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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jordanian Students Rebel, Embracing Conservative Arm of Islam

From The New York Times

December 24, 2008
Generation Faithful

Jordanian Students Rebel, Embracing Conservative Arm of Islam

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

AMMAN, Jordan — Muhammad Fawaz is a very serious college junior with a stern gaze and a reluctant smile that barely cloaks suppressed anger. He never wanted to attend Jordan University. He hates spending hours each day commuting.

As a high school student, Mr. Fawaz, 20, had dreamed of earning a scholarship to study abroad. But that was impossible, he said, because he did not have a "wasta," or connection. In Jordan, connections are seen as essential for advancement and the wasta system is routinely cited by young people as their primary grievance with their country.

So Mr. Fawaz decided to rebel. He adopted the serene, disciplined demeanor of an Islamic activist. In his sophomore year he was accepted into the student group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest, most influential religious, social and political movement, one that would ultimately like to see the state governed by Islamic law, or Shariah. Now he works to recruit other students to the cause.

"I find there is justice in the Islamic movement," Mr. Fawaz said one day as he walked beneath the towering cypress trees at Jordan University. "I can express myself. There is no wasta needed."

Across the Middle East, young people like Mr. Fawaz, angry, alienated and deprived of opportunity, have accepted Islam as an agent of change and rebellion. It is their rock 'n' roll, their long hair and love beads. Through Islam, they defy the status quo and challenge governments seen as corrupt and incompetent.

These young people — 60 percent of those in the region are under 25 — are propelling a worldwide Islamic revival, driven by a thirst for political change and social justice. That fervor has popularized a more conservative interpretation of the faith.

"Islamism for us is what pan-Arabism was for our parents," said Naseem Tarawnah, 25, a business writer and blogger, who is not part of the movement.

The long-term implications of this are likely to complicate American foreign policy calculations, making it more costly to continue supporting governments that do not let secular or moderate religious political movements take root.

Washington will also be likely to find it harder to maintain the policy of shunning leaders of groups like the Brotherhood in Egypt, or Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, which command tremendous public sympathy.

Leaders of Muslim countries have tried to appease public sentiment while doing all they can to discourage the West from engaging religious movements directly. They see the prospect of a thaw in relations with the West, and see these groups as a threat to their monopoly on power.

Authoritarian governments view relative moderation as more of a political challenge than extremism, which is a security problem that can be contained through harsh methods.

"What happens if Islamists accepted the peace process and became more pragmatic?" said Muhammad Abu Rumman, research editor at the newspaper Al Ghad in Amman. "People see them as less corrupt and as the only real opposition. Israel and the U.S. might look at them differently. The regime is afraid of the Brotherhood when it becomes more pragmatic."

The financial crisis only adds to the anxiety of governments in the Middle East that had hoped economic development could appease their citizens, create jobs for legions of unemployed and underemployed young people and dilute the appeal of Islamic movements. But the crisis and the drop in oil prices have hit hard, throwing the brakes on once-booming economies in the Persian Gulf region, and modest economic growth elsewhere in the region.

In this environment, governments are forced to confront a reality of their own creation. By choking off democracy and free speech, the only space where groups could gather and discuss critical ideas became the mosque, and the only movements that had room to prosper were religion-based.

Today, the search for identity in the Middle East no longer involves tension between the secular and religious. Religion has won.

The struggle, instead, is over how to define an Islamic society and government. Zeinah Hamdan, 24, has traveled a typical journey in Jordan. She says she wants a more religious government guided by Shariah law, and she took the head scarf at a younger age than anyone else in her family.

But when she was in college, she was offended when an Islamist student activist chastised her for shaking a young man's hand. She wants to be a modern religious woman, and she defines that as working and socializing in a coed environment.

"If we implement Shariah law, we will be more comfortable," she said. "But what happens is, the people who come to power are extremists."

Like others here, she is torn between her discomfort with what she sees as the extreme attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood and her alienation from a government she does not consider to be Islamic enough. "The middle is very difficult," she said.

Focus on Popular Causes

Under a bright midday sun one recent day, Mr. Fawaz and his allies in the Islamic student movement put on green baseball caps that read, in Arabic, "Islamic Current of Jordan University" and prepared to demonstrate. Mr. Fawaz carried a large poster board reading, "We are with you Gaza."

The university protest reflected the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country as a whole: precisely organized, deliberately nonthreatening and focused on popular causes here such as the Palestinians. The Brotherhood says it supports democracy and moderation, but its commitment to pluralism, tolerance and compromise has never been tested in Jordan.

Mr. Fawaz and about 200 other students stood in a straight line, extending nearly two city blocks, parallel to the traffic on the major roadway in front of the university. More than half of the students were women, many with their faces veiled.

State security men in plain clothes hurried up and down the line. "Brother, for God's sake, when will you be angry?" one security agent screamed into his phone, recording for headquarters the slogan on a student's placard.

At 12:30 p.m., the male students stepped into the road, blocking traffic, while the women rushed off to the sidewalk and melted back into the campus. One minute later, they walked out of traffic, took off their caps and folded up their signs, tucked them into computer bags and went back to school.

"I want to be able to express what I want; I want freedom," Mr. Fawaz said, after returning to the campus. His glasses always rest crooked on his face, making him look younger, and a bit out of sorts. "I don't want to be afraid to express my opinion."

Mr. Fawaz grew up in a small village called Anjara, near Ajloun, about 50 miles from Amman. His father grew up in the Jordan Valley and worked as a nurse in Irbid. Mr. Fawaz said he was 8 years old he was first invited to "leadership retreats" with a youth organization of the Brotherhood.

When he was 13, the youth group took him on a minor pilgrimage to Mecca. So, he said, he had been enticed by religion at an early age. But he only decided to become politically active — and to join the Brotherhood — when he was denied a scholarship to study abroad.

While there are no official statistics on student membership in the Brotherhood, only a fraction of Jordan University students are formally affiliated. Yet many others say they share the same vague sense of discontent and yearning, the same embrace of the Brotherhood's slogan, "Islam Is the Solution," a resonant catchall in the face of many problems.

The university, with about 30,000 students from across the country, has long served as a proxy battlefield for Jordan's competing interests.

Competing Loyalties

In Jordan, unlike Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is legal, with a political party and a vast network of social services. It also has a political party, called the Islamic Action Front. While some fear it as too extreme, others argue that it has sold out by working within a political system they see as corrupt and un-Islamic. On campus, the Islamists try to build sympathy, handing out study sheets or copying notes for students.

Mr. Fawaz decided this year to run as an Islamist candidate for the student council, an influential organization with its own budget and the right to put up posters, distribute fliers and hold on-campus events.

The Islamic students' movement had boycotted the elections for years to protest a change of election rules that called for appointing — not electing — half of the council's 80 members. The rule change, decreed by the former university president, was made in order to block the Islamists, who were the most organized group on campus, from controlling the council.

That is a direct echo of how the state has long tried to contain the Islamist movement in Jordan. The Brotherhood is allowed to operate, but the government and the security services broadly control the outcome of elections.

Indeed, as Islamist movements have swelled, governments across the Middle East have chosen both to contain and to embrace them. Many governments have aggressively moved to roll back the few democratic practices that had started to take root in their societies, and to prevent Islamists from winning power through the voting booth. That risks driving the leaders and the followers of Islamic organizations toward extremism.

At the same time, many governments have tried to appease popular Islamist fervor. Jordan recently granted a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned newspaper the right to publish daily instead of weekly; held private talks with Hamas leaders; arrested a poet, saying he had insulted Islam by using verses of the Koran in love poems; and shut down restaurants that had served alcohol during Ramadan, though they had been licensed by the state to do so.

This year, the new president of Jordan University permitted all student council seats to be elected, but with rules in place that would, again, make it nearly impossible for the Islamist bloc to have control.

Two days before the voting took place, Mr. Fawaz was campaigning on the steps of the education building, dressed in his best suit and tie. His campaign message to the students was simply, "For your sake."

Running as an Islamist risks consequences: Mr. Fawaz said that he was approached by a student in his class who he believed was delivering a message from the security services. "He told me that they will write about me; I will never get a job," Mr. Fawaz said.

But even when the police ordered him to take down his posters on election day, he remained resolute and confident.

"Everybody knows that I am going to win," Mr. Fawaz said, without sounding boastful. "Because I represent the Islamic movement."

But he did not win. Instead, a candidate representing a large tribe from the city of Salt won, reflecting the loyalty to bonds of kinship and family heritage even as tribal culture has begun to absorb more conservative Islamic practices and beliefs.

Yet Mr. Fawaz was untroubled. "What is important for me," he said, "is to serve the movement by spreading the word among the students."

Amjad al-Absy, 28, remembers the moment when he pledged to join the Muslim Brotherhood. He was 15 and he was identified by Brotherhood recruiters when he was playing soccer in a Palestinian refugee camp. He described how the Brotherhood monitors young men — when they play soccer, go to school, to mosque, to work, as well as in the street and singles out those who appear receptive.

"Once you say yes, they put you in a ring, in a family," said Mr. Absy. "Outside of the Brotherhood, there is no concern for young men, there is no respect. You are alone."

Mr. Absy and his friend Tarak Naimat, 24, said that while they were students at the university, they had helped to recruit other young men.

"In the computer lab, in the mosque, you buddy up," Mr. Naimat said. "Then you participate in events together. Then he becomes a member. If he's advanced, it can take six months. If less, maybe two years."

The appeal, Mr. Naimat said, was simple: "It gives you the feeling you can change things, you can act, you can be a leader. You feel like you are part of something important."

Recruiters to the movement operate in a social atmosphere far more receptive than in the past. Every one of five young men talking near the cafeteria of the university recently insisted that the only way Jordan would have democracy was under an Islamic government, which is what the Brotherhood says it wants to achieve.

Muhammad Safi is a 23-year-old with neatly gelled hair and a television-white smile who described himself as the least religious student at the table. He said he had lived in the United States for five years and was eager to marry an American so he could return. Yet he declared: "An Islamic state would be better. At least it would take care of people."

A Political Crossroads

The task facing Middle East governments and Islamic leaders is to figure out how to harness the energy of the Islamic revival. The young — the demographic bulge that is defining the future of the Islamic world and the way the West will have to engage it — have embraced Islam with all the fervor of the counterculture.

But the movement is still up for grabs — whether it will lead to greater extremism, even terrorism in some cases, and whether the vague dissatisfaction of young people will translate into political engagement or disaffection.

So the cycle is likely to continue, with religious identification fueled not only by the Islamic movements, but also by governments eager to use religion to enhance legitimacy and to satisfy demands of their citizens. That, in turn, broadens support for groups like the Brotherhood, while undermining support for the government, said many researchers, intellectuals and political scientists in Jordan.

The battle lines are clear on the campus of Jordan University. Bilal Abu Sulaih, 24, is a leader in the Islamic student movement. He returned to school this year to study Islamic law after being suspended for one year for organizing protests, he said. During the year off, he said, he worked as a student organizer for the political party office of the Brotherhood. "We are trying to participate," he said of the movement's role on campus. "We do not want to overpower everyone else."

But his reassurances were brushed aside as another student confronted him. "It's not true," shouted Ahmed Qabai, 28, who was seated on a nearby bench. He thrust a finger in Mr. Sulaih's direction.

"You want to try to control everything," Mr. Qabai said. "I've seen it before, your people talking to women and asking them why they're not veiled."

Mr. Sulaih, embarrassed by the challenge, said, "It's not true."

Mr. Qabai made it clear that he detested the Muslim Brotherhood, getting more and more worked up, until finally he was screaming. But what he said summed up the challenge ahead for Jordan, and for so many governments in the region: "We all know Islam is the solution. That we agree on."

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.

Egypt Clerics Back Woman's Koran

From the BBC - December 23, 2008

Egypt clerics back woman's Koran

Azhar University Campus
Students At Azhar University Campus holding Koran

The highest authority of Sunni Islam, al-Azhar University in Cairo, says it has approved the first interpretation of the Koran by a woman.

A senior cleric told an Egyptian daily that the new book respected established tradition, adding that gender was irrelevant to interpretation.

Liberal Muslim women have been critical of established interpretations, saying they are patriarchal.

The author says she wanted to make Koran accessible for the young.

Sheikh Ali Abdelbaqi Mitwali told the daily al-Masri al-Youm that al-Azhar has approved the interpretation (tafseer) submitted by Kariman Hamza, a former broadcaster.

Sheikh Mitwali said there was no such thing as a "male" or "female" reading of the holy book and that "what mattered for us was that the interpretation was in line with the text of the sacred Koran and that it did not contradict the rulings of Sharia".

Ms Hamza - who is a former presenter of religious programmes on radio - said she was delighted by al-Azhar's decision.

She said she wanted to write a book that simplified and clarified the Koran for the young and that she had no commercial motive.

Books in Egypt dealing with the Koran or Islamic tradition have to secure the approval of al-Azhar before publication.

Iraq's Boy Band Stars

From the BBC - December 25, 2008

Video of the band at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7797518.stm

Iraq's boy band stars

By Caroline Hawley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Giggling blondes squeal with delight as five tight-shirted men strut forward on the stage, beautifully turned out and moving towards the crowds in perfect unison.

UTN1- Nadeem,Akhlad, Art, Shand and Hassan
UTN1 hope to perform in their native Iraq again
They are the Iraqi boy band UTN1 - short for "Unknown to No-one" - and they are in Geneva to perform at a peace festival, another step towards their dreams of international stardom.

It is a long way from the band's beginnings in Baghdad, in the final decade of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule.

Art and Shant - both Armenian Christians - founded the group in 1999. They were doing their military service at the time. Shant drove a tank. Now he drives the band's dance routines. Art made up lyrics as he marched.

They put adverts in the Iraqi press to find other band members.

Hassan, Akhlad and Nadeem are all Shia Muslims. Not that Iraq's religious and sectarian divisions matter to the band. They see themselves first and foremost as Iraqis - united by their love of music.

The band members were drawn to Western music while their country was under sanctions and Saddam Hussein was railing against Western imperialism. "We loved anything that came from the West," says Art. "We wanted to put action in our lives, to start something new, to break the routine."

Undaunted

Modelling themselves on Take That and the Backstreet Boys, they began composing and singing love songs in English. "Hey Girl" was an early favourite for their small fan base.

Meet the band

I first met the band in Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2003 - just a few weeks after the American-led invasion of Iraq.

The chaos and looting that followed the war was almost under control and the bombs, killings and kidnappings that were to tear the country apart had not yet begun.

But there was virtually no electricity in Baghdad. The boys were rehearsing in the back of a beaten-up Volkswagen Passat. And they had to be home every night for the American-imposed curfew at 11pm.

They were undaunted by the difficulties they faced. Bursting with enthusiasm, they shrugged off the threat of rising Islamic militancy and insisted - at the time - that they would not be silenced. "No-one is ready any more to give up his freedom," said Art.

But as the months wore on, Iraq became increasingly dangerous. A record store owned by Alan Enwiya, their first manager, was targeted. With few jobs to choose from, Enwiya found work as a translator for an American journalist. He was later kidnapped with her, and killed.

In 2004, I bumped into Nadeem again in Baghdad's Green Zone. He, too, was working for journalists then as the band members went their separate ways. "Remember me," he said, with a grin. "Unknown to No-one … We're still, it seems, unknown to everyone."

Exile

As the violence in Iraq escalated in 2004, the band members knew that being pop pioneers in a war zone was courting danger. "We needed to go to a safe place," says Art. In 2005, they moved to Jordan, waiting for visas to get to Britain, where they had been promised musical training in Birmingham.

Shant of UTN1
In front of everyone, I sang "Do Ray Me Fah …" and everyone around us started laughing

Shant

One day, in the BBC Baghdad office, I received a phone call from Hassan.

He told me the British consulate was refusing to accept that they were a boy band and he needed my help to vouch for them - which I did, by sending them a tape of the television story we had done on them in 2003.

Shant, it turned out, also had to sing to consular staff to prove he was a musician. "In front of everyone, I sang 'Doh Reh Me Fah' and everyone around us started laughing."

Shant remembers arriving, wide-eyed, in Jordan for the first time. "We went to a shopping mall and I'd never been to a mall before. I saw Levis - I'd heard about them but never seen them."

Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been a paranoid, isolated place. There were no mobile phones, satellite television was banned and they - like other artists - had been forced to pay tribute to Saddam Hussein to have any hope of seeing their songs played on the radio.

Their specially-composed birthday ode - "Man of Glory" - embarrasses them now.

It goes: "Blessings to the man who brightens our days. Shining through the times, your light never ends ... You're the answer to all our hopes and dreams … Long Live Dear Saddam."

"You have to understand that we had no choice," says Nadeem, whose brother was jailed for several months under Saddam.

Hope

Today, they live in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where they have artists' visas and access to state-of-the-art recording studios. They are free to sing what they want, and they now have two hit singles in Arabic. They are also safe from the violence that still plagues Iraq.

Akhlad of UTN1
We wish one day to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope
Akhlad

But like so many Iraqis now living in exile, they worry about friends and family back home. They know that they are only guests in their host country. "I feel like an outsider wherever I go," says Nadeem.

And they dream - when it is safe - of returning.

"I miss Iraq," says Nadeem, most of whose friends are now scattered around the world. "I miss the food, the river, the smell of the streets after it rains. Despite everything, it's a great country. We've had the best and the worst of times there."

Hassan wants to return and build a music studio. "Once things are secure there, I'll go back. That's for sure," he says. "I have lots of lovely memories."

And Akhlad dreams of a big performance in front of a home crowd.

"We wish one day," he says, "to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rumi: Where do the Ignorant Live?



When we are ignorant we live in His prison;
when we become prudent we live in His palace;
when we fall asleep we become intoxicated;
when we are awakened we are in His hands.


-Rumi, "Mathnawi"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kennedy Center to Showcase Upcoming Festival of the Arab World

Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts Co-Chairs Mr. A. Huda Farouki and Mrs. Samia Farouki Prepare for Upcoming Festival of the Arab World

Mr. A. Huda Farouki and Mrs. Samia Farouki prepare for upcoming Festival of the Arab World

This year's festival will be unprecedented
The event will allow Arab life and culture to be seen in a whole new light. We are tremendously excited that this festival is coming to the Kennedy Center.

Vienna, VA (PRWEB) December 22, 2008 -- As a central part of its 2008-2009 season, the Kennedy Center's (www.kennedy-center.org) International Committee on the Arts (KCICA) will present a major international art festival, Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World. KCICA co-chairs Mr. A. Huda Farouki, CEO of Nour USA, Ltd. (www.nourusa.com) and Mrs. Samia Farouki, President of HII-Finance Corporation (www.hiifinance.com) are major sponsors of this festival which celebrates the rich artistic and cultural diversity of Arab artists and art forms. It will be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC from February 23 - March 15, 2009.

KCICA supports the Kennedy Center's international programs which have allowed the Center to expand its network to over 60 countries. Representing both the United States and Jordan as co-chairs of KCICA, Mr. and Mrs. Farouki will contribute their unique insight in showcasing the talents of artists from all 22 Arab League Nations. The festival will include all of the performing arts - music, theatre and dance as well as visual and literary arts and film, which the Kennedy Center plans to feature through the transformation of its galleries, foyers and exhibition spaces. The goal is to have the best representation of both historic and contemporary traditions of Arab culture.

"This year's festival will be unprecedented," said Mr. Farouki. "The event will allow Arab life and culture to be seen in a whole new light. We are tremendously excited that this festival is coming to the Kennedy Center."

At KCICA's recent annual meeting, Dan Hagerty, Director of Individual Campaigns for the Kennedy Center, thanked Samia and Huda Farouki for their significant feedback and support for the upcoming Arab Festival.

"We're thrilled to work with the Kennedy Center to present the beauty and uniqueness of Arab traditions and aesthetics," stated Mr. Farouki.

About Hii Finance Corporation

Hii Finance Corp. (www.hiifinance.com) is an investment company that targets dynamic industries and innovative enterprises. HFC specializes in funding international expansion for U.S. growth companies. HFC provides entrepreneurs with the capital, expertise and resources essential to success, adding value in such areas as business and financial planning, strategic sourcing and market development. As an active and engaged investor, HFC enhances value, profitability, and growth, making long-term successes of promising start-ups as well as rapidly expanding companies. HFC is distinguished further by both the international character of its investments and management, and a team with extensive international, management trade and investment experience.

About Nour USA, Limited

Nour USA, Limited (www.nourusa.com) prides itself on its capabilities and approaches every project with the understanding that close coordination with local affiliates and personnel is paramount to success and that every region requires a unique incorporation of local culture and customs. As a result, Nour has set the industry standard for conducting operations in the most trying conditions and continue to challenge themselves and the industry through the ongoing development of innovative approaches and solutions. Nour USA, Limited leverages their experience and skills by providing specialized contract management services for their internationally focused business and corporate clients. Since its incorporation in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2003, Nour has proven itself to be a crucial contact in the management services industry for private businesses, educational facilities, universities, and governments worldwide.

###

Annual Camel Beauty Competition Held in Saudi Arabia

From the Saudi Gazette

Camel contest ends beautifully
By Shahid Ali Khan

RIYADH – Around 20,000 camels participated in a beauty contest concluded this week at Umm Ruqaiba, some 350 km from Riyadh. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the competition drew contestants from as far away as Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait.

The contestants were judged according to strict criteria that included long eyelashes and neck, curvature of the ears, the size of the nose relative to the face and fullness of the hump.

Camels of different colors and sizes were paraded in front of the judges during the 26-day competition. Out of 20,000 only 125 camels were short-listed to participate in the final.

Saudi Arabia's camel beauty pageant is considered to be one of the Gulf's most lucrative with a total of SR50 million awarded in prize money to the winners. The winners were also awarded 25 cars as prizes.

Umm Ruquaiba, a small suburb of Riyadh known for its extreme summer heat and scorching sun, came into the limelight when the site was chosen for the annual King Abdul Aziz Camel Beauty Contest a few years ago. The idea to hold such an event came from Prince Mishaal Bin Abdul Aziz, chief of the Allegiance Commission.

Prince Mishaal, an ardent admirer of camel beauty himself, distributed the prizes among the winners on Friday, the final day of the contest.
The owners of the contesting camels were divided into three different categories based on the number of camels each one owned such as 100, 50 and 30 animals, respectively.

The basic eligibility criteria to participate in the contest was to own at least 30 camels.

Five pedigrees of camels contested for the coveted prizes. Based on color, they included the most valued Al-Wadah (white), the dependable and heat-enduring
Al- Majaheem (black), the tough Ahmar (red), the Sha'al (light brown) and the Safar (dark brown).

Special enclosures were made for these valuable animals at the contest site. Each one of them was accommodated in a separate enclosure, with special veterinary teams and emergency service units available to them.

According to Professor Saeed Ba-Ismael of Animal Production and Nutrition in the College of Food and Agriculture, King Saud University, the Riyadh camel has the inherent ability to adjust to the arid climate, and can survive without water for long periods of time.

Besides, it has a remarkable capacity of adjusting its body temperature. Tests have shown that the desert herbivore can lower its body temperature to six degrees and raise it to 41 degrees Celsius adjusting itself to changing weather conditions, he said.

"There have been instances when the camel has endured thirst for two months during extreme summer conditions and six months in winter," he said.

A camel's life span is between 25 and 30 years. A she-camel usually yields from 7 to 15 liters of milk every day. However, those imported from Pakistan are
known to give a yield of up to around 20 liters a day, he said.

He said the camel festival offered an opportunity for researchers in Saudi Arabia to conduct studies on different breeds in the Peninsula. The study would also focus on what health disorders these animals are prone to.

Prof. Ba-Ismael, who has conducted many research studies and is the author of a book on camels, said that "the Umm Ruquaiba Camel Festival was a novel and commendable effort in preserving the varieties and purity of these animals."

Saudis Indulge Long Banned Passion for Silver Screen

A Saudi holds up his cinema ticket

Saudis indulge long banned passion for silver screen

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — They howled and clapped, munching popcorn while cheering the figures on the screen -- a normal movie theatre scene elsewhere, but revolutionary in Saudi Arabia where films have not played publicly for decades.

Massive lines snaked out from the King Abdul Aziz Cultural Centre as Jeddah residents queued up to see the first feature film open to the public for 30 years, hoping the event heralded a big change in the ultra-conservative kingdom's stinted cultural scene.

In what took hush-hush negotiations with senior political officials and the strict religious police, the Red Sea port of Jeddah and the nearby city of Taif allowed the Rotana entertainment group, owned by powerful Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to put on its new comedy "Manahi" for nine days.

The result was overwhelming, the 1,200-seat hall hardly meeting the demand for the 15-riyal (four-dollar) tickets over more than a week.

"The hall was filled up to the very last seat during the two shows scheduled each day, forcing us to add a third show after midnight," organiser Mamdouh Salem told AFP.

Decades ago film lovers in Saudi Arabia would crowd into clubs and halls to watch the same movies enjoyed throughout the Arab world.

But in the 1970s, clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabist version of Islam which is practised in the country cracked down and banned cinemas as having a corrupting influence on society.

The taboo has been broken somewhat in recent years, with videos and satellite television, and movies shown surreptitiously at night in popular coffee shops.

But to see a movie in a real theatre, Saudis still have to travel to neighbouring countries.

Putting on the film in Jeddah, a progressive city compared to the capital Riyadh, took the support of Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the powerful governor of the province of Mecca, himself a poet and supporter of the arts.

The local religious police, from the feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, inspected the hall ahead of the screenings to ensure that women and men would be separated, following Saudi Arabia's strict rules of segregation between the sexes.

Salem said it was an adventure to get "Manahi" shown in a place where there are no real cinemas, adding that it was exciting to see the audience's thirst for movies.

"This is a hall with 1,200 seats. It was not built for movies, and the projector is not made for 35mm films," he said.

With women sitting apart in the balcony, and men and boys on the ground floor below them, the hall echoed with raucous laughter as they took in the story of the misadventures of a Saudi country farmer who finds himself in the city of Dubai.

On hand for the opening, "Manahi" star Fayez Malki said he was pleased at the turnout.

"This encourages me to play in more Saudi films and I plan to make a new one with Rotana," he said.

"It is an honour to have my name associated with the first Saudi film shown in public here."

Khaled al-Amri, who brought his children to see "Manahi", said he slakes his passion for film on trips to Cairo and Dubai.

Roua Mohammed, an interior designer, said she visits Cairo three times a year to check out the latest releases in the theatres.

"Why can't they be shown here?" she asked.

Despite the success in Jeddah, it was not yet clear whether Rotana would be able to show "Manahi" in Riyadh, where the religious police are much tougher and government officials more conservative.

As the shows drew to a close, religious police chief Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith branded movies "an absolute evil".

But on Saturday he eased his stance, allowing that some films might be appropriate.

"I did not say that we reject all cinema," Sheikh Gaith said.

"A movie could possibly be acceptable if it serves good and is suitable under Islam, but I said that we were not consulted during the organisation of these movie showings."

And while a senior government official told AFP that "it was not the right time yet" to toss out controls on movies, some property developers appear ahead of the game: their newly-built malls seem already set up to install cinemas, if and when the time comes.

A man and his children outside a theatre in Jeddah


Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book

From the New York Times - December 22, 2008

Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book

David Ahntholz for The New York Times

Michael Muhammad Knight, the author of "The Taqwacores," which a college professor has called "The Catcher in the Rye" for young Muslims.

Published: December 22, 2008


CLEVELAND — Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called "The Taqwacores," about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo.

"This book helped me create my identity," said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Conn.

A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. "When I finally read the book for myself," she said, "it was an amazing experience."

The novel is "The Catcher in the Rye" for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.

Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book.

A group of punk artists living in a communal house in Cleveland called the Tower of Treason offered the house as the set for the movie. The crumbling streets and boarded-up storefronts of their neighborhood resemble parts of Buffalo. Filming took place in October, and the movie will be released next year, said Eyad Zahra, the director.

"To see these characters that used to live only inside my head out here walking around, and to think of all these kids living out parts of the book, it's totally surreal," Mr. Muhammad Knight, 31, said as he roamed the movie set.

As part of the set, a Muslim punk rock musician, Marwan Kamel, 23, painted "Osama McDonald," a figure with Osama bin Laden's face atop Ronald McDonald's body. Mr. Kamel said the painting was a protest against imperialism by American corporations and against Wahhabism, the strictest form of Islam.

Noureen DeWulf, 24, an actress who plays a rocker in the movie, defended the film's message.

"I'm a Muslim and I'm 100-percent American," Ms. DeWulf said, "so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American."

The novel's title combines "taqwa," the Arabic word for "piety," with "hardcore," used to describe many genres of angry Western music.

For many young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks but repelled by both the Bush administration's reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders, the novel became a blueprint for their lives.

"Reading the book was totally liberating for me," said Areej Zufari, 34, a Muslim and a humanities professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla.

Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found "The Taqwacores" four years ago.

"Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me," she said, "and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together."

The novel's Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.

Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims.

Mr. Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad.

He said he wrote "The Taqwacores" to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.

After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.

One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called "Suicide Bomb the Gap," which became Muslim punk rock's first anthem.

"As Muslims, we're not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves," said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, "the Revolution" in Arabic.

For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.

Hanan Arzay, 15, is a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco who lives in East Islip, N.Y. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, pedestrians threw eggs and coffee cups at the van that transported her to a Muslim school, she said, and one person threw a wine bottle, shattering the van's window.

At school, her Koran teacher threw chalk at her for requesting literal translations of the holy book, Ms. Arzay said. After she was expelled from two Muslim schools, her uncle gave her "The Taqwacores."

"This book is my lifeline," Ms. Arzay said. "It saved my faith."


David Ahntholz for The New York Times

Noureen DeWulf and Bobby Naderi, both actors, with Jay Verkamp, center, the sound mixer for the film version of Mr. Knight's novel. The film was shot in Cleveland.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Arabs Lavish Jewels on Secretary of State Rice

Arabs lavish jewels on Secretary of State Rice

WASHINGTON (AP) — President George W. Bush's foreign policies may be unpopular in the Middle East, but Arab leaders showered his top diplomat with jewelry worth far more than a quarter of a million dollars last year.

While Bush himself didn't fare nearly as well, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raked in at least $316,000 in gem-encrusted baubles from the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia alone, making her one of top recipients among U.S. officials of gifts from foreign heads of state and government and their aides in 2007.

In January, Jordan's King Abdullah II gave Rice an emerald and diamond necklace, ring, bracelet and earrings estimated to be worth $147,000, according to the State Department's annual inventory of such items released Monday just in time for Christmas.

The king and his wife, Queen Rania, also gave Rice a less expensive necklace and earrings along with a jewelry box valued at $4,630, the document shows.

Not to be outdone, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented Rice with a ruby and diamond necklace with matching earrings, bracelet and ring worth $165,000 in July. The inventory also includes a $170,000 flower petal motif necklace the Saudi monarch gave to Rice in 2005, which the department says was not previously disclosed.

From the same Arab leaders, Bush received just over $100,000 in gifts in 2007, the list shows.

Other gifts include an $85,000 sapphire and diamond jewelry set and $10,000 piece of artwork depicting a desert scene of bedouins, camels and a tent made of gold given to first lady Laura Bush by Saudi King Abdullah.

Unfortunately for the Bushes, Rice and other recipients, they won't be able to enjoy the gifts as they have been turned over to the General Services Administration and government archives in accordance with federal law, which bars officials from accepting personal presents in almost all circumstances.

The inventory, prepared by State Department's Office of Protocol, catalogues all gifts given to top administration officials. The presents range from the modest — a $6 assortment of nuts and dried fruit from the Dalai Lama to Mrs. Bush — to the extravagant — Rice's jewelry — and the odd — a $570 Brush Cutter with "comfort grip handles" from the Swedish prime minister to the president, presumably for use at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Bush got a $150 bronze platypus paperweight from an Australian official. The prime minister of Singapore gave Bush $450 worth of fitness equipment, including a "uSurf Wave Action Exerciser" and an "iGallop Core and Abs Exerciser," according to the documents, which offer a window into the tastes of foreign leaders.

The wife of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe appears to be an animal lover, having given Laura Bush two red, white and blue hand-embroidered pillows with American flag designs and the names and images of first dogs Barney and Miss Beazley worth $100 last year.

She also gave the first lady a $700 porcelain Limoges box with the two pets painted on it and a stuffed black fleece Scotty toy valued at $100, the inventory shows.

Some gifts reflect the recipient's specialty. Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff received two machine guns — one mounted — worth $1,300 from his Colombian and Russian counterparts, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates got a $3,200 decorative Arab knife from a Bahraini official and a steel dagger valued at $345 from the Jordanian king.

The source of gifts to U.S. intelligence officials is classified, but CIA chief Michael Hayden took in $8,000 in gifts, including a sword, fountain pen and silk rug, in 2007.

In Booming Gulf, Some Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies

The New York Times

December 22, 2008

Generation Faithful

Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times

Flight attendants at a graduation ceremony last year in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

In Booming Gulf, Some Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies
By KATHERINE ZOEPF

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Marwa Abdel Aziz Fathi giggled self-consciously as she looked down at the new wing-shaped brooch on the left breast pocket of her crisp gray uniform, then around the room at the dozens of other Etihad flight attendants all chatting and eating canap├ęs around her.

It was graduation day at Etihad Training Academy, where the national airline of the United Arab Emirates holds a seven-week training course for new flight attendants. Downstairs are the cavernous classrooms where Ms. Fathi and other trainees rehearsed meal service plans in life-size mockups of planes and trained in the swimming pool, where they learned how to evacuate passengers in the event of an emergency landing over water.

Despite her obvious pride, Ms. Fathi, a 22-year-old from Egypt, was amazed to find herself here.

"I never in my life thought I'd work abroad," said Ms. Fathi, who was a university student in Cairo when she began noticing newspaper advertisements recruiting young Egyptians to work at airlines based in the Persian Gulf. "My family thought I was crazy. But then some families don't let you leave at all."

A decade ago, unmarried Arab women like Ms. Fathi, working outside their home countries, were rare. But just as young men from poor Arab nations flocked to the oil-rich Persian Gulf states for jobs, more young women are doing so, sociologists say, though no official statistics are kept on how many.

Flight attendants have become the public face of the new mobility for some young Arab women, just as they were the face of new freedoms for women in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. They have become a subject of social anxiety and fascination in much the same way.

The dormitory here where the Etihad flight attendants live after training looks much like the city's many 1970s-style office blocks, its windows iridescent like gasoline on a puddle. But there are three security guards on the ground floor, a logbook for sign-ins and strict rules. Anyone who tries to sneak a man back to one of the simply furnished two-bedroom suites that the women share may be dismissed, even deported.

In the midst of an Islamic revival across the Arab world that is largely being led by young people, gulf states like Abu Dhabi — which offer freedoms and opportunities nearly unimaginable elsewhere in the Middle East — have become an unlikely place of refuge for some young Arab women. And many say that the experience of living independently and working hard for high salaries has forever changed their ambitions and their beliefs about themselves, though it can also lead to a painful sense of alienation from their home countries and their families.

At almost any hour of the day or night, there are a dozen or more young women with identical rolling suitcases waiting in the lobby of their dormitory to be picked up for work on Etihad flights. Though several are still drowsily applying makeup — and the more steady-handed have perfected a back-of-the-bus toilette that takes exactly the length of their usual ride to Abu Dhabi International Airport — they are uniformly well ironed and blow-dried. Those with longer hair wear black hair-ties wrapped around meticulously hair-netted ponytails. They wear jaunty little caps with attached gauzy scarves that hint at hijab, the head coverings worn by many Muslim women. Like college students during exams, all of them gripe good-naturedly about how little they have slept.

There are exclamations of congratulation and commiseration as the women learn friends' assignments. Most coveted are long-haul routes to places like Toronto and Sydney, Australia, where layovers may last many days, hotels are comfortable and per diem allowances from the airline to cover food and incidentals are generous. Short-haul flights to places like Khartoum, Sudan, are dreaded: more than four hours of work, followed by refueling, a new load of passengers, an exhausting late-night return flight to Abu Dhabi and the shuttle bus back to the dormitory tower with its vigilant guards.

Upstairs, scrubbed of their thick, professional makeup, most of the women look a decade younger. They seem to subsist on snack food: toast made, Arabic-style, by waving flaps of pita over an open flame; slivers of cheap, oversalted Bulgarian cheese; the Lebanese date-filled cookies called ajweh; pillowy rolls from a local Cinnabon outlet that one young Syrian flight attendant proclaimed herself addicted to (an expression she used with self-conscious delight, a badge of newfound worldliness).

They watch bootlegged DVDs — "Desperate Housewives," "Sex and the City" — bought on layovers in Bangladesh and Indonesia. They drift along the tiled floors between their rooms in velour sweatpants and fuzzy slippers, and they keep their voices low: someone is always trying to catch a wink of sleep before her flight.

A Lonely Existence

It is a hushed, lonely and fluorescent-lighted existence, and it is leavened mostly by nights out dancing. Despite the increasing numbers of women moving to the gulf countries, the labor migration patterns of the last 20 years have left the Emirates with a male-female ratio that is more skewed than anywhere else in the world; in the 15-to-64 age group, there are more than 2.7 men for every woman.

Etihad flight attendants are such popular additions to Abu Dhabi's modest hotel bar scene that their presence is encouraged by frequent "Ladies' Nights" and cabin-crew-only drink discounts. It is almost impossible for an unveiled woman in her 20s to go to a mall or grocery store in Abu Dhabi without being asked regularly, by grinning strangers, if she is a stewardess.

One evening last fall, an Egyptian flight attendant for Etihad with dyed blond hair and five-inch platform heels led a friend — a 23-year-old Tunisian woman wearing a sparkly white belt who said that she had come to the Emirates hoping to find work as a seamstress — up to the entrance of the Sax nightclub at the Royal Meridien Hotel.

Just inside, in the bar area, several young Emirates men in white dishdashas were dancing jerkily to deafening club music.

Clutching her friend by the elbow, the Egyptian woman indicated one of the bouncers. "Isn't he just so yummy?" she shrieked. The bouncer, who had plainly heard, ignored her, and the women filed past. Despite appearances, explained the Egyptian flight attendant — who asked not to be named because she was not authorized by Etihad to speak to the news media — sex and dating are very fraught matters for most of the young Arab women who come to work in the Emirates.

Some young women cope with their new lives away from home by becoming almost nunlike, keeping to themselves and remaining very observant Muslims, she said, while others quickly find themselves in the arms of unsuitable men. "With the Arabic girls who come to work here, you get two types," the Egyptian woman said. "They're either very closed up and scared and they don't do anything, or else they're not really thinking about flying — they're just here to get their freedom. They're really naughty and crazy."

Treated Like a Heroine

Rania Abou Youssef, 26, a flight attendant for the Dubai-based airline, Emirates, said that when she went home to Alexandria, Egypt, her female cousins treated her like a heroine. "I've been doing this for four years," she said, "and still they're always asking, 'Where did you go and what was it like and where are the photographs?' "

Many of the young Arab women working in the Persian Gulf take delight in their status as pioneers, role models for their friends and younger female relatives. Young women brought up in a culture that highly values community, they have learned to see themselves as individuals.

For many families, allowing a daughter to work, much less to travel overseas unaccompanied, may call her virtue into question and threaten her marriage prospects. Yet this culture is changing, said Musa Shteiwi, a sociologist at Jordan University in Amman. "We're noticing more and more single women going to the gulf these days," he said. "It's still not exactly common, but over the last four or five years it's become quite an observable phenomenon."

Unemployment levels across the Arab world remain high. As the networks of Arab expatriates in the gulf countries become stronger and as cellphones and expanding Internet access make overseas communication more affordable, some families have grown more comfortable with the idea of allowing daughters to work here. Some gulf-based employers now say they tailor recruitment procedures for young women with Arab family values in mind. They may hire groups of women from a particular town or region, for example, so the women can support one another once in the gulf. "A lot of girls do this now because this has a reputation for being very safe," said Enas Hassan, an Iraqi flight attendant for Emirates. "The families have a sense of security. They know that if their girls start flying they won't be thrown into the wide world without protection."

A Feeling of Displacement

Yet not everyone can make peace with life in the United Arab Emirates, the young flight attendants say. Even the landscape — block after sterile block of hotels and office buildings with small shops and takeout restaurants on their lower floors — can contribute to a feeling of displacement. Nearly all year long, for most of the day, the sunlight is bright white, so harsh that it obliterates all contrast. Despite vigilant watering, even the palm trees on roadsides look grayish and embattled.

Some of the young women tell stories of fellow flight attendants who have simply slipped onto planes to their home countries and run away, without giving notice to the airline.

The most successful Arab flight attendants, they say, are often those whose circumstances have already placed them somehow at the margins of their home societies: young immigrant women who are supporting their families after the death of a male breadwinner, for example, and a handful of young widows and divorced women who are eventually permitted to work overseas after their prospects of remarriage have dimmed.

Far more than other jobs they might find in the gulf, flying makes it difficult for Muslim women to fulfill religious duties like praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan, the Egyptian attendant noted. She said she hoped to wear the hijab one day, "just not yet." A sense of disconnection from their religion can add to feelings of alienation from conservative Muslim communities back home. Young women whose work in the gulf supports an extended family often find, to their surprise and chagrin, that work has made them unsuitable for life within that family.

"A very good Syrian friend of mine decided to resign from the airline and go back home," the Egyptian flight attendant said. "But she can't tolerate living in a family house anymore. Her parents love her brother and put him first, and she's never allowed out alone, even if it's just to go and have a coffee."

"It becomes very difficult to go home again," she said.

Arab Women Find Freedom in the Skies

Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times
Rania Abou Youssef, 26, an Egyptian national and a flight attendant for the Dubai-based airline, Emirates, gets ready for work at her home in Dubai

Two just-graduated flight attendants, both Moroccans, at the Etihad Training Academy in Abu Dhabi.

Head of Saudi Morals Police Eases Tone on Cinema

From Reuters

Sunday, December 21, 2008; 6:44 AM

RIYADH (Reuters) - The head of Saudi Arabia's religious police has
eased his criticism of a return of cinema to the conservative Muslim
country saying he saw no harm in it as long as what is shown complies
with Islam.

Cinema made a low-key return in the Islamic kingdom after a three
decade ban, but a sharp reaction by Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the religious
police chief, showed efforts to relax tough religious laws face tough
opposition.

But Ghaith, the kingdom's second-most influential cleric, changed his
tone in favor of the moviegoing revival.

"We are not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not
violate Islamic law," al-Hayat newspaper quoted him on Sunday as
saying.

It was unclear why Ghaith had apparently changed his approach and the
religious police were not available for comment.

A locally produced comedy, "Menahi," premiered in two cultural centers
in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, earlier a
taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and
women from mixing.

Ghaith, who heads the morals police -- called the Commission for
Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- demanded in remarks
carried on Saturday by Saudi newspapers that cinema remains banned,
calling it an evil the kingdom could do without.

"We have enough evil already," he was quoted as saying.

"Menahi," produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's media
company Rotana, shows the comic escapades of a naive farmer earlier
played on television by popular Saudi actor Fayez al-Maliki.

The film has attracted such large crowds that the film had to be
played eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organizers said. It
had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana
spokesman Ibrahim Badi said.

Showing the film was the latest attempt to introduce reforms by King
Abdullah, who has said the world's largest oil exporter cannot stand
still while the world changes around it.

Political analysts say Alwaleed could not have gone ahead without the
blessing of royals with key decision-making roles.

The kingdom's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Shaikh has not
commented on the issue.

Ghaith's religious police have wide powers to search for alcohol,
drugs and prostitution, ensure shops are closed during prayer and
maintain a strict system of sexual segregation in Saudi society, where
women are even banned from driving.

(Writing by Souhail Karam; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)