Monday, May 22, 2006

When Time Stood Still

On the evening of May 13, 2006 my father died unexpectedly at home. Although more than a week has now passed, it feels as if time has stood still.

My email is out of reach, I have not checked a blog, even newspapers go unread. The rhythms of daily life have been upended. My own family has relocated to my parents' home hundreds of miles away. My siblings and children bring consolation and joy. Legions of friends and family have offered support through gestures big and small. But there is an enormous hole in our hearts that time has only slowly begun to heal.

I will continue to update this blog and hope to resume daily blogging later this summer. For now however my focus is outside the blogosphere.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Breakfast, savory or sweet?

I'm working on a longer post about some of the backstory to my numerous Middle Eastern adventures but I spent all morning working at the CSA garden and I need a nap.

A friend asked me friday about breakfast in the Middle East. She has been asked to breakfast by an Iranian friend and was surprised by the breakfast items: bread, cheese, tomatos, cucumbers. "No olives?" I asked her. Breakfast in the Middle East is usually savory not sweet. Oh, there might be jam or preserved fruit on the table but those sorts of sweet items are usually reserved for the children. In fact, I've noticed how Americans who insist on sweet things for breakfast earn indulgent smiles from their hosts. Its another small way that so many Americans appear infantilized, like little children who need their sweets.

There's really nothing better for breakfast than fresh flatbread, torn into small pieces and wrapped around salty cheese or olives or dipped into olive oil and then zatar (a spice blend that varies from region to region and house to house). Cucumber and tomatos balance it out. And of course, hot sweet tea.

I remember how during a vacation with my husband on the Mediterranean coast we won over the waiters at the fancy hotel by always selecting the cucumbers, cheese, olives, yogurt, and flat break from the breakfast buffet instead of the "western" choices (pastries, corn flakes, or eggs). They also looked at us approvingly when we drank lemonade or orange juice with every meal instead of alcohol.

Paying attention to little habits and working to blend in rather than stand out with my choices was always a conscious effort when I was living in the Middle East but over the years such things became second nature and began to reshape my subconscious nature in ways that continue to surprise me.

I do serve my children traditional American items for breakfast and generally eat cearal myself. But if it is offered, I will go for the cheese, olives, and cucumbers every time! And maqdous! Someday, there will have to be an entire post about the joys of eating preserved eggplant stuffed with walnuts for breakfast!

Friday, May 12, 2006

New chick!

Yes, I am now part of "Blogging Chicks!," a collection of blogs written by women. Please take a look at the Blogging Chicks blogroll that will now be a part of my sidebar. Thanks to Michelle for organizing it and Owlhaven for bringing it to my attention. If you are a women who blogs consider signing up!

I plan to spend some time exploring the other "Blogging Chicks" and I'll highlight my favorites in another post!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Arabic Proficiency

A packet came in the mail yesterday from San Diego State University with information about their "distinguished level Arabic and Persian program" for the summer. Unlike the flurry of expansion in basic Arabic and Persian programs over the past few years, this one concentrates on taking advanced/superior proficient learners of Arabic (or Persian) and through intensive study in small groups with master teachers moving them to "distinguished level" the level required to use Arabic competently in professional capacities.

In fifteen years of graduate school and teaching in Middle Eastern Studies this is the first program of this nature that I have seen. Looks like we are finally getting serious about producing Americans with deep proficiency in Middle Eastern languages! Where was this program September 12, 2001? Or November 5, 1979?

Arabic is a difficult language to learn (although I found it easier than Chinese). But the biggest problem is that it is a diglossic language like Spanish. It has a universal "high" written form that no one but newsreaders speak (and government officials giving formal speeches) and then regional dialects that have multiple forms depending on the education and background of the speaker. You can be fluent in fusha, Modern Standard Arabic, but that won't get you very far with an Iraqi peasant. You can be conversant with Iraqi dialect in the Anbar province but that won't help you speak to a peasant in Morocco or a schoolteacher in Cairo. And that's as much true of native speakers as language learners. I like to compare Arabic to a martial art, there's always anther belt level to master. Can you imagine a single Spanish speaker who can speak with the same fluency in a university in Madrid and one in Argentina? Now send them to a subway in Mexico City, then East LA. It would be hard going. Arabic works the same way. A difficult fact that has taken our military, FBI, CIA, and police too long to grasp (although I think that the NYPD figured it out first).

Ahmed Hashim of the Navel War College has said in the Air Force Times
"We have a civil war right now, a low-level civil war,” he said. “Our understanding of Iraq has advanced at a very glacial pace, and the only policy we really have in our hand right to leave.” The counterinsurgency strategies the U.S. has been implementing so far may not be effective tools for dealing with a civil war or organized crime, he added.
“To stay in Iraq and to affect the situation in Iraq will require a kind of understanding at a level far deeper than we have,” he said.

The program at SDSU is probably too little, too late to help the US deal with the civil war in Iraq, but since America will be neck-deep in the region for the next 30 years, I suppose it is better late than never.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Deadliest Catch

Why am I so obssessed with the show Deadliest Catch? I can watch episode after episode, glued to the couch.

I was taken from the first moment I saw the very first show back in the summer of 2004. I was pregnant and miserable. The only thing makes me feel better during the miseries of the first trimester is to watch people who are more miserable than me. Suddenly, the ocean of nausea and gloom I was caught in seemed like nothing compared to the icy Bering sea as men swung an endless number of 700-pound crab pots aboard rocking crab boats. Suddenly, I was aware of all the comforts around me: my soft couch, a cat to pet, air-conditioning. I started planning my evenings around seeing the show whenever it was on.

I am also drawn in by watching people work together as a team to do a hard job. (I think its also the draw of medical and legal shows). Deadliest Catch is riveting because the dangers are immediate and real (death is nearly instanteous if you fall into the Bering Sea during the winter). The interactions between the deckhands and captains, and the captains with each other are absorbing. It feels "real" in ways that staged "reality shows" do not. Of course, the genius of the whole thing lies in the editing and post-production shaping of the shows, not to mention the understated voice-over. And where the show be without the Bon Jovi "Dead or Alive" theme song?

Its also riveting to watch a complete world that is at once vital and virtually unknown. I have that anthropologist's love of encountering a new world with a new history, and culture, and language to learn. They are out there crabbing and fishing while the rest of us are obssessed with the college football season or the NFL or the latest scandel de jour on cable news. All to bring us (and primarily the Japanese consumer, I believe) crab. After watching the whole first season, I once came upon a live King Crab in a tank at the supermarket. I gasped out loud at the sight. "You" I told it, "you are reason all those men work so hard and risk so much." I had a new understanding of the very real cost in time, effort, and lives, it took to bring that crab from the Bering Sea to my Texas store.

Its strangely restorative in a manner similar to working in the garden. I could watch all day.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Well, it seems that the universe has been conspiring to make sure that I finish all my grading for the courses I taught this semester. First, my own internet access was out all day yesterday and then this morning blogger was acting up and I couldn't post. So I filled my days with grading papers and exams. I'm grateful that the baby spent much of this napping.

As I mentioned in an earlier post teaching the course on contemporary world issues focusing on Islam really took it out of me this semester. Keeping up with the news out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington takes a toll and I was too often angry and impatient about it all. In April, however, I found an unexpected source of solace. My family has begun volunteering at a CSA garden. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. There are many in our area but only one that gives you an opportunity to work on the farm itself. Each weekend that we work on the farm (two adults and two kids for about 4 hours) we earn a BIG box of vegetables harvested right from the garden.

The farm is amazing. Twelve acres on the banks of a small creek. Despite the presence of five rowdy dogs it is a deeply peaceful place. Working in the soil is immediately soothing and feels very "rooted." I think about the gardens of my German grandmother and the gardens of my Iowa in-laws.

Although the farm is organic and uses little machinery, it is not a safe place for a toddler. I wear the baby in a front carrier the entire time and I feel connected to the women I've watched in rural Syria who cultivate cotton with babies on their hips and the women in so many African cultures where gardening is "women's work" and done with baby in tow. The baby also seems to find the physical rhythms of gardening soothing. He sleeps most of the time.

It is wonderful to see the older kids moving confidently through such a large space. They help us most of the time but also take breaks under two large trees. Although they remain in our sight, it is a much further distance away from us than we would ever allow in our daily urban existence. They are learning about how food is grown, how much work it takes, and the cycles of planting and harvesting.

I feel restored after working there. It fills a need for quiet, for physical labor, and for scale. There is something about working the soil with fields and sky around you. I feel the restored to the right size. Cyberspace draws you in, magnifies your connection (here I am darting to Informed Comment, then the Iraqi blogs, then to Washington) yet somehow makes you feel smaller too. Working in the garden with my family around me, the sky above me, I feel right-sized again. The nervous energy of web-surfing is replaced with a deep calm. And I come back with a week's worth of veggies and the composure to research and learn and teach about the "big issues" again.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Its all a conspiracy!

Found an interesting piece from Robert Fisk today on ChamPress. Its an illustration of the type of paranoia and conspiracy thinking all too common in the Middle East today. His Syrian "security source" relates stories gleaned from Iraqi Shia pilgrims to Damascus who tell of Iraqi policemen trained by American forces who are instructed to drive a car into crowded, public areas then park and walk away. When they call their American bosses and report the position of the car, the car explodes.

Two things come to mind when reading this story. The first is how the Bush adminstration's desire for secrecy and disdain of treaties, codes of ethics, and rule of law makes these stories harder to refute. Their enthusiasm for outsourcing and privatizing what were once core military functions puts these stories into the realm of the distantly possible. Very, very distantly. But no longer absolutely unthinkable. (Would some black-clothed security forces from an unregulated American security company operating outside the military chain of command and outside the American military's code of conduct do such a thing? . . . um . . . maybe. I would hate to believe so but here's the thing, they could and how would we know? How would anyone ever hold them accountable?) Listen to what National Guard Lt. and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff said about such security forces on Fresh Air this past Thursday.

The second thing is that such stories show just how hard it is for ordinary pious Muslims to believe that other Muslims could attack civilians with car bombs and suicide attacks. Violence directed against civilians is clearly outside of the bounds of lawful warfare as proscribed by the Quran. Both suicide and violence against fellow Muslims are unthinkable in traditional Islam. It is easier to think that such attacks must be directed by the occupying forces than to realize how Sunni insurgent extremists are distorting Islam and Iraqi society.

With the downing of a British heliocopter in Basra and growing unrest in the formerly quiet south of Iraq, the occupation looks increasingly untenable both on the ground in Iraq and politically in the US and Britain. (And yes, I think occupation is the most accurate term for it, there have been elections but a functioning Iraqi government has yet to be formed.) Blair and Bush both in big trouble is how Helena Cobban puts it.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


I have been thinking about blogging for quite a while, a year at least. So why did I start this week? One reason was a sudden insight that I got about myself on Tuesday. I was driving home from administering the final exam in my contemporary world issues class, I was listening to public radio, the song was something about America, elegic, and it made me think about about my desire to take my children back to the Middle East, back to the rural desert settlements in the Jazeera. And then I was suddenly conscious that so much of how I raise my children, particularly Alexander, Iskandar, who was conceived just weeks after I returned from completely my dissertation fieldwork, is subtly affected by the need to prepare them for that trip.

We do not own any hand-held electronic games for example. I am suddenly conscious that I have excluded them not only because of a general desire to possess less but to meet a specific need. I can't take a gameboy focused kid to the desert. We eat potato chips and corn chips; but I avoid like the plague trendy processesd food. No blue applesauce, no pop tarts, no cool ranch doritos. There are all kinds of health reasons for this but in the car on Tuesday I was flooded with the sudden realization that my underlying motivation for so many of these parenting decisions is to have children who I can take to the Middle East, to Africa, to the developing world. Children who will not be obnoxious Americans anxious for familiar food (I once saw a whole planeful of band kids from a small texas town swarm the snack bar in the international lounge in Dallas for "real Cokes" sweetened with corn syrup. They felt terribly deprived to have drank only Coke with beet sugar during their two weeks in Germany. )

It has been years since I have been in the Middle East. We have intended to take the whole family each year since 2004 but each year the political situation seems to get worse and worse. Its now clear that it won't get better perhaps for a generation. I am not sure when I will get to show my children the places that have meant so much to me. When they will be able to meet the people whose voices I still hear in my head. It is in response to those voices that I turn my kids away from Disneyworld, from gameboys, from DVD players in the car. Somehow, this week I realized that in ways that I hadn't consciously understood before. And I thought to myself, I need to blog about this.

And here we are.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Hope and Despair

Ugh! I suppose that I should first 'fess up in response to Kim's comment about having 'deep thoughts.' I think about the war and Darfur and global warming and all the rest in part because I do think of myself as a global citizen and a mother (hence deeply and profoundly invested in the future) but also because ocassionally I'm paid to do so as a college instructor.

I'm just an lowly adjunct (see the archives of Invisible Adjunct if you want to know more about the pain of adjuncting) but I have taught classes with titles like "Intro to global issues" and "Contemporary World Issues: Islam" and it becomes a habit to try to keep up the world. This semester I found myself disengaged from my Contemporary Issues: Islam class. I felt vaguely angry towards the class all the time. It took me a while to realize that I wasn't angry at the students. I'm angry about this administration, about the war, the timing, the preparation, the occupation, the neglect, the loss of life and limb. The utter destruction of America's reputation as a beacon of hope, human rights, civility, and justice.

I feel constrained to say such things before the class, no matter how well I could document them. Adjuncts have no tenure, no security, no long-term contracts. One disgruntled students complains to the Dean and you're out the door. So instead, I displaced my anger onto the class and taught with a more distant, impatient manner than I ever have. Now that I'm aware of it I hope that it will affect me less next term but its clearly time for me to start the transformation away from academia.

On to the source of today's despair! I start my day at the keyboard with Juan Cole's Informed Comment every morning. Here, I keep up on the war and explore other links. Today, he led me to this piece about the Bush war plan to advance corporate freedom over the more familiar types of freedom like FDR's four freedoms, including 'freedom from want, freedom from fear.' I still feel nauseous from reading the piece. I despise conspiracy theories and the type of negative paranoia that surrounds so much Bush bashing but, smacking the table with my open palm, this administration is so cynical, so filled with a lust for power and profit . . . vomiting seems like the only sane response.

The only solution is to fight them on every front. So here's a bit of good news from Helena Cobban, the US Senate has declared that the US should not establish permanent military bases in Iraq. Let's hope that they have the gumption to make this stick! Fear of a permanent US military prescence in Iraq fuels the insurgency. Ordinary Iraqis won't rat out the insurgents in their midst if they feel that the US military is there to fulfil some secret plan to set up permanent bases.

Another solution: learn more about Iraq! One place to start is Anthony Shadid's powerful book, Night Draws Near. It comes out in paperback this summer. I plan to send copies to all my family and friends.

Another great source, and completely free, are Iraqi blogs! Yes, there are even Iraqis blogging in English. One of the best is Treasure of Baghdad. I have put others in my link list. Want to hear the voice of a middle-aged, educated, powerful, Iraqi woman? A voice in the blogosphere that resonates with all the other strong, middle-class Arab women I know? (Yes, strong, articulate, passionate Arab women. Yes. They exist. They are practically the only kind of Arab women you can find!) Read Faiza's blog. Some of it is in Arabic but it is well worth it to scroll down and search for the English posts. And here I find my hope. I don't subscribe to rose-tinted nostalgic views on some sort of universal motherhood. But motherhood is powerful, parenting is powerful. And as I type, with my 14-month old, asleep in my arms, I know that it one of the things that draws me out into the world and forces me to have a voice.

Motherhood is also my solace. As I run through my blogs in the morning from the political blogs to the mommy blogs, I always end with Owlhaven. It restores my equilibrium to visit this multi-cultural family. Both American and global, traditional and contemporary, ordinary and extraordinary. Then I can begin the rest of my day.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Learning Curve

The first step is to figure out just what it is I am doing! Posting is very, very easy. But I'm struggling a bit to figure out blogger, navigating the dashboard etc.

I've discovered that I can take a free workshop on HTML at the university where I teach on Monday. I'll have to pay for babysitting but hopefully I can learn a few things.

Let's try linking in a post. Yes, very basic blogging stuff I know. Are you reading Juan Cole's Informed Comment ? If not, fellow citizens of the world, start now.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Haphazard Start

Okay, despite lots of thought about starting a blog, I probably shouldn't have started it up on a whim while nursing the baby, fifteen mintutes before having to leave to pick the other kids up at school. I had thought about blogging under the name Um 'Skandar or Mother of Alexander for a while but the phrase one mother's global interests came to me while I was in the middle of setting up the account AND changing a poopy diaper simultaneously, probably not the wisest thing. We'll leave the phrase in for now. Because I do spend my days nursing a baby and changing diapers AND thinking about the war in Iraq, and AIDs in Africa, and public education in the US, and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Democratic Party in Texas. And the one thing that unites all the disparate threads in my life is my role as a mother. And I wouldn't be the mother that I am without all those years spent in the Middle East where I would now be known by my kunya, Um 'Skandar.

And then there's the thought that perhaps I should have used two ms in Umm, I suppose there's a shahada there in the original Arabic . . .

But hey, this is a blog. Not a doctoral dissertation, and we've already done one of those. Imperfections are part of blogging!

so here we go . . .