AUTHOR: Going after Sindbad

By Zubeida Mustafa

FATEMA MERNISSI, the Moroccan sociologist and academic who created quite a stir when she wrote her first book Behind the Veil, is working on a new project. When she completes it her next book will roll off the printing presses — she is not sure when. Titled Is the Satellite Reawakening Sindbad, the book will focus on the satellite revolution in the Arab world. She has already published in French her book Les Sindbads Marocains: Voyage dans le Maroc Civique and two essays on this subject, “The satellite, the prince and Scheherzade” and “Sindbad and the cowboy: who will be the globalization winner”. She is excited like a child with a new toy about the discoveries she is making in the course of her research.

Mernissi has no time for anything else. Her brochure states clearly, “I do not answer last minute invitations… I practice Tadbir (long term planning)… [which] implies that you never embark on last minute opportunistic adventures.” Hence it came as a surprise and honour for me when she agreed to see me at short notice. For me a visit to Morocco would have been incomplete without an interview with this legendary figure. What helped me in getting an appointment was partly her friendship with Attiya Mahmood, our suave ambassador in Rabat, through whom I approached Mernissi. There was another factor that helped. Mernissi’s fascination for Pakistan and India is incredulous. The subcontinent is also central to the new theory she is working on. According to her, the Arab world gets its strength when it turns eastwards. She visited Pakistan in 1987 when Simorgh, a feminist publishing house, was being launched in Lahore. She was touched by the vibrancy she felt in the women’s movement in Pakistan at the time.

As we settle for our interview in Mernissi’s tastefully furnished apartment in Rabat, she puts me at ease by coming to the point straight away. “I want to tell you about my new project, and through you your readers,” she says. This is infinitely more exciting than covering old ground which a stereotype interview would have entailed. I don’t have to worry about the questions I had so assiduously put together. She has so much to say and talks incessantly. She also wants to know something about Pakistan.

Mernissi believes that the impact of satellite television on the Arab world is immense since it has emerged as a powerful means of oral transmission of information. In the process it has dwarfed state controls. “My findings sustain Marshall McLuhan’s prediction of a television-driven oral revolution,” she observes. Television channels have proliferated in the Arab world and the state no longer has a monopoly over information.

The satellite is also opening new opportunities for women to enter the power game. “There is a rising demand for articulate intellectuals who combine writing and television experience in new communication wars,” she observed in her essay “The satellite, the prince and Scheherzade” which was reproduced in Transbroadcasting Studies in 2004. Intelligent viewers see through the propaganda that is broadcast by many channels and demand credible communicators. As such, “the Scheherzade profile, that of the brainy self confident storyteller, is in big demand”. According to her, many Arab men craving for their own emancipation from authoritarian censorship de-connect power from sex. They are beginning to identify themselves with the strong and confident anchorwomen, female journalists and reporters now seen on the Al Jazeera channel. Mernissi is trying to interpret this phenomenon. Is it a transient fad? Or is it a civilizational shift?

She also links this male fascination with the women in satellite broadcasting with the cosmic vision of the Sufis who played a very important role in spreading Islam. They never perceived women as a threat. In fact for the Sufis, the sexual differences were enriching as they conventionally celebrate diversity.

Another thesis that Mernissi is developing is that of the cowboy and Sindbad. In the globalization phenomenon of which satellite television is one manifestation, there is a fear of strangers who will get easy access to any country as state frontiers dissolve. But the cowboy hero crafted by Hollywood who shot and killed the strangers appearing in his land is not a universal phenomenon. In Scheherzade’s Thousand and One Nights, the natives’ reaction to strangers was just the opposite. Sindbad was a foreigner (coming originally from Sindh) but he was a hero to the people of Baghdad as he gathered a fabulous wealth of knowledge and information by travelling to India and China and meeting the strangers there.

It is on this analogy that Fatema Mernissi has drawn up her thesis of communication. Sindbad is the key to her thesis and she lays down four strategies to win control of the “globalized planet”. To explain these she gave me four cards with beautiful calligraphy by the artist Ouida. Each card summarizes the essence of her Erasmus Prize speech on November 4, 2004 spelling out the winning strategy of allying with the stranger.

First is Adab, the norm of ethical behaviour but here it means the discipline of self-teaching. This envisages communication as a source of knowledge and therefore power. “We have to decide whether to kill or to dialogue. We have to choose between the pen and the sword,” says Mernissi. She vehemently recommends the dialogue which has become possible through the satellite television and the internet. It resuscitates the communication strategy of 9th century Baghdad when the Abbasids expanded travel, trade and dialogue which created and sustained an international Muslim community. The Abbasid’s approach was to encourage the translation of foreign books in order to facilitate an understanding of the stranger. That is how the book of Sindbad came to be translated. “Adab is to add the brains of others to your own,” she quotes from Jahiz to emphasize her point.

The second strategy is Safar (travel) as self-discovery. The communication expert of the Abbasids, Jahiz, was strongly of the opinion, “Staying too long at home is one of poverty’s causes. Movement creates prosperity,” Jahiz recommended, “Travel far to communicate with the stranger.” Another Arab scholar, Abu Tammam, said, “Travel. It is the only way to renew yourself.” Fatema Mernissi links this to the Sufis’ concept of movement (haraka) which identified movement with life and inertia (sukun) with death.

The third principle is Iqd (contract) which implies the individual’s global responsibility. This dwarfs geographical limits and imposes the responsibility of honouring contracts on the individual rather than the state. The idea was to make travellers responsible traders by equipping them with information and awareness.

The final principle on the fourth card states, “The principle of the Universe Movement… If it stops moving it will return to non-existence”. According to Mernissi, the final conflict will be between the sword and the pen. Mernissi quotes the Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu, “to win without fighting is the best”. She, however, objects to his peace strategy as being “geocentric”, that is being based on the concept of defence of a territory perceived as the primary source of wealth. Mernissi prefers Jahiz’s strategy that is based on the belief that a gravitational force is experienced by all matter in the universe. According to this theory, propounded by the Sufis, geography has no importance in the life of a person since the fate of the human being is to tune to the universal movement and to be in constant motion. In this case to invest in a planetary global security that is geocentric is a waste of the tax payers’ money.

Fatema Mernissi is now elucidating these concepts. As she entertains me with mint-flavoured Moroccan tea and urges me to eat the Moroccan biscuits, she travels back into time to explain how her mind got working on these ideas. When she visited Pakistan and India she was struck by the beauty of the Mughal gardens. She was also struck by the link between the people in India and Pakistan and the Arab world from where many of their ancestors had come, settled down and intermarried. She is now exploring the fascination the Arabs felt for Asia. She relates that to Sindbad’s frequent travels to the east.

“I am going to Bahrain in spring 2005 to check on Sindbad’s boats in the Bahrain National Museum and participate in seminars organized by Prof May al-Khalifa,” she tells me.

Why is all this so important for her? She feels that a rebirth of culture and civilization can only take place if we re-interpret our past. For instance Prof May al-Khalifa, the Bahraini historian, is doing just that by rewriting her country’s history through the eyes of a woman. Mernissi wants to study Sindbad’s techniques because she is convinced that they would provide the key to success in the globalization struggle.

In Morocco, she is a part of the communication revolution that is taking place. She conducts writing workshops with groups of people — rural youth, environmentally concerned experts, film makers — and this ultimately leads to new books from people from different walks of life. The Synergie Civique comprises a group of highly motivated intellectuals who want to help the youth develop self-confidence by teaching them communication skills. Through this interaction, Fatema Mernissi attempts to assess the renaissance she believes is coming is actually round the corner. But no one can fail to be inspired by her dynamism and devotion to her mission of imparting communication skills to people around her.

Fatema Mernissi: Profile

Born in Rabat in 1940

Education: Studied political sciences at the University of Rabat, the Sorbonne in Paris and Brandeis University (Massachusetts, USA)

Books: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (1975); The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1990); Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry (1991); Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (1992); The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (1992); Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1995)

Awards received: Erasmus Prize (2004); Premio Principe de Asturias de las Letras (Spain) (2003)

Source: Dawn

The politics of religion

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

In an article in the Financial Times of London titled “Why religion has become the new politics”, the writers, Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar, have tried to explain why religion is the emerging political language of our time all over the world, be it the United States, the Middle East or the Third World.

They feel that even in Europe, which introduced the concept of the separation of the church and the state, religion is assuming a new significance. This phenomenon is now universally recognized, though its causes are hotly disputed.
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Giving them a sympathetic hearing

By Zubeida Mustafa

Any adolescent passing through what adults refer to as “that difficult phase of life” would jump at an invitation like the above. This is the need of the day when not only an individual but also society is in the process of change, writes Zubeida Mustafa

This is what a flyer given to me in Morocco on my recent visit there said (the original was in French and Arabic):

Youth Health Area

We listen to you and take care of you

What’s it about?

If you have a health problem;

If you have questions regarding a topic that’s worrying you;

If you need to confide in somebody;

Youth Health Area is at your service!

They are here for you;

A team of health professionals will give you a warm welcome, personal care, and will answer your questions while ensuring full confidentiality.

And on top of that – it’s free!!!

Here’s all the news!

To further your knowledge on a topic of your choice, you have access to our documentation and multimedia centre, where magazines, films, brochures, CDs and other information media are available for you!

A way to make intelligent use of your free time…

Any adolescent passing through what adults refer to as “that difficult phase of life” would jump at an invitation like the above. This is the need of the day when not only an individual but also society is in the process of change.

It makes sense that the changes — especially behavioural changes — are planned and follow a direction. It is foolish to try and block change because it will inevitably come over a period of time unless of course a society has fallen into a state of stagnation. But if the changes come at random driven by social circumstances and economic needs things can get quite chaotic.

Morocco, where I was at the invitation of the Population Institute, Washington, to visit some projects, believes that the process of change must be orderly to be long term and enduring. Its approach is to start re-orienting people at an early age. That is, catch ‘em young, as they say. I found that the Moroccans have adopted this strategy to great effect and it is working magnificently. The youth, who are the beneficiaries of many projects, are outgoing, dynamic and full of zeal.

In the school we visited on the outskirts of Marrakesh, we were introduced to Saadia, a young girl in her teens who is an active member of the school health club that has been organized in this “lycee” with 1,200 students on its roll. Saadia briefed us about the club that has been functioning since September 2003. With 40 members, the club focuses on six key issues which are regarded as posing the most serious potential health hazard to the young people of Morocco. These are smoking, Aids, pollution, drug addiction, prostitution and diabetes.

The idea is to create awareness among the youth in order to bring about a change in their attitudes. The children are encouraged to do research on these subjects under the guidance of their teachers and prepare charts and graphics to project their findings. They have been provided computers to enable them to look up information on the web. In this exploratory process the young minds are imbibing healthy habits and changing their lifestyle for the better.

Saadia demonstrated her club’s charts and told us with great confidence about the dangers of smoking. It is unlikely that Saadia after having worked on those drawings of blackened lungs juxtaposed with pink and healthy respiratory organs, will ever touch a cigarette in her lifetime. And this message is not for Saadia alone. She would obviously pass on the anti-smoking message subtly to her peers and siblings, not just in school but also outside before they reach the age when they are likely to experiment with cigarettes.

A common mode of transmission of information is through the cultural activities the club organizes. For instance plays and cultural weeks have a social content which disseminates health education far and wide.

Even more significant is the project Fatema and Kazi, two teachers of the Marrakesh School, have introduced in their institution. Mindful of the mental health of the youngsters and the stresses and strains they are subjected to in their adolescence, these teachers are acting as counsellors to the students.

“The youth are encouraged to come and talk to any of us about any problem that is upsetting them. We have also given them a telephone number where they can call if they need to talk to someone urgently. The students are assured of confidentiality and a sympathetic hearing. They may be having problems with their parents, teachers or colleagues. They may be just in need of a patient ear to hear them out to bring some sanity to their lives. This facility which we have provided is appreciated by the parents,” Mr Kazi told me.

A society which is youth-centred and cares for its children can produce wonders. Aren’t they the citizens of tomorrow? What they learn today they will practise tomorrow. If they learn to love, care, shun violence, live in peace and cherish good health, hygiene and cleanliness, they will lead society in that direction within a few years when they enter adulthood.

Morocco has learnt this lesson fast. Most of its programmes have a strong pro-youth orientation. The family planning association office we visited in Fez had a long queue of women waiting to be served. They had come for contraceptive services. But the IEC (information, education and communication) side of the programme was managed preponderantly by young men and women. They performed a small skit for us in the office to demonstrate their strategies. Normally they go out and perform it as a street theatre. It was all about Aids and its prevention.

While they sing and dance and make merry, these children learn about a deadly disease, which is fast emerging as a major threat to the life of the youth all over the world. They get knowledge about safe sex, the need to space babies, and other such topical issues which they would never learn about in normal course.

In Rabat we visit the Yousoufia Adolescents Health Centre which has been set up by the government. (The flyer from where the passage is quoted above was given to us at Yousoufia.) In fact eight major cities of Morocco have similar centres. They have been set up after careful planning. Nearly a quarter of the population of Morocco is under 15 years of age. “We selected the site after a study was done on the age profile of the population in the area and its interest in health. It has evolved as a community centre where the youth come to enjoy themselves,” says Benouin Aziz, the director of the Yousoufia Centre.

Aziz proudly points out the psychological support, health information and youth activities the centre facilitates. The focus is on anti-smoking drives, campaigns against drug addiction and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Has all this made any difference to the youth of Morocco? One expects it would have. I looked up the UNDP’s Human Development Report to ascertain if there had been an impact. The statistics were reassuring. In the last decade the youth literacy rate has jumped up from 55 per cent to 69.5 per cent. Nearly 35 per cent of male adults and two per cent women are smokers but this rate should go down as the youth exposed to the anti-smoking messages in school enter adulthood. I could not lay my hands on the figures for crime and mental health but it seems unlikely that with such good care given to the youth there should be a high incidence of deliquency and crime.

Source: Dawn

Blowing hot & cold on Balochistan

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The crisis in Balochistan has reached a boiling point. The turmoil in Pakistan’s largest province that had generally been ignored by the rest of the country has now shot into public awareness.

Although events in Balochistan were being reported in the press regularly, they have been taken note of only now by people generally when the gas purification plant at Sui was hit by rockets last week. Triggered off by the rape of a lady doctor at the Sui field hospital, the latest spate of violence has deepened the crisis.
Continue reading “Blowing hot & cold on Balochistan”

Must the school adopters wait?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The adopt-a-school programme (ASP) launched by Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) in 1997 is in danger of falling prey to maladministration, misuse, corruption and apathy of the city government.

At present there are 173 government schools which have been adopted by 44 NGOs and individuals in the province. The adopters and some donor agencies have poured Rs 42.8 million into these schools in the last five years.

Admittedly, the programme has not brought about a radical transformation in the public sector school system to create a momentum to sustain itself without the patronage of the SEF. But it has certainly made a difference to the schools which have been adopted. If sustained the programme could produce an impact on a larger number of institutions and thus change the lives of many children.
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Meeting people’s basic needs

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

In his address to the nation last Thursday, President Pervez Musharraf very spiritedly defended his decision to stay on as the army chief while holding the civilian office of president. Among others, one argument he advanced was that “uniform is not an issue for the people, but the opposition wants to exploit it for its own benefit”.

To a certain extent, the president is right when he says that the people are not interested in the “uniform” issue. But the fact is that the masses of Pakistan have stopped taking interest in any political issue now. They hardly care who wins or who loses an election.
Continue reading “Meeting people’s basic needs”