Monday, April 4, 2011

I saw a woman in the mosque

It was my second visit to the Imam Ali Mosque, its brick minaret rising proudly from the balmy leafy backstreets of Bankstown, a suburb in Sydney's scattered West. Friday prayer silently calling Muslims from around the neighbourhood. Parking was hard to find.

In the mosque, I sat down at the very back end, Ash thought my jeans were too low-cut for dignified prostration. Soft murmurs and whispers fill the air as more people arrive, taking seats along the ornate carpet lines, forming rows which expand through the prayer hall with immaculate diagonal precision. A few are standing, silently reciting Al Fatiha, face toward the ground, right arm folded over the left just under the chest.

The mosque is sparsely decorated, Quranic verses connect through intricate Arabic calligraphy along the walls and around the ceiling. A Moroccan chandelier descends from the central dome, the bright afternoon light seeps in through windows, its rays intersecting symmetrically with shadows, touching the heads and faces of a patiently assembling congregation.

Then I spot her. A woman among the standing, in the middle of the prayer hall, surrounded by a sea of seated men. I see her from the back, her head and body draped in a flowing white fabric, almost like the picture in my mind of the Virgin Mary. No one is looking at her, no one is paying attention. She descends humbly onto her knees, prostrating, and rises again. She repeats her Sunna prayer the prescribed two times, and before she sits, she turn around, and our eyes meet. Her face is bearded and wrinkled, she turns out to be an old man.

I hope that one day, men and women can pray together, side by side.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Part II: The stars that dare not speak their name

Following my previous post about the stars who have now been eradicated from the flag of Iraq, I stumbled across a documentary the other night which told the story of some primary school children in Syria. Still under Ba'athist rule, and proudly affirming the Arab identity encapsulated in the stars (which still find a home in the Syrian flag), it was interesting to see the weekly ceremonial ritual in which all primary school children gather on school yard, saluting the flag. Lined up in their blue uniforms, the children salute in unison:

"Guardians of the homeland
Peace be upon you
Our proud spirits will not be subdued
The home of Arabism
A hallowed sanctuary
The seat of the stars
An inviolable preserve"

One boy takes lead while proclaiming:

"One Arab Nation!"

And all the children respond forcefully:

"One Everlasting Message: Unity, Liberty, and Socialism!"

The forbidden representation of the stars is a source of pride and ritualistic nation-building in Syria. The documentary blends in a fascinating way the everyday life of these children and their families, without entering into any political moralizing. A friend of mine who recently came back from travels in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria gave me the post-it version of what this part of the Middle East is like:

"First you have Beirut, which is a crazy city; party, outrageous traffic, clubbing, fashion, glamor and all that, but then there are the filthy rich, who live in mansions with imported maids from Bangladesh and Ethiopia (just like in the Gulf), and then you have the filthy poor, and there doesn't really seem to be a middle class.

Then there is Amman, where everything is just so organized, and it just feels very English. People are polite, but it's a bit boring and the city is so gray...

Then there is Damascus, where things seem calm and stable, education is free and there doesn't seem to be any radical poverty, people are educated and religion is toned down..."

In the documentary, we also meet Imad, a six-year old boy who is competing in a national competition for the "Young Pioneers", an initiative of the Ba'ath party. Imad creates mosques and castles out of cardboard, and hopes his architectural fabrications will take him to the national finals. But it is toward the end of the documentary, when the camera team follows Imad to hos house to meet his family. Imad's mother is a full-time caretaker of his 12 year old sister Zaynab, who was born with brain damage. With the kind of frankness and unwavering assertiveness, 6 year old Imad tells us of his life with his older sister:

"when I get home from school I look in on her
and if she seems thirsty I'll get her some water
or if she’s hungry I’ll feed her
I wish she could walk, talk to us, play with us and teach us
That would be better for me and for her
Then I could show her my models
and she could point out my mistakes
But she is a creation of God."

I seem to be getting old, because tears rolled up in my eyes as Imad spoke his uncomplicated love for his sister. Or maybe I just got something in my eye.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The stars that dare not speak their name

Hardly anyone with the slightest interest in Iraq has failed to note the new Iraqi flag. The new flag is interim, and a final flag will eventually be adopted through a vote in the National Assembly, but it's interesting to note the changes already made to the flag.

When I lived in Iraq, Saddam had added the Takbir (the Islamic assertion that "God Is Greater") in his own handwriting to the flag. Tucked in between the three green stars, the flag at once radiated with Arabism and Islamism, a political move which must have been perceived as important at the time, yet who really knows what Saddam was thinking.

In the new flag, however, the stars have been erased, but Saddam's imposition of the Takbir has remained, although his handwriting has been replaced with the more elegant kufic Arabic script. I've looked at the flag a few times, and it looks quite nice, but I keep returning to those three stars. It seems that their vanishing has a more political charge than the superimposition of a religious proclamation on the nation's new flag.

Of course, anyone who has some grasp of middle eastern politics also knows that the stars were the stars of the Ba'ath party, born in Syria and still present in that country's flag. The green stars symbolized political Arabism, the belief in a united and independent Arab world, an Arab world of socialism.

Yet to many, the stars may also represent years of tyrannic rule by a despotic leader. The outlawing of the Ba'ath part and the subsequent process of de-ba'athification is sure to eliminate the memory of the green stars.

Given America's involvment in Iraq, it is not difficult to see why the green stars would pose a threat - not so much for the distorted Ba'th "values" of Saddam, but for the deeper socialist and Arabist inflection through which the stars speak. Americans in general fear socialism like nothing else. Indeed, socialism - what a horrible thought; to have a strong welfare state, to oppose the privatization of healthcare and education, to have equitable distribution of resources - NO WAY!

What's left of Iraqi politics is a tired reaffirmation of God's superiority. Perhaps the same reaffirmation that secured American and Western access to oil and foreign investment in the Gulf, with McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Trump Towers, and "The American University of this and that...", all while the locals are praying at the mosque.

The green stars of Arabism and socialism may have been confined to history, and perhaps for good reasons - but it would be tragic if their disappearance were to be substituted by an Islamic religious passivity of docile Muslims that love Gucci and Mercedes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When the lights go out

When a fuse blows in my modern townhouse in Sydney, confusion and frustration breaks out as we fumble for lighters and that flashlight we never bought for emergency situations. We fumble like fools in the dark until L finds the fusebox, D holds up a match, and I reach for the phone to call our energy company. The phone, of course, always works.

When the lights go out in Baghdad, conversations continue as though nothing happened. Generators kick in within a few minutes, and everything is normal. But for many Iraqis, the sudden intrusion of darkness and heat is at once the site of identity and class politics.

Rachel Maddow's visit to an Iraqi family during Ramadan tells the story of working class life in a country that cannot provide basic services to its citizens.

It is class politics that determines who will be in the dark. For those who sit in darkness, identity politics begins to take form. This video clip says a lot about the situation in Iraq. It is enough to warrant the possible creation of an Electricity Party in the next election if the situation does not improve.

Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities are clamping down on expressions of resistance and frustration over the lack of services for the people. More about this here.

Rachel Maddow, whose opinions I do not usually share, should be commended for her courage in telling the story of those whose voices are not readily heard. Maddow concludes her observation toungue in cheek: No one wants Saddam back... AND... during Saddam, everyone had electricity. The question of how dinner politics crystallizes in the darkness of the working class people who do not have access to electricity is an important, yet often overlooked one.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A child is being beaten

A Child is Being Beaten is a parable offered by Freud to illuminate the curious drives that cause people to at once reject and desire particular forms of suffering. In its essence, argues Freud, it is a pleasurable fantasy that begins in childhood and returns in adulthood through the elusive depths of the Unconscious, and figures as a displaced desire, a shameful desire, for which one also seeks punishment.

A father beating his son is the obvious staging for this conjectural story, where the father's urge to beat his son is fueled by a mixture of authority (the child must obey rules) and sadism, the repressed sexual enjoyment of watching the child suffer.

Violence (the beating) is thus configured in a matrix, hinging on both authority and pleasure derived from such authority. If we accept the Freudian theory, then it would appear that assertions of authority through the use of violence are inextricably linked with a repressed desire (which is sadistic and therefore sexual) to inflict pain upon the child, which furthermore can be extended to be the child within oneself, within the perpetrator himself.

Freud's story, A Child is Being Beaten, returned to me when I saw a BBC news clip covering homosexuality in Iraq.

BBC reports: For the full BBC story, click here

Grainy footage taken on a mobile phone and widely distributed around Baghdad shows a terrified young Iraqi boy cowering and whimpering as men with a stick force him to strip, revealing women's underwear beneath his dishdasha (Arab robe).

"Why are you dressed as a girl?" roars one of the men, brandishing his stick as the youth removes his brassiere. The sobbing boy, who appears to be about 12, tries to explain that his family made him do it to earn money, as they have no other source of income.


The sort of intolerance and violence depicted in the video is bound to ensure that Arabs in general, and Iraqis in particular will remain the laughing stock of the secular West, gladly fulfilling the stereotype of our people as aggressive and uncivilized, beating and shaming even our own sons.

The men and women who are responsible for the continuation of this horrid persecution bring disgrace to the Arab world and the Muslim community. Narrow-minded clerics who encourage violence against homosexuals, while citing the Quran, forget the very essence of Islamic reverence and respect, namely that "God is Greater". Greater than our impulsive drives to beat a child. To claim that one acts in God's name by beating a child is to reduce God, who is greater, to the filth of the earth, to the hatred which dwells in ignorance and fear.

May we pray that the tears of this child, his trembling voice, his bruised chest and spilled blood, will never be seen on grainy footage again.

Do you believe in God?

I used to evade the question "Do you believe in God?".

God, it seemed to me, was inscribed in the institutions of Islam, or the Church, or indeed in the conflict that turns people against each other and erects walls of obedience, mistrust, discipline, and fear. God entered conversations as a figure of authority, ready to pass judgment and to assign to His children a reserved space in heaven or in hell. God was somehow capable of torture, as in the stories we heard as children about what would happen if we ate pork, or if we disgraced His name. God knew what was best, and the devoted people who righteously spoke on His behalf had somehow, through divine revelation, learned what God wanted from us and from me.

Such accounts of God dominated my upbringing, from the stringency of conservative Islam, to discussions with Jehova's Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics. I chose for many years to denounce such personifications of God in a reluctant and self-authored atheism. The character through which people made God available for worship and respect simply did not resonate with my heart about any kind of divinity.

Yet the denunciation of God was never a renunciation of a belief in divinity, as an abstraction of goodness, love, compassion, and justice. For me, the reluctance of admitting to a belief in God has always been haunted by my awareness of angelic divinity in my life, divinity which I find it difficult to reduce to logic or reason, in spite of my schooling in a Western secular intellectual tradition, and my subsequent engagement with Marxism and postmodernism. Although I admired the witticism of Nitzsche's assertion that "God is dead", or that "I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time", I still found it troubling to explain how God, in some mysterious way, seemed to be present in my life. God's angels, the mythical personas of the Bible and the Quran, were at once fairytale and real, embodied in a woman I have long called Mother.

Marie entered my life when I was nine. She overwhelmed me and my sister with unconditional love, support, and care. Her endurance in raising us and maintaining our family is nothing short of an act of divinity. It is in her that I gaze the semblance of holiness, the sanctity of kindness, the Abrahamic lessons of sacrifice, the Christly spirit of compassion and forgiveness. It is in her that I find the strength to pursue my endeavors and to never give up. It is through her charisma that I have learned of belief, respect, courage, and reason.

God may be the conceptual foundation of faith and love. But without His angels, mysteriously wandering the earth and entering our lives, I would remain oblivious to His wisdom, irrespective of the number of times I have had the Bible and the Quran recited to me.

Today, when I am asked if I believe in God, I can no longer say no.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Welcome to the National University of Iraq!

The National University  of Iraq (NUI) is Iraq's premier university with the constitutional task of fostering education, research, and knowledge among the citizens of Iraq. The university is one of the 12 Constitutional Universities of Iraq, with its main campus in Baghdad. It is open to all Iraqis, irrespective of creed, ethnicity, gender, or religious affiliation. Guided by the three principles of the new Republic of Iraq: Peace, Enlightenment, and Independence from the West, NUI is committed to the prosperous development of the nation and the Arab world, and seeks to develop in all its graduates the essential attributes which will contribute to this project. The University encapsulates the Islamic aspiration to knowledge and enlightenment through openness, tolerance, and acceptance of the diversity which makes up the Republic of Iraq, The Arab Region, and the world at large.  

Below is a tour of the new main campus set near the outskirts of Baghdad, and designed by Iraqi architect Zana Hadid. The University is characterized by a mixture of grand stone buildings and open spaces where students, researchers and scholars from all backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and thrive in curiosity, exploration, and dialogue. Lecture halls, libraries, class rooms, laboratories, restaurants, cafes, recreational facilities, sports centers are scattered across the campus, and a large student residential area expands around the proud campus buildings.


In reality, the above is the Stone Towers, a model shopping and business center outside of Cairo. I post this here to inspire more people to visualize a bright, enlightened, and peaceful Iraq full of possibilities.

Zana Hadid has been commissioned to design the new Central Bank of Iraq. If her stunning and award winning architectural designs are deemed appropriate for a bank, then certainly her next assignment could be this fictional leading national university, open for all.

May we all work toward this vision!