Jasmina Tešanović: MBOs

Text by Jasmina Tešanović
Photo by Bruce Sterling

Moving Black Objects

That's how they call them in Iraq, the US military:
women are "MBOs," shapeless pillars of black, moving
in public.

Here in Sharjah, one emirate among the United Arab
Emirates, a Sultan is Ruler and his intellectual
Sultana has trendy cultural and ecological concerns…

Here I am also a women dressed in black.
In the airport in the neighboring state of Qatar,
there is free wifi service but a thoroughly blocked
and censored Internet. In Sharjah the FlickR photo
service is as rare as alcohol and feminism.

The Skype Internet phone service is similarly
blocked in Sharjah, so I crossed the street alone
from my hotel, taking a slot-in card to a local phone
booth. All hell broke loose: a women alone in the
street in a red Italian dress with short sleeves!
Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs… almost everyone on the
crowded street was a man — stared bluntly at my
shocking presence. I boldly reached the payphone and
as I waited my chance to use it, I got a host of
offers from men passing by: to use their cellphones,
to come into their shops, to buy myself a burqa, to
get a job…

Are you an actress? asked an eager, tiny Pakistani

No, why?

Because of your dress and your hair!

I hastened back to my hotel, and got hold of my
American friend. No more false steps: we went to a
massive local bazaar and bought a long black shroud
beautifully embroidered in gold. It came with the
obligatory matching head-shawl. These head-wrappings
come in varying levels of theological rigour: it's
Sharjah it's common to see faceless women with
glasses: narrow square transparent gadgets that fit a
tiny split in black cloth.

Back in my hotel, a mother of three is tutoring
her boys in the swimming pool. She wears the
headcloth, the black MBO shroud, and fancy high heeled
shoes. Sweating and fretting in the sun, she does not
swim in the nice hotel pool, for she never learned
how. She cannot drive a car, either, so she told me.
I met her husband, an older man. She is his third

In the room I watch Arabic TV. The wailing,
amplified music is so similar to Serbian turbo folk.
Arab women in the local TV soap-operas are weepy,
handwringing and frequently smacked around, beaten
just as often as they are in folklore Serbian
serials. This feudal Arab society which had no
industrial revolution strangely reminds me of Tito's
communist regime. Tribal and caste-ridden, it has the
benefits of peace and order, but never achieved

After a few days of this, I badly need a drink.
Needless to say this is strictly forbidden, and not
merely for women.

Sharjah lacks beggars and the poor, for the
Arabs live on oil and anyone else who lacks a job in
this place is swiftly deported. A society with
zero unemployment is clean and rather beautiful. The
soaring skyscrapers recall Arab palaces from centuries
ago. Sometimes even the air conditioners have
traditional facades. The solemn beach with its white
fine sand might have greeted Lawrence of Arabia, of
the Sphinx.

The Sharjah Biennale is in town, an ecological
artistic festival sponsored by the Sultan and run by
the Sultana. Sophisticated and world-class, the
shoppers' Disneylands of the Arabian Gulf no longer
merely export oil but aim to export culture. LESS OIL
MORE COURAGE says the billboard all over town, made by
the Thai-German-Argentine-American global artist,
Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Next month here in Sharjah, an international
congress of nanotechnology, with international
big-shots of big-science. Art, science, culture,
skyscrapers, real-estate and oil.

A Bollywood star
honors Sharjah with his first public appearance
outside his home country…. A huge hotel dinner
organized by the local chamber of commerce may go
half-attended, with sculpted heaps of gorgeous food,
innocent Pepsi in the crystal cocktail glasses… if
no one shows up to eat it, then the efforts of the
chefs are performance art.

In the blistering desert heat, we freeze in
huge new ballrooms and echoing congress rooms. Out in
the honking streets, the black moving objects scuttle
across the chaotic streets like so many stray cats.
Utopia or oblivion, those faceless shadows in the
shimmering heat could carry a baby, or they could
carry a bomb…

– – – – –

Jasmina Tešanović is an author, filmmaker, and wandering thinker who shares her thoughts with BoingBoing from time to time. Email: politicalidiot at yahoo dot com. Her blog is here.

Previous essays by Jasmina Tešanović on BoingBoing:

Killing Journalists

Jasmina Tešanović: Where Did Our History Go?
Serbia Not Guilty of Genocide

Carnival of Ruritania
"Good Morning, Fascist Serbia!"
Faking Bombings
Dispatch from Amsterdam
Where are your Americans now?

Anna Politkovskaya Silenced
Slaughter in the Monastery

Mermaid's Trail

A Burial in Srebenica
Report from a concert by a Serbian war criminal
To Hague, to Hague

Preachers and Fascists, Out of My Panties

Floods and Bombs

Scorpions Trial, April 13
The Muslim Women 
– Belgrade: New Normality
Serbia: An Underworld Journey
Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
The Long Goodbye
Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
Slobodan Milosevic Died
Milosevic Funeral