Sunday, December 20, 2009

Link Tilt-A-Whirl

1) Its Time to Get Real: Obama is Wrong

Jehanzeb Dar, of the great blog Muslim Reverie, has always been a good writer but he surpasses himself with this essay. Point by point he breaks down the growing discontent with President Obama over his policies toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. He writes, "Like many, I was devastated by the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter and I was also extremely disappointed with Obama for not holding the Israeli government accountable. 'He’s not the president yet,' many would say, including some Muslim friends of mine. I wanted to believe they were right, so I kept my frustration sidelined... But my hopes quickly changed when Obama ordered drone attacks in Pakistan." Like Jehanzeb, I have also been "cautiously optimistic" about Obama since the beginning. And like him, the decision to escalate the war in South Asia, based on campaign promises made to illustrate the grotesque folly of the war in Iraq, has left me thoroughly disillusioned. Jehanzeb cites Tariq Ali's point that "on the very day that an Iranian woman, Neda Soltani, was murdered during the election protests in Iran, a U.S. drone killed 60 people in Pakistan, mostly women and children. The death of Soltani drew international attention and became an iconic image of resistance against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, while nothing was mentioned about Pakistan." Jehanzeb's point (via Ali) is a provocative one: Perhaps the (im)moral of the story is that if you are a Western superpower (or close ally) you can kill civilians and it doesn't "count" in the same way as it would for say, Arabs or Muslims.

Tags: Politics is Culture

2) Garrulity of Places

This essay, by the artist Anas Al-Shaikh in Nafas Art Magazine describes a fascinating series of experimental works staged in public spaces in Bahrain by Al-Shaikh with the participation of 11 other artists called Garrulity of Places. Al-Shaikh writes, " Concentrating on ephemeral, interactive, improvised, and critical practice, the experiences provided by the project were very different from the previous artistic experiences of most participants. Special emphasis was put on encouraging cooperation, discussions, and dialogue..." The project's focus on audience interactivity is designed to foster awareness of various issues through the medium of artistic practice. For example one of these works, titled Tales (2009), was staged in a local market in Bahrain's Isa Town. The artists situated a group of photos on a table in the market and attached listening devices to each image. Passers-by could then choose to listen to a "tale" recorded by the artist, related to the image. I love the idea of this piece, which gives a voice to the random, anonymous photos you often find in boxes at open-air markets, at least here in the US.

Often, people unfamiliar with conceptual art react badly to the idea of it-- as if it is designed to make them look stupid-- and further, often react with surprise that there is conceptual art in the Middle East, but it is a global phenomenon. According to Al-Shaikh, people reacted to these pieces, staged in public places, with curiosity. This essay then both describes an ambitious, if deceptively simple conceptual art project in a Middle Eastern country and an ideal (to my mind) response to it.

Tags: Culture is Politics, Installation

3) When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

Annalee Newitz, editor of SF site io9 and author of Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, has written a terrific review/analysis of James Cameron's new film Avatar in which she skewers its racial pretensions. Newitz writes, "Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it's undeniable that the film - like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year - is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?" This is a fascinating question and she expands it by not only comparing Avatar to the recent District 9 but by tracing the thread of what she calls this meme across several films. Newitz writes, "Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America's foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent... (the film's aliens, the Na'vi) wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades." Avatar's ironically named hero "Sully" has the opportunity via the advanced tech of his society, to join the Na'vi and--surprise-- become their leader. According to Newitz, "This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member." This is an old trope in US culture, dating from the 19th century (a la The Last of the Mohicans) that was incorporated into US cinema from its earliest beginnings. Of course there are many examples in US cinema throughout its history, for example Rudolph Valentino's Sheik turns out, by films end, to not be an Arab after all, but a European raised among them. Thus audiences got to have it both ways: they thrilled at the "Sheik's" seduction of a quivering white virgin... and had it reversed in the end, avoiding the messier social implications of miscegenation. As you can imagine, the responses to her essay in its comment thread have included the predictable rolled eyes for daring to mention race and/or venomous attacks that dismiss race as a topic of conversation entirely. As in (chosen at random):

theSkywalker: "... i don't care are about who is good, who is bad and who is the ugly. this is not the point of the Science Fiction."

KillianCrane: "
It just cracks me up how every race sees themselves in the likes of crap like blue people or jarjar binks or insect faced aliens. Sure there is always an aspect of race when you talk about something different than the main characters, that doesn't mean it's about you...

disatess: "it was meant to be film to be watched , not a film we all have to whine about ... get over this RACE CRAP !!! God when are going to grow UP."

carpe_k9006 :" Why are you being so damn analytical over something that's meant to entertain? Christ. Instead of pouring over a medium meant to entertain, go preach to inner-city youths that need this message more than some random network of websites dedicated to following popular modern culture.

Would you rather stereotypical popular black fantasy?


Or how about asian (sic) fantasy?


Either way, someone would complain. The issue is not with "white" or whatever color of the spectrum you deem fit, it's with people taking issue with something that really doesn't deserve it.

In short, get over yourself"

Um, yeah. So there are other goodies here and there among these comments (like the Islamophobic/orientalist sub-thread about the Dune books for e.g.) but I'm starting to feel dirty and not in a good way, so you can go check that out for yourselves. It is worth noting though that commenters at io9 have to "audition" and get approved before they can post--creating a smaller group of curated comments rather than an open-season free-for all and avoiding the necessity of enforcing an aggressive mod policy. So it begs the question: if these (and the others like them) are the best commenters io9 has why are they so afraid to explore the underlying themes of SF/pop culture on a site devoted to just that?

Tags: Culture is Politics, Race, Film, Review, Representation

4) Sikh Youth Attacked in Texas

According to the India Times, a Sikh Graduate student who was working as a pizza delivery person was brutally assaulted and terrorized by four young men when he showed up to bring them a pizza in West Texas. The Sikh Coalition reports that they hurled him into a swimming pool and wouldn't let him out as they hurled racial epithets at him. They allegedly yelled "I'm going to fuck you up in Iraq, I'm going to fuck you up in Afghanistan, I'm going to fuck you up over here" as he swam desperately for his life and they kicked him in the head and body. Eventually he was able to escape but the response of the local police, was *surprise* less than exemplary. Thus far the men have only been charged with a misdemeanor, which may mean they avoid jail altogether, instead of the more-obvious-in-this-instance but exponentially more legally serious "hate-crime."

This is so grotesque that it is hard to peel away the layers and look at the machinery behind an attack like this. But, can a quartet of West Texas rednecks be blamed for confusing Sikhs for Muslims, South Asians for Arabs and countries whose only common denominator is our interest in them when our own leaders can't be bothered to make these distinctions either? Attacks like these are like models of foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds rendered in miniature.

Tags: Race, Politics is Culture, Orientalism, Islamophobia

5) Burqa Barbie redux

An edited version of my "Burqa Barbie" post has been published at I am flattered to be included on the site and want to thank Asma, Arjun and Zahed for their interest and support. Fair warning, Internet: I am everywhere. Go check me out.

Tags: Shameless self promotion, Culture is Politics


  1. Thanks for the shout out, Joseph! Even in casual conversation, I find it difficult to criticize Obama because so many people are defensive of him. One response I get is, "Would you rather have Bush?" or "Would you rather have McCain?" That's not really the point. Just because Obama is not Bush or McCain does not mean we can't hold him accountable. Anyway, I am still disappointed and shocked at how some of my fellow Muslims are still supporting him (including some people I know at CAIR).

    My post was triggered by a lot of the things I've been feeling since his speech on deploying more troops in Afghanistan. Also, when I commented on your post about Obama, I knew I had to write something.

    Thanks for sharing that link on "Avatar." I shared it on Facebook :)

  2. Jehanzeb,
    My pleasure: I really appreciated your essay because it captured just what I have been feeling. I agree completely that we have to hold Obama accountable for his in/actions in the Muslim and Arab worlds. When you quoted the argument "would you rather have Bush or McCain?" I immediately thought, "Are these my only choices?" I have been an activist for a long time...I am not naive about how these things work. But since 9/11 the official policies toward Arabs and Muslims both here and abroad have been unacceptable. I wanted Obama to at least reverse some of that damage, but he hasn't. We (Arabs/Muslims) are in the same place under Obama as we were before. I don't like saying that out loud either, but even more than that, I'd like for it not to be true.

  3. Hey,Joe! Your Burqa Barbie post re-routed here:

    I thought I was high for a minute. Well,I AM high, but...LOL.

  4. Fiqah,
    LOL, good looking out, I fixed the link...I must have mistyped the address when I Tiny-Urled it. Now: don't be high on Christmas! Jesus is watching!