Friday, March 6, 2009

Learning is COOL! And other life discoveries.

I apologize profusely for taking such a long hiatus from writing. It's been quite the busy few weeks for me. The more I am here, the more I want to be outside exploring and meeting people, especially now that spring has begun. However, I am back (by popular demand, duh) and will do my best to fill you in on my life as of late. So without further ado...

A few thursdays ago, Professor Hamouda -- my kooky Maghreb professor -- invited a handful of Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan students to the classroom for an open discussion on Islam and Arab identity. The students, who were all born in their respective countries but who have moved to France at some point in their lives, are currently studying at the university in Aix or Marseille and met Professor Hamouda at a protest against the bombings in Gaza, ironically. The class itself usually lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes, but my (new, holler) friends and I stayed drinking sweet mint tea and "debating" for almost three hours. As trite as it may sound, I have never before learned so much from someone my own age. The encounter made me remember why I love school more than I sometimes care to admit: you can ask, say, challenge anything in the name of academics. But wait, there's more! The idea that two completely different groups of people, from two completely different upbringings, who live in two completely different worlds can come together in one classroom and just talk, listen, and learn from each other kind of just rocks. Isn't that the whole reason we go to school, anyway? I mean granted, you need an education to get a job, to make a living, all that silly, non-important stuff. But what ever happened to the whole idea of learning just to learn? Somewhere along the line, at least from my experience, the word "education" has taken on a meaning that is no where near its original intention. Aaand tangent complete.

We talked about a variety of issues, but the main topic of conversation revolved around the stigmatization of the words "Muslim", "Islam", and "Arab" in modern Western society. The exchange with the students, all but one of which practice Islam rather fervently, highlighted a)my ignorance when it comes to other religions and/or ways of life, b)how easy it is to make misconceptions and generalizations about ways of thought with which we are unfamiliar, and c)the enormous disparity within Islam between those who are religious and those who are not.

I could go on about our debate for hours, but what struck me the most was the clear separation between Islam seen from insiders and Islam seen from outsiders. You might recall that a few posts ago, I talked about how convenient it is to make sorts of blanket statements about things that are foreign to us. Well, how about this for a blanket statement: "muslims are extremists". I am embarassed to admit that before taking this class, it probably would not have been unlikely for such a statement to come out of my mouth. Surely, the events of 9/11 only fostered similar ideas. But what was interesting was hearing that 9/11 was actually really hard for them, too, because of the labels and stigmas people started attaching to Islam.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see why people would do this, since Islam is so radically different from any other religion. Take the Koran, for example: contrary to the Bible or the Torah, the Koran gives clear orders to its people and against its infidels. In her witty banter the day after the debate, Professor Hamouda told us that she tried to read the Bible but gave up because there were far too many characters and histories. As well as being really funny, though, the admission is oh so telling of the fundamental differences between religions of the Occident and those of the Orient.

It's unfortunate, but the extreme fundamentalists truly do give Islam a bad name. A Tunisian student admitted to us that it's really hard for a moderately religious, practicing Muslim to receive a warm welcome not only in Western society but also in (his or) her own society. She explained that walking down the street in France with her veil, people look at her and mumble "what a poor girl", and she laughs because she doesn't FEEL like a poor girl. For her, the veil is not a limitation, because she is the one who chose to wear it (albeit because the Koran told her to). Now, it's the woman who asks to be veiled. It's the whole idea of "who are you to tell me I'm oppressed?" and actually feeling the opposite that I was expecting to hear the least that day.

If there is one generalization I'm sticking to, it's that the notion of "moderateness" (is that a word?) simply does not exist in the way it exists in Christianity or Judaism. The girl I just mentioned is one of many students who have adopted their religion very late in their lives. The students shared stories about how at some point in their adult lives (some before coming to France, some after) they decided to turn towards a more rigorous, purist form of Islam. Now while I think sometimes Professor Hamouda is guilty of bigotry in her vigorous opposition to the Koran, I do have to agree that there are some serious after-effects of the regression to an archaic, pure form of any religion. The veil, for example, has completely lost its symbolism as a tradition element; it has become empty of meaning, obsolete, reduced to being worn by old people in the rural, profound countryside. Instead, it is now a religious sign, an instrument of proselytism that fuels any xenophobia from outsiders looking in. I will admit, now, that I love Judaism for its culture aspect, and for the fact that I do not have to be religious to feel part of the Jewish community. After our debate, an Algerian student confided in me that he was amazed by that concept and really wished it was as prevalent in Islam.

So there you have it, the first of many posts to come about my life since February. Stay tuned for a recount of my trips to Nice, Florence, and Paris!