Muslims with altitude and the fine art of terrorism

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you  are or look like a Muslim or Arab, whatever you do, do not read, sweat or speak Arabic when flying.

Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers. Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers.
Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Choosing what to read on a flight is always a dilemma. Too short and you’re left kicking your heels. Too complicated and you may not be able to focus.

However, if you happen to be a Muslim or an Arab, or to look like one, you also need to factor in the potential alarm or panic your fellow passengers or crew might experience upon catching sight of your choice of reading material.

This is what Brit Faizah Shaheen discovered to her chagrin. Upon returning to the UK from her honeymoon, she was detained by police who interrogated her about the book she had been reading on her outbound flight, which a crew member had reported as “suspicious”.

And what was the terrifying book in which Shaheen was immersed? Was it perhaps The Management of Savagery, which guides ISIS’s butchery and barbarity? Maybe it was Sayyid Qutb’s takfiri classics in which he reinvents the concept of Islamic holy war to make it offensive rather than defensive, a sort of Jihad Unbound?

Nope, it was a book, in English, about Syrian art. What exactly the flight attendant found suspicious about this title is unclear. Perhaps (s)he suspected that Shaheen had turned terrorism into a fine art. It is possible that (s)he believed this was the latest cunning Islamist plot to destroy the West: by artistically deconstructing it.

Unsurprisingly, Shaheen has decided to throw the book – legally – at the airline and the police (I may have been tempted to throw it physically).  “The whole experience left me feeling disappointed and angry,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

Ironically, Shaheen, who appears to be secular and as far away from a radical jihadist as it is possible to be, is a psychotherapist with the NHS. Her job is to help prevent the radicalisation of British Muslims with mental health issues, something that is likely to put a price on her head in terrorist circles.

If someone like Shaheen can be detained for nothing more than the religion she wears lightly, imagine what life must be like for conservative Muslim travellers who are guilty of nothing beyond being pious.

And Shaheen’s story is not an isolated one. Caught between Donald Trump and other far-right demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic, on the one hand, and jihadist terrorists, on the other, not to mention the increasingly shrill and hysterical public discourse, the past couple of years have seen a huge spike in ludicrous and distressful incidents – a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘flying while Muslim’.

Flying for Arabs and Muslims is certainly no amusement park – literally for the British Muslim family which lost $13,340 in missed flights when they were detained on their way to DisneyLand.

Perceived offences for detention, interrogation and ejection from flights include speaking or texting in Arabic, using the word “Allah” while sweating, being nervous, complaining about being thirsty, or somehow vaguely making someone else feel unsafe. That is my personal favourite. Being a tall brown guy with a stubble/beard, I run the risk when I fly of  being kicked off my flight because I make some bigot’s heart race a little faster.

Beards too can be a hair-raising – or razing – experience. Even non-Muslim hipsters with beards have fallen victim to this kind of hair-ism, as have non-Muslim economists practising the terrifying ancient Muslim art of Algebra. After a fellow passenger allegedly deemed he looked “Arabic [sic] and scary”, Mark French was ordered to shave his stubble or not be allowed to board the flight.

Similarly, a Pole of Armenian origin, i.e. a Christian, was barred twice from boarding a flight after a woman complained that he “looked like a terrorist” – whatever that means.

We must bear in mind that such ludicurous incidents are still relatively rare, and that is why they capture headlines. However, they appear to be increasing in frequency, as are the less sexy but more common security and background checks, fuelled by mounting public apprehension and sweeping anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Although greater vigilance was required, some governments exploited public fear to push overly draconian regulations.

And this kind of ethnic profiling and the farcical behaviour it engenders occurred regularly in the aftermath of the mass killing in America. I recall how, in 2003, I was interrogated at the US embassy in Brussels about whether I’d been a toddler soldier in Gadaffi’s army, because of the accident of having been born in Tripoli while my parents were working there.

On arrival in Washington DC, I was taken to a dingy backroom where I spent hours waiting and divulging personal details I had long since forgotten and which I found to be an enormous intrusion on my privacy.

At Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, traditionally the world capital of racial profiling, I have received some of the best “VIP” treatment I have ever known, including welcoming parties outside the plane, interrogations, long waits, special massages and the searching of the vehicles I come in at the airport perimeter – though the system has improved somewhat and become less intrusive recently.

However, times are a-changing and race- and religion-based paranoia is going global, with a number of Western countries following Israel’s lead. A Palestinian-American friend of mine who is an international aid worker must now wait every time he enters the States until they’ve carried out a full background check, after having endured the highest security level, a six, in Tel Aviv, which involves the minute inspection of every item of baggage.

Naturally, it is in everyone’s interest, including that of Muslims, who are disproportionately the victims of Islamist terrorism, to exercise vigilance. But there is a huge difference between being vigilant and being vigilante – and we are drifting perilously close to the latter.

Such discriminatory practices and social stigmatisation could also help push the emotionally vulnerable, who are preyed on by preachers of hate, into the hands of jihadist recruiters. “In my field of work, I recognise that some individuals have been made vulnerable due to factors such as a sense of injustice, peer pressure, negative media and a lack of a sense of belonging,” Shaheen pointed out in her Guardian piece. “Being victimised due to a mistake can have such a negative impact that it could lead to higher potential risk of radicalisation.”

And the prevention of radicalisation is far more effective than trying to cure it. That is why we need to tackle the Islamophobic narratives which tarnish and distort the image of peaceful Muslims, who make up the majority of the hundreds of millions who belong to this global faith, leading to public hysteria.

We also need to curb the excessive powers of security services and police, not grant them even more arbitrary leeway, because this hurts not only Muslims but is an invasion of everyone’s privacy and right to dignity.

These are dark, frightening times we live in. However, paranoia and stigmatisation will not bring us to the light, but will only prolong the night.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 August 2016.

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptian women are under attack from a failing patriarchy. But what is overlooked is that they are fighting back through grassroots emancipation.

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Surveying Egypt’s political landscape, you might be excused for thinking that women are a minority. Only five members of the Committee of 50 tasked with revising the constitution are women.

Unsurprisingly, this 10% ratio falls far short of the true proportion of the population women constitute, which in Egypt is just shy of 50%. Although women are politically under-represented everywhere in the world, in Egypt, the problem is particularly acute, as reflected in the pathetically low number of women in the first post-Mubarak (dissolved) parliament.

Egyptian women have been divided on how unfair this is. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights – which advocates the use of quotas to balance the gender disequilibrium in Egyptian politics – criticised this “lean” representation, which is only 3% higher than the committee formed during the Muslim Brotherhood-led constitution drafting exercise.

Others have drawn consolation from the apparent quality of the women involved. But no matter how high the calibre or how strong the mettle of these five women, can they truly advance the cause of female emancipation and gender equality?

Of course, that is probably the entire point. Male politicians generally want to preserve male privilege, and excluding women from the political process is the most effective way of doing so. That would explain why the draft constitution still claims that all Egyptians are created equal, but some – namely middle-aged, Muslim men – are more equal than others.

So, while Article 11 ostensibly guarantees gender equality, much of what it giveth, it taketh away with the qualification that this should not get in the way of a woman’s “duties towards her family” and should adhere to the “principles of Islamic Sharia”.

Although many women and advocates of gender equality are rightly depressed and demoralised by these developments, I feel this post-revolutionary conservative backlash is less a function of the patriarchy flexing its muscles and more a sign of a weakened traditional male order desperately trying to reassert its shaken and failing authority.

With Egyptian women increasingly equalling and even surpassing men in the academic and professional spheres over the past few decades, the patriarchy has sought to hold on to the vestiges of its ever-shrinking spectrum of privilege and to control women in the only areas left: at home and sexually.

This manifests itself in how many Egyptian women may be managers or doctors in the public sphere, but at home they still have to behave like, or pretend to be, obedient housewives. It is also embodied in the excessive focus on “virtue” in which women have traded greater socio-economic freedom for ostensibly less sexual freedom, again at least openly.

This can partly explain the horrendous level of sexual violence that has been witnessed since the revolution began. The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.

This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.

Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.

One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.

Once upon a land in a time not so far away, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women went around with their hair uncovered and many dressed in revealing western fashions. Interestingly, in the 1950s, even the daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, who wanted to force all Egyptian women to cover up, did not wear a headscarf.

While there is some validity to this sense of loss, there is a danger of over-sentimentalising the past, Although Egypt until the late 1970s was freer in some ways than now, in others, it was just as conservative or even more so.

Egypt’s modernising secular elite may have seen female emancipation as a crucial component of development and progress, but wider society was still largely traditional and agrarian. This meant that modernity was often fabric deep and did not extend far beyond the emulating of the latest Western fashions.

Women of my parents’ generation were still making the first tentative steps into higher education and the workplace, with all that entailed of battles against entrenched traditionalism. In contrast, today, despite increasingly conservative attire, Egyptian women have succeeded in just about every walk of life. Moreover, young women have plenty of role models to look up to, and female education and employment is taken for granted by millions.

Unsurprisingly, liberal Egyptian women want to protect what hard-won gains, relatively few and precarious as they may be, the feminist movement has made, and to try to build on them. However, they have to contend against not only the reactionary voices of Islamists and other conservatives, but also against those sympathetic to their cause who claim now is not the time, we have bigger fish to fry.

But if not now, when, if ever? Never? Since the 1919 revolution, Egyptian women have shared the pain of the struggle for freedom but have reaped few of the gains. Instead of being rewarded for their sacrifices, they have seen their cause constantly relegated, in the battle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, etc.

In addition, the West hasn’t helped by exploiting women and their cause to mask its hegemonic ambitions in the region, which has enabled Islamists to smear female emancipation as a “Western import” designed to tear apart the fabric of society.

While there may be some credibility to the notion that women cannot be free if the rest of society is not, I believe the inverse is far more true: society cannot free itself if half of the population lives in relative subjugation. A country wishing to prosper, resist internal repression and foreign domination cannot do so without gender equality.

As prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi recently put it: “Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed.”

In fact, the subjugation of women is partly a product of these ills – when politics is closed off to the masses, the vulnerable suffer. Moreover, the Ottomans, the British and Egypt’s domestic tyrants had an unspoken hierarchy of repression: the elite runs the public domain while men will run the private sphere.

This means that Egyptian revolutionaries looking to free society cannot postpone women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future, but need to make it a central and integral pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

More importantly, with the Muslim Brotherhood project discredited by Morsi’s presidency and its divisive politics, many Egyptians are questioning their former faith in Islamism. This provides a golden opportunity to advocate more muscularly for women’s rights.

Sadly, this seems unlikely in the political mainstream, which will continue to exclude not just women but also the young for some time to come. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Egyptian women are not taking this passively and are engaging in grassroots action to change their reality.

Though pioneering Egyptian women lack the safety net of a progressive legal system which safeguards their rights against regressive traditions, they are not waiting for their rights to trickle down from on top.

Every time I have visited Egypt since the revolution, I have been impressed by the increasing number of women I encounter who are defying social norms to live their individual and collective aspirations. These range from the political activists who risk life and limb for the cause to the growing number of women who pursue unusual careers, travel abroad or defer being married off (sometimes indefinitely).

When I first decided to live alone in the Cairo of the 1990s, this was unusual even for young men to do. When I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the surprising number of women who are choosing to live alone.

And not all of them are from the “elite”. One young woman I met was born and raised in a small, conservative village outside Fayoum. University enabled her to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural Egypt. Not only does she live in her own apartment in Cairo, she has worked in China and the Gulf.

“The status of women has deteriorated a lot,” she admitted. “If the civil [Egyptian for ‘secular’] current gets its way, things will get better. I hope to one day see the first female president.”

While such an aspiration seems like wishful thinking today, I believe that it is entirely possible as grassroots change climbs gradually upwards. After all, if the Islamist counter-culture of the 1970s managed to mainstream its values, why can’t the secular current do the same? Political revolution needs social evolution.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 September 2013.

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How iSlam made the West cool

 
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Those who fear Muslim influence should raise a glass to the Sultan of Style when they freshen up, don the latest fashions or enjoy dining out.

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

In the wake of the Woolwich machete attack against an off-duty British army drummer, the stabbing in Paris of a French soldier and the Boston marathon attack, anti-Muslim sentiments have, as might be expected, increased in Europe and the United States.

In the UK, for example, the far-right British National Party (BNP)  which had such a disastrous showing at recent local elections that it has urged it members to “do our bit for Britain and our race” by breeding more  and English Defence League has been mobilising overtime to capitalise on the fallout.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin called ominously on supporters to “join the British resistance“, while another senior party official suggested that the men behind the London murder should be executed. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes are running at 10 times their usual rate, according to a British government hotline.

The United States has also experienced a backlash in what Salon dubbed as the “return of the anti-Muslim bigots“. There have been hate crimes as well as suggestions for blanket spying on Muslims.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been growing fear of the “Islamisation” of society, while the notion that Muslims stand opposed to Western values is gaining traction. This is reflected in a new cross-border survey, which shows that majorities in a number of Western societies regard Islam as a threat.

As I’ve argued before, and despite my concerns over Islamic radicalism and extremism, Islam is not alien to Western civilisation but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilisational fabric.

Readers may well have come across historical explanations of the contributions Muslims made to modern sciences, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sociology and other areas of learning. Here, I’d like to explore how Muslims helped make the West “cool,” shaped our modern tastes and sensibilities and gave us many things we regard as quintessentially Western, such as the café.

In fact, I’d like to introduce just one man, Ziryab (Blackbird), the Sultan of Style, who, given his contribution to European chic, should have statues erected to him in Milan, Paris, London and New York. Although you may never have heard of this dandy ninth century Muslim, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives  modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789 AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights’ fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician. But after stepping too hard on the toes of his mentor, he hot-heeled it to the rising star of Baghdad’s cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia.

There, he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II. Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today).

It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

Although he lived a few centuries before the Renaissance, Ziryab was a true ‘Renaissance man’. In addition to being a polymath with knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology and botany, he was also a visionary trendsetter.

As an accomplished singer and musician  he was reputed to have memorized a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs   Ziryab added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute (which is also etymologically derived from the Arabic al-oud) that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

Ziryab also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters, creating new ways of expression (known as mwashah, zajal and nawbah). This musical genius established the world’s first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab’s gravest or greatest legacy, depending on your standpoint, to posterity. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr. Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab’s earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles  and not just more layers or an overcoat  in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

This hip Muslim brought a similar orderly flare to food. When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca of food  with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc.  and the French have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

Before Ziryab came along, dining was a freestyle event, even at court. People ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful banquets. But our man revolutionized all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or maybe he thought that different tastes should be relished individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers’ eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal. To make the fine dining experience that much more exquisite, Ziryab also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal).

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to develop a new type of deodorant and invented an early form of toothpaste which became all the rage in Iberia, as well as a type of shampoo. In addition to introducing new hairstyles to the longhaired Cordobans, he also popularised shaving  perhaps foreseeing the bad press beards would get in the 21st century.

Next time you brush your teeth, don the latest fashions, enjoy a delicious three-course meal or raise a glass, don’t forget to toast, or at least spare a thought for, old Ziryab, that uncrowned Sultan of Style  and remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, influence on Western society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 May 2013.

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The hair that binds

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite its bonding potential, a trip to the hairdresser’s can inflict trauma on soap-phobic pre-adolescent boys and their mullet-phobic fathers.

Friday 11 January 2013

I can think of three traditional male-bonding rituals between father and son: fishing trips, the first football match together and that birds and bees chat. Today, I am reminded of another … going to the hairdresser together.

I’m sitting in an over-lit salon on a white faux leather couch flicking through magazines with my eldest son in search of a hairstyle that doesn’t make him look more of a Muppet than he currently does. It’s not going well. He’s all attitude and insists he just wants the fringe out of eyes and may be less hair on the sides.

As someone raised in the 1970s and 1980s, I can see that instructing the hairdresser to do this will result in only one thing … the dreaded mullet. Remember Bono in the 1980s, Billy Ray Cyrus in the 90s and, for those familiar with Australian Rules Football, the 21st century incarnation of this fashion travesty Richmond player Ivan Maric.

Failure to face this challenge today in an adult way, failure to overcome the fear of making a scene will have serious consequences. It will scar the memory of this landmark father-son bonding moment. The pointed finger of shame will be cast in my direction for months (until the mullet grows out) as parents recognise my salon failure, my inability to instruct the hairdresser on the appropriate length and style for a nine-year-old boy.

As I mull over the perils of this decision, an executive-looking guy walks in with his preteen son and says with authority to the hairdresser, “Can I leave my boy here to wait for a cut … make it short for school but perhaps not too much off the fringe!” The hairdresser flutters agreement to this alpha male and he walks out of the salon, leaving the boy to finger his smart phone morosely while he waits his turn.

“You see how lucky you are?” I say to my boy whom I clearly think shouldn’t care how his hair looks. “Some dads just tell the hairdresser how to cut it and that’s it.” After months of badgering him about the state of his hair, my wife decided it was time that I stepped up and did what fathers do … problem is, I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to do in this situation.

Fishing trips aside, my dad was not the most hands-on in these matters. For example, the birds and bees thing was a memo delivered via my mum along the lines … “Get him some condoms and make sure he uses them!” My mum obliged but her timing was a bit off. I was 14 and still very much a virgin. The procured box of condoms was met with some bemusement at first but that gave way to amusement for my friends and I who found a good use for them as water bombs.

So, here I sit 30 years later with my own son and sometimes I possess barely an inkling of the requirements that this entails. Next to me is a man waiting equally as uncomfortably on this white sofa, enduring the top ten R&B tunes of today on a mounted TV and humming some incessant tune of his own. Second thoughts … it’s a tick and it’s really starting to wind me up.

Two hairdressers work on three women at various stages of what appears to be their Saturday wash-and-dry routine, while a chatty woman with a red nose waits her turn. Builders bring in materials for renovations and the red-nosed woman takes up position as traffic cop opening and closing the door each time they return with planks and boxes.

Meanwhile, my son has narrowed down his choice of hairdos to two possibilities. I struggle to hide my envy that he has a choice at all. Hair loss is cruel. I like both cuts, but one could really work with his hair, and although it is ‘fashionable’ it is also boyish, so perfect for his age!

I’ve got Time magazine’s people of the year edition open in front of me, but as interesting as Obama, Cook and co. may be, it’s impossible to concentrate. Inane nattering, R&B warbling, coiffed madams complaining, builders bantering … Human suffering gets a makeover in the salon.

Finally, it’s my boy’s turn. He approaches the spray-tanned stylist and shows her the page with the look he wants. She seems impressed. He sits and she pumps the seat to the right height.

Mullets now safely behind us, fresh concerns bubble to the surface. Will she go too far and turn my innocent boy into a Dorian dandy? What will his mother say when I walk him in with a new romantic flick that would put Spandau Ballet to shame?

I take a seat next to him and my panic is palpable. She starts at the back. He says, “Don’t let her cut too much off’, in Swedish (his mother is a Swede) so the girl doesn’t understand. But all my own fears of making a fuss come back to me. I get a flashback of the times I sat in the salon chair saying nothing as I see the next three months of my life being destroyed until the tragedy she is creating on my head grows out.

I tell him it looks great. I can tell he’s not convinced, but he can’t see what she’s doing so it’s still safe. Then she starts on the sides and front. Hair piles up on the floor. With every chunk jettisoned he winces. I can picture him starting to cry and embarrassing the hell out of me when she finishes.

Then it starts to take shape. My dread subsides momentarily. My boy smiles as the fringe is tidied up. I say it looks great and really mean it because it does. No mullet, no new romantic. We think it’s all over when she pulls out another pair of scissors and starts cutting it all again. I say cutting but it looks more my scraping as she distresses the ends … and me … with every pull.

Next comes the razor and I think this is where I have to say enough is enough, but I remember her being so pleased to be able to work on a proper hairstyle, from a book and all. I don’t have the heart to take this creative moment away from her. I sacrifice my child to her tepid career in a provincial salon. I close my eyes and pray that it will be over soon.

“Umm, do you want me to put gel in it?” I open my eyes and see that the creation is finished. “Gel?” she says slower and louder like young people do when speaking to the elderly. I look at my son, and he screws up his nose.

“No, I think it’s fine the way it is,” I say with a measure of exhaustion creeping into my voice. She brushes the hair off his face and back and removes the smock. He turns to me, catching himself in the mirror on the way, and I’m just waiting for that look which means “Daddy, I’ll never trust you again”.

It doesn’t come. Instead I get a broad smile and glint of pride. It’s a cool cut from a magazine but it still makes him look like a boy … a beautiful nine-year-old boy. The stylist is pleased with herself. The customer, my son, is pleased with himself. The father, me, is relieved as hell. We leave the salon and he takes my hand as we walk back to the car.

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Policing the beard

 
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By Osama Diab

In Egypt, beards have gone from indicating piety to symbolising political affiliation. Police neutrality requires officers to remove their facial hair.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Should Egyptian policemen remain clean shaven? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

A few months ago, a group of police officers decided to challenge the current Interior Ministry ban forbidding police officers from growing beards or long hair.

A few police officers decided to defy the ministerial code that regulates the appearance of police officers and let their facial hair go.

As a consequence, the ministry referred them to a disciplinary council, which is the procedure outlined in an Interior Ministry decree. The officers appealed this referral before the Cairo Administrative Court, but their appeal was rejected on Wednesday.

This new assertiveness within the police force could possibly be encouraged by the Islamists’ political triumphs over the past year, in both the parliamentary and presidential elections, which has emboldened them to rebel against their previous wholesale exclusion from many aspects of public life.

Other manifestations of this trend include last week’s launch of the first TV channel where all the presenters are women who wear the full-face veil.

Before the active participation of Islamists in Egypt’s political life, it was hard to imagine a bearded man in a police uniform or a face-veiled woman presenting a TV show.

According to a report by the daily al-Masry al-Youm, the police officers said they should be allowed to express themselves freely, which is a right protected by the constitution.

They also argue that the ministry’s decree contravenes the principles of Islamic law, which is an important source of legislation, and with international agreements and conventions that Egypt has signed.

Even though their argument might have some validity to it, would allowing police officers to grow their beards threaten the aspired-for political impartiality of state institutions? Would secularists be guilty of double standards by calling for freedom of religion and expression while preventing police officers from freely expressing their own beliefs?

Until recently, the Islamic beard (especially the Salafist version of it) used to signify piety and symbolise a greater commitment to one’s faith, that is, a purely religious symbol. However, now that Salafist groups have extended their activities beyond preaching and into politics, does the beard still remain a purely religious symbol, or does it have political and partisan connotations to it?

Since the establishment of post-revolutionary political parties in Egypt, especially the Salafist al-Nour party, whose members almost to a man grow their facial hair in a very distinctive fashion, the beard has become a clear indicator of partisanship and political affiliation.

In times of political turmoil such as we are currently experiencing, building politically neutral state institutions is all the more challenging because most have still not recovered from the blow dealt them by the 25 January revolution. Without careful monitoring, they could become easy prey for rising political powers to infiltrate and manipulate to their own favour.

Egyptians have long suffered from a police state whose main role was to safeguard the interests of a corrupt and authoritarian regime. During protests against the ruling party or president and during any kind of elections, the police, and other state institutions including the judiciary and the media, used to side with the regime. State security used to closely monitor dissident activities and, in many cases, arbitrarily arrest and torture those who they defined as a threat to the regime.

The political neutrality of the police force is one of the most important goals in the process of transitional justice that Egypt is supposedly undergoing.

This case is about the neutrality of state institutions more than it is about religious freedom. And unfortunately it is Islamists groups who are creating these deep philosophical concerns by mixing religion with politics and then calling for religious freedom in politically sensitive institutions.

The rising influence of political Islam combined with the police’s long history as an oppressive politicised tool in the hands of the regime makes it risky, at least during a transitional period, for this massive monster to take sides in political battles.

The memory of state brutality is still too fresh to allow the police to fall under any party’s control, especially those with questionable democratic credentials.

—-

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter at https://twitter.com/OsamaDiab

This article first appeared in The Daily Newson 8 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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Not so simply red

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Simply Red lead singer’s admission that he slept with thousands of women shatters one longstanding ginger stereotype, but discrimination against redheads goes way back.

10 December 2010

“A red-headed man,” Simply Red’s lead singer Mick Hucknall told the Guardian last week, “is not generally considered to be a sexual icon.” But he admits to bedding severalwomen  a day during a three-year, well, purple patch between 1985 and 1987.

Married now with a young daughter, the 50-year-old singer is doing some soul searching, and perhaps a bit of guilt purging while he’s at it.  He regrets the philandering and admits to getting caught up in the pop-star lifestyle.

“When I had the fame, it went crazy,” he said. “I was living the dream and my only regret is that I hurt some really good girls.”

Hucknall describes his sexual adventures as an addiction, a surrogate for the love of his mother who abandoned him at a young age. But the story here is not the middle-aged fading pop singer who gets the girls – truck loads of them – but that the oft-maligned gingers of this world really are something special.

Hucknall’s revelation has inspired me to follow up a story idea I had about what it means to be a redhead. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is associated with fair skin, lighter eye colour and sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Cultural and societal reactions to the simple fact of having red hair range from ridicule to admiration.

Different is as different does

Delving a little deeper, I confirmed my suspicion that gingers really are super-human – though not in a red-cape kind of way. They apparently have different tolerance and sensitivity to pain than the rest of us mere mortals.

Research suggests that while people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain – something to do with lower levels of vitamin K – they are less sensitive to pain coming from multiple modalities, including “noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain”. It has also been found that people with red hair respond to anesthetic and analgesics differently.

[Can you picture a battery of redheads hooked up to the mains for a series of lab tests  followed by hits of morphine? No. Okay, just me then.]

The scientists put this unexpected relationship between hair colour and pain tolerance down to a genetic mutation in a hormone receptor that responds to melanocyte-stimulating hormone (the skin pigmentation hormone) and endorphins (pain-relieving hormone), and possibly others. This doesn’t mean redheads are mutants. We all have mutations (genetic or other) which give us our physical characteristics, like curly hair. [Mick Hucknall got the double-whammy mutation of red, curly hair.]

The number of talented ginger sportsmen and women belies the total number of redheads in the world – estimated at 1-2 % but as high as 6% in northern and western European populations. What separates the top 10 from the many others trying to make it in top-level sports is not necessarily raw talent. It boils down to mental strength and physical endurance or the ability to fight through pain and recover fast.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but the super-human pain tolerance trick could be useful in today’s physically demanding sports regimes [I’d be happy for the more scientific readers out there to blow this out of the water].

Fascination and prejudice

Red hair has had it’s good and bad times in history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was quite fashionable and regal to be a redhead. Many painters have depicted their red-headed women as alluring subjects in the vein of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s red ladies, which were so prevalent the term titian stuck for redheads.

But the redheaded were less favoured by history.  In the Middle Ages, red hair was thought to be a mark of what’s been described as beastly sexual desire and of unearthly beings. The Brothers Grimm speak of a savage red-haired man in Der Eisenhans, while other fables and stories attribute red and green eyes to be the mark of a witch, werewolf or vampire.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift paints the redhead in Hucknallesque terms: “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

Even today, you’ll hear a comment or aspersion almost every day in the media, with terms like ‘ginge’ and carrot-top aimed squarely at the hapless redhead. It’s like a long-running joke perhaps going all the way back to English resentment of the Celts (red hair is more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland) following centuries of independence battles. Again, this is all pure speculation.

It seems even with modern science on their side, the myths, lies and prejudices directed at redheads will not go away. Any wonder they’ve got such fiery tempers!

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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