January 17, 2009

Paris: Secularism Unveiled

I was in a false position everywhere, except within myself, where I was convinced I was telling the truth.
--A House At The Edge of Tears, Venus Khoury Ghata.

I was pretty excited to head to Paris after my Oman trip. I was invited by my friend Dinah, who was TA-ing a class on Immigration and Multiculturalism in Paris for the University of Illinois. The course was taught by a retired professor of French, Evelyne Accad, a Lebanese woman who has written about international women's issues.

The class did not disappoint. From discussing polygamy and the French state to civil war in Lebanon to the issue of female genital mutiliation, I learned a lot and was able to make some interesting observations about French culture and society at the same time.

Disclaimer: I do not speak French. Therefore everything I learned (with the exception of the bits of French I picked up) was through English translation or talks in English. That said, I don't think it made a difference in some of the observations I am about to make.

Its wierd because I had the impression that the French were more progressive than Americans on the whole, but I have to say this is both a stereotype in which Americans associate everything French with being 'cultured' and a factor that depends on the particular French community one is referring to. For instance, it is true that students tend to be more activist, more politically aware, more cosmopolitian (Most students learn at least three languages) than their American counterparts. Having visited several French schools I feel I am on safe ground saying that.

However France illustrates some of the strange contradictions of secular society-- its particular blind spots that are often intimately linked to a strong sense of national and even racial identity (the so-called Gaullic exceptionalism). Nowhere is this contradiction more aptly symbolized than the banning of headscarves in the classroom of public schools. (ironically Turkey, a majority Muslim country, is facing its own version of this secular quandary). Here is where the rubber of religion's removal from the 'public sphere' meets the road of individual freedom. French efforts to promote the growth of the French state and to reify 'Frenchness' is not a project that can tolerate a multiplicity of identities, and is thus at odds with French notions of 'pluralism'. And that explains why not only are headscarves banned, but the call to prayer (اذان) as well.

Obama notwithstanding (I have a feeling a lot of my sentences are going to begin with that from here on out), America has never really resolved this conflict in practice either. For example, witness the powerful pull of the ignorant and racist 'English-only' educational movement. I guess my philosophy would be that, social movements that emphasize a particular aspect of identity are inevitable, especially enlight of forming social movements against powerfully entrenched interests of global corporations, powerful nation-states, and the like. Nevertheless, the insistence on one's single identity inevitably falsifys the richness of everyone's historical reality.

My own observation is that France has a stronger tradition of anthropologizing the 'other', in the sense of making outside cultures a subject of study for consumption by exotic-o-philes. Walking through an exhibit on matriarchy in Africa I had this feeling, and it was accentuated gazing at the innumerable artifacts stolen from the tombs of Pharaonic Egypt in the Louvre. It was a feeling similar to the one I had walking through the Indian Museum in Washington DC a couple years ago: like an eerie sense of displacement and invasion. I felt as if I walking through someone's most intimate personal belongings that had been put out at a common garage sale.

One highlight of the trip (other than my birthday :)) was reading a trio of great books by Lebanese Christian women and getting to meet two of the authors. We read Evelyne Accad's The Excised, Etel Adnan's Sitt Marie Rose, and Venus Khoury-Ghata's A House At The Edge of Tears. All three are very lyrical meditations on religion and growing up, war, beauty, violence, and sexuality. From Khoury-Ghata's book, I learned that apparently some Arabs of the Levant, Swahili is a derisive term for nonsense or baby talk. For me Dr. Accad's book was the most personally evocative, while Sitt Marie Rose is the most innovative in terms of narrative structure and voice. I will end with a meditation from that book, a tribute and affirmation of life in the midst of war-torn Beirut:

"Morality is violence. An invisible violence at first. Love is a supreme violence, hidden deep in the darkness of our atoms. When a stream flows into a river, it's love and its violence. When a cloud loses itself in the sky, it's a marriage. When the roots of a tree split open a rock it's the movement of life. When the sea rises and falls back only to rise again, it's the process of history. When a man and a woman find each other in the silence of the night, it's the beginning of the end of the tribe's power, and death itself becomes a challenge to the ascendancy of the group."


Clicky February 3, 2009 at 12:50 PM  

Hi Nate!

Well I still love to hear what you're up to...and where in the world you are at any one time. Your photos often serve to give me itchy feet too. Paris now?!

And I admire your blogging discipline! I had a marathon blogging update on Sunday because it had been three months since my last post!

Life here at AGA continues much as normal. Everyone is well and happy. Your name is mentioned often, but only ever with fondness and pride :)

The big O&E news is that there are not one, but two O&E babies on their way this summer. My little girl is due around the time of the Ops Conference (the lengths I go to to avoid Pittsburgh!) and Nneka is expecting her baby in late July. So that's our exciting news from here.

Keep traveling safely and blogging your adventures. Take care.


PS. posting as a comment, because I just don't think I have your email address - sorry!

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