A response to Nick Kristof

Posted: June 23, 2012 in Middle East

A Response to Kristof


Recently, Nick Kristof wrote a piece on Iran entitled: In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun (link here). Here is a response where the tables are turned and the perspective is a Middle Eastern journalist visiting the US.


In America, they want values, values, values

One of the most pernicious misunderstandings in the Middle East about America is that they are loose, value-less fanatics.

However, on my trips to America, I am often struck by how so many of them share our Middle Eastern values of friendliness and hospitality. They aren’t all about drinking, sex, and generally wasting time doing immoral acts. They are actually serious, cultured, and often nice.

“Young people don’t just have sex all the time while drunk,” said a 23-year-old man in eastern USA, cheerfully exaggerating. “We also want to do other things, like read.” He said he reads, and until recently, even attempted reading some of the more critical news material. American officials have suggested that at least 10% of the population reads, usually media pieces but sometimes even actual books.

This man was detained and jailed for reading critical news material, and beaten for several days. That made him realize the extent of the American police state, and now, like many other Americans, he just wants to go abroad—preferably to the Middle East, where he has heard amazing values & morals exist.

You wouldn’t think that a native Middle Easterner like myself could be made to blush in New York, but I was taken aback by how many Americans were nothaving sex constantly with anyone in any place.

Remember that America is the homeland not only of rampant sex, zero morality, and the utter lack of values, but also of amazing authors such as Steinbeck and Woolf. This shows that there is some hope for Americans to return to that kind of a lifestyle—the kind we in the Middle East can approve of. Americans are now rebelling against the corrupt and immoral way of life, sometimes even embracing personal freedoms such as being polite and not only thinking about one’s self all the time.

Americans often look quite warmly on the Middle East, which is quite natural. I come to America, and people hand me gifts! They just want to be like us. They realize how civilized and advanced we are, and just don’t understand why their own country is not the same.

Although Middle Eastern rulers see America as crazed fanatics, many of the young people are changing and becoming more like us. My road trip across America has left me convinced that if we just let the Americans develop (although they’re moving very slowly) then things will be just fine, and one day they’ll be just like us.

I think of a young man I met who said wistfully: “It’s normal for young people to want education, culture, and community. What’s wrong with that?” The romantics are on our side, and far outnumber the crazed immoral ones. We should bet on them, not bombs, as agents of change.

Colonialism exists  — it blinds and deafens. Watch TEDxFlanders – Olivia U. Rutazibwa – Decoloniser

By Comrade Sara Salem

Yesterday I visited the Mesquita in Cordoba, Andalusia. For some historical background:

The site was originally a pagan temple, then a Visigothic Christian church, before the Umayyad Moors converted the building into a mosque and then built a new mosque on the site. After the Spanish Reconquista, it became a Roman Catholic church, with a plateresque cathedral later inserted into the centre of the large Moorish building. The Mezquita is regarded as the one of the most accomplished monuments of Islamic architecture.

The Cordoba Mesquita is most famously known of as a Mosque, since that is where most of its current architectural form comes from. Unfortunately, Muslims today are not allowed to pray in the Mesquita.

Muslims across Spain are lobbying the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the complex, with the Islamic Council of Spain lodging a formal request with the Vatican. However, Spanish church authorities and the Vatican oppose this move. These battles over the mosque/cathedral reflect the contested view of what constitutes Spanish history and Spanish identity.

Although the building functions as a Church, many Muslims feel that they should be able to pray inside, as it is one of the major hallmarks of Islamic history.

When I entered the Mesquita yesterday, I suddenly felt a strong wave of emotions…a mix of sadness, awe, and nostalgia. The Mesquita reminded me strongly of other mosques, such as the Sultan Ahmet in Istanbul and the Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo. Wide spaces, endless arches, warm colours. But also a feeling of being inside a place of worship.

I also felt anger. Anger that Muslims were not allowed to pray there anymore. That our civilization had produced such amazing monuments and such an astounding civilization, and yet today were struggling for survival in many senses. But above all, anger at the way history was being told. History is always told by the victors, and the Mesquita (and Andalusia in general) is no exception. It is through Eurocentric framing that we are seeing the history of Muslims in Spain. The Mesquita tours speak of the Muslim invasion and domination, which is debatable. But it also speaks of the European influences in the Mesquita, and rarely the Islamic ones. This re-writing of history is painful. It denies Islamic contributions to civilization; it makes it seem as if we have never contributed, never produced, never had autonomy. It’s as if they want to say: Muslims could not have built this themselves. It reinforces all-too-familiar narratives of Muslim backwardness.

But then I asked myself: why am I so angry? Why is this painful? Conquest and expansion means that mosques were turned into churches, and that churches were turned into mosques. So what? But I think what made it so emotional was the fact that not much has changed since then. It is arguable that European expansion began in Andalusia with the Reconquest. That is when the world dramatically changed. Until today, we continue to live under Eurocentric paradigms of thought, behaviour, and norms.

The Mesquita is a concrete example of European colonialism, that reminded me of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Palestine. That reminded me of the debates in Europe over whether Muslims should be able to practice their faith. It reminds me of the daily struggle of being, when being is defined by knowledges that are not our own. It reminds me of the constant struggle between imperialist hegemony that Muslims continue to face, while trying to recover and reconstitute our own forms of knowledge (that now seem beyond reach because they have become intertwined with imperialist knowledge).

The Mesquita was a concrete example of what I feel on most days, when I think of imperialism, of Eurocentrism, of the struggle of the oppressed everywhere. The re-telling of history according to certain narratives and how painful this is for people on the wrong side. The tension between sensing that this isn’t what history is, but being constantly told that this is what happened.

This is not to say that Muslims haven’t conquered or expanded. This is not to say that the Mesquita should be turned back into a mosque. This post is merely a subjective view (from someone from the Middle East) on how Eurocentrism continues to shape the way we understand the world, and that until we can make and put forward our own narratives, until imperial wars in the Middle East & Muslim world end, until we are able to form our own politics and economics, historical monuments that represent Western expansion will continue to be painful reminders of when it all began.

By Comrade Hayoun

In the midst of the euphoric hot mess that was North Africa in early 2011,Moroccanrap phenomenon El-Haqed — Arabic for the outraged composed a song that became an anthem of the country’s democracy movement, entitled No More Silence.

The song addresses the economic injustice and systematic humiliation of Morocco’s poor by its elite ruling class, referred to in the Moroccan Arabic vernacular as makhzen, the equivalent of the U.S.’ 1%.

The chorus:

If the people want life, Then they stand up to defend their rights. No more silence! They exploit our wealth and leave the crumbs for us While many freedom fighters died on our behalf.

For many in Morocco’s February 20th democracy movement, rap is the quintessential vehicle of rebellion.

“El-Haqed chose a form of creation that is essentially a protest in itself. He sings in a very urban language, very accessible. He incarnated his words in a way that’s very clear,” said Maria Karim, a documentarian in El-Haqed’s entourage.

Rap — largely due to its accessibility and innate force— has become a revolutionary anthem in many parts of the Middle East, North Africa region. In the aftermath of Tahrir,Egyptian rap ensemble Revolutionary Records has produced songs like Kazeboon (Lies), with lyrics targeting the misdeeds of the military junta that replaced the three-decade dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Tunisians are said to have revolted “to the tune” of rap by El General, who sang out against 23-year dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The Moroccan government seems to agree that rap is too subversive for public consumption.

Almost a year after Western presses hailed Moroccan King Mohammed’s efforts to rewrite the constitution to better respond to the democracy movement’s demand for free expression, a Casablanca court sentenced El-Haqed to one year in prison last week for “insulting authorities.”

Chief among the evidence brought against El-Haqed was a YouTube video for his song Dog of the State that he says he was not involved in producing. The video featured a Photoshoped image of a policeman with a donkey head. 

El-Haqed’s cohort Maria Karim is on borrowed time, trying to distribute the rapper’s music to avoid an ironic ending to his call for No More Silence.

On June 7th, Karim will face her own court date for insulting the prosecution representing the state against El-Haqed, calling its lawyer “pathetic.”

“Mouad doesn’t know Photoshop,”Karim said, explaining her comment regarding the prosecution’s allegations that El-Haqed created the YouTube video that led to his arrest, “When we produce any song or video, we sign it. This wasn’t signed.”

Karim said that she’s “making good use of the time before her trial” by acting as El-Haqed’s disciple. She has distributed some 2,000 copies of El-Haqed’s songs since his initial arrest and four-month imprisonment in September, and she plans to produce four of El-Haqed’s unreleased works and distribute them online, via YouTube.

“I want the voice of El-Haqed to resound even bigger than the sound,” she said, “I have started to work, little by little, to make them regret having arrested El-Haqed.”

Karim first met El-Haqed in February 2011, at the beginning of Morocco’s own movement, when she decided to film the rallies for a documentary.

“I was at a rally with a camera, and he just wandered in front of me. He rapped, and I looked at him like a weirdo. It was magnificent,” Karim said. Shortly after, Karim started filming El-Haqed and his entourage, focusing her documentary on their musical activism.

She started living with his family, in his neighborhood, intimately connecting with his past. 

El-Haqed, born Mouad Belghouati, is a 24-year-old from Oukacha, a neighborhood in Casablanca that Karim says is known for its confluence of opposite extremes: Fervent religiosity in the daylight, and drugs and delinquency at night.

The neighborhood is also known for thelocal prison where El-Haqed is now incarcerated.

Karim is attempting to collect one million photos of people holding signs saying “Free L7a9ed” (the alphanumeric way of writing El-Haqed) before her court date on June 7th. You can email her your photo at FreeMouad@gmail.com.

The lawyer who took on El-Haqed’s case pro-bono, is also ready to continue the fight for El-Haqed.

“I am defending liberty of expression [by continuing to fight] this case,” said Omar Bendjelloun, El-Haqed’s lawyer.

“We are going to fight, especially at the court of appeals, to plead for his innocence and the idea that a state, a political regime, needs to allow any form of expression, however contradictory and sensitive it may be.”

This is actually the photo chosen by El Tahawy to illustrate her article. The iconic image for the Blue Bra revolution

By Comrade Ghomaria

Since the publication of Mona Eltahawy’s article Why do They Hate Us, dozens of responses have been written, nearly all of which avoid the central issue: women suffering.

Arguments focus on the article itself — the framing, the language of publication, the media outlet in which it was published. Some harp on the accuracy of the word “hate”. Some ask why she brought this issue up for non-Arab readers. Some ask why she decries the aftermath of revolutions that have given the region more hope.

Why are we avoiding the actual issue of women’s rights in the MENA region?

I was especially disappointed by Dalia Mogahed’s response — an opinion piece on an opinion piece by a “senior analyst at Gallup”. When one reads “Gallup” on an article, one immediately expects statistics, facts. Instead I read unfounded, essentialist theories on how Western, neoliberal advocacy should appproach MENA women.

At least Eltahawy did not call for Western advocacy. She raised some issues Arab women face, and I, as an Arab woman, liked to see some of the oppressions I am enduring in my country detailed unabashadely.

Dear Arab women living in the West, it is hard for women living in Arab countries to denounce the injustices they endure.

Eltahawy’s article was meant to be provocative, to raise a debate in order to find prospects for solutions. In all her justificational interviews, Eltahawy clearly says she does not have the answers. She has also pointed out that the West and neoliberals also don’t have the answers. What she does is point at the problem and provoke.

Women in the Arab world need resources, education, real on-the-ground policies. Not theories or draining debates.

A personal perspective

I would like to offer a personal perspective as a woman who was born and raised in Morocco and just recently moved to the West.

The day the new moudawana (family law) was inscribed into Moroccan law in 2004, Moroccan civil society along with the West lauded Mohammed VI as the king of reform.

The new Family law prohibited girls under 18 from marrying. That law may hold in the cities, but minors still get married in rural areas. Divorce is still difficult to obtain for women, even in the cities, as the justice systme is rife with corruption, and men can easily win their case through bribery.

The West wants to see Morocco as advanced compared to other countries of the MENA region in the area of women’s rights, so the problems with the implementation of this new law have been largely overlooked by the international community.

Eltahawy’s article touched on an incident that shocked many Moroccan men and women: The young Amina Filali was 16 when she decided to eat rat poison, after she was forced to marry her rapists, because her family feared a loss of honor.

An audio reply to Mona’s article by Noura Erakat, mentions the case and Noura claims that Amina’s parents were victim of the law. I urged Noura on her Twitter account to reconsider her point of view as I knew the specifics of the case: Amina’s mother pressured her daughter to marry the criminal because no one would want to marry a girl who has been deflowered. Noura did not respond nor revise her statement.

The reality is Erakat and other critics of Mona reveal that the truth is too unbearable. They seem to say “Let’s not see that our society and some practices of it are bad and wrong. Let’s not face that. Instead, it is easier to blame a law that is part of a colonial legacy. Let’s not critic the people who apply it.”

My response to them is that lately another girl was forced to marry her rapist and she attempted suicide on several occasions. Another girl, aged 14 got raped on several occasions then dropped almost dead at a train station near Temara. Her brother kept her hostage afterwards, blocking any access to her by NGO’s or doctors because he did not want his family’s dishonor to be advertised. So, who is to blame here? What is the common trend in Amina’s case and these last two? Who makes the girls marry? Does the law come to households or are the parents and the family conducting these young girls to what will become their death altar? What do Arab women in the U.S. think?

“Why Do they Hate Us” and Islamophobia:

The other main critic directed towards Mona’s article was that she was encouraging the islamophobic views of the MENA region.

Of course, as an Arab woman living in the West now, I am tired to have to explain that Islam is not about rape or child marriages. I am indeed tired to see misinterpretations of my religion and simplistic arguments. I understand the outrage over bringing up women’s problems to outsiders who look for any excuse to invade “us”. But let’s not be too sensitive and let’s not forget that “we”, as arab women living in the West, need among ourselves to raise the issues affecting our fellow sisters at heart in our original countries. It is much more comfortable for us to bash at a voice we don’t want to hear because we are actually priviledged and we should never forget that, bieng priviledged means we have the responsibility to help those who are not.

That being said, I just wish for Arab women living in the West to do something and never be contempt with what some NGO’s are doing. The West’s help or advocacy is actually the one coming from us living in the West. For that to happen we should more worry about women’s abuses than defending our culture to Western eyes and stop pretending all is fine.

By Comrade Sara Salem

Does this picture actually help Muslim women? Or does it simply reproduce the same orientalist discourse of the eternally oppressed Muslim woman who is covered & treated like trash by her culture/religion/men? Yet again, women’s bodies being used to make a point about the Other.


I have always found it difficult, intellectually, to draw the line between resistance & independence. For example, if one argues that the rise of Islamism and conservatism in the Middle East is a reaction to colonialism, neo-colonialism, and westernization, does this take away all agency from Middle Eastern people to shape their own future? Does this mean that what happens in the Middle East is purely a reaction to outside forces? I have always secretly believed that Islamism IS a reaction to (forced) westernization, but have felt uncomfortable saying it because it almost renders people in the Middle East powerless. It’s like saying, yes we got rid of our colonial powers but they’re pretty much still shaping everything we do. Which is true at many levels (neoliberal capitalism, for example) but is it useful as a generalization?

To take Egypt as an example, it is clear that the past 40-50 years have seen increasing social conservatism, spurred mainly by the rising prominence of Islamism and Islamic organizing. A major reason for why I believe Islamists are reacting to westernization is because of the kinds of discourses they use and the issues they focus on – issues that have basically been used by the west consistently to show how backwards and primitive Muslim societies are. The number one issue here is, of course, WOMEN.

There is nothing new in using women as a cultural battleground.Women have regularly been used as symbols that signify and reproduce nations, cultures and religions; and the norms and values that constitute these. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, they used the status of women (as if it is a homogenous fact) to “prove” how backwards and uncivilized Algerian (read: Muslim) culture was, and therefore justify their civilizing mission. The fact that (some) women were covered, for example, supposedly showed the need for the French to liberate them – a discourse that actually still exists in France today when you see their laws re. the burqa.

The Algerian freedom fighters manipulated this French assumption by using women to carry weapons. Since the French assumed that women were passive, they did not check them thoroughly at checkpoints. This allowed many women to smuggle weapons to the freedom fighters because of a stereotype the French had about them and Algerian cultural in general. So again, we see Algerian men using stereotypes about Algerian women for their own benefit (although one could argue that Algerian independence was a struggle both Algerian men and women supported & fought for).

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s western mainstream media, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims/Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive & modern Europe/America are, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/miniskirts/as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (or have been sucked into another oppressive structure known as capitalism). Not only does this create the discourse of women in the west being “free”, which is far from the truth; it also simultaneously creates the discourse of women who do not look like western women or act like western women as backwards. Once this discourse is created, it is then taken to represent other cultures in general: women in the Middle East cover their hair because they are oppressed by culture/religion/etc.

Campaign poster for a far-right political party in Switzerland, using women’s bodies to delineate civilized Europe from the backwards Muslim world.

Campaign poster for a far-right political party in Switzerland, using women’s bodies to delineate civilized Europe from the backwards Muslim world.

Today we see many Islamists using women as well. Symbols related to gender have started to signify resistance to western imperialism. This is clear in the various discourses they use. Women must be conservative, remain pure and untouched, because they represent the nation in particular and Islam in general. Any laws or movements that are seen as trying to ”liberate” women are usually branded as western and imperialistic, and therefore must be crushed. While it is true that many women’s movements in the ME *are* western and imperial, it is useless to categorize them all this way.

Islamists showing the difference between a veiled woman and an unveiled woman, thus using women & their bodies to make a point about what they see as “Islamic morality.”

Islamists showing the difference between a veiled woman and an unveiled woman, thus using women & their bodies to make a point about what they see as “Islamic morality.”

In both cases, it is not women’s best interests that are at heart. When an American magazine prints a picture of a woman wearing a bikini and reproduces the discourse that the less a woman wears, the more liberated she is, it is not doing this out of a genuine concern for women or women’s issues. Similarly, when an Islamists wants to “protect” women from immoral behaviour and maintain their purity, they are not doing this out of a concern for women, but rather because of bigger religious and national interests/beliefs. Either way, women lose.

We lose because it is always decided for us what liberation or oppression means. It is never a choice. Women who cover their hair in the Netherlands are seen as oppressed by their own culture/religion/men; and women who wear miniskirts in Cairo are seen as oppressed by consumerism and a culture obsessed with women’s bodies & sex. And within these binary discourses, how free are we, as women, to choose what we want to wear, be, think, feel, or do?

This is complicated even more if you are a non-white woman, because then it is not only patriarchal men trying to decide for you and using you to make their point; it is also patriarchal/colonial women (sometimes they even call themselves feminists) who are trying to manipulate and use you. Did Laura Bush *really* want to help Afghan women when she argued that that was one of the primary motivations for invading Afghanistan? Or was she just stupid enough to somehow think that (1) wearing a burqa automatically means you are oppressed and (2) bombing the hell out of you will somehow get read of said oppression? Or is it more likely that she was simply yet another tool used by Empire to achieve their goals; and in the process of her becoming a tool, she in turn used other women – in this case women in Afghanistan (who are of course one homogenous group).

As a woman, you have to always be alert when you hear someone say they want to “liberate” you. Do they really have your best interests at heart? Are they really trying to understand your situation and context? Or is it just another case of someone using women to make a point/justify a war/fulfill some religious commandment?

By Comrade Massoud Hayoun

Just last weekend, I randomly met an Algerian, roughly my parents’ age, in Washington DC’s DuPont Circle. We talked about the recent elections in Algeria and France, about colonialism and its vestiges, and about Warda Al-Jazairia, the most internationally acclaimed Algerian singer.

Even at 73, she was as present in my mind and my iPod as she was many years ago.

“Grace never ages,” my new Algerian friend said, explaining that he had seen her at one of her later concerts, “Warda is our George Clooney. The older she gets, the more beautiful she becomes.”

Today [May 17, 2012], Warda is dead. I listened to her love ballad Batwannis Beek on the subway ride to work this morning. In the afternoon, I found out on Twitter that she had died of cardiac arrest at her home in Cairo.

On the subway ride home, I listened to Ya Khabar — a 43 minute her epic opus that rivals Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum’s Alf Lila W’Lila. There were so many emotions, switches in rhythm, ups and downs – a kind of mourning process.

Writing that last line just now, I realize it is grammatically correct to use the present tense to refer to works of art. In that respect, something of Warda lives on, if only grammatically.

Warda’s music has been the soundtrack to so much of my life. When I was a young boy, sitting on the couch next to my grandmother and her laundry, she would sing along with Warda:

Batwannis Bee-eek, Winta M3ayaaaa (I rejoice in your presence)

Batwannis Beek w’Balai f’Orbak douniaya (I find my world when you are near)

Warda’s voice was a solid lump of honeyed nougat, strong and sweet enough to be a voice for Arabs – strong enough to have left her first husband to pursue a singing career that rivaled Egypt’s greatest artists.

When I was homesick during my days studying abroad and then later reporting in China, I listened to Warda, and I was magically transported home – back to Los Angeles, where I grew up, and even farther back to the North African ghettos in France, where some of my family still lived – and finally back to North Africa. Warda represents a kind of return, even now that she’s dead.

Only more recently, when I started writing about Arab identity and the potential for Arabs to unite for economic progress and respect from the international community, did I reflect on Warda’s importance to the ongoing decolonial and dignity projects in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Warda was born in France to a Lebanese mother and Algerian father. When Algeria’s foundling FLN started the fight to liberate the homeland from French colonial oppression, Warda was a pre-teen, singing anti-colonial songs for a movement that desperately needed a Joan Baez, that needed anthems to raise people above insurmountable injustice and bloodshed.

In the aftermath of France’s crushing exit from a century of exploitation, Warda represented North Africa in a pan-Arabist song that inspired my article, The Coming Arab Identity Crisis, an exploration of the potential for regionalism, as well as ideological and economic cooperation in the post-revolutionary MENA region. In the song Watani Al Akbar (“My Grand Nation”), composed by Egyptian legend Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Warda sings,

My country, and the revolution against colonialism

If we all seek to sacrifice ourselves for you

Colonialism will come to and end

Not in Algeria or Oman…

The revolution will finish tyranny

Only triumph for the Arab people

My beloved nation.

When I learned that Warda had died today I was deeply saddened for the loss not only of a familiar voice and bygone era of classier, more innovative Arab cinematic and musical industry, but also of a strong voice against the institutional subjugation of North Africans by France and various European political parties, an institutional subjugation that continues to exist in so many other forms today. I was saddened by the loss of a voice that sang for Arab unity, albeit problematic at the time — a voice with the weight to drag a region out of a hundred years of degradation.

A friend and colleague said that our only consolation are the songs that remain. I thought I would take this opportunity not only to explain how I rejoiced in Warda’s presence, how I found my world in her voice, but also to encourage you listen to and reconsider Watani Al Akbar once more.

This post originally appeared at Muftah.org