5 Reasons People Care More about Paris than Beirut

Cool Beirut by rabiem22

Last week was a flood of bad news online, beginning with the ongoing confusion surrounding the crash of a Russian jet in the Sinai peninsula, and ending with two terrorists attacks.

That’s right: two. One was in Beirut, the other Paris.

Facebook went into overdrive, allowing people in Paris to post that they were ‘safe’ (and I did go and say thank God on each friend’s wall) and then adapt their profile photo to have the red, white, and blue of the French flag superimposed.

No such options for the hundreds of people who were maimed in Beirut.

Remember those off duty American airmen who saved that French train?

Well, no such glory for father Adel Termos who reportedly tackled the bomber to the ground in the market, setting off the vest, saving lives, and sacrificing his and that of his young child.

So the media has a bias. This we know.

What we refuse to acknowledge is our complicity in this bias.

Ratings are everything – even for the 24 hour news cycle. They still run advertisements after all.

We must acknowledge that the bias in the media is the one we give it. The news reports on news that we want to know about.

Here are three reasons why people want to know more about Paris than Beirut.

5. Beirut… the Middle East… guilty by association. Internet trolls may be the only ones expressing this chain of thought out loud while the rest of us kick it away, like a soccer ball, stinging on feet. Because of the religion of the extremists, Muslims and Arabs are judged as being complicit in their own pain. Ask the Syrians drowning while attempting to start over after the civil war,

4. The Olympics of Suffering. If the stats say that 100 people died in one place (Paris) and 200+ people were maimed in another (Beirut) the economy of suffering says that Paris wins this round. As humans we are conditioned to shut out pain so that it doesn’t overwhelm us. In the modern age, with the suffering of the world at our fingertips, we shy away when we need to stay tuned.

3. The attack on Saturday resonated as a continuation of the story of the French (and the French way of life) being under attack. The coverage of the massacre at the magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 started that thread. We care about Paris because we already cared about Paris. That story was told with the subtext of freedom of speech as the unjust provocation for extremists.

2. Paris, like New York, and London, dominates popular culture in the movies, think Forget Paris, and books, of course, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you search in Amazon.com, there are 1,036,380 results for Paris across all the departments. Know how many there are for a similar search of Beirut? Under 10,000. Not kidding. Go try it. PS the French flag and “solidarite” have been the central image in the scrolling items bar at the top since the weekend.

1. People have been to Paris. Or dream to go to Paris. Or plan to visit Paris. How many can say that of Beirut? The ease at which the media forgets about Beirut is equal to the difficulty we have in conceptualizing a place we have not been, thought about, or considered. Beirut exists for most outside the Arab world as a limited rendition of itself, concocted in Hollywood soundstages (love you, Homeland, but you went racial profiling rouge from Season 3). You can’t have empathy for people in a place you can’t imagine.

I have been to Beirut. I’ve felt the pulse of a city that has survived 30 years of civil war and suffered through some of the most entrenched conflict in the world. The Lebanese love to party. They speak Arabic inflected by French rhythms (most of them speak French as well as English). Films like Caramel show you the beauty of Lebanese women. I have sat on the border between Syria and Lebanon waiting three hours in the visa office with an American passport in hand, and a cup of tea in the other.

The lack of compassion for Beirut does not surprise those who live there. This what a friend posted on her Facebook wall:

30 years of war and plus (because the war did not end yet) and Lebanese were suffering from terrorism and the world was somehow indifferent. So why we are expecting from the world now to stand in solidarity with us! During all these years we did not wait for anyone to stand by our side. With so much pain we tried to stand on our feet so many times! Sometimes we failed, and few times we succeeded! But everyday, until now we keep trying! 

I wrote back, asking her to not give up on all of us.

How to Tell if You Might Turn into Rachel Dolezal

Race for Life by Vinoth Chander
Race for Life by Vinoth Chander

Newly arrived to America, from the ethnocentric post-doc community of Canada, was like being thrown in a pile of snow. “Report to the library to talk to the reporter about Martin Luther King Jr.,” my elementary school teacher said. In Palo Alto, CA of the ’80s, being Indian meant non-white. I trudged to the library with two or three other classmates, sweating at the idea someone was going to ask me about a man I had never heard of.  The reporter was frustrated with my monotone answers, gleaned from the text of the children’s picture book we had been posed around for the article’s accompanying photo.

“He went to jail for what he believed in,” I said. The (white male?) reporter’s brow furrowed.

“What else?” He asked.

“Going to jail is hard,” my eight year old self said.

I grew up as the child of immigrant parents in the United States. I was brown. But this identity gave me no footing in the black-white American racial landscape.

My parents, when the piece was published in the local newspaper, chuckled at the photo. When I asked what was funny, they switched topics. This was the beginning of my introduction into an invisible space: that of the model minority Asian, hovering somewhere between the pigments.

“I don’t think of you as black,” my white friends would say in college, as though bestowing a compliment.

“Dot, not feather,” was another popular shortcut.

When I moved to the Middle East in my mid-twenties, I was exchanging a binary for inquisitive. Or so I thought. Despite sharing trade routes with India and many customs I had been raised to think of as Indian: henna, eating with your hands, samosas, Arabs had the perfect place for me: housemaid.

In the minds of strangers, I went from being good at math, possibly a doctor, to knowledgeable about scrubbing toilets and obviously an excellent cook.

Many times during these vacillations I thought about how I was the wrong race. I wasn’t black enough in America to have a shared identity – Indians were few and far between in the suburbs I lived in – and I wasn’t white enough in the Arabian Gulf to merit respect.

The more I started writing, the more I bemoaned this stateless purchase. Western publishers were headlining the works of Anglophone Indian writers of Bengali descent in particular. I was Tamil.

Gulf Arab characters dominated my novels but I wasn’t eligible for any of the competitions because I wasn’t Arab.

Here’s where I differed from Rachel Dolezal: I saw power in being the me that I was. Though it often felt unjust, and belittling, I clung to the me that I was. If I could influence my network, let them taste fish curry, see that the Middle East wasn’t all bombs and blood, then I was doing my part. Most of my life in America had been an incognito mission of raising awareness. In my 30s, as a writer, through fiction, I tackled these major issues head on.

Tim Wise explains, “Allyship involves, at its best, working with people of color, rather than trying to speak for them.”

I learned this lesson the hard way, as Wise says it must be learned, through struggle and disappointment at getting it wrong:

               …the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose  of pain. I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society           around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man. To hell with white allyship (or as my friends and colleagues Lisa Albrecht and Jesse Villalobos are calling it, “followership”), to hell with working with others; rather, she opted to simply become black, to speak for and as those others…

Recently I sat through an entire book club where the members told me that I had gotten Qatari society wrong in Love Comes Later. Prior to arriving to the meeting I had told everyone they could share with me any views, positive or negative. And boy, did they.

“I love Egypt but I would never write about Egypt because I’m not from there,” one earnest speaker said to me.

“If writers only wrote about their own worlds, we would be improvised,” I said.

Make no mistake, if I could say that I was part Arab, my work might benefit. I write about Qataris, and housemaids, and migrant workers, and many of my main characters are male because in exploring their experience we understand more of what it is like to be them. Fiction gives us that elusive power that perhaps Ms. Dolezal was in search of all along: the honest way to shed one identity and assume another.

When we put down the book (or pen), however, we go back to being ourselves and working with our new understanding of those we aim to help.

I am an Indian American writer who has lived in the Arabian Gulf for ten years. And I hope I’m making my corner of the world a better place.

5 Rules for Reading Gender in Arab Pop Fiction

Photo by Kenny Louie
Photo by Kenny Louie

As many of you know, I am a professor of literature and writing. Last week the fall term began with exciting new developments: I am teaching a new course, called Gender in Popular Arab Fiction. I love literature, both reading and writing it, but often am teaching first year composition. The opportunity of developing a writing about reading course is the best of all worlds.

After hearing the course’s title, many mentioned wanting to sit in on the course – which meets at 8:30 a.m. but few (other than those registered) attend. So here’s your chance! This semester we are reading short stories from Beirut 39, as well as Girls of Riyadh, and Finding Nouf. Read along with us. Feel free to test out the elements of literary analysis as well.

If you’ve ever wondered how to analyze fiction, here’s your crash course. Grab any one of these books, write a 100 word post following these directions, and I’ll give you some feedback (if you want it). The most important thing about reading – have fun. Write about an aspect of the text that engages you – or explain why it didn’t.

Use Reader Response Theory

The premise of this strategy stresses you, as the reader, as central to interpreting a work. There’s no fixed meaning of a story – no right or wrong answer. Rather we create our own meaning, filtering the text through our life experiences, feelings, and backgrounds.

In order to write about your response as a reader to a text, try following these “close reading” tips on how to examine the text of the story.

Close Reading Ins/Outs

  1. Pay close attention to the language and structure of the story.
  1. Consider the relationship between the parts of the story that stand out to you (symbol, theme, figurative language, etc.) and the meaning of the whole story.
  1. Discuss specific details and patterns in order to make a generalization about an overall issue, idea, message, or effect.
  1. Look for patterns in the text (or across texts)—repetitions, contradictions, or similarities.
  1. Ask questions about the patterns you’ve noticed—especially how and why. PROVIDE ANSWERS.

Providing answers is the part where we the reader demonstrate our understanding or position on the text.