Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jordan, Part 1

As I must have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I bought my first Arabic learning text in December 2000. After several thwarted attempts (I’ll write about those sometime), I began earnest Arabic study as a Critical Language Scholar in Jordan in 2007. This post will showcase the emails I drafted back then, along with some reflection on how much has changed for me and my relationship with Islam, the Arab world, and the MENA region.

Sunday 17 June 2007, 15h 23min 49s

We finally left the airport around 7pm and it's now 10.21 pm. I am in an apartment at the American Center for Oriental Research with 4 other women. They are all super nice. I saw white pepper trees for the first time ever. Everything is amazing. There is currently something (a cat maybe?) mewling outside the window. I also hear some nice Middle Eastern music in the distance. It's pleasantly cool and dark.

Anyhow, I'll write more later, I just wanted you all to know I'm safe and I can't wait for my friend Andy to come down from Damascus.

Nicki or Pop-please let my mom know I'm safe.

Monday 17 June 2007, 6h 56min 28s

It’s 1.30 pm and we’ve just finished our in-country orientation here at our residence at ACOR. We arrived last night at about 8 to the American Center for Oriental Research and I was in bed by midnight. I share an apartment with 4 other women, and 2 of us share a bedroom (the other 3 are in the 2nd bedroom). We have a kitchen, bathroom and living room with comfortable, serviceable furniture. I’ll take pictures and send them shortly.

The temperature inside our apartment stays comfortable and despite the dry heat, there is a fair amount of gentle breeze that keeps things livable. We had the pleasure of a security presentation from the US Embassy and there is an armed Jordanian guard outside. We are assured that the area is quite safe.

Our classes begin Wednesday, and the university can be seen across a busy highway from the balcony at ACOR. The ACOR residence is built into a hill, so even though my room is on the 6th floor, it’s only 2 flights above the entrance level where the guard is posted (at the expense and insistence of Jordanian authorities). It’s also up a nice little hill, assuring that on the daily treks to and from the university, I will be exerting myself. We also live within walking distance of souq sultan, the nearest market where there are stores and things to buy essentials. Dinner is provided, and we are told that our cook (with 46 years of experience cooking for Americans) prepares decidedly Western meals, which is disappointing. I will therefore seek out Jordanian food as much as possible for lunch, which I’ll be taking mostly near the university, as we have class Sunday through Thursday from 9 am till 3 pm.

About the residence: despite the building being commissioned and purchased by the US, the plumbing is decidedly Jordanian. As such, we have been instructed several times to put our “hygienic paper” in the “covered rubbish bins” adjacent to our nice, clean Western toilet. What fun! We are told that the cleaning crew will empty these receptacles once a week, but 5 women produce who-knows-how-much paper waste in the Western excretory ritual, so I imagine it will be likely that intermittent self-emptying may be necessary. [This comment amuses me, as just last week in Cairo, I arrived late to my conference in time to hear the speaker refer to how obsessed westerners are with excrement. So true].

We’ve also been invited to a 4th of July celebration hosted by the US Embassy specifically for under 35s quasi in our honor featuring the theme of “Future Jordanian Leaders.” It’s a tremendous privilege and I am very much looking forward to it. Also, we’ve been issued fabulous, brand-new text books with dvds, and we will have access to both optional and mandatory tutoring throughout each school week. I’ve seen from the bus window from the airport Burger King, Popeyes, several McDonalds and other American delights.

Lunch is in 7 minutes and I’m hungry, so I’ll close here. More updates to come!

OH wait, I almost forgot to mention: the 4am call to prayer. Magical it is to be awoken to the blaring chanting that starts at one mosque and starts again at about 5-minute intervals at each of the different neighborhood mosques.

Tuesday 19 June 2007, 10h 50min 42s

[personal message to Andy, studying beginning Arabic in Damascus]

As usual, loved the update. Ah personal space issues. I'll write later in more detail, but I am super proud to have navigated to and from the supermarket in the taxi-using my sparse vocab (Tla'a al ali-the name of my neighborhood, left and right which I've forgotten already, I suck).

Wednesday 20 June 2007, 12h 01min 05s

Today, Wednesday, we had our first day of class (Finally!). There are 7 other Americans with me. We have 2 hours of Jordanian colloquial Arabic and then 3 hours of Modern Standard Arabic.

But before I get into that, Monday I attended a viewing at the 13th annual Franco Arab Film Festival-which required my first taxi ride. Luckily one of the 3 of us who went is in the intermediate class, and she took control of telling our driver the destination. The movie, Making Of, was Tunisian and was the dramatization of the birth of a terrorist/suicide bomber. Artistically it was pretty bad (ugh, especially the mangled title), but interesting nonetheless as the first Tunisian move I’ve ever seen. Even though the taxi had to turn around twice, we did manage to get home.

Tuesday we toured the university, which is huge. There are 35000 Jordanian students and about 1500 foreign students (including other Arabs). Most of the women cover their heads and no one wears a backpack or sunglasses. It is very hot and I have no idea how they can bear it fully covered in black, some of them even wearing gloves. On the tour I fell down and bruised my behind and my left forearm on some slippery stairs behind the library. I now have a huge bruise on my arm. [ah the first of many clumsy encounters with slippery Middle Eastern surfaces].

After the tour of the language center and the university, I went with 2 of my roommates to find the “upscale” grocery store in Amman. Empowered by the successful taxi rides, I made sure I knew the words for right and left and off we went. The grocery store was huge, clean, stocked with myriad international items (including soy milk) and air conditioned. I also experienced a Jordanian KFC—we were starving and there was no other food around—it was like an upscale café complete with plasma screens, upholstered chairs and funky Arab music. We even got extra fries for promising to return.

Three of us went back to Al Hussein Cultural Center for the last showing at the film festival—WWW: What a Wonderful World—a Moroccan movie about an assassin that falls for a policewoman. It was awesome-except for the ending. Anyhow, I am now a pro at Amman taxi rides. It costs about 3 bucks to travel to a destination about 35 minutes away. Shocking!

During the short break, I finally had a shawarma-tasty spiced chicken in flat bread with onion. After class, some of went to the bookstore and impressed (NOT) the clerk with our new vocab. Marhaba, keef halak? Ma salaama! There was a children’s book called “Pussy in Boots” featuring Lord Kalem and young Samir-we got a good laugh at the Arabization of a western classic.

Amman is hot and hilly. There are hills everywhere (and stairs). When we get back into our apartment, we all promptly remove our pants, long-sleeved shirts and garments and don tank tops and shorts. I anticipate losing weight here rather easily, unless I get so lazy that I just pay the 45 cents it costs to get a taxi up the steep hill from the university to ACOR. [I gained weight that summer…HAH!] It will only get hotter before the summer is over. Fortunately the ACOR residence is well situated into a hill, so cool breezes and shade keep us cool indoors.

Monday, December 27, 2010

12 months, 12 languages

Dedicated to Mary, who asked, “If you had 12 months to travel to 12 places to learn 12 languages, where would you go and what would you learn? And why? (Obviously the reasons can be whimsical and ridiculous if you like!)”

Well, I think that ordering this list would require detailed strategery based on festivals/holidays, weather conditions and other considerations, so in no particular order:

1. Turkish in Turkey…with a host family, perhaps eastern Turkey, where folks are more ‘country’ than ‘city.’
Reason: Mary certainly encouraged this one, but likewise having lived in Germany (and wanting to live there again) with its Turkish population means lots of ways to use it.

2. Farsi in Iran…maybe in Shiraz, which admittedly I know nothing about except that the grapes that make the wine I love so much are the type grown there.
Reason: Googoosh would be enough of a reason; however, at this point in my Arabic learning, I have come across a few movies in Farsi (The Stoning of Soraya M., Divorce Iranian Style, Prostitution: Behind the Veil) and I am jazzed about the cognates I hear.

3. Mongolian in Mongolia
Reason: the camels…seriously. The two-humped camels (which are the camels—the one-humpers are dromedaries) are just too awesome—the eyelashes, the fur…I saw L'histoire du chameau qui pleure on a date back in 2004 and while the movie didn’t really do it for me, I just loved those camels.

4. Russian in Russia…maybe eastern Russia? Someplace rural, but not in winter!
Reason: after studying with a bunch of folks from the former CIS, it just sounds awesome! Bring me moose and squirrel. Also, I love Тату (that’s t.A.T.u. in the Roman alphabet)…I just can’t help it.

5. Portuguese in Brazil or Angola
Reason: in general Brazil seems awesome, and I love Bonde do Rolê, even though a Brazilian buddy of mine thinks they’re crap, but the real reason is a painting I saw in the Tate Modern of São Paulo by Anselm Kiefer called Lilith. I was visiting the UK on a shoestring during a short break from my Fulbright year in Germany. At the time (April 2003) the Tate had free tours of a different floor of the museum depending on the day. That tour allowed me to see the painting and appreciate it. I have a troglodytic approach to modern art—like sommelier and classical music—I am WAY too lazy to invest time in knowing what is supposed to be good. Instead I rely on my most superficial senses to guide me. Tastes good? Good. Sounds good? Good. Looks good? Good. Most modern art is just too emperor’s new clothes-ey to me, but this piece, I love.

6. Spanish in Dominican Republic
Reason: My friend Alaina, a Spanish linguist, told me that across mother tongue accents in Spanish, Dominican enjoyed the least prestige; that is why I’d like to learn Dominican Spanish.

7. Kiswahili in Tanzania
Reason: Kiswahili sounds awesome and has Arabic cognates and is spoken in Oman. Totally awesome.

8. Basque in Basque country
Reason: Alaina the Spanish linguist told me that euskal herritarrak (that’s natives of the Basque in Basque) shared DNA that was unique from the DNA of surrounding native peoples, making them…space aliens? I hope so.

9. Korean in Busan
Reason: The Korean writing system was commissioned, and thus the only intentionally devised modern system. That’s pretty awesome. Other writing systems evolved over time in more informal ways. Not to mention, the food is awesome.

10. Welsh in Wales
Reason: All those words without vowels! What awesomeness. Also, I understand Welsh men are excellent lovers, though the gingers don’t usually do it for me.

11. Polish in Łódź
Reason: Łódź is prounounced ‘woge’ (rhymes with Limoges) and Przeworski like Shevorski…reason enough for me.

12. Kirundi in Burundi
Reason: I volunteered with the IRC in Baltimore during the summer of 2004 and interacted a lot with a newly-settled family from Burundi.

Runners up: Hassaniya Arabic in Mauritania, Dutch in Suriname (or Flemish in Belgium), and Xhosa in South Africa

News and Notes: perhaps the final blog post of 2010...

I returned yesterday from a 2-week vacation in Cairo that featured a lot of relaxation and entertainment, but also a bit of work (conference attendance and Arabic conversation). I got in bed just after 3 AM Maryland time after 48 hours of being awake. The Delta flight home was as comfortable as 2nd class gets--surplus breakfast sandwiches, friendly flight attendant Ronen, and a 2-seat row to myself for the 13-hour flight that only lasted 12. Anyhow, none of that is interesting. The coming year has much in store, and this blog will continue to revisit events from 2010 while carpe-ing the diem during 2011, as I catch up on writing and enjoy new experiences.

Some upcoming entries:

I got word a few days ago that my university, Old Dominion, has chosen me to present my Morocco field research via a 3' x 4' poster at the 5th annual Virginia Council of Graduate Schools Graduate Student Research Forum on Thursday, 3 February at the Library of Virginia. I will write about that event.

I want to post some items about conferences where I presented or attended this past year--a conference on misrecognition in Bristol, England, WOCMES in Barcelona, the EuroMeSCo annual conference also in Barcelona, and feminist alternatives in Cairo.

I have some musings on what 'Muslim' means, and how US Americans recognize, identify, or otherwise 'know' what 'Muslim' is.

My most recent trip to the Arab world, from 12 December to 25 December 2010, has also produced a wealth of insights, currently only available in the form of unorganized scribblings across slips of paper and already fading memories.

All this and more, inshallah, to come!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I want this woman to be my friend


Trans rights?

Rights of the incarcerated?

Loving 30 Rock and In Bruges?

This blog rules.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Safely back on American soil, the past few days of repatriation have been relaxing and unsettling at the same time. While I ease back into my life à l'américaine, I struggle with the choking monolingual reality of my homeland. English is everywhere and ubiquitous (even if obnoxious non-American Anglophones still dog me with their unnecessary, often incorrect criticisms). But I am not composing this entry to muse about the difficulties of re-entry. Rather I wanted to draw attention to some recent news coverage about the difficulty of learning a foreign language, but also to the benefits!

First this article on 27 August 2010 “Should British pupils give up studying French?” does eventually reach the salient point that actually accomplishing conversational fluency in a language cannot occur for most people within the classroom—and is quite difficult in any case, often with little pay-off. I’ve certainly come across a few people who are so adept at language learning that they need only a book or two, and a few weeks, to become quite competent, though these folks are usually heritage speakers of a language in the same language family as the target. In any event, the majority of others who claim to ‘speak’ a foreign language or two are complete bluffers who are relying on the ignorance or confidence of the interlocutor. These types are also extremely frustrating to those of us, including me, who devote a lot of time, effort, and relationship building to become conversant in a foreign language for real.

While French is not an easy language to learn, it is nonetheless less difficult for native English speakers to learn than is Arabic. French is not in the same language family as English—the former is a Romance language, the latter a Germanic language—however, due in large part to the Norman invasion in1066, French and English share more of an affinity than either language enjoys with Arabic—a Semitic language. That is why I am delighted at the number of programs, funding, and interest in learning Arabic and other lesser-taught languages (as they are currently called in pedagogical circles). While some of the personal comments in this article are a bit horrifying, it is interesting nonetheless (including a mention of the Critical Language Scholarship, which I had the privilege of enjoying 3 times).

Meanwhile, if it is indeed so hard, time-consuming, and labor intensive to become conversant in a foreign language (as opposed to ‘learning,’—what does that even mean?), why bother? I never seriously entertained a career as a translator, interpreter or foreign language teacher, despite the fact that the rest of the world assumed that those would be the only reasonable options available to a student in modern languages. Instead, I abandoned my biology major after one semester, transferred from a private, women’s college after my first semester, to a public university, and picked up my major in Modern Languages and Linguistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. My goal? Two-fold: To increase the number books available to me to read and multiply exponentially possibilities to socialize. I have a hard time being motivated by money, except for money that I intend to use for my next big adventure. Fortunately, a major part of the mission of my current work is relationship building—a euphemism for socializing! While my current job doesn’t necessarily require my foreign language use, I am able to incorporate French and German into my daily routine thanks to my international colleagues. As for Arabic…I have my post-program language test tomorrow. I have been reading Arabic every day since I returned less than a month ago. Likewise, I have been listening to Arabic here and there, and writing emails to my Arabic teachers. As for conversation, the opportunities are sparse. Fortunately I will be spending two weeks in Egypt in December. Meanwhile, I am working on my dissertation, the methodology of which features indigenous materials—that is, books, essays, and articles written by Moroccans in Arabic and French.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


That is all. More soon--about repatriation, missing Morocco, and loving my homeland.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dangerous illiterates

In Morocco, as in most countries with robust prison populations, there is great interest by both civil society and international organizations in monitoring and reform. Organizations like Search for Common Ground have pursued (unfortunately fruitless) projects involving prisons here. In terms of incarcerated populations, though, it is the US that boasts the largest group of imprisoned people. I have become extremely interested in the state of US prisons and am in general appalled by what I have learned. The Economist recently featured a few articles on US prisons. While trolling the internet, I came across the following quotation, which directly relates to my research on illiterates as an empowered faction, not a societal impediment. Bruce Sterling, in his article (1997) “Hardware for Hard Time” about the corporate stake in prisons wrote, “The technique [of electronic monitoring] is great for keeping well-behaved, middle-aged, highly literate, and responsible white guys out of the joint. Say, bank vice presidents who have blundered into embezzlement. But for semiliterate, sociopathic, unemployable, or strung-out former inmates, electronic gadgets lashed to their wrists or ankles aren't likely to be enough to get them to straighten up and fly right.”

Here is yet another example of the seemingly infinite examples of the vilification of illiterates. They don't just impede development, they are also dangerous criminals who must be locked up because despite their ignorance and stupidity (or perhaps because of it) they are menaces to society. Truly ridiculous. But if this trope didn't exist, I wouldn't have such rich fodder for my dissertation. Alas.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Socrates and Literacy

I am presenting my field research next Tuesday at the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies in Barcelona. While I put together the PowerPoint presentation and re-read my research so far, I am reminded of a clip I presented this idea--it hadn't yet become my dissertation topic. Dr. Fish, an incredibly supportive professor at ODU, encouraged me to take the idea farther. Anyhow, the first 45 seconds of this clip sum up my approach to knowledge and knowledge construction. Enjoy!

Illustrated Books And Newspapers

Discourse was deemed Man's noblest attribute,
And written words the glory of his hand;
Then followed Printing with enlarged command
For thought -- dominion vast and absolute
For spreading truth, and making love expand.
Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute
Must lackey a dumb Art that best can suit
The taste of this once-intellectual Land.
A backward movement surely have we here,
From manhood, -- back to childhood; for the age --
Back towards caverned life's first rude career.
Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!
Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear
Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!

By William Wordsworth, 1846

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hans Wehr: Part 1

UPDATE: Hans Wehr Part 2

My Arabic school here in Rabat sometimes has students do presentations. I had avoided them for the most part with my busy work schedule (I’d rather chat in Arabic or go hiking with an Arabic guide or do anything besides presenting to a group of non-native Arabic speakers and a few teachers). Alas, I reached the limit for getting out of these presentations, so I reluctantly told my teacher I’d prepare a talk on Hans Wehr. Or rather Prof. Dr. Hans Wehr. There is almost nothing that the internet doesn’t know; however, Hans Wehr’s life happens to be a total mystery unavailable on the internet. Wikipedia in English, French, German and Arabic is nearly useless. Even WorldCat, my faithful friend, doesn’t yield much. Google can only sell me the books he has written, but can’t do much else for me. I finally came across 3 serviceable sources, and one of those is just a bibliography, the other an epic scholarly tribute. None of the three really reveal anything about the orientalist’s life.

First there is Wolfdietrich Fischer’s article on the event of Hans Wehr’s death.

Wolfdietrich Fischer. Hans Wehr (1909-1981). Der Islam, 59 (1982) p.1

That article led me to the bibliography called ‘Verzeichnis der Schriften von Hans Wehr’ in the Journal of Arabic Linguistics. Issue 8. 1982, p. 7-11. It is finally the one place where all of Prof. Dr. Wehr’s published work is listed together, by H. Bobzin and O. Jastrow. Interestingly, it is the first and only mention my perfunctory research has revealed of a Frau Wehr…that would be Frau A. Wehr…Agnes? Agatha? Some good German name, no doubt.

Then there is the book called Festgabe für Hans Wehr. Zum 60. Geburtstag am 5. Juli 1969 überreicht von seinen Schülern. Edited by Wolfdietrich Fischer. Since it’s a proper book, the closest I can come is the review article by T. M. Johnstone in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1971), p. 144.

The Library of Congress turned up this gem after a key word search: Fünf sprachen unter einem hut by Helene Fera, 1939. But I doubt it is related to the Prof. Dr. Wehr, as the Google Books preview didn’t look promising.

So what does it all mean? I shall write Hans Wehr’s biography! I happen to be visiting Leipzig, his birthplace, in August. I intend to gather any documents I can find there-birth certificate, marriage certificate…whatever else. Also, I contacted the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft photo archivist, who is going to send me a photo they have from 1939. Mysteriously there is a photo of Hans Wehr on the ‘Hans Wehr is my copilot’ Facebook page. I contacted the person who manages it about the photo, but he hasn’t gotten back to me. Since the revered (by me, at least) linguist studied and taught in Halle, where the archives and library of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft are currently located, I’ll make a visit there since it’s just 25 minutes or so from Leipzig. Research is grand! That is my plan for now. The next step will be to seek out this fantastically named Wolfdietrich Fischer and see what he can tell me. Meanwhile, yes, I will still be working on my dissertation, which happens to be totally unrelated. Also, why should you care about Hans Wehr? Well if you don’t know who he is, you shall have to wait till my book is finished. And if you do, then you KNOW why you should care about him.

Travel and Cuisine-the perfect duo

I recently had the pleasure of a visit from two lovely friends from the US, Alex and Cara. Cara wrote a delightful post about her visit, with particular emphasis on the gastronomic delights of Morocco. Read and salivate! The photos are excellent.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Melodee in the Media

I have made it into the Moroccan print media (Femmes du Maroc, a national magazine) and international broadcast media again (and see me totally work my rhinestoned silk scarf)! You can also see me here and here and here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Genital cutting in the news this month

Genitals have been on my mind a lot these past few months. Below are two stunning articles that emphasize the unfortunate misalignment in the discourse around genital cutting of boys versus genital cutting of girls. In an article from Friday, 18 June 2010, the headline reads "Circumcisions kill 20 boys in South Africa." This cutting has killed and disfigured boys, but we approach it with benign language. Why don't we speak out for these boys the way we speak out for girls who have been subjected to genital cutting? It's all mutilation in my book, and while a gendered approach permits important insights into social issues, we must avoid becoming blinded by gender bias.

Meanwhile, I want to draw your attention to the on-going gender mutilation that is occurring in the US. This article draws attention to the grisly, homophobic practices of Dr. Dix Poppas. Hilarious, unfortunate names aside, these baby girls' genitals are subject to the capricious, aesthetic bias of certain medical practitioners hacking away willy nilly at newborns' vulvae like some kind of postmodern Michelangelo. Abominable.

I've previously written about genital cutting here and here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hijabblogs (Thank you Bitch Magazine, Issue 45)

We all know the stereotypes: Muslim women are oppressed. Headscarves demean and subjugate women. And so on...

But who among us really knows anything beyond these superficial, over-simplified, politically appealing but substantively empty notions? Well, here are some voyeuristic reading suggestions for you, courtesy of Bitch Magazine.

These blogs seek to “explain and demystify Muslim dress codes for novice muhajiba (wearers of the hijab) and curious outsiders.” By the way, these are not burqas (something worn in Afghanistan that covers the entire body, hiding the eyes and obscuring vision almost entirely) and not niqabs (where only the eyes are visible, giving the wearer the appearance of a ninja).

Gawk on dear readers...

Stylish Muslimah (“The Muslim Vogue”)
Hijabi Couture
Hijabs High (in the style of The Satorialist)
We Love Hijab (plus-size and type of ‘What Not to Wear’)

Boys' literacy

While spending this year in Morocco (September 2009 to September 2010), part of my time here is dedicated to working on my dissertation. I am rounding up the 4th year of the International Studies doctoral program at Old Dominion University. This fourth year is also a first year of sorts. On 16 September 2009 I successfully defended my PhD comprehensive exams, a brutal 2-day (8 hours per day) writing exam (without notes or resources other than what I’ve learned and prepared between the 3-year period between matriculation and satisfying class/lecture requirements) followed by an oral defense. I am now ABD—all but dissertation—and dissertating full time instead of attending lectures full time. As an ABD, my dissertation is on my mind at all times, even when I am relaxing, which for me often includes reading or watching something inextricably connected to my research interests.

My dissertation topic is the role of illiterate women in political change. I am specifically looking and illiterate women’s agency in developing states, and Morocco is one of my chosen country studies. When my thoughtful aunt forwarded me the most recent issues of my favorite women’s magazine—Bitch—I read them with interest, finding particular inspiration from an article about boys’ literacy. I offer up here some [superficial but thoughtful] insights and critical commentary.

Jeffrey Wilhelm, coauthor of the male literacy study Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, declares that, “[i]t’s understood that boys, in general, struggle with literacy.” I wonder, is this universally true? Or only true in the US/North America/developed countries? Is there an implication for Morocco?

Later the author concludes that, “boys aren’t (as is sometimes claimed) reading worse than before, but they are reading consistently worse than girls.” In Morocco, where women’s illiteracy is consistently much higher than men’s (except in Western Sahara…but that point deserves its own special focus), what can we learn from the case of Morocco from how/what boys read compared to girls, including how boys and girls are taught differently about literacy, its function in their lives, and how they perceive literacy as benefiting or fitting into their lives as citizens, activists, and everyday folks?

According to Jon Scieszka, founder of Guys Read, a literacy program for boys, “there [is] hardly any research on the connection between gender and reading.” This is my chance to fill that gap, while integrating an international perspective, an Arab perspective, an African perspective, and perhaps even an Islamic perspective.

“Scieszka’s theory is that because boys develop at a different rate than girls, many of them simply aren’t ready for reading—‘the very abstract task of learning to make literary sense of combinations of 26 different squiggles on a page’—when it’s first taught in school.” In the case of Morocco, public primary and elementary education is lamentable, and thus an issue that requires analysis and deconstruction in its own right. Nonetheless, this hypothesis (not so much a theory), inspires critical analysis of the pedagogical approach to boys’ and girls’ education in Morocco. Is it a given in Morocco that boys develop at a different rate than girls? What are the value judgments assigned to or accompanying perceptions about differential rates of learning between the sexes? Or does a separate understanding altogether exist in the Moroccan approach to pedagogy and sex? Is there a particular approach anyhow?

The author asserts that reading preferences are largely socialized, a point that seems fairly obvious, certainly to anyone who would be reading Bitch magazine.

More insightfully, the author declares that feminists should be at the forefront of [innovative] literacy approaches, especially prepared to approach them critically. “After all, if boys are having problems with reading, that negatively affects how the men they become see both themselves and women. When we read, we see from other perspectives—including other perspectives on gender.”

Is this true? Or is this simply reinforcing the status quo notion that readers are more intellectually adept or are intellectually superior to non-readers…where do language, diglossia, linguistic prestige, etc. fit in?

The author continues that, “[t]he uncommonly honest accounts of men’s and women’s experiences that can be found in literature make the gender construct seem a cartoon of human experience, and offer boys the chance to transcend simplistic, dehumanizing notions of masculinity and femininity. For boys to access these accounts, though, they first have to want to—they first have to make sense of those squiggles on the page.”

This is laying a LOT of responsibility on literacy, not to mention assuming that literacy sine qua non provides enlightenment. I am not convinced. What do you think?

Jonathan Frochtwajg. “Paper Boys.” Bitch Magazine. Winter 2009. Issue no. 45. Page 11.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

My father's insightful commentary on genital cutting

In response to my blog post Maternity, abuse, and genital mutilation, my father wrote the following (posted with permission):

My awesome dad had the following to say on this post:

Why is [circumcision] a celebration?

I agree and disagree with your blog. I don’t think women's genitalia should be cut ever!!! Not because of culture or religious reasons but I also don’t understand why they do it. If it has a legitimate medical benefit then maybe and only maybe, but absolutely not for some ritual that is outdated because they did it hundreds of years ago out of shear "cave man logic" ignorance. I guess there is a smegma issue with women and extra skin but I cant comment on that since I have no vagina to base an opinion on. [As a man, I am] not in a position to have an opinion on the female issue really.

As far as men go though, I am a man and have been around many other men who are and are not circumcised. I'm no expert and don’t claim to be, but I just cant imagine what benefit or why someone would want to leave the foreskin on a man's penis and I have no religious or other agenda behind my belief. The foreskin hangs and lays over the end of the penis, so much so on some men that it totally engulfs the end of the penis so you can't even see it. All that foreskin hanging over the end and closing shut for the better part of the day is nothing more than a smegma collection center, allowing germs to build up. When a man pees he merely shakes it and that is it, leaving the end the large majority of the time wet with pee. It's not shaken dry right after peeing. So, the [head of the penis] retracts wet and all that piss collects in the foreskin cave festering till shower time. Not too mention the men who probably take a shower and don’t bother to go out of their way to pull the foreskin back to wash it. I was never traumatized as a child because I simply had no mental clue what was going on when the circumcision was complete and I am so thankful not to have to deal with a foreskin all my life. One can also pee by the way and not even pull the foreskin back to do so and men do it, I've seen it done. I think some men go through childhood not being reinforced and taught the importance of foreskin management also. Anyhow, overall, it just makes decent common sense to remove it right at the time of birth and it's over forever. Waiting, I am definitely not a proponent of, at all.

I believe there are a gazillion men like me who have absolutely zero religious agenda and support no foreskin if given an option at birth. Don’t cut it later, do it before [the baby] comes home from the hospital for the very first time. Waiting would create a more stressful situation and then we have a whole new set of circumstances to deal with.

Of course, opinions are like butt holes, everyone has their own. With regards to men, I don't think there is a right and a wrong choice but I do firmly believe that eliminating foreskin at time of birth is a very good idea.

Again, not having a vagina and that whole experience eliminates me from being able to make a common sense judgment or opinion on what women should or shouldn’t do.


Oh that everyone without a vagina would leave vaginal decision-making to the vagina bearers. Thanks for sharing dad!

Where in the world I am (physically and intellectually)

My last blog post came just before I attended an amazing conference in Fes on integrating marginalized women into society in Morocco. The presentations were informative, often infuriating, and provoked some rich insights for my own dissertation research. That fortuitous trip to Fes brought me to the 2nd excellent, concrete example I need that proves my research assumption. Since then (it was in March), I embarked on a 2 week trip with my fellow Arabic-pedagogy-reform enthusiast, Alaina, where outside of a 3-day Easter holiday bonanza in African Spain (or Spanish Africa?), all of our activities were Arabic only—including an excruciating (but politically-charged and opinionated) 3-hour monologue between our grand taxi driver and me while the others slept in the back seat.

This brings me to today, the last weekend in May. Fieldwork is a lot of fun, frustration, and relationship building. Morocco is still an amazing place to be, and I have been flourishing intellectually and personally while here. I have said goodbye to some great roommates and house-warmed with some new ones (I miss you!).

Meanwhile, the first 4 months of my stay here saw a great of my time being consumed with funding applications to continue my work. These final 4 months see me faced with rejections of all of the 6 applications. Nonetheless, I am fully prepared for whatever September and beyond has in store for me on the North American continent (I can think of some fun to be had in Boston or Gulfport or Harrisburg or even (heaven help me) Norfolk).

The real point of today’s post is to put some perspective onto the odyssey that is learning Arabic. When my Arabic teacher asked us to choose among a list of topics in our textbook to prepare and consequently deliver a short talk to the class, I chose the history of French occupation in Algeria. Unfortunately, doing Arabic homework in Rabat is nowhere near as fun as doing Arabic homework in Tangier was when I was there in 2008. Thus I get distracted easily, by anything—the cat, the 14 browser windows open, the 73 unanswered emails…I did try to prepare the talk. I got one juicy tidbit about the French occupation of Algeria in 1830 resulting in the revival of complete texts of Ibn Battuta’s travelogue. But soon I was thinking about how to draw accessible parallels for people who have never and will never study Arabic. How can I explain how silly and difficult studying ‘Modern Standard Arabic’ is? So then I started reading about the English language in the 800s CE. I call upon you native speakers of English.

Can you understand this? (start at 2:56, listen for a few seconds, then skip to 5:03)

This is what I sound like when I try to use Modern Standard Arabic in casual conversation. Fun! What's more, imagine if the English we know weren't a written language. Imagine that it were only a spoken language, and that the written language looked like this:

That's pretty much what I'm working with here. It's going pretty well speaking and reading an 8th century language.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Maternity, abuse, and genital mutilation

In preparation for an upcoming event in Fes next month (Forum on Marginalised Women and Social Integration 11-13 March), I was exploring Prof. Fatima Sadiqi's website and her published work. That in turn led me to the maelstrom of fascination that is EBSCOhost and all of the wonders that it possesses. There I landed on an article by Drs Mustafa Afifi and Margareta von Bothmer called "Egyptian women’s attitudes and beliefs about female genital cutting and its association with childhood maltreatment" from the journal Nursing and Health Sciences (2007). I am the sort of person who sets aside articles on female genital cutting to read as a reward for getting work done…

My first encounter with an earnest activist against genital mutilation occurred during my final year at UMBC. A friend and fellow linguistics major espoused (and continues to espouse) an outspoken objection to male circumcision as genital mutilation. While I disagree with him that it is comparable to the most extreme form of female genital cutting or mutilation (which includes the partial or total removal of the labia and/or clitoris often along with the partial closing of the vaginal opening), I do agree that the decision to remove the foreskin of the penis is one that should not simply be standard protocol, as it currently is in the US and other countries. I furthermore disagree with the practice even as a religious tradition, but that point is beyond the scope of this entry.

After visiting Egypt the first time this summer, and staying 11 weeks in Cairo, I learned how widespread the practice of female genital cutting is in that country. Despite government action to make the practice illegal, as well as declarations from both Christian and Muslim religious authorities that the practice is not a part of religious protocol, it nonetheless continues. What is more, increasing attention to the issue has resulted in increased ‘medicalizing’ of the practice. Formerly, female genital cutting was carried out by traditionally trained female practitioners. Today the overwhelming majority of female cutting is carried out by formally trained medical professionals, often in hospitals.

The purpose of the article is to draw attention to the connection between abuse and female genital cutting. The conclusion is that women who are abused are more likely to abuse their children and to have their daughters’ genitals cut. The authors refer to previous research that has isolated another connection, between women who have had abortions and the likelihood that they will abuse their children.


Therefore the authors make the leap that these abortionists will also be more likely to have their daughters’ genitals cut. This notion rests on the assumption that abortions are traumatic events. The subtext is that women who have abortions experience guilt and shame because abortion is type of ‘trauma.’ The authors continue with the sentiment that “the woman ‘knows’ [emphasis by authors] subconsciously that her traumatic event (the abortion—clarified by me) must be exposed and understood to be conquered.” This statement is totally inscrutable to me. Why on earth must the so-called event be exposed and understood? Exposed to whom? Understood by whom? Even more absurdly the authors make the leap that if the psyches of women who have had abortions demand them to reenact the so-called trauma in the form of abusing their children, then likewise will women who have had their genitals cut be compelled to continue that practice, as well as other intentional abuses of their children.

Firstly, since abortion is illegal in Egypt, I can only assume that women who undergo abortions in Egypt have done so illegally. While I cannot account for the reasons behind the abortions, I might reasonably assume that they occur either to avoid the social stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage or to prevent the growth of households by eliminating potential members. In the latter case, the abortion, though illegal and thus carrying definite risk (medical and legal), is a manifestation of empowerment. It represents a woman’s control (in the face of legal, religious, and social constraints) over her own fertility, and may not actually accompany any sense of shame or trauma or guilt—why would it? It is disappointing that the researchers have chosen to reinforce the norm of abortion as a universally shameful act resulting in (what is assumed to be or ought to be) requisite guilt.

What IS this previous research? One of the articles in the bibliography that is provided as ‘previous research’ that proves the link between abortionists and child abuse is not academic scholarship but religious activism. Hosted by Heritage House 76, a Christian, anti-abortion organization is the sponsor of the the Elliot Institute, which hosts the article “Abortion Trauma and Child Abuse.” Together these sources present the damning reality of religious dogma and non-science appearing as legitimate academic material. Shocking.

Another citation of ‘proof’ is the result of a study whose sample was from Baltimore, a far cry from Egypt. The population consisted of women receiving public assistance who had had abortions in addition to carrying children to term. While this article is not a religious piece, it still does not account for the contextual peculiarities that govern the case of Egypt—where abortion is illegal and where women’s agency is far different than women’s agency in Baltimore (being a poor woman in Baltimore is worlds away from being any type of woman in Egypt). Thus the extrapolation of the conclusion is beyond weak.

I began reading this article out of curiosity, but before I had reached the halfway point, outrage and annoyance compelled me to continue avoiding my work once again and spell out my frustration. Integrity is everything in research. Cheating, plagiarizing, fudging data, and any number of other offenses severely degrade the quality of academic research. Writing that pretends to be research but is really activism disguised as scholarship is outrageous and offensive to critical thinking people. Activism posing as scientific data has no place in scholarly research. Admittedly the social sciences must avoid relativism in order to shed light on abhorrent phenomena that interfere with human dignity. Nonetheless, normative assessments must be tempered by frameworks that guarantee that we are not replacing dangerous relativism with equally dangerous religious or other philosophical bias.

In sum, we must allow social scientists to condemn abhorrent practices like female genital cutting without allowing items off of a religious agenda (like anti-abortion ideology) to sneak into the analysis.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Forensic linguistics

One of my colleagues directed me to this story in early December, perhaps as a cautionary tale. He also sends me stories about hashish, and he has no idea that I have a strong research interest economic policy, migration and the narcotics trade in Morocco. In any event, grim. Media here doesn’t shy from showing gruesome pictures of survivors of assault of any kind, including of minors. The headline reads: ‘Moroccan man accused of raping an American arrested in Khenifra’

The 23 year old woman was serving in the Peace Corps as a health educator at a local hospital, and the accused, aged 26, was apprehended by the Royal Gendarme. A private doctor was sent from Rabat to collect forensic evidence.

As unfortunate as this story is, there are some powerful Arabic lessons to be learned. First off these three words taken together, according to

السائل المنوي الخاص

mean semen.

However, taken separately, the linguistic rabbit hole of Arabic reveals itself...

According to Hans Wehr:

السائل: fluid, liquid
المنوي: seminal, spermatic
الخاص: special, exclusive, specific

In addition to this learning opportunity, there were comments left by readers. The most recent comment was totally inscrutable to me, but said something about the flip on American meat and Saudi meat. According to a Moroccan friend of mine, the reference to American meat is a tasteless euphemism for the young survivor, and it is not entirely clear why Saudi women come up. Herein lies an example of the difficulty for foreigners of learning spoken varieties of Arabic. Because there is no standard codification of international or regional variations, even native speakers experience difficulty in understanding.

The next commenter tries challenges the newsworthiness of the item by citing metaphorical rapes of Moroccans and Arabs, such as at Abu Ghraib (oh brother, the drama).

The third comment also refers to American meat...
And predictably the fourth once again takes a tit-for-tat approach in justifying the assault as reciprocation for foreign occupiers (military and non-military alike) having raped Iraqi women.

The following comment lauds the writer of the story for authoring the piece in view of the risk to reputation and the general paucity of morals in the area (prostitution, homosexuality, raping of foreign women).

Afterward comes a comment in French that announces indeed no rape had occurred. If anything, the young man was guilty of failing to acculturate his foreign friend to the ways of interaction between the opposite sex in Morocco. Because they were friends and she had visited him before, there could not have been rape, you see.

And then a return to the 'squaring of accounts' response. I have perhaps exhausted the learning opportunity by this point. Take a look for yourself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fulfilling the mission of the Critical Language Scholarship: commitment and intent to continue language study after the CLS Program

This past Christmas 2009, I decided to stay in Rabat, where I am studying Arabic and conducting research for my dissertation on illiterate women’s political participation thanks to a National Security Education Program Boren Fellowship. Fortunately my friend Alaina, who is currently working as an English teacher a few hours north in Tetouan, was delighted to join me for a Moroccan Christmas in the capital. I met Alaina while studying beginning Arabic in 2007, and reconnecting with her after more than two years inspired me to reflect on the friends I’ve made while studying Arabic abroad on the Critical Language Scholarship.

The email informing me that I had been selected as a recipient of a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship for participation in the beginning Arabic program in Amman , Jordan arrived in my inbox in April 2007. In addition to being a tremendous honor and amazing opportunity, it was the realization of a seven year long dream to study Arabic. Throughout that time, I had made several attempts to begin Arabic language study, and each time some circumstance interfered. When I returned from studying at the Language Center at the University of Jordan, I enrolled at the nearest university to mine that offered intermediate Arabic (20 minutes away from my home university). The pace, intensity and content of my intermediate Arabic class in the US was a huge disappointment compared to the incredible, learning-packed summer I had spent. The decision to reapply for CLS was obvious, and I was thrilled to receive a 2nd CL Scholarship for intermediate Arabic in Tangier, Morocco. Although that summer was very different from the previous one, the learning was no less intense and profound. Again I came back to my home university, enrolled in the nearest advanced Arabic class (a different school, 45 minutes away), and again experienced the same let-down after the high-paced summer of learning. Fortunately the CLS program wasn’t finished with me. I won a third CL Scholarship for advanced Arabic in Cairo, Egypt.

The U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Program was launched in 2006, and I was among the fortunate few to be chosen during the 2nd year of the program. During the summers of 2007, 2008, and 2009, I studied at 3 different CLS Arabic sites in 3 different countries. As a full time PhD student in my real life, the intervening summers were the only time available to me to dedicate myself to mastering Arabic, and the CLS Program was the ideal conduit. During those CLS summers, I made many friends and have been able to reconnect with several of them, despite hectic schedules and lots of traveling. The major reason that we’ve been able to maintain contact is because of the mutual dedication to the fulfillment of the mission of Critical Language Scholarship—the commitment to continue language study after the program. From my beginning Arabic days in Jordan in 2007, I met up this year with Nazneen who was researching in Cairo, Rachel in Rabat when she visited as a part of her present work in Lebanon, and of course Alaina in Tetouan where she currently works. From intermediate Arabic in Morocco in 2008, I continued Arabic study with Lauren when we returned home, and I celebrated US Independence Day with Alex W. in Cairo this year. And as for advanced Arabic in Cairo, there are countless plans to welcome my former classmates in Morocco—Zach already has his tickets to visit at the end of this month, and others are planning trips. While I have enjoyed seeing many other fellow CLSers, I mention these specifically because they all occurred as a result of continued Arabic study—essentially the fulfillment of the ethos of CLS and the National Security Education Program initiatives.

Although my time in Morocco hasn’t even reached a half-way point, I am relentlessly diligent in pursuing additional opportunities to study Arabic in the Middle East, and meanwhile encouraging my fellow Arabophiles to do the same.

A(n extremely unscientific) comparative study of 3 Arab capitals.

After 11 weeks in Amman in the summer of 2007 and 9 weeks in Cairo in the summer of 2009, I was completely in love with Rabat after less than a week. Below are 3 among many reasons…

1. Rabat is completely walkable. Although it’s a bit unfair to compare Rabat (pop. 2 million, 5321/km2 (13781.3/sq mi)) to Cairo (pop. 17 million, 31582/km2 (81797/sq mi)), it beats Amman (pop. 2.5 million, 1680 km2 (648.7 sq mi)) despite its smaller size because it is flat and paved. Amman started on 7 hills and now includes 19 hills, and few of the neighborhoods have serviceable pedestrian paths. Even in a hurry, transportation in Rabat is a dream.

2. Taxi drivers in Rabat not only turn on the meter without prompting (almost always), they give change without bitching! In Cairo, meters, when not broken, are based on gas prices at 1960s values. Thus negotiating is standard, and there is no guarantee that a wily driver won’t spit on a savvy, insistent foreign passenger when it comes to paying the appropriate fare. Amman taxi rides often require a request for the meter and require the passenger to know which hill or circle or major hotel is in the vicinity of the desired destination.

3. The Rabat bus system was very practical (before the strike in October 2009 leading up to the French company takeover—it is less so now, all in the name of progress) and the bus numbers are large and intelligible. Amman buses are nightmarishly complicated for foreigners (there are no route maps). Cairo buses do have the bus numbers posted, but in Eastern Arabic numerals. For all cities, bus routes are available only in guidebooks and by word-of-mouth.

To be continued…