On Othering Africa Right Before My Eyes….

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A few months ago I went to an event called “Africa Day” which promised to be a day of fun, African Music and food and African crafts for sale. Needless to say, it was interesting.

The food tasted good (and it should have because it was about 30 dollars a plate). But it was mainly dishes like couscous, tajine, injera ethiipian stews and an assortment of grilled meats. It felt more like East African food day to be honest.

The crafts for sale were lackluster, but I didn’t mind that as much because how many authentic local craftsmen can you expect to find here?

The entertainment was abysmal. One the one hand they hired a live band. On the other the only thing “African ” about them was one dude’s dreadlocks and the lead singer’s Erykah Badu headwrap (pan-African, anyone?). What really annoyed me about the band and the music at this event in particular, was that the band only sang one song. I don’t mean they only sang one time. I mean they sang the same song, over and over and over again. And what song was that?…..

 

Waka Waka by Shakira!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you effing kidding me! Are you effing kidding me! Of all the great African Music artist out there from classic, respected artists like Mariam Makeba, Youssef Ndour, Anjelique Kudjoe, Fela Kuti etc. and even the relevant comtemporary artists like Nameless, Wiz Kid, Dbanj, Bracket, Timaya, Omawunmi etc.

They pick a song that is not even by an African artist. The most fun I had at the event was making fun of it. But I left with my belly full, and my heart full of disappointment: This is the essentialized view of Africa. It’s garbage.

Fast forward today, I am sitting at Shake Shack (their burgers really are quite nice!) and Waka Waka comes on. I start telling the two people I came with about the Africa event and how it was the only song that the band sang. And then we hear drums… A live African group is marching into the restaurant area (which is within a mall) complete with all the requisite representations of Africa: Leopard print strips of cloth, red fabric tied as regally as Mufaro’s beautiful daughters, cow print pants, a drum the color of Ghana’s flag, cowrie shell head dresses and face paint.

I. Just. Can’t. I. Just. Cant.

We left two minutes later.

It hurts that this is how Africa is viewed in the Western world, but I know this is the way it is. For some reason, any image about Africa, even a positive one ahs to include an African Woman’s bare breast, whether it’s a tribe in some remote village or a NYT article about a maternal health program started by the Sierra Leonean government that is saving lives go through the slide show and count all the times some woman’s breast is exposed, look at some of the other photos of births, photos we would never see if this were any other part of the world…how many pictures of births in Syria, Gaza, Somalia, China, heck even Latin America are presented in this raw manner?— it’s not journalism it’s poverty porn and rubbing out respect for these women’s chastity, modesty and femininity). Heck even Google is on my shit list check out the first picture that comes up when I google the word “African” I am sickened and disgusted by the othering of people who look like me, simply because

 

But to be so otherized by a group of people that complains of the same thing, it leaves my heart heavy. I’ve blogged about it before, as recently as yesterday.

Everybody, it seems thinks they are better than Africa and Africans….

 

Except her? … then again look how well it worked out for those Japanese women she used to have follow her around (*eye roll)

I’m just done.

 

It’s not enough for me to be  the privileged exception to this rule (sometimes, once my background and accolades are enumerated for all to see).   Events like the one I witnessed today exasperate me 5 years ago, when I thought I wanted to tackle these issues as a PHD, and they exasperate me now as regular Jane. I don’t know what I can do to undo these disgusting archaic ideas about AFrica that everyone and their grandmother’s cat has articulated, internalized and now regurgitates about the continent.  No one bats an eyelid.

 

But we’re not all in this together…

I’m. Just. Done.

On Ramadan in an Arab Country Part II

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So here I am two summers later and in the last 1/3 of my Second Ramadan in an Arab country. I will admit things are better the second time around! At least in this instance. Some of it stems from working vs. studying in a place and all the repercussions that follow: not living with host family (Glory to God!), not having to sit in an enclosed classroom/being expected to study and keep up while the spirit of Ramadan flurries about.

 

Some it stems from where my head is now. And the rest of the difference comes from being a more comfortable place. Morocco is fine, but the Gulf is more comfortable (if you can afford it?). Ramadan work hours are more amenable this time around…. 9-2! Hay hay! Can we have this policy instated year round? Ha ha…..

 

But it’s also summer, so a lot of expats are on vacation. This means less people in the streets in general… it’s like a lull has taken over this place. That didn’t stop me from getting into two traffic incidents in one week! But Rabna Kareem! The malls have some Ramadan decorations, but nothing over the top (except for maybe the Ramadan village in the center of one, for kids to play and color and stuff, but that actually is kind of cute, IMO.

 

Morocco is more flexible when it comes to fasting rules though. Here also it is against the law to eat outside during daylight hours for everyone. In Morocco western restaurants (in the case of our town, Meknes, Mcdonalds and Pizza Hut) will still let you sit inside and eat. Mcdonalds had a sign that said (in French, so some of this is pure conjecture) that Muslims could order but could not sit inside and eat. Fair enough.

 

But here is a different story. There are very few places open for you to even carry-out food. Most places don’t open until just before iftar (which drives me crazy because what if you want to order food so that it is at home for you right at iftar time? …. Not everyone has a home-cooked iftar every night….but whatevs) and a few will do delivery, but more likely there is a delayed response, like no delivery until a few hours before iftar or something. That has been my experience anyway. So the fasting rule is more strictly enforced over all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Another thing that is different is the blacking out of windows. In Meknes, many a day was spent at the Mcdonalds (it had AC and Wifi…. Two things my host family did not possess) Whole weekends were spent there. But they never covered the windows to the place.

 

Here, I notice restaurants with shades like that on the windows, the cafeteria where I work does the same. I’ve heard about this in other countries, like Syria, so I know that the UAE is not alone, but it’s interesting to see in real life anyway.

I guess I am getting more rest… nothing is open during the day except supermarkets. So I just go to work and go home. At work, I crank out what I need to get done and enjoy coming home a little early, to be mistress of my universe. I’ve been to a few group iftars and those are cool too.

So yeah, I was dreading Ramadan here, because of the heat. But since I don’t walk anywhere and just go from the airconditione d car to office and home…. Or maybe the mall… I can barely tell it’s summer…. Weird, huh?

Overall, I am happy for this slowed down time. The introvert in me is relishing the extra quiet…. Time to think, reflect and plan (but we all know that no matter how much we plan….)

From Dubai to Doha

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So last weekend I took a roadtrip (a short one) to Dubai, to see what all the fuss is about… and I while I can see its allure for some, Dubai ain’t all that!… ha ha…

Well, let me put that in better terms… Dubai is a place I am greatful to have nearby.  But, I don’t think I would want to live there.  Too touristy, too much at your fingertips that you don’t really need.  It is like Las Vegas… I don’t want to live in Vegas… but I don’t mind dipping over there for fun every once in a while.

My trip was short.  It was good to get out of the bubble and see some new sights. Now, there are things I can check off my list.  Things like the Burj alKhaleefa now make sense.

burj khaleefa

So this is the tallest building in the world… I have no idea why it’s sideways… my pictures on my phone have been turning out this way even with photo editing, it give the building and interesting perception from this angle, no?

And Dubai mall, made me feel like I might not get as homesick after all.  That place has everything…. my favorite European and American brands all in one place.  (and some brands I wonder why they were ever exported, like Payless Shoesource… who needs a Payless? … in Dubai?…. I didn’t go in, but it’s probably not going to be as cheap/affordable as it is back home?… or is it?…. ha ha…)

Now, Christmas was spent in Doha.  This city looks much the same except everything is different.  My friend who was freshman when I was here last, is not a college graduate.  Her boyfriend is now her fiance, and her love for butterflies has matured (no more butterfly stickers everywhere… ha ha)….

But it was nice to see familiar faces, even if they had changed, as her fiance quipped when I told him that he looked different, “yeah it’s because I lost some of the hair on my head, and gained some hair on my face.”….

Like Morocco, I am taking time to take things in and reflect on where the change really occurred: Whether it’s me and my perspective that has changed or it’s the feel of this place.  It was so nice to come into the airport welcome section and see my friend standing there waiting for me.  What a contrast to my first ever arrival in Doha, when I had just traveled 16 hours, felt like crap and didn’t see any name tag for me.  When I had to hussle to call the dorms and tell them, um I am here.  When the niqabi woman who picked me up and was obviously looking for a white girl, chided me for not making myself known to her… ha ha…

I laugh about all that now… but……

No doubt about it, my Arabic improved a lot when I was in Doha.  But I was also frustrated with a lot of things.  But after 9 months in Egypt, my perspective on some of that has changed.  But not all, I noticed the high number of black Qatari women working at the immigration desk.  It’s funny to see people who look like they would be classified as African-American in the US, who speak Arabic, and then assume that I do not.  One woman said when I came up something to the effect of “since we’re the same color I’m gonna be nice to you… ”  what? ha ha….. But I just stuck to English.

Of course, I am also thinking about life choices.  Many of the women who I was with in Qatar have since married, some even have had a baby or two… I don’t want to be in their shoes, but I am wondering how important that stuff really is to me.  Moving here at best would complicate my chances and at worse significantly diminish them. But I came anyway.  And I don’t regret the choice: I feel like this is where I am supposed to be right now.

Hearing some people’s (well, women) horror stories about ex-pats in love, makes me just want to stay out of the drama…. ha ha…. It also makes me realize that I have a “type.”  I’m not sure if this helps or hurts me these days (ha ha?).

 

But Rabna Kareem and such!

 

On the Intersection of Race, Culture and Identity…. again…

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Yeah so I am done with the job posts… and back on language, identity and culture….

I had two experiences that made me go back to the topic…

Last Saturday or Sunday I went to the post office to mail a letter.  The office was closed but you can still slip your mail through slots.  I went inside and there was a Latino gentleman there.  He came up to and tried to ask me a question in broken English.  Noting his accent I told him in Spanish that I speak Spanish.

And he let out a sigh of relief.  His question was simple one, he wanted to mail a letter to Texas, but could not tell which box was the right one.  I pointed him in the right direction.  Afterwards, he apologized for not assuming that I didn’t know Spanish (he was then assuming that I am Latina…ha ha).  He then asked me what country I am from…. um, I am from here! I replied…

But I studied Spanish in college and lived in Spain…

He was really kind and even apologized for not being able to shake my hand since it had motor oil or something on it…

This experience was interesting for a number of reasons.  First, I hardly get to communicate with native Spanish speakers in Spanish anymore (yeah I know the DC area is full of them, but I have no real reason to do so, no real pretext that is, more world revolves around family life and the MENA region so there it goes… ha ha).

Second, he thought I was Latina!  (after hearing me speak, of course) What a difference an accent makes. Language is a beautiful thing…

Apparently I am just a bit too swarthy with features a little too “straight from the Motherland” to pass automatically as an Afro-Latina…. ha ha

My job involves quite a bit of going to a particular embassy… and Alhamdullilah, I am relatively well liked there.  (Actually they pretty much hate everyone else at my organization…ha ha… so I get the honor of going there whenever something has to be done… which I don’t mind, as I get to speak Arabic… including Moroccan dialect).

And this week I went there and was actually invited to the inner sanctum… they let me into the part where people are not usually allowed so that I could wait while they processed some paperwork for me.  The conversation was light, nothing special, but I did realize that at least one of them had no idea that I’m not Arab…. Ha ha… where have I heard that before?

 As I get closer to my departure date, and my thinking about language goes from the hypothetical and the realities of being an American and dealing with US paradigms…. I am wondering more and more about how I will be viewed… and how I will choose to identify.

My work will involve being in an international situation, and so I will have to take things slow.  I mean, being abroad as a student is worlds different from being abroad as an ex-pat.  Gazelle is an adult now… an adult!

I’m sure my mind will not turn off the academic in me… I will continually think about the intersection of gender, race and identity.  But so many choices lay before me.

Do I want to make it point of duty to let people know that I am American?

Or will it be more fun to let them assume I am Egyptian/Sudanese (which at this point I am 90% sure they will) and let the chips fall where they may?  Yup, it’s time to start re-reading my old posts, reconnecting with old feelings and figuring this stuff out now.

I’m sure initially at least, I will be too jet-lagged to do any real thinking about this stuff.

But the realities of daily life will set in especially the realities of meeting (or at least actively trying met  Mr. Right/Mr. Good Enough for me….(… which I have not here… alas…ha ha… those should be some funny posts… dating in a country where dating is…..haraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmmmmmmmm…. well, let’s see if we get to that stage… sigh)….

I guess I know I am going to be boxed in a category and would rather not be in any at all.  However it’ s a part of life and I will have to deal with it at some point.  At the same time, I feel uneasy with people who would rather not identify as things that they clearly are….

Does that make sense?  I am not merely a citizen of the world:  I am (African) American, a woman and happen to have had extended exposure to other cultures, particular Arab and Spanish (not- Latin America, Spain)….

Say What?!?………… um, ok…. but this is not for me

To me, acknowledging my roots is part and parcel of who I am. But aknowledging all the facets of my identity should not mean them dissolving into one another.  I guess this works if I were racially ambiguous like Zoey Saldana (whose stance on race and identity is too simple and a bit too privileged for my blood— read more about that here) or something… but I’m only racially ambiguous on a technicality…  So, to me, it just seems weird to not acknowledge my ethnic identity when it’s clearly what I look like.

Or maybe if I looked like Wentworth Miller, then again, he doesn’t try to pass for white, even if people assume he is…. He’s a brotha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ha ha….

On Church in Morocco….

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Ok, I confess… I went to church here in Meknes last week.  However the prevailing reason was that It was hot as beans in my apartment and I was hoping the church had a little bit of AC action going on… I know, I know… sue me! At least I’m honest.

I mean it wasn’t just for ac, I was interested in meeting new people, ones that weren’t rent a friend like my language partner, or sketchy like the Moroccan men friends I suppose I could make a plenty if I went to the right cafe and smiled just so…  sigh.

It turns out that the Church is nothing like the big firmaments that Egypt has, or even that other major Moroccan cities have, it’s a chapel.  There was no ac to be found, but there was lots and lots of something else, something that I pretty much gave up on this time around. …

Sub-Saharan Africans, lots and lots of sub-Saharan Africans… pretty much all of them are of the French speaking persuasion… but being there with them made me realize just how long I’ve been black in a brown world… I love multiculturalism, I appreciate having had people from literally everywhere in my classes, in my living arrangements etc.

But somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten used to being The only one.  The black person, The black woman. Somewhere along the way I forgot what it was like to look around a room and for everyone to pretty much look like me, or someone I know. And I mean this even in the American context, I have been the only black person in both my Masters programs, and one of a handful of black people during undergrad.  Working world, same story.  Thank God for Nigerians in Qatar, while I was once again the only black person in my class, I saw faces of my persuasion rather regularly.

One again, I want to stress that I love my peeps from different continents. This experience with Africans doesn’t negate that fact at all…. at any rate,

There were very few people that came last week, but they made me feel welcome, and I had a pending hair appointment I was trying to finalize with a certain member. So because of that, plus the sense of community that inexplicably felt, I came this week… (I say inexplicably because usually when I meet Africans of the Francophone persuasion, once they realize that I can’t even string together a sentence in French, they ignore me… I’ve heard that Anglos do the same to Frenchies, but I wouldn’t know about that personally…. these people were willing to look past my embarrassingly clear inability to communicate).  This time there were even more people, interestingly enough some Haitians (the Moroccan government took them into its university system after the earthquake)… this time there were people who spoke English and Spanish!

The Church in Morocco and I have this strange relationship, it was my independent research project on Christians in Morocco that led me to meet Sierra Leoneans studying here last time, and being with them changed my quality of life for the better. I’m pretty much out of contact with them all (life moves on and people move on to different continents and paces of life, I’m not mad) but I will be forever grateful for the kindness and warmth that they showed me.

This time around my spirits are not quite that low, but nonetheless it’s comforting to know that there are people who are going through what I’m going through.  Some of them looked at me in disbelief when I said that I live with a Moroccan family… Although I denied them the satisfaction of agreeing with them, when they said “it sucks, right?’  they knew what I felt.

now this particular instance isn’t something particular to the black experience, at least some of my program mates would agree that host families, particularly the ones that we have, are pretty terrible.  But when I returned home to hear my room mate’s tales of how disgusting the “lunch” of stale, tasteless and literally rotten meat and vegetables was, I laughed to myself and thought about what those guys would say if they could hear us talking…

Iftar promises to be even worse, so I’ll just bide my time. I keep telling myself that my stomach troubles probably mean that I am more likely to reach my pre-Spain weightloss goals… ha, ha.  Just 3 weeks left, I made some new friends (possibly) might even get my hair did… we’ll see how it goes.

My encounters have not been without their awkward moments.  One of the Haitian guys tried in a not-so subtle way to ask me out… ha, ha… poor thing, like many others doesn’t realize how old I am (he can’t be more than 21 … and although attractive enough, my two months short of 28 self just isn’t into vacation romances or summer “loving” … ha, ha)   I just told him I had a fiance and we left it at that.

ha, ha… smh.  It’s certainly not an occasion to get cocky though, because I know the “love” that was thrown my way was just because I’m something new… it had nothing to do with my women’s wiles, or the way I titled my head  just so, as I tried desperately to make sense of the French coming out of the pastors mouth… ha,ha.

What I didn’t find though were Moroccans.  My friend who went to the Catholic service said she met a Moroccan Christian!  I know they exist (ahem, research project on them was enough to prove that) but in my previous experience they are super cryptic.  When I wanted to interview one,, i had to send her my questions via her American Christian friend who then relayed back and forth between us.  So for this guy to be as bold as he is, in a tiny town like Meknes is pretty interesting… Yup, still a nerd under it all, conversion stories, no matter what the religion of conversion is, are all fascinating to me.