To be perfectly honest with you, I do still feel guilty right now for still being in my pyjamas, and I also feel guilty for writing about this rather than writing about what’s happening in Tahrir and Homs and Deraa and Syria as a whole, just to name a few.

As my best friend, the Great Dina Esfandiary would say, I have “First World Problems”.

 Or maybe,I should just admit to myself that I’m a neurotic 27 year old lazy Geisha who loves writing about her neurosis in pyjamas. I think I can live with that, after all, it’s not like I’m invading Irak or anything.

Becoming A Feminist Activist

Link: Becoming A Feminist Activist

My take on becoming a feminist activist, written for the AWID Blogathon on the Young Feminist Wire

Here’s the 1st paragraph, to read more, follow the link:

I believe becoming a feminist activist creeps up on you. You don’t wake up one day thinking: « Mmm, right, after coffee I’ll just go and advocate for women’s rights, now shall I? ». At least this isn’t how it happened for me. Becoming an activist was the result of an internal process fuelled by observations: a condescending attitude from a man , a patronising comment , an inner sense of difference because I am a woman, and because I am an Arab woman who lived in a small French town rife with prejudices and misconceptions about Arab women. In general, all of this conspired to render me attentive to stories of oppression from a young age…Read more at http://yfa.awid.org/2011/11/becoming-a-feminist-activist/

Portrait: Lola and Rita

Lola and Rita could make you think of Farha and Marha: always together, the one doesn’t go anywhere without the other. Don’t be fooled: unlike the proverbial pair, Lola and Rita are classic frenemies.

Frenemy: your worst enemy, decked out in her finest BFF attire.

Frenemies are not friends to each other: they only wear this label so they can tell you the worst things and possibly get away with it. Lola and Rita call each other lovely, syrupy nicknames like Hayete and Habibi while assessing the other with sideway glances which could rival with the ones given by some Victorian heroine to Heathcliff-like brooding men. As soon as they clasp eyes on each other, the competition game starts: what is she wearing today? Oh Jesus, she should NOT be wearing this! She’s gained weight? Oh No! the bitch looks like she’s lost some! Drowning in their internal bile and jealousy, snide comments will start fusing right, left and center: you really look pale and sick today, maybe you should start eating something, are you really going to eat that cupcake? Oh I was just asking, you know *meaningful stare at thighs*.    

As much as Lola and Rita claim that they are friends, the fact is that they simply don’t seem to be genetically able to act the friend part: each of them keeps talking about herself without as much as pretending to care about what the other one has to say, Lola gets a kick out of bringing Rita down while Rita smiled and nodded and cheered with the rest of their friends when Lola got promoted, except that at the end of the evening she could not take it anymore and simply dropped – oh so innocently- that Lola’s lovely cleavage came as handy in the whole recruitment process, all said with a fake sickly sweet smile stapled upon her face, as if she hadn’t said anything hurtful or undermining.

It seems Lola and Rita simply can’t hack the fact that the other one, and more generally, that people, can be happy and will insist on try and ruin the all round happiness because apparently, well, if they’re insecure and miserable, everyone else has to be, and preferably immediately if not sooner.

The thing is, Lola and Rita are becoming more and more isolated, as most of their friends see them for what they are: a proper nuisance. ‘They’re just so tiring, they say, I’m so tired of having to justify myself all the time that last time I saw them, I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I exploded” were conversations often heard in their group of friends. ‘I am HAPPY! Stop BADGERING me with “Oh, you’ll see, you’ll change your mind and realize that what makes you happy actually sucks’ JUST shut up!” were words that the pair had started to hear more than they cared to mention. ”

Nevermind them, they think, as long as they have each other to bitch about, knife in the back and hurt, someone will be in their competitive race, and that’s all that matters. Lola carries on badmouthing Rita every chance she gets while Rita is currently perfecting her patronizing tone and attitude whenever she speaks to her frenemy.

Sadly for Lola, Rita seems to have lost interest recently, all because of different friends she made, and discovered the delights of proper friendship: no snide comments, honest conversations, sincere celebrations of each others’ successes, rows handled like normal human beings and people moving on from them, growing closer. At first she was keen on replicating the same type of relationship than she had with Lola. Then, when no one was interested, she discovered it was actually easier to be open and honest and caring, Then she shed her previous skin.

Lola had no one to play with anymore, she was like a drowning woman gasping for air, going as far as telling Rita when she got engaged that “she was really happy for her as she’d always put relationships before careers”, making her sound as a dumb half wit flashing guys at uni in order to get a husband.

That jealousy of yours, replied Rita with dignity, you really should get that checked. And with that she was gone, leaving Lola, the center of a void circle, eaten by her own unhappiness, deflated, and more green with jealousy than ever.  

Look in the Mirror, Tell Me What You See

Ahem, have you gained weight? Is a question I’ve been hearing more than I care to mention since I’ve been back to Lebanon. Mind you, it’s the kind of question I hear EVERY time I come back to Lebanon, so much so that if it were actually true, if I HAD gained aforementioned weight, I wouldn’t be able to go through doors now. And last time I checked, I was well able to. Talking about weight is at the same time commonplace and taboo. I mean, look at the amount of ink and saliva spent on talking and writing about diets and whatnots, yet people give each other sideways glances to assess weights, gains or losses of it, and think twice before making any comments (that is, if they have an ounce of good manners, which sadly is becoming less of a norm lately).

Usually, when such comments are directed my way, I obsess for two days (I’m an elephant and I’m never, ever getting nowhere near chocolate again. Ever) then I happily bite my manoukche back. But not this year. This year, comments made me wonder about neurosis related to weight, body image hysteria, and the obsession of bodies so slim you’d mistake them for visa cards. You see, the fact is, I have actually lost weight, about 4 kilos of it (clearly people whining about kilos haven’t experience the “let’s organize a wedding with a Lebanese mother” diet) and while I have to admit I was happy with the news (yes, even I fall pray to the feeling of happiness whenever I lose weight, although I know it’s a constructed feeling, not a genuine one, it was given to me by the media and by the Lebanese mentality that a woman has to be slim, something I try to fight, but clearly, haven’t been able to cancel altogether as of yet), I’m being very, VERY, careful not to lose any more of it, because one I do like my curves,  two, whenever I lose too much weight my spasmophilia goes haywire and no thank you, it’s bad enough as it is and three, I love food. I do, and I live in Lebanon, land of the delicious food, and Kate Moss can pout and tell me that nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels, I’m thinking, fuck that, clearly the woman has never tasted hot Knefeh in the morning.

The fact that these comments emanated from two über slim girls was not lost on me, and I started wondering if they considered themselves too slim, normal, or fat, and how distorted was their vision of their own body. I don’t think we ever see ourselves as we truly are: I have a friend who’s constantly on a diet, yet she’s one of the most beautiful girl I know and has a fine, healthy figure, while another one shocked me by telling me she was fat. I mean, you could fax the waist of this girl, and here she was, trying to convince me that she was, indeed, overweight.

I know everyone blames the media and people get tired of it, but the media IS to blame, so until they make an active step towards change, we’ll continue bashing them. However, I do think it would be wrong to think of the media as a separate entity hovering over women’s heads, dictating them what to do, what to eat, what to wear. We’re not victims, and difficult as it might be to disentangle ourselves from their messages, it’s an effort that is both worth it and needs to be done in order to reshape the media to a size that fits (yes, pun intended). Media productions are nothing but a reflection of the society they belong to: once society changes the way it thinks, the media, in order to sell, will simply have to follow. Especially if there is a boycott involved: perhaps one day the disappointing sales will prevail over the astronomical amounts paid by brands for advertising, and magazines will review their policies. The economic components and stakes of weight loss are huge: by showcasing unattainable standards of beauty (Perfect super big boobs, tiny waist, never ending legs) the media urges you to buy that cream that’ll make your cellulite go away, which you will do, because that’s the look you’re supposed to have Dahling if you want the perfect job, perfect man, perfect life. Lose 5 kilos and your life will be perfect, perfect, perfect. What no one tells you, however, is that you’ll feel hungry all the time, hence miserable and irritated, and that you’ll spend too much money on useless creams (I’ll say it once and for all: They.Don’t.Work). So let’s summarize: you’ll be grumpy, hungry and broke. Clearly, the recipe for happiness. Not to mention the constant guilt that will accompany each bite you’ll allow yourself to swallow: since when did food stop being enjoyable and NECESSARY TO THE MERE FUNCTIONING of your body to become this evil thing that is to be feared and loathed and agonized over?

In the Middle East, not only the pressure is to have a certain body shape, but cultural imperialism and integrated imperialism by local populations mean that dark skin, frizzy hair and every type of nose that is not tiny, straight and slightly going up are deemed unaesthetic and should be corrected with the help of creams (Fair and Fucking Lovely, I ask you, who wants to be stared at by some creep in a library?), serums and doctors (Come, said unethical doctor, let me make you look like everyone else (that’s if you’re lucky, otherwise you’ll just end up looking like late Michael Jackson)).

 The thing with resistance, is that it works. Madrid has cancelled too thin models from its fashion week in 2006 and some magazines and brands have showcased non photoshoped and regular women. These trends, while despised by the cosmetic and fashion industries, are welcomed by the public, and are to be encouraged.

Until the media changes, maybe it’s time to make our own internal revolutions. So here’s the first five points of the manifesto:

         People come in all shapes and sizes: trying to look like someone you’re not is a mere waste of time that could be used for something else. Like living your life, for example.

         Food is necessary. Unless you have a special condition, bread won’t kill you. Not eating will, however.

         You were born with a specific set of genes and bones, and modifying them is like getting Katie Holmes to smile. Go on, try.

         Health is vital. Cosmetic surgery isn’t. Heard about breast implants preventing doctors to detect early tumors, post surgical complications, teeth being removed from your gums because of the vomiting, iron and vitamin and magnesium deficiencies?

         Last but not least: you’re precious. Take care of yourself, eat tasty, healthy food, go for a relaxing massage, do absolutely whatever you feel like, as long as you’re the one feeling like it and not your ugly, guilty, influenced-by-media-and-mentalities (or mother) conscience whispering that you’re dissatisfied with your life because of measurements. Honestly.