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15.4.07

Islam and the West: Competing Fundamentalisms

12 April 2007 6:30 pm—The National Writers Union hosted a lecture at the Brecht Forum on West St. in New York's West Village. It was a rainy night on the West Side Highway and feminist and anti-Bush fanatics filled the hall—possibly the beginning of a Law and Order episode?

Dr. Nawal el Saadawi was the featured guest, joined by Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Bina Sharif, and Sohair Soukkary. Author of 45 books in Arabic and 32 in translation, Saadawi is known in the Arab world as a leading feminist writer. Since she published her first book, Women and Sex (a medical, nonfiction guide), she has been constantly threatened by the Egyptian government. Shortly after creating the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), the first legal feminist organization in Egypt, she was imprisoned under the Sadat Regime. She borrowed a makeup pen from another inmate and wrote her memoirs on toilet paper while in prison. Since her release in 1983, the threats and harassment have not ceased and her recent novels and plays continue to challenge ideas concerning gender, politics, and sex. While on the panel at the Brecht Forum, she announced her decision to stay in the U.S. and avoid returning to Egypt for now.

The panel began with a reading from Sohair Soukkary, organizer of the event and a representative to the U.N. for the AWSA. Her piece, "Easter Monday Holiday: A 5000-Year-Old Tradition," was intended for publication in New York Magazine but then was refused after 9/11. It describes her family's tradition in Egypt of cleaning the house and bathing in order to be deemed clean enough for the "sniffer" who would visit during the eve. "Who is this sniffer?" she questions in the piece, pondering the source of the holiday. This sniffer can be none other than the Ancient Egyptian sky goddess, she resolved, for no one else represents the purity of Easter Monday.

Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English at Montclair State University, performance poet, memoirist, playwright, and scholar. She is also trained in Indo-Pakistani Classical Vocal Music and part of the band Neither East Nor West Ensemble. She discussed points of interest pertaining to her critical work, referencing Mahmood Mamdani's text Good Muslim, Bad Muslim and quoting Fanon. "What we think of as extremism today must be linked with the idea of political terrorism," she stressed. Attention turned quickly to the increasing suppression of literary and academic freedom in the U.S. and the threat of proposed U.S. legislation HR 3077. She closed with a performance of her poem, "Billy Bush Samton".

Bina Sharif, actor and artist, continued the entertainment with a few of her own pieces which left the audience reeling. In "Wine and Cheese" she describes eating a lot of cheese to prepare her stomach for the wine she will drink, meanwhile being plagued with questions as to how she can drink wine while still being a "practicing Muslim," a "fundamentalist practicing Muslim," an "extremist fundamentalist practicing Muslim". She concludes, "With wine and an enormous stomach full of cheese, who needs the racist friends? / Never ask a wine guzzling Muslim if he or she is an extremist practicing fundamentalist / before I DO become an extremist fundamentalist practicing Muslim.... and blow you to fucking bits!" Following, she read "Situation," a commentary on the war in Iraq, and then asked Dr. Fawzia Afzal-Khan to join in reading a play entitled "Joke" which considers the disparity in press between dying Iraqi women and the much-publicized Anna Nicole Smith and "bald" Britney Spears.

Nawal el Saadawi spoke last. "I feel at home," she smiled out onto the audience. "It is so nice to see the real America, not the George Bush America. Many people in our countries cannot separate them." She mused on her childhood, her illiterate grandmother's inspirational response to a man who told her, "You do not know God": "God is justice and we know him by our minds". She discussed her reasons for staying in America, including her scandalous play in which she criticizes the God in "the book" and the God "in the mind". Another topic of importance was that her daughter remains in Egypt and is working on a movement to bring honor to the mother's name: currently illegitimate children, even if their mother is raped, have no human rights. The name of the father is necessary in order to avoid stigmatizing the child. Over two million children are suffering from this stigma.

Discussion opened with a question asking why the problem of illegitimacy exists in a culture in which men can have many wives. Saadawi explained that in all patriarchal societies the question of fatherhood is a problem and so the sexuality of women is thwarted. She added that she and other women promoting the mother's honor do not encourage female promiscuity—"Freedom means responsibility." Another question asked if the problem with the Qur'an has to do with its interpretation by men over the years, to which Saadawi disagreed. "You have to compare religions in order to understand them. There is justice in one place, then flip the page and there is none."

The discussion continued until 9 pm when the questions were cut off. I had already escaped to the back door as the room became slightly overheated and the fanatics were starting to create some odd tension with their questions.

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13.4.07

Morocco: I want to be where the sun warms the sky

posted by Jamila



Eyes like the desert
sweet mint tea
the donkeys' beys in the medina
le français, floating by
warming my heart
in the cool courtyard pool


Whenever I need some peace, I simply take myself to this riad courtyard, which of course stands in for any riad courtyard, which of course stands in for any courtyard, which of course...

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