qARAB

I’ve created a tumblr, qARAB. It’s a repository for the QUirky and QUeer Arabs I encounter. QUirky because they’re eccentric, unexpected and atypical. And of course QUeer because gay Arabs exist.

 

I’ve been here in Amman, Jordan for 3 weeks now. I purposefully sought out the people and places in Amman that don’t fit the cultural stereotype of Muslims / Arabs. And I didn’t have to look far.

Within 2 days of meandering the cafes in trendy inner-city suburb Weibdeh, I discovered a hive of social misfits, cultural deviants, creative thinkers and doers who are pushing boundaries. Already I’ve met many people who are refusing repressive cultural forms, some quietly in their own private way and others more loudly in a public manner. Many of them remain close to their God and identify as Muslim despite rejecting other cultural forms. Others have rejected religion completely and cringe when we foreigners think they’re getting their local lingo on and say Insha’Allah. And of course I’ve also met those who are nonchalant about everything and just want to skate. (Inside joke).

I created qARAB as a place for all of these different variations of unconventional to huddle together, to challenge Islamophobia and the negative stereotype of Arabs we have in the West, and to join the cacophony of local media representing cultural minorities in the Arab world.

The people you meet on qARAB might not seem radical to us but remember the regional, social, political and cultural context in which they live. Public shaming is prevalent in many ways. Honour killings still happen. Ostracism from families and communities is a very real threat for those aspiring for an unconventional way of life.

People face lots of challenges here. But qARAB isn’t about the problems, we get enough media about those, qARAB is about a celebration of expression by brave individuals thinking and living outside the box.

Disclaimer: I’ve only been here for 3 weeks. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the culture or communities here. I haven’t even scratched the surface yet, I’ve just been sitting on top of it observing what people choose to reveal.

Check it out and keep coming back, qARAB will evolve as my experience of this place and people does.

http://qarab.tumblr.com/

#qARAB #JordanInJordan

 

– Jordan in Jordan 😉

Human Rights and Culture, guest post from Dr. Demelza Marlin

Dr. Demelza Marlin is a lecturer in sociology at UNSW. She recently invited me (Jordan) to give a short guest lecture to her second year sociology students, so we invited her to tell us about what they’re exploring in class:

How does witnessing connect us to the suffering of others?

I teach an undergraduate course on Human Rights and Culture. One of the key themes of the course is witnessing: how we bear witness to injustice, and what responsibilities this entails. Academics writing in this field describe our public spaces as theatres for the production and consumption of testimonies of suffering. Our nightly news, current affairs, political commentary, our documentaries and even our artistic culture are full of the testimonies of survivors and witnessing to atrocities, often taking place in places (conceptually and experientially, if not) geographically distant from us. [Examples]

For many of us bearing witness may be the only form of political engagement we take. But exposure to stories of suffering doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehension, compassion or even sustained engagement. Last week I asked my students to think about the forms of listening, watching and engaging that allow us to recognise the validity of someone’s claim to be heard. To help us understand this question, I asked Jordan Bryon to come in and speak to us about the ethical issues involved in the type of witnessing her work does: producing documentary films about socially marginalised and vulnerable people.

First some background. The theorists we were studying this week argued that recognising your connection with, and responsibility for, others, requires both distance and proximity: both a sense of your shared humanity, however basic that sense may be, and also, an acknowledgment that the other person is genuinely different from you. They have had experiences you cannot cognitively or even imaginatively understand. Professional witnesses (documentary filmmakers, campaigners, advocates) are often tempted to translate extreme circumstances of suffering it into more familiar terms; to make the experiences of victims comprehensible to us. This seems to be the logic behind fundraising campaigns like the 40 hour famine, or the Winter Sleep Out.

They do this because they believe that empathy requires understanding, familiarity, a sense of ‘yes, I know what you are going through’. While this can provide the basis for a connection, it will not be a connection to what really sets the other apart: the circumstances that make their suffering so different from your own experiences. In other words, we don’t see the person for who they are, or the situation for what it is, but, instead, understand their story in terms of familiar coordinates and preconceived ideas that are cognitively easier to manage (and control).

My students were interested, but not entirely convinced, by this conception of empathy and response. However, something that Jordan said about the way she chooses her projects brought the point home. Jordan had shown us parts of a film about inmates at the Junee Correction Centre, and another, about people living with schizophrenia. The students were amazed at how candid the participants in Jordan’s films were about their lives, experiences, dreams and fears. I guess they were surprised to see the humanity – vulnerable, sometimes broken, sometimes courageous – of people they had only experienced through well-worn stereotypes.

One of my students asked Jordan how she made her participants comfortable enough to open up to her, and how she decided what kinds of projects to explore. They wanted to know if her relationship to the people she filmed was based on empathy. Jordan’s response stuck with me. She said that while she did form intense and empathetic relationships with her participants, this relationship wasn’t based on knowledge or understanding. As a filmmaker she is often talking to people whose circumstances are beyond her understanding. But this lack of shared experience doesn’t prevent her from connecting, rather, it draws her into the relationship, makes her want to ask questions. And because she doesn’t presume to already know the answers to her questions, she is able to really listen to what her participants have to say, to let them reveal themselves to her.

UNSW_jordan

Jordan’s approach reminded me of the dictionary definition of witnessing. A witness is someone whose       existence testifies to something. Simply being present to someone’s story, listening without judgment,         without getting distracted by your desire to ‘fix’ the problem, can be one of the most profound ways we         bear witness to others because it gives people the space to be themselves.

We were able to see this in practice when Jordan showed us Reality Check. What surprised the students      was that the film didn’t present schizophrenia as a merely disease, but also as a unique way of facing and    experiencing the world; a way of being that can be positive as well as agonising. And because the film    presented us with first-hand accounts from people living with schizophrenia, without first giving us any  background information – stats, context, the usual sorts of information we use to map out and pin down unfamiliar territory – we were forced to simply listen, without judgment and evaluation. It is a very powerful way to allow an audience to access the humanity of another; revealing both the things that we share and the experiences we have no way of fully understanding.

Some excerpts from the lecture.

Dr. Demelza Marlin
https://vimeo.com/105562153

Jordan Bryon
https://vimeo.com/105559958

 

Queer Arab Film Festival

The worlds first Queer Arab Film Festival launched in August 2014 at the University of Sydney. This festival is a safe academic forum in which to raise awareness about the Arab and Muslim LGBTIQ community in Australia and around the world.

It includes both documentaries and feature films from a range of Arab (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine) and Muslim-majority (Iran, India) and Muslim-minority societies (South Africa, USA, Australia). Together these give voice to the real, lived experiences of Arab and Muslim gay and lesbian individuals, and opens up a safe space for dialogue about the much-overlooked – and greatly misunderstood – subject of gay and lesbian sexualities and same-sex identities in Arab and Muslim societies today.

The festival is curated by Professor Sahar Amer from Sydney University, and is presented by the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies and The Project A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, equal economic development and cultures of freedom.
The Project A Continuing Spring is sponsored by the Council for Australian Arab Relations.

Big shout out to Miriam Thompson for all her publicity efforts for the festival!

Your Thoughts On The Grey Beast

For those of you that don’t know Jordan has been in and out of jail over the past year. I should add it’s because she’s making a doco in Junee Correctional Centre. The doco is focused on the unique Cultural Centre at Junee. It offers a perspective on the positive impacts cultural and creative activities have on inmates.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a private screening of a teaser of the doco. After watching the teaser we asked the crowd to put us on the spot and they didn’t disappoint.

There were plenty of thought provoking questions and impassioned fist pumping that you’ll have to imagine (mostly from Jordan). So if you’re wondering what prison could be like in Australia you might want to take a listen and get some answers.

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Note: Many inmates surveyed during the production of the doco said that Junee Correctional Centre is the best jail in their experience and it’s not what all jails are like. So in many ways the doco isn’t representative of typical jail life in NSW but it does offer a glimpse at what jail could and should be like if we want to reduce recidivism.

Unveiling The Grey Beast

In 2012, the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous offenders was 19 times higher than the non-Indigenous population.

In 2013, 55% of prisoners had a known prior adult imprisonment.

Between late September 2012 and late March 2014, the NSW prison population rose by 13 per cent, reaching a record high in March this year of 10,917.

According to a 2010 inquiry, 75% of offenders have completed only up to year 10 of schooling.

These are just some of the alarming statistics included in Beauty and the Grey Beast: Surprising Tales From Prison  – a documentary, zine and installation, on display for the first time at Object: Australian Design Centre as a part of Idea Bombing Sydney‘s Gallery Edition. The multi-platform project is designed to raise awareness around the realities of life in prison as well as an attempt to facilitate constructive contact between the inmates and the outside.

Wednesday was a big night for Off The Record. Big because it’s not every day you  lug a replica of a cell block up three flights of stairs. Big when you’re negotiating with a prison down to the wire about what content is suitable for an exhibition and which inmates can have their faces shown to the public. Big managing the many pitfalls of last minute printing mishaps that miraculously all come together at the last minute. But more importantly big because of the culmination of months of work to pull each element together on time.

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On top of all this it was the first time Jordan, Oliver and I got up on the mike together as Off The Record (cue moment of sentimentality). We were all pretty excited and it was amazing to see so many faces there, familiar and otherwise. Never one to pass up the chance for some lively discussion, Jordan had the idea to use the exhibition as an opportunity to hear what the audience thinks about prison and inmates and some interesting conversation ensued. With Oliver on sound we’re hoping to use the thought provoking dialogue as the basis for a radio piece later in the year.

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Specials thanks go to:

John from Idea Bombing for hosting us as part of The Gallery Edition.

Claire, Cyn and Su-Wen from Object for all their hard work setting us up in the space.

Simone and Renzo from Amigo and Amigo for their kick-ass build for the Grey Beast.

Chester from Workshop for donating the ultimate lucky door prize – a double pass to a class at Workshop. You name it – Workshop teaches it. Everything from sausage making to stencil art to ukulele playing to Fight Club. That’s right – Fight Club. If you’re wondering how to make a terrarium or how to public speak good – look no further.

Josie from Hachette Australia for donating the second lucky door prize with a fantastic selection of books.

Dayna our researcher/everything wonder woman for generally being awesome!

Sophie and Blake for their photo and video expertise and making us look good.

Jarmaine from Bondi Beach Radio on the decks.

Oliver’s mum Liz and brother Luke keeping everyone fed and watered.

And you! Everyone who came to support us and check out the Grey Beast!

And last but not least on the back of the success of the launch we heard yesterday that Idea Bombing and Object want to host Beauty And The Grey Beast for another week so we are happy to announce we’ll be staying in the gallery until Saturday 23rd August. Come check out the installation and zine in Surry Hills!

– Julia

Beauty And The Grey Beast: Surprising Tales From Prison, Idea Bombing Sydney, The Gallery Edition, Object: Australian Design Centre, 13th – 23rd August

 

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