07 June 2007

The Performance of Foreign Identity

I have been thinking a lot this week about an artist that Miss Carousel wrote about recently named Marina Abramovic. Miss C explained that Abramovic set 72 objects out and told the audience they could use them as they wished on her. Items included paint, glue, and a loaded gun. Miss C wrote, “… it revealed the power dynamics around bodies that are often covered or unspoken, yet delimit women's lives. The power dynamic between the artist as a willing passive object for the audience began as subtle, playful exchange and became aggressive behavior that eventually ‘required’ intervention from other audience members who ‘got’ what was going on.” What makes me happy about this is that Abramovic is still alive. This is because although people will quite often put the gun to her head, total strangers in the audience are willing to stand up to a person with a weapon and speak out against violence. What intrigues me about this is that Abramovic reveals the extent to which we broker our own power every day with every person with whom we come into contact. Once we allow ourselves to become “willing passive object[s]” we give others the power to kill us, or to let us die. By putting an event like this in a performance venue, Abramovic forces people to confront their complicity both in ignoring suffering and contributing to happiness. But when these events are not part of a public performance somehow our role becomes invisible. And that is what has stuck with me. The objects in her performance are not from another world; they are common and surround us constantly. Thus, we all occupy the somewhat terrifying role she does in her performance. In other words, we are all featured in this very performance all the time. Is she ultimately arguing that people who are willing, passive objects are more likely to incur pain?

Before reading about Abramovic I was struggling to understand my experiences as a foreigner. Once I realized that it is a performance just as Abramovic’s, I began to wrestle with my own agency in an effort to avoid feeling like a passive object. Initially, being a foreigner made me into a person who empathized with furniture. I know very well what it is like to be installed in a room so people can come and look at me, criticize my appearance, and pronounce judgment on me all while I am mute. But this was largely my fault. If I am to be that passive, it is a matter of time before someone puts a gun to my head. And this is where my performance finally deviates from Abramovic’s; I learned far too late into this that I am in a performance, and that I have a role that is actually distinguishable from the role of an armchair.

This is important because I realized back in January that I needed to contest the way I was being hyper-sexualized. Ironically, the most sex-less year in my adult life has been steeped in near-constant discussion of sex. In fact, I now believe that as an American associated with the circle of people that I am, my sexuality is a gloss for my national identity. It is not a role I am interested in performing for the very conservative people I know here, and yet it is a role they seem to insist I occupy. It isn’t vicious on their part. They are doing the best they can to understand me based on the limited knowledge they have about American women, but I find it exhausting.

In the past few months I have adopted a strategy that I’ve found to be very effective at shutting these uncomfortable discussions down. I simply turn their words or actions back on them. For example, one very religious man I know here seems to be obsessed with the fact that I live in Jordan and my husband lives in California. He never misses an opportunity to tell me that I am responsible for ruining my family. About 2 months ago he told me one evening that my husband is certainly having sex with a lot of women because I am not with him. I told him it only seemed fair to me since I was also having sex with a lot of women here in Jordan. He got absolutely saucer-eyed, and backed out of the room. He did not speak to me for a month. When he finally did we had a wonderful discussion about cars, and sex has not been brought up since. Simply telling him that I didn’t want to discuss my sex life was not sufficient. It was only when I equated my desire for sex with his assumptions about my husbands desire for sex that he understood my willingness to embarrass him by acknowledging that I’m a sexual being. By making the performance as uncomfortable for him as it had been for me, the whole thing concluded and now we have “normal” conversations about food or politics or soccer. Another example: women here will constantly adjust my clothing to cover my arms or neck more thoroughly. One time a woman started to push my bangs out of my face. As she did so she told me that this was better because with hair in my face I looked like a prostitute. I asked her to stop touching my hair, but she continued. I reached around her and began to pull her hijab off. She shrieked and let go of me to plant her hands on her head. I told her she’d be more comfortable if she just took off her hijab, and that she looked like a child with it on. She stared very intensely at me for a long time, and then said simply, “ok, I understand now.” Consensus reached!

For a while I thought it was just me, but it is not. I had an interesting discussion with B, a Canadian who is here for several weeks as a volunteer teacher. She was invited by a friend/co-worker to East Amman for the weekend. B’s co-worker said something along the lines of, “I want my friends and family to meet you because you’re a Canadian who is actually moral!” Again, here is the performance of nationality, and it collides uncomfortably with sexuality. I wonder if B’s friend could imagine B saying to her, “I want you to come to B.C. and meet my friends and family because I want them to meet a Muslim who doesn’t want to kill westerners, ahey?” B is amazing and seems to have held her own. A few days with a Jordanian family means lots of great food, lots of laughter and coffee, and no sleep. She was grilled by friends and family about her personal life, and perhaps in that time she showed them that it is no more reasonable to assume that all westerners are “immoral” than it is to assume that all Muslims are suicide bombers. We have so much to learn about each other.

But the common thread here is sexuality. This is the one currency in which we all deal, albeit quite differently.

I’ve been having an argument with a friend here about a minimum age for marriage. He argues that it is ok to marry “a girl” as long as she has had her period, even if she is 9 years old, for example. I strongly disagree. What I realize from this discussion is that to my friend, a Woman is defined by her ability to give birth. To me, a woman is a female person who has either a certain level of education or sufficient tacit cultural knowledge such that she can make intelligent decisions about her own destiny. There is no way a 9 year old would qualify as a Woman in my world. But, of course that would be my definition, I have no children. By my friend’s definition, I’m not really a woman. No wonder everyone here needs to discuss my sex life. I am a foreign woman who harbors the threat of a foreigner’s sexuality, and yet I’m not quite a woman. Sometimes I know that men here just want to talk about sex with me. But sometimes I think that, at least among my conservative friends, the constant discussion about my sexuality is their way of contesting my perceived asexuality, something that may be more threatening than foreign sexuality.

Additionally, for the women I know here, discussions about sexuality provide them the means to demonstrate to me that they are not children. Further, if we just discuss “sexuality” they are avoiding discussing The Act directly, thus preserving their modesty while simultaneously demonstrating their maturity. I understand that often when we discuss Sexuality we are really discussing Sex, but I think it’s not important to harbor on this with them. The ways in which women here broker their sexuality/gender identity is really ingenuous even though it has often been directed at insulting me. But among my friends consensus is important, and it is achieved by argument. When I fail to engage in the argument I am often demoted to Child Status, thus further throwing into conflict my Identity. The insults are intended, most of the time, to provoke me to behave as an adult. This is why I stand behind my policy of mimicking their actions and words as I already described.

Ironically, if I’ve earned any Respect here, it has not been from wearing hijab as advertised. It has stemmed from arguing and saying provocative things. Perhaps even more ironic, in the end I’ve had to talk about sex a lot to get people to stop talking about sex. In doing this, I figure I’m feeding the stereotypes many people here have about sex-obsessed westerners. And this is the part I don’t like. My friends are right to adamantly contest the association of Violence with Islam, yet I do not understand how I can contest the conflation of Sex with American Female and retain Adult Status. My best guess at this time is that I should just keep showing up for dinner and demonstrate that I can be here and not have sex with men (or women!), and that I don’t think people here want to kidnap and kill me.

And maybe this is what effective activism looks like.


Blogger Miss Carousel said...

you're my hero.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Something is going on about definitions and established roles of women/men, as well those of adults/children. And these two relationships are further confounded by the cultural differences between your western sensibility about what constitutes a child vs. adult, and what constitutes a woman vs. man, and how your understanding differs from the way Jordanians see these relationships and roles.

Then there’s the choice you make about how to react. You can take the polite western response of being passive in the face of judgments: it would be “impolite” to take offense when none is intended. Or, you can adopt what seems to be the Jordanian attitude: you can claim the prerogative of an adult by objecting to perceived insults. You can insist on defining your own identity on your own terms.

No wonder you find it exhausting to untangle these issues. You’ve moved from a culture where people understand and accept your identity within that cultural context, to another culture where those definitions differ greatly. It must be particularly difficult to do so when the role of women in Jordan seems to be mostly as sexual objects – to bear children, and to care for the men.

But the positive element that you didn’t mention is the willingness of Jordanians to actually listen to you, and to consider what you say when you question their unwritten cultural rules. I have been amazed as you have related numerous incidents in which – when confronted with your interpretation of their attitudes and behavior – the Jordanian person will react thoughtfully. The woman who said, “Ok, I understand now”, was reacting in a way unimaginable to many Americans when her core values were called into question.

In Jordan, reaching consensus doesn’t require that one party change their opinion; it does mean each party respects the other’s opinion. Welcome to Jordan,

9:49 PM  
Blogger Ayman said...

I do sympathize. Jordanians can be judgmental in a confrontational sort of way, even when they mean well. Gossip and preying on personal details seems like a national pass time.

I am curious though, have you tried to say no? Could allowing these discussions be encouraging even more probing? Is it part of you wanting to fit in? Sorry if my questions are “too personal!”

Quoting weeping sore:

"No wonder you find it exhausting to untangle these issues. You’ve moved from a culture where people understand and accept your identity within that cultural context, to another culture where those definitions differ greatly. It must be particularly difficult to do so when the role of women in Jordan seems to be mostly as sexual objects – to bear children, and to care for the men."

How typical and how UNTRUE!

Yes the methods by which people judge here are much more refined than in Jordan, for example. But the underlying tunes are quite similar. That is if you look beneath all the protective layers.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Frances Goodman فرانسيس said...

Hi Ayman,
I have said No to the personal questions. That's easy enough and acceptable. The hard part for me are the comments made about me in front of me. Ignoring this, or asking them to khlass has not been effective at all.
I think there is no way I can "fit in" here for a variety of reasons, so I'm trying to find a balance between being respectful to my friends and keeping my sanity.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Martha in Michigan said...

Frances, you are doing such a public service by sharing your experiences and your analyses of them. Reading your blog makes me feel as if I am in a sociology class, for all the detail and nuance offered. You are a careful observer and a thoughtful reporter. I have enjoyed "listening in" as you have tried to crack the code of very different societies.

I agree with WS that the woman's "OK, I understand" was an ideal (and unexpected?) response. Good for her! And how nice that you are encouraging personal growth in others while you invite it for yourself. I feel encouraged at the possibility for cross-cultural understanding, even as I despair of it happening on a wider than one-on-one basis.

10:41 PM  

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