Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Wrestling Team and a U.S. Customs Official

Yesterday I returned to the States after my standard 3 months in Palestine.  At the end of my stint I spent some time traveling with my father and my sister in Israel, Palestine, and Egypt.  I wanted to share a couple of random experiences that have kept my wheels turning over the past few days.  Do you want the good story first, of the bad (but so freaking typical) story first?

I'll start with the good story, since I didn't hear anyone state a preference.  

Traveling through Palestine/Israel was both familiar and new.  Familiar because it's a place I have lived for more than 18 months.  Familiar because I have learned Arabic (certainly not fluently), because I have friends here, and because I largely know my way around.  But it was also new because we spent time in places I hadn't been to, or hadn't been to recently, such as Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.  It was new because I was visiting places in Palestine/Israel with people who were seeing it all with new eyes.  It was new because it was a unique trip, with a unique group of people, following a unique itinerary.  

But traveling in Egypt was totally new.  None of us had ever been to Egypt, no one played tour guide.  I was shocked at how different Egyptian Arabic was from Levantine Arabic (the region comprised of Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).  The Egyptian Arabic was almost totally incomprehensible to me.  I could pick up certain words here and there, but the accent was so different I felt like my Arabic skills were pretty useless.  This largely wasn't a big deal because the level of English spoken in Egypt was pretty phenomenal.  While I was walking around in the Egyptian Museum I heard native Egyptian tour guides speaking every common language on the planet to groups of tourists.

That whole paragraph was a long tangential introduction to get me to the (good) story at the Cairo Airport.  

As I sat in a chair in the Cairo airport, waiting for my boarding gate room to open up, I saw a couple guys who looked Arab, but not Egyptian.  I kept my eyes on them, just for the sake of curiosity, as I drank my overpriced Cafe Americani (traditional American coffee).  They were wearing matching athletic warm-up suits, and as they turned around I saw 'PALESTINE' emblazoned on the back of their jackets.  Their jackets stayed in my eyesight long enough for me to make out the Arabic that suggested they were a wrestling team from Palestine.  I got up to throw away my coffee cup and made my way over to them and asked them, "Intu min Falestiin (You all are from Palestine)?"

"Ah, min Falastiin" (Yeah from Palestine).
"Ween fi Falastiin" (Where from in Palestine)?
One replied, "Ana min Jenin" (I am from Jenin), and the second, "Ana min Nablus"
They asked me, "Min ween inte, inte btihki Arabi, laaken inte mish Falastiini" (Where are you from?  You speak Arabic but you aren't Palestinian).
The conversation proceeded as they asked about my work in Palestine and how the situation is near Hebron, which I am sure was a courtesy question because they know all about the occupation if they live in Jenin and Nablus, centers of ugly occupation in the West Bank.  They told me about their wrestling team and how they are traveling to Paris for a tournament.  I wished them luck and said I was happy they were able to travel out of the country for the tournament.  They said bye and wished me safe travels.  

I walked away from them with a big smile on my face.  Being able to speak with them in a dialect that is familiar was comforting and a nice surprise in the Cairo airport.  But the more telling and significant thing for me is how pleased I was to see Palestinian young men with the freedom to travel out of the country, to leave the occupation behind them for a few days.  Palestinians have an incredibly difficult time traveling, even within their own West Bank, much less traveling internationally.  

Athletic teams the world over cherish the opportunity to travel out of their local area to enter competitions and compete in games.  When I see Palestinians overcome the obstacles, checkpoints, roadblocks, racist bureaucracy, and apartheid red tape which are put in place by the occupier under the guise of security, I am filled with a sense of victory and joy, even for a moment.  Even the Palestine Men's National Soccer Team has had serious trouble getting permits for their Gazan players to even leave the Gaza Strip, much less travel abroad.  But this wrestling team was a little glimmer of hope, a shred of normalcy in the swallowing, dark chasm of darkness, apartheid, and occupation that limits people's freedom and self-determination.

The not-so-good story involved my entry into the United States and my passage through U.S. Customs.  I was pulled aside to a small room, where I was initially the only white person.  There was a group of Arab men, a group of people from Southeast Asia, and later on some Eastern Europeans women came in.  After a while my name was called and Lt. Spiekerman told me I was going to be asked some questions.  I was aware that my teeth were clenched and my arms crossed in a very defensive posture before the questioning even began.  

I was asked where I had been and what I was doing.  Israel and the Palestinian territories doing volunteer work and Egypt for tourism..blah blah blah.  It was pretty standard questions, which I have become very accustomed to because of Israeli security officials, but then I got the part that really chapped my ass: I was asked 6-8 times if I attended any madrassas during my travels.  Follow up questions consisted of, "did you receive any additional training or education, did you learn how to use arms, receive any.....uh know what I mean, did you attend any madrassas."  

I asked a clarifying question.  By madrassas, do you mean madrase, which is the Arabic word for school?  Are you asking if I attended a school or enrolled in a institute or higher education?  If that's the question then the answer is no, I did not.  

Unfortunately the guy didn't clarify his terms, but just kept asking about flipping madrassas.

A small linguistic lesson, for your own benefit.  There is really only one all inclusive word for school or leaning institute in Arabic, and it's madrase, or the plural is madaares.  Madrassa is just a bad English transliteration of the Arabic word for school, madrase.  It's the word written on the exterior of a elementary school, secondary school, etc.  The word has been utterly co-opted by Western politicans, media, and neoconservatives to mean a radical Islamic, anti-western, pro-terrorism institute of Islamic indoctrination and Islamic brainwashing.  That's clearly what this guy was asking me about.  I don't think he was asking me if I took a course in cooking at the American University in Cairo, or if I took a Hebrew language course at Jerusalem University.  

I was interested in how Wikipedia classified the term madrassa. Wikipedia mentions from the outset the Arabic origin of the word (and the general Semitic origin of the word, the Hebrew is midrash) and that the word means any type of "educational institution, whether secular or religious (of any religion)."  The article then explains the clarifying adjectives that can be placed by the word madrase to denote public, private, religious, Islamic, Christian, elementary, univeristy, etc.  This demonstrates there much be an adjective(s) in order to define what type of school the writer is speaking about.  Take a look at the index to see the descriptions of different levels and types of educational institutes in the Arabic world.  Then we get to the point of the Wikipedia article which made me smile and say, "yeah, damn you Lt. Spiekerman, I told you, son."  This section of the article made my point very clearly.   Possible Misuse of the Word.

From the mouths of babes, errr, Wikipedia. 
Among Western countries post-9/11, the Madrasas are often perceived as a place of radical revivalism with a negative connotation of anti-Americanism and radical extremism, frequently associated in the Western press with Wahhabi attitudes toward non-Muslims. The word madrasah literally means "school" and does not imply a political or religious affiliation, radical or otherwise. They have a varied curriculum, and are not all religious.   
And the would-be knockout punch for Lt. Spiekerman: 

The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization examined bias in United States newspaper coverage of Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and found the term has come to contain a loaded political meaning:  "When articles mentioned 'madrassas,' readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination."

Take that U.S Customs.  Take that U.S. media.  Take that U.S. public.  Take that Lt. Spiekerman.  

Please, STOP using a regular, ordinary word and twisting it around to paint all educational institutions in the Middle East (i.e. the part of the world you don't like) as bastions of violent and hateful Islamic teaching.  And Spiekerman, I have attended a madrase in the ISLAMIC REPUBLIC of Syria, when I was learning to speak Arabic, in order to do my human rights work at a higher and more professional level.  But lucky for you Lietenant, I didn't attend a madrase on this trip.    


andimariep said...

LOL ... you're awesome. Rock on with yo bad self!

Brit said...

YESSS. best blog post ever.