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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Challenging the Dragon in the Eye of the Sun

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
- Sir Francis Bacon

I woke up gasping for air after another nightmare and I knew that this would be another sleepless night. I reached out for his book as though I needed to feel his presence. No one has ever dedicated anything to me - I read the dedication he wrote me one more time; in his head I am smoking apple flavored shisha on my terrace, staring at the stars, obsessing about my toothbrush, and coloring my world in orange. I am not an avid reader of Arabic literature but Ahmed Naje’s Rogers was anything but disappointing.

Reading Rogers felt like sitting next to a remarkable storyteller as he flipped through his photo album and told me the story of each shot. Instead of turning moments into fading memories, Ahmed decided to capture the essence of his childhood memories, school days, traumas, family icons, wars, and amours in his book. The prose and narration, along with his vivid imagery, textured descriptions, and forward colors gave life to each of his characters. His attention to detail can be easily traced in his descriptions – the mosquito scene on his grandfather’s hand is just one example.

Ahmed Naje’s Rogers is a canvas of memories and snapshots where fact and fiction are woven beyond identification. His imagination fed stories to his green inquisitive mind. Questions like the existence of God, the creation and “sewing” of the human body, the laws of attraction, and the need to create a utopia are just a few fragments of his enigmatic book. Unlike other picture albums, Naje’s pictures are far from perfect; he has no reluctance in showing his scars, his fears, his dreams, and his frustrations – as a little boy and as an adult. As a reader, you cannot help but identify with the feelings that each shot evokes.

Feeling the air blow against his face, walking by the river, and seeing green fields set a striking contrast between his life at his hometown and his life in “the big city” where suffocating cement blocks turn his stomach and only the thought of a revolution or a supernatural gift for larceny cause his mental orgasms. The most visible themes revolve around his grandparents, his parents, his street, his cruel teacher, his girlfriend, his undefined female friend, and his best friend. On a deeper level you can trace his unanswered questions – starting from God to his very own existence and his chosen path.

With lots of imagination Naje, echoing Roger Waters of Pink Floyd’s Album “The Wall”, created a brick wall between his reality and his fantasy land. In his own words and using his own palette he decided to color his pictures adding one brick after the other to the wall that he often crossed in his first book – Rogers.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The S-Word

Like a sword the s-word cuts through our lives; starting and ending relationships; labeling and tagging people; torturing some and relieving others. I grew up watching our Egyptian cinema turning sex into a shameful repulsive act where the woman is defeated and the man is delighted. The message was very clear: women who “give in” to men without a legally binding document end up suffering one way or the other. The s-word turns them into social outcasts, black sheep, or infamous notorious creatures of the night. The man usually vanishes leaving behind a bereaved creature pulling her hair and tearing apart what’s left of her clothes as a sign of intense remorse. Some of those women were portrayed to show further suffering when the seed of the affair blossoms into a child. With nothing but disdain and a curled lip, the voice of our intact society would echo in our ears saying “I told you so!”

In our modern cinema, girls can flirt and tease as much as they pleased but the s-word is still frowned upon. Those engaging in premarital sex strive throughout the movie to set two wrongs right – and of course it is the girl who is always doing her very best to get a ring on the damn finger. Other tragic heroines, whose character flaw is their lustful nature, have to go through a painful catharsis whereby they are humiliated, rejected, mortified, and eventually forgiven, or killed in an accident. In the first dénouement, being forgiven in this sense means that they have learnt their lesson and that they will lead a life of penance and “virtue” until a fine gentleman sees how far they have changed and kindly accepts to give them a ring. In the second scenario - where they die - they have paid in full for their mortal sin and now they can just die to set an example for the living.

Today a fellow writer, in a casual chat, asked me why girls refuse and adamantly resist getting intimate with their beau. He complained of the fact that girls feel that the s-word impacts the interest, or the lack of interest, of a guy in a girl. He bluntly asked me why girls fear losing the guy once they have sex with him. I was not the only one watching those movies; I could even consider myself lucky because I was a late bloomer in my relationship with the silver screen. Decade after another, such movies spread the guilt culture in our shame society. As if FGM (female genital mutilation) was not enough to create lifetime barriers between our girls and their sexuality, we have a whole culture preaching the virtue of a hymen.

Arabic movies, books, and anecdotes planted a deeply rooted conviction that girls who are “dishonorable” are not fit for being wives or mothers. The same influences caused men to believe that a girl who expresses her love physically is loose; hence the famous analogies between a girl’s honor and a match stick, a brand new car and a second hand car, and the famous piece of meat covered in sticky flies. My maid once noticed that my cats were not playing together and threw me a casual comment saying “why would he want to even see her face … he already took what he wanted … he is just a man!”

I have many male friends who, in my presence, share their success stories and conquests in the female world. Their verbiage and jargon are of the most offensive type; verbs like jumped, humped, and scored are very popular. So even if a guy is sitting there all polished and cleaned up for his girl, she could still sense the jump-hump-score sequel. Our men are known to be sweet-talkers and to be very expressive in the beginning of the relationship; an American friend of mine, who laments ever getting married to her educated Egyptian hubby, told me that he swept her off her feet with his words, attention, and passion – this is what our men do.

But once the girl loses touch with the ground, she falls … she falls hard and is most likely to break her neck, smash her head, or crack her back. She survives the fall only to live with a permanent disability. Experience taught girls to hold back; they learnt to disguise their feelings in a cloak of callousness for self preservation purposes. Our generation of men and women are confused; everything that they were taught as kids is being questioned as adults. Our very same inhibited women and our very own conservative men, once in the presence of a foreigner are transformed. The women no longer feel judged and the men no longer feel pressured and questioned – what a mess!

I am not for or anti premarital sex. There are so many variables in the equation and our society is not ready for a generalization of any sort at this point of time; if I tell girls to go ahead and to release their inhibitions, I will be damned. If I tell them to resist and to fight the natural urge for intimacy, I am a lying hypocrite. I will just leave it at the point where it is a case by case scenario and I will conclude on a final note to the guys: mental shackles are way worse than metal shackles. We will get out of our dungeons, when we no longer fear your dragons.