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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why the Arab Nations Sucked at the Olympics and Other Things...

I've recently started checking out The National Newspaper, an Emirati newspaper and found it to be to my liking. The opinion columns give voice to issues that normally don't get addressed quite so boldly, so of course I approve. Here is an editorial written on the subject of why the Arab nations sucked ass at the Olympics in Beijing this year and fall short in other global arenas too. Just to give you an idea of how naked and self-critical the writing can be, here is the start of the article:

"Shameful. This is the least that can be said about the performance of Arab countries in the 2008 Olympic Games, which ended at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing on Sunday. The Arabs left the Games with seven medals, of which only two were gold. One athlete, Michael Phelps, won more medals than 22 Arab countries.

Shameful, but not in the least surprising. Winning in the Olympics requires planning, hard work, commitment and institutions that design strategies and invest in the requirements for success. All these are missing in an Arab world still intoxicated by a false sense of supremacy and unwilling to admit failure. The fiasco at the Olympics is not a rare disappointment. It is repeated in almost all aspects of life.

In sport, just as in culture, the arts, science and every other innovative field, the Arabs are behind other nations. Twenty-two countries with over 300 million people and enormous wealth have not made any significant contribution to human achievement for over a century. Indeed, rare are Arab names in the lists of modern global achievers.

Now before my bretheren cry out accusations of cultural bashing I want to explain that a trait I value higher than most others is the ability to say "we're doing something wrong and we're willing to learn and change." Pointing the finger of blame at others just won't cut it anymore. What are WE doing as a people to make this world a better place? And by making it a better place, I mean expanding minds, helping others to help themsevles, curing diseases, saving lives of people, creating inventions that makes lives easier, inspiring children to achieve greater heights... We're doing it to a certain degree, of course, but there's always room for improvement, and if you don't believe that I may have to find you and slap you. THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT. Make that your mantra for today, kids.

And here's another can of worms:

"Political underdevelopment is the underlying reason behind these shocking declines in the Arab world. Failure to build structures of good governance has suffocated innovation. Scared of engaging with their present, people continue to escape into the past as state institutions favour apathy or subjugation to activism and creativity. Hence it is the alarming United Nations Development Programme finding that Arab educational systems teach obedience and acceptance rather than critical thinking."

I spent all of my school years in Middle Eastern schools and even within the confines of one existence, we recognized the limitations in our ability to express ourselves, explore independent lines of thinking. I wanted to start a debate club while I was in 7th or 8th grade and so I spoke to a student advisor about it. She said "Fine, what would you debate?" and every single issue I had painstakingly thought out, written up, and had prepared was shot down with "Someone will stand up and say 'It's illegal and Allah doesn't accept it.' You won't get anywhere. Nice idea, but it just won't work here. Sorry." So there is only one correct solution to every dilemma, dictated and never questioned. Fine, that wasn't the first and definitely not the last time I'd be taught that lesson.

I started an art club that was more about expression and storytelling through art than about technique, because God knows I wasn't taught a damn thing about real art in my own schooling, so I wasn't about to spread further ignorance... But the kids loved it. I was a junior and a bunch of 4th and 5th graders had seen my drawings and asked me if I could teach them how to draw. I said I'd do what I could, but what I'd rather do is get them to explore their own abilities and have fun with it. They came during their lunch times and sometimes even after school for these silly, loose, creative moments and we all loved it. I told them stories without describing the protagonists and then had them draw what they saw in their minds' eyes. It didn't take them long to realize there wasn't one right way of depicting the characters. It was up to them how they wanted to manifest the subjects. There was no right or wrong answer, for once.

It was really deflating to think back upon the art classes I had up until I could no longer take art (it stopped after 9th grade) and recall how each one involved drawing a still life of some boring object in the room. You drew what you saw. Nothing more. And you could produce the worst shite ever and the "teacher" wouldn't give a damn because art was just a kids' subject anyway. It was sadly representative of how I felt I was being raised by society there. Of course we were brought up to be far more respectful of our elders and of other cultures than I currently see, so they did a lot of things right too, but we lost such an enormous opportunity to not just be obedient, respectful followers but to be critical-thinking creative individuals who would take the roads less traveled by and inspire the next generations to do the same. Instead we all sat in the comfortable moulds that were set out for us... The Indians would be doctors and engineers, just like their fathers, the Emiratis would be businessmen, just like their fathers, and the bricks all fit so nicely in the wall... Well, I didn't, obviously. Not too many special educators of my nationality in the world. I guess I was a defective brick.

Thankfully, there are wonderful creative opportunities to be had in government funded art institutes but the classes offered there are not free and seem to be geared more towards adults than children, but it's a great step in the right direction.

I know I steered more towards discussing the arts, but I feel these steps need to be taken in all the areas mentioned in Mr. Safadi's editorial. We can't be lazy about the advancement of our culture and we shouldn't have to choose between respecting the past and creating a new future. We shouldn't let our ancient past only hold the greatest contributions we make to the world.

PS: Sorry if this post rambled on incoherently at times. I just spent the morning at the zoo with my husband and daughter and I really need a nap. Thank you.


Safadi, Ayman. "Arab performance at the Games reveals a greater regional shame." The National Newspaper 26 Aug. 2008.


humble simpleton said...

Michael Phelps has such a huge success, because he is a swimmer, and there's variety of styles and lengths, therefore legendary swimmer can get quite a gathering of medals for all the disciplines. For example, legendary javelin thrower, like Jan Železný, can only get one medal per Olympics.
Czech star of the Olympics was female javelin thrower Barbora Špotáková, who got her gold by beating Russian Maria Abakumova with her last throw (Javelin is popular in Finland, there the emotional Finnish commentary). After the Olympics, she even set the world record, and together with Železný, both javelin world records are in Czech Rep.

humble simpleton said...

Blah, the last link again:Železný