neither here nor there

by Nariman Youssef

(written on June 4th)

Today was elections day in the UK. I don’t vote but I’ve been following the build-up in the news, and today found myself going around my flat humming a seasonal adaptation of this song:

I’m neither left or right.. I’m just staying home tonight.. getting lost in Obama’s little speech..

And lost in Obama’s little speech I did get, for today the man who had kept me up all night on November 4th, was addressing the Muslim World (capital, not plural) from my very own hometown. After listening to the full speech, I found the text on the white house website, and sat with it for a couple of hours trying to figure out how I could find it promising, inspiring, irritating and cringe-inducing, all at the same time.

Actually the irritation had started earlier, with the hype leading up to the speech.. Who and what is that muslim world that the US president was going to address? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it a place or an entity or a species or what? In any case, if Cairo is where you go to address the muslim world, then Cairo must be VERY muslim indeed! That’s why when the Guardian reported on some guy complaining about the security clampdown before Obama’s visit (in an article that incidentally also carries the words Muslim World in the title!), they could have him describe what is happening as ‘religiously forbidden’.* The ‘computer shop employee’ goes on.. ‘if they spent a fraction of all this security money here on giving people bread then we’d all be much better off’.. seems to me like a perfectly secular analysis of the situation, if it wasn’t for the translation of haram as ‘religiously forbidden’ that put the whole thing in a framework of piety and zeal.. only fitting for Cairo’s status as the locus of the muslim world I suppose.
Now the speech itself.. ahem.. features 69 uses of variations on the words Muslim, Islam and Islamic (really, that is the number, I counted) –as opposed to 6 uses of “Arab”, which occur only in the context of Palestine & Israel. It’s clear then which is the prevalent category now. And everyone seems to be buying and liking this idea of Obama –as a powerful representative of a big undifferentiated Western World—reaching out to a big undifferentiated Muslim World. And the people of the Muslim World –so long misunderstood—are happy that finally someone is making an effort to speak what he thinks is their language. This must be why the Cairo University –invited—audience broke into enthusiastic applause every time the president prefaced a paragraph with the words: ‘As the holy Qur’an said’.. (cringe) OK, in all objectivity, this was a nice gesture, one showing that his team have done their research, and at least he’s aware that the Qur’an has some nice bits (and it must be good and educational for Americans back home to hear those bits as well).. but I couldn’t help being reminded of Napoleon “nous sommes les vrais musulmans” Bonaparte, whose leaflets and announcements to Egyptians in 1798 usually started with bism-illah-ilrahman-arahim wa la-ilaha-illa-allah. Granted, the locals seem to like this kind of thing.. and maybe I’m the only who feels patronized by the presumption of flattery.

And I have to say they tried, Obama and his team of researchers and speech writers, but there was really only so much they could do. The clash of civilizations narrative precedes them, and is too deeply ingrained now to be shaken off in the course of a speech. It was in a way necessary to use the existing dichotomy of West and Islam. They had to work with it. But do we (the varied creatures of the different species that inhabit the muslim worldssss) have to take it without questioning too? Can’t we at least wriggle a tiny bit when they try to squeeze us into a pigeonhole with such little legroom? Or do we also find it convenient to fit snugly into a tight category and safely enclose everyone else in the other? I was more annoyed I think by the predictability of audience reaction than by anything in the speech itself.

Anyway… still.. despite the undercurrent of irritation and cringing.. I did find the speech inspiring (yes, life is full of grey areas like that). Not many speeches nowadays would be as nuanced and carefully balanced (let alone speeches by politicians, let alone by an American president addressing.. errm.. the muslim world!). There is a very clever balancing act going on all the time, as Obama tries to address the concerns of his immediate audience, without losing sight of the concerns of others listening elsewhere (including “a small but potent minority” who really believe we’re all terrorists). He manages to mention the history of colonialism and America’s role in Iran’s revolution, acknowledges the moral ambivalence of the invasion of Iraq, expresses disapproval of the continuing building of Israeli settlements, and actually says Palestine (twice! note: not “the Palestinians” but Palestine), and even uses the word “occupation” in talking about ‘the daily humiliations –big and small—that [Palestinians must endure]’.

All these are nods towards narratives that are not usually openly acknowledged in American politics, showing a sense of history –global history—and a willingness to include more than one side of every story. This is a very very long way –lest we forget—from the “either with us or against us” rhetoric. I think Obama’s speech writers –and this had first hit me during his famous race speech—have a special knack for going for the jugular, making him say things that may be very obvious, but that no one really expects a politician to spell out so clearly. It might sound simple, but in a world where political speak has long stopped even trying to address reality, it kind of verges on the revolutionary.

So I was inspired by the possibility of maybe nothing else but a shift in the dominant narrative. We’re already slightly better off, if all Obama’s oratory prowess achieves is bring into the language of mainstream politics some of the details that are usually glossed over, details like the historical effects of colonialism and the everyday hassles of occupation for instance. Rhetoric is as good a place to start as any I think!

But poor Barack, he .. really .. can .. never win.
. . .

* I checked the Guardian’s article again, and in the online version they’ve actually corrected it. Now the word haram is elaborately explained as ‘carrying a range of meanings from “religiously forbidden” to a more secular “it’s unfair, it’s a shame”..’
What the man is saying sounds to me like: It’s unfair what they’re doing to us.

(حرام اللي بيعملوه فينا ده!)

Ah, Arabic language.. how exotic and complicated thou art!