Posts filed under ‘Colonialism’

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Diversity, Division, Peace?

Two different experiences today made me wonder the extent to which this book I’m trying to finish is actually relevant to the present.

Before I left this morning for the Spiritual Library, a private library owned by the local Catholic Church, I read an email from a colleague in the US who asked what I thought of recent bipartisan calls for the partition of Iraq into three separate states.  

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I was on my to Aziziyah, where Mazin, our new friend and a library volunteer, thought I might be able to find some sources helpful for this book. (Mazin is a biochemistry graduate about to go to Germany for a year’s study, and he just likes being in libraries.) On the way, I asked the taxi driver about the music I was hearing, and he told me it was Kurdish. He is a Kurd, from Aleppo, and he reassured me there are Kurds in many places.

I met Mazin in front of a different church–they tell me 11 different kinds of Christians live in Aleppo. (While I was waiting and watching the two nuns wearing habits across the street, I mused on their clothing and women’s dress in the city.)

I came home thinking about various Christians, the Kurds, and the red-haired driver last night who told me he was from Antioch. He had actually never been there, he said, but his grandparents came from there, and they speak Turkish. I thought about all the times I’ve heard people explain to me that Syria is a very diverse country.

I spend most of my time here writing about the French mandate in Syria, especially the 1930s. The French appeared in the mountains of what we now call Lebanon centuries ago, claiming that they were there to protect Christians. Their behavior, their “protection,” the special privileges that resulted for many Christians, elicited a significant amount of animosity in some circles, animosity that many historians believe helped to produce anti-Christian riots in the middle of the nineteenth century. Needless to say, after the riots the French were even more convinced of the need to “protect” Christians.

That need to protect groups now more broadly labeled “minorities” provided the ideological justification for the French occupation of Syria after World War I, at least in French eyes. The French decided that they actually needed to separate one group from another, and divided what is now Syria into four different statelets, an Alawi state on the northern coast (based in Lattakia), a Druze state in the southwest, and two Sunni states, one centered in Damascus and another in Aleppo.

While using the language of protection, and convincing themselves that all these people couldn’t possibly be expected to live together, French administrators within Syria were also writing of their fears that Muslims wanted to recreate an Islamic empire, that Syrians were inherently anti-Western and specifically anti-French. Dividing the country would clearly be essential in order to prevent such plans.

Iraqis had hardly lived in a paradise, but they had clearly lived together. Apparently, even now Iraqis are trying to avoid separating into confessional groups. Why would a bipartisan group in Washington think dividing the country into three parts might be a good idea? (Oh, yes, and, after all, didn’t the partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan in 1947 lead to peace for all time?)

I guess the other observation on the relevance of my research will wait.

September 26, 2007 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Berbers on the Train

Trains don’t go to Essaouira, so we made our way back to Marrakesh just long enough to buy train tickets and food for the 7 hour ride to Fez. William managed to get the man squeezing oranges to fill the 1-liter Carolina Speakers water bottle while Katie and I bought bread, cheese, yogurt, and cookies.

There were two men in our compartment by the time we got there. I can’t remember how the conversation began, but one of the men, a physician, told us that the big problem in Morocco wasn’t religion, it was suppression of Berbers. He was unimpressed with the new effort to teach Berber in the schools. He was reading an Arabic newspaper, so I asked whether there were any Berber papers. He said no, it wasn’t important, and anyway, there were so few Berber intellectuals. I began trying to explain about Benedict Anderson and his argument about language, literacy, and culture being central to the development of national identity, but couldn’t find the words in any common language to convey the argument.

When the two men got off some hours later, we took over the whole compartment. I was half way through the book Ian had given me (Gaimon’s Neverwhere) when a young man took a seat with us. He told us that he taught History at Kairaween University, and proudly showed us photos of his wife and six-year-old son. I was completely delighted to meet a colleague, a Moroccan historian, so I asked him what he taught. I couldn’t quite understand his answer. I asked him what his research was about, and he seemed a bit angry. I decided he must be a graduate student, who didn’t want to talk about how his research was going. Then he explained that he really taught young children. Katie handed me the Lonely Planet guide, pointing to the paragraph that read, in part,

I didn’t pay much attention, and I was really curious. How do you explain Moroccan history and Berbers to your students? I asked. Well, he answered, there are Berbers in some places in Morocco. They live in caves. And some still live in the Rif mountains and a few places in the desert. My parents are Berber, he continued, and they taught me a couple of Berber words. He went on to confuse the basic chronology of Moroccan history, and I finally became suspicious. Poor man. It hardly seems fair to encounter a historian on a train when you’re just trying to get hired as a guide.

We have encountered “guides” in many places in Morocco. It is fascinating to hear them tell stories about places. Some seem quite freely to make things up that they think their employers would like to hear. Fiction as history does seem quite entertaining!

We spent our first day in Fez wandering the streets of the old city, literally downhill into the suqs. Main street of the old city survives as a major shopping area for local residents. You can find not only clothing here, but also shops specializing in buttons, others selling trim, one selling spectacular upholstery fabric. All the shops are small, and the variety of food, hardware, kitchen goods, clothing is quite astonishing. There are young men at every information sign posted, all offering their services as guides. Many of the monuments in the old city are also located in this labyrinth of streets, many in the process of being restored, a great thing unless you’re a traveler who wants to visit them. We did get a glimpse of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, and stood in the square of the copper-sellers where local lore has it that Leo the African stayed for a while.

The French legacy in Morocco seems huge today. I mean, in addition to killing many people. They created a category called Berber. They built new cities right next to the old cities, and I’m really curious about the consequences on the local urban and economic fabric. And Lyautay decided that non-Muslims were not to be permitted to go into any mosques. Was he worried that Christians would convert? Was he worried that they would take over the mosques and Muslims would be angry? Concerned that their own soldiers would desecrate holy places? Throughout Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, it seems, anyone can go into mosques, a policy consistent with the historical universalism and interest in conversion that Muslims have embraced. Over many months with art historians during my dissertation research, I visited and admired many Ottoman mosques. Some French colonial ruler decided that Muslims should not enter mosques, and Moroccan officials seem to believe simply that this is the way things must be. So we have not been able to see, appreciate, admire any mosques in Morocco.

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July 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment


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