ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I love the Arabic language. A lot. I've loved it since I first started learning it, and have kept loving it even as I've struggled to retain some semblance of comprehension of it despite often having to take years away from the serious study of it. Among the many things I love about it is the alphabet. Arabic letters are very lovely to look at; there's a long history of calligraphic art that is simply stunning. The Arabic alphabet is also very orderly; letters are arranged by shape, which strikes me as a very brilliant innovation. And I'm sure some of it is that I am proud of myself for having mastered writing and reading it. Here are a set of symbols I didn't encounter until I was nearly twenty, and I learned to decode them in a variety of ever-changing situations. That's an accomplishment, to be sure.

When I see Arabic, on a sign, or package, or building, I usually stop, if possible, and try to read it. Because I have a relatively small vocabulary, I find myself sounding out words and trying multiple vowelings of them, trying to figure out the meaning. But sometimes, I start reading a word looking for the root or the clues to its parts of speech...and I find that it's an English word.

This usually makes me crack up. It's the sudden surprise of it--congrats! You were going to throw your whole brain behind decoding something...and you know it already! I also find it very familiar, because I used to take notes in class in English, but with Arabic letters. These were the notes I didn't want people to be able to read--"I can't believe we're spending the whole class talking about this," "Who died and made her queen?", "Is he honestly that stupid?", that sort of thing.

There's also an interesting question about when and why English words are written in Arabic transliteration. When the audience for a public sign is Arabic-speaking, when do English words get used? Clearly it's meant to communicate something to a (perceived) monolingual audience (as when I write Arabic in English transliteration for English-speakers). But what value does the English have, here? Is it filling in for words or concepts that don't exist in Arabic? Is there a prestige or mockery factor? What's going on?

Without further ado, three photos I've taken that feature English transliterated into Arabic, and some thoughts on what they might mean. Readers of Arabic (or other languages written with the Arabic-Persian alphabet), you may also find some amusement herein.

pictures below, mostly of food-related products )
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
I continually find new reasons my dissertation research is odd. The most recent is the frequency with which I move between fieldsites. Now, obviously, my "fieldsite" broadly considered is "the Arab communities and institutions of New York City," and I haven't left it. But, more practically, I've moved in and out of different areas of community activism and organizing, following some issues more than others at different times, digging in deeply to a particular niche area and then pulling back out and moving on to another.

I'm lucky: the digging in I'm doing now is into a space where I have a ton of connections, both purely professional and more personal. I keep using Facebook to set up interviews, for instance, because it's where I see people the most. Both of the days I did interviews this week, I was met with hugs and cheerful greetings when I arrived. I'm also getting very little resistance to meeting with me--I was able to schedule a time to talk to everyone I tried to schedule with within a week.

It's good, as I'm coming to the end of the most active phase of my fieldwork, to realize that I am in a different position than I was a year and a half ago, when I was scrambling to do interviews. It's also good to read through what I wrote a year and a half ago; while my depth of knowledge has changed, and I think my framing has shifted, the data I collected then is still relevant and interesting. So, phew: it's not a lost cause, this "finishing the damn dissertation" project.

Among the returns that this week held for me was my first trip to Bay Ridge in months. Is it wrong that my initial thought upon stepping off of the train and walking up Bay Ridge Avenue to 5th Avenue was ZOMG FOOD!!!!1!!!? In any case, the sudden immediate availability of Arab junk food was (pleasantly) overwhelming. Being overwhelmed, I, in the end, resorted to just getting a donut at Mike's Donuts, but I have begun planning what purchases I'll be making at Belady next week when I go back.

The streets look much as I remember them from last summer, when I was down there two or sometimes three days a week. A few businesses appear to have gone under; one restaurant I've never gotten to go to had its windows papered over, though there was a sign indicating this was vacation, not permanent. Perhaps there were fewer people on the streets; it was in the nineties and threatening rain, though, so I don't think that was particularly indicative.

One of the things that struck me was just how much cultural fusion happens in Bay Ridge. It's a neighborhood where immigrant and ethnic groups collide in rapid succession. The stretch of Fifth Avenue that is unquestionably Arab is only five blocks long; halal groceries and sweet shops cluster together, but sit in comfortable relation to old-school Brooklyn coffee shops, Chinese restaurants, a very cool comic store, an Irish pub.

Dollar Store Door in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  Shows a series of scarves hanging; the one on the far left is a kuffiyeh.

This is the door of a 99¢ store on Fifth Avenue. 99¢ stores are common in all low-income/working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn; they carry a variety of merchandise, including food, stationary, housewares, and toys, most for 99¢ an item. For folks who live in these neighborhoods, they're the general stores. I go to my local one for mailing envelopes regularly (and then a screaming fight with my toddler about how he really doesn't need another plastic dinosaur, or that awesome Dora ball). Although this isn't universally true, many are run by Chinese immigrants, particularly in neighborhoods with a Chinese presence (like Bay Ridge).

The scarves draped in the window share space with decorative plastic flowers, umbrellas, and inexpensive children's backpacks. Next to the two pink scarves hangs a kuffiyeh; not the traditional triangular one worn in the Middle East, or even its politically-relevant neckscarf variant, but the type sold by street vendors in Manhattan in dozens of colors. The symbol of Arab struggle, as recoded by the hipster masses, and resold on the streets of Bay Ridge: there's a poetry in that. And that's the reason I love my fieldwork: because there's poetry in it, right alongside the politics, and it's my job to make it come to vibrant life.

(For those who don't recognize it [and who would, given the crappiness of the photo?], the icon above is of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, and stands perched at the edge of Bay Ridge, visible from most points within it.)
ajnabieh: Protesters in Times Square, holding a banner reading "New York To Gaza" in front of a neon McDonalds. (gaza)
CNN Billboard
Freedom Flotilla protest in Times Square, New York, 31 May 2010. The CNN electronic billboard reads "9 dead as Israeli forces storm Gaza aid convoy." The activist sign in front reads "Arrest Netanyahu for Piracy and Murder."

I'm certain by now everyone's heard about the Israeli Defense Forces boarding the ships of the Free Gaza Flotilla, killing at least nine, and as many as nineteen, of the activists bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza, as well as the diplomatic and political aftermath that's ongoing. It'll be a while before observers (like me and my ilk in the discipline of political science) have a real idea of what the political effects of this incident are going to be. But from my perspective as someone engaged in ongoing research on Palestine activism in New York, this is a time where things are in flux for these movements, and when politics could change for the better or worse.

I was shocked when I woke up Monday morning to a long stretch of emails and Facebook updates about the boarding and deaths. It wasn't that I didn't expect the IDF to stop the flotilla; it was that I didn't expect there to be violence of this magnitude. In particular, what's shocking about this raid is that it is internationals, and not Palestinians, who were killed; the reaction to these 20 deaths looks like the reaction to the Gaza bombardment, which killed over a thousand Palestinians and injured more. (There are shades here of Rachel Corrie's death, made more apparent by the fact that one of the boats in the Flotilla is named after her.) The different political value of different lives is never more apparent than at moments like this, no matter that the human value might be identical.

When I woke up Monday, New York's activist community was already mobilizing to organize an immediate response. A pro-flotilla demonstration had been planned for Tuesday afternoon, no matter what, but the issue was too urgent, and another was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Because this was a holiday in the US, people were able to attend an afternoon event. Because of the short notice, a parade permit couldn't be gotten; therefore, this was a 'sidewalk protest,' meaning that protesters had to stay on sidewalks, and could not obstruct the flow of traffic. Sidewalk protests are easier to run, because they don't require advanced police approval; however, they do run the slight risk of arrest for obstructing traffic or, really, annoying the police at all. But nothing of that type happened at this demo. Mostly, there was standing around with signs, passing out flyers (including this cartoon by Adalah-NY member Ethan Heitner) to passersby, and then a march to the Israeli Consulate.

I attended the protest in Times Square, along with at least eight hundred other people (the highest estimate I heard was 1200). This was a mass rally, drawing from all the diverse constituencies that make up the pro-Palestine, anti-occupation, anti-war and social justice movements in New York. In particular, it drew from both sides of the divide between borough-dwelling Arab immigrants, who tend to mobilize in mass organizations with explicitly Arab and/or Muslim identity politics, particularly in the organization Al-Awda, whose protests and events I've been attending for my research, and the more ideological Arab, Jewish, and other American activists, who organize in smaller social justice groups, such as Adalah-NY, the group where I've done the majority of my fieldwork. At moments of crisis like these, all members of these communities show up. However, as the week is progressing, different groups are diverging and starting to plan individual actions; it's only at the first moment of crisis that the pan-group unity can occur.

As always, I took my camera to the demonstration. Normally, most of my research photos are crap: I take them to judge the size of the crowd, and to record slogans on photographs, or remind me of important moments I want to document later. But this time, I managed to get some that strike me as worth sharing. So below, under the cuts, I'm going to do some analysis of the demo, and of some images I took there. Warning: photo-heavy.

Spectacular Spectacular: Times Square as Site )

Messaging )

Dressing For Demonstrations )

And one story. )

This is News
The central sign reads: "This Is News."

There was a protest on Tuesday I wasn't able to go to. There are others scheduled for this week, though I'm not sure how many I'll be able to get to. It's a bit odd to be a researcher at a time like this, thinking about a big picture that isn't on the table for most participants. But there's this feeling you get when you realize you've stumbled into a data goldmine, and I'm getting it right now.

More photos (really!) at my flickr set.
ajnabieh: Protesters in Times Square, holding a banner reading "New York To Gaza" in front of a neon McDonalds. (gaza)
I apparently have picked up a few readers! It's good to have friends with friends. I had planned to post a book review today, but in light of the fact that I have readers, I thought I'd do something a little lighter, rather than start with inside baseball. (If you didn't see my intro post, it's here.)

I work on discourse, by which I mean the ideas, concepts, and frameworks we use to understand the world around us, define it, and interpret it. One of the primary means of analyzing discourse is to work on texts: speeches, conversations, written documents, etc. However, discourse doesn't just exist in words; it also exists in symbols, images, sounds, music, and other sorts of elements to the complex patterns of human interaction. If we want to understand discourse, I believe we have to approach it broadly, and look for discursive signs in multiple formats. This is part of the reason I'm an ethnographer: I want to get a full, holistic picture of the context for any sign used in a framework, rather than have to interpret it with a set of preexisting limits.

So I spend a lot of the time I'm out in public doing my fieldwork taking photographs. Generally, they are terrible as photographs. What I'm trying to do with them is collect data: to see what of the visual information at an event I can preserve for myself, later. I'm going to start posting some of these photos, occasionally, and talking about them, to demonstrate how one gets data out of images, and to start to untangle some of the complicated information in them. Hopefully this will be interesting!

So, let's start here:

Al-Awda Protest, 27 Dec 09

This photo was taken in the middle of a demonstration organized by Al-Awda, held on 27 December 2009. The demonstration was held on the first anniversary of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (called by Israel 'Operation Cast Lead'--more info can be found here). By this point in the demonstration, we'd rallied for an hour at Times Square, and then marched, by a long and circuitous route, to stand outside the Israeli Consulate on 2nd Avenue and 43rd St. It was a Sunday; the Consulate is in a large office building, and no one appeared to be there. Al-Awda holds the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations in New York; its base lies in two places, first, the Arab immigrant community of Bay Ridge (and other Arab immigrant communities in the city) and, second, in the radical-left community, including the International Action Center (home to the ANSWER Coalition, which you may have heard of).

This photo is dominated by protest signs (though, between two of them, you can see a woman speaking on the stage at the front of the demo). Before we get to the actual signs themselves, I want to point out something about them--all but one of them are professionally printed. Central printing and organization of signs means several things. First: a group with a budget, resources, and time to plan their actions. Second: a group that wants to have some control over the message they send out. There's a desire to present a unified narrative of the action, and to put that narrative in the hands of as many people as possible.

Now let's actually look at the signs, starting with the one at the center of the frame. In addition to the name and contact information for the organization, there is a large graphic and then a slogan in bold print. We'll start with the image. The fist raised in struggle (hey, look, it's got a wikipedia page) is a sign that dates back at least to the black power movement (note what percentages of the images in a Google Images search for"black power" feature the fist, either as a graphic or as an action) and is used by revolutionary movements worldwide. The image behind the fist, if you don't recognize it, is a map of what's usually called "historic Palestine," meaning the territory ruled as Palestine under the British mandate, which is roughly contiguous with the territories now known as the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Historic Palestine is rendered in the colors and pattern of the Palestinian national flag; this symbolism here is not subtle.

The fist clutches a large key, which is the most complicated sign in the image; let me back up and take it from the top. This is a reference to the departure of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war between the nascent state of Israel and its neighboring states, who objected to the terms of its formation. Many Palestinians left their homes, either because of direct violence by representatives of the new Israeli state, because of fear of that violence, or because they were anxious about the situation. Many, if not all, believed that they would shortly be able to return to their homes, and, in general, brought few of their belongings, including their house keys, planning on returning back home in a few weeks. However, for those who had lived within the area that Israeli forces seized at the end of the war, they were not allowed to return, and were not compensated for their land or possessions. The key here symbolizes the desire of Palestinians to return to their homes and land within what is now the state of Israel; in fact, the name of the organization holding this rally is Al-Awda, which means "return" in Arabic (you can see it written in small print on the wrist in the image). The image of the key is repeated in the sign to the right of this central sign, where we see a photograph of an old man holding a key with the text "The Palestinian people have the right to return!"

The text beneath the image reads "Free Palestine from the River to the Sea." (The 'river' in question is the Jordan; the 'sea' the Mediterranean.) This is a common invocation. "From the river to the sea" is a way of referencing "Historic Palestine with easy geographical markers. It's also remarkably easy to rhyme in English; a major chant used at all sorts of protests goes "From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free." By referring to all this territory as Palestine, the sign makes a clear statement against the legitimacy of the state of Israel; Palestine needs to be free, and it isn't because it is Israel.

Stepping away from this sign, I want to point very briefly to a few of the other things we see going on in this picture. First, the other signs; the other one about return is by the Break the Siege on Gaza coalition, whose largest member is Al-Awda; the two groups are basically contiguous. The "End all U.$. Aid to Racist Israel" sign is from the International Action Center, though you can't read the name well. The hand-written sign in the upper left, which was a large illustrated sign, also has another organizational URL written on it (you can see just the end). The existence of these other signs, with other messages on them, are designed to gesture to a broader coalition of groups; having multiple identifications suggests that the group objecting to the decision isn't either one single (dismissible) organization or the two hundred (unusual) people who are standing with the signs, but instead a larger, amorphous, and potentially more powerful grouping with multiple bases. The messaging on all these signs, however, is remarkably congruent, which suggests either that the protest was collectively planned by all the groups, who decided on joint messaging, or that the groups share political perspectives fairly tightly.

Looking at the picture, what strikes me as someone who was at the rally is the amount of data that is missing. I only see one woman in hijab, who is also the only person in frame (in addition to the woman on stage) wearing a kuffiyeh, but this strikes me as an atypical frame; I'd say there wre probably 20-30 women, including teenage girls, wearing hijab at the demonstration (which probably had 200-250 people), and at least 50 people wearing kuffiyehs or kuffiyeh print. (If you don't know much about the kuffiyeh, Ted Swedenberg is an anthropologist studying its dispersion into American pop culture; here is an article where he talks about them. In this context, they're being worn as a sign of solidarity with Palestinian resistance movements.)

And, of course, there's all the non-visual data that's being missed: the attention of the passersby to our spectacle; the mutter of people talking to each other while, on stage, speakers yell into microphones; the endless rhythmic procession of an entire mass of people chanting along. You can't tell that many of these signs had been used at another demo six months before; you can't tell that the speakers belong to the same set of groups; you can't get the sense that the crowd has all been here and done this before. While using images to collect data is important, they can't be read alone, or without attention to what's missing or invisible in them.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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