Friday, February 23, 2007

R.I.P. Mai Ghoussoub, 1952-2007

I was devastated when I learned earlier this week of the death of Mai Ghoussoub over the past weekend. I first met Mai in 1971, when we were both undergraduates at the American University of Beirut. We were both involved in left student politics at AUB, and both belonged to an independent left student organization called Our Struggle (Kifahuna) that published a mimeographed magazine by the same name. Mai was also the member of Lebanon's small but active Trotskyist movement at that time.

I lost touch with Mai after I left Beirut in January 1976, during the civil war, but I did hear from mutual friends that she had been wounded in the civil war. I also knew that she had co-founded Saqi Books in London, but although I was in London three times in the '80s, our paths never crossed. It wasn't until April 1999 that I met her again, when we both presented papers at a conference on Middle East Culture at Georgetown University, organized by Walter Armbrust. Since then, we stayed in touch, and I saw her in London in September '02 and July '03. I had a fabulous time with Mai the last time I saw her, when she took me to Momo's and its very exclusive downstairs Kemia bar. She liked to keep me informed about Beirut's cultural revival (I've not been back since January 1976), and it's thanks to her that I know about Beirut's jazz scene and groups like Soap Kills.

Mai was so generous, so creative, so vivacious and smart and fun. She worked very hard to make Saqi Books the first-rate publisher of Middle East (and other) books that it is today. She was a very fine writer--her Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within is one of the best books I've read about Lebanon and the civil war, incredibly moving and lyrical. Mai was also an accomplished sculptor, playwright and actress. Her departure leaves a gaping hole.

Excellent obits/tributes can be found here and here and here.

And some examples of her writing:

"Lebanon: Slices of Life" (Oct. 31, 2006)

"Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award"
(Feb. 13, 2007)

Friday, February 16, 2007

The secret of Brazilian pop music?

From no less an authority than tropicalista giant Tom Zé, speaking to the New York Times (1/26/07) about the traditional folk music of Brazil's Northeast, which he says is the source of the "richness and strength of Brazilian popular music":
Mr. Zé also noted that the music of the Brazilian northeast that came from Portugal was itself a result of cultural mixing, especially from the Arab domination there [Portugal] during the medieval era. The lyrics of some songs in the compilation [Musica Tradicional do Norte e Nordeste 1938] date back to troubadors' tales from that era, but the Arab presence manifested itself mainly in a vocal style characterized by a fondness for bent notes.
"That influence is still there in Brazilian popular music today," he said. "I hear it most clearly and beautifully when Caetano [Veloso] sings. He has developed a sophisticated, intensive way to use these modulations that were quite common in the singers we heard there in the backlands of the northeast."

The compilation referred to is recently released 4-CD set drawn from an archive collected in the northeast by a folklore team in 1938.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hijab couture goes mainstream?

Check out this fashion item from the current London Fashion Week. The caption on Yahoo! News says, "A model wears an outfit by Fashion East designer Louise Golden during her catwalk show at London Fashion Week in London, Monday Feb. 12, 2007. The designers are showing their Autumn/ Winter 2007/8 collections. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)" (Thanks to Chris for bringing this to my attention.)

(Note that Muslim women have been wearing fashionable headgear for some time now--see for instance the items at

Fox News carried a related article on February 6 by Catherine Donaldson entitled "Bye Bye, Hair! Hello, Turban Chic," which I initially discounted but now am inclined to take more seriously. Donaldson reports that designers like Prada, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, and chain stores like H&M are now offering turbans (Donaldson also calls them "full-on headscarves") for women, some as expensive as $700, and that they have been sported by Katie Holmes, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendes and Prince (at Superbowl half-time).

The "turban" hearkens back to '40s, '50s, and '60s fashion, when it was worn by the likes of Joan Crawford and Ava Gardner. Donaldson also notes that, "Some [observers] speculate that turbans are popping up on women because of India's increasing influence on Western pop culture and a growing post-Sept. 11 interest in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East." Sounds like more Orientalist confusion to me, a mash-up of the turban worn by Sikh men and the headscarves of pious Muslim women in Islamic cultures.

And here's a couple more strands noted by Donaldson: "the style has been adopted by hippie chicks on the one hand and women embracing their African roots on the other (think India.Arie and Erykah Badu)."

Fascinating that such style is showing up on London and Paris fashion catwalks (photo at left is a Prada turban at the Paris spring fashion show) when British politicians like Jack Straw, prominent Labor Party politician and Leader of the House of Commons are campaigning against veils worn by British Asian Muslim women. In early October 2006, Straw published a controversial article stating that he asked Muslim women constituents who visited his office for consultations to raise their veil, if they wore a niqab (a full veil with a slit for the eyes) so that he could see their eyes. The veil (i.e. niqab), he wrote, is a "visible statement of separation and difference." Both both PM Tony Blair and his presumed successor, Gordon Brown, chimed in to support Straw. Blair too has stated that the veil is a "mark of separation" and that it has made some "outside the community uncomfortable," while Gordon Brown said it would be "better for Britain" if fewer women wore veils. Brown also asserted that immigrants "should speak the language of English."

I don't read J-Lo, Katie Holmes', and Prada's embrace of the turban as indicating any kind of dissent from Labour politicians Straw, Blair and Brown. Erykah Badu, who comes out of a Nation of Gods and Earths background, is another matter, however. And then there is Cat Power's very intriguing use of hijabs in her video for "Living Proof."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

kufiyaspotting #14: New York Times (citing me)

This article appears tomorrow in the Sunday Times Style section. (I was originally told that it would appear in the Style section the Thursday after next, February 22, but that the editors liked the piece so much they decided to move it up to this Sunday.) It's a good article, and not only because it quotes me :). I'm not sure whether the red kufiya is associated today, in Palestine, with Hamas today, but that may be correct, for all I know. The red kufiya used to indicate either Jordanian or PFLP affiliation. Otherwise, this seems pretty much spot on, except that Rochelle Davis, who is also quoted is a "she," not a "he."

Addendum: Rochelle Davis informs me that the Hamas/red kufiya association is dead wrong. And my stepsister Cynthia notes with regret that the article gives the last word to fashionista Jay Hukahori. But Hukahori is dead wrong too--the kufiya is not "dead," even if its NYC fashion career may be played out.

New York Times, February 11, 2007
"Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics"
By Kibum Kim

THREE months ago, Jay Hukahori, a 24-year-old fashion design student at Parsons, went to a party at Guesthouse, a club in Chelsea, in an outfit topped off by a kaffiyeh, a scarf with a black and white chain-link pattern and knotted tassels that is typically worn in Arab countries.

“I knew that with the doormen, it’d be easily identifiable as a hip accessory,” Ms. Hukahori said.

Once the trademark headwear of Yasir Arafat, and long associated with his Palestinian countrymen, the kaffiyeh has lately shown up on the shelves of adventurous boutiques in the United States and even mainstream retailers like Urban Outfitters.

Its newest wearers, who wrap it around the neck like a scarf, say they are less Fatah sympathizers than fashion party crashers. The kaffiyeh appears to be the dubious successor to last year’s Che Guevara T-shirts, a symbol denuded of any potent political associations by pop culture.

But not everyone finds it so simple a fashion statement. A blogger named Mobius, posting Jan. 16 on Jewschool, a Jewish blog that targets a young audience, blasted Urban Outfitters for selling kaffiyehs. Taking issue with the retailer’s decision to label the item an “anti-war woven scarf,” Mobius posted pictures of terrorists adorned in kaffiyehs.

The same day Urban Outfitters, which had offered the scarves in several color combinations for $20, pulled them from stores. Its Web site posted this explanation: “Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale. We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.” A spokeswoman for the store, which has 95 branches nationwide, declined to comment further.

Hanyi Lee, a graphic designer in New York, who had bought a kaffiyeh at Urban Outfitters and now owns three, didn’t intend anything provocative when she wore hers. “I didn’t think it was anything that heavy,” Ms. Lee said, noting that she takes fashion cues from a variety of cultures.

Ms. Hukahori thought it strange that Urban Outfitters would call the kaffiyeh (pronounced kuh-FEE-yeh) an antiwar scarf.

“That’s so cheap of Urban, a PR gambit,” she said. “But I think it’s great that this controversy will get kids to start learning about it.”

Clearly, many wearers have not considered the kaffiyeh’s political import. “I’m not too up to speed in what’s going on in the Middle East,” said Liz Chernett [pictured below--T.S.], a strategic consultant in branding and a youth trends expert who bought a kaffiyeh from a vendor on St. Mark’s Place three months ago. “It’s an aesthetic thing.”

Perhaps what is most telling about the mainstreaming of the kaffiyeh is what it says about the country’s political mood. The scarf’s popularity seems to have less to do with solidarity with Arabs than it has to do with the war in Iraq. Marketing it as an antiwar statement, as Urban Outfitters attempted, would probably have been even more controversial a few years ago, when the country was more divided about Iraq, said Ted Swedenburg, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, who blogs about pop culture, music and the Middle East.

In Britain, where voters are even more united against the war than Americans, the kaffiyeh’s fashionability has been taken a step farther. TopShop, the high-street juggernaut, is selling kaffiyehs stamped with skull prints, conflating two hot looks of the recent past.

Dr. Swedenburg said he thinks that the exotic element of the scarf becomes more important, and the political aspect less so, as it becomes mainstream. “It’s chic because it’s different,” he said. “It’s Eastern.”

According to Professor Swedenburg and others who have studied the history of the kaffiyeh, it was originally the headwear of Palestinian peasants, worn around the head and fastened in place by a band called an agal. In the insurrection against the British occupation from 1936 to 1939, the kaffiyeh became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism as well as an expression of class struggle. The insurgents forced upper-class Palestinians, who typically wore the Ottoman fez, to don the kaffiyeh to show sympathy with the fighters. The kaffiyeh rose in prominence again in the 1960s when the Palestinian resistance movement started and Arafat famously adopted it. “Above all, it’s important to remember a kaffiyeh is something to wear like a hat, to keep out the cold, keep out the sun,” said Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of culture and society at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

But if an older generation of Arabs still wears it as utilitarian headwear, the younger generation in the Middle East may wear it expressly to show support of the Palestinian cause, and it is also used by militants to disguise their faces. The black and white kaffiyeh is often associated with Fatah; the red and white with Hamas.

Many in the Jewish community, in particular, object to people wearing the scarf as a fashion statement. “Because there are people who wear the kaffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians, some people view it as an endorsement of terrorism,” said Mik Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the Jewish Student Press Service, an independent nonprofit organization.

Dr. Swedenburg doesn’t think it should be viewed this way. “I think to associate it directly with terrorism is to tar all Palestinians with the brush of terrorism,” he said. “That’s a mischaracterization.”

Dr. Davis shares this opinion. “I think it diminishes its meaning and its value to just say ‘it’s been used by terrorists,’ ” he said. “I think it has a much richer history and a much richer meaning system than that.”

For those with a long memory, the current kaffiyeh craze may seem familiar. The scarves became a fashion statement in the United States at the start of the first intifada in 1987. In 1988, CBS News and Time magazine chronicled the trend. In a 1992 Michigan Quarterly Review article about the kaffiyeh’s modern history, Dr. Swedenburg wrote about how a “sign of Palestinian struggle suddenly appeared in the ensembles of ‘downtown’ U.S.A., together with black turtlenecks, ripped Levi’s, high-top sneakers and eight-zippered black leather jackets.”

In its 2007 revival, the kaffiyeh has similar sidekicks. “It’s hipster 101: I need my skinny jeans, some sort of scarf and a beat up T-shirt,” Ms. Hukahori said. “O.K., I’m a hipster now.” [Hukahori is pictured below. The caption under this photo reads, "Jay Hukahori modeling hers. She says she doesn’t wear it anymore because she no longer thinks it’s fashionable."]

Whether the scarf is seen as a political statement is usually in the eye of the beholder. “I think the meaning is given to it as much by the viewer as the wearer,” Dr. Davis said. “I see it and immediately think, ‘Is that person wearing it for a reason or just as a fashion accessory?’ ”

Ms. Chernett has not encountered any reactions to her kaffiyeh in New York but she has in cities like Philadelphia.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments about it, like, ‘Doesn’t that support terrorists?’ ” she said. “ ‘Aren’t you Jewish?’ ” (Ms. Chernett said she is half-Jewish.)

Ms. Hukahori doesn’t have to answer any such questions; she hasn’t worn her kaffiyeh in public in months. It would never make her stand out with a club doorman today, she feels. The kaffiyeh, she said, is “dead.”

Thursday, February 01, 2007

backgrounders on Lebanon

Two excellent articles recently published, Jim Quilty's "Winter of Lebanon's Discontent," from Middle East Report Online, and Mohamad Bazzi's "Blowback in Lebanon," from The Nation. Both discuss the "blowback" effect of Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Iraq on conditions in Lebanon. (Quilty, for the record, is a recovering Razorback.)