Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why I Wear the Keffiyeh

This morning I boarded a flight from the DC/Metro area to Atlanta. As I slid into my middle seat, the woman in the window seat looked up. “You’re brave to wear that today,” she said, nodding at the black and white scarf around my neck. I smiled to myself, stowing my backpack under the seat in front of me before responding. I settled into my seat and turned to the woman, who was middle-aged with beautiful dark skin. She wore an olive-colored suede suit, large silvery earrings, and a hand-painted scarf twisted around her head in a very African style. “Believe it or not,” I told her, “I receive many more positive comments from wearing this than I do negative.” Perhaps that’s part of why I wear it, I thought. She smiled.

Yasser Arafat made the black and white keffiyeh a symbol of Palestine back in the 1960’s, much as the King of Jordan made the red & white version of the traditional Bedouin scarf a symbol of Jordan. Today, the black and white keffiyeh is strongly associated with Palestine– the fight for freedom, the oppression of the Gaza strip, the “Middle East conflict.” To some, the Palestinian keffiyeh represents resistance and solidarity; to others, it represents terrorism and the worst kind of Muslim fundamentalist. The latter view is what caused my seat-mate’s reaction.

A Chilean-German friend who lives and works in Europe and has traveled extensively in the Middle East told me once that he would never dare to wear the keffiyeh in the United States. Both friends and strangers have echoed his comment with varying degrees of awe, pride, and trepidation at my “daring.” They expect my display of such a supposedly controversial symbol to attract trouble, or at the very least some sort of derision or negativity. Their expectations aren’t unfounded, yet my experiences over the last year have been exactly the opposite – wearing the keffiyeh brings genuine interest, knowing smiles, and sometimes heartfelt thanks (occasionally discounts and job offers, too).

The only truly negative reaction I’ve received from wearing the keffiyeh came soon after I returned from Egypt around this time last year, and it came indirectly. A friend of the family picked me up from the airport one day in early January 2009, during Israel’s War on Gaza. Her parents have worked for the US Department of State for many years and are close friends of my mother’s. Nothing was said that night, but later my mother told me her friend had made a comment about noticing I was wearing a “terrorist scarf.”

More often, the reactions I receive are inquisitive or appreciative. A man came up to me in a Starbucks once and complimented me on my scarf. He asked where I got it and then said his daughter wore one every day. I was shopping with my mother in Florence when a shopkeeper asked me where I got my scarf and then if I spoke any Arabic. “Shuwayya,” I said. His Jordanian coworker was thrilled at my little bit of Arabic and proceeded to offer us a discount slightly lower than the “just for you” discount given to most tourists. Vendors in Rome’s Porta Portese occasionally ask, “enti filistina?” Are you Palestinian? Or I receive nods and smiles from strangers on the street or on buses, the sort of looks I understand and always return.

I was waiting for a bus in Rome one evening when an older man commented on my scarf. “Are you anti-Israeli?” he asked me. “No,” I told him, trying to form a response in Italian. “No, I’m not anti-Israeli, but I don’t support their war. I have friends in Palestine, and I wear this for them.” The man, who seemed to approve of my response, asked where I was from and what I was studying. 

In February I took a shuttle bus from Logan airport to a hotel in downtown Boston. I happened to be wearing my keffiyeh, which started a conversation with the bus driver, who was Egyptian. He and I talked about everything from Palestine and the keffiyeh to Egyptian politics and cultural differences (he also told me the location of the best shwarma in Cairo – down a narrow alley across from the Mosque dedicated to the Prophet’s daughter; I didn't tell him I'm a vegetarian).

The keffiyeh has become a symbol steeped in misconceptions over the past years. Some of you may recall the Dunkin’ Donuts/ Rachael Ray “scandal” of 2008, when the popular donut shop pulled an online commercial featuring Ray because she wore a black and white scarf resembling the keffiyeh. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin discussed the issue in her blog, and on May 28 commented: “Anti-American fashion designers abroad and at home have mainstreamed and adapted the scarves as generic pro-Palestinian jihad or anti-war statements. Yet many folks out there remain completely oblivious to the apparel’s violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones.” Malkin’s comments reflect the sentiments which many expect I should face.

Yes, keffiyehs are sometimes worn by Arab terrorists and have appeared in videos of hostage-takings, among other things. They are also commonplace at anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rallies and marches, and Malkin is right that many of the youngsters who wear different colored scarves patterned after the traditional keffiyehs have no idea what their symbolism is. Yet the keffiyehs are so much more than a symbol of “murderous Palestinian jihad,” as Malkin calls it. If terrorists start wearing Gucci jeans is Gucci suddenly going to become a ‘terrorist’ symbol? What about the fundamentalist Christians who have bombed abortion clinics – will wearing the cross come to symbolize violent Christian fundamentalism?

Perhaps the deeper question is, what does it mean to be a symbol of Palestine? A symbol of Palestine is something much greater, something much deeper than modern Islamic extremism. To represent Palestine is to represent thousands of years of rich history. The keffiyeh ties today to the past, to a deep tradition that is not only Muslim but also Christian and even Jewish. The keffiyeh has come to represent strength and solidarity, and courage in the face of adversity. Yes, the Keffiyeh is in many ways a symbol of Palestine, but this does not make it a proponent of violence or bloodshed. The keffiyeh is a symbol of freedom, of hope, of a people’s fight against repression.

I wear the keffiyeh not because it’s a great fashion accessory or because it’s totally in style. I wear it to remind myself and those who recognize it that there is still injustice in the world, and also because I know peace is possible. For me, the keffiyeh is also much more personal than that. The keffiyeh represents friendship. I wear the keffiyeh for my friends in Gaza and Ramallah, for my friends all over the Arab world who support the Palestinian struggle, for all those whom I have never or will never meet. For me, the keffiyeh is personal.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Buzzwords of 2009

TIME Magazine's last edition for 2009 includes various lists and quotes looking back over the year - person of the year, notable people who died, various statistics. I won't reproduce all of that here, but I thought some of you would get a kick out of TIME's Buzzwords of 2009:

Sexting n. - sending lewd messages or photos via cell phone
"Because sexting cases are so new, local communities across the country very greatly in their handling, from filing child pornography charges against the teenagers involved to alerting parents and letting them deal with it." - New York Times, March 25 2009
...really? Somebody's... filing charges again teenagers for... what, exactly? Sending dirty text messages?

Birthers n. - conspiracy theorists who deny Barack Obama was born in the US
"The birther movement may be premised on a fictitional belief, but it is savvy: birthers now wear the term as a badge of honor, as if they were a persecuted minority." - Atlantic, July 21 2009
*shakes head* Scot Adams once said, "The most dangerous thing in the world is a resourceful idiot." I think we have a few too many of those...

Death panel n. - a fictitional group alleged to be in charge of rationing care in health care reform proposals
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents of my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide... whether they are worthy of health care." - Sarah Palin, Aug. 7, 2009
Really, Sarah?

Here are a few other tidbits:
  • 31.1 million people watched Michael Jackson's memorial on TV; 33.3 million watched Princess Di's funeral
  • 200 million people joined Facebook
  • 13,505 e-mails, on average, were received per person
  • 17 US citizens were arrested or convicted on terrorism charges
  • 1 in 7 Germans want to restore the Berlin Wall
  • 139 US newspapers folded
  • 2,705 miles sq of Brazilian rain forest were cut down (74% less than 2004)
Oh, and Berlusconi managed to make the issue, too - twice. Once for his comment to the homeless after the Abruzzo quake - "They should see it like a weekend of camping" - and he also made #1 on the 'breakups' list (his wife filed for divorce).

That's all for now, folks!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fighting for Gaza's Heart

Today "Gaza" is a buzzword. It was last year, too. And the year before that, and before that, and back farther than is comfortable to contemplate. Gaza is in the news, on the lips of those who know her and those who don't. Gaza is facts and figures and pictures of bloody children on television and calls of jihad and terrorism on CNN (or perhaps FOX News would be more appropriate). Some of you may know where Gaza is, some may have no idea, and a few of you may know her story.

But how many of you know her heart?

Gaza is more than an occupied territory. Gaza is more than a war zone. Gaza is more, even, than a political nightmare and the breeding ground of terrorists. What, then, is she?

Gaza, a tiny place about twice the size of Washington, DC, is home to more than 1.5 million people. Gaza has - or, in many cases, had - schools, offices, stores, museums, fields. Gaza is a home; one which has persistently persevered. How often have you stopped to think about that? Have you contemplated, instead of the political reality, the day-to-day reality?

Many Gazans cannot get the food they need. The schools cannot get the educational materials. There are shortages of even the most basic necessities - can you even fathom buying toilet paper on the black market? And yet Gazans survive.
Yasmeen: See the TV still in their living room?
I bet they were watching TV and wondering,
when will we be next?

But, what about the "terrorists?" you might ask. A friend of my mother's told me once that Gazans had voted for Hamas, a "terrorist" organization, and in so doing had asked for Israel's January war. I could feel my heart breaking as I tried to explain to this woman, the seasoned wife of a military man, that Hamas' electoral win could not justify Israel's war.

My words fell on deaf ears. It is moments like that which sometimes cause me to wonder why I bother at all... but then I would see another dead or bloody Palestinian child flash across CNN or Al-Jazeera and remember why.

But I am a foreigner who has never set foot on Palestinian soil. What do I know?

My friend Yasmeen is from Gaza. She left home to study at the American University of Cairo. Studying abroad is difficult and risky for Palestinian students, but they have few other options to continue their education. Getting a visa can prove to be an impossible task, and those students who are lucky enough to get one face the possibility of not being allowed to return home - ever.

After nearly two years of being away, Yasmeen was able to return home to Gaza for summer break this year, after Israel's war. After returning to Egypt, she posted albums of photos on her facebook account. One album contained photos of a mass of rubble - what was once the American International School of Gaza. Yasmeen's high school. Her comments under some of the pictures clearly reflect the pain, the sense of injustice and helplessness which so many Gazans feel: under a photo of charred school buses - "The terrorist's buses." Under a photo of a bottle of Crayola powder paint - "the terrorist's gunpowder;" a playground - "the terrorist's training ground;" a textbook - "terrorism for dummies guide."

In another album there are pictures taken all around Gaza - buildings, schools, homes, businesses. Most destroyed beyond repair. Here are stairs leading to air, there a picture of the Wall. And then, suddenly, green grass? Poppies? Is that... wheat, and daisies, and children playing on a beach? Yasmeen's comment: "This is in Gaza too. Don't be shocked."

Even in a place of so much death and pain, there is still beauty. There are still bright daisies and green grass and fields of wheat and poppies and beautiful sunsets over the Mediterranean. There are weddings and birthdays and new babies. Gaza is still full of life.

What does the future hold for that life? Yasmeen offers a chilling observation: "While the world continues to build up, Gaza will build her future underground."

Maybe, if the world remembers Gaza's humanity, her heart, that won't happen. Maybe, instead, Gaza's children will be able to grow in the sunshine.

I've been wanting to write a post about Gaza for a long time now. Sometime after Israel's War on Gaza in January of this year I realized I needed to write about Gaza. But I wanted to say something which has so often been left unsaid. I wanted to capture the thoughts and feelings running around inside myself and combine them with the pain I've seen and heard, the experiences and first-hand knowledge of my friends, the facts themselves. It's taken me nearly a year of thinking and contemplating and wanting to write... and perhaps sometimes that's what it takes.

Special thanks to Yasmeen for her pictures, her insight, and her courage. Allah ma3ik.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who's burning the rainforest?

Many people believe tropical rainforests, in the Amazon and elsewhere, are being destroyed by poverty-stricken people with no other means of making a livelihood or providing for their families. The sad truth is that very seldom is rainforest cut or burned by those with a genuine need.

In Brazil, 200 people own 90% of the cattle ranches in the country. Those ranches, mostly located in areas where there used to be rainforest or on clear partches within the Amazon, provide over four million head of cattle each year. These ranch owners are the ones responsible for a large part of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.

Logging is another major cause of deforestation, and here again the situation is one of the rich getting richer, not of the poor taking advantage of the vast resources of the Amazon basin. In addition, many of the trees destroyed for logging purposes are neither useful nor desired - they are simply in the way of the valuable hardwood trees, many of which are sold with falsified approval documents.

Photo: A truck loaded with logs
on the Trans-Amazonian Highway.
September 2009

Until recently, I was one of the many who believed that most of the deforestation of the Amazon was being done by people, indigenous or not, who had no other means of survival. This was something I had been taught somewhere along my education, and it was a fact which seemed to make sense - but the reality is very different.

When the Brazilian government begain construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970's the road was intended to encourage settlement in the Amazon, particualrly by poor Brazilians who had nowhere else to go. The government soon realized that the settlement plan was not bringing the results intended. Instead, the "highway" - a narrow, barely two-lane dirt road which turns to a sloppy, muddy, dangerous mess in the rain - was allowing penetration of the Amazon by cattle ranchers and loggers, among others.

Some of the burning which happens in the Amazon is done on the lands of indigenous tribes or by poor settlers. Much more, however, is done by a very different group of people. They use the "burning season" to exploit more areas of primary forest to enhance a profit which, usually, is already extensive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Smoke over the Amazon

A few moments ago I was browsing the news in an effort to reaquaint myself with the happenings of the world after trekking the southern Amazon Basin with the National Outdoor Leadership School for the past 3 months. I came across a short piece on Al Jazeera which hit home - Smoke over the Amazon.

Over the past few months, I have often seen the same smoke Mr. Elizondo saw through the window of his plane, and occasionally from a much closer vantage point. I can recall seeing plumes of white or brownish-black smoke rising into the air and patches of blackened earth and trees where the fires had been. Once, while our bus was driving on the Trans-Amazonican Highway, we drove through a place where there were fires on both sides of the road. There was zero visibility within the haze. Neither we nor the driver could see the reddish ribbon of the highway for a few long moments. When we finally exited the cloud, the heavy scent of smoke remained with us.

looking back on a fire
over the Trans-Amazonica.
Nov. 2009

A few of the fires which occur in the Amazon Basin are natural, started by lightning. In the serrado (or savanna) environments, fires are part of the natural cycle. Most of the fires, however, are man-made. They serve as the first step in clear-cutting the rainforest for agricultural use or farmland. According to data from the late 1990's (I'll update with more recent data when I have a chance to find it), over 20,000 km2 (7,722 square miles) of rainforest are cleared per year.

Until the rains come, this is still the Burning Season in the Amazon.

Expect more on my Amazon expedition, and more about rainforest ecology and deforestation, once I'm back in the US.