Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.
However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.
As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.
This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.
Recently, the University of Oklahoma hosted a member of Amnesty International who gave a lecture on the Rohingya and the current refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Everyone has heard the news mention the Rohingya population, but I did not know all of the details and I wanted to learn more about the situation. This lecture seemed like a good place to start.
The lecture began with an in-depth look at the crisis, highlighting specific individuals and the horrific events they experienced. The speaker hoped to humanize the situation and give the audience an appreciation of the human costs of the crisis. While I knew that the Myanmar military was burning Rohingya villages and driving them out, I did not know that they were then clearing what remained of the villages and building on top of them. The structures varied, but many seemed to be either new military outposts, villages for different ethnic groups, or secure “villages” that the Rohingya might be forced into.
The lecture also informed me of the history of the Rohingya crisis, which did not begin as recently as I had thought. The conflict truly began in 1982, when the government passed a law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and gave them a “half citizenship,” where they could not move around the country without a government-issued identification card. This eventually led to apartheid, where everything from schooling to medical treatment was segregated. The truly horrific acts began taking place when the general public began supporting the military in 2012. Since the worst of the violence in August 2017, over 671,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, meaning that over 80 percent of the Rohingya population have been driven out of their homes. While the infamous village burnings have largely stopped, the Myanmar army turned to forcibly starving the remaining population in the hopes of driving them out. This is mainly done by restricting the Rohingya’s access to rice, burning markets, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are still living in a nightmare, and this lecture helped explain the issue, its history, and its what is currently happening. You can learning more from Amnesty International by clicking HERE and you can donate to the Rohingya refugees through the UN by clicking HERE.
A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a lecture by Dr. Atiqa Hachimi on gender and styling in Moroccan Arabic. As I am minoring in Arabic, the talk seemed interesting, and I wanted to learn more about the Moroccan dialect, since the University of Oklahoma usually focuses on the Egyptian dialect. The lecture mainly talked about the language in context of social media, but it also included a discussion on the different stereotypes surrounding Moroccan Arabic and North African Arabic in general. For instance, many Middle Eastern Arabic speakers joke that Arabic “died in North Africa” and that North African Arabic is “not real Arabic,” it is unintelligible and a mishmash of other languages. This view leads to language discrimination, most visibly in the subtitling of North African Arabic speakers in Modern Standard Arabic or Middle Eastern Arabic (like Egyptian or Syrian). These portrayals in turn lead to the notion that North African speakers must accommodate to Middle Eastern speakers by using Modern Standard Arabic or a Middle Eastern dialect. Consequently, in one survey done by Dr. Hachimi, 72% of Moroccans ranked Syrian Arabic was the “best” form of Arabic; however, most speakers in the Arabic-speaking world list their own dialect as the “best” form.
Despite the feeling among some Moroccans that their dialect is not the “best,” various blogs and Facebook pages have appeared that attempt to reclaim the dialect. One page (which is now deactivated) acted as a “blacklist” where users would list famous people who accommodated to outsiders and used Modern Standard Arabic or a Middle Eastern dialect, instead of their Moroccan dialect. As most of the individuals who were blacklisted were women, it lead to a larger discussion of how language accommodation often translates into sexual accommodation as well, particularly because of the fact that Moroccan women are often over-sexualized in Middle Eastern entertainment.
Overall, this discussion helped me learn more about the Moroccan dialect, its history, and the unique challenges it faces. While in the past it seemed as though Moroccan dialect speakers would be forced to accommodate for other Arabic speakers, the lecture ended on a hopeful note that Moroccans are fighting for their language and for its recognition.
As always, I am lucky enough to participate in OU’s Arabic Flagship program. To be a part of OU’s flagship program, students must participate in an Arabic culture club, attend bi-weekly roundtable events, and meet weekly with a language partner. This year, I once again participated in the Egypt Club, where members learn about Egyptian culture, history, and the language. Topics of this semester’s meetings ranged from the Arabic Spring to underground music, with everything in between.
Although, one of my favorite topics was coffee shop (or ahwa) culture. In that meeting, we learning about the proper words for ordering a coffee, including American coffee, sugar, tea, and teapot. We also learned about the typical hierarchy in a coffee shop, from the owner to the coals boy (for the shisha), and the different titles they have. We also got to try different teas that are popular in Egypt, including peppermint, tilia, anise, and caraway. At the end, we talked about what is arguably the most popular coffee shop in Egypt: El Fishawy. It is located in Cairo and was established in 1771, making it one of the oldest in the city. It is also one of the most beautiful coffeeshops in Cairo, and many famous writers and intellectuals used to frequent the shop in the past. Overall, Egypt Club provided me with a more intimate look at Egypt, and I learned a lot about its culture and unique quirks!
(Image taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/al-huthail/3557476910)
As a way to practice and improve on my Arabic, I joined the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Oklahoma. In it, we attend meetings every two weeks and participate in a culture club once a week. In particular, my favorite meeting was a roundtable where we talked to two refugees from Syria: one who currently lives in Brazil and one who lives in Lebanon. They both work for an organization called “Natakallam” (نتكلم), which partners refugees from the Syrian Civil War with people who want to learn and practice Arabic. In our discussion with them, they told us about their experience in Syria and how they left the country. One of them spent years trying to escape, and his journey included covert border crossings and Turkish prisons. The other got a work visa for Lebanon, and crossed the border every couple of months to keep it current so she would not have to stay in Syria. Their journeys were harrowing, and it was eye-opening to hear about experiences like theirs that I only ever heard about previously.
However, one of the most interesting things that they talked about was their outlook on the future. Both hoped to return to Syria, but they also doubted that possibility because of its current political situation. They also talked about their perceptions about the places where they live. The one who lived in Brazil talked about the Arab community that was already in the country and how they helped him transition to Brazilian culture. It was especially interesting to hear this, as in our Arabic class we read a poem by a girl from Palestine who currently lives in Brazil, so it was fascinating to see the connections and differences.
The University of Oklahoma’s Arabic program always ends the semester with a talent show, where students at all levels of the language can perform, display their advancements, and enjoy (free) food and entertainment. It’s a fun way to end the stressful week before Dead Week and spend time with the language that you (hopefully) love dearly. As with every semester, I had a small role in the talent show. Although, unlike previous years, I did not perform with the Belly Dancing Club. Instead, I helped make a video that showcased the dialectal and cultural differences between Darija (Moroccan) and Masri (Egyptian) Arabic. Specifically, my portion of the video highlighted the differences in their gestures, which make almost no sense to anyone outside of the dialect, and the resulting misunderstandings.
However, this year’s talent show also featured poetry readings, singing, videos, and skits. As always, one of my favorite parts of the night is watching the belly dancers perform, because it’s such a fun experience to see all of their hard work and how the audience reacts to them. There were also a lot of fun skits, including a Masri (Egyptian) Arabic one that had a few light jabs at our university’s main rival, the University of Texas.
Despite all of the entertainment, one of the best things about the talent show is realizing how far your Arabic has progressed. I remember my very first talent show, where I had no idea what was happening and I lived or died by the quality of the video subtitles. This year, I was able to follow along and translate different sections of the show to my friends who did not know any Arabic. It just helped me realize how much of the language I know now, which is an extremely rewarding and encouraging experience.
This semester, the University of Oklahoma was lucky enough to host a powerful display called “A is for Arab.” It was erected in the Bizzell Memorial Library, on its lower level 1. The exhibit featured five main panels, boasting titles like “D is for Desert,” “H is for Harem,” and “V is for Villain.” The images aimed to expose Arab stereotypes that are common in the United States, ranging from the notion that all Arabs live in the desert and ride camels to the idea that Arab women are either covered from head-to-toe or belong to a harem. Specifically, the exhibit drew on examples from comics and old movies; however, more modern material, such as Disney’s Aladdin, was also included for furthering negative stereotypes.
Although, the display offered a glimmer of hope amongst the sea of misconceptions. The exhibit also highlights positive developments in the field of Arab representation in the above mediums. One of these is a comic called “The 99” (التسعة وتسعون), which features superheroes with powers and abilities based on the 99 attributes of Allah. Importantly, the comic depicts its characters as well-rounded, fully-realized individuals; unlike many other portrayals of Arabs in comics. The exhibit also has a panel detailing the exposure of Arab stereotypes, including short descriptions of influential books (“Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11”) and documentaries (“Reel Bad Arabs”). Overall, it was an incredibly powerful and important exhibit, and it displayed a lot of vital issues that are typically overlooked today.
Even though many might mistake the Persian language (spoken in Iran) for Arabic due to its similar script and their geographic proximity, they are two distinct languages. However, they share a related history, full of contact, loan words, and culture. In order to fully explore the two languages’ complex relationship, the University of Oklahoma’s Arabic Flagship Program and the College of International Studies Farzaneh Family Center hosted an “Arabic-Persian Cultural Summit.”
Specifically, the discussion featured talks from current OU professors who specialize in their respective languages. They reviewed their languages’ history and detailed Arabic and Persian’s relationship from the point of view of their language. The talks touched on important topics, such as the Arab conquest and the work of renown Persian poets. Although, the final lecture on the commonalities between the two cultures held my interest most. Despite their differences, the cultures hold similar customs relating to food and eating, as a Persian professor recounted.
Overall, the summit succeeded in its goal of introducing the myriad of complexities present in the Arabic-Persian relationship, and it helped students of both languages gain a better understanding of the other.
When I walked into Gould Hall, I did not know what I was expecting. I certainly did not foresee a relatively empty room, with colorful animals and cloths right outside. At first, I was unsure if I was in the location, as the engineering hall seemed an odd choice for a talk on Ugandan peace building. However, once I walked through the double doors to the lecture room, I knew immediately that I was in the right place. Pictures and typed paragraphs surrounded the room on all sides, detailing the lives of women I would never know, who were already so much braver than myself. From their biographical snippets, I learned a small portion of their stories: how they were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and made into child brides, forced to bear and care for children when they were not even full adults.
However, one of the most striking aspects of their stories were their (generally) hopefully outlooks, primarily due to Sister Rosemary and the opportunities that she provides. Crucially, Sister Rosemary creates jobs for the young women, including making stuffed animals and purses. In fact, these vary products were the colorful animals and cloths that I witnessed just outside the room.
It was impossible to read their stories and not visit the little table off to the side that carried the fruits of their labor, their hopes for the future. On the table itself were little giraffes and elephants, with beautiful bracelets and necklaces surrounding them. Ultimately, I bought two stuffed elephants: one for me, and one for my mother. In the women’s stories, their mothers, and the larger theme of motherhood, was a constant, as many lost theirs or were otherwise unable to be with them. It gave me perspective on my mother’s role in my own life, and it reinforced how lucky I am to have a mother figure who is so present and active in my life. It seemed like the right thing to do to give her one of the elephants as a thank you for her continued support and presence.
(Photo from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320670435949168125/)