Friday, July 16, 2010

Blade of the Eagle, Eagle of my Heart: Part I

NOTE: This is a two-parter! While here I talk about video games, art, and Assassin's Creed, next I will be writing about Altaïr and Assassin's Creed as symbols of the Middle East.

00548234-photo-assassin-s-creed.jpg image by Jay-Pi1233

I adore video games. I would gladly counter Ebert's statement that they are not art to his face, if he would let me. But let's forget about Ebert for a moment.

Photography, film, animation, and other new media forms are easily accepted as art. So why not video games? Are they not capable of higher analytical thought? Don't they suck you into a new world? Don't they make you think? I will answer only with this: Video games are on par with other art forms in terms of their aesthetic and analytical function.

When I saw the TV trailer for Assassin's Creed on TV when it was first coming out, my breath was taken away. They used Massive Attack's Teardrop, which is a gorgeous song in and of itself, and it mesmerized me and took my breath away. Can you imagine what the game itself would do to me? Well, I never actually played the game. I sat and watched someone else play it. The whole way through. I do that a lot, but I am not going to go into that. I have played many other games, right through from beginning to end, secrets and all. I just did not happen to own the game itself. I did play little bits of it, however.

Let's think about Assassin's Creed today. I am not going to venture into the sequel because I have not yet played it, although I heard my friends gush about it for a long time. It is a game set in the medieval Middle East. It is made by a Canadian company, Ubisoft Montreal*. The main playable character is named Desmond Miles, a bartender who is kidnapped and forced to relive the memory of his ancestor: Altaïr Ibn La'Ahad.

Altaïr is, to me, one of the most interesting protagonists in a game that is impressive in its multicultural atmosphere. You are in the great ancient cities of Acre (Akka), Damascus, Jerusalem and they are all shown in medieval glory, with their beautiful architecture. The Islamic lands during those times were more beautiful to me than any of their counterparts. It is a world that is incredibly detailed and beautifully rendered for its time (and still now, in my opinion). You do not experience this world as a tourist on a walk, but as an assassin, an exciting profession with the benefits of free-running and deadly attacks that no one else can notice.

How else, in this world, could you begin to have this type of experience? It's not something you can try. It isn't even something you might really want to do. But here, in this game, you are allowed to explore a world that was created only for you to experience it, but in someone else's skin. That is what video games are about. When there are good storytelling and detailed settings, video games are definitely doing what movies are so good at doing - sucking you in and making you care about something you might not have thought about otherwise.

Some people play games only for the competition or gameplay. However, I play games (or watch games) for the enjoyment of feeling closer to my character and the others, as well as the events portrayed - similar to the way I look at film. I play so that I can pretend, even for a moment, that I am in that manufactured setting making decisions based on my own reflexes and logic. This is a kind of immersion that film, 2D forms (such as paintings, drawings, etc.), or sculpture cannot give to us. You see, we cannot walk into a painting. We can walk inside a video game, programming permitted.

Playing/watching Assassin's Creed allows you to be an assassin with a deep, dark story behind him. You are also playing as his descendant. You are interacting with Al Mualim, the man who gives you orders and whom you must challenge. You are becoming a part of the story, like so many other people out there who bought/borrowed/stole the game.

How is this not art? All art forms encourage discussion and reaction - and yes, sometimes even direct interaction requiring your movement (see: Richard Serra and his huge sculptures). When you read literature, are you not involved with the events? Don't you have opinions? Some writers, in their novels, write in such a way that makes you feel like you are conversing with whoever is writing. Douglas Adams is an example, in my opinion. That is definitely interaction. Writing can also evoke emotions from within us, making us feel sorry, angry, or happy for what has happened to the characters.

Can you really tell me that there are no video games that do the same? I have cried while playing games just as much as while watching movies. I know that I am NOT the only one.

Okay, let's take a more visual example of art. How about paintings? A famous portrait by Vermeer is called Girl with a Pearl Earring. Thank you Wikipedia for the picture:

File:Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) - The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).jpg

Look at her gaze. She is looking right at you, over her shoulder. What do those parted lips mean? Why is she looking at you? When Vermeer was painting, who was he painting it for? Is that who you are supposed to be; is she looking at her patron? What is that look in her eyes and what is she saying with it?

You decide the answers to these questions when you look at artwork in a museum. When you look at them in the context that they are supposed to be in, some of those questions are answered. If you actually knew the facts (like who the patron was and when it was painted) you can answer half of certain questions, but not everything. All art works have some sort of mystery behind them that allows you to become more involved with what is going on, if you allow yourself to think and ask the right questions. Because this young lady is looking at you, one thing is clear: the artist is allowing you to converse with her. She becomes real, if you decide to let her start that conversation.

In video games, we are not only given the aesthetically beautiful digital art, but we are also allowed to start our own conversations, literally. But what about these mysterious conversations, like with Vermeer's girl? Can they still happen? Of course they can.

If we look at Assassin's Creed again, think about this: it is up to you to finish every quest and make Altaïr more and more of a hero by saving people. Or, if you want, you can just let those side quests go. You are given free reign in how and whom to kill, as you are given the decision of which building you are going to climb up first and why. In some games, you are given even more free reign that develops your character in specific ways (think about the Fallout series, for example). Sure, you are given stricter guidelines in Assassin's Creed that other artforms may not give you, but the immersion is extensive and not available in any other art form.

The other example of an art form that allows you to literally take part in the action is acting/theatre, which is role playing. Again: there are usually parameters that make things challenging for everyone involved (e.g. a script, unless it is improvisational theatre). However, you are still thrown into an environment that you fully become a part of. When you are watching, it becomes a bit more like a movie. Sometimes, the audience does participate and usually you participate in this strange new world as yourself. Of course it is not exactly like a video game, but I think by now you might be understanding where I am going with this. It is that immersion that I keep talking about.

I love video games, and I will argue until the end of my life that they are definitely a means of expression that can be classified as art. Go ahead and shoot me, unbelievers. I'll be Altaïr while you make your arguments, and I will climb buildings and save people from hassling jerks on the old streets of Damascus. I will take my blade and slit the throats of evil Templar leaders while you tell me that DOOM is too ugly to be art. I'll take a tiny break between climbing buildings to tell you that I'm so involved in the game that I can't even hear you. And that, I believe, is what art should be doing - taking me far, far away.

But why would anyone, especially a Muslim girl staying in Saudi Arabia, wish to be a Templar-killing assassin? I'll tackle that one next time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cursed Shield of Protection +1

So here we go. I am going to write about something every woman who has contact with Islamic culture writes about. It's about damn time, too.

What do I wear here in Riyadh when I go out? This:

See? I didn't show my dumb face this time.

I cover with in abaya and scarf. I refuse to wear anything drab, though, so I chose an abayah with the most sparkle, or jigjig as we say in Kreol Moris. This one is from last year and I still wear it to go to the mall. I think it is beautiful and I enjoy wearing it.

When I first got to Saudi, I went to buy myself an abayah with flair and character. I needed to express myself even in my modesty and respect for Saudi and Middle Eastern culture. This is what I ended up choosing:

Well, of course I chose magician sleeves. They are cool. I still wear this one when I am walking around the compound. But do you see a difference here? There is no headscarf. This is because when I am in the compound, I don't feel the need to cover my head.

But why? Am I some kind of hypocrite? What is my problem?

When I was growing up, up to today, my Mom wore a headscarf. Instead of taking after my Mom and wanting to wear one when I grew up too, I despised it. I was very vain and I wondered how I could POSSIBLY live without showing my hair. I think, subconsciously, I was also ashamed of the hijab. I liked wearing trendy clothes like my friends and I didn't want to appear weird or different.

Today, I still do not cover my hair. I do not feel that it brings me closer to God. I do not think I am a bad person or Muslim. I follow the five pillars of Islam and I believe in Allah but I do not feel the need to wear the scarf.

Does this mean that I think women who do wear the scarf are wrong? Not even one bit. If you feel better about wearing the headscarf, about showing that you are Muslim visually, I absolutely respect it. In fact, I encourage Muslim women who venture into non-Islamic countries and who wish to wear their hijab to do exactly what they think is right. Just because I don't do it doesn't mean I am the best judge in the world.

The truth is, I have always believed that no matter what we say or do, only God is our judge. Who am I, or who are we, as human beings, to tell each other what is right or wrong? We have to do what we think is right. As long as we do things that do not hurt other people, or even better do things that help others, we should not be pestered by anybody out there.

I wear the headscarf in certain public areas because I know that there are people there, especially the men, who do not appreciate seeing a woman uncovered. As annoyed or as resentful as I may feel, deep down inside I know I am doing the right thing by covering my head because I am a) respecting a culture (not a religion!) and b) I could have less problems that way.

With my looks, which some mistake as Arab, and my name, people think/know that I am Muslim and they have given me a couple of lectures. I want to minimise lecturing by other people who think they are better than me, so yes, my hijab became protection. Not protection from leering men, they leer no matter what you wear, but protection from those who think they are so religious that they can dictate their beliefs to others as a command. I despise this. I nod my head and act polite, but I hate what they are doing.

Even when I wear the hijab and abayah, act silently and politely, and say Assalamualaikum with respect to everyone I meet, I still get lectures. When I say my salaams to women, some of them look at me and then turn away in visible disgust. I have gotten bad looks from people, especially women, and two grandiose speeches from women at the hospital I went to. Yes, I know they think that what they are saying is right.

However, telling me that "covering your face brings you closer to Allah - you will know it when you do it!" is not convincing. Instead of feeling inspired, I feel even more rebellious. Who are they to tell me I am not close enough with God? I read the Qur'an and the Qur'an is my guide - not any human being.

This is something that is wrong with Muslims all over the world, not just in Saudi (although yes, it is presented here in a very different way and it is given a label of "religion"). People think they have a right to tell people what to do - what to study, where to live, who to marry, etc. That is not right. You should not have laws or pressure upon you from your own friends or family to tell you how to live your personal life. Saying it is Allah's will is no excuse. If you believe in Allah, look in the Qur'an. Those are his words, and that is it. Everything else is a part of culture.

If you are a woman who wishes to cover your face, I am very respectful of that. I question France's motives on banning the burqa/niqab for whatever reasons they give. I feel very sorry for women who want to have professional careers in non-Islamic countries but who still want to cover because they are discriminated against for the wrong reasons.

However, I don't think that covering the face is necessarily a part of Islam. I think it has been used as a means of controlling people and I don't like it. If you are wearing it because you feel comfortable in it and it is a part of you, then you should go ahead and wear it and feel closer to God. I don't think you are hurting anyone by doing so and you are feeling spiritually better about it.

But if you are wearing it because your husband or father forces you, or because you were taught that women are sinners only by looking like the woman you are, then are you really wearing it for the right reason? I'm sorry, but my answer is no. That is not being closer to God: that is making you a victim of culture.

NOTE - I would personally like to thank the following articles for being inspiring to me. These women are excellent writers:

1. Time for a confession: I wore the face veil for eight years by Nadia El-Awady
This article gave me a good idea of women who want to wear the niqab or face veil because they feel it is genuinely right to do so. It also tells me about how sometimes you have to fight to wear whatever makes you feel right.
2. The French burqa ban by Saudiwoman
I may not be anti-choice about covering the face, but I respect Saudiwoman's opinion about the facial veil and was very moved.
3. The Saudi sixth pillar of Islam by Saudiwoman
This is a fascinating article about how women are treated in Saudi. It is further enriched with historical background, some of which I am still trying to find out more about.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Can you feel the rhythm?

Sitting on my butt in my villa on days that are way too hot to even think about going outside, I have no choice but to turn to the internet or to the television (or to a good book, but those are usually reserved for late nights). One channel I frequent is called Music Now, and is obviously what MTV once was (in terms of it ONLY playing music videos!), except for mostly Arabic music. There are some times of day where they play other stuff, but they are usually outdated and not nearly as fun as the Arabic stuff.

That is what I am going to showcase today. I am going to show you Arabian pop music! I have chosen from many, many songs, most of which I see repeatedly every time I go to the channel. It is funny but all the songs I think are my favourites or worth showing happen to be by artists from Lebanon! They really do dominate Arabian music nowadays, or at least this one channel that I happen to have. However, they all use different styles of music and have very different ways of expressing themselves musically.

Just a note: I do not know the meanings of any of these songs! Sadly, I cannot interpret a lot of what is going on. Also, a lot of these songs have credits before/after them. This is completely normal. It's like a mini movie, so I guess they feel the need to give credit where credit is due! It is very interesting compared to the no-nonsense, shortened radio versions of songs we get in the US. Another thing you will notice is that the videos always show very beautiful models whenever they can, and even list the modelling agency in those credits!

I'm sure you will see exactly what I mean, when we actually get to the videos! Here we are:

1. Myriam Fares - Eih Elly Beysahl

This lady is very, very beautiful and has a kickin' body. However, I used to really dislike her because I thought she was just copying Shakira all over the place. Even in this video, I see definite influences from the likes of Shakira and Beyonce in her dancing, but I have to admit that she has a style of her own. That table thing she does is awesome, and I absolutely love that weird jumpsuit thing that she wears on the motorcycle. I think she looks amazing in it. As for the song, I think it's a fun song that you could totally dance to. I know I dance to it! I don't get the racing theme, but hey, I really enjoy it and look forward to seeing it come up on TV.

2. Zain Al Omar - Domek Ya Albi

This video takes bloody FOREVER to start, so you might as well just skip to the 2:58 mark. YES, I am absolutely serious. And this is the version I saw on TV! However, I love the Latin feel to this song, and his crooning voice. He's absolutely adorable, too! I don't really get the meaning of the video, or what is going on in it, but who cares? The song is a lot of fun to salsa to. Even by yourself!

3. Diana Haddad - Azab el Hawa

I am sorry for the dumb ads that get in the way of the music video! It's the best quality video I could get on youtube! But anyway: I love Diana Haddad; she has a very different quality of voice and I have known of her since I was very little and living in Makkah. This song, I believe, is Hijazi style, i.e. the style of the Persian Gulf (Saudi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, etc). Her later albums apparently switched to this style which caused her to both gain and lose fans. She is Lebanese but grew up in Kuwait from what I understand, and she also has ties to the UAE, so this is an interesting twist. I think she is so elegant in this video, which I feel is very vibrant and different to other music videos I have seen recently. I would love to wear her dresses!

4. Rabih Baroud - Layl

Oh wow, this song. I call it the Baywatch video because he and the Hoff could compete with those tans. It is a very nice song on its own, but I think this video is hilarious. What a douchebag! There he is, flirting with everything he sees, even right in front of his lady, and he is just SMILING! What a jerk! I see nothing redeeming about the character he plays, but you know, the song is good enough so I put up with it. Rabih Baroud is actually a great songwriter who has written for quite a few famous singers. He's pretty talented. So why does he act like such a dick in this video?!

5. Nancy Ajram - Maashy Haddy

I put this here for purely comedic relief. It's cutesy visuals and strange sound effects totally work for me. I love it! But what is it about people who cheat in Arabic music videos? I actually see betrayal a LOT. However, this one is just silly and a lot of fun. I enjoy it. The song itself isn't exactly the best thing, but I still do a little buttshake dance when I hear it. Nancy Ajram herself is so famous here in the Middle East that I see her everywhere, on TV and the covers of every single magazine! It's amazing! She's very popular and I think I read that she was mentioned on Oprah or something. That's a pretty big deal because I don't think Oprah really talks about Middle Eastern pop music at all. I think that out of any Arab singer, Nancy Ajram might be the one anyone outside the Middle East might have seen. I mean really, here she is singing the Arabic version of one of the world cup songs, "Wavin' Flag":

At least this one has subtitles so you can understand something! Yay! And I LOVE that video. When I first saw it on TV here, I jumped out of my chair immediately and danced with the screen. It's so happy! I love seeing that waiter drop his tray.

Does Arabic pop music have anything different and new to offer? I think so. They have their own style which is influenced from so many places over the world, but they do have their very specific flavour that is purely Middle Eastern. I have not heard any songs from Western pop that sounds anything like these!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

And in heaven there will be rivers of milk and honey

Saudi Arabia is known by many people as the country of prohibitions. It seems that the Kingdom is strict and uniform in its attempts to stop people from vices that are an everyday occurrence in other countries like the US or places in Europe - i.e., the "West." One of these things is, of course, alcohol. Having alcohol in any drinkable form in Saudi is against the law. Whatever happens in secret is no business of mine, but most people I know do not drink alcohol (but then again, I don't know many people here).

If you live in a country where alcohol is legal (for people of certain ages) and widely available, can you imagine a supermarket with no beers or wine coolers or whatever? A whole section of shelves and shelves would have nothing on them! Here, in Saudi, alcoholic drinks are replaced by many other things: fruit juices, soft drinks, flavoured waters, and…fake alcohol. Yes, on the shelves in the cold sections of the supermarket, I find non-alcoholic versions of Budweiser, things that look like those funny wine coolers, and wine. None of them have even a tiny bit of alcohol and most of them take their flavours from fruit.

Saudi Champagne is a very popular fake alcoholic drink. It is apparently a mixture of apple juice, grape juice, 7up, mint, and slices of orange and apple (and maybe grapes depending on who makes it). It is available at most restaurants and it tastes FANTASTIC. However, I knew there were others to be found in my local supermarket.

I decided today to be very, very brave. These drinks are notorious for being either delicious or extremely vile. I am going to sample 6 drinks, and because I am against being wasteful, if I can, I will drink the whole thing.

So here it is: the Burdened Mary samples weird non-alcoholic drinks! I am actually tasting as I type. This is going to be fun!

1. FREEZ: Grenadine flavour
The Look: Very...PINK! I chose this because of its crazy colour but also because I have high hopes for grenadine. This had better be good!
First Taste: Hmmm not too bad, actually! It tastes very sweet, and it definitely has that "authentic" artificial grenadine flavour. I think I could drink this by choice, but it resembles a much cheaper soda called Vimto that is readily available here. I might as well buy that instead, to be honest.
Final Grade: B+

2. Moussy: Pomegranate flavour

The Look: These malt drinks are probably familiar to those in the US and Europe. A lot of people drink these "malt beverages" and I know that my Dad is a big fan of this one. I've never tried it, so here we go!
First Taste: Ugh. It tastes like watered down medicine, and smells like it too. NOT a fan. It has a weird sour aftertaste in the mouth. I think I can finish it, but...ugh. Never again.
Final Grade: C-

3. HOLSTEN: Mango flavour

The Look: It really looks like a beer! It even has German writing on it, and a funky seal thing of a knight riding a horse. It also advertises that it is "imported"! Pretty impressive! Let's see if the mango flavour is any good. Like grenadine, I have some high expectations for that flavour.
First Taste: Okay, this is better than Moussy, but it has that weird malty aftertaste that I seriously don't like. The mango is wonderful, though, and I think that if I were drinking this ice cold, it'd be pretty good on a hot, hot day like today.
Final Grade: B

4. Cade: "Green" cocktail

The Look: I gotta admit - this one scares me! How GREEN can something be? Apparently, very green indeed. I've tasted the pink version of this drink and let me be honest with you: it was pretty nasty. Way too sweet for me to handle. I'm pretty worried!
First taste: I just drank apple. That's it. Sour apple candy in liquid, mildly fizzy form. I am absolutely pouring this one down the sink. Along with the Moussy.
Final Grade: D-

5. Non-alcoholic Budweiser

The Look: It looks...authentic-ish. It even says genuine on it!
First taste: It SMELLED like cat pee. It tasted HORRIBLE: like bread, cardboard, alka-selzter, and carbonated water all mixed together in some disgusting vat somewhere. OH LORD. Get this taste out of my mouth please! I am washing this down with some FREEZ right now. I cannot take another sip!
Final Grade: F-!

6. Non-alcoholic White Zinfandel

The Look: I'm serious. This exists. It's a huge bottle too, so it had better be good! This cost so much money compared to the others (it's actually not that much) that I really, really hope that it tastes awesome. Oh please, Gods of imitation-alcoholic merciful. I can't take anymore!
First Taste: Well, guess what? I can't open it. I need a corkscrew! I don't have one! I guess they went the whole way with making this like a wine bottle. I'm kind of screwed for the moment, then. Sorry! The review of this one will just have to wait.
Final Grade: F+ for ME because I failed miserably. If this is fake wine, I should have known they'd go all out and make it fake wine, cork included!

All in all, this was a really fun experience. These drinks were mostly duds compared to fresh fruit juices or Saudi Champagne (I could really go for some right now!) but hey, it was all worth it. I'll just need to eat some delicious food to balance it all out. It works out for the best!