The Lebanese Crisis, Exhibit A: Graphic Design and Entitlement

Whilst dealing with my own fairly entitled but not yet totally corrupted students, I have had little time to write. Too bad, since there’s TONS to write about!

Anybody who has visited Lebanon or gotten to know any Lebanese well will at some point have to face the topic of Lebanese society’s pervasive dysfunction. Let me be clear: I have no anti-Lebanon agenda. I love living here, I am nothing but thankful for the opportunities I have enjoyed here, and I am well aware that every society has its dysfunctional aspects. I do not wish to smear Lebanon or its people or discourage anyone from coming here (well, unless you’re a prospective Syrian refugee or an aspiring guest worker!) But only the most truth-evading person could deny that Lebanon’s dysfunction, well, makes an impression. Here I will offer some tidbits of my own experience & analysis, with the hope that they will at least entertain. I hope that offering them in good faith will prevent offense and encourage constructive responses.

My fiance works at a kiosk inside a small shopping center near the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus. He spends a few hours each day completing work projects inside a neighboring print and copy shop, which AUB students naturally frequent. He has realized that many of these students are not simply utilizing the shop’s services to facilitate their studies; rather, they pay the shop to complete their assignments.

Recently, as I visited him at work (where he toils 7 days a week to barely pay his rent, but that’s another story) we overheard a dispute between two pouting university-age people and a flustered employee of the print shop. The employee had completed what appeared to be a spiffy interior design model for the pair, and charged them $30 minus a 20% student discount for an hour of graphic design work. The customers did not wish to pay such a ‘high’ price for what was most likely a class assignment. My fiancé and I laughed at them. Each one was wearing probably $200-300 dollars worth of fashionable clothes and accessories, but they couldn’t afford to pay a professional $24 to spend an hour doing their homework?

As an educator, this vexes but sadly does not surprise me. My 10-12th graders routinely copy each other’s homework, knowingly plagiarize, and occasionally cheat – though I have encouraged significant changes in their behavior through severe grade penalties and emphasizing the value of their own hard work. In my view, this problem stems from a society that avoids personal responsibility at all costs. Indeed, the costs of taking responsibility can be high here. Countless promising intellectuals and leaders have been assassinated since the mid-20th century. Those who thrive tend to do so behind a protective screen of money, street gangs, foreign sponsorship, and/or corruption. Accordingly, the educational system allows the wealthy and connected to accumulate a series of rubber stamps to guarantee future employment, whether they take an interest in becoming educated or not.**

AUB enjoys a long history of prestige and selectivity, but even it cannot avoid these forces completely. Its students are privileged and often entitled. Some of them simply ride out their four years of “education” paying others to provide evidence of their “expertise”. They graduate to become the uninspired managers of tomorrow. I hope that enough young Lebanese will tire of this charade to eliminate it in the future.

As a teacher, I strive to empower and inspire my students to bulldoze and rebuild broken structures. It’s difficult, as these same dysfunctional systems generate the palpable clouds of apathy I must work so hard to banish from my classroom. But if enough elders can support and make way for these bright young people, it is possible.

**Lest you accuse me of providing no evidence for my claims, a student who attended approximately 25% of his class with me and failed with less than 10% overall mark has reportedly entered a bachelor’s program at a local university. Not an especially prestigious one, mind you, but he will undoubtedly be granted the fake degree his family pays for.

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Hala alSalman – “The Green Line”

I was grateful to run across something light-hearted to brighten up this nasty rainy day. (The Lebanese are even worse prepared for poor weather than bunch of Flatlanders*!)

What do you think? Is this a call for solidarity to women across the modesty spectrum?

Having tried out the bikini, the burqa, and everything in between, I have personally come to the conclusion that men are capable of detecting and objectifying femininity no matter what it’s swathed in. (Not only one man friend of mine has perfected the art of scoping out pleasing hindquarters hidden underneath abayas.) Perhaps there is no hope.

Or perhaps the hope lies within each of us. Maybe we just need to walk with dignity, stand with each other against violations of that dignity, and teach our sons and daughters to do the same!

*flatlander (noun): a person who is not from Maine, and therefore does not think it’s normal to drive to work in a raging blizzard

Confessions of a non-Muslim butt washer

Anyone who knows me decently well knows that sooner or later, my penchant for gross humor will break through the civilized facade and reveal the 12 year old boy trapped within this ostensibly feminine adult  person. Anyone who knows me very well can tell you something even more shocking: I no longer believe in toilet paper.

When I ran across this article yesterday I knew I had to share my own charming story of cultural annexation. What better way to let you truly get to know me than to do a classic Northern Maine overshare, I thought! Like the immaculate and entertaining Wajahat Ali,  I secretly yearn to spread the gospel of butt washing.

For those of you wondering what the hell I’m talking about, prepare to have your mind blown.

Roughly 5 years ago to the date, I arrived in Oman with a soon-to-be tight knit study abroad group of 14 students. After being parceled out among our host families, we first explored our new homes. Most of these homes were really nice (Oman is blessed with a comfortable middle class), but there was one fixture that particularly perplexed us. What was a kitchen sprayer doing hanging next to each toilet?

Setting a tone for the semester, we of course immediately asked our (saintly) academic coordinator, who turned scarlet and indicated it was to be used for “left hand” activities, you know, washing of certain areas… Got it? Always tactful, we gave it various names such as “butt hose,” “butt blaster,” and “ass wand” and brought it up whenever possible. We gossiped about pressure, traded stories of blasting ants on the toilet, and marveled at how easy it was to clean up after yakking in a squat toilet.

I also looked it up in a few guides to Islamic jurisprudence. Yes, Islam has an entire body of scholarship devoted to toilet etiquette. The curious may click here. It’s a mixture of common sense hygiene rules and ritual purity. And just to let you know, it put Muslims way ahead of their objectively filthy Western contemporaries. We could discuss some of the ramifications of ritual purity on gender parity, but I’ll save that for later.

Anyway, for many of us students, this was not just an amusing Arab novelty. It became a way of life. We soon realized we could never again use toilet paper with the same unquestioning acceptance. How could we possibly go back to wiping our poo around after experiencing the delicious freshness of a perpetually clean rump? We talked of installing ass wands in our future dream houses… or maybe even in our college apartments without the landlord’s knowledge. We privately wondered how we could convince future romantic partners to butt blast. I mean, seriously. Think about it.

I have found various ways to feed my butt washing addiction, chief among them living in places outside the US where butt hoses are plentiful. But I’ve also carried wet wipes and water bottles and kept (and explained) my own buckets and dippers. And while I will probably have to continue my helter-skelter butt washing techniques, I would like to propose that Western society universally adopt the butt hose. Here’s why.

  1. It will make us all cleaner and more comfortable.
  2. It eliminates skid marks.
  3. It really should be a prerequisite for certain activities. Just sayin’.
  4. It actually saves resources compared with producing toilet paper.
  5. We already have the technology. It’s can be had for under $20. It just needs to be moved from the kitchen sink to the toilet.

Seriously, just try it once and you’ll never go back!

On Russell Brand and my silly millenial life

Russell Brand on revolution

I developed a soft spot for Russell Brand’s political side way back when I saw him kill the Westboro Baptist Church with kindness. (If you never got to see this glorious ten minutes of indefatigable love, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBA6qlHW8po) To be honest, the guy’s never really been on my radar, and he strikes me as an unsalvageable doofus. But that may be why I enjoy it so much when he does politics.

He can be serious about something without taking himself too seriously. He can speak passionately and disagree without dehumanizing his opponents. For a doofy ex-addict popstar, he’s way ahead of most of the other talking heads today.

It’s truly rare to find a person, let alone a political personality, willing to honestly and publicly acknowledge his or her own imperfections. We tend to think we need to assert our moral superiority in order to successfully argue on ethical issues. But Brand inserts healthy doses of self-deprecation in his writing. On talking today’s politics:

Like when I’m conversing and the subject changes from me and moves on to another topic. I try to remain engaged but behind my eyes I am adrift in immediate nostalgia; “How happy I was earlier in this chat,” I instantly think.

So he’s a self-involved celebrity. Can we really hold it against him if he admits it?

I also respect the way Brand employs anecdotes of his rough and tumble upbringing and history of drug abuse without losing sight of his current privilege.

I don’t want to get all “Call me Dave, I was chatting to my plumber, man of the people” here, but the fact is I’m a recovering junkie so that means I have to hang out with a lot of other junkies to keep my head together, some of whom are clean, others who are using. Hear you this, regular New Statesman reader, browsing with irritation that the culture of celebrity has just banjoed the arse of another sacred cow and a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth, but – young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

Anyway, reading Brand’s New Statesman article and watching the video that’s recently gone viral of him talking on BBC’s Newsnight, I felt something I don’t often feel: the vindication of having somebody whose views I actually identify with get their ideas heard en mass.

I never really thought about it this clearly before, but the reality is, I am a citizen of a country whose political and social leaders simply do not represent my interests. I’m a bit more left leaning, particularly socially, so I voted for Obama in 2008. I mainly liked his inclusive rhetoric, and though I knew better than to expect both Hope AND Change, I was happy to settle for a president who at least allowed for the possibility of Real Americans to be not always straight, white, economically privileged Christians. However, I have come to realize that not only (apart from maybe healthcare) do none of the American ruling class give a shit about my needs, I don’t think those issues are even on their radar!

The one issue I care about that I’ve seen positive progress on is marriage equality. Though it does not benefit me personally, I think it’s extremely important for the social fabric of our nation to make every family legal. I’m thrilled that one of my childhood friends has already taken advantage of this new opportunity to marry his partner! But guess what? I wasn’t even able to be there, because I can’t seem to earn a living wage in the United States while doing something meaningful and productive.

I have a bachelor’s degree from an excellent (not quite Ivy) university. I graduated summa cum laude with two internships, solid work-study experience, and some good old-fashioned summer job cred under my belt. My prospects upon graduation included an offer from a summer camp and an expenses-paid volunteer position in a failed state. OK. I chose the latter, correctly assuming that I would gain invaluable experience and maintain my financial independence. Two years later, I returned home totally burnt out but hopeful that I could find a decent nonprofit job while I recuperated. I worried that people wouldn’t believe what I was accurately stating on my resume. But otherwise, I (incorrectly) assumed that my challenging experiences and passionate cover letters would eventually generate interest.

Out of over thirty applications, only one responded to me. After a brief phone interview, they emailed their rejection: the previous young candidate had left for grad school after just one year, and they assumed I would too. Thanks guys!

Granted, my job searching strategy was probably a bit anemic. After my seasonal summer job ended, I tried hardcore networking. I did a free trial of LinkedIn Premium and cold-messaged interesting people. I drove 6 hours to Boston a few times to meet with several people in the interfaith field. Interesting chats, but still nothing materialized. I thought about just moving there and working any old job while volunteering, until I found out that Macy’s paid $8/hour in a city where you could live in a closet for $500/month. I started applying for PhD programs. Well, I thought, I could commit to academia for 6-8 years as long as my rent was paid. (Spoiler alert: 6 out of 6 applications were rejected.)

Meanwhile, I found a seasonal call center gig with decent pay but unreliable hours. It was sufficient as long as I lived with my mom, which I did. I love you and thank you so much, Mom, but please don’t let me live with you again. Even though I told myself it was temporary and tried to take advantage of the support of family and friends, I felt a huge hole. My job consisted of repeating, “Thank you for calling LL Bean, how may I help you?” 60-100 times per day and selling nice stuff to privileged people who usually didn’t need it. (Don’t get me wrong, I had really fulfilling interactions with some customers, but there was no denying that this was boring as hell and far below my abilities.) While I diligently distracted myself with exercise, language study, and application-writing, I also made a lot of mindless purchases at the mall and online. I started using OkCupid and went on lots of dates with random dudes. I regularly went driving around in a sobbing rage until I had to pull over. I was pretty sure that if something didn’t change drastically pretty soon, I was going to atrophy into a vegetable. Maybe I was being a little impatient and overly dramatic. But it sure as shit felt real at the time.

Then one day, a former coworker suggested that I apply to teach with him in Yemen. Another peanuts-paying job in a failed state? Was I that desperate? FUCK YEAH! A few weeks later I was happily leaving all my frustrations (and disappointed loved ones) behind.

Hope you enjoyed my first-world problems story.

But seriously. Is it really reasonable that I can’t make a decent living in my own country, the country that constantly claims to be the Very Best in the Whole Goddamn World? Doesn’t it seem a little odd that my “dream life” includes making about half the yearly cost of my alma mater, eating rice and beans in a shared apartment (or I could do ramen and a studio), and working to correct the shameful ignorance we as Americans still aren’t wise enough to overcome? Yes, that would be my dream life.

And while I am determined to make this modest dream come true some day, I know it’s not going to be as easy as I’ve been told things would be for me all my life. It won’t be as easy as it would have been for my parents. And it won’t be as easy as it would be if we had a sociopolitical system geared toward developing human beings rather than protecting the wealth and power of those who are already wealthy and powerful.

It goes without saying that I enjoy a higher standard of living than a vast number of people in the US and the rest of the world. That acknowledged, I feel entitled, as should Russell Brand with his even higher level of privilege, to criticize the current sociopolitical order in the West. I feel this way on the basis of two basic principles:

  1. My full productive potential is not being utilized under the current system. In fact, I am an example of “brain drain.”
  2. I have essentially no safety net, which in my opinion is unnecessary given the ample resources and technology of my nation.

I would like to continue this to discuss why I think we Americans are operating under a faulty and indeed damaging set of assumptions about society and government. For now, I will leave you with a few Russell Brand-related articles.

People are already elucidating actionable ideas in response to his ideas.

People are also catching on to the fact that Brand is voicing the concerns of a new generation, and the old guard may not yet understand why we are so fed up with the way things are.

Preface

I have spent an inordinate amount of time outside my own cultural zone. Specifically, I have spent almost three years working and traveling in Muslim-majority countries. Being a staunch humanist/pluralist/insufferable optimist, I have enjoyed the opportunity these travels have afforded me to smash stereotypes of Muslims, the non-Western world, and life outside the USA in general. Going back “home” is always an occasion to share these revelations, but almost always in painfully redacted form.

By writing this blog, I intend to offer a more detailed and complete record of these experiences. I also wish to unpack and present my thoughts. Some posts will focus on the current time, but I also hope to revisit memories of past events.

Having endured several months of wheel-spinning “back home” in 2012, I rang in the new year by taking an offer to teach English in Yemen in return for a place to live, paltry pay, and free Arabic lessons. While the experience was marred by a lousy work environment and a quickly deteriorating security situation, I’m glad I went. It started me on a more productive path, which I am now continuing as a history teacher in Lebanon. I’ve progressed in my Arabic, my worldly knowledge, and my approach toward personal goals. I’m ready to take a more active, less risk-averse approach to achieving what I care about.

Currently, I want to find my voice. My “personal agenda,” promoting pluralism as a pragmatic answer to today’s special brand of fucked-up-ness, requires frank ethical discourse and the open sharing of experiences and facts. I’m tired of hedging my personal image to widen its appeal. It’s not authentic, and it sure hasn’t landed me any fabulous opportunities.

So, you’ll be reading some honesty in this blog. I am an open-minded person with a healthy respect for differences of belief and lifestyle, but I do not intend to avoid difficult subjects or negative conclusions. I love that young Omani mothers can attend college while their families help provide childcare, but I hate that most of them have been genitally mutilated in the name of “honor”. I don’t believe in covering up truth. I don’t believe that highlighting positive aspects of a society makes me an apologist, nor do I believe that pointing out negative aspects makes me its enemy.

Honesty doesn’t always feel safe or appear polite, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a person who reads this feels uncomfortable or offended at some point. That’s fine with me. Please know, however, that I am open to thoughtful, reasoned criticism or debate of whatever I share. I may choose to disagree with you, but I appreciate new information and intellectual/ethical challenges. Please engage candidly if you can maintain respect for our differences.