Thursday, March 5, 2015

An Oscar Note: Black Shades in the Darkness of Racial Inequality

If not billions of viewers, then hundreds of millions tune in to watch the Oscars every year. Although perhaps not as exciting as the world cup, still lots of oohs and ahs; stress-free watching with limited superstitious rituals needed. In fact you don’t even need to be a fan or have watched any of the movies beforehand to become a spectator of this annual competition - fairweather fans are welcome. In that vain, there are those who start a rigorous regimen of movie watching after the winners are announced. You may count me among those.

This year, like last, I stayed up late (yes, my evenings are short) to watch. Perhaps it is the idea of simultaneously engaging in something almost ubiquitous with millions of my fellow human race, or the idea of bearing witness to a moment of life unfolding before our eyes that is so seductive. The prospect of something off script happening is ever so intriguing. And, every once in a while sometimes shocking does happen; can you spell “wardrobe malfunction”? For me it is more the lust for a revealing politically incorrect comment which that 5 second delay cannot prevent. Oh how refreshing. No matter why any of us watch the Oscars, we do.

Among the untold number of viewers, there are those who share with me such excitement for that political undertone that permeates so subtly throughout an evening of artistic expression; unchecked yet so revealing and powerful to those who choose to notice. This year’s Oscars were hosted by Neil Patrick Harris who was comically unimpressive throughout the four-hour pageant. Some of his punch lines were more successful than others. His play on words in his connecting segue after the CitizenFour Oscar acceptance speech was one. Neil said in reference to the subject of the documentary, Edward Snowden, that he couldn't make it to the Oscars for some “Treason” instead of “reason.” Although his comment secured some chuckles, one can’t help but wonder if it came from “laugh-trolls” (not to be mistaken with seat-fillers) who are asked to cue the audience at the end of choreographed punch line.

The premise of the documentary CitizenFour is an admirable one. It reveals one persons’ quest to expose the National Security Agency’s (NSA) intelligence gathering abuses. If one does not perceived Snowden to be a hero, then he would probably be considered a traitor. Judging Snowden's actions is not the real issue here. The issue is whether the government has encroached upon the privacy and rights of its own people, the citizens of America. The discussions that ensued as a result of his actions are important for the nation to discuss to balance privacy vs. perceived security on the one hand. On the other hand the question: is it ok to infringe on the privacy of a group of Americans because they are not “us”; profiling remains to be an issue in these United States. For one, I conduct my daily life with the assumption that my phone calls and emails are monitored. Lets not forget the saying that “being paranoid doesn’t mean that no one is watching you.” I’m not usually concerned with visual racial profiling specially that I look Latino, but I wonder if some officer will call me Jose and send me “back” to where I came from - Mexico perhaps?

Between the Public Service announcements of J. K. Simmons imploring us to talk to your parents, suicide prevention and PTSD epidemic made it to acceptance speeches as well. More politically charged issues worthy of a substantive discussion or rather rectification raised by Patricia Arquette reminding us that working women are paid less than their male counterparts exposed America’s hypocrisy when it comes to gender equality.

Another inequality, this one is along the black-white line by John Legend reminding us that a disproportionate percentage of those who are incarcerated in the US prison system are “people of color.” This is poignant when the Oscars itself suffers from a racial dilemma. 63% of Americans are non-Hispanic white, but the Oscars are overwhelmingly void of color. This is not to speak of the fact that the tension in the U.S. is not only black-white (12% black), but also brown-white; i.e. around 25% of the U.S. population is Hispanic or white Hispanic (no, its not important to distinguish between the two so long as we are aware of our biases).

Allow me to add an additional dimension to this already complex issue. Within the official white America population of 63% there are several “minority” groups including Arabs. Despite the fact that most Arabs look brown, not white, to the naked eye, we are legally classified as white or Caucasian. If Arabs were legally a minority, white America would be that much smaller and a little more insecure about their privileged status. To level the playing field, I believe that Arabs should be offered the same opportunities extended to other minority groups by reclassifying us as a minority. Depriving us of the benefits of the status of a minority group is one thing, discriminating against us is a whole other ballgame; white in name only, brown in profiling by the authorities.

When many of us are viewed with suspicion and our patriotism is questioned, we find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. This is partly due to the historic precedent we ourselves embraced in our willingness to forego our quest for a minority group classification as long as we were not discriminated against. Now that our Arabic heritage triggers negative images in the minds of many by virtue of the numerous conflicts in the region, our classification of our identity as juxtaposed with the broader American one is being tested and reshaped. This is especially so for those “black” Arabs, who are technically classified as “white,” who often find themselves fighting alongside the African American community for racial justice. This, while being given a “white” flag to wave instead of the race card. America keeps forgetting to take off its skewed color blinders even after the light of justice and equality is shone in its face.

Back to the second largest group in the U.S., the Hispanic community. I wonder if that 25% accounts for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants -- probably not. Regardless, you will be hard pressed to find representatives of the Hispanic community among Oscar’s nominees or attendees. The Oscar's director made an effort to zoom in onto the pepper sprinkling of black within the sea of white - wasn't there anyone else other than Oprah to cutaway to? The nominations were lacking proportional representation of African Americans or Latino Americas. Neil Patrick alluded to that fact in his opening monologue with a slight comment confirming the Oscars overwhelming white population; I will celebrate his comment as thoughtful self-criticism.

Watching the Oscar is revealing. One can see a microcosm of America's social imbalances and a glaring betrayal of its own values. The hot button issues are undeniable even when mainstream media can't be bothered thanks to the courage of these political activists posing as Oscar winners.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

‘The American Lawrence of Arabia’s’ life goes on show in the U.S.

“[T]ime fell asleep.… and the husks of ancient civilizations were buried in the deep sand, preserved like flowers between the leaves of a book” said Wendell Phillips about South Arabia in the late 1940s as he embarked on an archaeological adventure to Yemen. The accounts of his adventures and artifacts he and his team excavated from its desolate deserts are offered in an exhibit hosted by the Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler museums, “Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.”
(Photo courtesy: American Foundation of Man)
A 20-foot black and white portrait of Phillips, who has been labelled the American Lawrence of Arabia, adorns the entrance to the museum showing a young man with a buttoned up white shirt wearing a Yemeni style headdress and two overlapping belts. A young couple asks the information attendance as they walk into the museum “why is Phillips wearing two belts in the photo?” “Believe it or not,” the attendant replied, “it’s a gun holster. He ascribed to the Indiana Jones school of archeology,” she smiled.

The thrills of a Hollywood movie

Wendell Phillips’ journey to Yemen had all the thrills of a Hollywood movie; exotic land, finding and solving clues, securing permission from the king, finding a treasure trove of artifacts and nail-biting excitement escape as he and his team flee gun battles between the local tribes. Phillips wasn’t looking for that kind of heart thumping adventure per se, he was eager to discover and share with the world the hidden treasures buried under mounds of sand in South Arabia, present-day Yemen. Philips warns in his writings that archeology is mostly backbreaking monotonous work of digging and sand moving, which can breaks anyone’s spirit. Yet the reward of discovery is beyond articulation. To that end he went to South Arabia “for one thing, it was almost virgin territory… It had beckoned scholars and scientists for generations, but sand, drought, and native bullets had kept most of them away.” He was in South Arabia in the shadow of a long history of North Yemen being governed by Ottoman Turks spanning centuries while the southern part was controlled by the British since 1839, which was called the Aden Protectorate.
Most of Wendell’s archeological expedition took place in 1951 and 1952. Along with his team, Phillips excavated in Timna, Hajar bin Humeid and Awam Temple. The third location, Awam Temple, became the focus of his expedition because it cradled the largest temple of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to its impressive size, it is suspected of being the capital of the Sabaean kingdom, which religious scripture of Jewish Antiquities, the Bible and the Holy Quran all say was ruled by Queen Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Even today Awam Temple is referred to as Mahram Bilqis by the locals, which can be translated loosely to the shrine of Bilqis (Mahram is literally taboo or forbidden). Philips didn’t find any reference to Queen Bilqis at this temple, but he found inscriptions referring to it as the Temple of Almaqah, the deity of Marib at the time.

Tribal tensions

Unfortunately, Philips’ team’s work was concluded prematurely as tribal tensions heated up. Wendell and his colleagues, in their haste to get out of harms way, had to leave behind an untold number of invaluable archaeological discoveries. The outlook for finding those artifacts again has since become bleak. Philips untimely death years later in 1975 made the prospect even more hopeless. Nevertheless, the allure of Middle Eastern sand dunes for what historical mysteries it may hold continues to beckon Americans.
Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, Wendell’s sister has picked up where her brother left off. After almost 50 years since Wendell’s departure from South Arabia, the government of Yemen extended an invitation to Merilyn to go back to complete her brother’s work. Merilyn writes, “I’m proud to continue my brother’s work. I went to Yemen to fulfill Wendell’s unfinished dream. After my first excavation at Marib, it became my passion.” Merilyn excavation was conducted in Marib from 1998 to 2006. She is currently the president of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, the mission of which is to preserve and build on the work Wendell started in Yemen.
Dr. Massumeh Farhad, the Curator of Unearthing Arabia exhibit, told Al Arabiya News that the “collection is the largest and most important of its kind outside of Yemen, which was donated by the Foundation for the Study of Man to the Freer|Sackler in 2013.
The collection includes a number of translucent alabaster carvings of women figures mostly funerary statues, limestone funerary plaques, amazing artistic incense burners chiseled primarily out of limestone, and a most impressive pair of bronze lions with riders.
“The exhibition illustrates the rich and complex history as well as the cultural heritage of Yemen and the rest of the Arab world. Such collections are critical to protect and preserve because they are the embodiment of the identity of the peoples who have lived in the region in the past and continue to live there now,” Farhad emphasizes
“Very few people who have lived in Yemen go away without a deep admiration for the country because of the physical beauty of the place and, more importantly, because of the very ancient culture,” Marjorie Ransom, author of the book Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba, told Al Arabiya News. “I love the ancient sculptures of South Arabia and I am an admirer of Wendell Philips as an explorer, and of his sister who continues his work.”
The sands of Yemen continue to safeguard the key to unlocking the mysteries of an ancient civilization. We can only wait for another Wendell Philips to embark on an adventurous expedition to find the key to unlock the door to our understanding of human progress, artistic expression and man’s quest to decipher life’s mysteries as he looked to the heavens for answers over two millennia ago. For now we can enjoy exploring the magnificent artifacts Philips was able to unearth in Arabia at the U.S. exhibition.
Last Update: Sunday, 1 March 2015 KSA 13:11 - GMT 10:11