[co-authored with Sarah Laskow] In 1876, on Oak Street between Oliver and James, a long-lost block of lower Manhattan that now lies underneath a housing project built in the 1950s, a New York Times reporter found the sign he had been looking for—“Tattooing Done Here.” Inside the shop, which he described as “a tavern with a well-sanded floor,” he found Martin Hildebrandt, the most famous tattoo artist in 19th-century America.
State Route 375 is a barren stretch of Nevada highway that runs near the top-secret U.S. Air Force installation commonly known as Area 51—a facility believed to be used for experimental aircraft testing, with a busy side hustle spawning theories about aliens, UFOs, and extraterrestrial technology. Rachel, a town on the highway with a population of just 54, manages to do brisk business, too. The Little A’Le’Inn there, according to one of its managers, feeds thousands of (human) visitors a year along what has become known as the Extraterrestrial Highway.
A distant glow appears on the edge of a desolate two-lane highway. As you pull up, the buzzing grows loud, drowning out the engine and the desert crickets outside. Voicelessly, it promises color TV, a kitchenette, and a phone in every room. Symbols of American expansionism and the Space Age, these iconic neon signs once topped countless motor lodges on Route 66 and other stretches of two-lane blacktop.
From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.
“Transitions” at Chambers Fine Art presented the work of three artists who explore themes of transformation in their art. While each worked with different artistic styles and mediums, there were shared elements in the works, such as undertones of political dissidence—indicative of the recent economic, cultural and political shifts in China where the artists work—and universally relatable concepts of change that come about due to the inevitable flow of life.
Over the years, Xie Xiaoze has cemented his role as an artistic figurehead and purveyor of cultural histories. The artist continues to explore printed media in his most recent exhibition, “Endurance,” with a focus on perseverance in the face of inevitable decay.
Xie has long held an appreciation for print. His earlier bodies of work spotlighted stacks of newspapers and magazines, with the goal of highlighting social and political issues. His new paintings show a shift in focus from newspapers to libraries, thereby evoking themes of time, permanence and memory.
Gulf Futurism (a term coined by Sophia Al Maria) is a cultural and urban phenomenon marked by an absurd obsession with hypermodernism, consumerism and technological acceleration that is removed from social consequences. Modernization is the process of transition from a ‘traditional’ to a ‘modern’ society; modernity, however, is often dictated by or measured against Western standards.
Nishino’s work involves creating large-scale diorama maps of cities, in some cases up to two meters wide. Each consists of thousands of photos taken during Nishino’s travels to major cities. Using mainly black-and-white film, he spends up to three months in a location capturing its moments, monuments and memories. In Diorama Map, New York (2006), the Empire State Building is made up of multiple street-level shots, while downtown is revealed from a bird’s eye view. These vantage points provide the viewer with a sense of depth; the physical limitations of two-dimensional space are void in Nishino’s photographic reconstructions.
Ahmet Güneştekin’s current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery is the Turkish artist’s first in New York since 2013. “New Works” showcases Güneştekin’s diverse practice; his ceramics, textiles and painted works transport the viewer to a place where mythology and reality merge. Here, East and West know no boundaries and time is malleable. Each work shows levels of dimensionality through the complexity of colors and shapes used to present fractured moments of ancient stories.
In his first solo show in the United States, Cheng Ran has brought a sense of mysticism to the New Museum in New York City. The multi-video exhibit, which was mounted with the support of Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation, was shot and edited during a three-month residency at the museum, and spans across fifteen screens in its Lobby Gallery. In an interview with New York-based media outlet SinoVision, New Museum artistic director Massimilano Gioni named the Inner Mongolia-born Cheng as “one of the most interesting artist of his generation.” In particular, Gioni pointed out that Cheng’s work draws on Western and Chinese culture, and highlights how “cinema influences imagination.” “Diary of a Madman” takes the visitor through feelings of alienation and discovery as a foreigner in a new location, specifically New York. The videos serve as emotional backdrops for Cheng’s residency and first trip to the city in 2016, a place that carries a multitude of meanings for so many people, particularly for cinephiles like Ran.
[This article first appeared on www.qahwaproject.com]
"Cover yourself! Do you not see the men on the balcony? What if they see you showing yourself off like that? What do you think will happen?"
- The author's great aunt, speaking to a 14-year old girl wearing loose-fitting pants and a hip-length, long sleeve shirt.
For this article, Middle Eastern and North African women were interviewed to explore feelings associated with sex and intimacy. Finding interviewees was a bit difficult, even with a guarantee of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the topic. I think there are two main reasons for this. On the one hand, it speaks to the societal pressures women feel to openly discuss their sexuality, and on the other it communicates a level of discomfort and perhaps, disinterest, in discussing sexuality—the ultimate causes and consequences of which I leave to the reader to ponder.
Anyone familiar with the Middle East and North African region knows that, to a certain extent, there is a separation in society when it comes to the genders. Where men are encouraged to be ambitious, virile and dominating; women are expected to be complacent, innocent and submissive. Some would even argue that women only exist in terms of their relationship to men, and that they are unable to stand alone with any sort of agency or acceptance. This double standard is prevalent across countries, generations and classes in the Middle East. There are of course exceptions to any rule, however the prevailing feeling in society is that, “Women are the properties of their father, and the purity of that property needs to be preserved so [that] she can be sold.”
"I'm a 30 year old virgin and I hate it. The only way around it is if I break my own fucking hymen."
In rooms darkened by damasked curtains, women in the region hold whispered discussions about sexuality and intimacy. Of the women interviewed, most felt uncomfortable discussing intimate topics, even with other female relatives. Some were lucky enough to have a sibling or close friend that they could talk to, but the majority were not given a safe space to ask questions about fundamental sexual topics such as sexually transmitted diseases or birth control until much later in their lives (if at all). In general, respondents in the diaspora did not feel as restricted when discussing sex and intimacy with other women, “Since young Muslim women are not confined in their minds and personalities as much as I would believe they must have been about 20 years ago, it is very easy to discuss sex and other intimate topics with them; we are so relaxed about it, we often joke about them.” However when you compare this sentiment to how women in the region understand and discuss sex and intimacy the contrast is stark. A woman in her late twenties within the region felt that, as a virgin her, "understanding of the act [of sex] itself is based on what [she] knows scientifically plus what [she] had seen in graphic representations, like books, TV or pornography."
“To be fair, my mother probably knows less about sex than myself. I had sex education, I have the internet, and I’ve been able to have partners and experience things for myself where she has missed out on that.”
While working on this article, I met a sexually active young woman in the MENA region who had recently been treated for a UTI. She said that it had taken several rounds of antibiotics to clear up the infection and she was worried because she felt the infection would return. When she talked to me about her symptoms, it began to sound more like an STD, not a UTI. She said that, in the past, the symptoms had returned a week or so after sex with her partner. One quick crash course in STDs later, and it came out that her boyfriend may have Chlamydia and that he had been re-infecting her every time they had sex. This lack of sexual education is unacceptable. Even with increasing access to the Internet, there are women out there who simply do not know what to type into a Google search. Furthermore, since providing any kind of sexual education is generally seen as, "giving [women] permission to have sex," women in the region who come from more traditional (or less progressive) families are finding themselves in an impossible position as they grapple with the pressures of sex from their peers and the expectations of purity from their communities.
"I had to unlearn the words purity, honor, women and dignity... all of it."
It was clear from women's responses that issues pertaining to relationships, intimacy and sex can be extremely isolating. When it comes to the act of sex itself, women within the MENA region fear backlash from society or family members, while most women in the diaspora fear backlash from within themselves. Albeit, this is not a hard rule. There were a few women who had been raised in the diaspora and did not feel the same pressures when it came to sex. One woman wrote, “It’s funny because in my community of Ismaili’s, people are so modern that NOT being pure is common.” From a woman in her early twenties, “It is okay if I want to have sex with someone. I don’t have to put up to anyone’s standards. This point would hold no relevance if I am in a relationship in the future, because simply put, I would not be with a man who would expect me to have not been active sexually before him.”
“It also made me, on a subconscious level, judge other females who had already had sex because I thought it was wrong… at the same time, I would be angry over the fact that this idea of ‘purity’ didn’t apply to men, yet they took part in this idea that their future wife (and other women) should be pure, and if she was otherwise, she wasn’t worthy of marriage and she must be a whore.”
A common theme was the concept of worth, one woman wrote, "I was abstaining [from sex] because I didn’t want to be ‘damaged goods,’ I abstained out of fear of the stigma that comes with sex in our culture (particularly for females). When I really accepted that, I figured I was still being hypocritical, even if I was a virgin." Another claimed that she, "feared becoming intimate with another Arab or Muslim because [she] didn’t want him to judge [her] for not being a virgin. [She] didn’t want him [to think] less of [her]." The irony of this concept of purity is that the community has inadvertently over-sexualized females. Measuring them only by the state of their hymens, "we have obsessed and feared sex so much that our girls are bombarded with the idea that it encompasses who they are." Another woman echoed this sentiment, “Sex isn’t widely discussed and taught objectively in schools, [and so] myths such as the virginity/hymen discourse persist and come in the way of women learning their worth.” This total envelopment of hymen culture affected one woman so much that when she lost her virginity at a young age she felt that she, "could no longer be what a lot of men wanted, and so [she] had to change [her] expectations of who [she] decided to be with."
"My grandmother told me that not being a virgin was like putting chewed gum in your mouth."
For all of the taboo revolving around sex, masturbation was something the majority of women interviewed felt was a normal and healthy part of their inner sexual selves so long as it remained a, "matter of personal choice and satisfaction." One women in her early 40s had married young and masturbation became her, "only escape, it was the only alone time where no one could touch my mind while it roamed free with sexual fantasies and took my body along for the ride. It was then I learned how I needed to be touched." Another woman felt masturbation was something harmless and was a "moot point" when looking at the overall topic of sex and intimacy. She continued, "Why does it matter if someone masturbates? It literally affects no one but themselves." A woman from a particularly progressive sex of Islam responded, "I don't know if it’s necessary but I would probably hate my life if I didn’t do it. It’s like so fun!"
“I’ve personally stopped [masturbating] for a while now for religious reasons because I place my belief over short term pleasure and think that it’s good training for the soul to abandon short term pleasures and seek the bigger things in life... I don’t harbor any negative thoughts about it and it holds some significance for me as it allowed me to explore my sexuality more than anything.”
There was one woman who felt that the act of masturbation was something shameful. She said she felt, “guilt after every time,” that negative events in her life were the result of “God punishing [her] for masturbating” and that as she gets older and her fantasies become more extreme, the guilt becomes more burdensome. This guilt however, does not prevent her from masturbating. The general acceptance of masturbation as a private emancipation from expectations of sexuality is an interesting point, because it illustrates that at a base level these women are comfortable with themselves, their bodies and even their fantasies—it's the projection of themselves to society where the disconnect is formed.
"One of the reasons I got a couple of tattoos was because it was reasserting my control over my body, which I didn’t feel I had for most of my life. I was always told what to wear, and if it wasn’t deemed appropriate enough, was made to change or alter the outfit."
The biggest theme that women touched on, outside of the concept of virginity and purity, was the existence of a double standard. That, compared to men, their lives had been completely constructed around the framework of marriage. "As a young girl, when you got dressed up and looked pretty, the compliment paid would be, “you look like a bride.” Not a princess, not a flower. A bride." One respondent felt that her liberal values were in contrast with that of her more conservative mother. She went on to say that while her mother at times showed a certain amount of regret because of the way she had perceived a woman's function to be in her youth, which was that of a wife and a mother, she still, "often tells me, ‘I wish Allah would grant me the joy of seeing you in the white dress before I die.’" Modern women, and even to an extent women of the previous generation, are battling with the idea that a woman's life begins once she has married because the society within the region believes that there are certain things a woman cannot do without a man.
"I remember having crushes on my women teachers and being sexually aroused by women but I honestly believed that being gay was not an option for young Muslim girls. And my own homophobia flourished when I tried to bury those feelings."
Only one respondent openly identified as queer and she lived in the diaspora. When asked about her relationship to her home country as a queer woman she replied, "Women there (and here in Canada) from the community are sometimes our own worst enemies. They encourage the gender roles and are the first to slut shame." Another woman within the MENA region said, "I identify as bisexual but I think that it's stupid because I have never actually been with anyone." One woman commenting on the concept of worth among women in the community stated, “It gets even stickier when we include LGBT girls within MENA because their mere existence is taboo.” I would like to present the following video for the reader's consideration. The video was published by a tabloid paper in the Middle East. In it, you see several transwomen being questioned in their underclothes, the moral equivalent of nudity in the West. A few are wrapped only in a sheet to shield themselves from their neighbors as they are paraded down the stairs of their apartment building in a blatant act of shaming by the police for engaging in "homosexuality." The persecution that the LGBTQ community experiences in the MENA region, and even outside of it, is real and tangible. There are of course exceptions to this, several countries such as Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran have enacted various laws or exceptions to protect some members of the community. The region's general aversion to the LGBTQ community however conflicts its own history, as during the Middle and Modern Ages there was a considerable amount of homo-erotic literature and art, " as a result of rigid segregation of the sexes, [homosexual sex] seemed to be available on every corner." (Source: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/klauda081210.html)
“No, the current presentation of my body doesn’t accurately portray my inner sexual self, [but] that has given me ownership over my body more than anything else has.”
Two different women used the word “confined” when asked to describe their sexual lives in one word. Other words thrown at me were, “wild”, “pilgrimage (not to Mecca)”, “sad”, and “postponed”.
Despite this prevailing feeling of stand-by, most women are hopeful for the future. They see the Internet reaching so many young women within the region and in the diaspora, connecting minds and hearts and providing options for those who feel lost and isolated. "It is normal for values to become more liberal over time. But for my generation, in my opinion, it is even greater because of the technology revolution. Even our terminology is different, the way we mix Arabic and English, we're literally speaking a totally different language." Social media was cited as a particularly effective tool at allowing women to find the answers to their questions and start conversations in safe, judgment-free spaces. One woman in the MENA region however felt that the Internet could not solve everything. "It is the society itself that's the problem, the only thing that's changing is the increasing blindness of society and culture to sex. Just more excuses instead of progress." From another view, "As important as women's rights are, we need to fix the problems of the country itself. How can I talk about being a free woman, when I can't talk about being a free citizen?"
One interviewee summed up the situation quite nicely, "One word is not enough to describe a sandwich, let alone an aspect of a woman’s identity. But I guess I would say 'clusterfuck.'"
[This article originally appeared on www.qahwaproject.com]
A long time ago, in an Arabia far, far away
I am a huge history nerd. I love reading about history. I collect historical facts like some people collect records. In college, I would routinely fall asleep watching History Channel documentaries (especially Ancient Aliens). Part of this was because I truly believe that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” History allows us to predict the future by not only teaching us about actual events but also the motivation behind those events. Anthropologically speaking, our development as a species is even more interesting. So many of our traditions and beliefs have been filtered down over the centuries, often manifesting as warped interpretations of their original meaning.
Every year, around November or so, there is the inevitable Reddit post about how Christmas isn’t really about Jesus’ birth, but is actually a pagan holiday that was adopted by a burgeoning religion to inspire the conversion of the masses. Growing up in a bi-religious household, I always wondered if that trend went both ways; that is, if Islamic holidays were also adaptations of previously held beliefs, established in order to appeal more easily to a local population. Not surprisingly, my interest in this area was met with raised eyebrows and a chorus of “tsk-tsk”. Religion class was, after all, more of a listening exercise than one of active participation.
Having said that, I have nothing against institutionalized religion or religious tradition. Two words, “Devil’s advocate.“
Most information concerning pre-Islamic Arabian religious traditions and beliefs comes from archeological evidence. There exists little to no actual documented evidence from the time laying out the exact structure or belief system. What we do have is a series of clues indicating heavily that there are at least a few things of which we are certain.
Bringing together my years of internet-searching, late night library-ing and podcast-listening, I would like to present to you a list of facts and interest points concerning pre-Islamic Arabia religion that both surprised and intrigued me:
When discussing Pre-Islamic Arabia, it’s important to realize that we are not just talking about modern-day Saudi Arabia, but a very fluid geographic location spanning from Iran inward towards Tunisia. Bedouins were, and continue to be, harbingers of information and tradition throughout the Arab world, and wherever they travelled, they took with them the lessons of tradition and religion. Remember that during this time, Christianity and Judaism were widespread, so the stories and traditions of the early Abrahamic prophets were well known throughout the Middle East prior to Mohammed’s birth.
The time before Mohammed is referred to as the “Age of Ignorance” (Jahiliyah) which is a bit of an exaggeration. Pre-Islamic inhabitants of the Middle East were not as barbaric and ignorant as modern-day clerics would have you believe. In fact, people at the time were well versed in science and mathematics, particularly astronomy. They even had libraries! Early on in Arabian history, the night sky was a source of veneration. Early religions of the region were focused on the heavenly bodies and believed in the dominance of a masculine lunar deity known as Al-ilah. The moon was, and continues to be, a strong symbol in Islamic culture and Arab art. In addition to representing the original deity, the moon was used to determine calendar dates, and there is evidence that the original number of idols in the Kaaba was 360 – one for every day of the lunar year.
The name “Al-ilah” appears prior to Mohammed at various archeological sites throughout the Middle East. Later shortened to “Allah,” it is thought to have originally been the name for a supreme creator God among the plethora of polytheistic deities, or the name for a moon God (or both). The concept of a moon God is seen throughout the Arabian Peninsula, appearing in clay tablets in Sumeria in the form of a crescent moon and on burial jewelry throughout the region. Moon cults in Mesopotamia were commonplace and in Syria crescent moon symbols have been discovered indicating early belief in a moon God. There are accounts that even bread was baked in the shape of a crescent in order to show devotion to the moon God “Allah.” Inhabitants of Mecca built a shrine to the moon God, and some claimed that the black stone of the Kaaba is actually a meteorite sent by the moon God to his devoted followers on Earth.
The moon God had a solar wife named “Shams”, and three daughters: Al-lat, Al-Uzzah, and Manat. The name of the sun goddess should be recognizable, it’s the Arabic word for sun.
The eldest daughter (or according to some sources, the consort) of Allah was Al-lat. Thought to originate in Nabataea, she is the eldest of the desert goddesses. Her name means “The Goddess”. Though a symbol of fertility and motherhood, she is equivocated to the Greek goddesses Tyche (Destiny) and Athena (Wisdom). Her physical, worshiped form was white granite. In some areas of the Arabian Peninsula, there are claims that she evolves into Al-Uzzah.
Al-Uzzah, the goddess of the morning star, is the youngest daughter of Allah. Her name means “The Powerful”, and she is often equivocated to Venus, Isis or Aphrodite. She was the guardian of Nabataea, and her functions encompassed love and immortality. She was worshipped in the form of a black stone.
The third daughter of Allah – Manat – served as the goddess of fate and time. She is equated to the Roman goddess Nemesis, her husband was Hubal, a major God of chance in pre-Islamic Arabia. Even though there is no direct portrayal of Manat, she was a major goddess in the time before Mohammed. Pilgrims would often shave their heads at her statue and she was venerated as a force to be reckoned with up until the time of Mohamed.
All three goddesses are mentioned in the Qurʾān in 53: 19–22, also known as the Satanic Verses:
Now tell me about Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat,
The third one, another goddess.
What! For you the males and for him the females!
That indeed is an unfair division.
These verses are a bit of a boondoggle in Islam. Clerics claim that Satan influenced
Mohamed in a moment of weakness to utter these verses, and since the chains of narration are weak, it is considered to be a fabricated event. However, there are historians who believe that Mohamed did utter the verse, on the basis that no Muslim would invent such a story.
When I study the religious history of the Middle East, it seems to mimic the domination of Christianity in Europe. In order to spread more efficiently and with as little violent and societal upset as possible, the religion in question would annex previously held beliefs. Mohammed did not come out to his constituents and say, “Here is a new God called Allah”, just that, “Allah as you know him is the only God” which probably made the move from a pagan religion to a monotheistic religion relatively easier for a majority of the population. Regardless of what you believe, it’s comforting to know that while we eke out an identity on this rock hurtling through the universe to parts unknown, our core belief structures have remained the same. What varies depends on our environment and so we will continue to change as a species and evolve with new beliefs as is necessary to survive in society. As we do this, it is important to remember who we are and where we came from.
[This article originally appeared on www.qahwaproject.com]
Video games are no longer just for nerds. Between the proliferation of mobile apps and consoles' falling price points, as demonstrated by more affordable systems like the Wii U and 3DS, gaming is more popular than ever. This popularity is not limited to a certain demographic — both men and women of all backgrounds are gaming more frequently. This increase in popularity has begun to affect how games portray marginalized characters, like women and people of color. Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed in video games by Western developers as both heroes and villains. More recently however, Arab developers are beginning to take representation into their own hands.
The newest addition to the list of Arab characters in mainstream games is Rashid, from the upcoming Street Fighter V game, slated for release in March 2016. Capcom plans to unveil a total of four new characters to the series before its release; so far two characters have been revealed. Rashid was announced in September at the Games15 event in Dubai. Aside from his move set and minimal backstory, not much is known about his character, but he is the first Arab character in the main Street Fighter series. In Street Fighter EX there is another Arab character named Pullum Purna, however this series is non-canonical to the official Street Fighter story line.
One of the earliest portrayals of a Middle Eastern character in a video game is in the Prince of Persia series. (Persians are not Arab, but it's important to mention him, because in the mind of many Western gamers, he is perceived to be of Arab descent.) When the first Prince of Persia game was released for Apple II in 1989, the Prince was blond and fair-skinned; however as the series developed, he began to take on a more typical Middle Eastern look.
The character of the Prince has been rewritten many times, in one revamp as a more brooding character, with developers drawing inspiration for his demeanor from stories of the epic poem Shahnameh and from Zoroastrianism. Some argue that the Prince is born from an Orientalist perception of Arabs, and to an extent that is true. His dress, backstory, and array of magic powers (i.e. time control) exude oriental mysticism and a western obsession with eastern opulence.
Post 9/11, Arabs and Muslims began to appear in video games much more regularly, usually in antagonistic roles. Games like Delta Force: Land Warrior, Counterstrike, and the numerous incarnations of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, portray Arabs as terrorist-leaning barbarians without much depth. Though this portrayal may be the norm in some contemporary first-person shooter games, other genres of games have portrayed Arabs and Muslims in a more positive light.
The 2007 historical fiction adventure game, Assassin's Creed, is as yet the best example of positive representation of Arabs in a video game. Drawing inspiration from the book Alamut and the infamous medieval Nizari Ismaili sect of Assassins, Assassin's Creed takes place in the Middle Eastern cities of Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. You play as the assassin Altaïr Ibn La'ahad on a quest to defeat the Templars. The game was a commercial success, spawning numerous sequels and side games. Altaïr is listed as the 4th greatest Xbox character of all time by The Age newspaper, and ranked 9th on Game Informer's top characters of the 2000s list. In fact, as a character, he is thought of so highly that according to a 2008 article by the game player staff of The Age, "If everything about the game he inhabited had been as polished and brilliant as him, we certainly would have felt very differently about Assassin’s Creed."
This list is by no means a comprehensive one, but it does show that representation of Arabs and Muslims is becoming more prevalent, even normal, not just as main characters but as side characters as well. In the 2011 first-person action game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a side character named Faridah Malik, an American-Arab from Dearborn, Michigan. She represents a "normal" Arab/Muslim presence, as her presence has nothing to do with her otherness. She is simply a skilled pilot who happens to be of Arab descent.
Another game that needs to be mentioned is the 2012 indie PlayStation 3 game, Journey. Controlling a figure dressed in garb reminiscent of Bedouins, the player traverses a massive desert while encountering other players along the way. There is no dialogue in the game for single player mode, and you cannot contact other players in co-op mode either. The music in the game varies depending on the actions the player takes, and one can only communicate with other players through a musical chime. Journey has been called one of the greatest games of all time by multiple sources including GameSpot, Empire, and Metacritic. The game does not have a defined Arab makeup, but the art is similar to that of the nomadic tribes of the desert and the geography is unmistakably Middle Eastern.
Despite this ongoing shift towards artistic and social representation in video games, it must be said that true representation will never come from Western or Japanese game developers. If Arabs and Muslims crave genuine representation in video games, they must make their own. An Arab-developed game could serve as a cultural envoy that aims to educate players about Arab culture without making a game that is overtly about Arab culture. Game development in the Middle East is by vast quantities focused primarily on mobile games, however, this narrow focus is not necessarily a bad thing. There are more mobile gamers in the Middle East than traditional gamers, so the platform has its market.
A forthcoming game with potential to challenge traditional views of Arabs, particularly Arab women, is Saudi Girls Revolution. The game’s announcement has been widely discussed with articles appearing in CNN and Al-Jazeera. Currently in development by NA3M games, an Amman- and Copenhagen-based media group, the game follows a group of eight Saudi women dubbed the Mu’tazilah, who ride souped up motorcycles in flowing abayas and fight against oppression and tyranny in the future dystopian Arabian Empire. The women are meant to represent various personas in Saudi culture. The game even boasts LGBT representation with one of the heroines, Hussa, being lesbian.
The founder and chief of NA3M is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud. Prince Fahad started NA3M after realizing there was a deficiency in the portrayal of Arabs in video games and that, more often than not, their portrayal lacked authenticity. In short, this is an attempt to have decisive input on the portrayal of Arabs in media. In interviews, Prince Fahad and others involved in the games development, state the game is not meant to challenge political issues, but rather social ones. The game aims to "lead to or inspire change," not just in the game itself, but in the real world as well. The team hopes that the game will inspire men and women in the Middle East to get involved in video game production and contribute their own creative energy to society's improvement. No exact release date is set for SGR, but the first of several comic books detailing the lives of the eight heroines is set to be available later this year.
It's easy for a minority to claim no, or unfair, representation in video games. Arabs and Muslims may not always be portrayed fairly in mainstream games, but Arab and Muslim game developers now have the tools and the power to change that. The Middle East is no longer a technological vacuum, and developers like NA3M prove that. With positive representations of Arab culture becoming more commonplace in Western games and the growing popularity of the indie game development scene, there is a definite niche for Arab and Middle Eastern game developers to slip into. All they need to do is get involved.
[This article originally appeared on www.qahwaproject.com]
I did not grow up with comic books.
I did not even consider comic books, or graphic novels for that matter, to be a serious literary genre until I was an adult reader. Sure, I read the occasional Batman or Superman issue, but I never saw myself in those stories. Those characters and their struggles were foreign to me. They were superhuman problems in a mythical setting, they had no basis in my reality.
Having said that, many people do see themselves in those stories. They are able to take life lessons from comic books and find deeper meanings in graphic novels. Spider-Man, The Walking Dead, and others line the shelves of the dedicated. As far as storytelling mediums go, graphic novels and comic books are able to provide an experience that is uniquely their own. Unlike "traditional" media, graphic novels and comic books allow for, and encourage, the nonlinear progression of ideas and plot points at a pace determined by the reader. A person can take his or hertheir time with a story, they are able to linger on a page of art and probe for hidden meaning. With conventional books, one must read between the lines to connect ideas and themes, . Bbut with graphic novels and comic books, the reader has the opportunity to digest visual and narrative elements at their own pace, arguably creating a more personal bond with the characters and their struggles.
The first graphic novel I ever read was a gift. At the time, I was struggling with my identity as a biracial Arab. Having been born in the U.S. and spending my formative years in Egypt, I felt as if I was constantly at odds with myself. What would have been accepted in one culture was explicitly forbidden by the other. When I came back to the States for college, I did not have many Arab or Muslim friends, and for a long time I felt cut off from a part of my culture. The novel became a helping hand for me, as something that I could latch on toonto and use as a foundation to rebuild my sense of self.
The gift was Habibi by Craig Thompson. Though not written by an Arab, or even a Muslim for that matter, Habibi is a splendid display of oriental inspired artwork, style, and history. Following two child slaves, Dodola and Zam, Habibi utilizes pre-Islamic mysticism, Arabic calligraphy, and religion (bits of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are peppered throughout) to tell the story of their escape, their wretched journey into adulthood, and the love they find in each other. Though criticized for it's its lazy approach to the Oorient and female sexuality, the novel is able to explain some of the deeper meanings of the Qur'an and act as an educational tool against Islamophobia in the Wwest, all while delivering absolutely stunning artwork.
After reading Habibi, I discovered an entire library of graphic novels and comics under the Islamic identifier. The graphic novel Cairo was next on my reading list. Similar to Habibi, Cairo utilizes both Middle Eastern history and Islamic mythology as storytelling mechanisms, but unlike Habibi, Cairo was written by a Muslim convert. In the book, six characters scramble to find a stolen hookah that contains a mysterious key to 'understanding the East'. The author, G. Willow Wilson, lived in Cairo in her early twenties and is able to capture the mood and personality of the city perfectly. When reading it, I felt as if the characters were old friends, each one representinged a struggle with which I could identify. One of the main characters, a journalist, struggles with his feelings of helplessness under a dictatorship. His writing is unable to eaffect significant change, and throughout the novel he battles his timid nature to make way for passionate ideas.
Cairo was praised for being a thrilling adventure story and for its ability to repackage ancient beliefs for a modern audience. The artwork is beautiful, the tale engaging, and it is able to convey a strong message of hope for the Middle East and its peoples.
After Cairo, I was in the mood for something a bit more serious. In that respect, Zahra's Paradise was a real turning point for me. Up until that point, I had only read graphic novels that appealed to the more fantastical aspects of Islamic culture. Written by Amir Soltani and drawn by "Khalil" (the latter choosing to remain anonymous for political reasons), Zahra's Paradise is the story of the 2009 Iranian Elections, the subsequent Green Movement in Iran, and the search for the narrator's activist brother among a sea of lost brethren.
I could not put this book down. It felt as if my eyes had been opened to an unknown war. Amir and Khalil were placing me in a struggle I had only witnessed from the outside, and inducing a feeling of loss I had never known. The illustrations, the language and the references to historical figures inspired within me a voracious appetite for Middle Eastern diasporic literature.
I moved on to other visual novels with more political leanings; Persepolis, Footnotes in Gaza, and 18 Days. The books themselves appear now as something more than just collected stories;, they are articles of historical agency. One can see history from the side of the oppressed, from the censored, and from the weak. In Persepolis, the reader is taken back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution;, in Footnotes, the reader is given a guided tour to the plight of the Palestinian people and their tangled history;, and in 18 Days, the reader is transported to Tahrir Square and invited to take down a dictator.
Since graphic novels allow for both an intellectual and emotional reading experience, it's no wonder that classrooms across the world have opted to use graphic novels and comic books as tools to educate students about historical conflicts, particularly when attempting to explain the position of the oppressed.
Aside from providing historical narrative, this burgeoning genre also provides a sense of identity. When reading the new Ms. Marvel, members of the diaspora can identify with Kamala Khan's major internal battle for belonging, as well as a myriad of minor conflicts, for example, wanting to go to a party with boys. Kamala's emergence as the first Muslim headlining superhero has had a tremendous effect on the Muslim-American community. To quote Fatemeh Fakhraie, founder of Muslimah Media Watch, she, "normalizes [the] idea of the American experience as Muslim." This normalization is essential, not only as a weapon against discrimination and Islamophobia, but also as a way for Muslim third culture youth to work through personal struggles of belonging while retaining a sense of self.
Overall, the importance of these graphic novels and comic books is not limited to the sense of identity they provide to readers in the diaspora, but also to the education of those outside of it. There is a definite lack of perspective in the Occident when it comes to issues like the Iranian revolution, the protests in Cairo, or even just concepts of identity and femininity in the Middle East. By having access to these visual stories, these protests against governments, these shared moments between an author and her mother, and the thoughts of a young Muslim superhero, we are given meaning. They are all pieces of a shared culture that we can put in our pocket, and save for when we need it the most.
Habibi, Craig Thompson
Cairo, G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker
Zahra's Paradise, Amir Soltani & Khalil
Persepolis I and II, Marjane Satrapi
Ms. Marvel, Marvel Comics, G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker
Jinnrise, Andrew Marcus
Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco
18 Days, A.S. Seleem and Ramy Habeeb
Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan and Noah Stollman