If you alienate the middle, where the moderates are, all you’ll have left is the extreme. We’ve seen this happening in American politics as the Republicans and Democrats hurl insults at each other like parents at a toddler football game. And it’s happening in contemporary society in Qatar in the way people view or sanction behavior.
Take for example the decision banning of my paperback Love Comes Later in March. People in Doha, D.C. and everywhere in between, keep asking me why. Why was it banned? There are a few speculations based on the feedback my distributor gave me: “Because it’s about Qatar and Qataris.” A novel in English, about Qatar, written by an expat. A book that was researched for 3 years, in which the author attempts to represent Qatari life, as accurately as possible for an outsider, without the objectionable sex, politics or atheism, is still unpalatable.
Love Comes Later pops up among a list of titles that include Teaching Abdulla the Terrorist and If the Sun Doesn’t Kill You, the Washing Machine Will. Or more recently The Best Ever Book of Qatari Jokes: Specially Re-purposed for You Know Who. The description reads: “if you don’t burst out laughing from at least one Qatari joke in this book, there’s something wrong with you. This book has so many Qatari jokes; you won’t know where to start. For example: Why do Qataris wear slip-on shoes? You need an IQ of at least 4 to tie a shoelace.”
Take for another, the story of my friend Fatma. She is a dutiful Qatari daughter; she choose a mainstream major as a university student which is when I first met her. She wrote an essay for the Qatar Narratives anthology which was included in the book that became Qatari Voices. Fatma is not a rebel: “Many girls my age feel that they were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place—a place sealed with traditions and at a time that lies in between. But I could not be happier. I have traditions that keep me secure, definite, and relieved at a time that is full of risky choices.”
Fatma is proud of being Qatari. She wears her hijab “properly” (you can’t see any of her hair, her veil comes to her forehead). She’s so thin, Kate Moss would likely cut Fatma to avoid any chance of competition. But you’d never know because her abayas are not shaped to her body but hang loosely. She also loves jazz.
We exchanged a few messages about going out to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, the club at the St. Regis hotel in Qatar.
They don’t let Qatari women in I messaged.
I’ve taken off my abaya and they do she replied.
You did? I asked sounding like a shocked grandmother. Taking off your abaya is something Qatari women do when they want to go incognito. Ironically it’s a way of hiding in plain sight: Qataris scan crowds for other Qataris, skipping over expats. I’ve known other friends who have done this to go out with people their families would disapprove of. In Fatma’s case, she wasn’t hiding from family in public, she was doing the necessary, as mandated by law, in order to do something else she loved: listen to live jazz music with female friends.
The week was long, and the nights short with the baby, so I lost track of the conversation and went to bed early. The next day she told me what happened. And her intention to write about it. “I, a Qatari woman, was banned from an event that celebrated the women of jazz. The obvious irony aside, I also was embarrassed when the guest relation’s manager politely, but firmly denied my entrance. What really embarrassed me though was the thought that as a citizen of Qatar, I was banned from enjoying this unique art form…in Qatar!”
The first few days, people rallied to her cause. Other women agreed the rule that no Qatari women are allowed in the club – Qatari men not in national dress are – was unfair and silly. Men supported her for speaking out. All of this conversation was in English, on Facebook, or the original blog that posted her piece, JustHere.qa.
Not everyone appreciated the irony that jazz appreciation, like so many other specialized new activities in Qatar, cannot be enjoyed by half the citizens in the country. As Fatma says: “Nonetheless, I tolerated that no ‘national dress’ rule, donned a colorful hijab, modest shirt and skirt and went for one purpose: to enjoy jazz as it’s meant to be heard – live. Now, it would seem that ‘national dress’ is no longer an issue. Women are the issue. Qatari women.”
Others joined the conversation in full force, her critics posting under nicknames.
Commentators on an Arabic site asked how dare a Qatari woman go to a club that serves alcohol and take off her abaya.
She was called “an infidel, atheist, slut, will never get married, should burn in hell, ignorant, outcast who belongs to here on papers only, a shame to her tribe.” She was told she “should leave.” One commentator deduced “this is what studying abroad does to women.”
Fatma completed her degree at the national university that has separate campuses for male and female students.
There are multiple layers of conversation here; about what is acceptable behavior for women, either in written or physical form, whether expat or Qatar. On both levels we see a society that has many ambivalent attitudes towards women’s place in the public sphere.
Yellow sun. Orange sun. What has she done? At first glance everything seems so ho-hum. Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions is not an exhibit that grabs your attention like other work in the same building. You may hate or love performance Mona Hatoum, for example, or find Manal Al Dowayan’s project on Saudi teachers is too narrow, but at least they elicit a visceral reaction.
With Adnan, there’s nothing to offend or excite: no human shapes, no bifurcated animals, no female genitalia. All these have been present and offended members of the public in recent examples of public art in Qatar. Only endless empty landscapes: yellow, orange, red, and green. The primary colors appear again and again in unmediated, unrelenting, unapologetic repetition in effect creating a visual blindness. “Sweet,” you might murmur to a friend. “I don’t get you,” someone said hovering over a Josephesque tapestry.
Etel Adnan doesn’t mix her paints, you see. The oils come out of their tubes and onto the canvas. Her angles, her shapes, her instinct feels like my three year old on a Saturday morning: carefree, oblivious of the fact he should be interesting to warrant an entire floor of the Arab Museum of Modern Art.
On the surface her art is sweet, even feminine, acceptable to the public Islamic register. Her pleated, accordion fold leporello are playful; the Arabic poetry inscribed upon on them borrowed for Adnan, long an exile of the Arab world, has lost fluency in her mother tongue.
At the tune of 50,000 USD a canvas, these are worth much more than the thumb tacked paintings in my children’s playroom.
The price tag makes you take notice, if the landscapes or black and white sketches do not. You do some digging. Adnan’s strength, many argue, is as a writer who dabbles in painting. 89 years old, a lightening rod for her politics, she is a feminist Lebanese American writer, filmmaker and activist. Her private life, illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, is private in the exhibit itself; an interesting move to support alternative lifestyles while at the same time covering it.
A wall of quotes in English, Arabic, and French illuminates Adnan’s politics: “I tell myself that it would be better to let loose a million birds in the sky over Lebanon, so that these hunters could practice on then, and this carnage could be avoided.” Perhaps this is why the relentless, endless landscape: empty of humans who can wreck so much violence.
Regardless of the reason, you’ve spent this much time thinking about her. Which in itself says something.
A week ago my novel, Love Comes Later, the first novel in English set in Qatar was banned from distribution inside the emirate. The reasons the officials gave were murky and you can catch up on why here. Or here. And here.
I wrote the first one with an eye to seeing it on the shelves in the stores in Doha. Now that I know that’s unlikely for the rest of the Qatar books, I’m wondering what shape the sequel will take.
The sequel, as yet unnamed, shifts the focus away from the three main characters of the first book, Abdulla, Sangita and Hind.
We narrow in on Luluwa, the younger cousin. She’s a twentysomething, university age student, someone at the nexus of change, the “hinge” generation, and as a woman, even more pressured to satisfy social obligations.
And her adventures are many. Including a tall, dark gentleman who keeps lurking around her uncle’s house.
Here’s an excerpt. Title suggestions welcome!
“I saw guys dangling from threads,” Luluwa said, grateful for the change of subject. “On at least the fortieth floor or higher in West Bay. The ropes were tied to the roof.”
“That’s the least of their problems,” Sangita snorted. “Those guys may not want to work but at least they have jobs. Those poor bastards who have no IDs and no way home are much worse.”
“Sangita,” Abdulla said sharply.
“What? Like she’s so innocent,” Sangita said, sitting up straight. “Open your eyes,” she said. “Can’t you see she’s a woman? When she hallucinates, she dreams of strange men.”
The silence was absolute. Luluwa didn’t bother breathing for a full minute. Abdulla’s gaze turned to her.
“I’m not seeing anyone,” she said.
“I can tell you’re lying,” he snapped.
“Like it’s okay for you to judge me,” Luluwa said. She jumped up from her seat. “Look at you. You were making eyes at someone while engaged to our cousin.”
Abdulla’s palm hit the top of the table, sending all the utensils rattling. “That’s not the point and you know it,” he said. “There are consequences. Things are different because —“
“Because I’m a girl!” Luluwa spat. Tears filled her eyes. “I can’t drive because I’m a girl. I can’t study abroad I’m a girl. God knows why he made me this way if he wanted to make my life a misery.”
“Luluwa,” Sangita hoisted herself up. “It’s not that bad. Look at all the freedom you have. You’re at uni and you come and go as you please. You live with us not your parents.”
Luluwa laughed, a sound that reverberated through the kitchen. “My cheating father or my vengeful mother didn’t set a very high standard, did they?”
Sangita began to speak.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Luluwa said. “Look what they’ve done to you in less than a year. You’re as bad as any of us.”
“Enough,” Abdulla thundered at the shocked expression on Sangita’s face. “To your room,” he said.
Luluwa blinked, a tear coursing down her cheek. The room spun slightly; she couldn’t think what brought her to say such awful things.
“Out,” Abdulla repeated, leaning across her line of vision. “Now.”
Sally came in, picking up plates as quietly as possible.
Luluwa spun around and left the kitchen. She stormed through the living room and then into her room. Unable to stop herself, in the grip of emotions she hadn’t know she had, she flung the door closed behind her. The wood gave a satisfying smack and shudder into the frame. She threw herself on the bed, as she had a hundred times before, waiting for Noor to launch into a story about her latest gossip. This time it was only Luluwa on the lavender bedspread. The thought of her best friend brought on the tears in earnest. Ever since Abdulla’s wedding, Noor had grown even more distant, even though they lived only a few meters from each other, the roofs of their houses in the family compound almost touching.
Luluwa sobbed, her eyes alighting on the photo of her sister. She had never felt alone with Fatima was alive; she always had someone to listen and give her counsel, someone patient, kind, loving, maternal, everything their mother was not. Her shoulders shook with the force of her fatigue. “Come back, Fatoom,” she said, her voice breaking. “Come back.”
“She can’t,” a man’s deep voice answered. “She can’t.”
Luluwa raised her face, meeting the eyes of the man she had seen in the courtyard. He was sitting on the bed beside her. She sat up in a rush, scrambling away from him, in her haste falling off the edge of the bed. This is a dream, a dream, a dream, she thought, clutching the edge of the bedspread. Wake up!
A head of curly black hair peered over the edge after her. The eyes, the irises not red but amber, peered over at her.
“How did you get in here?” She whispered.
“Same way you did,” he said. He smiled and the whiteness of his teeth blinded her. “Well, I walked through the door.”
She followed his gaze to the closed door. “If anyone finds out you’re here,” she said.
“Like that man in the kitchen who was yelling at you?” The stranger’s eyes turned dark, smoldering.
She could smell something burning, like chicken left in the oven too long. “Abdulla will be furious,” she said. She sat up, hoping this was the moment in the dream that he would dissipate. Luluwa willed herself to wake up in a pile of sweaty sheets.
“I’ll go if you want me to,” he said.
“Yes, yes, go.” She stood pulling him up with her from the edge of her bed. The instant she touched his skin she gasped. The heat emanating from his arm scorched the inside of her palm as though she had grabbed a pan too quickly from the oven. She fell back against the wall, cradling her right hand.
“Sorry,” he said. He hovered over her.
The feeling of heat drew closer and she averted her face, the warmth causing a flush to spread across her cheeks.
“I’m doing it again,” he muttered. “Sorry. You can’t come that close to me yet. I have to learn to control it.”
“How?” She asked. “How are you doing that?”
He gave her a small smile. “I’m not like you,” he said.
“If Abdulla calls the police, they’ll find out an Indian was in my room,” she said. “All hell will break loose. They’ll deport you.”
He laughed. The sound wasn’t musical but she couldn’t say she had ever heard anything like it.
“If they try to remove me before I want to go,” the skin around his eyes crinkled. She realized he was older than she had thought at first glance. “ Yes, as you have said, hell will break loose.”
Another rush of heat, warmth trailing up her arms, causing all the fine hair to stand at attention, the back of her neck growing sweaty. She felt drowsy, which didn’t make any sense, because wasn’t she already dreaming? He hovered over her again, lips close to her neck.
“Are you a vampire?” She breathed.
He laughed, again a sound warm yet eerie, drawing her further outside herself so she felt as though she were hearing her own voice from a spot on the ceiling.
“Nothing so modern or western as all that,” he said. Or did she hear him think it? Luluwa was having a hard time figuring out where his arm ended and hers began.
“I’m a jinn,” he said.
“What’s your name?” She asked, entranced by the rings of fire that had appeared in his pupils.
“You can not speak it in any of your human tongues,” he said or more like sighed, a whisper into her mind. “But it sounds like Javed.”
She shuddered, her body overwhelmed by the heat of him, sweat beading across her forehead.
“You came to punish me?”
His laugh echoed in her head, reverberating in her ears.
“No, my darling,” Javed said, his breath caressing her skin like a touch. “I came to save your grandfather. And I fell in love with you by mistake.”
She fell into him, her knees soft, her palms stinging at the direct contact with the skin of his chest. She couldn’t draw away, though the heat was increasing, the feeling now like a thousand stinging nettles.
“Careful,” he said, pulling away her hands, the touch of each of his fingertips singeing her wrists. “Don’t get to close to me.”
“Or you’ll burn me?” She lay back on the bed, like a doll, her limbs devoid of her will.
“No,” he said, hovering over her, his eyes now glowing flames. “If we’re not careful I will possess you. And then we’ll have real problems.”
Join us today online on Tuesday, March 11th 5pm-7pm AST as actors at the University of Baghdad link up with the University of Iowa to present Book Wings, a marathon of 6 specially commissioned short plays, in Arabic and English, on the theme of “courage,” including works by prominent Iraqi journalist and playwright Hassab Allah Yahya, David Kranes, long-time artistic director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Playwrights Lab, and Catherine Filloux, co-founder of Theatre Without Borders.
Live digital videoconferencing plus live Q&A with actors, directors, and playwrights.
Watch online and tweet questions and comments @UIIWP #bookw.
Ash Wednesday is the moment in the church liturgical calendar when we pause as a community to remember Jesus’ temptation by the devil. Taken into the desert and offered all that the human heart could desire, Jesus said no. He prayed, he fasted, he suffered.
Not the stuff of headlines in today’s glitzy, glamorous society, particularly on the heels of the Oscars.
The day begins the season of Lent: 40 days of contemplation of this self-sacrifice in preparation for Easter. In this period many give up something as a way to experience the spirit of the season. Your craving for it is a reminder of the ways we can discipline ourselves (the anticipation of Lent is what created Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras).
More modern interpretations include beginning a new, positive habit during Lent as a spiritual practice. In 2008 I tried a mashup and focused on eliminating a bad habit: anger.
Ashes symbolize many things: the dust humans are made from, the dust we will return to. They’re often used to mark the forehead of those who attend this special service as a visual reminder of the impermanence of life.
Whether or not you are a Christian or belong to a denominate that observes Lent, this season, think about joining in either by abstaining or beginning anew.
For me, I will try the impossible: put something above my love of the carbonated beverage that is Coke. Even writing that sentence has me missing the feel of bubbles on my tongue.
But if it weren’t precious, would it be a sacrifice?
The first time my son asked me if I was a princess, I was sitting on the stool in front of my dressing table, putting on makeup. Having grown up in the school of hard knocks, I didn’t hide anything from him.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
His wide eyes registered his surprise. Ever since the summer, when he graduated from the world of cuddly animals – think Happy Feet – into movies with people, life had become infinitely interesting.
We said nothing further about the subject of princesses.
A few days later, he asked me again. I was better prepared.
“Mommy are you a princess?”
“Yes,” I said. “In fact all women are princesses.”
He nodded as if this made perfect sense. Maybe because in the Disney universe, all the main characters are royalty (or marry into being royal).
When I found out I was having boys, at first I despaired. My world was very female centric and I wasn’t sure how to approach having the first male grandchildren. Now I see motherhood of little men for the opportunity it is: a chance to frame the world in a way that empowers them to treat women as equals, deserving of respect, regardless of the titles they may hold.
The composing/choreographing team of Ariel Grossman and David Homan, are also husband and wife. I love to support creatives and young creatives like these soon-to-be parents are inspiring. Their plans to expand on an original production of Vashti, which successfully premiered to 450+ people at Ailey March 2013 with another woman centered, Biblical story.
Esther tells the story of a woman who saved her people by risking her life and revealing her true identity. Their interpretation of the Biblical tale as a contemporary ballet with an 11 movement work for clarinet, violin, guitar, cello, and piano. Live music at the show (then released as a recording).
David’s last CD was played on over 127 radio stations in the US and Canada.
The third Monday in January may mean a ski holiday for those grew up in the United States in the 80′s. For 28 years, this has been the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the long weekend commemorating his birth, and his fight, as a private citizen, for civil rights for great grandchildren of African descendents in America. He is more than a soundbite and a day off, however, even to those of us who were not on his mind when he was marching or sitting in jail.
The history of race relations in America has been dominated by a black/white dichotomy that often ignores the multi-hues that make up the famed “melting pot.” I’m not saying that the history of slavery, plantations and an agrarian Southern economy is not important. Nor that the resurgence of Hollywood interest in examining this dark period, from Django Unchained to 12 Years a Slave, isn’t artistically and thematically significant.
I am saying that to grow up in-between black and white in America, brown in my case, meant knowing your place was next to impossible.
I remember moving to Palo Alto, California, before it was the home of Facebook or Google. A few weeks into my new school, the teacher sent the three black kids and the one brown (me) to the library to meet with a reporter to talk about the important of MLK Jr. and the relatively new holiday. This was circa 1987/88.
I was terrified.
All the way down the hallway to the library, I racked my brain about this man I knew nothing about. I had never heard of him before.
The other kids, if they had, said nothing to me, the new girl, about anything.
We were posed around a children’s book, me standing at the shoulder of a girl, who was holding two pages open, one of them with a black and white photo of a man with a wide forehead and regal smile. I scanned the page, desperate for clues.
The caption said something like Dr. King went to jail several times for his beliefs. The reporter asked me later what I thought of MKL Jr.
I dutifully repeated the only semi-fact I had at hand.
“He went to jail for what he believed in.”
I wished there had been more print on the page, or I had a few seconds more to flip through that book and read up on this man everyone was sure I knew a lot about.
The reporter was disappointed that I didn’t have more to say. He (she? A 9 year old’s memories are not that reliable) moved on to someone else.
But the spark had started: I knew I was different from other people. And they were different from me a hereto unexamined fact. What I thought up until then was unclear. Had I thought the whole world was Indian? I knew people looked different than my family; my teacher didn’t dress like my mother after all. I had led an unexamined life, despite moving from India to Canada at a young age.
I went around school, asking classmates, what made this unknown category of black.
“They can’t have red hair,” someone said. The wisdom of 9 year olds only left me with more questions.
Like Harriet the Spy, one of my childhood heroines, I wrote that and a myriad of other semi-facts down.
I wrote it down, despite knowing that with my South Asian man, red was a color I couldn’t aspire to either. The world was no longer as I knew it.
As I grew older, and moved across America, from California to Texas, to Florida, and then North Carolina, part of a family of nomadic academics, my on-the-spot racial education continued. And what I was learning was even more conflicted.
Being Indian, I was part of the “Model Minority” as an Asian. Our type of immigrants were white collar professionals, assimilated into American culture by speaking English, owning homes, sending children to good schools.
My friends in high school and college, whose parents wouldn’t speak to them if they dated a black person, would welcome me into their homes, hold my hand at dinner, and smile hellos to my parents.
“But I don’t think of you as black,” they would say if I mentioned how uncomfortable I felt about being brown in the South.
“But I’m not white,” I wanted so desperately to say. During a classroom enrichment activity, designed to highlight class privilege, I stepped back with all the black kids, even though my parents had taken me to museums. I couldn’t fathom stepping forward and being ahead, in line with all the white kids.
Instead, I wore lots of (hot pink) lipstick to hide my brown lips, complied when a friend asked to see my gums (he wanted to see if they were the same color as his), and fretted I was not as attractive as my white girl friends*, doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. White men, I knew, would not find me attractive. And living in central Florida, then the capital of North Carolina, my future stretched long and lonely.
Which brings me to the recent media storm around women of color appearing on high profile magazines.
In their rush to democratize the notoriously Caucasian magazine industry, and hopefully open up notions of beauty, the editors of women’s magazines are making obvious blunders in whitewashing the very women they’re hoping to honor. There’s Mindy Kaling and Elle debacle, where the gorgeous, regular woman size 8 Mindy was not only cropped, instead of full length, she is the only cover to appear in black and white. Or the speculations that the luminous 12 Years a Slave actress, the rising star, Lupita Nyong’o's skin had been lightened in a Vanity Fair spread; whether or not it was the lighting or Photoshop, the effect is the same. Lighter, the beauty industry keeps telling us, is more beautiful.
— Goldie Taylor (@goldietaylor) January 15, 2014
All of which was brought to my mobile device when I cropped out my own toes in an Instagram photo. That’s right; they were too dark for me to think they were lovely. I did the same with my fingers holding the baby (whose face is very white, like his East Asian father’s).
You’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I am an otherwise confident, educated, credentialed published author, mother of two, wife of seven years. And yet when I see my skin, the darker on my hands than my face, I cringe.
Different people have different tributes to Dr. King Jr. For me, as a brown person growing up in America, by starting the process of living black and free, he and all the other fighters in the Civil Rights movement made Gandhi a part of everyday American parlance. A fact I will be forever grateful for as an Indian American adult. Gandhi’s own political consciousness was stirred in South Africa, when he saw the treatment of blacks and browns under white supremacy.
Both demonstrated that people with dark skin can and should occupy public spaces – both literally and figuratively – like anyone else.
A black president, the first Indian American Miss USA (she’s darker than the average almost white Bollywood star), and I’m still a teenage girl, worried my fingers are too dark to be attractive.
From this MLK JR day forward, I vow not to hide my hands or feet from Instagram or anywhere else. A small step to be sure, but if we can resist the assertion of governments to own our bodies, how much more insidious is the beauty industry, in cahoots with the media, gaining our permission, voluntarily, towards self-hatred?
Tupac Shukur immortalized the saying, “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
I’ll do my part to say I know this to be true.
Innovative public service ad campaign by Whistling Woods International to challenge the habit of leering at women in India.
The scenes bring up the age old question: do we have a right to stare at a woman because of how she is dressed?
With over 2 million views, their message is a conversation starter.
“Qatar: Small nation with a big heart.” That’s the Ooredoo slogan you can see on signs around the city of Doha. The visual is a friendly, colorful, multiracial society where we all get along. Recently, however, the atmosphere has been tense. Whether it’s the constant road work, squeezing the already congested main arteries of the city (and raising our blood pressure) or the increased scrutiny by the international media of conditions facing migrant laborers, raising questions about the fairness of the sponsorship system, even the uncertainty of a new leader and changes in policy life in one of the world’s safest countries seems tenuous.
The mandate to override holiday, winter or Christmas festivals in schools because they may take away from National Day, celebrated on December 18th, contradicts the slick marketing promoting an easy plurality. This year’s National Day theme, “One Love” with a pair of hands intertwined, suggests others also know the different communities making Qatar our home need a little a morale boost. Perhaps even a visual reminder of how we relate to one another.
This year the attack and murder of several young women, both of them school teachers, raises uncomfortable questions about the changing nature of this formerly sleepy city where you could go to bed with your front door unlocked.
A few days away from National Day, I hope the residents of this country I call home, where I met my spouse, gave birth to two children, and used as the setting for three books, I know we can work together through these growing pains.
This is my grown up Christmas wish.
If you’re unfamiliar with the song, the chorus says: “Here’s my life long wish. My grown up Christmas list. Not for myself but for a world in need. No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts…”
Have a listen.
From laborers, to white collar professionals, to nationals, I hope we can continue to participate in conversation, actively listening, rather than growing more isolated in our specific perspectives.
What about you? What are you wishing for this Christmas?