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

Finding Home–家に帰って

Another semester is coming to a close here at OU. That makes two since I returned from Japan. It’s started to hit me recently just how long it’s been since I got back. The Japanese language has three primary verbs for traveling: one for going, one for coming, and one for returning home. I thought I’d returned, but I don’t feel home. Don’t get me wrong, I love OU and my friends here. I love being able to communicate with almost everyone. I love eating cheese in ungodly amounts and being able to make tacos without breaking the bank. But despite all that, I don’t feel like I’m home. I miss Japan. I miss the mountains and the sakura in spring. I miss the smell of the ramen and curry shops along the streets by campus. I miss the friends that came to mean so much to me, even though we were only together for a short time. Mostly I miss the feeling of home that I got from my neighborhood with its quiet streets and the small bakery where I’d buy breakfast. I know it’s unrealistic to look back and see only the happy parts. I spent many lonely nights in Japan aching to be here with my friends. Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose it’s true.

As it drifts farther into the past, I’m trying to keep my experiences alive within me. I no longer respond to people automatically in Japanese, and I’ve lost the habit of converting all of my purchases into yen in my mind. But I don’t want to lose the part of me that loved and embraced living in Japan. I’m still studying Japanese, though I’m sure I’m not as good as I was a year ago. This semester I’ve also been attending the Japanese Club at OU as much as I can. I have friends there from Japan, and it’s so comforting to fall into discussions about which conbinis (convenience stores) we liked and our favorite parts of town. But for every happy memory there is a pang of longing. For every shared smile from an inside joke in Japanese there is an ache for the sights, sounds, and smells of Kyoto. When I boarded the plane to come back to America, I truly thought I was coming home. Now I’m not so sure.

As I approach the end of my college career, I will look for opportunities to go abroad again. I want to find my home. Perhaps it is somewhere here in the States. Perhaps I found it when I was living in Kyoto. Or perhaps it’s somewhere I have yet to go. Wherever it is, I won’t stop flying until I find it—the place I was meant return to. Home.

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.

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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)

 

Ireland and Brexit

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture with the Consul General of Ireland to the Southwest region of the United States. He was speaking on Brexit and the challenges that Ireland is facing as a result. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. To complicate matters, this border has been extremely open for the past 20 years, ever since the Good Friday Accords brought peace to the region. The Irish and British economies are closely interwoven as well with many goods passing the border repeatedly throughout manufacture. Brexit has the capacity to greatly harm Ireland because of this interconnectivity.

Ireland is a small country and therefore a small market. Most of its GDP comes from trade and the bulk of that trade is with the UK, about $75 billion annually. Even as Brexit terms remain undecided, the value of the British pound is falling, increasing the price of Irish goods in the UK. Harsh terms of trade from the EU would make this problem worse for Ireland. Therefore, Ireland supports a soft Brexit, with relatively open borders and low if any tariffs. This would be the best case scenario for the Irish economy.

There is good news for Ireland as well though. The country has seen massive economic gains since its entry into the EU, and 80% of the Irish population favors remaining in the bloc, even after Brexit. To help cement its future growth, Ireland has been expanding its diplomatic presence abroad by opening new consulates and doubling personnel in many of their existing locations. Ireland has long been a small country in the shadow of the UK and the rest of Europe. However, they’ve begun making a name for themselves. Ireland is ready to take a place on the world stage, even vying for one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council for the upcoming rotation.

I really enjoyed this lecture because I know far less about Ireland than I would like. The downside to focusing my attention on a specific region is that I fall behind on the affairs of the rest of the world. I, like much of the world, was loosely following Brexit when the polls were open and it was current news. However, since the negotiations have been unproductive for so long, I fell out of touch with the issue. I enjoyed hearing this new perspective and getting an update on the events since Brexit was decided upon. All in all, it was another wonderfully informative event here at OU.

A New Journey—Costa Rica

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, my first flight taking me abroad without crossing the Pacific. I was visiting as a student, studying the corporate environment and the function of leadership in Costa Rica. Although I was only in the country for 10 days, I learned a great deal and had the opportunity to experience a culture greatly different from any I’d been in before.

The business culture in Costa Rica is highly developed and well-specialized. Although agriculture remains important to the economy, Costa Rica has emerged as a hub for transnational corporations seeking a foothold in Latin America due to its longstanding democracy, low corruption, and established infrastructure. At the same time, Costa Rica has attracted many important manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and communications industries because it is relatively low cost while also having much lower risk than the many parts of Asia that would typically attract these manufacturing jobs. Tourism has also been a pillar of Costa Rica’s economy, with visitors coming from across the developed world to experience the natural beauty of the protected landscapes that make up 25% of Costa Rica’s total land area. Lastly, many entrepreneurs and corporations in Costa Rica are working to become more sustainable and promote environmentally friendly industries as a primary driver of the economy. This includes giants like Walmart and Gensler that work with local farmers and businesses as well as small local players who use their own limited capital and influence to promote organic products and clean industries. Altogether, Costa Rica’s economy is remarkably diverse and is growing rapidly as more and more companies strive to take advantage of its developed market and educated labor force.

Culturally, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Costa Rica. I had vague ideas about Latin American cultures, but the picture painted is usually one of an underdeveloped third world country. What I found was starkly different. Costa Rica is highly developed. The population is over 98% literate and the country is 99% electrified. The national electric, oil, and medical services are relatively expensive but highly efficient. Costa Rica has a well-developed educational system and a steadily growing economy. All in all, it is a first world country. At the same time, driving through San Jose, we saw unmistakable signs of poverty and crime from ramshackle buildings to the ever present bars protecting the windows of residences and businesses. In this way, Costa Rica reminded me of China. Both nations are straddling eras, with elements of both preindustrial nations and modern economic powerhouses coexisting within a single country. Old and new, rich and poor exist side by side.

Altogether, I had a great trip and enjoyed myself. I also learned a lot. The way we classify countries is far too simplistic. Calling countries “first” or “third” world gives the impression that some countries are better or further along in history than others. This isn’t true. Different countries have different struggles and different economic systems. However, every country has its own strengths and all have something to contribute to the world. I want to continue traveling to experience more cultures and learn to appreciate the unique gifts that each brings to the international community.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.

 

Natakallam Arabi

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.

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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.

Arabic Talent Show!

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.

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