Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Cynthia & Malikah in Alexandria

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Cultural diplomacy expert, former ambassador to the Netherlands, and Hip Hop Diplomacy advisor-at-large, Cynthia Schneider, was in Alexandria 2 weeks ago for the Bibliotheca’s conference: Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture Towards Enhanced US-Muslim Countries Collaborations, commemorating the one year anniversary of President Obama’s Cairo speech. Her report from the field came out this past week in the Huffington Post, and I’m most excited by the news that Lebanese rapper Malikah, the rising star of Beirut’s underground scene, got to perform at the conference. When Cynthia originally asked me to help her and the conference organizers pick a few Hip Hop artists to perform, I immediately thought of Malikah, representing the forefront of the female rap revolution and one of the best examples of the power of Hip Hop to inspire and embolden young women in the Middle East. There were a few other artists that I suggested, including Cairo’s kings, The Arabian Knightz, and the Syrian-American MC, Omar Offendum, who has performed and spoken at similar conferences in the past. However, the organizers were concerned that a Hip Hop program might offend some of the guests, which included a number of powerful muftis and other religious figures. But I’m very glad that Malikah, the most potentially-controversial of all the artists I suggested, by dint of her gender, made it to the stage.

Below is Cynthia’s post. Videos and an interview with Malikah coming soon.

Read more…


My name is Khan (or Hussain)… (pt. 2)

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was blogging last night about the film “My Name is Khan”, and its intersection with President Obama, it did not yet occur to me that the greatest irony of the film is not the Muslim Indian actor named Khan playing a Muslim Indian hero named Khan, who must tell the president that he’s “not a terrorist”. Oh no, not by far. It took the photo above to remind me that the greatest irony here is that Khan, both the actor and the character, had to make this confession to a man who is also considered a terrorist because of his Muslim surname, which, in this case, happens to be Hussain.

And here’s the kicker: the photo was not taken in some distant, “anti-American” land. It wasn’t even taken in some racist, redneck boondock. It was taken on West 123rd Street, in the heart of Harlem, at the Atlah World Missionary Church. I felt compelled to find out what else the good Pastor James David Manning had to say, so I visited the church’s website and boy, did I find out. From what I can tell, Atlah is a predominately Black, evangelical church, school, and would-be media producer that counts among its ministries:

  • Exploring the lies taught by our “leaders” who have used slavery as the means to incite hatred of white people to perpetuate the lies.
  • Exposing the ill effects of the media moguls of Jay-z, 50 Cent, and others upon Black youth.
  • Exposing the Magnificent Seven – Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton, T.D. Jakes, Louis Farrakan, Don King, and Cornell West, as the American witch doctors.

And here’s a taste of the Pastor’s rhetoric, as it concerns President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Haiti after the earthquake.

In the end, I’m still not quite sure what this says about America and Obama and Muslims but I do see just how closely our struggle with race (which, contrary to stupid opinion, did not “end” with the election of Mr. Obama) and our struggle with religion are linked in this country, making the identity (and authority) of Obama doubly controversial. What is also clear is the power of visual storytelling, specifically in the form of film and video, in manipulating that identity for the purposes of communicating either love or hate. We’re yet to see many Obama portrayals in film but I suspect we’ll yet see many more, and especially from the rest of the world, who is just as busy as we trying to figure out how the land of opportunity could become the land of paranoia.

My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. This is the leitmotif of the new film from acclaimed Bollywood director, Karan Johar, and it is one that bears repeating, especially in the United States. The main character, a Muslim Indian with a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome (played by Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who is also Muslim), first utters these words at the very beginning of the film, as he is being roughly searched at the San Francisco Airport. This sets up the primary theme of the film (which Khan’s grandmother whispers to him before he sets out for America), that “there are two kinds of people in the world, good and bad”. What she doesn’t explain to him, however, is that most people tend to extend this judgement over entire groups and have difficulty making exceptions to their deeply-ingrained prejudices. Such is the painful truth that Khan is forced to learn in post-9/11 America, as a series of anti-Muslim attacks unfold, including one that results in the death of his wife’s son, who isn’t even Muslim. Khan sets out on a Gump-esque mission to tell as many people as he can that he is “not a terrorist”, including President Bush, to whom he shouts those very words at a rally and is promptly tackled by Secret Service and sent to an FBI detention center for interrogation. Khan is eventually released when 2 young Indian journalists come across video footage of the rally to corroborate Khan’s story but the point has been made: In the US, if you’re name is Khan, you will be treated like a terrorist.

And, in the great tradition of art imitating life, this point proved true last summer when Shah Rukh Khan, the actor who plays Khan in the film, was detained at Newark Airport for over an hour of “secondary questioning”. Khan, one of the biggest film stars in India and the developing world, was on his way to New York to promote “My Name is Khan” when this tragically ironic twist of fate occurred. Below is a news report from CNN-IBN.

By the end of the 2.5hr film, Khan has also journeyed to a poor village in the deep South and helped save a Black church after a Katrina-esque hurricane, establishing an interesting link between Muslims and African-Americans and setting up the requisite happy ending (a natural law in Bollywood) in which the newly-elected President Obama awards Khan for his heroism and says to him, “Your name is Khan and you are not a terrorist!”. Then everyone in the crowd joins hands to sing “We Shall Overcome”  and we all live tolerantly ever after.

But only in the movies. In the real world, President Obama has fallen well short of the promise he made last April, in Cairo, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Doha last month, at the US-Islamic World Forum, conceding that the Obama administration had not yet fulfilled many of the policy changes it had promised and pleading for patience. The Secretary spoke of “shared responsibility” but the general consensus across the Arab World is that the US commitment has been “insufficient and insincere”. One need only look at the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and ongoing occupation of Gaza, the still-open detention center at Guantanamo, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, diplomatic deadlock with Iran, and a lack of cultural engagement to see why Muslims the world over are feeling disappointed and deceived.

Meanwhile, the White House recently announced the appointment of a new “special envoy” to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 states that considers itself the collective voice of Muslims around the world. And, guess what… the special envoy is a Muslim! But, luckily for him, perhaps, his name is not Khan. It’s Rashad Hussain, a deputy White House counsel who helped prepare the Cairo speech last year. The White House touted this appointment (which comes less than 1 year after the State Dept.’s appointment of a ‘special representative’ to the Muslim world, Farah Pandith) as “an important part of the president’s commitment to engaging Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and mutual interest”.

In honor of all the Khans in the US and abroad who are not terrorists, I will withhold my applause until Mr. Obama and his special representatives actually get on the stage and start singing the song they promised us all we would hear. They may not know the exact words yet, but it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from one very hopeful Hindi film and just start humming “We Shall Overcome”.

Here’s a teaser from the official website with a familiar melody…

And here’s the full trailer with English subtitles

Israel x Obama: Yes, We Can (co-opt the brand)

March 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Having just returned from a week and a half in Israel, I’m torn over how I want to portray what I observed there. And perhaps that is the only true portrayal that I can give, one of a land torn in at least three directions: by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab Muslims, and those who want nothing to do with either and just want to live a secular life. This comes as no surprise to anyone who follows Middle East politics, though what did come as a surprise to me was the lack of positive (read: non-violent) interaction between these groups on a quotidian basis. No matter what city I was in, there remains a stark separation between Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, and Arabs, with the latter being relegated to hidden enclaves, run-down neighborhoods, furtive shadows in big city streets. My own cousins, secular, progressive Israelis by any measure, have only one regular encounter with Arabs in their neighborhood: their gardener. Even their eldest daughter, who is my age and getting a Masters at Be’er Sheva University, has no Arab students in her social circle, nor any in her classes. These discouraging statistics were reiterated by nearly every Israeli, young or old, that I talked to over the 10 days I was there – even those who claimed to be sympathetic to the “Arab situation”. And don’t even try getting ultra-Orthodox Jews to interact with anyone else or anyone to interact with them. They live completely isolated from the rest of the world and everyone in it. So how can these three groups hope to live together in any kind of peace if they don’t even attempt to interact with one another on a daily, non-political basis? Call me naive, but I had hoped to see a little more integration, especially among young people, by 2010. After all, if the US can elect a black man to the White House…

And, sure enough, that black man has already had a powerful impact in Israel, but not necessarily the one that I (or Obama himself) would have hoped. Instead of embracing the Obama message of community engagement and multiculturalism, it seems that Israel is more interested in the Obama brand, as evidenced by this commercial for one of the big Israeli TV networks, YES:

Apparently, the YES network will be offering new shows and more stars this season and viewers should be as excited about this as the smiling black couple and their enthusiastic supporters dancing across the White House lawn. Clearly, this has nothing to do with the original “Yes We Can” message but the cynicism that such a shameless commercial appropriation demonstrates caused me a moment of anger and resentment at the whole Israeli people for trading in a noble sentiment of collective strength for a convenient TV slogan. It’s the same resentment I felt towards the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he completely co-opted the Obama website, without actually embracing the spirit, let alone the politics, of Obama himself. This kind of slick appropriation of the Obama brand and style, in my opinion, evidences a larger theme of Israeli smugness in internal and external politics. Another example was the recent sardonic Tweeting by the Israeli Embassy in London “Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target”, which was posted on the day the Israeli ambassador was asked to tell the British government if he knew anything about the use of fake passports in the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai last month. The tweet linked to an article about the Israeli tennis star, Shahar Peer, who reached the semifinals of a tournament in Dubai before losing to Venus Williams. The Israeli Embassy removed the posting as soon as it was reported in the British press, but the ongoing question of Israeli involvement in the assassination remains an unfunny joke to the rest of the world as it is widely understood that the job was carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.

While all of this was going on, I was also reading about the violent protests erupting in Hebron over the Israeli government’s announcement that it would extend control over two holy sites within the Palestinian West Bank territory. This may have been just another week in the land of stones and tear-gas but I couldn’t help feeling that the hubris that enables Bibi to snatch holy areas is the same that enables Mossad to take out Hamas leaders in a foreign country, and the same that enables Israelis to go about their lives ignoring their neighbors, just watching TV with more stars and shows, saying smugly to themselves, “Yes We Can” But I wonder for how long.

To be fair, I did hear the Obama slogan one other time last week from an earnest falafel-maker in Tel Aviv. He was not trying to sell me anything (besides falafel) but instead wanted to convey his genuine belief in what Obama could mean for the world. It restored in me a modicum of faith that there can still exist in the holy land hope for a better day, when overcoming human differences can lead to peace. Thank you, falafel man. I hope you’re right.