Gay marriage but no polygamy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.

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Ghost in the machine

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As we spent so much of our life online, what happens to our virtual selves when we die? Do they disappear too, or do we become ghosts in the machine?

Tuesday 18 September 2012 / Updated 31 October 2014

Last year, a journalist colleague-cum-friend stopped answering e-mails. At first, I thought he was miffed because a few of the stories he had written came back with critical comments and the client was breathing down my neck to take him off the job.

I knew he was having some kind of difficulty at home and perhaps even financial problems, so I persevered for his sake. A couple of weeks later, I gave the green light for another batch of stories from him.

No response to the e-mail on the first day. This was  out of character for this guy because he usually picks up a new commission in a flash. Two, three, four days passed without word. I still thought he was smarting from the client’s rebuke so let it pass. But after two weeks or so something was clearly wrong.

First I tried to call him on his mobile. No answer. I tried his old number – his mother’s I believe. Again nothing. This was not the sort of guy to pass up work, I decided, and definitely not the type to sulk for weeks, so something was definitely going on.  It was time to start investigating.

I checked his website, Facebook and LinkedIn. Nothing unusual there – some relatively recent activity. I then did the only other thing I could think of to nip a nagging worry in the bud … Yep, I Googled his name + ‘obituary’. I know it sounds morbid, but if I haven’t communicated the circumstances well enough here, take my word for it that this search was not done flippantly.

Sure enough, the first or second hit was a note in a local newspaper that my colleague-friend of five years had passed away. No mention of how, only that the family expressed its gratitude to a certain hospice which may or may not suggest he had been ill for some time. And when I think about the declining standard of his work, it would make sense.

But the way this happened, or at least the way his ‘virtual’ community (me and perhaps other colleagues and employers) had to learn of his death is what concerns me the most about relationships online. Concern that we build up friendships or professional closeness over the years without any physical foundations or recourse, if that is the right way to express it.

I didn’t know his family, or even if he had one. I had an old landline when he first started working for me but that was superseded by email/LinkedIn and so on. So, once his mobile phone apparently expired or the battery ran out, that was it. His mother, wife, son, or whoever was close to him probably didn’t know his PIN to open it again and answer the worried calls.

What’s more, they probably didn’t know his passwords and access codes to the various social networking tools he used. When I say ‘probably’ I’m just trying to be careful because the guy passed away nearly a year ago and just last week I got a ‘recent activity’ notification from him on LinkedIn.

It’s especially creepy because I still don’t know 100% that he’s dead. Sure, all the evidence indicates it, but with just 0.01% doubt, when you get a nudge from someone online, it makes you wonder. So much so that I had to see what the recent activity was. It appeared to be someone he had invited to join his network had finally got round to accepting it X months later.

Of course this is possible. I opened a LinkedIn account some 10 years ago and conscientiously ignored any and all invitations for nine years, until the system got so insistent that it became easier to accept them all than go through the rigmarole of rejecting and worrying that I’d offended someone (yes, I’m not a digital native … these things worry us ‘physical world’ people).

Post-game plans?

It also makes me wonder if we are overlooking our responsibilities to family and friends (virtual and physical) by not having a … well … post-game plan in case we get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. At least when we owned CDs and other real physical assets it was pretty simple, with or without a will and last testament, your stuff usually just went to the nearest and dearest. But with ‘digital assets’ we’re not even sure we own them, let alone whether we have a plan for how to pass them down to our family or friends.

Take the recent Bruce Willis and Apple story, which may have been false but that’s beside the point because it highlighted the issue of intellectual property rights and digital assets like music downloads, and that we may be only buying listening rights during our tenure on this world. How does that encourage legal downloading and the sustainability of the music/entertainment industry?

Perhaps the smart, discrete, respectful thing to do is to prepare your exit plan from the virtual world as much as you are primed to do so for the physical world. For example, write down the main platforms you engage in and how your family or friend can access them to take possession of any so-called digital assets bequeathed.

Make sure the executor or trusted person has instructions or enough information to shut down the online accounts which otherwise, very disturbingly, live on as ghosts in the machine. And, of course, put all this information somewhere safe from prying eyes, but not so safe that it won’t be found if that bus does have your number on it.

UPDATE

What happens to your Facebook account when you die? (30 Oct 2014) This story echoes the need to “think ahead” about your digital last will and testimony and introduces a feature now available on Facebook, at least, allowing those left behind to ‘delete’ or ‘memorialise’ the account. Here is what The Guardian’s ‘AskJack’ blog has to say on these options:

“If you choose to delete the account, then all the comments, photos etc. will also be deleted, unless you take legal steps to preserve them. This is a privacy issue. Facebook says: “The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.

“If you choose memorialisation, Facebook changes a number of things: No one is allowed to log in to the account; You can’t change, add to or delete existing content, which includes adding or removing friends; Automated activities, such as daily quotes or horoscopes, are stopped; Memorialised accounts don’t appear in “public spaces” such as birthday reminders, People You May Know, or searches; Memorialised accounts can only be accessed by the user’s confirmed friends.”

Hope this little addition helps those faced with the unpleasant decisions on what to do with the ‘ghost in the machine’.

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The Arab myth of Western women

 
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By Khaled Diab

Unflattering as some Western stereotypes are of Arab men, Western women also get a bad press in conservative Arab circles.

16 November 2010

My previous article explored unflattering Western stereotypes of Arab men. As if to confirm the popularity of this archetypal image, many commenters betrayed so obvious a fondness for the Arab baddie that they could hardly bring themselves to admit that there were other alternatives.  Amid this polarised debate, a number of commenters, including WeAreTheWorld, suggested that Arab stereotypes of Western women would also be a worthwhile subject to explore.

Just as Arab men are stereotyped and pigeonholed in the west, Western women hover somewhere between myth and fantasy in the Arab world. “We’re loose, obsessed with sex, batter our men, are bad mothers, and can’t cook,” my wife joked, summing up pithily some common Arab prejudices. Then she cracked her whip as I cowered in the corner, huddled over my bowl of wood shavings.

Like the traditional orientalist image of the harem, Arab views of the contemporary Western woman are also highly sexualised. In fact, many Arab men, particularly those with little contact with the West, have this fantasy of Western women that comes straight out of Playboy magazine or the grainy images of pirate pornos.

In this view, Western women are oversexed, promiscuous and have revolving doors in their knickers. “A typical Egyptian male is a firm believer that any Western woman is an easy catch and would not mind at all having sex with complete strangers,” observes Ahmed, an old college friend.

This can lead to hassle and harassment for Western women travelling or living in Egypt and some other Arab countries, although in places like Yemen men will either just stare or the Western woman will become invisible like the local women, as my wife found while travelling alone through the country. Of course, given the potent mix of sexual repression, poverty, ignorance, the growing disappearance of the traditional model of respect for women and the failure to replace it with a modern equivalent, you don’t have to be Western to be harassed on the streets.

Some men will hit on Western women out of the conviction Ahmed described, while others who understand the West better will do so out of simple opportunism, hoping that they will “get lucky” with a woman from a society where sex does not carry the same heavy restriction for her as it does for her Arab sisters. In fact, some men want the best of both worlds: a bit of fun with Western women, then settling down with a traditional local woman.

Another form of opportunism is the allure of escape. “I think sometimes it’s not the Western woman who’s so attractive, as the lure of her passport. It sometimes seems to spell freedom,” observes Angela, a Jerusalem-based acquaintance.

Among certain men, this myth of the Western Aphrodite is complemented by another delusion: that Western women find the men in their own countries too emasculated and weak and so prefer a ‘real man’. In fact, some blokes I’ve met entertain the belief that Egyptian men have a good reputation among Western women for their virility and sexual prowess.

This misperception is reinforced in their minds by the fact that some women do come to Egypt for sexual tourism or get caught up in whirlwind relationships filled with old-fashioned romance, expressions of undying love, passion and charm. “He swept me off my feet with his sweet words, compliments, attentive gestures, romance, and warmth,” said one European woman who got drawn to a charmer with a darker side.

So, which Arabs have the most negative views of Western women? Well, probably those from the most conservative societies. “From my personal experience, the worst Arab men I found were the ones from Saudi Arabia,” a journalist with a leading Portuguese newspaper told me. “They think that all foreign women are prostitutes and they try to treat them like that.”

What is behind this belief that Western women are somehow sex-crazed? Part of it relates to the conservative Arab fixation on women’s sexuality in general. According to this outlook, women’s sexual appetites are so insatiable that, if they are left to their own devices, they turn into uncontrollable nymphomaniacs and temptresses luring men to crash into the rocks of lust.

As every woman is carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom, in Arab societies where women have entered the workforce en masse and reached the highest academic and professional echelons, they have often done so by emphasising their ‘virtuousness’, that their independence hasn’t made them ‘bad women’.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in other modernising patriarchal societies, such as India. Even in the West, the pioneering women in academia and the professions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often lived like nuns.

It should be pointed out that many religious Arabs, including women, do not believe that Arab women are oppressed, but that they enjoy a different, and superior, kind of liberty. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservatives are reciprocating the western interest in the position of Arab and Muslim women by examining the “oppressed” status of the western woman.

In an apparent bid to answer the charges of Western orientalism, the Saudi-based conservative Islamic thinktank, al-Medinah Centre for the Study of Orientalism, which has developed its own brand of ‘occidentalism’, has a section dedicated to Western women. Another conservative Islamic site targeted at women asks “who will end the injustice against Western women?”

“How can they [the West] demand the ending of what they see as injustice against Saudi women, when their own women are drowning in seas of injustice?” asks the author, pointing, paralleling his Western counterparts, to the prevalence of domestic violence and rape in the west – as well as pointing to questionable surveys which show that the majority of western women actually wish to return to the home.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 10 November 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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الحب في زمن النزاع

 
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بقلـم خالد دياب

قرارات المحاكم الأخيرة في مصر وإسرائيل تُظهِر مدى الشك الذي وصل إليه اليهود والعرب الإسرائيليين

سبتمبر 2010

EN version

تماماً مثلما تعلّم روميو وجولييت الدرس بطريقة صعبة، فإن الحب والصداقة في زمن النزاع نادراً ما يكونا قصة بسيطة لشاب يقابل فتاة (أو أي خليط آخر يناسب توجهاتك). ففي أوقات كهذه، تصبح الأمور الشخصية أموراً عامة، وتصبح الأمور الرومانسية أموراً سياسية.

ورغم أن هذه سمة شائعة في النزاعات، إلا أن الحواجز التي تفصل بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين قد تكون، بطريقة ما، مرتفعة بشكل خاص نتيجة لطول فترة نزاعهم ومرارته. ففكرة الاتصال الإنساني العادي بين الجانبين، وخاصة تلك من النوع الجسدي الحميم أو العاطفي، تصل في أذهان الكثيرين من العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين إلى مصاف خيانة قضية وطنهم. لا تعاني علاقات كهذه من عدم الموافقة اجتماعياً ولكنها تستطيع أحياناً أن تحمل تداعيات قانونية.

خذ على سبيل المثال حالة صابر كشور، الفلسطيني البالغ من العمر 30 سنة من القدس، الذي اتهم مؤخراً بـِ “الاغتصاب عن طريق الخداع” لأنه، حسب الادعاء، كذب على امرأة يهودية إسرائيلية حول هويته الدينية حتى يمارس الجنس معها، رغم أنه يعترف فقط بأنه كذب حول وضعه الاجتماعي كمتزوج.

ورغم أن غالبية الناس يوافقون أن عدم الصدق ليس هو السياسة الفضلى، إلا أن الخداع يشكل تكتيكاً شائعاً في لعبة العشق والغرام. ولو كذب السيد كشور حول مهنته أو ثروته أو تحصيله العلمي أو عمره أو طبقته الاجتماعية أو نواياه على المدى البعيد، لكان الحادث قد مرّ وذهب طيّ النسيان دون خيبة أمل شخصية. بدلاً من ذلك، ولأنه في أبسط الحالات لم يكن صادقاً بشكل كامل حول هويته الدينية والعرقية، فقد أصبح الأمر قضية ذات اهتمام عام وتداعيات قانونية.

“المحكمة مضطرة لحماية مصالح الجمهور من المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول الذين يستطيعون خداع الضحايا البريئة بكلفة لا يمكن احتمالها: قدسية أجسادهم وأرواحهم”، حسب قول أحد القضاة الثلاثة الذين استمعوا للقضية، وقد أوجد من خلال ذلك سابقة خطيرة.

يثير الحكم تساؤلات حول ما إذا كان هذا الخداع العاطفي يشكّل فعلاً قضية ذات “اهتمام عام”، بدلاً من قضية تتعلق بمصداقية أخلاقية شخصية. وبناء على ذلك، إلى أي مدى يتوجب على الدولة أن تذهب في حماية مواطنيها من “المجرمين الأذكياء ذوي الكلام المعسول”؟

قد تجد امرأة أخرى على سبيل المثال كذب كشور حول كونه متزوجاً مزعجاً أكثر بكثير من كذبه حول انتماءه الديني. هل كانت امرأة كهذه، إذا تقدمت بشكوى شخصية للمحكمة، تحظى بنفس ردة فعل القاضي المعني؟

غني عن الكلام أن القضية أثارت ضجة ليست عالمية فحسب وإنما في الأوساط الإسرائيلية الليبرالية، ويجري الآن استئناف الحكم. “ماذا لو كان هذا الشخص يهودياً ادعى أنه مسلم ومارس الجنس مع امرأة مسلمة؟ هل كانت ستتم إدانته بالاغتصاب؟ الجواب هو: بالطبع لا”، حسب رأي جدعون ليفي، وهو معلق إسرائيلي ليبرالي.

ولكن إسرائيل ليست هي وحدها المذنبة بالمعايير المزدوجة عندما يعود الأمر إلى مضاجعة العدو أو الوقوع في حبّه. بالنسبة للكثير من الفلسطينيين والعرب فإن فكرة أن يعشقوا أو يعشق أحد يعرفونه يهودية إسرائيلية، أو أحياناً يهودية ببساطة، هو أمر يُنظَر إليه كلعنة محرّمة.

ويمكن في بعض الأحيان أن تحمل هذه “الجريمة الاجتماعية” نتائج قانونية، كما حصل مؤخراً في مصر. بعد ردّ استئناف حكومي لقرار محكمة سابق، حكمت محكمة مصرية في حزيران/يونيو الماضي بسحب الجنسية عن جميع الرجال المصريين المتزوجين من إسرائيليات وأبنائهم (بغض النظر عن قلة عددهم).

أثار القرار خلافاً في مصر، حيث أثنى كثيرون على “وطنية” المحكمة، بينما ثارت ثائرة الناشطين المصريين الليبراليين ودعاة حقوق الإنسان. “ينص القانون المصري على أنه لا يمكن سحب الجنسية المصرية إلا إذا ثبت أن المواطن يتجسس على بلده، لذا فإن هذا القرار يعتبر الزواج من إسرائيلية ضرباً من ضروب التجسس”، حسب قول نجاد البرعي، وهو محامٍ مركزه القاهرة وناشط في مجال حقوق الإنسان.

ما تظهره هاتان القضيتان بوضوح هو مستوى انعدام الثقة وجنون الارتياب والحقد بين العرب واليهود الإسرائيليين، الذي تعاظم مع تدهور الوضع في السنوات الأخيرة. وهو يشكّل على مستوى آخر أداة مناسبة لإطالة أمد النزاع. يجعل تحديد، بل وحتى منع التعامل والتفاعل مع الطرف الآخر من الأسهل بكثير كراهية “عدوك” بل وإضفاء الشيطانية عليه. من هذه الزاوية، ترتكز حقيقة أن معظم الدول العربية لا تسمح أو لا تشجع مواطنيها على السفر إلى إسرائيل، دعك من منع الإسرائيليين من السفر إلى المدن الفلسطينية في الضفة الغربية وغزة، جزئياً على الخوف من أن يُفشِل الحب الفردي الكراهية الجماعية.

جمعت المأساة التي وقعت لروميو وجولييت في نهاية المطاف أسرتيهما المتناحرتين معاً، ولكن القضايا المأساوية أعلاه من المستبعد أن يكون لها نفس الأثر. وبالرغم مما قد يؤمن به بعض الرومانسيين بسذاجة من أن الحب يتغلب على كل شيء، من المؤكد أن هذا ليس صحيحاً، ولا يستطيع الحب عمل شيء يُذكر لحل القضايا الحقيقية جداً التي تذكي نار النزاع.

بغض النظر، فإن جميع الصداقات وقصص الحب والزواج بين الإسرائيليين اليهود والعرب تتحدى ثنائية الـ “نحن” و”هم” المدمرة. ورغم أنها قد تكون علاقات شخصية، إلا أن العلاقات الخاصة بين العرب والإسرائيليين تثبت أن الذين يعيشون عبر خطوط العداء المفترضة قد يتشاركون أكثر بقضايا مع بعضهم مما يتشاركون به مع أناس من جانبهم، ويوفرن الأمل بمستقبل يسوده المزيد من التفاهم

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Love in times of conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arabs and Israelis tend to view personal relationships that cross the divide between them with suspicion, perhaps because individual love has the power to undermine collective hate.

14 September 2010

AR version

As Romeo and Juliet learned the hard way, love and friendship in times of conflict is rarely a simple story of boy meets girl (or whatever other combination suits your orientation). At such times, the personal so often becomes public, and the romantic, political.

Although this is a common feature of conflicts, in some ways, the barriers separating Arabs and Israeli-Jews may be especially high owing to the long duration of their conflict and the bitterness of the feud. In the minds of many Arabs and Israeli-Jews, the idea of normal human contact between the two sides, especially of the intimate physical or emotional variety, is tantamount to a betrayal of their people’s cause. Such relationships do not only suffer from social disapproval, they can sometimes carry legal consequences.

Take the case of Saber Kushour, a 30-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, who was recently convicted of “rape by deception” for having allegedly lied to an Israeli-Jewish woman about his religious identity in order to sleep with her, although he only admits to having lied about his marital status.

Although most would agree that dishonesty is not the best policy, deception is a fairly common tactic in the dating game, and had Kushour been lying about his profession, wealth, education, age, social class, or his longer-term intentions, the incident would have passed into the obscurity of personal disappointment. Instead, because he, at the very least, was not entirely truthful about his religious and ethnic identity it became an issue of public concern with legal repercussions.

“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” said one of the three judges on the case and, in so doing, set a dangerous precedent.

The verdict raises the question of whether such amorous deception is actually an issue of “public interest”, rather than one of individual integrity, and, if so, how far should the state go in protecting citizens from “sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals”?

For instance, another woman may have found Kushour’s lying about being single far more distressing than his religious affiliation. Would such a woman, had she also submitted a private claim, have had the same reaction from the judge in question?

Needless to say, the court case has caused an uproar, not only internationally, but in liberal Israeli circles, and the verdict is already being appealed. “What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman? Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not,” observed Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator.

But it is not just Israel which is guilty of double standards when it comes to sleeping with – or falling in love with – the enemy. To many Palestinians and Arabs, the idea that they or someone they know could get intimate with an Israeli-Jew, and sometimes even simply a Jew, is often viewed with anathema.

In some instances, this ‘social crime’ can carry legal consequences, as was recently demonstrated in Egypt. After rejecting a government appeal of an earlier verdict, an Egyptian court ruled in June that all Egyptian men married to Israeli women (however few they may be), and their children, should be stripped of their citizenship.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while Egyptian liberals and human rights activists are up in arms. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli [to be] an act of spying,” said Negad al-Borai, a Cairo-based lawyer and human rights activist.

What these two court cases clearly illustrate is the level of mutual distrust, paranoia and hatred between Arabs and Israeli-Jews which has intensified with the worsening situation in recent years. At another level, it is a convenient tool in perpetuating the conflict. Restricting, and even forbidding, interactions with the other side makes it a whole lot easier to hate and demonise your “enemy”. Seen from this angle, the fact that most Arab countries do not allow or discourage their citizens from travelling to Israel, not to mention the ban on Israelis travelling to Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, is partly founded on the fear that individual love will undermine collective hate.

The tragedy that befell Romeo and Juliet eventually brought their feuding families together, but the tragic cases above are unlikely to have a similar consequence. Despite what romantics may naively believe, love certainly does not conquer all, and it can do little to resolve the very real issues fuelling the conflict.

Nevertheless, all friendships, love affairs and marriages between Israeli-Jews and Arabs challenge the destructive “us” and “them” dichotomy. Though they may at heart be personal affairs, private relationships between Arabs and Israelis demonstrate that people living across supposed enemy lines may share more in common with one another than with their own side, and provide hope for a future of greater understanding.

This article, which was written for the Common Ground News Service, was originally published on 2 September 2010.

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Moving, not moving on?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Moving house is a back-breaking master class in logistics. But it’s also an emotional rite – moving from what was to what will be, purging yourself of possessions and packing some away for good.

8 September 2010

I recently moved house. All things considered, it went smoothly. We shifted everything we owned from one place to another with military precision; boxes first, big stuff next, people in the car behind. It’s just logistics.

But so much of who we are or what we represent is embalmed in this stuff and the places where we ‘house’ it that this nomadic rite deserves closer inspection. Perhaps it’s not a simple logistics exercise, after all.

There are no shortage of websites and services offering advice on moving, from preformatted ‘to do’ checklists and stress exercises to formulaic messages to announce your new abode. Here’s a couple of classics:

“We’ve found what makes a house a home… Lots of love, plenty of laughter, and the presence of friends and family! Stop by our new house soon…  and often!”

“We’ve packed our things and moved to a new address, but all the friends we’ve left behind
are what we’ll really miss! Our new address is…”

“We’ve packed up boxes, lamps, and chairs… our home is somewhere new. We couldn’t leave and settle in without telling you.”

It’s wonderfully cheesy stuff. And if these soppy morsels didn’t mask more serious emotional issues associated with moving, I’d happily tear them apart. The fact that people need to build their very own yellow brick road from ‘what was’ to ‘what will be’ says a lot about the human desire to be rooted, or connected.

New research even suggests the act of frequent moving on children can carry emotional baggage right through to adulthood. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, scientists took an established fact – that children who move house often tend to perform worse in school and can have behavioural problems – and looked more closely at what might be happening behind this.

Serial movers, the researchers say, tend to establish fewer so-called “quality” social relationships, and the more they moved as children, the less “happy” they tended to be as adults – scoring lower on the “well-being” and “life satisfaction” scales.

But not everyone is affected in the same way, the scientists caution. Certain personality types like introverts and more nervous or high-strung characters tended to be affected worse by regular moves. Of course, some people may enjoy the variety of experiences it throws up.

It’s your move

About 12 weeks ago we signed a contract saying that we would move our belongings – including two small human ones – across town. The preparations started then. I won’t go into the details, as I’m sure everyone knows the drill, but I will comment on some of the unexpected things that this transition threw up. As I ventured into the hidden recesses of the old house to perform stage one of the campaign – throwing away stuff – I came to realise with every load to the container park how suffocating all this stuff had become.

After a few weeks of this, I began to see pockets of light filter into the cellar once again. I discovered remnants of previous moves gone wrong – the unopened boxes of five years ago. Table tennis bats reappeared and I remembered how much I liked playing it. CD collections – relegated by iPod to the draws – got dusted off ready for a return to the good old days of having something to read while you listen to the tunes.

From my wardrobe I learnt that I tried (and failed) a couple of years ago to be more dapper. The growing collection of prams, scooters and bicycles in the garage bore witness to my growing and changing family. Each layer of stuff, once peeled, revealed something new, and yet entirely familiar.

To throw or not to throw? It transpired that my life – in and out of boxes –could be summed up with this basic tenet. Mostly, the decision was to throw. I threw and threw and threw. So much was thrown out that I sit today in my new – admittedly bigger, greener, nicer – house with a half empty wardrobe, a half full garage, a half empty garden shed and a draining fear that this new-found liberty can’t be sustained.

With each passing week, and each casual trip to IKEA, I dread the cycle of accumulation starting anew. I wonder if a new household regime will be needed, something like a nightclub policy of ‘one in one out’. One new pair of shoes, one old pair off to the op shop. One new children’s slide erected, one child fostered out… okay so perhaps that’s a bit extreme.

I’m a firm believer in keeping emotions out of logistics. And I approached the recent move as such. But the weeks of purging and packing kept reminding me of past moves and past times. Against my will, the ‘physical’ gradually ceded to the ‘psychological’ during this move. I recalled fondly moving house as a student, where everything could be packed into one car or on the back of a bike, and never looking back.

It’s not like that anymore. And I haven’t got a clue how I feel about this. Perhaps it’s inevitable, as I accumulate more stuff – mental and physical – I can’t expect it to all fit into a small Ford. No matter how hard I try to throw away the vestiges of the past they resist. I tell myself I’m moving on as well as moving away, but my heart and back are just not as hard as they used to be.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Australia’s The Age newspaper on 5 September 2010. Published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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An ode to Arab love songs

 
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By Khaled Diab

Love is a universal theme in music, but there are good reasons for the Arab world’s preoccupation with romance.

24 August 2010

Love them or loathe them, love songs seem to be written into the DNA of just about every culture. One of the most private and personal of emotions is also, paradoxically, the most public. Although I’m of the conviction that being in love – not to mention making it – is far more pleasurable to hearing about it, I would hazard to say that most of the songs ever sung are about this ever-fascinating subject. Even the alternative forms of music I prefer, though they don’t quite wear their hearts on their sleeves, do deal with love, as well.

Despite the universality of love songs and certain common themes, each culture has its own peculiar way of going about it – and this can say a lot about the nature of the society behind the songs.

Whereas love is a regular theme in modern western music, in Arabic music – both modern and traditional – it often seems to be just about the only theme (with a few exceptions like some Algerian raï music, certain forms of sha’abi music and a new generation of alternative musicians). In addition, while modern Anglo-Saxon music expresses a wide range of forms of love and relationships, and has a tradition of challenging taboos, Arabic pop usually focuses on a safe range of socially acceptable emotions and feelings.

This fixation on love is partly practical, because singing about politics or thorny social issues – or even sexual attraction – can get you banned or land you in serious trouble, as was the case with sha’abi artists like Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Adaweyah.

On another level, the Arab obsession with love in music may reflect the large number of social barriers that keep the sexes apart, as well as the disempowerment and lack of choice many young people feel in their love lives.

The fact that in real life love often plays second fiddle to other considerations – such as social standing, class and familial cohesion – is mirrored in the large preponderance of dramatic (often melodramatic) songs that deal with the torment of romance, the large distances separating lovers, desperate longing, pain, separation, unrequited emotions and dashed hopes.

Arabic songs may often begin with a description of the beauty and inaccessibility of the object of the singer’s desires. The moon is often evoked to express the beauty, mystery and distant other-worldliness of the object of one’s desire, while eyes and eyelashes are weapons of not just seduction but also destruction. While innuendo is rife in Arab love songs, they rarely venture explicitly below the neckline. More bizarrely for the non-Arab, fruit can often be a marker of beauty.

The lyrics often don’t translate well, but here’s a verse I penned in English (along with some others below) to give you a flavour:

Hibiscus cheeks, pomegranate lips
You’re sweeter than any smoothie I’ve sipped
As beautiful and distant as the moon
I howl when you appear like a loon
I am your majnoon

[Chorus]

See me soon

Love, your majnoon

There is said to be a fine line separating pleasure from pain, and many Arabic love songs confirm this theory. In fact, the torture endured – sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, etc – by many Arab crooners is surely the kind of infringement on their human rights that should be referred to the international criminal court.

All day, I dream of you
All night, I scream for you
Your killer eyelashes slash me
Tormented by the smile you flash me

[Chorus]

Aloofness, reserve and remoteness on the part of the singer’s love interest are part of the painful reality of the parallel world of Arab love.

Every day, I send you love letters with my eyes
But your faraway, unlisted face betrays no reply
How about just a short postcard to say hi
Written in your glance as you walk on by

[Chorus]

Far-fetched and even impossible promises are a staple of Arabic lyrics.

Since we can’t afford to rent or buy
Because property prices are sky high
I’ll wrap you safe inside my eyes
And fly you to our castle in the sky

[Chorus]

Seas and oceans also regularly lap against the shores of Arab love songs, partly to express the bottomless depth of emotion the lover allegedly feels and partly to reflect the unseen emotional and societal rocks against which their love boat can crash and sink.

Before I could swim, I dived in your sea
With hindsight, I realise that was stupid of me
But when your swirling currents pulled me down
Why, ya habibi, did you just leave me to drown?

[Chorus]

This raises the question of why Arabic love songs so often navigate such narrow, cliched straits. Part of the reason is the “precautionary principle” that governs so much formulaic mainstream culture, which sees artists wanting to stick to the tried, tired and tested.

Beyond that, the reverence of tradition and “timeless” musical principles – as well as fear of the subversive nature of creativity and youth – remains strong in Arab societies, while in the west innovation and subversiveness elicit far less resistance and, up to a certain extent, have actually become part of the process.

But when all is said and sung, you have to admire the tenacity of Arab love lyrics, or pity their dedication to hopeless causes. Even if the deck is stacked against their impossible love, some refuse to admit defeat and may still harbour, in the devastated haven of their broken hearts, the dream of reunion.

Never again will I invite such pain
But meet me just this once, then – never again!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 20 August 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Polygamy for all

 
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By Khaled Diab

A Saudi journalist is demanding that women be given the right to four husbands. Should equality mean monogamy or polygamy for all?

6 January 2010

They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it does: the roaring rage of injured male pride. This was amply demonstrated in Egypt when a female Saudi journalist had the audacity to apply logic and consistency to challenge an area of traditional male privilege.

In an article provocatively entitled My four husbands and I, Nadine al-Bedair quite sensibly posed the logical question: if Muslim men are entitled to marry up to four wives, why can’t women, in the spirit of equality between believers, have four husbands?

“I have long questioned why it is men have a monopoly on this right. No one has been able to explain to me convincingly why it is I’m deprived of the right to polyandry,” she complains.

The outspoken Saudi then goes on to deconstruct and question the traditional justifications for polygamy, including that, in a traditional patriarchal society, it is a shelter for widows, divorcees and women who can’t find a spouse; that men have greater sexual appetites than women and get easily bored; that women can’t handle more than one man; and that, if women could have multiple husbands, determining paternity would not be possible (an excuse made obsolete by modern science).

“They tell me that I, as a woman, can’t handle more than one man physically. I say that women who cheat on their husbands and the ‘sellers of love’ [ie prostitutes] do much more,” she counters.

Unsurprisingly, the article’s honest tone and irreverence has triggered a furious response from the traditional male establishment. Some Islamic clerics have denounced the article and promised the “blaspheming” author divine retribution, while an Egyptian MP has decided not to wait that long and has already brought a lawsuit against her.

While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair’s call for this kind of equality in the Islamic marriage stakes, some Islamic authorities have defended her by saying that her true purpose was to highlight how badly some women are treated by their husbands, especially those who take on second or third wives, despite Islam’s demand that a man treats all his wives equally.

For her part, al-Bedair ends her article with a call that society either allows polyandry for women or comes up with a new “map of marriage”. One Cairo imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, believes the way to go is to confine polygamy to the scrapheap of history. “In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa,” he opined.

And his view corresponds with that of the Egyptian mainstream. Although Islam permits polygamy, most Egyptians are jealously monogamous, with men who take on more than one wife often mocked or marginalised by the community and the first wife often so full of shame that she requests a divorce. Nevertheless, the question remains: which is fairer and more equitable – monogamy or polygamy for all?

Even in monogamous societies, informal polygamy is a reality. In Europe, for instance, though most people, myself included, are serial monogamists, many men and women have multiple partners or lovers simultaneously, and there is a growing tendency to be open about this. However, the law has not kept up.

“A man can live with two women in Britain perfectly legally, but if he marries them both it’s a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail,” Brian Whitaker observed on CiF. “If a man wants to have more than one wife, or a woman to have more than one husband, and everyone enters into the arrangement openly and voluntarily, what exactly is wrong with that?” he asks.

Of course, traditional models of polygny (and polyandry, in a minority of societies) tend to reflect social inequalities, both between genders, generations and classes. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships not only receive a small fraction of a man, but that some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But there are perhaps more equitable modern models of polygamy and polyandry emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family through which they hope better to fulfil their emotional and physical needs.

Of course, as my wife points out, marriage is becoming, in many ways, obsolete, as fewer and fewer people choose to take that path, and European largely have the freedom to choose the living arrangement that best suits them. But to my mind, it’s a question of principle. For example, gay people don’t need to marry to share a life together, but that should not mean they have no right to.

In my view, if the institution of marriage is to survive, it should not be so limiting and be made flexible enough to enable people to customise it to their unique needs.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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The love laboratory

 
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By Khaled Diab

Can science make us more attractive and appealing? Let’s put it to the test.

December 2008

In the game of love, like in comedy, timing, they say, is everything. And a new study seems to confirm just that. Blokes who have their advances repelled can take solace – or delude themselves – from the possibility that women are most responsive to corny chat-up lines at the most fertile period in their menstrual cycle and least so during their period.

 Given the hormonal imbalances, headaches and pain many women feel during menstruation, this is hardly an earth-shattering discovery. In fact, it raises the question: what exactly is the use of this particular study?

 It’s not much use to single men, unless some nifty gadget which discreetly gauges the menstrual cycle I’m unaware of has come on the market. And I very much doubt that “If you’ve got the right time of month, I’ve got the place” will catch on as a chat-up line. Stumped for any other explanation, my wife speculated that the only use of the study would be to help jealous boyfriends and husbands plan their agenda.

 Of course, scientific inquiry is a valiant pursuit in its own right, yet I can’t help thinking that humanity has more pressing and important questions that need answering. So, in a modest attempt to make sure that all this relationship research does not go to waste, here is a brief empirical guide to courting.

 As we are constantly told, first impressions count. Depressingly, according to one study, most people don’t even give each other the benefit of an exchange of words and form enduring impressions in a matter of milliseconds. Looked at romantically, though, it could be evidence of “love at first sight”.

 If, like me, you are someone who needs time before people appreciate your finer points, what can you do to make the right first impression? Don’t despair, science is there with some suggestions.

 If you want someone to find you attractive on the first encounter or date, a good scientifically sound strategy is to look them straight in the eyes and smile. Preferably, make sure your eyes are smiling, too.

 Oh, and don’t forget to turn up the smile slowly to enable the onlooker to bask in your warmth – a “long-onset smile”, as it is known in the literature – while tilting your head slightly. While you’re doing this, cross your fingers that you don’t come across as a weirdo with neck ache.

 The supremely confident – or arrogant – should be warned that, even if their interlocutor reciprocates, this may not necessarily be a “come on”. One group of researchers has found that some women chat happily and flirt, even if they have absolutely no interest in the man – which is bound to make the bashful and proud even more tongue-tied.

 So, how can you tell if someone finds you attractive?

 Research suggests that people tend to choose partners who look like their opposite sex parents. To my mind, this is not only troublingly Oedipal, I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to anyone who looks like a family member.

 More worryingly still, many seem to be drawn to partners who look like them – so much for “opposites attract”. In fact, there is even evidence that a surprising number of people are highly attracted to opposite sex images of themselves.

 So, the self-centred among us can kill two birds with a single stone: increase their chances of finding a partner by seeking out someone who bears a resemblance to them and indulge their narcissistic impulses.

 Of course, some people are fortunate enough to be widely regarded as attractive because they have the right facial and physical proportions. But old macho ideals are on the way out. In fact, most women, one study suggests, find a more “feminine” face alluring in men. This is good news for metrosexuals and might explain why many women are so drawn to the boyish good-looks of Johnny Depp. And for those who aren’t endowed with a baby face, it might be time to invest in that “guyliner” and “manscara”.

 But you don’t have to be one of the beautiful people with a perfect figure to find romance or get laid. In fact, the best way to a man’s heart for women who do not fit the emaciated size zero is not through his stomach, but it is to make sure he doesn’t get enough food! Hunger, it seems, makes some men want to feast on their date.

 Besides, there are people out there, including good-looking ones, who prefer brains over beauty. The scientific evidence suggests that choosing intelligence is more common among women than men. Then again, other research points to the fact that there are plenty of women who go for looks.

 A contradiction? Yes and no. Given the sheer diversity, complexity and individuality of human interactions, certain patterns are bound to hold true in certain circumstances, but the exceptions will at times outnumber the “rule”. So, the best strategy is to throw away the science books and embark on your own unique experiments in the laboratory of love.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 December 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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