Thursday, July 19, 2007

Uncle Noney-Bird

My sister, who went to Wellesley, recently received a birthday card from Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that they did not know each other in college. (See my political blog at for the full story.*) This card, its "hand-written" message done by auto-pen, and obviously sent by the fundraising arm of the Clinton campaign, because Hillary doesn't know my sister from Eve, reminds me of my Uncle Logan and his little collection of such cards.

Logan Mooney, my maternal grandmother's son by her first marriage, was proud to be the grandson of C.P.J. Mooney. During my childhood, I found my uncle tiresome--for many reasons, not least of which was his constant chatter about C.P.J. Mooney. At the time, I could have been less interested. Now, of course, I wish I had listened. Few of you, dear readers, unless you are newspaper reporters, will have heard of C.P.J. Mooney--and there's a caution here about fame and fortune. Charles Patrick Joseph Mooney was the finest political figure west Tennessee ever produced (although, like many prominent Tennesseans, he was born elsewhere), for he was the muckraking newspaper editor who broke the power of the Klan in the state. Mooney and the Memphis Commercial Appeal won a Pulitzer for their efforts in 1923, and Mooney himself died three years later, at work, at his desk. As one of his friends in the newsroom said, Mooney "rode the owl home at three in the morning," for his work was his life. Despite his trouncing the Klan, Mooney died frustrated, for he had had no such success in exposing the various corruptions in the political machine of E.H. Crump, who was the Boss of Memphis then and would be for decades to come.

Not surprisingly, C.P.J. Mooney's family life suffered. His son Hugh, my uncle's father, was a troubled man, eventually institutionalized (back in the day when this was legally possible). Therefore, my uncle hardly knew his father or his grandfather, for he was only eight when C.P.J. Mooney died. His mother married again, this time to a man (Watkins Overton, my grandfather) who would eventually hold the record as longest-serving Memphis mayor. With his mother and step-father often away on the campaign trail, Logan was sent off to school. In family movies from the 1920's, and in newsreels of the period (my mother and her siblings were the ribbon-cutters of choice for the city), Logan is always standing off to the side, looking ill-at-ease.

When Uncle Logan was a teenager, my grandparents divorced. My grandfather got custody of his three children (a political story for another day); my grandmother kept Logan, who lived with her for the rest of his life. He had grown into the kind of man Southerners called "nervous." Too nervous to hold down a job, people said. Eventually, Uncle Logan got a patronage job in shipping on the Mississippi. I remember my grandmother saying nights that Logan was going down to the river to "meet the barge." He had three pleasures in life: his CB radio, his pride in his grandfather, and his five nieces.

I'm sorry to say that my sisters and I did not always reciprocate the affection. Uncle Logan dropped by my parents' house every afternoon, when he knew we would be home from school. He would rap on the sliding glass door in back; then he would sing and snap his fingers in time to a ditty he had made up: "Julia Bird! Julia Bird! Off we go to Gatlinburg!" The full story of the slant rhyme is much too much--suffice it to say that Julia among us sisters was Logan's favorite. In return, we called him Uncle Noney-Bird. And often we weren't very nice.

As for Uncle Logan's pride in his grandfather, it found its expression in the wall space of carefully-framed cards like the one Hillary Clinton sent my sister. Uncle Logan's cards were from FDR, JFK, and William Randolph Hearst. His family name made Uncle Logan a place on the card lists of the politically-powerful. Childlike to the day he died, Uncle Logan felt that the cards gave him a special connection to Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Hearst. Often at Grandmother's house I had to suffer through a visit to the card wall. From the time I was quite young, seven or eight, I intuited that these famous men did not know my uncle, even as Logan himself was quite sure they did. Now I understand that these cards gave him a sense of self-worth and dignity. Funny thing--not a year goes by that my sisters and I don't think often and fondly of Uncle Logan and miss him dearly. In our loss, I suppose, is his true worth.

*In a few days, I will have figured out my URL for The Huffington Post. For now, you can access my political blog by going to, clicking on blogs, and choosing Off the Bus. You will find me among the Off the Bus bloggers. Alternately, you can click on the list of bloggers, either click on F or scroll down, and find me, Mayhill Fowler.

Note: I will be back to Middle East blogging in a few days, after I get the kinks worked out of the HP blog. Have much to say about Fatah and Hamas.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley Girl

Flopped out in the Rio Grande Valley, nursing a cold, I've been reading Carl Bernstein's new biography of Hillary Clinton, trying to get a better sense of a woman I might well vote for come November 2008. Right off let me say that Bernstein provides a good read--not just a page-turner but a nuanced portrait. The Clintons' unhappiness with the book shows more than anything how the space inhabited by the famous and powerful over time comes to be shut off from the rest of the world, like a little terrarium under a glass bell. For the Clintons should be pleased. Bernstein's Hillary is passionate, conflicted, idealistic and pragmatic in equal measure. Yes, she has faults, she makes mistakes--but who doesn't? If Bernstein had meant his biography to flatter, the book wouldn't be worth beach time because any reader with a grain of sense would know it wasn't true.

One small section of the Hillary biography--her undergraduate years at Wellesley--I feel competent to judge, because I was not so far away at Vassar, '64-'68, and because two of my sisters were at Wellesley the same time as Hillary. For the most part, Carl Bernstein gets it right. Only a few of the supporting details are wrong, and I suppose we shouldn't expect a twenty-something research assistant to know that (1) when Robert Reich first met Hillary in 1965, he is mis-remembering that she was wearing bell bottoms, which weren't worn by hippies until the late sixties and taken up by other women in the early seventies; (2) the birth control pill was not "easily available" for Hillary and her new boyfriend David Rupert in the summer of 1968 (appointment with ob/gyn off-campus required, and then, given the patriarchy of the profession, convincing sometimes needed); (3) pass/fail grading and inter-disciplinary majors were rising as dress codes and parietals were falling everywhere in the Ivy League, so it is misleading to suggest, as Bernstein does, that Hillary Rodham single-handedly brought these changes to pass at Wellesley.

But this is nitpicking. One of the best things about A Woman in Charge is that Bernstein lays out a strong case for Hillary's devout Methodist faith. Beginning in high school, and certainly at Wellesley, Hillary's Methodism was a social gospel engaged in civil rights and the anti-war movement. Not surprisingly, for young people often forsake the stricter tenets of their religion only to return to them later in life (certainly that was my path), Hillary Rodham's college (and law school) religious practice did not include chastity. Hillary had two serious college boyfriends with whom she lived for short periods of time; once she met Bill Clinton, she lived on and off with him for several years, before finally deciding to marry him. At the time, such choices at such schools were the rule, not the exception. I suspect that Hillary, just as I, did not give much thought to the disjunction between her faith and her sexual life. It was the Age of Aquarius, the Advent of Free Love, and many of us twenty-somethings of the 60's and 70's were swept up.

At the same time, other Wellesley women (my sister was one) lived their Christian faith differently. My sister and her friends sought the meaning of the personal rather than the social gospel. Although, like Hillary, they did their share of Good Works in poor neighborhoods, they expressed their faith primarily in prayer, Bible study, and attempts at evangelism (the kind of naive outreach that my sister laughs about today). Of course, nobody--certainly not reporters, who were covering Woodstock and the San Francisco scene rather than Campus Crusade--realized that Inter-varsity Christian Fellowships, like the one at Wellesley, were equally significant, that one day they would grow into the American political force the media calls "the Religious Right."

Several comments occur to me here. First, the determination of my sister and her Wellesley friends 1966-1970 to love God, follow the Ten Commandments, and heed Jesus' Pentecostal injunction to tell the world about Him is the God-centered, top-down rather than pick-and-choose faith I wrote about in my previous blog. Secondly, Evangelical Christianity (a misnomer, because by definition all Christians are evangelicals) continues to shape society and politics, in a number of increasingly significant ways in this age of Islamic terrorism; on the other hand, some of the social gospel vision of the last century is history, and embarrassing history at that. We now know, for example, that much of the Black Panther movement that captured the imagination of Hillary and her Yale Law School classmates was a con, in which various black men played white middle class guilt so well that otherwise intelligent and educated people did not see that the men essentially were criminals.

It's always easier to spot an injustice in the distance than the wrong close-to-home. At Wellesley, Hillary was concerned, genuinely, admirably, with the plight of blacks in the South. However, committed Christian though she was, Hillary seems never to have used her prominence in student government to speak out against the cruel ways in which other Wellesley girls taunted my sister and her friends, who were known as "The God Squad." Focussed on bringing poor black girls to her school (I assume that Wellesley, like Vassar, already included well-to-do black students), Hillary didn't notice the scholarship students already there. My sisters were two such. At that time, young women on scholarship at Wellesley were required to do small jobs around campus. Poorer girls were further stigmatized by the jumble bin of used clothing put aside for them. I recall my family's feelings of humiliation about these ways in which my sisters were set apart. Here was an injustice right on campus that a would-be reformer such as Hillary Rodham could have tackled. But as far as the poor were concerned, Hillary had her sights set farther away.

The difference between the ways Hillary and my sister lived the Gospel at Wellesley was a small harbinger of the coming divide in our country on matters of faith. Calling herself an agnostic intellectual liberal while engaged in a serious correspondence on doctrinal matters of faith and grace with her Methodist youth minister back home, Wellesley Hillary was searching, like any college student. But here in her complicated and sophisticated system of belief, in her youth, was a part of her that would someday inspire uneasiness in more conventionally-oriented fellow Christians and give her such a polarizing persona.

A rapprochement is on the horizon, and Barack Obama is not the only Christian trying to bring it on. Just as conservative Christians (so-called--obviously, I don't like any of the media's nametags) have taken on new environmental responsibility, just as some Christians whose faith is traditionally Bible-centered are calling for a new war on poverty and reviving the activist faith of a half-century before, so Hillary Rodham Clinton herself has evolved. In the series of interviews with the Democratic presidential candidates on the subject of faith and politics, which appeared on CNN June 12 (see for the full transcript), Hillary talked about her faith. "I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves," she said. Despite a mention of the Pharisees, she came close to suggesting that she may have been wrong.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Maybe I Get It

Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach has spoken to educated people in the West about modern times. Writing in 1867, Arnold has long seemed to have the gift of poetic prophesy.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Has any other poem, for more than a century, better encapsulated our society's moving away from the religious verities of our forebears and towards secularism? Arnold's verse has seemed as much a summing up for us as prophesy for him. Inherent to Arnold's choice of metaphor, however, is something upon which none of my teachers, not even in English graduate school, commented.

Even as the tide goes out, it comes back in.

And so, well before the end of the first decade in this new century, we see one of the major themes for this century: a rekindling of religious faith worldwide. One of the past century's assumptions, that with education and globalism people everywhere would become increasingly secular, has been proved false. Nowhere is this movement more obvious than in Islam. Whereas Islam used to be more a cultural than a religous force in parts of the Muslim world, today that world is changing. In both social subsets, like university students in Cairo, and in nations, like Turkey and Indonesia, people are more attentive to the dictates of their faith. Of course, the same forces are at work in Christianity. The growth of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. and in Central America, the correspondent emergence of charismatic Catholicism, the legacy of Pope John Paul II, the rebirth of the Orthodox church in the states of the former Soviet Union, and the competition for converts between Christianity and Islam in Africa are shaping our world. Of course, there are parallels in Judaism, for which one need look no further than the growth of the Orthodox Bronx in New York.

But for all the rebirths in Christianity, it is the Muslim faith that will shape the world to come. Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, the world's fastest growing population. Within forty years, a majority of earth's people will be Muslim. Therefore, Islam--not Judaeo-Christian values, not the western Enlightenment, not American democracy--will mark some of the ways in which our grandchildren and great-grandchildren live. Future world cultures will be colored by Islam, in the way American popular music and movies and games infuse everything everywhere today.

Some of you, dear readers, don't want to read this. Some of you resist. You are alarmed. But I say to you: don't be. Despite the growing numbers of Islamic terrorists, despite the myriad ways in which various Muslim societies are growing darker--and indeed every day there is more disquieting news--good things are happening in Islam. You have to search online to find the good news. But the good news is there, and in its own quiet way, growing. I have pointed you towards some of that news in my Jordan blog, to some of the people, women in particular, who are risking their lives to find a way to practice their faith in the modern world.

There is an ongoing debate among Middle East scholars about a Reformation for Islam. Would it be good for Islam to have a realignment like the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther? Or is that a neo-colonialist imperative? It seems to me that such a debate is academic, for the Reformation has already begun. As Leila Ahmed said to the young Muslim women at the IWF Conference, "like me, you have been educated in the West. But unlike me, you are not staying in the West. You are taking what you have learned home with you; you are re-interpreting the Quran and sharia; you are going further than I ever dreamed." The paradox is that by re-thinking what it means to live life as a good Muslim, these women are strengthening the whole world of their religion.

So the "great war for civilisation" that Fisk and others envision is not really between Islam and the West, or between Islam and Judaism/Christianity. It is a war within Islam itself. Mostly, at the beginning of this century, we see the dark forces at work. To put it in neutral language, we see the push-back. When reading about suicide bombers and hate speech and honor killings, I don't usually respond so, I must confess. Indeed I often think of Martin Luther's great hymn of the Reformation. "And so our Ancient Foe, doth seek to work us woe/His craft and power are great/And armed with cruel hate, on Earth is not his Equal." As a Christian, of course, I believe that evil will not triumph, in the end.

In Jordan, I had a breakfast conversation that I've thought much about since. Amy and I, both of us from the San Francisco Bay area, were talking about religious tolerance among Californians. A good thing, we both agreed. Amy went on to say how great it is that many Californians are into Buddhism. I demurred, tentatively. And in the end, I demur even more. For in the West, even among conservative Christian and Jewish congregations, we now have "pick and choose" religion. It's a Build-A-Bear enterprise: from the elements of various faiths, choose what appeals to you and build your own religion--dare I say it, build your own God. For after all, none of the Buddhism-appreciative Californians Amy and I know are shaving their heads, picking up their staves and begging bowls and heading out into the world to search for divinity, in the true Buddhist way. In our time, we have come to the end of the journey on which the Reformation and the subsequent European Enlightenment have set us. Individual consciousness, human rights for the individual, the imperative that an individual should interpret Scripture as he or she sees fit--we have sought and found these good things, and they have carried us as far as they can. From the overweening sense of personal entitlement, from rationalizations of bad behavior, from the moral relativism that permeates western cultures, we can see that we have reached some kind of an end.

Islam--whether from necessity, as the world's most influential religion, or from divine purpose, as I believe--will take us on down the road. When my new Jordanian friend said that Islam is a perfect expression of human rights for women, I nodded politely, but I rolled my inner eye. Now I think I'm beginning to get it. Islam is not a religion built from the bottom up, as much of Christianity is today, from the bits and pieces of doctrine and revelation an individual finds congenial. Islam is a--maybe the--top-down faith. Worship God, in the spirit of the Quranic revelations; acknowledge God, and everything else follows. For a Muslim, submission to God, through the ritual of daily prayers, infuses everything. This is why so many Muslim women attest that Islam is good to women. God is good and all-powerful; His immanence gives meaning to my world. In the well-lived Muslim life, this is complete truth. In everyday matters, of course, people often fail to live their faith. How twenty-first century Islam reconciles this dichotomy will determine much.

This is the end of my Jordan blog. I'll continue to write about Islam now and then. But it's on to the 2008 presidential race. Islam is the future--likely well past my lifetime--but for now American democracy is still a force to be reckoned with. So Junehill, Owl, and Green Dog will return to our political roots.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Recommended Books, and Others

I knew little about the Middle East and Islam before I printed out the reading list for the IWF Conference. I take that back. When my daughter Caro and I went to Turkey two years ago, I did some reading for that trip. There I began to pursue an elusive subject that is becoming a bit of an obsession with me. Now I spend several hours a day online reading the Middle East news from sources large and small, trying to put together, just as if people and events were puzzle pieces, what's going on.

Each day begins with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Reportage in hand--literally, for I clip and save articles--I move on to the Internet to try to make sense of the morning's content. The stories in these two good newspapers seldom cohere. One reason for the muddles--aside from reporters doing the best they can with the limited information and perspective countries without free speech offer--is the scattershot nature of the attention. When the war in Iraq is the only Middle East story that the Times covers every issue, and when the Times has an aversion today (a different situation forty years ago) to covering religion per se, it is hard to follow everything else that is going on not only in the Middle East but in the Islamic world at large.

Here are some web sites I find useful, as of summer 2007:

Al-Ahram Weekly (

Al-Hayat (

Al-Jazeera (

Here are the books on the IWF reading list:

1. Leila Ahmed

Women & Gender in Islam (1993)

A Border Passage (1999)

2. Katarina Dalacoura

Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights (2003)

3. Khaled Abou El Fadl

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (2004)

4. Maria Rosa Menocal

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of
Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2003)

5. John Esposito & John Voll

Makers of Contemporary Islam (2001)

Islam and Democracy: Religion, Identity & Conflict Resolution in the Muslim World


6. Kamal S. Salibi

The Modern History of Jordan (1993)

To this list, so far I would add:

7. Robert D. Kaplan
The Arabists (1993)

8. Karen Armstrong
Muhammad (1992)

9. Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? (2002)

10. Vartan Gregorian
Islam (2003)

11. Robert Fisk
The Great War for Civilisation (2005)

12. The Quran

A few comments on the list: Leila Ahmed and Esposito/Voll I can't recommend highly enough. Dalacoura and El Fadl are difficult reading, but necessary for any pondering of Islam and Human Rights. Ornament of the World fills in the missing links for medieval French poetry. (For the first time, I understand the Roman de la Rose.) However, even as she explores the things medieval Judaism and Christianity took from Islam, Menocal does not put forward much, if any, influence in the other direction. Surely, this is significant, but Menocal does not explore the one-way-ness of the influence.

On the books I recommend: Kaplan's book is all-the-more revealing for being dated. For example, two of the Arabists Kaplan struggles to like (and almost but not quite succeeds) turn out to be prescient years before 9/11. More importantly, his book describes America's good relationship with Arabs in the Middle East pre-Israel. Kaplan doesn't make sense of how things went wrong after that, but he does describe Kissinger's crucial role in the change. To begin to understand how America went so wrong in the Middle East, Fisk is a good, if lengthy (over 800 pages) read. Despite the annoying title of his book, Fisk, a British journalist in the Middle East for forty years, witnessed many of the crucial events there. He covered the Civil War in Lebanon. He was the last western reporter out of Afghanistan. He knew Osama Bin Laden back in the day.

I now know enough to be able to disagree with Bernard Lewis. But still he is a seminal western scholar and a must-read. I now know enough to realize that Edward Said is, too. Orientalism is on my beside table. And, of course, we must read the Quran. So far, I have not found a good translation. (Arberry's on order. Will report back.) This situation would seem to bear out what people who know Arabic say--namely, that the Quran is untranslatable.

The Quran is not a narrative, like many books of the Bible. In fact, the book is not linear. It jumps around from "submissions" (prayers to Allah, many of them beautiful and more sophisticated than anything in the Bible) to specific injunctions about caring for orphans, dividing property, keeping sheep and cattle, settling disputes, husbands and wives, and other elements necessary for a cohesive society. Here the Quran reminds me of the Judaic laws in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Surprisingly, much of the Quran is a commentary on Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels. The commentary is general and therefore not particularly insightful. But, obviously, given the times in which we live, the holy book of Islam is a necessary read. Now that I think about it, the Bible is, too.

On the subject of popular literature and "first person" books with Middle East settings: Read the classics. Mafouz. Rushdie. Hikmet. Pamuk.

The only "less than the first rank" book I recommend is Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo. This novel, set in the Sudan during the first decade of civil war between North and South, beautifully if sadly sets forth why westerners and aid organizations, with the best of intentions, fail to do much about ethnic cleansing. Also, Caputo is the only novelist I know who inhabits the skin and soul of a Muslim jihadist character and makes him human and sympathetic. A literary achievement. (The book did win the Pulitzer Prize.)

If you read some of the books on the above lists, you will see why the following popular books are not-so-good:

1. Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. A first-person account all-the-more scary because the author is a journalist, for heaven's sake. She of all people should be able to inhabit the skin and soul of a contemporary Muslim woman and understand why so many such women have taken up the veil. Brooks writes fatuously about King Hussein and Queen Noor: "Behind the king's resolve, I was sure I saw the queen's quiet influence at work, and his world view gradually becoming identical with hers." Read Leila Ahmed to understand the veil. Read Fisk to get the real story on King Hussein. Brooks's account could hardly be farther from the truth.

2. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Generally speaking, if a book re-inforces impressions you already had about the Middle East, you should beware. As many Iranian women have pointed out, Nafisi indulges in easy stereotypes (the wife abuser, for example, whereas, as Ahmed says, the incidence of wife abuse is the same East and West). From Nafisi's book, a reader might assume all too-easily that for educated Iranian women novels originally written in English are their standard for literature, instead of the Persian writers who inhabit the current literary scene--women like Parsipur, Behbahani, and Danishvar. More importantly, it is all-too-easy to jump from an embrace of a writer's creation of imagination, here a reading group in Tehran, to an assumption that Iranian middle class women want a different society than the one they now have.

3. Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson. Afghani women have already challenged the veracity of this "memoir." Now it seems likely that Ms. Rodriguez fabricated some, if not most, of her stories--always a warning sign when the publisher notes on the copyright page that "some personal, place and organization names have been changed, and some chronological details adjusted." This is another popular work that gives American readers what they already believe to be true.

Since I'm beginning to sound like the book police, I will moderate my comments on the last two bestsellers because both are well-written and, frankly, I enjoyed them. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a compelling story of her Somali family and upbringing. Also, Ms. Ali makes clear why Holland and the rest of the EU are having second thoughts about their 14 million Muslim immigrants. On the other hand, even as we understand why Ms. Ali personally abhores Islam, her argument against the faith of her forebears does not withstand scrutiny. When she says that Islam is evil and perverting, for example, she does not account for the many fine people in the world who are Muslims and have good family lives within the Muslim faith. Again, I fear that she is "preaching to the choir" in much of her audience, who already are too disposed to demonize Islamists.

My last caveat is about Khaled Hussein's Kite Runner. He is a marvelous storyteller. In the end, however, his novel is not really about Afghanistan--it has a picturesque setting that happens to be Afghanistan. Hussein's sensibility is profoundly western in its appreciation of individuality, its vision of causality as a result of human choice, and its relegation of religion to the sidelines. If you want to read a novel with a non-western sensibility, read any of Orhan Pamuk's. Snow is my favorite.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Really Jordan

My friend Clare and I have been laying the groundwork for some Jordanian high school students to come over here to college. On the principle that the more positive interaction between East and West the better, I still believe in our plan, even though one of the assumptions impelling us has turned out to be false. For one thing, many Jordanian high schoolers don't need our help. In Amman, Jordan has six to eight private high schools, most with church origins but now secular, many offering the International Baccalaureate degree. Their graduates already go on to university in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. Amman also has six or so good private Islamic high schools. Furthermore, King Abdullah has enticed the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, a top American prep school, to Deerfield's new partner school, The King's Academy in Amman. And finally, Amman has some good public high schools. I now realize that Clare and I had succumbed to a bit of a rescue fantasy, whereas in fact Jordan has the best educational system in the Middle East.

There are students in Jordan who could use our help, but we will not be able to help them. Among the million-or-so Iraqi refugees now in Jordan, surely there are teenagers, well-educated back home in Baghdad, who would love to go to college in the United States. Mostly, these young people have no educational future in Jordan, for several reasons. First of all, Jordan, overwhelmed by this latest influx of refugees, will not allow Iraqis into Jordanian public schools. And the security service is cracking down on Iraqi students who have been going to school illegally, sometimes with a school's tacit consent. Furthermore, Jordan has stopped issuing temporary visas to Iraqis and has begun enforcing the monetary penalties on overstaying the old visa's thirty-day limit. Without a valid visa, even a wealthy Iraqi child can no longer attend a private school in Jordan. To meet this crisis, two Virginia missionaries opened a school for Iraqi refugees in Amman. The Grace School could have been a conduit for Clare's and my efforts; however, for reasons unknown (but on which we can speculate) the Jordanian government closed the Grace School in April. Therefore, even before any consideration of the U.S. visa problems Jordanian-Iraqi students would have, Clare and I can not help out with this surely overwhelming need.

The educational situation in Jordan is a paradigm for the country itself. Places are not always what they seem--and especially at first glance to a tourist. On the one hand, with its well-educated and optimistic populace, Jordan should be a good candidate for the western business investment that the Jordanian IWF-ers, in hosting the conference, were hoping to promote. On the other hand, the government of King Abdullah may fall, as some western analysts predict, if and when the U.S. leaves Iraq. In this scenario, the influx of Iraqi refugees, and the Jordanian government's refusal to recognize them as such, are harbingers of upheaval to come.

The Jordanian women of the IWF, like many of their countrymen, want to bring to Jordan not only western business but also western tourists. Again, this is a two-sided situation. On the one hand, Jordan is a haven for tourists: friendly, clean, inexpensive, and full of interesting places to visit that are delightfully uncrowded. A woman can walk around Amman at night and know that she will not be accosted, scammed, cheated, robbed, or mugged. This is the Muslim way of life at its best--zero tolerance for thieves and utmost courtesy for guests. On the other hand, we know that there are fundamentalist jihadists and (potential) suicide bombers in Jordan, in the way that we don't know quite that there are any in the U.S. right now. Less than two years ago, Iraqi refugee jihadists blew themselves up in three of the western chain hotels in Amman: the Radisson, the Days Inn, and the Grand Hyatt, setting for the IWF Conference. Several western embassy and business folk have been murdered in the last few years. Therefore, an American in Jordan, like in Turkey, knows that something happening is all or nothing. This dual consciousness is a strange travelling companion.

There is also the matter of the constitutional monarchy and King Abdullah. The omnipresence of the king's image (photos of him everywhere) seems, on the one hand, to reflect his popularity among his subjects. On the other hand, his government, like so many Middle Eastern bureaucracies, is tainted. One of my new Jordanian acquaintances, referring obliquely to her government's corruption, asked me if there were corrupt officials in America. When I said that "yes, of course, human nature is the same everywhere, and it is the rule of law that helps us deal with it where I live," she was intrigued. Unfamiliar with the process of holding someone accountable, she asked me to go through our justice system step-by-step. My friend's circumlocutory appraisal of her government is borne out by the Jordanian blogosphere, home to comments--sometimes humorous, sometimes grim--about the king's revolving-door and therefore ineffectual cabinet.

While Clare and I were in Jordan, King Abdullah was working, as he had been for some time, on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, just as his country (without oil, or water reserves) is hoping to make its fortune as the regional middle-man, so Abdullah has staked his reputation and clout as peace broker. Since the IWF Conference, much has fallen apart. One minute all is quiet at the Allenby/Hussein Bridge, the major crossing between Jordan and Israel, in the West Bank. When Clare and I were near, Jordanians, with pride, pointed in the bridge's direction. Now, only weeks later, the U.S. State Department has warned Americans to stay away from the bridge. During my stay in Jordan, I wondered, in the back of my mind, if there was something more to King Abdullah's cancellation of a day trip to Ramallah in the West Bank than was reported. The Jordanian Times was torn between two stories: it was the weather; once airborne, the pilot realized the royal helicopter needed repair. Something didn't seem right. But what was I really seeing? Of course, now we know that Palestinian society was disintegrating, and as a consequence the King's day trip was just too dangerous.

The turnaround of Abdullah's helicopter and the turnabout with the Hussein Bridge show that the fortunes of Jordan could go either way, quickly. Thinking particularly of my new friends and acquaintances there, I hope that Jordan can maintain sovereignty and the middle way on which it has embarked. The risk is that Abdullah has staked too much on his relationship with the U.S. Human Rights Watch rumor has it that the new hillside headquarters of the Jordanian secret service is home-away-from-home for the C.I.A. Everything has a price--and our foreign aid budget for Jordan has quintupled over the last few years.

Rumor aside, Abdullah's political stance--moderating, mediating, secular, paying homage to western ways--is perceived as an American one. Abdullah does not seem to be the quintessential Arab his father was. King Hussein knew how to put on a red kaffiyeh and break bread in the eastern desert with his Bedouin constituents. Abdullah is less close to his nomadic roots. Despite the role he has taken on as peace broker, he does not have his father's masterful ability to balance his country between opposing forces. And now that Palestine has fallen apart, what will happen to Abdullah next door? Having stepped forward as a peace broker between his neighbors Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Abdullah is now weaker. Two days ago, the King of Jordan returned from Sharm El Sheik in Egypt much diminished, because Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, at the Sinai conference was unwilling to give Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority what he, presumably with the backing of Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak, came to the Red Sea to ask for. However, one would never know that Jordan's King Abdullah had suffered a setback, for the end of the Egyptian conference was quickly followed by a two-day visit of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Ben Abdul Aziz to Jordan. Hundreds of Jordanians lined the streets of Amman to cheer the royal progress, wave flags, and feast on sheep and camel.

What am I really looking at? Like I said several months ago at the beginning of my blog, in politics I am at best a sceptic and at heart a pessimist. Therefore, I'm going back to Jordan soon, and on to Syria, while I can.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Media, Islam, Negativity and A Piece of Work

Questioning from both IWF-ers and panelists about the negativity of western media coverage on Islam and the Middle East threaded the conference, as my previous Jordan blogs show. Since my return, I've seen many example of this. The May/June issue of American Interest, for example, reviews four new books about Islam in America--all of which would seem to focus on terrorism. The reviewer likes American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion best. The author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, organizes his book into seven chapters, each on a different American Muslim: Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA professor who was a no-show at the conference, a feminist from Mumbai, a Lebanese Sufi, and four men with ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Four out of seven with ties to terrorism? Is that balanced? What about a grocer in Houston? A Somali immigrant in Maine? An Iowa entrepreneur? An imam in Detroit who speaks for peace? A Jordanian exchange student at Westover High School? (The Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman and Westover High School in Middlebury, Connecticut exchange students for a semester every year.)

Subtler negative coverage abounds. From the article "A New Cairo" by Christopher Dickey in the May/June issue of Departures: "Single-masted feluccas set sail in the twilight with families and lovers, some of the women wearing veils in that coquettish nod to Islamic modesty typical of Egypt, where the arts of seduction are older than the legends of Cleopatra." Haven't we had enough of fatuous orientalism? And amused condescension--as in the Wall Street Journal's front-page article (June 5) "For Jordanians, Shotgun Weddings Can Be a Problem." Out of all the interesting things going on in Jordan, over a three-month period the Journal chooses to cover King Abdullah's speech to the U.S. Congress (in an editorial called "Hashemite Hokum") and the Bedouin tradition of firing guns into the air as a way of celebrating weddings. The handful of deaths that occurs every year as a result says as much about Jordanian society as the handful of drownings every year in Yosemite says about ours.

Sometimes the problem is truth-in-balance, and here, as is often the case, the New York Times is an example. Although in the last week the Times has run several thoughtful retrospective pieces on the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the paper's most prominent piece, showcased with a color drawing on the front page of the Sunday (June 10) Week in Review section, is "The Guidebook for Taking a Life." With its eye-catching format, the insouciance of its choice of bestseller terminology, this article (researched in Zarqa, Jordan, by the way) purports to set out the rules of jihad etiquette. Not only is this bit of journalism in questionable taste, lightly equating killing with social manners, but also it is false, for jihadists are not all on the same page when it comes to rules of engagement. This is an important issue, and underlying it is the opacity of the Quran, whose verses are open to very different interpretations. Instead of tackling this difficult topic, however, the New York Times opts for shock journalism, which, of course, draws in more readers.

These choices show how low our media has descended, even in arguably the two most prominent American newspapers. This corruption was also on display at the IWF Conference during our first lunch session. I had been looking forward to this program, which featured the U.S., Turkish, and Russian ambassadors to Jordan as panelists and Raghida Dergham as moderator. I shouldn't have been optimistic, however, because luncheon programs for ladies are often light fare, and male participants, like our ambassadors, usually pick up on the tone and deliver accordingly. Nevertheless, I was excited, because I had googled Raghida Dergham.
Born in Beirut, a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh, now a New Yorker, Ms. Dergham is a columnist for Al Hayat, the London-based Arabic daily paper, as well as an analyst for NBC/MSNBC, and a member of The Council on Foreign Relations. A frequent guest on t.v. and radio talk shows, she has won numerous awards in journalism. Something of a Lebanese Barbara Walters, Ms. Dergham has interviewed all the major players in Middle Eastern politics for the last quarter century.

Media stardom has gone to the head of Raghida Dergham. She wanted the IWF lunch session played her way and no other. Disingenuously, she began, "let's keep this off-the-record." In a room full of strangers armed with digital audio/video cameras and Blackberries? With me blogging? As if! As if the three ambassadors took her seriously for a moment! Quickly, Ms. Dergham moved in for the kill with the kind of pointed questions that twist any response before it is even made. But Ms. Dergham was not interested in an exploration of possibility and truth; she was prodding for the "gotcha" moment. She wanted to make the three gentlemen squirm. And, of course, as public servants the ambassadors were used to this verbal thrust-and-parry, with its overtones of gamesmanship and sexual titillation. (Raghida Dergham is a very attractive woman.) Resigned, the men offered anodyne remarks about politics in the Middle East, which gave us women of the conference nothing to ponder. Grim-faced, surrounded by the Jordanian security service, David Hale, the American ambassador to Jordan, departed the minute lunch broke.

Since Raghida Dergham can never return to Lebanon, where she is under indictment for treason (something about a public debate with an Israeli), I cut her some slack. I can not begin to imagine what it must be like never to be able to go home. But, I have to say, she is a real piece of work. As the lunch quickly ended, we ladies were surprised that the meal had been only mezzes (appetizers). Later we found out that the waiters, trays aloft, lined up in the hall outside the ballroom, preparing to enter with our main courses, had been turned away. Word had come down from Raghida Dergham. She didn't like the clink of cutlery and the chink of china of competing with her own voice. Either the luncheon service came to a halt--or she would get up and leave. Now wouldn't that have been a shame?

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Here comes a break in my blog about Jordan, Islam, and the women's conference. I posted "Spoke-ified" on the afternoon of the conference's last day. That night our Jordanian hostesses treated us to a magnificent party at Kan Zaman, an Ottoman caravanserai that has been turned into a tourist restaurant-with-shops. We indulged in a final flurry of shopping, heaped plates of mezzes and shwarma, and dancing to the bagpipes. (I've since learned that the Arab Legion of the British Army introduced European music to its soldiers by setting up musical bands, and in 1929 bagpipes were incorporated into these bands. The bagpipes, which incidentally had been played in Persia thousands of years before they came to Scotland, were so popular in Trans-Jordan that the great-grandfather of the current King Abdullah had them played on his way to mosque every Friday.) Anyway, in honor of the occasion, the ladies of the IWF outdid themselves in ornament and dress.

An amusing and dramatic side-plot of the conference was the increasing display of jewelry from the Middle East. Every morning at breakfast I spotted new pieces on IWF-ers. One morning an American said that before her trip she had asked a friend who had traveled to Jordan what there was to buy. "Nothing," the friend had replied. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jewelry, both costume and antique, silver and gold, is beautifully different and also inexpensive compared to what you find in the U.S. And the high-end clothing, such as the cross-stitched Bedouin jackets and the semi-sheer scarves and over-dresses made of camel's hair (not coarse, but soft and fine like silk), are lovely. Much of this clothing, especially hand-embroidered silk caftans, came out to Kan Zaman.

A coda to the evening is that the bus ride to Kan Zaman, on the outskirts of Amman, showed us the tight security I had been expecting and did not find at the conference. The attendees of the World Economic Forum were already arriving as we ladies were leaving, and the Jordanian army was out in force. (The forum was meeting at hotels along the Dead Sea, but many attendees were staying at hotels in Amman.) As we drove out of Amman, we saw a tank or police car parked athwart every side street. There were a couple of soldiers posted on every block. Every hill and hillock had its sniper. This display went on for miles and miles, presumably all the way to the airport.

Two days later, I was back in Rome--this time with my daughters, both of whom were suffering from jetlag and post-graduate school-year exhaustion. (Coincidentally, both Coco and Caro are getting their Ph.D.'s at Princeton--Mayhill Courtney in Russian history and Caroline in Byzantine/medieval art.) After a Fowler women weekend in the Eternal City, Coco flew off to Paris (treating herself because she just passed her orals) and Caro and I commenced a Toad's Wild Ride through Sicily. The ostensible reason for the trip was the medieval cloister at the Cathedral of Monreale outside Palermo, which Caro plans to write about in the coming year. But the real impetus, it seems to me, was Caro's love of the sun. We spent much of our week there checking out various beaches, and indeed we found a glorious one. Unfortunately, however, Sicily is still a bit internet-challenged, and it is only now, weeks later, that I can complete my thoughts about Jordan, Islam, and the Conference.

So I have two more postings: on the Middle East and the western media; and finally on what I have learned about Islam (and there I will include a list of the books I have found illuminating, the ones I have not, and the ones I have on my bedside table now, for I will pursue this subject further).

Next year Clare and I plan to return to Wadi Rumm; then I want to go on to Syria. Meanwhile it's back to American politics for Junehill, Owl and Green Dog. I did the Barack Obama Walk for Change this afternoon; I've been thinking about the "Faith Dialogue" that Jim Wallis persuaded CNN to host, with all the Democratic candidates. Watch for those next week.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


The members of the IWF are impressive in many ways. Sometimes I feel out-of-my-depth as a guest of women with such experience and accomplishment. Perhaps even more remarkable than the level of their worldly achievement, however, is the support they give one another. Beyond networking, there are circles of friendship and affection, even across barriers of geography and culture. (I would add language, except that everyone speaks English.) Given what I have sometimes observed over the years at my husband's law firm, where women are not always supportive of one another, I find the atmosphere at the IWF Conference extraordinary, lovely.

Therefore, it seems to me all the more revealing that the one talent, by and large, these women have not mastered is the art of listening. Of course, this is a broad generalization, one which I am presuming to apply to a group of whose membership I have met only a few; nevertheless, much of the IWF performance during the question-and-answer sessions would seem to support my view. As my two previous blogs have shown, too often an IWF-er takes the mike and, rather than ask a question of the panel, states her own opinion, and states it as if the guest speakers have not just offered us a wealth of new information and possibility from the depth of their knowledge and/or personal experience of Islam and the Middle East.

This platforming, as I call it, says a lot about Americans and other westerners. Although there is a general acknowledgement that we are here in Jordan to learn, that vow is hard to keep. "We know best." It would seem that it is hard for women of the western world to sustain the thought that perhaps we do not.

Because we peer through the viewfinder of our own culture, when we travel we move like snails, carrying with us houses full of assumptions and views. We travel, however widely, protected by an invisible shell of presumptions we don't realize surround us. Of course, this is true of everyone, not just Americans and (certainly) Europeans. It is hard to stop and reflect: what am I looking at? what am I really seeing? Nevertheless, I expected more inquiring minds among the IWF. I am dismayed by the lack of humility--indeed the underlying arrogance. Good listening is a rare gift, but one I had thought to find frequently among the successful women at the conference. (Interestingly, the one good listener I have met is Fernanda, a radio and television personality described to me by her friend Paula as "the Oprah Winfrey of Mexico.") The lack of a spirit of inquiry is all the more appalling because few of the women have read any of the books about Islam and the Middle East on the conference reading list.

These underlying attitudes, and the platforming they provoke, lend the session-side of the conference its final note. Our last panel, because they are last, because they speak during lunch, are given cursory attention. In fact, the ballroom slowly empties as the session unfolds. The lunchers who leave miss at least two intriguing and revealing scenes. The first moment of particular interest is the response of the Jordanian panelists (Marjorie Adams of the Jordan Business Alliance and Reem Badran, CEO of the Kuwaiti Jordanian Holding Company) and the moderator Suhair Al-Ali, a Jordanian government minister, to a question about the one million Iraqi refugees now in Jordan. All three women carefully refer to "our Iraqi visitors." There is only one slip of the tongue--repeating the questioner's word refugee--and that is quickly corrected. Since I had read on the internet several U.N. and Human Rights Watch reports about Iraqis in Jordan, I know that Jordan has been refusing to acknowledge the Iraqis' refugee status. To do so would mean complying with U.N. standards on rights and services that must be given to refugees.

The other interesting moment is a question from a Jordanian IWF-er to the third panelist, Patrick Renauld, EU ambassador to Jordan, about the possibility for a free trade agreement, like the one Jordan has with the U.S., between Jordan and the European Union. The Jordanian woman uses Jordanian textiles as an example. With Gallic hauteur, Mr. Renauld replies, "we are not ready to agree with [to import] bad products." Whoa! French toile de jouy is fine--but as a justification for rudeness? Once again, the Jordanians take it on the chin.

And then the final note: an American IWF-er rises to speak about the Most Important Thing of All, preserving the planet. She mentions the dust storms of a few days ago and lectures the Jordanian panelists about keeping nature in mind. Once again, our hostesses reply politely to western effrontery and ignorance. If the American IWF-er had been reading the local newspaper the last few days, she would have learned: the Khamsini phenomenon, named from the Arabic word for fifty, brings dusty weather to the eastern Mediterranean every year; an Arab environmental conference is taking place in Amman at the same time as the IWF conference; the Jordanian forestry department has begun a five-year plan to plant 6 million trees; Jordan is taking the lead in restoring the marshlands in Iraq that Saddam Hussein destroyed years before. Indeed, if the American IWF-er had not assumed that, as a westerner, she was out in front on green issues, she might have done some inquiring first and learned that Jordan is one of the lowest carbon emitters among nations.

Despite this embarrassing moment, and the other instances of platforming, there have been intelligent questions during the conference, too--particularly from the Canadians. I don't know why it is that the women from Toronto shine--that almost alone they are direct, succinct, and curious--but they are. (Suddenly, Toronto seems like a cool city that I would like to visit.) After the first session yesterday, I complimented a young Canadian IWF-er I had briefly met before. "Good question! Articulate! To the point!" Her companion laughed and said, "we are Jam-AI-cans! In Jamaica, we have a word for it. Spoke-ified! And that's what she is," the Toronto lawyer, originally from Jamaica, said, hugging her colleague, "spoke-ified!"

Friday, May 18, 2007

Dialogue and Confrontation Continue

The next conference session will be the best, I think, because Leila Ahmed will speak. Among the books on the conference reading list, I have learned the most from Dr. Ahmed's, both her scholarly work Women and Gender in Islam and her memoir A Border Passage, about growing up in Egypt in the 1940's. The session is primed because Queen Rania decides to stay for it. Again we ladies crowd behind the cordon of security guards, holding a path through the ballroom. Flash, flash, flash! the digital cameras click. The fireworks have just begun.

This session is called Myths, Misperceptions, and Realities. The Irish moderator is Gemma Hussey, director of the European Women's Foundation. The four women panelists: Dr. Laila Abu Hassan, chairperson, department of physics, University of Jordan; Dr. Katerina Dalacoura, expert on international relations and the Middle East, from the London School of Economics; Dr. Rima Khalaf Huaidi, chairperson, Advisory Board of the Arab Human Development Report, chairperson of the UN Global Democracy Fund Advisory Board; trustee of the American University of Beirut; Dr. Leila Ahmed, Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

Briskly, Gemma begins with a question to Dr. Abu Hassan on Arab women in science. Dr. Hassan's reply isn't much different from what an American academic might say: the number of women as students and as faculty in physics is growing but still men predominate. Gemma next asks Rima Huaidi about gender ineqality in the Middle East--again a broad question, and really I feel I could answer it myself after all the reading I have done. Referring us to the Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World report, Rima Huaidi says that the number one achievement for Arab women has been in education. She adds that "Arab girls are the better learners [than boys]." A murmur passes among the ballroom's round tables, for the same thing is true in the U.S. Rima goes on to say that Arab countries still have the highest illiteracy rates in the world.

After a few minutes of such general comments, Rima moves to specifics, and at this point the conference session grabs our full attention. There are two kinds of discrimination against women in the Arab world: personal status laws and the fact that nationality can be passed to a child only through the father. Then Rima lists what she calls "some special problems:" the under-utilization of women's capabilities; genital mutilation among African Arabs; no labor laws for foreign domestic workers; and, finally, foreign occupation--by which she means the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Like Nour the young Palestinian earlier, Rima Huaidi zooms in on the Israeli checkpoints. Palestinian women are forced to wait so long at checkpoints that they are delivering babies there. In addition to this humiliation for the mothers, two-thirds of the babies are stillborn, Rima says.

Rima ends with the generalization that "there can be no Renaissance in the Arab world without equality for women." However, she has lost us, for we are back at the checkpoints with the women giving birth.

Trying to move along, Gemma poses a question to Katerina Dalacoura. "What are the biggest misconceptions?"

"I assume you mean in the West," Katerina replies. She goes on to say that there is a strengthening of stereotypes about Arab women. This stereotype is part of the current belief that there is a clash of civilizations going on. "This is a simplistic and pernicious view that only creates tensions," she says. Women--and in particular the matter of the veil--have become the center of the battle of values and norms. "But the stereotyping is not just one way," she adds. "Women in the West have loose morals." "Women in the West have full equality with men." Among the tables, IWF-ers nod. "We are putting people in a box before we know anything about them. . . . but we need an unpacking of reality to see what is really going on, rather than the glossing and embellishing that usually occurs." Unpacking of reality. Dr. Dalacoura is settling into academo-speak, where previous panelists at the conference have lost their non-American listeners, I have learned. (More on that in a later blog.) Nevertheless, she is much easier to follow in person than in her writing. Several of the conferees have mentioned that they could not get into her book on Islam and democracy.

Gemma now poses a question to Leila Ahmed. "What are the prevailing myths about Arab women?"

Leila Ahmed: "Let me begin with a few facts. 1917. Women get the right to vote in the U.K. 1920. USA. 1926. Turkey. 1946. France. 1947. Pakistan. 1963. Afghanistan. 1971. Switzerland. Women prime ministers: '69. Israel. '79. India. '90. Ireland. '91. Bangladesh. '93 Turkey. 2001. Indonesia. 2006. Germany." Dr. Ahmed speaks quickly, and her staccato has me scribbling as fast as I can. (These dates may not be quite right, and I will review them when I return home.)

"Current research does not bear out women being better off in the West than in the East. . . . violence against women, for example, is endemic everywhere." I sense that, for the first time, an academic on a panel discussion here has the audience's full attention.

"In Afghanistan, where the situation is such a product of the Cold War, the suffering burka-clad women pictures in the media, presented without context or explanation, have led westerners to the wrong conclusion that it is Islam that is at fault here. . . . in fact, there has been a rhetorical tsunami on the subject of Islam that has led to the noble goal of rescuing women from Islam. In this way, war on Muslims can come to seem morally right, when westerners think that they are rescuing women. . . . This is part of a revival of the old colonial myths, and like the old colonialism very manipulative."

Dr. Ahmed shakes her head. "It is so hard now [for Arabs]. Arabs are having to cope with hard new realities. But I do have hope. I place my hope--one--in the Arab and Muslim young--and two--in ordinary people in America, who have a receptiveness, not found in the media, despite the media, to hear the Arab side. After 9/11, for example, so many churches welcomed Muslims and churches were packed."

Gemma takes over from Leila Ahmed. Prefacing her question with a brief reference to the peace in northern Ireland, just as Paula did earlier in the morning, Gemma asks, "Can women in this region work for peace?"

"Already!" Rima says. But Katerina Dalacoura disagrees. "I am sceptical of any particular role women can play. It is not initiative [from women] that will make the difference. Women have a more indirect role. A small contribution." Leila Ahmed agrees, and this is not the first time we have heard (1) American academics tell it like it is, in contrast to the quintessential Arab response, in which good manners prevail; (2) the view that the solution is political, from the top down, rather than societal, from the masses up.

Gemma now opens the discussion to questions, with the brisk reminder that we should limit ourselves to questions only. "We can tell our own opinions in other forums."

A Canadian IWF-er rises to ask Dr. Abu Hassan how government and academia can help to get more women into science. As part of her reply, Dr. Hassan says that there are no advanced industries in Jordan, so science graduates must be teachers. (From reading The Jordan Times, I know that King Abdullah has been working on this problem, and, for example, as we women are meeting with the Queen, her husband is hosting the Petra III Conference, with fifty Nobel laureates in attendance at Petra, to oversee grants for scientific research and endeavor in the Middle East.)

An Israeli IWF-er takes the mike and, addressing herself to Dr. Abu Hassan as well, launches into a description of a regional sharing program in high energy physics that she thinks should interest Dr. Hassan. As the woman continues, describing her country's part in the program, Gemma interrupts, telling her to "finish the question."

Despite the condescending tone of the questioner, Dr. Hassan responds politely, even gently, as she says "I am aware." In fact, she is one of the chairs of the acceleration program. She adds, "I am willing to sit down and discuss this with you afterwards."

Now the feisty Nissreen Haram, the young Arab woman we have heard from several times before, takes the mike. (Later I discover that she graduated from Mount Holyoke before returning to Jordan to practice law.) She addresses her question to Leila Ahmed. "What do you say about the fact that Muslim women now are often dismissed as apologists for their faith and culture?"

Leila Ahmed: "You young [Arab] women are taking my ideas far further than I ever did. You are coming up with ideas I never could come up with." Dr. Ahmed is presenting Nissreen Haram with the positive to her negative. "You are going to school in the West, like I did, but then back to school in the East [as my generation did not]. One-fourth to one-third of young Arab women are deeply feminist even though they don't like the term. They are re-interpreting the old texts, re-translating sharia."

An Israeli IWF-er takes the mike. She tells us that she is a physician from Jerusalem, and she wants to respond to the comment about "women giving birth at checkpoints." Perhaps without so intending, she gives us a statement rather than a question, as she avers that "we have babies from the West Bank in our neo-natal ward . . . and [I believe that] medicine and politics don't mix."

Rima Hunaidi waves the physician's comment aside. "Of course. Of course. But that is very different from the way women are treated at checkpoints." As the physician tries to say that such things do not happen, Rima speaks over her, with a firmness I have not heard from a Jordanian before. "I have my information from an Israeli source, and from Human Rights Watch."

After yet another exchange about the media--in this instance an open-ended question about why the media is doing such a poor job in covering what is really going on in the Arab world--Gemma says that the session can take one final question.

An IWF-er from Seattle says that she is "curious about definitions." She goes on to explain that "religion was never discussed in my upbringing." She asks, "How important is religion in daily life?" I take it that she is asking about religion in the Arab world. She goes on to say, "Arab, Muslim, I'm not sure what you mean."

With that Arab politesse I have come to expect, Rima Hunaidi explains, as if this has not been conversational groundwork at the conference for two days, that in fact most Muslims are not Arabs and indeed live outside the Middle East. That not all Arabs are Muslims--that some are Christians--Copts, Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite. (And Protestant, I might add. But that will be a subject for another blog.)

The final question shows me once again that it is easy to sit and attend but hard to absorb what we hear. But I suppose we have to keep at it. As Nissreen Haram told her friend Mohamed, "dialogue is the best way for people to learn." Dialogue is the beginning.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Walls and More Walls

In particular focus, in a tizzy for some, the second morning of the conference began inside a cordon of determined, if amused, security guards. Because every women had to be inside the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt by 8 A.M., we knew that this morning was the day Queen Rania would spend some time with us. Therefore, with polite attention, but perhaps without much anticipation we turned to our first session "The Future of the Arab World." Our panelists sitting politely and with poise on the podium sofas were six young Arabs: Mohamed Al Bashir, a young man off to Georgetown Law School next year; Enas Abu Shasheih, a young woman who works for Netcorps Jordan; Talar Karakashian, a young woman who is an electronics engineer; Nada El Khoury, a female lawyer from Beirut; Nour Kleibo, a Palestinian young man studying business at Birzeit University in the West Bank; and Mariam Al-Musttaf, an Iraqui refugee, former translator in Iraq, and mother of two.

The female moderator, Laith Al-Qasem, a member of the Young Arab Leaders, Jordan and CEO of Arabian Business Consultants for Development, began the questioning. "Enas, why do you wear the hajab?" (Indeed the young businesswoman wears conservative attire and a wrapped headscarf.)

Enas: "I am lucky to be a Muslim lady who can represent Islam in a nice way. . . . The hajab is something that has never stopped me from doing anything." She emphasizes that the headscarf is her choice. (This is a common attitude among young Arab women who choose traditional dress.)

Moderator: "Mariam, what has the toppling of Sadam done for Iraq?"

Mariam: "With Sadam, we knew how to avoid his evil. But now we have no peace and stability." Mariam, who also wears the wrapped headscarf and traditional attire, becomes agitated. "There are increasing orphans and alienated people. The alienated people! . . . a sectarian war now. I insist we get rid of the intruder." Her reply has verged on incoherence, but we all know what she means.

Moderator: "Nour, will there ever be normal relationships with Israel?"

Nour: "We can't be partners when there is shooting every day. . . . I don't have anything against Israelis, but the Israeli government. . . . You have to understand, the wall is destroying us. This is not a virtual wall, like you talk about here [in the conference]. And I have to say that ninety percent of Palestinian youth are against normalization [of relations with Israel]." The young man's disposition is calm, even laid-back.

After asking the young Lebanese lawyer Nada something non-specific about Lebanon, the moderator turns to Talar, a willowy and vivacious young woman in a western-style pants suit.

Moderator: "What is it like to be a Christian Armenian living in an Arab land?"

Talar: "Jordan is home, and that's all I know." She turns to Enas sitting next to her. "Enas is one of my closest friends." Talar goes on to talk about her grandfather's escape from the Armenian genocide (Turkey itself never mentioned) and subsequent settling in Jordan. "I go to church every week. . . . At Christmas, my Muslim friends come caroling with us. At Easter, the children hunt eggs together." (Talking about the session later, many women would come away with a particularly favorable impression of Talar.)

Moderator: "Mohamed, you are off to Georgetown."

Mohamed: "It's time to see an international country that accepts differences. . . . I am going to live the American dream, experience the American freedom. . . . As my friend Nissreen Haram keeps telling me, 'dialogue is the best way for people to learn.' I am looking forward to the dialogue." (Note to readers that Nissreen Haram is the feisty, impassioned and articulate young woman who vented about American women's obsession with sharia the day before.)

Having scratched the surface of familiar if wide territory with her questions, the moderator now opens the questioning to the ladies of the audience. A young woman from Amman takes the mike. "I hear a lot of the victim voice," she says in a tone of reproach.

I am surprised by the comment, for I have not heard any such thing, even from Mariam of Iraq. And with quintessential Arab politeness, the young panelists respond. Enas has been working with the Bedouin of Wadi Rumm. Mohamed, in the disarming mode we have come to expect from him, says that we have to understand that their schooling has not prepared them for speaking before five hundred people [chuckles from audience] and they are not accustomed to putting themselves forward. Nour says, "victimized?--probably." He goes on to mention briefly Seeds for Peace, his organization that brings together young Palestinians and young Israelis. With the last word, the moderator defends her panelists. "You are all pro-active. Or you wouldn't be here."

Now the moderator asks if we ladies would like for her to continue with the questions or open up the questioning further to the floor. We ladies shout for the moderator to continue. Our experience of questions from IWF members has often not been a postive one (and I will have much more to say on this topic in a later blog), so we vociferously try to overrule the woman who begins to test the volume of the microphone. However, the questioner already has the mike.

IWF Member from Israel: "Why are there no Israeli young people on the stage?" There are a few murmurs of approval for the question among the audience, although most of the audience is silent, for the question is immediately followed by a spate of platforming and the statement of personal opinion, instead of the requested questions, to which we frequently have been subjected.

Ignoring the impassioned statement of the Israeli position on the Palestinian Question, the moderator turns to charming Talar with an anodyne remark about women coping in the largely-male field of engineering. Then in a reply to some question from the moderator, Mariam says that she is enrolling her two children in a Christian school in Amman. An indicator of the unreleased tension in the room is the fact that I do not have among my notes the actual question for Mariam that elicits this surprising reply.

In oblique reply to the Israeli IWF-er's political statement, Nada from Beirut says that young Lebanese don't want to listen to what's going on. "We youth--we're sick of t.v. and news and politics." Some of the other panelists agree, including Nour, even though he dispassionately admits, almost in an aside, that "some of my friends are martyrs."

Moderator: "Turning to the issue of globalization, does it contribute to a dilution of national pride, a simplified fabric of life, does it make life more plain and dull."

Nada: "I think it [globalization] helps me find my identity." In her disagreement with the moderator, the young lawyer from Beirut talks about blogs.

Mohamed: "I want to be able to get a McDonald's meal, you know?"

Despite Mohamed's amusing reply, the word martyrs hovers in the Grand Ballroom. Perhaps sensing that she no longer has her audience's complete attention, the moderator addresses the ladies directly.

Moderator: "All of us are speaking in English, for your benefit."

The room at large seems to acknowledge this linguistic largesse, and after a round of replies to the moderator's question about West learning from East, the moderator again opens the questioning to the ladies. Alejandra, a young guest from Mexico City who will begin medical school at Goucher in the fall, takes the mike.

Alejandra: "What do you want from western youth?"

After a series of general comments, it is Nour's turn. He reiterates the distinction he makes between the Israeli people and their government. He says, "I have no problem with Israelis--we are all human." Nour's body language and tone of voice suggest that he is telling the truth. Continuing, desultorily at first, he speaks in more detail about his life and returns to the subject of the Wall.

Nour: "A wall twelve meters long keeps me from visiting my friend who lives one meter away." Nour goes on. "East Jerusalem, it is a prison--and we are separated from Palestinians in other areas. In July a new law goes into effect requiring a permit to go to the West Bank. Already I get up at 4 A.M. to reach school [in the West Bank] at 7:30. Now it will get worse. And I--I even have an Israeli I.D. Other people just have permits."

Nada: "We need to focus more on education. It is the challenge of youth."

The fact that the young Beirut lawyer has turned the question around, focusing not on what Arab youth want but on what they must do, is interesting and revealing. However, the import of her reply is lost on me at the time because the room is growing restive, as if something unheard and unseen, but a presence nevertheless, has entered the room. A young Palestinian IWF Guest steps to the mike and addresses Nour.

Young Palestinian Woman: "Are actions on the ground by Israel showing Palestinians they [Israelis] want peace?"

Nour: "Even if it is not on the news every day, every day people are late to work and school." He cannot let go of the Wall.

In the restive room, Mrs. Brown from New Jersey takes the mike. In a stentorian voice, she launches into the me-me-me-who I am-my views platforming some of us ladies have come to dread. She addresses the panelists, three of whom are Jordanians (four if you now count Mariam the Iraqi refugee), as parties to the conflict under discussion. She does not differentiate, she does not acknowledge that Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel. Surely, she knows as much, but in her haste to make her point she unintentionally insults the Jordanians on the panel. At the end of her speech, however, she asks a good, pointed question.

Mrs. Brown: "Do you want to make peace with Israel? Each of you, yes or no--that's all I want, let's go down the row, yes or no, each of you."

Mohamed's reply is lost in the scattered applause, the swell of conversation as ladies turn to their table companions to exchange comments sotto voce.

Enas: "That is the hardest question I have ever had to answer." She pauses. "I want peace, but the answer is no."

Nada: "Yes."

Talar: "Yes."

Nour: "Conditional yes, with 1967 borders."

Mariam: "Yes." She thinks a minute. "Conditional, with rights."

Trying to absorb the no from the friendly and reasonable young business executive, we ladies turn to hear Paula, an IWF-er from northern Ireland, who incidentally is one of my new friends, or perhaps "friendly acquaintances," I should say.

Paula: "In northern Ireland we worked it out, and in that way, have any of you [panelists] thought about entering a political party?"

The room thrums with bits of conversation. Northern Ireland, good example. What does she know . . . Lebanon . . . Syria. Paula's question has received different responses, East and West. Amid the tension, and with my curiosity to hear what is being said around me, I record none of the replies from the panel except one.

Nour: "Most of my friends are trying to do just that."

The moderator brings the session quickly to a close. Walking to the hall for coffee break, I run into Paula, in tears. Surprised, because Paula has the tough resilience of a seasoned politician, nevertheless, I put my arm around her shoulder. It seems that one of the IWF-ers from the Bahamas verbally laid into Paula as soon as the session ended. Paula does not repeat what the woman said, but she is shaken and cannot quickly recover her composure.

The hall has filled with Jordanian secret service and police, for Queen Rania is about to descend the staircase into the hall outside the Grand Ballroom. We ladies jockey for position, cameras primed. The earlier tension evaporates. Euphoria reigns. The lovely Rania claims us, if just for a moment.

Final note. If in somewhat pedestrian fashion, I have tried to give you a blow-by-blow account of this particular session. One thing only the writers of the books on the reading list for the conference agree: there can be no solution for any Middle Eastern problem without first the return of the West Bank to the Palestinian people. Secondly, the United States must discontinue its unconditional support for Israel. I have been surprised that the Arabs with whom I have spoken understand our underlying good intentions even as they deplore our invasion of Iraq. They know our generosity and idealism and like us for those qualities. Certainly, in Jordan people appreciate our financial aid and our free trade agreement (the U.S has a free trade agreement with only four countries) and have told us conferees that many times. Many of the Arabs here at the conference either attended or teach at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo (both founded by American missionaries in the nineteenth century). In short, the Arabs I have met honor everything Americans have done for them and do not seem hung up on notions of colonialism in the way some of the reading list's authors are. That being said, all is for nothing without the return of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Questions from Sasha

Returning from Fakhr el-Din with the other guests of the IWF Forum (the IWF-ers themselves dining in Jordanian homes), and having refrained from the hubbly-bubbly after dinner, I find myself alert and with a few minutes to answer some questions I received in an email from Sasha, who is curious about sharia, security, and camels. Sasha apologizes, saying that in the paucity of her early childhood education she had never heard of sharia.

Well, Sasha, let me explain. There are three sources for the Muslim faith: the Qu'ran, the hadith, and the sharia. The Qu'ran is the Islamic holy book, which contains the series of revelations to the Prophet Muhammad from Allah. Muhammad himself was illiterate, so these revelations were written down after his death. The hadith is a series of stories about Muhammad, his life and wisdom. These stories also were collected after Muhammad's death, and part of their authority derives from their authorship among Muhammad's wives and close companions. The sharia is the large and complex system of Islamic law, which was codified by the Abbasid Muslims after they conquered Persia, moved the caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad, and adopted many of the customs of their Persian subjects. These laws became the Islamic legal code during what we call the Middle Ages. Sharia governs every aspect of Muslim life, from commerce to inheritance to marriage.

Now, Sasha, about security. I feel safe, and I now feel foolish that I ever feared to come here. As Zuhair, our guide chez autobus, said to us, "some of your friends and family told you not to come to Jordan, am I right?" And that was true for each of we sixteen. On our second day of travel, we were joined by a lady from New Jersey and her husband. The New Jersey IWF-er said that all the other members of IWF New Jersey had been afraid to come to the Cornerstone Conference. On the other hand, in the interest of full disclosure, I must report that security at the Amman Grand Hyatt is . . . well, let's just say lax. Although there is airport-type screening at the front door, and although there is always a police car in the drive, and although there is a soldier armed with an automatic weapon in the lobby every time someone of prominence is in the hotel, the two back entrances to the hotel (and there may be more, but I have seen two) are unguarded. This was quite a surprise the evening I strolled down the back promenade.

As for camels, I appreciate your apprehension, Sasha, but you need not worry. Camels have a bad reputation that is undeserved, in my opinion. Yes, camels do make a loud and strange sound when they want to complain, but really this bark is worse than their bite. Camels are very nice upon acquaintance. I had a lovely camel ride in Wadi Rumm, and our camel driver sang as he walked along. I suppose I should mention that camels surround themselves (happily, or not, I do not know) with a penumbra of flies. Many flies. Clouds of flies. When we ladies resumed our travels from the Wadi, I looked up the aisle from the back of the bus and saw that each of us had brought along a personal retinue from the insect realm.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Conference Begins

Today the International Women's Forum Cornerstone Conference Building Bridges Breaking Walls, with five hundred women from forty-five countries gathered in Amman, Jordan, began at last. The event actually started last night with a reception at The Citadel, part of the ruins of the old Umayyad palace. Although my new acquaintances and friends and I had been much looking forward to it, the party was a bit of a disappointment, despite the Bedouin tent, the Arab music, and the hundred or so Middle Eastern carpets under our feet. Perhaps we had been affected by "the dread Orientalism" and were therefore expecting something more unusual and exciting than such affairs back home. However, I must report that the reception was nearly the same as any rather boring law firm/business cocktail soiree I have attended in California--the same cold canapes, the same shifting from foot to foot (carpeting over rubble makes treacherous footing) while making small talk--but all without alcohol, in this instance. Perhaps I am being too severe--after all, the view from the hilltop out over Amman was lovely, and in such a low wattage city Venus was amazingly bright on the low horizon. As the president of IWF and the president of IWF-Jordan gave their opening remarks, we heard the muzzein's call to prayer from a mosque on a hill across the city. When I stop to think about it, I wonder why the two women did not wait to speak until prayertime was done (and it is the same time every evening). It was an odd congruence of circumstance. Also, the security presence struck my (perhaps overly-imaginative) mind as paltry. As the full membership of IWF-Jordan stepped onto the podium, a well-aimed stinger missile could have taken out a significant proportion of the movers and shakers among Middle Eastern women. Perhaps I shouldn't mention such a thing--but if you can't say what's on your mind in a blog, where else?

This morning the conference itself began in parallel lackluster, with a particularly fatuous Maya Angelou poem about the "singing river" and the "wise rock." (You have to wonder if Maya has ever spent any time in the wilderness.) However, the morning quickly unfolded in a series of dramatic moments that, to my mind, are a paradigm of the disjunction between the way Muslim women and "liberated" western women see the world. The morning was so exciting that I am blowing off my afternoon bus tour to Madaba (been to Madaba, had enough of bus tours) to send you my impressions.

The first session, which all we women attended, was Islam, Democracy and Modernization, designed to address the question (among others) whether western models of democracy are appropriate for the Muslim world. The key speaker, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, was a no-show; therefore, the husband of Reem Abu Hassan, the president of IWF-Jordan, took his place at the last minute. Initially, I was disappointed, for Dr. El Fadl is one of the few jurists in the world fluent in both Islamic law and American law. The other panelists were Dr. John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown, and Dr. Samira Al Khawaldeh, chairperson of the English Department at Al Zaytoonah University, Jordan.

Perhaps because I am an American, I thought that the most articulate speaker was Dr. Voll, who gave us more insights than I can repeat here. He talked about how "democracy is not a particular book you pull off the shelf and read the rules for." And certainly as an Islamic scholar he was and surely is sympathetic to a religious world view; in fact, he made a good case for secularism as just another form of religion. He said that secularism has become the conservative establishment, threatened by the increasing questioning of the assumption that secularism is a good thing. "I know better than believers what is best," Dr. Voll said, in describing a secularist's position. But in fact, Dr. Voll pointed out, religion has not disappeared as expected from the modern world, and he spoke a bit about his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of Norway, who is an evangelical Christian.

Then the moderator asked Mr. Hassan, who got a law degree from Harvard and practices law in Amman, about sharia law. Mr. Hassan, an utterly charming and self-deprecating man, replied that one thing distinguishing Islam from other religions is that it is not just a religion but a way of life. "In some interpretations of Islamic law we went astray but in some we hit the target," Mr. Hassan said. He talked about his experience at Harvard, and how it was actually an Infidel professor (many laughs) who encouraged him not to measure either himself or his culture against western models but to try to find the rules appropriate for his own society. Nevertheless, Mr. Hassan said, "we are always being measured against a western model of some sort."

Dr. Khawaldeh spoke last. With the opacity I have discovered from my reading is common in Muslim thought, she said that "Islam means equality and human rights." She averred, as Mr. Hassan had before her, that "everything good is part of Islam." Like many educated women in the Islamic world, she maintained that under sharia women have complete freedom and human rights.

The session opened to questions, and many of the women in the audience were skeptical. Pressed about sharia on women's rights (divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc.), Mr. Hassan self-deprecatingly admitted his ignorance of the details, the finer points of the laws--surprising, to my mind, considering he is a lawyer. Mr. Hassan's justified the Islamic inheritance laws by saying that although a wife may get less than sons, sons (and daughters) always take care of their mothers. The western members of the audience were having none of this paternalism. First a lawyer and then a parliamentarian from Toronto spoke about recent attempts of Muslim immigrants in Canada to get sharia incorporated into Canadian law. "The initiative was resoundingly defeated," the Canadian said. "Did we Canadians make the wrong decision?" Mr. Hassan's reply, in essence, was "yes." He went on to say that in a future attempt, if the Canadian Muslims handle the legislative process with more finesse, likely they will succeed. It was not the content of the sharia laws themselves, Mr. Hassan was saying, but the way they were clumsily introduced into the Canadian legislative process, that was at fault.

Quickly, the questions degenerated into impassioned personal statements. "All religions discriminate against women and we women should forsake them!" (Russian IWF-er) "There should be no religion in government! Democracy can only be secular!" (Mexican IWF-er) And so on, and so on. Finally, Rebecca Solti, an American?Englishwoman? who has lived in Jordan for thirty years, took the mike. In a torrent of testimony on the generosity and integrity of the Arab people, Rebecca spoke on and on and on--clearly, she had not had a chance to express herself before. My new acquaintance from northern Ireland and myself exchanged a remark sotto voce--why do women's meetings always ramble to a close?--it was becoming embarrassing--when Ms. Solti brought us all up short. "Thousands of elderly French people died in that heat wave two summers ago. That would never have happened in Jordan! Here, like elsewhere in the Muslim world, children look in on their parents all the time and take care of them!"

Sharia continued the subject of the day. In my next session, Faith, Identity and Co-Existence, the specific subject was the expression of faith through art and culture. The panelists were Dr. Janet Soskice, a Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, who has just written a book on St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai; Dr. Maria Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and an expert on Islamic Spain; and Dr. Minwer al-Meheid, a Saudi art restorer and architect who spent many years restoring the minbar Saladin brought to Jerusalem and a fanatic broke into thousands of pieces in 1969. As soon as the question part of the session began, two American women immediately launched into questions about sharia laws and women's rights. Nissreen Haram, a young Jordanian woman and lawyer, stood. Exasperated, angry, she shouted "you western women! Dr. al-Meheid gives a stunning presentation on Islamic art and none of you ask him any questions! It's all sharia! sharia! sharia! with you! You are so narrow-minded, you can never see past that one issue to the totality of our culture!"

Later, in the hall before our next event, another new acquaintance, an IWF-er from Michigan, smirked to me. "What do they think--that we are going to ignore women's rights?"

I suppose it is a question of where you place your a priori. For so many IWF-ers from the West, women's rights is the article of faith. For many Muslim women, it is Islam. It looks like breaking down the walls, much less building a bridge, is going to take a lot of work.