Party Like it’s Saudi (and other fun facts)

(I’ll cross post from midthought/Your Middle East, where it is a featured post today, meaning it is in the scrolly thing on the home page. COOL:)

I first saw M.I.A.’s Bad Girls video (directed by Romain Gavras) a couple months ago, and have been stewing since then to try to figure out why, exactly, I am so fascinated with it.

Sure, on the surface, it is visually enrapturing and musically infectious. It also has deeper layers: it hints at another side to the Middle East, beyond our stereotypical, media-fed images of women in burqas who aren’t allowed to drive. The music video is steeped in sexually charged dancing, beautiful women, fast cars; it’s like The Fast & the Furious, Persian Gulf edition.

From M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls" Video, 2012.

But aside from its sheer (and vast) entertainment value, why I am so enamored with this piece of pop culture? I finally figured it out: Bad Girls reflects my own relationship, as I imagine it, with the Middle East. A windy desert, fast cars, beautiful women, a carefree rockstar attitude that is surprisingly applicable across the region combined with a laissez-faire attitude towards money (assuming one has it), a whirlwind of adventuresomeness and an unmatched esprit de corps. Gavras captures this vibe and my fantastical memories perfectly, and makes me want to party like it’s Saudi.

When I watch it, I am reminded of nights partying at clubs in Amman, learning to belly dance from Arab women, both strangers and friends, outdoor neighborhood weddings with raucous music and highly charged and energetic dancing, bonfires on the beach with guitars and ritualized dances around fires in the middle of the desert, midnights on the Sinai with hashish and Stella, driving for hours across the Jordanian desert on a whim and starry nights filled with hookah smoke. Bad Girls captures the passion for aesthetics, for art and music, for glamour and image, for passion itself.

What Bad Girls show us is that the Middle East is, for all its problems and in a bizarre twist of fate, a place of absolute freedom; where devastatingly beautiful women can dance on hoods of cars and men can drag race through the desert in souped up European sports cars, at least metaphorically.

This is how I do, and how I want, to remember the Middle East. Go for the seduction, stay for the beauty, come back for that piece of yourself you left somewhere on the side of the road. Though we might read it as Orientalism, the Bad Girls video embodies at an erotic, mysterious, seductive truth about my Middle East. We can drape these truths in accusations of conservativeness, backwardness, primitiveness, or whatever is designated for “the Orient,” but as in Bad Girls, the Middle East I know is beautiful and irresistible. The video and my Middle East are an embodiment of everything prohibited by our own puritanical fears of the unknown, of desire, and of temptation. This is, I believe, fundamentally what Bad Girls is all about: it challenges us to find the freedom and the perfection in such an unfamiliar place.

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What makes our suffering more worthy?

When I was younger, the Haggadah we used at Passover had a farcical play in the back, jocularly re-enacting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We used to perform it every year around the Seder table as our version of telling the story of Passover. There is one line from the play that has stuck with me through all these years, a line my sister and I quote to each other throughout the year, and one that seems particularly relevant as I look back at what I’ve just written:

“Woe to us, we are in trouble.”

Tonight marks the beginning of 192 hours of abstention from bread, leavening (except eggs), inflation (except beans), and alcohol (except wine, rum, tequila…oh hell, get me a beer). Why? So we can remember when we were slaves in Egypt. So we can pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. So we can make our lives marginally uncomfortable for a while, to remember our history and to prevent us from experiencing it again.

Though noble enough in origin – as my father says, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – this holiday feels in a way self-righteous. Most haggadot (the Passover dinner-service guidebook) will, at least now, mention the hardships facing minority groups in other areas of the world. I’ve seen mention of Southeast Asia and the USSR, and in the 90s we were into the African dictators and Eastern Europe. Feminist haggadot often mention inequality for women in different parts of the world, and I think we have one in our house discussing sex slaves. These days particularly leftist haggadot will even mention Palestine.

But the buck stops here. We acknowledge the suffering of others; we hope and we pray that these people will experience freedom, justice, and liberty, just as we were freed from Egypt and wandered around the desert (independently!, mind you) for forty years. Hooray for us, now go find your own Moses.

We are so focused on preventing our own history from repeating itself, though, that we cannot see when we are inflicting terrible collective damage on other people. We – and all minorities – are and must be survivalist. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if we don’t protect our clan, surely we will meet our demise. Thus we may only in good faith marry among ourselves, live in homogeneous communities, pray only for the health and welfare of our own kind, and while we wish well upon others, there is always the unspoken addendum to “may you be free”: “but not as free as we.”

Perhaps it is time for us to stop worrying about ourselves to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps it is time for us to give money to a charitable yet non-Jewish organization (like a Catholic or even secular hospital, for instance). Perhaps we ought to recognize that behaving with the clear and direct intention of simply preventing our own history from repeating itself will inevitably mean we, or others, will inflict the same hardships on other minorities, and we have set ourselves up only to be complicit spectators or active perpetrators of similar crimes.

Why do we, as people who have suffered, not hear the same cries for help, not recognize new histories moving down the same paths as ours once did, not step in and speak out? Half-drunk around the dinner table two nights a year is not enough.

With its spiritual and ideological focus on freedom, Passover is a time not to talk about our hopes for others, these fluid fragments of ideas, but to act on them. To actually believe in what we say, without addenda, and to put our idle words – all people will be free – into action.

I believe in “next year in Jerusalem,” but I also believe in next year in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Amman, in Jeddah, in Cairo, in Manama, in Gaza City, in Tunis, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Paris, in Havana, in Augusta and Madison, in Tokyo, in Naypyidaw, Burma, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and throughout the world. We deserve freedom no more and no less than anyone else, and if we are going to spend 8 days a year saying it, we’d best start spending 365 days a year believing it.

Boys

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about something that happened almost two years ago. It was right after I got back from Jordan, and I volunteered to share my experiences studying abroad at the Study Abroad Office fair, where returned students can show pictures and information with prospective Study Abroad students. They stuck the entire Middle East together which, at that particular event, consisted of Jordan and Israel.

The girl representing her time in Israel is someone I knew from … classes? the Jewish community? who knows how you know these people, in any case, we knew each other. The conversation went something like:
“So you were in Jordan…how was it?”
“Yeah, it was awesome. How was Israel?”
“Great…[idle chit chat]…so were there any boys?”
“Actually, I was dating a Palestinian guy. What about you?”
“Yeah, I’m actually still dating a soldier…”

Then there was a moment – a pregnant pause – some awkwardness because here we were: she would never date a Palestinian (even in Jordan) and I would never date an IDF soldier (I know, I know, never say never). But we were stuck in this little room together with our battling slideshows and glorious stories of being the American in the Middle East.

And she was on one side and I was on another, and we chose not to engage, exhausted by the mere thought. Content just to listen to each other’s stories and talk about boys, Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, or American, and eat Chinese and Indian food from those more revolutionary Study Abroad destinations.

Where to go to feel Middle Eastern.

Imagine:
A room suffocated with argileh smoke, the smell of the tobacco, coffee, tea, and food, packed with people talking and laughing, sounds of an ‘oud, traditional music, clapping, and singing reverberating through the air. This is Jafra on a Wednesday night during ‘Eid break and probably my favorite evening activity I’ve experienced to date.

Catching up and Tasting oil

Has it actually been a week since I last posted? Apologies…although nothing much exciting has happened so really you would have just been bored. This weekend was nice (who says that?), on Thursday night I watched a movie with Victoria and then went to the mall, because that’s what cool kids do. Then Friday to Ajloun! To buy olive oil! It was very cool. We got to see the whole process from olives to oil. And no, Rachael Ray, I do not know if it was EVOO but I don’t really care because it was totally LOCAL and we all know that’s so much better for the world. It was also the most zaki and flavorful olive oil I’ve ever tasted, and also the freshest which probably had something to do with it. It was basically like a mechanic’s garage but instead of cars there were big oil making machines. Check out the pictures for an out-of-order look at the process. We saw the whole thing, from bags of olives to mush to oil. Then we got to stick our fingers into the stream of hot oil to taste it, and proceeded to purchase upwards of 200 JD’s worth.
Then I learned how to make مقلوبة which is probably one of my favorite dishes, so that was very exciting.

I am not excited, however, for the coming week or two. Another research paper, preparing for Open Day (basically like a big talent show thing except we have to speak Arabic), and generally winding down the semester is daunting and does not bode well for stress levels or mental health. Oh well. On the plus side I get to wear fun new sweatshirts from Abdali all the time now because the weather is getting colder.

Dear Prince Hassan Bin Talal,

It was very nice to meet you today, I am honored and amused that you remembered my blog post and requested to meet me. Hopefully this one will be less troublesome for your secretarial staff. If you do read this, kindly respond (or have someone do it for you, as I’m sure being a Prince is quite time-consuming – I wouldn’t know), so I know the Jordanian government is doing it’s job running internet searches with your name in them. I hope your meeting today was productive, and we were disappointed you could not join us for the policy forum yesterday.

Sincerely,

Audrey.

I met the Prince.

Continuation of the story:

Remember last time when I was sitting on my beanbag chair at work and didn’t get to meet the Prince? Well apparently, since this is Jordan, they have people that run internet searches on the royalty to make sure there are no security threats or whatever, and they came across my blog post. Concerned that there had been some sort of problem, they contacted RHSC, and we all had a nice little chuckle over inter-cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

So today after class Liz got a call from Enass, all of a sudden got really excited, grabbed my arm, and I knew. We ran to get a cab, and in our excellent Arabic told him to go b’sur’a (quickly!) and we ran into the building. Apparently the Prince was there for a meeting and when he arrived at the Center he asked if the girl who wrote the blog was there. So when I got there, he requested my presence (personally!) in the meeting and I went into the room with a government rep, UNHCR, CARE, and RHSC people. And the Prince. And he stood up, kissed me on both cheeks, he met Liz and Gena, and then we stood for a picture with him. All in all it was rather awkward but quite funny, the picture is not very good…we all look absurd and overly diplomatic but hey, what can you do.

So that was definitely the highlight of the day, and when we went back to school it was to watch our soccer team get whooped by the Palestinians. Yeah, shit happens.