The Yemeni Conundrum

Tuesday, February 28 at 4pm I attended the lecture with Mustafa Bahran titled “The Yemeni Conundrum”. Bahran is a visiting professor from the University of Sana’a in Yemen. He began by presenting a general overview of the country, citing facts about Yemen’s physical size, population statistics, and religious composition. He showed photos from various regions of Yemen such as Hadramut, Aden, and Sana’a in order to display the diversity of flora, fauna, architecture, and customs that exists in Yemen. The first twenty minutes of the lecture could be described as aggressively nostalgic.

After the introduction to Yemen, Bahran described the political history of the country. He talked about the unification in 1990, the civil war between the north and south in 1994, and the southern movement of 2007. I enjoyed the way he presented the conflict in Yemen because he refrained from making overly positive or derogatory comments about any of the actors currently involved. He explained how former president Saleh introduced democratization efforts, how the Houthis had legitimate concerns, and how Hadi had been the last democratically elected president and therefore had a serious claim to power.

I appreciated the unique perspective he offered having served as the Minister of Electricity and Energy and as a cabinet member. He analyzed the various actors involved in the conflict as being at fault in some way. The most interesting part for me was when he discussed how local warlords and low-level criminals are fighting for both Hadi’s side and the Houthis’ side and are focused only on making money at the detriment of the Yemeni people.

Imperfect Strangers

On Monday, March 20 I attended the lecture entitled “Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s” presented by Dr. Salim Yaqub, a guest lecturer from University of California at Santa Barbara. The lecture focused on the diplomatic strategies and challenges that shaped the 1970s in terms of US-Arab relations. Yaqub’s book, Imperfect Strangers, argues that the 1970s are the most important years to consider when analyzing the politics of the Middle East in terms of American involvement.

This lecture provided insight into how American diplomatic strategies influenced the outcomes of Middle Eastern regional conflicts. He provided examples of American policy-makers and state department officials and how their communication styles affected their ability to form personal relationships with world leaders. He spent a lot of time developing a clear picture of Henry Kissinger and his two-faced diplomacy as revealed by the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict where he was able to help neutralize Egypt, thus preventing a more serious conflict on a pan-Arab scale.

This class aims to explore cultural encounters between the United States and Arab countries. Perhaps the most relatable part of Yaqub’s lecture was his explanation of the significance of physical contact between males in the Middle East as a way to show closeness and sincerity. This, Yaqub argued, allowed Kissinger to develop better relations with Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi leaders. This was an interesting way to understand international relations on a micro scale through the lens of cultural mores. In the United States it is abnormal for men to show such affection; however, Kissinger leveraged his understanding of this cultural difference and he influenced the outcomes of major international conflicts because of this.

Forum on Democracy

On Thursday, February 23 I attended the event Forum on Democracy hosted in the Meacham Auditorium of the Oklahoma Memorial Union. I missed the presentations for Panel 1; however, I was present for the question and answer period of Panel 1, as well as the presentations of two speakers on Panel 2. The second presentation I listened to entitled “Identities Under Surveillance” was given by Mirelsi Velasquez, a graduate student at OU.

She began by displaying images of Japanese children accompanied by letters written by Japanese-American elementary school students who were forced into internment camps in California in 1942. She also discussed the issue of Mexican repatriation in the 1930s. Her intent was to show the way that minority communities in the United States have historically lived in fear as a way to show that we cannot hope to live democratically while we continue to oppress religious and ethnic minorities. These examples of past oppression were paralleled by examples of fear imposed on minorities happening today such as legal residents of the US being detained at airports, Mexican-American families ripped apart by deportation, and anti-Muslim rhetoric permeating the political atmosphere.

This lecture relates to a course i’m taking called US-Arab cultural encounters because the speaker discussed cultural encounters between the United States and minority/immigrant communities and the oppressive nature of these interactions. While the speaker did not explicitly discuss US interactions with Arab countries, she shed light on the hypocrisy of US democracy promotion while it simultaneously engages in the systematic oppression of religious and ethnic minority communities.

Caroline in Cairo: Observations

Over winter break I traveled to Cairo, Egypt where I spent a month with Lamis and her family. I had an amazing time, learned a lot of Arabic, saw some crazy stuff, and returned with a lot of stories! Here are some observations I made while in Egypt.

 

TRANSPORTATION

I’ve taken all forms of transportation available in Cairo.
Train- pretty cool. average train ride. my ticket from Cairo to Alexandria and back was 90 Egp.
Bus- no. never again.
Minibus- so so so crowded. also scary.
Microbus- super cheap and generally pretty trustworthy. Most tickets were 4 Egp.
TukTuk- So much fun! They’re usually decorated with feathers, lights, or stickers. The only downside is how slow they are.
Boxtruck- Yikes. Crammed with people, nails sticking out of the sides, guys hanging on the back, and a very bumpy ride.
Taxi- some drivers have timers that determine the fare. These drivers are suuuuper slow. Downside of taxi is that sometimes the drivers try to be funny.

1st Microbus ride! In a boxtruck with Salwa (Lamis's friend) before it filled with people! a camel counts as transportation, right?! a mean taxi driver In Lamis's father's car on the way to her mother's village! a man in a village outside of Tanta driving his cart a donkey with a job I rode a donkey sans saddle. it was scarier than the camel.  Lamis's cousin was very patient and only laughed at me a little bit. the train to Alexandria. round trip= 90 egp a boat we rode in Alexandria

There are no rules for driving. At all.

Cars will try to run you over. Especially female drivers.

Crosswalks either don’t exist or they’re not visible. Crossing the street basically just means jumping in front of cars and looking mean enough to hopefully make them stop for you.

Sidewalks are where stores conduct business, the street is shared by pedestrians and cars.

Traffic lights and stop signs are suggestions.

Animal-drawn carts aren’t the weirdest thing. If you leave the house you’re most likely going to see at least one donkey pulling an orange cart

 

FOOD

While in Egypt i ate pigeon, rabbit, quail, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, ful, t3mayya, kufta, koshary, mulukhayya, and just about every other thing you could think of. The food was always so good. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent host mother (my friend’s mom) who was continuously cooking for us.

1st meal in Egypt! kufta from down the street 1st breakfast! (Lamis's mom said "Don't port this picture! they'll think i'm starving you!") cotton candy at the souq! I wanted the heart and i didn't even ask, the guy just knew. snacks and drinks by the Nile (Lamis and her dad got a hummus drink) Lemonade with mint and pomegranate juice with seeds eating Libyan food with Lamis's old neighbors posing with a dead pigeon Lamis's aunt cleaning the rice for our lunch Lamis's aunt baking the rice a delicious home cooked meal in a village outside of Tanta creeper shot of the meal Koshary (not at Abu Tarek's place) Egypt has Chili's and Johnny Carino's ??? cotton candy by the sea (not pictured: the sea) a very popular seafood restaurant in Alexandria my plate of seafood

Nescafé is love. Nescafé is life.

Guests are served coffee, tea, juice, or Nescafé made to their specifications on a silver tray.

Every meal must have side dishes. Grape leaves, stuffed vegetables, other meats.

Black tea usually follows a meal.

There are endless types of cheeses and everyone has a different favorite. *Cue weird looks if you eat the wrong cheese with the wrong meat.*

You can get a sandwich for 2 Egp (shoutout to Shabrawwi) that tastes amazing.

Falafel is called T3mayya is Cairo. Just go with it.

Abu Tarek has the best koshary and that’s final.

Lemonade will probably never be the same for me. I drank a lot of Lemonade with mint, 2hwa mazboot (sweetened Turkish coffee), and tea with mint. I also tried fresh mango, strawberry, and guava juice!

 

 

SOCIETY

There is a song for everything. Everything has a movie or TV show reference, a little chant, a song, or some connection to pop culture. 

Key gestures and phrases made my life 1000x easier.

ex: there’s a gesture to show someone you’re actually full and not just being nice.

there’s a phrase to tell the person asking for money that you don’t have any but you hope their life gets easier.

*sidenote* sometimes shopkeepers will tell you that your items are free and you don’t have to pay. they’re just being nice %99 of the time and you really do need to pay

I’m creating a second post dedicated solely to shisha and coffee shops.

The Quran is absolutely EVERYWHERE. This might’ve been the biggest shock for me when I got to Egypt. Almost every car has بسم الله, ما شاء الله, الله اكبر or some other religious phrase written in sharpie, painted, or (the most common) attached as a sticker. Taxis, buses, microbuses, and minibuses are especially decked out in written prayers asking for God’s protection. Quranic recitation is unbelievably prevalent. I heard recordings of the Quran being played in: taxis, microbuses, grocery stores, on the street, shops, etc. I was touring the Citadel in Alexandria and i even heard one of the cleaning men reciting the Quran.

*sidenote* One of the mechanics across the street from Lamis’s house blared the Quran non-stop 24/7 the only exception being during soccer games.

Idle chitchat is mandatory when a guest comes over. I really value alone time so i occasionally struggled to keep up with the Egyptian social life.

People stare. A lot. Some people make weird comments. No one ever touched me or was hostile. 

Personal space doesn’t exist outside of the house. There are a ton of people in Cairo and it’s very apparent when there’s a big event or holiday. (like New Year’s Eve)

Foreign brands are everywhere (they have cheetos).

People yell in the streets at all hours of the night. It’s fine. Most people are awake anyway. 

Being late is normal. Meeting times are just general suggestions, give or take a couple hours.

Men will invoke the name of God while catcalling you because that makes it fine???

 MONEY

Haggling is a must. Speaking Arabic helps. Being Egyptian helps even more.

The conversion rate during my time in Egypt was about 18-20 Egp/ 1 USD.

Egypt was very affordable for me but worsening economic woes have exacerbated class tensions as purchasing power decreases and prices of basic goods continue to rise.

I gave my dollars to Lamis’s dad to convert for me at the bank. I didn’t mess with conversion companies but I did see some around.

I bought lots of gifts and spent rather freely and i ended up spending ~1100 Egp / Week. (including a train to Alexandria and frequent trips to coffee shops)

 

I know that generalizations aren’t the best way to obtain a nuanced perspective of a country or a culture; however, the aim of this post is to provide a fun and funny glimpse into Egypt as I saw it.

Arabic Flagship

This semester I participated in the Drama club and the Poetry club through the Arabic Flagship. I also worked as an Arabic tutor and a TA for the Beginning Arabic continued class. The Arabic Flagship helps students studying Arabic achieve a greater level of proficiency in a shorter amount of time. The Flagship hosts weekly meetings in Arabic to discuss cultural and linguistic topics. This semester OU hosted several guest speakers through the Flagship program. The topics ranged from Political Cartoons, to Study Abroad opportunities, to Music.

The poetry club was hosted by my friend Sophie and Ustaaz Hossam Barakat. I thoroughly enjoyed this club because I was introduced to a wide variety of poetry from all across the Arab world. I discovered a wonderful Egyptian poet named Ahmed Fouad Negm and I performed one of his poems at the annual Arabic Flagship Talent Show. My favorite poem that we studied in poetry club was probably Kalaam by Mashroa Leila. This song was written as a response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting.

The summer after my freshman year I studied at the University of Texas and participated in the Arabic Summer Intensive program and I’ve just applied to study next summer in Oman. I’m so thankful for the opportunities afforded to me through the flagship program. The people that I’ve met and the connections that i’ve made have helped me to continuously challenge myself on my Arabic learning journey.

I would encourage any Freshman who are considering applying to the Flagship to contact me with questions. I truly believe that Flagship helps students who are serious about Arabic reach their full potential.

Syrian Oud Music

Friday, Spetember 30 I attended the Music from Syria and Beyond workshop with Kenan Adnawi and Tareq Rantisi. Prior to the official starting time at 4pm there was an interactive question and answer session conducted in Arabic. Students form the Arabic flagship, as well as native speakers, introduced themselves in Arabic and asked the performers questions about the backgrounds, inspiration, and technique.

Kenen Adnawi and Tarek Rantisi at the Music of Syria workshop

Kenan Adnawi is from Syria and has been playing the oud since the age of 7. He is passionate about incorporating new techniques and improvisational methods into classical rhythmic structures. Tarek Rantisi is from Palestine and specializes in percussion. He plays a whole host of percussive instruments and explained the structure of traditional rhythmic patterns in music originating from the Arab world. Both performers described the importance of collaboration in their work as well as their desire to express Arab unity through their performances and composition of original pieces.

The following day I attended their concert at 8pm along with a cohort of my friends. People of all backgrounds filled the concert hall at Catlet to experience the performance. I had listened to oud music before on my own, mostly via youtube videos of recorded performances by popular oud players and trios. It was an entirely new experience to see the oud being played live along with the incredible drumming of Mr. Rantisi. Several of the pieces played were original compositions. A large Lebanese family sat in front of us and one of the women began to cry when the duo performed an old Lebanese song called Bint a-Shalabiyya.

James, Peter, Yousef, Vladmir, Lamis, and me at the Music of Syria concert

 

I was extremely happy to have attended the workshop that preceded the concert because I had gained a deeper understanding of and appreciatiation for the complex factors that affect the improvisation and style of these pieces.

 

Here is an original composition by Kenan Adawi.

If you’d like to hear some more oud music being played here is a trio of oud musicians from Palestine that perform all around the world. This performance is interlaced with poems by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

How to Survive Living with Your Best Friend

I’m living in an on-campus apartment with my childhood friend Jillian, Lamis, and a girl named Celeste. Before this semester began I was told by a lot of people that living with my best friend was a horrible idea.

I’m took Political Islam, History of the Middle East Since WWI, Youth in Iran, and Macroeconomics with Lamis. She’s also the TA for my Advanced Arabic class. I’d heard stories of people living with their friends and how spending too much time together could be detrimental to a friendship. I’m lucky that for us this wasn’t the case.

Take time for yourself

Lamis and I have developed the ability to understand when we need space. We each take time in the morning and at night to sit in our rooms and watch Netflix or eat by ourselves. Having other friends is also important. It’s nice to be able to spend time with other friends without and jealousy.

DO NOT COMPARE

Taking almost every class together made it really easy to compare ourselves to one another; however, we both decided from the very beginning that this wouldn’t help either of us. We each have our own strengths and skills. Instead of competing with each other we’ve used each other as a resource. She proofreads my Arabic essays and I proofread her English essays. We support each other through stressful times and are proud when the other succeeds.

Talk it out

Whenever get annoyed with each other or hurt each others feelings, we give each other some space and then talk it out. I think one of the main things that has helped us maintain our friendship has been constantly talking. We talk all the time about big things, little things, each other, ourselves, and other people. It really helps to have someone listen to your problems, especially when you know the other person isn’t going to try to solve everything.

 

War and Peace in Yemen with Dr. Waleed Mahdi

Monday, October 17, 2016 I attended the talk entitled “War and Peace in Yemen” with Dr. Joshua Landis and Dr. Waleed Mahdi. I am a student of both professors and I was excited to hear Dr. Mahdi’s unique perspective as a Yemen-born American. He began by giving an introduction to the geography of Yemen as well as some information about the humanitarian need in the country. %85 of Yemen is currently experiencing humanitarian need with 3.5 million people internally displaced. Dr. Mahdi explained the Hoothi doctrine as “Death to America, death to the Jews, praise be to God, and the dominance of Islam”. He explained the situation in Yemen as caused by a variety of factors, among them being political, religious, and tribal. The traditional north-south divide that has long characterized Yemen is not reflected in the political geography of Yemen today. Another important factor in understanding the conflict in Yemen is the role played by Saudi Arabia and the role of Iran. Dr. Mahdi explained these roles very simply: Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a proxy war in Iran. The Hoothis are backed by the Iranian regime. Iran has traditionally supported religious minorities (notably those leaning towards Shiism) as well as Shia majorities in countries like Bahrain and Iraq. The Hadi are backed by Saudi Arabia. The influence of foreign intervention has caused friction both within Yemen and on the international stage. Dr. Mahdi expressed his concern regarding foreign intervention in Yemen by both Saudi Arabia and Iran; he also criticized the use of US drone strikes.

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Sha’bi music is a style of popular working-class music which evolved from baladi, an urban folk style originating in the Egyptian countryside, in the second half of the 20th century.

This genre has evolved greatly since legendary artist Ahmed Adaweyah achieved great success in turning Sha’bi music into a powerful genre sought by distribution companies in Egypt. Sha’bi music uses the popular dialect of Arabic to convey incredibly relatable music. The dominant style today is known as “Techno Sha’bi”.
Hassan el Asmar (October 21, 1959-August 7, 2011)

Drawing from early Sha’bi artists such as Ahmed Adaweyah, Hassan el Asmar discusses poignant topics in his songs Ketab Hayeti (The Book of my Life) and Allah Yasemhak ya Zamen (May God Forgive You, Oh Time). Some critics see Asmar as Adaweyah’s natural heir to the throne of Sha’bi music.

 

Sha’bi Music from Film

Another great example of Sha’bi music appears in the film Al Farah (The Wedding). The Egyptian word for wedding comes from the word in Modern Standard Arabic for happiness. Ironically, the most popular song to emerge from this film describes how the artist no longer recognizes himself and the resulting deep unhappiness he feels. The line “Ana mish ana”or “I am not myself” is hugely popular in Egypt. Despite the criticism Sha’bi music recieves for its utilization of simple language, the messages conveyed in Sha’bi songs often reflect the difficulties the Egyptian people face as a result of political, economic, and social instability.

A more lighthearted Sha’bi song that has received nation-wide fame also comes from a film. The song Helwa Rooh from a film bearing the same name is upbeat and fun. The song describes the beauty of a belly dancer (played in the video by world-renowned Singer Haifa Wehbe) and is often used as a song to which Egyptians belly-dance.

Shabaan Abdelrahim (March 15, 1957-Present)

Born in Cairo, Shaaban Abdelrahim was working as a makwagi (one who irons clothes) earning a low wage. His 2000 breakout song “I Hate Israel” became immensely popular while simultaneously attracting intense criticism. His catchy beats and political lyrics captured the hearts and minds of average Egyptians, catapulting him to fame. He is famous for his flashy clothes and his outlandish antics.

The End

I’m sitting on intercity train number 5970 in car 16, seat number 18. It’s 1:11 and the train is scheduled to depart at 1:25 for Paris Bercy. I took my debate final this morning, cleaned my room, fought with the cleaning lady, returned my key, and drug my suitcases to the train station across town. I have with me one large suitcase weighing 49 pounds, one large duffle bag weighing 45 pounds, a backpack weighing 30 pounds, and a purse.

When I arrive in Paris at 5:00 pm I’ll attempt to use Über for the first time (I know, I’m behind the times) to get from the Gare de Bercy to my hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport. My flight is tomorrow Saturday June 4 at 11:25 am. I’m flying to Dallas where my family will pick me up and we’ll all drive back to Oklahoma.

My forearms are exhausted and are throbbing. My hands are red and raw from the suitcases and my back is sore. I’m not exactly excited but I’m not sad either. I feel like I’m on autopilot just completing the tasks I need to complete in order to get from A to B.

Right now when I think about going home I see it as a positive thing. I’ll eat Cool Ranch Doritos, get to see my family, and play with my cat. I have plans to hang out with some friends. Overall, home should be cool. I think I’ll miss the independence that I have here. It’s going to be weird to return to my hometown of Moore, Oklahoma where I know most of the people. It’s going to be weird to see people I went to elementary school with. I guess I like it here because I can walk around without seeing people I know or I can go see friends. If I want to hop over to the grocery store I can do it without talking to anyone, which is nice. Back home I won’t have to walk everywhere (boy do I miss driving) but there’s something special about walking to the corner store or cutting through the park to get a kebab.

I’m going to be frank- I’ve had a weird relationship with France during my time here. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve gone through phases where I love it here, then I hate it here. France is awesome, then it’s awful. I’ve met people that are extremely helpful and kind, and I’ve also met people who are so incredibly rude it’s astounding. I think at the end of my study abroad experience I’ve landed somewhere in the middle. France is cool and there aspects of life here that I enjoy, and then there are things that I can’t wait to get away from. I’m glad I came here. I’ve undoubtedly improved my French, made some good friends, and eaten a lot of good food (with good wine of course).

It’s now 1:35 and the train has yet to leave the station- it’s been delayed, most likely due to the country-wide strikes. I think this pretty much perfectly sums up how things work in France.

UPDATE:

My train had to take a longer route and arrived an hour and a half late. I successfully took an Über and my driver Jamel was a really nice French-Tunisian guy. It was a 45 minute ride so it wasn’t cheap, but I was worth it to avoid the chaos that is Parisian public transport at the moment. I’m now sitting in my hotel room. I took a shower, bought a delicious burger from a food truck, and I’m about to watch Netflix and drink some wine.

 

 

See ya later France, it’s been real.