Review of "The Ba'thification of Iraq"

As a writer, the author of  The Ba'thification of Iraq (2015) can be commended for his command of Arabic political terminologies. He also has a penchant for Stalin and Nazi rants. He offers the Baath-Nazi-Commie analogies liberally in almost every chapter, which reveal his obvious ideological leanings as an advocate of the 2003 U.S. intervention. The U.S.-led post-invasion debathification process used the experience of de-nazification from the 1940s rather dogmatically, as documented by Dr. Aysegul Keskin Zeren in her 2017 work "From De-Nazification of Germany to De-Baathification of Iraq."

Published November 15th 2015 by University of Texas Press

If the author went beyond facile analogies of Stalin and Saddam, he could possibly see clearly that many strategies and slogans of the Baath Party was copied and / or adopted from the Iraqi Communist Party. The 20th century analytical theme--the party system functioned as a crucial apparatus for state formation--is lacking. The author is primarily focused on establishing the Baath Party as an exception rather than the rule.

As a historian, the author of this book stresses certain contexts out of proportion and overlooks other contexts, such as British imperialism. He portrays Ottoman political culture as faction-ridden and corrupt and uses this distortion to explain the lack of coalition building in Iraq and the demise of Abd al-Karim Qasim in the 1958 coup. Iraq seems to appear out of Oriental chaos, only to be saved. 

This author has used his privilege as an American (official) to access the Baath Party documents which have been housed in Hoover Institution Archives, courtesy of an agreement with the Iraqi Memory Foundation; the negative implications of this arrangement for the historiography of Iraq and ordinary citizens have been explained by historian Saad Eskander (http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=439).
Finally, this review could not have been possible if I did not have years of engaged readings on the functioning of the Chinese Communist Party. More cross-region comparisons should be employed for de-Orientalizing histories of the 20th century.


Arabic Music Performance in Boston

Boston College organized a free Arabic music concert on rainy Sunday night, April 15th, at Gasson Hall. Prof. Ann Lucas said the introductory remarks first in English and then in Arabic. She welcomed us with “أهلا و سهلا” and also wished that the program will continue in the future (في مستقبل) Many of the audiences also were Lebanese. I stood throughout the show because all the chairs were taken. It was my first time at such a formal Arabic music performance. Before my exposure to music of the same region was mostly dabke and zajal music.

The main show of the evening featured  Lebanese oud performer Charbel Rouhana. Before he went on stage, the ensemble and chorus performed Levantine folk songs featuring themes of love and scenes of nature in the first half. Children of the Center for Arabic Culture the opened the show with My Darlings Around me (حبايبنا حولي), conducted by Syrian lawyer and conductor Alma Riceh. This choir is the only children’s Arabic choir in Massachusetts. The remaining choruses were directed by Nizar Fares, a Beiruiti who holds a PhD in musicology. During certain intervals, the Qanun player also had his solo parts and the audience responded with loud applause.

from Wikipedia

Dr. Fares, who also plays the Oud and is a musician in his own right, praised Charbel Rouhana to have accomplished what he thought as excellence that required an average person at least four times the amount of effort. Rouhana took stage and played several more numbers of Levantine songs as well as Oud-centric musical arrangements for us. The later learned that the oud is an instrument 3500 years old and has heavily influenced the Spanish guitar. 

Gasson Hall April 15th; Picture found from website

I also attended an Oud performance in Beirut, where I sat very formally at first; but I soon realized that Oud could also be entertained for a dance party. The crowd in the bar rose to their feet and also made requests upon the performer. I later found out that Rouhana also performs Oud in jazz style.

In this case, at Boston College, it was modeled off of a European influenced understanding of a performance. I had read about Umm Kulthum’s rise in fame as well as her collaboration with old forms of performances. While she retained the formal Arabic language in her pronunciations, she also contended with the new arrival of film and dressed in European dresses. 

Umm Kulthum and her ensemble

The Lebanese dialect lyrics of this musical performance was transliterated and translated for us to follow. I could understand “moon” and “lover.” During the call and response sections, I also participated in the choruses. I noticed that the gender of the addressee is important in Arabic; God would be presented as a gender-specific figure in literature and poetry. In contrast, Indian Sufi music addresses God in gender-neutral terms.

After the last amusing song Qahwa (coffee), a nun from Lebanon presented an award to Boston College’s music department, commended this performance and also praised the ability for music to communicate through all cultures. She also looked forward to future performance exchanges in Boston. Rouhana also signed his book on Maqam for people who were interested in purchasing it. I would like to learn more about Arabic music theory in the future.


Thoughts on Islam and the English Enlightenment

The following response is written based on my reading of the introduction to the book Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670-1840. I might post more thoughts if I finish other chapters of the book.

Image result for Islam and the English Enlightenment, 1670-1840

Dr. Humberto Garcia’s introduction to his book, which includes a brief discussion on British Radicalism, is interesting. He stresses how Islamic republicanism provided British radicals to denounce their opponents, such as the Trinitarians. The radicals saw a connection between Islam and Christianity as they would like it to be (e.g., Deism). But to what extent does his text speak to Islamic intellectual history? I remember in another history class at Tufts, when I was arguing for an understanding of the ulema within each specific context (rather than positioning it as a universal category), a person commented that the ulema is just like the Catholic clergy, implying that they were the ruling class opposed to general interest of the people. I do not know what Garcia thinks about the Islamic ulema, but this view is definitely still common and simplifies the complexity of Islamic thought. If Islam once served as a placeholder for British radicals to envision Christianity without a clergy, it can also easily become another placeholder for other purposes.

My second point of uneasiness with Garcia’s treatment of Deism is in his easy acceptance of its ahistorical claims. Concepts of time are a crucial difference that proponents of deism conveniently glide over: They reiterate that the Prophet Muhammad is merely another Luther who came centuries earlier. Yet they fail to see how the richness of Islam encompasses both linear as well as non-linear time. Garcia does not discuss the role of prophets. According to Islam, Jesus is another prophet of the same God’s message, which Muhammad was asked by God to deliver for the last time. While Muslims and deists would be similarly opposed to Trinitarian creed that Jesus is the son of God, what do deists have to say about humanity’s constant need for prophets throughout (secular-historical) time? In Colin Jager’s concept of romantic secularization, who Garcia cites, religions become more concerned regarding issues within this world rather than the hereafter; this concept is another phenomenon of the same issue regarding time.

The final concern I have with Garcia's treatment of Deism lies in the lack of discussion in regards to Deism's attitude towards “heathens.” As Dr. Tomoko Mazusawa, author of The Invention of World Religions, succinctly summarizes on page 188, “Measured against the trio of monotheisms, all forms of Gentile polytheism were deemed no match, however grand and Olympian they might be, not to mention more humble instances of heathen idolatry, fetishism, or any other veneration of limited and particularistic deities and spirits. … any serious challenge to Christian supremacy could come only from other monotheisms.” It is worth mentioning here that the word “Gentoo,” which the British used for non-Muslims in India, was possibly derived from the Portuguese word Gentio: a gentile, a heathen, or native. Prof. Jalal shows in her book Partisans of Allah that there were many Sufis in Mughal South Asia under who promoted the oneness of God after interactions with Hindu practices. Yet how monotheistic does any deism have to be? And to whose monotheism is one measuring one’s belief? It is indeed a fine line. In terms of discursive power, waḥdat al-wujūd, deism and Brahmo are not the same.  Except in the case of Iqbal, deistic ideas of the British variant seem to have been much more prevalent than Sufi ones among colonial Indian intellectuals. To quote from page 283 of The Invention of World Religions: “According to [Rammohun Roy, Keshub Chunder Sen, Debendranath Tagore, and Swami Vivekananda’s] projective view, ‘Hinduism,’ though the term itself may be a neologism, refers to the ancient faith of India, a religion that was essentially monotheistic, and whose ancient wisdom is encapsulated in certain select but voluminous canonical texts, which were beginning to be known in the West as early as the eighteenth century...”  In this context where monotheism is the hegemonic discourse, it would be interesting to discuss Rammohan’s role in our class next week.

C.A. Bayly’s project in Recovering Liberties links these ideas with social realities. He relates that there were many sources for deciding the rights (adhikar or haq) of Indians under colonialism. Yet he is also acutely aware of the colonial conditions which bring these issues to rise: extraterritorial subjects such as lascars or Parsi merchants brought liberalism to the foreground of debate. The British administration’s reaction was to create separate courts for separate believers. In socio-legal reality, there seems to have been many gods in India indeed.

Some more of my thoughts during Prof. Jalal's classroom discussion on the 18th century:
  • One needs to be careful in separating "the West" and "colonialism." I would argue that many people in European countries became entangled with colonial systems much later than the process of colonial domination. For example, maps served as tools of colonial domination long before they became Victorian household objects. While there are many linkages between "the West" and "colonialism" found by methods a la Said's Orientalism, the connections are less well established in social history. In my opinion, that is the complex contribution of the Early Modern historiography--if one can start to think of a world before Western dominance, then one can see how history was not pre-determined. 
  • Once one can perceive of a world prior to "the West" as the hegemonic power (militarily and ideologically) know today, then one can see how the contestations within "the West" during the 18th century. What Locke, Montesquieu, or Rousseau wrote became a Western canon much later than their publication. Similarly, the dating of Sunni and Shi'a orthodoxies is also important for one to understand what one means when one discusses what is Islam. In this regard I am in agreement with Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush that Sunni and Shi'a orthodoxies only become known categories after the first thousand years since the Prophet Muhammad (in Gregorian calendar, approximately 1600s).
  • "Colonialism" as an idea and "colonialism" as a social reality should be disentangled. I think many works use an analytical shorthand to mean both at the same time. We can see quantitatively in English publications how the emergence of "Colonialism" as a published word is rather recent, happening around the same time as decolonization in the 1960s. One can argue that others have been discussing colonialism in other languages much before that, but this post is primarily discussing the English-speaking academy. 

The frequency of "colonialism" in English books uptick in the 1960s, correlating to the process of decolonization.

Comparing the frequency of "colonialism" with the word "colonies."

Obviously there are other usages of "colonies" beyond the meaning of those of colonial domination, but the gap between the two vocabularies' frequencies is still quite significant. One additional objection to the significance of the comparison of these two words might be that the culprits of colonialism would not want to use the word to describe their activities at least when writing in the English language. Thus, there is even more burden of finding "proof" and labor required of those who choose to write critical histories of colonialism, such as learning (academic) English.


Solidarity, Dissimulation, and Making Space

Many recent articles now have discussed the rather unwelcoming world of activism and how it could potentially discourage activism. I personally have yet to be fully engaged in any offline activist community, due to my transient occupation as a student. But I do see these trends and feel the effect. Similarly, there have been heated debates revolving the politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates and Cornel West. While I do agree with West's analysis, there are also the issues of authority and personal relations at stake: Who gets to call someone a neoliberal? Who are we talking to? Where is the public sphere? Twitter? Cafes? Likewise, there have been intense name-calling among Arabs in the U.S., especially in light of the Lebanese-Saudi tensions. A Lebanese performer in Boston criticized the policies of Saudi Arabia last month, which caused many people to leave the venue in either outrage or dismay. I was not there so I am not sure what was exactly said. I wish there was a way for people to share their opinions without resigning to a simple refusal. Al Jazeera also published a good piece about the value of connected histories and a certain type of mindset that prevents these histories. I agree with him that "What we are witnessing throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a battle for the soul of the Muslim past to inhabit the spirit of the Muslim future." Perhaps that is also why Cemil Aydin's history book on The Idea of the Muslim world is so timely. He also shares a lot of contemporary connections with politics on a great episode of the Ottoman History podcast. He argues: through tracing the historical roots of Pan-Islamism, one can become wary of the sloganeering of politicians and rebel factions. The author of the Al Jazeera piece, Professor Hamid Dabashi, also published a book Being a Muslim in the World engaging in similar themes

I also have been questioned by an Iraqi Kurdish person in the U.S. in regards to my allegiance vis-a-vis Arab-Kurd relations, which prompted me to think: How should we make space for one another in this context?  Much effort is dedicated to explaining Others to an "American" public, but identities are fluid and Muslim / Brown-skinned folks living in the U.S. also should provide space for each other. In other words, we are also entitled to the public sphere to process our own beefs as much as anyone. 

A friend studying in Turkey wrote about the book markets of Istanbul and how patrons usually avoid political subjects. This phenomenon can be traced to the Ottoman era, and is a mark of being "cultured." Nowadays, most of us in the U.S. no longer have that leisure to be that "cultured." At the same time, too much criticism also can be a hindrance to forming solidarity.

It also reminds me of a history paper presented on a learned scholar who practiced dissimulation in the Ottoman era. The paper argued that the scholar was Shi'a and most people around him knew about it for decades on end. In my understanding, even dissimulation, in either the religious or political sense, is not simply an individual act and requires patience for and understanding of each other. Dissimulation (into whiteness or heteronormativity) requires not only the person to meticulously dissimulate and pose as a  authentic member of the "mainstream," but also a community of people who take him/her at his/her words and not reveal.

In a rather different context, for many who faced discriminatory checkpoints in the post-2005 urban Iraq, pretending to be a person from different sect was an important survival skill. While the scale of violence has yet to become that high in the U.S., there are definitely rising tensions around me. Much has been written about how to organize without leaking information about undocumented people to the ICE. Yet I am also speaking about a social issue. At times, exclusionary views seem to be much easier to espouse than inclusive ones, which then silences and erases certain people's experiences. How can we devise politics that allows space for thinking and debating, without invoking too much of a person's identity that s/he/they would rather not speak about? 

Below is an interesting passage on South Asian-Iraqi connections from page 45 of Recasting the Region by historian Neilesh Bose. Even though he was writing about political organizing of the early twentieth century, it is equally relevant to today as well. 

“Shatt-il Arab” one of Nazrul’s most well-known poems from this era, expresses the feeling of a Bengali soldier in Iraq, near the Shatt-il Arab, and his loving feeling of admiration for Arab heroes in Iraq, the ‘land of martyrs’. Repeated laments over the ‘spilt blood of valiant Arabs’ and pure Arabian riverbanks establish the poem as a paean to Arabic culture and Islamic civilization in that region. The poem also sings a song of fondness to that ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates as a measure of universalist Islamic identity. The end of the poem places the suffering of the Bengali soldier, the pain, sorrow, and hurt felt in war, and in death, alongside the Iraqi army: Iraqi army! Here in this story / We in the Bengal army / Can say your suffering is ours!” Regarding Muslims identity, Nazrul places the Bengali and the Iraqi into a common Muslim world of mutual love and admiration. The Bengali protagonist remains a Bengali, never to be shorn of a particular cultural location. Muslim identity is part of a larger universalism which doesn’t exclude, but rather, actively includes the local sense of identity. It is one of the first poems to appear after WWI that combines a look towards the future with a feeling of belonging in the Muslim and Bengali world.
While one may be skeptical about the "objectivity" in the idealism invoked by the poet Nazrul, it is also a breeze amidst heated geopolitical contestations and certain venomous youtube comments. 

Iraq, Indian soldiers within the British forces in a suburb of western Baghdad in 1917. First shared by Old Iraqi Pictures


Learning Arabic Here and There

It has been five months since I started learning Arabic! Although the actual time I have put in studying is around three months. I took a break in between the Beirut Urban Arabic class that happened in July, and the college Formal Arabic 1 class, which lasted from September till this week. I treated it like a daily vocation in July. The task kept me floating and motivated to leave the house. Beirutis were eager to communicate with me since 1) I was such a novelty to most, so they wanted to ask why I am here; and 2) we often had business to communicate, e.g., the bus driver would have to communicate me if I wanted to go somewhere. Even though people say Beirut is not the best place to learn Arabic, it was still an inviting environment. I also had the wonderful classmate, Morgana, who would practice with me in the bus or in the hostel room. Even though one time I was suffering from altitude sickness, learning with a friend was doable.

Ahmad and Morgana in our Urban Arabic class

My teacher in Beirut, Ahmad Orfaly, was also very patient and kind in the Urban Arabic class. He was also humble and said he would not be able to teach the formal Arabic course. The textbook was very well-designed and did not have many family-oriented questions.

In contrast, the Alif Baa and Al Kitaab textbooks we used in the American college classroom have quite a lot of dialogues involving family, which I dislike. I would freeze up every time I was expected to talk about my family. I think my teacher knew, and الحمدلله, she didn't ask about my family during the oral exam.

In class, we are also careful to avoid any racy or controversial topics. In contrast, in Beirut, we were aware of the country's painful past, such as when we learned the word rafiq, (رفيق) one asked if it is the same as the name of the former PM, Rafic Hariri. (It is.) Then we got into a short discussion on his assassination. Students would travel outside of Beirut almost every weekend, so sometimes we would also discuss the ongoing news, such as the Lebanese military action in Beqaa Valley. I could also combine the information I learned from the street environments for my homework, such as "al-Hamra." In contrast, we are much more removed from such contexts in the American classroom, so a lot of brain power is put into use to make something up or look up how to write "Boston" #بوسطن. I exclaimed once to my Saudi friend Abdullah how amazing it is that American places can also be written in Arabic. It is just that I am so English/Chinese/Indo-centric that I never expected Arabic-speaking people would write Boston in their own alphabet. My friend Ahmad told me when I was in Beirut that Arabic has been less susceptible to new English loan words since there are many roots that can make new Arabic words. So even new things like airplane has its non-English phonetic word.

I learned the word "street" this semester, even though I already "saw" it in Beirut.

I also felt awkward bringing up current events, since I did not know if my teacher would like to discuss it or not and whether or not the other students would be interested. I know that it shouldn't be the responsibility of those suffering to discuss matters such as the Muslim Ban, and yet it is the Elephant in the Room. She did once light-heartedly bring up Donald Trump and used photos from his family in a powerpoint for us to practice Arabic; but the politeness reigned. Once she used the Arabic BBC website for examples; hopefully next semester it would become more integrated. We also had video materials recorded by the textbook producers. Our language department also organized a couple of Arabic events, and I attended one film screening.

Exposure to the Egyptian dialect was a useful component from Alif Baa and Al Kitaab. I was much more acquainted with the Levantine dialect before. Other than the most common greeting words, the knowledge for accents were not required; it was just used as an aid for context. The Arabic teacher, Ustaadha Batool, is also very sweet and kind. She sometimes shares her life from Egypt with us in the class. She has a PhD in theatre and also incorporates theatre skits in her teaching. Writing those skits also improved my general sense of the Formal spoken pattern.

The class in Beirut and the class in the U.S. were equally challenging; perhaps because the U.S. course is modeled off of the Middlebury program, which is the country's best. Ustaadha also used to teach there, as well as the editors of the textbooks. She had a good eye for spotting any missing diacritics, which I did not have to know in Beirut. I was mostly cruising along the first few weeks of this semester, since I knew the alphabet and basic grammar. Later on the course was still intense and introduced a lot of new material. I got an A from the Beirut class and will probably pass this class as well; but if I took it for ABCD grades, I would probably not get an A this time around.
Ustaadha told us that the college Spanish 1 course doesn't even teach as much as what we did, and the Spanish-learning students already know most of the alphabet!

This semester, I relied my friend, Ahmad for practicing oral dialogues or grammatical questions. I am becoming more familiar with the available English-Arabic online resources, such as dictionaries and Youtube songs / Quran recitations. Google translate now also has a new function function--when typing in latin, Arabic can show up in the text box directly. I also watch Snapchatters from the Gulf talk about their lives in Khaleeji accents, and it has been a great source of motivation. Their consistency seems to remind me that even if I flunk the course altogether they will still be there speaking Arabic.

A snapshot I took from a snapchat post by Arizonan / Qatari snapchatter Aziz

Sometimes stress makes one feel like everyone else will also stop because your "world" has "ended." I felt more angst and stress due to other factors while taking the college course. I had 5 days of Thanksgiving break in which I did not study Arabic at all, as well as the two days this week, after turning in all the papers. As I become more and more acquainted with my brain's relationship with language, the time spent Not-Studying is often as useful as Studying. There is a good Anonymous piece from The Guardian on how language learning helps combat depression.
...the hardest part of the process is being kind to myself. The voice of depression always chides me for not doing more. It is true that learning a language can often feel like an immense task, but breaking it down into steps – one more podcast, one more Duolingo lesson, one more chapter in my textbook – can remind me I am progressing. I can check the number of words studied, the videos watched. This helps me talk back to the voice of depression that says I can’t do it.

 Prof. Brinkley Messick talking about his new book Shari'a Scripts
I also study Arabic not only for knowledge purposes but also to switch gears from reading scholarly papers and thinking immensely large sociopolitical questions. I also have to remind myself that I am learning for myself, rather than to prove to someone else that I am a hardcore language-learner or Arabophile. I will still take it next semester with Ustaadha Batool, if other conditions allow.

Lastly, I wanted to share that I had the chance to listen to a lot of great scholars of Islam last weekend at the Shi'i studies conference at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ. It was very exciting to see Arabic skills used for reading primary historical sources.

I might write more about my experience after my exam on Monday. "Allah maaek" to myself lol!


Working in a Louisville Supermarket

This year in February, I learned that I was accepted to a graduate institution and from then on I knew where I would live and do for the next five years. In the last few months of 2016, however, I was living on a week-by-week basis and had no long term plan. I have finally found the time to write about those days.[1]

A Chinese activist and intellectual in pre-communist China expressed the frustration, "Why am I not yet part of the working class?" He was speaking from a position of privilege, yet wanted to be in solidarity with the working class. Fortunately or unfortunately, graduate students and adjunct teachers are becoming increasingly a precarious social class; some have already become the working class and no longer need to ask that question. Yet even before I became a graduate student, I was already part of the retail working class.

I wanted to use Drake's song "Started from the Bottom" as the title, but that would have been too facetious. I actually descended to the "bottom" and worked my way up. This blog is about the experience at the "bottom." In 2016 October, due to unforeseen circumstances, I was living with some friends who were also quite precarious--one was a refugee living off benefits, and the other two were ex-refugees working as wage-laborers for 14.5$/hour and 14$/hour respectively. We were living in Shelby Park, a disreputable part of Louisville, known for violence.

Art in the neighborhood. "Building Something Bigger than Ourselves Together."

Luckily for us, everyone was able-bodied and healthy and generally we got along quite well. I was very upset with an unsuccessful Pakistan visa application for a history conference in Lahore, and felt that the embassy was destroying my future of becoming an academic. One of the friends, Yaseen, would comfort me and say, "We make the money. It's not the money making us." And I said, "Yeah,I write the f****** paper, not the embassy." Sometimes we cooked together, went to the club together, drank together, or watched TV together. Sometimes we talked about Iraqi politics, or joked about going to Tennessee on a whim (--it hasn't happened).

I lived there without working at a job for a few weeks, and later decided to find a job. I applied to Chipotle, a falafel shop, a packaging factory, and finally at an ethnic supermarket. I landed the ethnic supermarket job for 8$ / hour and also thought it was best for me to move out of the house. I pissed my mom off by using her credit card to rent a place at an Airbnb for a month. She confronted me and asked me, why I couldn't save money instead and stay with her? I said I needed time and space to apply to graduate school. She did not cancel the payment but swore to me that it was the last time she will pay for anything. So I went into the supermarket job with a "no-more-bridges-left-to-burn" mentality.

The woman who hired me has a very nice nickname--"Red." She asked me to call her Ah-Red, which does not indicate seniority even though she is a mother of two. She is from southern China and walks like a ball of fire. She speaks to Sun, the other cashier receptionist, in a Cantonese dialect; Sun calls her Big Sister Red. Her can-do spirit solves all the problems one could have in a supermarket. If someone needed to return something and get money back on their card, I would ask Red or Sun to help me. If anything needed to be fixed, Red would be up on that case. Red also knew the old customers and would talk to them when she was available.

When I first met her on a Monday, she was the only person at the check-out counter. She first said she would train me the next day. But when I went on Tuesday, I directly started on the job. It was very hectic as Thanksgiving was approaching and generally only two lines were open. The job needed someone who could recognize the myriad different types of Asian vegetables. I can't say I am much better than the average Asian American, since I did not eat that much variety growing up, but at least I could read the half-Chinese menu on the check-out monitor.

These vegetables were easy to check out because they already had barcodes. They were pre-packaged by Red's father, who also works at the supermarket but mostly behind the scenes. He also cooks lunch for us. Around 2pm, Red would bring her lunch to the front and tell us to eat in a very welcoming way. Lunch was served in the dingy storage section. When I ate, I sat between the office, where we would punch our hour cards, and the men's bathroom.

Highlight of the day

Red's father was definitely a good cook but sometimes didn't have vegetarian options. He was very insistent on me eating enough and I even ate meat in front of him. Later he was not happy with my association with the Iraqi friends, and became very distant from me.

Sun made this for me when Red and her father took Tuesday off.

The other Latino workers sat with each other when they had lunch. One guy, San Diego, was very nice and sometimes he would drive me home. San Diego doesn't like rap music and took care of unpacking the food items and placing them onto shelves. It seemed that he knew the products like the back of his hand and could even "read" Chinese packages. I did not have much interaction with the other Latino workers, besides checking out goods for them when they bought dinner from the supermarket, but I was generally fond of them. One of them would use the tips he earned from packaging fish for customers. One father and son who worked behind the fish counter were new from Honduras. Red would sometimes give them derogatory nicknames that she used for her own book-keeping.

The supermarket boss was a man from the north and would come in every now and then to check on things, including the CCTV camera. He had an issue with me reading my kindle at work. He said I should go roam around the stacks and learn the name of the groceries if I had time. Once his wife came to the store and deliberately blocked up the whole cashier lane because she could not decide on which goods she wanted to buy. Red took time to try and find exactly what the boss's wife wanted. I thought it was her way of showing her importance. 

A view from one of the cash receptions

I also had to deal with the cultural differences. I counted that the customers came from at least 20 different nationalities. An Indian man once even complained very rudely about how the Latino workers didn't understand English. I defended them by saying no one else had a problem with them before. Shouting was generally the tone of the day--both for the customer and the workers. Sun once semi-yelled at another lady who has not yet mastered English: "Do you want sugar in a CANE or sugar in a CAN???" The general consumers who visited also had shorter tempers than people who would shop at a non-ethnic supermarket. One Asian American girl once shouted at me for 5 minutes about how I suck at my job because I made a mistake in calculating the change. I was very stunned and Red apologized on my behalf. Red also would complain about how some customers would bundle two spring onions and try to pass it as one bundle. Red also said that a Vietnamese lady purportedly fiddled with the scale to get more and pay less and claimed that the food was for offering to Buddha. Red joked about her: how will Buddha be able to accept this "offering?!" One customer also knowingly smuggled out a bag of rice without allowing me a chance to scan the barcode. The cultural differences were definitely a highlight but also stressful since misunderstandings could arise at any time. One time a white guy even walked in the supermarket openly carrying a gun. He was with his girlfriend and bought a lot of cute Japanese snacks. I later complained to San Diego about it and he was very used to these customers.

Sometimes I would have the more solitary job of unpacking incoming goods and labeling them for distribution. It was less stressful but it also made my head dizzy after some time. Human interaction was also missed doing this particular job. I liked observing different patterns of consumption based on the different groups of people. Many non-Asian Americans also bought ethnic food and made it themselves. It was impressive considering that they learned how to prepare it themselves. I also observed how some people hated to depart from money in the form of cash--how they would hold onto it, how they would count each bill when they paid for something very small. How much it mattered to their being and sanity.

Packages next to the medicine counter. Many non-Asian Americans also bought Chinese medicine from this supermarket

Red hanging decorations up for the new year.

I usually commuted from the Highland to the supermarket, which was next to a highway. Generally I had to change buses because the Highland is not very connected to the rest of Louisville. Sometimes the bus would stop quite some distance from the supermarket, due to the difference in routes. Then I would walk along the highway to reach the place. I arrived at 10am or 2pm or 4pm, depending on the need as well as my schedule. I would punch the card, spend my time either at the cashier, or right next to the cashier unpacking the goods, or in the stacks. Work ended at 9pm. I would count all the cash money, leave 152$ in the cashier, and hand the rest to the boss. Then I would I would punch the card, commute back on the bus, or my friend CP would pick me up and drop me off at Highland. The weekends were the busiest and Red generally expected me to take Mondays off.

Some additional highlights from an otherwise dreary job: three Iraqi boys came to buy fish one day. I showed off my Arabic by saying "zyein," which means "good." They also said "zyein" back to me. Another highlight was a woman drove 2 hours from Tennessee to the supermarket to buy food stocks for her restaurant. One final highlight was a Hispanic couple: the wife commented on my beauty in Spanish to her husband (que bonita) while her husband remained silent. I also pretended I didn't understand. Other Chinese customers would also joke with Red about my new and youthful presence. Red would say in her typical can-do tone: this place needs young people to liven it up.

I also learned about food stamps at the job and tried to apply for them myself, unsuccessfully. The boss had to sign the paper proving I was working for him. He was not happy about it, even though it did not affect him in any negative way. He said with a mean joking tone: you are just working here to apply for food stamps. I wished that were the case! I would not have balanced the books if I needed to pay for my own rent, based on the rhythm and frequency I was working on that job. But with the schedule and flexibility in contract, I could have applied for graduate schools in the mean time. And now looking back, it was the right decision for that time. I left the job in mid-December and went back for a few days in January just to get the paycheck. Red was not very sentimental when we said goodbye but she was as good as a supervisor could have been in those circumstances.

The hardest part was not being bored on the job or being tired after the job. (Sometimes I even sustained cuts from handling the  fish scales or the live crab.) It was getting myself to think in the hustling way to make it to the job, and then "de-hustling" and think about long-term graduate school plans. It was absurd that I had to believe that I could have control over my research, when I didn't even know if the next customer will yell at me or not. I also found it very difficult to relax and read anything that required some kind of intellectual investment, since I was always moving from one chore to the other.

This experience informed me a lot in terms of immigrant differences and how theories of race are utterly inadequate without taking into account of the economic circumstances. I still don't know much about Louisville and much of what I know is from that work experience. I watched Moonlight during this period of my life and working had also informed my understanding of the protagonist and his lover. I also translated the short story A Mason's Hand by Pakistani author Ali Akbar Natiq, first published in Granta, during this time. It was about a worker's journey to Saudi Arabia and his precarious experience. I would not have been so interested in it if I did not share some of the protagonist's subjectivity.


[1]Two sources were very inspirational for my writing: one is the book Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West, and the other is "Love in the Time of Trump," a conference on queer identity and class hosted by Dr. Kareem Khubchandani.


Some Moments from the film "Forget Baghdad"

The documentary film Forget Baghdad, made in 2002, is actually a remembrance of Baghdad. Four Iraqi Jewish writers living in Israel recount their childhood watching Egyptian and Indian cinema. They also recalled their Communist youth before they emigrated to Israel. Only one of the interviewees remained a communist after he left Iraq. Communism seemed to have been a very historically specific quest that resonated with them at the time, rather than a dogma. One interviewee recalls how he would participate in Marxist reading groups. He gave a very literal take on idealism and materialism, while the discussant leader wanted something more theoretical. Then a worker who had a nickname of “Big Thumb” provided an answer about how idealism and materialism were related in a dialectic sense. The interviewee felt disappointed in himself. I was surprised that such deep discussions took place in those times of Baghdad.


All of them recall the protests in 1946 and how many strangers in the city were in solidarity with communists. I had read about Communist movements in Iraq before but I never read first-hand accounts. The site of protest—the British embassy— was close to the red light district, and one interviewee hid with the help of the prostitutes. Another interviewee, Sami Michael, is an award-winning novelist. During the protests, he found himself under the body of his friend which was being kicked by a police. He was so mad, he attacked the police while shouting, "He is an intellectual and he is about to die!" The police would have shot him if it wasn't for a woman in an abaya who stood between them. He ran to the river and was given a boat to escape. He escaped all the way to Mashhad and was hidden in a mosque, even though under normal circumstances he would not have been allowed. I did not know about the restrictions on Jewish people entering Mashhad before watching this documentary.
All the interviewees expressed the sentiment that most of the Iraqi Jews were not Zionists and did not want to leave Iraq as late as 1950. But there were bombs (allegedly planned by Zionists) in Jewish areas that scared many of them away.

Director Samir and his cousin Jamal Al Tahir in front of the Kremlin in Moscow. Originally from Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion.

In addition to the accounts given the by the interviewees, the filmmaker Samir provides a lot of context and paints a very complex picture. He shows how there were more politically-sharp newspapers accessible in Israel compared to the situation in Iraq. Many of the interviewees contributed to newspapers and reflected on their relationship with Arabic and Hebrew. The filmmaker  comments on how much of the Arab hostility towards Israel forgets that there are also Arabic-speaking people in Israel. The filmmaker also interviews the film studies scholar, Ella Shohat, who is also a Baghdadi Jew. She discussed how certain Israeli films tend to harmonize the issues of the nation by presenting Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews as culturally different but ultimately suitable for marriage and reconciliation. She is a Mizrahi Jew who felt a deep sense of alienation from Israeli society. She recalled how Iraqi Jews were forcibly sprayed with DDT when they landed in Israel. European-style bread would be subsidized by the state, while pita bread was not. Many Iraqi Jews labored on farms in order to win their position in society.
Shohat recounted her first time meeting an Iraqi Arab for the first time when she was in New York. Yet he was also foreign to the concept of Iraqi Jews and had not heard of the Farhood (pogroms). She exclaimed that people’s memories often forgets history. Now, fortunately, there is a Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum dedicated to the history of people like Shohat.
The writer Sami also admits that sometimes he feels that “In the Arab world we are Jews, in Israel we’re Arabs.” He later laughs and says he is a baklava, a mix of both cultures. He complained that Israel is an ideologist country, superficial and small. Yet he said that he became more accustomed to settling in Israel once his daughter was born: for her, Israel will be her home; and for this reason, he decided to place his roots here for good.

In terms of the language, I could understand the word “fish” when Sami reminisced about the Iraqi specialty. I also understood the words spy (jasoos) and nationalism (al-qaumiyya). Overall it was a deep and engaging documentary film that clearly required a lot of effort.