28 December 2009

The 99 and a Glimpse of Batina the Hidden

In 2006, by accident, I came across an article about a certain Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, a clinical psychologist who wanted to make positive images of Islam available, especially to children. The article explained that Dr Mutawa had created The 99, a group of 99 superheroes whose names and superpowers were derived from the 99 attributes of Allah. Teshkeel Comics had not yet launched The 99 Comic at the time when I was reading this.

Back then, I became obsessed with The 99, stalking the Teshkeel Comics website for a glimpse of more characters as their full description became available. At work, I used one of The 99 Wallpapers on my desktop background for a couple of years. Every day, I would stare at it in the hope that I would become inspired by Al-Mutawa's brilliant social vision. This is what it looked like:

The 99 Poster (from www.the99.org)

I had hoped, then, that I was not the only one, out of many non-Muslims living in a non-Muslim country, who could see the socio-cultural value of multicultural superheroes each embodying positive Islamic attributes and together, telling the world about the diversity of Islam.

Cultivating Tolerance and Understanding
I saw in The 99, an entertaining and colourful concept suited to our increasingly global environment. I also saw, at last, a positive image of Islam (and its history) so long lacking in Western popular culture and in some cases, absent even, from Islamic popular culture. In addition, I admired Dr Al-Mutawa for having shifted the attention from Western-centric paradigms and encouraged the world to embrace the possibility of pluralistic cultures.

That was a mouthful. But one better way to describe it, is the response my aunt gave me after I sent her the link to the recently available Endemol Trailer for The 99 animation. Now you must know that my aunt, born in France, is half French and half Vietnamese and is married to an American of Dutch origin. Her children inherit that cultural mix. Meanwhile, like me, she was born in the Roman Catholic Church and like me, she now has no current religious inclination. However, when she read about the concept behind The 99, she was extremely enthusiastic. This, she said, was the kind of media entertainment that she wanted her children exposed to. She wanted her children to grow up in a spirit of tolerance and understanding for many ways of being. She was keen.

My aunt does not have a social psychology degree or an understanding of advertising and the media. But she understood that the more we are exposed to something new and unfamiliar, the more we like it... and ultimately seek information to understand it.

Doing away with Prejudices and Misinformation
For too long, non-Muslim parts of the world have been exposed to negative images of Islam through the media. This has created misunderstanding and fear for those in the West who are not exposed to other, counterbalanced realities of the Muslim world. For example, images of oppressed Muslim women are rampant and while this may be true in countries like Afghanistan, this is hardly the reality in many parts of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Western cultures associate Islam with the Middle East which itself is unfortunately further associated with 'conflict in the Middle East' or extremism. Thanks to the media, being Muslim has also been equated to being Arab. But in fact, there are Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia and Senegal who are not Arabs. And...there are Arabs, like myself (I'm half), who are not Muslim. Meanwhile, there are important Muslim populations in Russia, China, France, Eastern Europe and Thailand.

The trusted eunuchs that Ming China sent to navigate the oceans and collect world tributes in the 15th century were Muslims. And the strong woman who, after the Grenada Caliphate had fallen in 1492, reproached her son with, "You do well to weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a man", was Muslim.

It is almost 2010 and, if you google The 99, you will find that the concept has been welcomed in many parts of the world. I am so glad.

Still though, the shift from a long established paradigm is painful for some. In some websites, I have read cynical posts in response to The 99. Apparently suspicion is rife for a concept that is conceived as mere propaganda by those with strongly established anti-Islamic prejudices. After all, as humans, we tend to seek out information that is compatible with our beliefs and reject information that contradicts our beliefs. It is not surprising then, that The 99 will be rejected by some. I could go on about ingroups and outgroups right about here and infuriate my reader by indulging in social psychological discourse but I won't. I want to talk about something else...

Batina the Hidden
I want to talk about a character that I really like from The 99. Her name is Batina The Hidden.

Batina The Hidden (from www.the99.org)

According to articles about The 99, Batina has the power to become invisible. In perfect concordance with her superpower, Batina wears a burqa. Why I love this character is twofold.

Firstly, and I write this without endorsing the extremist Taliban in Afghanistan so please do not jump to conclusions, Batina subverts expectations of what it means to be veiled. Being veiled becomes a metaphor for being invisible. The advantages one draws from invisibility, that is, a power long coveted by superhero fans, is now married to being veiled. Could it be then, that there are advantages to being veiled? Isn't invisibility all about seeing without being seen? A fanciful thought. If only to shift the way one conceives any veil.

The other reason I have been fascinated by Batina is that I only read about her this year. And when I did, it made me realise why I so liked one of the female characters in my novel. She is in fact, the character that I prefer. She is headstrong, inquisitive, intelligent and very independent. And when I created her, I insured, perhaps to add to her mystery, that she would also wear a burqa. Over the years, while I wrote my novel, I was amused to find that my character's remarkable ability to intimidate others and her quiet strength in a world dominated by men (especially in the 15th century!) derived precisely from the fact that she was veiled.

22 December 2009

Stars Without Their Make Up

The thrill and gloating at "Stars Without their Make Up" encapsulates everything about insecure, envious people who, trapped in the mundanity of their artless, souless and miserable existence, can only feel satisfied with themselves, once others are dragged down to earth and soiled in the ground.

It is a wonder that such people, being as concerned as they are with "fakeness" can not see their true motivations and deal with them.

14 December 2009


I've been working on coloring Cancer lately while I complete the last chapters of my novel.

This picture still needs a lot of work so I'll post the astrological description later once I have uploaded the latest drawing.

I drew this picture at 17. Just looking at it a week ago, when I began coloring it in, I thought I had escaped yet another phallic symbol in the imagery.

But I was wrong. That coiled vine says it all.

Les Divas du Dancing - Translation

Love love this song.

I was a BIG fan of the slower (and arguably sexier), 80s original by Philippe Cataldo but this sultry dance version by Kate Ryan is great too.

Les Divas du Dancing - Lyrics by Philippe Cataldo

Va tanguer sur le parquet ciré
Les violons ça fait rêver
Les yeux dans les yeux fais les tourner
et fais-toi désirer
Toi qui connais si bien le cœur des femmes
Tous les mots qui les enflamment
Elles qui le temps d'un tango se damnent
Frémissantes et parfumées
Toi, tu sais où les trouver

Go careening on the waxed parquet flooring
The violins, they make us dream
Eyes meeting eyes, make them spin
And make yourself desired
You who know so well the heart of women
All the words that enflame them
They who in the moment of a tango are damned
Shivering and perfumed
You, you know where to find them

Les divas du dancing
Les divas du dancing
Les cinglées du mambo
Celles qu'on ne verra jamais dans les discos
Les fanas du saxo
Les fêlées du paso
Celles qui pensent encore au temps du Mikado
Les divas du dancing
Les divas du dancing

The dancing divas
The dancing divas
The mambo crazed
The women one would never see in the discos
The saxo fans (short for saxophone)
Those mad about paso
Those who still think about the age of the Mikado
The dancing divas
The dancing divas

Entends-tu leur désir murmurer
Le bando ça fait rêver
Fais les mourir le temps d'un baiser
Sans l'ombre d'un palmier
Toi qui fais brûler la chair des femmes
Sans jamais donner ton âme
A celles qui sous ton regard se pâment
Frémissantes et parfumées
Toi tu sais où les trouver

Can you hear their desire murmuring
The bando makes one dream
Make them die in the moment of a kiss,
Without the shade of a palm tree
You, who can make the flesh of women burn
Without ever giving up your soul
To those who beneath your gaze, swoon
Shivering and perfumed
You, you know where to find them

Les divas du dancing
Les divas du dancing
Corps sérés cœurs glacés
Elles gardent de toi un peu de gomina
Sur le bout de leurs doigts
Quand elles ont caressé
Cette nuque bleue qu'elles aiment embrasser
Les divas du dancing
Les divas du dancing

The dancing divas
The dancing divas
Bodies close, hearts frozen
They'd keep from you a little gomina (hair gel)
At the tip of their fingers
Once they have caressed
This blue nape that they so love to kiss
The dancing divas
The dancing divas

Sans jamais donner ton âme
Sans jamais verser de larmes

Without ever giving your soul
Without ever shedding tears

I preferred hearing Philippe's version of this song because he seemed to sing it to another man.
And my interpretation of the song was that he was reproachful of this other man. The original is not a light hearted song, it has a sexy quality but it is ironic with a touch of fatalism. While he recognised and raved about the other man's exploits, he was also expressing his bitterness and reminding the man that he had no heart. So I took it as meaning that he must have been familiar enough with the man to understand his behaviours and his cold, unfeeling approach to relationships. Overall then, I saw this song as a jaded gay man's expression of jealousy as he watched his ex-lover dance with women.

I'm sure there are many interpretations but that was mine. Complex? Yes.

9 December 2009

Islamic Homosexualities

If you've read past the title, congratulations on your open mind.

I love this book:

It is a collection of chapters that delve into historical and modern homosexual practice in the Islamic world. It focuses on culture rather than religion. What does this mean? It means that while it performs an analysis of homosexuality in the Islamic countries, its reader is encouraged to conceptualise Islamic homosexuality in the context of cultural practices that either existed or currently exist rather than in the context of practices that are or are not endorsed by the Islamic religion.

It is important not to make prejudiced assumptions.
The authors do not aim to critique Islam in any way regarding its stance (pro or against) towards homosexuality.
Nor do they set about proving that some hadith endorses homosexuality.
That is NOT the aim of the book.

Its chapters essentially "challenge the dominant, Eurocentric model of gay/lesbian history and the implicit, occasionally explicit, assertion in many social constructionist accounts that nothing at all preceded modern homosexuality or that whatever homosexual behaviour occurred earlier was too disorganized, spontaneous, and insignificant to compare with modern homosexuality."

Essentially the book is in opposition of "Western exceptionalism - the practice of viewing the history of western Europe as representing the culmination of all human progress".

Incidentally, my [incomplete] novel takes the same stance against Eurocentrism. But it goes further and endorses, quite explicitly, an Eastern centric viewpoint. This viewpoint is aimed as an experiment that explores different models for conceptualising history. It is not aimed at converting readers to this Eastern model but rather, it offers a challenging perspective for all readers regardless of their background.

But going back to Murray, who is one of the authors of this book...He states that some scholars believe that the cultural conception of homosexual types was non-existant before the late 19th century when medical discourse created one in Northern Europe. Murray sees this belief "as northern European and American will not to know that anyone else anywhere else ever noticed recurrent homosexual desire." Again, this belief is founded in Western exceptionalism.

So that is the book. Very interesting, by the way. Not for the faint hearted.

Homosexuality - Dialogue and Change

I came across a few topics in this book which reminded me of some of the intergroup behaviours identified by social psychologists.

Firstly, some background. It is a popular belief that the Western [non-Islamic] world, which sees itself as 'progressive' and 'highly tolerant' argues that Islam is 'backward' in its stance towards homosexuality. Albeit, only in 1895, literary figure, Oscar Wilde, was thrown in jail for indecent [homosexual] behaviour. He was given a very harsh 2 year prison sentence (walking on the treadmill all day long is linked to heart attacks for those not used to the effort and Oscar was not) which broke his spirit, rendered him penniless and eventually led to his demise.

But for argument's sake, let us say that the Western world is indeed 'progressive'. Just for argument's sake.

To adopt a Western centric viewpoint, the Western world would represent the ingroup. The outgroup, in our Western centric scenario, is the Islamic world.

Conversely, in a Muslim centric model, the ingroup is the Islamic world and the outgroup is the Western world. This is the model I want to use.

As history would have it, much of this Islamic ingroup suffered indignance at the hands of a colonial Western outgroup. But I won't go into it. Just hold that in mind.

Now in their book, Murray and Roscoe indicate that "in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, equal rights for gays and lesbians are unlikely to be achieved by means of secular arguments that do not pay respect to the sacred sources of Islamic culture".
They then quote Khalid Duran who points out that "such an approach is likely to result in a backlash against what is perceived as an attempt to impose the values of the former colonial powers."

What this means is that if ever Islamic countries were to be persuaded to adopt so called 'progressive', 'tolerant' views towards homosexualities, the means of persuasion should NOT be through Western discourse.

Because in intergroup relations, persuasion of an ingroup is best achieved when ideas or critique originate from an ingroup member (e.g. a Muslim), rather than an outgroup member (a non Muslim). Any outgroup suggestions for change are interpreted negatively by the ingroup and are seen as arising out of outgroup self-interest rather than for the interest of the ingroup. This tendency to interpret outgroup criticism negatively increases, the more strongly an ingroup member identifies with their ingroup. In other words, for Islamic accommodation of homosexuality to ever occur, discourse must flow from within the Islamic community rather than from the Western world.

Now to compound the distrust that our ingroup (Islamic world) would feel towards the outgroup (Western world), remember the colonisation of the ingroup and its consequences. Remember, for example, France's harsh treatment of Algerians during its colonisation process. Now reflect on how an outgroup's intention can be further mistrusted as a result of the ingroup's experience with the outgroup.

Anyway, I'll drop the model for now. Enough said.

The sum of this is that the Western world is by far not the best group to disseminate homosexual discourse or to promote homosexual tolerance in the Islamic world. As intergroup relations would have it, this would only be interpreted negatively, especially by those who identify strongly with Islam's teachings.

Furious meddling is not an option!

(Oh, and by the way, I'm not Muslim and I wouldn't call myself fully Western. Now just where do I fit in? Hmmm....)

7 December 2009

Turkish-German Cinema: Turkish Migrant Stereotypes in Two Fatih Akin Films

This essay examines the ways Fatih Akin’s Im Juli (2000) and Auf der Anderen Seite (2007) (The Edge of Heaven) either challenge or reinforce stereotypes of Turkish males and females in Germany. Both films, through the characters Melek and Ayten, defy Turkish female stereotypes. Going further, Auf der Anderen Seite appreciates German-Turkish hybridity within the Turkish community while also recognising that certain stereotypes may be close to reality. Meanwhile, Im Juli’s Issa and Auf der Anderen Seite’s Ali are characters whose natures remain somewhat ambiguous at certain stages of their film’s narrative. This essay posits that this ambiguity is a voluntary act on the part of the director and serves to highlight the danger of stereotyping and of making judgments at face value. However, certain stereotypes are in fact reinforced by Auf der Anderen Seite. The film employs contrasts between Turkey and Germany to inflect negative attributes onto the Turkish community. Im Juli offers similar contrasts but this time, it is to suggest new clichés that favour Turkish males over German males.

Im Juli’s Melek defies stereotypical images of submissive Turkish females who like Yaman in 40m2 Deutschland (1986) live oppressed by the male patriarchy and secluded from the outside world. Melek, is depicted as a highly independent, mobile woman who while travelling in modern clothing, is at ease with roaming German streets by night. She accepts Daniel’s hospitality without fear of her virtue and the implication is that she is sexually free. Far from being a powerless female figure vis-a-vis Turkish males, Melek is the key to liberating her brother Issa from his police detainment. It is she who delivers her uncle’s birth certificate to the Turkish authorities proving Issa’s case. The narrative therefore represents Melek as an agent of change and as a strong figure on which her male sibling can count upon. However that is not to say that stereotypes of ‘the other’ do not inflect on Melek’s portrayal. Back in Germany, close ups on her moonlit face as she interprets a melodious tune in a foreign tongue evoke exoticism and mystery. Her song’s rapturous effect on the besotted Daniel recalls Western clichés relating to the sensuality and forbidden allure of Middle Eastern women (Valassopoulos 140).

Auf der Anderen Seite's Ayten is also depicted as liberated female. Far from being secluded and controlled, she is physically mobile in the outside world, vocal in her political opinions and aware of her rights. The kitchen scene where Ayten is strongly vocal of her political ideologies could, in Göktürk’s terms, serve as an example of how “modern cinema subordinates stereotypical representations of the migrant as downtrodden and speechless victim” (2002 203). Since Ayten’s sexual relationship with Charlotte comes at a time when lesbianism themes have long entered mainstream German cinema (Women German Yearbook 53), the subsequent relationship between a Turkish and German woman therefore evokes the normalisation of multi-cultural engagements. The intense closeness between the two females alludes to the possibility of bridging differences between Turkish and German culture and is a suggestion that perhaps cultural hybridity has itself entered mainstream.

The headstrong Ayten contradicts notions of submissive Turkish women

By choosing to evade the headscarf in both films, except at Yater’s funeral where several women’s head appear covered, Fatih Akin further opposes common expectations of Turkish females. For many Germans, the headscarf symbolises the “quintessential instantiation of Turkish patriarchal repression and objectification of women” (Mandel 305). In both films, none of Akin’s lead females wear a headscarf. However despite his liberal representations of Turkish females, Akin does not eschew the realities that some Turkish women may continue to experience. One Auf der Anderen Seite scene sees two disapproving, dogmatic Turks hassle Yater in the tram. Their insistence that Yater “Repent” confirms expectations of Turkish male patriarchy and religious dogmatism. They threaten to harm Yater if she does not leave her sinful job while also alluding to her lack of head cover. This passage implies that Yater is suffering the consequences of having provoked the established Turkish repressive patriarchy. Auf der Anderen Seite therefore concedes that cliches relating to women’s status are justified in at least some Turkish communities in Germany.

Auf der Anderen Seite uses a complex representation of Ali to both defy and reinforce certain stereotypes about Turkish males in Germany. While his well integrated son, Nejat, embodies cultural hybridity through his respectable professor status, his fluency in two languages and his ability to exist successfully both in Germany and Turkey, Ali remains culturally ambiguous until his demise. To begin, Ali’s initial attitude towards Yater contradicts patriarchal expectations of Turkish male figures. Aware of Yater’s profession, Ali does not scorn her like the other males she meets in the tram. Instead, he welcomes her home offering an arrangement for their mutual benefit.

Ali and Yater

During a dinner with his son, he forbids Yater to take care of kitchen duties, implying that he does not cast her in the dutiful role of household maid. However, following his medical diagnosis and illness, Ali becomes as tyrannical as other cinematic Turkish male cinema figures (Göktürk, 2000 251). He brutally orders a beer from Yater and complains about her cooking. His unfounded jealousy of Yater and his son, together with his drunkeness contribute to his reckless temper so that when Yater threatens to leave and attacks him, he retaliates with enough violence to cause her death. This unfortunately achieves Ali’s recasting as the violent, oppressive patriarch that had so far eluded audiences and unfortunately reinforces expectations of Turkish male figures in Germany.

Nevertheless Auf der Anderen Seite raises the question of whether Ali’s behaviour can be attributed to character and origin or rather, whether it should be viewed with compassion given his recent medical situation. On a wider level then, the film warns of approaching clichés with caution since we never know the exact details behind a person’s behaviour. A further example of Akin’s theme that appearances can be deceiving is in the representation of Issa. In Im Juli, Akin plays with audience expectations, only revealing the true nature of Issa’s character at the end of the narrative. Initially, Issa could be regarded as a dangerous, aggressive and rude Turkish male. His seemingly violent, careless nature is revealed as he runs over Daniel with his car and gesticulates madly behind the steering wheel. It may also be the director’s intention that when Issa’s car boot is opened and a corpse is revealed, that the audience would readily assume that Issa is a murderer. However as the narrative unfolds, we learn that Issa is not only family oriented and dutiful to his naturally deceased uncle but had reason enough to be anxious. Issa also cares enough for Daniel to help him escape a Turkish prison. By subverting audience expectations of Issa, Akin achieves a powerful social tool for persuading audiences to avoid stereotyping until more details about a person’s true nature are revealed.

One way Auf der Anderen Seite does endorse stereotypes of Turkish communities is by representing their place of origin, that is, Turkey, as a dangerous and lawless space compared to Germany. This representation is then projected onto the Turkish population serving to reinforce stereotypes of a backward, violent and politically unstable ‘other’. Firstly, the film offers a contrast between the exemplary hospitality extended to Ayten during her sojourn in Germany and the way Charlotte, on the other hand, is robbed and murdered in the streets of Istanbul.

The German Lotte helping her lover Ayten

In Istanbul, we watch Lotte’s purse get snatched by child thieves in a deserted street and follow her frantic course through unsafe passage ways and narrow alleys until she is murdered by one of her drug-influenced muggers. This passage, together with the political peril in which Lotte was enmeshed by retrieving Ayten’s gun at the onset, conveys the danger of the ‘other’ country. Istanbul is represented as unsafe for Germans, a reflection of its population which presumably remains backward and in need of reform. In certain ways, this reform arises at the benevolent initiative of Lotte’s mother who offers to pay for all of Ayten’s judicial fees and contributes to Ayten’s repentance and subsequent freedom. The narrative therefore upholds notions that the German population is more stable and righteous. It also resembles “hypocritical narratives of rescue, liberation and Westernisation” (Göktürk, 2002 66). Albeit Ayten is not liberated from the oppressive patriarchy but rather from her fanatical political involvement. Nevertheless, Lotte’s mother recalls Göktürk’s suggestion that “empathy with the victims of a violent ‘other’ culture primarily serves the purpose of self-confirmation” (2002 251).

'Saving' Ayten

To conclude on a more light hearted note, a different reading of Auf der Anderen Seite would imply that Lotte dies in Istanbul because she is not as street smart as Ayten. This reading would attribute courage, cunning and practicality to Turkish characters, creating perhaps another cliché. As this reading would have it, the wits of Turkish males and females are supposedly sharpened by their experience in a society that can be envisaged as either economically or socially disadvantaged compared to Germany. This same new cliché resurfaces in Im Juli. On the one hand, the Turk, Issa has a grand devious plan and the courage to carry a corpse in his car across the border. Meanwhile, the German, Daniel, is a well groomed intellectual and a low risk individual who would rather opt for the shortest, safest route to Istanbul. In terms of risk-taking and survival, the two men are represented as binary opposites with Issa being the more cunning of the two. When Issa invites Daniel out of his cell, the male Turk is again portrayed as more street smart than the German who is unaware that he could easily escape through the open door until advised.

Works Consulted:

Auf der Anderen Seite. Dir. Fatih Akin. Madman Entertainment, 2007.

40m2 Deutschland. Dir. Tevfik Baser. Studio Hamburg Filmproduktion, 1986.

Göktürk, Deniz. “Turkish Women on German Streets: Closure and Exposure in
Transnational Cinema”. Spaces in European Cinema. Ed. Myrto Konstantarakos. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2000.

Göktürk, Deniz, “Beyond Paternalism: Turkish German Traffic in Cinema.” The German Cinema Book. Eds. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk. London: BFI, 2002.

Im Juli. Dir. Fatih Akin. Senator Film, 2000.

Mandel, Ruth. Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Valassopoulos, Anastasia. Contemporary Arab Women Writers: Cultural Expression in Context. London, UK: Routledge, 2007.

Women in German Yearbook, Volume 18. Eds. Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Patricia Herminghouse. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebreska Press, 2003.