By Mohammad T.
This article was written originally for KABOBfest, and can be viewed here. Big shout out to the editors there for accepting this contribution.
I’ve never seen an Iraqi break dance before. But apparently Tim Arangon and Yasir Ghazi have.
You see, these New York Times reporters are truly on the cutting edge. They dig deep. They unearth the worms. They uproot the, well, roots. Everybody else is too lazy, or too stupid, to do any serious journalism. Everybody else covers the same old Negative Nancy material.
Iraq may still be a place defined by Islam, sectarianism, violence and political dysfunction, but here in this clubhouse, and at larger gatherings of rappers and dancers in Baghdad’s parks, are vignettes of another sort, defiant gestures of rebellion in a social order with little space for individual expression, especially of the sort draped in Western mores.
The New York Times? Nope. They don’t care about that stuff. They care more about Bruce Lee and Avril Lavigne (who?) – you know, the real barometers of development and democracy. The New York Times despises the hegemony of Islam, how it seems to suffocate its adherents, how it seems to reinforce their tribalism, how it eggs on the sectarianism of those crazy dudes who wear black turbans and yell to those crowds who wave flags and who jump up and down and occasionally beat themselves in this one funny time of the year because of some cooky old religious cookiness. No, the New York Times is different. They focus on what matters, what is truly important. The people. The youth. The society. The money. Break dancing.
“We are living in a tribal society, that is very religious, and this is against Islamic traditions,” said Aksan Adel Habeb, 28, outfitted in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and white do-rag.
(Hey Aksan, you know what I think is against Islamic traditions? The lockout.)
In fairness to the Times, modernity and liberalism doesn’t just come about through hip-hop. Baroque symphony orchestras also drink freedom juice. Nightclubs and hookah too. (Incidentally, I’ve been to the offices of the New York Times, and I can assure you they are so free that their secretaries do sheesha while jamming to Waka Flocka.)
It’s not just in Iraq where the Times does its signature documentary work. Courtesy of the Associated Press, the Times highlights Pakistani freedomlovers too, like Adil Omar.
“But hard-core rap like Omar’s laced with profanity and sexual innuendo is almost unheard of, and could even be dangerous in a society plagued by Islamist militants.”
Profanity! Sexual innuendo!
I’ve noticed that every once in a while, the NYT produces one these kinds of articles in which some kind of imported musical tradition takes shape in a cooky, backwards tribal land, as evidence of the slow waning of the cooky toward the embrace of modern, inclusive, edgy democracy. That’s the power of ideology – the failure to imagine an alternate world, an alternate world where equality and hope and justice come in different flavors.
I’m not a relativist, nor am I an apologist. I don’t like incompetence, bigotry, or reactionary politics as much as the next person. But I also believe in self-determination and autonomy. I believe in agency and the power of communities to realize their goals, on their terms, without the nagging, pervasive, all-engulfing power of ideologies foreign to them.
In short, it’s not just about us. It’s not about how they live vis-à-vis us. It’s not about how we understand them on our terms. We shouldn’t ignore our sisters and brothers in Iraq or Pakistan, but we should allow them the space and the support to realize their aspirations.
Oh, I almost forget: I have seen an Iranian break dance, and, honestly, I hope to never see it again.