Alone, Asian, Atheist in the Middle East


Middle East! Turn around and look East! (Obey Middle East Mural, Shepard Fairey)

Many of you followed Phuong-Mai Nguyen’s journey through the Middle East, as written live right here on the Cultural Detective blog. Last year in Estonia, Mai, the co-author of Cultural Detective Vietnam, keynoted the SIETAR Europa congress. In that speech she shared the ten lessons (‘commandments”) she had learned after almost a year of living in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Her remarks have now been republished by The Islamic Monthly, and I’m confident you’ll be eager to read them.

As Mai tells us, her learning “touches on threats of Islamism, the tendency to self-victimize, and the need for all of us to establish a genuine relationship with moderate Muslims in the West.” The full article reprinted from her speech contains some of her powerful photos as well as her personal learning and viewpoints. 

The ten lessons she learned from her journey include:
  1. Thou shalt not watch TV
  2. Thou shalt stay thyself
  3. Thou shalt empower thy man
  4. Thou shalt fear God
  5. Thou shalt turn around
  6. Thou shalt break free
  7. Thou shalt seek guidance
  8. Thy land shalt be named
  9. Thy land shalt be named again
  10. Thou shalt acknowledge my new identity

Please, read her remarks and let us and Mai know what you think! I have been fascinated by the fact that she chose to make this journey, and the opportunity to view such an experience through the eyes of a Vietnamese woman.

Best, Dianne


A Vietnamese Woman’s Experience of the Arab Spring

1947577_10203237474119981_1557351267_nCultural Detective Vietnam co-author, Phuong-Mai Nguyen, spent eight months traveling through 13 countries, tracing the path of Islam from Saudi Arabia to East Asia. She chronicled her journey here on this blog. Mai traveled alone, during the height of the Arab Spring, amidst so many changes and so much turmoil. She met hospitality everywhere she went, learned a whole lot, and fell in love with the people and places.

Mai has just launched her Vietnamese-language book (two, actually) about her journey. The English edition will debut in October. Be sure to catch her powerful short video, below.

Culture’s Dynamic… What Are You Listening? (#2 in a series)


Dr. George Simons has long been researching the stories that make us who we are. In this series of blog posts he will be leading us in an examination of critical challenges that can lead us toward a fresh vision of culture. We will explore how we come to terms with our inner and shared identities and learn about how we construct the realities that shape our now and our future world.

If how we talk about culture, as I mentioned in the last post, appears too static, it is not because culture itself is static. Its dynamism penetrates every corner of life. Why this paradox? Why? We need to look at culture not as an idea, but in action.

I can’t tell how many of you are having conversations with your partner, children, dog, or friends at the moment you are looking at this blog, but what I am sure of is that, even if you’re not talking to anybody, you are talking a mile a minute. Research suggests that even in a face-to-face conversation, people are speaking to themselves about eight times as fast as they talk to each other. In a tele-conversation you can mute the microphone but not your mind. This means that, even if you’re not talking to any friends, pets, or other things in your ambience at the moment, you’re talking to yourself—unless of course you’ve fallen asleep and may be dreaming. Sometimes we are totally with these inner conversations—we call it “daydreaming.”

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 10.28.47 AMTalking and listening
This is to say, with your inner chatter you’re asking yourself, “What’s this all about?” “What’s he saying?” “Is this useful to me?” “Do I understand this, or this, or this?” Your mind is proposing all kinds of things about what’s going on around and in you, “What am I hearing?” “What am I doing?” “What am I feeling?” Trying to make what we are sensing fit in with what we know. There are even those little conversations we mislabel as distractions, “What’ll I do tomorrow or this afternoon or have for lunch?” We’re always talking to ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s the way we are. Some of us may have learned to meditate to slow down or to quiet our inner voices at times, but they keep chattering on most of the time, whether you pay attention to them or not. What are you talking to yourself about at this moment?

What is this inner flow all about? It is what we call “listening.” I know that sounds crazy because we’ve all probably been taught that to listen, we should shut up, stop thinking and hear the other out. Well, you can’t do that very well. What really happens is that the mind is forever proposing theories about: What’s going on here? What am I reading, hearing? Do I have a second opinion? What should I do? Is this good bad, beautiful or ugly, worth my time? Should I go do something else? And so on and so forth.

Listening is that voice—I’m describing it simply as a voice, but the flow of listening contains pictures, imaginative scenarios and feelings of all kinds that come up in reaction to what’s going on around you and in you. Actively listening means engaging with these conversations, deciding which are focal, which should take priority, which ones we wish to avoid, pursue, take action on.

This is culture!
The conversations, the discourse that you listen to is what we call “culture.” In other words we have inherited, built, built upon, and shared such discourse all of our lives. Today I’m inviting you to take a look at it in this new and different way.  Listening is culture speaking.  It is at once process and content. We have inner conversations, discourses about all kinds of things, about our goals, about the people we are, whether we’re how we should be or not. We have basic discourses about such things as: What’s a man? What’s a woman? How to live out my masculinity, my femininity? We have discourses that come from where we are born, the gangs we hang out with, and discourses that prevail at a certain point in my generation, in your generation.

That discourse not only originates from outside of us, but also springs up from within, as our unconscious mind brings these strains together. With old conversations rubbing up against the new, sometimes helpful, sometimes contradictory, we are ever awash with fresh ideas in the wired, or should we start saying, “wireless” world that we live in.

A torrent of discourse
So today the culture that builds our inner listening is a flow of discourse coming from countless sources; we live in worlds that are continually shaped by these flows of discourse within us and around us. They are continually flowing over us and into us, following old channels and carving new paths. What was once a slower moving stream of discourse has now become a torrent with the explosive growth of social media and facile, inexpensive means of communication. It sometime seems that everyone is wired, everywhere, or, again replacing the aging terminology, it seems that “everyone is wireless everywhere!”

When I was a student at Notre Dame graduate school, I kept a notebook in my dorm room where I jotted down what I needed to research at the library. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon I trekked across campus toward the arms of “Touchdown Jesus,” the mosaic mural that welcomed scholars to the Hesburgh Library, to satisfy my learning needs and humor my serendipity. Today I can Google and Wiki most information quicker than I can stand up and walk over to the bookcase where I know the exact book that holds my answers. In terms of sheer quantity, I suspect that, now as a septuagenarian, I am learning a hundred times more each day than I did as a collegian. Shivering in the wee hours of the winter morning, I Skype with heat-oppressed colleagues in Australia or friends in Indonesia without thinking it magic. Yesterday I bought a USB flash drive about the size of the first joint of my index finger, but large enough, I am told, to hold 32 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica I once owned. Go figure!

On the sociopolitical level, we see new media: Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, support the Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, and provide a conduit for wikileaks, all calling into question the way the culture of power is structured and exercised. Battlefields are managed from half a world away. On the commercial level we may feel helpless in the face of mind-bending electronic advertising, victims of strangers who can know everything about us, not just where but how we live, but our likes and dislikes, as well as the GPS coordinates of our smart phones at any given moment. Ought we call in the exorcist or take a digital sabbatical when our inner voices start to babble?

Dynamic culture
There is no end in sight. On one hand our identity seems diluted in the flow of discourse, sound bites and memes, while on the other hand we have powerful means to connect and coordinate our values and our actions to shape both the world we have inherited and this emergent electronic global village we now live in. Given this, we need a truly dynamic discourse about culture, not just a static definition that puts labels on what people have in common and do in similar ways, but one that enlightens us on the ways we share and influence, as well as misunderstand each other.

Please share some reflections on how you see your identity in this new context. What is changing? What is not? How are you and those about you connected, supported, or threatened by the discourse you share? What do you listen? What are the inner voices saying? What is culture telling you?

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.

“The Innocence of the Muslim” Provokes Mismatch in Cultural Understanding

Media has indeed become the strongest destructive weapon one can dare to imagine. An idiot with next to no ethics or professional knowledge can produce a stupid, laughable, amateuristic film about Islam, put it on the internet, and there you go: one ambassador murdered, hundreds wounded, thousands of others threatened with death, and escalating protests across the whole Middle East.

A silly movie with a quality that deserves to die slowly and peacefully in a mossy corner of the internet suddenly caused waves of unrest around the world.

If anyone has 14 minutes to waste and not regret, watching the trailer of “The Innocence of the Muslim” will help to confirm this and this message only: the movie was made to ignite violence, exactly what we are witnessing at the moment. Producer Sam Bacile has reached his goal, gloriously, to lure easily-agitated Muslims to fall into the trap. Now the whole world is sitting in front of the TV, thinking to themselves: “Oh dear! It is right! Islam is indeed violent.”The core of the conflict is none other than a classic mismatch in cultural understanding. For the West, it is firmly decided that freedom of speech can not be sacrificed, no matter how offensive the content may be. For many others who are religious, freedom of speech does not necessarily mean the freedom to offend others. Also herein lies the dangerous border: to what extent can something be seen as offensive?It is naiveté for protesters to demand that Western governments ban religiously offensive media. Hello? It is 2012, just in case one happens to have short-term memory. We have entered an era where a five year old children can play with their parents’ notebook and share with the whole world everything that their parents would kill to keep secret. With today’s technology, absolute control is simply impossible.Last but not least, let’s delve into that concept called “control.” Demanding protesters in Middle East should understand that governments in some Western countries do not act, and can not possibly act, like parents. They issue laws based on a certain level of democratic process, exactly the sort of democratic system that many Middle Eastern people have been fighting and dying for in the Arab Spring.
Chưa bao giờ mạng xã hội lại trở thành một thứ vũ khí lợi hại hơn cả một đạo quân lớn như ngày nay. Một gã đàn ông vô danh tiểu tốt sản xuất một bộ phim không chuyên, nực cười và ngu dốt nhằm vào Hồi Giáo, tung lên mạng, và thế là tằng tằng

 tằng, một ông đại sứ bị bắn chết, hàng trăm người khác bị thương, hàng ngàn người bị dọa giết, và liên tu bất tận các cuộc biểu tình không ngưng nghỉ.Nếu ai đó rỗi hơi đến mức có thể vứt đi 14 phút quý báu của đời mình mà không hối tiếc, xin mời ngó thử cái đoạn quảng cáo của phim “Sự vô tội của người Hồi” (The innocence of the Muslim). Kết luận duy nhất chỉ có thể là Sam Bacile làm bộ phim này để kích động người Hồi dùng vũ lực, chính xác là kiểu vũ lực và giết chóc mà chúng ta đang được chứng kiến. Người Hồi mắc bẫy thảm thương. Các lãnh tụ Hồi giáo cực đoan thù ghét phương Tây nhân cơ hội đẩy mạnh thánh chiến. Phần còn lại của thế giới ngồi trước TV, bụm miệng kêu thầm: “Ối trời ơi! Hóa ra bọn đạo Hồi này đúng là ưa bạo lực” . Mục đích của Sam đã đạt được một cách vinh quang, chói lọi.Có 3 điểm cần nhấn mạnh ở đây. Thứ nhất, phương Tây tôn thờ tự do ngôn luận tuyệt đối. Điểm này mẫu thuẫn với văn hóa của rất nhiều đất nước cho rằng tự do ngôn luận không có nghĩa là tự do phỉ báng người khác.Thứ hai, việc những người biểu tình yêu cầu Mỹ và phương Tây phải có luật ngăn cấm các sản phẩm văn hóa xúc phạm tôn giáo là điều không thể. Bây giờ là mấy giờ rồi ạ? Năm 2012 nếu ai đó bị mắc chứng trí nhớ ngắn hạn. Một đứa trẻ con 5 tuổi có thể toáy ngoáy máy tính của bố mẹ và tung lên mạng tất tần tật những bí mật mà bố mẹ nó thà chết chứ không để lộ ra ngoài. Với công nghệ thông tin như hiện nay, cấm văn hóa mạng là một điều không tưởng.Cuối cùng, đó là việc dân biểu tình ngây thơ cho rằng Mỹ và phương Tây có thể hồn nhiên cấm cản điều này điều nọ. Luật pháp phương Tây được xây dựng trên một hệ thống chưa phải là toàn diện nhưng tương đối có tính dân chủ. Trớ trêu thay, đây chẳng phải là điều mà bao nhiêu người ở Trugn Đông đã hy sinh để đạt được trong Mùa Xuân Ả Rập đó sao?Xin gửi các bạn một hình ảnh từ Libya, nơi rất nhiều người Hồi hối hận, buồn bã về việc Đại Sứ Mỹ Steven bị giết.

There is Nothing New in Egypt

Egyptian mobile company Mobinil has found an extremely cheap and effective way to advertise itself in Cairo Airport. Shiny billboards welcome foreign tourists and journalists with provocative quotes from USA President Obama — “We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people,” and former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi — “There is nothing new in Egypt. Egyptians are making history as usual.”

On the eve of the new government here, the Obama quote echoes one of my favorite sayings: “When people fear authority, we get dictators. When those in authority fear the people, we get democracy.” Although the young Egyptian people that Obama honored are those who started the revolution and ended up empty handed, it is now clear that the new President — be it Shafiq, the ex-regime candidate, or Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate — must take its people into account. In short, the people don’t want another Mubarak.

For Berlusconi, he (for once, thank God) has a point. Being one of the three oldest civilizations in the world and still standing after 5000 years, making history seems to be the 9 to 5 job of every single Egyptian. Together with the recent court ruling to dissolve the parliament, Egypt is more than ever at a crossroads and is wide open for surprises.

Thán phục hết nước công ty Mobinil của Ai Cập với chiêu quảng cáo vửa rẻ vừa ngon ở sân bay Cairo. Khắp tường trên kính dưới lấp lánh hai câu nói của Tổng Thống Mỹ Obama “Chúng ta phải giáo dục con em mình để chúng giống như những người trẻ tuổi Ai Cập” và của cựu Thủ Tướng Ý: “Có cái gì mới lạ ở Ai Cập đâu. Người Ai Cập chỉ vẫn đang bận bịu với việc tạo dựng lịch sử như chuyện thường ngày ở huyện thôi mà”.

Cái ý của Obama khiến tôi nhớ tới một câu nói tôi từng rất thích (bây giờ thì nhìn với vẻ soi mói hơn là thích): “Chế độ độc tài là khi người dân sợ chính quyền. Chế độ dân chủ là khi chính quyền sợ người dân”. Mặc dù những người trẻ mà Obama vinh danh khởi đầu cách mạng rồi kết thúc trắng tay, có một điều chắc chắn rằng chính quyền mới dù là thân chế độ cũ Shafiq hay Muslim Brotherhood – tổ chức đã cướp diễn đàn của Mùa xuân Ả rập, đều sẽ phải dè chừng người dân hơn.

Về câu nói của Berlusconi, ơn Chúa là ông ta dẫu sao cũng được một lần phun ra vài từ có ý nghĩa (nhận xét có phần hằn học vì bản thân không ưa Berlusconi J). Là một trong 3 nền văn minh lâu đời nhất thế giới, hơn 5000 năm tuổi và vẫn đứng vững vàng, người Ai Cập quả là đáng nể phục. Trước thềm một chính phủ mới, lịch sử Ai Cập lại đứng giữa ngã ba đường, tiếp tục trò chơi ú òa cho thế giới thót tim với vô số điều bất ngờ dấu trong tay áo.

Tahrir Square at 3 am

Tahrir Square (Cairo) at 3 am. Thousands of protesters still occupy the ground. They want a new revolution as dictator Mubarak may get away with his crimes in the Supreme Court and his ministers walk free from all charges.

I spent the whole night with the protesters, being introduced to everyone by none other than the leader of one of the most important revolutionary movements in Egypt: The Free Forum for Change.

In this picture, you see Layla and her brother wide awake. At 3 am children their age are supposed to be dreaming about Disneyland. Tonight they are here learning to support a democratic land. Not sure if they understand it, but I am certain they are the youngest protesters on the ground.

Egypt on the Brink of a New Revolution

You want to know about the real Arab Spring? Look at this picture. These young people, both Muslim and Christian, are those who started the revolution in Egypt in 2011, demanding dictator Mubarak to step down. However, this spontaneous, penniless, and immature movement has been hijacked by the more organized Muslim Brotherhood who stole the spot light and became the prominent candidates for the new regime.

Yesterday, just a few hours after the voting box closed down, I found myself in a secret apartment in the heart of Cairo, the headquarters of the youth revolution. A dozen young activists were working like bees in a beehive on their laptops, updating thousands of tweets and Facebook posts, sending the results of every single voting spot, reporting to the people of Egypt every potential problem of the election.

“Yes, our revolution has been kidnapped by the Islamists!” admitted Ahmed. “I slept in Tahir square, protesting for days, to see a new regime with a liberal and democratic mind set, not someone from the Muslim Brotherhood who wants the country to be back in the stone age. The only thing we can do right now is to be keen observers to make sure this is a fair election. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, we will have a new revolution, a real Arab Spring.”

Syria — The war within and between

Many have asked me to give a briefing on Syria because I am here in person. Well, here is that briefing, in a VERY simple way.

To many people, the war in Syria is just another Arab Awakening. Being in the country myself, I realize that this is not at all the case. There are at least three conflicts going on:

  1. A true Arab Spring involving young liberals regardless of religious backgrounds, demanding regime reform and democracy.
  2. A war between two Islamic sects, the Alawite government and the Sunni opposition.
  3. A political game with hidden agendas among the big boys (US, EU, Iran, Israel and Saudi).

Mainstream media in the West seems more likely to feature war number 1 and manipulate war number 2 to the advantage of war number 3. Those representing the opposition who appear on CNN and BBC look liberal, westernized and almost victimized.

Next, the media backed by (Sunni) Saudi will call for jihad to provoke war number 2. I saw with my own eyes an opposition’s channel broadcasting from Saudi called “Sunni blood as one.” Note that the Syrian president is not a Sunni Muslim; he is from Alawite, a small sect of Islam.

Last, micro media — social media (blogs, Twitter, forums…etc) and word of mouth will keep circulating around zillions of conspiracy theories and guesswork about war number 3. For example, one of them I have heard: “The West does not want to topple the government; they just want to keep Syria in conflict to the point that it would benefit Israel and weaken Iran, who is Syria’s big ally.”

In this age when images and video clips dominate and cloud our thinking, one easily loses the big picture and falls victim to the vivid power of visual effect. As a good Cultural Detective, please pay attention to hidden biases.

As a journalist, I have the power to CHOOSE what to report. Is there something called “complete objective journalism”? I doubt it.

I have seen demonstrations for and against the regime. Which one would I report? Most secret journalists in Syria would choose to capture the opposition because they and their news (sub)consciously support wars number 1 and 3.

I’ll make a counterbalance here to share with you a view on war number 2. This is the picture of the regime’s supporters who gathered to celebrate with cheerful music and dance. Quoting a local from the crowd: “To be honest, our president is not perfect. But between him and the Sunni extremist opposition, I would go for the lesser of the two evils.”

With Love, from War-torn Syria

On my second day in Damascus, I moved in with Noura and her family, only to find out that … they themselves have just miraculously escaped from their home town, Homs – the city that is being bombarded and torn apart by civil unrest!

Her brother has gone to school only 30 days this year. They were trapped in their house for two weeks without electricity. Each time they go to the grocery they are uncertain of ever being able to come back. Leaving their only source of income – an internet café – behind, the single mom and her two children have been struggling to avoid falling apart. With very limited resources, this refugee family has been hosting me, feeding me, loving me, giving me a bed, and escorting me to all sorts of sightseeing places that a tourist is supposed to visit. And all that amidst tears, fear, sadness, worries and uncertainty about their future.
In this picture, Noura and I are under the hooded cloaks, visiting Umayad Mosque, one of the earliest mosques in Islam, built on the 3000 year old remains of an Aramean temple. The worship site was turned into a Roman temple, later converted to a Christian church, and finally was dedicated to Islam in 636 (only four years after the death of Prophet Mohammad). The rich history of this mosque reminds us that holy sites should not be seen as the monopoly of one religion, and that we are the result of an accumulated heritage.

Looking at the chaos in some of the Arab countries right now, I can’t help wishing those various branches of Islam could understand this simple notion. And may the extremely hospitable people of their countries, like Noura’s family, teach them the lesson of co-existence, even in time of harshness.

Are Weapons Always Related to Violence?

The first impression of anyone arriving to Yemen is probably the massive amount of weaponry carried by civilians. I imagine that children here probably sneer at the plastic “Made in China” toy guns. In a picnic area near Sanaa, I was shocked to see young boys of about 12 years old firing their AK-47s into the sky. They broadly smiled at me and furiously waved their hands with two fingers forming a V — sign for victory and peace.

It is estimated that there are 60 million firearms owned by the population of 25 million. Children and women aside, each adult Yemeni man stocks up to 10 weapons at home or tucked into his belt. And that excludes the ornamental daggers that are part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Quoting political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun.”

However, despite the deeply-rooted gun culture, it is amazing to see what the Yemeni revolution has achieved so far, with a relatively low death toll (approximately 2000) compared to Syria (at the moment estimated at 30,000 and still rising).

One person who greatly contributed to the transition of power in Yemen is Jamal bin Omar — the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process. One day after the election, I had the honor to meet up with him in a casual private gathering. Looking exhausted but calm, he agreed with me that Yemen stands now at the perfect position to transfer away from its gun culture, as security has to be the most important job for the new government.

In the same evening, I also talked with Cathy who is Jamal’s assistant. Overwhelmed with the very limited violence during the election, she told me that what is happening in Yemen is a miracle, given the country’s complex situation and its extreme gun culture: “There must be something very special in the make-up of the people here!” – Cathy explained to me – “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely want peace!”

Strange but true: for Yemeni, weapons do not necessarily mean violence.


I am co-author of Cultural Detective Vietnam, and am in the midst of a journey that traces the path of Islam from its origins as it spread outward around our planet. Thank you for following!