Going Somewhere Authentic

My son and I returned last weekend from a short holiday. It was the first time I travel to South East Asia, and my son was the one who chose the destination, the small island nation of Singapore. It is one of a handful of places that allows me entry without a visa, so I did not object, although the trip came with a large price tag.

My boy has a fixation with architecture and buildings. When we were in New York he pestered me to go up the Freedom Tower, but for many reasons we could not. When we were there the price for the excursion looked steep to me, and before we left the USA things got so hectic that we did not have the time. Last year we went to Dubai. I paid for the visa and a nice hotel, but the visit was hugely anticlimactic for me. I lived part of my youth in the middle east and my experience there as a growing young woman, then a single working woman, was anything other than positive. I could not wait to get out of there, and the first opportunity that presented itself was getting married to someone I hardly knew, but who was heading out of the middle east for good.

I might have passed through Dubai airport after 1999, but the last time I visited the city was perhaps in 1997 or 1998, almost twenty years before. During the nineties, I drove  sometimes between Al-Ain and Dubai. The Dubai World Trade Centre used to be the building that loomed large on the Dubai skyline on approach from Al-Ain, and the two Emirates Tower, where we ended up staying last year, were still under construction. Today they are dwarfed by all the giant structures around them, and the World Trade Centre is a puny, nondescript building, hardly visible among the other giants around it. I felt that the Dubai skyline bordered on the grotesque, a Frankenstein Monster of architecture, with clear examples of bad design and taste. The whole vista wasperhaps saved by the singularity of Burj Khalifa, which stands out as unique and beautiful. Since Dubai is often trumpeted as the Singapore or New York of the Middle East, I had really no expectations about the little South East Asian city/country, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The place is unbelievably clean and organized, and there are gardens and parks and natural green around. The weather, while warm, is tolerable unlike the alternating torture of Dubai between the furnace of the outside air and the freezer temperature of the malls. There are no traffic jams, the public transportation runs well, and is within budget. The skyline is not overly crowded with enormous structures and the tall buildings leave room to see the sky. The architecture is amazing, especially the new Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its classy mall, museum and adjacent botanical garden. There is an interesting integration of art and nature, which was evident even to my young son. The artwork chosen is beautiful and speaks volumes of the artistic bent of Asians in general. The food was also great, there is plenty of opportunity to experience the authentic local food fare at very reasonable price.

I know that taste is highly subjective, but Singapore, in my opinion, is a nation city that works on many levels. I am not exactly sure about its environmental footprint but I am willing to bet that it is more environmentally friendly than Dubai or New York. I could not tolerate either of these cities, whereas I could imagine myself living in Singapore. Dubai is stressful, hectic, and extreme in its weather, while New York is snobbish and pretentious in addition to being stressful and hectic. It also suffers from extreme weather conditions. In summer, the sun bakes the tarmac and reflects on the concrete and glass structures creating heat islands that closely resemble the heat of the Sahara desert, while the trains and buses are cooled to winter-like temperatures. As for the New York winter it can get extremely cold as demonstrated by this year’s record-breaking freeze. Singapore is blessed by equatorial climate, mild year round.

Perhaps what made Singapore close to my heart is also its authenticity. I am sensitive against impostors of any kind. Dubai feels to me like an impostor. It pretends that it is modern, while hiding its underbelly of gender and income inequality, along with poor human rights record. It does not score well either on freedom or democracy. New York is better at hiding its vices in plain sight. There, the long arm of capitalism touches everything. It inflates property prices, crushes the poor and squeezes them out into filthy neighborhoods and crumbling schools. I know that poverty exists also in Singapore but I do not think its anywhere near the scale or desperation visible in New York.  Democracy might be another problem in the Island state, as the ruling party has been in power for half a century. Still, the place proudly displays its own ambiance, culture, food and technology. This cannot be said about Dubai for example, a city that borrowed whatever money can buy from everywhere else. In its quest to showcase the expensive, I feel that the desert metropolis lost many aspects of art, simplicity and beauty that do exist in its native culture. Singapore has a keener eye for beauty, and displays it stylishly in the Gardens on the Bay, the Museum and in its unique music and light show. Dubai does try with its musical fountains which impressed me at the time, but now I feel that they pale in comparison to what I have seen in Singapore.

You might think that I am biased against my native culture. Yet I still appreciate parts of this culture, the undulating curves of Arabic calligraphy that are drawn into symmetrical or artistic shapes, the heart-rending whine of a violin tuned into the melancholy Arabic musical scales, a touching poem about love sung to the tune of the Oud, and the rhythm of the tabla (goblet drum) to which you cannot help but dance. There were so many authentic examples of art, traditional crafts, and culture in the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately the natives did not value them and they mostly end up collected by western orientalists, museums or curators. I have been blown away by the Aleppo Room at the Berlin Museum for example, but I have not seen anything similar in its artistic quality preserved in my native city.

Authenticity in places and people touches me, while spuriousness and falsehood repel me. Living in pretentious New York exhausted me, and visiting Dubai felt like sinking into a spiritual vacuum, eviscerating and exhausting too. Singapore enriches and invigorates with its orderliness, vitality, authenticity and artistic flair. There is a soul to places too, and that place has a calm and gentle soul.



Dodging the Censorship of the Thought Police

Whenever I want to write on a controversial subject, I like to put my Arab identity aside. Because without the baggage of Arab and Muslim roots, it is easier to express my secular and liberal beliefs to the world. This is perhaps why I am more comfortable writing in English than in my native language. Western culture does not have many holy cows, and even those are not so sacred if you attack them using permissible means. So as long as I am not blogging hate speech, racism or cruelty to animals, I am not likely to reap too much notoriety.

My native culture is different. How on earth would someone advocate for gay rights, when the language itself had only recently adopted a non-derogatory term for homosexuality? It is mostly thanks for NGOs such as my workplace, that the neutral Arabic expression for homosexuality is gaining more acceptance in official writing. Before that the common Arabic equivalent of homosexual was derived from an adjective  synonymous with: irregular, anomalous, atypical, abnormal, unusual, aberrant, eccentric, extraordinary, singular, offbeat, curious, odd, peculiar, strange, or weird. People who speak only Arabic still use this negative term in their conversations, while most westernized people I know incorporate the term in a foreign language, since the official term has not crossed over into local dialects yet.

Religion remains one of the holiest domains of Arab culture. Arab societies are largely conservative, and the Arab states (with the notable exception of Lebanon) are predominantly Muslim. The Muslim population does not take lightly to any criticism to its way of life, whether it comes from inside or outside the ranks. Moreover, Muslims in the Arab world never stop preaching the wonderful Islamic ethic of respecting other religions (especially Judaism and Christianity). They claim that they give Christian citizens all their freedoms, and grant them justice and equity with their Muslim counterparts. I doubt that this often advertised Muslim magnanimity and tolerance would stand to close scrutiny. It is evident that discrimination based on religion is alive and well in society, and in some cases it is even condoned by Arab States. Saudi Arabia is the most glaring example of this. The observant Muslims, however, fail to see any problem in restricting the rights of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, obliging women to certain dress codes and preventing them from driving. On the other hand, those very same Muslims, would cry foul whenever a Muslim girl is forced to forsake her headscarf in France to protect the secular identity of that country’s school system.  In short we Muslims have this deep belief that we are on the right path, and everyone else is going to hell slowly but surely. We like to be nice to these lost causes, to be patient with them in the hope that they will repent and come back to the correct path. How could this belief be ever reconciled with the principle of equal rights before the law in a secular system? Do the ultra conservative even recognize the law when it is not an Islamic law? The documented cases of honor killings in Germany and elsewhere in Europe would suggest that a secular law is no deterrent, in case of strong traditional beliefs.

It is interesting to note the steady shift towards Islamic conservatism around the time when Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates and Sheikhdoms rose as independent, and oil-rich states. Soon after Iran became the Islamic Republic, oil-rich as well. Further east, and even before that, Pakistan and Bangladesh came to being. They were established as legitimate nations of homogenous Muslim communities seeking independence from India. The past decades also saw their politics shifting towards conservative Islam. Nearby is Afghanistan, again, an Islamic legitimate resistance movement, went terribly wrong when it came into power, and stayed there. Southeast Asia seems the only anomaly in this pattern, and so far the predominantly Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia, are both practicing a forms of democracy that incorporate elements of religion, and secularism equally. Malaysia for example applies Shariaa law to Muslims only in matter of inheritance, marriage, and divorce among others, while criminal matters remains under the purview of state law. Meanwhile in Indonesia the Islamic law operates on a local administrative level, and not on a state level.  It is interesting to note that Islam arrived peaceably in those regions and grew in harmony with existing culture and tradition.

With that in mind we look at the parts of the world won over to Islam by he blade of the sword. Islam arrived as the religion of the conquerors, and I would think that embracing it entitled converts to certain privileges. The Islamic law does not consider the Muslim equal to a non-Muslim. It discriminates against non-Muslims in many subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways. I can imagine the motivation of abandoning the religion one was born into to join the religion of the rulers. It is human nature. Seven hundred years after the conquest of Spain, Muslims had to experience this as well, and they had to revert to Christianity to remain on the Iberian Peninsula. In my mind, the Muslims of the conquered Islamic Empire, were mostly the product of opportunism, migration, and intermarriages. While the Christians are the true first nations of these parts, the native Arabs (or native Egyptians in case of the Copts). I can see this pure pedigree in the faces of some of my Christian friends, and in their deep connection to the homeland. I do not see it in my face, not even in the photo of my paternal grandfather, who was fair, blue-eyed and probably passed on the genes of some Muslim warlord from Asia minor.

The Islamic State, which a large section of Muslims aspire to revive or recreate, was in its time a colonial power. It subjugated parts of the world, took over its riches and sold its people into slavery. The conservative Muslim would say that we brought the unbelievers from darkness into light in return and showed them the correct path. But we heard that before, from the Crusaders. And we heard that after, with different semantics, from America (War against Terror), and on a lower level still, from criminals who practice corrective rape of Lesbians in South Africa. To me it is the same bigotry and flawed logic. My question to these people, and to those who want to kill a cartoonist, hang a film-maker and silence a writer, where is your power of attorney from God? Who appointed your to speak and administer justice on behalf of the Almighty? Alas, I know that these questions would not stump the fanatic, who would have his answer ready, sealed in impenetrable circular reasoning.

In my experience I have yet to see religion as a barrier against committing any serious social crime. It may prevent Muslims from drinking wine, eating pork, and sleeping with someone they are not married to. However it does not stop them from giving a hiding to a son,  or discriminating against a daughter, or marrying her off at a tender age to someone old enough to be her father. It does not stop a bloodbath when it comes to a sectarian war. It did not stop Muslim traders from dealing in human flesh, starting the African slave trade that the white man later picked up and gained notoriety for. Christianity, the religion of love and all humanity, does not stop the hatred and discrimination against gay people, it does not stop the genocide and it did not stop the crusaders from committing atrocities under the banner of the cross.

It can all be summed up in this great quote: “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”