Monday, July 28, 2008

Ya Mamma, Inshallah Yirbah Obama

So my sister got my mother this shirt from Urban Outfitters. She wasn't sure my mom would be into it, but figured it was worth a try. Buying presents for my mom is tough. She's not the sort of lady that has many things or many desires, and most often she'll open a present and kindly say thanks, but you know she would be just as happy without, perhaps even more happy since she deplores the accumulation of stuff. Occasionally, however, one strikes gold and fills the sweet lady with glee, just as my father did a few years ago with a Japanese knife set (my suggestion--ahem!) and just as my sister did with this shirt. I'm not sure what it really means. Maybe that Obama would be the best presidential choice for the likes of someone's mother? I know, I'm not always down with the slang, but I'm really at a loss. My mother wore this shirt to an Arab American Institute's BBQ that we attended at a park here in Northern Virginia last weekend, and one Arab-speaker we spoke to said she liked that it reminded her of the phrase "Ya Mama," which literally means "Oh, mother," and is also used as a common exclamation, such as "Bajeezus" or "Oh, meatballs" or whatever.

Speaking of Arabs and Obama, I was intrigued to hear a story on NPR the other day discussing Arab opinion of the senator. Some were interviewed about their certainty that even if Obama is elected, nothing will change in terms of American coddling of "fortress Israel" and then some were interviewed who were delighted that a "Muslim brother" may be elected president and how dramatic a change this would be for the world. Obviously then, ignorance is universal, though of course the sort of misconception that results in blind love is far better than that which yields irrational hate. And then I keep flashing in my mind to a woman I must have seen on television during my vacation saying (regretfully) she voted for Bush because he seemed like the kind of guy she could drink a Budweiser with. Where does this leave Obama? I see him sipping cocktails on a bright, manicured lawn somewhere. I wonder if he likes Lebanese food because I'm on the falafel hunt tonight.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I was excited to find, on an end table in my parents' home safe in the suburbs of northern Virginia, a novel called "Terrorist" by John Updike. Now, I don't know Mr. Updike well, but I am aware that he is a preeminent man of letters, who sits stolidly--after a career I'm sure that was difficult at first, as the story often goes--with dozens of published books, in the upper echelons of American literary life. I know he's written many novels that people enjoy, a few of them have something to do with rabbits, or at least their titles do. And also I am sure that I have read essays by him in various book reviews and highbrow magazines like the New Yorker or Harper's. And I know these essays concerned the state of the written word in this day and age, and I'm sure Mr. Updike's words edified my vague but at the same time fundamental feeling that books and stories are still important, that writers still have purpose. And then to find that this man, this prophet, had written a novel about a topic that interests me greatly--9/11 and its effects on the psyches of the varied members of our nation--and that I didn't have to go to the store or the internet to get it but had this book in my hands just before a long bus ride, I was, as I said before, excited.

From the first pages, I could tell that Updike did indeed possess literary genius. His opening is in the third person but captures the voice of his main character, an 18 year-old devout Muslim named Ahmad, the son of an absent Egyptian father and an Irish mother, who was raised in a economically downtrodden town in New Jersey. He begins by observing the sin and idolatry around him in the public high school hallways, where he is finishing out his senior year. And the hate the disgust, is palpable and therefore understandable. Hell, I hated high school too--with its self-importance and its bare skin and breasts (Updike describes them again and again, once, strangely, as "blisters") that I could never compete with. Then we meet a girl who Ahmad is undeniably attracted to but concurrently repulsed by because, as we are reminded again and again, she is a sharmouta. And then Ahmad's mom who is likable and liberal, as shown by her many failed love affairs--again, sharmouta--and her painterly pursuits, but mysteriously unconcerned with her son's whereabouts. And then Ahmad's imam, his religious teacher, since he was 11 who holds office in a tiny former ballet studio above a check-cashing strip, berating Ahmad when he does not remember parts of the Koran they have discussed, concerning with correcting and perfecting Ahmad's accent in Arabic, which is irrevocably tinged by his native language. And then Ahmad's sad, sallow guidance counselor who suddenly takes an interest in the boy a month before graduating, insisting he is destined for more than the job of a truck driver as his imam has insisted he become.

Whoa--truck driver. Can you see it coming? Well, it takes forever, but a truck Ahmad eventually gets into has the potential to cause quite a ruckus, hence the book's title. My telling you this isn't much of a spoiler because the book is already spoiled. It's not the potboiler Updike perhaps intended. Moreso, it is an exercise in character development that he infuriatingly fails at. It's clear that Updike studied the Koran carefully, as he includes many verses and suras (sections) from it, often transcribed in English. It's clear he took pains with the culture as well, but I swear he was foolish about it. When Ahmad speaks English, his grammar is stilted and formal like someone schooled only recently in the language. A sample: When being approached for sex, he tells the woman, "That is a kind wish on your part, but without marriage it would go against my beliefs" (184). And, particularly as the book wears on, its characters tend to do something Lizzy and I like to call "monologuing" (as inspired by "Grey's Anatomy") where in the midst of conversation, they break out into a long diatribe about something massive, like the downfall of American society, or the rewards of undying religious faith, or the play between the pleasure and guilt of adultery. These types of speeches are okay every once in a while, especially when they are explicating something that has occurred in the plot, but one on top of the other, the speeches grow tiring, and then less credible when the story is moved along by ridiculously unbelievable coincidences. And the broken English he attempts to reproduce sounds nothing like the broken English of any Arabs I've ever spoken English with. Ugh. Sad. And then an ending that builds up to a twist that is more like a quiet belch. I can tell Updike's a good writer. He managed to describe certain things particularly well, but the overall workings of his story and the horrifyingly important and mistreated subject he very deliberately took on were way off. I think one can tell that by his preoccupation with describing each character each time s/he is reintroduced by the color of their skin, their religion, how fat or thin they are, and what they are wearing--the same descriptors again and again. I dunno. New York Times bestseller and glowing review-bits from all of our preeminent periodicals were splashed across it. I know better. And so do you. We just have to remind ourselves every once in a while.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I was out of the States for a little over a month, in Thailand and Laos. I've been back less than a week and it already feels like forever. It's one of those crazy transition times of my life. I wanted to share the photos. I had visions of myself captioning each one. Visions. But reality is more like I am tired and there are so many other transition-type things to do. If you really want to know, ask me and I'll tell you.

The picture I posted above is my favorite. I took it in the bus station at Chiang Rai. I like how the king's picture is over the end of the word "toilet". I like the monk going into the bathroom and the way the genders are defined and all the colors and the folks, and, well.

I'm not really attuned to taking pictures lately, but I gave it a try, and I had a trusty assistant most of the time. There were lots of moments I wanted to take a photograph but didn't for fear of being that annoying tourist, which I sort of regret...but also it fit the situation.

Without further ado, the links:

1) Photos taken during the three times I ended up in Bangkok.
2) Photos taken during the week I spent alone on some islands down south.
3) Photos taken in Nonkhai, an amazing town in Thailand across the Mekong river from Vientiane. Most of these were taken in this incredible sculpture park we biked to through some really lovely countryside.
4) Photos taken in and around Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos's two largest cities.
5) Photos taken in the Luang Namtha Valley. Many of these were taken in an Akha village that we visited during the only guided tour we took over our whole vacation. It was easier for me in this situation to photograph people since we asked and everyone we were with was doing it but it still felt weird.
6) Photos taken as we came back through Thailand from the north.

Lebanese Lesbians

So I got my sister this cute t-shirt last Christmas that says "Everyone Loves a Lebanese Girl" on it, and some dude at a strip mall stopped her to interview her about it, only he misread it, and then he posted the interview on Youtube. The video's been posted for months but one of our cousins found it only yesterday. Wonder what he was searching for...

Yes, I am back in Virginia and so excited. Check it out: