A Spotlight on The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

My article for District Fray Magazine

For the past 10 years, the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival has celebrated Palestinian culture. It has been an umbilical cord to a motherland that increasingly lives on only in the hearts and minds of its people driven into diaspora. The festival has not only been a border-defying place to hear often-unheard voices, but it has preserved traditions imperiled by extinction. It has reaffirmed a sense of identity and community for Palestinians the world over, and offered a look behind forbidding walls.

Founded in 2011 by three women – Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar – it has showcased both local and international artists and been hosted by Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Goethe Institute, and Studio Theatre. This year, like the diasporic culture it represents, it has gone beyond the confines of a space and into the virtual realm. Though the festival ran from October 1-10, you can still stream the films, watch the lectures, and support through volunteering and donating.

The festival has highlighted a variety of creative mediums. This past summer, the organization hosted four cooks who offered free cooking and culinary history lessons for Sufra Sundays. Two female Palestinian DJs played free sets this year, and previous years have offered Dabke dancing lessons and breakdancing.

One of the highlights of the festival was Tatreez & Tea. Wafa Ghnaim, the author of the book “Tatreez & Tea” and the creative mind behind Palestinian embroidery workshops, explains the origins.

“I started Tatreez & Tea in 2015 as an oral history documentation project,” Ghnaim says. “My mother has been teaching tatreez since she came to the United States in the 1980s and, before that, she taught at refugee camps.”

Tatreez is an Arabic word meaning embroidery. Palestinians are renowned for their cross-stitching, which shines amongst the already very rich textile traditions of the Levant.

“I learned tatreez, not embroidery,” Ghnaim adds. “To say ‘tatreez’ is a true reclamation of the practice.”

In the Palestinian tradition, tatreez is passed down from mother to daughter. This is why it is such a strong thread to family and identity.

“Initially, I never saw it as a special skill because I learned tatreez when I was a young child. It was just such a natural thing and something that was always around me. My mother had dreamt of writing a book, and I wanted to make her dream a reality.”

In 2015, Ghnaim applied to a number of grants and received every one of them.

“I was a no-name coming on the scene. My mom was really the traditional artist and cultural worker. I took this as a sign that I should really do this.”

The festival’s intersectional orientation is another way in which it differs from other festivals. Bhasma Ghalayini, the editor of “Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba,” shares the process of creating this first anthology of Palestinian science fiction.

“When I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, we had very limited access to books or films,” Ghalayini says. “You had to ask people traveling abroad to bring you back those things. I was working as a translator for Comma Press, a British publishing company, which had released “Iraq + 100,” a book that posed the question of what Iraq would look like in 2103. I wanted to do a similar project with Palestinian writers. The Nakba in 1948 displaced 700,000 Palestinians. This catastrophe that all Palestinians have a connection to seemed like an appropriate date on so many levels.”

Sci-fi is a new genre for the writers featured in the collection.

“We are not used to writing about anything in an imaginative context because it feels like it is almost too much of a luxury to write about the future,” Ghalayini adds. “But if you think about it, the current situation has all the makings of a dystopian future: siege, surveillance, lack of resources and water, pollution.”

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival offered a diversity of perspectives, and a thoughtfully and lovingly curated glimpse of talent and creativity that bursts beyond any physical walls. Learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival and like the festival on Facebook.

Decoding Dog Behavior in D.C. Parks

My article for District Fray Magazine

Longtime D.C. resident and fourth-year PhD student in George Washington University’s Department of Anthropology, Courtney Sexton studies the coevolution of humans and dogs. She is particularly interested in nonverbal communication and behavior.

Sexton’s graduate program requires students to undertake an internship in the public understanding of science, promoting how to present scientific information to nonscientific audiences. When her internship project got funded by the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation, she knew she was on to something.

“D.C.’s dogs and dog parks have been a controversial topic,” she says, “less so because of the dogs and more so because of their human guardians.”

She started thinking about the project at a time when the public discourse around dog ownership and public space was particularly contentious. And while many dog owners are aware of their responsibilities to their animal companions, they may perhaps be less aware of what their animal friends are trying to communicate to them.

This is how Decoding Dog Talk was born. Before the start of the pandemic, Courtney planned to host a series of Tail Talk tables at dog parks and recreation areas across the city where residents could get free information, diagrams and mini demos to help them learn basic principles of dog behavior.

“Most humans are not in tune to the subtleties of dogs’ language,” she explains. “Hint: Not all tail wags are created equally. Being armed with even a basic understanding of dog behavior could reduce stress on the animals and increase their quality of life – [which is] always a challenge for city pets – and help to avoid complications and confrontations with neighbors and other members of the community.”

After the fur-ruffling that New York Times article “The Dog Park is Bad, Actually” caused, this sounds like a much-needed thing to yap about. Dog parks are great places for play, but they certainly have downsides as well.

“The reason why I would like to be there for those Tail Talks is it’s hard to give general advice. The context is critical to understanding the body language of the dogs. Not all tail wags are happy. Also, the owners tend to space out while their dogs are constantly looking to them for guidance on how to handle social situations.”

Sexton says the way humans often view social and antisocial behaviors in dogs is quite wrong.

“I hope to impart on folks the importance of the contextual clues in body language and the trigger warnings that hint their dog is about to get into a fight,” she adds.

The fights between dogs can sometimes lead to their learning inappropriate behaviors like bullying – and then repeating those behaviors outside the park. Knowing how to recognize signs of aggression and learning how to control the dogs in that case is especially important. Simple obedience commands are critical in a dog park environment. While Decoding Dog Talk is on hold, learning about dog communication is definitely barking up the right tree. And as Covid restrictions lessen, Sexton plans to starting hosting safe, socially distant Tail Talk Tables.

“I was actually able to host one socially distanced Tail Talk Table at the Virginia Ave Dog Park a couple of weeks ago, and it went great.”

Learn more about Sexton’s project here and listen to her speak on the topic here

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.