The Not-So-Radical Roots of Miss USA

Rima Fakih is no Hezbollah hottie -- she's the living embodiment of Lebanon's cultural complexity.

The recent uproar among some conservative American bloggers over Rima Fakih, the Lebanese-American woman who was crowned Miss USA on Sunday, has been unique: Not many people -- let along beauty pageant winners -- have been accused of being both a pole dancer and a Hezbollah operative.

Among less-hysterical commentators in the United States, the victory of an Arab-American in the contest has produced a very, well, American debate. Fakih's detractors have leveled accusations of affirmative action. Others have cast the new Miss USA as a lesson in the value of assimilation and a poster girl for religious and ethnic diversity.

Here in Lebanon, however, the reaction to Fakih's coronation was somewhat less complicated: It was pure ebullience. In an official statement on Tuesday, President Michel Suleiman said, "Congratulations to Rima Fakih for showing the beautiful image of Lebanon in the world." Having been  runner-up for Miss Lebanon Emigrant in 2008, Fakih is already a national icon. Now she will enter history as a Lebanese hero, many commentators wrote.

Claims of Fakih's Hezbollah connection -- which originated with a single American blogger and haven't been substantiated -- generally have been viewed as slander in Lebanon. (The pole-dancing allegations are another matter, though mostly because people here fear she might lose her title.)

"All these accusations about her relationship to Hezbollah are nonsense," Fakih's 80-year-old uncle, Ahmad Said, told me when I visited him at his family's home in Souk el-Gharb, the Christian village in Mount Lebanon where Fakih spent the first seven years of her life before moving with her family to the United States. He was holding a copy of the local newspaper, which carried an article describing the American allegations of Fakih's radical roots. "Everyone in the family, not only Rima, celebrates both Christian and Muslim holidays," he continued.

Fakih's extended family is not exactly the Islamist terrorist cell of the right-wing pundits' imaginations: For one thing, their house is distinguished from the neighbors' by a big U.S. flag hung from its balcony, surrounded by ribbons and flowers. In the entrance, a Quran and a Bible are placed next to each other on a stand; "There are many mixed marriages in the family, so you cannot really call us a Muslim family," Fakih's 62-year-old aunt, Afifa Fakih -- the only woman in the household wearing a veil -- explained. "We love America," she added. "Without the USA, Rima wouldn't have fulfilled her dreams. She made us all proud, and for that, we thank the Americans."

Afifa and Ahmad were resting after what they described as a "hectic week with reporters and celebrations." On a table next to a plate of cake and sweets was a set of family photo albums on display for the family's numerous visitors. Fakih, as a little girl and a teenager, appears in many of the photos, surrounded by family members in Lebanon and the United States. In some shots from the beach, everyone, including the women, is wearing swimsuits.

The bikini that Fakih wore in the Miss USA contest has been the most contentious aspect of the whole affair in the pageant winner's childhood neighborhood in Srifa, the southern Lebanon town where her family is originally from. "I am not specifically proud of Rima. Her behavior contradicts our traditions," said a man named Fayez Najdi, hanging out in a cell-phone shop near the family's home. "This has nothing to do with American politics. Even if she was Miss Lebanon, my position would be the same."

Hawra Nazzal, a 21-year-old woman clad in a veil who was making copies nearby in the shop, disagreed. "I don't think the swimming suit is a problem," she said. "Many women wear it here in Lebanon. I am veiled and I won't wear it in front of men, but she lives in the U.S. Maybe if I lived there, I would have done the same.

"Of course, if she was my sister, I wouldn't encourage her," she added, and smiled.

Salman Nazzal, another customer who had been listening in on the conversation, cut in. "I just got back from Michigan, and I knew Rima since she was a child," he said excitedly. "She made us all proud. Some people can represent us with their veils; others represent us in their swimming suits. What's wrong with that? God created beauty and God loves beauty."

Down the street, a middle-aged man named Ahmad stood outside his shoe shop, smoking a Marlboro cigarette. "I am a communist," he said. "I do not care about her swimming suit. She made me proud of my village and country. Those who are criticizing her cannot see beyond her bikini."

In general, Fakih's old neighbors seemed highly excited about her leap to fame, and everyone was talking about when she might come back to Lebanon. But Ali Najdi, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who I met near Ahmad's shop, saw some problems with Fakih's new prominence. "The head of the municipality told her family that they will hang a big banner with Rima's photo at the entrance of the village," he said. "But many people, namely those who are affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal movement, won't be comfortable having her photo as Miss USA next to the big paintings of Khomeini and Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah that have welcomed visitors at the entrance of the village for years."

But Hezbollah's official statements on Fakih have been relatively mild. "The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the West," Hassan Fadlallah, one of the party's members in parliament, said during a TV interview on Tuesday. 

"This is none of their business," Afifa Fakih said when I asked her about the comment. "Who cares about what Hezbollah thinks? She is our daughter, not theirs, and Lebanon is proud of her."



Indonesia Learns Chinese

A once-banned language makes a comeback.

It looked like a typical Chinese language class. A young woman named Mela strode to the front of the room and performed a skit about shopping at the beauty counter. "I shop by quality and by price," she said in near-perfect Mandarin. But the location of the scene was a bit more unusual. The class took place at the University of Indonesia, the top school in the world's fourth-most populous country, and almost all the students, including Mela, who was wearing skinny jeans and a headscarf, were Muslim.

A decade ago, an indigenous Indonesian, or pribumi, studying Chinese would have been almost unthinkable. Indonesia had a history of conflict between its Chinese minority and Muslim majority dating back to colonial times, when Dutch rulers favored the Chinese over the pribumi. But today many young Indonesians -- both ethnic Chinese and pribumi -- are leaving behind the old ethnic strife and learning Mandarin to take advantage of China's booming economy. When U.S. President Barack Obama visits the country of his childhood next month, he may find a population increasingly looking north across the South China Sea rather than east across the Pacific.

Although millions of ethnic Chinese lived in Indonesia and were the driving force behind the economy, Mandarin had been excised from public life since long before students like Mela were born, as part of a general effort to assimilate the Chinese by force. Under the rule of President Suharto, from 1965 to 1998, Chinese schools and books and even the celebration of Chinese New Year were forbidden. Ethnic Chinese were strongly encouraged to adopt Indonesian names, and cina, meaning China or Chinese, became a racial epithet.

The Mandarin language was driven underground in many parts of Indonesia during those years, and studying Chinese became a clandestine activity. For example, Henry Tong, the owner of a company in Java that manufactures gloves, told me he learned Chinese as a child by reading Hong Kong comic books and from a private tutor. "When we studied, we had to close all our doors and windows. And when we saw somebody from the army outside, we quickly hid our books," he said.

In May 1998, riots broke out in Jakarta and other cities as demonstrations against economic woes turned into widespread looting and arson lasting for nearly three days. Much of the violence targeted the ethnic Chinese and their businesses, though ultimately most of the people who died, trapped in burning malls, were non-Chinese. But the riots also brought down Suharto, and the next elected president dismantled the country's anti-Chinese policies.

Now, companies now come to the University of Indonesia to recruit Chinese majors, and job ads asking for Mandarin skills have cropped up in local newspapers. "Finding a job in Indonesia is easier if you speak Mandarin," Mela told me in Chinese. She took up the language in high school after a teacher said China's development would make Mandarin fluency valuable to employers.

As other students gave their presentations in the University of Indonesia class I visited, Daniel Kus Hendarso and a friend sat at the back of the room, joking around and tapping at their cell phones. Hendarso, though three-quarters Chinese by heritage, is even newer to the language than Mela. He and his parents are typical Chinese Indonesians. Their family has lived in Indonesia for generations, and they now speak only Indonesian and a local language, Javanese. Hendarso noted that the Chinese own many of the top Indonesian companies, and he said he hopes to improve his job prospects. But he also cited another motivation for studying the language. "I want to better understand my homeland," he said.

To meet growing demand from students and parents, about one-fifth of the country's universities now offer Mandarin, compared to just 5 percent a decade ago, according to Dendy Sugono, who heads the Language Centre at Indonesia's Ministry of Education. But qualified teachers are hard to find -- not surprising given how long the language was banned -- and often have to be imported from China.

More and more, students are going directly to China for educational opportunities. Another student in the Chinese class, Amelia, one of the few to have parents who speak Mandarin, has just applied for a scholarship at a well-known foreign languages university in Beijing. "Most of my Chinese friends from high school want to go to China to study, not the U.S.," said Amelia, who has one name, as is common in Java. "American universities are too expensive."

Last year 7,926 Indonesian students studied in China, more than three times as many as in 2003. For the first time, China was more popular than the United States, which drew 7,509 students. The high price of U.S. tuition only partly explains the trend. Another reason? Indonesians are beginning to see China, not the United States, as the world power to bet on.

It's easy to see why Indonesians who master Mandarin might have a bright future with one of the many Indonesian companies that do business with China. Last year trade between the two countries totaled $22.41 billion for non-oil-and-gas products. Indonesia's wealth of forestry and minerals products are particularly appealing to a natural-resources-hungry China. And since a free trade agreement took effect early this year, exports to China (excluding oil and gas products) have already skyrocketed 137.6% in January and February, compared to the same period in 2009.

"Just as in the past having their sons and daughters mix at American universities paid off at a lot of levels, Indonesian parents feel that now is the time to do that in China," said Greg Barton, Indonesian studies professor at Monash University in Australia.

But for or all the enthusiasm around Mandarin's resurgence, no one can say how much language learning will bridge social divides. True, ethnic tensions have eased significantly in the last decade, and a new politically correct term, tionghoa, has replaced cina, but the differences between ethnic Chinese and the pribumi pervade life in Indonesia. In Jakarta, the two groups usually attend separate schools, live in separate neighborhoods, shop at separate malls, and seek treatment at separate hospitals. During a recent trip to the capital, I stayed at a large apartment complex where almost all the residents were ethnic Chinese; only the building workers and nannies were pribumi.

But change is afoot, as the students in Chinese class reminded me. "Before I came to university, all my friends were Chinese. But here, there are more Indonesians, so I'm friends with them," said Amelia. "I think it's okay.