Sunday, April 11, 2010

Driving Señor Platero in Saudi Arabia: Headmistress Moudhi, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Their Respective Donkey Stories

A historical photo

Recently John Burgess of Crossroads Arabia published a post humorously entitled “Delightful Pain on the Ass”. In it, he reproduced a Saudi Gazette article translated from the original at Al-Watan--one with a courageous take on women driving in Saudi Arabia. It was particularly courageous and delightful, because it involved a headmistress individually taking on the police by insisting on driving whatever mode of transportation she could, until she finally exposed through action and argument, the lack of foundation in Islam, or in common sense, of preventing women from driving themselves. She began with a car, then a car with a driver in the back seat, a bicycle, and finally succeeded in making her point riding on a donkey. However, at the close of the article, it seemed as if Headmistress Moudhi would be coming up with more personal acts of civil disobedience.

A number of us expressed our delight, encouragement, and hope for the future of women driving in Saudi Arabia with Headmistress Moudhi as a role model. I was thinking of Headmistress Moudhi as a modern day Juan Ramón Jiménez whose donkey, both pet and mode of transportation through the village of Moguer, transformed hearts and minds, and became famous in the Literature Nobel Prize Winner’s poetic story Platero y yo (Platero and I). Headmistress Moudhi’s story was both contemporary, and from a more traditional feminist perspective, in that she is a success in a traditionally female occupation, is married with children, and exemplifies a woman’s ability to take practical action, and to frustrate men with language.

That was, until Eman Al Nafjan of A Saudiwoman’s Weblog left a comment informing us that the original Al Watan article in Arabic "مرايا سعودية (23) موضي تتجول في شوارع الرياض على حمار" "Mirrors Saudi Arabia (23)
Moudhi wandering the streets of Riyadh on a donkey"  by op-ed editor, Abdullah Nasser Al Fozan, made clear that Headmistress Moudhi and her adventures were a fictional rhetorical device. This device, I realized, allowed the author to make a number of key arguments against the ban on women driving in a safe and amusing way. Ah, to be duped so artfully and in such good company!

No matter, “Ms Moudhi” still made a number of excellent points, and the ridiculousness of her asinine adventures pointed out in a non-threatening way the asininity of her non-driving predicament by virtue of being female. In this story, her donkey finally tamed the police, much as Platero tamed the villagers, inspiring love and compassion from all for himself and his master who had also been ridiculed as odd.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed 28 pieces of music, "Platero and I for Narrator and Guitar", based on the poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez, winner of the Nobel Prize.

Eman’s revelation made me wonder how we had been duped, especially as I had found the story somewhat unusual and testing credulity, but I was willing to suspend disbelief. Perhaps that was part of it, the desire that it should be true. Still, there were fewer signifiers of fictionality in the Saudi Gazette version, and even fewer in John’s post (though I read both); and, the Arabic original, which I normally would have Google read but it was not linked until Eman did so, also had more indications of fictionality. Yet it had all the truthiness of a tall tale, and the weight of a popular controversy debated with highly logical arguments.

In fact, as I commented on John’s blog subsequently, fiction can be a more powerful messenger than non-fiction; and is particularly useful when certain ideas presented in a non-fictional way would be more difficult to express-- whether due to censorship, backlash, or other negative repercussions. This “political role” for fiction is universal. It was even part of the warning given by Ancient philosophers against poets.

Luis Buñuel with Catherine Deneuve

One need only think of the medieval court jester to appreciate how fanciful and humorous presentation allows for greater latitude in a critique. Some stand up comedians today have a similar critical function and style. In past eras, even not so long ago, fiction allowed for Spaniard Luis Buñuel to attack Franco’s fascistic Spain in films; and for Jean-Paul Sartre to produce dramatic works critical of the German Occupation of France and have them performed --Les Mouches [The Flies] which opened June 3, 1943; and Huis Clos [No Exit] which premiered May 27, 1944, both in German Occupied Paris-- and read during the war, without censorship by the Nazis.

Ultimately 3 themes have emerged for me from John’s post, the article, and the comments. One, of course, is the issue of women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, another is the role of fiction in social activism, and the third is the ways in which we can be duped by stories.

Driving oneself

The issue of women’s driving in Saudi Arabia is a focal point for discontented Western women in Saudi, feminists, and some Saudi feminists. Others think that it is an issue that is of lesser importance, or of greater importance only as a function of other more pressing concerns like access to work and business ownership, equitable family laws, greater freedoms to travel and marry, and more independence from a mahrem generally.

A variety of arguments are made for women being able to drive in the KSA, including Islamic examples of women riding animals in the 7th century, the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia in this ban, including among other conservative Muslim countries, women’s better driving records generally internationally, the need to be able to access school, work, and health care even when the family cannot afford a fulltime driver, and the irony that many Saudi women do drive outside the KSA.

Bralessness was a feminist rallying cry in the 60's and 70's

If one looks at how feminism made inroads in the West it was with a similar combination of high profile issues like smoking, dress, driving, the vote, and access to male spaces, ie traditional male occupations, clubs, and higher education; and broader legislative gains that are less likely to make the front pages of the newspaper: equal minimum wage (recent); equal benefits, changes in access to health care, changes in societal responses to domestic violence backed with legislation, etc. All of this was combined with gradually shifting attitudes on the part of both men and women.

Hopefully this combination of high profile issues, legislation on less newsworthy concerns, and deep attitude changes will work to positive effect in Saudi Arabia as well.

Fiction as an agent of social change

As I mentioned above fiction is a universal agent of social change, and deemed as dangerous by authoritarian states for that reason. Usually in such a state there is a high degree of control over what is publishable as acceptable fiction: subject matter, themes, styles, political affiliations of the authors. Repression is usually pre-emptive, and, if post-hoc, swift and irreversible. However it is still easier to elude, at least for a while, with fiction, rather than non-fiction.

Those who are able to successfully transpose sensitive and controversial issues with metaphoric and narrative devices into recognizable but safe stories can touch the readers’ psyche and effect changes in social attitude. Sometimes poetry is best suited to this purpose as it allows for greater obfuscation and higher emotional impact. Rhetorical devices that require the reader to construct the meaning of the written text, the film, or play, rather than have it served up for easy consumption or rejection, tend to engage and persuade more; and some push to action.

Some of the great revolutionary songs serve the same function, and, when the time for open revolt comes, are part of the manifestation for change. Latin American singers of the 60’s and 70’s had this role, perhaps even more so than Americans in the 60’s whether folk or rock.

Victor Jara

Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, and the group Quilapayún were part of the New Song Movement in Chile which was repressed after the CIA sponsored coup that ousted Salvador Allende and put General Augusto Pinochet in power on September 11, 1973.

Quilapayún singing “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” hymn of the revolution, 
in a later performance

After the coup, Victor Jara was arrested from his professorial office at the Universidad, and along with 5000 others held in a stadium. He was recognized and tortured, including by breaking both his hands, then told to play his guitar. Instead he sang “Venceremos” and was beaten again, then shot in a game of Russian roulette played by an officer until the right chamber came up.

The first of 3 parts of a documentary on the movement, and the assassination of Victor Jara: La Funa (a Chilean concept of public denunciation)

"Venceremos", the campaign song of Allende, sung by Quilapayún,
 in the year of his election as President, 1970

Poets, novelists, and playwrights were generally prominent in decolonization movements of the British, and French Empires, and in the reform of the former Spanish one. A selective list of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature is testimony to that fact, and to the role of fiction in other social activist movements: Nadine Gordimer (South Africa’s Apartheid regime); JM Coeteze (South African, but generalist on repressive regimes); VS Naipal (British colonialism in India and the West Indies); Derek Walcott (British Empire in the West Indies); Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia; Latin American neo-colonization by the USA); and Pablo Neruda (Chile, Latin American Regimes).

Humour is the highest form of psychological defense, and often the best way to escape censorship. The film M*A*S*H, ostensibly about the Korean War, was a severe indictment of the Vietnam War even as that war was escalating. The black humour, including about suicide, and the “realistic” surgical scenes brought home the message that war is hell and this one is pointless. Robert Altman was prohibited from making it about the Vietnam War directly, and was warned off making it as generic as he would have liked, which is why the film references the Korean “police action”, still not won to today, although a truce has ended open hostilities.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H (1970)

Humour is perhaps particularly important for dissenting messages in a mass medium like television, where broad swaths of society can be engaged by a particularly well done comedic condemnation of “normal” life. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour did it so well during the Vietnam War that it was repeatedly censored then forced off the air, by CBS, with the Nixon Whitehouse in the background.

So much for American freedom of speech, which also took a particular beating during the George W Bush administration as the Dixie Chicks discovered when lead singer Natalie Maines included, in her between song patter in London, the phrase: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” (mis-reported as “"Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas"). They went from being a top country group to being reviled as traitors. Their apologies did little to stop the full bore rejection of their work on previously friendly Southern and Southwestern country stations, and their CDs were publicly destroyed.

The documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut.Up. And. Sing in full

The documentary they made subsequently, Dixie Chicks: Shut. Up. And. Sing, is a study in the hypersensitivity of the post 9/11 era, and backlash; as well as in how one copes with the irrevocable change in reception to oneself, one’s art and one’s livelihood.

Natalie Maines’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” from the Dixie Chicks’ subsequent album, Taking the Long Way, is a good summary:

To return to contemporary Saudi Arabia, Tash Ma Tash, [No Big Deal], a popular sitcom on Saudi television, is humorous, successful and socially challenging, so much so that it has been targeted and switched from a national station, Saudi Arabian Television 1, to a private one, MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center). An Arab News article “Tash Ma Tash: A Barometer of Self-Criticism” from 2004 summarized well the impact of Tash Ma Tash’s social satire, and its popularity as regular Ramadan programming for family enjoyment after iftar. Raid Qusti writes:
I like to think of it as a barometer and just as a barometer indicates weather conditions, Tash Ma Tash indicates how we Saudis tolerate and accept self-criticism. Over the years, a number of topics have been dealt with on the show; some of them include poor public services, problems in public and private hospitals, the use of wasta (influence) to get things done, bad roads, unemployment, STC’s monopoly, the failings of bureaucracy and so on. The show has dealt with Saudi problems which needed to be brought to public attention; our tendency is always to ignore and overlook the negative aspects but Tash Ma Tash addressed them head-on — and it did so in an amusing and humorous way.
He then details how, as a barometer of Saudi social tolerance, Tash Ma Tash had suffered in the 4 seasons 2000-2004. In 2000, Saudi clerics responded with a fatwa against watching Tash Ma Tash after a program criticizing judges (who are clerics). In 2003 a program on the difficulties for women, Saudi and non, posed by  the banning from restaurants of solo women unaccompanied by a mahrem, resulted in further condemnation from the “ultraconservatives”.

In 2004, the impetus for Qusti's article was a Tash Ma Tash program on religious teaching in public school education that showed the presence of teachers espousing the accepted curriculum of tolerance of others, but also of teachers who preach tawkfir, or hatred against non-Muslims, with the support of some principals and some in the Ministry of Education. Though the response was mild up to the time of the article, Qusti had a sense of foreboding and concluded: "Storms are surely ahead for Tash Ma Tash but the show has proven one thing: We do not like self-criticism. And that is neither healthy nor good."

That same year, 2004, actors on Tash Ma Tash received death threats after an extremely popular episode, “And life continues”, on the negative impact on Saudi of terrorist actions within the Kingdom. The terrorist group which was the object of the satire took offense and issued death threats online against the principal actor, Nasir Al-Gasabi, and a number of others.

In 2005 Tash Ma Tash was bought by MBC, a Saudi-run station based in Dubai (UAE), home to Al Arabiya, and other quality programming of films, children’s shows, and news formats. After a number of seasons in which it was deemed to have become stale, Tash Ma Tash’s program, in its 16th season, 2009, on public education, “Development”, showed the conflicting currents within the Ministry of Education between reform to create “open minds” and more orthodoxy; and once again created delight and controversy--through humour: "‘Tash Ma Tash’ sparks heated debate again".

This comedic treatment of the hiring interview of a highly qualified teaching candidate, who was found to be insufficiently religious, tackled a core societal issue, in a way which wouldn’t have been as tolerated as it was if it had been, say, a documentary. Al Watan, and Al Madina newspapers celebrated the episode. The writer of the episode reflected on the role within th state decreed social dialogue for Tash Ma Tash's brand of social activism through comedy, while specifying that there was no incitement to action:
Yahya Al-Amir, the writer of the script for the episode, told Al-Arabiya television channel that the series was not “just a comedy” but had become “an important cultural event” reflecting the nationwide dialogue currently occurring in Saudi society which “has blossomed out of the National Dialogue conferences of the last few years.”
“The cultural movement as evidenced by Tash Ma Tash and the Saudi press is a product of Saudi cultural development which has moved on from the debate phase to the foundational phase,” Al-Amir said.
“The idea in the episode was to provoke discussion of ideas, not actual events. The episode looks at figures of bureaucracy hampering development, and the bureaucracy which poses just as great a threat as religious strictness.”
Al-Amir said that addressing the issue of a national sovereign project had come from a royal decree, and that educational and judicial development were designed to reformulate institutions that no longer met the needs and demands of Saudis who “have started to feel that their ambitions go beyond those of those institutions”.
Reuters: Abdel Khalek Al-Ghanem (L), director of the Saudi program "Tash Ma Tash", poses with actors Nasir Al Gasabi (C) and Abdallah Al-Sadhan as they arrive for the opening ceremony of the 4th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival December 9, 2007.

On being duped by stories

As I mentioned above, perhaps part of being duped is wishful thinking. Would that it were true that Headmistress Moudhi was the beginning of a wave of donkey riding feminists who would so disrupt the already dysfunctional Saudi traffic that the powers that be would concede drivers licenses and privileges to all women in Saudi, if only to clear the streets of dung.

However, there are other reasons we are duped by stories. Most often, as I did, we toss out the warning signs, the ones that don’t fit with the norm of the particular narration, or even the way most of the particular  story is being told. We don’t expect fiction from Crossroads Arabia, or even from the Saudi Gazette and Al-Watan for that matter, unless on the culture pages. We don’t expect it from an editorialist even in an opinion column, or at least not so seamlessly interwoven with non-fictional discourse.

Sometimes lack of cultural familiarity plays a role, as when members of one culture deliberately create certain impressions in their story telling to another culture. The less knowledgeable person has a harder time sorting truth from fiction when the shadings are subtle, the ignorance deep, or the prejudices high. Sometimes the fiction is part of the official discourse, and all pervasive, so that there are only glimmers of dissent from either native or non-native listeners. Expressing this dissent may have repercussions best avoided and so while not all are duped, and certain families, friends, or groups may share alternate realities these are kept private. It is not that people don’t know; it is that they wisely keep it to themselves and a few trusted others.

Illustration from Jami "Rose Garden of the Pious" (1553)
Persian poetry and miniature painting in one image

Sometimes, telling the truth to someone not from the culture is too fraught with misunderstandings and so easiest left unsaid. Some people merely want to avoid the discussion at all, except with those they know understand, hence the number of Iranian Canadians who self-identify as “Persian”. As one medical resident told me after he knew me better, “Most often people want to talk politics from what they read in the local news, and I don’t want to have that conversation, so if they ask my origin I just say I am Persian, and they have no idea I am Iranian”.

Sometimes people play on stereotypes of their own culture, or a presumed lack of knowledge on the part of the listener, to pass off their own foibles as cultural norms. This has happened memorably to me twice. Both times the patients were high functioning intelligent male Muslim students aged 20ish, the first from a MENA country and the second from a South Asian one.

The first, in answer to my routine questions about family and family relationships, revealed that his mother still bathed him, including his private areas. He took into consideration my appearance, my name and my language skills, as well as the fact that I was still a resident, and proceeded to tell me that this was normal for his culture, and one of the differences he had with Canadian culture. His original complaint and reason for seeing a psychiatrist had been that as the child of immigrants he was having trouble adapting to Canadian society, particularly as a young man. Given that this was a first assessment I let it all go, and moved on to the other parts of the evaluation.

Gardens at Alhambra, Al-Andalus

I was not in the least convinced, but in the interest of thoroughness, and in recognition of the fact that I was not familiar with all MENA Muslim mores of each and every corner, subsect, and social strata, I took the opportunity of a conjugal consultation over dinner (not naming the patient, of course). That query--if such mother-son activity were possibly normal in any part of MENA--did not result in the recapitulation of the Masters in Social Sciences on the role of water in Islam that I was anticipating, but rather in “The Look”, which turn into “THE LOOK”, and then the “AGHAST! WHAT? WHOM DID I MARRY? LOOK". Suffice it to say that he was underwhelmed with the idea that anyone could postulate any form of normalcy for this behaviour between mother and healthy, mentally competent post-pubescent son. I desisted, lest we review a long dead proposition that I switch to Obstetrics, and stop having private conversations with men about such things.
The second student was seen after I was fully qualified but he was no less convinced that I must be Islam-o-stupid since I didn’t look or sound like a Muslimah, nor bear a recognizably Islamic name. He arrived 45 minutes late for a 50 minute psychotherapy session, and was told by the front desk that I would have to decide whether to see him (putting us in the clinic past closing time), and whether he would be charged out of pocket a token fee set by the clinic of 1/5 the full fee for the session (usually covered by insurance). Needless to say he was unhappy, so the secretary phoned me, and I told him I would see the patient as if it were a newly booked appointment, but he would have to pay for the one he missed.

He arrived in my office angry and defiant, and said he should not have to pay the fee for a missed appointment. I explained the policy again. He said with the type of machismo only men raised in more patriarchal societies seem to be able to muster: “I am a Muslim!”; “I was in [nearby town] at Friday prayers and that is why I was late”. Oh he of little perspicacity, failing to know that I would be able to calculate the transit time from the town (I used to live there myself); and more so, thinking I wouldn’t know that Friday prayers are at midday, making a 4pm appointment doable, not to mention that there are jummah prayers on campus.

However, he did calculate accurately that I wouldn’t want to be reported as Islamophobic for saying anything much, so I just told him the fee stood, and he should not book future appointments on Fridays. The rest of the session was uneventful, and he eventually got the medical excuse for poor academic performance he was after --PTSD after being car-jacked 2 years previously in his home city in South Asia, where his family was prominent and rich enough that it was worth a kidnapping for ransom attempt, one foiled by a loyal chauffeur and police, and for which he had a police report. Most often, he politely put up with pretending to do psychotherapy until he was cleared academically.

Back to Headmistress Moudhi, it may appear that some of us were more easily duped by a cultural context with which we are not fully familiar. Judging by the comments on both the Al-Watan and Saudi Gazette articles though, it seems we were not alone, and certain Saudis were caught up in their own wishful thinking for change in their society, and expectations of non-fiction on the editorial pages of newspapers with which they were well familiar. So let’s hope there is a plot twist, and Headmistresses Moudhi throughout Saudi lead the away to change, whether by persistent new (legal) actions or implacable logic---or both!

Capítulo 1 de "Platero y yo" de Juan Ramón Jiménez musicado por Vicente Monera. Like the book, pleasing to adults and children, here with good photos of Andalucia

What are your impressions of the Headmistress Moudhi story?
What arguments could she make that the author couldn't in his own name?
What other examples do you have where fiction and/or humour were part of a social activist movement?
What are your thoughts about cross-cultural use of stories to alter perceptions?
How do people get duped by a story?
Have you had people assume they could mislead you when they couldn't?
What were the circumstances and how did you handle it?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Qusay said...

Great post,

Fiction is the first step in change, we make up stories in our own minds and call them life plans/goals, so yes I do think fiction is a driver for change.

But that story had me, it was... a little out of this world, especially from an authority figure in a school, this would've gotten her in big trouble, unless of course she was well connected... but nevertheless, I was had :)

Great post one again :)

Chiara said...

Qusay--thank you very much for your comment and kind words! You really captured the essence of the post, and connected fictions to individual dreams and their realizations in a way I did more for social movements, but are equally valid for personal goals (often the 2 are interconnected).

I must say that I was prevented from blushing to death after reading Eman`s comment by the fact that you had applauded Headmistress Moudhi as well. It seems we all suspended disbelief, up until faced with the reality of the fictionality of the story. It was also reassuring to see that other Saudis by their comments were caught up in "the dream". LOL :)

Thanks again for your comment.

Chiara said...

Usman-- thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate that you took the time and thought to make it. As it was off the topic of this post, I haven’t posted it here; but I did read it carefully and will take what you have said into consideration. If you want to send me an email to chiaraazlinquestion AT I can respond to you in more detail.

I look forward to your future comments, and I do thank you sincerely for the comment you left here.

Susanne said...

It's great how fictional stories can hold so much power. Even Jesus used parables to teach spiritual truths. One of my favorite biblical stories is when King David sinned (adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed in battle)and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him. Instead of accusing David from the get go, Nathan told a story about a rich man with lots of sheep and a poor man with one little lamb whom his family adored like family. He said when the rich man had company visit, he didn't take from his own flocks to provide food, but killed the poor man's lamb. David was outraged at this injustice and expressed his anger by condemning the rich man for doing such an evil deed. Then Nathan says, "You are the man!" and it's just such a powerful story that drove home its point, in my opinion!

Political cartoons are often quite good in spreading a certain message. I've seen some that really make me go "hmmmm" because they expressed powerful messages.

I didn't watch the videos you provided on the Dixie Chicks so perhaps I didn't get the whole story, but I disagree that free speech suffered during that time. They said what they wanted and that was their freedom to do. However, we all know what we say and do can come back to haunt us. Tiger Woods had the freedom to visit girl after girl after girl (although he was married and should NOT have thought he had such freedom), but that doesn't mean he is free of the consequences of his actions. If his sponsors decide they don't want him promoting their products, it doesn't mean his freedoms aren't there. It just means in our society we can approve or disprove of your actions/speech/messages by choosing to not buy your products or use you to sponsor things.

The Dixie Chicks said what they wanted and that was perfectly fine. However, their fans expressed their own freedom of speech and since many of them disagreed strongly with these ladies they chose to express their own freedom by not listening to them any more. Freedom of speech and expression and action doesn't mean what you say and do doesn't matter to others.

I enjoyed your personal examples especially the one where your husband was "aghast" that you'd question whether or not a mom would still wash her adult son. I was getting shocked there for a minute thinking there was no way this guy was telling the truth. I wonder if his mom had been telling him this were true of their culture. Weird!

Thanks for sharing this.

Chiara said...

Susanne--thanks for your thought provoking comment. The examples of parables, stories from the Old Testament, and political cartoons are excellent.

My comment regarding free speech and the Dixie Chicks was related more to the sense that at some level the White House itself was involved, as opposed to just consumers rejecting their product as they have the right to do. Given the actions of Karl Rove, and company it seems like free speech in the US took a hit generally during the Bush administration, beyond necessary war measures. However your counter example was very valid.

Yes, while I didn't at all believe that it was a cultural norm I was looking for more insight or ways or places where it might be passed off as such, but the reaction I got to my question was memorable! LOL:)


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