Yasmeen Tajiddin | Nov 2019 | Archive, Literature and Creative Writing, Music, Op-Ed, Opinion, Theater |
Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too
Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent.
Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?
The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?
Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.
Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.
Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.
On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience.
We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.
Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities
Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”
Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Xiaoxiao Du | Feb 2019 | Archive, Literature and Creative Writing, Op-Ed, Opinion, Travel |
When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong
Five girls surrounded me while I was getting my henna tattoo done in a chaotic square of a Moroccan town. Their eyes followed the curvy lines drawn on my hand with a special herb product that dyed the skin. After she finished the last petal, the old henna artist admired her work for a second, decided that any addition to it would be redundant, and let go of my hand. I paid and stepped aside to make room for the next customer, but the other girls exchanged looks amongst themselves, and none of them sat down.
I was confused by their paradoxical admiration for the henna and their reluctance to get one, until later that night, my roommate, one of the five girls, revealed the magic words that kept them from getting a henna tattoo: cultural appropriation. Offending the locals was a lesser concern, because the henna artist was sitting in the middle of a square filled with tourists, and the locals passing by did not pay any attention to the henna stall, not to mention appear offended. It seemed that it was the mutual censorship, the fear that other students might accuse them of cultural appropriation, that kept them from getting a henna tattoo. In the end, you can never be too careful when dealing with potential cultural appropriation.
Later in the Morocco trip, we had a chance to talk to local university students. We asked them whether they thought that it constituted cultural appropriation if someone outside their culture got a henna tattoo and then posted pictures of their henna on Instagram. The Moroccan students first asked what cultural appropriation was. They were amused by our concern about the appropriateness of getting a henna tattoo and replied that, no, they do not feel offended at all. They added that they felt flattered when people appreciated and spread their culture, so long as they were not poking fun at it.
The Moroccan trip made me realize that cultural appropriation is a complex concept. I thought I was acquainted with the term “cultural appropriation” and its implications, but I failed to make the connection between getting a beautiful henna tattoo in Morocco and being guilty of cultural appropriation like other girls. I thought the criteria were simple: first, I have no intention of claiming henna tattooing to be part of my culture; second, my action did not offend anyone; and, third, it is just what tourists do. I would even go as far as calling my action “cultural appreciation.”
Yet talking about cultural appropriation is about calling into attention what people, tourists included, just do without questioning. The discussion about cultural appropriation is inseparable from other social and cultural discourses such as colonialism, orientalism, and the history of slavery. Talking about cultural appropriation sensitizes people so that they are more aware of the harm they could cause for the less privileged cultures and peoples.
The Oxford English Dictionary incorporated the term “cultural appropriation” in 2017 in response to the heated discussion about it in the western world, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Despite the appearance of clarity, the definition is problematic. The key terms are vague: what kind of adoption is inappropriate? How much acknowledgement is needed? For instance, a headdress which appeared in Victoria’s Secret’s 2017 show resembled a traditional war bonnet of the Native American culture. It is considered blasphemous for an outsider to wear it, and the headdress enraged the Native Americans. The leading opinions of the fashion world all agreed that the war bonnet constituted “cultural appropriation. It is unproductive to ban all assimilation of other cultures, but if we replace the war bonnet with less scared or mundane items, when does it cease to be cultural appropriation and become acceptable?
The conceptual confusion is not only a concern for scholars studying postcolonialism. When the line is hard to draw, and when people throw the term everywhere, an objective judgment is sometimes nowhere to be found. Worse, the resultant dispute can cause miscommunication and hatred.
For instance, Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American basketball player, is known for his frequent change of hairstyle. When he posted on Instagram a picture of himself wearing his new choice of hairstyle, dreadlocks, he explained that he saw his hair as a tribute to the black culture. None of Lin’s teammates protested against his new hair, yet Kenyon Martin, a black basketball player from another team, bashed Lin’s African hairstyle, interpreting his action as a sign of wanting to become black, and labeling his hair “cultural appropriation.” People got so excited and ready to attack the person labeled as if they were a gam of sharks that smelled blood. Although some from the black community expressed their support or remained neutral, others followed Martin and left vicious comments under Lin’s Instagram. The dispute came to an ironic end when Lin responded to Martin, “At the end of the day I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos. I think it’s a sign of respect.” The term, coined to call for respect, has turned cultural exchange into name-calling. Its abuse pits people against people, minorities against minorities.
The dialogue about cultural appropriation does not happen in every country and every culture, but the need for respect is universal. It is for the purpose of fighting discrimination and trivialization of the less privileged cultures that we initiate the conversation about cultural appropriation. But maybe “cultural appropriation” has gone too far that its practice defeats the purpose of promoting genuine respect and appreciation. Those who lack respect weaponize the term, whereas those with great respect for other cultures, due to the fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation,” lose the chance to take advantage of their cultural exchange experiences.
Talking about “cultural appropriation” cannot guarantee mutual respect. As someone who got a henna tattoo in Morocco and who might have been guilty several times of “cultural appropriation” according to stricter versions of its definition, I am not sure to what end the discourse is leading.
Xiaoxiao Du is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her name means “small small.” She is a philosophy major with special interests in metaethics. She can re-read novels by Cao Xueqin and Gabriel García Márquez any number of times without getting bored.
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Laura Deryng | Feb 2019 | Archive, Articles, Literature and Creative Writing, Op-Ed, Opinion |
Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?
One of the very first things that I saw once I arrived in Washington, DC for J-Term during my freshman year was not, unfortunately, the White House, the Capitol, or the Lincoln Memorial. Instead, it was a raw chicken that a friend brought to my dorm room, asking if I could cook it for him. My surprised answer to this question was “No,” followed by an explanation that my culinary abilities peak at making tea.
His reply: “Are you a woman? What type of woman?”
I resisted the temptation to check in the mirror to see if I had somehow changed physically during the past few hours. The truth was that my femininity was questioned because I did not know how to cook: my femininity was apparently defined through something as basic as the ability to make a chicken steak. And here I was, a Polish girl in the capital of the most powerful country in the world, following the American Dream – but confronted and somehow defeated by a raw chicken.
I do need to admit one thing: it was a big mistake, my not having learned how to cook before. After traveling to various places all over the world, I now understand one thing: food is not always the most pleasurable representation of local cultures. I cannot count the number of situations in which I would have benefited from knowing how to cook a raw chicken—and not only because eating noodles every day in Shanghai bored me. Or because Ghanaian fufu and I were not a match made in heaven. Knowing how to cook gives us more independence: we are not put in the position of having to hope that the chicken steak we ordered in a restaurant will be edible. We can have an actual influence on it.
But in the end, it is not my obligation to learn how to cook: it is my choice. As it should be for anyone else, whether woman or man.
The fact is that, throughout history, women’s roles in the society have not been too diversified. Our time of glory apparently passed a while ago, together with the tribe of mythological Amazons and their most famous representative, Wonder Woman. She did not make it to my history book, unfortunately, which puts her in the same position as so many other women, who actually existed outside of comic books and movie screens and who have contributed to building the world for centuries and centuries. If my history book ever spoke of a woman, her biography always started with “She was a mother of a king…” or “She was a wife of a soldier…”. Inspiring. I can almost imagine a biography starting with “She was a cook for life …”
Unfortunately, women all over the world have been trapped in stereotypical “feminine” roles for centuries. In Aboriginal Australia, for example, men used boomerangs for hunting, whereas women were equipped only with a special tool that enabled them to carry babies. I learned about these differences from an actual representative of Aboriginal Australians in Sydney. While listening to his story, I started to contemplate how much the world had changed since the times when there was a clear division of gender roles.
Images of influential women started to appear in my mind. Women like Angela Merkel, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, and Margaret Thatcher have shown me that the world has evolved since Aboriginal women had their special tools for babies.
Filled with pride and optimism, I saw my friend raising her hand to ask our Aboriginal guide a question. “Could you pass me the boomerang? I want to see how heavy it is.” He looked at her impatiently. “No. It is a weapon for men and it cannot be touched by women. That brings bad luck.” And somehow the face of Angela Merkel in my mind was quickly replaced by the memory of raw chicken, defeating me yet again. “It is a tradition, though, you need to respect it,” I told myself.
At least that’s what I thought until I met another Aboriginal guide, who happily let me hold the boomerang. I was shocked. I wish I could have introduced the first Aboriginal guy to my chicken friend. They might have enjoyed watching Battle of the Sexes together. They might have laughed together at Bobby Riggs’s comment during a press conference with Billie Jean King: “Don’t get me wrong. I love women—in the bedroom and in the kitchen.”
I’m intrigued by the fact that people seem to think that men are actually better cooks than women. When I looked online for a list of the best chefs of the world, I saw that not a single woman made it to the top ten. Not even the top twenty. But then I found her: Nadia Santini. From Italy. Position number 38.
So why do we insist that a woman has to know how to cook if it seems that men are capable of bringing more culinary joy to our lives? Maybe we should make men’s ability to cook more central to their identity. If men cook so much better than women, why not encourage more of them to find fulfilment in that place where they can exercise their natural talents? The kitchen.
Jokes aside, I just still keep asking myself why we require women to cook in the domestic space, while most of the shining stars in the public culinary world are men.
But I am afraid I know the answer.
Women are not worse at cooking than men, but on television, cooking is no longer just cooking: it is professional cooking. Cooking on television is no longer a waste of time and effort for no financial rewards. It is a job in the cooking industry, which like most industries today, is dominated by men, the breadwinners of families. Domestic cooking? Please, it has no value, let a woman do that. I have better things to do. But professional cooking …?
I am not saying that there is anything wrong with a woman who wants to cook in the private sphere. I personally advocate that everyone learn how to do it, simply because it is a highly useful skill. I am just bothered by the fact that certain identities and gender stereotypes are imposed on us women so brutally, thereby defining our femininity for us.
Maybe a woman’s inability to cook does undermines her femininity—if we associate femininity with the cozy and welcoming atmosphere of home created by the smells of the kitchen, with that certain warmth that women know how to evoke to bring their families together. But there are so many other ways that a woman (and a man too, if he wants) can fulfill this task, other than cooking. Femininity can have many faces, strong and independent in addition to fragile and delicate. Or maybe we should combine them all.
I suppose my friend in Washington could not understand that my inability to cook the raw chicken does not undermine my femininity because he was a typical male conqueror. And in this guise, he broke to our room few nights later to get what he wanted: our last piece of pizza. So masculine.
Laura Deryng is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Economics with a specialization in Finance and Computer Science. She is originally from Gdańsk, Poland. Laura’s interests are diversified, ranging from international affairs and journalism to blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
She loves traveling: her favorite travel destination is Japan. Laura is also very passionate about sports. She has been playing basketball since she was 10 years old. Besides that, she enjoys running, boxing and playing tennis.
Gabrielle Flores | Mar 2016 | Archive, Articles, Literature and Creative Writing, Opinion |
OR, YES, I’M SURE I WANT TO DO THIS
Not everyone can be a Literature major. I don’t say that easily. I say that with the utmost resignation, as the bags under my eyes get pulled down by another 50-odd pages of Moby-Dick, my designated pleasure read for the semester.
When I tell people that I study literature, I’m faced with one of two responses: a) “Oh, that’s so cool, I wish I could pursue a major that I am passionate about,” which makes me feel like a neoliberal hippie, or b) “Wow, that’s super tough. Literature is tough.” I also get the occasional Starbucks-homeless jibe as one of those quasi-insults that get passed off as gestures of close friendship. I lump these kinds of Starbucks comments into the same category as response b), for the sole reason that being a barista is difficult. I myself couldn’t do it: there’s only so many custom orders I can take before wanting to throw a cup of custom, vegan, non-GMO, family-grown, baby-proof caffeine with a shot of water that is actually composed of baby’s tears and the saliva of a newborn puppy on someone’s expensive tie.
Being a Literature major is hard. And it’s not because of the reading. One of the first things that people assume about literature majors is that we like to read and we must read a lot and reading must be the only thing we like to do — all of which is true. But it’s not the reading that makes it difficult. Anyone can read Ulysses in a day, probably, if you shut yourself in your room for 24 hours and gain sustenance from some kind of IV drip. The act of reading isn’t difficult; you read something everyday. You’re reading this right now. If reading were the only prerequisite to getting a literature degree, then we’d all be Literature majors, and I’ve been wasting my time for the past year and a half.
Literature is hard because of how vulnerable you become. When you’re a barista and it’s rush hour and you’re getting yelled at for putting in two pumps of syrup instead of the standard one and three-point-five pumps that Terry from the Starbucks down the street uses, you’re vulnerable. You’re vulnerable to your coworkers, the person yelling at you, and everyone else in the store. And despite all that yelling and that one guy in the corner secretly videotaping this in the hopes of putting up another Facebook rant on dismantling the throes of capitalism, you don’t bat an eyelash. I mean sure you feel bad, but look, Barista Man – you chose to do this. You signed up for it.
One of the founding ideals of the liberal arts curriculum is that each student, after having sampled every starter in the buffet of Intro 101s, will hopefully decide what they like the best. So, yes, I chose literature (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article). But the problem with that is when I read books, I become vulnerable. I would go so far as to argue that even the author isn’t as vulnerable as I am, because at least the author has made peace with what is on the page. When I hold a book, however, am suddenly holding the author, like they’re right there with me. I recently read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal for a class, and I quickly realized that I was reading “Jean Genet.” Whether autobiographical or not, a novel becomes part of its author’s life force. A lot of people say that they like to read because reading lets them lead different lives; I myself don’t get to live a different life when I read per se, but do I get another life handed to me. Every book I’ve read so far has given me a piece of its writer along with it, and God forbid I keep that soul anywhere else but inside the deepest, safest recesses of my mind. You’d think that it’s hard enough to make sense of your own thoughts, but all of a sudden you have someone else’s jumbled up with yours and you have to begin to sort through the mess.
I haven’t even talked about what happens when a book makes me uncomfortable. If a book makes me uneasy, then the issue for me becomes more complicated. Not only do I need to be able to digest what I’ve just read, to chew it slowly and wait for my intestines to absorb its nutrients, but I also have to deal with how it makes me feel afterwards. Sometimes it leaves me with a dull ache in the bottom of my stomach, my lower right side to be precise. It is in those moments of unease that I take a scalpel and examine the root cause, attempt to find out which proteins in my body are refusing to digest the food. It’s not an easy task; sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes when sleep becomes too elusive I get tempted to forego the operation completely.
It is important to see the operation through, however. Only when I get to interact with all the insides of me do I learn what makes me tick. Again I am vulnerable; but this time, I am vulnerable with myself. Being vulnerable in front of other people is easy, because at the end of the day no one remembers that you put in low-fat milk instead of skim. Being vulnerable with yourself, though, is hard: I’ve tried it, and I’ve quickly realized that I don’t accept any bullshit. You see, the author is better off because she has already undergone that process of vulnerability, otherwise there would be no book to begin with. I, however, go through it again and again and again every time I read a book. Because, at the end of the day, every author writes the world differently to how I see it. I can’t do anything about that, since its their words on the page. I have to be able to sit in this position of conflict between these two opinions and choose to resolve it on my own, because the words do as they please.
English classes in high school are well-known for the idea that you can write anything you want, as long as you justify it. That may be true, but there’s always another level to it. Justifying something well is difficult. Any sort of university student with enough desperation and 3 cans of Red Bull can write a quick essay about the subjectification of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but to sit down with a text and really be able to see what it’s saying is difficult. The text doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t say anything, because it’s an inanimate object. Of course the texts say something, but books aren’t very good conversationalists. They’re kind of selfish, actually. Some of them think that what they’re saying is so blatant, so obvious, that to slave overnight to figure out what the elusive “it” is seems trivial. And sometimes even the best of us can’t get that message right away. Of course a text matters, but to figure out the whys and the hows and the whatevers entails a lot of reading, yes, but also a lot of thinking about how and why you’re reading the text the way that you are.
So no, you can’t just “say anything you want”. Life (and literature) isn’t that easy, and No Fear Shakespeare can only get you so far. I’d like to think that if someone has exposed her soul to you and has let you into the inner workings of her mind, it’s only decent to sit with those thoughts and really flesh them out rather than type any random mumbly-jumbly-hoo-ha on the page and think that you’ve fully understood the book under discussion. Maybe literature is about courtesy. You wouldn’t just walk away from a conversation, so why would you do that to a book?
The classic way to end this sort of article is to give a grand, sweeping soliloquy on why I choose to study literature despite these difficulties. A cop-out answer is to say, “I don’t know.”
I think I do know why I study literature, though, and in an odd way it’s because I don’t know: I don’t know who I am yet. I thought I knew who I was two years ago, but thinking back, I realize that I’m now a completely different person. I choose to study literature because I know that if I don’t get a handle on who I am versus who everyone else is, I’ll just keep swimming like a tiny little guppy. And the only way to really get a good handle on who I am is to allow myself to exist in this state of vulnerability, day in and day out for as long as I’ve got time. Maybe that makes me selfish, but it’s the only way that’s made any sense to me so far. Maybe the farthest I can get with my education is a manager at my local Starbucks, but while I’m serving you your regular IV drip of caffeine at least I’ll know that every add-on you ask for means something. It’ll be obvious to you, of course – only barbarians drink their coffee without a splash of rose water and the faint hint of a baby’s first laugh – but I won’t get it at first. But maybe after your fourth, fifth, sixth drink, I will.
John Coughlin | Mar 2015 | Global Liberal Education, Opinion |
Life is such a mystery. Never in my wildest imagination did I envision that someday I might be teaching in the Middle East, after two decades of teaching in law schools and religious studies programs in the United States and Europe. Yet here I am in the UAE, as a member of the faculty of NYU Abu Dhabi. While the fields of law and religious studies may seem to be unlikely consorts, they coalesce in religious systems of law such as Talmudic law, Hindu law, sharia law, and canon law. Moreover, the roots of secular Western legal systems may be traced to the medieval canon law and its unity with theology. The comparative and cross-disciplinary focus of my scholarship describes religion and law as social institutions that play a major role in setting the conditions for either a static, punitive, and repressive social order or a merciful, enlightened, and transformative one in which individuals and communities may flourish. This focus seems to me to be a good fit with the aims of global education embraced by NYU Abu Dhabi.
One of the courses that I teach, Ideas of the Sacred, introduces the students to the world’s major religious traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. These religious traditions are great rivers of humanity, and I think that every broadly educated person ought to have knowledge of them. One’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are often intimate and located deep within the inner sanctum of one’s consciousness, and for some human beings, these beliefs contribute to the core of personal and communal identity. Students familiar with each of the world’s religious traditions that are discussed have participated in the course. Our classroom discussions have consistently been characterized by zeal for learning, respect for others, and openness to various ideas about what might be considered sacred. I said the course “introduces the students,” but all of us in the course learn from each other. I could not ask for a better place to teach a course in comparative religion. In a world where religion is sometimes depicted primarily as a cause of intolerance and violence, I think that this counter-example, created by the idea of global education, offers a glimpse of hope.
Another course that I teach is called What is Law? At the start of the course, I tell the students not to expect a catharsis: law is fundamentally a human activity, and the sundry essentialist, sociological, and ideological responses to the course’s central question are inevitably limited. Again, the diversity of our student body brings so many varied perspectives about the meaning and purpose of law, which serves as a poignant reminder that law is pluralistic and not just the hegemonic domain of a given predominant culture, nation, or linguistic experience. At the same, there often emerges in our discussion a desire for a common humanity that might serve as the moral justification for fundamental human rights. That desire reminds me of when I served as a member of the treaty conference which established the International Criminal Court. I was privilege to be one among hundreds of representatives of the various nations of the world gathered together at the United Nations to create an international legal institution whose basis is rooted in a common humanity. Some of my students will likely become lawyers, maybe even judges or other kinds of government officials. I hope that we are offering the academic and social context in which they mature as fair, just, compassionate, and socially responsible human persons. Forgive me if I sound overly idealistic, but I am a person who believes in the power of the aspirational.
From the very first time that I visited Abu Dhabi three years ago, NYU’s aspirations about global education were readily apparent to me. Located at the crossroads of the world, NYUAD brings together a talented student body drawn from the four corners of the earth. The university’s financial aid policy is such that no student is excluded because of an inability to pay. NYUAD also attracts top quality faculty who are committed to teaching and engaged in fascinating research; from the start of my tenure here, I have been intellectually and personally enriched by the opportunity to interact with colleagues from all parts of the NYU Global University as well as from other institutions of higher education. In an academically rigorous environment, students and faculty transcend the parameters of discrete disciplines in order to develop new understandings of complex problems. At their core, the fields of law and religious studies are about human persons. The multidisciplinary approach seeks to deepen our understanding of the identities, values, cultures, languages, behaviors, histories, and social contexts of individuals and communities that comprise the human situation. The mystery of life continues to unfold for me, and two years into my service at NYUAD, I feel grateful and humbled to be a small part of this great venture in global education.
John Coughlin is Professor of Religious Studies and Law at NYU Abu Dhabi. He holds a Th.M. from Princeton Seminary, a J.D. from Harvard University Law School, and the J.C.L. and J.C.D. from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
[Image: Detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-11), Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican), depicting Plato and Aristotle.]