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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Excerpt from Companions of the Garden, Chapter 5

     Dig and Abida drive through central Virginia:

     The weathered green signs that whizzed by on their right said Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway, and even without this periodic reminder, it seemed to Dig as if the landscape were in a perpetual state of outcry.  The soil still rich with the memory of blood.  Every tree and hill and gully bearing out the textured virtuosity of cannon balls and chain gun fire.  Sweaty palms and fingers carving auditory scars on the landscape with their crank crank cranks on the chain gun winch.  Beards and coats and uniforms – both gray and blue – all soaked in the stink of the unwashed and the first latent strains of the Unforgetting, and older still the crack of the whip and the choking hovering pathology of cotton.  A land overwhelmed with sensory assault, and at once knowable and unmistakable for the northern visitor and his anticipated pageantry.  At once his nation.  At once his own.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Egyptian court rules against the use of "virginity tests" on female detainees

    Yesterday, an Egyptian court issued a ban on the military's performance of so-called "virginity tests" on female detainees, a stirring articulation not only of civil society's resistance to martial oppression, but also of the refusal of Egypt's women to be silenced by assault and intimidation.
     The ruling comes in the case of 25-year-old Samira Ibrahim, a marketing manager, who took Egypt's military junta to court in August with the allegation that she'd been subjected to "tests" of this nature during a violent crackdown on protests on March 9th.
     Rights groups contend that the military has implemented such practices to shield themselves against accusations of rape. Leaving aside the profound fallacy of using sexual assault to guard against sexual assault charges, the practice is perhaps most nauseating when one considers the junta's unshakeable confidence that the survivors of such atrocities would remain silent.
      Ibrahim refused to allow them that privilege, and the courts have reinforced her stance. The three-judge panel attested that the virginity tests were "a violation of women's rights and an aggression against their dignity." Confirming aforementioned suspicions, the ruling also claimed that a member of the junta had admitted to Amnesty International in June that the practice was indeed indented to safeguard against rape charges, and indicated that it was in fact an administrative order and not an individual decision.
     This ruling offers an encouraging companion narrative to a December 20 issue brief from the Center for American Progress, which looked at rape as a weapon of oppression in the context of the Arab Spring.   Amidst a roster of injuries already grimly familiar to anyone who has worked in the field of women's rights - the devastating impact that sexual assault exacts in conservative religious communities, wherein assaulted women are seen to have lost their honor and are ostracized on that basis, or the inability of forcibly impregnated women to obtain abortions - the issue brief also comments on the degree to which women in much of the Arab world, Egypt included, are systematically denied access to the legal sphere. "Rape," it argues, "is not a matter of public justice . . . Public places where rape victims look for legal remedy, such as courts and police stations, are 'no place for respectable women.'"    
     Amidst a regime that makes a hobby out of squashing most forms of democratic expression, it remains to be seen how much yesterday's ruling will do to reverse that trend. But in lending solidarity to Ibrahim's statement  - "I will not give up my rights as a woman and as a human being -" the courts have at least given the green light to women across the country who might otherwise have despaired of their grievances ever being heard. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Excerpt from Companions of the Garden, Chapter 2

     As a means of getting more visitors engaged with the novel itself, and not just the social or political issues surrounding it, I'll now be posting every Thursday through mid-March an excerpt from the book, encapsulating some portion of the text that I find poignant.
    Enjoy, and know that I'll always equate questions, feedback, and criticism with that thing called gold!

     (Chapter 2, Washington, DC)

     “You read the Qur’an,” she said.
     “Yeah,” he replied.
     “In college?”
     He smiled, said, “No. 10th Grade.”
     “You’re kidding.”
     “Not exactly.”
     She shook her head, bewildered, as if he’d just revealed a mental defect; the kind of defect that made her quietly happy.
     “Can I ask the infamous why?” she said.
     He looked across the Mall. The sun clung soft to its three o’clock posture, the Washington Monument stark on the skyline.
     “There’s this guy called Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “He buys a copy of the Qur’an from the Virginia Gazette, reads it cover to cover a dozen times over . . . even teaches himself basic Arabic . . . all in the name of wrapping his mind around something fresh, something totally new.”
     He laughed and turned back to her.
     “That’s how my sophomore history teacher opens his lecture on the first day of school. We’re all thinking, wow, that’s cool. That’s really, really cool. Then seconds later he blows the whole thing up, telling us, all Jefferson ever did with that knowledge was to bolster his case for the invasion of North Africa – the good old, ‘I know our enemy now’ routine. I guess the point of the lecture was how things never change, but that’s not what I took away from it. Instead I bought a copy of the Qur’an that night and skipped class the next three days so I could finish reading it.  I don’t know. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
     She smiled. Shook her head again. Folded up her book and slipped it in her bag.
     “Tea?” she said.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thousands of women march on the streets of Cairo

    Though I don't have time to post on it properly, I'll take a moment to champion the women of Egypt, who in Cairo have turned out by the thousands to protest the atrocities committed on protesters by security forces.
    Said a veteran female Egyptian journalist at a news conference on Monday, "the next revolution will be a women’s revolution for real."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tribute to Tawakkol Karman

    From the opulent fanfare in Oslo, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman returns home to her tent in Yemen, to continue her protests of the Yemeni autocracy.
     The image of three women of color sharing the conventionally masculine accolade is itself an incredible morale boost, but of course, the women in question are many universes removed from mere symbolic gratification: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Africa's first democratically elected female head of state, who helped resuscitate her country from a devastating war; her Liberian compatriot Leymah Gbowee, head of the Women for Peace movement, who succeeded, among many accomplishments, to unite Christian and Muslim women against her country's warlords; and Karman, politician, mother of three, head of Women Journalists Without Chains, and chief architect of the Yemeni Revolution, who gets the starring role in this post  in part because she embodies so much of what Abida - hero of my novel - strives to become.
      Karman's reinvention of the public imagination is as storied as her own identity.
      First and foremost, her unwavering commitment to peace and democracy, and the vast ensemble of voices who cheer her on, challenge the construction of Yemen as a splintered, terrorist-breeding basket case. "After the revolution," Karman told Reuters, "you will see the real Yemen, which is peace, dreams and achievement."
      Second, she breathes life into what for many (however unduly) is the fading promise of the Arab Spring.  "The Arab world is today witnessing the birth of a new world, which tyrants and unjust rulers strive to oppose," Karman said in her acceptance speech. "But in the end, this new world will inevitably emerge.  The people have decided to break free and walk in the footsteps of civilized free people of the world."
       Third, at a point where Islamist electoral victories in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco have sent the world cascading into a fresh orgy of Islamophobia, Karman staunchly opposes the idea that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible: "All the religions, they respect democracy. They respect human rights, they respect all the values that all of us carry . . . The only problem is the misunderstanding from the people who act -- Islam, Christian, Jewish or any other religion -- (as if to say) 'this is the religion'."
     Finally, at the end of the day, Karman is an Arab woman in a headscarf leading a nation out of bondage. As I've stated in past posts, I can think of no blow more lethal to the notion that Muslim women are inherently oppressed, or that the women of the Middle East are in need of rescue by the West.
     Adept at the destruction both of stereotypes and despots, Karman declares "I am not afraid of the future. If we did we would not make this revolution. We should not marginalize anyone. Participation in the political life is the only way that will drive extremism (away), so I am not afraid."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Stand in defense of "All American Muslim"

    In a gag-inducing turn of events, the Florida Family Association successfully pressured Lowe's, the national hardware chain, to withdraw its advertising from "All American Muslim," a new reality TV show that seeks to challenge Islamophobia.
     "All-American Muslim is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law," the Florida Family Association statement read. "The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish."
     Once again, we're treated to that unrepentantly bigoted construct that transforms the entire Muslim community into a caricatured gaggle of terrorists - that casts the overarching majority in the light of an extreme minority - only this time, the corporate giants of America have given the perpetrators of this hate-mongering a colossal victory. Lowe's, for one, made plain the fact that its decision stemmed directly from the Florida Family Association's actions.
     Health researcher and Huffington Post commentator Abdulrahman El-Sayed sees echoes of the infamous Jim Crow.
    "By pulling its advertisements from a television show meant to normalize the Muslim experience," he argues, "Lowe's and other corporations have tapped into that murky history of institutional discrimination. They have chosen to give way to fear and hate over mutual understanding and inclusiveness, implicitly barring a minority community from access to the public debate on account of the reviling hatred of a few."
    Worst of all, "All American Muslim" is precisely the kind of show America needs right now. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, home of America's largest Muslim community, the TLC program chronicles the lives of several Muslim families, and works always to emphasize the ways in which their lifestyles resonate with what it is understood to be conventionally American. One of the stars is a police officer, another a football player.
    "For a show meant to convey the truth about the diversity and honest normalness of the lives of average Muslims in the US, it succeeds brilliantly," El-Sayed says. "But some can't believe Muslims could be so normal."
      Please join me in singing this extremely articulate petition, demanding that Lowe's reinstate its advertising, and put a stop to a culture that complies all too often with hatred and ignorance.
      I would also encourage readers, again, to check out the compelling website My Fellow American, which allows visitors the opportunity to express their views on the Muslim community and Islamophobia through both the written word and video testimonials. As such, it offers the perfect forum for any and all individuals outraged by Lowe's decision to vent their frustration in a capacity that others will hear.      

Monday, December 12, 2011

Belated words of support for Mona Eltahaway

     Though I'm a bit tardy in doing so, I wanted to make certain to extend my support for Mona Eltahaway, a renowned columnist and speaker, of whom I've blogged on many an occasion, and who was recently and brutally assaulted by security forces in her native Egypt.
     To visit such attrocities on any human being is completely unconscionable, and I stand with Mona as I would stand with any survivor, in solidarity against evil. Yet ever since hearing her speak in New York last April, I've deeply admired her energy, optimism, and commitment to democracy in the Middle East, traits that persist in spite of her recent hardship, and that further augment my respect.
     Left arm and right hand broken, Mona told MSNBC that what happened to her was in fact "tiny compared to what has happened to so many Egyptians."
     Rather than bemoan her own condition, she kept the focus on Egypt itself, calling on the U.S. administration to stop sending military aid to the very junta responsible for the recurring crackdowns.
     "Three thousand people were injured during that time when I was injured," she said. "And not all those people have access to media the way that I do . . . The reason this revolution began was to fight exactly this type of brutality."
      I'm the first to admit that I haven't agreed with Mona on all points, but no amount of criticism should take precedent over the basic support that her strength of character deserves.
      To Mona: I'm with you. They'll fail in the end.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Revised version of chapters 1-6 available on the blog

    I don't believe I ever made a former announcement of such, but Chapters 1-6 of the novel can actually be read on Scribd by clicking the picture on the right of the page. (It was originally Chapters 1-5, but the sixth chapter ends on a note that more accurately anticipates the tension that later develops in the characters' relationship.)
       This document reflects the most recent revisions to Chapter 2, which I discussed in Friday's post: spiffed up dialogue between Dig and Abida (more realistic, less forced) and a more direct, less ranting, conclusion.
     To anyone who's not yet had the opportunity to read a sample of the text and would like to do so, I strongly encourage you to check out. As I've said in the past, feedback is always appreciated, but even if you don't have any to provide, it's great to know there are people out there reading it. (It is, after all, what people do to novels.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A shout-out to Jerin Arifa

      It having been much too long since I've done so, I wanted to give another shout-out to my wife, Jerin Arifa, whose tireless activism continues to brighten the world for women and minorities of all walks.
      On Monday night, Jerin participated in a panel, held at Hunter College, that addressed the issues of sexual harassment and violence in New York’s subways and public spaces. Sharing the table with such notable figures as Emily May, Executive Director and co-founder of Hollaback!, Jerin performed in typically fine form - with eloquence, clarity, and conviction - in her discussion of the mindset and process that makes violence possible. Violence, she said, is a spectrum of behavior, one that begins with dehumanization of the individual (name calling, verbal abuse, unwelcome sexual advances, groping and exposure, etc.) that in turns makes easier, on the other end of the spectrum, the performance of physical violence toward that individual. Jerin chairs the National Young Feminist Task Force for NOW, the activities of which further informed her discussion.
     I'll hold off on further extolling, as the sweetness therein begins to corrode the integrity of the message, and say simply that it's been a pleasure - indeed, more than a pleasure - to work in her company.
     Jerin - keep up the awesome. You're just that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Back from the dead . . .

     Needless to say, this blog has spent the better part of two months lying by the wayside, conspicuously silent on the Egyptian and Tunisian elections, the end of the Libyan Civil War, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's re-election in Liberia, and so forth.
     Rather than dwell on the causes behind the lapse, I'll focus instead on what I've accomplished in the blackout:

     1. Responding to feedback from readers and literary agents, I performed a number of much-needed revisions to Companions of the Garden, rewriting Chapter 2, where the energy dragged, and where the initial dialogue between Dig and Abida had an academic quality that felt forced and unrealistic. I also axed my self-indulgent attempts to be Faulkner via the drunken rant at the climax of the chapter, going instead for sustained realism. It was the same philosophy I used for my other big re-write: Chapter 22, another rant that turned off most of the people who read it. The overwhelming majority of the text reveals itself through simple, direct language, which I've now extended to the trouble spots. The product? A much better novel, with more room yet for growth!

     2. I wrote a short story. Entitled (for the moment) "First Prophet," it offers a feminist re-imagining of the tale of Eve. Readers will be getting back to me shortly with thoughts. I'm excited to see what comes out of it!

      All glowing aside, though, neither endeavor needed to preclude the existence of the blog, nor will they do so going forward.
      As with the publishing process itself, my philosophy on this project is not to get back on the horse until I've found a better way of riding the darn thing. To that end, I'll be looking at ways to spice up the blog, with the aim of making it more engaging, more interactive, and more conducive to exploring the text itself.
      More on this soon.
      Thanks, as always, for the support.