The Issue of the Hyphen: From the Perspective of a Lebanese-American

I was raised to believe that America was a melting-pot. It was a place where all cultures came together, united to form a more perfect Über Culture. A place initially created by a peaceful blending of White and Native cultures and customs, a utopian sharing of foods, lands, and diseases. Founded on a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that outlined a Bill of Rights, preserving personal freedoms and protecting individuals from the pitfalls seen by previous, lesser social contracts. This narrative pervaded not only my understanding of the world I lived in, but my view of myself.
Theoretically, if the United States were represented by a color, it would be a blend of shades, perhaps reminiscient of the color of vomit after fully digesting a day’s worth of meals. But what I saw in the real world around me was a stark shade of white–white in Hollywood, white in my dolls, white in my government. And in the mirror? At the earliest stages of my socio-political awareness, I wasn’t quite sure what color typified me (or didn’t), often pestering my mother about how to translate my skin color in English; but I remember my pencil hovering over the “White” answer in the “Race” category on state-issued standardized exams, questioning how much it represented me.
Due to various clichéd tragedies in my life, I attended seven different schools before graduating high school. I started at a secular, private, French school, largely dominated by upper-class white kids. I was largely ostracized by my classmates for my darker features; you see, when the children role-played Sailor Moon on the playground, there was only room for those who resembled the lighter-skinned characters. Next, I ended up at my local public school, with only a minority of white kids and a majority of Black and Latino students. If the one mixed-race girl in that school couldn’t make friends due to her skin’s inability to “make up its mind” about its identity, it was no wonder that I had difficulty finding companions. From there I alternated between different experiences of privilege and disadvantage with people from every integer of the socio-economic spectrum. I was often Othered and at times–those rare and transcient moments–felt included in the communities I witnessed. Such experiences fueled my need to question myself and question the world around me: where did I fit in? Did I fit in at all? What am I trying to fit into, anyway?
Of course, these ideas weren’t anything more than hypothetical before 9/11. I didn’t experience–or realize that I was experiencing–true racism before then, save for the odd exoticization from a stranger first learning about the existence of a country named Lebanon in the far (err–Middle) East… paired, of course, with my own gradual awareness that most of the other kids around me weren’t raised with nostalgic stories of the old country and didn’t come home to a garlicky perfume filling their kitchens.
No, like most Arab or Muslim kids at the time, September 11, 2001 changed everything I thought I knew about my identity and how I fit into the world I found myself in. That day I was physically torn away from my white best friend by her terrified mother; I learned that an innocent white girl was in danger around a young Arab kid like myself. I no longer had the chance to be seen as one of them. I became explosive to my peers, a ticking time bomb.
I spent my adolescence straightening my hair, practicing the Valley Girl accent, and rejecting my mother’s efforts to teach me Arabic. I figured I might be forgiven by the society I lived in for being born in an Arab family if I tried a little harder to be a real American–painted white. However, no matter how hard I tried, they knew; I was a brown terrorist wearing white clothes, an imposter. I was, essentially, as I was often reminded by my peers, a sand-n*gger trying to float in America’s white-tiled pools.
The weight of my disappointment at the constant rejections left me with the realization that I would never fit into white society because the other Lebanese in America could no longer be considered white, and the idiotic “We’re not Arab, we’re Phoenecian!” argument did not really take with people who had no idea what Phoenecians were. Luckily for me, it was not long after that turning point in my life when my migratory schooling landed me in an institution that had a fairly large Arab and Muslim population; for the first time, I was accepted by my peers, hooked nose and all. We turned our backs on white society, rejecting them before they could reject us, and fully embodied our displaced brown cultures. We went to shisha joints in the middle of a Dallas suburb, held our breasts with inherited sentimentality while listening to Fairouz, and danced openly in parking lots to the latest Nancy Ajram album blaring from our car speakers. Arabic words were sewn into our English sentences like a beautiful embroidery, and we discussed our dreams of returning to our parents’ homelands, waiting to feel that sense of belonging that we had unknowingly ached for for so many years. America rejected us for being Arab; surely the Arab countries would accept us.
Of my friends I was the only one who attempted to fulfill this fantasy. I only applied to universities in Lebanon, and before I was even accepted I packed my things and moved. I gave everything I owned away except for a small box full of material proof of my most intimate memories, hidden away in the attic of my mother’s Texas home. When I arrived in Beirut, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the new sensation of being invisible. No one looked at me suspiciously when I entered a building like they did in Texas, because I looked like everyone else. My strides along the alleyways and main streets of Hamra continued unquestioned, as I marvelled at the mixture of ancient and colorful villas, the dilapidated modern cement of towering reminders of the wars this country had not yet healed from, and the reflective glass of American-style office buildings still being constructed. This city represented me, in some way, I thought to myself. It isn’t a single color, and it isn’t a blend of colors–rather it is a mosaic of different eras and different places chaotically and unapologetically fitting into one.
Things became more complicated when I opened my mouth. My poor Arabic skills always gave me away as a variation of a foreigner. Initially, strangers would speak to me in Arabic, assuming I was Lebanese and fluent in Arabic. My failure to reply quickly or without code-switching resulted in the typical response: “Where are you from?” When I was asked this question in the States, I would reply, “Lebanon,” as the interrogators were only asking to find out what exactly made me different from themselves. But I couldn’t very well say that in these situations. As much as I denied the fact to myself, I wasn’t born in Lebanon; I was born in the United States. But did the place of my birth and the place I was raised define where I was “from”? Didn’t my years in the United States serve as a testament that I was indeed not American, or not American enough to call myself that? The language barrier created the gap that invited the Lebanese around me to realize I wasn’t quite one of them, either. Even when I tried to speak my broken version of Arabic, my faltering questions were always returned with English answers; “enno, khalas, we know you’re American–we speak English, too!” Even on some occasions I had the opposite reaction. Strangers would look at me, dark hair, olive skin, curved nose, and large eyes, and aggressively question why my parents did not teach me Arabic, why I don’t have the Lebanese nationality, and why did I even come to Lebanon anyway?
Was I not Lebanese because I didn’t speak Arabic? Was it because I didn’t have the Lebanese passport? Or was it because I was raised in the privilege and security that the United States provided? I realized that I wasn’t Lebanese, not only because of specified linguistic or legal evidences (which could be learned or forged), but because I had no understanding of local innuendos that took decades to instill and because my hands trembled with every explosion of fireworks and celebratory gunshots.
Four years later, despite the dictionary of Arabic vocabulary words I’ve memorized and the several times I’ve faced near-death experiences with car bombs, the haphazard way I shrug off the minor booms I hear in the dead of night, and my fluency at cursing the daily power outtages, I realize that I still do not fully fit into Lebanese society. I still cannot call myself Lebanese and Lebanese alone. I may have spent the last four years of my life relishing my invisibility, but I have also spent those years silencing myself for fear of being recognized as an outcast upon the movement of my lips. No matter what I may look like upon initial inspection, I haven’t been directly affected by the politicians whose faces are glued to the sides of buildings, and if everything goes to hell, I have the privilege of an American passport to get a one-way ticket back to relative safety.
In fact, as I plan my return to the United States in a year’s time, I am drawn to the inevitable contemplation of how Lebanon has made me the person I am today. I arrived to this country with the idealistic expectations of a suffocating fish returning to its native pond. What I found was a different body of water altogether, one that I still managed to adapt to once more.
Moving back to the States isn’t a sign of my defeat, and Beirut hasn’t knocked me down. Beirut has reminded me of the impermanence of all things, the utter chaos of an unfiltered existence and the devastating reality hiding in plain sight–if one simply takes off their rose-tinted glasses and crushes them with the heel of their boot.
When it comes to the issue of identity, I can only offer my own life as an example. I won’t appeal to quantitative or qualitative data to support my argument. The only kind of historical context I can provide is my own. Based on my experiences, I’ve realized that my identity isn’t defined by where I was born, where I was raised, or even by where I choose to live. I’ve realized that the color of my skin is dependent on the world in which I am immersed; in Lebanon, I am often perceived as white, and in America, I am often perceived as brown. But while some live by Berkeley’s adage “to be is to be perceived,” I’ve realized that in spite of the socio-political associations drowning it, the only perception of myself that matters is my own. I’ve chosen to adopt the hyphen as a way to portray the blend of experiences that I am. I’ve spent my life trying to find myself in either “American” or “Lebanese,” but like the streets of Beirut, my identity is a kaleidoscopic creation of the East and the West, some parts old, some parts new, but all of it so uniquely “me.”

Advertisements

Charlie Hebdo and the Responsibility of Privilege

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I’ve often been asked why I refused to follow suit and post #JeSuisCharlie on my social media accounts. I’ll be honest—I’ve read some great articles and some terrible ones arguing the rights and wrongs of both the comic writers and the attackers. However, I find that the element of privilege is often overlooked. Yes, murder is bad. Yes, freedom of speech is a great ideal. But, you know what? Behind every narrated incident, there lurks an elephant-shaped gap that is too often left unexplored. I am reminded of my all-too-pessimistic theory that people take their voices for granted. They say, write, express whatever bullshit comes to their minds without considering the social-political implications of their unchecked utterances. In my mind, this applies to the Charlie Hebdo comic writers, the journalists who reported on the attacks, and even the general population with their #JeSuisCharlie posts pervading social media sites. In this post I will attempt to clarify the context surrounding the attacks, focusing on the French-Muslim relationship over the last century, by responding to exaggerated arguments I’ve heard over the last few weeks.

Let’s start chronologically. I’d like to take you back to 20th century Algeria, a formerly independent state that followed the religious and political governing of Islam, which was then colonized by the secular and imperial French. As we all know, the French were world-famous colonizers, especially in Arab and African countries. I hope everyone also knows that being colonized isn’t fun; it destroys the indigenous economies, governments, cultures, and spirits. But on top of the general dissatisfaction of the Algerian people, in 1905, when the French passed the law of separating “Church” and “State” (laïcité), they also decided that the law would be implemented in Algeria as well as the other French colonies. This means that they were not only working to colonize the land, but they also had every intention to rid it of its government and religion, and replace them with French secularism. While in the case of Algeria, independence was gained before the law’s full implementation (not to say that French Algeria was wholly unaffected by the colonizer’s attempt to control Islam—on the contrary, the colonizers were quite thorough), the example still manages to bring to light a piece of the historical baggage surrounding French scorn of Islam and the power of privilege supporting it.

~But, Alice, that was like sooo long ago and who even cares about the 20th century and Algy-ree-ah or whatever? Colonizers didn’t make those terrorists kill Hebdo peeps!

While I can try to see maybe an ounce of truth behind this claim, perhaps in that it would be physically impossible for 20th century French colonizers to force modern day people to aim guns and pull triggers, I’d rather go straight to the source to explain how the indirect impact of French colonialism justifies my point:

The legacy of colonialism remains alive today.  Colonialism altered the geographical map of the Muslim world.  It drew the boundaries and appointed leaders over the Muslim countries.  After WWII,  the French were in West and North Africa, Lebanon, and Syria; the British in Palestine, Iraq, Arabian Gulf, the Indian Subcontinent, Malaya, and Brunei; and the Dutch in Indonesia.  It replaced the educational, legal, and economic institutions and challenged the Muslim faith. […]
The colonialists were modern Crusaders – Christian warriors going out of their way to uproot Islam. The only difference was that the Europeans came, this time, not with cavalry and swords, but with an army of Christian missionaries and missionary institutions like schools, hospitals, and churches, many of which remain in Muslim countries to this day. […]
The Muslim world’s centuries of long struggle with Western colonial rule was followed by authoritarian regimes installed by European powers.  The absence of stable states has led many to ask whether there is something about Islam that is antithetical to civil society and rule of law.  The answer to this question lies more in history and politics than in religion.  Modern Muslim states are only several decades old and they were carved out by European powers to serve Western interests. 

Aha! So because this is a blog post and not an academic article, I will make this explanation short, sweet, and full of expletives: the French colonized Muslim countries. The French fucked up the governmental, economic, and religious structures—among other things—by fucking with the Islamic rule. The French played a big role in remapping the geographical areas, choosing which pawns to place in power, and basically leaving a mess in their wake. The colonized countries, even if now independent, still suffer from the effects of the previous methodical fucking-over. So, these “terrorists” are emerging from countries that are still suffering the aftermath of French colonizers fucking with their countries and with their religions. Ok, 2+2=4, and voila! Context!

~Ok fine that really sucks for those Arab countries or Muslim countries or whatever (don’t know the difference so whatever), but like that’s not our problem, I mean the French outlawed racism and discrimination because this is America ok. So like if you’re in France you need to do as the Romans do and be French ok.

Mmmmm… alright, I can try to work with this. I just want to start by emphasizing how much of the world was affected by French colonialism and was, therefore, somehow fucked over into giving political and economic advantages to the French today: link to list of French colonies. Make sure you scroll all the way down and see how many countries you can recognize. With that link I also want to clarify that this isn’t only about Algeria. I used Algeria as an example because it is the most well-known, seeing as it was a French colony for more than one hundred years. However, as the link can show you, this affects much of the area popularly (albeit falsely—let’s save that for another post, shall we?) known as the “Muslim world.”

Since colonialism, the French have had a complicated relationship with Muslim people. As a Lebanese person from a Christian family, I’ve had a different experience. When I go to France, I’ve got French people fawning over me, telling me how much they looooove “ta-bou-lé” and how they’ve dreamt of visiting the beautiful and ~exotically chaotic~ land of le Liban, also a former French mandate. However, I’m totally aware that if my name was Fatima or Abdullah or if I was wearing a veil, I’d be prey to living a completely different experience. In fact, according to the French National Observatory of Islamophobia, 2011 saw a 34% increase in anti-Muslim attacks, then 2012 saw another 42% increase compared to the same period. I’m not very good at math, but I think that means there has been a stark upwards trend in anti-Muslim violence in France. Hell, even Amnesty International has been on France’s ass for years condemning its rampant anti-Muslim discrimination.

Yeah, okay. People are racist. People suck. But, what about the government? Let’s not forget the discriminatory “l’affaire du voile islamique” which started being discussed on an institutional level back in 1989. Three female students were suspended from school for refusing to remove their headscarves. In response, the minister of education decided that, instead of students having the right to freely express themselves by wearing a scarf if they so choose, the ball was in the educators’ court as they had the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not a student could wear the scarf in class. In 1990, three other girls were also suspended for the same reason within a different school in a different city in France. The response? A general strike protesting students’ rights to wear the scarf in schools. Finally in 1994, the headscarf was outlawed in public schools in the François Bayrou memo by differentiating between acceptable religious symbols—discrete ones (like, let’s say, a Christian cross necklace under a shirt)—and unacceptable religious symbols which were not hidden. According to this Wikipedia article, around 100 students were suspended or expelled between 1994 and 2003 for wearing the headscarf in class.

What does this have to do with anything? This Islamic scarf controversy is an echo of the French desire to control all that is Islamic at whatever cost, even if it means risking the educations of an entire population. Imagine how many girls were forced to face the question, “Should I even go to school?” because of this ban against their cultural and chosen identity expression. Not to mention the 2010 law banning all full-face coverings, supposedly regardless of religion, which would clearly include Islamic garb such as the burqa or the niqab. I’m not going to dissect the French arguments against wearing the scarf in schools or wearing the full-face coverings in public because that would take us on quite the tangent. My point is that discrimination against French Muslims is still prominent today, not only among the general population through acts of violence, but also on an institutional level through laws and societal structures.

Now let’s return to Charlie Hebdo. They are known worldwide for being an asshole satirical magazine ready to criticize all that is good and holy. Martyrs for their freedom of speech, they continue to champion anyone who clashes with French laïcité and their own Left-wing political beliefs. Right? Well, anyone except for the Jews. That shit is NOT funny.

In 2009, Charlie Hebdo fired and pressed charges against (with help from the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, of course) cartoonist Maurice “Sine” Sinet for apparent anti-Semitism when joking that the son of the then-President Sarkozy, who was marrying a Jewish heiress, was converting to Judaism for the money. The flip slide that isn’t often talked about is that Sine actually won a 40,000-Euro court judgment against the magazine for wrongful termination in 2010. And, of course, under the directorship of Philippe Val (the man who fired Sine in the first place for the offensive Jew-joke), 2005-2007 saw a period of publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, a lawsuit for inciting “hatred against Muslims,” with the court concluding in Hebdo’s favor: “The acceptable limits of freedom of expression have not been overstepped, with the contentious pictures participating in a public debate of general interest.” So, basically, according to France and especially to Charlie Hebdo, mild Jew-jokes: bad; purposefully offensive Muslim-jokes: good. Yet again, we see proof that this is not about the freedom of speech to criticize religions or to endorse secularism. Charlie Hebdo has had a history of racism targeting Islam, and despite being aware of the implications (I think a court case would make it as clear as day), Hebdo is not backing down.

Don’t even get me started on the unity rally/protest for freedom of speech that happened in Paris, with a slew of political leaders in front of the march. Suffice is to say that several of the ~40 political leaders themselves have committed real crimes against the freedom of speech—such as imprisoning, torturing, and murdering journalists. A quick Google search could provide all the evidence needed to support this claim. Links for the lazy: one & two.

If that isn’t convincing enough, let’s talk about what satire is supposed to look like. Satire is a method for the powerless or the oppressed to use their freedom of expression to criticize those in power over them. For example, let’s say you’re living under an oppressive regime that you do not have the power to escape. Satire can be used as a way to criticize those in power. Or even something lighter—let’s say you’re afraid of the genetically modified food industry, and you feel powerless against them. Satire can be used to criticize the industry and emphasize the need for food labeling, thereby regaining some form of empowerment, for example! But guess what isn’t satire: using the power you already have to criticize those who are powerless. Now that we recognize the history behind the secular-French and the Muslim-French relationship, we must also recognize the political power—the PRIVILEGE—of the secular-French over the Muslim-French, which means that “satire” making fun of Muslim traditions is actually just bullying.

~Ugh ok Alice like fine they’re kinda racist but like that doesn’t mean they deserve to be KILLED by Muslims for not following Muslim rules or whatever, like honestly we don’t want Sharia law here ok, this isn’t Iraq or something, we need all the Muslims who condemn this to be like THIS IS NOT OK otherwise what does it even mean you know?

I absolutely agree that no one deserves to be murdered by anyone. However, a lot of amendments need to be made before I can agree with the above statement. I think this message has been repeated across every news channel in the Western world: “This is out of our control. Moderate Muslims need to contain this and express their indignation for the terrorist attacks.” While on the surface this might sound tolerant, as it could perhaps be twisted into being seen as empowering to moderate Muslims and showing Western trust in a fine-line separation between moderate and extremist Muslims, statements such as these are actually quite damaging. Let’s get something straight. There are people who commit murder and there are people who don’t. Those who commit murder are generally (and I would say rightly) considered to be fucked up in the head. Over the last few centuries we’ve seen murderers of different colors and religions. It doesn’t take a religion to make someone murder. It takes a murderer to murder. It just so happens that this particular strain of murderer identifies with a certain religion, Islam. This does not mean that Islam embraces these murderers. In fact, Islam has become the scapegoat. Instead of focusing on the fact that we have extremists committing international crimes left and right, we are focusing on the religion that they twist into calling their own. As I see it, there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim.” There are Muslims and there are extremists who commit murder and wrongly use Islam to justify their actions. In other words, there is no connection between your Muslim neighbor and the extremists committing murder. It is not the responsibility of every “moderate” Muslim to contain this extremism because it is not a product of their religion; it is a product of extremism.

The importance of making this distinction cannot be ignored. Since these irresponsible reports of the “Moderate Muslim’s Responsibility,” Islamophobia has only increased. Countless anti-Muslim “misguided reprisal attacks” have occurred since the hysteria following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. French-Muslims are being killed for the actions of extremists due to racism that has been allowed to perpetuate in France and due to the burden of responsibility to end extremism placed on the shoulders of regular people. This cannot be allowed to continue.

In conclusion, I will repeat this to ensure that I have made myself very clear: murder is bad, and murder is caused by murderers, which is an entirely separate issue. Furthermore, when one takes into account the history of privilege French people have over Muslim people, one must be aware of the responsibilities of that privilege. Sometimes accounting for your privilege means understanding when to withhold that power; and yes, if that means deciding to be considerate of others and not take advantage of your freedom of speech, then so be it. So no, I do not identify with #JeSuisCharlie.

American Primacy

Keep Calm because America is the Best!

Written February 2014

With the civil war in Syria overflowing with accounts of horrific violence, the world has repeatedly asked President Obama what he plans to do about it. Last September America threatened to intervene militarily when Bashar Al Assad crossed the imaginary red line drawn by the U.S. on chemical weapons. Obama argued, “when … we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer in the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”1 Soon after, television screens across the country were covered with photos of nameless Syrian children without limbs, accompanied by the telephone numbers of government-run charity organizations accepting monetary donations on their behalf.

Since the onset of World War II, similar tales could be recounted for many different countries and continents across the globe: it was benevolent America’s duty to save Western Europe during the second world war, and it was again America’s duty to save Africa from Kony in 2012. The United States has accepted the privilege and the burden of being exceptional and has used this exceptionality to dominate the globe.

Therein lies the magic of American hegemony. On the one hand lies the façade of America as a beacon—the unattainable identity that must be shared with the world; on the other hand comes the reality of its military superiority and imperialism. America claims to be the source of all things good—democracy, Christianity, and Michael Jackson—and in a world at risk of being drowned in the evils of socialism and female oppression, who else has the proper qualifications to save the world?

Forrestral, a policy-maker of the Truman Administration, described the strategy of American preponderance of power: “As long as we can outproduce the world, can control the sea and can strike inland with the atomic bomb, we can assume certain risks otherwise unacceptable in an effort to restore world trade, to restore the balance of power—military power—and to eliminate some of the conditions which breed war.”2 Since these telling words were published, America has increased its defense expenditure above all other countries; it has become the biggest nuclear power in the world; it has the most powerful military on land, air, and sea on the globe; and it has become the top provider of military equipment in the industry.

Thus the United States has developed a subliminal war mentality that has been sustained throughout the changing Administrations. Its military dominance has forced the weaker nations around the globe into submission while simultaneously offering its soft hands for protection. “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7 KJV).

______

1 Barack H. Obama, “Full transcript of President Obama’s remarks on Syria,” NBC News (September 10, 2013), http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/full-transcript-president-obamas-remarks-syria-v20427421

2 Found on pg.43 of Perry Anderson’s “Imperium,” cited there as the following: “Letter to Chandler Gurney, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 8 December 1947: Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries, New York 1951, p. 336.”

Language Borders: Linguistic Mapping in Beirut

For the Multilingualism Across Disciplinary Borders Conference at the AUB in April 2014, I (Alice Kezhaya) presented my ongoing research project at the poster sessions. In multilingual Beirut, it’s general knowledge that in certain areas, certain languages dominate over others. I happen to live on a street that lies at the intersection of an English-dominated area, a French-dominated area, and an Arabic-dominated area. This led me to wonder what happens at the borders, in places like where I live.

What does multilingualism mean in Beirut?

I started by questioning my first assumption, that certain languages dominate areas, by surveying 105 people about the languages of 12 Beirut neighborhoods. The results showed clear distinctions. Below I pasted the results for Hamra and Ashrafieh:

survey results hamra ashrafieh
As this project is a huge undertaking, I had no choice but to start with only one neighborhood. I focused on Hamra, as it is the neighborhood I know best. From there I will push outside of the borders of Hamra until I cover all of Beirut.

Based on the survey results and my own understanding, I drew a map of what I believed the language dispersion looked like in Hamra: (link to hypothesis on Google maps)

Notice the green English areas circle around the two American universities, and the main Hamra Street–a busy tourist area–cuts through the middle.

In order to make my own maps, I used a phone application called Click2Map: an app that allowed me to pin points with photos (which made passersby clearly uncomfortable, so I couldn’t always take photos) on-the-go via 3G and GPS. Then I transferred that information manually to a custom map on Google Maps.

In my research, I decided to focus on signage (i.e. shop signs and street signs) as they are relatively permanent.

Here are my results so far: (link to Google maps)

map

Map Legend:

Red: Arabic Script
Yellow: Romanized Arabic
Orange: Mix of Arabic Script and Romanized
Purple: French mix with Arabic Script
Green: English
Brown: English mix with Arabic Script
Light Brown: English mix with Romanized

LINES: dominated by that language

My hypothesis wasn’t entirely wrong, but it definitely did not cover the reality.

It is true that the main street and the street near one of the American universities are dominated by English, however surprisingly the second American university is surrounded by a domination of Arabic. The second American university is near a border with another neighborhood, though, so this will require further research.

However, even within the areas dominated by English, small streets and alleyways nearby are dominated by Arabic. What does this mean? I am assuming it is related to class, but again, this will require further research and analysis. So far, I am calling it “the hidden Arabic.”

There are two important issues that need to be looked into before drawing conclusions from this data:

1) The big stores on Hamra Street are foreign-owned and therefore have non-Arabic names.

2) Are there laws about the signage in Beirut? Not sure.

3) It is not always easy to classify whether the Arabic/English is translated or a transliteration.

There is still a lot more work to be done before I can call this project complete! Updates will be posted here.


Update: 9 September 2015
It seems that my research has inspired Professor David J. Wrisley (@DJWrisley) to include a class project involving mapping the languages in Beirut using mobile data collection apps for the ENGL 229 (History of the English Language) course at AUB. I’m very excited to see what they come up with! If you’d like to follow their progress, check out this link: http://hel.djwrisley.com/index.php/mapf15/

Tumblr: Alice in Beirut & Languages in Contact

Here is a link to the archive of my Tumblr. At the time of writing this, I have 52 posts, but I will probably have more by the time anyone reads this, as I am updating it almost daily. Every post is adorned with tags and commentary.


Arabizzi

My first post on the Tumblr was of a graffiti near my house that said “B7IBBIK” which means “I love you” in Arabic.

B7ibbik graffiti in Beirut, posted by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

B7ibbik graffiti in Beirut, posted by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

I tagged the post with the hashtags:

#arabizzi and #arabic because the written language used is what I found significant. Instead of being written in true Arabic, it is written in a modernized Arabic that is often used in chatting online. It is almost a mixture of Arabic and English, hence the name Arabizzi (Arab- for Arabic and -izzi for Englizzi–the Arabic word for English).

The same kind of Arabizzi is found in this Facebook comment that I posted in here.

Arabizzi on Facebook, posted by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

The man is writing in Arabic through Romanized characters. The most obvious difference is the English name “Bruce” becomes “Brous” in Arabizzi.

These examples of Arabizzi that I described in my Tumblr represent the contact between Arabic and the highly Westernized Internet. Using the Arabic alphabet is often inconvenient as it requires using a special keyboard, and many softwares don’t support the script. This forces Arabic speakers to “make do” with the Latin alphabet that is available to them.


Arabizzi in Beirut Signage

As I focused my attention on my language mapping project that I prepared for the Multilingualism Across Disciplinary Borders 2014 conference (which I am still working on completing), I began to post more original observations of signage in Beirut, focusing on the languages in contact.

In certain areas of the Hamra neighborhood in Beirut, I found a dominance of Arabizzi in signage. This means that Arabizzi is no longer primarily linked to the Internet and mobile technologies, but has become mainstream in its high amount of public presence.

In this post, I share an example of Arabizzi in signage: Shabrou2a.

Shabrou2a signage - Arabizzi in Beirut - by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

Shabrou2a signage – Arabizzi in Beirut – by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

Other variations were also popular, including the Arabization and Romanization of Arabic or English words.

For example, in this post, I shared the sandwich shop named “Sandwishti.” The Arabic is a transliteration of the Romanized word:

Sandwishti signage - Arabizzi in Beirut - by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

Sandwishti signage – Arabizzi in Beirut – by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

On this old garage door, which I share in this post, “Extra” is written in English and is also transliterated into Arabic.

Extra transliteration - signage in Beirut - by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com

Extra transliteration – signage in Beirut – by AliceinBeirut.Tumblr.com


There is still a lot more to discover about the languages in contact in Beirut. It is a diverse and chaotic city that continues to surprise me even after three years of living here. I suspect I will continue updating my Alice in Beirut Tumblr account for a long time.

Identities & Representations

In a TED talk titled “The danger of a single story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes her experience as a black Nigerian woman living in the US, explaining the tropes of what she calls “a single story” or when stereotypes simplify identities to create “no possibility of a connection as human equals.” The entire 20 minutes are worth watching and can be found at this [link].

One sentence she said in particular (which can be found around 5 minutes in) really struck a chord with me. She said, “I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn’t consciously identify as African.” This adoption of a new identity came from being othered in the US, as the Americans she interacted with were generally ignorant about the diversity of the peoples and countries on the African continent. The picture of Africa that circulated in Western literature was a picture of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

I strongly identified with this, as I’m an Arab-American who grew up in a conservative-leaning state post-9/11. Even the term “Arab-American” is relatively new to me. Before 9/11, I never questioned my Americanness. I knew my family was Lebanese and that my life was largely influenced by the Lebanese culture, but it never occured to me that that would take away from my American identity.

The day of the attacks, I remember sitting on a bean bag at school with my best friend (a white girl) reading a book together about a girl with black blood who could turn into an owl on command. Gradually parents poured into the elementary school, taking kids home. My BFF’s mom ran in, saw us sitting together, pulled my friend towards her into a rough hug and said, “You can’t be friends with Alice anymore.” She then had to explain to me that I was Muslim (news to me!) and that meant I was one of the bad people.

Unlike how Adichie was treated with “a kind of patroning, well-meaning pity,” I was treated with hostility. Before 9/11, people saw my skin color (which was darker then) and my strange face shape and suggested many different races to me–often after attempting to speak Spanish to me and seeing the blank look on my face: “Ok, so you’re not Mexican… Are you Italian? Jewish? Uh… Brazilian?” After 9/11, though, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The media did quite a thorough job of representing what “my people” looked like. And with that came the language used to describe “us.”

The media’s repeated representation of Muslims/Arabs/etc. made it easy for the people around me to (a) point me out as one of “them” and (b) have a mental dictionary full of vocabulary with which to categorize me.

Instead of listing (and perpetuating) the negativity placed upon our community (notice the lack of quotation marks around “our” now), I will share some counter-action in the arts by members of my community.

 

 

 

 

 

An Entry for a Zine on Rape Culture

One afternoon when I was eight years old, I got off at my bus stop and none of my friends got off with me. At such a young age, I wasn’t quite sure of what I was afraid of exactly, but I knew that something on that long road to my alleyway seemed daunting. I tried to focus on the fall leaves falling from so high above me. I hummed to myself. When I was halfway down the road, a red Mustang convertible with two men in their twenties slowed down beside me on the road. I took a sideways glance at them and noticed them sneering at me and was immediately suspicious of the driver and his backwards baseball cap. They followed me for several yards, watching me and smiling an evil smile, before they began to talk to me. “Are you lost?” “Don’t be afraid…” Snickers. “Let me drive you home.” For whatever reason, I was wise. I picked the closest house to me and ran up, opened the gate, closed it behind me, and rang the doorbell until someone opened.

When I was older, I would walk down Abrams Road (a pretty busy main road in Dallas, Texas) to go home from my college. I literally lived across the street and only needed to walk ten minutes to arrive home. Despite the short walk, I always kept my eyes wide open for what–or who–might be lurking in the bushes. Of course, I’d get daily catcalls from men driving by in low pick-up trucks. “Mamiiiii!” Whistles. I’d hurry my pace a little bit. On bad days, I would turn around and give them angry looks (which I believed were expressing a clear “FUCK YOU!” but were probably just making their day). I always knew, though, that if one of those fuckers did something to me, and if I was lucky enough afterward, maybe that tough piece of shit would see his ass in jail receiving the same treatment.

I moved to Beirut, Lebanon about a year ago. I noticed I was no longer comfortable wearing shorts or tank tops in public, due to the stares I would get from dirty men who would spend their days loitering the streets. After several months, I realized no matter what I wore I would get stares from their dead eyes, so I settled comfortably for dresses with leggings—a happy medium, I thought. On Election Day at my university, the street from my house to my university was lined with police officers at every few meters. I walked the normal path to school, wearing leggings underneath my shorts. I walked in a daze, as it was around 8:30am, and I’m not a morning person. Suddenly, I realized that a police officer was calling me. I freaked out, because at the time I spoke very little Arabic, and I was worried that I was doing something wrong and wouldn’t be able to communicate with him. I walked back to him and asked, “Shou?” with a concerned expression on my face. He nudged a guy (not in uniform) that was leaning against the wall next to him and laughed, then said something in Arabic that I didn’t understand. I repeated, “Shou?” but this time with an intonation that said I did not hear him. He repeated and laughed louder, while looking up and down my legs and raising his eyebrows at me. At this point, I realized he was making comments about my legs. I was utterly confused. It was the first time I was being spoken to in such a way by a police officer, a man who was hired to protect people like myself on their way to school on this particular day due to impending chaos. I shook my head in frustration and walked away while the two men laughed, and I heard the officer calling to another officer nearby and talking about me.

Another incident occurred on my way home from university one evening. Every day and night I took the same road to university and back home, passing the same construction site with the same construction workers. Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed a man with glossy black eyes staring at me every time I passed. Twice he began to follow me, but never left the area near the construction site. After the second time, I decided to change routes, though the new route was longer. One evening around 6:30pm after a hard day in classes, I forgot about the new route and took the old shortcut by the construction site. The street was unusually clogged with cars and motorcycles, leaving no room to cross the street. I was forced to keep walking on the sidewalk, which was being blocked by several construction workers on their breaks. As I slowly came nearer to them, they turned and faced me, and I saw the leader of the pack was the man with glossy black eyes.  The man roughly pushed the other two men out of the way in order to open the path for me to walk through. I cautiously walked through, paying attention to avoid eye contact at all costs. Though as I was between them, they started to close in on me and whispered, “Shou tayyib ya helwe” (How delicious, my pretty) and various other sweet nothings. I hurried past them and found a place to cross the street, and I turned my head around to see that the three men were following me. I knew, and they knew, that once I crossed that busy street, I would be in a quiet and empty alleyway. While in between cars, I opened my backpack’s side pocket, grabbed my knife, and held it in my fist. I held my fist down behind me so that no one walking in front of me would see the knife, but the three men behind me could. I felt confident in myself, and I knew that if they continued to pursue me, I would have no emotional trouble in stabbing them. They didn’t follow me up the alleyway.

I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve managed to get out of situations before they got sticky. However, that doesn’t exclude me from bearing the burden of responsibility. Though I’ve never been raped, I know other women who have been raped. Though I’ve never been raped, I know there are other women who continue to be raped today. Though I’ve never been raped, it is part of my responsibility to do what I can to prevent it from continuing to tomorrow. I’m not sharing my stories to ask for pity. I went through nothing. I’m sharing my stories to show you that even someone who has been through nothing has experienced enough to be able to know her responsibility. All of us have experienced enough to know.

Lebanon is not a progressive country. It does not have a great system of laws or law enforcement in place. When women get raped, they have few options. I’m sure you’ve heard stories on the news of honor killings. This still happens in some parts of the South. The family of the girl will kill her, as she is no longer pure after being raped. This is not very common, though. The main option a woman has is to go to the police. To start, rape is only counted as a legitimate crime if the penis penetrates the vagina, meaning that any other sort of sexual attack, whether it be harassment, anal penetration, oral penetration, etc. does not get punished. If the woman has been “legitimately” raped, she must go to the police within enough time for there to be enough evidence for their high standards. Most women who get raped don’t go to the police, because such a large percentage of women who do end up getting raped by the police officers as well, because “they’re no longer pure.” If, somehow, a woman gets raped, she goes to the police, she gets the evidence documented, she finds the rapist, and she goes to court, the rapist will be absolved of his crimes if he marries the victim. That’s right, if the rapist marries his victim, he will not go to jail. That also means that husbands are free to rape (and abuse) their wives.

In my literary theory course last semester, we were discussing Judith Butler’sGender Troubles. A big, burly guy in the class made some sort of rude comment then gave “support” by using a rape joke, which everyone laughed at. My friend and I immediately shot our hands up to respond. We attempted to reason with him about how inappropriate rape jokes are, how it perpetuates rape culture, and so on. Our professor, a liberal, American, New Yorker agreed with us, though he initially tried to stick to calming everyone down. Class ended way too soon. As the big guy was leaving the room, he shouted at us, “You elitists! How dare you call me out like that in class, as if I was a rapist!” We were shocked by his red-faced reaction, and he left before we could respond. As we were leaving the building together, furiously whispering to each other, one of the other men from our class walked by us and said, “You shouldn’t make such a big deal about it. This is Lebanon. Get used to it. Rape is funny.” That night we e-mailed our professor about the incidents after class, and he responded with support, saying he would bring it up at the next session. The war on this topic ended up lasting two sessions. Finally at the end when I could no longer bear it, I nearly cried and strained my voice at the class, saying, “Every single one of you knows someone who has been raped. There are no exceptions. When someone you know has been through something so traumatic, how could you possibly find it appropriate to joke about it? What if your mother or your sister had been raped?” No one responded. In fact, while I spoke with such emotion, the two men who commented previously looked at their watches, put their heads down on their desks, and closed their eyes. Class ended, and I ran to the bathroom and cried, as I thought of my close friends who had been raped and how I was doing this for them. That night I told my mother about what happened, and she became angry with me. “Are you trying to change the world here? This is too big for you to fight! You can’t change a system; this is the way the world is. You’re only going to get yourself hurt! These guys are going to get mad at you if you get them in trouble and maybe they’ll try to rape you! Why would you want to pursue something so trivial as this?” The semester ended before we could get some real action taken. The chair of the department sat in our class on the third day of the war to observe the two male students’ behaviors and reactions to the conversation, but one of them didn’t even show up. We did, however, upon my friend’s insistence, approach the guy who told the rape joke when we found him smoking a cigarette on campus. He listened to my friend try to reason with him more respectfully, without having so many eyes on him, but in the end he still believed that comedy was necessary to “remove taboos.” I don’t think he knows what that even means. I felt like we lost, but in a way I was proud that we at least tried, at the expense of having the whole class gossip about us and distrust us. We didn’t like them anyway.

Just yesterday, though, I joined a fiction-writing course for the new semester. The professor of this course was obviously of the same English department as the professor of the literary theory course. When this writing professor gave out the syllabus, he explained the things he will not accept in the class. One of those things, to my surprise, was voyeuristic rape scenes. He said it was unnecessary to describe “violence as sex” in order to appeal to readers, as it perpetuated rape culture. He clarified that his ban does not mean rape cannot be talked about, in fact he said that it should be talked about, but that it should be done in a way that emphasizes the traumatic aspect of it, rather than the graphic voyeuristic aspect of it. It was the first time in all of my years taking English and writing courses at this university that a professor clarified such a point. Maybe by speaking up and sticking to our beliefs, my friend and I were able to make a different in this university’s department. Maybe that will affect the students of the department, and their friends, and their friends. Maybe the small effort we made in one class was worth the small price. Maybe rape culture won’t be something women are expected to “get used to” in Lebanon anymore.