Monthly Archives: April 2011

jordan is a harley-davidson dealership

As I prepare to return to the West, as a I brace myself for re-entry into a world nearly alien to the one I have been living in for a year, I have been coming up bit by bit out of my “Palestinian Experience”. Jordan is a great place to lose the bends and refocus on the West. Less than 100 miles away from Jerusalem, Amman sits as a shining city on 7 hills, a prime example of a “good” Arab country in a region torn by strife. What makes Jordan so good?

A friend of mine asked me to describe Jordan to her and I said, “Jordan is a Harley-Davidson dealership”. It seems silly to launch into prose, but Jordan is a Harley-Davidson dealership, a strip of Popeyes, KFC, McDonalds, Audi dealerships, Burger King, Western Union, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Holiday Inn Hotels, Louis Vitton Boutiques, and shopping mall after shopping mall after shopping mall. If Cairo is the city of a thousand minarets, then Amman is the city of a thousand shopping malls.

There’s no old city in Amman except for the relics of Roman imperial history. One wonders what the legacy of American imperialism will leave standing. Will it be as majestic as the Nabateans Petra, or as impressive as the Philidelphia Theater? Will the rotting and stagnant dollar leave something behind as priceless as a springtime in Jerash?

What modern day imperialism will leave behind is the very state of Jordan itself, a shining example of neo-colonialism. Her inhabitants are made up of a mishmash of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, Bedouins, the Circassians, and the royal family and their cousins called “Real Jordanians”. All together they seek a common national identity only an absolute monarch and the helpful excess of foreign capital can provide.

Yet for me it is a fitting segue back into the loving arms of my homeland. Likewise a nation shattered by conflicting identities, ravaged by the forces of capital, likewise authoritarian in its methodologies but not its heart – note the photos of the king playing golf, spending time with his family – Jordan has been good in reminding me what I will encounter when I am home for some time. As my stomach turns at the subtle draining of this Hashemite kingdom, I can at least look forward to the pleasures of home, where the people have already been drained and at least everyone in Wal Mart will speak English.

the white convert to Islam

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.

The Prophet Muhammad, 632 ACE

Despite these famous and remarkable words, in today’s world there is an interest and fetishization of white converts to Islam, especially females. Whether plastered on tabloids such as Lauren Booth or Yvonne Ridley or admired among progressives such as Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) or Shks. Hamza Yusuf and Suhaib Webb, there seems a particular fascination with Muslim converts from white, western backgrounds. This interest is particularly white nationalist in nature, whether positive or negative. White female converts are often exposed to soft accusations of “race traitor” or painted as unstable, recovering from trauma, while male white converts are propped up as “ideal” Muslims for conducting East-West and interfaith dialogue.

Amazingly, the clip above is translated into Arabic and presumably used for dawa (outreach) purposes. Yet the language is laden with prejudices, asking “why” she would convert when she “had it all” – assuming they mean she is white and from a middle-upper class family, beautiful, etc and so why would she choose to convert from this background.

Female converts such as Lauren Booth and Yvonne Ridley are often mentioned as being former alcoholics, Muslim sympathizers, and women without successful love lives. A common assumption within the white community is that these women have met Muslim men and converted only half-willingly, recalling the dizzying spectre of miscegenation which is still an issue both in the Muslim world and in the West – but only when power positions between “races” are assumed to be unfavorable.

On the other hand, male convert figures such as Yusuf Islam, Hamza Yusuf, and Suhaib Webb are singled out to act as bridges between their “new” identities and their former communities. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf acted as advisor to former USA President Bush’s administration and co-founded the “first American madrassa” in California (Zaytuna Institute) while  Sheikh Suhaib Webb is involved with dawa initiatives throughout the United States and runs a wildly popular blog with hundreds of thousands of readers. Besides a hiccup involving the Salman Rushdie scandal in the 1980’s, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) has been considered an icon of moderate and peaceful Islam, quick to speak out against “Islamic” violence. These men, as white converts, are presented in their work and through the Western media as voices of reason in otherwise “unreasonable” Islamic scholarship.

These presentations of white converts to Islam implies a continued obsession with white nationalism and male patriarchy in the Western countries, but also belies a racial or cultural complex within the Muslim world as well. While white converts from the West certainly have contributions to make to the multicultural-linguistic-racial fabric that is a global community of Muslims, we must take care that they are not being valued for the wrong reasons, as tokens or warnings as such. This is not to say that white western converts have not contributed mightily to the Muslim world. Indeed, Shkhs. Yusuf and Webb are accredited and intelligent scholars of Islam and have helped countless Muslims in the West navigate between worlds. Yet when a white convert – no matter their fame or activism – is asked to discuss matters of Islamic jurisprudence or culture simply because of their skin color or cultural/national background, we must be wary that we are not appropriating or emulating white nationalist motivations. Perhaps a scholar would better answer questions or deliver talks rather than someone who can “speak the language” of the West.

There is no doubt that cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue should take place, but we should choose those who are most qualified rather than who looks the best in front of a camera. Likewise, there should be a serious scholarly examination of the hysteria surrounding the media portrayal of female white converts to Islam.

A Muslim is first and foremost a Muslim, and generally Muslim converts will understand this fact well. I would be interested to see if there are any scholarly papers or serious articles addressing this cross-cultural phenomenon of “the white convert to Islam”.

revolution in name only

The Nile stretches thousands of miles from the center of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting a swath of fertile green through an endless expanse of desert which we call Egypt. Here are the fellaheen, the farmers who have been tending their land in the same way since the Pharaohs decided to create a priest class.  Police officers man nominal checkpoints and smoke cheap cut Cleopatra cigarettes. The revolutionary zeal puffs chests in Cairo and Alexandria, but what here in Qana Province? Where do the fellaheen fit into your globalized vision for the future?

This working force of millions must be galvanized into democracy, liberal economy, and good-old secular living.

Mubarak was a dictator no matter what Joe Biden says. He kept the foot on the necks of the Egyptian people for three decades. His methodology was perfect for control. The Pharaohs themselves could not have asked for a more docile Egypt for those years. Despite flares of resistance, it all paled in comparison to the grand monuments, the photos of his stately visage raised high and painted into DPRK murals at the Citadel in Cairo. Yet his mistake was simple – even innocent. When the going got tough, nobody was willing to save his neck because he wasn’t willing and able to move peasants and galvanize the 80 million plus Egyptian workforce into the 21st century.

After all, these tiny parcels of land handed down generation to generation don’t do anybody good in the long run. A fellah will stay a fellah. Wouldn’t it be better to move him to the aluminum factory down the road, even better as a porter in Cairo? Where is the trajectory in this backwater, where is the promise of human potential?

Maybe now is the time, the West contemplated, for Egypt to really enter the 21st century. Of course, it can’t look like the control mechanisms of the past. We need a democracy now, something more manageable than the irrationalities of a dictator in a 24 hour news cycle. When Qaddafi or Mubarak wanted to step out of line, there was little to do except cajole and bribe. The whole mess looked very unseemly in this new Global Society. Yet a democracy! Like one blossoming in Palestine, where the ruling party holds elections that expells more than half of the voting population and yet dutifully courts the Western Foreign Investor. Now that’s what we’re talking about!

Or look at Jordan, a nation with that ancient archaic method of “kingdom”. Easily looked past, indeed – England has a queen! So long as there are special visa counters for “VIP – Foreign Investors” we can stomach that kind of system, especially since a fractured society like Jordan requires – much like Iraq once did – a strong man at the top to seem like father and who will take orders docilely from the benefactors and still agreed to be interviewed on the Daily Show in perfect, slightly-accented British English. He Gets It, we nod to each other. This Mubarak guy… not so much.

The Egyptians themselves still sit in waiting. Their pride overwhelms them, and banners with the martyrs of the revolution wave proudly in Cairo. Yet he remains unmolested in Sharm el-Sheikh, a favorite destination of European and Israeli holiday-seekers. The army remains at every street corner, and a curfew runs from midnight to six in the morning.

Very little has changed besides this new novelty of “free speech”, something we have decided is not too dangerous in today’s Global Society, something Marx labeled a fraud almost a hundred and fifty years before the invention of twitter.

Nowadays the US Government pays agents to twitter, to troll message boards, to blog, and more. Television stations are bought up by large conglomerates who call elections and have the men who advise the President on speed-dial. Mubarak thought he had a chance at trying to contain speech by working the state – shutting down NileSat and the internet.  Yet the mistake he made was assuming the state has any more power in this New World Order. No, the right investors have the power. The businessmen have the power. Nobody will work with you Mubarak, when they can work with Muhammad Yunus or the Koch brothers instead.

So – let the clean up efforts begin! Don’t worry about the litter, Cairenes, because the new government will find someone to contract for that matter. Don’t worry about jobs, that parcel of land in Middle Egypt, the peace treaty with Israel, the phone company, or the internet ever again. Indeed, don’t worry about anything at all (except your foreign debt of course!). Thank you for your revolution. Now here is a call center. Time to get to work helping to build a new Egyptian society; one that will be of benefit to the entire world, not simply your fellaheen.