Monthly Archives: November 2007

Teacher to be Deported for Naming Teddy Bear Muhammad

What a crazy story. I imagine you’ve heard or read about it by now, so I don’t need to provide links.
According to the lastest article I found, she’s now sentenced to fifteen days in jail, five of which she has already served, and she’ll be deported.
My feeling is that it’s a ridiculously over-the-top reaction to a non-offense, and that she is owed an apology and should not be deported.
Now comes the part where I really venture into waters where I don’t belong, as I’m not from a Muslim culture and I have never lived in Muslim lands. All I want to do here is point out to western people like myself that people in Muslim lands, for the most part, don’t really feel about the animals the same way we do.
If you’re like me, you go to sites like Cute Overload and I Can Has Cheezburger and enjoy the adorable cats and dogs and bunnies and hamsters, some of whom are dressed up like people and look charming that way.
I posted a photo several months back of a dog in a cowboy hat and didn’t give much explanation to it. Now I’ll give the backstory. I had a photo of a really cute dog with a keffiyah on his head, that I displayed for probably more than a year with nobody complaining, until one day an older, native-Arabic-speaker came along and saw it and complained angrily, seeming to take for granted that I knew it was offensive. Since she didn’t bother to explain what she was so mad about, I had to make some assumptions.
My assumption is that in her mind it is not a picture of a cute dog wearing a keffiyah, but rather it’s a picture of an Arab portrayed as a dog. Maybe I could have gotten away with a bunny portrayed as an Arab (doubt it), but not a dog, which in general most Muslims regard as unclean.
The prophet Muhammad, no lover of dogs, left his followers a legacy of believing that angels won’t enter a house if a dog is in it, and that if they come into contact with a dog they have to wash their hands seven times before they pray.
Similarly, and I’m really making unbased assumptions here, I imagine that the Sudanese don’t typically have plush toy animals and that if they do, they don’t give them human names. Probably they don’t even name their hunting dogs and livestock.
I once asked an Arab friend what some common names for dogs were in Arabic. He said, “Well, there’s the saluki.” I explained that I meant what do they call them? Spot, Rover, Snowball, King? He couldn’t come up with any pet names in Arabic at all, even though he’s a dog owner (and a Muslim) and likes big, slobbery dogs.
The teddy bear at least originated as an American phenomenon, and if there were ever bears in Africa they’ve been gone for a while now. I spent a few hours today trying to hunt down evidence of bears in Islamic or African storytelling. The Qur’an borrows some stories from the Bible, but I was not able to find out if it includes the story of the young men who taunted the prophet Elisha and were immediately thereafter devoured by two handy bears.
Either way, to people without a teddy bear tradition, a bear is a fearsome beast.
The disgruntled administrative assistant at the school who was the only one to complain probably cobbled together the idea that Gillian Gibbons was intentionally demeaning the prophet Muhammad by portraying him as a bear. This seems beyond absurd to you and me, also the students and the parents at the school.
Somehow, though, a crowd of thousands materialized that actually seems to believe just that.
The funny thing is that when someone asked me yesterday if I had heard what was going on in Sudan, I was sure that he didn’t mean Darfur.

They named the bear Muhammad because it was the name of a popular boy in the class, for heaven’s sake!
Here’s a quote from an International Herald Tribune article on the 28th that just leaves your mouth agape at the lunacy:

Although Khartoum officials played down the case and said it was an isolated incident, Sudan’s top clerics said in a statement Wednesday that the full measure of the law should be applied against Gibbons, calling the incident part of a broader Western “plot” against Islam.

“Plot against Islam” indeed. Sounds like those “War on Christmas” nutjobs.


Filed under animals, arab, arabic, arabist, beasts, bigoted idiots, Islamic relations, names

Bin Laden Dreams

An analysis of why westerners dream about Bin Laden and what it might mean.

When I first came to New York about a year after the 11 September attacks, I had a dream about Osama Bin Laden.

The al-Qaeda leader was sitting two seats over from me on the plane. His face was oddly wrapped up in his turban so at first I did not notice, but the man sitting between us, gently poked me and whispered: “I think that guy is Osama Bin Laden.” I saw that it was, and I was horrified.

I put the word out to friends and friends of friends and I spent many nights googling and trawling through blogs, collecting the dream, one after the other, like pearls on a thread, driven by this profound and comical idea of the world’s most isolated and sought after man appearing all over the West, in the most intimate of places – our bedrooms.

I was curious to find out what kind of portrait would appear if I brought these shards of nightly visions together.

As I found more and more dreams, one thing became clear to me – most of the dreamers seemed a lot less fearful about this man than the governments wanted them to be.

It seemed to me that the dreams expressed a need to re-humanise this “creature”.

That most of us secular Westerners have a hard time accepting this idea of “absolute evil” which, of course, is a very religious idea.

And the “war on terror” – a notion propped up by so many linguistic absurdities and rhetorical acrobatics, that the dreams in contrast, seem fairly sane.

I can’t remember whether or not I’ve ever dreamed about Bin-Ladin. But if I do, I’ll post about it here.


Filed under arab, arabist

MTV Arabia. No, really.

“We will respect our audience’s culture and upbringing without diluting the essence of MTV,” Bhavneet Singh, managing director of emerging markets, MTV Networks International, says. “Everything will be tasteful. What is acceptable in Egypt might not be so in Jedda.”

There are more than 50 music channels in the region. MTV will attempt to wrest dominance from Rotana, owned by Prince Alwaleed, the Saudi businessman, which also operates the Middle East’s largest record label and has exclusive contracts with most top-selling artists.

The rewards could be great for Viacom because two thirds of the Arab world is younger than 30 and they are hungry for cutting-edge music, especially hip-hop.

Bolding mine.

MTV favourites such as Pimp My Ride and the practical joke show Punk’d will be amended for Arab audiences, but the scatological South Park would be too controversial, Mr Singh concedes. Culturally sensitive editors will make cuts to contentious Western videos, although local artists will account for 40 per cent of the music aired.

Pimp My Ride and Punk’d are favorites? The only show on MTV I ever watch is Made. Of course, I’m not their target audience. I wonder if they’ll show the execrable My Super Sweet 16.

But isn’t MTV a symbol of American cultural imperialism for an audience still angered by the invasion of Iraq? “We asked our focus group where they thought MTV came from,” Mr Singh says. “The most popular answers were Europe and India. It is not perceived as an American brand.”

Ironically, MTV Arabia reflects the pioneering spirit of the network at its inception 26 years ago, before the flagship channel became a vehicle for dating shows and cliché-ridden R&B videos. Mr Singh says: “We want to break the stereotypical image of Middle East youth. I want to take the best new rappers from a basement in Egypt and put them on the first MTV Arabia international awards show, shown across all our outlets.” But the MTV mission remains the same, whether you are in Damascus or Darlington. Mr Singh says: “If I can find a kid on the corner in a small Middle East city who says: ‘I love my MTV’, then my job is done.”

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Filed under arab, arabian, arabic, movies and shows

The Golden Eagle

The eagle on the flag of Egypt is a golden eagle. Coincidentally, same bird on the flag of Mexico, in my opinion one of the world’s best flags.
There aren’t many golden eagles left in the Middle East, just a few small areas according to a map I just looked at it. The important thing is, look at the size of these things and they prey they can take down!

And this next one, about the authenticity of which there is apparently some controversy. But there’s always some crank on YouTube claiming any given clip is a fake.

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Crusades, Jihad, and Science

Here’s a really good essay at Science Musings about the Crusades, jihad, and how science came to the western world.

Question: Who said, “Whenever [one] hears [our] religion abused, he should not attempt to defend its tenets, except with his sword, and that he should thrust into the scoundrel’s belly, as far as it will enter”?

Semimonastic orders of Christian knights were established with the express purpose of slaughtering Muslims, in presumed obedience to Christ’s injunction in Matthew’s Gospel: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The rules of these medieval Christian military orders — the Templars, the Hospitallers — read like the rules of a Taliban training camp, right down to the prohibition against shaving beards. To adorn one’s clothes or even to wear shoelaces was deemed to partake of the decadent lifestyle of the enemy. The whole bloody enterprise was sustained by an unalterable conviction that God was on the Christian’s side.

As Christians fought Moslems in the Holy Lands and Spain, they came into contact with a kind of intellectual inquiry, now called science, that had been invented in the Eastern Mediterranean before either Christianity or Islam appeared on the scene. This new way of thinking made no reference to gods or miracles. It was founded on close observation of nature and mathematics.

Science and mathematics were cultivated in the great Islamic centers of learning — Baghdad, Cairo and Grenada — at a time when Europeans were mostly interested in bashing each other over the heads and rooting out heresy. Crusading knights were commonly illiterate. But literate camp followers brought scientific learning home from the East and sparked Europe’s Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment.

Why science and mathematics found their most fertile soil in the West, rather than, say, in China or Islam, is a question historians love to debate. The rise of the secular state in Europe and America certainly helped.

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Western-Style University Planned in Saudi Arabia

Somehow I managed to miss this exciting story from October:

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah is planning on building from scratch a world-class graduate research institution, which will be called King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust.

Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.

Traditional Saudi practice is on display at the biggest public universities, where the Islamic authorities vet the curriculum, medical researchers tread carefully around controversial subjects like evolution, and female and male students enter classrooms through separate doors and follow lectures while separated by partitions.

Old-fashioned values even seeped into the carefully staged groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday for King Abdullah’s new university, at which organizers distributed an issue of the magazine The Economist with a special advertisement for the university wrapped around the cover. State censors had physically torn from each copy an article about Saudi legal reform titled “Law of God Versus Law of Man,” leaving a jagged edge.

Despite the obstacles, the king intends to make the university a showcase for modernization. The festive groundbreaking and accompanying symposium about the future of the modern university were devised partly as a recruiting tool for international academics.

The king is lavishing the institution not only with money, but also with his full political endorsement, intended to stave off internal challenges from conservatives and to win over foreign scholars who doubt that academic freedom can thrive here.

The new project is giving hope to Saudi scholars who until the king’s push to reform education in the last few years have endured stagnant research budgets and continue to face extensive government red tape.

“Because Aramco is founding the university, I believe it will have freedom,” said Abdulmalik A. Aljinaidi, dean of the research and consultation institute at King Abdulaziz University, Jidda’s biggest, with more than 40,000 students. “For Kaust to succeed, it will have to be free of all the restrictions and bureaucracy we face as a public university.”

Even in the most advanced genetics labs at King Abdulaziz, the women wear full face coverings, and female students can meet with male advisers only in carefully controlled public “free zones” like the library. Scientists there tread carefully when they do research in genetics, stem cells or evolution, for fear of offending Islamic social mores.

Upon completion, the energy-efficient campus will house 20,000 faculty and staff members, students and their families. Social rules will be more relaxed, as they are in the compounds where foreign oil workers live; women will be allowed to drive, for example. But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university. And one staple of campus life worldwide will be missing: alcohol.

Suhair el-Qurashi, dean of the private all-female Dar Al Hekma College, often attacked as “bad” and “liberal,” said a vigorous example of free-thinking at the university would embolden the many Saudis who back the king’s quest to reform long-stagnant higher education.

“The king knows he will face some backlash and bad publicity,” Ms. Qurashi said. “I think the system is moving in the right direction.”

I don’t even have anything snarky to say. This is the best news I’ve and most hopeful sign I’ve seen come out of Saudi Arabia since I started paying attention.

Oh, whoops, on a subsequent reading I noticed how this:

…and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome…

clashes with this:

…But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university…

So close. Okay, but other than that…I mean, still, it’s a step in the right direction.

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Filed under arabian, arabist, Saudi Arabia

You’ve Probably Heard about this by Now…

The ongoing saga of the 18-year-old Saudi girl who was raped by seven men, and ended up sentenced to 90, then 200, lashes for the crime of being in the presence of a man not related to her. (I’m not referring to the rapists, that would be crazy).

For those of you who are not aware of the story, an 18-year-old girl from Qatif went to meet a man she had had a prior relationship with to reclaim photos that he threatened to blackmail her with. While they were standing outside a shopping mall, they were abducted at knifepoint. She was gang raped 14 times by seven men. The man accompanying her was also raped. In an extraordinary ruling, she was sentenced by the courts to 90 lashes for having been with a man who was not her male relative. When she appealed this verdict, expecting leniency under the extenuating circumstances, the court increased her sentence to 200 lashes and six months imprisonment. This increased sentence was delivered under the spurious pretext that the judiciary would not be “aggravated and influenced” through the media. Her lawyer has been suspended from the case, has had his license confiscated and is now being threatened with disciplinary action.

Indeed, as has been shown by the insanity of the proceedings she would have been well advised to privately deal with the physical and psychological scars that this heinous act had incurred. Instead of being applauded for breaking social taboos and enduring the consequences of revisiting the trauma that she must have acutely suffered in bringing her case forward, she now stands in the same dock as her rapists accused of being complicit in perpetrating the crime. According to the courts, she should not have been with a man who was not her male guardian in the first place. The judges looked into their crystal ball and saw that she had “the intention of doing something bad” and this therefore constituted a very good reason for her to be gang raped. Always the woman’s fault, but of course!

How does any of this make sense when practically all women in the Kingdom rely on the services of a man who is not their guardian? We live day and night in the closest of proximity with our drivers who by no means can be classified as eunuchs, having been deprived of the company of their wives for up to two years. And yet such a close relationship is deemed OK by the very same men in power who can punish a rape victim for being out in public with an equally “strange” man only because he doesn’t happen to be employed by her. Even though the judgment in this case is shocking, it is hardly surprising when you analyze the twisted reasoning it is based upon.

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Filed under arab, Islamic relations, Saudi Arabia