Sunday, March 2, 2008

That King Abdullah sure knows what's up

This weekend I wrote up a lengthy post, but it still needs a few edits before I put it up. For the time being, I'd like to share a speech by His Majesty King Abdullah (the King of Jordan) at Princeton University, delivered on February 29, 2008:

Fifty-seven countries are not at peace with Israel today. Fifty-seven countries out of 193 countries in the world.
Fifty-seven countries with a total population greater than Europe and the United States combined.
Fifty-seven countries, representing one-third of the members of the United Nations. Fifty-seven countries for whose citizens the conflict in Palestine is the issue of their time.
We must, therefore, ask the important question: What are the implications for global stability if this continues?
Today I assert that this must not continue and that 2008 is a critical year. Yes, at long last, this year, right now, we are in the best possible position to resolve 60 years of conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The Arab and Muslim states have committed to an unprecedented and unanimous peace initiative. We have a chance to answer this third of the world who is not at peace with Israel and who demands freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people.
But time is running out and we need the United States of America completely involved to influence the course of discussions, monitor progress and help bridge the gaps to ensure a final agreement by the end of 2008.
It is difficult to exaggerate how great the stakes are, for Americans, for Arabs, for Israelis and, indeed, for the whole world.

But I am not here today to speak only of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am here to speak to you, the scholars of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, of the critical importance of a long-term strategic American involvement in the development of the Middle East.
I am here to explain that such a commitment is an opportunity to transform the strategic landscape of the Middle East for years to come. I am here to speak of what must, I repeat, must happen if our world is to be safe.
I know that optimism does not come easily in academia. But I do know about the visionary thinking that is the scholar’s gift. Today, I ask you to employ visionary thinking to consider a short- and long-term strategy that will ensure a viable, stable, prosperous Middle Eastern region and a safe and secure world for all.
America’s involvement is a critical success factor of such a strategy. We need a strong authority that can act and act swiftly. We need to act now, for time is running out.
The continuing confinement of the Palestinians in Gaza every day creates a greater radicalism amongst Palestinians and invites other actors within the region to operate on their behalf. The long period of conflict has allowed new ambitions, influences and capabilities to appear. They are echoed in Iraq’s armed sectarian division, in the attacks on Lebanese sovereignty, and in the power projection by state and non-state actors.
There are many other serious threats.
Security, opportunities for youth, economic development, resource scarcity, chronic conflicts, institutional challenges and nuclear weapon proliferation are just some examples of the major challenges we face.
You are a prime example of some of the gifted, ambitious youth of America. We are acutely aware of the urgent needs of our own youth who make up 70 per cent of my region’s people. It is the largest youth cohort in our history. Like American youth, Internet communications have given them an unprecedented view of the world. In their own region they see evidence in extremist messages of hatred and isolation. They see a lack of opportunities and an uncertain future. But they also see the prosperity and freedom that countries and regions in peace can offer.
We must meet the expectations of this younger generation. In my region, we expect to need 200 million new jobs by 2020. Creating these opportunities will require investment and partnerships to develop new infrastructure, meet energy and water needs and improve public services and education. A strong cooperative Arab-American strategic partnership must be created.
But today, my friends, we must contemplate.
I pose these questions for your consideration: Will my region plunge into more chaos and violence, where extremism rules? Or will it be a peaceful, developing region?
Will it be a region focused on conflicting radical ideologies fuelled by the manipulation of sectarian division? Or will it be a region reaping the benefits of globalisation and strong global partnerships?
Will it be a region that rejects Western alliances, perhaps violently, because they have become far too difficult to achieve? Or will it be a region that is a global partner in progress and prosperity with the West?
The choice is ours. But we must act and time is running out. The dangerous combination of new technology, terrorism and the drastic consequences of economic underdevelopment, all continue to add to a potentially catastrophic situation on the ground.
We must act this year if we are to achieve the first important advancement towards a strong Middle Eastern region.
A year ago, before the US Congress, I urged an all-out American commitment to lead the way forward. I said then what I repeat today: That the wellspring of global division, the source of resentment and frustration within the region and far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine. The beginning of a long-term strategic partnership between the Arab world and the United States must begin with the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
America is the only world power capable of ensuring that the parties stay on track and on time in their current negotiations. And America is uniquely placed to build international support throughout the peacemaking process. Resolution of this conflict will be critical if we are to confront the other serious regional challenges.
But time is running out. This year is an unprecedented opportunity to reach a comprehensive settlement between Israel and all its neighbours.
In Israel, there are those who oppose any movement towards resolution. There are politicians who do not want peace with Palestinians and who reject a two-state solution.
I disagree. Israel’s security cannot depend indefinitely on occupation, walls and the Israeli military. Real security for Israel will occur when it is a neighbour among neighbours, an economy among economies, a people among people working together towards the achievement of common goals and bright futures.
In America, there are those who oppose any further involvement. There are those who say it is not America’s business. I disagree. You will all know that historically, success in Middle East peacemaking was achieved when the United States stepped in and drove the negotiations.
A victory by the enemies of peace, freedom, stability and moderation cannot be an option. If we miss today’s opportunities, peace will be set back, perhaps for decades. Extremists will continue to act. The forces for moderation and positive change will weaken. Global divisions will not only endure but also possibly deepen. Questioning of the West’s effectiveness and commitment may grow. All of these will have consequences not only for my region but also for the world.
Division and hatred have eroded understanding and agreement. They have played into the hands of the enemies of humanity - those who attacked the World Trade Centre, those who would divide multicultural Europe, those who, right now, seek to tear my region apart.
If we fail to take the necessary steps to resolve the core problem of the region, it will become significantly harder for the countries of the Middle East to work in partnership with America in the future. I fear radical ideologies will determine the political and social agendas in many of our countries. The region will move further away from our vision of moderation, prosperity and peace. It will move further away from the common principles of mutual respect and partnership on which we want to base our relations with the United States and the West.
Every day another child in my region grows up with frustration and hatred in his or her eyes. Every day another child grows up with aggression because that is all they have known. Every day young people lose hope because they cannot get jobs and they cannot see opportunities.
Speaking here today, I am especially aware of the role of scholars and students in making progress happen. Where others see unsolvable problems, you see paths that can lead to answers and successful action. This is the tradition of great scholarship of which you are a part.
Today I ask you to bring the tradition of scholarship to the challenges that lie ahead and join me in thinking about the reality that together our countries can create:

- An end to 60 years of conflict, violence and occupation;
- A homeland for Palestinians, offering hope, respect and a future;
- Security and new acceptance for Israel, within its neighbourhood and around the world;
- A strategic region that is able to turn to the future as peace takes hold;
- And, a new partnership between your country and the Arab and Muslim peoples, transforming the strategic landscape and creating new horizons for progress and peace.

It is an honour to be speaking to you all today, and I thank you, President Tilghman, for your warm reception.
I should like to conclude by drawing from the wisdom of the great American after whom this school was named.
Woodrow Wilson said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together. There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organised rivalries, but an organised peace.”
This is the challenge, this is the opportunity and we must succeed.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Home is Where NPR is

Listening to National Public Radio is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Lucky for me, all of their programs can be accessed over the internet and listened to at any time. I've come across a lot of great stories that I feel are relevant to my experience here, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share them. If you look to the lefthand side of the page, you'll see an "I LOVE NPR" link list. The first piece I have put up is "Iman's Wife A Bridge Between Two Worlds", which recounts the life of a young American woman married to a Muslim leader living in Virginia. She calls herself "a walking anti-stereotype", and I think her experience highlights some the surprising intersections between culture and religion. Some of what she says about the perception and reality of Islam resonated with my experience in Jordan thus far. (Except the parts about actually converting to the religion!)

I also put up "Fortune Cookie Offers New Taste of America", an interview with a Chinese-American food critic about her recent book chronicling Chinese food in America. The discussion focuses on the fact that fortune cookies are exclusive to American take out and not actually Chinese. Like the piece on the Iman's wife, this story discusses the multifaceted nature of cultural identity in modern America. Listening to this was fun, interesting, and delicious!

Please also note my "Side Routes" link list containing other websites of interest. Be sure to check out Stephie's "Exploring the Unreal City" blog about London! It's excellent (and updated much more frequently than mine).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Because You Have to Start Somewhere

When I wrote the London blog it was hard for me to stop writing because at that point I already had so much to say about Jordan. I’ve been waiting a bit to collect my thoughts. Also I’ve been busy with class, and well, LIFE!

Walking off the plane into the airport was a euphoric experience. “I’m here!-I’m here!-I’m here!” I thought with each step. The Amman airport is about the size of a gas station and reeks of stale cigarettes. This, I would later come to discover, is pretty much the way it smells everywhere. Everyone’s a smoker and non-smoking areas are really hard to find. Seriously, you walk through a mall and people are just puffing away. A pack costs less than $2.00 and carries a detailed (but apparently ineffective) picture of a black lung. So let’s play a little “Guess Which Country Manufactures the Product” based on their government mandated labels. Product: Marlboro Lights. Choices: The UK (“Smoking Kills”, see previous post), Jordan (an illustration of cancer), the United States (“Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking May Complicate Pregnancy”). Thanks, Mr. Surgeon General, for looking out!

My cab driver from the airport was very friendly and spoke fantastic English. He even helped me form a complete sentence: “English easy, Arabic hard.” Even though there is no verb, it’s grammatically correct because there is no to be verb in Arabic. That little rule is actually pretty helpful for me as I'm still learning how to conjugate verbs. I have class five days a week at the Language Center at the University of Jordan. I’m in the beginner level and we’ve spent this last week going over the alphabet. It’s a little frustrating for me right now because I’ve already learned this, but luckily we’re moving quickly. My teacher, Hadia, is a wonderful instructor and makes a point of telling us so multiple times a day. Her English is great but has a little bit of foreign awkwardness that I find highly entertaining. Sometimes I have to stop myself from imitating her too loudly.

On Thursday she showed us a Sesame Street style video review that was made fifteen years ago. “The next alphabet I am going to teach you is Haa. Note the difference between this alphabet and the alphabet Ha. Here is some vocabularies using these alphabets.” Of the twenty seven letters (or should I say, alphabets), eight of them have no English equivalent. Some of these are easy, like a heavy “T”, which involves placing your tongue farther back along the roof of the mouth than an English “T” (where the tongue stays at the front). Others, like “kh” require the speaker to produce a sound that is a delicate combination of coughing up a hairball and choking. Maybe that’s why everyone’s a smoker, it makes it easier to pronounce some of the letters.

For the past year I’ve spent a lot of time imagining how much fun it would be to keep a blog of my experiences in Jordan. The reality is that it’s harder than I thought to take the time to sit down and write. Putting up a post that really honors my experience is overwhelming, and I’ve been procrastinating. The more time that passes (and I keep sending e-mails saying “I’m planning on putting something up soon!”), the harder it gets. So I’m biting the bullet and just putting this up for now even though there is so much more I want to talk about. Sit tight, it’s all on the way! Shwayay, shwayay (little by little) as they say here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

London Calling

London was an absolute blast. Stephie was a wonderful hostess and I had a great time dropping in on her London life and getting to know her Australian roommates. My initial arrival was a little rough as I had to haul my weight in luggage up stairs, down stairs, and through the rainy London streets all by my lonesome. A lucky break came when I found an abandoned shopping cart in the street to throw all of my bags in.

One of the wheels was a little off, so it was a challenge keeping the bugger straight. I was gross and unkempt from travel with frizzed out hair from the rain, showing my true colors as a scraggly vagabond bag lady.

During the day, I did my tourist duty by visiting all the iconic London spots (Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Thames, etc.) and feasting my eyes on all the fantastic art the city had to offer. It visited the National Gallery and the Tate Modern to see some of the works which had fascinated me in my Art History classes.

It was truly moving to see such significant and beautiful masterpieces come to life before my eyes. I was especially excited when Jason took us to Christie’s (his place of employment, the lucky bloke) to see the exhibition of the upcoming “Post-War & Contemporary Art” auction. This was a real treat, as it was unexpected and all the works were completely new to me. I was familiar with most of the artists, but the auction house had a fresher feel than a museum. How thrilling to know that I was amidst the actual art market and perhaps even surrounded by potential buyers and collectors!

Most of the works had price estimates posted, and since I was with insiders (Stephie also works for Christie’s), I found out the predicted values of the the show’s featured (and thus most expensive) pieces. I love art, but it is a little sickening to think about the millions upon millions (upon millions, ad nauseum) of dollars that are thrown around for something that will hang on a wall.

It’s hard not see those prices without remembering the little indigenous kids of south Quito whose parents could barely afford a four dollar textbook. The world economy is clearly a lot more complicated than that simple juxtaposition, but it’s still an important paradigm to consider.

The exorbitance of the art market is, in fact, a common theme of post-modernism itself. An interesting piece I saw at Christie’s was a simple photograph of the price tags of two works sold at another auction. This image derived its value by highlighting the specific nature of art as commodity. Since the work was on display at an important sale by a major auction house (and for a pretty penny, I may add), it naturally implicates itself. This then questions the entire art market and perhaps the very meaning of Art.

Does value have to be sanctioned by a prestigious institution? What is the difference between something that is merely beautiful and something that is officially labeled ‘art’? What does the buyer of this piece have on the brain? Does he/she realize the irony in spending thousands on something that mocks (or applauds, who knows?) such astronomical prices? How should the general public read this work? It does bring us back to the question of how to rationalize the billions of dollars that are spent on nothing more than improving the aesthetic experience of the rich. But where would we be without art? Thinking globally, what does all of this say about our financial framework of extreme haves and have-nots? Food for thought, I say. (Jason, this digression is dedicated to you. Thanks again for Christie’s!)

The following day, Stephie and I visited Southall, a section of London that is sometimes referred to as Little India. I had read about the area in Brian Keith Axel’s The Nation’s Tortured Body when I was the Asian Religions teacher’s assistant at Tech. The book explores the historical and political contexts in which a Sikh identity of surrender and displacement was constructed. Axel makes interesting commentary on the role identity (racial, ethnic, etc.) plays in the concept of nationhood.

Southall is a prime example of an “ethnic” community, and I thought it would be fascinating to see it firsthand. Many of the men and women sported traditional Indian garb and spoke little English. We had some delicious curry and I bought a scarf, a pair of earrings, and some rockin’ Punjabi hip-hop. It really whet my appetite for Jordan and the chance to experience another language and culture. I even learned the Punjabi word for “thank you” (Shukreeya), which is very similar to Arabic (Shukrun).

Despite being excited for the Middle East, I was very sad to say good-bye to Stephie and my new Australian friends. We had a ripping time (thanks for the new slang, blokes) boogying down to live music at two great clubs. FM was full of Filipinos and featured an awesome band covering Rhianna’s “Umbrella” and that self-righteous ‘when you practice what you preach’ Black Eyed Peas song. We got crazy at the Walkabout, drinking and bathing in “snakebite”, some sort of Aussie potion that tasted like a mixture of beer and jungle juice. I was delighted to see the fun life Stephie had built for herself. It made me proud of her and extremely excited for my own impending journey. Thanks again, mate!

I spent most of the flight to Jordan in a state of shock, unable to comprehend that my long-held dream was finally happening. Nonetheless, as the lights of Amman became visible from the plane, my excitement grew and I was reminded of all the other significant plane landings in my life: San Salvador, Barcelona, Fresno (before going on to Yosemite), Mexico City, and both times coming into Quito. I define myself by these experiences. Finding myself on the brink of another one, I was filled with an electric energy incomparable to anything else. The second the wheels hit the tarmac, every cell of my body smiled, “YES!” and I knew all my anticipation and preparation for this trip were well worth it.