Several Fridays ago I attended an incredible event that was a joint effort between the Persian and Arabic language studies programs, in which professors from both departments spoke about their respective language and its role in the history and culture of the Middle Eastern region. I had no idea that both languages used the same alphabet; this seemed incredibly strange to me until I realized that the romance languages share a common alphabet, so why shouldn’t languages from another region draw their words from the same letters?
My interest was definitely piqued in wanting to learn and understand these beautiful languages. I speak somewhat fluent Spanish, and it was interesting to learn that many words in Spanish actually derive from Arabic. I am also learning Hebrew, and can hear similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic languages when I listen to spoken Arabic.
Another element of the lecture was food; there was a delicious array of dishes from both Arabic and Persian culture. Mediterranean cuisine is my all time favorite, so I was familiar with many of the foods laid out. However, one that I had never tried before was a Persian saffron pudding, which was tinted yellow and had hints of rose in its complex flavor array. The head of the Iranian Studies Department spoke on the topic of food from the Middle Eastern region, and about some of the eating habits that differ from our habits in the Western world. She highlighted the importance of community in Arabic and Persian-speaking countries, where people really take the time to sit down together to share a meal. And although in the West we are big on sitting in chairs around a proper table, it turns out there are many health benefits to eating on the floor, which is typical of how people eat in the Middle East.
The final topic talked about was tea. I was fascinated to learn that Middle Easterners were originally religious coffee drinkers; however, with the advent of the silk road, tea became a very common and important commodity in peoples’ lives. When I was in Israel this past December, I often drank black tea with fresh mint. I was delighted when I saw a table with pots of tea and a fresh bowl of the fragrant herb, as it transported me back to my own journey to a country of the Middle East.
How is it that the Arab people have come to be so pointedly stereotyped in the United States? Jack Shaheen’s exhibit entitled A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture explores this question, displaying examples from books, cartoons, movies, and other elements of popular culture that highlight the distorted and yet widely accepted categories that we have come to sort Arabs into. Far from viewing Arabs in the light of their rich cultural history and traditions, our society sorts them into harshly defined categories connoting negativity and fear. Most often these categories take the form of the deranged villain, the enslaved harem dancer, and the greedy, powerful Sheikh.
What is perhaps most disturbing is how young we are when we first begin to consume media that promotes Arab stereotypes and anti-Arab prejudice. When we first watch a movie such as Disney’s Aladdin, we are not simply gazing upon a beloved childhood film, but absorbing twisted representations of the Arab race. All three of the major categorical stereotypes are present; Jasmine and her exotic beauty are confined to her wealthy father’s luxurious palace, with the insidious Jafar lurking just around the corner to put his evil plot into motion. Just as the movie itself has come to be acknowledged as a family classic, so too have the stereotypes portrayed in it become accepted household notions of who Arabs are.
Even though anti-Arab sentiment rose sharply in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which perpetuated the image of the Arab terrorist, the negative representation of Arabs has roots that extend much farther back in history. Even as many Arab countries in the Middle East were fighting for freedom and the implementation of democracy during the mid and late 20th century, the portrayal of Arabs in American media remained highly stigmatized. Rather than identifying with the peoples’ struggle for liberty, United States media instead depicted the Middle East as a war-torn and backwards region, whose citizens were either crazed fanatics that committed heinous acts of violence, or were weak and powerless civilians.
In recent years, universities and other academic institutions have expanded studies and programs related to the Middle East and Arab culture, and have begun to cultivate outreach programs aimed at shattering prejudice and redefining how Americans think about the Arab people. As Shaheen claims, it is up to the next generation to write the fresh stories that will ultimately help to re-shape our thinking and understanding not only of Arabs, but of the incredible diversity of colors and cultures throughout the world. Perhaps with these new narratives, we will finally begin to see our neighbors not as threats, but as a diverse part of our community.
As a part of Oklahoma’s 2017 Teach-In, speaker Soner Cagapty, of the Turkish Research program at the Washington Institute, presented a lecture on the current crisis facing Turkey’s political system. It was striking to learn how deep the roots of Turkey’s democracy go. Turkey has has had free and fair elections for seven decades; for reference, that’s longer than Spain has had free elections. The accusations that the last elections in the country were rigged therefore do not come lightly. There is a growing trend of authoritarianism throughout the country, and more and more opponents of the government are being jailed and silenced. Cagapty emphasized that this trend was not due to a fundamental breakdown in Turkey’s vibrant democratic institutions or civil society, but rather the leadership of its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite major accomplishments in stimulating economic growth and transforming Turkish infrastructure and living standards in the early years of his presidency, Erdogan has become corrupt in his attempts to mold Turkey into his own image.
Most fascinating was Cagapty’s discussion of Turkish youth and their role in the future of the country. Erdogan lost the recent referendum in the 18-32-year-old age group by a huge margin, indicating widespread disapproval of Erdogan and his policies among youth. Were a charismatic leader to emerge to represent this generation and fight for the return of fundamental democracy, Cagapty believes the direction of the future could be rerouted to heal the fractures within Turkey’s government and give the power back to the people. The fact that youth have the potential to create such important change goes to show that we should never doubt our individual role in politics, even if we are young.
Cagapty’s passion for Turkey was very apparent; he spoke of how he has been writing books on the country for more than 20 years, and that he truly loves this work. His charisma shone through when he quickly added that he “also loves yoga.” The combination of the wealth of knowledge Cagapty had to offer and his engaging speaking style made this lecture both educational and extremely enjoyable to listen to.
I have been to many musical performances in my life; I absolutely love the experience of live music. The majority of these performances have been in the vein of Western music, from classical concerts to rock festivals. However, this past Sunday I attended a musical event at Catlett that centered on Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and it was a very different experience from any past musical event I could recall attending. The “Souza Percussion Duo” consisted of five pieces, and each one was enchanting. A multitude of percussion instruments were played throughout the concert, ranging from marimbas 10 times my size to drums to woodblocks to cymbals.
While the Western ideal in music is usually a single, clear melody backed by one or several harmonies (whether vocal or instrumental), I learned that in traditional African society the ideal sound is “fuzzy”. Just as Westerners prefer clarity in music, Africans and those who follow in their musical traditions strive to create a network of complex and layered melodies. This was reflected in the fact that at most times, both of the musicians were holding two mallets in each hand. This gave them the amazing capability of creating several intricately intertwined melodic lines at all times.
Another interesting aspect of the structure of the songs was their melismatic quality; they often sounded floating and otherworldly. Rather than having a sharply defined structure or a single time signature at any point, as is the case in much Western music, the focus was on the patterns and rhythms, and the way that they combined to create a mosaic of sound. I had never experienced this approach to music. I enjoyed it immensely, and have certainly been inspired to attend more non-traditional concerts focused on the music of places like Africa and the Caribbean.
Although we spend our weekdays working hard here in Barcelona, taking dance classes from 9 am until 5 pm, we have weekends free to explore! This past weekend we had a fantastic slew of adventures, beginning with the celebration of Día de San Juan on Friday night. This holiday honors the summer solstice; bonfires are built on the beaches and fireworks are set off all night long!
On Saturday, we woke up early to see Sagrada Familia, the breathtakingly beautiful church that has been in the process of being built for more than 100 years! Antoni Gaudí is the mastermind behind the architecture, who wanted to design the church in such a way as to harmonize elements of nature and liturgy. After gazing at the multitude of brilliant stained glass and taking in the majestic interior structure, which is built to look like a forest, we headed to lunch, opting for a lovely restaurant with traditional Spanish food. In true Spanish fashion, we spent a long time relaxing and enjoying each other’s company over a three course meal. I got to try Crema Catalana, a sweet delicacy of the region, and found it to be absolutely delicious. With full and happy bellies, we made our way to a virtual reality exhibition on the singer and songwriter Björk. It was quite an experience – we wore special headsets that put us in an entirely different 3D space, with Björk’s music playing and wild images and colors flashing around us.
After a packed Saturday, Sunday rolled in with a new wave of excursions! Our day started with a visit to Park Güell (pronounced like the word “well”). Also designed by Gaudí, it features an iconic mosaic bench that winds its way around a large interior section of the park. There were also many incredible mosaic sculptures, including a giant lizard! From here we went to the Picasso Museum, where we got to see many of Picasso’s incredible paintings and learn about his process as an artist, and also the different periods he went through. I was excited by his series “Las Meninas”, based on the work by Velazquez, because in my 10th grade Spanish class we spent a great deal of time analyzing that particular Velazquez painting! We finished the day with a a creamy and delicious gelato pit-stop.
Below is a photo of me with some “crimson and cream” tiles we found at the park!
Saludos de Espana! (Greetings from Spain!)
On my first study abroad adventure, I find myself in the majestic city of Barcelona! Before arriving, friends and family had showered the city with compliments when I mentioned I would be traveling here. And since my arrival on June 2nd, I have stood in awe of just how incredible it truly is!
I am officially participating in the OU School of Dance Barcelona Program. We spend between 5 and 6 hours Monday through Friday in the dance studio, working hard and sweating in the Barcelona heat. The studio where we take class is a regional academy called the Centre de Dansa de Catalunya. Our modern dance classes are taught by our sponsoring OU professor, Austin Hartel, but for out ballet and repertory classes we are lucky enough to be able to take class from Roser Munoz and Joan Boix, the owners of the studio. They come from a completely different background, and it is exciting to be exposed to a new perspective on ballet.
One of the coolest aspects of being here is the constant exposure to the Spanish language. Although I haven’t taken a Spanish class since my senior year of high school, I have been surprised at how quickly I have picked the language back up. To be able to practice with native speakers and communicate effectively has been amazingly satisfying. Taking ballet class in Spanish has also been an eye-opening experience; although the language of movement is universal, it is a very different hearing corrections and connecting ideas in Spanish rather than English. The teachers do try and communicate some things in English, and because ballet steps are in French, ballet class here is a potpourri of the three languages!
I am off to rehearsal – hasta la proxima vez!
Passover has always been one of my favorite times of the year. It is a celebration of tradition, of family, of the Jewish cultural heritage that I am so proud to be a part of. This year, OU Hillel decided to host an Interfaith Passover Seder in addition to a traditional first night Seder. Interfaith took place this past Wednesday, and authorities from the three Abrahamic faiths were represented: a rabbi, a minister, and a Muslim from the OKC Dialogue Institute. What was incredible about this particular set of leaders of the various faiths was their diversity, as two women from different countries and a gay man.
Rabbi Vered began by talking about the story of Passover and the basic elements of the traditional Jewish celebration. We then discussed at our tables the concept of a “narrow space”, times when we have felt boxed in by prejudice. Reverend Welch shared his narrow space as being the intersection of his Christian faith and his sexuality, which many people refuse to accept as anything but mutually exclusive. Kuaybe talked about her narrow space being that she does not want her daughter to wear a hijab because she fears for her safety, despite the pride she feels in wearing her own hijab. Hearing these anecdotes was an important reminder that while religion can be a beautiful part of our lives, it can also lead to very hurtful situations.
All in all, it was an incredibly inspiring night, as people from different faiths and backgrounds came together to enjoy a meal and learn from one another. As Rabbi Vered enthusiastically proclaimed at one point, in talking among themselves the three religious leaders had discovered that there were far more similarities between them than differences. Society often likes to draw lines between religions and try and force the impression that they have nothing in common. But in just a few short conversations, these three people had found a great deal of overlap in their beliefs, ideologies, and lives in general. They approached one another with kindness and openness and shared a joyous meal together. It makes me wonder how much better off the world would be if we all took the time to sit down around the table together and acknowledge all that we share.
It was a lovely Friday night, and I was sitting eating dinner with friends when I happened to make an errant comment about there being a salsa ball in the union later that evening. I had considered going, but hadn’t been able to find someone interested in tagging along with me. Much to my surprise, my friend Emily’s face lit up: “Let’s go!”
I was taken aback. I love trying new things, especially if they involve exploring elements of other cultures, and here was someone who shared my adventurous spirit! Emily and I were relatively new friends, but together we set out for the dance floor.
When we arrived, we found the room packed with people! The night began with a bachata lesson, and we learned the basic pattern of the feet and how to do a simple turn. Later on there was a brief salsa lesson. I am a lifelong dancer, and although I’ve conquered styles ranging from ballet to flamenco to swing, I had never tried any type of Latin dance. The rhythm was very different from anything I was used to, and my body had to really adjust in order to get in the groove of the movement! Emily and I danced together and smiled through it all as the live band filled the room with vivacious music. Despite our fumbling footwork, we had a (hip) swinging night!
The words song, Jewish, and Spain all have special significance to me; therefore, when a poster advertising the event Sephardic music: Songs of Devotion and Desire: The Musical Heritage of Jewish Spain caught my eye, I was immediately enthralled. I love listening to live musicians, have a deep personal connection to Judaism, and adore Spanish language and culture. Although I had a crazy Monday due to cancelled flights back to campus and was extremely tired by evening, this was an event I knew I could not miss. Entering Pitman Recital Hall, I was extremely curious as to what exactly I was about to experience; it seemed like such a perfect collision of my interests.
The event began with a short lecture about the history of Jews living in Spain and in Sephardic communities outside of Spain (these emerged after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492). Although people most commonly associate religion in Spain with Catholicism, a rich Jewish history existed there for many years prior to the domination of the Catholic Church. Important figures emerged from Spain during this time, including the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides and several significant Jewish poets.
After the professor concluded his talk, the musical portion of the night began. Janice Meyerson, the singer, floated onto the stage in a long black gown, followed by her accompanist. As his fingers danced along the piano keys, her operatic voice filled the hall with the sounds of a spectacular cultural heritage. While I recognized signature elements of the Jewish musical style, it was a new experience to hear them played with ladino words. (Ladino is the Sephardic Jewish dialect of Spanish). Some of the lyrics were a blend of Hebrew and Spanish, and this unique intersection of language was absolutely amazing to discover, as I never knew such a thing existed. The songs Ms. Meyerson sang revolved around love and desire, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the magic of the music of Jewish Spain.
The Holocaust was an extremely horrific event in history; millions of innocent people were murdered due to prejudice, antisemitism, and hatred, and it is a hard thing for many people to talk about. However, for professor Deborah Lipstadt, talking about the Holocaust turned into a fight to prove its authenticity. The movie Denial is based on the true story of how she was challenged in court by famous Holocaust denier David Irving. After discrediting him in her book Denying the Holocaust , he takes her to court for allegedly slandering his name. In the subsequent court proceedings, Deborah’s dedicated legal team endeavors to prove that Irving intentionally twisted the meaning of historical documents to suit his personal view that the Holocaust was invented by the Jews and never really happened. It is a battle to prove that the Holocaust happened, to have this tragedy legally recognized as a part of history. It tells the incredible story of a woman who dedicates herself to fighting for the truth.
The Schusterman Center for Judaic Studies and OU Hillel co-sponsored a showing of the movie Denial several weeks ago, and since then I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about its significance and relevance in a world that is once again becoming increasingly antisemitic. We cannot allow the Holocaust to slip from our memory, as bomb threats are regularly being called into Jewish Community Centers around the nation and antisemitic messages are being spread. Allowing ourselves to forget about the Holocaust is just as dangerous as denying it ever happened – acknowledging and learning from the horrors of the past is the only way we will ever be able to move forward toward a brighter future.