Our Own Undoing

Being the anxious person I am, I read lots of blogs and articles on travel in Morocco before embarking on my study abroad trip to the marvelous North African nation. I was aware that there are more risks for women when it comes to traveling (not just in Morocco, but everywhere, and not just in  travel but in most things, as is the unfortunate state of our world). However, in the articles I read written by Western women about their experiences in Morocco, all of them said, hands down, their least favorite part about their travels was the Moroccan men. After two weeks of being here, I found myself quickly agreeing.

Everyone stares, men, women, and children alike, because we are so foreign looking, so unusual. There is a distinction, though, between gawking at someone as they pass you on the street because they are foreign and gawking at someone because they are a foreign woman. I know that many of the men who stare as my friends and I pass are not doing so because they are interested in our unusual clothes or are curious about what our lives are like in a far away country so different from their own; they are interested in our bodies. The incessant catcalls in English, Arabic, and French, the blare of their car horns or the flash of their headlights is not flattering in the least; it is simply offensive, as though being an American woman implies that I am easy and naive and will gladly hand over my body to anyone who shows me the slightest hint of attention or interest.

When I first arrived in Morocco, the scrutiny was comical. I had expected it after reading the travel blogs and responded to it in the best way possible: I ignored it completely. But now, as I am approaching my fourth week here, I find it harder and harder to ignore as the anger boils up inside me at this blatant disregard for my dignity and my worth as a person rather than a sex object. I know these men would be furious if someone treated their mothers or sisters the way they treat me, so why do they continue to do it? Do I deserve any less respect coming from America? Am I any less of a human?

Morocco is a very patriarchal society; I see 2-3 times as many men on the streets out and about at a given time than I do women, and my language partner, a female Moroccan university student, told me that the “men problem” is not limited to their interactions with foreign women. It is an issue even native women face on a daily basis. Clearly, there is a deep rooted cultural division between the US and Morocco that can explain the disparity between the sexes. However, I am not educated enough on the culture to be making assumptions about the specific origins of Moroccan misogyny with one exception.

Without a doubt, I can say that the US and our treatment of our own women contributes immensely to the male attitude towards American women in Morocco and in dozens of other countries, as well. In this highly globalize world we live in, American culture proliferates every corner of the Earth mostly in the form of pop culture such as movies, advertisements, celebrity gossip, music, and porn. Foreign men see these things, see how the media so effortlessly strips our women of their humanity until all that remains is their physical existence, and assume that all American women are the same, having never had a genuine interaction with one before. Can we really blame foreign men for the treatment of our women when we are the ones who taught them that such behavior is acceptable and even rewardable?

We are our own undoing. The US can not expect to solve problems in other countries, be it sexism, terrorism, racism, etc., when our own country and our own people refuse to stop playing the part of the creator. Before we fix others, we need to fix ourselves.

The Necessity of Dialect Education

Tucked among cascading dunes of ancient sand and rolling blue mountains to the northwest, Meknes is a lively city in the Kingdom of Morocco with meandering roads, a rich history, and curious, kind people. Drivers weave in and out of one another like a type of perfectly choreographed, death defying dance, and stoplights, lane markers, and seat belts are merely recommendations but nothing more. In the Old City, a maze of tall adobe buildings that once served as palaces to the wealthy appear to touch the belly of the bright sky above and carve it up into angular pieces to create one massive jigsaw. Dirty children play soccer in the alleys and feral cats stare at you from the shadows of concrete stoops as you pass with wild, flea-bitten eyes. The entire city is painted over with an earthen tint of natural beiges, deep reds, and bright whites. From an outsider’s perspective, everything seems to be breathing together in unison, from children’s footsteps pounding on cobblestone, to the incessant conversation of traffic outside my window, to the thick scent of tangy spices filling the chaotic souks.

Despite the steady cohesiveness of Meknes, I find myself feeling frustrated that I can’t assimilate with the one rhythmic thread of the city that I expected to: the language. I have studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) for six years now, and so you can imagine my shock when I realized that it is next to impossible to communicate with my host mom and dad who only speak Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic that is a medley of Arabic, French and a little bit of Spanish. Needless to say, I feel as though I am missing out on an integral part of my study abroad experience.

There is currently a heated debate in the Arabic teaching world about whether American students, and those learning Arabic in other non-Arab countries as well, should be taught dialects – how people speak in every day life and vary from country to country – or MSA which is what the news, government, and schools are conducted in. The prevailing belief is that foreign students such as myself should be educated in MSA because it is the official version and allows for an easier time learning a dialect, and even though no one speaks MSA on a daily basis and it can be equated to an English speaker talking as though he or she is from the 18th century, everyone knows it and will understand you regardless. From my experience here in Morocco so far, the latter is glaringly false.

Now of course, my situation in which my host parents do not speak MSA even though they appear to be wealthy and well educated could be a rare one. I don’t have any other experiences to compare it to. However, before coming here, I never put much thought into the MSA versus dialect debate. Now, though, it is apparent to me that if American universities want to cultivate an authentic and holistic education in the Arabic language for their students, there must be a much heavier focus on the dialects.

 

Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Migration Crisis

In April, the College of International Studies hosted two separate events concerning the migration crisis. The first one focused on the Syrian issue specifically, and I was unfortunately not able to attend because of my work schedule. The second one titled “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Migration Approach” took a much more holistic approach, but I thought I would have to miss that one, as well, because it was taking place at the same time as one of my classes. By some stroke of luck, though, that class was cancelled for the day, and I am so glad I got to attend.

The panel featured four professors from various disciplines within the University. I expecting to hear about what is most commonly expressed on major news outlets about the migration crisis concerning Europe and the millions fleeing the Middle East. However, the panel of professors each addressed more narrow topics concerning perspectives that are less prevalent in the typical migration crisis dialogue.

For instance, Jill Irvine discussed how women to native to Europe are being used as leverage to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. The recent New Year’s Eve Cologne attacks in Germany which became infamous worldwide because of the alleged mass assault of an estimated 1000 women prompted many men to protest the presence of Middle Eastern immigrants whom they believe have few qualms about harassing and attacking women. However, Dr. Irvine never said whether or not there was solid evidence that these attacks were carried out specifically by male immigrants from the Middle East. Since these event transpired, anti-immigration has exploded into a popular political platform in many European countries, especially among the young people.

Daniel Mains directed the audience’s attention to political refugees fleeing the small African nation of Eritrea and settling in Italy. The Eritrean government recently enacted a law of mandatory military conscription for all eligible citizens with the purpose of protecting the Eritrean borders from disputes with Ethiopia, and while the length of service is stipulated to be six months, many find themselves constrained to the military without pay for years. People are beginning to question whether or not this is a violation of human rights, and if so, the issue needs more global attention, specifically from the UN. Dr. Mains also posed the question as to why we distinguish between political and economic refugees, an issue that has had a large role in the Eritrean migration.

Mitchell Smith analyzed the recent, inflammatory EU decision to “end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU” in his brief presentation which he titled “An Existential Crisis for the European Union?” The EU stated that the driving force behind the decision is to terminate smugglers’ “business models” and to discourage the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, but the hypocrisy of this arrangement, seeing that the EU’s purpose is to protect human rights, was clear to Dr. Smith and many others. By denying people to enter into Europe who are seeking asylum or deporting them to immigration camps in Turkey, the EU and Turkey risk infractions on international law.

All of the panelists presented a unique perspective on the migration crisis, seeking to educate their audience about aspects of the issue that are not normally discussed by the media or that are difficult to talk about. I think it is important for people to be exposed to these less popular events transpiring in the world so we can approach life with a truly whole global perspective.

 

The UN at 70

In honor of the United Nation’s seventieth birthday, the College of International Studies hosted a series of three lectures that focused on some aspect of the UN. I attended one presented by Mutuma Ruteetre, a Special Rapporteur for the UN. While the title of the event entailed a discussion on racism, xenophobia, and racial intolerance, he allotted most of his time to the general topic of human rights, which I enjoyed much more. I believe his central point was to educate the audience on the duties of Special Rapporteurs, specifically those working with the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Even though I am a member of Model UN here at OU, I never knew the extent of the rapporteur’s role in the body as a whole. As part of the “rapporteur mechanism,” Mr. Ruteetre addresses the complexity of human rights by taking biannual trips to various countries to evaluate the status of human rights in that nation. He finds facts through interviews with the civilian population and can act as a voice for victims of human rights violations. The rapporteur mechanism guides states with human rights abuses down a proper path of implementing a restructured human rights system. However, Mr. Ruteetre expressed that this is the weakest area of the UN. Politics, bureaucracy, and a lack of resources marks the Special Rapporteurs’ daunting task of doing very much with very little.

Special Rapporteurs must be invited into the country they are examining which makes it difficult to fully address a nation with severe human rights violations if the government does not wish to have the UN within its borders, scrutinizing their methods and making global statements about what they find. Without the rapporteurs’ presence, victims of human rights abuses in these countries have a smaller chance of getting their voice heard and changing the way their country functions. Those in power have the ability to grant or refuse entry to an important, global body such as the UN, while those in a lower position in society must simply follow the government’s decision. They may never have an opportunity to shed light on violations in their country because those in power decide whose voice is heard and whose is not. Even an institute as influential as the UN may not be able to mitigate the power and inequality dynamic.

The world is becoming more globalized with every passing day, but growing right along side that is power and inequality, an occurrence that can manifest in the form of human rights abuses, among other things. Though the UN lacks necessary resources to expunge all malevolence from this world, it can cultivate aid through individuals who align themselves with its cause. I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Ruteetre’s presentation; not only was it educational, but also inspiring. Working as a Special Rapporteur in the capacity that Mr. Ruteetre does sounds like an amazing career path that I will keep in mind for the future.

Global Engagement Day

I attended my first Global Engagement Day (or as the College of International Studies prefers to cumbersomely call it, Global Awareness Student Symposium) on April 5th. There were various discussions one could attend throughout the day, but the one that grabbed my interest most was titled, “IAS Student Panel: Political and Environmental Issues in the MENA Region.”

This was the best of both worlds for me, it seemed; I have always been interested in the Middle East and as a result, am pursing a minor in Arabic and possible Middle Eastern Studies, as well. I am also very passionate about the environment and even considered switching majors to Environmental Sustainability for a time during this semester. That being said, environmental issues in the MENA region had never really crossed my mind before. I speculate the reason for this to be because I have been conditioned to really only think about environmental threats in terms of the big players meaning the US, China, and Europe. This reflects how inadequate the US’s public education system is (and more broadly, the mindset it invokes in all of its citizens since I didn’t even attend a public school) in terms of informing its young people about current global issues, specifically the environment-

I will cut myself off on that note because I can feel a rant coming, and that is not the point of this blog entry (but maybe another time for anyone willing to suffer through that). Now back to the topic at hand: the IAS panel.

Three upperclassmen presented to us their in-depth findings on various topics that related to the title of the panel. One presentation discussed why the Tunisia Revolution towards a democracy in 2011 was successful and compared it to the failure in Egypt. When the Arab spring was occurring, I was in late middle school and early high school, and none of my classes really talked about what was going on. Now that things are quieting down, and people are able to look at what happened in retrospect, it is a fascinating topic, and I’d love to learn more about Tunisia specifically.

A second presentation discussed “conflicting narratives” in the Israel-Palestine strife. While most of the things she discussed I was already aware of thanks to one of the classes I am taking this semester, I still found her delivery of the topic and her passion for it compelling.

The final presentation was about how mismanagement of solid waste affects people living in Moroccan slums. From her research, she found that the government was preforming inadequately its duty to its citizens to remove waste and such actions further contributed to poverty in the slum areas.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the presentations and how they made me contemplate things that had never crossed my mind before. I hope to encounter more topics concerning the environment in the MENA region, and maybe I can even do research of my own on it one day.

I would have liked to see some more effort to get everyone on campus involved in Global Engagement Day with activities on the South Oval, but overall, it was a success. I look forward to attending next year, and hopefully one day I will present my findings to a classroom of eager learners.

State Department Internships

On a rainy day in late February, Diplomat in Residence at OU, Rob Andrew, hosted at State Department internship information session. For about ten years, he traveled to embassies in Sweden, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Russia as an employee of the State Department and has numerous interesting and exciting stories to recount to anyone interested in life abroad.

With broad shoulders and a hard mouth, Mr. Andrew was intimidating at first, but he delivered an clear and concise presentation that inspired everyone in the room to explore further the opportunities the State Department offers.

Three of the internships Mr. Andrew shared with us grabbed my attention. The first one is a virtual internship, and while I wouldn’t get to travel anywhere beyond my laptop, I would also not have to to take a semester off from school as some of the other internships require. The second is the most common student internship the State Department offers. It is unpaid and occurs during the fall or spring semesters, or in the summer. This internship takes place at your choosing of one of many cities throughout the world, and while I would not be able to attend school at the time, I would receive the study abroad credit required by the Global Engagement Fellowship and would gain invaluable experience working in an embassy at such a young age. The third internship opportunity I found myself interested in during the presentation was very similar to the second one I mentioned except it is paid. Sounds like a dream come true for any globetrotter right? Right. Except this internship specifically targets diverse and minority groups whether that is in the sense of socioeconomic background, racial background, gender, ability, and many other aspects I am forgetting to name. I consider myself fairly privileged so while I will apply, I believe I have the smallest chance of being awarded this specific internship out of the three.

What I got most out of Mr. Andrew’s presentation was that there are many unique methods for study abroad I had never considered before. While the traditional path of attending an educational institute abroad is a great option (and the one that I will most likely pursue), there are other ways that I will be sure to consult my study abroad advisor on. The purpose of study abroad, in my opinion, is to discover a new culture and a new perspective on life, and if that is accomplished, whether through working, volunteering, or studying beyond the borders of your home country, then you have achieved your goal.

Moroccan Dialect Club

For my second international group, I chose to join the Moroccan Dialect Club. I was already studying Egyptian Arabic in a class, and since I had a firm foundation in Modern Standard Arabic, I figured it was time to open myself up to the world of Arab dialects which is what is spoken amongst the populous in every day life.

I had a late start to joining the club because I didn’t hear about it until mid-semester, but everyone was very welcoming, and I was surrounded by flagship students, all of whom were very proficient in the formal aspect of the language. In addition to the hour of in class instruction, our professor provided us with handouts and a link to an online resource for learning the Moroccan dialect. Despite all of that, I found the Moroccan dialect nearly impenetrable. The Egyptian dialect is relatively similar to MSA, but I had a difficult time drawing a correlation between Moroccan and MSA or Moroccan and Egyptian. I had always heard Moroccan was one of the hardest dialects to learn because of its odd letter combinations peppered with French influences, and I found that rumor to be true.

This upcoming semester, I hope to revisit the club to take another stab at the language. If I still find myself struggling, in the very least I know that after the summer is over, I will be well versed in the dialect after the month I hope to spend in Morocco.

Syria and the Middle East

On October 6th, I attended a lecture in the Honors College hosted by Dr. Joshua Landis concerning Syria, ISIS, and the Middle East. Dr. Landis is the head of the Department for Middle Eastern Studies here at OU, and is often invited to speak on the Middle East which is his area of expertise for news outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and PBS.

The landscape of the Middle East shifts and fluctuates constantly. MSNBC may have a feature at 9:00 PM about the success of a Kurdish stronghold in the north, and by that same time the next day, the story could be completely different. The amazing thing about Dr. Landis is that he is one of the sources news outlets turn to in order to bring to their viewers the most up to date information due to his reputation as one of the nation’s leading experts in the Middle East.

He delivered a riveting and deeply informational lecture on Syria’s relationship and role with ISIS. He talked about the various factions that currently compose the Syrian demographic such as the Alawites, Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis which is the religious subcategory most members of ISIS identify with. Dr. Landis dissected the relationships between the four aforementioned groups and compared the situation in Syria to similar occurrences in Europe that we as Westerners may be more familiar with. For me, I wasn’t necessarily more familiar with the European conflicts he identified, but it was incredible to see these threads and similarities drawn across cultures and decades that I would have never otherwise thought of.

Dr. Landis has so much knowledge to share that is much more unique and possibly more unbiased than what one might observe through a major news outlet. After attending his lecture, I felt a desire to become a person in the future who possesses such a level of expertise that Dr. Landis has for the Middle East. Not only did I learn about current events in his lecture; I also discovered an inspiration and motivation that I hope will stay with me for years to come.

The Yacoubian Building

I recently watched The Yacoubian Building for an assignment in my colloquial Arabic class. The movie, released in 2006, is based off a book by the same name, and both gained immense fame in Egypt where they take place. The explanation for their popularity becomes quite apparent upon watching the movie (as well as reading the book, I’d assume).

Guided by the prose of the author, Marwan Hamed weaves together multiple narratives to create a jarring yet powerful vignette about the modern strife that grips Egypt with a nefarious fist. At the heart of the movie’s criticisms is Egypt’s ruthless social hierarchy which leads to the exploration of a whole host of other problems such as religious extremism, government corruption, and female subordination.

I believe the movie was so popular in Egypt because of its audacity and unapologetic candor directed at topics that had originally been muzzled by people in power for years. However for me, as someone who has never spent any time in that region of the world and whose only knowledge about the area comes from American media and Arabic language classes, The Yacoubian Building served as a tool of cultural edification. For the first time, I witnessed an open dialogue about homosexuality in Middle Eastern culture. The movie also exposes the progressive state concerning gender equality in Egypt as a thinly veiled facade halfheartedly attempting to extricate itself from archaic gender roles; women in Egypt tend to dress more contemporarily than many of their counterparts in the Muslim world, which is proven to be a simple illusion of progressivism as they are commanded to preserve their virginity until marriage while allowing their male supervisors to sexually assault them at work so they may maintain their income and support their families. I observed the existence of painful ironies such as young, intelligent men turning to religious extremism with few other options because they are denied, based on their fathers’ social statuses, access to resources that will help them become worthy additions to society.

Watching this authentic Middle Eastern film gave me more knowledge concerning the societal adversities that riddle the Egyptian citizenry and government alike than any MSNBC broadcast or Arabic textbook ever could. However, if there is anything I learned from watching the movie, it is that knowledge rarely equates to an advantage in a corrupt society.

The Peace Corps

Several years ago, I stumbled across the idea of joining the Peace Corps after obtaining my undergraduate degree. I knew that I could get some kind of financial relief from the cost of a Master’s degree if I worked for the Peace Corps, all while traveling to a remote region of the world and assisting a community towards a better quality of life. However, I never did much research into the organization beyond the initial visit to their website which is why I thought it a good idea to attend the Peace Corps Career Workshop on September 21st.

The workshop speaker had nothing but wonderful things to say about his experience in Moldova working for the Peace Corps’s Economic Development sector. The vivid pictures of beaming children, breathtaking natural landscape, and a foreign culture’s personal tapestry beckoned me towards a new, unforgettable international adventure with the Peace Corps. However, two little words were – and continue – holding me back from completely committing myself to the program: two years.

The length of service the Peace Corps requires is two years. Of course, they allot their volunteers with vacations days (which our speaker encouraged us to use for exploring outside of our stationed region), but I remain hesitant. I cannot imagine being away from my family, away from my way of life for such an unimaginably long time. It is not as if I get offered a job on the opposite coast of the country from my home and move away; at least then, I will be able to see my family during holidays and keep up with friends via social media. Compared to continents separating us, several thousand miles seems like a grain of sand on the beach.

Right now at the age of 18, two years seems like a time period that will unfurl into the ambiguous future without end. I have only been away from my family for a month so far, but over the course of the next four years before I need to make up my mind, I will probably grow accustomed to being on my own, and maybe even welcome an adventure such as this.