Thursday, March 17, 2005

Support party Islam

Does anyone know if the 'Arabian Nights' image of the Middle East is merely a creation of Western fantasy, or if it's something that many Arabs/Persians/Turks regard as a genuine part of their own culture? If the latter, that's probably good news for our hopes for cultural transformation in the Middle East. It'd mean that lots of Moslems view a portion of their cultural heritage as compatible with drinking, having a good time, and the presence of scantily clad dancing girls.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1123) gives me hope that there is actually a nice happy licentous historical culture to point back to here.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

I wonder if there'd be any way to gin up a "Xena, Warrior Princess" style Arabian Nights sword-and-sorcery TV series intended for Arab audiences. Getting Al-Hurra or one of Prince Alwaleed's media outlets (heck, maybe Al-Jazeera would even do it!) to pipe this into the Middle East could be a useful way to promote the cultural transformation we want. Little girls wanting to the Arab Xena and horny teenage boys being attracted to hot shamshir-wielding chicks would be a step in the right direction.

6 comments:

Rebecca said...

The 'Arabian Nights' - you mean the set of stories that start with a ruler killing off his wives every night for unfaithfulness? I am rather unsure how going back to some idealized world of corrupt decadent rulers and over glorification of violence is an improvement for mid-east culture. I'm sure the women will be happy to go back to having to share their husbands with hundreds of women again instead of just up to 3). Or wow isn't it nice to take off this burka so we can all be scantily glad dancing girls. There is some racism involved in the stories to apparently. But hey they would have booze again so isn't that great. There are certainly more progressive cultural periods to look back to in Islam - but I hardly see the Arabian Nights as where one should go looking for them.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Indeed, the frame tale leaves a lot to be desired. But I'll remind you of two things: (1) nobody's rooting for the evil sultan and (2) a lot of the embedded stories are much more progressive.

Basically, what I want most in the Middle East is for the conservative mullahs to lose. Anything that gets people into cultures and subcultures where they're setting themselves against the repressive power is something I'm for.

My position is not that scantily-clad-dancing-girlhood and drinking a lot are to be valorized as the best things to do. I do think, however, that good societies regard them as permissible options that are fine in their own way.

Rousseau said...

Watch out Neil. The attitude "anything would be better than the current conservative rulers" has gotten a lot of Western interventionists in trouble. : )

In general, I completely understand what you mean by "hedonism in this old culture was good, why can't they return?".

But I feel like that would be pointing at the US, commenting that 200 years ago we had more open questioning of Christianity, and asking why we can't go back to that. Assuming that things were really better in that aspect and not just our perception, or assuming we can have the good parts (in this case, skpetical inquiry) without the bad parts (severe social stratification) are amond the many problems with that.

little_e- said...

as i understand it (having taken intro courses from both the anthro and polisci ends) the arabian nights as we know it is a whole-sale french colonial invention. many of the stories did exist before the french, but the current form and nature of the piece is colonial.

i don't think the arabs/muslims were ever all that traditionally more or less inclined towards dancing girls than westerners. the fact that westerners showed up and went 'ooooo dancing girls', however, changed their opinions somewhat, and not for the good.

as for drinking, that's clearly always been an under-the-covers sort of activity. unfortunately, islam doens't seem to have a very good pro-hedonism ethic. whether a pro-drinking stance could be derived from the qu'ran i don't know.

the multiple wives thing and its attendant harams would seem to lead to more liscention, but given that people can still obtain multiple wives, and from everything i've read, the sexual power inbalances in the middle east make this a fundamentally *bad* thing.

(where by bad i mean that i've yet to read a single story of a woman who was happy when her husband took another wife, and about a dozen where the woman was devastated and had no recourse, sometimes not even a social system in which it is considered acceptable to love one's husband.)

So i have zero desire to promote polygamy in the middle east until the whole imbalance changes and women can marry multiples, too. but it's currently just a system for well-off men to control the sexualities of more women.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well Tony, I suppose we could overshoot and see the entire Arab world turn into some kind of big Amsterdam in the desert. That would be... well... kinda cool, actually.

On your more serious point, I'm not convinced that Arab conservatism is tied to anything really valuable that would be lost without compensation in the shift to a more liberal culture. I'm also not totally sure of the causal connection between social stratification back in early America and more open questioning of Christianity. Did the former really help the latter get going? (I was a little surprised to hear that the latter existed. But I guess all those Deists holding high office is a sign of open questioning of Christianity.)

Thanks for the info, e. I kinda suspected the whole thing was a Western fantasy of some kind. And no question, polygamy is not a good way to set things up for women.

little_e- said...

What could be useful, though, is the myth of bilquis (ie the queen of sheeba). there are plenty of muslim stories about strong women (such as mohammad's own wife) which could be popularized and spread...