Pervert Travels in the Middle East

July 28, 2009 § Leave a comment


(A photo I took in Beirut in summer 2008, it reads, “Who’s a fag? Your Mom’s a fag. I’m gay.”)

In Arabic, there are two words used to mean gay: Mithli and Shaz.

I was introduced to the term mithli in an Arabic class and adopted it as the standard term for gay in the Arabic-language. The root meaning is “similar” or “same.” When I moved to Damascus, I stopped hearing mithli and only heard shaz. When a Syrian explained to me the difference between shaz and mithli, it was explained to me that shaz was more of a street-term and more offensive. For example, when Arab male friends want to call a guy a “fag” they will call him shaz and this is not meant to be nice. Then when I came to understand that shaz literally means a deviant or pervert and that this term was used widely in the mainstream Arabic press, I strictly adopted mithli.

An article from Menassat (in English) sums up some very interesting views on the semantics debate, like whether or not shaz can be appropriated for positive use and how individuals are pushing Arabic-language media outlets to adopt mithli instead of shaz. All of this comes to the surface after a case of awkward translation: an English-language book called “Gay Travels in the Middle East” is translated into Arabic literally as “Pervert Travels in the Middle East” since the editors used shaz.

Personally, I’d be keen to read about pervert travels in any country.


Yes to Virtue! Campaign in Gaza

July 27, 2009 § 1 Comment

(This image has nothing to do with the Yes to Virtue campaign.)

The debate over the hijab is normally of minor interest to me. In the end, it’s a complex mix of personal choice and societal/familial obligation. Yet recent news that the Hamas government in the Gaza strip passed a law imposing mandatory hijab-wearing on female lawyers in court piqued my interest partly because it is part of a wider campaign in Gaza launched last month called, “Yes to Virtue!” (Naam Lil-fadila, نعم للفضيلة)

The English-language press has largely missed out on this aspect of the story, which is weird since it’s ideal for network news fodder. (See coverage here.)

The Ministry of Awqaf and Relgious Affairs in Gaza launched the “Yes to Virtue!” campaign at the behest of the Interior Ministry. Yousef Farhat, a director in the Religious Affairs Ministry told the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar that the campaign’s central concerns were the following issues:

1) Mixed-gender nightly gatherings (al-Sahrat)
2) The spread of “closed” coffee shops (meaning ones open to females)
3) Un-supervised internet where one can access obscene material
4) Spread of Tramadol (a pain-reliever)
5) Spread of gum which induces sexual desire in the youth (See here.)
6) Mixing of males and females at the University
7) Scandalous dress at the beach and public places

Al-Akhbar acutely summarized the targets of the campaign to be women and “her use of technology” while building a wider argument that this campaign is just one of many steps taken by Hamas to “islamicize” Gaza. Most telling is the personal anecdote from a Gazan woman who, while swimming at the beach with friends, was nearly arrested by police on charges of “scandalous dress” and “laughing too loudly while swimming.” The woman said she was wearing pants and a blouse.

The woman also complained that the harassment of beach-goers is unbalanced, noting that patrons on private hotel beaches along the Gaza shore are never subjected to such stringent regulations while those on the public beach are frequent targets. That is not to mention the lack of attention paid to male dress.

Al-Akhbar’s main argument is that in the midst of widespread poverty and unemployment, pushing measures that further “islamicize” the public sphere is much easier than under normal circumstances when, you know, people aren’t starving.
Reporting on the internal politics of Gaza is probably one of the most challenging aspects for the Arabic-language press. The factional warfare inside Gaza is well-documented and reporters are not exempt from retaliation or blacklisting if their coverage is deemed unfavorable toward this group or that.

Al-Akhbar’s analysis of the recent events in Gaza is necessary in order to balance out future English-language coverage that might use the Lawyer decision to further portray Gaza as a land teeming with fundamentalism.

Omar Souleyman’s Rise to Indie-Hipster Semifame

July 26, 2009 § 14 Comments


The Rise

Omar Souleyman’s rise to Indie-Hipster semifame isn’t difficult to trace.

In 2006, Iraqi-American Mark Gergis (aka Porest) traveled to Syria for the umpteenth time on a mission — to sign a record contract with Souleyman, the Hassekeh-based Syrian musician whose music Gergis had heard (and loved) blaring from the ubiquitous music kiosks in Damascus. (See Gergis interview here.)

Gergis signed a contract with Souleyman and shortly after, the compilation “Highway to Hassake” was released in 2007 through the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies. Since then, Souleyman has completed his first European tour, gotten almost 400,000 hits on his YouTube video for “Leh Jani,” and released a second compilation album through Sublime Frequencies “Dabke 2020: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria.” Bjork also listed two of his tracks on her NPR playlist and rumor has it that there’s a collaboration with Damon Albarn on the horizon.

To say the least, this is a bizarre path to notoriety that very few (if any) Syrian musicians of Dabke fame have followed.

The Back-Story

To better understand the rarity of Souleyman’s busting onto the Indie scene, here’s a little context. Hassekeh is a predominantly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria where it is known for being, well, Kurdish. Hassekeh is pretty ethnically diverse, but many Kurds live under the radar in Syria, not possessing equal rights and many times forced to adopt Arab names purely to avoid attention. Still, the Kurdish identity in these towns remains strong and the Syrian government keeps a close eye on visiting foreigners and residents alike. Souleyman himself is not a Kurd, but according to Gergis, many of his musicians are. Nonetheless, ethnic origins usually prove to be an amalgam of sorts.

Since much of the Syrian East is Kurdish and far from the cultural metropolises of Damascus and Aleppo, Dabke music in the vein of Souleyman is often looked at as being “uncivilized” or simply gauche. In fact, anything or anyone that is from the countryside or “reef” is liable to be mocked by many Damascenes for a lack of refinement. Some of this mocking is merely in gest, but other remarks can indicate something deeper.

Just a glance at the comments on this YouTube video clip (in Arabic, but now disabled) from Deir ez-Zour singer Abdul Rizq al-Jabouri, show the type of classist sentiments that can be stirred up from a single clip. The title of the clip is “Come and look at this Donkey (Moron)!” and while the singer’s music video plays, the poster inserts sarcastic comments mocking him until the singer’s ersatz video set is crashed by a flock of sheep. The comments range from debasing the singer personally to insulting the backwardness of Deir ez-Zour.

This is not a complete analysis, but it’s an introduction to how many Syrians would view Souleyman. Now, I uncomfortably await how Souleyman’s music and person will be interpreted by the “West.” So far, the results are mixed.


Souleyman in the “West”

The Pitchfork review of Dabke 2020 gives an interesting though off-base description of Souleyman’s sound by calling it “wild, buzzing Arab New Wave.” It’s understandable that a Western review of Souleyman will interpret his music through a litany of musical movements which are more likely to resonate with a Pitchfork reader than a Syrian Souleyman fan, but some of the descriptors are unfortunate like, a “dust storm swirl of synthesizer.” While it’s not erroneous to interpret foreign music through your own set of musical references, it is an egregious misstep to incorporate Arab cliches in a review that is supposed to be complimentary.

Descriptors aside, it’s the reviewer’s last sentence that — though well-intentioned — is patronizing. He says that for Western listeners this CD is “a chance to know the music of a people [that] politics has long kept at arm’s length.” This is kinda like shipping a Bruce Springsteen compilation to Syria and saying, Behold the Music of America! (Or perhaps it’s the equivalent of taking some esoteric band and tagging it as the Music of America, considering that most Syrians have never heard of Omar Souleyman.)

Syria, just like America, has more than one “music” and Souleyman is just a fraction of it. Would the reviewer take an album from some British band and categorize it as “the music of a people”? Probably not. Yet because Omar Souleyman is from Syria — a mystical land of tribes and reed flutes where apparently people all join together and agree on a collective sound — it’s acceptable to make unfounded generalizations?

These types of statements compounded with a tendency for the “Western listener” to understand music on his/her terms and a refusal to accept that music can serve a variety of purposes in different cultures, makes me even more doubtful that music has the capacity to function as a “cultural bridge” of any sort. Listening to music for pure enjoyment is fine, but no one should claim that it brings them closer to understanding a culture.

Sublime Frequencies and the Half-Truths

As much as I respect Sublime Frequencies (the releaser of the Souleyman discs) for the cool work they do, I also resent the fact that music can be so far removed from its origins as to be stripped of that quality which made it interesting in the first place. Souleyman’s music is captivating not just for its sounds, but also because of the environment in which it was produced. Though Gergis and Sublime Frequencies have to some degree highlighted the origins of Souleyman’s music in a respectful way, I believe that a bit of the jargon surrounding the hype capitalizes on the “exoticism of the far East.”

Also, their portrayal of Souleyman is misleading. The blurb describing Souleyman on their website states point-blank, “Omar Souleyman is a Syrian musical legend,” yet at the end of the blurb they say that that Souleyman’s music was not deemed “serious enough for export by the Syrians.” Now, if this is their opinion — that Souleyman is a legend — then that’s fine, but if they purport this to be a widely-held belief among Syrians, then I reject this statement. To be honest, telling Souleyman’s actual story is probably far more interesting than some minor fictions.

Second to this is Souleyman’s image. I have no doubt that Souleyman’s image is totally genuine and not a construct of anyone but himself. Perhaps this is what makes him so appealing. Yet, intentional or not, I believe one reason why Souleyman has been able to break onto the “Western” scene is because of his “mysterious” look — sunglasses, thobe, kuffiyeh and a poet whispering lyrics in his ear during performances. There are dozens of Syrian Dabke singers whose music parallels the intensity of Souleyman’s, but perhaps they don’t encapsulate the “other” quite like him. Again, I don’t believe that Gergis or anyone tampered with Souleyman’s image to make him more alluring to a Western audience, but when I compare Souleyman alongside other Syrian and Iraqi artists, I understand how he stands out in a crowd and I understand how a Western audience, craving the undiscovered, would see/hear Souleyman and let their preconceptions do the rest.

Either way, for better or worse, Souleyman’s music is now gaining a wider audience and undoubtedly, some will deride that “crazyyy Arabic dancing lolzzzz,” while others will draw interesting comparisons like, “He is the Syrian equivalent to the New York 80s synth/vocal duo Suicide.”

To understand more about Souelyman’s music and lyrics, check out this translation of Souleyman’s song Khitaba (A Proposal) from my friend’s website, Arabic Music Translation.

Cult of Personality 101: The Arab Leader Name Game

July 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

To a large extent the cult of personality flourishes in many Arab states. I am hesitant to use the word “flourish” only because these cults of personality are mocked by many, and successful only to the extent that it allows the current governments to remain in power. In many ways, it’s the CoP of the past that people continue to idealize. (Ex. Hafez al-Assad’s rule is viewed as the glory days and Nasser still embodies the characteristics of Leader of the Umma.)

For every CoP, there is normally a grandiose title or stern moniker that must precede the name of the beneficent leader, or in many cases the title becomes synonymous with the leader himself. Here’s a breakdown of Arab presidents and their titles, which on one hand indicate the depth of the figure’s narcissism while on the other indicate a leader’s desire to gain legitimacy through a pretense of the democratic process, which of course, only the title President could denote.



Muammar al-Qaddafi AKA The Leader/Commander (al-Qa’id) or The Colonel (al-‘Aqeed)

Qaddafi is everything a CoP was meant to be, but in recent years he has shown us that the CoP refuses to age gracefully. 4-hour-long ramblings on whether or not Obama is African get tiresome and purple taffeta suits only detract from his credibility. But Qaddafi is confident and thus took the ambitious route by following in the footsteps of other historical “leaders” such as:



Il Duce Mussolini        Der Fuhrer Hitler     Widaehen Jidoza (Dear Leader) Kim Jong il

Yet with his separate but equally prevalent title “The Colonel” Qaddafi highlights his military cred and triggers memories of the militaristic CoP as embodied by the numerous field marshals that led the wave of revolutions in Africa in the 60s and 70s. Military experience optional.


FM Idi Amin of Uganda      FM John Okello of the Zanzibar Revolution in 64

Note: Okello didn’t really have a CoP, but he did arbitrarily give himself the title of Field Marshal, so that counts.



The King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz AKA The Guardian of the Two Holy and Noble Sanctuaries (Khadim al-Haramain al-Sharifain)

Probably the loftiest of all Arab titles, the “two holy and noble sanctuaries” is a reference to the Saudi cities  Mecca and Medina which are home to some of the most revered sites in Islam. This full title is written out in most all newspapers in Saudi Arabia and in newspapers financed by Saudi Arabia, most notably London-based al-Hayat. Former editor of al-Hayat Jihad al-Khazin admitted that the newspaper began to use the official title after the paper was bought out a while back.

Since the King’s title is the grandest of the grand, I’ve put him in the same category as another figure whose eyes you probably couldn’t look directly into as well.


Haile Selassie of Ethiopia whose name is his title and it means Holy Trinity.

Yet the Guardian/Protector aspect of King Aziz’s title could place him in the category of other historical father figures, like:


Charles “Papay” Taylor of Liberia and  Ho Chi Min AKA Bac Ho (with Bac meaning Elder)



President Bashar al-Assad AKA Mr. President Bashar al-Assad (al-Sayid al-R’ees)

Really nothing too startling here. When referencing Assad in official newspapers, he is simply called Mr. President Assad. Still, the CoP in Syria is more deeply rooted than in Saudi Arabia. Yet while the CoP reigns at home, the Syrian government is striving for legitimacy abroad and shies away from titles that would make Western presidents appear to be negotiating with a dictator and/or megalomaniac. Hafez al-Assad is referred to post-mortem as the Immortal/Imperishable Leader (al-Qa’id al-Khalid).

I’ll put Assad in the category of leaders who possess real power, but who opted for more subtle and less doting titles, such as Chairman Mao. Another similarity between Mao and Assad is that the latter is also referred to as the chairman of the Baath Party.


Chairman Mao (I don’t know the Chinese translation)



King of Jordan Abdullah the Second AKA His Majesty King of Jordan Abdullah the Second (Jalalat al-Malak)

I suppose there’s nothing excessive about adding in a little “your majesty” to your King title. The official Jordanian newspapers consistently add the Majesty preface when referencing his Highness.

It gets a bit redundant after this.

There’s the sole Arab Sultan in Oman, Presidents in Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan, and even a few Princes in the Gulf, but to be honest, their CoPs are not as strong as the ones heretofor mentioned (Egypt excluded).

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