Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Frustration in the Grocery Line

Remind me never to initiate small talk when I'm in line in New York. Or at least, not when the economy is this bad.

The Rite Aide across the street from my apartment in Manhattan always has a long line at the checkout counters, mostly because the place is understaffed. Nothing new here. Downsizing on staff has been one of the biggest consequences of the global economic downturn, but I was just trying to be "friendly" to the lady behind me and mustered: "There are always understaffed here, huh?"
And it's as if I begged this woman to fume at the political state of the the U.S.
"It's all around the country honey. And it is only going to get worse. We got idiots in Congress and an idiot in the White House.
And you know what he wants to do now? Stop NASA. The only thing that brought us to the 21st century. We're going back to windmills. You just see."

Just as she's done spewing out her 2 cents, it's time for me to pay for my stuff. Nothing like a 10 minute wait in line to give you a taste of New York.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Commencement Speakers and Big Foreign Names

Local graduates could use local advice on their big day

(By Tala Al Ramahi | The National | Published June 16, 2009)

“We live in a world far more slavish in its obedience to ancient custom than we like to admit. And ancient commencement day custom demands that somebody stand up here and harangue the poor graduates until they beg for mercy.”

Russell Baker, Connecticut College commencement address, 1995

Most of us probably don’t remember what was said at our college commencement speeches, thanks partly to the gift of time that makes us forget. And most graduates are eager to walk into “real” life as its new saviours (or just to make lots of money), and on graduation day, they just want the speech over with so they can start the “real” celebration.

Since in those days we already knew it all, we might not remember any of the lessons that commencement speakers delivered, but we rarely forget who it was that made the speech. In the United States, a university commencement speaker is usually a distinguished professional in his field, preferably someone with celebrity status, and is almost always affiliated to the university in one form or another.

Prestigious universities pride themselves in being able to snatch the “big fish”, because big names (the university) inevitably attract big names (the speaker), but also because prestigious universities graduate a fair amount of prospective pioneers who eventually become the big fish, who then come back to deliver the big speech.

I remember when Stanford University announced the commencement speaker for the 2007 graduating class; a flurry of editorials and op-eds thronged the student newspaper questioning the university’s choice: who is Dana Gioia? For the record, he’s an American poet an advocate for the arts.

But why couldn’t we get someone like Steve Jobs or the US supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Conner. Heck, why couldn’t we get Sergey and Larry (aka, “the google guys”). We could have pretended that they hadn’t dropped out of the Stanford PhD programme to become richer than any of us with degrees could ever hope to be.

I don’t remember much from the speech Mr Gioia gave that scorching California day, but I acutely remember him poking fun at our concerns that he wasn’t famous enough. “I couldn’t agree more,” he told us.

The following year Oprah Winfrey delivered the school’s commencement address. I think the class of 2007 bitterly remembers 2008 as the year the university compensated for our disgruntlement by giving those that followed us the most powerful name in entertainment and the richest self-made woman in America.

It seems commencement speeches in the United Arab Emirates are not given as much significance. Premier institutions such as the Abu Dhabi University and the American University of Sharjah, for instance, do not follow such a regular tradition.

On the other hand, the American University of Dubai, despite its youth as an institution, has managed to attract influential figures, most recently Colin Powell, and in the past other renowned personalities, such as Steve Forbes, Christiane Amanpour and Bill Clinton.

While such names deserve to deliver a university’s commencement address, why can’t we capitalise on the talent we have in this region? In the 11 years that AUD has “sent off” its graduating class into the real world, none of its commencement speakers were regionally-based.

Because most of our institutions are so new, it is understandable that the commencement speaker will not necessarily be affiliated to the university which invites them to speak, since it usually takes many years, if not decades, after graduation to reach a position of authority where one becomes an internationally recognised name.

That said, it won’t be a hard task to poach locally-based personalities to deliver a commencement address that can communicate the unique struggles of our region and who can touch on distinct themes that students here can relate to.

The challenge is crafting the speech itself. After all, what do you tell a group of students who think they know it all? What can you say that will make them remember a lesson from that 15 minute oration?

A new batch of local graduates have been sent off to this scary world called life. Let’s make sure next year’s cap-and-gown clad students hear something equally engaging from someone who got a regional taste of the journey that they will be about to begin.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wise Words from Bono, Oprah at UPenn, Stanford and elsewhere

My column for tomorrow's paper is about Commencement speeches and,... actually, I won't tell you the part after the 'and' or else you won't read it (that is assuming somebody reads my column).
So naturally, I was doing some research on Commencement speeches, specifically those made at American Universities in the U.S.

I've been through the transcripts of a bunch of the most memorable ones, and had to share some excerpts with you from the ones I thought were the best. Read the quotes, but I highly encourage you to watch a number of them in full on Youtube.

My two favorites from unlikely personalities who delivered addresses at Ivy Leagues: Rock-star Bono, and author JK Rowling. Although I have to sheepishly admit I've never read a single Harry Potter book, Ms Rowling's address to Harvard was fantastic. Click on the hyperlink below for her full youtube video.

I couldn't find Bono's video on youtube, so here's the full transcript. Definitley worth reading.
Both have done a great job of providing life lessons with good humour and without sounding condescending or boring.

From: '10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than it Already Is.', Russell Baker, 1995 Commencement Address to Connecticut College.

"Nine: get married. I know you don't want to hear this, but getting married will give you more satisfaction in the long run than your BMW. It provides a standard set of parent for your children and gives you that second income you will need when it's time to send those children to Connecticut College. What's more, without marriage, you will have practically no material at all to work with when you decide to write a book or hire a psychiatrist. "

From: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination, JK Rowling, 2008 Commencement Address to Harvard University.

"You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all- in which case, you fail by default."

"And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffeering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do."

From: 'Because We Can, We Must', Bono, 2004 Commencement Address to University of Pennsylvania.

"I know idealism is not playing on the right right now, you don't see it on TV, irony is on heavy rotation, and knowingness, the smirk, and the tired joke. I've tried them all out but I'll tell you this, outside this campus- even inside it-- idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissm and all the other isms of indifference. Baggasim, Shaggism, Raggism, Notism, graduatism, chismism. I dont know, Where's John Lennon when you need him?"

"Because at that moment I became the worst scrouge on God's green earth: a rockstar with a cause. Christ! Except it isn't the cause. Seven thousand Africans die every of preventable, treatable diseases like AIDS? That's not a cause, that's an emergency."

From: Oprah Winfrey's 2008 Commencement Speech at Stanford University.

"So, let me end with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King. Dr. King said, "Not everybody can be famous." And I don't know, but everybody today seems to want to be famous.But fame is a trip. People follow you to the bathroom, listen to you pee. It's just—try to pee quietly. It doesn't matter, they come out and say, "Ohmigod, it's you. You peed."That's the fame trip, so I don't know if you want that."

"So, I say to you, forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you.

So, how do I define success? Let me tell you, money's pretty nice. I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that it's not about money, 'cause money is very nice. I like money. It's good for buying things. But having a lot of money does not automatically make you a successful person. What you want is money and meaning."

(Photo Courtesy of: www.u2station.com)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who Speaks for Islam?

Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim-American woman appointed by President Obama to serve on his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships was in town last week with her research partner and equally renowned Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University.

Their visit to the UAE was part of a regional tour to present the findings of their six year survey of Muslims around the world. Last year, their book Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, was published in the United States, and their research is regarded as the largest survey of Muslim public opinion ever done.

And frankly, I couldn't have timed their visit any better; Last week, I wrote a column about how so-called "intellectuals" are capitalizing on American vulnerability and, sometimes, ignorance of Muslims, to sell sensationalist books. They use their unfortunate upbringing in extremist communities as a representation of their previous faith (Islam) and market themselves as the honorable dissedents who have freed themselves from the tyranny of a religion. Tyranny is un ugly thing, but a product of man rather than anything else. Most of these "intellectuals" don't seem to realize that they are just as extremist in their new beliefs as those they decry. Anyway, moving on to what this post is about.

Mrs Mogahed said the aim of their extensive study was to "democratize the debate" at a time when political pundits, and Islamophobes, even terrorists were speaking on behalf of Muslims, without actually knowing what Muslims wanted, believed or hoped for in life.

So the duo's research couldn't have come at a more critical time. With Obama's new moderate, public-diplomacy centric administration, the results of the survey will only further Obama's argument that our similarities are more marked than our differences.

I am not sure if the book is available in Abu Dhabi bookstores, but I got my copy from Kounikounya bookstore at The Dubai Mall. I also got it signed by Professor Esposito himself, at the June 10, 2009 Abu Dhabi leg of the tour. Yay!

Here's what came out of their talk:

Diversity downgrades political influence of US Muslims

By Tala Al Ramahi

ABU DHABI // A lack of focus has prevented Muslim Americans from becoming a serious political force in that country, one of president Barack Obama’s advisers on Islamic issues said during a speech in Abu Dhabi.,

Dalia Mogahed, who advises president Obama on the attitudes and values of Muslims, said the American Muslim community had failed “in being a political power that Americans can take seriously” compared with other religious minorities in the United States. The reason, she said, was that the American political system “favours people who are very focused and organised, and Muslim Americans are neither of those things”.

She added that Muslim Americans are “very diverse”, that “makes it difficult for them to organise around one political platform”.

President Obama appointed Mrs Mogahed to serve on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships. She is one of two Muslims on the 25-member council.

Mrs Mogahed, co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, was addressing about 200 people, including scholars and members of the public, at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research on Wednesday.

The book, is the product of a six-year study conducted by Mrs Mogahed and John Esposito, a professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Prof Esposito, the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding,also spoke on Wednesday.

They interviewed more than 40,000 Muslims in 40 countries that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations in what is regarded as the largest study of Muslim public opinion ever.

Mrs Mogahed said the idea was to “inject into the conversation relating to the Muslims and the West the voices of ordinary people.

“We found that conflict between Muslims and the West is not inevitable. It is about policy and not a clash of principle.”

Prof Esposito said: “We don’t have to rely on experts or terrorists to tell us what Muslims want. We don’t have to rely on Islamophobes on what Muslims say, because now we have the data.”

Despite the perceived differences between Muslims and other Americans after the September 11 attacks in New York City, the research found that what Muslims and non-Muslims both admired most about the West was precisely the same: technology, liberty and democracy.

“Even in such an open-ended question, there is this large level of commonality between the two groups,” said Mrs Mogahed.

When we ask people of their dreams of the future, we didn’t hear about waging war. It was about finding jobs and seeking a good education for their children.”

The majority of Muslims surveyed also said they admired Western values such as freedom of speech, democracy and access to knowledge, with the caveat that Islamic values should not be compromised in the process.

Muslims were not interested in “Western culture wholesale”, Mrs Mogahed said of those surveyed, and consistently alluded to experiencing “a profound feeling of disrespect” from the United States.

Another study the two conducted asked Americans whether they believed the Western world respected Muslims. More than half (54 per cent) said no, and one-fifth reported “a great deal of prejudice towards Muslims.” Mrs Mogahed attributed such prejudices partly to the American media.

A study by Media Tenor, a media-content analysis firm, revealed that almost 53 per cent of those who represent Islam in American TV news were “armed groups”, even though such militants constituted “a fraction” of Muslims.

However, American people are also more likely to point out that “greater interaction between Muslims and the West is a benefit,” Mrs Mogahed said.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pic of the Day: Ease our headache, Drive a Mini.

I found this prop at the entrance of the parking of Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. Pure Genius.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

His Name is Ezra Nawi. Help make sure he remains Free.

Many people in this region (the Middle East, that is) do not hear about Jewish activists who put their lives in danger in order to further human rights for their neighbours, the Palestinians.
Ezra Nawi is one of them, and is likely to end up in Israeli jail for his brave attempts at stopping an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing yet another Palestinian home.
You can help do something to reverse his unfortunate fate by signing an e-letter that will reach numerous Israeli embassies across the world.

The more noise you make, the more likely you'll be heard, and the courageous men and women like Ezra Nawi will be able to continue their efforts and their hopes at reclaiming Palestinian dignity, but also a homeland- one that has been promised to the native inhabitants of that land for decades (futiley, for now).

Below is an open letter co-written by influential activists of the cause. Among them is Noam Chomski, the renowned intellectual, author, professor of linguistics and ardent activist at MIT.

Click here to sign the letter.

Every so often someone comes along who is so brave and so inspiring that you just can't sit by and remain silent when you learn they need your help.

We're writing to you today about one of these rare people.

His name is Ezra Nawi.

You've probably never heard of him, but because you may know our names, now you will know his name.

Ezra Nawi is one of Israel's most courageous human rights activists and without your help, he will likely go to jail in less than 30 days.

His crime? He tried to stop a military bulldozer from destroying the homes of Palestinian Bedouins in the South Hebron region. These homes and the families who live in them have been under Israeli occupation for 42 years. They still live without electricity, running water and other basic services. They are continuously harassed by Jewish settlers and the military.

Nawi's friends have launched a campaign to generate tens of thousands of letters to Israeli embassies all over the world before he is due to be sentenced in July. They've asked for your help.

His name is Ezra Nawi.

We keep saying his name because we believe that the more people know him and know his name, the harder it will be for the Israeli military to send him quietly to jail.

And Ezra Nawi is anything but quiet.

He is a Jewish Israeli of Iraqi descent who speaks fluent Arabic.

He has dedicated his life to helping those who are trampled on. He has stood by Jewish single mothers who pitched tents in front of the Knesset while struggling for a living wage, and by Palestinians threatened with expulsion from their homes.

He is loved by those with little power, to whom he dedicates his life, and hated by the Jewish settlers, military and police.

Now that you know Ezra, you have a chance to stand up for him, and for everything that he represents. Especially now, as Israel escalates its crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy activists.

He needs you. His friends need you. Those he helps every day need you. So please send a letter to the Consulate, to the media, to your family and friends.

Take just a moment to write your letter. Do it now. And then share his name with a friend. Do it for Ezra Nawi.


Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Neve Gordon

(Photo courtesy of Jewishvoiceforpeace.org)

The Danger of 'dialogue' when it's used to make deceit

The danger of ‘dialogue’ when it’s used to mask deceit

Tala al Ramahi (Published June 10, 2009 | The National)

A few days ago, I received an automated e-mail from Amazon, recommending a handful of books based on my previous purchases. Infidel, by Ayan Hirsi Ali, was the first book on their list. I sniggered and contemplated sending them a suggestion of my own: your recommendation system needs more than just a tweak.

Ali, a controversial Somali author, is one of the many “intellectuals” who became increasingly popular in the United States after September 11. Given the ample time I spent in America during that period, I had the “opportunity” to actually attend some of their speaking engagements.

There was Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-American who renounced her Muslim faith for “America, Israel and the War on Terror”. She described her upbringing as one ingrained with anti-Semitism, violent resistance against Jews and Christians, and claimed she was enlightened when she became acquainted with members of Hadassa, a Jewish group promoting religious dialogue who greeted her with a simple “shalom”. She had not found such peacefulness in her previous faith, she claimed.

She made sweeping generalisations that moderate Muslims who denounced violence were rare, and that those who did were actually “not really Muslim”. She claimed to reject jihad (a term she used to mean violence) as part of her new message of peace, and yet staunchly advocated intolerance toward members of an entire faith. Despite leaving her lecture bitter at such expressions of ignorance, I was nevertheless content that most could or would learn to see through her deceit masked as “dissent”. But for a certain readership, her themes have had legs. Two years later, she published her book, Now they Call me Infidel: Why I renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror, now a bestseller in the United States, and as of yesterday received 4.5 out of five stars averaging its reception among 70 readers on Amazon.

Then there was Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian-American and self proclaimed “ex-terrorist” who has been “reformed” after converting to Evangelical Christianity. I was, like many others, intrigued by the publicity flyers that littered my campus: three male faces covered by the black and white Palestinian kaffiyeh. “Three Ex-Terrorists Turned Peace Activists” announced a red headline splashed across a black flyer.

Shoebat and his two other speaking partners delivered similar screeds to those of Darwish. Shoebat’s title for his first book, Why I left Jihad was also unimaginatively similar to the title of Darwish’s book. His next publication had a catchier title: Why We Want to Kill You and it received five full stars from readers on Amazon.

Many others like Shoebat have made a career out of their disingenuous message, preaching an intolerant agenda under the guise of promoting peace. Their titles are similar, and so is the spiel: renounce your faith after an extremist past and become a “reformed” advocate for the US and Israel. Sex sells, they say, but so does Jihad, apparently.

These authors have capitalised on American agony and vulnerability after September 11th, making themselves a healthy profit. After the devastating attacks, Americans desperately wanted answers: Why do they hate us? Why did they do this? Who are Muslims anyway? This disingenuous message filled a vacuum in American culture at the time, with a dearth of books and voices responding to these inquiries.

These authors were happy to indulge in telling or, in fact, misinforming them: Yes they hate you; It’s because you are free; Muslims are unlike others who practice alternative faiths because they love violence, hate America and are intolerant to other views and religions. Others fabricated pitiful pasts to better market themselves.

These authorities became self appointed spokespeople for “Muslim dissent”, even when their rhetoric was punctuated with bigotry, lacked nuance and an understanding of the complex world around them.

Their word choice was not unlike those that they decried. Words like infidel, jihad, hate, kill Jews and Christians peppered their language under the pretence of combating misogyny, anti-semitism and violence. Ironically, they often argued against interfaith dialogue as “nonsense” and moderate Muslims as “irrelevant”.

Religious pluralism and dialogue are more important now more than ever. But these are not their champions. There is nothing brave nor admirable about promoting bigotry and exploiting American vulnerability. If anything, these individuals have maintained the past patterns of thought that they claim to have left behind.