Essays and Features

Growing Dysfunction of Arab Societies Parallels Rise in Violence Against Women

By 
Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala

Gender-based violence is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world. Attacks against women have been on the rise for years. One might recall the attacks on female social media influencers in 2018, leading to the deaths of former Miss Baghdad Tara Fares, beauticians Rasha al-Hassan and Rafif al-Yasiri, and the human rights activist Suad al-Ali. In 2021, the gruesome death of Farah Hamza Akbar, a Kuwaiti mother killed in front of her children by her stalker, filled headlines with an outcry against the lack of protection for women. 

Riddles: A Living Part of Arab Folklore

Fatme Sharaffeddine Hassan

Folklore is a term that comprises the wide range of the oral traditions of a specific group of people. It is not easy for folklorists the world over to agree on one definite interpretation of the term. For example, in his book “The Study of Folklore,” Alan Dundes states that the term folk refers to a group of people who share at least one common factor, such as geographic location, religion, type of work, or economic status. Dundes adds that “a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.” Moreover, the study of people’s traditions and lifestyles within the diverse branches of folklore helps us rebuild periods of history that are still ambiguous to present day scholars. Folklore represents the sum of a societies’ creative power. One form of Arabic oral tradition that is a part of Arab folklore is the riddle.

Looking at Reading Rates Beyond Bogus Statistics

Yes, Arabs Read! But How Much?
By 
Naomi Pham

As UNESCO celebrates World Book Day, many countries have turned their attention to not just books but also the reading rates of their citizens and how they compare globally. Many speculate that Arabs do not read as much as Europeans and North Americans. Time and time again, major publications and news outlets fill their headlines with the claim that Arab citizens read an average of only six minutes a year. This figure was cited in the early 2000s, attributed to the December 2011 4th Annual Cultural Development Report by the Arab Thought Foundation, which has yet to be published online. The number appeared in a TEDxRamallah panel in April 2011 by Fadi Ghandour, CEO of Aramex in Jordan, who claimed his source was UNESCO (UNESCO has denied ever publishing the statistic). According to Thana Atwi, a spokeswoman for the Arab Thought Foundation, the number was never meant to be read at face value but as a symbolic figure, as cited by Leah Cladwell on the website Hekmah. Regardless of right or wrong, one cannot deny that the reading rates in the Arab world are low, which may be why the erroneous “six-minute myth” has been repeated for over a decade and continues to be a statistic that many significant publications take seriously.

Mona al-Saudi (1945-2022): The Sculptor Who Befriended Stone and Challenged Traditions

By 
Naomi Pham and Elie Chalala

Ensconced in her garden of stone and statues, Jordanian poet, artist, and sculptor Mona al-Saudi has always been connected to the earth around her. She spent her earliest years playing amidst the ruins of the Roman Nymphaeum near her home in Amman, enamored with the geometric forms. Staring at the towering structures, her mind wandered to the more existential questions of life from a young age. “I would leave my little friends to play with the statues, converse with them, contemplate their folds, and I felt that they were silent creatures full of life… These legendary archaeological sites gave me the feeling of man’s ability to create great works that remain for eternity. And that is how my dreams began,” she said, as cited by Ghazi Anayem in Thaqafat. This love of heritage and history followed her wherever she went, inspiring all her creations for years to come. She told Gulf News, “Our house was only three meters away, and when I opened the door of my house, I could step into the Nymphaeum, with its Roman baths, columns, and scattered sculptures all over. These were literally historical stones. And I used to play in these ruins. That is why I belong to this kind of era, which I feel endures.”

Multiple Pressures From State Repression, Fundamentalist Retribution, Cultural Critiques and Competition From Global Media Choking Off The Voice Of The Arab Intellectual

By 
Elie Chalala
Many definitions of Arab intellectuals are rooted in the idealistic tradition that glorifies them as guardians of values and ethics, as figures closer to “angels” and “faqihs,” who stand above politics and power struggles and enjoy a monopoly over the authority of knowledge. These notions reflect social illusions and popular perceptions of the time when intellectuals were considered part of a sacred class. A recurrent list of names often cited and idealized as intellectuals include Mahmoud Abbas al-Akkad, Taha Hussein, and Naguib Mahfouz. These perceptions clearly distinguish the intellectual from the politician.
 

Corruption, War Denials, and Distorted History Lessons

Etel Adnan

These are days when many Lebanese and non-Lebanese remember the Lebanese Civil War (April 13, 1975). Sadly, the same generation of rulers who had led the bloody battles leaving over 150,000 dead still hold the reins over Lebanon. That is not all — these same warlords continue to wreak destruction through their corrupt and sectarian politics. Even those who were not born during the Lebanese Civil War are witnessing the old elite's evil deeds upon Lebanon. It is no wonder the letter the late Etel Adnan, the renowned Lebanese-American poet, novelist, and painter sent me in 1999 still hits hard today. Even 21 years later, her words capture the ills of Lebanon, its "Corruption, War Denials, and Distorted History Lessons." The artwork accompanying this letter is by the famous Lebanese-American Seta Manoukian, a work — as its title reveals — inspired by the Lebanese Civil War, parts of which Manoukian lived through.

A Book Fair Writes an Old Story: How a Poster — And Regional Politics — Sank Effort to Invigorate Lebanon’s Publishing Industry

By 
Elie Chalala

Book publishers, journalists, authors, and cultural activists received a large blow earlier this month. The anticipated return of the Beirut International and Arab Book Fair was met with disappointment and anger as violence broke out over Hezbollah’s presence through some publishing houses, which many argued overshadowed the spirit of the event. For over half a century, the book fair has held a celebrated place in Lebanon’s culture. Considered the oldest Arab fair, the tradition began in April 1956 at the American University of Beirut, becoming a prestigious event showcasing thousands of titles and visited by tens of thousands for decades since its launch. Not even ceasing during the Lebanese civil war, the only time the book fair was previously canceled was in December 2006 during the anti-government sit-ins in downtown Beirut. The outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the explosion of Beirut’s port later that year, and the worsening economic crisis forced it to once again close its doors until the surprise announcement of its return, marking its 63rd session, running from March 3 to March 13.

Beating Up the Already Battered: Modern Arab Media’s Role in Bullying and Harassment

By 
Naomi Pham

Harming, intimidating, or mocking the vulnerable are familiar behaviors; some have witnessed the abuse from afar, while others have experienced it. We used to think of bullying as something that children do in the schoolyard, and ideally something they learn to stop after reflection and normal maturation. But beyond the playground, bullying and harassment serve as standard practice in fields like modern media. Arab media and television promote harmful and offensive depictions to impressionable audiences for higher ratings and money. Media networks also give platforms to regressive messages that cause both emotional and sometimes physical harm.

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