Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sex and The City 2: An Insider's Take.

I am a HUGE Sex and the City (SATC) fan.

I lived and breathed that series for years. Not so much for the labels and the shoes (I can't be bothered with expensive stuff like that; would rather buy 100 pairs of $12 shoes and wear each of them one time before they fall apart), but because of the honesty. I loved the honesty of the relationships between the women, and the honesty of the relationships between the women and the men. I mean, who among us can say that she never let her heart be broken again and again and again by a Mr. Big? And who among us didn't look to an Aidan to kiss it and make the hurt go away?

So when I finally saw SATC2, after what felt like an eternity of waiting (the movie has been *banned* here in the UAE, despite the fact that it is supposed to take place here) (it was actually filmed in Morocco), my first impression was that, even with its occasionally amateurish script and somewhat unsatisfying plot, it lived up to its legacy and was... *honest*. About the UAE. From the viewpoint of a first-time American visitor.

Now, if you've read any of the reviews, you'll know that the movie was panned not only for its content (which I didn't think was *that* bad... but then again, maybe I was just SO relieved to see my four favorite fictional girls again), but for its portrayal of Muslims. I saw the film described on more than one occasion as "offensive" and, in one instance, guilty of "lampooning" the Arab people.

Part of me thinks that this was just a knee-jerk reaction by a bunch of movie reviewers who have never even *been* to this part of the world, and don't really know anything about Muslim culture, all just mindlessly pushing and shoving to be the first in line to show how PC and forward-thinking *they* are.

And yes, there *were* moments that Michael Patrick King did go too far. Among them:

1) The four women singing "I Am Woman" at the karaoke bar. I thought this was the low point of the movie, not only because it squandered the opportunity to create a truly memorable, fun moment (my husband suggested that, if the objective was to make a statement about women, they would have been better off with something upbeat like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun")... and not just because it's a song that people of my generation don't even know... but because it was way, way too obvious in its agenda. I mean, have you ever looked at the lyrics of that song before? (Let me guess: you haven't.) Well here they are:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
'Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land
But I'm still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman

We get it, uber-writer-director-producer Michael Patrick King (hereafter, MPK). You think the women of the Middle East are oppressed. They need to roar more. To be more strong and invincible. We get it. But hitting us over the head with it is beneath you.

2) The use of the abayas and the face veils as a comedic disguise for the four women on the run. Now I get that it was right there, and a hard punchline to resist... but maybe it should have been resisted anyway. Because those garments aren't a fashion statement (or lack thereof); they are pieces of clothing ostensibly worn in response to what Muslims believe is a directive from God. So to have Carrie, et al., goofing off behind veils is probably a little disrespectful.

and, last but of course not least...

3) The Samantha meltdown in the marketplace, which culminates in her thrusting her hips wildly at the agitated robed men who surround her and screaming, "Yes! I HAVE SEX!" Now here, too, you certainly get what MPK was going for-- a loud and clear message that women should be free to express themselves sexually, and that any society that prohibits women from doing so is (a) oppressive; (b) unenlightened; and (c) a fair target of ridicule.

But again, what MPK lost sight of with his script is that the Muslim prohibition on extra-marital sex is (I believe) a religious mandate. In other words, it's not some passing social convention; rather, it is an enduring religious principle that has, I assume, some express foundation in religious scripture. So to have Samantha make a scene like this is kind of like having her show up at a Hasidic Jewish household and run around pulling off all the women's wigs (if people even do this anymore, I have no idea) and telling them how much they are missing out on, while brushing her long, luxurious hair.

So okay, we can all agree that there was some religious insensitivity on display here.


It is an insensitivity that is not wholly unfounded. If I can be so bold.

Rather, I think that, even in it's most cringe-worthy moments, the movie rather accurately reflects the (yes, sometimes-politically-incorrect) first impressions of a first-time American visitor to the UAE.

In truth, I didn't actually pick up on a lot of the "offensive" parts until I watched the movie a *second* time. The *first* time I saw it, I was too busy giggling at how similar *my* first impressions were during *my* first week here in the UAE.

Just like Carrie and co., I, too...

... was tickled by the Arabic script on the Pringles can;

... was grateful not to have a conspicuously Jewish last name;

... was fascinated by the abundant rhinestone embellishment sparkling on many a covered woman's veil and cuff hem;

... marveled at the process by which fully-veiled women have to painstakingly lift the veil for every bite of food; and

... chuckled at the concept of a "birkini" bathing suit.

Is this "insensitive"? Does it make me "intolerant"? Were these first impressions of mine "offensive" to Muslim people?

I hope not, and I don't think so. Rather, these first impressions were simply a product of my admitted ignorance of Arab culture, and a function of the vast cultural divide that currently exists between many Judeo-Christian Americans and the native Muslim population.

I mean, honestly, I am TRYING, every day that I live here, to silence the little voice inside of me that still gasps on the rare occasion that I see a woman who has her *entire* body cloaked in black-- not even those slits for the eyes-- just a solid black shroud walking through the mall. (She can see, I believe, through the thinner material over her face.) I try to tell myself that it is probably her CHOICE to dress this way (at least, that's what the official representative of the Center for Cultural Understanding told me), and that she probably is doing so out of a spiritual obligation to God.

But you must believe me, silencing this little voice is VERY hard. Perhaps it's just because, in America, I had never seen anything like this before... and because I was conditioned by my university women's studies classes to have a reflex-like aversion to any social classifications of people merely on the basis of their biological sex.

It is also very hard not to feel about the veils the same way that Carrie did when she likened them to the caricature with the tape over its mouth; it is *hard* not to think of those veils as a means of silencing women and trying to make them invisible. Now I *know* that the covered women don't *feel* that they are being silenced (again, this is what I've been told)... but it's hard. It's hard to see a woman whose mouth is covered by a veil, and still believe that she is free to speak.

But I am trying to see it that way. I am trying to accept unfamiliar religious traditions without applying my own Western judgments to them. We all need to try. We all need to make the effort to learn about the things we don't know, and don't yet understand.

That doesn't make those first impressions any less valid, though.

So I guess what I'm saying is that MPK wasn't wrong to have the SATC girls react the way they did when they first encountered the UAE culture: I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, and I felt much the same way when I first arrived. Perhaps his mistake was setting the movie here in the first place. Being schooled in a grand political statement on the status of Middle Eastern women, and the degree to which they need to start roaring, wasn't really what the SATC audience was coming out for. We came to see our old friends, and laugh with them, and cry with them, and leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy and in the mood for a Cosmo.

In other words-- We love you, MPK. But next time leave the heavy-handed political commentary to someone who *doesn't* have Samantha Jones to account for. :)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Silver Linings.

It occurred to me that a bunch of my recent posts about Dubai have been a little negative. That's probably because the bad stuff always makes for more interesting blogging, I think, than the good stuff.

But I would hate to give the impression that Dubai has been a negative experience for us personally. In truth, it's been a remarkable experience.

We have lived here for more than a year and a half now, having arrived in November 2008. Here are some of the things that I have truly been impressed by.

1) The international community. Never before have I been surrounded by a group of people for whom "What country are you from?" is the natural progression from an initial introduction. My 5-year-old now proudly explains that she has friends from Lebanon, Germany, India, Pakistan, Canada, South Africa, Wales, Italy, Croatia, and Spain. I highly doubt she'd be able to rattle off all of those countries so effortlessly if we'd stayed in the U.S., let alone have names and stories to go along with each of them. It's very cool to become intimately acquainted with the vast expanse of world beyond America's borders.

2) The schools. Sure, they cost a fortune, but we have been thrilled with the education that all 3 of the kids have been receiving here. Sushi's Pre-K class this year tackled subjects that I honestly did not expect to see until first grade: real addition and subtraction worksheets; short books for homework; the travels of Christopher Columbus. And this is PRE-K! I can only imagine what she will learn in kindergarten next year.

3) The welcoming environment. Before we landed in this part of the world, I imagined that we Americans would stick out like a sore thumb and generally feel like outsiders wherever we went. Now, it's true that a subtle anti-American sentiment does exist here (for example, when our 15-year-old British babysitter told her friends she was working for an American family, she felt compelled to follow it up with, "They're not all bad!"), but I think that's a function of simply living outside of America as opposed to being in the UAE specifically. Furthermore, I've detected that slight snobbery among fellow expats from Europe as opposed to the locals themselves (then again, I've never met a local, but I digress). The truth is I actually feel largely accepted and safe here. Even the semi-hidden fact that I am Jewish has never caused an issue outside of my own paranoid imagination.

4) The lifestyle. There is literally nothing more you could ask for when it comes to the malls, the restaurants, the brands, the labels. It's as if the cream of all the crops has converged here to offer a diversity unlike anything I've seen before. Dubai Mall's directory of 1,200+ stores really says it all (can you even *think* of 1,200 stores, let alone shop in 1,200 stores?).

5) The weather. Honestly, it's not that bad for most of the year. I mean, yes, it's now June, and the kids can't play outside anymore. And sure, by the time August rolls around, you can't even open the door without the heat smacking you in the face like a wet towel. But for most of the year, it's fine, if not downright heavenly between November and March. And it's only rained a handful of days the whole time we've lived here. There are virtually no bugs. There is hardly ever a thunderstorm. There are no earthquakes or hurricanes. At worst, it's HOT HOT HOT, and the occasional sandstorm is highly annoying to the sensitive eyes. But it's not nearly as insufferable as I expected.

6) The high roller fantasy. I admit that my conscience is somewhat bothered by the fact that just about every store and restaurant in the mall is staffed exclusively by Filipino workers, and that every single house appears to have a Filipino maid, and that nearly every single construction worker, gas station attendant, and delivery person is of Indian descent. I wish that the racial components of Dubai's society were more balanced. That said, it has been an INCREDIBLE, INCREDIBLE luxury to have Alice living with us, and Z-Man driving Daddy on his hourlong commute to work each day. I mean, these are indulgences that we never could have afforded in the USA. I cannot tell a lie: it's a scream to be addressed as "ma'am." As if I could ever be anyone's ma'am! Have you met me? ;)

7) The variety of children-oriented activities. This is not a bad place to be raising little kids. On a weekly basis, my girls have participated in all of these extra-curricular activities: Playball, Little Gym, swimming lessons, drama class, ballet, and soccer. Pre-K finished only two days ago and already my 5-year-old has started at an indoor day camp. Add to this the abundance of indoor play areas and McDonalds and water parks and Wanado City-type operations, and you'd be hard-pressed to think of anything more a kid could ask for.

8) The friendships. It goes without saying that I miss my friends and family back home very, VERY much. And if it weren't for Facebook-- which keeps me up to date and involved in my friends' lives in a way that email never could-- this would be an infinitely harder, lonelier experience. But I'm happy to say that I have also met a couple of women here who actually GET ME. And I get them. Which is something that I had never dared to imagine before we made this move. Now granted, these are not Arab women (much to the disappointment of my burning curiosity). But they are moms, who arrived in this country feeling like fish out of water, determined to make a happy life for their families here... just like me. And their love and support and companionship has been a wonderful surprise.

9) The Western influence. Alright, maybe some of the tv programs are a season or two behind, but I *never* expected that something like American Idol would be broadcast here only a day or two after the live broadcast (and then repeated incessantly)... or that the Kardashians would be on every ten minutes... or that a movie like Iron Man 2 would actually debut here in Dubai *before* it opened in America! Every mall has current American pop music being piped into its changing rooms (would you believe I've even had to speak to store managers-- twice!-- because I found the R-rated lyrics of the rap music to be offensive??), and the UAE tabloids even keep tabs on a bunch of American stars (though they also tend heavily toward Bollywood actors, interestingly). And forget about my frenzied purchases of long-sleeves and long dresses right before we boarded that first Dubai flight: I see plenty of cleavage and short shorts running around here on a daily basis, and I have found it to be nearly *impossible* to find a one-piece bathing suit amidst a sea of zzzexy bikini options. Who knew.

10) The change of perspective. Just about the ONLY thing that I don't love about living in Dubai is that I feel we can't be openly Jewish here, and that there is no Jewish community that exists beyond the occasional closed doors. I am genuinely saddened by the fact that my little girls are missing out on the identity-molding education that they would otherwise be getting right now at our Jewish nursery school back in the USA.

And yet.

Being a Jewish family-- one that's been saddled with all of the preconceptions and prejudices that I think often come part and parcel with being Jewish and being American in the 21st century-- it has been an invaluable experience to view life from the other side of the looking glass for a little while. When we first arrived here, I was astounded that "Palestine" had been given a booth at the school's International Day... now, I not only expect it, but I understand why it belongs there. (It goes without saying that I wish Israel also had been given a booth, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) Before this adventure, I reflexively took Israel's side in every fight... now, I probe the political motives of the media before I make up my mind. (For whatever it's worth, I've concluded that "impartial reporting" on any Arab-Israeli affair is unrealistic... but even *that* is a valuable revelation for me.) Had we stayed in America, I never would have given a second thought to those women whose faces are completely cloaked in traditional Muslim dress: I would have assumed that those women are oppressed and degraded and that was that. Now, I have ambivalent feelings about the covered women of the Middle East: if they say that covering their faces is their choice, who am *I* to tell them that this choice is not being made freely, or in response to some larger, more spiritual call? How can you liberate a woman who doesn't feel imprisoned? And why would you even want to?

All in all, I am absolutely a better person for having had this experience. And if it turns out that next year is our last year here, then I want to embrace these opportunities even further in the coming months. I want to travel the region more; I want to meet people more (hopefully, some Emiratis, so I don't have to go on just wondering about what's going on behind the literal veil); I want to find out what's really at stake for a well-intentioned Jew in the UAE.

Because one day, when we're back in the States, and it wouldn't even *occur* to me to ask a new acquaintance what country she's from, I bet I'm going to miss this place.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rock On, Kinokuniya Book Store

Just found this book at the Dubai Mall. Got it for the girls. Fun!

p.s. The store was also displaying, in a somewhat prominent spot, "The Invention of The Jewish People," a book written by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand. I initially was pleasantly surprised, but now after having read the Amazon description, and learning that the book's thesis is actually a rejection of the concept of a "Jewish people" per se who have a legitimate entitlement to Israel... maybe not. Hmmm.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Update to the Update.

Ok, I was just busted doing some one-sided reporting of my own. After reading my last post, Seacrest commented on the fact that the 18-year-old woman who alleged gang rape was sent to jail for a year while the six men apparently went free.

Not true, and I apologize for my willful omission. I was trying to make a point by highlighting only the woman's punishment, but now I see that I have unfairly characterized the sentence.

One of the men got a one-year jail sentence as well.

Four of the men were fully acquitted of the rape charge. Then, of those four, two of them received 3-month jail sentences for "illegal mixing with the opposite sex."

Finally, two of the six men were fined 5,000 AED (about
US $1400) for "violating public decency."

This is all more than a little mysterious to me still-- I mean, did the court decide that the woman was raped or not? If she willingly participated in non-marital sex, then wasn't she-- as a Muslim woman-- supposed to get life in prison? Or, if she was an unwilling participant, then shouldn't she have gone free? And what of the disparate sentences for the five men-- does that mean that some raped the woman while some watched? What's the difference between "illegal mixing with the opposite sex" and "violating public decency"? Was the man who got the year in prison the only one to actually have had sex with the woman??

Sigh. I guess I still have a lot of learning to do about how things work around here.

I still think it sucks that the woman was sent to jail.