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Entries in America (15)

Monday
Apr162012

Rewriting the Headlines: The Murder of Shaima AlAwadi 

An uncharacteristic apathy washed over me when I heard the news of an American Muslim woman murdered in El Cajon, California last month. Thirty two year old Shaima AlAwadi was found bludgeoned to death in her home as a note calling her a terrorist lay next to her. Recently discovered court documents indicating that AlAwadi was filing for divorce are now leading the media to suggest that her assailant may have been a family member thus rendering her another casualty in a phenomenon that is on the rise in North America called "honor killings" that supposedly emanates from the higher numbers of immigrant Muslim communities into the continent.


I'm not an apathetic person. To the contrary, I often find myself in the embarrassing situation of explaining why I've suddenly become passionate, angry, or upset about issues that affect "other" communities besides my own. Shaima AlAwadi was an immigrant from a Muslim nation, and my parents immigrated from a Muslim Republic. I'm a wife and mother living in America in my thirties, and Alawadi was also a thirty something mother and wife living in America. AlAwadi was a woman who because of her head scarf was visibly Muslim, and I, too, am visibly Muslim in the same way.

Despite our many intersections, however, I find myself in new territory, engaged in an awkward, guilt ridden internal struggle that of which the major undercurrent suggests that I'm not angry or upset enough about this event. Fundamentally, my guilt lies in rejecting an  idea that most people seem to take for granted: I should be very, very upset because AlAwadi was a Muslim woman and somehow this death should matter more to me because of that. It does not. In fact, the continuous focus on her Muslim status detracts from the broader, more universal context of her murder. It also seems to confuse people when they try to extract actionable meaning from the tragedy.

In an age where news stories are broken in seconds not minutes, it's easy to fall into the trap of having the wrong conversations about important events. Opinions and scholarship are no longer methodically laid out for careful consideration but are quickly packaged and produced for immediate consumption by an audience that's time constrained and seems more concerned with quantity of information rather than quality. The rhetoric surrounding Al Awadi's murder is no exception.

At the peril of being misinterpreted as being opposed to hate crime legislation, I will express that I find the hate crime paradigm of understanding AlAwadi's murder both divisive and distracting. Hate crime legislation exists to protect those that would be victimized by violence that is rooted in a political or social cause. The problem with this terminology seeping into public discourse is that it automatically pits communities unfamiliar with the nuance of defining hate crimes against one another. Conversation then ultimately moves away from the central issue, that of one individual being murdered by another individual mercilessly, and then becomes a conversation about whether bias is real, whether the minority in question is being oversensitive or not and most unfortunately whether or not the victim's inability to be perceived as a member of the broader society at large is not at the heart of their demise.

Calling AlAwadi's murder a potential "honor killing" proves even more distracting. I spoke with Dr. Nancy Stockdale, a Middle Eastern Studies profesor at University of North Texas and author of Colonial Encounters Among English and Palestinian Women, 1800-1948 (2007), about this terminology and its impact on discussions about Shaima AlAwadi. Dr. Stockdale brought up the idea that honor is not an ideology that is exclusive to the Muslim world. "If someone cheats on their spouse here, don't they feel disrespected in front of their community?" The professor also mentioned a point I had not considered previously, that nearly one third of women murdered in the United States die at the hands of someone with whom they're intimate. Is it a huge leap to assume that many of those murders could have been committed by partners who felt betrayed, undermined, disrespected and, yes, even dishonored?

Just a few days ago, Kevin Allen fatally shot his wife, Katherina, and his daughter in an Ohio Cracker Barrel restaurant after his wife told him she was leaving him. Is it ridiculous to guess that Kevin Allen may have been motivated by a sense of honor or shame? What is the criteria that holds him exempt from having participated in an honor killing? Katherina Allen was shot and killed because her husband was mentally unstable, but Shaima AlAwadi may have been murdered by her husband because she's foreign and a Muslim? What religion was Katherina Allen? Was she born in this country or not? Why is it important to know those details about the late Mrs. AlAwadi but not about the late Mrs. Allen?

As an American Muslim, this untenable distinction between the two women cuts deeply in my psyche and lays at the core of my shutting down when it comes to discussions about AlAwadi's death. I cannot discuss her on the terms that both the general population and the media want to discuss her. The nomenclature used crowds out the sense of connection I have with women who are non-Muslims. It makes me feel othered and misunderstood. I imagine for many non-Muslim American women in the United States, it also causes them to view this crime as something that happens to "those people" from "over there" and thus offers a safe, yet intellectually questionable degree of distance from this type of violence.

The overemphasis on ethnic and religious identifiers obfuscates more important and central issues. While it would be remiss of anyone considering the merits of the case to dismiss entirely that she was an immigrant, a Muslim, or leaving her husband, I believe we can do better in terms of how we as women and a community of informed citizenry frame the discussion. As I researched this story, almost all of the headlines included terms such as "hijab", "honor killing", and "hate crime", and I can't help but feeling that these buzz words detracted from conversations we should be having about violence in general as it applies to women or anyone, for that matter.

I'm struggling with how to frame this death and the discussions about it so that each of us are moved by it in a way that we consider how to pull a more productive and meaningful course of action from it other than making it yet another line of distinction between us. A woman in El Cajo, California was beaten to death in her home. First, investigators thought it may have been someone who didn't like the way she dressed or looked, but now they think it might have been her husband.

Does the absence of AlAwadi's faith and ethnicity change how you would frame this discussion?

What would be your headline?

Photo Credit
Thursday
Jan262012

7 Ways to Trot the Globe without Actually Globetrotting

Emma ... Not in East India... but East Memphis.

Traveling abroad offers opportunities to expand our understanding of different cultures, people and subsequently different perspectives. To me, a useful education has less to do with the levels of academia that have been traversed and more to do with successfully processing the existence of ideas outside of the paradigm of one's own thinking.

All that said, it's entirely possible to live a multicultural life without ever getting a passport.

The Internet, coupled with the rise of immigrant and first generation communities and populations throughout the world, presents most people an opportunity to sample the cuisine, clothing, food and some aspects of specific cultures without ever really leaving their homes.

1. Food. My fellow Americans, there are nations whose food is served within our borders that are not Mexico, China, Thailand or Italy.  Next time you go out to eat, don't let the "mood for Mexican" stand in the way of your expanding horizons.  Cuban, Argentine, Ethiopian...  The worst that could happen is that you don't like Ethiopian food which I think is better than not knowing what Ethiopians eat. Or thinking that they don't eat at all.  WHICH.IS.SO.ANNOYING.  It was a freaking region, not the entire country, the famine lasted two years, and it happened twenty five years ago, people.  Let it go.

2. Festivals. Ethnic communities put on a lot of "festivals." It's a way, I think, for us to feel connected to one another, but also an attempt to reach out to other communities and teach them something about us.  Just go. Bonus: there will be cheap, delicious food there. Food is a totally educational thing.  Just ask Anthony Bourdain.

3. Forging friendships. You're looking around for a someone to start a conversation with? Pick someone who looks like they're from somewhere other than where you're from. Is that politically incorrect?  Probably. I just think it makes for more interesting conversation and, you know, it could initiate world peace if people did it more often. Just.  Um.  Be cool, okay?

4. Books. Most public libraries have collections of international authors.  Book clubs are excellent sources. Not going to lie, Oprah's Book Club is my go to -- it offers a diverse range of authors in terms of national origin and race. You can search key words like "author" and "<a nation you'd like to visit">, too. A book isn't a substitute, but it is, again, better than knowing nothing.

5. Fashion. I'm not talking tunics from Target.  Nations like India, Japan, Malaysia, Kenya and yes, even Pakistan have thriving industries devoted to the haute couture that are directed at their own nationalities.  Scanning the international versions of Vogue that are available online offer insight into a culture's values concerning beauty, fabrics, industry and, of course, the feminine ideal.

6. Film.  Netflix is rocking it with the foreign films. Bollywood selections alone will take you on a veritable tour of the entire subcontinent.  Be warned, though, if you do ever go to India, few women look like Aishwarya Rai and pretty much nobody is dancing (well) in the streets.  If you're on a budget or don't have Netflix, did you know libraries lend movies!? For free?!  True story.

7. Avoid caricatures and remember that a micro-experience isn't a substitute for the real thing. Disclaimer: Keep in mind that experiencing a culture outside of its national origin is experiencing a representation of that culture. As Americans, what's our national food?  Our national dress?  Our national culture? My response to that is, it depends and yours may be more specific.  While we may have an unusually high diversity factor in the U.S., it's a mistake to assume that other nations are homogeneous in their ideals and culture.

These things aren't specific substitutes for travel, but often we set aside our dreams because there isn't time or money to do and see all the things what we want to.  Truth is, though, you can do a little bit now while working towards making what you really to want happen, too.

Have you traveled the world recently without really leaving home?  How?
P.S. Oh. Yeah. Happy Birthday, Adam.
Thursday
Jan192012

The Tim Tebow Thing

Don't know much about football.

I do know a little about religion in America, and these days a young man named Tim Tebow is center stage.  For those of you not in the U.S. or who have "irritation induced amnesia" from 2006, Tim Tebow is a quarterback who plays (American) football for the Denver Broncos.

He's very good. And he prays. Like, all the time.

They call it "the Tebow."  Tim will silently kneel on one knee at various points in the game and pray for a favorable outcome.  He prays when he's winning as well as when things aren't going well. He talks to God a lot.  Which is, let's admit, most Americans find sort of creepy.

I'm not phased in the least by Tim Tebow's praying because Muslims pray, like, all the time.  Technically, five times a day, but way more if you count little prayers.

If I see a Muslim friend, I say, "May the Peace of God be upon you." A prayer.

Than that Muslim friend says, "May the Peace of God be upon you as well as his mercy and his blessings." Another prayer.

When I ask that friend how they're doing they reply, "All praise is due to God" and continue with their sentence.  I mean, it hasn't been two minutes and we've already prayed three times.

Oops, I sneezed, so I say "Praise God." We're up to four times.

So the person I'm talking to says, "And may his Mercy be upon you." Five.

My friend gives me a tissue and I say, "May God reward you with goodness." Six.

They tell me they just god a new job and, I say, "As God Wills." Seven gets you to heaven, baby.

And before I do most anything, get in the car, start writing something, lose my temper, start cooking, I say, "I seek refuge from Satan and his evil, and begin in the name of God."  I don't know, that happens anywhere from ten to fifteen times a day?  And I will not even begin to count how many times I ask for forgiveness.

So, I pray a lot.  Which means I don't think Tim Tebow is off putting for praying. And before you go, "Well, you're not kneeling on the floor and..."  Yes.  Yes, I am, for at least five of those thirty or more times times, I am kneeling.

You know who is off putting these days?

Bill Maher.

Many of you know, Bill Maher does not pray because he's an atheist.  WHICH IS FINE. Great.  And good for him!

That's not the annoying part.  The annoying thing is that Bill Maher thinks ridiculing Tim Tebow and other religious people is some sort of activist thing. I know he has a right to say what he likes, but I have a right to dislike him for what he says and take his methodology to task, too.

I'm not even remotely suggesting laws be passed or boycotts or anything of the like.

Bill Maher is just oblivious to the fact that he employs the same kind of "blinders on" thinking that he suggests are the source of all of our problems in the first place. News flash, Mr. Maher, you can be a fundamentalist and not believe in God. god.  Whatever. Ridiculing Tim Tebow makes him look good.  In fact, the third most googled term last week was "Tim Tebow 3:16."

Maher and other people who think this is all so very hilarious actually take the focus off of a very important fact: Tim Tebow ascribes to a paradigm that promotes the meshing of public policy and conservative Christian values that seek to limit the civil rights of American citizens to marry and women's reproductive rights. Furthermore, his popularity is either rooted in implicit support for this paradigm or is aimed at garnering support for it.

Now that would be a cause for concern for me  if I weren't so annoyed with Bill Maher making fun of the fact the the kid prays so much.

Last week on on Hey! That's My Hummus!, Mike and I discussed Tim Tebow as well as how Jamaican nationalism is affecting a recent translation of the Bible. You can download from iTunes or listen at the main site.  We're on Facebook and Twitter, too.
Tuesday
Jan172012

The Dr. King & I: Intentions and Realities. # HappyMLKDay

MLK Day History: You cannot know where you are going unless you know where you have been.

I woke with the intention of making today meaningful.

When we first decided to move to Memphis, the first thought that came to me was "That's where they shot Dr. King." Yes, I called him Dr. King because in my family, you always put Dr. in front of someone's name if they're a doctor. And, yes, I thought the words exactly like that ... "they shot him." Like an army of people fired shots at the Lorraine. Aside from proving that I'm careless when I'm thinking to myself, this is illustrative of how many view race, if not life itself.

The National Civil Rights Museum rests quietly beneath a vintage green sign with red letters proclaiming the words "Lorraine Motel" on it.   It happens to be two trolley stops away from our apartment. To give you an idea of how much I wanted today to mean something, Tariq commuted 45 minutes to join us for our very own Family Civil Rights Remembrance Lunch today.

Because this is Memphis.

This is where Dr. King died, you know.

In the morning, I explained slavery to my daughter.

She was horrified, as she should be.

Then I explained segregation.

That seemed to confuse her, as it should.

I repeated the "content of his character" line like you do when you're trying to be inspirational about race. I explained non-violent resistance. I'm not sure what stuck, but it felt significant at the time.

We stepped off the trolley towards the museum, and there were so many people. I realized going into the actual museum was a bust.  I've been there once already, so that wasn't too big of a deal. There was music playing, food cooking, laughter... people, there were funnel cakes!

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis Memphians come out to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday



Funnel cakes!

At the place where "they" shot Dr. King!

This was not a place for martyrs.

This was a party. The smell of funnel cakes summarily decimated my romantic notions surrounding today and drove home an obvious reality.

Today is the birthday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, there are funnel cakes.

I know the readership of this blog enough to know that most of the people reading right now are not exactly like me.  I write for people who want to learn about difference or diversity, so it follows that most people reading here are not "like me".  The funny thing about being "brown like me" is that you're not "black" or "white".

Bask in the brilliance of that little gem.

When you're "brown" (I'm totally doing air quotes), you don't carry a lot of American baggage.  Hold your envy, my friends, I have baggage of a different type. Slavery, separate water fountains, back of the bus and such, though?  Not so much. I own this history, but I do not live it the way someone who is "black" or "white" would.  (Again, with the air quotes).

From my position, I see shame, guilt, anger, finger pointing and even justification when it comes to these topics. Some decry this nation's racial past as shameful , others justify it as natural, many are somewhere in between. Some rant about how nothing has changed and others talk of how there's nothing left to do. Some people get angry if race is brought up at all while still others seem to make everything about race.

What I seldom see is what I saw today: celebrating.

I was not here when you were here, but I know we have come a long way. Today, my brown kid sat in a sub shop just around the corner from the Lorraine with black kids and white kids and all the kids ate the same food and nobody told them they couldn't sit wherever they wanted, and God love 'em every one, they all drank from the same soda fountain. As we walked home, we passed the site of the first schoolhouse for "colored" children and I had no idea how to even begin defining "colored" to my daughter.

That is something.

We can remember and we can be vigilant and we can be happy.  These things aren't mutually exclusive.

I woke with the intent to make today mean something by going to the place where Dr. King died.  I intended to honor his memory and legacy.  I realize now that it's not how or why he died that should be the focus, but what he did while he was alive that is most significant.

We live his dream.

Today, I woke with the intent of making this day meaningful.

So, it was.
Wednesday
Jan112012

The Arcade in Memphis, Tennessee


If you walk out of my building, take a right and walk about a block, you'll find a trolley stop.  Have a dollar bill ready and get on. Unless it's lunch on a weekday... then... FREE!


The Riverfront trolley takes you up Main Street, past the Civil Rights Museum and the Hotel Lorraine, where Dr. King was assassinated.  Then, it stops at the corner of G.E. Patterson and Main.

Get off the trolley and cross the street and you'll be standing in front of the Arcade Restaurant.


It's not a place where you play video games, but rather the name refers to an architectural style that incorporates arches and columns.  The arcade is the oldest restaurant in Memphis and was founded by a Greek immigrant family in 1924 and is run by that same family today.

That's my favorite part of the story of this National Historic Landmark.  It was made by immigrants and it's an integral part of Memphis history.  It's one proof of thousands, I believe, of how so many  individuals have contributed to what we now take for granted as natural outcomes of being "plain, old" Americans.  None of us are plain, old Americans, are we?  Like the Arcade restaurant, we have a little story that somehow connects us all to some other place besides the one we now call home.

While you're sitting in that restaurant munching on sweet potato pancakes and feeling like you're a part of living history, it might blow your mind when someone tells you that Elvis used to chill out here all the time.

Maybe even in the booth you're sitting in.

What a trip.

This is Memphis, baby.

Yeah.

Sweet potato pancakes. I have one word for you: share. I never met a plate I couldn't inhale, but I could NOT finish these. Very rich. But delicious.

Also delicious, but not on the menu.

Tell me about the places in your town that have stories linked to the past.  Do you visit them often?

Photos taken and edited on my Motorola DROID X.