Blog Archive

Blog Archive – December, 2013

Passing Pilgrims

December 31, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

They’re gone now. But not long ago, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims passed through this port. They are communities in a common spiritual pursuit yet they thoughtlessly walk past one another meters apart, each returning from their once-in-a-lifetime endeavor-- long anticipated, scrupulously prepared, sometimes painfully endured. One has returned from Mecca, the other from mountain shrines in the Himalayas.

Unknown to one another, they cross paths in the transit lounges of Abu Dhabi Airport. Here is where flights arrive from and depart to Mecca and Jeddah and to and from Kathmandu in the opposite direction. The most recognizable of these pilgrims will be the Muslims. And among them Pakistanis seem the most numerous. Bearded with heads shaven, they glide through the corridors in simple sandals and wrinkled white cotton shirtsuits. Their sisters and mothers, wives and aunts rest in whatever seats they could commandeer to guard suitcases and bottles of zamzam water.

By mid October, we're in the latter half of the 12th Muslim month, Dhu al-Hijjah, and these travelers have completed this year’s hajj, undertaking Islamic rites at Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, back to Mina before the final circumambulations of the Kaaba. Exhausted and anxious, they now wait along with Indian, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Indonesian and perhaps some fellow Chinese Muslims for homebound flights.

None seem interested in fellow travelers, especially the European and American pilgrims who on their side are oblivious to their counterparts returning from Mecca. Although if pressed the Caucasians might admit that they too are pilgrims. For them the Emirati airport is an inconvenient stopover where they’ll board planes to Seattle, Naples, Oslo or Manchester. These men and women are as homogeneous and as self-centered as the Muslims are.

They pace the airport corridors, water bottles in hand, shouldering multi-zippered packs. Their obligatory boots are now scruffy, their baggage augmented by prayer flags, a volume by the Dalai Lama, perhaps a stone picked up on their circumambulation of Lake Manassarovar in Tibet or Annapurna in Nepal, certainly packets of incense purchased at Bodhnath temple in Kathmandu, maybe a statue from Bhaktapur.

Like their Muslim counterparts, these pilgrims avoid duty free shops and bars. Some scratch entries into diaries-- no computers on a mountain trek-- while others doze with arms clutching unwieldy rucksacks. They huddle in pairs, two women, three perhaps. No children in these parties either.

I can’t help thinking what an enchanting conversation might happen if a couple from Nepal and a family from Mecca smiled at one another and asked “Where have you come from? Why did you go there?”

If we could set up an audio booth (like Story Corps in the US) inside Abu Dhabi Airport and invite them in pairs to relate the meaning of their circumambulations to one another.

There’s one limitation to this project: lunar timing. The Muslim calendar will define the Dhu al-Hijjah 11 days earlier in 2014, and another 11 days earlier in 2015. So next October when western pilgrims pass here en route to Nepal, the Muslims will be long gone. We need 33 years before Dhu al-Hijjah moving 11 days a year through the Gregorian calendar arrives in the October season of Himalayan pilgrims.

When I reached New York’s JFK airport 15 hours later, I found myself in the US citizen section with a new group of pilgrims-- the most talkative, happy arrivals I have ever shared this slowly moving line with. American Muslims. I looked around but couldn’t see any backpackers to introduce them to.  

[ Passing Pilgrims ]

Gifts for the Holiday: A Book and A Film

December 20, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Arabs in America are barely heard from nowadays. Either we are Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian or Iraqi, unarguably moderate, perhaps Sunni, sometimes Christian. Increasingly the ‘Arab’ is missing. This is doubtless related to the demise of Arab nationalism and the end of pan-Arab events that once invited us to explore and affirm common ground. That lost union may also result from the ceaseless wars and uprisings abroad that compete for our loyalties. Finally, we find ourselves overtaken by Muslim interests that more aggressively defend and promote this piece of our heritage.

This is by way of announcing two reasons to celebrate our survival:--one a film, the other a book. Screenwriter/filmmaker Rola Nashef and short-story author Evelyn Shakir recount Arab experience through their art, and they do it powerfully.

First the book. “Teaching Arabs, Writing Self” (forget the title, read the book) is a joyful read by a gifted writer. Evelyn Shakir’s leap from sociologist to fiction writer came with her 2007 collection of short stories “Remember Me to Lebanon”.

This book is a posthumous memoir of equal literary quality. Here Shakir skillfully weaves our elusive ‘arabness’ into contemporary American life. The memoir navigates through several worlds:-- her childhood in Boston, teaching appointments in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria, and eventually through the cancer that ended Shakir’s life in 2010.

Her opening essays recall a childhood brimming with family and neighbors, a community of newcomers, all quintessentially 1950s America, more immigrant than Arab. Yet, in her nuanced language Shakir captures our irreducible arabness. Tender humor permeates each paragraph too. Into the chapter where every summer the family converged at Boston’s Revere Beach around uncle’s “Cyclone” roller coaster, she threads vignettes of Lebanon and mother. “I harvest memories of my mother”, Shakir admits.

Shakir devotes half of this memoir to her teaching experiences overseas. Bahrain was a trial for her --it was a test of ethnic identities-- which she documents with candor. Syria, her final tour, was different. Clearly her favorite posting, Damascus was the Arab place where she found friendship and civility. (Are all foreigners so seduced by Syria’s shopkeepers?) One of the best portraits of contemporary Damascus, Shakir’s account seems more precious because of what’s happening there today.  

Wherever she stays, Shakir layers that scene with voices from all the places along her journey.

 Rola Nashef’s testimonial to our US existence is her newly released film, “Detroit Unleaded”. A first feature film, it announces Nashef as a filmmaker to watch, now and tomorrow. Not only a skilled scriptwriter and director, Nashef’s work has a unconventional message. “Detroit Unleaded” invites us to view a slice-of-life of Arabs at work in America.

And where does Nashef place her Arab portraits? A gas station. Yes, most of the film takes place in a gas station in a tough part of Detroit city. Here, a story of class, race, young lives, and economic choices is played out.

As Nashef explained in our interview (podcast on RadioTahrir) after the NYC screening: “The gas station was a great metaphor in a city which can be very segregated. For me, the gas station was where people seemed to come together…you see much more intermingling. I think of it as a turnstile where people come in and out of each other’s lives, yet do so through that (bullet-proof) glass  barrier.”

Detroit’s gas station proprietors are often Arab men. And Arab men are indeed this film’s main characters. Nashef decided this, noticing how little the public knows of economic and social pressures on our Arab brothers, uncles and fathers. “It was a deliberate choice for me to leave out politics and religion… I think it’s important to also show and explore more authentic, daily slice-of-life Arab American characters. No one in my film are political messengers… ; they’re just  everyday people…”. She made this film, she tells me, “to open a window to everyday Arab America… crucial to translating culture and to identifying with us.” Every man is different; my characters are a bouquet,” she adds.

Oh, by the way, “Detroit Unleaded” is a comedy. It’s had superb reviews and its Manhattan run was extended from one week to two.

With this production, Nashef establishes herself as a pioneer and a long distance runner. First, she was able to secure funding (taking several years’ of her time) largely from within Detroit’s Arab business community. Second, Nashef demonstrates that she can develop a powerful script (nine drafts!) and then direct a large production team of actors and crew. Third she studied film, not politics; fourth, she dares to tell the story she believes in, not one that might be easier to sell to commercial interests.  Ask your local theater to screen it.

Note: our last blog was published under a new title in the widely distributed left online site Counterpunch

[ Gifts for the Holiday: A Book and A Film ]

Al-Qalamoun, a pretty name. Today, just another battlefront.

December 04, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Poetic designations like Qalamoun are propelled into international consciousness as new sites of combat and desolation. Because Qalamoon lies strategically on the main route between Damascus and Syria’s northern cities, we learn about it today. 

I note the enchanting name with a sense of unwanted privilege knowing how, not so long ago, this was a place of pride, promise and enterprise. Barely an hour’s drive from Damascus, a new university named for nearby Mount Al-Qalamoun was home to 6,000 students and pursuing affiliations with centers of education around the world. This week press reports cite it as another killing field, as if nothing more significant happened there. We learn that Kalamoon University, the adjacent town of Deir Attiyah and the mountain have been retaken by Syrian government forces. What is left to retake? I wonder.

Certainly not a thriving center of learning with its handsome outdoor amphitheater, its corridors hung with paintings, its well equipped labs, its campus church and mosque, its teaching hospital, and the landscaped townhouses of modern Deir Attiyah. 

I was preparing to teach at Kalamoon. It was 2009, really not long ago. Or was it?

In 2004 Kalamoon opened as the first in a network of private universities licensed by the Syrian government. After 2000, privatization was expanding in all fields, producing a middle class who asked: why enroll our sons and daughters in colleges in Beirut, Grenoble, Houston or Cairo when we can do as well here, and keep our children near us? There was a rush to construct the most modern structures and find the best professors.

Within five years, enterprising academics, investors and architects joined expatiate Syrians to build seven new universities. Kalamoon was the largest. Located 80 kilometers from Damascus, most students opted to commute from the city. Luxury jumbo buses marked with the university’s distinctive logo ferried faculty and students from the city starting at 6 a.m.   

By the time I was meeting with Kalimoon trustees in 2010, the school was facing only educational problems: a drug scandal; Kalamoon’s medical students did poorly in nationwide exams; and too many students needed remedial courses in English. Still, construction of its teaching hospital was underway as well as negotiations to open a humanities department. While facing competition from newer private universities across the country, Kalamoon was still popular.

Today? Qalamoun and Deir Attiyah are battlefronts. We can trace the seeds of conflict there to when the war was just an uprising-- just. The degree of killing and deprivation across Syria today was unimaginable in May 2011, but Kalamoon experienced an incident that surely set it on that course.

Students captivated by public protests in Darra in the south decided to hold a forum to discuss prospects for reform. The debate never took place because one sunny morning the campus was invaded by thugs. “It was very ugly; horrid”, a colleague and professor there told me the next day; she was still trembling from the ordeal. Everyone knew the attackers were government security agents. “They stormed the main building, terrorizing us, bashing bodies and heads and hauling youths away. I myself sheltered several students in a women’s washroom.” She and others witnessed sufficient brutality in that fleeting event to turn them against their government. Scores of families withdrew their children from Kalamoon; students who remained became sullen, and politically polarized.

 While the university stumbled on, the same terror was repeated at other campuses.   

As for the sleepy town of Deir Attiyah, it’s a war zone today too, occupied by rebels, surrounded by tanks. After 1985 this had become a modern, wealthy town, rebuilt by inhabitants who’d gone abroad, mainly to Saudi Arabia, worked as engineers, doctors, and teachers, then returned with their savings to invest in Syria. Its leading families founded Kalamoon University, nurtured it and had watched its growth with pride.

What does it mean to the abandoned empty classrooms and the uninhabited town today when government troops have driven out the rebels? It’s just one strategic place on the main highway to the capital. How many more to go?


[ Al-Qalamoun, a pretty name. Today, just another battlefront. ]

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