Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: November 2009 (page 2 of 2)

Innocent Until Proven Muslim

It’s difficult to comment on the events of last Thursday without being suspected of terrorism yourself.  After all, this country’s media (and perhaps its tribunals) run on a premise of “innocent until proven Muslim.”  That said, I offer condolences to the victims of the Fort Hood shootings and wish for swift, fair, and strong punishment against Major Hasan once he has recovered from injuries.  I also, as it should go without saying, condemn Major Hasan’s actions, which are indefensible by any means.

Nevertheless, I find the actions of the media from Thursday onward extremely troubling.  From Fox News’s Shepard Smith’s first question (“The name tells us a lot, does it not, senator?“) to the mainstream media’s drawing at straws for links to Al-Qaeda (see the Telegraph for some of the most egregious examples) to the rabid neocons on Twitter blaming the whole thing on the Muslim community at large, one thing is quite clear to me: anti-Islamic sentiment, not obesity as it is often claimed, is the last acceptable form of discrimination.

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Daryl Cagle’s cartoon, to me, epitomizes the problem with the media.  While those who terrorize in the name of Christianity (George Tiller’s murderer, for example) or Judaism (Baruch Goldstein, or more recently Yaakov Teitel, who is accused of “hate crimes” not terrorism) are not held up as examples of their religions’ more radical sides, every time a Muslim commits a crime, Islam is immediately put on trial.

The mosque in which Major Hasan prayed at happens to be where the 9/11 hijackers prayed.  Nevermind the fact that the Al Hijrah happens to be one of the largest and most influential (not to mention centralized) mosques in the United States, where many Muslims stop through during visits to the area; of course there’s a link, right?  Allegedly Major Hasan yelled “Allah Akbar” before committing his murderous acts.  Of course, that must mean that he was doing it in the name of Islam, right? Nevermind the fact that Muslims say that at least 5 times per day, each time they pray.  Nevermind that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite columnists, had this to say in the Atlantic, in response to Zionist Jeff Goldberg’s extremely weak argument that the media holds Christians to the same standard:

I could be wrong, but I don’t recall a lot of “media elites” trying to divine what Tiller’s death said about Christianity, itself. Again, beyond the fact that some wacko interpreted Christianity to mean he had the right to shoot people, what else would there be to say?

Coates is absolutely spot-on in his assessment.  Hating Muslims is the last acceptable form of racism, apparently.  And have no doubt – in full awareness that Muslims do not constitute a race, it has all the characteristics of racism, just like the anti-Jewish sentiment of the last century did.

I have no doubt that the media will continue its witch hunt against Islam; for in America, you are innocent until proven guilty, unless of course you’re Muslim.

Pregnancy as Provocation

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In 1991, when Demi Moore posed nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, there was significant outrage.  While Moore’s intent was to show the beauty of pregnancy as well as her “anti-glamour” attitude, she also succeeded in angering conservatives across the country and pleasing feminists, who saw it as an act of empowerment.  At the same time, she sparked a trend that continues to this day, with stars like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears emulating Moore’s iconic pose on the covers of magazines.  In the US, the “baby bump” has become almost passé.

This November, 2009, Moroccan television newscaster Nadia Larguet (of 2M) took to the cover of Femmes du Maroc with the same pose, making the statement (as my friend cabalamuse stated), “I am pregnant, I am beautiful, I exist.”  In a country where out-of-wedlock pregnancies are completely taboo (but on the rise), where women still die in childbirth on semi-frequent basis in some rural areas, and where abortion is illegal but not so hard to find, this is quite a statement.

And yet in some ways, Morocco makes being a mother easier.  Working women get more time off than their American counterparts, breastfeeding in public (with a blanket to cover) is normal, and there is an expectation that the extended family will help raise the child.

The article* accompanying the provocative cover dug deep into serious issues: of maternal health, of abortion, of teenage pregnancy.  And it couldn’t have come at a better time; Morocco is in many ways waking up to the realities it now faces: Just this week,  Aicha Ech Channa, Association Solidarité Feminine, an organization that provides services to unmarried women with children, was awarded a $1 million prize by The University of St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation for her work in Morocco.  Ech Channa’s project, though not without its challenges, has been extremely successful; I remember first reading about it in a copy of Glamour my parents sent to me while I was living in Morocco in 2007 (that article is here).

After finally reading the full article inside Femmes du Maroc, I first saw  incongruence between the cover image and the contents of the article; it seemed to me an unnecessary provocation, like including “sex” in a blog post tag simply to get hits (which works, by the by).  But the more I saw it (and it’s been popping up in blogs all over the place), the more it seemed to me a revolutionary stance, just like that of Demi eighteen years ago: “I’m pregnant, I’m beautiful, I exist.”  And even considering local sentiment and sensitivities, which shy away from nudity, public displays of affection, scantily-dressed women, I, like cabalamuse, would like to make the case that this is indeed revolutionary: It is a woman, standing up, unashamed and unafraid, in a country where “television channels are flipped at the mere sight of a man an a woman kissing, where, in neighborhood foodstuff stores, [and] menstrual pads are stuffed in a black plastic bag to conceal them from the embarassed looks of customers.”  It is revolutionary because it is so far out of the realm of what is acceptable, and out of the realm of what is (publicly, anyway) considered beautiful.  And it is, beautiful.

*If anyone would like the full article (in French), I can email a scanned copy.

Orhan Pamuk & What is World Literature?

I had the extreme privilege of attending a lecture today by Orhan Pamuk, as part of a series of Norton Lectures at Harvard (the rest of which I, sadly, missed).  There is something about being in the presence of such greatness which is truly humbling, and at the same time, inspiring, particularly when aforementioned greatness is speaking about the art of the novel.

More specifically, Pamuk’s talk today was on the “center” of a novel, or the novel’s subject or theme, or better still, its focus.  Delving into his own favorite novelists, Pamuk discussed the various methods authors use to get to that elusive center – how Dostoevsky once demolished a novel when he found a new center for the idea, for example.  He also, quite hilariously, tore into genre novels, referencing Murder on the Orient Express as example of how such novelists (with a few notable exceptions, including Patricia Highsmith, of whom I’m a fan) follow a formulaic model that includes a shared center; in other words, all murder mysteries share a center, that is, the murder itself.

Pamuk also talked about the need for the center, for both novelist and reader.  For the novelist, creating the center is about expressing a viewpoint, creating a space which does not exist on earth.  Of the process, Pamuk said, “the hope of finding a center encourages us to be receptive with our senses.”

For the reader, Pamuk says, the center is about finding our own place in the world.  We look for the center in novels in order to find a place where we can possibly fit in, find refuge.

And of course, he notes, one book can have more than one center, and that, “to discuss the center with another is to discuss our view of life.”

What I truly loved, however, was his closing example, referencing the opening of Anna Karenina: “If her book hadn’t been boring,” Pamuk said, “We wouldn’t have entered the novel through her gaze.”  Or in other words: “Because Anna could not read the novel in her hands, we read Anna Karenina, the novel.”

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But it wouldn’t be an event if there weren’t something to criticize.  Have no fear, faithful reader, the bone I plan to pick is not with Pamuk, who was nothing if not gracious and warm.  No, my complaint lies with the nameless Harvard professor who introduced him.  In his introduction, the professor quite clearly referred to world literature (his words, not mine) as an “emerging” field.

Interesting, that.  As a friend pointed out when I complained (on Twitter of course), the statement could potentially have referred to the emergence of interest in so-called world literature, or the increase in translations of world literature, but somehow, I doubt it.

No, instead the statement seemed to me as if the professor was anchoring literature firmly in the west, conflating “standard” literature with “white” or European literature.  The rest of the world’s literature, of course, is confined to one category on the shelves of bookstores, just as “world music” and “foreign films” have been for decades.  When I visit a bookstore, I find the generic literature section, sometimes a section of “women’s literature,” African-American literature, or even Christian literature, and then simply a section of “world literature” (you can surely see that even having the “African-American literature” section and not, say, a “Latin-American literature” or “Asian-American literature” section is troubling, in terms of demographics and U.S. race divisions anyway).  Even the Wikipedia article for this mystery genre is shockingly sparse (and perhaps even a bit wrong).

The point I’m driving at is this: If “world literature” refers to everything but Western European literature and now, American literature, then “Western” literature is therefore made the norm, and everything else the Other.  I find that extremely troubling, and racist to boot.  It ignores the historic greats of literature (Persian or Chinese, for example) and situates the “West” as the center of the earth to which the rest of the world should orient.

Has the field of literature always been this ethnocentric?

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