Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Feingold on Iraq

I'm still not on the Feingold-for-President bandwagon, but by this account he's shaping the Iraq issue fairly well:
"First, he said that the President's strategy should not be 'Victory in Iraq,' but 'Victory Against Al Qaeda.' That was a very good point. He held up the President's document and said, essentially, the title of this document is wrong. Very clear. Our goal is to stop Al Qaeda.

"Second, he said that just because the President made the mistake of confusing the war in Iraq with the fight against Al Qaeda, doesn't mean that we should make that mistake over and over again. We must refocus the war on the real enemy: Al Qaeda.

"Third, he said that winding down the mission in 2006 would not mean that America had 'cut and run' from Iraq, thereby giving the terrorists a victory. He explained clearly that the American presence in Iraq--our military occupation of Iraq--was the single largest factor fueling the terrorists in the world, today. He said that the President was mistaken or confused in his understanding, and that key generals and Iraqis themselves had said that the most important factor that his helping Al Qaeda is the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"Fourth, he used a chessboard metaphor to explain that the fight against Al Qaeda is taking place in dozens of countries around the world. Therefore, what the President is advocating, according to Feingold, is that we fight only in 'one square' and not on the whole board. It was a very clear way to frame this discussion. And one that has legs, I believe."

Mo'in Supporter

Now this is just a crazy-sounding buried nugget. Seyyed Mohsen Tasaloti, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad's third nominee for Petroleum Minister, supported Reformist Mustafa Mo'in in the Presidential race:
"Legislators complained that Tasaloti did not believe in the existence of a petroleum mafia -- which is supposedly responsible for corruption -- and he did not have a program for combating this phenomenon. They also raised allegations that Tasaloti backed the reformist Mustafa Moin in the 2005 presidential race, although Ahmadinejad rejected those concerns, saying, 'We believe that elections are free and by secret ballot, and we don't have the right to make someone's vote the criterion for assessing them.'"

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sources of Terrorism

The always interesting Stephen Ulph from the Jamestown Foundation has examined the recent terror arrests in Morocco. The whole article is really worth reading, but what cannot be missed is the role Iraq now plays as a center of global terrorism, with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a major leader and the conflict there as inspiration and training ground for a new generation of terrorists.

Ulph also notes an internet broadcast called Voice of the Caliphate, which might be playing a significant role in rallying youth to the cause of Islamic militancy. It's a stark contrast to this post with five things you should know about al-Jazeera (hat tip: Issandr). I'm skeptical of President Bush's alleged desire to bomb that station's Doha headquarters just because of our close relationship with Qatar, but it is true we've hit other al-Jazeera offices, and the Bush administration has often followed the lead of Arab dictators in seeing the station as an enemy. In this conflict, however, it's really not that hard to tell what should count as terrorist propaganda once you've had a glimpse of the real thing.

Talks with Insurgents

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, confirms that we are negotiating with Sunni insurgents. This he casts as part of a means of winning the war, as we are exempting former Ba'athists and the Zarqawi network and using negotiations to try and woo people away from those groups.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Sudanese Refugees

Via Jonathan Edelstein, here's a report on Sudanese refugees in Cairo. According to the article, there's actually been a protest in Mohandessin:
"The Thursday marathon meeting initiated by Imam began at 11am and ended at 5pm. It was one of several high-level meetings designed to end the refugee sit-in crisis. The sprightly septuagenarian, who is performing in the hit play Bodyguard every evening, showed extraordinary enthusiasm and stamina. It has been some six weeks now since the Sudanese asylum-seekers gathered in a park near the Mohandessin mosque. Authorities expressed deep concern over the humanitarian conditions of the protesters.

"The refugees were initially reluctant to embrace any of the UNHCR's offers. The UNHCR said that it would review the cases of asylum-seekers for one-time assistance based on a detailed list of names to be forwarded to the UNHCR by Sunday. By time of going to press, the list had not been completed. The UN body offered to organise the return to southern Sudan refugees who decide of their own free will to repatriate. Indeed, Imam insisted on voluntary repatriation given the still volatile situation in Sudan. The Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005, but the situation on the ground is tense and conditions are unlivable in some areas, asylum-seekers argue."

I remember that the Sudanese I encountered at All Saints were not terribly impressed with the UNHCR, and really feared being forced to return when they weren't sure the current peace deal would hold. Their condition in Cairo, meanwhile, is pretty bad.

UPDATE: Here's an article on the protest:
"'We will remain in this park until our demands are met. We are prepared to die,' Amer, a leader of the Refugee Voices told Al-Ahram Weekly. 'We will wait here, we will die here. We have no other place to go,' another protester chipped in. Amer said that so far there has been seven deaths among the Sudanese camped at the park, including a toddler and an adolescent girl. 'They died because of the wretched conditions,' Amer explained. The Sudanese gathered in the park have been unsuccessful in their claim to asylum, on which the UNHCR has final authority.

"Most of the protesters are restrained, the impromptu camp orderly despite increasingly harsh conditions, though emotions occasionally flair. Medical supplies are allowed into the park and a Sudanese doctor, himself a refugee, visits regularly. As best as possible, a modicum of hygiene is adhered to. Calls of nature are answered care of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, and concerned individuals and organisations regularly hand out food, blankets and clothing. Cairene nights, however, are now getting colder as temperatures drop to less than 10 Celsius degrees. Nonetheless, a group of some 2,000 people loiter about, refusing to leave the park. Some of the refugees have day jobs and the numbers swell on weekends when refugees who work come to the park in solidarity with those who have taken up full-time the self-imposed ordeal."

Their complaints and hopes definitely bring back memories.

First Sunday of Advent

A special part of Advent services is the Advent Wreath. Although a skeptic might suggest the use of evergreen during the Christmas season is related to the fact it is the only greenery available, people have found symbolism in it, of everlasting life or of the promise of life renewed with the passing of the Winter Solstice as akin to the promise of the new life Christians seek in Jesus.

In any case, the advent wreath has four candles, three purple and one pink around the edges, with a fifth, usually white, in the center. Some churches have these lit the entire season, while others, such as the Moravians, have a special service for each, though the details vary by congregation. While I was travelling today, I do have a copy of the reading which accompanied the lighting of the first candle, the Candle of Love:
"'God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.' (John 3:16)

"Today we light the first candle of the Advent Wreath. It is the candle of love. When God created the world He began by bringing light into the darkness, placing the sun, moon and stars in the heavens to light the day and the night.

"Sin and death are represented by darkness. As we journey through this life we need God’s love to light the way, like a lantern, to keep sin at bay, to see who our neighbors are, to help others find the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God’s love is food for the soul and replenishes what sin devours.

"'Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child and knows God. … God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. … We love because God first loved us.' (1 John 4:7, 16b, 19)"

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Quincy University

This exotic location is Quincy University, where I did my undergraduate work. All humanities and most social science and professional classes were in Francis Hall, the red brick building. The building on the right is the old friary, which I think has taken on a new function since I graduated. Between them and with its entrance in Francis Hall is the QU Chapel, one of my favorite churches in the world.

Moravian Advent

As a scholar of the Middle East, I spend a lot of time talking about Islam, and somewhat less on Judaism and eastern denominations of Christianity. Some of you, however, might be interested in the religion I actually practice, Christianity in the Moravian Communion. The Moravians, usually considered the oldest Protestant denomination, are especially famous for their advent celebrations, many of the customs of which date back to 18th century Germany when the denomination began to take its current form.

Moravians are unique in that their churches are decorated, not just with a cross, but with the multi-pointed Moravian star in the chapel, as within the round window here. According to the official Moravian web site's frequently asked questions:
"Whatever its form, the star reminds us of God, who caused the light to shine out of darkness and of the light which is the life of humanity. It reminds us of the promise of Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars; we are reminded of the star that pointed to the 'great and heavenly light from Bethlehem's manger shining bright.' The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This is the message of the Advent star, which also points to Jesus, who said, 'I am the bright and Morning Star.' It is the star of promise, the star of fulfillment, and the star of hope."

For almost all Christian denominations, Advent, the season before Christmas, begins the liturgical year, representing a season of hopeful waiting for the promise, aka Jesus. (The liturgical year then proceeds through Jesus's life to his Easter Resurrection, after which is what is a long period of what is called "ordinary time," the period without a special emphasis dedicated to Christian teachings which culminates in "Christ the King Sunday" of the "Feast of Christ the King" the Sunday before Advent.) However, everything begins with the miracle of the Incarnation and Christmas.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Zarqawi and Iraqi Resistance

Murad al-Shishani of the Jamestown Foundation has examined data on the Iraq War and determined that al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia accounts for 14% of all insurgent attacks, as well as a clear majority of those on foreign civilians and Iraqis and 42% of all suicide bombings. It's a little unclear how exactly responsibility for attacks is determined, but this does provide some valuable data on what, exactly, the level of violence is by the group which poses the biggest direct threat to broader efforts to counter terrorism as opposed to groups which seem likely to limit their interests to expelling coalition forces from Iraq.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New Patriarch of Jerusalem

Theofilos III has now been installed as Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, even though the Israeli government is still debating formal approval. Irineos, however, is apparently still holed up in the patriarchal residence. The last issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies had an article touching on the issue of Orthodox church lands and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I haven't had time to read it. One interesting note is the attendance of a Qatari prince; Theofilos was the first Orthodox churchman to get involved in that Wahhabi state shortly after the current Emir came to power in the mid-1990's.

George Galloway and Syria

George Galloway, whose Respect party is dropping gay rights from its platform, has decided Bashar al-Assad is one of the world's great leaders. In a speech at Damascus University, where according to lectures my advisor has given to undergraduates you can't give a talk that has the word "politics" in the title, he praised Syria's freedom, and proclaimed it a bastion of resistance to American aggression.

Look, I've been to Syria. Bashar may not be his father, but Abraham Lincoln he ain't. If we want to come up with some rigor to Galloway's worldview, then it is simply that the U.S. and U.K. represent the core evil in the world today, and therefore anyone who resists those two powers is good. Or we could just speculate without evidence that there's some profit in all this for him, as has been alleged with regard to Iraq and Pakistan.


Over at the future American Footprints, Praktike posts pictures of the violence in Alexandria, while I note someone else is in favor of legalizing opium in Afghanistan. Jonathan Edelstein has an erudite analysis of Sharon's political move, and Juan Cole takes a look at the statement put out by Iraqi leaders at the Cairo Conference. I think the United States is going to start scaling back its presence in Iraq in 2006.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sharon's Party

In order to keep my credentials as a blogger on Middle East issues, I have to comment on Ariel Sharon's decision to start a new party. If Israelis still elected their Prime Ministers directly, I'd say Sharon would win, but have to form a coalition with another partner that would in all likelihood win more seats. As it stands, a lot will depend on how much Israelis sees their party vote as a Prime Minister vote, something I can't guess at given my lack of experience in Parliamentary systems.

As for the party's future, a lot depends on what sort of agenda it produces. If it is a single-issue party dedicated to unilateral steps toward peace, then I don't see it lasting very long, unless it effectively replaces one of the existing major parties. On the other hand, if it comes to occupy a distinct niche across a range of issues, then it might have staying power. The irony is that the more non-Likud defectors who join, the more likely it is that they will be united solely by the party's core issue, and hence that this will be a one-election special.

The Bald and the Fat

The past year or so has left it an undeniable fact that the traditional male pattern baldness of my mother's family has started to descend upon me, and that the top of my head, while not yet having any bald spots that can't be covered with minimal effort, is quickly seen to be only thinly covered whenever, say, a mild breeze blows.

For men, baldness can have some of the same effects on self-image and social confidence that the perception of fatness has on women. (Men can get away with much more in the weight department.) Even here, however, I think men wind up with the easier ride. The most my lack of hair will ever do is limit my choice of hairstyle; getting control of weight issues can require permanent changes in lifestyle and diet. While some will always look at those overweight with the assumption that they have some slovenly habits, I might even get bonus points by comparision with those who try to hide behind toupees and odd-looking combovers.

This isn't an immediate issue, as I probably still have at least a couple of years to go before deciding whether try out a buzz cut, the full head shave as with Lex Luthor on Smallville, or something else entirely. It does, however, provoke introspection. To make an saying more literal, over the years I've grown quite comfortable in my own skin, and being forced into changes is unsettling, especially when they are changes of the sort society tells you should be unwelcome.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (Spoiler Review)

I have been the 20-something getting off the ferry and running into Tangier's hustlers. I remember meeting Moroccans - lots of them - who dreamed of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and getting a job in Europe. I remember Moroccans in Europe, often invisible, among the best and brightest in their country lucky to have a job serving me breakfast in a hotel or as an old man working in the hot sun getting a tear in his eye when I greet him in Arabic. I remember the Spanish and Gibraltarian attitude toward their southern neighbors. The morning of day I caught my flight back to the U.S., I went down to Point Europa at the end of the rock to look out over the strait before I left. While I was there, a taxi tour came by, and the guide talked about the Moroccans desire to work in Europe. I don't remember exact words, but what he said was that if they got a job in Europe, they could go back home rich and build a large mansion with a multitude of wives "like they like to do over there."

I say all this so as to make the point that when I read Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I come at the topic with strong impressions of my own, and thus might have some tendency to read my own attitudes into the work. But I think Lalami was not just interested in a story about economic migrants, but also one about Morocco that she told using economic migrants.

The introduction certainly serves as a compelling hook for the book, with the harrowing passage across the strait told with a clear human touch, a powerful moving painting which says to the reader, "This is happening in the world. Would you like to know more?" The rest of the book tells us more, both in the backstories of four would-be migrants, and in what happens to them after they are picked up by the Spanish authorities upon landing.

Each of the four, Halima the abused wife, Faten the Islamist student, Aziz the unemployed husband seeking self-worth, and Murad the literary English student-turned-hustler, has their own story and their own ending. Halima has shocked her husband into granting her a divorce; by the end of her story her body is compared to a shrine and her son viewed as a saint for saving her. Faten, meanwhile, was never as pure as she claimed, and in Spain became a prostitute earning money for living out the falsehoods of European fantasy. Aziz achieves relative economic success in Spain, but realizes when he visits his wife that sometimes you can't go home again and have it be the same.

It is in Murad's story that the book itself reaches its denouement. He winds up working at a shop in Tangier, and during an encounter with two American girls on whom the nuances of Moroccan cultural products are lost realizes the value of his tradition, one that is being lost as people yearn toward a European future. At the end, he decides to write his own stories rather than read those of Europe ostensibly set in a Morocco he cannot recognize. This builds upon the earlier conclusions, in which the two characters who make it to Europe each lose something while Halima, musing all the while about the importance of self-reliance, finds what I guess you could best call 'value.'

Lalami's work thus tells not only of the hardships associated with physical migration (though that aspect should not be minimized), but also comments upon the costs of cultural migration, a desire to break with the past to pursue an illusory future in a world and metaphor not your own. An interesting comparison might be to the themes implicit in Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves, where the characters who follow Western ways are corrupted while those who follow Japanese ones live happily ever after; Lalami doesn't approach the issues from quite that direction, but the two are in the same ballpark in terms of their concerns. Hopefully Lalami will not disembowel herself before she can produce more quality novels like this one.

MB Crackdown

This crackdown suggests that my earlier speculation that the Muslim Brotherhood was being allowed to win seats in the Egyptian Parliament as Mubarak's preferred enemy that would let him keep Western support is wrong. The idea that they had some sort of understanding with the NDP also seems wrong. (Unless, of course there's something buried in the article about how it's all a conspiracy - I didn't read the whole thing.)

TAA Contract

Lo and behold, the TAA and State of Wisconsin have reached an agreement on a new contract. You know working for the state is tough right now when a union leader tries to sell it by saying, "None of our members are worse off with the contract," while another offers, "Nobody's going to make less out of this package. At the end of the day nobody's take home pay is less."

UPDATE: Wow. This is a pretty good contract after all. The Badger Herald has details.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Mark LeVine in Madison

Madison-area readers might be interested to know that UC-Irvine's Mark LeVine, who blogs here and has a publicity web site here, will be giving a lecture on Monday, December 5 called "Why They Don't Hate Us: Islam and Globalization Since 9/11." The talk will be at noon in Room 8417 of the Social Science Building, and is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Middle East Studies Program.

Tangier Port

This picture shows the port of Tangier as seen from a terrace at the end of a street in the medina. Behind me as I took this were a bunch of younger kids playing soccer. The boat on the left side is an FRS ferry identical to the one I took from Gibraltar, though that one is probably running a route to Tarifa or Algeciras.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Ahmadinejad Cleans House

Pejman Yousefzadeh reports that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been busy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's clearout of his opponents began last month but is more sweeping than previously understood and has reached almost every branch of government, the Guardian has learned. Dozens of deputy ministers have been sacked this month in several government departments, as well the heads of the state insurance and privatisation organisations. Last week, seven state bank presidents were dismissed in what an Iranian source described as 'a coup d'état'.

"An informed Iranian source with first-hand knowledge of all the main political and clerical figures in the country said: 'Ahmadinejad is defying everybody. He does whatever he wants and considers it to be right. This is not how things are done in Iran.'"

William Beeman also reports on the situation:
"Mr Ahmadinejad appeared benign enough in June. A pious, ruthlessly honest and modest civil engineer, he had done an excellent job as Tehran's mayor. However, he immediately sent shockwaves through the establishment by proposing ill-suited ideologues as ministers in his new Government, by his badly received appearance at the United Nations, by his fiery condemnation of the 'Zionist regime' in Israel - an action that attracted international condemnation - and finally, by his recall of 40 moderate Iranian ambassadors.

"His actions have caused consternation in segments of the Iranian public as well. On November 3, his Government introduced a scheme to provide shares of national industries to Iran's poor, allowing them 20 years to repay the cost of the equities. Rumours have flown that the next target is Iran's private industrial holdings. There is no opposition between Islam and capitalism, and Iran is ruthlessly capitalist.

"Iranian owners of industry were not going to wait to find out whether the rumours were true. Reportedly more than $US200 billion ($A270 billion) in investment income has fled Iran for Dubai, where about 2000 new businesses have been established in the past four months. The capital flight was accelerated by Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks against Israel, after which the Tehran stock exchange plummeted to its lowest point in two years."

I suspect the last two paragraphs hold the key. There's more going on in Iran than a fight between liberal reformers and conservatives who support the system. What you have in Iran is a kleptocracy as much as a theocracy, and Ahmadinejad, while strengthening the latter, threatens the former.

(Crossposted to LAT.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Moroccan-American Relations

I feel immersed in Morocco stuff lately - in addition to my recent posts, I've gotten ahold of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and got into two conversations with people thinking about going there just today. In any event, you may have heard that it was the first nation to recognize American independence, but they always tend to leave out the full story. Check this part out:
"Continued delays by American officials exasperated the sultan and prompted him to take more drastic action to gain their attention. On October 11,1784, the Moroccans captured the American merchant ship, Betsey. After the ship and crew were taken to Tangier, he announced that he would release the men, ship, and cargo once a treaty with the United States was concluded. Accordingly, preparation for negotiations with Morocco began in 1785. On March 1 Congress authorized the commissioners to delegate to some suitable agent the authority to negotiate treaties with the Barbary States. The agent was required to follow the commissioners' instructions and to submit the negotiated treaty to them for approval. Congress also empowered the commissioners to spend a maximum of 80,000 dollars to conclude treaties with these states. Franklin left Paris on July 12, 1785, to return to the United States, 3 days after the Sultan released the Betsey and its crew."

The whole account is worth reading.

By the way, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Moroccan independence.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

New Names

Liberals Against Terrorism will soon be getting a new name.


Iraqi Defense Minister Sadun al-Dulaimi has come under fire for suggesting massacres of those who support the insurgency, including women and children. What's left unsaid is that harsh measures are sometimes the only way to crush an insurgency that has grassroots support. You need to erode the base of support, and fear is one way to do that.

There's another idea on the table. People who claim to represent the seven largest opposition groups want to negotiate with the United States. The idea as it stands won't happen, as they want an end to fighting first, though the U.S. is pressuring the Iraqi government to accept negotiations with insurgents at this weekend's Cairo summit. But why shouldn't we consider some sort of truce to allow negotiations ourselves? There's at least one country we pressure to do exactly that, and the issues involved in Iraq are far less emotional than the status of Temple Mount. As the insurgent leaders insist, they are not Zarqawi.

There is, of course, plenty of ground between these two options, but they do represent two general directions in which we can go. I for one am not interested in waging a war against the Sunni population of Iraq over internal Iraqi political grievances. What I want is to involve them in the political process and work toward ending the chaos which allows Zarqawi and his ilk to function. Given that, I have definite preferences for which way I'd start heading.

The Free Muslim Country

Juan Cole does a great job of fisking Dennis Prager's Los Angeles Times column with five questions for Muslims. As I said in comments, what I'm left wondering is what Prager sees as the one free Muslim-majority country? I can think of several choices. Albania is pretty obvious, being in Europe, while Turkey has made news for trying to enter the European Union. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation, and Bangladesh is basically democratic. Kyrgyzstan recently had a pro-democracy revolution, though we don't know whether its taken hold yet. I would count out Iraq, either, just because Prager seems to be a conservative, and therefore might have decided that President Bush has moved that land into the ranks of the free, with all those purple fingers and everything. Presumably Bosnia is only free because it actually has a Christian Serb majority, and like other conservatives, Prager has forgotten Afghanistan, which would otherwise be in the same category as Iraq.

What do you think?

Free polls from
What is the "free country" to which Dennis Prager refers?



UPDATE: Apparently I overlooked Prager's mention of a country in the article. Go see which one he was thinking of.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Oil Money

Many MP's in Kuwait, which is even more awash with oil money than usual, want to distribute the extra cash to citizens as hand-outs. We are talking $34,000 per family. This is only for citizens, of course, and not the huge guest worker population. I'm also not hearing about plans to invest in something that might diversify the economy.

Religious Freedom Report

Over at al-Hiwar, Stacey blogs about the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report, which she feels places too much emphasis on the freedom to practice one's religion as opposed to believe as one chooses. I'll let her address that issue, as she's apparently writing an article on the subject. Meanwhile, I'll note that Morocco, my favorite Arab country, fared pretty well at the level of "societal attitudes":
"Foreigners attend religious services without any restrictions or fear of reprisals. Residents of all religions generally say the country is enriched by its centuries-old Jewish minority, and for the most part Jews lived throughout the country in safety. In September 2003, a Jewish merchant was murdered in an apparently religiously motivated killing. During the May 2003 terrorist attacks, members of the Salafiya Jihadia targeted a Jewish community center in Casablanca. After the attacks, Jews marched in solidarity with Muslims to condemn terrorism. There have been thousands of arrests and many prosecutions of persons tied to the May bombing and other extremist activity. Annual Jewish commemorations took place around the country as normal, and Jewish pilgrims from around the region regularly come to holy sites in the country. There were no reports of attacks on Jews during the reporting period."

The report generally confirms the tone of what I said here and here when I was over there. Indeed one might suggest that across most of the Middle East, people are tolerant of other religions except with regard to conversion and proselytizing. When these issues come into play, however, things can get ugly.

What Words Mean

Last week I was representing the Middle East Studies Program at a dinner with one of our guest speakers and the UW professor who had invited him, and we briefly went into my own research. The two professors, both from the Arab world, asked about what sort of sources I used, and an example I gave was al-Baladhuri's Ansab al-Ashraf. The guest then asked curiously how I would translate that, and I said, "Genealogy of the Notables."

The immediate reaction was that it didn't mean that at all, though after a bit of talk, they had to admit it kind of did. The problem with "ashraf" as "notables" is predictable, in that you're describing a class of people in a social system completely different from that reflected in English, and the word conveys a sense of aboveness not found in any equivalent I can think of, unless you want to use "nobles" which conveys a sense of European aristocracy that seems even worse.

"Ansab" appears more straightforward, and in fact it's translated as "genealogy" all over the place, yet they were adamant there was more to it, a sense of the present more than the past. I was familiar with that idea from my readings in anthropology, especially William Lancaster's The Rwala Bedouin Today. In talking about the Bedouin genealogical system, he writes, "We see a genealogy as starting in the past and coming down to the present; the Rwala see it as starting in the present and receding into the past...For them the main point of a genealogy is to provide a framework for legitimising present political relationships...the relationship is active; the genealogy passive."

I was familiar with this, but yet struck by how immediate the differences between "genealogy" and its Arabic equivalent were to these two natives of the urban Levant, differences so profound that the similarity in terms of "examination of who is related to who" was not the first thing that came to mind. This is a cultural difference, and I suspect there's no way I could really "get it" in a personal sense unless I played anthropologist and went out to live for a year or so in a society where it was still immediate and important.

I've thought of these issues the past few days as I worked with a primary source by al-Mubarrad called Nasab 'Adnan wa Qahtan, which I might call "Lineage of 'Adnan and Qahtan". It is filled with terms like qabila and raht and batn, just like other works are filled with terms like ashira and qawm. I can look these up in the dictionary and see equivalents like "tribe" for several, while another might be "band" and another "people." But what does all that really tell me? Al-Mubarrad's raht does not mean "band" or "group" or anything else listed in the sense I might use it in English, except in the most generic sense of the word "group."

These terms represent the way in which the author perceived the relationships and interactions of his social world. They are as important to figuring out tribal society as the nuances of "friend," "acquaintance," "colleague," "associate," and "peer," not to mention the differences in how they are used by individuals, would be to someone studying types of social relationships in our society. Unravelling them can be difficult, however, not least because meanings change over time. Lancaster wrote that an ashira was considered something larger than a qabila, whereas I first learned it from medieval history as something smaller. I'm also not entirely sure if qawm is meant to designate something specific in the social structure, or if its just a general sense of "people," as in "his people."

I don't know how far I might get on that end of things before I finish my dissertation, though I'll obviously have to address the issue based on the sources I'm reading. But what all this does highlight is the importance of language to the study of history, something I'm not sure most people understand. Even accurate translations don't capture a lot of what we need to know. If I see "tribe" in a translated source, I need to know what term is used in Arabic, and more importantly, the cultural context of that term. Languages are not universal; they are mediums of communication in a specific culture. Our common humanity means we can understand each other, and plenty of words and concepts will work across a number of cultures. Some things, however, will always be misunderstood if expressed in a medium not meant for them - in other words, lost in translation.

UPDATE: On a related note, Greg Aldous has some observations on an Arabic production of Romeo and Juliet.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fighting Terrorism

Over at LAT, I discuss this Daniel Drezner post in the context of debate over whether the key to fighting terrorism lies in rogue states or failed ones. I really think Democrats have an opportunity here to stake out some national security territory with an eye toward upcoming elections, a territory in which they will also be right on the substance. The American public is now ready to hear the message that President Bush turned a rogue that might have meaningfully sponsored terrorism at some point in the future to a highly unstable one that is exporting terrorism now. One cannot imagine Zarqawi becoming such a high-profile figure without Iraq, abd the Bush administration blundered catastrophically by choosing to use his presence in the Kurdish region of Iraq to attack that nation rather than go after him personally.

The problem with our foreign policy debate right now is that it is driven more by the concerns of the Iraq conflict specifically rather than our broader strategic interests. Regardless of whether Iraq was initially a front in the "War on Terror," it clearly is today, and we need to approach it in that light. What that says about what we should actually do in Iraq I don't know, but simply saying it was a mistake to go in and we should therefore leave as quickly as possible isn't going to cut it. I'd rather not leave a new version of Afghanistan in the early 1990's in the heart of the Arab world, which is still a possibility. "Bush's War" is now our country's war, whether we like it or not.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


29 years ago today I experienced birth. While I don't remember this today, I'm glad I did.

Friday, November 11, 2005

My Background

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Saudi Municipal Councils

Speaking of supposed democratic reform, Saudi Arabia's municipal councils, partially elected to great fanfare earlier this year, have yet to actually meet. But you can't rush into these things, you know. After all, the decision to have those elections took place in 1977. They wanted to get it just right.

Egyptian Elections

After the summer I feel like I should comment on the Egyptian Parliamentary elections, but I really don't have much to say. People in activist circles assumed the Presidential election was a given, but had some hope that the Parliamentary contests could prove more interesting and perhaps provide a spark for their movement(s). However, it's been clear for a little while now that nothing like that was happening. The only interesting result I've seen is Ayman Nour's loss in Bab Shareyya, and he's probably the man the other opposition groups are least likely to rally around as a symbol. Meanwhile, like Big Pharaoh, I suspect Mubarak wanted Islamists as his enemy for foreign policy reasons, and sees them as a group that can ultimately be co-opted without threatening the regime's core power.

Egypt today is a little like The Matrix. Everything functions as just another control mechanism.

Amman Attacks

My first experience of the Middle East came in June 2001 when I flew into Amman as part of this intensive Arabic program. I ate my first meal there at a supper stop by a felafel/shwarma joint, and then we stopped at a Safeway where I was the target of some good-natured amusement on the part of the locals over my eager water consumption. Nonetheless, I don't remember any of the hotels hit today, and feel only a small personal connection with events.

I would, however, like to know more about this evacuation of Israelis from the Radisson in response to a "specific security alert." Only one nationality was evacuated from one hotel. If it were a general threat against Israelis, you'd think they'd have evacuated them from everywhere, whereas if it involved a hotel, you'd think they'd concentrate on securing the place for everyone. I'm sure there's some explanation, I'm just puzzled as to what it is.

UPDATE: Jonathan Edelstein says in comments that the report was an error. It may be just a Jordanian street rumor that got picked up by the media.

UPDATE: Abu Aardvark deals with the Israeli issue in his last paragraph. Apparently Ha'aretz just got it wrong, and is now reporting the story as false.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Limnology Poems

Here at the University of Wisconsin, we take learning so seriously that at least one of our libraries, the Limnology Library, has its own Poet Laureate. You can read her work here and here.

The French Riots

Oxblog's Patrick Belton has travelled to Paris to cover the riots, and has posted an early take:
"Paris is burning. It has done so before. Those of 1848 were the street riots of modernism, heralding enlightenment and republicanism versus the restoration of the ancien regime. The soixante-huitards's were those of postmodernity, seeking to resituate the individual and power at the centre of a discourse which modernity and liberalism's had to their view hidden. One is tempted to see in 2005 the riots of the atavistic, but that would be overdrawing the issue - they are the riots of Newark, Watts, and Brixton come to Paris. Those residents of the banlieues who are religious, even Islamist, are not the ones who are throwing stones or assaulting the Marais's Jews (whatever international activity some of their number may get up to to the side). Contra one recent meme of commentary, the problem of the banleieus in a sense is not that its inhabitants are Muslim, but that they are not."

I'm not a France expert, but this sounds right to me. Those wishing to understand what's happening would be far better off heading for Ceuta and Melilla than reading about the Battle of Poitiers, even if some fall back on a fundamenalist sense of the identity for which they feel they are discriminated against. In fact, al-Jazeera's Islamist talk show host Yusuf al-Qaradawi has spoken out against the riots, and Muslim leaders in France have issued what this report calls a fatwa forbidding Muslims from rioting.

I hope for a quick end to the violence. I also hope, albeit pessimistically, that the points made above will become part of the popular perception about what is happening, and that it doesn't instead fall into a "clash of civilizations" narrative which can too easily become self-fulfilling. After all, these riots sprung from rhetoric, mistrust and fear into which was dropped, not so much an incident, but a rumor thereof. Such is the power of perception.

Badr's Museum

This is the front of Badr's Museum in Farafra, Egypt:

For more about Badr and Farafra, check out this al-Ahram Weekly article.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

This Set Down

Now you can read a blog from another UW-Madison graduate student in medieval Middle Eastern history! Greg is currently in Cairo at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad.


A friend e-mails me this story wanting to know why the would-be bomber is labelled an "activist" rather than a "terrorist":
"A Jewish Defense League activist imprisoned for his role in a plot to bomb a California mosque and the office of a Lebanese-American congressman was killed at a federal prison in Phoenix, an FBI spokesman said Saturday...

"Earl Krugel, a former dental assistant from Los Angeles, and late JDL leader Irv Rubin were arrested in 2001 and charged with conspiring to bomb the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City and a field office of Republican Rep. Darrell E. Issa, who is Lebanese-American."

Double standards abound.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Good Plan

Ivo Daalder calls attention to a great idea from Senator Carl Levin:
"Levin, who's been more right on Iraq for a longer period than just about anyone else, has suggested that rather than setting a deadline for withdrawing now, we should link our commitment to remain militarily engaged in Iraq with a demonstrable Iraqi commitment to resolve their key political differences. If elections are held this December and Iraqis of all stripes participate to the maximum extent possible, if a new national assembly is formed and a constitutional committee representative of all Iraqi interests is established, if the committee can reach consensus on how to amend the constitution within the four month timeframe that has been agreed to, and if the amendments are approved in a national referendum, then there's hope that, for all their differences, the Iraqis are committed to work them out peacefully within a unified Iraq. And if they do that, we should stay engaged to help them succeed -- by providing security, training national security forces, and supporting economic and political efforts to reconstitute the Iraqi state."

I worry, though, that the debate in this country has become too polarized around President Bush's concept of "staying the course" or not to allow ideas such as this to gain traction. Would any liberal hawks like to rally public support behind this banner? It's smart politics for them as well as sound policy, for it would allow them to preserve their pro-war credentials while showing they don't approve of an unconditional open-ended commitment to what many view as a quagmire. Senator Clinton, I'm watching you.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Bluetooth Romance

Gulf News has a funky article on the latest in Bahraini romance:
"As he turned his mobile Bluetooth on, Fahad felt the excitement inside him swell up, an elating mixture of enthusiasm and anticipation.

"Tossing aside his barely-touched pizza, the innocent-looking teenager was ready for what he calls 'the hunt': a discreet electronic handshake with one of the girls engulfing him with waves of perfume as they strut at the cool mall.

"Fahad, olive eyes glistening over a pencilled moustache, silently told himself that his chances to start a conversation that day looked promising. He pressed the search button as his heartbeats picked up speed."

So far there's no comment on BahrainBlogs.

Chalabi in Washington

Josh Marshall is asking some good questions about Ahmad Chalabi's visit to Washington. How can this guy still be respected in some circles, let alone have meetings with high-level officials? What is this all about?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Christmas Creep

Craig Barker takes a stand against October Christmas music and calls upon others to do the same. I think he's right. Christmas is a wonderful time of year, and is crucial to me for both strictly religious and more broadly spiritual reasons. The concept of a "White Christmas" is almost single-handedly responsible for my hopes to remain in the north when I hit the job market. I don't even have a problem with some of the more commercialized aspects, as most of them are filled with negative content because of flaws in people's attitudes rather than anything innate to the aspects themselves. But starting before Thanksgiving, much less Halloween, reduces its impact by spreading it thinly across too much of the year.

I can't think of any culture with a observance longer than the 40 days of the Christian Lent. Our culture has a yearly cycle in which everything has its place, and if we start singing about snow in the fall, we lose our ability to appreciate that aspect of creation even as we start effectively subordinating other holidays as part of some dream version of an uber-festival which probably can't handle the pressure and will inevitably disappoint. If someone wants to claim some value to prolonging its religious aspects in this manner, then they should note that the liturgical calendar already has events during October and November which have their own purposes. With the exception of the Methodist Kingdomtide, churches generally observe it for only a few weeks, and while as is the nature of celebrations of majority religions this one has taken on important secular functions as well, I still think we should heed that wisdom.

UPDATE: While we're on the subject, people are now observing both Diwali and Eid al-Fitr. Note that Ramadan is only one month while Diwali is five days, though presumably with a great deal of lead-in.

Child Suicide Bombers

I missed this earlier, but apparently Iraqi insurgents recently used a child as a suicide bomber in Kirkuk. And it may not have been a first:
"Reports have suggested that Iraqi insurgents placed bombs on a mentally impaired boy during the country's January legislative elections; the explosives on the boy detonated near a polling station, killing him and at least one police man who ushered him outside."

The handful of people who see the Iraqi insurgents as heroes fighting American aggression are sorely misguided.

Afghanistan and Israel

RFE-RL reports on Hamid Karzai's interest in moving toward peace with Israel. Karzai's position, that he would support having full relations with Israel once the Palestinians are on the road to statehood, is close to the opinion of many Arab states, as seen in King Abdullah's Spring 2003 peace proposal. The article highlights its differences from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinehad's comments last week, but that shouldn't be surprising since even other Iranian leaders have distanced themselves from that rhetoric. I don't think Iran would turn on Afghanistan over this, as stability on its borders is too high a priority for the Iranian government. What struck me most was the Karzai advisor saying that Israelis have "the right to live in peace with their neighbors." This implies a recognition of Israeli legitimacy even without full relations, a good basis for future negotiations.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Judicial Activism

Ralph Luker and Kevin Drum are among those linking to this New York Times opinion piece which purports to show that conservative judges are more activist the liberals. Their methodology, however, is to see who has voted to strike down the most Congressional acts. Since conservatives favor limiting the power of the federal government, their findings are what one might expect.