20 May 2008

I’m from Seattle

Years ago (or maybe it was just a few months ago…) I worked at Starbucks. Though I worked in SoCal it didn’t take long before we noticed this funny habit some customers had. Once in a while someone would come in and order the most ridiculous drink we’d ever heard of. Figuring that the customer just had no idea what s/he was ordering, we would suggest what we thought they might have meant. “Oh, did you want the whatever? That’s similar [but not nearly as nasty or stupid],” to which the customer would reply: “I’m from Seattle.” Initially I had no idea what the heck this had to do with ordering a stupid drink, but over time I came to understand it was a short hand intended to tell me that they knew good and well what they were ordering because they are from the birthplace of Starbucks, and therefore had a much more in-depth history with espresso drinks than my little brain could possibly understand. It became a joke among those of us who worked there. If a co-worker demanded an explanation for something, we could opt out completely by just saying, “I’m from Seattle!” In essence, history becomes authority and excuses the speaker from needing to explain anything.

Now, the version of this that dominates my life is “Look, I’m Palestinian.”

This year at school I’ve noticed a lot more muhajabees than we’ve ever had in this conservative part of California. Over the winter I went for coffee and stood in line with a woman who had the worst 7ijab I’ve ever seen. No stranger myself to wearing one, I giggled when I saw her (and mentally apologized to her). She had a too-small scarf placed around her head, and a big plastic comb (like a big plastic lobster claw) stuck to the top of her head barely keeping the thing on. She looked not only self-conscious, but like she just decided that day over her lunch hour to begin wearing the 7ijab and looked around her office and made due with what she had on hand. I know the look of a woman who is not used to wearing that, I’ve seen it in my own eyes.

Coincidently I’m sitting in on a class on the Qur’an. Not coincidently, many of these young women and their male counterparts are also in the class. I figured this would present an interesting opportunity for me to get an explanation about why there are so many more women wearing the 7ijab now. The professor, a Sunni Muslim from Indonesia (who speaks and writes Arabic really, really well), initially made a good go at keeping the class secular and focused. But as the weeks have passed, the class has also become a platform by which the Muslim students can have affirmed for themselves that, Yes, they do know the Truth, and do practice the True Religion. Each class is full of great ethnographic moments.

Let me share with you some vignettes:

Vignette 1, from guest speaker Dr. E:
“Islam is a religion of peace. In order to understand your religion you have to step back and suspend some of your own beliefs so that you can challenge yourself. If you can do this you will see, through study, that Islam is the Right Path. Those who challenge the existence of God are literalists, and we can’t talk to them, they have no ability to understand… Political ideologies are based on rejection; religious ideologies are based on peace.”

Notes I took:
“[N.B. some dumb white girl brought a dog to class! She brought a dog to class!] All the Muslims students are nodding emphatically. Dr. E seems to be arguing that facts are necessary, but only to a very limited point…”

Later I was looking over some of my field notes. This day in class was not the first time I was told that I needed to suspend some of my beliefs to understand the peaceful message of Islam. I was intrigued though out my fieldwork with the ways in which the message was homogenized. Here is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with a self-defined Salafi Palestinian in February 2007.
“Islam is not a religion of violence! It is a religion of peace. You know when we talk about Jesus, we know he is a prophet, and we have to say ‘Peace be upon him’! We respect the People of the Book [Muslims, Jews, Christians]… Islam is a challenge from God, and if we don’t study we will not understand what Allah wants us to live as. It takes knowledge, and we must study. We have to sit outside of ourselves and try to understand the message. We can’t do it if we don’t study and talk with each other! If, y3anee, if you don’t try and learn you will never hear the Truth.”

The key here is that Islam is not easy to understand, it takes work and skill. So, if we think we understand Islam, then we may congratulate ourselves for also being good students. Props come from working to understand the challenge of religious knowledge. Smart people are Muslims.

Vignette 2, from the lecture about sexuality in the Qur’an:
Notes I took from the lecture:
“The Q reformed, but did not replace the existent patriarchic Arab system.
Miriam is the only female mentioned in the Q.
(Q 4:11) Sons get twice as much inheritance as daughters.
7adiths are more specific about sexuality and family than the Q.
Nikah: marriage is done between a groom and a female’s guardian.
No more limitless marriages, the Q limits a man to 4 wives.
(Q 2:223) ‘…go into your fields whenever you want…’”
Prof A: “This is the verse in the Q that some interpret to mean that men can do what they want to their wives, but through 7adiths and convention [?] we know this does not condone violence or rape against women.”
Student: “Well, why is violence against women prevalent in Arab culture?”
A.H. [female, muhajabee, Palestinian]: “Can I say something? It isn’t, you know? There are governments that are corrupt, or what ever, but, like, that doesn’t happen that much. You know? I mean, it [domestic violence] happens here [in the States] too, you know?”
Student: “I’m not saying anything against your culture, but I feel like it happens more in Muslim culture, but I don’t know really.”
Prof A: “Ok, any other questions? Or can we move on?”
Student: “Do women get 4 husbands?”
Student 2 [Saudi-born Palestinian male]: “Oh, I’d like to answer that one. [giggles] No way, man. And, the reasons are many. First of all, it’s important to know who the father [of potential children] is, and, I mean, if she’s with different men there are no way to know. Also, it’s for her health.”
Me: “What?!?”
S2: “Yeah, you know.”
Me: “[yes, I do know you pervert] No, I don’t know. Explain it to me.”
S2: “You know, she can’t satisfy that many men, you know what I mean?”
This degenerated into a discussion about my vaginal health. I found this nothing but offensive. Said S2, quite exasperated with me: “Look, all I know is that it’s from God, and that’s all I need to know, ok?”
In the interest of disclosure, I find the obsessive focus on women’s sexuality quite offensive. In a subsequent discussion about rape and patriarchy several of the muhajabee students defended the Saudi legal decision a few months ago that punished a female victim of rape more harshly than her rapists. I will say in their defense that the female students had a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts of the case (making them good Americans), and had a version of it that implicated the Saudi woman more than she should have been. When I expressed horror at their ease at publicly defending rape, they deployed their best defense: I don’t understand the religion, and I’m probably racist any way. Plus I’ve never been to the Middle East [interesting what they assume about me], so how could I understand the culture?

Vignette 3, in which we watched the first 40 minutes of Paradise Now:
[We watched up until the two Palestinians make their martyr videos.]
A.H. (you remember her from above): “You guys, I just want to say that you all need to go there, because that totally looked like Filisteen [unaware that it was Nablus], and that’s totally what it’s like there [violence].”
Non-Arab Student: “How come, do you guys think, they go for the weak people like that? I mean, that sucks that they recruit people like that. I guess they have nothing to loose, it is an occupation, but it seems like a terrible thing that these men are left with that.”
S2 (from above): “You have to understand it IS an occupation, and this is what they have to fight with. I’m not saying it’s ok to go and do that, but those guys, what do they have? They were, like, mechanics, or whatever. You know?”
A.H.: “Ok, you guys, I just want to say that I’m Palestinian, and that’s just what it’s like for our people, you know?”
Another student: “No!”
Sunni-Iraqi male student: “It’s no different that how a certain country that will not be named works. You know, within that country they give cash and bonuses to people if they agree to join the army and go to war, and this is the same thing [alluding to the scene in which a man assures the two Palestinians that their family will be safe and compensated?].”
A.H.: “Wow, I never thought of it like that.”
S2: “I’m Palestinian too, and it’s true, you guys, you don’t know what it’s like there.”

They’re from Seattle:
I realized that the reason I think there are so many more students who wear 7ijab or are willing to grow beards is because they are done apologizing for Islam, and they are going to be Muslims, or Iraqis or Palestinians damn it! What I like about the reactions from the Muslim students is that they, simply by being Arab (all Palestinians save one Iraqi and one Egyptian) own the authority to speak about these issues. There is one Arab female in the class who is Coptic, and yet even she came to class a few weeks ago wearing a Muslim Student Union shirt. [Incidentally, the same students who wear the MSU shirts alternate days with their Students for Justice in Palestine shirts, and that’s why I’m using Muslim and Palestinian practically interchangeably.] And, on one hand I’m so glad about this. It’s about time Arabs/Muslims feel free to live here and that they don’t have to go around day after day giving the ajnabees the “Islam is a religion of peace… We wept on 9/11 too” speech. I like that, as we saw in the first vignette, they create what I call a Cognitive Community; they are a religious group of people who have to be smart enough to know that they have the best group in town. And, it’s about time they feel free to turn to me in class and call any of us out if they think we’re racist, or we don’t understand Islam. I think more changed while I was away last year than I realized at first, and for the most part it’s better.

On the other hand, it’s too easy to look at me and declare that “You don’t understand our religion, and I think you’re racist.” What am I supposed to say to that? No, I’m not? Instead of trying to understand what I’m arguing, I’m written off; I’m shut down because I’m not Palestinian. And just as I used to make fucked up drinks for Seattleites, I just nod and take furious ethnographic notes in this class. I worry that the boldness these students have today will quickly fade if it’s not refined into something more sophisticated than “you guys, I’m Palestinian, and it’s totally like that there.”

On May 15th, the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, people were supposed to blog about Palestinians. All I could think of that day was how pissed off I was at that 19 year old Palestinian dude in my class who thinks his penis is tougher than my vagina. I didn’t want to blog about that, though I did consider it at first. And while I am glad that more people feel daring enough to assert their Arab-ness, I’m also frustrated. A.H. is going to see American Idol this week, but I don’t understand her religion?


Blogger Weeping Sore said...

I'm from the same planet, and I'm here with a message to deliver you from these people who judge you. The following deeply profound quote comes from last night's episode of the Simpsons, where sooner or later, all human mysteries are explained:
"I have a question for you - you're stupid!"

9:23 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home