Monthly Archives: October 2014

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” -Nelson Mandela // “Can the U.S. Lead on Human Rights in the 21st Century?”

On Monday, October 27, 2014, Caroll Bogert spoke at Muhlenberg College about human rights around the world and the organization she works for, “Human Rights Watch.” I found her to be informative and surprisingly engaging, given that I was expecting a dull lecture-style environment. Bogert’s lack of a prepared PowerPoint both shocked and compelled me. She spoke incredibly passionately about the defending human rights; and that struck me.

I found the information about Human Rights Watch fascinating. Their detailed procedure for investigating with extensive interviews and eyewitness accounts shocked me. I always thought that the people who did that sort of work were with the government, and they only did a subpar job. But the fact that an organization outside of the government (all their funds are privately raised!) was working on improving global human rights definitely made me look at the issue with a different perspective. The intensity of the research that goes into the research was also astounding – how can they possibly tell apart the liars and exaggerators from the truth? And who specifically is responsible for the crimes committed? The exposition process also intrigued me. I figured that Human Rights Watch would want to get the story out everywhere, regardless of the anticipated audience. However, Bogert’s explanation of how they go about getting the information in the hands of people at the government was eye-opening. Finally, the change process: using the information to charge persecutors.

By mentioning specific recent examples of human rights violations across the world, she gave the discussion to a contemporary feel. Instead of talking about age-old crimes such as those in Iraq and Bosnia, she mentioned lesser-known, more recent abuses to emphasize the point that few of us know about these things…and that’s a problem. From the Central African Republic to Bahrain, the US has actively made a decision to either help or not, but how many of these involvements has the average American heard about on the “world” news? My bet is very few because they’re all too worried about contracting Ebola.

Bogert quickly shifted gears to talk about human rights violations on a domestic scale – including immigration and torture of prisoners. I was glad that she didn’t praise the United States for setting a glowing example for the rest of the world, because that’s just not true. America has blood on its hands too, and if it continues denying it, things will only get worse. The first step in making the United States a leader in human rights in the 21st century is admitting to our crimes and taking the necessary cleansing precautions (i.e. firing the higher up government officials that approved torture on Guantanamo Bay prisoners) that every other country would take. Just because we’re one of the most powerful countries in the world doesn’t mean we’re exempt from international laws and treaties. Then, and only then, will the United States be a leader and set a proper example for the rest of the world in their struggle to abide by human rights laws.

Translations and interpretations, and adaptations! Oh, my! // formats of The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights has been translated and adapted into many different varieties and formats throughout the course of its extensive (known) existence. It is understandable that there are many discrepancies among the innumerable versions of the stories but there are also a considerable number of similarities to be noted.

The first format of the Nights that we read was Haddawy’s translation, The Arabian Nights. His seamless blending of the natural and supernatural characterized his rendition on these age-old tales. Also, the introduction to his translation asks that his version be considered a true translation – not word-for-word, but adapting the Arabic sayings and colloquialisms into what would be expressed in English. However, Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights: A Play did not address the omnipresent nature of the supernatural. Her conscious decision to include a vast majority of stories with no magical or supernatural elements could possibly have been to make the adaptation more relatable for outside audiences.

Both films we watched pertaining to The Arabian Nights included very similar cinematography; from their color schemes to architecture, they could be confused for bring the exact same movie (except one is animated and the other is live action). Perhaps the reason why The Thief of Baghdad and Aladdin’s architectural elements and color palettes mirror each is because the producers of Thief of Baghdad travelled to the Middle East to get inspiration in an attempt to be as culturally accurate as possible. Aladdin contains extremely similar elements because Disney based the landscape of the film on that of Thief of Baghdad.

All the formats of The Arabian Nights that we have discussed in class include mention of Islamic law and/or violence in the Middle East. Haddawy’s translation includes frequent mentions of beatings and murder, as they seem to happen in virtually every other tale. This is illustrated in the merchant’s beating of his wife in “The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey” and a woman’s cruel abuse towards her husband in “The Tale of the Enchanted King.” Aladdin also depicts the violent punishment that lawbreakers face; when Princess Jasmine takes an apple from a stand in the marketplace to give to a poor little boy, the shopkeeper immediately threatens (and gets ready) to chop off her hand as penalty for her crime.

Finally, all the formats of The Arabian Nights that we discussed in class included some sort of frame tale in their rendition of the stories. Haddawy includes his frame tale in the traditional way – Shahrazad tells stories to a vicious king to prevent him from killing her the next morning. Zimmerman also includes Shahrazad, but because her adaptation is meant to take place on a stage, Shahrazad’s words often overlapped with the actions and spoken words of those inside the story she is telling. This produced an extremely intriguing effect on the viewer (or reader, in this case). Aladdin’s frame tale begins with the infamous “Arabian Nights” ballad that opens the movie; a haggard old man attempting to sell some of his goods lures the audience in with a story about how a particular lamp changed a young boy’s life forever. The Thief of Baghdad also contains a frame tale in that Ahmad recounted the events of his life leading up to his present condition when he is unknowingly sitting inside the evil Jaffar’s palace.

While the many interpretations and adaptations of The Arabian Nights are characterized by their differences, we should not forget that they all stem (albeit very loosely) from the same original premise.

“We’ve got some work to do now” // “Scooby Doo! in Arabian Nights”

On Thursday, October 16, 2014, Danielle, Sam, and I watched the television special, “Scooby Doo! in Arabian Nights.” It began with Shaggy and Scooby up to their usual shenanigans. They accepted jobs as royal food-testers when a young Caliph offered. After they eat all the food in the palace, the guards chased them until Shaggy disguised himself as a young woman. The prince is enchanted by the “girl’s” beauty and immediately proposed to her. Hoping to make the Caliph fall asleep, Shaggy began telling two “classic” Arabian Nights stories. This is similar to Shahrazad’s storytelling that frames The Arabian Nights.

The first story was about Aliyah-Din (basically a female Aladdin) and her magic lamp in her quest to marry the prince of the land. Aliyah-Din had enormous purple eyes and extremely fair skin, thus making her features noticeably Caucasian. Her name as well sounds extremely similar to the American name, “Ali,” to make her more relatable to American audiences. When the town was depicted, a crowd of gossiping women was shown in see-through veils; they had extremely thick, voluminous lips that would stereotypically be associated with gossiping women. Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo Bear played the genie and his genie-in-training to make the concept less exotic and more relatable. When Aliyah-Din asked for the prince’s (the villain in disguise at this point) hand in marriage, she presented herself with a large dowry to make her candidacy more appealing in comparison to the other suitable females. After being thrown in the dungeon with the real prince, Aliyah-Din prayed to “our lord” in an extremely Christian prayer that begged for salvation; it contained no mention of Allah or anything vaguely Islamic. This was again to make the plot more relatable for an American audience. In a poor attempt to prove the legitimacy of the story, a mention of falafel is included. Aliyah-Din and the prince’s meeting/longing search with a scarf was vaguely reminiscent to that of Cinderella, another noticeable European element. In the end, the rich boy and poor girl fell in love and married despite all odds; this plot structure is extremely American in origin and embodies American ideals of freedom and choice.

The second tale was a parody of Sinbad the Sailor who was played by Magilla Gorilla to again make the story more relatable. The mention and importance of the “runk’s” egg (relating back to the original story’s “roc’s” egg) added some much-needed legitimacy to the elaborate tale. The jewels Sinbad and the captain discovered were football-shaped; this is again to make the story much more relatable for the American audience. Also worth noting, it was slightly confusing to include American tourists from the 21st century in the background of an ancient story, but this was probably to make the story more present-day and not as dry as Americans would’ve expected. The inclusion of modern technology such as doorbells, autoqueues, and toothbrushes furthered the attempt to make the story more contemporarily Western. The supremacy roles of the West and East were touched upon when the obviously classy European (French? English?) cyclops had Middle Eastern servants. Finally, towards the end of the story, Sinbad and the captain mistook the back of a fish to be an island, which was almost directly taken from the original story.

At the conclusion of the Sinbad story, Shaggy and Scooby tried to sneak out of the palace, but before they could, they were caught and recognized by the prince’s guards. However, the prince liked Shaggy’s stories so much that they are asked to become the royal storytellers (as well as food-tasters).

I don’t believe that this rendition of The Arabian Nights was attempting to be accurate, but blatant cultural inaccuracies due to ignorance and typecasts can be the most visible in the entertainment meant for the youth of the “other” culture. The ingraining of the stereotypes into the minds of our youth is one of the most powerful ways of propagating the archaic judgment that we place upon other cultures.

*The bolded elements were made so because they were mentioned in class discussions.

 

“Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide?” // Outline of Staninger’s “Disney’s Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam”

*This outline does not reflect my personal ideas or style. It is an outline of Christiane Staninger’s essay entitled “Disney’s Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam.”

1. Princess Jasmine as a character and her appeal to American audiences

o   Strong, independent woman

  • Not an object of desire as seen in the original story

o   Clothing and speech mimics that of American teenage girls form the eighties/nineties

  • Baggy pants, halter tops, long hair, scrunchies

o   Faith is not addressed; no discernable accent

  • More relatable for Americans (no culture shock/barrier)

o   She’s bored of home, so she chooses to run away

  • Typical rebellious American teenager behavior

o   Rich girl meets poor boy when disguised

  • Typical American plot (“‘uptown girl’ story with Broadway tunes”)

o   Strong will, determination, direct attitude

  • Sassy, rebellious American teenager – knows what she wants

2. Jasmine as a Middle Eastern woman and how non-Middle Easterners perceive Middle Eastern women

o   American ideals: freedom, choice, courage

  • Opposite of the Middle Eastern stereotypes

o   She is beautiful with Caucasian features

  • Noticeably European qualities whitewash her

o   Her name is Jasmine instead of the original Badr al-Budur

  • More whitewashing – make familiar to Americans to prevent cultural isolation

o    Wants to break free of the “controlling” Islamic conventions

  • Promoting American ideals as better
    • Archaic” Islamic traditions should be replaced with “better” ones

o   Main characters are modeled on American celebrities

  • Tom Cruise, Ed Sullivan – further whitewashing

o   American audience didn’t recognize prejudice and stereotyping

  • Needs to be educated – characters were obviously incorrect

3. Islamic women and their role in the Middle East

o   Women have final say over domestic issues – especially who their son will marry

  • They hold tremendous power over husbands and sons

o   American stereotype: Islamic women are timid and shy; they would never discuss sex

  • Women are open about their sex life with their circle of female friends

o   American stereotype: Islamic women have little schooling as they are forced to drop out before secondary education

  • Young girls are being encouraged to go to school – albeit as a back-up plan if anything happens to their husband and they need to support a family singlehandedly

o   Western women haven’t come that far in civil/human rights movements

  • Should get off their high horse
    • Disparities between the two groups aren’t that different

o   Ancient scripture was altered/distorted/manipulated by Muhammad’s misogynistic followers

  • Made it seem as though Muhammad viewed women as subservient
    • He had strong wives – proposal, not arranged marriages
    • He gave them the right to inherit money – financially independent

o   “Golden Age”/Abbasid dynasty stripped women of their power and pride (forced to be slaves)

  • This time period is immortalized in The Arabian Nights, fueling the stereotypes

 

The ironic portrayal of Jasmine as a distinctly American princess belittles the culture and beliefs of the Middle Eastern world as it attempts to prove that the Eastern ideals are “backwards” and in need of being fixed. Staninger recognizes the American ignorance towards Middle Eastern culture. She hopes the reader will attempt to appreciate other cultures – specifically Islamic culture – more after they read her work, perhaps seeking more accurate depictions of the culture than Disney’s Aladdin.

 

“There is but one blasphemy, and that is injustice.” // “She Said”

On Saturday, October 11, 2014, Ursula Rucker gave a live performance at Muhlenberg College. I had high expectations for the performance after hearing her introduction by members of the Muhlenberg faculty. However, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was missing something during her performance.

Her lyrics were often clever, but repeated too often for my liking (or that might just be an aspect of slam poetry, but I don’t know). Her accompanying guitarist, Tim, played beautiful chords that rung throughout Baker Theatre. Her comments between songs made me chuckle and appreciate her personality, but I still struggled to understand the meaning behind her lyrics. This is probably because I have no background in the type of art she was exhibiting, so I failed to appreciate it as much as it is worth.

One of her songs I enjoyed and understood was “Feel Me.” Our generation’s increasing dependence on modern technology is both useful and increasingly depressing. While walking down academic row, people don’t make eye contact as they walk past; they just continue scrolling through their phones. Her criticism of this aspect of our society is something that I relate to as I witness it on a daily basis. The part that jarred me the most was “retrieve your thought process and subareal conscience / From the death grip of the mainframe.”

All in all, Ursula Rucker’s soulful interpretations of racism, sexism, and social injustice were entertaining, but I don’t think that I had the reflective and introspective personality that was required to thoroughly enjoy her words.

The Tale of the Boy and His Goats // in the style of “The Arabian Nights”

There was once a young boy who had skin as fair as the pearls found in the depths of the Red Sea. His father was a farmer, and he earned enough to support the family.  His mother, however, was a cruel woman. She never missed an opportunity to make the boy’s life miserable. She had many lovers, and she forced the boy to keep them secret from his father. She abused him both verbally and physically, insulting his looks, his intelligence, and his strength. She assigned him hundreds of tedious chores daily.  One day, as the boy was dusting one of the few antique vases in their house, a sudden rumbling erupted from the vase. Smoke and debris emerged from the vase, and the boy fell backwards in shock. As the smoke cleared, a large, black figure became noticeable. The black demon had many piercings and an eccentric hairstyle. He only wore a loincloth to cover himself. Upon seeing the boy, he bellowed, “You! I am a genie and have been trapped for thousands of years in that accursed vase. Every day I felt you dust it, and I hoped that you would pay enough attention to it one day that you would rub it hard enough that I would be allowed to escape my prison. As per the laws of my imprisonment and infinite powers, I now grant you two wishes.”

The boy, still gaping in shock, slowly stood up. He chose his words carefully and said, “If you are a genie with infinite powers, then why were you trapped inside this small vase?”

The genie, slightly frustrated, replied, “Thus are the rules of my imprisonment. I am only allowed to use my powers to grant the wishes of my masters – and you are one of them now.”

The boy, still in disbelief, gave the genie a confused look. “If you’re so powerful, here is my wish. I wish that my mother wasn’t so cruel towards me; she should not ask me to do any more chores, insult my intelligence or strength, or require that I keep her affairs a secret,” the boy said.

“Your wish is my command,” the genie said as he disappeared back into the vase.

The next day, the boy woke early, expecting his mother to assign him many chores and berate him about his intelligence and strength. However, these did not come. The boy, happy with the genie’s promise, sat outside in the sun for the entirety of the day and watched his father at work. As a way of testing the entirety of his wish, he told his father that his mother had many other lovers and was probably with one of them right now. His father, in a fit of rage, stormed into the house and took one of the kitchen knives. He barreled into their bedroom and found his wife making love to another man. He stabbed this man time and time again until his wife was on the floor begging him to stop.

Later that day, the boy was feeling guilty. Both his parents had spent the day weeping, his father because he had lost his wife long ago, and his mother because her lover was dead. A week passed, and nothing had changed. Because his father was no longer working, the amount of food on the table for meals was steadily decreasing until each of them only had a handful of rice for dinner. The boy, feeling guilty, went to ask the genie to help him. He rubbed the vase, and in a cloud of smoke, the large, black genie appeared and asked, “Master, what is your wish?”

“Oh, genie. Since my last wish, things have gone very wrong. My father is now a murderer, and both my parents spend their entire days away from each other, never uttering a word. Since my father no longer works in the fields, we have little food to eat. I wish my parents could be happy again and forget any of this ever happened.”

The genie’s puzzled expression did not stop him from making a dramatic hand gesture: “Your final wish is my command.”

The boy went to sleep with a smile on his face, knowing that his parents would be themselves and much happier when he awoke. That morning, he awoke to two horned creatures. They “maa”-ed happily as they nuzzled his feet to wake him up. Distraught, the boy wished he hadn’t wished for anything at all. The genie had turned his parents into goats.