Casual Sex and Casual Racism
May27

Casual Sex and Casual Racism

Kat and I were in India when Jyoti Singh Pandey (previously known in the media by various pseudonyms) was brutally raped on an unofficial Delhi bus by a gang of young men in cooperation with the bus’ driver. We were also in Delhi itself during the aftermath of this deplorable crime, when the news came down that young Jyoti had succumbed to her injuries in a Singapore hospital. Even before the woman the Indian media came to call “Braveheart” passed away, Indian society, and Delhi in particular, was abuzz – which is to say, pissed off! The story garnered worldwide attention. Much of the western news coverage, unsurprisingly, hinted at the baleful nature of a country whose rape incidence is appalling and whose justice system is notoriously unequal to the task of prosecuting offenders. Some of this was unnecessarily paternalistic, as with statements about “us” (meaning the West) “looking eastward with disgust.” That there is some validity to such a scowl is, I think, difficult to deny. But what frustrates me about coverage that implies an implicit tendency toward such behaviour – aside from the fact that it is ahistorical and racist – is the fodder it provides for a bias of another kind; one that pretends as though a cultural difference does not exist between India and the West, or that the moral discrepancy runs the other way. Emer O’Toole wrote in the Guardian that news of the Delhi rape case, and the subsequent attention paid to India’s record in regards to sexual violence – notions of honour, massive underreporting of such crimes, indifferent police forces, corrupt and inefficient judicial systems, etc – permitted the West to engage in its favourite feel-good pastime; the neo-colonial demonization of other cultures. There’s something uncomfortably neocolonial about the way the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the woman now known as Damini is being handled in the UK and US media. While India’s civil and political spheres are alight with protest and demands for changes to the country’s culture of sexual violence, commentators here are using the event to simultaneously demonise Indian society, lionise our own, and minimise the enormity of western rape culture. The annoying thing about articles like this is that, while they undoubtedly have some truth to them, they mask the fact that there is a very real and significant different between Indian and western attitudes toward women that have serious consequences for Indians. What’s more, equivalences of this kind undermine the very real outcry from Indians who know that their society is in need of serious reform in this area and who often look to the West...

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Flying and Dying
May22

Flying and Dying

Most of the adult men in my family are pilots to one degree or another. My maternal grandfather was an Air Force gunner in the Second World War and became an avid flyer when he returned home. I remember old photographs of his prized “Champ” tail-dragger hanging on the wall in his stuffy basement hideaway, and the way he never tired of watching The Battle of Britain. Of his seven children three were boys, and each went on to fly themselves; my dad, too, eventually joined the club. I had my first flying lesson shortly after my fifteenth birthday. I remember being terrible at it, but I was unafraid. I flew alone in a plane before I was old enough to drive a car, and obtained my full pilot’s license a couple years after that. At one point I came very close to joining the Canadian Air Force as a pilot. So it went for the last thirteen years. I flew a lot; sometimes with my uncles, sometimes with my dad, sometimes with friends, and sometimes alone. I was also lucky enough to board a wide variety of commercial aircraft on route to some amazing destinations. In all that time, I never once felt fear when in the air. Recently, something changed. I felt the first pangs of irrational fear creeping up in Tehran. Due to the current sanctions, Iran’s primary domestic airline, Iran Air, has become a bit of a safety hazard (the chances of a crash are still extremely small.) Feeling a little edgy about this, we decided to fly from Tehran to Delhi with Air Arabia. This turned out to be a mistake, for what took place before take-off helped to send me into a strange existential tailspin for the rest of the flight (and for many to follow). After the usual demonstration of emergency procedures and positions, one of our gracious flight attendants informed us that we would be starting the prayer portion of the pre-take off procedure. I don’t doubt that this was a positive (or at least benign) experience for many of those on board, but I was genuinely disturbed. Getting on a plane is an act of faith in a number of ways. I have faith that the pilot has been well trained and was not drinking the night before. I have faith that the airplane has been well-maintained. I have faith that the air traffic control system is functioning properly. And I have faith that physics is a fruitful field of study. But I do not have faith that an omnipotent deity has any interest in the situation. Many of my...

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Did I mention that I’m gay?
May15

Did I mention that I’m gay?

In a recent television interview, comedian David Cross spoke about growing up as a Jewish kid in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1970’s: “I wasn’t bald when I was a kid…I had a little Jew-fro…so people knew I was Jewish,” he said. “Sure, there’s southern hospitality, as long as you’re not different.” (emphasis added) I think about this a lot when I hear terms like “southern hospitality”, “small town values”, “Middle Eastern hospitality,” or any other phrase that celebrates the welcoming nature of a demographic or region or religion with a less-than-stellar record on civil and human rights. Over the last ten months, Kat and I have generally been treated with extreme kindness, but there have been many instances wherein that hospitality was clearly conditional. It’s hard to put your finger on it after the fact, but in the moment there is little doubt about which elephants inhabit which rooms. Despite the hospitality that we no doubt experienced – much of it generous to the point of embarrassment – I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been had I chosen to respond to questions about Kat and my relationship with: “Oh, no, we’re just friends…I’m gay…I have a boyfriend back home…” Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet this would have been a conversation stopper on many occasions, and in some places, potentially much more than that. I wouldn’t be a very good Canadian if I didn’t offer at least a couple conciliatory remarks, so I will say to those reading this that have hosted us along the way that I am likely not referring to you. I don’t think our friendship would have evolved this far if I were. But I am referring, for example, to the Bosnian gentleman who picked us up while hitchhiking, who invited us for tea and conversation at his home, who wanted to know all about my political opinions, and who responded to my affirmation of gay marriage by telling me that it was sick and that “opinions like that can get you killed around here.” He also had a loaded gun on the table… I’m in no way implying that something about “the East”, in the Orientalist sense, is intrinsically homophobic or intolerant. The West and the East are diverse entities, and though the West is on the whole much more progressive on the question of gay rights, much of the United States (and indeed Canada) remains as backward as the day is long on this issue, and I’m sure even the most socially enlightened European countries would have a few caveats. In addition, there seems to be a...

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Persian Pictures: Smoke, tea and Press TV
May08

Persian Pictures: Smoke, tea and Press TV

Travelling to Iran was always going to be difficult. My interest in the country goes back a number of years, ever since a fast friendship with a member of the Canadian diaspora introduced me to the combination of affability and seriousness that Iranians so often and so charmingly exude. The aftermath of the 2009 Iranian election further turned me on to the complexity of the country’s internal affairs and it was in this same aftermath that concern over the country’s nuclear program reached new heights. Witnessing the protests of the Green Movement and seeing first hand the reaction of my Iranian-Canadian friends, I couldn’t help but feel, as many did, that something had to give. And then it didn’t. To claim a love-hate relationship with Iran would likely be too dramatic, but this is essentially the case. As a theocratic country, I hate it almost by definition, and most of my writing in recent posts has been purposed toward highlighting the horror and stupidity and absurdity of the current situation. I will no doubt continue to do this, since it is nearly impossible to speak of contemporary Iran without mentioning the faith-based despotism that rots the country from within. Nevertheless, there is a part of me that loves this place and it would be an injustice to you, as a reader, if I did not at least try to explain what I think sets it apart. I’ve forgotten where, but I once read an article in which the author spoke of Iran’s salvation being tied, at least in part, to a reclamation of its “Persian soul.” At the time, I remember thinking this suggestion was an avoidance of any real or specific insight into what could actually be done. However, after a month travelling in the country, having met a wide variety of Iranians from all walks of life, I think I now understand a bit of what the author meant. To speak of “Persian soul” is still a little vague, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe the distinct sense of pride in the country’s Persian past, from language to literature to geopolitical ambitions (Happy Persian Gulf day! etc) – a past that remains a potent force in the society today. A couple of years ago, the Ahmadinejad government passed a law to ban galyan (or hookah or waterpipe) in Iranian teahouses. Tea, black or flagrant, is ubiquitous in Iran and its pairing with the waterpipe in the many beautifully designed basement teahouses is integral to Persian culture. Now, I’m certainly in favour of public health measures in general and studies have shown that the...

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Iranian Girls’ Night Out
May01

Iranian Girls’ Night Out

In November  I had the pleasure of meeting a bright young pharmacy student in Tehran who told me that his country wasn’t as bad as people think. Sure, Islam had been “misused” by the government (I let him have that one) but it certainly wasn’t the dank, pitiless, theocratic wasteland that the Western media and, most frustratingly for him, members of the Iranian diaspora typically portray. If you accept that you have to give up a few freedoms, he told me, you can live a nice life. At the time I remember thinking, “fair enough,” as well as, “I wonder what your hijab-clad girlfriend would say about that on a sweltering summer day?” Truth be told, I don’t know what she would say. It is likely apparent from the way I posed the question that I do not agree (understatement) with the imposition of religious dress codes, particularly ones designed to “protect” the modesty of the fairer sex. But before I go ahead and describe why I think the practice is abhorrent, I should say that I am aware that many Iranian women do not feel that this is so (nor is the desire to wear the hijab or niqab or burka or chador exclusive to theocracies like Iran).  It truly is a curious thing about religion that those most negatively affected (across the board!) by its various dogmas, women, are often the most staunch and genuine defenders of faith. Still, any time someone describes the decision to cover their hair or face as a choice, I immediately hear Goethe reminding us that, “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Too strong? Maybe. In any case, the Iranian government forces all women (including tourists) to cover their hair in public, thus removing the possibility of choice altogether. And while those women who subtly (and not-so-subtly) defy the dress code, and for whom the headscarf is the least appealing accessory, may still be a minority, I like to think that such flouting is symptomatic of something deeper and far more subversive (I think the Iranian clerics may agree with me on this point). One can readily see such defiance by the way in which some Iranian women, typically those from the more affluent areas of north Tehran, go about a “night on the town.” To begin with, I should say that the idea of a group of young women ‘going out’ in the first place is, from what I could glean, quite specific to Tehran. In most of the country, women, especially young women, do not tend to go out in public with their friends unattended by...

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