Thursday, September 28, 2006

Off Again

Well, tomorrow morning I'll be up before the sun and en route to Baku, with other points of interest to follow. Look for details in future posts!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jerusalem: A Path to Gethsemane

"Banished from the gates, the father of mankind descended on a stone, the first station of a new world, an exile's world - bleak and brooding, with harsh sunlight and deep shadows, desolate rocky peaks and steep ravines, dry burning heat and cold luminous nights. Adam, whom God had appointed his deputy on Earth, had landed in the elemental landscape of his Creator's imagination.

"On a mountain that happened to be the closest to Heaven of all the mountains of the Earth, he landed - so close that, when Adam's feet were planted at its summit, his head poked into the Garden out of which he had been cast."

That quote is from Kanan Makiya's The Rock, and is based on a Jewish mystical source called the Zohar. It purports to describe humanity's first arrival in Jerusalem, specifically the sacred rock beneath the Muslim Dome of the Rock on Mt. Moriah, generally called Temple Mount. The place hasn't changed much, except that Adam's descendants have now built stuff all over the place and scurry around fighting over it. If you keep your eyes open, though, you can still see paradise.

Right now I live in a downtown apartment high above the pedestrian mall centered on Ben Yehuda Street, which in Madison terms is a lot like State Street only with a more refined than collegiate atmosphere. When the sherut (minibus) from the airport first dropped me off, though, it was close to midnight outside a row of rundown East Jerusalem budget hostels just outside the Old City. The respectable middle-class couple I was riding with took one long bleak look at it and then wished me luck without much confidence. I claimed my luggage, paid the driver, and headed in to a place where the walls were covered with Korean soccer banners, calls for peace in the Middle East, and posters of Moustafa Barghouti's Palestinian National Initiative.

My room was predictably sparse, but the crowd of semi-permanent residents most hostels seem to attract was interesting, the sort of people you might expect to find in a budget hostel in Jerusalem. They were dominated by a group of South Korean missionaries, one of whom had been there for most of the past year and a half. He cooked. He didn't just cook in the hostel, though - he spent his time in Jerusalem preparing and giving food to poor pilgrims. A backpacker asked the hostel owner what his story was; the owner said it was his mission, and that it was a good idea to give him some shekels before leaving. Another was a 30-something American who was drifting between Israel and Egypt before taking up a volunteer post in an orphanage. He'd spent time in prison for armed robbery after being tried as an adult even though he was a minor, then got a college degree, but found he couldn't get a job with his record. Eventually he gave up and decided to pursue a different sort of life out in the broader world. He'd never been that religious, but had begun attending services with the Koreans. Things like that happen in Jerusalem.

Now, though, I'm up in West Jerusalem. The hostel crowd up here is reportedly pretty right-wing anti-Arab, which probably explains why they're paying more to be here. The neighborhood, however, is pretty mixed, especially in terms of national origin, and sitting out watching the street you see people from all over, with tourists sampling the nightlife after a hard day of being holy down in the Old City.

I've only made a couple of forays down there myself. The first was at the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when I went down to the Western Wall to watch the festivities. After passing through a security gate, you emerge onto a wide open plaza filled with curiosity seekers and Jews. A short fence separates this plaza from an enclosed area next to the wall, but non-Jews are allowed to enter that area as long as they don the proper headgear. I didn't see any reason to, and stayed by the fence as the area below, already set with tables covered with white tablecloths, Hebrew prayerbooks, and white lawn chairs stacked around began to fill, first with the Hasidim, all decked out in black hats and coats with the two locks of long hair and stringy tails across the bottom of their white shirts, and then with more conservative Jews, mostly wearing white. A number of people clustered near the wall, which for a long time was believed to be the last remnant of the Second Temple, the restraining wall around Temple Mount. It was divided into a large section for men, with a smaller one for women, but everyone close was praying at this place where they believed the Spirit of God remained eternally. I can't separate what might have been particular to Rosh Hashanah as opposed to the standard greeting of the Sabbath, but there were several groups doing their own services, and a group of yeshiva students singing at dancing to welcome the coming of the sacred time into their mundane lives. Muslims were actually about to do the same thing with the onset of Ramadan, but the spirit of the events was perhaps better seen in the way the blowing of shofars clashed with the call to prayer which cut through the air as the sunset.

The next day I went to the Old City again to scope out some of the Christian sites. One main entry is through the Damascus Gate, which opens onto a large square. There's always a squad of Israeli soldiers there, usually held together by their truck, though sometimes one will be chatting amiably with a Palestinian sidewalk peddler or waving his machine gun on some driver who has tried to go the wrong way amidst the constantly shifting pattern of street closures. I decided to go through the less hectic New Gate, however, which cuts through the Christian Quarter where I found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre hidden away on a side street next to the Mosque of Umar.

This site's claims to authenticity are actually pretty good, unlike a lot of other venerated sites you'll run across. The church itself will never be the most glamorous in Christendom - the inside is dark and gloomy, and in some places the paint is peeling and ladders and hoses are lying around. However, there's probably nowhere you'll see a more diverse array of Christians, with everyone from Catholics and Protestants to Eastern Orthodox to Copts with their cross tattoos, Malaharists in their saris, Armenians dressed in black, and any other branch of Christendom you might conceive of. All of these pour through the single main entrance, except for those of the Ethiopean Tewahedo Church, who have a monastery next door and come down through the roof.

Sadly, all these Christian groups do not cooperate amiably, and the church is run according to a division handed down by the Ottoman Empire to stop the territorial squabbling. When you pass through Calvary next to the entrance, you enter through a Catholic zone and leave through an Orthodox one. The rest of the relevant areas are similarly divided, and all have a different flavor, from the cave-like Malahar chapel to the Armenian chapel, which seems more like an office with its comfy chairs and telephone on a side table next to a lamp. The denominations guard their rights jealously. According to wikipedia, in 2002 a Coptic priest moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade in Ethiopian territory, and 11 were hospitalized as a result the brawl which followed. Still, a sense of spirituality is found about the place, as pilgrims sit in contemplation in the chapel which commemorates St. Helena's purported discovery of the True Cross or weep as they reach through a hole beneath an altar to the cold stones of the place of the Crucifixion.

The Protestants were left out of this, and so have effectively declared that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the wrong spot, and under Anglican auspices run a site called the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem. Once you step through the green gate, you might as well be in Bloomsbury, as it lives up to the "garden " name. There are benches everywhere along the shady paths, and periodic plaques arguing for the site's claims. A gift shop sells souvenirs. There's even a small tomb there, and archaeologists have confirmed it was used for burials - in about the 5th century.

What all this has to do with Christ's Passion is unclear, but in any case after taking it in I went down the Jericho road toward the Mount of Olives where a break in traffic finally allowed me to hike over to some of the sites there. These were generally nicer than those in the Old City, though still contested. The area is also shadier, and Lonely Planet warns agains thieves and pickpockets. I skipped the Church of St. Stephen for now, and entered the Tomb of Mary, run by the Eastern Orthodox, with the Malaharists, Copts, and Armenians also having altar rights. The actual tomb site is in a small shrine; the rest of the chapel is adorned with lots of icons and candles.

After that I made my way up the narrow alleyway to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is divided between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (a communist-era splinter group from the Eastern Orthodox) and the Roman Catholics. The latter have to do all their Mary stuff in the nearby Franciscan-run Church of the Agony, as they were driven out of Mary's tomb. The garden looks like a place where someone might experience agony, filled with gnarled and knotted olive trees, some of which are over 2000 years old, and thus around in the time of Jesus. It's tough to contemplate in peace, though, as for the first time in Jerusalem I had a problem with persistent hustlers trying to usher you into the church and hawkers trying to sell branches allegedly from the garden.

The Scripture passages commemorated around the church and garden involve not only the obedience of waiting to suffer, which in the episode "Passing Through Gethsemane" a Babylon 5 character identified as the spiritual heart of Christianity, but invoke the idea that he was in agony for the sins of Jerusalem and/or the world. Perhaps the latter view has something to it. After all, given the monotheistic world's great spiritual treasures, people mainly fight over them, claiming with pride the shrines of those who served with humility. The most genuinely religious place I've interacted with in my short time here was the run-down yet homey Palm Hostel. The whole rest of the path to Gethsemane I took was fraught with turmoil.


Settlement Politics

Get this - not only is Israel planning to expand three West Bank settlements, it still hasn't met its obligations to the settlers it removed from the Gaza Strip over a year ago.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Judaism and Israelification

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting post on the extent to which American Judaism embraces Israel. It's tough to excerpt, but here's how it winds up:
"Most American Jews -- and specifically American reform Jews -- aren't in any sense offshoots of modern Israeli society in general or of modern Labor Zionism in particular. Indeed, it's rather the reverse. Diaspora reform Judaism and Ashkenazi Jewish culture in North America represents an alternative conception of modern Jewish identity. An alternative conception that is, in many ways, directly antagonistic to the model represented by traditional Zionism and the kibbutz. This isn't, after all, 1923 when one might think vaguely of relocating to Mandate Palestine some day. Israel is there. It's up and running. One can move there with ease -- the right of return and all -- and the quasi-official view of the Israeli state is that one ought to move there and embrace the Zionist project. Like Kleiman, I guess I have a certain sympathy and even admiration for the Zionist project, but it's not my project.

"It's fascinating and noteworthy that those who did embrace the project robustly have managed to create a modern Israeli cultural tradition, but that's not my tradition. My ancestors are from Eastern Europe, not the Middle East. They spoke Yiddish, not modern Hebrew. And I don't know exactly what they were up to in the Pale but they certainly weren't making the desert bloom."

If I weren't in a Hebrew University computer lab finalizing elements of my professional dossier for a job search, I'd probably comment at length, but as it is I'll just note that last year I talked to a venerable professor of the modern Middle East who commented on the Arabifiction of global Islam. I haven't explored whether that a good notion or not, but comparing it to Matthew's post suggests at least the possibility of parallel phenomena.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

PA Fee Effects

Mike Supanich has a letter in The Badger Herald about the effects proposals to raise the charges departments and faculty pay for employing graduate students which is a must-read for anyone interested in university financing. We keep hearing how budget cuts are directed at the administration, but it can't be carved up as easily as all that. For one thing, PA-ships are effectively a key of financial aid for graduate students. If you hurt that, you hurt the quality of graduate students you are able to recruit, and hence the education given to undergraduates of whom graduate students are the most frequent front-line instructors.

Marrying Israelis

On the other hand, some in the Egyptian opposition are now coming out against the threat of marrying Israelis:
"'This phenomenon is alarming,' said MP Hamdeen Sabahi, who heads the Al Karama (Dignity) opposition party.

"'Many young Egyptians, desperate for a job, just cross the border to Israel to work there. They eventually get married to Israeli girls and have children,' he told Gulf News...

"Sabahi added that children born as a result of Egyptian-Israeli marriages later became Egyptian citizens.

"'A situation in which children are raised inside the Zionist state fed on hatred of the Arabs, is full of peril to national security,' he argued."

"Sabahi believes that the best solution to the problem is 'to bar children of Israeli mothers and Egyptian fathers from getting Egyptian nationality.'

"'Young Egyptians must also be stopped from going to Israel,' says Sabahi."

The first thing that struck me upon reading this was that these Egyptians were probably marrying Palestinian Israelis rather than Jews. I'd also guess Sabahi's fears are shared by many in Israel, who would see Egyptians and their children as an addition to the demographic threat to Israeli Jewishness, unless these Egyptians are marrying Israeli Jews and the children are being raised Jewish. Another angle is to note that this shows again the one-sided portrayal of Israel in much of the Arab world, since it's far from clear the children would be raised on hatred of Arabs given the variety of opinions of Arab culture available in Israel and the presumption that someone who would marry an Arab wouldn't really be that racist.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Holy Days

Permit me to wish you a Ramadan Mabruk or a Shana Tova, depending on your religious persuasion. Jews will also be happy to know that 5767 is the year the Messiah will be revealed to all. He was already heralded at the UN recently, in contrast to Satan. The Promised One is, in fact, Noam Chomsky.

Israeli Studies in UAE

Thanks to Martin Kramer's newswire, I found this article about the rise of Hebrew and Israeli Studies in the United Arab Emirates:
"UAE national Mira Al Hussain, 23, is about to start a masters degree programme in international relations in the UK, where she plans to study Hebrew.

"Mira recently wrote an open letter to US president George W. Bush criticising his Middle East policy, which has been widely published, and circulated on the internet, and has provoked a barrage of e-mail messages many of which came from Israel.

"A majority of the letters Mira received from Israel were 'respectful' but denounced her views, which Mira believes demonstrates a 'communication gap' between Israelis and Arabs.

"This 'crucial feedback', she said, confirmed the need to understand Israeli history, culture and religion and 'most importantly, their language'. Rasha Hinti, a 22-year-old Syrian student at the American University in Sharjah (AUS), said she would want to learn Hebrew to be able to read the Israeli press and converse with Israelis.

"'Languages demolish boundaries. More importantly, people can realise that at the end of the day, we are all human beings and not just pieces of land,' she said."

This is a great sign, for the imbalance between the many Israelis who want to integrate into the Middle East and the Arabs who for reasons that are understandable given the historical context in which Israel arose reflexively see them as a colonialist implant only to be opposed has long struck me as an obstacle in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Studying the language and culture will be a much-needed step toward examining the history involved from another perspective, and at least understanding where the Israelis are coming from.

Incidentally, this initiative highlighted by Natasha Tynes can be seen in a similar vein.

U.S. vs. Mahdi

The apocalyptic dimensions of Muqtada Sadr's movement don't get enough coverage in the U.S.:
"In a worrisome sign that Muqtada al-Sadr has gone deep into an apocalyptic sense of the end of the world [Ar.], al-Zaman reports that the young nationalist Shiite cleric maintained that the US Department of Defense has compiled an enormous file on the hidden Twelfth Imam, that is virtually complete save that it lacks his photograph.

["For Shiite Muslims, the Twelfth Imam or Imam Mahdi is a little like Jesus Christ for evangelical Christians. Shiites believe that the Imam was translated by God into a supernatural realm, from which he secretly rules the world and from which he will one day return to restore the world to justice.]

"Al-Sadr said during his Friday prayer sermon in Kufa that 'The United States has been preparing for ten years a rapid reaction force against the awaited Imam Mahdi and the US provoked the Gulf War so as to fill the region with military outposts for this purpose.'"

Friday, September 22, 2006

Recognizing Israel

Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel has emerged as the main stumbling block to the formation of a national unity government in the Palestinian territories. I can understand why Palestinians resent having to recognize a state they view as illegitimately founded and which refuses to recognize their own national claims. On the other hand, recognition was afforded by Yasser Arafat, and supported by democratically elected Palestinian governments prior to the Hamas takeover. Part of Hamas's evolution from militant revolutionary movement to responsible governing party will have to be living the with commitments of their predecessors. In a fairer world, it might be possible to simply declare a Palestinian state as a way of trying to balance the scales, but I suspect that wouldn't go over well in Israel.

It's worth pointing out that all this is happening as we enter a period of heightened security due to the Jewish high holy days. The Palestinians will pay the price for this.

UPDATE: Hamas, of course, takes a more hard-line stance against Israel than I do even under the best of circumstances. According to Prime Minister Isma'il Haniyeh, "We support establishing a Palestinian state in the land of 1967 at this stage, but in return for a cease-fire, not recognition." In that formula, recognition simply isn't in the cards.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Terrorist Ethics

This seems like a peculiar version of our own torture debate:
"The proponents who reason against a nuclear attack on the United States argue that Islam and the Prophet Muhammad forbade the killing of unarmed civilians, the elderly, women and children. They reiterate that the killing of innocent Muslims by the United States does not justify killing their civilians even if they are infidels, Jews or Christians. They add, 'our religion calls for forgiveness and mercy, not random killing. Therefore, such an operation will distort Islam and true Jihad. We must not burden Islam with the guilt of using nuclear weapons. It is better to be martyrs than mass butchers' [4]. A participant, nicknamed Abdullah 28, refutes Sendbad Elmassery's Quranic justification of a nuclear attack by posting the full verse that reads, 'If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient' [5]."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Suicide Bombing in Baidoa

Someone tried to assassinate Somalia's interim president Abdullahi Yousef via suicide car bombing. Yousef, predictably, blames al-Qaeda, and by implication the Islamic Courts Union which over the summer took control of Mogadishu and is now effectively ruling most of the country. Whether there is in fact some sort of direct al-Qaeda connection, the ICU does seem to be the most logical suspect in the attack, and has shown they're not above using terrorist tactics to achieve their military objectives, though this isn't quite the same as going after civilian population centers to sow terror.

Habeas Corpus

Eric Martin is caring about the Constitution again:
"This lurch toward the profound weakening of the rule of law is taken as the default position, with the only issues up for discussion being the treatment one should receive while in such Kafka-esque indefinite detention (it should be noted that even with respect to torture and other evidentiary matters, that treatment would only become an issue if charges are filed and a trial ensues which is kind of the point behind ensuring habeas corpus rights in the first place).

"This is how far astray from our founding principles that the GOP and Bush administration have taken us: that it is accepted by the majority Republican Party that the President should be empowered to lock people up for the rest of their lives without so much as a trial to determine their innocence, guilt or other mitigating circumstances. As for the Democrats, they appear all-too-willing to go gently into that good night. I am thoroughly underwhelmed.

"This matters. This will have long term and far reaching consequences. This should be covered with at least a shred of the attention that Jonbenet Ramsey, Anna Nicole Smith, Brangelina, Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Katie Couric, and the myriad other inanities that the corporate media obsesses over, receive.

"I feel like a bystander witnessing a terrible crime without the power to prevent it, whose only recourse is to plaintively protest, 'Somebody please do something.' The entire population's hair should be on fire, not just the powdered wigs in the graves of the nation's somersaulting founding fathers."

Monday, September 18, 2006


Those who think Arabic looks hard to learn to write should take Hebrew out for a whirl. Check this out. How, praytell, does one tell the difference between mem and samech?

Muradova Dies

Ogulsapar Muradova has died in prison in Turkmenistan:
"International rights organizations have expressed outrage at news that RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in custody.

"They blame Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's government for what they say appears to be an extrajudiciary execution and call upon the international community to press Ashgabat to shed light on the journalist's death.

"Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was 'shocked' by reports of Muradova's death.

"In a statement issued on September 14, the group urged the international community -- 'especially the European countries, the United States, and Russia' -- to demand that Turkmen authorities explain the circumstances of Muradova's death.

"The same day, RSF organized a protest rally outside the Turkmen Embassy in Paris. Some 30 group members and journalists briefly entered the embassy, demanding to see the ambassador. French police removed them without violence; it was unclear whether the Turkmen envoy met with any of the protesters."

Weapons in Lebanon

Via Elijah Zarwan, it sounds like Israel did use white phosphorus in Lebanon:
"At the same time, soldiers are reporting that they fired phosphorous shells, which are supposed to be used by the IDF for marking or setting fire to areas, in order to start fires in Lebanon. The artillery commander says he saw trucks with phosphorous shells en route to artillery batteries in the North.

"A direct hit from a phosphorous shell causes severe burns and a painful death. Around a year ago, there was an international scandal after a television crew presented harsh pictures of the charred bodies of Iraqis injured by phosphorous bombs during the course of the American attack on the city of Fallujah.

"International law prohibits the use of weapons that cause 'excessive damage and unnecessary suffering,' and many experts feel that phosphorous is included in this category. The International Red Cross determined that international law prohibits the use of phosphorous against humans. The American 'Book of War,' published in 1999, which sets down the rules of war for the American army, states: 'The ground war law prohibits the use of phosphorous against human targets.' The pact on prohibiting or limiting flammable weapons bans the use of phosphorous against civilian targets and against military targets found amid large civil populations."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Amar Writes to Qaradawi

Shlomo Amar, the Orthodox Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, has written to al-Jazeera Islamist TV host Yusuf Qaradawi criticizing Pope Benedict XVI's attacks on Muhammad and Islam. While I haven't been in many conversations on the subject, his position seems close to what many conservative Jews are saying on the street. Upon learning of my academic interests, one elderly Orthodox woman was sharply critical of the Pope, saying that, "Whatever differences exist between us and the Arabs, we do not criticize their religion." At the time, I had no idea what had actually been said, as neither she nor another man would repeat it.

Meanwhile, according to news reports, Islamic militants are attacking churches in Palestinian areas:
"The Saturday attacks on four of the 10 churches in the West Bank town of Nablus, and on the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City unsettled a relatively peaceful coexistence in the city.

"The assaults began with fire bombings of Nablus' Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches, which left trails of black scorch marks in their wake. At least five firebombs were hurled at the Anglican church, whose door was later set ablaze in a separate attack. Smoke billowed from the church as firefighters put out the flames

"In a phone call to The Associated Press, a group calling itself the 'Lions of Monotheism' claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were meant to protest the pope's remarks about Islam.

"Hours later, four masked gunmen doused the main doors of Nablus' Roman and Greek Catholic churches with lighter fluid, then set them ablaze. They also opened fire on the buildings, pocking their outer walls with bullet holes.

"In Gaza City, militants opened fire from a car at a Greek Orthodox church, hitting the facade. A policeman at the scene said he saw a car escape with armed men inside. Explosive devices were set off at the same Gaza church on Friday, causing minor damage.

"There were no claims of responsibility for the last three attacks. Said Siyam, the interior minister from Hamas, ordered extra protection for churches across the West Bank and Gaza."


Nadyr Mamyrov, Vice President of Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan, has published a letter stating that he followed orders from Zanybek Bakiev concerning the Omurbek Tekebaev heroin scandal. Mamyrov was the figure scene briefly taking Tekebaev's suitcase in a video, while Bakiev is with the National Security Service and the younger brother of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev. The Kyrgyz Parliament summoned President Bakiev to answer questions, and is demanding the resignation of other Bakiev brothers in government posts.

UPDATE: Nathan Hamm has the Tekebaev airport video.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In Jerusalem

In case anyone was wondering, I made it to Jerusalem, and have settled in an apartment. It's in a multi-story building near a felafel and schwarma joint with Hebrew writing on it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Five Years Later

For most Americans, the "War on Terror" began on September 11, 2001. This is not when it began for al-Qaeda, which had been ramping up its attacks since the late 1990's, nor for many on its front lines, who had been working to counter the threat from perches inside defense agencies during the same period. However, the image of the World Trade Center coming down and President Bush's subsequent actions mean that that is the day people will remember as a turning point in their perceptions of the world and its dangers.

During that five years, however, it seems that little has been accomplished. The United States and its allies toppled the Taliban and denied al-Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, but they have carved out a new domain, now with the acquiesence of the Pakistani government, in Waziristan. Afghanistan's government, meanwhile, is weak, and the country largely insecure. It's economy is based on unprecedented levels of opium production, and attempts to eradicate it serve more to alienate the people who depend on it than anything else. Meanwhile, I suspect the profits from this opium crop are paying for insurgencies in Waziristan and Baluchistan, as well as the forces behind the growing unrest in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley. Nothing suggests the Taliban have broken their alliance with al-Qaeda, which while returning to its pre-9/11 difficulty in attacking the American homeland has inspired or had a hand in numerous attacks in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The Bush administration's main foreign policy initiative in all this has been to invade Iraq, removing a regime hostile to al-Qaeda and creating a state in which Abu Musab az-Zarqawi gained an international stage, one which was inherited by the al-Qaeda network upon his death. The opportunity to fight Americans doing something which most Arabs see as an atrocity cloaked in cynically deployed rhetoric about democracy has helped elevate the status of jihadists with many Muslims, and Iraq now serves the same role Afghanistan did during the 1980's in allowing these jihadists to form new networks and alliances which will last long after the war is over.

These have not been five years of success, but five years of miscalculation and incompotence, for which we will be paying the price for a long time.

That's all from me for a little while, as early tomorrow morning I set off for Israel. See you from the other side!

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Life, Borders, and Identity

Last night I watched the 2004 film The Syrian Bride, as well as a brief interview with actress Hiam Abbass and some of the commentary track by director Eran Riklis. In addition to be a highly entertaining mix of comedy and drama, the film is an interesting look at how the political situation affects people's everyday lives in the Middle East, and how different communities, even while formally hostile, can live and work together as human beings without losing their principles.

One thing that struck me on a more scholarly level, however, were comments by Abbass and Riklis highlighting the importance of borders in the film. Historical borders serve as an important component of people's identity, yet the situation in the Golan Heights is unusual because the border is both disputed and creates a rupture within a community that could only be bridged through mediums like the "shouting hill." This touches on yet another aspect of questions of identity which I find one of the most fascinating aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There's also the interesting hint that questions of identity depend in part on internal borders, which I find a highly interesting metaphor.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Tekebaev Released

Poland has released Omurbek Tekebaev:
"Omurbek Tekebaev's brother, Asylbek, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that his brother was freed today after spending more than 24 hours at a Polish detention facility.

"Opposition lawmaker Melis Eshimkanov confirmed that Tekebaev had called him after his release and said Polish authorities apologized over his detention...

"President Kurmanbek Bakiev ordered the formation of a 10-member state commission made up of prosecutors and Foreign Ministry representatives to look at the case.

"Prime Minister Feliks Kulov issued a statement earlier today saying he was 'confident' that Tekebaev was innocent. He also suggested the ex-speaker had been set up.

"'I believe -- I am absolutely confident -- that Omurbek Cherkeshevich [Tekebaev] is innocent,' Kulov said. 'I am 100-percent sure that there has been some dirty provocation. Who did it and for what purpose? I can't say that now, I have no facts.'"

There is also apparently video evidence that someone took away Tekebaev's suitcase for 14 minutes, during which they could have planted heroin.

Kuwait's Year

Via Abu Aardvark, I see that even though it's only September, Mary Ann Tetreault has decided that Kuwait already merits a retrospective on the year. I've tried to blog about it quite a bit based on limited sources, but Tetreault is an actual Kuwait expert who provides a lot of depth and detail. Here's the final analysis:
"All of which brings us back to democracy and Kuwait’s year full of miracles. As political scientist Eleanor Doumato has observed, women’s rights in the Arab Gulf states are the gift of monarchs, not parliaments. This is certainly the case in Kuwait, where opinion polls taken before the electoral law was changed in May 2005 showed a discouraging lack of support for female candidates, although more for female voters. The role of democracy in the 2006 election should be considered in broader terms than that, however. That there was an election at all was even more indicative of expectations that a democratic process should -- and did -- exist in Kuwait. The demonstrations that helped bring down the government were non-violent, as was virtually all of the official response to them. The new emir may have acted precipitously in canceling the parliamentary session and calling a new election -- and the speaker of the parliament later excoriated this decision publicly as unnecessarily confrontational. Yet only 20 years ago, a Kuwaiti emir dissolved a parliament and did not call for a new election until invasion, war and liberation made it impossible for him to continue resisting demands for the restoration of constitutional life.

"These demands came from Kuwaitis, through a long and occasionally frightening period when street demonstrations were met with more than the possibly accidental injury of one person by a policeman’s baton. The pro-democracy movement of 1989-1990 saw more widespread beating of demonstrators, along with the desecration of a mosque by tear gas and police dogs, and the arrest of more than a dozen prominent dissidents. Demands for reform came from outside, too, not only from exiles abroad during the Iraqi occupation, but also from countries that, having sent troops to liberate Kuwait, expected its leaders to behave better than the ousted invader. Despite clerical and even popular criticism, after liberation foreign ambassadors and NGOs pressed for women’s rights, protection for stateless persons, better treatment of maids and other foreign workers, and structural changes to open Kuwait’s economy and political system. That each of these causes was also advocated by Kuwaitis does not diminish the usefulness of external support from those whose good opinion Kuwaiti leaders value. Such external advocacy is not only an additional check on backsliding toward a more authoritarian past, but is also evidence that other governments support democratization in the Middle East."

Bahrain is next up for Parliamentary elections, and external pressure there would definitely be useful.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tekebaev's Heroin

I don't know what to make of this:
"The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry released a statement today confirming that Tekebaev was arrested at the airport in Warsaw on September 6. The statement said Polish customs officials found 595 grams of heroin in a "matroshka" (nesting doll) in Tekebaev's luggage. Kyrgyzstan has sent its ambassador in Belarus to Poland to get more information about the matter.

"Tekebaev was a co-chairman of the For Reforms movement, which was formed earlier this year. Melis Eshmikanov, a member of parliament and also a member of For Reforms, responded to news of Tekebaev's arrest by saying it was "a provocation" and that the movement is in touch with Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry, National Security Service, and customs service officials.

"Another parliamentarian and For Reforms member, Temir Sariev, told journalists that Tekebaev was detained at the Warsaw airport along with Deputy Anatoly Danilov and social activist Zainidin Kurmanov. Sariev said Tekebaev denied there could have been narcotics in his baggage.

"Edil Baisalov, the head of the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition, told RFE/RL he believes the situation was arranged by forces in Kyrgyzstan.

"'This is a provocation against the leader of the opposition, ex-speaker Tekebaev, organized by the secret service of Kyrgyzstan,' Baisalov said. 'This provocation is to discredit not only the leader of the opposition, but the whole of the opposition in the eyes of the international community and before the people of Kyrgyzstan.'"

This part of a trend of bad things happening to opponents of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Whether Tekebaev is guilty I have no idea, though I would readily believe that any Kyrgyz politician has links to organized crime. What doesn't make sense is that he would be carrying the heroin himself.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Prayers on a Plane

A Jewish man was removed from an Air Canada Jazz flight for praying:
"Some fellow passengers are questioning why an Orthodox Jewish man was removed from an Air Canada Jazz flight in Montreal last week for praying.

"The man was a passenger on a Sept. 1 flight from Montreal to New York City when the incident happened.

"The airplane was heading toward the runway at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport when eyewitnesses said the Orthodox man began to pray...

"The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous...

"The crew had to act in the interest of the majority of passengers, said Jazz spokeswoman Manon Stewart."

Nothing could better make the point that taking basic rights away from any group is the first step toward taking them away from everyone.

(Via The Arabist.)

Dead Man Walking

I thought this only happened in movies:
"'We cannot do anything for you, because you are dead!'

"This is what a bank clerk told an astonished Qatari national, G.M., before breaking into laughter. But it wasn't a joke.

"G.M. is officially deceased, Qatar's public records say, since May 30, 2005, when a health ministry employee wrote his ID number in the records of a dead man having the same name.

"Since that day, G.M., who is alive and well, has been pleading in vain with the local authorities to correct the mistake and give him back his right to be alive."

Krasnaya Sloboda

It really has nothing to do with the warm Israeli-Azerbaijani relations, but for cultural reasons thus Caucasian Jewish community is interesting:
"According to Jewish community leaders, a little over 16,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan today, of whom 11,000 are Mountain Jews with about 3,600 of them in Krasnaya Sloboda. They speak a dialect of the Tat language, which is related to Persian, and have lived in the Caucasus for generations.

"Krasnaya Sloboda is a prosperous place, which stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding area. The roads are in a good state and there are plenty of expensive foreign cars. Seen from high ground, the village has a reddish tint, due to the red tiling of the roofs - which may be the explanation for its name. Frequent signs in Hebrew and the wearing of skullcaps are the main clues to the different cultural identity of the place.

"'The village has two secondary schools, a college, synagogue, a house of culture, where we observe all our religious holidays and historical dates,' said Nisimov.

"Local residents are mostly well off, but few of them have jobs. Municipal official Pisah Isakov, said, 'There used to be a canning factory here, which employed at least a thousand people. Nowadays the plant is running at half capacity, and unemployment has grown. There are no lands to cultivate in the village either.'

"Explaining the secret of the village’s prosperity, Isakov said it was supported by benefactors, all wealthy natives of the village now living elsewhere He said these included three men Zahar Iliev, Telman Ismailov, Sergei Kokunov, who have fortunes estimated at between 350 and 540 million dollars and all of whom feature in Forbes Magazine’s list of the 100 richest people in Russia."

The linguisitic note interests me because since I don't know Russian or any member of the Turkic language family, I was expecting to have limited communication with people on my trip to the Caucasus a little over three weeks from now. If this Tat is close to Persian, however, these Mountain Jews might be worth a visit.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The T-Shirt

I like this response to the T-shirt incident:
"What, exactly, did they think they were protecting against? The slogan was certainly not a weapon. If he were a terrorist, wearing the T-shirt would not have assisted him in his task. It's true that Arabs figure prominently in the terrorism game, so it may make sense to pay particular attention to Arabs, but if that were the point, they wouldn't have denied him boarding, they would just have selected him for extra scrutiny. It is remotely possible that they thought that he was so powerful and dangerous that even without any weapons he was a threat, but in that case they surely would not have allowed him to board once he covered up the T-shirt, which is what they did. Assuming that they weren't engaged in simple harassment, which is a possibility, the only sense that I can make of this is that the officials concerned attributed to the words some sort of magical power that could be contained by covering them up. There have been societies in which people held such beliefs, but I wasn't aware that the United States in the 21st century was among them."