Natakallam Arabi

As a way to practice and improve on my Arabic, I joined the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Oklahoma. In it, we attend meetings every two weeks and participate in a culture club once a week. In particular, my favorite meeting was a roundtable where we talked to two refugees from Syria: one who currently lives in Brazil and one who lives in Lebanon. They both work for an organization called “Natakallam” (نتكلم), which partners refugees from the Syrian Civil War with people who want to learn and practice Arabic. In our discussion with them, they told us about their experience in Syria and how they left the country. One of them spent years trying to escape, and his journey included covert border crossings and Turkish prisons. The other got a work visa for Lebanon, and crossed the border every couple of months to keep it current so she would not have to stay in Syria. Their journeys were harrowing, and it was eye-opening to hear about experiences like theirs that I only ever heard about previously.

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However, one of the most interesting things that they talked about was their outlook on the future. Both hoped to return to Syria, but they also doubted that possibility because of its current political situation. They also talked about their perceptions about the places where they live. The one who lived in Brazil talked about the Arab community that was already in the country and how they helped him transition to Brazilian culture. It was especially interesting to hear this, as in our Arabic class we read a poem by a girl from Palestine who currently lives in Brazil, so it was fascinating to see the connections and differences.

Arabic Talent Show!

The University of Oklahoma’s Arabic program always ends the semester with a talent show, where students at all levels of the language can perform, display their advancements, and enjoy (free) food and entertainment. It’s a fun way to end the stressful week before Dead Week and spend time with the language that you (hopefully) love dearly. As with every semester, I had a small role in the talent show. Although, unlike previous years, I did not perform with the Belly Dancing Club. Instead, I helped make a video that showcased the dialectal and cultural differences between Darija (Moroccan) and Masri (Egyptian) Arabic. Specifically, my portion of the video highlighted the differences in their gestures, which make almost no sense to anyone outside of the dialect, and the resulting misunderstandings.

 

However, this year’s talent show also featured poetry readings, singing, videos, and skits. As always, one of my favorite parts of the night is watching the belly dancers perform, because it’s such a fun experience to see all of their hard work and how the audience reacts to them. There were also a lot of fun skits, including a Masri (Egyptian) Arabic one that had a few light jabs at our university’s main rival, the University of Texas.

 

Despite all of the entertainment, one of the best things about the talent show is realizing how far your Arabic has progressed. I remember my very first talent show, where I had no idea what was happening and I lived or died by the quality of the video subtitles. This year, I was able to follow along and translate different sections of the show to my friends who did not know any Arabic. It just helped me realize how much of the language I know now, which is an extremely rewarding and encouraging experience.

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A is for Arab

This semester, the University of Oklahoma was lucky enough to host a powerful display called “A is for Arab.” It was erected in the Bizzell Memorial Library, on its lower level 1. The exhibit featured five main panels, boasting titles like “D is for Desert,” “H is for Harem,” and “V is for Villain.” The images aimed to expose Arab stereotypes that are common in the United States, ranging from the notion that all Arabs live in the desert and ride camels to the idea that Arab women are either covered from head-to-toe or belong to a harem. Specifically, the exhibit drew on examples from comics and old movies; however, more modern material, such as Disney’s Aladdin, was also included for furthering negative stereotypes.

Although, the display offered a glimmer of hope amongst the sea of misconceptions. The exhibit also highlights positive developments in the field of Arab representation in the above mediums. One of these is a comic called “The 99” (التسعة وتسعون), which features superheroes with powers and abilities based on the 99 attributes of Allah. Importantly, the comic depicts its characters as well-rounded, fully-realized individuals; unlike many other portrayals of Arabs in comics. The exhibit also has a panel detailing the exposure of Arab stereotypes, including short descriptions of influential books (“Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11”) and documentaries (“Reel Bad Arabs”). Overall, it was an incredibly powerful and important exhibit, and it displayed a lot of vital issues that are typically overlooked today.

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Arabic-Persian Cultural Summit

Even though many might mistake the Persian language (spoken in Iran) for Arabic due to its similar script and their geographic proximity, they are two distinct languages. However, they share a related history, full of contact, loan words, and culture. In order to fully explore the two languages’ complex relationship, the University of Oklahoma’s Arabic Flagship Program and the College of International Studies Farzaneh Family Center hosted an “Arabic-Persian Cultural Summit.”

Specifically, the discussion featured talks from current OU professors who specialize in their respective languages. They reviewed their languages’ history and detailed Arabic and Persian’s relationship from the point of view of their language. The talks touched on important topics, such as the Arab conquest and the work of renown Persian poets. Although, the final lecture on the commonalities between the two cultures held my interest most. Despite their differences, the cultures hold similar customs relating to food and eating, as a Persian professor recounted.

 

Overall, the summit succeeded in its goal of introducing the myriad of complexities present in the Arabic-Persian relationship, and it helped students of both languages gain a better understanding of the other.

Ugandan Elephants

When I walked into Gould Hall, I did not know what I was expecting. I certainly did not foresee a relatively empty room, with colorful animals and cloths right outside. At first, I was unsure if I was in the location, as the engineering hall seemed an odd choice for a talk on Ugandan peace building. However, once I walked through the double doors to the lecture room, I knew immediately that I was in the right place. Pictures and typed paragraphs surrounded the room on all sides, detailing the lives of women I would never know, who were already so much braver than myself. From their biographical snippets, I learned a small portion of their stories: how they were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and made into child brides, forced to bear and care for children when they were not even full adults.

However, one of the most striking aspects of their stories were their (generally) hopefully outlooks, primarily due to Sister Rosemary and the opportunities that she provides. Crucially, Sister Rosemary creates jobs for the young women, including making stuffed animals and purses. In fact, these vary products were the colorful animals and cloths that I witnessed just outside the room.

It was impossible to read their stories and not visit the little table off to the side that carried the fruits of their labor, their hopes for the future. On the table itself were little giraffes and elephants, with beautiful bracelets and necklaces surrounding them. Ultimately, I bought two stuffed elephants: one for me, and one for my mother. In the women’s stories, their mothers, and the larger theme of motherhood, was a constant, as many lost theirs or were otherwise unable to be with them. It gave me perspective on my mother’s role in my own life, and it reinforced how lucky I am to have a mother figure who is so present and active in my life. It seemed like the right thing to do to give her one of the elephants as a thank you for her continued support and presence.

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(Photo from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320670435949168125/)

Reading About Confucianism

This semester, I am co-moderating a reading group on The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. Like the name suggests, the book is an introduction to the world’s main religious traditions, and it includes chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other moderator and I hoped that a discussion of this book would introduce students to other cultures and ideologies that they would not have otherwise interacted with. And, so far, it is going well! This week we read the chapter on Confucianism, and we had an interesting discussion about immigration and the role religion plays in it. As the book highlights, Confucian culture, which focuses on the collective, is very different from Western culture, which tends to focus on the individual. This fostered a debate about the difficulties immigrants face when trying to retain their own sense of cultural identity when they move to a new country.

At the end of the chapter, Smith includes an interesting claim about the future of Confucianism: that it will not survive in a Westernizing world. This statement created a furious debate about the validity of the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative and whether these two world views can coexist. All of the members ultimately agreed that globalization will not spell the end for Confucianism, although its emphasis on the collective might be in danger. In the end, this reading group is doing exactly what I hoped it would do—introduce the members to different ideas and world views that they may not have known much about.

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Is It a Muslim Ban?

One of the most contentious debates that is currently dominating American politics is whether President Trump’s Executive Order outlining a travel ban is really a Muslim ban in disguise. While the original ban has been halted by the court system, the question still remains. About a month ago, I listened to a lecture that debated this very subject. The lecture included distinguished professors from OU’s Religious Studies Department, and they gave their analysis of the ban, albeit from a religious perspective. One professor sought to determine if religion, specifically Christianity, could be used to validate the order. Another broke down the role religion plays in our government, as, even though there is a separation of church and state, religion remains a crucial part of our political system. Lastly, Dr. Kimball gave his interpretation on the question on everyone’s minds: is it really a Muslim ban? In his estimation, it was not necessarily a Muslim ban, but it had the potential to become one. Once “religion tests” entered the equation, this order could not be considered impartial to religion.

While this order originated in the United States, it had global consequences. Immigrants, tourists, and refugees were confused, delayed, and sometimes detained. The order even forbid migration from some specific countries indefinitely. The travel ban is an international issue, and it should not have been treated the way it was, without careful planning and care.

UPDATE: Recently, President Trump has come out with a new version of the travel ban. This one is slightly less extreme in nature, and Iraq is removed from the list of countries it affects. However, the Muslim Ban question is still up for debate.

The Yemeni Conundrum

Despite having taken multiple classes dealing with the Middle East, none of them have covered Yemen. I have been to a lecture or two on Yemen before, so I know some general things about the country and its civil war, but nothing in-depth. Professor Bahran, however, provided an easy to follow, concise look into the conflict. I appreciated how he started with Yemen’s history and tied its regionalism into the current war. As an outsider, I assumed the civil war was largely sectarian, since the Houthis have a religious bend. This lecture, though, introduced me to the regional divisions in the country. The North has traditionally held power while the South was relatively subjugated. When the previous Vice President Hadi was elected to the Presidency and the Houthis staged their coup, the country split between the North (relatively tribal groups who back the Houthis) and the South (more urban societies who support Hadi). However, the thing that I really took away from Professor Bahran’s lecture was the hopelessness of the situation. He continuously emphasized that the victims were the Yemeni people in general and, from what I have heard of the subject, it seems like everyone in Yemen has been affected in some way. He did a good job of explaining why the conflict was hopeless, though—both sides have substantial levels of corruption and, in some cases, there is overlap between them; warlords have tried to prolong the conflict to get richer; and the international community has no real stake in the country. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Bahran’s analysis of the situation that the conflict will not end any time soon. From his lecture and the ones I have been to previously, it seems as though the world has forgotten about Yemen and is content to let it suffer on its own.

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Interfaith Dialogue

A few weeks ago I was able to go to an interfaith dialogue panel, which a friend happened to be on. While this event was not necessarily international in nature, it dealt with understanding different religions and learning how to interact with cultures and ideas that may differ from your own, which is essential in the field of international relations. This specific panel was sponsored by the Religious Studies Student Association (RSSA) and featured a Protestant, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and an Atheist. It was fascinating to learn about each person’s world view and discover where they all intersected and diverged.

The panel began with them introducing themselves and giving a brief introduction to their respective traditions. Then they answered a few basic questions that were mostly there to familiarize the audience with the finer points of their beliefs. After that, the audience was able to ask the panel questions. I think one of the most interesting ones asked was about their religions’ view of social justice, which brought out an array of answers. Ultimately, the important conclusion they all reached was that their answers to this question were ideals, and that most people probably wouldn’t actually follow through on these professed beliefs. It really emphasized the fact that everyone views religion differently, and that to truly understand what someone really believes, you need to ask them.

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(Picture taken from Xaverian Missionaries USA)

Belly Dancing

Last year, I joined a belly dancing club through the Arabic Flagship, and this year I participated in it again. It’s a chance to learn more about Arab culture and do something I love—dance. I’ve danced for most of my life, but I stopped in high school and only picked up belly dancing in the spring of my Freshman year in college. In my opinion, dancing is a good outlet for all of the stress school causes, and it’s also a lot of fun to put on a hip scarf and hear it jingle around you. Last year we spent most of our time learning the basics of belly dancing and threw together a relatively simple dance number for the Arabic Flagship talent show. This year, though, all of the club’s members are veterans and we’ve graduated to harder combinations. The moves are more intricate and faster, which makes mastering them difficult. But, somehow, we seem to be managing.

A typical meeting this year consists of three parts: drills, dance one, and dance two. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we drill various steps, like hip circles, shimmies, and short combinations from one of our dances. Then we move on to our first dance, Ah w Nos, which is one of the dances we will present at the Arabic Flagships talent show. This dance does not fall into a particular belly dance style, but it is much faster and more complex than the one we performed last year. We spend about forty-five minutes reviewing the combinations, learning new ones, and running through the dance. After that, we move on to our second dance, done in the Khaleeji style. For me, this number is particularly difficult as Khaleeji is a new style for us and a lot of its movements are foreign. We usually spend about thirty minutes on this dance, reviewing, learning, and practicing. With the talent show only a few weeks away, hopefully we can get it all down!