Adventures in Feminist Teaching

This is another “episode” in the memoir I’m writing for my Creative Non-Fiction class. My first installment is here. I figured I might as well lighten the mood from my last post. Hope you enjoy! (And, just to state the obvious, “Quirky” is a pseudonym, and a rather fitting one).

Oh God, Hala! I felt so weird! I couldn’t wait to get out!” Quirky shuddered, “The only reason I didn’t leave early was because I was in the front row and I didn’t want to cause a disturbance.”

I stifled a giggle, “Dude, the class is called ‘Feminist and Queer Theories’. It would be weird if it wasn’t weird.” I knew Quirky had a penchant for the dramatic, which is why it was entertaining to see her riled up. “Besides, what was it that shocked you so much?” I asked.

“Man, there were these people there with mohawks and piercings and tattoos! Which, by the way, is all good, I mean, do what you want and all, you know?” she barely paused to inhale, “But! There was this one girl! She was wearing a sleeveless shirt and she didn’t shave AT ALL! It was dis-GUST-ing.” The indignation and repulsion were practically tangible, and now I really wanted to laugh my head off.

Now, to be perfectly honest, my first experience with a woman who didn’t shave her armpits was no more mature than hers. It was in a public restroom in Canada and I definitely did a double-take and stared more than I should have. Being pretty ignorant, I often brought up the memory as something to laugh at. I know better now. So I can’t say I blamed Quirky all that much.

However, thanks to having lived in Canada, by now I had watched and supported gay pride parades, read feminist blogs (radical and otherwise), and often debated heavily with people holding vastly different viewpoints than mine. At the moment, sharing a feminism class with a woman who chooses the au naturel route wasn’t on my list of odd experiences. When it comes to people’s very personal life choices, I find it problematic, at best, to categorize them into black and white, “right” and “wrong”, without asking myself a lot of questions first.

Quirky, however, was about to explode from the indignation: How could she “let herself go” like that? Didn’t she want to be attractive? Didn’t she want to be seen as beautiful? Why would you want to do that to yourself?

I glanced up from my bag of chips and raised my hand to stave off the stream of rants. She quieted down, but I could see the confusion and outrage still dancing in her eyes.

“Well…what if she doesn’t want to be judged as attractive just because she shaves? What if she doesn’t even care? Why does she have to be seen that way?”

Quirky stared at me for all of two seconds before exploding, “This is how society is! Just live it! Why do we have to question everything?!”

For the sake of brevity, allow me to draw a curtain over the rest of the scene.

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“The Situation”

In Arabic, we call it “al-wade3“.

I used to think of it as just a regular word, not worth a second thought. But ever since I came back to Lebanon, it’s taken on a pretty specific meaning.

Al-wade3“. The situation. “Al-wade3 mish muree7.” “Ma 3ajibni al-wade3.

“The situation isn’t stable.” “I don’t like the situation.”

Statements my mother’s said several times in the two years I’ve been here.

I hear it and I think of a thermometer with the mercury rising. How far is it? How much time do we have before it hits the boiling point?

Are we going to be inundated with news of burning tires, closed-off roads, car bombs, and political assassinations? Or can we count on some semblance of normalcy for another month or two?

Lebanon is your extremely temperamental landlord. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. Will you be left alone and allowed to live your life? Or will he knock on your door with a semi-automatic in hand and threats on his tongue?

Yesterday the rising mercury manifested itself in the form of 50 kilograms of explosives packed in a single car.

The price we paid:

  1. The life, and intended target, of Wissam Al-Hassan, a high-profile Internal Affairs agent.
  2. The lives of seven or eight bystanders. Some say more.
  3. Injury to eighty people, many of whom are in critical condition. Some say more.
  4. Devastation of several homes, because the bomb was planted in a residential area. (In Lebanon, when it’s time for your elimination, no one cares about a little collateral damage).

Tires are burning. Protests are under way. Buses are being attacked by rock-throwing men armed with knives.

Blame is being thrown left and right.

And people are scared to leave their homes.

So how’s al-wade3?

Scalding, thanks for asking.

We’ll let you know when it becomes Lucifer’s holiday retreat.

Math and Stereotypes

I’m taking a Creative Non-Fiction class where the teacher is asking us to write “episodes” of our lives memoir-style. We all had to choose a theme to base our memoir on, so I chose identity with a focus on my experiences in Lebanon. I’ve written two “episodes” so far, but I didn’t like the first one much, so here is my second attempt. Let me know what you think!

It was an early summer afternoon, and my grandmother’s dining table was hopelessly buried under my papers and textbooks. I bent my head over a page of math problems, though my 12-year-old brain was busy creating a wonderland where math didn’t exist. (Not that my tutor needed to know that). I had always suspected he found quiet amusement in my inability to understand what he was teaching me, a point which won him no favor. I gazed down at the numbers strewn all over my notebook and tried, unsuccessfully, to make sense of them. At this point, a break would have been more than welcome.

I did not have to wait long. Mr. Imad, either out of pity or boredom, decided to make small talk. As is wont to happen when you don’t know how to relate to a pre-teen you barely know, his go-to subject was the weather.

“Wow,” he said, leaning back, “Sure is hot isn’t it?”

I smiled a little, thankful for the distraction, “Yeah I know—Lebanon’s so humid. In Saudi it was hotter, but it was dry heat— not like this.”

“Oh Saudi’s different!” he said authoritatively, “It only has one season: Summer!”

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for what was sure to be my inevitable chuckle at his hilariously true observation.

Instead, my eyebrows rose. Summer year-round? Really? 

Although it was just a silly remark–more of a joke–he triggered something in me and I couldn’t bring myself to drop it. My mind flashed back to a particularly cold February day in Riyadh: Crossing the school playground while clutching my thick jacket to myself, shivering while the wind nipped at my face and re-styled my hair.

I shot back (with a tiny dab of pre-adolescent derision), “Of course not. In winter it gets cold enough to wear coats and sweaters. It’s freezing.”

My teacher’s grin faded just as fast as it appeared, and confirmed that he honestly believed what he had said before, “Oh, wait, really?!”

“Well, yeah. It’s not always hot, you know.” I said, almost defensively. Nothing irritated me more than when people made judgments about something they knew nothing about. Saudi Arabia has a laundry list of faults, I thought, but don’t make ignorant remarks just because you feel like you know better.

I was young, and perhaps his gaffe was the perfect target for someone who resented his condescension about my math skills (or lack thereof). But though Mr. Imad was the first to make such a remark, it was hardly the last. That moment was the beginning of my realization that being raised “outside” made me far less susceptible to jumping to conclusions, something that often isn’t taught in classrooms. Even though it hasn’t made things easy, it’s something I wouldn’t trade for all the mathematical talent in the world.