Mocking a Culture, Mocking a Friend

by Guest Contributor Aaminah Hernández, originally published at Writeous Sister Speaks

I was approached by Latoya Peterson, editor for Racialicious, to write something about this piece at Jezebel. I want to preface this with three disclaimers:

1) I don’t normally read Jezebel. I’m not faulting those who do, it just doesn’t appeal to me and I’ve got more than enough good reading to keep me busy.

2) The following response to this post will not be even-handed. Because reading the piece at Jezebel made me literally physically ill. Do I jest? No… I read it while in the office and had to leave to go to the restroom to puke. That was yesterday. After re-reading it and thinking about it overnight, I am just now sitting down on Friday to write something about it. And I know right now this will not be written in one sitting because I cannot stomach it all in one go.

    2a) My response will probably be considered as biased simply because I am a Muslim. Yes, I am. And one who actually wears that face veil on a daily basis that Ms. Sarah has taken on momentarily. I am not, however, an expert of any sort on Yemen. I have never been to Yemen, I do not have friends that are currently living in Yemen, and although I know in-a-round-about-way a SunniPath Shaykh in Yemen, I cannot speak directly to how Islam is practiced by the average Yemeni person.

3) I did not read through all the comments. I just couldn’t. Why subject myself to that? I am sure there were some good comments left as well, but since I didn’t read through them all I will not be addressing in depth the comment section to the post, but replying to the post itself. I will however reference at times information about the post that I did glean from the comments I did read (Example: that the post is actually an IM conversation and that somehow accounts for the irreverent and light-hearted nature of the discussion. Yeah, more on that in a bit.)

The first thing you will, of course, notice is the title of the “article”: Sarah Left Women’s Magazine to Try and Learn “Why They Hate Us”. She Could Use a Drink.

To be fair, you know what you are about to get into with a title like that. As far as journalism goes, it’s even a good title, because it wraps up the lunacy of the interview all in two succinct sentences. It does however put controversy front and center.

So, Sarah Wolff left her Fashion Editor job at Good Housekeeping in NYC to go on a jaunt around the Arab world after 9-11. In fact, many people became interested in learning a bit about Islam and Arabs after 9-11, but also a good number decided that this was a great money making opportunity: play on the fears caused by the 9-11 (and other) attacks, call yourself an expert, and watch the cash roll in. Because those of us who are actually believing Muslims or Arab, Iranian, and otherwise related to the Middle East have no business being asked to talk about what we believe. The world wants to hear it from white Americans with no ties whatsoever to the countries, cultures and religions of the region.

Now, I’m not saying Sarah is money-grubbing per se. At least she took some time to learn some Arabic and went to school to become a bona fide journalist. Currently she lives in Yemen and works for the Yemen Times newspaper. But this is a huge change from being a New York fashion editor, so it would be understandable to ask why. Her answer in this “interview” is not very compelling.

“I worked as a fashion editor in NYC for about 6 years and when 9/11 happened, I started wondering about Islam and why people hated the U.S. so much – I was not into interna’nl politics at ALL at that time…”

And yet now, 5 years later she is put forth by Jezebel as if she is an expert on Islam and international politics. And since living in Yemen since January of this year, she is now also an expert on Yemeni men, culture, and mores.

“Actually, many MANY people think that there will be a civil war here soon. It is kind of terrorism’s last frontier…”

“Well, it’s kind of a black hole. People don’t know a lot about it and it’s poor as all hell.”

“Some of the not so great ways include the BEYOND-limited rights of women here. I am talking about no cell phone talking in the street, okay, no TALKING in the street period for women… no laughing for women. No laughing! Yo(u) have to wear full-body coverage at all times…”

Now, in comments later it was mentioned that this superficial coverage of issues was due to the medium being used for the interview: Instant Messaging.

The thing is, IM isn’t really the best way to conduct an interview for that reason, so I imagine it wasn’t originally intended to be posted in full. If there was intention to post the conversation on-line, some effort could have been made to handle things in a more professional tone, or the interview could have been conducted a different way. The way questions are asked certainly sets the tone for the answers, and it’s safe to assume either this conversation wasn’t supposed to see the light of day, or it was intended to be this offensive.

As it turns out, Sarah herself has come out and said that she had absolutely never expected this conversation to be published. She wrote on her personal blog about her feelings on this, but has since taken her blog private, as she had not intended it to ever be in the spotlight (her blog is for friends and family). She was merely venting to an American friend, in a private, light-hearted conversation. She says her feelings of frustration at that moment were accentuated and the conversation was short so she didn’t get an opportunity to talk about how much she loves Yemen. She had visited there before she took the job at the Yemen Times and went back for the job because she saw more positive than negative and wanted to be there.

“I just want people to know that the whole reason I came back after visiting Yemen the first time is that the people and the country itself totally charmed, welcomed and engaged me. Sometimes it’s hard living in a culture that isn’t your own for an extended period, and my first reaction was to bitch (note to self: WRONG reaction!) and I didn’t think to talk about all the things I love here, like Yemeni hospitality, the amount of interest citizens take in the political process, the great friends – foreign and Yemeni – I have made here and the amazing opportunity to work with a respected independent newspaper. Not that it is an excuse (although it sure does sound like one, doesn’t it?), but I was just answering questions in the same vein as they were asked to me.”

“Hopefully those of you who were offended or upset will know that I am deeply regretful that I sounded like such an a-hole. In summary: I love living here.”

I find myself more easily able to excuse a woman who admits that she was wrong and apologizes for it (that certainly is a rare quality amongst white bloggers lately). She has gone further and talked about the positives of Yemen life. The fact is that I reserve most of my anger over this piece for Jezebel and Moe, the editor/”friend” who conducted and then posted the conversation.

Questions:

” Do you chew qat? I’ve always wanted to chew that.”

“So, back to you. Urine is an ever present smell?”

“No talking on the street, no laughing… what if you just went into the middle of the street and laid a really loud fart?”

“FOR NEXT TIME. 1. Getting laid in Yemen 2. Islam – can it be saved? 3. Guantanamo – what’s it like. oh and 4. Fashion magazines – can you get them blown up by Al Qaeda?”

The seriousness of such an interview is rightly in question. The thing is, it’s sad that this is how people relax and chat with their friends. Skimming the surface. Asking someone to provide them details about something they don’t really know anything about. Looking askance at a country and culture without digging at all into whether you are even interpreting things correctly. Questionning if a spiritual tradition can “be saved”.

It’s downright bad journalism to post such a private and off-the-cuff sounding interview for other people’s entertainment or education. Sarah isn’t qualified to talk in great depth about Yemen after living there for a few months. She can only share her own experiences, which are greatly colored by why she is there, her imperfect grasp of the language, and her American sensibilities. The interviewer doesn’t begin to know where to start asking intelligent or probing questions that would be within Sarah’s scope of knowledge, so she takes a lighthearted-let’s-laugh-together-at-the-backwards-natives approach.

It is normal when chatting with a friend to vent about difficulties one faces. I sometimes vent with Muslim friends about other Muslim things. That absolutely doesn’t mean I am ready to throw away my faith nor that I hate other Muslims. I vent about my job all the time with friends, but that doesn’t mean that it is all negative. Mothers vent about their children’s antics, friends vent about each other, we vent about our neighbors, organizations we are involved with, etc. It’s a normal American past-time. Venting should not be misconstrued as the complete and accurate opinion about something, however. There is a difference between missing some of the the things one is accustomed to and actually hating the fact that one’s life is so different now. So I can understand Sarah. I really can. I can’t however understand Moe publishing it and including the commentary she chose to highlight.

The saddest thing is that Moe seems surprised that anyone would take offense to this portrayal of Yemen as a urine-smelling-poorer-than-poor-oppressed-women society. In her introduction to the interview, Moe points to the recent case of an 8-year-old wife who has just won a divorce against her abusive husband but makes it sound like this is routine in the culture. She then points to how “Al Qaeda is like the Beatles”, “virginity is preserved through butt sex” (which is a whole other topic of erroneous reference), and “they’ve been trying to blow up foreigners lately”.

Deplorable as the 8-year-old wife situation is, it is not necessarily the everyday norm in Yemen. While Al Qaeda may have some support, it is doubtful that the whole country is just a hotbed of terrorist activity supported by the common people. Anal sex is actually forbidden in Islam (and does not preserve virginity, but why even mention that in regards to Yemen when it is so common in the U.S. that even Queen Latifah felt compelled to speak up to young girls about the dangers of this activity?). And goodness, could we please just STOP discussing how women choose to dress in accordance with their beliefs in modesty already?

So, while I can forgive Sarah’s response, I can’t forgive Jezebel’s tacky exploitation of their friend in order to get readers and incite controversy. Of the comments I did read, there were an overwhelming number of them that were the typical negative and ignorant variety. This conversation only perpetuated many of the myths and stereotypes that people already hold about the Middle East as a whole. It didn’t open up conversation to educate people to look past the stereotypes, or to question their previous limited knowledge of the region. It just reinforced the negativity. And some commentors who expressed concern or disgust had comments moderated, deleted, or never published, and at least one was banned.

It’s not surprising. Jezebel is hardly known for it’s sensitivity to traditional spiritual, feminist, or women of color issues. It is, afterall, a pretty “white” and irreverent blog. The question is: How many times can you be insulted before you stop reading? How many times can you ask them to include more women of color voices, so that coverage might be a little more balanced, before you realize they don’t want to do so. People can only claim that it is “hard” to find good WoC writers, and “hard” to show a variety of viewpoints for so long before it should occur to us that they aren’t willing to try. I cannot imagine why anyone would take Jezebel seriously or look to them to provide intelligent discussion on any matter. Which is why I will now go back to my previous “don’t bother to read that” mode.