Masked Faces by Shurooq Amin, Kuwait

Shurooq Amin is a Kuwaiti artistpoet, and professor at Kuwait University. In two recent art exhibitions, “It’s a Man’s World” and “Society Girls,” Amin has explored themes of gender, identity, duality, religion, and hypocrisy in Middle Eastern and Arab societies.  Her colorful mixed-media tableaux depict Kuwaitis in trendy clothes lounging, smoking hookah, and playing cards, their faces all eerily erased.

Common scene.

Graffiti in Egypt / Women on Wall

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Graffiti culture is an urban, male-dominant sphere. Most popular graffiti work has been associated with New York City, where from the 1970s, youth-dominant “hip-hop graffiti” emerged as a means of “ghetto expression” of urban culture (and urban decay). Graffiti continues to be a means of “doing art” with explicit knowledge of its legal precautions, a.k.a. it’s now allowed. That is probably what makes graffiti a popular form of expression– you are not supposed to spray paint public and private properties with images that denounces social norms, or things we are uncomfortable about.

It is not wonder that some of the best graffiti art work has been associated with revolutions (e.g. Berlin Wall).

With the uprisings that continue to take place in North Africa and the Middle East, the graffiti scene has been of particular interest to me because 1) they are quite beautiful and 2) a lof of them are being taken up by young women. I first observed the work online more from an artistic point of view; I have always been fascinated by female artists from the Arab region because inevitably, politics and their ownership of their bodies are always tried to it. Here, it is without saying that the graffiti work by Egypt’s young female artists are, is, and will be political.

Mostly, what draws my attention to Cairo and Alexandria is the fact that these are young women expressing their work in a male dominant sphere, challenging the notion of femininity and what it means to be a woman in society, at large.

Graffiti has always been a male dominant area. New York City’s subway stations carry some of the best work, most, if not all, completed by young men. It is without saying that even in America, men are the artists who get to carry the spray pain and dictate what goes on those abandoned walls. It is not a East-West, North-South thing.

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Egypt, like many of its neighbors, is a region where female expression has been indirectly silenced. Of course, women have been a big part of the revolution. Their voices continue to matter and they are not being directly silenced (as they are in the Gulf regions, for example). In an area that has historically and repeatedly limited the development of female expression, combined with a very strong patriarchal culture embedded along all social lines, the work of anonymous female Egyptian artists in Cairo’s walls are invaluable.

It’s public. It’s contemporary. It’s words/things we still don’t like to throw around. It’s maybe even a way for Egyptian women to take agency of their bodies and their place in heated politics. It’s political.

Please check out Women on Wall, an artistic campaign and collaboration  that took place in Luxor, Mansoura, Cairo and Alexandria to use graffiti art to express the female agency and empowerment. (womenonwall.com).

Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3

The route I traveled- September 1-2, 2010

Phoenix to D.C.: September 1st, United Airlines

Only a little more than a third of my flight was full, which was good news for me as the extra seat of space allowed for a great in-and-out sleep for 4 hours. One of our flight attendants was forgivingly hilarious, making  jokes about everything from the “blas” we had to turn off, about knowing that we get bored of watching emergency landing videos but it’s on, to talking about leaving the Arizona heat, finally. I mention this because I am going to miss the friendly attitude commonly and stereotypically associated with Americans.

Washington D.C. : 3 hour layover

My craving for sushi (who knows when I will have some again) led me to drag myself from terminal C to terminal A and endure a 20 minute wait for shrimp tempura roll, salmon roll, and unagi roll all to myself. I also spent most of it talking on the phone with friends who are convinced that I am disappearing from the face of the earth. I had to run back to my gate just before boarding to see my flight to Bahrain with United Airlines of a crowd I have never seen in any of my flights to the Middle East before: mostly men in the American army, some dressed in their jumpsuits, others in regular clothes, some calling their loved ones and joking about the next several months. I was wondering where all the women went…it was quite a scene and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it all.

Washington D.C. to Bahrain, with a stop in Kuwait: 14 hours.

I was not looking forward to the next 14 hours with United Airlines because in general, I do  not like airlines of the American brand. I have way too many personal anecdotes to share (no food, uncomfortable chairs, making us pay for checked baggages, no pillows, no entertainment, paying for everything and headphones, etc. as a result of recent economic terms). I am definitely a airlines-from-the-Gulf snob.

However, this time I was surprised to see that I had a pillow, a blanket, even my own television (wow, United?) and food! Honestly, what a surprise. The guy at the check-in even let me pass with a half a pound overweight luggage (last time my luggage was overweight by half a pound, the woman at American Airlines wanted to charge me $95).

Most interesting was my neighbor, Mr. X, I will name him. He is about a foot taller than me, muscular with tattoos in his arms, shaved head, tight black t-shirt, and one light carry-on, and gold rings with the seal of institutions I wanted to uncover but knew I would look creepy. After two shots of vodka though he started talking to me and I found out that I was right- most of the people in this place were from the army and related military personnel. Mr. X told me that they were all getting off at Kuwait and taking flights into Iraq. He just came off of a thirty-day vacation and going to Iraq again for seven months. I kept blatantly asking questions, which he happily answered except when I asked his opinions about the current foreign policy, which he basically after many words said that he could not say and had no opinions (right…) and he has to follow whoever is the commander. He laughingly asked me if this was the first time I has such a crowd around me and I said yes, and he told me, don’t worry, you are in the safest hands, the plane is full of guns and snipers and weapons in the cargo. Great. United Airlines apparently has a contract with the federal government to transport military members. Maybe that’s why the service was so good the 11 hours to Kuwait.

Mr. X spent the rest of the time covered in his black hoodie, refusing to use the blanket, and watching no television, passing in and out. I meanwhile used all my pillows and blankets, watched Letters of Juliet (not that great), missed a meal because I was fast asleep seven hours later, and read the latest Time magazine about Kanye West and his year in the industry.

Continue reading “Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3”

Over a week in Saud Arabia…Marina Mall, Shoes, Pizza Hut.

Visiting Saudi Arabia always makes me want to look for trouble because of the pure controversial nature of the country, and the contradiction that I have to face everyday. But every time I come here I realize how much it has changed, aka became liberalized. Going through immigration for me in KSA is much easier than other places, because they have everything in record and they see that I have been here seven times in three years and my dad works here. The guy at the boot just looked at me, my passport, made a comment about the amount of pages I have to make me laugh (I just got bunch of pages added to my passport because I ran out of visa pages due primarily to KSA’s entry and exit visas) and let me go without ever looking at my immigration card I had to fill out, and gave me a nice smile. Yes, you can get a smile from the opposite gender a single woman in this country.

Jubail looks as beautiful as I left it in June. Average temperature of 75 degrees, beautiful beaches, summer shwarma stands still open, and soccer games being played late at night, still. It is nice to watch international cabel, like BBC World, Al Jazeera, cricket channels, MTV Arabia, and all the Lebanese music channels and Italian fashion shows. Clearly I do not get out much.

Yesterday me and my family went to Dammam, first to Marina Mall, and then to the city to look at some gold stores. The mall like other Saudi Malls had an indoor amusement park, restaurants, prayer rooms, and lots of couples pretending to be siblings so as not to get caught. At Marina Mall, I found nothing interesting except avoiding men who freely smoked inside, trying not to get mad at rude salesclerks after refusing to buy their knock off Gucci heels, and avoiding religious police. The shoes are quite amazing, I will say, and there were so many that Lady Gaga would have much appreciated (five inch wedges made out of white lace all over, and a hot pink four incher with rhinestones on the heels and gold spikes). And Saudi women DO actually buy them. I almost bought suede grey booties covered in metal belts and random zippers but then walked in them and realized they would only enjoy the interior of my closet if purchased.

At the gold stores, I had to step out of the store with my sister because the smell of incense was a bit much. Outside, people do look since there we are, two girls, by ourselves, without headscarves, minding out own business. These two boys, probably 13 years old walked by and I guess I was not in the mood and yelled at them to stop staring. Response: “You shut up”. My sister: “Asshole”. Them: “Arabic gibberish”. I don’t think they knew any other English. They may have attempted to use the F word. I am not sure. But we sure did stop getting snickers after that. Seriously, if more women just simply yelled at these men in the middle of the street there would not be such a problem with street harassment. I learned this in Morocco where I was taught that all you need is to embarrass these men in front of people, because that is exactly what they do not expect.

We also went to eat dinner at Pizza Hut last night, which in Saudi Arabia is a big deal. Like most American chain fast food places outside of America, they are fancy, huge, usually two stories high, and have real menus and cleanly dressed waiters. This one had glass doors separating the “single section” and “family section”, and had a play station room for kids. We had a booth with our own divisions so it was like our own little room. And the food included these amazing pasta and halal pepperoni and yellow cheese because they have not caught up to the U.S. in using artificial flavor and products. Needless to say it was delicious. Reminded me to when I was in Delhi two summers ago and me and another intern went to Pizza Hut because we were tired of vegetarian food and ordered the meat lovers pizza that had every kind of spiced chicken and mutton possible. Ah, love.

Burj Khalifa, the World’s Tallest Builsing Opens in Dubhai

With its mix of nightclubs, mosques, luxury suites and boardrooms, the Burj is an almost-perfect representation of Dubai’s own complexities and contradictions. It will boast the world’s first Armani hotel; the world’s highest swimming pool, on the 76th floor; the highest observation deck on the 124th floor; and the highest mosque on the 158th floor.

More than 12,000 people will occupy its 6 million square feet, zooming up and down in the 54 elevators that can hit speeds of 65 kilometers, or 40 miles, an hour. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago.

“Dubai not only has the world’s tallest building, but has also made what looks like the most expensive naming rights deal in history,” said Jim Krane, author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. “Renaming the Burj Dubai after Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi — if not an explicit quid pro quo — is a down-payment on Dubai’s gratitude for its neighbor’s $10 billion bailout last month.”

to read more click here

Incentive for Saudi men to get married: give up smoking

Here is something interesting I read on the Associated Press-

Saudi Arabia’s new anti-smoking campaign is a contest where if you prove that you have quit smoking, all of the expenses of your wedding will be paid.

It is a known fact around the Middle East that getting married is arguably one of the most stressful aspects of a young man’s life, as the culture expects them to fund all of the wedding from costs to having a furnished home and support system for their partner. It has led to the average age of men getting married in countries like Jordan and Morocco from early twenties to early thirties or even later. So it is interesting to see that Saudi Arabia, the region’s most conservative country and one of the richest as well as populated, is now offering a new incentive for its single bachelors- quit smoking, and they will pay for your wedding.

Smoking has simply become part of the culture in the Middle East. I have stopped being surprised to see men light up right in the terminal as we get off the plane in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, or in Cairo, Egypt. One of the smells I associate with Cairo is the smell of cigarettes and sheisha, both overwhelmingly popular and cause of unfortunate addiction among Egyptians. So Saudi Arabia’s new proposal and its catch phrase, “kicking the habit is on you, and marriage is on us” is two folded- it is aimed at reducing smokers, and at getting the large number of their single men married.

In the Middle East, the younger generation’s population far outnumbers

An image known around Egypt: The anti-smoking message on every cigarette box.
An image known around Egypt: The anti-smoking message on every cigarette box.

those over the age of fifty and above, which in its own is linked to the unemployment issue as there is more supply of workers than demand. Many, if not most of the men I have met in Cairo as well as in Rabat are single, unemployed, and living off of the family wealth (and these conversations are usually joined with a cigarette, of course). The pressure to ‘succeed’ while facing a downturn economy has been connected to many types of aggravation. It has even been linked to the growing sexual harassment taking place in the streets, with frustration from boredom and employment leading to men trying to press their authority over women.

The new anti-smoking efforts in Saudi Arabia have also been met with criticism. For example, there is the sentiment that this effort reemphasizes the objectification of women in the country. Writers like Maha al-Hujailan complained that the campaign was sexist since it was using women like an object as an alternative for smoking, the recreation.

The new effort is essentially a contest- if you can prove that you have quit smoking, your name will be entered, and there will be a draw in August, with the winner having his wedding paid, and twenty runner ups getting free furniture. According to the Associated Press, hundreds have already called in to express interest. I am curious to see what happens, and also if they are going to monitor the winner after the wedding to see if he goes back to old habits. While I can see where the criticisms are coming from, it really is not as if Saudi Arabia is selling women or saying that a bride will come with the package. Rather, because this campaign is unlike many that have taken place, it has gotten people to talk and discuss the issue, and come to some kind of awareness.

Source:

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iNq_fye1GEY2EDNHM8v7gJhNhS5QD9949RN00