Egypt Club

As part of the Arabic Flagship program, I am required to participate in a culture-focused club. I pretty much always join Egypt Club, for a lot of reasons: I am fascinated by its history, I learned its dialect of Arabic, it has a huge impact on Arabic media and cinema, and I love the people who run it and are in it. Every semester is such a positive experience, and I always come away feeling like I learned more about the culture and the experiences of Egyptians.

While every meeting is informative and a lot of fun, I think the most interesting was a collaboration with the Arabic Film Club, as we were able to watch a screening of Bassem Youssef’s documentary Tickling Giants. For those who do not know about Bassem Youssef, he is essentially the Egyptian John Stewart, and believe me, he would love that moniker! He was originally a doctor, but began hosting a small, satirical program called El-Bernameg (which is literally “the program/show” in Arabic) around the time of the Arab Uprisings in 2011. He is a huge admirer of John Steward, so his show is basically The Daily Show, but in Arabic. Fun fact: he was actually a guest on The Daily Show once, and later John Steward guest starred on El-Bernameg!

The documentary was incredibly informative (and funny!) and followed Bassem Youssef’s experience of starting El-Bernameg, trying to keep it on the air in spite of Egypt’s harsh censorship, and fleeing from Egypt. If anyone is interested in Egyptian politics, satire, and great people, I would certainly recommend this documentary!

Arabic Talent Show (Again!)

Of course I had to attend OU’s Arabic Talent Show this semester, the Arabic program’s semesterly event to display how far its students have come. While I was unable to perform this year (as I usually do), it gave me a different perspective to watch the whole event play out. As I finished my Arabic minor last semester, I am not currently in an Arabic class. Consequently, I was able to watch the performances from an outside perspective. In the past, it was me showing off my Arabic, practicing waaaay too much, and being proud that I could understand some of the program. However, this year, I was able to see that experience for other people. It made me so happy to see the new Arabic students perform their songs, happily singing and dancing even though they did not understand all the words. While I could still laugh at the jokes about Maha (a fictional student in Al-Kitaab, the Arabic textbook we all use), I felt more detached, as I was no longer actively involved. In a way, it felt like me moving on–a feeling I suppose I’ll have to get used to for my Senior year.

Despite these somewhat melancholy feelings, the talent show is always a lot of fun! I was able to reconnect with my old classmates, practice my Arabic, and learn about new songs and words. And the food was amazing, ًطبعا. Now that the semester is winding down, I just want to say this to the talent show and Arabic program:

!شكراً لكل مساعدتكم وكل الذكريات

Rohingya Crisis

Earlier this semester, I was able to attend a screening of Frontline’s documentary on the Rohingya crisis (“Myanmar’s Killing Fields). I wanted to attend this event in particular, as I know some about the situation in Myanmar, but I was hoping to learn more. The documentary certainly helped with that. However, as a warning, it does have some graphic depictions and the survivors explain in detail the horrors they endured. If you would like to watch it, the link is here.

The documentary did a good job of explaining the background of the situation, including its political, ethnic, and religious roots. The film largely focuses on the survivors and the experiences of the Rohingya–which I greatly appreciated. I feel that the news we hear about the Rohingya crisis is often very sterile and devoid of actual experiences and stories. While this could be because of Myanmar’s current stance towards journalists and the media, I appreciated that Frontline was able to take such a focus.

The event also included a discussion at the end of the screening, where we could all give our reactions to the film and debate the issues surrounding the crisis and our thoughts on why they persist. This part was particularly rewarding, as I got to learn from others and share my own thoughts on the matter. The conflict is so complex, it was incredibly useful to break it down with other people and try to better make sense of this horror. After watching the documentary, I feel that I came away with a better understanding of the situation and the current crisis of the Rohingya population.

Review of “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped”

Kuran’s article attempts to explain why the Middle East, which was rather economically advanced in the past, is now viewed as underdeveloped when compared to Europe. The theory he presents is that Islamic institutions, while not actively preventing economic development, eventually did act as barriers to economic growth in the Middle East due to “unintended interactions among [themselves]” (Kuran 2004: 72). Kuran provides convincing evidence in the first half of his article about how specific institutions (inheritance law, individualism, and waqfs) could have hampered economic development along a Western model in the Middle East; however, the latter half of his paper includes broad and/or unsubstantiated claims and requires multiple assumptions to reach his conclusions.

The first sections of the paper do a good job of explaining relevant economic institutions and providing general background for the argument, a crucial element as the reader must understand these concepts if they are to follow his argument. Specifically, the comparisons between Europe and the Middle East that Kuran offers as evidence throughout the article are useful and convincing. It makes sense that, given the Bible neglects inheritance law, European economies would develop various inheritance models that would eventually favor passing on wealth to a select few, while Muslim economies would follow Islamic inheritance law thereby distributing wealth to many; it is then logical that these varying practices would result in wealth accumulation for the Europeans and wealth dispersion for Muslims that would later affect each’s economic development (Kuran 2004: 79). The first half of the article contains similar evidence and examples (particularly comparisons between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities) that convincingly support Kuran’s contention that some Islamic institutions hindered Western-like economic development.

However, the second half of Kuran’s argument relies on several assumptions to connect the above evidence to his ultimate conclusion about the persistence of underdevelopment in the Middle East. The clearest assumption underlaying his argument is that Western intervention in Middle Eastern economies is not a large factor in the region’s current economic situation, as he neglected to mention anything relating to colonialism or imperialism and simply blamed the unfortunate aging of Islamic institutions. In fact, he even cited trading agreements that Europe ultimately exploited (“capitulations”), as “bilateral treaties” that non-Muslim minorities could simply access to advance economically (Kuran 2004: 85). While he criticized the “fragmented agricultural land” created by Islamic inheritance law, he also neglected to mention colonial practices that took land from the native population, as seen in Algeria under French colonization. Furthermore, Kuran operates under the assumption that the Western economic model is desirable and that every region should adopt it, copying its institutions and norms (Kuran 2004: 86, 89). However, there is no discussion of whether such an economic system is right for the entire Middle East, if individuals in the region desire it, or if the Islamic model has any beneficial attributes (such as its emphasis on equity). The lack of such conversations is a glaring weakness in Kuran’s argument, as it neglects the voices of those who live in the region.

The article leaves the reader with several questions: Why does the Middle East need to develop in the exact same way as Europe? Why is individualism in the Islamic context a liability, while it is a virtue in Western economies? What was the true role of Europe in the Middle East’s economic history? While Kuran does not offer answers to these questions, his article does provide a historical overview of both the Middle East and Europe’s economic development, as well as an in-depth description of Islamic economic institutions, which ultimately helps to situate class discussions on the economies and interactions of these two regions.

 

Citation: Kuran, Timur. “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 71-90.

Middle East and Democracy

The “Future of the Middle East and Democracy Promotion” discussion focused on democracy and its future in the Middle East, particularly following the events of the Arab Spring in Syria and Palestine, as the two speakers had experience in those regions. The talk began with Rami Khouri detailing several issues that he believed plagued the Middle East and made democracy promotion difficult: the Arab-Israeli conflict, virtually continuous military intervention by western powers, incompetent and oppressive governments, widespread poverty, and colonial/imperialist intervention. I thought this discussion was especially poignant, as it touched on many issues that we focused on in class, from the conception of poverty to western intervention. I appreciated that he mentioned not only outside forces (such as western intervention) that posed a barrier to democracy, but also internal forces (such as authoritarian governments). However, there was never a discussion about whether democracy was really the best option for the Middle East or if there are any other forms of governance that might fit better with the population. The panel assumed that democracy was the best and most desirable option. While that may be true for the individuals present, I would have appreciated a comment addressing this belief.

Although, when discussing democracy promotion, I thought it was significant that Qutaiba Idlbi emphasized the importance of any sort of political change coming from the people, perhaps with the support of the international community. Grassroots movements and popular mobilization are incredibly important for sustainable change, so I thought his inclusion of this point was critical to the larger topic of political change in the Middle East.

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

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.

Image result for mashrou leila

The Cold War and Beyond?

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.Image result for ou cold war and beyond

The Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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.

Moroccan Arabic and its Challenges

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.Image result for darija

Egypt Club and Coffee Shops

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 result for el fishawy

(Image taken from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/al-huthail/3557476910)