Sunday, May 16, 2004


My classicist friend Rob Groves has posted his thoughts on Troy before seeing the movie. They're not what you might expect.

Scrubs and Language

IWPR has an interesting story shedding light on the linguistic situation in northern Iraq through the experiences of Arab med students in Kurdistan. A core issue seems to be the fact that Kurds have to learn Arabic, but Arabs generally haven't learned Kurdish. I think in the future the Iraqi educational system should require some knowledge of both Kurdish and Arabic, regardless of the primary language of instruction in a given region. It would be interesting to see how this situation compares with that in Quebec, where east of Montreal I ran into a number of people who didn't know English, even if they had had some in school.


Congratulations to my brother, Jason Ulrich, who just graduated from QU with a BS in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. Congratulations also to my parents, who have successfully raised two kids and put them through college. May there be a happy future for all concerned!

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Jordan and Syria

My plans to put up travel-related stuff every Friday didn't work, as I never truly got the picture thing sorted out. When I get back from Morocco, I plan to look into that further. In the meantime, here's my last e-mail from my 2001 summer in Jordan with excursions into Syria, focusing mainly on Damascus. I was pretty strongly waxing philosophical by this point...

"Scurrying across the surface of the world, populating the cheapest of hotels, lurking at all the museums and monuments, travelling lightly, often alone or in twos which mix and match as paths cross and bond for a time, one finds that unique group of people known as the backpackers, mostly college students from various Western countries and Japan who decide to simply stuff some clothes into a backpack and wander around the world seeing sights while they're still young and free, pinching pennies beyond belief for weeks and months on end as they give themselves memories to last a lifetime. Because we, too, are cheap college students, we see them often sitting around lounges - sometimes they seem practically to just move into a cheap hotel for like a week or so and hang out. Despite this, we actually don't talk to them that much simply because our perspectives on the world tend to diverge. For when I say "on the surface," that is very much the impression I get, glancing at things superficially, seeing with rose-colored glasses and youthful idealism the different societies they skim across as they pass with their 'Lonely Planet' guidebooks from monument to monument in their travels.

"Whether or not our group has really penetrated beyond the surface is, of course, a matter open to debate, for although we have different degrees of fluency in Arabic we remain outsiders most places we go, and while we see far more of the daily life than, say, the German kid on the roof of the hotel we stayed in the first time we were in Damascus, there remain countless niches to Middle Eastern society of which our exclusively urban, largely campus-centered experience can illuminate only a few. And even then, our ideas and expectations for life just differ, mainly in degree, for those with whom we interact, and as the awareness grows that we near the end of our journey, little things like the lack of anything resembling an orderly line anywhere combine with cabin fever to increasingly bug us while we seek out the familiar to which we will soon be returning.

"But the program is not over yet, and just last weekend six of us made our last significant weekend jaunt across the border to Damascus, the ancient Syrian capital and one of the most culturally significant cities in all the world, so old that it was already old in the tales of Genesis, 1000 years or more before its incarnation with Arbila, Gadara, Gerasa, etc. as one of the Roman cities of the Decapolis, and yet again as Damascus, capital of the Umayyads, who ruled as caliphs from 650-750 a territory stretching from Central Asia to Spain, and which later became a capital of both Zengids and Ayyubids during the Crusades, a city which today stretches through quarter after quarter with insanely busy streets and traffic circles crossed by countless pedestrian skybridges similar to the ones over University Avenue in Madison only built with right angles instead of curves.

"Within this city, one finds running the streets that unfortunate type of urban child so memorably sketched by Victor Hugo in the person of Gavroche, the poor or orphaned rascal who begs or peddles for bits of food while somehow retaining the curious innocence of childhood. You find many of them in well-populated areas like bus stations and suqs, either drawn there by their own experience or sent by some cynical Fagan hiding the the shadows We encounted one such kid named Ahmad peddling gum outside a prayer rug shop in what proved one of the more intriguing meetings of the trip: He was perhaps ten years old, and had with him two other children of about half that age, all extending their boxes of gum and saying (in Arabic) '15 lire.' When I gave our standard reply of 'La' (No) followed by a persistance which drew an "emshii" (go away), Ahmad stopped and turned to the other two saying: 'Emshi - what is this?' There followed a silence before he proclaimed: 'ithhibu!' (go) and shoved both into the road. Then he said: 'This is formal Arabic. And in dialect?' The two kids mumbled something and he repeated his question, to which Ben, sitting on a stool outside the shop replied 'yalla.' Ahmad then verified this answer, and again shoved them into the street, indicating they should leave.

"At that point I was intrigued, and asked his name, which he told me; when I asked if he was the leader (qa'id) of this group, he stood up and said to me, Ben, and the two smaller kids 'Anna mudeer!' Then he turned to the other kids, asked them to listen, and said to me, 'Are you English?' 'American,' I replied at which he threw his arm out and ordered the other two back, saying Americans were often dangerous. He then turned to me and said, 'You aren't, though.' Then one of the kids asked me if I wanted gum again, and when I declined began leaning onto my lap waving it in my face. This provoked a storm of dialect of Ahmad which seemed to involve a prohibition as he was waving his arm between us and saying something involving a negation, before, after a final no sending them off into the street. After this he proclaimed that they were just kids and still learning, and he was a big boy and teaching them. During and ensuing conversation we found that Ahmad had a family somewhere in Damascus, and that he also knew some English from school. Later I talked to
, who hails from Damascus, and learned that Syria makes sure all the kids get educated regardless of circumstances, and that a very serious or talented student could easily have acquired the knowledge of English and formal Arabic Ahmad demonstrated.

"The kind of future he will have, however, probably isn't much better than most of the other street children simply because of the roadblocks and poor economy of a lot of society. As he gets older, he may turn into one of the young adolescent street dogs-in-training who started harassing us in Dara'a, en route to a future in the 'informal sector' of the economy as a street vendor or professional beggar, unless perhaps he can peddle his mandatory military service into some sort of future. With luck, he'll be able to enjoy a soccer game, standing in the stone bleachers cheering in a crowd watched by riot police with helmets and plastic shields and going crazy, holding people up in the air and lighting newspapers on fire when his team scores the winning goal.

"The job market, however, is another matter entirely, and there things are likely to only get worse in the future, as like all developing nations, both Jordan and Syria have extremely high percentages of young people as a result of improved health care pushing child mortality downward while families still often have 10+ children. Some of these will be lucky enough to go to college and study English like most of our Yarmouk friends do, and like most college students will come into contact with whole new ranges of ideas and lifestyles.
stuff deleted This is the opposite of many people's ideas in college; her friend name deleted takes the opposite track and has increasingly begun dressing, not just in hijab, but in gloves and everything as an assertion of cultural identity rather than the Western fashions most young Jordanians take for granted.

"Politics is also uncertain. While we were in Damascus there were illegal anti-Israeli protests in Amman, smaller than expected, but still enough to provoke the government into a crackdown. During the past week several newspaper editors have had to resign under pressure for articles critical of Jordanian policy, the king issued a decree about expressing opinions contrary to Jordanian security interests, and one of our friends from the West Bank said the campus area is filled with undercover security people watching for signs of potentially illegal activity. They all hurry to add, of course, that this is better than in Syria where people are required by law to have at least one poster of Bashar al-Assad somewhere, and where Waddah assures us that the government is ultimately behind the low-level calls for reform that came out yesterday. There's also the ever-present Israel/Palestine issue; here almost everyone we talk to supports the peace process and thinks it can ultimately yield results, but considers Sharon an unindicted war criminal and talks up the movement in Europe to have him follow Milosevic to the Hague to stand trial. The shooting of the Israeli businessman in Amman yesterday has mainly gotten surprised reactions from Jordanians in our social area; people wonder why any Israeli would want to live there, and while they are far from big fans of Israel, they deeply question this new Lebanon-based 'Nobles of Jordan' group that has claimed responsibility. Some were making fun of the groups statement that they were 'liberating Jordan from the Zionist oppressors' - 'By killing some hapless* merchant?' they say skeptically.

"What the future holds for all of this is uncertain. Adults here definitely work incredible hours; you see the same owner in the fruit stand at 9 p.m. that you do at 9 a.m. The merchants in the suq are clearly in their shop all day; when we were gossipping with some in Aleppo while waiting for the girls to finish in a jewelry store, they complained a lot about how hot the day was and how little business they were getting; they had been out in the heat of Syria for maybe 12 hours, worked six days a week, and really didn't make that much money. Even as cheap college students, the amount of money we dump by eating out every day at maybe $1 a meal is a huge boost to our establishments of choice.

"The German guy on the Damascus hotel roof kept talking about how much better Syria was than Germany because everywhere you look people are happy, don't have any cares in the world, and live a laid-back life just accepting whatever comes. He decided to travel the world after his parents agreed to pay his way to some specialized medical school. He'd been travelling for two and a half months, and admittedly is more relaxed about lifestyle than we were. As
name deleted commented, the clothes he spilled something on in Homs will be dirty until we're back home because 'They can't get clean here!' For myself, I have one pair of pants with actual Dead Sea mud on them and another of which the famed red dust of Petra might become a permanent feature, and it's starting to drive me nuts. But whether the German student's lower expectations translate into a closer bonding with the culture is highly questionable.

"In the movie of Lawrence of Arabia, the plot is driven by the ultimate goal of capturing Damascus, the very city where we were staying. There is one scene I've always remembered where Prince Faysal, later King Faysal whom our hotel in Aleppo was named after, said to Lawrence: 'I think you are one of these desert-loving English. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert.' Scraping aside all the possible theoretical criticisms possible here, this statement applies to a lot of these travellers' impressions from the idealistic side just as the resort-hugging tourist types can be blown away by a dose of basic cultural respect.

"But perhaps there is a third way between these extremes, a way which combines the impressions and experiences of us as students, the backpackers, the vacationers of Petra and Aqaba, and the many people we've met along a single great continuum. For in Damascus, at either end of the suq, you find a great momunent. At one is the vast Damascus Citadel, closed for renovation, boasting in front a large statue of Saladin atop a horse. At the other, more famous and made eternal by its sacredness, is THE Umayyad Mosque, filled with life from the flocks of pigeons who land in the courtyard to the people from all over the world who come to see and inhale the air of this monument to the faith of Islam from its first century. In one wing is a shrine where Shi'ites go to mourn at the resting place of the head of the martyred Imam Hussein. In the main hall, between two of the three towering minarets, in a building decorated outside with beautiful multicolored nature scenes such as Europe would not see for centuries, is a shrine in which a while and gold skeleton supporting an enclosure of green glass protects the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist, on the approach to which sit a number of old men who may be like the blind men in the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo who have the Quran memorized and to whom local people go with problems. At the call to prayer, the front wall lined is lined with men, while the back is lined with women, performing the prayers required at that particular time of day, facing the niches in the wall which point in the direction of Mecca.

"While we were there, too, surrounded by this really open mix of centuries-old sacred ritual, scurrying pigeons, and foreign sight-seers of different mentalities were two rows totaling maybe 40 people on either side of a small rectangular box about six feet long and three feet high covered in a green cloth inscribed with Quranic inscriptions. Standing directly before the white minbar where the imam stands to deliver the Friday sermon, they performed prayers different than the afternoon prayers of the main body of worshippers. Like many who were not sure what this was we curiously watched from a distance, thinking this might be Imam Hussein's shrine or something. Then, after several minutes, the party solemnly stood, lifted up the coffin, and bore it away, lovingly carrying the earthly remains of a loved one from where they had achieved their honor of being prayed over in this mosque and its bright, human surroundings before being carried into the cold night of the grave. And then, in a moment of reflective silence, you think back, back to near the very beginning of the trip, in the museum section of Umm Qais, where some ancient Hellenistic notable had left his words of wisdom on his casket, translated on the wall for all to see: 'To you I say passersby: As you are, I once was; as I am, you will be. Use life as a mortal.'

"This is the link among all which I have seen and experienced in Jordan - the mystery of how we live in a world which we will one day leave, and how we seek to live full lives for ourselves and our community. We can neither solve the great questions of the world, nor should we let them and them alone rule our destiny. Ours is but to live, to seek, to experience, and to learn, to love, to enjoy, to sorrow, and in-shaa Allah, ultimately fulfill the higher destinies of our own existence. The larger problems of the world will unfold as they will, and, as the old Arab proverb says,''Ind atwal al-ayam nihiya,' 'Even the longest day has an end.' And so does the longest e-mail; even as this trip winds to an end I must return to figuring out how to spend my remaining three days and figure out the logistics of my return, so, in respect and friendship, I hope you have enjoyed these words, crafted as usual with the values of QU and the knowledge of UW together with my own observations and experiences on the world as I have found it."

*I'm convinced this word was a subconscious substitution of some sort on my part, though the general tone fits what I remember of the conversation.

Off the Cuff

As was widely noted a couple of weeks ago, President Bush's comments about how some believe Arabs can't be democratic is a veiled accusation of racism against his opponents. With that in mind, I'd like to note a couple of the President's immediate reactions to things:

1.) When those three harmless Muslim med students in Florida were turned in by a woman who suspected them of terrorism, Bush praised the woman.

2.) With regard to John Walker Lindh, who was actually working with the Taliban, Bush called him a "poor young man" or some such thing before changing his tone.

This is not enough to make a pattern of anything, and there are differences between the two cases. But I'm like throwing out some interesting juxtapositions that suggest President Bush may not be so perfect on this issue after all.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Good Afghanistan News

A break-away faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami has announced they wish to join Hamid Karzai in peaceful rebuilding of the country. As the article notes, this is only a small group, but is still a good sign about the political prospects in a country that definitely needs one. This also seems to be an outgrowth of Karzai's reaching out to former enemies, a policy RFE-RL compares to the Pentagon's decision to begin working for former Ba'athists in Iraq.

Thursday, May 13, 2004


I'm now down in Quincy, where the Internet connection is really slow. Expect light blogging.

Incidentally, I encountered many terrible drivers on the way down. Particularly memorable was a man driving north in the southbound lane...on an interstate. At least he was in what would have been the northbound lane had it been a two-lane road.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

More Berg

Arab Street Bum has comments on the murder of Nick Berg, including how its specific details represent as much a perversion of Islam as the act itself.

Kerry for President

I don't think I've said this yet, so here goes: I officially endorse John Kerry for President of the United States.

I considered giving reasons and stuff, but, well, you know.

Incidentally, here's Daily Kos on why Kerry's chances look good. See The Onion for more about Kerry.

Moroccan Arabic

I'm trying to figure out if I've got some basic patterns down, which is just a tad chancy when working from tourist phrasebooks. So to anyone who knows: Am I correct that "I understand" would be "kanfhem," "I understood" would be "fhemt" (much like MSA), "I will understand" is ""ghadi nfhem" (3 consonants in a row? Do I make it like one word?), and the all-important "I don't understand" would be "ma kanfhemsh?"

I guess I'll get it once I'm over there, but I'm sufficiently freaked about Tangier I'd like as many linguistic tools as possible. So thanks if you can help.


Daniel Pipes cracks me up:

"Some 5% of the E.U., or nearly 20 million persons, presently identify themselves as Muslims; should current trends continue, that number will reach 10% by 2020. If non-Muslims flee the new Islamic order, as seems likely, the continent could be majority-Muslim within decades.

"When that happens, grand cathedrals will appear as vestiges of a prior civilization — at least until a Saudi style regime transforms them into mosques or a Taliban-like regime blows them up. The great national cultures — Italian, French, English, and others — will likely wither, replaced by a new transnational Muslim identity that merges North African, Turkish, subcontinental, and other elements."

10% is less than the percentage of African-Americans in the United States, and we are far from a new African-American order in American civilization. It is, of course, a huge leap to assume that any 10% minority could come from a position of discrimination to dominate a civilization. This of course ignores stuff like acculturation. And why am I even bothering to refute this rubbish?

UPDATE: It seems reasonable to remind people here that not only did George Bush appoint Pipes to the US Institute of Peace, but he used a recess appointment to make sure he got on.

Female Prisoners

In an article on sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib, Gulf News contains some information about people who are imprisoned there:

"Janabi and her colleagues said many women who have been detained are wives or relatives of senior Baath Party officials or of suspected insurgents."

So it looks like even if all the people we suspect of being insurgents actually are, guilt by association is the order of the day in American-controlled Iraq.

Hearing Notes

Here is the transcript for some Senate Abu Ghraib hearings. Is it just me, or is Talent actually blaming it all on Bill Clinton?

Meanwhile, some quotes from Senator Lindsey Graham:

"I would just hope my colleagues can understand that when you say you're the good guys, you've got to act as the good guys."

"Our standard, General Smith, can never be to be like Saddam Hussein, can it be, sir?"

Via Josh Marshall.

The Sound of Death

Angry Arab has an emotional post about the death of Nick Berg, who wanted only to help Iraq. Bush is vowing that the killers will be brought to justice, but of course he could have done that earlier.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


This is just what I wanted to read before I fly out of Madison on United. (I was going to take American, but in the few days between when I looked up fares and actually went to buy my ticket, it booked up, and it was either United or a 5:30 a.m. flight out on ATA.

Sanctions on Syria

Tell me, do these ever work on real dictatorships? Libya was under sanctions for what, 15 years? Don't they just strangle economies so that despite the food/medicine exemption no one can afford anything anymore? Granted, these sanctions aren't as extreme as those against Iraq, but this still isn't a policy in which I have a great deal of faith.

We are also doing this because of Syria's support for Hamas and Hizbullah, two anti-Israeli groups. I'm sure we'll hear rhetoric about democracy and the broad concept of terrorism, though.

Happy Academic

This blog is an interesting counterpoint to the Invisible Adjunct view of the modern academy. It's probably a sign problems definitely exist that the "Happy Academic" isn't saying everything is fine and we should all become English professors, but rather that it's just fine for a bunch of people and better than many alternatives. Some of my readers might like this category of posts, including Ph.D. program survival tips.

I'm still not going to panic too much about my own life prospects, as since I got here in 1999 the Ph.D.-tenure track conversion rate is 100% among people I know in Islamic-history related fields. The Village Voice seems to support that impression:

"The MLA estimates that students who entered English programs in 2003 had a 20 percent chance of coming out with a tenure-track position. The situation is better in history, where the number of new Ph.D.'s in 2003 almost equalled the number of new jobs, after a decade of 'overproduction,' with growth coming in trendy specializations like the Middle East."

Let's just hope this keeps up!

Abu Ghraib Prisoners

Daily Kos contrasts James Inhofe's and the ICRC's take on the Abu Ghraib prison population. This raises an issue I've wondered about: Who exactly are all these prisoners? We hear of a women's and children's section to the prison, but have yet to hear of women and children insurgents. I think months ago I read on Juan Cole that we were considering arresting friends and family members of suspected insurgents to use as hostages. Does anyone know if we went through with something like that?

This is a request for information, not a report of verified facts.

UPDATE: Dean Nation's Dana Blankenhorn wants a protest at Inhofe's Oklahoma office.


Good luck to Tim May, who today defends his dissertation on the mechanics of conquest and governance among the Mongols!

Monday, May 10, 2004

Djerba, Perejil

The Tunisian island of Djerba just played host to hundreds of Jews on a pilgrimage to an old synagogue. Between this and some recent reading on Morocco, I get the feeling the Jewish component of Maghrebi culture runs a lot deeper than most people realize. Fez, where I will be this summer, has an important Jewish Quarter in the New City. As usual, I won't make absolute guarantees about what might interest me when I get over there, but expect to hear more about this.

Meanwhile, Colin Powell is in trouble for calling the Perejil Island, subject of a crisis a couple of years ago between Spain and Morocco, a "stupid little island." This probably isn't diplomatically smart, but I can see where he is coming from =)

Khamene'i On-Line

As Gulf News reports, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i now has a web site.

Flag Burning

Another Outrage

The Pak Tribune reports that American forces in Afghanistan have distributed leaflets threatening to withhold humanitarian aid if people did not cooperate against the Taliban:

"The leaflets were distributed by US forces in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan and where the Taliban have regained control of several districts.

One of the leaflets, showing an Afghan carrying a bag of provisions, reads: 'In order to continue the humanitarian aid, pass over any information related to Taliban, al-Qaida or Gulbuddin organisations to the coalition forces.' The latter reference is to the renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is believed to have allied himself with the Taliban."

The leaflets have now been withdrawn, as American government officials blame local commanders.


Let it be known that I am furious with the way George W. Bush and his administration have run this country. I've felt that way for at least a couple of months now, but it's taken this long to calm down enough to post it. It is difficult for a President not to do some good things, and the raw power of the United States is such that there will always be some successes. However, this only serves to make catastrophic mistakes more glaring. The cost to this country of the Bush administration - in terms of national security, global moral authority, and on a number of domestic fronts - has been high even discounting partisan issues like abortion or the nature of the tax burden. And some of those costs we are going to be living with for years to come.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Yediot Aharonot

United Iraqi Scholars Group

A group of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites have formed a new anti-CPA organization in Iraq called the United Iraqi Scholars Group. From the article, these are generally moderate figures who have been planning this for months. According to Islam Online, it involves everyone from the Arab Nationalist Movement to the Human Rights Higher Committee to the Association of Muslim Scholars. I wonder if this represents the emergence of a real Iraqi national leadership. Even if most Iraqis are unfamiliar with them, they probably represent the non-scary alternative to the occupation many have been waiting for.


The Nigerian Plateau state is home to some aspiring genocidal maniacs. A Christian militia went house-to-house in the town of Yelwa killing hundreds of Muslim men, women, and children. This seems far more organized and deliberate than the usual ethnic clashes, and between it and Sudan, one has to wonder if the "never again" refrain about tolerating genocide will ever mean anything.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Dushanbe Synagogue

RFE-RL reports on the fight to save Dushanbe's last synagogue, which is slated for demolition to make room for a park.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Reason for Happiness

Well, my panel went well today - extremely well. The topic was "Teaching Early Islam," and I got the idea last year when some European medievalists commented to me that they were having to teach about medieval Islam and unsure of what they were doing. So I had the idea of getting some people together to talk about the issues. And despite my fears no one would show up and I'd have to apologize for the lack of audience, it was as full as most sessions here optimally aspire to be. The presenters - Leonard Biallas from Quincy University, Jeff Stanzler and Michael Fahy from the University of Michigan, and Kate Lang from University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire - were all excellent, and eager to be there. And not only did things run slightly over the usual half-hour question period before presider Adam Sabra from Western Michigan University called an end, but lots of people stuck around another half hour for informal conversation on the subject. I am so happy! Thanks to anyone who came and happens to read this.

Gas Prices

Is it just me or are gas prices rather high right now?

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Off to Kalamazoo

I'm about to leave for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (I wasn't going to go this year, but since I organized a session I figure I should probably attend it.) I'll be back Saturday night, but won't blog until Sunday, unless something really catches my notice. And congratulations to the unknown person who later today will become this site's 30,000th hit!

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Leaving Castalia

As Timothy Burke notes, Erin O'Connor is leaving higher education to teach in a private high school, perhaps paralleling in some ways the departure of Joseph Knecht from Castalia in Hermann Hesse's masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game. I've hardly ever read "Critical Mass," so I don't know everything that led up to this decision and won't comment on the details.

I do, however, want to note something about the teaching/research dichotomy that comes up in a lot of higher education discussions, both on-line and in my real life. It is certainly true that many college professors get burned out on the teaching aspect of their jobs, if they ever enjoyed it in the first place. I think the reason for this is that teaching and research almost require different, not always over-lapping personality characteristics. In order to be happy teaching, it is not enough to enjoy talking about your subject. As one of my undergraduate education professors kept emphasizing, you have to like people. Even if a student forgets what you say about the causes of the Korean War or the stages of mitosis, you need to feel content if you have perhaps contributed to helping shape students' worldviews and otherwise live better lives by passing on the skills and knowledge you can from your corner of their undergraduate experience. A person who seeks primarily to immerse themselves in the ever-expanding horizons of their discipline will never be happy sitting in paper conferences with students trying to figure out what a thesis is. At the same time, a person who enjoys working with others and trying to help people will likely burn out isolated in an archive working on a monograph only a handful of people will ever read.

Incidentally, at the risk of revealing a very high level of nerdiness, there's one quote which I've long felt captures the spirit of what higher education in the humanities should be all about for the average student en route to the business world:

"The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons, and for one brief moment, you did. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration which awaits you. Not mapping stars or studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence."

-Star Trek: The Next Generation ("All Good Things")

When you're out teaching, you need to be able to consider yourself happy if you can get most students to have just one extended moment like that above. Usually only a handful of students will share your interest in the subject enough to keep things interesting in terms of content.

Quiz Bowl Coach Wanted

I see that Conserve School is actively seeking a replacement quiz bowl coach.

Prisoner Abuse

Tacitus has some good ideas about how the U.S. should respond to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse problem. And I just now learned that there is a rather old inquiry into the deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan, as well. The RFE-RL report is pretty short, though, and consists mostly of procedural stuff.

Madison's Rafah Politics

The Capital Times has another informative article about the Madison-Rafah sister city project. One development is that a group of local Jews is rallying behind the proposal. More interesting is that my idea to have an Israeli sister city as well as Rafah has been floated...and rejected by the Madison-Rafah group. Alderman Ken Golden suggested that Madison, Rafah, and the hypothetical Israeli city could engage in three-way cultural dialogue. A member of the Madison-Rafah project said they would talk to people interested in getting an Israeli sister city, but that, "There's no lack of venue for the voice of the current Israeli administration."

At this point, I feel I should mention that my opinions here are strictly my own, and do not represent those of the UW-Madison Middle East Studies Program, which employs me and has had occasional contact with the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project over events. (Our name was on a list of co-sponsors for some speakers they brought it, and they post stuff to our bulletin board, as do the University of Haifa study abroad program and the Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam people.) However, as a private citizen, I do question the fact this group is insisting that Rafah should not be taken as representative of certain groups with the Palestinian community, but holding any hypothetical Israeli city as representing Ariel Sharon's government.


So why, exactly, did I decide to leave for Morocco right after the end of the academic year? Since I'm a dissertator that shouldn't matter, but it feels like it does for some reason. Today I made a lot of progress in preparing, as I discovered how to cross London to get from Heathrow to Gatwick, got my International Student Identity Card, figured out that Volume V of al-Baladhuri's Genealogy of Notables would probably keep me busy for most of my stay there, made an appointment to see the international travel doctor, and decided to take a CTM bus from Tangier to Fez. Still, there always seems to be something new to figure out. Where did I stick my immunization records, since they don't seem to be in my wallet? Will I be able to see Jordan and/or Kristin? What kind of film should I put in my camera? What's up with the Moroccan verb conjugations? What do I make of the Lonely Planet transliterations of Moroccan pronounciation? Answers coming soon, I hope...

Of course, judging from today's posts by Abu Aardvark, Kristin, and Jonathan Dresner, it could be worse. I could have papers to grade instead of just work meetings, a conference this weekend, and my brother's graduation next weekend.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Muslim Luther and Medieval History

Over at Cliopatra, there is a flare-up over Francis Fukuyama's comments about Islam awaiting its Luther. (Incidentally, I wonder how Catholics feel when people use Luther as a general symbol for "religion-fixer." Do we dismiss people like those who founded the mendicant orders as irrelevant?) Anyway, almost a year ago I commented on the dangers of careless comparative history involving other cultures. Naturally, being a medievalist, I suggest knowledge of distant centuries is crucial for understanding the present.

Incidentally, awhile back I was asked to what degree I felt medieval Islamicists should benefit from government programs, particularly those related to national security. Despite the fact that my dissertation has no discernable national security justification whatsoever, I received a FLAS fellowship to study Farsi next year. (btw, I declined it so as not to abandon a fairly secure PA-ship.) On the one hand, I feel perfectly comfortable with this, as I think government shoudl subsidize some cultural studies. Beyond that, however, is the fact that when you give me a fellowship, you are funding not just my specific research, but the minting of a "Middle East expert" in general.

Despite my disclaimer, career realities suggest that I will wind up teaching at a liberal arts college or similar institution as "the Middle East person," who will teach general world history surveys and upper-level courses in the Middle East, and probably Asia and/or Africa as well. UW's job placement in the general Central Asia-South Asia-Middle East orbit has been excellent, and the jobs are all at places like North Georgia College or Xavier University where you simply do not stick to the same level of narrow specialization one finds at a large research school. Check out the breadth on these profiles to see what people do in the real world. So it's not just what I publish about that you get when you fund me, but what I do in the classroom and in local outreach and media appearances, as well.

The Road Map???

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon struggles to save something of his withdraw plan, Kofi Annan has called on parties to respect the Road Map outlined by President Bush a few ages ago. Looking at the timeline was interesting - had it worked, we would have a Palestinian state by now. Unfortunately, President Bush really didn't care enough to take the highly proactive steps necessary to force anything through, and even then I was pessimistic about whether it would work. It's tempting to point out, however, that Bush's general "stay the course" mentality has not been even rhetorically evident in his approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues, which he ignored for the first year or more of his administration. And while one can find policy-oriented explanations for his approach at different points during the past three years, the complete lack of consistency seems to indicate that here as in so many other areas the White House is adrift when easy options do not materialize.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Bernard Lewis Interview

Via Martin Kramer, I find this Atlantic interview with Bernard Lewis which is worth a read. I may disagree with Lewis on a lot of policy ideas and the whole "do not show weakness" notion, but he has some interesting observations about the quality of media coverage of Iraq, Islam's relationship with democracy, and why breaking up Iraq is a very bad idea.

IWPR Blogs on Central Asia

Thanks to Nathan Hamm, I've just discovered that the always interesting IWPR now has a blog dedicated to Central Asian news.

Patriot Act

Defenders of the Patriot Act often claim that no one has pointed to any specific cases where the act has been abused. However, as this post by my friend Joe Gratz reveals, some of the act's provisions require such deep secrecy that abuses wouldn't be reported without violating the law itself.

Memri II


Despite the outcome of yesterday's Likud referendum, Sharon's engagement policy doesn't seem to be dead. Ma'ariv quote White House sources as saying they still expect the Gaza withdrawal plan to be implemented. Ha'aretz reports that Sharon is meeting with Cabinet members about a new withdrawal plan. Sharon is portrayed as blaming Netanyahu for the plan's defeat, but judging from the margins, it seems more likely Likud activists are simply unwilling to back off their hard-line/nationalist agenda. Whether this is true of all Likud voters, however, remains unknown - I get the feeling this was kind of like Kerry trying to get support for a hawkish foreign policy through a referendum of Daily Kos commenters. Labor and Meretz are pushing for withdrawal from some settlements anyway.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

UW Grade Strike Off

I just received a TAA e-mail informing me that the proposed grade strike has been called off by the TAA Strike Committee, using the discretionary powers it was given when created. I think this is the right decision. If students don't get grades on time, it could have serious repercussions for their ability to move ahead with grad school and careers. While the TAA circulated a number of ideas to "officially" report grades to students without going through the university, it was becoming apparent none of them would work. The TAA will now begin coming up with new ideas aimed specifically at the state government.

UPDATE: The TAA is characterizing this move on its web site as "a gesture of thanks to those who have stood with us."

Best Books, 2003-04

Are you looking for anything to read with your summer vacation time? As usual, I mark the end of the academic year by suggesting a few of the best books I've read during the past twelve months.

The Death of Artemio Cruz (Carlos Fuentes)

My top pick for the year, this work reminded me that I really need to read more Latin American literature. A central theme is fragility, with the failing of media magnate Artemio Cruz's body serving as a metephor for the failing of his idealism. Choice represents another key element, as we revisit the moment in his past when Cruz decided to save himself rather than follow his ideals. This fundamental choice in turn led to other choices, so that at the moment of death he was essentially fated to be who he had chosen to be. What really puts this over the top, though, is Fuentes's writing style, whipping up currents of language to create eddies of thought in which you can lose yourself without ever realizing you are lost.

Outlaws of the Marsh (Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong)

This work, which is very similar to England's Robin Hood stories, will not lead you to great insight into the human condition or Chinese society. It is, however, good fun. The heroes are a band of outlaws who in a series of episodic adventures fight for justice (more or less, usually) against the corrupt and tyrannical officials of the Song dynasty. The tone of these adventures is diverse, from tense romantic drama to Arnold Schwarzengger-esque comedy. I admit, though, that I did not finish the last 30 chapters, which tell of the outlaws joing with the emperor to fight China's enemies, and historically were not always included. To be honest, I found them dull, and suspect they were only included for political reasons.

Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)

I started this book several times and quit less than a third of the way through, only to finally discover it really picked up after that. The thing to keep in mind about Jane Austen is that she is poking fun at many of the social situations she portrays. While I didn't like this as much as Pride and Prejudice, there's still a lot of food for thought in the differing approaches of Elinor and Marianne toward life. I was also unconvinced by the writer's fiat which had Marianne fall completely in love with Colonel Brandon at the end. Still, as I come to appreciate the "novel of manners" genre, I find here interesting commentaries to which everyone can relate.

From Beirut to Jerusalem (Thomas Friedman)

If you read only one book on the heritage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, make it this one. The first section, on Lebanon's civil war, is a very sensitive first-person portrayal of a complicated conflict, its effects on those involved, and the issues of American and Israeli intervention. Later, he pokes his head into many nooks and crannies of the situation with Israelis and Palestinians which are not usually seen in the American media. His writing style is engaging throughout, and while I might not agree with all of his analysis, his ability to engage with the human dimension of complex social and economic problems is a valuable asset.

The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)

Lily Bart is a woman imprisoned by two things - class and gender. These two factors combine to imprison her in a set of conventions and expectations beyond which she cannot see. As this book comes before modern feminism has really taken off, the ending is bleak, as one might expect. The weaves which entrap the heroine - money as necessary for status, woman as ornament and status symbol, social expectations about what is acceptable to different classes - are all the more powerful for their overtness. And having spent some time around old money types and social wannabees seeking status, I can tell you some of this mindset still exists today.

Satan in Goray (Isaac Bashevis Singer)

What happens when a poor and desparate community encounters a messiah-figure promising eschatological fulfillment? These are issues relevant to almost every age of human history, perhaps seen today in the rise of figures like Osama bin Laden in the Islamic world. In this book, we see a breakdown of all normal social mores and the messianic movement becomes its own set of rules, with only the village rabbi standing against it. The setting for this book is 17th-century Poland after a series of pogroms, though Singer was reflecting mainly on early 20th century Europe. That difference itself speaks to its timelessness. (See the Eagles song "Learn to be Still" for more information =))

For Bread Alone (Muhammad Choukri)

On the surface, this book is not that unusual, as aboy grows up in poverty with an abusive father and all manner of social corruption. What struck me about this autobiographical novel, however, is how the life was protrayed neither in an idealized manner nor as some great set of symbols, but simply matter-of-factly, much like I might write about going to the grocery store. The setting a characters are also quite vivid. This also might represent something of a counterpoint to The Death of Artemio Cruz, in that in the end, the narrator chooses a path to better himself through education, in the process leaving behind the petty theft of his youth for what we know will be a career as a successful writer and intellectual. This book, while not life-changing, is still worth a read.

That's it for this year! Note I'm doing this from memory, so I may have made slight errors when I referred to plot points.


Saturday, May 01, 2004

Madison and Rafah

Debate seems to be heating up over the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, designed to foster ties between the Madison community and Rafah, the city in the Gaza Strip where peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed last year. The Madison Jewish Community Council has come out against the project, which they say is simply a means of attacking Israel, and accused of anti-Semitism the plan's sponsors, many of whom are Jewish. Proponents of the plan say they are not anti-Israeli, but simply want to highlight the problems faced by Rafah's citizens as that community deals with environmental and transportation issues which are of concern to many Madisonians. They have, however, criticized Israeli policies in the Gaza Strip in making their case. The Madison-Rafah group has also set up a web site refuting the MJCC's charges

This article sets out some criteria for sister city relationships, most of which revolve around common community interests. I don't think a sister city relationship with a Palestinian city should necessarily be seen as taking sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As seen from both Israel21c and Jonathan Edelstein's "Good News from Palestine" series, Israelis and Palestinians both have a lot of interests not directly related to the conflict which defines them to the outside world. The MJCC has a point that the Madison-Rafah group does engage in a lot of anti-Israeli political advocacy, which I believe is inappropriate for the sister city framework and has in fact helped create the controversy we are now in. However, I believe that this sister city initiative should go forward as a means of treating Palestinians as more than either victims or aggressors. This is what this resolution does. I would also welcome any movement to create a sister city relationship with an Israeli community on the same terms.

Zamfara Churches

Via Tacitus, I see that Nigeria's Zamfara state is preparing to destroy all churches. The excuse is that having churches is apparently a violation of Islamic law. That is bizarre, because there is no such idea in Islamic law whatsoever. In fact, the Christians in Zamfara would fall into the category of "dhimmi," the nisba form of the word "dhimma" meaning roughly "covenant of protection.' I've been reading the early medieval sources, where they are generally referred to as the "ahl al-dhimma," or "people of the covenant," which may refer either to the fact they had a covenant with God via written revelation or a covenant with the Muslims for protection in exchange for accepting Muslim rulers.

The BBC says merely that the Zamfaran government will close "unauthorized" places of worship. I'm not sure what that means. In theory, non-Muslims aren't supposed to build places of worship higher than mosques or build new ones, though the latter ws routinely ignored in Islamic history.

Another point that might be relevant here: Awhile back a friend sent me an Arabic poem about Iraq that is being widely circulated in the Arab world. It included churches along with mosques and citadels as places being attacked by the Americans. This suggests that destroying churches is not high on the priority list of large, politically aware Muslim populations. In general, I am only familiar with persecution of Christians in places where Islamic militants perceive themselves as fighting Christian Crusaders, such as parts of Egypt.

Falluja and Abu Ghraib

This Ray Close guest commentary at "Informed Comment" provides a solid analysis of the recent agreement in Falluja. I wonder if those who argue for a full assault on the city recognize the catastrophic consequences of hundreds more Iraqi dead at the same time the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison are coming out? This isn't April 2003, when we can still plausibly claim to be fighting a war of liberation, but April 2004, when we are fighting for control of a country we are occupying. Iraqification in this case is the only alternative that might solve the Falluja problem without creating worse new ones.

UPDATE: Incidentally, as seen here, everyone pretty much agrees that the Abu Ghraib torturers need to be tried and punished. I would go a step further and say they need to be tried and punished by some Iraqi authorities. That is the only thing that might knit this situation back together.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Faith and History

Hugo Schwyzer at Cliopatra posts some quotes on Christian faith and history. When I teach Islamic history from an agnostic historical perspective, I often have to find a way to reach out to believing Muslim students, and for that matter Jewish and Christian ones, as well, for the lecture on the rise of monotheism in general. When that happens, I like to go straight to the master, Edward Gibbon:

"But this inquiry, however useful or entertaining, is attended with two peculiar difficulties. The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church. The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed. But the scandal of the pious Christian, and the fallacious triumph of the Infidel, should cease as soon as they recollect not only by whom, but likewise to whom, the Divine Revelation was given. The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

"Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favorable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church."

Dead Sea Area

I still haven't developed a good way of posting pictures to my blog, but I can still stick them in a Yahoo Photos album and make it public. Here are some from Madaba and the Dead Sea.

1.) "Moabite Stele" - This is the earliest artifact which mentions Israel.
2.) "Madaba Mosaic Map" - Madaba is famous for its mosaics, and this one on the floor of a church is perhaps the most famous of all, a mosaic map of the Holy Land. You can see the setting here from someone with a better camera than I had.
3.) "Sea Level Marker" - This is at the hot springs, and shows where sea level is. The drop in altitude in this area is so severe it's like landing in an airplane.
4.) "Blazing Hot River of Fire and Death" - Term coined by another person in our group, this is one of the hot springs .
5.) "Hot Spring Falls 1" - self-explanatory
6.) "Hot Spring Falls 2" - self-explanatory
7.) "Shore of Dead Sea" - Note the visible salt along the edges. In the distance, you see our driver. He is a fairly wealthy farmer who knows the owner of the place we stayed in Madaba, and as a sideline drives people from the hotel to the hot springs, Dead Sea, and Mt. Nebo. Our encounter was amusing: Earlier in the day, a shopkeeper had volunteered to drive us to the hotel because it was on the other side of town. We accepted, but the police came and stopped us believing that the shopkeeper was acting as an illegal taxi. Once at the hotel, we met this guy, made our arrangements, and were in his van waiting for him when the same police came again. This time they just wanted to tell us the shopkeeper had been cleared, and everything was fine. The irony, of course, is that we were now actually in an illegal taxi preparing to depart.

Another Anti-TAA Editorial

From the dear Badger Herald:

"We call on appropriate law enforcement officers to take note of the illegality that has been perpetrated on the UW's campus over the past 48 hours and to prosecute the TAA's membership accordingly."

Among those who have actually tried to justify the relevant anti-strike laws instead of just using them as a component of anti-union rhetoric, the claim is that strikes by public employees hurt the public rather than just a company. This is disingenuous. The term "public employees" means that we are employed by the public. Therefore, the employer from whom we withhold the labor for which many feel inadequately compensated is "the public." Keep in mind that when the state's chief negotiator characterizes the governor's stance as political, that means he is thinking about the will of the people of the state of Wisconsin. So unless you are a student from out of state - and I of course know there are many - you are not in a formal sense an innocent bystander in this dispute.

Education City

Gulf News has an update on the "Education City," which hosts outlets of major U.S. universities in Doha. The Qatari government sees the project as a component of plans to reduce reliance on expat labor, a necessity for all Gulf states as their populations explode. Because the Qatari campuses trend toward a more conservative society, families are more willing to send female students than they are to the United States.

World Press Review

Starting soon I and many other people will be less informed about the world as this magazine has published its last issue.

Western Sahara

The UN has extended through October the mandate of their peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. On the table is a peace plan in which the region would have limited autonomy for five years pending a referendum on independence. The Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara, has accepted the plan, but the Moroccan government has not. When I go to Morocco in less than three weeks, I have some hopes of going to northern Western Sahara, but no promises.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

A Dedicated Professor

I've never met him personally, but have overheard him meeting with students. As the Capital Times reports, Dr. Harold Scheub is excellent. His course web site is here.

UW Strike Report

Classes are back to normal today after the TAA's two-day strike, during which several hundred TA's, PA's and their supporters picketed 10 campus buildings. (I suspect media reports of 18 locations referred to multiple building entrances.) The Daily Cardinal reports the strike as a popular success. The Wisconsin State Journal, which had earlier published this rant, has the headline "Teaching Assistants Make Point Politely" for a story about the rally at the capitol. Here was their story from yesterday, focusing on students caught in the middle but still coming across favorably after the opening paragraphs. Madison's other newspaper, the Capital Times, focused on undergraduates who supported the strike. The Badger Herald also profiles a student caught in the middle.

From personal observations: Despite what the above article say, the picket lines could have been really porous had people wanted them to be. I decided to join the Vilas Hall picket line (whether more from commitment or curiosity remains clouded), and at no point did we cover both front entrances. The loading dock entrance was also picketed, but the building was still accessible from the entrance on the other side. Helen C. White Hall was easily cut off, but Social Science had only the front entrances picketed, while Humanities seemed accessible by climbing the stairs by the art museum and entering on the open third floor. Amazingly, even the administration building was completely open at entrance opposite Ingraham Hall. Whether this was true all the time or just when I was there is difficult to say.

When I went to Picket Central to explain my need to work to meet a federal grant deadline, they had no problems with it, and I was easily waved across the picket line. Most of the stories of harassment I've heared are mainly people objecting to the "don't cross the line" chants. This is simply a part of striking the debate over which doesn't belong here, and unless people were being directly intimidated in some fashion I have trouble worrying too much over it. I sympathize with undergraduates caught in the middle, but believe this constitutes the sort of situation many will have to deal with in the real world, and its probably better to develop a sense of how you will deal with it in college than in a company where two of your supervisors are feuding.

Here is a list of 16 departments whose faculty voted to support the TAA. The final number I heard was 23, though it is unclear whether this was support for the strike or just the bargaining position. The Teamsters also refused to cross picket lines, while many other groups provided at least moral support. I think, however, one must also take note of the disgusted looks many had as they walked past. I still have reservations about whether "Free Health Care" by itself is a slogan which will win much popular support. "Free Health Care or Market Wages" would have worked better, despite the extra words. I have my doubts about whether the former will happen, but based on the OSER director's comments in the Daily Cardinal story, movement on the latter remains possible.

Many are now concerned about the looming grade strike. My prediction is that it won't happen, if for no other reason that the fact it had even less support than this strike did at the moment people voted to go through with it, and the vote over this strike was close. However, if the state decides to retaliate against the TAA by seriously worsening their offer, all bets are off. This is partly why I've sort of settled on the idea that we should have given the now-fruitful negotiations more time, but we'll see what happens. The rhetoric from the people who matter sounds constructive.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Strike Update

This morning's Wisconsin State Journal has the most insulting editorial ever. Note how the paper doesn't even question Wisconsin's repressive anti-strike laws, and derides the TAA members on a personal level rather than even mention our arguments. The pre-emptive notice about what students should do if they are threatened or intimidated is over the top. According to the live reporting from the local CBS affiliate (ignore the stuff about what will happen if the strike lasts longer than two days, since no one has even suggested such a thing), no one is being harassed if they enter, and the picketers are merely voicing their reasons for striking. They also said 18 buildings are being picketed. Since the list I got last night over e-mail had just 10, they apparently solved their picket personnel problems. UPS is also not crossing the picket lines.

Blogging Break

OK, here's the deal. I have a lot going on right now, and as you can see from the last few days of posts, haven't had much time for my usual news blogging. Don't expect much of anything for the next several days until I catch up on other projects. The exception may be strike reporting, if anything interesting happens, or something intriguing in my dissertation research.

Just thought I'd mention it. Thanks for reading! I should be back to normal by this weekend.

Monday, April 26, 2004

UW Strike

From a "Breaking News" banner at

"After judging the state’s latest contract offer not good enough, UW-Madison’s teaching and project assistants voted Monday to not hold classes today and Wednesday. The decision likely will leave hundreds of empty classrooms. Many faculty members have said they will respect the assistants’ strike by either canceling classes or holding them in alternate locations. Members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association are asking 1,200 of their 1,900 members to cancel their classes. Picket lines are planned around major university buildings starting at 7:30 a.m. today."

May the Lord have mercy on our souls.

Because I am one of the 700 members not in a bound department, I didn't have a vote, and haven't developed a firm opinion on what course of action I support. I do think, however, that all the blame here goes with the state, which stonewalled for months, thus giving rise to the pro-strike sentiment in the union in the first place.

UPDATE: I'm being told that most of the strike committee was against the strike, and leadership wanted to continue negotiating but call off the strike. The actual vote was close.

UPDATE: If the strike committee doesn't think there are enough people for an effective strike, and the negotiation committee wants to keep negotiating, and a key part of our strategy is unknown people who will suddenly appear following media attention, does that mean this is the TAA equivalent of the Iraq invasion?

Iraqi Flag

The Iraqi Governing Council has approved a new Iraqi flag. Its use or not by the population will be an interesting sign of where Iraqis stand regarding the legitimacy of the IGC's actions in general.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Lecture Disclaimers

(post deleted at request of source)

More UW Strike Stuff

From a lot of conversations I'm having, there seems to be sentiment to call off the strike in response to the state's decision to actually negotiate. The amount of raise we're being offered is now higher than the amount we'd pay for health care. I was at a bit of the last bargaining session, and from what I heard, the union is now offering to respect the governor's political considerations on health care in exchange for the university picking up the segregated fees that pay for student organizations and governance. Developing...

Saturday, April 24, 2004

UW Labor Update

The Wisconsin State Journal has an update on the contract negotiations between the TAA and State of Wisconsin. The situation looks increasingly sad because if the state had actually been willing to negotiate seriously earlier, we wouldn't be in the position. The core of the new TAA proposal was to trade in the zero-cost health care option in exchange for not having to pay segregated fees. The state will reply to the offer Monday.

Tribal Submission

This Reuters piece has some interesting details which shed light on the ways in which the Pakistiani government and tribes interact in the North West Frontier Province.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Types of Unions

Earlier today I had a conversation that raised in my mind an issue I've noticed before: The extent to which different unions feel rooted in their community as opposed to their occupation. I gew up in a union family, and IIRC, whenever contract negotations came up the talk I heard was about how much we needed to live, the rising cost of living, and how much other people in the city made. In the current labor negotiations, however, the graduate assistants compare themselves primarily to graduate assistants in other places, with the implicit assumption that our skills are worth a certain amount set by a national educational marketplace. A teachers' strike I heard about recently was similar. Graduate assistants, of course, also have another unique characteristic: Our wages are not merely salary in the conventional sense, but also elements of a financial aid package which is a key aspect of recruitment. Many of those prospectively striking will finish their degrees in May and never earn the wages they are fighting for.

I'm not sure if one style is better than another, but it does have interesting implications for the future of labor solidarity. I feel like many of the TAA rank-and-file would be more energized by a threat to tenure in Alaska than an attempt by Madison grocery workers to win higher wages. This in turn raises the issue of possible changes in the national labor structure, as the line between professional associations and labor unions becomes fuzzier.



In order to get our Title VI-A grant, the Middle East Studies Program needs to submit some paperwork by April 28. As the only employee, it is my job to do this. If I don't, we don't get the grant, and have no money. And some of what I need to do requires administrative input which probably won't be forthcoming until Tuesday. Which means I'm likely to be stuck having to work during the strike. On a personal level I don't feel guilty about this - essentially defunding an entire program (that employs a grad student) probably doesn't fit the union's plans for minimal damage to the university. As I've noted before, since I work for the International Institute I'm not bound by the strike vote, though the history department is a hotbed of union activism. But it still feels really weird and awkward. Support for organized labor is one of the cornerstones for my view of American society. This is not a position in which I ever pictured myself.

UPDATE: Just got an e-mail from my union steward, and they have a procedure for people with a compelling need to cross lines. So I'm in the clear =)

Mount Nebo

"As you might have noticed, there are a lot of sites in Jordan which have religious significance. This is part of what makes Arabs nervous when extreme hard-liners in Israel talk about reclaiming Israel's full Biblical heritage - they tend to include everything connected with people like Aaron and Moses, who were of course prophets of Islam as well as leaders of ancient Israel. In any event, perhaps the most widely venerated site in Jordan is Mount Nebo, site of the death of Moses where he looked upon the promised land which he would never enter.

"Today Mount Nebo is under the control of the Franciscan friars, and on the summit of Pisgah you find a medium-sized stone church, as well as clearly marked artifacts from the summit's previous occupants. You enter the summit through a small gate after paying about 75 cents; there is also an expensive gift shop and restaurant just outside. Also present are various monuments connected to the Jubilee year 2000; the number of times I saw Pope John Paul II's name carved on various stones called to mind
name deleted's comment in the Vatican three years ago that you can tell the current pontiff intends on being remembered. One of these stones is a large statue which is perhaps the ugliest sculpture I have ever seen and that you'll have to see the picture of to believe.

"On a clear day, you can from Mount Nebo see Jerusalem and even glimpse the Mediterranean Sea. On a hot day in mid-July, though, you can only see a bit past Jericho across the Jordan River on the Dead Sea. People following the Jordan Valley pilgrimage trail were undoubtedly a bit disappointed, though people from the area such as the gang of little kids being led there on a field trip will probably simply come back some winter if the spirit moves them. For to them, such things I have described are simply part of their neighborhood, about 30 minutes from Amman and 90 from Irbid, a place to go on a weekend day trip like Hannibal from Quincy or Chicago from Madison.

"What you can do, however, as a traveller just passing through, is when the view of Israel disappoints, simply turn around a look at Jordan, the hilly farmland of which stretches as far as the eye can see. For while too often its religious significance is what draws people to this hot, dry country, there lies within and beyond these things a living world all around, visible to one who knows to look for it and who has the interest to look beyond the places where people say God left his mark to the people God has made all around us.

"In the far north of Jordan, half an hour from the Syrian border, you find Irbid, home of the Yarmouk University the physical features of which have been described previously. In the orientation packed, the UVA program directors - admittedly one of them an Irbid native - judged that Yarmouk University was a highly conservative school. I reverse. Yarmouk University is so liberal it juts out of the conservative background like steam rising from the stream
name deleted nicknamed 'The Blazing Hot River of Fire and Death' where it tumbles onto the rocks at the Hammamat Ma'in.

"This is not so much because of any political opinions on the part of the students; I've somehow gone for a month only getting into one political discussion outside of our group. It is instead an observation based on the lifestyle when compared with the surrounding community and standards of dress, social interaction, etc. that prevail in different locations. Perhaps it is best to just think of it in standard university terms: During orientation the student who had done this program last year was asked to comment when he thought it appropriate, and when the program director was explaining that any romantic liaisons would be difficult due to the conservatism of Irbid, the guy indicated that actually at Yarmouk nobody would really care, an observation which can be verified simply by noting the dense population along the Street of Love or its noticeably less proper counterpart across campus outside Al-Kindi Hall (the humanities building).

"The girls have far more friends than we do. It was so crazy - about a week into the program they couldn't walk anywhere without people they had met going up to them and "catching up."
stuff deleted (Incidentally, the bookstore here sells Vol. II of the Norton Anthology of English literature for about $6.) Once I also stumbled into what turned out to be the music music and theater building, where I found that the relative oddity of music/theater people* appears to be one of those universal constants. The university was supposed to be locked, and there they were surrounded by some sort of modern art painted murals doing impropto improv skits and humming chords.

"I'm wandering off topic here, but my point is that if you want to see a 'real Jordan,' you probably won't. The real Jordan consists of a lot of different things all of which are tied to each other and which interact with each other and the world outside in a number of complex ways. I say, rather, 'the Jordanian world,' probably no better a term, but hey. And this is a world which consists of the Bedouin, and the professors, and the Iraqi refugees, and the traditional Jordanian families, and the Westernized youth, and the street dogs of Irbid, all part of a world in which ideas and people mix around, tumbling through time and space forming communities of souls and cultures of behavior as they try to make a living and live their lives just as people have for centuries and will in the future.

"This awareness of community is perhaps the strongest thing I will take away from my stay in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There is an old Jordanian proverb one professor used to help us remember some vocabulary: 'The neighbors before the house.'** As I look out from our cheap hotel accomodation in Madaba, I think of this as I survey the street below, with the children playing, a group of girls laughing over some pictures, and the older people sitting on the balconies so close across the narrow street you can actually talk to them, say its a nice evening, etc. Some may complain that as a developing nation Jordan is uncomfortable, things fall apart or break down all the time, etc. But more important is to note the comfort with the people, to feel secure in a neighborhood where kids are the responsibility of everyone and where neighborliness and hospitality are values as strong as any others. For more than anything I've actually seen, I will remember the people I've met and the ideas they've shared with me, seeing in the face of humanity the face of the world which gives rise to all else.

*I was a music person
**The second part, "the friends before the road," is also cool
(This was pretty heavily redacted, partly for the usual reasons, and partly because I've excerpted it before. Unfortunately we really couldn't see much at all, and the pictures of the mosaic inside the church didn't turn out, so there's not much more I can do.)

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Lynch on Arab Media

April's CEIP Arab Reform Bulletin has a good article by Marc Lynch advocating that the U.S. treat the Arab media as potential allies in the war of ideas. Parts of it will sound familiar, but it is still worth a read. Toward the end, he also addresses the concept of "moderation" in discussions of Arab politics:

"The U.S. should also broaden its definition of political "moderation" in the Arab context. The curious tendency to define moderation in terms of support for American policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the occupation of Iraq radically and unnecessarily circumscribes the range of possible U.S. interlocutors. Moderation should be understood not as a set of pre-defined political positions but in terms of openness to dialogue and pragmatic willingness to engage with others to resolve contentious problems.".

Sadr and the Najafis

From Middle East On-Line, more evidence that Najafis are unhappy with Muqtada Sadr's presence in the city.


I wish to officially register my annoyance with Israeli refuseniks. Some group associated with them came by and stapled a flyer to the Middle East Studies bulletin board. They may have noticed everything else was attached with thumb tacks...

UPDATE: I just noticed that the Balata Refugee Camp people also employed staples. Come on guys, knock it off.

Birthday Dirge

Via Rob Groves, I have just found the lyrics to the "Birthday Dirge." I wonder if this will ever replace the more traditional "Happy Birthday to You."

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bargaining Sessions

Here are short accounts of the recent bargaining sessions related to the UW labor issue, for those interested. It does not yet include Monday's session. Here is the university press release.

Incidentally, I should add that because Middle East Studies doesn't have much funding, we don't have department status, and I am employed by the International Institute. Because the II falls below a minimum number of affected employees (I'm not close enough to the gory details to remember what the figures are), we are exempted from actually striking. Since I set my own hours anyway, the whole concept is meaningless. I just thought I'd come clean with that, lest I leave a false impression of my relationship to the events. I still don't plan to cross any picket lines.

UPDATE: Here's an article from the TAA on where things now stand.

Interesting Note

During the middle of the eighth century, al-Khalil b. Ahmad al-Azdi produced the first Arabic dictionary. It was called the Kitab al-'Ayn because it began not with alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, but with the letter 'ayn. He died when he ran into a mosque pillar while distracted by his research.

From the Front Lines

IWPR has no less then five must-read articles from the Iraqi front lines. First, read Aqil Jabbar, Muhammad Fawzi, and Dhiya Rasan on their trip to the Falluja front lines, as well as Wisam al-Jaff inside Falluja. Then head south with the same Wisam al-Jaff to check out Najafis' anger at Muqtada Sadr. Two additional pieces of note are Hussein Ali and Nasr Kadhim on why Kutis preferred the Ukrainians and Salaam Jihad's story of how he was accused of being an American agent.

New Falluja Fighting

Reuters reports new fighting in Falluja, despite the truce announced yesterday. However, the story contained this interesting bit:

"The fighting erupted hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the truce in the battered city of 300,000 people west of Baghdad would not hold indefinitely. He said days of talks involving Iraqi and Sunni Muslim leaders, Falluja officials and representatives of the U.S. governing authority in the city did not include Iraqi insurgents who have been confronting U.S. troops."

So...we are negotiation a truce with people who aren't fighting us? And it won't work? What, precisely, are we doing in Falluja? Is this an attempt to win over the non-militant Sunni leadership, gaining actual allies against the insurgents?

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

UW Labor Issues

The Capital Times has a brief article on the current labor situation with the UW TAA, which just voted to authorize a two-day strike on April 27-28, followed by a grade withholding strike at the end of the semester. (Students who need grades would still be able to get them through a special TAA transcript.) On thing I want to emphasize here is that this is not purely a "TA's don't want to pay for health care" issue. It's more like a "TA's don't want to start paying for health care at the same time they get a 0.0% raise" issue. Another thing: I don't have exact details in front of me, but I believe the union and state were only $300,000 apart before yesterday's new offer. From accounts of the open bargaining sessions, the university admits the problem is not economic, but rather stems from political/philosophical decisions made at high levels of the state government about their policy toward state employees. UW is already below its peer institutions in terms of TA/PA compensation, so failure to even keep up with inflation will not be good for the school's future recruitment prospects, and hence its reputation and the value of the degrees it confers.

My 2 cents.

Saudi Arabia's Divorce Discussion

I usually don't even read Arab News, but in the wake of the Rania al-Baz case, found this interesting opinion piece on the conversation about divorce rates in the country. Here is one Saudi cleric's take on the issue:

"The cleric went on to say that working women 'have mistaken ideas about independence, and that they do not regard the man as the controlling figure in the relationship and so they neglect their homes and concentrate on their jobs.'"

I was shocked to read that the divorce rate in Jeddah is 40%.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Radio Sawa in Morocco

One month from today I catch a plane for Morocco (well, London first) where apparently Radio Sawa is the largest broadcaster. I'll be interested to see how it is received.

(I also promise that when I get back you can see a picture or two from here, where I have a reservation before catching the ferry across the strait.)

UPDATE: Last week when my advisor was back from Israel on a break, I asked him for ideas about what medieval chronicles I should take with me to Fez to study. He told me to get al-Baladhuri, adding that it hasn't been fully published anywhere and is available mainly in manuscript form in Middle Eastern archives.

Today I went to start getting materials together, and have noticed a problem: al-Baladhuri is available mainly in manuscript form in Middle Eastern archives. Madison, alas, is not in the Middle East. Perhaps Yaqut might be a better start.

UPDATE: Actually, this reminds me I also need to read Ibn Khaldun. And I am going to Fez after all.

Hizbullah Game Show

Via Chris Blanchard, I see that Hizbullah's al-Manar TV now has a game show featuring trivia with anti-Israeli and anti-American themes. Contestants compete for money and a trip to Jerusalem.

Falluja Agreement

The U.S. and Falluja leaders have announced an agreement which includes joint policing by coalition and Iraqi forces and disarmament by the insurgents. Details will emerge later in the day. This sounds like it could resolve some of the immediate issues in the Sunni triangle if it persuades Sunnis that they will still play a role in their own affairs. Conservatives may cry appeasement, but keep in mind that before all this started, the U.S. had been forced to withdraw from Falluja altogether. This is not the complete victory many demanded, but it has the potential to become the best kind of victory - one for both sides. The main thing I'm wondering is where the Iraqis in these patrols will come from.

Poem (Holocaust Memorial Day)

See Ocean Guy.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Arabs and Nabataeans

Last night, I was reading Jan Retso's The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. In the book, the author seeks the original meaning of the term "Arab." It cannot mean simply "speakers of Arabic," as the latter term is derived from the former, and most of the other possibilities Retso questions on similar grounds. Another point is that there is no early ancestor called "Arab," not in their own traditions, nor in those of other people in the region. Even the Hebrews didn't include them, and they included everybody. (For example, Genesis 10, the "Table of Nations," mentions "Canaan," "Cush," and "Egypt" as sons of Ham. Ham was the term used for the Egyptian sphere of influence when these traditions were germinating - other peoples were grafted in as they appeared.) The bulk of this very intense study is scraping together every mention of the word "Arab" across the 15 centuries before Islam.

During his discussion of the Hellenistic period, Retso shows convincingly how Greek geographers led by Eratosthenes began using the term "Arabia" to refer to a much broader area than it had previously denoted, and began calling all of its inhabitants "Arabs." (This was before the Arabic language had spread throughout the peninsula.) In fact, many Greeks believed "Arabia" was everything from the Nile delta to the mountains of modern Iran, thus including part of modern Egypt in their definition. However, this does not stop elements of older usages from entering into their records, as is perhaps seen here. (Like via Jonathan Edelstein.)

One interesting case of all this is the history of the Nabataean kingdom as described in Greek and Jewish sources. The traditional view is that the Nabataeans were Arabs under a different name. Retso argues, again convincingly, that this identification is false. (For example, some rulers are mentioned as kings of both "Arabs and Nabateans" in the same title.) Instead, he sees the "?Arab" and the "Nabat" as two different sectors of a society which existed in the region under a common political framework, witht he Arabs being militant nomads and the Nabati as settled cultivators. He further suggests the the Nabat of Petra in southern Jordan are the same as the Nabatu of Assyrian inscriptions, and the Nabat who are mentioned in lots of scattered literary and epigraphic evidence from the Arabian peninsula as far south as Najran.

Anyway, Retso's tentative conclusion is to note that the Nabat (actual plural is al-Anbat, but who cares) appear with Arabs throughout history "like a shadow." And this comes up futher because we also have Nabat in the early Islamic period. Here, Retso again suggests that the word was broadened during the Umayyad period so that is simply came to mean cultivators. However, if we accept the fact that it originally denoted a specific sort of person in a relationship with Arabs - and even if we reject where Retso's heading with his overall conclusion in the book, we can still keep the old idea of "Arab" as meaning primarily a nomad and accept the idea that they were in a special relationship with certain settled groups with anthropological happiness - then this definitely matters for the way we view early Islamic history. This is certainly relevant to my own dissertation, since I'm writing about a tribal confederation called the Azd where were often criticized by others for not always having been Arabs, and who went to southern Iraq were there were a lot of Nabat.

This also interests me as a problem of applying Western categories to non-Western societies. In the post-colonial world this doesn't matter so much, but ethnic identity as it developed in Europe was never a truly universal concept. Yet today it is fundamental enough to the way we view the world that scholars carve people into ethnicities without giving it a second thought. (This issue has long interested me because I have a certain mistrust of ethnic nationalism born from coming of intellectual age during this and this.) If Retso's right - and this really has a good feel about it - this might be an interesting opportunity to explore a non-ethnic means of cultural organization, though perhaps complicated by the long-time Persian domination of Oman in which they would have brought their own concepts to the table.

I don't quite know how this fits my own work yet, but it definitely fits. I've consulted the main work likely to have information directly relevant to me, but the author basically took his definition from 10th-century geographers and applied that broad defintion to the early Islamic traditions. The issue at least bears another look.