Posted by: alifran | April 4, 2011

Pictures from around Bangladesh

As promised, I’ve uploaded some photos from my adventures around Bangladesh. Some of these photos are from a trip to Kushtia (West of Dhaka) and the rest of them were taken in Old Dhaka, a poorer yet arguably more exciting part of the capital. The first six photos are of the trips to Kushtia and give a pretty good representation of the Bangladeshi countryside and local festivals. As for Old Dhaka, while wandering the streets it’s hard not to accumulate a gaggle of followers perplexed by you and your camera. Hence, my friend Chashah and I had an excellent array of subjects to photograph! Bangladeshi’s are extremely friendly, especially the kids. Enjoy!

Posted by: alifran | April 3, 2011

An Introduction to South Asia

Truth be told, Bangladesh is exactly what I thought it was going to be. The excessive honking, chaos on the streets, dirty hawkers, and hoards of men brings me straight back to Cairo. There is undeniably an element in Bangladeshi culture that is shared by the Middle East (apart from the whole Muslim thing, of course). I’m not sure exactly what it is: the scramble of an over-populated, under-developed city? The nonchalant attitude of life in the East? A more conservative, community-oriented value system? There is a cultural union between the Middle East and South Asia that transcends wealth and development, creating a distinctive experience for the newcomer whether in Cairo or Dhaka or even Abu Dhabi to a degree. However, I have yet to check out the rest of South Asia… perhaps I’ll get my answer once I’ve traveled a bit more.

During my first week in Dhaka I had the pleasure of attending a Bangladeshi family party with my Wellesley buddy and current flatmate Olinda. Bangladeshi’s definitely give Arabs a run for the money in regard to gargantuan food portions and unmatched hospitality. For dinner the family had a local couple cater the meal, which was made right down stairs in the gated parking area. The massive iron pot must have been at least a foot in radius and cooked twenty five chickens! Beat that KFC. There was also spicy kebabs, a delicious spicy chutney, and spicy mutton curry (hopefully you’ve pick up on the fact that Bangladeshi food is SPICY).

In addition to being masters in the kitchen, Bangladeshi’s are famous for their fabrics. Women can wear a variety of outfits, some of the most popular being the salwar camees (scarf, long tunic, and pants) and the shari (same thing as an Indian sari). Fabrics run the entire spectrum for bright colors, intricate designs, and sequins or no sequins. As a foreign woman it’s best to hop on the bandwagon and wear the local garb. And, too be honest, it’s fairly exciting to look stylish in neon orange streaked with glitter on a daily basis.

In other news, I have officially started my research in Bangladesh! Since I’m living in Dhaka and it is the capital, all of my interviews take place with women around the city. My main contact and new friend is Atika, the head of the ‘Victims Support Center’ (VSC) for the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. The VSC is the first government administered women’s safe house in Dhaka city and is administered by a team of policewomen along with several NGO workers and healthcare professionals. Women are welcome into the complex from all over Bangladesh for any sort of problem, though the sad yet unsurprising reality is that most of them suffer from domestic or sexual abuse. This is the first time I’ve seen a women’s support center run by the local police, never mind physically on the police station campus.

As it turns out, the creation of the VSC is a joint-venture between women’s rights organizations and the United Nations—which is currently funding the ‘Police Reform Program’. Because of Bangladesh’s heavy reliance on foreign aid and development initiatives, most government agencies funding and policy interests are intertwined with the efforts of foreign or domestic NGO’s. Hence projects like the Police Reform Program push humanitarian causes into the realm of police jurisdiction to the point where physically building, maintaining, and running a women’s safe house is the responsibility of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. This also may be due to the unique organization of Bangladesh’s civil service. Upon entering any government work (military aside), you are required to take a civil service test and rank your departmental preferences—that means ranking departments ranging from administration work to foreign service to police to taxes. Ultimately your career path is dictated by your test performance and job availability. The police receive a mix of law enforcement enthusiasts and disappointed tax accountants. Yet, it is also because of this system that development-type projects can be incorporated as a police prerogative.

I’ve now spent a couple of days hanging out with the policewomen of Dhaka and am happy to report that the vast majority of them ranked police ’1st’ on their civil service exam. Most of them have also continued the pattern of reporting the ‘uniform’ to be the reason why they joined the police force. In most of the countries I have visited this year, women comment that a government uniform symbolizes national pride, inspires respect from family, and ensures security on the streets. Today at the National Police Headquarters of Bangladesh, one officer specified to me that uniforms prevent her from being harassed on the street. Why? Because she has the power to stand up for herself and, more formidably, intervene in situations where someone is at risk.

Alternatively to ‘ pushing the gender barrier’, some people may simply call this a power trip. I’m not naïve enough to believe those kinds of people don’t exist. We have all met that particular state trooper or city cop who revels in the unmitigated terror in your puppy dog eyes. He takes advantage of his power to belittle you in front of friends or worse gives you a ticket for $25 bucks, just enough to wipe out your beer money for the weekend. You drive away thinking all cops are pigs. Yes, this character exists in both male and female form but by no means encompasses everyone (like all stereotypes, duh). I think it’s a perfectly respectable answer for both men and women to cite the uniform as an incentive for working in the police force. In most cities around the world working for the police presents certain risks and often less pay than the private sector (unless you are in the UAE, naturally). Of course nationalist sentiments and uniformed jobs are inextricably linked—or does the egg come before the chicken?

Especially in a city where slums abound for miles, beggars play ‘Frogger’ in the streets for pennies, and the cacophony of car horns can deafen a man, the police certainly don’t have it easy. However, despite that only 3.2% of Bangladesh’s police force is female, you still find women in a multitude of police units around the country. Personally I’m fascinated by the exceptionally high representation of Bangladeshi women in UN Peacekeeping forces. About half of the women I have meet so far have served or are mobilized to serve on UN missions in places like Sudan, Liberia, East Timor, the DRC, and Kosovo. Serving on UN Missions, especially armed ones, are attractive in the eyes of both Bangladeshi men and women as they offer high pay and an opportunity to travel (Weekend in Darfur, anyone?). As I’m lined up for a whole bunch more of Dhaka Metropolitan Police madness this week and some tours of Chittagong later this month, I will have plenty more to write before leaving this tremendously noisy yet beautiful country. Pictures will be posted soon!

Posted by: alifran | March 5, 2011

Malaysia: Truly Asia. For real.

Though I was sad to leave the UK, the move to Malaysia went pretty smoothly. I am living just outside of Kuala Lumpur and, to be honest, the sunshine and affordable prices are very nice after London. Again, the combination of Chinese New Year partying with wonderful foods has been excellent.

My friend Lisa and I even had time to hike Mt. Kinabalu on the island of Borneo! While still in Malaysia, Mt. Kinabalu is immersed in the jungle and is a legitimately difficult hike to the top. We hiked for a full day, crashed at a hut close to the summit, and then began our our final hike at 3 am. Though we didn’t get to see an exceptionally spectacular sunrise, the whole point of hiking up bare rock face in the dark is to provide such an opportunity. However, while we got to hang out and chow down on cookies at the summit, our joy was soon crushed by an end of season monsoon. Our hike down was treacherous. Though a great story in retrospect, it was fairly terrifying to repel down sheer granite rock face, clinging to an old rope, while in the middle of a freezing cold flash river. Maybe Kilimanjaro next year?

On a different note, my interviews in Malaysia formed a perfect foil for my research in the UK. In total, I got 8 interviews with various ranking women all within the Royal Malaysian Police. I spent my time in Bukit Aman, the police headquarters that own a terrific spot in downtown KL. The complex is new and very well equipped. The women officers I met were exceptionally well trained and educated. Their specific occupations ranged between working as a body guard in the special forces to running the crimes against women and children division. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that women police officers in Malaysia covered such a broad range of professional expertise!

In particular, the woman who worked as a special forces bodyguard had several exciting stories about her experiences meeting politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Her best story was about working in Saudi Arabia. As a woman in Saudi, you are legally required to wear an abaya (long black dress) no matter what your occupation or citizenship. At one point on a diplomatic mission, she was assigned to work for a high profile Malaysian official on a trip to Riyadh. There was a miscommunication during a meeting and several soldiers stormed into the room—leaving my friend with no choice but to rip off the abaya and whip out her MP5K in case a shuffle incurred. While funny, it’s pretty ridiculous to fit a submachine gun under an abaya because Saudi Arabia states that’s how women need to dress. I guess I can understand imposing the abaya on tourists (are there any?? not including the Hajj of course…), but I would have presumed BODY GUARDS at least would be in a different category.

In general in my interviews the one topic of conversation that lagged was perspective on the status of minority groups in the police—meaning Chinese or Indian citizens. While the vast majority of police are Malay (and hence Muslim), I did interview with two Chinese women and one Indian women. These three women were the only ones who brought up issues of race and identity within the police force (and Malaysia generally) while the Malay officers didn’t acknowledged any problems within the different racial groups, even when prompted with questions about discrimination. Similar to the UK, there is a huge issue of identity in Malaysia. Major political parties are attempting to address this in new campaigns entitled ’1Malaysia’ to emphasize unity over races.

In regard to racial tension, an extremely controversial topic of conversation is the legal requirements for doing business in Malaysia. Besides the obvious fact that cronyism is rampant, Malaysia requires ALL business to have at least 50% MALAY ownership (*Important note: Malays are the ethnic vast majority of Malaysia, and while the Chinese and Indians are Malaysian citizens they are not Malay). The requirements for Malay ownership in all businesses has fostered elitism among the Malays, racism among the other ethnic groups, and strife overall.

To top off discrimination catalyzed by ethnic profiling in Malaysia, religion provides an added element. Malays are Muslim by law and anyone who marries a Malay must convert to Islam. This presents a tricky scenario then when attempting to encourage integration into ’1Malaysia’ if intermarriage of ethnic/religious groups has strong legal implications (we all know babies bring about peace!). Hence, the cycle of skepticism between races is consistently fueled. This is further antagonized by the mystery and fear surround the ‘morality police’. After doing some digging, I discovered that the Islamic police do in fact exist yet are an entirely different department. They do not run in conjunction with the Royal Malaysian Police as civil law is entirely separate from Islamic law. The religious authorities maintain independent power to enforce Islamic laws/standards. However, what remains unclear is the boundaries of their jurisdiction. While in theory Islamic law applies only to Muslims, multiple cases involving non-Muslims are in Islamic courts. Most often these seem to involve illicit lovers, meaning non-Muslims and Muslims, who are caught holding hands in public or, worse, emerging from hotel rooms on Valentines Day. Despite my effort to uncover more about the mysterious morality police, I couldn’t find any substantial information besides horror stories from various locals. This seems to be a topic for further research…

FINALLY, I got some pictures of myself with the officers! Success. Though my enthusiasm may seem ridiculous, I’ve not been allowed to bring a camera into any police stations thus far. The Malaysian police were kind enough to let me snap away and even set me up on a guided tour of the Police Museum next door. The guards even gave me a little police paraphernalia goody-bag at the end! I now have an excessive amount of police key chains and lanyards from around the world if anyone is interested….

My time spent with the ladies of Bukit Aman was highly informative and an excellent addition to my successful interviews in the UAE and UK. While Bahrain and Turkey were not as enlightening, my combination of countries has generated a spectrum of analysis on the police, the life of an ex-pat abroad, and the challenges of traveling. I leave this week to begin my research in Dhaka, Bangladesh and can only hope interviews go as well as they did in the UK and Malaysia.

Posted by: alifran | March 5, 2011

Halfway point!

The blog is back in action in 2011! Sorry for the hiatus… life has been wildly unpredictable in the most wonderful way. Since leaving Turkey I spent most of my time in the UK though I’m currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I’ve been living here for almost two months now and am definitely enjoying the tropical weather, spicy food, and vibrant culture. Plus Chinese New Year celebrations started February 3rd and ran for about two weeks. In Chinese culture, the lunar new year is a much bigger deal than December 31st. The holiday is all about excessive amounts of food, socializing, gifts, and family. Plus lots of fireworks! In the meantime, I have a series of updates to expand up.

 

I am officially more than halfway through my Watson! I left home July 11, 2010. This is a funny reality to accepted while writing under the Petronas Towers in downtown KL. It has been over eight months since I was last in America. While I miss home and still have roughly five months to go, I’m conflicted because time is already a precious commodity—life on the road moves so quickly that I can feel days, weeks, and months slipping through my fingers. This is certainly amplified by the fact I’m thinking about jobs or graduate school for when my fellowship finishes in August. The Watson is a unique lifestyle and traveling frequently has become totally normal for me. To be honest, I think I might have a rough adjustment into a ‘real job’ if that happens! Fifteen days of vacation is just lame.

 

Overall, my Watson time in London was unbelievably spectacular. Besides the fact that London is amazing by itself if you’re only a tourist for a week, I got to live there for two months and pretend I was a resident. I lived in Tooting which is just south of major landmarks like London Bridge and the Thames. My commute was about thirty minutes into the heart of London and, after living in cities with minimal public transportation, the Tube was a breeze (though ridiculously expensive!). I was also able to visit a long list of other cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford, Leamington Spa, Manchester, and Liverpool. I even went to Paris, a place where I really should have spent more time and could have had excellent interviews…. a potential spot for this summer maybe. A combination of old and new friends with fulfilling adventures made my stay particularly memorable. The UK rivals the UAE for best place yet!

 

Research-wise in the UK, I was hoping for more interviews than I got but, in all fairness, they were especially informative. I had many off the record conversations and two official interviews: one with a female officer of the Metropolitan Police in New Scotland Yard and the second with the President of the National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP). I am thoroughly appreciative with how willing each group was to spend time with me. Often the biggest frustration with my type of research is the painful process of gaining a security clearance and then arranging interviews. The UK was exceptional in that I arranged everything by EMAIL. Amazing. My usual tactic of show-up-and-harass-officers was not necessary (although has been re-employed in Malaysia).

 

Along with many other countries in Europe, the UK faces a very real threat of terrorist attacks. Both the police and various branches of the armed forces spend millions to protect British citizens against harm and prevent tragedies like 7/7. In London especially, minority liaisons in the police are important ambassadors for language, religion, and culture. It is no surprise then that the Met then is actively recruiting from minority groups and the Muslim community. Major police departments all around the UK have started programs to recruit and retain Muslim police officers as a measure against home-grown or imported extremism. By gaining the trust of the community and encouraging fair representation, its rational that police can not only keep an eye on unfriendly activity but also encourage the Muslim communities to purge their community of fundamentalists. By encouraging British Muslims to join the police, the Met can help cut down on discrimination and ensure a voice for such minorities, especially with the existence of associations like NAMP. The existence of NAMP is an unbelievably lucky coincidence for me. Similar to the ‘Celebrating Women Police Officers of Abu Dhabi‘ bonanza, my time in the UK was particularly memorable because of such wonderful organizations.

 

Conversely, Islamophobia is certainly existent in British society and sadly accepted in several groups. While the police are employing recruitment programs for Muslims, the representation of Muslim police in London is still vastly disproportionate to the size of the Muslim community. There is an obvious problem of consistency in dealing with political parties in the UK as well. An example would be the case of the conservative Islamic party, ‘Islam for the UK’. It was made illegal after multiple complaints about the organization and a ruling that it encouraged extremist views. While this is legitimate and consistent with British policy, blatantly xenophobic and racist organizations like the English Defense League (EDL) still exist and get away with the odd protest or two. An even worse fact is that the EDL has been directly connected to the British National Party (BNP) through political leaders…

 

In the end, the UK faces a crisis in helping it’s citizens define British identity due to the staggering influx in immigration over the last couple of decades. In regard to the Muslim community, individuals who face Islamophobia in the work force or political arena are continually antagonized. Such stigmas promote issues of loyalty: am I British first? Muslim first? Pakistani first? As an American, I understand the need for multiple layers of identity. However, when it comes to an extreme situation of violence or peace, it is surely in the UK’s interest to encourage a national sense of British unity that transcends ethnic or religious boundaries. On a smaller scale, the strategy of NAMP and the Met Police certainly encourage integration and can be expanded to other arenas. We’ll see how it goes!

 

Posted by: alifran | November 1, 2010

Rejections and Reflections

Despite my attempts to anticipate life’s curve balls, I’ve realized half of the fun of a Watson is that momentary feeling of panic at the plate. This adventure-driven, adrenaline-infused decision making process is an exceptional experience. It’s undeniable that the amount of freedom on a Watson can be overwhelming or  inspiring—often both simultaneously. I have been traveling  for approximately three months at this point and feel so grateful for the amount of freedom in my life. My travels have taken me first to the UAE and Oman, Bahrain, Turkey, and currently the UK. While I have not exactly developed a refined strategy for research and living generally, I have picked up some tips along the way through friends and reflections.

Primarily, expectations about places and people can lead to states of frustration. What do I mean, exactly? I will highlight my experience in Istanbul. Turkey is the  old seat of the legendary Ottoman Empire, a bastion of open-minded liberalism just north of Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the Ba’athists. Istanbul itself is currently the 2010 European Capital of Culture. When walking down the famous Istiklal Street or sipping wine along the Bosphorus, Istanbul could easily pass for any European city I’ve visited. It is also stunningly beautiful.  While Western Turkey fits in the same category as Istanbul, Eastern Turkey is obviously less international, less cosmopolitan and hence more conservative. However, despite continual flares of violence between the Turkish Army and Kurdish freedom fighters /terrorists (you choose), Turkey as a whole has achieved high levels of economic development and education.

For these reasons and many more, I was understandably shocked, annoyed, disappointed, and defensive when I was REJECTED by the Istanbul Police Department for interviews. The process of gaining permission was even more complex than in the UAE, considering it involved English and Turkish papers being faxed to the Istanbul Police, the Ankara Police Headquarters, the Istanbul Mayor’s Office, and then back to the Istanbul Police. While I did expected to encounter obstacles along my Watson journey and am prepared to bounce back, I did not expect to be rejected by Turkey of all places—especially after managing to jump through so many hoops.

Turkey was supposed to be the beacon of light in the sea of conservative Middle Eastern darkness… not the other way around. Upon reflection, there were several factors contributing to my rejection that I had not considered. One, the concept of a fellowship is not widely understood outside of America. American philanthropy is exceptional, perhaps because of a cultural emphasis on the importance of individuality, leadership, and a legacy of funding promising youths. While other countries certainly offer purely academic fellowships, the concept of worldly and personal exploration through the venue of travel is unique to the US. Therefore, I don’t think the Istanbul Police really knew what to do with me—I wasn’t a student exactly nor a professional. Secondly, while I was right to recognize how Turkey differs from the rest of the Middle East, I failed to recognize what it has in common. Security is a sensitive subject, much like anywhere else in the Middle East. However, the military and police operations in Turkey is especially sensitive due to the history of military interventions into Turkish politics and the continuing conflict with the Kurdish minority. The idea of an American, student or not, prying into police operations most likely does not sit well with those skeptical of American interests abroad. To put it bluntly, a Turkish friend even jokingly insinuated I might be a CIA agent. Consequentially, I have learned that it is important to do preliminary research and understand the culture of whatever country I am living in. Yet, people and places defy odds and expectations. Don’t underestimate or overestimate anyone’s capabilities to impress or disappoint you.

Apart from my epiphany on the need to travel equally receptive and equally critical, I have learned that life sometimes opens doors for you. Regardless  as to whether or not these detours or complete reroutings fit into your plans, it is almost always worth it to change course and pursue—hence my thorough appreciate of freedom as stated earlier. After an unpredictable and tumultuous three months hopping around the Middle East, I find myself in London.

My decision to add the UK to my Watson research is a beautiful example of serendipity at work. While living in Abu Dhabi I happened to befriend a large amount of Brits. Besides hearing about the diversity of London and the significant Muslim population here, a British friend who works for the police encouraged me to check it out. I’ve spent a decent amount of time reading news articles and op-eds over the last year on the ‘issue of Islam’.  With Islamophobia raging back home in the States and in Europe as well, the integration of Muslim minority communities is more complex than ever. In my opinion, religious diversity unequivocally effects the relationship between a community and police. Therefore, London presents itself as the perfect case study. While my original research project examines women police officers in Muslim majority countries, I think a comparative study with female officers in Muslim minority communities will be particularly insightful. In retrospect, this was an even smarter decision than I thought. The UK, or London especially, is very diverse and has an influential and active Muslim population. I have been in touch in the Metropolitan Police of London and am arranging for interviews this week and next. There is even a National Association of Muslim Police! AMAZING: http://namp-uk.com/…. How did I not know about this?!

Life on a Watson is a fantastic gift. While challenging at times, I have enjoyed and appreciated every minute of it so far and still have about 9 months to go.  It’s been delightfully surprising to experience how life sometimes can just fall into place.

Posted by: alifran | September 30, 2010

Progress in the UAE!

Sad to say, I have said my goodbyes in Abu Dhabi and moved on to Bahrain! The UAE was overall a very successful experience—both personally and Watson-wise. I don’t think I ever could have predicted how my time in the UAE would unravel… FYI: jumbo-sized post ahead, stick with me!

I learned so many different things throughout the past two months. Primarily, I learned that I can’t wait for connections or other people to make things happen for me. Upon arriving in the UAE, I had several contacts set up with the police and began a waiting period to get permission for interviews. My original plan was to walk directly into a station but this ran counter to the advice of contacts and friends. A month and many blown off phone calls later, I decided to walk into a local station. Within a week I was sitting in the Sheik’s office of the Abu Dhabi Police Headquarters waiting for my permission slip to be signed. From now on, I will always first attempt to make contact directly.

Masha’Allah, my last week in the UAE was filled with interviews at the Abu Dhabi Police Headquarters. I had seven formal interviews in total but many more conversations throughout the week. The Media and Public Relations branch were who finally arranged my interviews and tours. The seven interviews included several scientists working for the Forensics Department, a K9 trainer, a shooting champion, and a lawyer who is the first and only woman to teach at the men’s police training college.

Needless to say, the Abu Dhabi Police were an impressive group. The UAE is an exceptionally wealthy country and the Emirati people benefit enormously from local oil sources and the financial genius of their leaders. Therefore the Emirati government has a lot of resources with which to equip the police. What I found unique about the UAE is that any government job is well paid and often has better hours/lower stress than the private sector. Many Emiratis work for the government and police work is indeed a very desirable occupation- for men and women. This alone differs drastically from other parts of the Middle East or even the United States, as other countries do not have the finances to for high salaries never mind such a small local population. Remember, barely 20 % of the UAE’s total population are Emirati citizens. As a shameless pat on the back for myself, I have to admit I even got a job offer from the Abu Dhabi Police Department. It was a ridiculously well paid for someone my age (or anyone, for that matter) and very tempting offer—perhaps next year!

Although police are generally well received in Emirati society, the Abu Dhabi branch specifically has been working on a program to recruit more women into the services. I made some good friends in Abu Dhabi who were willing enough to tolerate my enthusiasm for the police and were gracious enough to take a field trip to see them with me. Luckily, the Abu Dhabi Police Department was hosting a series of ‘Policewomen Shows’ throughout the city’s malls in conjunction with a ‘Celebrating Police Women Week’. I couldn’t have asked for a better week to end my time in the UAE! On a Thursday night at 7, a group of women working in different branches of the police put on a demonstration at Marina Mall. First there was a gun show, consisting of women in full regalia twirling and stomping their weapons. Cool, huh? Even better was the fully male marching band that followed them around. This was concluded by a martial arts show, in which about four women officers demonstrated how to kick butt with four female crooks. There were fake knives and guns involved with a lot of arrests and immature guys cracking hejabi girl-on-girl jokes. Overall, it was pretty fun and gathered a decent crowd.

As I learned from my interviews and as the show tried to demonstrate, women can work in any branch of the police they desire. Most women end up working in general policing, like most men, and their jobs entail traffic patrol and house visits. In more specialized branches the percentage of women present drops except in one field- Forensics. In the UAE most officers enter the police force on a track according to their specialization and most often are fully funded to pursue a graduate degree abroad.

The most frequent advanced degree among women is biology followed by chemistry. Consequentially, a fair number of lab workers within the Abu Dhabi Police Department are women scientists specializing in narcotics.  In fact, two of the women whom I interviewed where the first scientists to be funded for PhDs by the Abu Dhabi Police and returned in 1995 to found the Forensics Department at Abu Dhabi Headquarters. Both women are currently among the highest ranks possible of the police. They have initiated cooperation programs with the United Kingdom in particular that utilize the latest technology for forensics investigations. They also began a partnership program where staff members are sent abroad for training.

Women have made an impact on the police outside of forensics as well. In particular, two women I interviewed have gained an almost celebrity-like status among the Abu Dhabi Police and local community. One is the first woman K9 trainer and the only female member of the UAE’s International Response team—a small task force within a greater international rescue network. She has been sent abroad to Pakistan and Southeast Asia to help with search and rescue missions. Her favorite dogs are German Sheppards or Labradors due to their intelligence. The dogs are trained for 11 specific tasks, the most common of which are searching for narcotics, explosives, weapons, and human bodies. While this is standard with most police dog skills around the world, certain dog teams are also trained to hunt out a pesky local worm that eats away at date trees. Since the production and sale of dates is a lucrative business in the UAE, these dogs come in handy and are able to save hundreds if not thousands of trees from being destroyed. When asked why she wanted to become a police officer, her answer was that she had always loved dogs and action movies—why couldn’t she combine them into something useful?

Her answer struck me because I have heard it a number of times before. During my initial case study in Jordan, a jujitsu master commented on the fact that she became a police officer because she too loved action movies (particularly Bruce Lee). My second celebrity-like interview might perhaps have more recognition than her peer and a dazzling multimedia fan page, but she too was searching for a life of adventure, action, and recognition.

As I mentioned before, this women is a prominent criminal lawyer and the first and only women to teach at the men’s police training college. She is a charismatic and challenging individual, someone who consistently pushes authority and what we might call ‘the glass ceiling’. She joined the police more than thirty years ago and was among the first class of women to be inducted as officers. A bit of a jack of all trades, she has worked as a criminal investigator, a professor at the women’s college, a criminal lawyer, and now a professor of law at the men’s college. I asked her about her reception at the men’s college and whether or not her first couple of classes went well when she responded: “Naturally my classroom was all male and surprised at my presence. Some students started snickering when I began, but I reminded them of my accomplishments and awards and also that as a mother I deserve respect. In our culture, mothers command respect because of their family positions. Would they disgrace their mothers? Never. My students have always listened attentively after that first day”.

 I think this is an interesting point that serves as a good lens into the complicated nature of Arab society, especially in the Gulf—ie: the complicated task of understanding the position of women in local society. When I tell Western expats about my fellowship and my topic of research, I often get, “Oh, you must be done by now!”. I can’t begin to describe how annoying this is. No, thank you. In fact, I have hardly even begun. When I tell locals about my research, I get a slew of encouraging comments and offers for introductions to their cousins, sisters, aunts, or neighbors who work with the police. Most often this includes a mini lecture on the good nature of Islamic law and it’s progressive design to include women in security positions. Let me explain why.

Women have been present in security operations in the UAE for decades. While they were only formally inducted into the police in the 70’s, women were long included in search parties or investigations despite the fact they were not leaders.  Old traditions in Arab society commands gender segregation in public. As a result, whenever women need to be searched or questioned custom dictates that another woman be present if not the prime investigator. Currently this translates as a woman security guard frisking women at airports or a woman investigator questioning a female suspect. Alternatively, it can mean that while male and female police officers may be partners, you will never find a male and female in a car alone—always two female cops and one male. In the UAE at least, a more extreme example of tradition effecting the law enforcement is that only a female police officer can arrest a woman: Even if a woman had bombs strapped to her body and pounds of cocaine in her hands, if a male police officer arrested her the case would be invalid and she would be released.

This perspective on gender is most likely derived from tribal traditions of Bedouin Arabia as it appears in the Qur’an as one of the sources of Islamic law, or Shari’a. The application of Islamic law in Abu Dhabi is the work of the police. Since the Qur’an does not detail modern issues like speeding fines or prison policy, common forms of civil law have fused with Islamic law to create the general legal system. While traditional values of gender separation may appear misogynistic or archaic to those from abroad, the UAE police function around such norms yet recruit women in specialized fields and promote them to the highest ranks.

I am left to ponder this dichotomy: the existence of the highly sophisticated and modern Abu Dhabi Police Department and the traces of tradition that serve as its legal infrastructure. When a woman is trained to master the art of shooting an M16 with deadly accuracy but she is not allowed to partake in riot prevention or counter-terrorism operations, can we consider this progress? When a woman is fully funded for a PhD and awarded the position of being the first and only woman to teach at a men’s police college, can we consider this gender equality if men and women police cadets are separated for all forms of training—both in and out of the classroom?

Hypocrisy? Maybe. A concession of tradition for modern purposes? Perhaps. There seems to be a growing identity crisis in the UAE for the need to affirm local traditions. The national dress, a long white gown for men and the abaya for women, has become ever so popular. Even big name designers like Gucci and Prada have gotten into the business of making traditional Arab cloths and scarves. It appears to me that the UAE faces a dilemma: the desire to modernize, accumulate money, and live in luxury vs. the need to protect local customs and ensure against the threat of cultural Westernization. Some may argue that modernization in fact includes Westernization, while other argue the two are mutually exclusive. I think the case study of women police officers in Abu Dhabi encompasses the struggle of defining what indeed is culture. In my opinion, the key is finding room for adaptation of damaging traditions while maintaining a distinct identity. The question is, how much of an impact will this make and will the results empower women to be better cops and retain greater authority? It should be no surprise then that I think the UAE men and women’s police colleges should be combined and that men should be allowed to arrest women and vice versa.

As a side note, all of my speculations have not yet lead to any general conclusions, I guess which is what the rest of my Watson year is for. Though I am critical of the environments around me, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about problems or inefficiencies with police back home or in other Western countries.

I began this post right after leaving the UAE for Bahrain and I am now posting before I leave Bahrain for Turkey. I have visited the Manama Police Headquarters and, though I have been in touch with their offices, have yet to receive permission for formal interviews. Bahrain is an exceptionally tiny country and a bizarre place. I was pretty surprised to discovered that not all of the Gulf is as blatantly wealthy as the UAE and that there are in fact poor Bahrainis. I could never imagine having an Emirati taxi driver in Abu Dhabi! There has also recently been some havoc on the island between the majority of Shia citizens and the small elite Sunni ruling class. Some tires were burnt (not so bad compared to other shenanigans in the Middle East) and hence police jeeps with very big guns have been strategically placed around the city. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of both sides convictions, Bahrain seems to be the small playground of bigger factions in Islam, namely Sunni Saudi Arabia to the West and Shia Iran to the East. Hopefully tomorrow I get some interviews and answers to my questions!

I have to admit I do really miss the UAE and all of the fantastic people I met there. It was a crazy two months. I underestimated the nomadic nature of life on a Watson Fellowship. It is hard starting over in a new country with few contacts, despite that fact that I have gotten much better at spending time with myself and spontaneously making friends. Previously I had always thought it was better to spend less time in places but see more countries, perhaps quantity over quality. Now I’ve been enlightened that quality is ultimately more satisfying and only achieved through investing time and work into a community. My only remedy is moving forward to Istanbul…

Posted by: alifran | September 5, 2010

The Ugly Truth

Out of the many unexpected effects of the Watson, the most surprising is my relatively recent surge in American pride. I’ve always been a happy and proud American but it’s just new for me to be in a situation where there are no Americans or Americans are a relative minority. In the UAE the largest Western expat group is by far the British, a legacy perhaps of British colonialism. Next would come the Australians and South Africans. Americans constitute a small minority in the UAE since much of American influence in the Arabian Gulf is centered in Saudi or Kuwait. Therefore I’ve gotten some good experience in defending my American colloquialisms and culture along with, of course, my government, my countrymen, and our role in the world.

This brings me to the main topic of this blog post: the controversy over the mosque in NYC. I’m sure most of my readers out there are well acquainted with the raging controversy of this mosque. To break it down simply for anyone who is not, there has been a proposal for a new Islamic center submitted by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Referred to as Park51, the complex would essentially be an Islamic community center along with a mosque and would cost roughly $100 million. Here is the controversial part: it would be built two blocks away from ground zero. PS—the fate of Park51 rests in the hands of New York voters. 

As an American abroad, it’s been surprising how much the rest of the world is aware of our fight over Park51. As an American abroad in a Muslim country, it’s been sad to witness the slurs and hateful comments in the US against Muslims that’s been generated out of the conflict. As an American generally, it’s important for me to explore the world and be able to hold my head up high—a privilege that is being questioned by Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.

Recently Time Magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Is America Islamophobic”? This question couldn’t be any more pertinent to the state of American domestic politics. I was able to catch an interview by Rick Lazio, a potential for New York Governor, on ‘Meet the Press’ with David Gregory when Lazio targeted Imam Rauf as a ‘bad man’ over his criticisms of the US and alleged sympathies for Hezbollah and Hamas. Some big name politicians, including Sarah Palin, have joined Lazio’s camp and the debate has gotten uglier daily. I almost smacked my TV in Abu Dhabi upon seeing a woman holding up a sign at an anti-mosque rally entitled, “You can build a mosque at ground zero when we can build a synagogue in Mecca.” Really? I might as well get to build a pagan lunar temple dedicated to myself as the Moon Goddess in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Sarcasm aside, I think this deserves an in-depth analysis. Funny enough, I have had lunch with Imam Rauf during a past internship and found him to be a funny and delightful conversationalist. Middle Eastern politics are difficult to talk about and often immediately stir up strong emotions. Imam Rauf shared a lot of his personal philosophy over bridge building with us at that lunch and further exemplified the importance of fortifying strong relationships between different religious or ethnic groups: be it through his Cordoba Initiative group or simply through respecting your next door neighbor. Did I mention he is currently finishing up a State Department mission, one designed to reach out to Muslim countries? 

This brings up the importance of religious freedom in America. Why are so many Americans against the mosque? Is it really because the mosque is an insult to the memory of 9/11? Is Imam Abdul Rauf truly a bad guy? Or is it simply because we are Islamophobic? I think the last point is indeed the ugly truth. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in my opinion, is not a bad man. In fact, I remember learning in 4th grade American history that patriotism can come in many forms, one being the importance of criticizing your government to better it. We Americans have criticized our country and government since the beginning and it is indeed an American mantra to never take no as an answer. Current American foreign policy towards the Islamic world should not be an exception. 

Does a mosque near ground zero truly disrespect the memory of 9/11? As most Americans, I will never forget sitting in my 8th grade science class when the principle came on the loudspeaker and informed us. I was old enough to understand the catastrophe that took place but too young to understand the broader implications of the terrorist attack. Truth be told, in part I became interested in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies because of 9/11. But, did Muslim-Americans not experience the same horror? If anything, didn’t they feel more scared and insecure because of an inevitable backlash? Do Muslim-Americans not sacrifice their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, making them as American as the rest of us? This has evolved into a dangerous fight over what constitutes the American identity. 

In the end, I am not alone in believing that building Park51 would be a wise decision. America needs to uphold her legacy of religious tolerance and prove to the world that we do indeed believe in religious freedom. In the wake of waning American hegemony, the symbolic importance of building an Islamic community center near ground zero would send a powerful message to the world: that we are collectively strong despite our differences, that we embrace tolerance and peace as a means of community, and that 9/11 is a catastrophe turned catalyst to unite our faith in humanity, our devotion to liberty and justice, and our true war against all forms of terrorism instead of against the Islamic faith.

Posted by: alifran | August 16, 2010

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Oman

Yes, this post is incredibly overdue. Despite neglecting my blog and any regular forms of communication, I have been really busy and find myself about to write a pretty massive post on my life- the fun, the frustrating, and why I am still not in touch with many police officers.

It is currently summertime in the UAE and undoubtedly one of the hottest times of the year. Last week on ABC I was watching reports about a ‘massive heat wave’ hitting New England and record breaking temperatures of 100+ F were logged for a couple days. I am not Arab nor Emirati but it’s hard not to laugh when you’ve been getting used to a balmy 100 at night and 110 to even about 120 during the day. Don’t forget to add excessive humidity to that. Naturally, its common then that most people leave the UAE for vacation in better fairing areas. Not me- I decided to arrive during the middle of the summer exodus. This is one of the reasons why getting in touch with the police has been tough- because a lot of people are simply gone.

Secondly, it is now Ramadan! While Ramadan is a beautiful holiday that draws family and friends together, working hours are shortened and it’s generally quite difficult to get much done during the holiday. Most people kind of take a backseat professionally and don’t raise their expectations too high. In most other settings I would happily embrace the work ethic of Ramadan yet during the first leg of my Watson is has been pretty frustrating.

Finally, it’s important to me to connection reasons 1 & 2 with reason 3 to fully rationalize why I don’t have a long list women police officers in the UAE. That final reasons is the nature of Emirati society. Being a generally conservative and closed society, I can’t walk into a police station like I would in Jordan and expect a warm welcome and perhaps even some sugary tea. I think this is the result of a consistent division between foreigners (nearly 80% or so) and the local Arab population. While I now have some lovely Emirati friends and have heard of some foreigners befriending locals, these friendships appear to be rare.

So, I find myself in front of a series of bureaucratic hoops. I am currently getting a security clearance in Dubai and am waiting to have my calls and emails returned from officers in Abu Dhabi. While I expected to go through an interim period like this, I have to admit I didn’t think it would be so long. It has been almost a month in the UAE now and I have only had a handful of meetings and interviews.

On the bright side, I have been having fun in the meantime and learning a lot about life in the Middle East and especially in Western expat communities. Again to reflect on relations between locals and foreigners, life in the UAE as a Western expat is pretty bizarre. I like how tight-knit expats are in Abu Dhabi though at times such a small community can become incestuous. I was surprised to discover how few Americans live in the UAE in comparison to Brits, South Africans, and Australians.

 It has been pretty amusing to pick up on the differences between American English and the rest of the English speaking world. Along with some significant cultural differences there exist words never heard in the US. Funny examples: The tooth fairy is actually the ‘tooth mouse’ in South Africa. If I wanted to get a haircut, I would be laughed out of the room for saying bangs instead of ‘fringes’. And the rest of the world says bum-bag instead fanny-pack for some obvious reasons… Haha!! I didn’t realize how little interaction I have had with native English speakers other than Americans and Canadians, whom I previously thought had the weirdest colloquialisms.

So far I have been splitting my time between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. My strategy is to consistently call or email people to get the ball rolling in both places. In Abu Dhabi I have been living with a lovely group of three women: Katherine (a Wellesley alum!), Lucy, and Geraldine. Besides taking me under their wings, they have brought me along to the best parties in the area and given me plenty of advice. Cheers for women who help women! In Dubai, I am staying in an apartment through a friend of Katherine’s and have made excellent use of the pool and gym. I have explored a decent amount of the bar scene in both cities and have even hit up a water park in Dubai with my Wellesley friend Sarah! My most adventurous trip so far has been a day off-roading in the mountains of Oman with my new buddy Ewan.

In conclusion, though I am frustrated by the inefficiencies of the government system, annoyed by my lack of power to get directly in touch with people, and disappointed by my lack of research overall, I am learning in other ways and that can count as progress too. Life has been pretty fun so far on a Watson and, though it’s cheesy, I finally have a good group of friends in the country.  Let’s see how the next couple of weeks go!

I want to include some pictures in addition to my long post. Here are some of my temporary homes, some big landmarks in Dubai, and the sweet off-roading trip in Oman. Enjoy!

Posted by: alifran | July 17, 2010

Back in Amman

Ahlan wa Sahlan! It is so nice to be back in Amman. I really missed this city. Though, my commute was pretty terrible: a delayed flight in Boston caused me to miss my flight to Amman from NY. I ended up going to London instead, where my flight was also delayed, and finally got to Jordan at 2 am to discover that my bag was lost.

Al-Hamdulilah I finally have my bag. Sadly though I was in Amman for several days with just my little sundress that I wore on the flight over. I am staying with my homestay family from my Spring 2009 study abroad program here. Since both my sisters veil and sometimes wear the abaya, it is it not the best idea for me to go around Amman in a sundress. Unfortunately we don’t fit into the same size clothes. Hence, I wore the abaya around Amman in 95 degree weather to shop for some pants and a shirt. I was so glad to get my suitcase back!

In other news, I haven’t done too much yet besides a lot of eating, chatting, and running around Amman. I went to Amman Waves yesterday which was suprisingly a lot of fun. It’s a giant water park in the desert outside Amman. The best part of it was the wave pool. Every 45 minutes the waves started along with Arabic pop music and a giant dance party in the pool. It was fantastic.

I’ve posted some pictures of my family and Amman. The first two are of my whole Abu Shaika family and then my siblings minus Muhammad. Included are some pictures of the garden in the backyard along with some nice views from the roof.  Enjoy! I will be leaving soon for Abu Dhabi and Dubai :)

Posted by: alifran | July 2, 2010

T-Minus 9 till Departure

For some unknown reason, the closer my departure date draws near the less inclined I am to do a damn thing about it. Perhaps I am heartily embracing the spontaneity of a Watson, but I’m also realizing that I might not really understand what I have just gotten myself into. Packing one suitcase for one year is my current Watson challenge. But how to begin?

In my brain, the Watson resonates as 365 days of sheer adventure. In its most basic formula, the Watson stews creativity and passion with mobility—essentially serving up a priceless delicacy. Accordingly, the Watson has been on my mind for a while. Towards the end of first year at Wellesley, I realized that my job at a local retail store was a terrible idea and that I could probably find something better on campus. I walked into the CWS by accident and luckily had a serendipitous run in with a job flyer. I applied, got hired, and started working the fall of my sophomore year. That is exactly when I discovered the Watson.

It’s funny sometimes how a passion develops. I think the Watson demands endurance most of all among the facets of passion. I’ve been told, “I admire your passion,” repeatedly by friends over the years. Yet, I have trouble nailing down what it means to me. Things I feel passionate about have never really had distinguished borders- is it travel or the Middle East specifically that I am so excited for? Am I more interested in working with women or Muslims generally? Perhaps in the end it’s really a combination of happy things that makes someone truly passionate.

I’ve known for a while that my Watson would be in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I’m still not sure what got me into traveling but I have been itching to leave ever since I learned there was somewhere to go. The Middle East and Southeast Asia always seemed like the farthest places possible.

Wanderlust has hence become one of my many sources of inspiration. While some people in the States might not be too familiar with Ibn Battuta, I’m sure that most people abroad have heard of him. Considered one of the ‘greatest travelers of all time’, Ibn Battuta was a 14th Century Moroccan traveler who wandered for thirty years around the world. I am currently finishing the abridged version of his journey by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta”.

The rihlah of Ibn Battuta  (meaning journey in Arabic) was epic. He meandered along North Africa and the Arabia Peninsula and reached as far as Delhi, Sumatra, and Beijing. Ibn Battuta passed away with an impressive legacy of adventure and fearlessness—along with an alleged legacy of over fifty children fathered throughout the journey. While my Watson will not extend for thirty years nor will it result in children, I nevertheless find Ibn Battuta a remarkable character that shares my insatiable desire to travel.

I took the liberty of embracing this piece of medieval Islamic travel literature as inspiration for my journey across a wide spectrum of Islamic countries. Through a combination of pictures and posts, I hope to construct a unique lens for better understanding modern Muslim communities. Although the ‘Islamic world’ may be a popular tag line, it’s hard to use in relation to describing nearly a billion people. ‘Rewriting the Rules’  will house as much of my Watson experience as can be translated into the Blogosphere.

This brings me back to my primary point about the Watson: can you really pack the perfect suitcase for a trip that is impossible to fully anticipate in the first place? Yes and no. I can finally pick up my malaria medicine from CVS and strategize for a portable mini-pharmacy, mainly done to comfort my Mother. I can also get my external hard drive installed and fire up my netbook for the long trip ahead.

However, the hardest part of packing is knowing that I need to minimize on almost everything and wean myself off of the rest: plentiful pairs of socks, books I like to read at the same time, and time spent driving around Westford with Mom. After all, a year is a long time.

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