The Resolution, 2007

I have contemplated doing the New Years Resolution thing. It is a nice ritual, but we often fall short and slip back into our vices within months, if not weeks. One New Years Resolution I had was to be good to myself. I haven’t done a very good job, but I have been treating myself better than I have in the past few years. Or maybe I’m feeling less beat up because of a complete turn around in my academic career. 2006 was a rough year for me, career-wise and personally. Today I ran into a professor who has been supportive of me work and continually encouraged me to keep fighting the good fight. He said that something must be wrong, because I looked happy. I looked happier than I had in the past two years. I think happiness is relative. But I’m going to try to be happy. And when times aren’t happy, I’m going to embrace the hardship, loneliness, and pain. Riding through those will make me stronger and during those times, I will draw closer to the Creator.

What lies ahead for me during 2007 seems like a scary and seemingly impossible journey. My journey will span a year or two and will take me to Egypt. Going to Egypt for so long is a big leap for me, but I’m committed to going. It is something that I knew I would have to do since 2002 when I decided to take this path. Going abroad is essential for my career as a researcher and scholar. Historians of Africa pride themselves with the emphasis on fieldwork. I will earn my stripes as a legitimate scholar. Going out into the field means living amongst the people you are studying for extensive times. Historians of Africa are in many ways similar to anthropologists. Years ago, anthropologists spent years, sometimes 4-5 years in the field. Great historians like Jan Vansina and Steven Feierman spent years in the field and are both trained as anthropologists and historians. They became fluent in the languages and cultural repertoire of their subject populations. (But for me, I am a member of the community that I am studying. For anyone that hasn’t noticed: I am of African descent and I am Muslim. So my research directly relates to my identity meaning that I have more of a stake in my work. I am transformed by my work and my identity transforms the meaning of my work. )The average Africanist spends 10 years getting their degree. Becoming an Africanist often entails language training in another European language besides English, such as French and German and an African language. We draw on various disciplines and sources to reconstruct past lives and events. We use ethnographic studies, collect oral data through interviews or collecting poetry, oral histories, epics, stories, and songs. We visit archives set up by colonial and state governments. A historian of Islamic Africa requires the skill sets of an Orientalist scholar who can master Arabic texts, European languages for colonial and state archives, and a ethnographic skills of an anthropologist. Stanford provides funding for 5 years. There is university funding for the 6th year. Fortunately for me, my research subjects speak modern standard Arabic. My research focuses on race in Muslim societies and I will be examining a communityh of West Africans in Cairo. I am taking a leave of absence for language training and research, which means my degree can take 7-8 years.

But who wants to be in their early thirties, during the prime of my life abroad surrounded by strangers? I’m not really happy with what that means in my life right now. Often, I think about what I’m putting on hold to go there. It extends my studies. It prevents me from establishing roots or real connections here. It in many ways leaves me vulnerable and alone. Being a woman in the Middle East is not very easy. There is less freedom to move, more chaos, cultural misunderstandings, and increased vulnerability. Then, there are all the people who see me as a walking visa, a ticket out. Sure, I have a few friends that live in Cairo, but I’m going to be far away from my family and people who have looked after me for years. I’m also trying to brace for a new flavor of racism, the Middle Eastern type. Sometimes, when I think about the journey ahead, I already feel the homesickness. I can imagine the loneliness, since I remember how alone I felt in Morocco at times. I can also feel the culture shock coming on. On the other hand, a huge part of me is relieved to be leaving the Bay Area, this isolated pocket community. I’m tired of the weird incestuous nature of both the graduate and Muslim community here. I’m restless and want to do something and be exceptional. I want to master Arabic, which I have been studying for almost four years. I want to pay my dues as an Africanist and maximize my field experience. I want to be around spiritual and good-hearted people. Sometimes I don’t mind the break from the struggles of being black in America. But really, I want to be around people who make me want to be a better person. Here, I find myself agitated, but not stirred, shaken, but not moved. I would like to surround myself by exceptional people who inspire me. Maybe there will be people like that in Egypt. The people I know who are there are good people. I hope there are more like them.

My mixed feelings about traveling and living abroad really reflect my acknowledgment of the benefits and sacrifices of undertaking this endeavor. I still have a long road to go to finish my degree and many obstacles ahead. In order to finish in that time, I must write and research expeditiously. I must be focused. I have to focus my energies, doing away with frivolity and nonsense. This is why I have extricated myself from chaotic and distressing situations and relationships. I must be good to myself and follow some of my unwritten New Years resolutions in order to take on this task.

I don’t think I’m going to find what I’m looking for in Egypt. But I do think that I’m going to have one piece of the puzzle figured out. Then it will be on to figure out the next stage. But everything I’m doing right now is preparing me for that. When I come back, I will be different. But I’ll also come back hungrier to finish my Ph.D. and ready to do the damn thing. Cairo is more real to me in my dreams. Sometimes those dreams feel more real than my reality here. Today, I spoke with a jewelry vendor. She said that I spoke of Egypt like I’m already there. While Summer is still far away, I’m there somewhere in Cairo.

Intellectual Snob

Yes, I have been called an intellectual snob. Someone pointed out this trait years before I began studying at a university in what seems like another lifetime before I became a graduate student. In my late twenties and early teens, I was sort of a street intellectual, in independent scholar. I used to have a box full of notecards with tempting quotes and information. I had charisma too. I could get up in front of a crowd, and hit some points that resonated with almost everyone in the audience. But more than anything, I valued knowledge. No particular reason, just the desire to know drove me. I took a class with a prominent Muslim scholar and he noted my curiosity.

During that time, many of my friends went to the semi-prestigious Santa Clara University. I used to hang out there in the library, unable to afford classes at the local community college. As a JC drop-out, I had a strong thirst for knowledge. And I had a strong sense of justice and a lot more energy than I have now. And I’d go toe to toe with anybody who wanted to test me on some issue relating to Muslims. I’d argue with white feminist scholars who came at me with some orientalist notions of Islam and women’s rights. I argued about Islamic Law and Women’s rights with a Harvard trained lawyer. Instructors, I’d check em. Professors, I’d confound them with difficult questions. And no, I didn’t have a degree nor a lot of training. But even in that early stage, during those formative years in and out of community college, I knew I had a strong disdain for anyone trying to test me in a debate that they knew little about.

The first time I heard the term intellectual snob was after a dinner party 11 years ago. There was some woman who was going to Stanford in feminist studies (who now does nothing with her degree, but stays at home married to a wealthy doctor in priveleged Atherton) had something to say about patriarchy in Muslim societies without acknowledging the ways she was also circumscribed by patriarchy in this society. She upset me and my best friend by accusing us of being oppressed for wearing hijab. While she, wearing her long curly hair free flowing and dress was free. My friend got upset and left the table. I lost patience and took some intellectual jabs at her. I had little patience for her inconsistence in this discussion. By the way, telling a non-Western woman that she is oppressed at a dinner party is pretty damn rude.

So, this is all a side-point. My major point is that I have and always will be an intellectual snob. I have a whole bunch of pet peeves in a heavy conversation. Here are some:

1. Devil’s advocates
This has got to be the lamest for of critical engagement. Just taking the opposing side insincerely is the most annoying tactic. Keep these people far from me. There are times when looking at an issue from both angles can be helpful. But for the most part, I see Devil’s advocates as the very spawn of Satan.

2. Those who argue over semantics
Unless you got a fricken dictionary, don’t quibble with me over you own chosen definition of a word. I hate those people who basically agree with you, but have to find that one little flaw that they have to interjects. At the point of understanding, you should focus on what can be agreed upon, where we differ, and what can we build off of it.

3. Ignoramous with an Opinion
Yes, opinions are like assholes, and everyone has one. But that does not mean that we have to smell your shit. So, unless you have an informed opinion, in the company of experts, you should STFU.

4. Know it alls
People who have to have an opinion on everything. Guess what? You do not know everything. So this means that you should defer, listen, and learn. Be humble. Not everyone is impressed by your constant ramblings and need to prove to the world that you know everything.

Okay, well I gotta run. I will add to this list. But feel free to add your own.

1c. People who sprinkle their speech with foreign words, especially French, German, or Arabic, to sound really profound. Things like: “Voltgeist” or “Ya’ani” or even trying to pronounce some ridiculous French word to prove adeptness with the French language makes me want to vomit. This is especially annoying when the English equivalent will suffice.

2c. People who name drop. Rubbing shoulders with some scholar or knowing some important person does not
make you smarter. In fact, I hate name dropping all together. Just drop it, okay. Work with your own merits.

3c. People who throw out book titles and feel like they have defeated you when they name a book you haven’t read. Academics are notorious for this.

4c. People who bait others into debates. You know, that seemingly innocent question that the baiter uses to launch into some campaign of proving their intellectual prowess.

5c. People who won’t concede that their stances are not well supported. Or basically, people who cannot admit that they are wrong.

6c. People who say you don’t get their point, especially if their point is not clear or evident in what they are writing or saying. We are not mind readers. What you put out there is what is left for us to interpret. If I missed your poorly presented point, then clarify your thinking and get back at me.

7c. People who try to quiz you on the languages you know. “How many languages you speak? Oh, I speak 5.” My response, “STFU, you barely speak anyone of them well.” sometimes, I come back with, “I speak broken ebonics, some English, studied other languages….” Or the finally question of snobbery:”How is your French?” My reply: “non-existent you pompous idiot savant!!

What To Do When Muslims Behave Badly

By behaving badly, I don’t mean Muslims not praying or transgressing personal morality. I mean things that violate someone else’s humanity and dignity. You know, things like genocide, terrorism, enslavement, child abuse, and violence against women. How do Muslims come to terms with the atrocities committed by other Muslims?

Should their actions cause a crisis of faith? Should we reflect upon our core beliefs to understand why the trans-Saharan slave trade occurred, why genocide is going on in Darfur, why there is still the enslavement of blacks in Mauritania, why female genital mutilation is praticed in many parts of the Muslim world inluding Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and in some parts of the Levant and Iraq? Or should we Muslims try to defend our faith and seek the core spiritual truths. Do we explain that these actions were due to cultural practices, even though the perpetrators may sincerely believe that they are doing some actions in the name of the faith? How do we come to terms with the fact that religious ideology is used to justify all sorts of brutality?

My understanding of these issues have been shaped by my training as a Western scholar. But there is the part of me whose identity is tied up with the cultural religious complex called Islam. Although I try not to let my faith blind me from seeing historical realities, my identity shapes how I understand those realities. I have read several articles that make broad generalizations in their critiques of Muslim/African encounters and Arab/African encounters. Often Arab and Muslim are depicted as synonomous. Right now, Arabs are the only ethnic group that it seems generally okay to say vehemently racist things abou them. Many Arabs are Muslim, but clearly not all Muslims are Arabs. In fact the majority of Muslims come from Indonesia. Few people have bad things to say about Indonesians. But I digress.

I am in a society that is largely hostile to both my race and my religious beliefs and practices. Our communities tend to circle their wagons and in this defensive position we are less likely to be introspective or reform driven. Instead, any criticism from outsiders is taken as an attempt invalidate our beliefs and identity. But this does not mean that we should focus on defending our beliefs and cultural practices against important critiques. The truth of the matter is that Muslim women are still not able to secure the rights accorded them in the Shariah. There is a huge difference between High Culture, popular culture. Doctrine and ideology does not determine the actions of individuals. Instead, a full range of overlapping and conflicting interests can drive why individuals and groups choose to do certain things. What I think is important is to expose how individuals manipulate the naivete of their followers. It is important to look at the political economy of any movement. It is essential to look at the material motivations, as well as consider whether or not spiritual beliefs were sincere. And just because someone is sincere in their beliefs, that does not mean that they are not misguided. This is why it is important to move beyond the Us/Them mentality. The Us/Them mentality is really the thing that allows us to behave badly against other human beings. Anyways, that’s my thoughts for now. This meditation will continue…