Friday, June 25, 2010

Liverpool, finally

It's hard to explain who or what The Beatles are to me. I'm not one of those die hard Beatlemaniacs who know every bit of trivia about the Fab Four, who have every make and take and remake and remastered CD, who know all the lyrics and insist on singing Yesterday with the alleged original "scrambled eggs" line. But I like them, and I've liked them since childhood. My parents took me to see Yellow Submarine in New York when I was five or six. I would listen, mostly to the red 1962-1966 double album, and in my mind that was the order in which the songs ought to be sung. And for a long time thereafter, following our repatriation to Israel in 1977, theirs was almost the only non-Hebrew music I allowed myself to tolerate.

I've been to England many times before. More accurately, I've been to London. A few years ago I attended a conference in Newcastle upon Tyne, and I've also been to Edinburgh once (which, of course, is in Scotland, not England). You've already had the chance to read about the highlights of my Manchester experience from a couple of days ago, and when Maciej mentioned to me that Liverpool was just forty minutes away, it seemed silly not to hop on a train and check it out. 

Ideally, I'd explore the city and all of its Beatles-related landmarks: Abbey Road, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields. But I decided to begin my tour visiting The Beatles Story, a rather kitschy museum, somewhat reminiscent of Elvis's Graceland in Memphis (which I visited with my father when I was living in Austin, "because it's also in the South..."). I'm glad I went, though, because I would have regretted it had I skipped it. And it allowed me to see Liverpool on a gorgeous sunny – yet not hot – day, including a ride on a ferris wheel, something I cannot tell you when or where the last time I had done most recently was.

Rather than continuing this installment in any kind of verbose fashion, I choose to simply refer you to a photo essay of sorts, which can be viewed here. It also includes a few more tidbits from Manchester, among which was a compulsory photo op in front of Old Trafford, the home stadium of Manchester United. It is, after all, World Cup season. Which reminds me that Liverpool was probably the first English football club I've ever heard of, mostly because the first Israeli player to ever make it to the European Leagues, Avi Cohen, did it there sometime in my tweens.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Armenian Taverna

Of the many cups of coffee I had today in Manchester, the most interesting one (albeit not the tastiest one) was the one I had at the end of my first ever Armenian dinner.

When I looked at the menu earlier in the afternoon, I saw many familiar items, such as "foul bi-hummus," which, to the credit of the proprietors, was attributed to Egyptian cuisine. Many other items were known to me through various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, yet there was something about the combination that led me to decide to wait for the restaurant to open at 5:15 and dine there.

The foul/hummus combo was not bad, but the "Armenian Goulash" was mouthwatering. But beyond the food, I was intrigued by the cultural and geopolitical context of it all. Two of my colleagues and friends at F&M are of Armenian descent. So I have had some exposure recently to both cultural issues (mostly through Sylvia, from whom I've learned a bit about the evolution of popular Armenian music in the diaspora) and political ones (through Susan, who makes sure we all remember the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottomans).

As I sat down, I heard in the background what sounded to me like the kind of mediocre pop music that I heard in a recent presentation by Sylvia on campus. I remembered that she had told us that since most of the Armenians in the Turkish diaspora spoke Turkish, there music, too, was sung in the language of their occupiers/hosts/future genocide executioners (uh oh, now I'll be denied entry to Turkey on Saturday...). I tried to find a sensitive way to ask the restaurant owner about it. It occurred to me that uttering the word "Turkish" might be insensitive, so instead I asked him, "what language is that song in, Armenian?" He paused for a few seconds and replied, "yes, Armenian." I immediately suspected that he wasn't telling me the truth. I even recorded some of the music on both my digital camera and my BlackBerry, so that I could later play it to Sylvia and a Turkish friend of mine for language identification purposes.

However, since I was almost the only patron in the restaurant at the time, the owner and I began talking about where we were from, and so on and so forth. It turned out that he was born and raised in Istanbul and loved the city, and moved to England when he was seventeen. One of his brothers actually lives in a suburb of Philadelphia. And his wife, my waitress, was from Poland. I reminded him of my question about the song and confessed that I had been cautious not to bring up Turkey and Turkish, but he assured me that he had no problem talking about it. In fact, the next set of songs that was playing was in the language of Armenia's next occupier – Russian.

Of course, I mentioned that I, too, lived near Philadelphia, that I was from the Middle East and recognized many of the food items on the menu, that my grandparents were from Poland, from which they departed before their people were subject to genocide, and that I had Armenian friends with whom I have recently been discussing these issues. I mentioned the Polish friend with whom I was staying, and pretty soon the wife/waitress joined in too, and we found that as different as we each are, we really had a lot in common.

The interesting thing for me personally is that ten years ago, I probably would have kept my mouth shut. I think that a combination of my training in ethnographic and sociolinguistic fieldwork and a certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that I've been ingesting daily for the past six years has helped me be more inclined to engage people in such conversations and explore issues about which I am curious. I also noticed that I had probably adopted some variety of American political correctness, which was superfluous for these people, who have chosen a different home away from home. 

It's bedtime for me. Tomorrow (or rather, later today) – Liverpool!

Manchester, England, England

Not being a football/soccer fan, which has been apparent recently amidst the World Cup craze, it hadn't dawned on me until this morning, that I would be spending the next few days in the home of "the world's most popular football team." Rather, as a quasi-stereotypical gay man, I was thinking of the song from the musical Hair and the venue of the original, British series Queer as Folk. At any rate, here I am, in Manchester, England, England // Across the Atlantic Sea.

My mother always makes fun of me for choosing the most complex, indirect routes between the US and Tel Aviv, very much unlike the only acceptable option during most of my childhood and adolescence: JFK-TLV-JFK (or TLV-JFK-TLV, depending on where our "home base" was at the time), usually non-stop, usually on El Al.

The most natural route for me these days is PHL-TLV-PHL on US Airways, earning miles in its Star Alliance partner, United Airlines, where I am, for the second time, a Premier Executive (aka Star Alliance Gold) member. As you can see, this blog post is already taking a different direction than my usual political and social ranting and commentary. The two of you who find this interesting may read on. The rest of you, move on to my next post, which will also be here today (and which will only interest two people as well, but two different people).

Originally, I was supposed to be at the tail end of Franklin & Marshall's first ever summer travel course in Cairo. The combination of my recent accident and subsequent surgical procedures and a denial of my Egyptian visa application left me in Lancaster until a few days ago. But I had already booked my onward journey from Cairo to Tel Aviv via Istanbul, including a two-night stopover, complete with hotel reservations, so I decided to make the best of it.

Also, my friend Maciej, who teaches at the University of Manchester, keeps asking me to come visit him, either here in England or in his home in Warsaw, and my friend Roy and his wife Maya have extended a standing invitation for me to visit them in Zürich, so I embarked on a task involving what I probably do best: booking flight reservations!

Having canceled my December trip to Israel with US Airways, I had over $1,100 in credit with them that I felt compelled to use. So I booked the outgoing and incoming legs of my trip with them, namely PHL-LHR and ZRH-TLV. I planned on staying in London for the night and then flying to Manchester. So the next leg on my trip was LHR-MAN on bmi. The first two legs of my trip have been executed. my next flight, in three days, will be MAN-IST, followed by two days in the former Ottoman capital and then IST-TLV, both flights on Turkish Airlines. After a month(!) in Israel, I'll be flying TLV-ZRH on Swiss. Since booking round trips is cheaper than one-way tickets (usually), I booked a return flight (ZRH-TLV) for December. I may or may not use it.

I have the somewhat unhealthy habit of comparing new places to other places with which I am more familiar. For instance, when I visited Puerto Rico recently, I was thinking it reminded me of the West Bank, Jordan, the Bronx and Québec in equal parts, with perhaps a dash of a Brazilian rain forest (though I've never seen one in person). Manchester, and in particular the City Centre, is so far reminiscent of some mainland European city (perhaps Leipzig or parts of Warsaw or Berlin) and (I can't escape Jordan, it seems), Amman. It has a huge mall, but it's almost nothing like an American, or even Israeli mall. It's more like a patchwork of shops, the kind of which I have in fact witnessed in the capitals of both Jordan and Poland. And either a Starbucks or some British chain coffee shop on each corner. Now that I'm digging a bit deeper in my mind, I'm getting a bit of an Edinburgh sensation too, but really, this paragraph is becoming more and more irrelevant to anything.

I'm obviously obsessed with the similarities and differences between the English spoken here and the North American varieties to with I am much more accustomed. But someone else is already blogging about that, so I'll probably skip that. I did, however, find it amusing that the gentleman sitting next to me on the plane from London to Manchester couldn't help but giggling when he heard another guy speak on the phone in a pronounced Liverpool dialect (or, as he called it Scouse). That being said, I will be venturing out to the birthplace of the Fab Four shortly after I wake from this night's sleep. I already checked the train schedule and everything.

Once that happens, I'll have an excuse to write some more. I'll definitely write from Turkey. I somehow even managed to get a colleague of mine to meet me their and show me around a bit. I haven't been there since a family trip in 1992, i.e., before Al Gore invented the Internet.

Now the next post (before Liverpool) will focus on a particular interaction I had in Manchester today. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Arab-American Experience (3 of 3)

3.    O, Canada

As much as I know my way around the craft of making travel arrangements, things often go wrong. Anything from force majeur to technical malfunction to poor human judgment has happened to me. But what I will describe below was a first.

Since I had some free time both before the BBC event on Monday night and between the event and the reopening of the museum on Wednesday morning, I had planned two personal excursions, unrelated to the professional goals of my trip. I had intended to cross the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario on Monday morning, and visit friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday.

Eventually, I spent the night between Sunday and Monday and much of Monday morning between my hotel room bed and the bathroom. I'll spare you the details, but let me just say that my body was expelling inexplicable amounts of fluids. Given my recent hernia repair surgery, I was cautious and decided to seek an urgent care center, in the hope to rule out anything like my colon being trapped in some cavity between two abdominal wall muscles. The nearest such medical center was really a small doctor's office in the heart of Arab Dearborn. The receptionist and I appeared to be the only non-Arabs on the premises. I was seen by a doctor, who ruled my ailment a viral infection and prescribed some pills to calm my digestive system and plenty of Gatorade. I picked up the prescription at the Yemeni pharmacy across the street, got two bottles of Gatorade at the nearest Sunoco gas station and went back to my hotel to rest until the BBC event. In a way, that was another component of my overall Arab-American experience. Canada was no longer on my agenda for that day.

Given the short distances and my relatively quick recovery, I thought Tuesday could accommodate both Windsor and Ann Arbor, and indeed, to some degree, it did. On Tuesday morning I made my way in my rental car to Ambassador Bridge, paid the $4 toll and quickly found myself on Canadian soil. Either poor signage or lack of attention on my part landed me erroneously in a truck lane. That, and my non-North American passport, won me an innocent-looking yellow slip. I was instructed to park my car and wait for a customs official.

As soon as I opened the car door, not one, but three uniformed Customs Canada officers surrounded my car. Disappointed not to have found anything in the trunk, they went for the passenger's seat. One officer grabbed my digital camera, and to my astonishment began flipping through the dozens of photos I had taken over the past couple of weeks. Many of them depicted the peaceful, legal, police-regulated demonstration in which I had participated on the sidewalk in front of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia. We had been protesting the Israeli Navy's brutal attack on a flotilla of humanitarian aid whose destination was the Port of Gaza. The sailors ended up killing between nine and nineteen unarmed humanitarian volunteers and injured tens of others.

The officer asked me about the protest, what was it against, where it was, and whether I had participated in it. I answered truthfully, and then came a surprising question: "Do you plan to participate in and protests in Canada?" I answered in the negative and was ordered to follow the officers into the adjacent building. They already had my passports (both Israeli, but my US visa is in my expired passport, so I need to travel with both) and, still, my camera in their hands. I was ordered to sit in a waiting room until called.

The next step took me to the Immigration side of the building. While waiting there, I needed to use the bathroom a few times (recall my recent illness). The sign the locked door of the men's room instructs potential users to obtain permission from customs officials to enter. When I did just that, the customs officer told me to ask someone from immigration. "You're in their custody now," he informed me. The word custody had the connotation of something a criminal, or suspect, would be in, at which point I recalled that I have a law office in Pennsylvania representing me for the purpose of obtaining my permanent resident status in the U.S.

As I was waiting, many other people came through the same waiting room. Among them were a Turkish-American family, the women dressed in traditional Muslim garb; a Lebanese-American family who was en route to visit elderly relatives in Ontario; an African-American truck driver and his wife and a third friend. I couldn't help but suspecting that the Canadians were keeping themselves busy with some good old fashioned racial profiling. But pretty much each group had some legitimate reason to be questioned: a member of the group with no identification documents, a newborn child traveling out of the country for the first time, and so on. There were also some "regular white folk" in the room at one point or another. There were an American grandma and grandpa taking their grandson camping in Canada with no written consent from the child's parents; a Canadian woman seeking U.S. Resident status.

Interestingly, the non-white people generally said that they usually find crossing the border into Canada more difficult than returning to the States. At least one white party said the opposite. So perhaps there is indeed more racial profiling in Canada than on this side of the border. However, all of these issues the other parties had were solved within thirty minutes, often much less. My wait at the border lasted three hours at this point, during which my BlackBerry cell phone, my only connection to the outside world, was also seized.

The immigration officials mostly ignored me. They summoned me twice to their booth to ask me the same mundane questions previously asked by the customs officers. But after three hours, about an hour of which I spent without my phone, I asked to retrieve the phone and call my attorneys. I was told I was at liberty to use the pay phone in the hall. But I needed my phone to get the number, I explained. The officer wouldn't return it to me. When I asked to speak with a supervisor, another officer appeared. He was at least helpful enough to look up the phone number on his computer. I also told the officers that I no longer wish to enter Canada. I asked to be released to the United States. Their response was that they would only allow that once their examination was over.

That, by the way, was my status in Canada, "under examination." I was told I was not under arrest nor was I being held as a suspect for anything. Yet I was not allowed to turn around. Yet.

I did call my attorneys. They were very concerned and reassuring, but it took another hour for me to be called back to the immigration booth. The previous officer has left, I was told. The good news was that now I was permitted to sign a form in which I asked to withdraw my application to enter Canada and agreed to leave the country without delay. Ironic, I remember thinking. The only delay was imposed by Canadian officials, not myself.

I signed the document and was sent back to my car. A uniformed officer met me there with all of my belongings. I drove back to Michigan, where the U.S. Border control officer asked me, "so what's in Windsor?" "Apparently, nothing," I replied. 45 minutes later, I was reunited with my friends in Ann Arbor, where my only altercation with the law was a $10 parking ticket for a meter two minutes overdue.

This ordeal, too, was for me an Arab experience. Arab-American, Arab with Israeli citizenship, Arab Moroccan in the Netherlands or France, and of course, Arab Palestinian trying to cross anything anywhere where an Israeli official, especially one in uniform, a uniform that I once wore, has to endure. I was screwed over once, in an air-conditioned room in Ontario. Their experiences are iterative, redundant, malicious and prolonged. And I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Philadelphia's gayborhood typing my recollections on my new iPad. Many of the people I described above are lucky to have clean water to drink in their shack in an impoverished refugee camp. 

My Arab-American Experience (2 of 3)

2.    The Museum

During my stay in Michigan, I paid two visits to the Arab American National Museum. One was on Monday, for a panel organized by Michigan Radio and BBC World Service on "Covering the Middle East," and the other, on Wednesday, was a self-guided tour of the museum. The events of Tuesday will be covered in the third part of this post.

The BBC event (can be viewed here) was very interesting. It would be difficult to assess what it is exactly that I have learned from it, but it was a heartening experience. See, in my lifetime, I have been exposed to a variety of venues for political discussion of current events, none of which resembled the Michigan/BBC discussion. In my youth, particularly in the Jewish-Israeli public school system, most of the discussions involved a great deal of polemics. Back then, I still had the energy, and perhaps naïveté, to vocally challenge my political opponents. Later in life, probably most notably after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November of 1995, I began limiting my political activism to fora in which we were either preaching to the converted or simply taking a stance as small groups of resistance amidst large crowds of conformists. Most satisfying in those days were joint Palestinian-Israeli rallies and discussions, before those became legally and logistically virtually impossible in the early 21st century. Then came the Penn years, with the Free Palestine Action Network and more polemics, then intermittent activism during my brief visits to Israel.

What struck me about the Dearborn discussion was that while the audience was not a monolith, the questions that people in the audience asked the BBC personnel on stage were genuinely about the media coverage of the Middle East. Typically, in my experience, any discussion about the region that is not organized by a single political entity (e.g., a party or grassroots movement) is destined to become a war of words, disputing facts and interpretations thereof. This must have the first time for me, definitely in the U.S., where I felt comfortable being around people with whom I mostly agreed. Now some of them were more pleased with the BBC (and to the extent it was discussed, NPR) coverage of recent events in the Mideast; others less so. The BBC executives were so gracefully elegant and eloquent, even when their responses were rigid and uncompromising.

In fact, Liliane Landor, Head of Middle East Region for BBC World Service, a Lebanese-born quintilingual seasoned journalist and editor, was so impressive in her defense of BBC's ethics, that it was tempting to forgive her one logical flaw. During most of the discussion, Ms. Landor insisted that her network adhered to a very rigid set of criteria for impartiality and objectivism. Yet when asked of the BBC coverage of the American- and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, she replied that the network had been critical of the Blair government's actions. A little "oops" moment, at least to my sensitive ears, but I give Ms. Landor credit that if engaged in a more elaborate discussion of this particular issue, she would come up with a reasonable response, such as that being objective and  loyal to the facts does not preclude challenging and critiquing the subjects of the reporting. I also take issue with BBC's polling of the Uganda anti-gay legislation, of which I just learned today (and for which Landor had some editorial oversight), but this goes beyond the scope of this particular post.

My subsequent visit of the museum was the subject of a series of (very amateurish) photographs, which are posted on Facebook for public viewing. Perhaps the two greatest fortes of the museum are its very existence, especially in these times of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment in the West, and its very elegant design, combining the aesthetics of the Old World — and the Arab and Arabized version thereof at that — with the amenities of a contemporary state-of-the-art facility. It is grand and humble at the same time. There is also something symbolic in its location, obviously, Dearborn bearing the largest concentration of Americans of Arab descent. As for the practicality of the location, well, Detroit is not the most sought-after tourist destination in North  America. So while n the one hand, the region has a large potential visitorship from local communities, including schoolchildren who ought to be encouraged to learn about their heritage, there is something to be said about the accessibility of such an important institution to the general American populace, who, too, need much education about the cultures of the Arab peoples, beyond the sensationalist finger pointing that is constantly streaming into their television sets, personal computers and handheld devices.

Finally, the exhibits themselves, while interesting and somewhat novel, do not always do justice to either Arab-Americans or Arabs in general. Asking for the latter may be unfair of a museum devoted to a particular diaspora. Yet i couldn't help thinking that the curation of the museum was dictated to a great extent by some unrepresentative sampling of artifacts, which happen to have been made available by prominent members of the Arab-American community (the name — and voice of — Casey Kasem appeared to be omnipresent throughout the museum, for instance). That is a good start for a budding museum, but as a lay user of such a facility (I am by no means an expert on museum curation), I look forward to future enhancements.

Despite my critique (it is in my nature, what can I say?) I am very glad that I took the time to visit the Arab American National Museum. I am still unsure as to how a visit to the museum can be incorporated into a liberal arts education, such as the kind that we attempt to provide at Franklin & Marshall College, but I have something to ponder, along with my colleagues and students. Like many museums, a visit to the museum store is also a must, and indeed I found some gems to purchase, some even prior to my visit, through the museum's web site.

My Arab-American Experience (1 of 3)

 This will be a tripartite post, mostly for ease of reading.

1.    Prologue

At first glance, I would expect any reader who knows me to raise a brow or two. For I am neither Arab nor American. In fact, I am a citizen of a country that has systematically and consistently discriminated against its own Arab citizens and oppressed a much larger of Arabs living under its military occupation. And In America I am but a visitor.

Yet politically, I often identify more closely with my Palestinian brethren, and my visits in the United States have been so prolonged, that other than having the right to vote, I have become quite involved in the American political and cultural discourse. Anecdotally, when I recently spent time in Egypt and Jordan, many people assumed I was Lebanese, and in the States, too many ears are insensitive enough to accents to detect what Deborah Tannen once told me was clearly an Israeli one.

To be honest, however, what spiked my interest in the nexus of Arab and American beings was a recent visit to Dearborn, Michigan and it's environs. Since I began teaching Arabic in the U.S., I have had the pleasure to come across several American students of Arab ancestry. In many cases, they knew more about Arabs than I did. In most cases, I knew more about their parents' or grandparents' native language then they did. I am still struggling to find optimal ways in which to streamline this symbiotic learning process.

So the weekend before last I flew from Philadelphia to Detroit. I stayed at a hotel on the Detroit/Dearborn boundary, and initially with the help of a local Palestinian-American friend, and later on my own, began exploring the streets of Dearborn. In a way, it reminded me of Paterson, N.J., which in turn resembles such cities as Ramallah or Bethlehem, with its long Main Street dotted with Arab restaurants and shops. My late uncle who lived in nearby Fair Lawn once introduced me to what he referred to as "the Syrian grocery store," a medium-sized enclosed market that sold hummus, labne, diamonds and Cheerios all under one roof. Dearborn is much like Paterson, with its bilingual signs, where one Arabic name or phrase has more than one English equivalent. It is different, though, in that it is more spread out, more suburban, and instead of the discount sneaker stores I remember from its New Jersey counterpart, I seem to have seen many more doctors' offices, pharmacies and ads for legal services. And — and this was the premise of my journey to Michigan — the Arab American National Museum.

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