Monday, January 14, 2008

Self-Criticism or Self-Hatred?

Roba, a young woman from Jordan, has been blogging at "And Far Away" for several years now. It's mostly a personal-diary weblog, but she does discuss, from time to time, issues of wider interest as they come up in her daily life. Last week, for example, in "Questler: Aiding Your Quest for Knowledge," she explained how, as a young girl, she was a poor student because in her classroom at that time the focus of the instruction was on listening and memorization and the teachers wouldn't allow her to engage with the material to be learned either visually or in written form. Then in fourth grade she failed an exam.

"It didn’t help that in the Arab world," Roba wrote, "teachers think that learning is only done by listening. How often was I forced to put my pen and paper away by the teacher so that I wouldn’t doodle, but instead stare blankly at the chalkboard while my mind did somersaults? For the longest time, I hated school, I hated learning, and I believed I was stupid."

But then, in sixth grade, she came across a book of her grandfather's called "The New Medicine Show," and, reading through this single book, she was finally able to understand how the human body worked. The next day at school, she got an A on a test in biology for the first time. Roba's academic career changed after that:
My discovery of informal learning changed my life. I realized that I cannot work with my attention span when it comes to listening, but that I can always make up for it with books and the internet, reading about a topic beyond what is required in the syllabii and without the mindframes set by the educators. I realized that it wasn’t my problem that I was a bad student as a child, it was the problem of the Arab mentality that puts too much stress on the importance of “listening” and formal knowledge. With better grades and the knowledge that sitting quietly at school is absolutely futile, I became louder, more outgoing, and more confident. I finished middle school and highschool with straight A’s, and university with a GPA of 3.7, while never listening to anything anyone ever said at school. I was always doodling, taking pictures, reading a book tucked inside my textbook.
Recently Roba learned about a woman named Razan who runs a website called "Questler" that focuses on just such pedagogical issues that Roba had encountered as a young girl. In her blog entry, Roba included an short interview with Razan, in which asked Razan: "I know Questler is international, b[ut] as an Arab, do you think the Arab world in its current backwards mentality is ready for such an initiative?" This question would soon stimulate discussion on the comments page.

One of the first to stop by was Khalid Jarrar. He wrote a lengthy critique of Roba's blog entry. Because she had used the phrase "Arab mentality" when discussing the pedagogical system in her school, Khalid accused Roba of engaging in self-hatred and not self-criticism. The more he wrote, the angrier Khalid seemed to get:
[T]here is a pattern of not self-critisim, you have a pattern of…self-hating !! you dont belong to the “arab backward mentality” you dont speak Arabic, you dont belong to religion, the very majority of books, music, songs, movies you ever talk about is western, it seems to me that you are not satisfied with anything here, because it seems to me that you dont seem to belong here….dont seem to be able to fit? dont seem to want to belong?

And thats upsetting, all your critisim, writen in english, said like a westerner, in totally western views and logics, all that critism even unrightfuly directed towards everything Arab and Muslim, seems like its coming from an “outsider”, doesnt smell like sincere critism from someone calling for positive changes from the inside, and to add to it, just happens to come in a time of foriegn invasions to our region, not only Palestine, but also Iraq, and possibly others to follow, military intervention accompanied by a cultural attack aiming to wipe the Arab ID, and evry other source of pride that would prevent a person living in this region from rejecting an occupation, implementing this sence of resentment towards everything Arab and Muslim, to have even further control over people in this region and defeat their resistence.
What do you think? Was Roba engaging in self-criticism or self-hatred? For Khalid Jarrar, Roba was not simply being critical of a way of teaching that is used in the Arab world; she was seduced by Westerners and, in fact, a traitor to the Arab people. Khalid's peroration in his comment was an impassioned plea to Roba not to reject her Arab/Muslim inheritance and to join him in the restitution of his people's glory. Khalid wrote:
I think we, as bloggers, must be among the first people to be aware of this and work to encounter it rather than promote it, we are in times where we need to get back to our identity as a way of self-preservation and resisting occupations, Islam, regardless of the fact that you like it or not, since the very majority of people in the region are muslims, is a base of unity too, that can be used to strengthen the relations among people and better prepare them to fight this multi-dimentional occupation to our region. the Arab heritage, has billions of bright sides and bright values, that we can invest to strengthen the sence of commitment towards these values and towards each other, you can always call for the good values of the Arab cultures, and you would be doing a good thing, rather than what looks like ili96iyad bilma2 il 3akir and looking for sides you see dark to critisize it for the mean fun of it and to look all ( i am so cool and western and 3arab are so ye3 and sovage), which seems like all what you ever do, ever, ever, not once you say anything good about anything Arab or Muslims, what good does that bring?
This issue of the shifting line between self-criticism and self-hatred is not just one that Arabs have to confront; at times all social groups have critics within their collectivity who are either viewed as constructive critics or people who simply hate their own kind. For Arabs, because of a long history now of failure when confronted with the West, this issue is particularly volatile, as we saw here when Khalid became upset with Roba's comments and phraseology.

I have no answers here. We too here in the United States have people whose criticism of our own culture borders on self-loathing (for different reasons than those that animate Arab discourse, of course) and whose commentary does not seem constructive.

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If you would like to see what Roba looks like (and her famous red high-top Converse sneakers), this week she offers a snapshot of a feature article called "Cyber Junky" written about her for Pulp magazine.

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While writing the piece above, I was also thinking of a blog entry called "Again on the Train" from back in late-November of 2007 written by Hala at "Madly in Love with Iraq." Hala is living in the United Kingdom right now and she's started to notice some of the basic differences in outlook between the people around her there and what she remembers from Iraq and the Arab Middle East. One thing she noticed is that people in the West look to the future while those in the Middle East often look to the past. Hala writes:
In contrast we Arabs in general and Iraqis in particular trust the past more than the future.

It is only us who constantly look back and glorify the past. People now yearn for Saddam’s time and during his time they used to long for the sixties and in the sixties they wished the monarchy would rise again and so on.

Probably some would say it is unfair to put the blame on people when they are governed by brutal dictatorships and subjected to a lot of unjustness.

But I have become to believe that we Arabs are always afraid of losing our traditions and we grab in them blindly. Arabs don’t accept any criticism when it comes to religion or even sect. The majority of us live in cocoons even when we leave our countries.

We spend a life time struggling between what is forbidden (religion) and what is acceptable and not acceptable (tradition) and we end up losing on both.

We want to change but under our own conditions and changes are in most of the times unconditional.

However, and although I sincerely believe that people are the same all over the world, and their reactions and behaviour depend on how fairly they are treated, but unfortunately we are so used to being oppressed that we cannot function properly even when we taste freedom.

As Londoners cried all night over what they called a “disgraceful loss” of a very important match, they woke up the next morning and pinpointed the reason!
“We need home grown talents to rescue our national game”.

I thought of home, I thought of how long it would take to grow new Iraqis, how long it would take to demolish the concrete barriers between our areas, how long it would take to reinstate trust and love and most importantly how long it would take to reach enlightenment.
One cannot but sympathize with Hala and all those like her who would like to see tangible progress in her homeland and the defeat of the many tyrannies that have strangled the region for so long. In which direction will the region turn? To the past with Osama bin Laden and Khalid? Or to the future with Roba? Or perhaps a distinct blend of the past and the future? I do understand the concern of those Arabs who don't want to lose their identity. It can't be easy trying to balance one's Arab identity with the mulitple identities that flood out of the West with our products and our ideas.

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