Today we were discussing gender relations. In my limited Spanish, I tried to argue that while the basics of the gender roles are the same between this country (from what I’ve seen and heard) and the United States, the effects are different. As always, the US is hugely varied. Norms can differ enormously between different subcultures. But in general, this country reminded me of what I’ve heard of the US in the seventies. More relationships based primarily on physical passion, early days of feminism; the stereotypes are still very strong. Not just different gender roles but the specific role of women is seriously looked down upon. Ironic given the mutual dependency of caretaker/domestic women and childishly dependent/breadwinner men.

S tried to argue differently. Yes, there’s machismo in the United States. Yes, a single mother is perceived negatively.

“It’s less than ideal.”

S: “Yes. Less than ideal.”

I asked M, “Is it a scandal here if a woman is a single mother?”

M: “In the villages, yes. A big scandal. And for any single mother, it’s her fault – why couldn’t she hang onto her man?”

“See?” (to S). “It’s different here. Very different.”

Then I asked M, “How common is it here for a couple to be like a partnership? Where the man and the woman respect each other?”

M: “That’s the ideal marriage! It’s rare. Now a days, if a man and a woman study together or work together, and they build a relationship and then decide to get married… That’s good, and it’s more common these days. But still very rare. I know maybe… four or five couples like that. …It’s still very common that people get married because they feel they have to. Because the girlfriend is pregnant.”

This argument had arisen from a discussion of divorce proceedings, specifically alimony in cases where no children and no abuse was involved. M and I were both instinctively against the “maintain a style of living to which the person has become accustomed” situation, citing perverse incentives and the absurdity of an adult not being held accountable for his or her own decisions, especially now that education between the sexes is much more egalitarian.

S, who has serious health issues and has spent the past several years gaining education rather than work experience through the support of his wife and is now contemplating a separation while suffering unemployment in a dismal global economic situation, was strongly in favor of alimony. He’s in favor of governments providing material support to their citizens in general.

With his recent physical handicaps, his increasing age, high education level, stagnant work experience, and the deteriorating economy, he can’t pick up jobs the way he used to. He’s suffering an identity crisis. He places great stock in education and knowledge as indicators of worth.

I didn’t want to directly criticize his approach to his own problems, hardly knowing him, so I didn’t, but I was thinking… “Sometimes you just have to suffer. Especially as the economy gets worse and worse…” I was remembering men I had met in homeless shelters. Men who were intelligent but for constellations of reasons had lost their footholds. For S, all it would take would be a divorce with no alimony, failure to find a good job, depression, and then a descent into alcoholism followed by harder drugs.

And I still couldn’t bring myself to feel that his wife should be legally obligated to support him for the rest of his life. Until he reaches sixty-five and the government takes over.

In the meantime, I’m seeing firsthand and in an intimate setting what incipient desperation looks like. I’m renting a room from T. She made a good living in the tourist trade, but these days tourism is slow. She’s relying more and more on the savings she had accumulated over the past several years. Recently she took a big risk in renting space for a shop. Every day of commuting to the market burns through more and more money – and then the money for supplies, and more for all of the unexpected structural work that appears to be necessary. It might be a year before she starts making a profit – if she can hold out long enough. Between the shop, the tourism work she still does when she can find it, and helping her daughter with her small grandsons, T is running herself ragged, and it looks like it still won’t be enough.

Sometimes T sets aside food or paid housework for a friend of hers, whose family is bordering on destitute. Three women: A cheerful grandmother; the haggard, underfed mother – T’s friend; and a young daughter, remarkably bright, cheerful, outgoing, and ambitious – and desperately in need of serious dental work that the family has no hope of being able to afford.

I don’t know where the father might be.

As for the father of T’s children – he used to be a good man, but success changed him. He and T were never married, and she discovered that with his wealth he was supporting two other women – a legal wife and family and also a concubine in a different city. T cut off all contact. She raised her children with the help of her own family, and until recent years, they were doing just fine.

Many of T’s current problems have to do with her daughter. A is smart and serious, but as T puts it, she’s a magnet to bad men. The father of her first son is now a transvestite drug addict. Their son is almost four years old now and has no contact with his father. The father of her second son, her newborn, works hard but makes hardly any money and doesn’t support her or the new baby. That burden falls to T. Meanwhile, the four-year-old has become violently jealous of his mother’s relationship with her boyfriend and with the new baby.

A might propose to her boyfriend in the interest of creating a stable home life for her children. T burns with shame and indignation at the thought of her daughter having to beg her boyfriend to marry her. She also worries that the man will not be a suitable role model for her grandson but instead will make his home life even more miserable than it already is. In addition to his emotional problems, the four-year-old has severe allergies and runs a real risk of working himself up into a deadly tantrum some day. There is medicine that would work as a prophylactic, but of course it’s expensive. T worries about him night and day.

Obligations: Legal, Moral, Societal.

Cascading consequences.

I just have threads of ideas, but I want to get them out, write them down, and look at them. Something like an outline.

I’ve been thinking about human rights. It seems to me that there is a big difference between what might be considered “rights” in the classical Western sense – liberty, property(?), justice – and “rights” as the word is increasingly used, particularly in developing nations, to refer to material necessities – sufficient food, clean water, etc.

It strikes me that it is very dangerous to confuse the two.

I would argue that rather than clamor directly for the latter, it is more important to demand the former as the means of obtaining the latter. If one argues directly for the latter, one encounters several problems. The existing state apparatus might capitulate, and the result is often a state of patronage/dependency/dole/welfare which engenders contempt in those who pay and resentment in those who receive along with hosts of perverse incentives and poisonous inversions of pride. Or rather than capitulate to demands, the state might answer them with increased oppression, and the result is war, each side fighting for its own interests. Right demands might, and the principle at play is power and the ability to wield it. Or, more commonly, a combination of the above – bread and circuses to buy out the majority of the public and silent, virulent repression of those voices that still resist.

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Whenever I think of the English language, I usually think of George Orwell. I agree with his opinions much of the time, and I respect his mastery of the English language all of the time. He is perhaps my favorite writer – a craftsman of the language, an artisan. He writes with exceptional eloquence – grammatically correct without being stuffy and stilted; elegant without indulging in flourishes but also without sounding too sparse.

From “Politics and the English Language”:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

From “Politics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels”:

Gulliver’s master is somewhat unwilling to obey, but the “exhortation” (a Houyhnhnm, we are told, is never COMPELLED to do anything, he is merely “exhorted” or “advised”) cannot be disregarded. This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.

The thin line between anarchism and totalitarianism is worth remembering all of the time. Contrast with Graeber’s “Fragments of an Anarchist Antropology,” which, as I recall, makes a good case for studying anthropology from an anarchic perspective (some would correlate this with feminist – informal vs formal power, family relationships and subtle coercion) but falls into all of the old hypocritical and self-delusional fallacies of a Utopian revolutionary ideal.

That’s the political exhortation. On a literary note, lately I’ve felt that I should write fewer journal entries and letters and poems and more formal essays that present ideas in something like their entirety and have a beginning, middle, and end. For the past several years now I’ve fallen into the habit of writing everything in the form of stream-of-consciousness fragments: fragments of thought, fragments of sentences. Part of this is certainly a question of audience. If I am writing to close friends, or much moreso to myself, of course nearly all of the context for any given thought can be left unsaid.

Also, it takes much more time to thoroughly research a piece of writing and construct a solid edifice out of it. There is a reason that people make careers and obtain degrees by this process. Writing as such comes easily to me; it relaxes me. Writing a piece that can stand on its own takes work.

For example, there is much that can be said about language and power. George Orwell has said a great deal of it, with precision and eloquence, so why should I say it again? Really the only purpose of this very blog post is to send out a cyber-echo of longing for greater awareness of George Orwell in the world: his ideas about politics and his ideas about language.

If I were writing an essay about the artistic utilities of grammar, this the moment in this entry when I would express my emotional and intellectual support of the Oxford comma.

If this were simply a stream-of-consciousness blog entry I would write something to suggest the politics of structured communication as a question in itself. Something to suggest the necessity of fracture and dissonance in art and the communicative utility of such art.

Finally I would throw in some Mendelssohn:

Stench of the ashtray
Stench of every
consumed and discarded
cigarette.

Country dress, country porch
in the middle of a sleepy city
slick streets, streetlights,
gunshots in the news
and the tireless trill
of crickets,
passing cars.

If I could do it over again,
we’d order a subscription
for weekly boxes of vegetables from a farm.

You’d still be a smoker,
our kitchen would still be filthy,
however much I try to clean,
and there would still be
the gunshots
and the insects.

Either way I’d be left
with this ashtray.

Maybe we’d have saved on groceries.
Maybe we could have
figured out compost
and recycling.

A little less filth,
a little less
packaging
and advertising
and garbage.

That’s what I would do
if I could do it over.

I know that asking if you could have loved me
would be the same
as asking you
to stop
craving
cigarettes.

This is the house she didn’t belong to: Art on the walls, wooden floors, high ceilings, a garden alongside, hazy humid heat infused with work sweat and pungent vegan cooking.

The hippies all sense something in her – something taut and bleak and anxious. She’s never been accepted in a hippie house.

She tells herself she could never live with vegans, anyway.

She’s lived with troubled teenagers.

She’s lived with a troubled single mother.

She’s lived with prim and proper and highly organized family friends.

She’s lived in a house full of international twenty-somethings who alternately kept to their rooms or went out drinking all night, were sports fanatics, hosted backyard dance parties. Despite being absorbed into their circle of camaraderie she had almost nothing in common with them. She remained quiet and somber, her sense of humor askew. She stood at the edges. Tethered to him in spite of him, but when it got very bad, sometimes, she would take off alone.

Top down, driving along the levee beneath darkly underlit nighttime clouds, she luxuriates in the heavy, balmy breeze. Only when she stops to sit by the water and listen to the cicadas hum in concert, chorusing abstract patterns like the voice of the universe, like electricity, then the mosquitoes swarm and she gets eaten alive.

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C was hurt on the job – at sea. He’s been on disability, but he recently got approved to go back to work.

What’s he been doing with his time? Just talking to people.

He’d like to travel, and he might try to find a ship that will take him to places he’s never been before. He’s worried about going to some countries.  A friend of his traveled abroad, got conned and  robbed, was nearly killed being thrown out a fourth floor balcony.

C’s biggest concern is his daughter. His ex-girlfriend started to get paranoid as soon as she got pregnant and hardly lets him see their girl. He has to negotiate through the grandmother, but things are getting better.

C and M kill time together.

M grew up in the country. When he was younger a group of white boys beat him up for talking to a white girl. When he saw his own blood he went crazy, and he doesn’t remember what happened after that. He wound up serving time for murder. He carries scars on his face and head.

He doesn’t like to meet my eyes. He says he has no ambitions.

I wonder if I’ll meet them again.

To Alexe Cinz:

I hope this message finds you well.

I hope it finds you.

You were one of the most interesting people I never met. An internet persona, private and reclusive. Elusive. A poet and a scholar. A quasi-popular culture aficionado.

Art, music, psychologies, social function, morality, history, humor – and a deep, weighted sincerity – your expressions expanded my world view during several of my formative years. You had a way of sketching impressions without saying anything outright, an artist of understatement and implication. I wish I still had the opportunity to glimpse some of the workings and the wealth of your mind.

I’m sure I’m not the only one curious about you – where you’ve been, where you are, where you’re going. What you’ve been thinking.

I never knew you, but I miss your presence.

Best wishes.

I hope all is well.

Well, it’s been a very long time. I found that, when it comes to the content of this blog, what I originally intended to write did not match what I was actually comfortable writing. I like to maintain clear boundaries between personal and private, and this space is very grey, very grey.

So from here on out I’ll just see where my intuition takes me. I’m afraid some posts will get very abstract and very vague.

I don’t want to write anything about What Aging Is, but I’ve noticed what it can be. It can be social isolation. Old friends move away or die. Children grow older and focus on their own lives. It takes energy to learn new things. It takes energy to meet new people.

Many elderly people seem to be only interested in the past, only interested in sharing what they have seen and what they have done. Bitter remarks about the present, a disinterest or antipathy in learning anything new.

It can be exhausting to be the recipient of so much history, so much concentrated loneliness – to be the recipient of a one-way brain dump. Exhausting to have an interest in a person who has very few friends – someone who pushes, someone who needs, someone who is to be pitied.

Exhausting to negotiate standing one’s ground, maintaining one’s own and the other’s dignity, protecting the other’s feelings.

Exhausting to negotiate time lines, a fantasy option of simply walking away. How much distance to maintain?

Unfortunately the biological response to an elderly person is not the same as a biological response to a baby.

Aging populations.

Dysfunctional communities.

People in need.

To do one’s best… It can be exhausting.

Obliquely, I was thinking of Purcell. I’d confused him with William Byrd.

The solace of solitude:

I’ve begun reading the Muqaddima by Ibn Khaldun, and I’m trying to figure out what he means by ‘good’ vs. ‘evil.’ I don’t know if it’s a problem in the translation, or simply a rhetorical ambiguity (counter to his style, which is very forthright), but there seem to be contradictory definitions.

On the one hand, ‘good’ is the good of the Bedouins, elsewhere called ‘fortitude.’ Self-reliance, strength, loyalty, simplicity. The good of the Bedouins is contrasted to the pleasure-loving weakness of town life and also the mental weakness that comes from living under the Rule of Law and Education – being brainwashed from an early age to docility and domestication.

On the other hand, ‘good’ is what is unique to humanity – specifically, our civilization.

“In view of his natural disposition and his power of logical reasoning, man is more inclined toward good qualities than toward bad qualities, because the evil in him is the result of the animal powers in him, and inasmuch as he is a human being, he is more inclined toward goodness and good qualities. Now, royal and political authority come to man qua man, because it is something peculiar to man and is not found among animals. Thus, the good qualities in man are appropriate to political and royal authority since goodness is appropriate to political authority.”

Ibn Khaldun describes the Bedouins as savages, similar to wild animals. They destroy civilization with their raids – they have no interest in laws or rules beyond upholding the honor of their own tribes.

They are models of good and they are models of the antithesis of good.

The contradiction makes sense from a philosophical standpoint, but Ibn Khaldun is so adamant about the clarity and rigorous analysis of logical arguments… so that civilization would be… perhaps collectively good but individually corrupting… I wonder if that’s where he’s heading – fascinating, but it just doesn’t seem his style to imply it rather than to spell it out. My impression is that there’s something else that’s supposed to be self-evident, something that I’m missing.

Today I very calmly and forcefully threatened to go to the police if a certain man kept approaching me. In retrospect, I was lucky that he seemed to speak fluent English, because I would have been flustered and incoherent if I had tried to tell him off in Arabic.

I didn’t think I would mind it, but it is bothersome, being in certain parts of town as a solitary woman, modestly dressed and still constantly being subject to… well, it’s intended as flattery. Nothing so coarse as a catcall, just murmured compliments, and for the more confident, attempts at conversation. Repeated attempts at conversation. Following. But to realize that it’s a sense of entitlement these men have, and only the women who are accompanied by someone and/or who wear the niqab (face veil) seem to be spared. To want to wear a niqab in public just to be able to spend an afternoon without having to fend anyone off…

And then he was angry with me – defensive – saying that he should be able to talk to me because it was his country. I repeated my position and he apologized resentfully and left. A sense of violated pride, I understand it – I imagine I understand it – it still ruined the next hour for me. I couldn’t concentrate on my book any longer – I had been reading in a park – and decided to go home early.

I want to learn things while I’m here. I want to move beyond my comfortable path.

I’ll have to be smart about it. To respect other people and to be respected – which is a right, not a privilege.

Or is it? What is a right? What is virtue?

Ibn Khaldun equated town-dwellers with women and children, subject to the protection and the rule of a master. He said that justice meant assigning everyone to his proper station. He also that that habits became customs, and that people do not feel comfortable and may become unwell if forced to change their customs.

I am accustomed to being able to go alone in public unremarked and unmolested. The consequences of a young woman conversing with a strange man are generally suggestive the world over, but I’m not used to the regularity or the persistence of men trying to talk to me, strange men who expect me, a strange woman, to feed their egos. Casually.

I seem to remember, somewhere in the world of gender binaries, the idea that women deserved respect…

You know, I think it’s generally easier to discuss things through the lens of fiction – or easier to discuss things that are fiction. The less personal, the less real, the easier not to offend.

I’ve been ill this past week – jet lag -> weakened immune system -> nasty cold – so I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs.

I was watching CSI with a friend, and I commented that I really didn’t like one of the main female characters. There are a few reasons, but the main one is that the show makes it very clear that her career takes priority over the emotional well-being of her kid.

My friend defended the character, and added that, as a woman, I should unquestioningly support other women in their ambition.

It made me think of something I had heard another Arab woman say – that she was shocked to see how, in the United States, women don’t automatically look out for each other – that she was used to a much greater sense of solidarity.

That the character is a single mother in the United States and is estranged from her extended family I would say strengthens my critique. That she is the only strong support for her child is all the more reason for the child to be her top priority, especially considering the fact that in her career, while she is important, she is not unique. Nothing drastic would happen if she quit.

This is obvious and reasonable to me. I wonder what it says about me. That I am a US resident, accustomed to individual needs and individual responsibilities? That I am an nth-generation feminist, more concerned with abandoning the playing field than leveling it?

I really wanted to talk about the American Way of Life and Casablanca.

Casablanca is a very enjoyable movie with great actors, great dialogue, an exciting setting, and a genuinely interesting story. It’s easy to see why it’s a classic, but the thing is, it is also supposed to be a great romance. However, a) there is no chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that I could see, and b) I don’t see how the Paris story really fits either of their characters. I mean, sure the idea of the romance in Paris in which they were escaping their problems – but they way it’s shot it seems more like Roman Holiday (which has fantastic on-screen chemistry, by the way) than anything set during a war.

So I really wonder, how and why did Casablanca achieve its reception, its reputation, as a great melodrama?

The only thing that comes to mind is to link the dialogue, which is romantic, with something very literally minded about the WWII American mindset. Something in line with the fact that even though the politics in Casablanca appear to be very cynical, very ambiguous, the “sentimental” romance is linked to the moral dichotomy – Germans Bad, French Resistance Good. The tension between Rick’s cynical exterior and his lovelorn heart is also a tension between his outward neutrality and his ultimate decision to kill the German officer and allow the Resistance leader to escape, even subordinating his personal romance (“the problems of three little people”) to that greater goal.

Hell, I think it’s a compelling story, and I could see how, leaving the theatre, one might retroactively imagine the romance to be more believable than it actually was.

(Even as a nth generation feminist, no, I’m not happy about Ilsa telling Rick to do the thinking for both of them, but on the other hand… it fit the era, and it does simplify the story, so I‘m not terribly perturbed.)

What concerns me more is the idea of Rick as an American Hero. Even presented as an anti-hero, it is understood that Rick’s true nature is Heroic – I’d say, primarily because he is American, and America in Casablanca is the ideal realm of strength and freedom to which everyone wants to escape. The fact that Rick supported the underdog in Spain and in Ethiopia (really?) is enough to warrant his being a top priority for the Germans and, more importantly, prove his strength and virtue in the eyes of the audience. Even though he supposedly spent a year in Paris doing nothing but make love and after that becomes avowedly neutral and cynical, his Masculine Americanness (in a sea of non-Americans) demands innate heroism.

Even this I wouldn’t say bothers me – this is an American film released during World War II; it’s only to be expected. But the assumptions that came out of WWII – war is a conflict of good vs. bad; America is the ideal society – I should say that these ideas didn’t originate with WWII but were very powerfully reinforced by it. Really set the tone for the 20th century, at least the US narrative.

Cut to present day. Here I am in the Middle East, realizing how powerful an idea the American Way of Life really is. I’m used to critiquing consumerism, imperialism, the all-consuming expansion of American culture – but on the other hand, the idea of having access to global culture, having access to all the conveniences of modern life – it’s a very compelling notion, and it’s one thing to critique it from within the culture, but it’s another thing to not have access to that culture.

Which I guess brings me back to the idea that most people, all over the world, want pretty much the same thing. They want to be able to live comfortably, with dignity, and most of all to provide security and dignity to their families. They want to be able to give their kids what other kids have. That there are consequences to the achievement of this way of life… that’s another question.

And speaking of WWII film tropes, every now and then, when I read something along the lines of “collateral damage” and what’s “fair” in situations of, say, civilian death tolls or human rights abuses, I think about this Mitchell and Webb sketch.

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