Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Rabat, Morocco

From my 4-dollar-a-night hotel room in Rabat, one could see on the right one of the great gates to the Rabat medina (old city), a castle-like structure built during the early modern period and inspiring with little imagination images of merchants and other travellers arriving at a guarded walled city on whatever business brought them here. Stepping out onto the terrace and looking left, you could see the huge Hassan Tower, originally begun by the Sultan Yacoub the Victorious in 1195 and intended to be the minaret of a mosque which was never completed. Looking out of the southernmost two streets of the medina you could see Avenue Hassan II, which forms the border between the medina and the villa nouvelle, and across it huge hotels and flashing neon signs with advertisements appealing to Rabat's rather large population of wealthy elites and travellers.

The street below was busy, as in the narrow lanes of the medina one finds all sorts of merchants selling their wares, from clocks to eggs to silver vessels all interspersed with restaurants and hotels, some of which featured interior courtyards with banana trees. Among the flow of pedestrians in the streets were the usual flow of beggars and in this case a small army of battery vendors calling their prices in French and Arabic and being largely ignored by the non-battery-buying Rabati majority.

I did find the medina dirtier than those in Fez, Tangier, or Jordan and Syria, as the patisseries and fruit stands seemed home to a rather large number of insects wandering freely over the food, but still it was an interesting place to stroll through about 9 a.m. in the morning as shopkeepers turned the poles to crank up tentlike awnings and cats sat around licking themselves clean for a good hard day of being catlike. Hanging a left by the old Jewish Quarter, I eventually came to the carpet suq (market), which in days long past was the slave market for captives brought back by the Sallee Rovers, pirates named for Rabat's sister city of Sale across the river to the north.

This lay in the shadow of the kasbah, built in several stages during the first half of the last millennium as a military outpost for campaigns either against tribes to the south or Christian Spanish to the north. Inside it was cool, and the narrow lanes were all blue up to about three or four feet and white above, lines mainly with houses and a few shops along the main alleys. At one point there was a large viewing platform where lots of people were gathered taking in the view of where the river empties into the Atlantic, with views of Sale on the right, and a lighthouse to the left separated from the mouth of the river by some beach cafes and general waterfront stuff.

The kasbah also had a museum, but it was closed, as was the major archaeological museum in the Ville Nouvelle. In fact, the entire city seemed under renovation, as they were working on Boulevard Muhammad V, the great north-south thoroughfare. This made something of an adventure for the pedestrian going to and from the pigeon-beseiged train station and taking notice of the red-and-gold Parliament building, which paled in comparison to the huge white buildings to the south housing the government ministries and certainly the walled-off royal palace of King Muhammad VI, son of Hassan II son of Muhammad V and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

It was still clear that the city was nice, as if you went to a place like the Hassan II tower you found a fountain-filled garden near where two soldiers on horseback holding Moroccan flags guarded the entrance to the mausoleum of the previous two monarchs. (I thought of entering, but they required respectful dress, and after noticing everyone around there was wearing a suit, decided I might not qualify after all.) The construction in Rabat is really a good sign, as you see development all over the place, perhaps not countering the country's deeper economic problems, but interesting nonetheless, as Morocco generally gets poor ratings for the quality of its infrastructure. Still, on both intercity trips I've seen road work, with the train ride back featuring the contruction of a completely new highway - I didn't catch where it was going, but as the two men in my train compartment spoke of it approvingly in French-influenced Moroccan dialect I did hear that it was expected to be finished in about two years.

My favorite spot in Rabat, though, it probably south of the walls of the Ville Nouvelle, where John Kennedy Avenue comes up outside of town to a huge traffic circle from which a single lonely lane leads to a fortress-like structure amidst the open countryside. This is the Chellah, which houses both the tombs for some sultans of the late medieval Merenid dynasty and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia. There I wandered around for a couple of hours, through the Roman ruins and the mosque and madrasa destroyed by an earthquake around 250 years ago, and peered into a small walled pool which on the bottom featured lots of change and not a few pieces of egg peel, presumably confirming the story that women came here to offer eggs to the eels when they wanted to conceive children with the aid of the baraka of the wali buried nearby.

Because it was hot and I was tired, I found a suitable place to sit, and after a few moments realized I was in the graveyard of the mujahadeen who had died fighting the Christians of Spain centuries ago in the wars which left Spain Christian and Morocco Muslim. This seemed really odd, especially considered the ways in which today "mujahadeen" has become a somewhat loaded term. The graves were really not that impressive - the long stones lain in rectangles around the spot of burial were all cracked and in some cases actually missing, and between them grew little besides the occasional weed. Still, it gives one pause to reflect that despite all the strife of the time they lived, today I was still as a Christian able to relax among them, chatting with a Muslim couple from the United States, an area opened to European (and Islamic) influence by the Spanish. In fact, this whole city was in part the product of Christian-Muslim conflict, from its development as a haven for Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain to the role in played as a base for the Sallee Rovers and the wars against Europe, yet today it is a very open city with a major street named after an American President and a deep French imprint left over from the colonial period but still discernably present. And that perhaps gives hope for the present, when the conflict between those two faiths isn't nearly as bad, and in which the ruined graves of warriors amidst the main attraction of a religious building and learning institution remind us of what people the world over truly value most

Monday, May 31, 2004

Arab Media Watch

For the train back from Rabat, I picked up a copy of al-Ahram Weekly. One thing I got to see was the ads, most of which were related to education, with American-style education being a major selling point. On the front page was an ad for AU-Cairo with five majors singled out, presumably as major sellers: Economics, Political Science, Business, Computer Science, and Engineering. In terms of articles, you might want to check out this media review, in which it seems the Egyptian failure to win the World Cup is giving rise to bits of political protest. Also check out the status of democracy in Pakistan.

That night, we also had al-Arabiya on in the villa. One thing I saw was what looked like a program dedicated to reviewing the American and British media on stories of interest to the Arab world. The papers cited were the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Post, Independent, and Observer. Tom Friedman's column got a special segment of its own, with a political science professor called in to discuss it. I'm not comfortable saying more, but the tone was dispassionate. Arabs apparently pay more serious attention to us than we do to them. It was also interesting how outlets like Le Monde or Xinhua were never used. I'll try to pick up more on this sort of thing as time goes along. Maybe Abu Aardvark knows for sure what I was seeing.

UPDATE: I should also add that the main stories were a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia (lead story), stuff about Iraq, Darfur, and something done by Ariel Sharon.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Politics on the Train

En route from Fex to Rabat, I was in a train compartment with two American Muslims, a professor from Sale, and some miscellaneous Moroccans. The discussion turned to politics, mainly because of the professor, who thought people were blaming so much on President Bush personally they were forgetting all the deeper problems (from the Moroccan perspective, of course) with American foreign policy in general. Anyway, the issue also turned to whether the two American Muslims were oppressed in the U.S. - they didn't seem to really think so, but the professor argued that they were using logic that reminded me a lot of Tacitus's posts on religious minorities in the Islamic world. That struck me as an interesting comparison between commentators =) The next logical step would have been to take his assessment that Morocco didn't have any minorities frowned upon by society in general (something like that anyway...my understanding was vague in places) and relate that to his wondering if Bush's foreign policy had too much Jewish influence.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Strait of Gibraltar

If it were thousands of years ago, I have little doubt that the people of Gibraltar would worship their rock as a god. Walking around, it is always with you, a looming presence of mostly tree-covered white rock that also makes a good guide if you get lost. The Rock of Gibraltar is what led not only to Gibraltar's current prosperity, but to its very existence as a unique territory in the world, for it is on its account that Britain took the small peninsula from Spain in 1704, giving rise to a distinct cultural identity, British with a Spanish flavor.

Spain, of course, wants Gibraltar back, and the legacy of that dispute is visible today in the travel possibilities around the Strait of Gibraltar. On the north side, you have Gibraltar and the Spanish cities of Algeciras and Tarifa, while on the south you have the Moroccan port of Tangier and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. All of these are thoroughly interconnected except Gibraltar, which is connected only to Tangier by ferry. No ferries ply the waters between Gibraltar and Ceuta, and to go overland to the Spanish town of La Linia you must walk or drive yourself.

The Gibraltarians, however, want no part of Spain, which they derisively refer to as "Tomatoland." And aside from the fact most speak Spanish, there is very little reason why they should, as Britain has been the main cultural influence. Gibraltar's brightly painted churches and cathedrals are mainly Protestant; the only sign of Catholicism I saw was a bar called "The Angry Friar," next to a building called the "Convent Guardhouse" with two cannons outside. Gibraltar is one of those places where the taxi drivers double as tour guides, and the one we had stated firmly that no matter what Britain and Spain agreed on, it wouldn't matter because they would have to listen to the people of Gibraltar who ardently desired to remain British. It's also interesting that the greatest event in Gibraltarian history is apparently the Great Siege of the 1700's, and many are the stories told of the deeds wrought by the Gibraltarian people as they sought to remain free of Spanish control during that deparate time.

The town itself is nice if cramped. Real estate is at a premium, so they brought in Dutch experts to raise the ocean floor and literally build on to the territory to the west. Despite this, there is still space for a large botanical garden patrolled by cats under the protection of a local cat welfare society. The rock itself is also reserved mainly for its scenery. After you pass through the Jews Gate, so named for a recent discovery of a few hidden Jewish graves near it, you find yourself by the Caves of St. Michael, used for military purposes during World War II, and a short distance away from the home of a bunch of small Barbary apes, who climb around near the level where the peak becomes cloud-covered and tend to surprise tourists by climbing onto their shoulders.

Because of Gibraltar's population shortage, they have to import labor. Historically they have brought in Spaniards, but during a time when Spain closed the border, they brought in Moroccans instead, and today many of these remain, serving in restaurants or cleaning hotel rooms in the shadows of society. When you consider the fact that these workers are generally fluent in at least one or two European languages, the inequality of opportunity in the world becomes clear: A bright student in the U.S. always thinks of becoming a college-educated professional of some sort, while in Morocco they might hope for that or they might hope to become a waiter in a Western restaurant.

If the Moroccans in Europe are often invisible, the Europeans in Tangier stick out dramatically, sauntering in tour groups through the old city, dressed in shorts and tank tops in a society known for its reserved dress and making comments at customs like "It's always surprising to see the Arabs in police uniforms inspecting us." Thanks to frequently advertised day trips from Europe, Tangier is the only Moroccan city many Europeans see, and as someone commented to me before I left, this is rather unfortunate.

According to a bit of tourist literature, when Samuel Pepys was governor here, he described it as "the excresence of the earth." It is Morocco's rough edge, and as you arrive at the port, you are met immediately by an army of hustlers, all promising deals on hotels, taxis, and in shops, while in reality the prices will be inflated because they get a commission in addition to whatever they wring out of you. I almost made it out without difficulty, but then a cop started insisting I was going the wrong way, gesturing back into the port. I later deduced he was wrong, but at the time as he kept gesturing wildly felt little choice but to listen to a hustler who took me through another gate, then followed me all the way into a cheap hotel. Financial damage was minimal, as I managed to knock the room price down to what it would have been in Jordan; more annoying was the clamor made outside my room by the hustler and another who had joined us en route as they demanded large (by Moroccan standards) amounts of cash.

This is partly the effects of geography on Tangier, for throughout not only Morocco but all Africa there are poor and desperate people who see a job in Europe as the key to success. Many make it to Tangier but are never able to hop the Strait, becoming even poorer and more desperate as they've whatever savings they had getting here. Tangier was also an international city for a long time, so its cultural notes are about Rolling Stones concerts in the kasbah and the like. As a result you can leave a restaurant where Africans gather at night to talk about Ghana's soccer team and watch James Bond movies to wander over to the Petit Socco, where men sit drinking vast amounts of tea and coffee, while hustlers badger you with offers of marijuana.

If, however, you concluded this was all there was to Tangier, you would be wrong. For lunch Saturday I wandered into a restaurant across from a mosque where I had a good conversation with another customer and the owner, who together had enough understanding of my Arabic/ability to make themselves understood that we could talk. Looking closely at the hustlers, it seems clear that even those who use their services don't care for them. At a place overlooking the port; fro, which you could see ferries coming in, huge ships at anchor, and fishermen out in the distance, a deaf young man started pointing stuff out to me, then gestured for me to follow. I knew he was a hustler but was curious, and noticed him rub his fingers together as we passed an old man, who sighed with a bit of irritation. We got to the old man's shop, the hustler gestured for me to enter, I declined, and shopkeeper actually looked at me with respect. As I was leaving the young man started pestering me for money. I decided to give him 2 dirhams more as charity than anything else, and when the guy turned to the shopkeeper to angrily protest the paltry sum, the shopkeeper shrugged a very clear "not so bad," while looking at me with respect again.

All of that could have been just another routine (Tangier makes you suspicious), but it was a common pattern I noticed in the city, that bystanders would appear concerned/annoyed when hustlers would approach me, then relieved/respectful as I ducked their offers. Their work sucking dry the tourists is not highly regarded in Moroccan society (which of course has many businessmen who would prefer to have the profits from the most gullible customers all to themselves).

But I was still glad to get out of the place where Europe and Morocco meet and reach areas where Morocco is just Morocco. So now I am in Fez, where I am doing a private study in medieval Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute in a part of the Villa Nouvelle overlooking the old city. But more of that later...

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Arrival

Well, I've made it to Fez. I don't have time to say much, but you might be interested in the fact that a lot of the shops in the Tangier medina have in the counter area stickers that feature the Spanish and Moroccan flags, and the words "We are all against terrorism" in Arabic and Spanish. (At least, I assume that's what the Spanish says, to match the Arabic and all.)

Incidentally, port security at the Strait of Gibraltar seems pretty weak. Except for a quick look at some in Moroccan customs, my bags were never searched or screened or anything. Even if they decided I looked honest, how do they know I didn't fall for some con artist and agree to carry something?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Departure

Well, I'm now almost completely packed, which is good considering I leave for the airport in a little over seven hours. I will post again from the other side of the Atlantic. I don't know how often, but at least once a week I will put up a duplicate of an e-mail I send to friends and family who don't read blogs. There may also be special blog bonus content as situations merit. No promises on what I'll wind up talking about - when I went to Irbid, I assumed I would visit one of the Palestinian refugee camps, but it never materialized.

I have no idea what to expect. I'm travelling alone into a very foreign country. Anything could happen. Sometimes that makes me nervous. Other times, it seems exciting.

Incidentally, one book that has greatly influenced my view of travel is Pilgrim, by Leonard Biallas, albeit mainly before it reached book form. I've added it to the featured books on my sidebar - there's no picture, but the cover is a pleasing shade of blue. Here's some of the guts of it:

"In our travels away from home, we are pilgrims...when we are on the lookout for contact with the sacred hidden forces which underlie and shape the destiny of our world and which can transform our lives. We find the sacred present in undramatic incidents, in Pasternak's 'greatness of small actions,' in Blake's 'goodness of minute particulars.' Because we are mindful, experiences of the sacred break through into our lives. When we look steadily and lovingly at any thing - a waterfall, a child, and field of poppies, and really 'see' the whole of it - not merely steal an idea of it, but know it by direct experience, we encounter the sacred. Such moments of small joys and humble experiences are miraculous epiphanies."

Finally, this was my 1000th post. That seems like a lot. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Enterprise Renewed

This and this make me happy. Enterprise was kind of dull for the first two seasons, but the second half of this year has been excellent, and shows a lot of potential for the future. Let's hope the fourth season develops it further. And a new time slow wouldn't bother me at all, as I could just tune in to Smallville on Wednesday.

Saharawis

VOA has a profile of the Saharawis, who are seeking independence for Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. I don't have much to add right now, but may in a few weeks, as I hope to duck across the border to Laayoune at some point in my travels.

Passion of the Iraqis

Juan Cole posts about Iraqi Shi'ites comparing the U.S. to Yazid, the Umayyad caliph implicated in the death of Husayn at Karbala. Al-Jazeera reports on al-Manar's take-off on the Passion trailer to place Iraqis in the position of Jesus and Americans as his tormenters. Neither of these is particularly good. Since Americans are attacking Karbala and torturing people, however, it is inevitable, something I hope the administration is taking into account. They will probably accuse the media of inflaming the situation, and al-Manar is a Hizbullah outlet, but here I suspect they're just saying what's on everyone's mind in the Arab world.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Troy

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

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

Quincy

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.

Comedy

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

Airlines

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.

Wishes

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.

Fury

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.

Yelwa

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.

Gads

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

Disengagement

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.

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