Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Return to Jerusalem

I'm now back in Jerusalem, albeit sooner than I expected. Jordan was cold and rainy and I'm getting a cold, so I decided to head on back, with plans to travel more in that country at some future time.

Bahrain and Ashura were fantastic, and I owe many thanks to all those who shared with me their warmth, food, and germs. Chief among these, of course, is Kamel Hubayl and the many friends and neighbors of his I met in Ras Rumman. I also greatly enjoyed meeting Mahmood al-Yousif, Abu Zainab Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, Abu Wafi "Wearer of the Gray Garment," and Wafi himself, whose sobriquet must unfortunately be shared with William Palin's character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as the poet Ayman Zaid and many others whose names I never learned.

I'll have more on the experience soon, hopefully tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Another Trip

This blog is about to fall silent for a week or so. I'm about to leave on my trip to Bahrain, and will be leaving tomorrow for Amman. Because they don't offer visas at the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, I'll be going via Bet She'an and Irbid, though I can come back directly. I may also spend a day in Jordan upon my return, as I want to see the Umayyad desert palaces I missed in 2001. That means this might be it for the month. I'm sure, however, that I'll have plenty to say upon my return.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Israel's Complexity

Amechad plays off Rinat's Hebron post, arguing that complexity, both pragmatic and moral, is crucial to understanding life in Israel/Palestine. One angle in this is that both bloggers grew up in the sorts of Diaspora Jewish circles that support Israel in a very rightwing manner, but when they made aliya, even though amechad at least found a home in the Likud party, they recognized levels of complexity that are often not apparent to those overseas.

I've hinted at this in some of my travel writing, and want to tackle it head-on at some point, probably when I write about the Birthright kids who come through here. It's linked, I think, to the existence of Israel, not just as an idea or heritage center, but as a real, live country with all kinds of people and all kinds of philosophies and the way they interact amidst practical problems.

A Madison newspaper just ran this story of someone's Birthright experience. What leaped out at me was this:
"Bernstein also enjoyed being surrounded by Jewish people and customs.

"'I went at Christmas time and there were no Christmas lights. To me that was great. There were Hanukkah menorahs everywhere,' said Bernstein, who had a breakout game as a fill-in tailback leaping over tackling attempts by Penn State in 2004, after he fasted 24 hours prior to kickoff because of Yom Kippur."

The key here is that Bernstein went to Israel and saw it as the famed Jewish state. It isn't just that, however. It's an Israeli state - a multidimensional polity with its own culture, history, and problems often tied to but yet separate from its Jewish identity.

You can look at this from another angle. I suggested here that collective self-reliance and mutual loyalty were crucial to understanding Israel. I was probably trying to do too much at once in that post, but to reinforce the point, Israelis do display a certain amount of packlike behavior. One example of this is the "Hebrew Heaven" in Tbilisi. It is hard for me to imagine, for example, a largely German or French hostel, and yet I've heard of multiple Israeli examples of that same phenomenon. A causative mechanism could be the Hebrew-language travel web site, but I get vague sense that there are an awful lot of such mechanisms, and in any case it seems significant that Israelis abroad quite proudly if perhaps not in as many words take pride in it as an example of Israeli collective ingenuity and community-building.

I think of that in this context because of the commenter on Rinat's site who asked why she didn't side with her "family." The perception behind that comment is quite different, suggesting that all Jews are a single group. Behind it, I sense, lies the added layer that it's a persecuted group. The sense I get from this is different from the sense I get from Israelis letting slip their innate sense of collectiveness. One is defensive, the other assertive. Israelis may often feel world opinion is unfairly against them, but this is a very different sense of persecution and/or isolation than that felt by people who are part of an often misunderstood Jewish minority.

Anyway, I haven't thought all the way through this yet, so I'll have to stop there, despite the sense that there's another step or two. I should also add the obvious point that one cannot generalize about members of any national or religious community, especially based on only a few months experience. You can, however, try to discern broad trends in attitudes, behavior, and belief systems that are often shaped by shared cultural experiences, which is sort of what I'm trying to do, in an amateurish sort of way.

Bill Richardson

On the day he announces his Presidential campaign, it's worth noting that New Mexico governor Bill Richardson brings far more foreign policy credentials to the table than most of his rivals. As his fan blog points out, he has real expertise on North Korea, is quoted thereon by mainstream news outlets, and uses his oddly good relationship with North Korean officials to defend American interests. His involvement there goes back to the 1990's, when he won the release of hostages. His skills in this area are respected even by the Bush administration.

Earlier this month, Richardson worked on brokering a ceasefire in Darfur, though it doesn't appear to be working. In any case, while I admit he's one of my early favorites in the 2008 Presidential contest, I think everyone should welcome him as an asset to the Democratic Party as a home to a serious and tested foreign policy community. If he were governor of, say, Virginia rather than New Mexico, I think he'd be seen as a top-tier candidate just like Mark Warner was.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Speaking of Yad Vashem, its head has come down like a ton of bricks on Hebron settlers:
"The head of the council of Israel's central Holocaust memorial on Saturday assailed Jewish settlers who harass Palestinians in a tinderbox West Bank city, saying the abuse recalled the anti-Semitism of pre-World War Two Europe.

"A Yad Vashem spokeswoman told Haaretz that Lapid's comments do not reflect Yad Vashem's position.

"Yad Vashem Council Chairman Yosef Lapid's unusually fierce and public attack was prompted by Israeli television footage showing a Hebron settler woman hissing 'whore' at her Palestinian neighbour and settler children lobbing rocks at Arab homes.

"The spectacle stirred outrage in Israel, where many view the settlers as a movement opposed to coexistence with a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who lost his father to the Nazi genocide, said in a weekly commentary on Israel Radio that the acts of some Hebron settlers reminded him of persecution endured by Jews in his native Yugoslavia on the eve of World War Two."

I should say my post below was meant as an attempt at understanding an aspect of Israeli society, not at a comprehensive picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UPDATE: See Rinat for more on Hebron, including a video.

College Freshmen and Politics

MissLaura of Daily Kos flags a survey on the political attitudes of college freshmen. The best news to me was the sharp increase in political engagement among those surveyed.

Jewish Resistance Monument

This is the monument to World War II's Jewish resistance fighters at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Israel: A Song of Degrees

Right at the visible inner edge of East Jerusalem, where Salah ad-Din Street ends in Sultan Suleyman across from Herod's Gate near where the First Crusade entered the city in 1099, there is a post office, built of the same white stone as everything else in that part of town and marked with the red birdlike symbol and Hebrew name of Israel's national postal service. This is not simply an urban convenience, but also a deliberate presence in an area Israel annexed against the will of its inhabitants after 1967's Six Day War, which is why I suspect it occupied the same compound as a police station. The police station itself is guarded by several visibly armed olive green-clad members of what I'm pretty sure were Israeli Border Police, though I'm only now starting to pick up on the differences between the uniforms of different security services. They looked more or less like you'd expect of young conscripts keeping watch surrounded by people who hate them. Two were content to hang unobtrusively half hidden by some sort of screen, while a third, a rather plump girl with a black pony tail, stepped out front as I walked by, looking around with what she might have thought was an intimidating look. I have no idea what she thought of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it did seem clear she really didn't want to be there, and was just doing her job. Border Police serving in the Palestinian territories, and for that matter those occasionally posted to Zion Square downtown, often try to look intimidating, and many actually pull it off. They definitely take their duties seriously. However, I've also seen some quite emotional.

The outer west side of Jerusalem seems like an American-style city, with housing units as separate buildings and a few major shopping venues rather than the neighborhood stores that dominate much of the Middle East. There's also a forest. One occasionally reads of "Plant a tree in Israel" campaigns back in the 1950's. This is one of the places they put the trees, thanks to some urban planners who apparentedly decided the Middle East needed more conifers. They originally wanted to ring Jerusalem with woods, but now the city simply sprawls past, relentlessly chewing at former suburbs like Ein Kerem and Kfar Shaul. In the middle of one stretch of forest, just past a large gray fence behind which is some sort of major construction site, is a planned monument zone. One part of this is Mt. Herzl, named for the Father of Zionism whose grave sits at one end of a large plaza under a white half-dome, while nearby are sections devoted to the graves of various other Israeli luminaries.

Not half as many people visit Mt. Herzl, however, as bypass it for what is effectively the national shrine complex of Yad Vashem. The name is Hebrew for "A memorial and a name," and drawn from Isaiah 56:5, "To them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off." Names are, in fact, involved an important part of what is done at this site, where you can step through one door and find yourself in a multi-level circular chamber called the Hall of Names where many of the shelves are lined with black binders which, if the work is ever completed, will contain the names and other personal information of the six million people who died in the Shoah, what the English-speaking world calls the Holocaust.

During their period of national service, probably as part of their training, Israelis are taken on tours around the country to build an awareness of their country's heritage and culture. Naturally, this is one of the sites. The main part of the compound is the Holocaust History Museum, a large triangular prism building in which different stages and aspects of the Holocaust are communicated through displays and videotaped testimony of dozens of survivors. It begins with a video collage of European Jewry before the Holocaust, proceeds through the history of anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis, German anti-Jewish policies both before and after the outbreak of World War II, the ghettoization of Eastern European Jews complete with a floor made of actual cobblestones and a tram track from a Polish ghetto, the beginning of the "Final Solution," the Jewish resistance and deportations, life in the concentration camps, and the struggles of survivors to return to a normal life after liberation.

Taken together, it is an emotional experience which cannot take less than 90 minutes to get the flavor of. While the casual visitor can focus on some parts and pass quickly over others, those on the official tours with Israeli security forces seem compelled to hear every story and see every bit of the emotional videotaped testimony of what is probably the greatest massacre of modern times. It is thus no wonder that near the end, while watching a woman tell in a breaking voice of being shot, tossed into a pit of dead bodies including friends and relatives and left for dead somewhere in Belarus, one sees tears in the eyes would-be tough 18 year-old Israeli males one of whom even has to stop watching, let go by the clipboard-toting guide who glances at his watch to make sure they're still on schedule.

It is, at this point, customary to begin some sort of debate on political role of the Holocaust as a legitimizing tool for modern Israel. I'm not interested in those right now, though there is plenty of material. The room about Jews' recovery after the Holocaust seems to pass quickly over the Diaspora and focus on accelerating migration to Israel and the nation's declaration of independence, and the "finale" to the museum is a balcony with what the pamphlet calls "a breathtaking view of Jerusalem." The building's architect, Moshe Safdie, is known for his passionate Zionism, and I do not think it accidental that the effect is seeing with our own eyes the Jewish rebirth in Israel which is prominent among the themes of the final exhibit; even if I did, however, the inside of the entrance to the entire Yad Vashem quotes from Ezekiel 37:14, "I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil," thus correcting the misimpression. This doesn't bother me, though, simply because it's an Israeli memorial, and so the formation of Israel really is the most salient aspect of postwar Jewish assertiveness.

There are other parts of the memorial site that attract my interest. One of these is the monument to Jewish resistance fighters outside, before you descent into the Valley of Destroyed Communities. Its form is black spire surrounded on either side by three long hexagons with the middle one pushed further out so as to form a six-pointed star around the spire. The effect is not Jewish victimization, but Jewish power. I also remember the museum's frequent focus on the abandonment of the Jewish people to their fate, with exhibits focusing on everything from countries turning away Jewish refugees to the Allied refusal to bomb rail lines leading to the concentration camps. I could probably make a similar point about other displays of public history here in Israel: The subtle connecting thread is collective self-reliance and, implicitly, mutual loyalty, despite disagreements. I believe this is the most important aspect of Israel I didn't see until I came here.

There's a leap there, especially on the "mutual loyalty" angle, but from what I've soaked up it seems warranted. Earlier this week I was talking to a girl named Yael about my impressions of the differences between the way Israel is seen in the Diaspora and by its inhabitants. She quickly interrupted me and said she knew exactly what Israel meant to her - "It means that wherever I go, someone is watching out for me." She told a story she felt reinforced that message about some Israeli hikers who recently got lost in Peru. Israel sent a military squad over there to look for them and bring them home. I often see news blips about hikers getting lost in the Andes, but this would be the first time their country has sent its army to their rescue.

The more public example of this may be the case of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, updates on whom continue to be top news stories. That, however brings me to another point. Last month, Lisa Goldman interviewed Gilad Shalit's father, Noam. She came to understand him as part of what she called Israel's silent majority, generally apolitical and interested in doing what they have to in order to lead a normal life. This, of course, has implications for understanding Israeli politics. People sometimes see "Israel" as having an evil expansionist plan, or on the other side as innocent victims of Palestinian violence. Both the far right and the far left, however, have to frame their appeals in a way that addresses the concerns of that silent majority, concerns also shaped by a history of pogroms and worse in which the fabled international community did squat.

Last month I visited another shrine-like place near a wide square in front of Tel Aviv's city hall. It was here in November 1995 that, as he walked to his car after addressing a massive peace rally, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot at extremely close range by a young Jewish militant named Yigal Amir. I should mention that part of the shock of this event came from the fact the assassin was an Israeli Jew. Today, the spot is marked by a series of small markers showing where he and Amir were standing when the shot was fired, and tracing his last few steps, with the place he fell marked by a number of granite blocks. On a nearby wall on either side of a sample of the Rabin-friendly graffitti that appeared there in the following days are two obsidian panels which in Hebrew, Arabic, and English say, "Here at this place Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was murdered in the struggle for peace." That square is now called Rabin Square, and his grave on Mt. Herzl is one of the most visited at the site.

In ancient Israel, there were three obligatory pilgrimages to Jerusalem. While making the ascent, the pilgrims recited what were known as "songs of degrees," 15 of which are found in the Old Testament as Psalms 120-134. As Psalms tend to do, they focus on faith in God, often in a context of remembering past burdens overcome, and looking toward overcoming those of the present, as well. While most Israeli Jews wouldn't look at their religion in quite the same way, many remain proud of the history of the Jewish people. I think, in that light, one could see the history of Israel as an ongoing chapter in a song of degrees in which faith in each other has replaced faith in divine intervention. Right now, perhaps, most Israelis see "Jerusalem" as security, democracy, and prosperity, and are aware that all three are threatened by the ongoing conflict with their neighbors. And I've really spent too long writing this, so rather than come up with some sort of concluding sentence, I'll let you think of your own =)


Friday, January 19, 2007

Ahmadinejad Still Falling

RFE-RL reports the latest on the declining fortunes of Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The hardline leader is now under attack on almost every front. Most significantly, a conservative newspaper close to Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has called for him to stop speaking about Iran's nuclear program and leave it to what RFE-RL calls "those who are in charge." The petition to summon him before Parliament for questioning and possible impeachment is now up to 50 of the 75 necessary signatures. Ahmadinejad will appear in Parliament to present his budget January 21; the reception he gets could prove interesting.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Shop, or the Terrorists Win

I'm currently reading John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, and was struck by the relevance of this quote for discussions of whether George Bush really acts like the "war president" he claims to be: "If a high standard of living is central in the American way of life, it will even be said that it is paradoxical to abandon it in a war to preserve the American way of life."

It's too bad the same apparently doesn't hold true for our civil liberties.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kulov Returns

Do you remember a few weeks ago when I said the resignation of Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov was a good sign in that it could pave the way for new elections? Yeah. I guess that wasn't one of my better theories:
"Last week Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev named former prime minister Felix Kulov to head the government again. This reappointment followed the Kyrgyz government’s resignation and the adoption of another new constitution in December 2006, the second in two months. If the parliament approves Kulov’s candidacy, it will succumb to Bakiyev’s shrewd politics. However, if the parliament refuses Kulov, it will increase its chances of being dismissed. In both scenarios the president seems likely to emerge as a winner.

"Bakiyev allowed -- and perhaps encouraged -- the government’s resignation in December to provoke a crisis in the parliament. According to the constitution adopted on November 8, 2006, which striped the president of his powers, the parliament was to form a new government. However, at least two constitutional provisions were not met: the parliament did not have the necessary one-party majority and it was not comprised of 90 members. Bakiyev quickly came up with another constitution that increased his ability to form the cabinet (see EDM, January 4). The parliament, including the opposition bloc For Reforms, was pressed to vote for the new constitution to avert an escalation of its internal crisis. Although the December 2006 constitution still promotes a parliamentary-presidential republic, Bakiyev seems to have tricked the parliament in a major way."


I love my work.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cheney in the Loop

Ha'aretz is further reporting that Vice President Dick Cheney was kept in the loop of the secret Israeli-Syrian negotiations they first reported on yesterday. The full article suggests the United States has been negotiating with Syria all along:
"Senior officials in Washington told Haaretz that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was kept in the picture about these indirect talks between Syria and Israel.

"Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman, the Syrian representative, also said this at his meetings with former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, adding that Cheney had made no move to stop him from participating in the talks. Suleiman is a Washington resident.

"A document that Dr. Nimrod Novik, a former political advisor to Vice Premier Shimon Peres, disseminated last October to members of the Council for Peace and Security also said that Washington knew about the talks. 'While the administration is taking care not to broadcast a U-turn in its approach as long as the president has not given it an explicit green light, the signs of a change in direction are multiplying,' Novik wrote.

"'During the fighting in Lebanon, former senior [U.S.] officials were authorized to speak with Damascus, within a narrow mandate, while Pentagon and State Department officials support a change in the policy toward Hamas and quote the president in this context.'"

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Why the Leak?

The big Middle East story today is the Ha'aretz scoop on the alleged peace framework agreed between Syria and Israel through secret negotiations that ended last summer. (Joshua Landis as a rundown.) One question people are asking is why the documents were leaked. On this issue, I'm closer to Haggai than I am Blake, though I think we should consider the possibility of a leak designed to forestall possible American action against Syria, possibly by the Syrians themselves.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Jerusalem: Of Frum and Frei

John Dominic Crossan, in a book the name of which I forget, has argued that during the first 20-30 years after the Crucifixion, the Christian community of Jerusalem sought to live as an ideal Christian commune which Christians elsewhere supported financially as a means of registering their faith. Almost 2000 years later, during the 19th century, Jerusalem was home to Jewish community with a similar philosophy. The Old City's Jewish Quarter was economically depedant on Halukkah, the division of stipends from the Diaspora. Although many Jews were coming to the conclusion that their future economic security depended on self-sufficience, the Old City's conservative rabbis suppressed attempts at secular education, which was a necessary precursor for participating in a modern economy. Both to establish a base outside rabbinic control and to escape the Old City's increasingly crowded conditions, groups of Jerusalem Jews began purchasing land for new developments outside its walls. The first, founded in 1869, was Nahalat Shiva; the second, five years later, was Me'a She'arim.

My own apartment, high above a pedestrian mall centered on Ben Yehuda Street, is close to the former, and both are popular spots for tourists and expats to kick back in the evening when they're not seeing the sights, working at their NGO's, or doing whatever else they do. However, whereas Ben Yehuda is filled with souvenir shops, money changers, and felafel and sandwich joints, Nahalat Shiva is the place to find higher class restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Nahalat Shiva Street itself is a narrow pedestrian alleyway which is easier to identify by the sign on the small baked potato restaurant "Potato Guy" than the actual street sign. On either side are two slightly larger streets named after Yoel Moshe Solomon and Yosef Rivlin, the pair of rabbis who founded the neighborhood along with a bunch of other people now commemorated in the names of various tiny squares and alleyways. One of the city's ubiquitous historical plaques points you toward the site of the first synagogue outside the Old City, as well as noting the neighborhood's status as the third Jewish area outside the walls. (The first two were founded as charitable projects by the Diaspora.)

A staple of urban architecture in Israel at that time was the large courtyard house. Over time, parts of these came to be given over to different purposes - one called the Feingold House in Nahalat Shiva housed at different times administrative offices and Jerusalem's first movie theater. Today they are broken up into different bars and nightclubs; after passing through a bit of security at the gate you have an ample choice of establishments. The same is true of Moshe Solomon, where despite the added wideness you actually have less space to manuever through in the evenings, as to either side is a gamut of outside tables roped off by the different establishments' security lines. Rivlin has a different feel - this is where you see people with money to spend entering high-class restaurants the names of which I can't recall; at the far end you find, if memory serves, a shop called Kippah Man and an outlet of Big Apple Pizza, one of the pizza-by-the-slice joints that are another downtown staple.

One would be forgiven if after wandering around this neighborhood a few times you assumed it was mainly tourist-oriented, but there are Israelis around, especially on Thursday nights when they start the weekend, and to a lesser extent on Fridays, when many are busy not observing the Sabbath. Reform Judaism - and for that matter even Conservative Judaism - hardly exists in Israel. As with Islam in much of the Arab world, you simply fall somewhere along a religious/secular spectrum, with "religious" defined by the observance of traditional codes of conduct, while "secular" trends heavily toward agnosticism and atheism. Although most Israelis still keep certain aspects of traditional Judaism which they find valuable, such as the 2/3 who fast on Yom Kippur, most are also squarely secular, finding in Judaism primarily a heritage with the religion itself important mainly for its contribution to ethics. For most in Tel Aviv or Haifa, Judaism means speaking Hebrew, eating candied applies on Rosh Hoshanah or sufganayot, jelly donuts fried in oil, on Hanukkah, and most importantly, living in Israel. While Israel considers itself the protector of world Judaism, Diaspora Jews spend far more time thinking about Israel than the reverse, and I'm becoming increasingly sure the two groups don't really understand each other as much as they might think.

It is, of course, mostly these secular Jews whom you'll see hanging out at nightclubs on a Friday night (though diversity is greater Thursdays), and probably quite dressed up. Israelis seem to be some of the most fashion-conscious people in the world, especially the women, a majority of whom seem to wander the world in fancy belts, skirts, and boots. This perception might be skewed somewhat because I've been told my neighborhood is one where you go to deliberately show off your fashionable and cool side; however, things don't seem that radically different at the campuses of Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus and Givat Ram. You also have plenty of people in military uniforms, serving their mandatory national service time, often toting large guns with them everywhere they go. I should also mention that there are people who actually live along these streets, as well - the Jerusalem Post recently had a story about their complaints regarding the noise. As most Israelis "go out" from about midnight to 5 a.m., I can see how this might be a problem, but at some point you just need to accept that the neighborhood has changed over the past 20 years and look elsewhere.

The story of their origins is perhaps all that links Nahalat Shiva with Me'a She'arim, a surprisingly short distance away down Heleni HaMalka and another street I've never learned the name of. Me'a She'arim is Jerusalem's, and probably Israel's, most famous Haredi (ultra-orthodox) neighborhood. At its edges are giant signs in several languages warning visitors against offensive behavior and dress. There has occasionally been violence against those who did not pass muster with often self-appointed morality police. There are also posters in Hebrew all over the place, which I've read warn people against various forms of debauchery such as co-ed swimming pools. You could say that residents here are fashion-conscious, too, in this case about traditional dress, as the men invariably wear the black hats, long black coats, and white shirts with extra bits like forelocks for the Hasidim; the women wear long skirts and when married have their hair covered.

Me'a She'arim has the same style of courtyard buildings as Nahalat Shiva, though here they're still mostly residences, and you can see laundry drying through the gates. The area is densely populated and poorer than most other Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the shutters to many of the windows are now mostly rust. Along the north edge is Me'a She'arim Street, a busy market street; businesses are also found along the east side where it all but abuts Arab East Jerusalem. Walking in that area gives you an odd feel of two different communities existing in the same physical space without really interacting, though there are economic contacts, as with an Arab teenager unloading crates at a Me'a She'arim vegetable shop or a pair of Haredi showing their car to an Arab mechanic in Wadi al-Jauz. (There's a bit more anti-Arab racism in Israel than I expected, but aside from many associated with the setterl movement, a lot comes from recent immigrants.) The biggest buildings in Me'a She'arim are generally the yeshivas, Jewish religious schools, which are often state -funded; Haredis get an exemption from mandatory service for studying in them.

There are various subgroups within the Haredi world - and it's closed off enough that I do think that term fits - but to the outsider what attracts notice is the tensions with Israeli society between its religious and secular components. Most Israelis have little interest in observing the Sabbath, but Haredi recently boycotted El Al, Israel's national airline, because it allowed some flights to take off on a Friday night when it was trying to catch up from delays. Civil marriage, for Jews within Israel, is non-existent. Most glaringly, back in November Gay Pride planned a parade here in Jerusalem, setting off several days of rioting in neighborhoods like Me'a She'arim. The police tried to quell the riots, and soon even downtown had posters labelling the Israeli police as the new Nazis for their oppression of Jews.

Jerusalem is a city that is gradually becoming more religious, albeit more in standard Orthodox form than Haredi. This is a self-reinforcing trend, as with the rise of a more conservative climate there has been a steady exodus of seculars, which adds to the numerical preponderance of the religious. This is not to say that there aren't points of contact between the different groups - part of what makes Israel interesting is how so many different groups meet in different ways in forming a coherent society. However, it's been said that Jerusalem is a city of neighborhoods, and people want neighborhoods that reflect their familar way of life. (One girl told me that in many parts of Jerusalem, people really only accepted you if you were born there.) A corollary to this is that for many Israelis, their countrymen represent an existential threat almost as great as maximalist demands from the more militant Palestinians. These issues have mainly been deferred rather than truly negotiated.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a lot of visitors treat Me'a She'arim as a tourist attraction. "Let's go look at the really traditional Jews!" Their annoyance with such treatment is understandable.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Merry Christmas!

If I remember correctly, this is Christmas for Armenians here in Jerusalem. In honor of the day, here is the tiny 12th-century Katoghike church in Yerevan.

You can see other photos from Armenia here.

Firefly Episode 2: "The Train Job"

As we all know, FOX decided not to air the Hugo-nominated "Serenity" as the pilot. Instead, we got "The Train Job," which according to the DVD commentary Joss Whedon and Tim Minear had to write over a single weekend. The result, for DVD viewers, is an underwhelming 45 minutes of redundant exposition on the sidelines of which is told a rather predictable story.

The opening barfight scene is where we actually learn what Mal's war was about, and if memory serves is where the word "browncoats" first entered the show's lexicon. Beyond that, however, it suffers in comparison to the comparable story elements in "Serenity," a thought I had many times while watching this show. The effects, however, were really interesting, such as being thrown out the electronic window.

After various scenes that explain the story's premise via the, err, "Tell, don't show" method, we learn that life is hard and the main characters are criminals, while Simon and River come from an Alliance world where she was subject to some sort of mental experiments. Moving right along, however, the crew gets a job from a businesslike yet cruel crime boss named Adelei Niska to steal cargo from a train. The scene makes two points 1.) They don't know what it is they're stealing and 2.) If they don't follow through, Niska will try to torture them to death. One realizes quickly that they will, in fact, cross Niska, probably by not doing the job, and that the identity of the cargo will play a role in this.

When Mal and Zoe board the train as part of the crew's plan, they discover a bunch of Alliance soldiers on board. I'm not sure Mal's "Cool - we get to make them look bad" reaction worked with me - it seemed too much a contrast with his previously established annoyance with bad luck, and made his hatred for them seem almost puerile. That said, as mentioned on the DVD commentary, the studio wanted a more jovial Mal, and I guess this is the best they can do on short notice.

The job goes off without a hitch, except that Mal and Zoe are detained by police at the train's destination investigating the theft. The planet's story does put some meat on the "life is hard" bones otherwise declared mainly by writer fiat, and the Alliance regiment on the train served a second purpose by demonstrating that government's lack of concern for these backwaters. The revelation that the cargo was medicine gets the appropriate profoundly bothered look from Mal, followed presumably by a commercial break.

As far as the shipboard plot, I couldn't get around a single point: Given what we know about Jayne, and more importantly what we know Mal knows about Jayne, why is he in charge? Granted, that doesn't carry the same weight it would on a military-based show like Star Trek or Babylon 5, but seriously, who would put Jayne in charge of anything? Simon gets a nice moment by doping him, for which Mal later congratulates the young doctor, further rendering the situation inexplicable.

Eventually, Inara uses her status as a Companion to get Mal and Zoe back to the ship, where Mal immediately announces they're returning the medicine to the planet. Maybe it's just me, but somehow the evident ease of that decision contradicted Mal's earlier professed unconcern with what Niska wanted them to steal in the first place. I'm also not sure what the point of the fight with Niska's henchmen was, or even how they happened to show up so conveniently to begin with.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this as an episode because it does immediately follow and invite obvious comparisons with "Serenity," but there's really no scene here I would rave about the way I would the Kaylee shooting scene or the Patience confrontation from the original pilot. (I didn't actually do that much raving in my review just to keep it at a reasonable length.) However, I can't be the only one who winced at Kaylee's bright "Crime!" when Simon asks her what's up, which seems to embody too much of the episode. I do think the texture of the Firefly world was there, but the characters were all reduced to a mess of roles mandated by the need to do too much in too short a time. I give this episode a 4/10.
Sheriff: "You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job, might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well... then he has a choice."
Mal: "I don't believe he does."


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hamas and Iran

Nibras Kazimi has an interesting bit on relations between Hamas and Iran:
"Isma’il Haniya, Hamas’ PM, refused to pray alongside Shi'as during his latest trip to Iran in early December 2006.

"So if the ‘softies’ in Hamas are having a hard time swallowing and justifying the much-needed aid coming from Iran (…when the Iranians are more than willing to oblige them) then it just goes to show how much of taboo such an association with Shi'a Iran has become. The Iranians would be more than happy to help jihadists hurt America and Israel; I just don’t think the jihadists would be amenable to receiving such aid from ‘heretics’ whom they believe to be in league with the ‘Crusaders and Zionists.’ This assertion is most pertinent to Iraq and to the recent allegations of Iranian support for Sunni jihadist insurgent groups there. It also addresses the logistical issue of a need for a state-sponsor (…in Iraq’s case that would either be Shi'a Iran or ‘Alawite Syria) to support insurgent activity. What if the jihadists, in the post-Zarqawi era, are leveraging technology, small-scale fundraising and networks of sympathizers in such a way as to do away with the need of a state sponsor?"

Azerbaijan's Energy Policy

Signs of the energy price hikes in Azerbaijan are showing up on the street, with minibusses stopping service and newspapers increasing prices to compensate. I didn't realize this was actually a 50% increase in cost - couldn't such a measure have been implemented gradually? Such an economic shock could cause street protests, and the government is already trying to suppress dissent by blocking opposition web sites. One reason given for the increase is that decreasing subsidies would free up money for investment in other areas. That had better be rapidly forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the IWPR puts Azerbaijan's row with Gazprom in the context of a general decline in Azeri-Russian relations. Russia still has imperialistic pretensions toward the Caucasus states, which except for Armenia have been resistant at least since Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. This alignment between Moscow and Yerevan may be a factor in generally worsening relations, as Baku wants more Russian support for its position on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Insofar as influence in that part of the world is a zero-sum game, Russia's decline means a rise not only for the United States, but also Iran, which has both energy and influence with its ally, Armenia.

Finally, the Jamestown Foundation looks at possible implications of the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, including a resolution of outstanding issues between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan that could lead to completion of the TransCaspian oil pipeline and further weaken Gazprom's hand in world energy markets. Whether Niyazov's death played into Baku's calculus in its current Russia policy I couldn't say. By successfully defying Moscow, it could model a different path for the new leaders in Ashgabat, who thus far have indicated a preference for continuing past policies of neutrality which in the economic realm favored in continuation of Russian dominance.

Friday, January 12, 2007

War Noises Watch

Steve Clemons gets NSC official Flynt Leverett on the record as saying the Bush administration is moving toward war with Iran:
"The deployment of a second carrier strike group to the theater -- confirmed in the speech -- is clearly directed against Iran. Since, in contrast to previous U.S. air campaigns in the Gulf, military planners developing contingencies for striking target sets in Iran must assume that the United States would not be able to use land-based air assets in theater (because of political opposition in the region), they are surely positing a force posture of at least two, and possible three carrier strike groups to provide the necessary numbers and variety of tactical aircraft.

"Similarly, the President’s announcement that additional Patriot batteries would go to the Gulf is clearly directed against Iran. We have previously deployed Patriot batteries to the region to deal with the Iraqi SCUD threat. Today, the only missile threat in the region for the Patriot to address is posed, at least theoretically, by Iran’s Shihab-3."

Yesterday, Clemons had this to say. It's based on speculation, but it gives you a sense of the mood in Washington. Senator Joseph Biden is warning the administration of a constitutional confrontation if they move against Iran or Syria.

The Irbil Five, Etc.

RFE-RL has lots of interesting Iran information today. According to its daily news round-up, the Iranian facility in Irbil was not technically a consulate, though it had been performing consular functions and negotiations were underway to make it one. The Kurdish Democratic Party has taken credit for stopping the transfer of the Iranian prisoners and is working for their release - this may relate to rumors of some sort of conflict between Americans and Kurdish fighters I saw yesterday.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders led by Ayatollah Khamene'i himself are blaming the United States and Britain for the rise of sectarian tensions in the Middle East and calling for unity among Muslims. President Ahmadinejad is also hitting back at his critics, trying to portray them as weak in the face of international criticism, and blaming Iran's economic woes on Rafsanjani's privatization policies which furthered the rise of the country's ruling kleptocracy. This is the populist/nationalist line that won Ahmadinejad the election.

Finally, if you want an original theory, a seller in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market told a couple of friends and me some time back that the real architect of the current Middle East imbroglio was Britain, which controls the United States and is itself controlled by a clique of Muslims who are using it to further policies that will lead to the rise of militant Islam throughout the region, and eventually move to destroy Israel. This guy had grown up in Iran, where for a long time Britain was seen as the dominant imperial power. I guess old habits die hard.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

The Arab Minister

As Jonathan Edelstein noted, Labor leader Amir Peretz made history by naming Arab Muslim Ghalib Majadele as Minister of Science, Culture and Sports. History may consider this a milestone, but not everyone is enthusiastic. Yisrael Beiteinu MK Esterina Tartman called the move a lethal blow to Zionism. If as Edelstein suggests Peretz was trying to win Arab support in May's Labor primary, this step may have back-fired, as many in the party are now calling for a withdrawal from the coalition over Tartman's comments, which are being condemned across the political spectrum. In addition, Arab MK Nawaf Masalha has withdrawn his support of Peretz, presumably over not being chosen himself, and there may also be disgruntlement among Druze over Peretz's passing over of Shakib Shanan.

YB Chairman Avigdor Lieberman has said he will vote in favor of the appointment, which probably serves his interest in countering claims he is a simple-minded bigot. If his continuing shrewd moves do benefit him politically, it will make the increasingly bad relations between Israeli Jews and Muslims even worse. Just in the past few days we've seen this explosion at the same time the Justice Ministry considers a bill to allow denaturalization of citizens who visit enemies of Israel, one which will affect Arabs more than Jews, and Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi tells a Fatah rally to "continue the struggle," which many interpret as an endorsement of terrorism. Israel may not be the South Africa some claim, but all is not well even among those who claim Israeli citizenship.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ahmadinejad's Fate

If the Bush administration hopes to use Iran's President Mahmood Ahmadinejad as Iran's villainous face in a major conflict, they had better keep things moving right along. With his allies' defeat in Iran's recent election being interpreted as a rebuke of his policies, conservative newspapers have begun blaming him for an unnecessary crisis with the West, while reformists have over half the MP's they need to request his impeachment. Although elected as a populist, he has apparently failed to address pressing economic issues. One Iranian journalist has even spoken of a countdown to his fall.

I'd really like to know more about the situation behind the scenes there. I always thought Ahmadinejad's role in inter-Iranian power struggles went too unremarked in the American media. In something I never got around to blogging about earlier, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has even revealed that after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1989 death, insiders were divided over whether he should have a single replacement, possibly foreshadowing a push to weaken the power of Faqih Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, as well.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

An Iran War?

A day after President Bush's Iraq speech, much of the talk is actually about Iran, and whether President Bush's threats against that country were part of setting the stage for the war many on the right have long advocated. That was the first reaction of Matthew Yglesias, and today Harold Meyerson calls attention to the Cambodia precedent from Vietnam. At American Footprints, I try to figure out the reference to Patriot missiles in the President's address. As things develop, Spencer Ackerman analyzes the American attack on an Iranian consulate, which even Jonah Goldberg thinks is a big deal. Juan Cole points out that ground deployments aren't set up to attack Iran, but troops, once in place, can always be redeployed if events warrant.

If all this turns out to mean something, I have some bad news. Iran is a stronger country than Cambodia was.

UPDATE: Larry Kudlow has more, though he is, of course, more enthusiastic than I.

Saddam in Bahrain

Two weeks before my arrival, Bahrain is showing more strains related to the Iraq War in the form of debate over an Arab nationalist association's commemoration of Saddam Hussein's death :
"A Shiite scholar residing in the Zinj and Bilad Al Qadim suburb of the capital Manama where the the Nationalist Democratic Rally Association (NDRA) is located said that it should transfer its headquarters to a location where it had supporters.

"'They should look for another locality where they can exercise their freedom of expression. Just as they feel they are free to receive condolences on Saddam Hussain's death, our rejection of their presence in our neighbourhood is also part of our freedom of expression,' the scholar who wished to remain anonymous said in a statement.

"'We are still aching from the tragedies caused by Saddam to our people in Iraq and Kuwait, and we will resort to peaceful means to make the association change its address,' he said.

"But NDRA deputy secretary-general Hassan Al A'ali rejected the calls, saying that they were steeped in sectarian overtones.

"'We resent the veiled threats and the sectarian insinuation that seeks to divide Bahrain alongside political and religious lines. We call upon the government to address such calls which come at the heels of the Molotov attack on our premises,' Al A'ali said."

Oh, did I mention the Molotov cocktail? In any case, the anonymous Shi'ite cleric seemed to carefully avoid sectarian baiting by including Sunni Kuwait in the list of places where Saddam had caused tragedy to "our people," which in context seems to refer to all Arabs. Sadly, tensions are too high these days in both Iraq and Bahrain for that to be enough, and I suspect Al A'ali has a bit of anti-Shi'ite bias in him that sees them as opposed to a presumably pure Arab Sunnism.

Meshaal's Non-Recognition

On Wednesday, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was quoted as saying that Israel exists. This has led to an ostensible question over whether that was a softening of his hard-line rejection of Israel, with Hamas spokespeople insisting it wasn't. There may have been some diplomatic hint involved, but there's a difference between the practical recognition of reality and formal diplomatic recognition. On the other hand, he may be trying to soften Israelis up to accept negotiations with Hamas. Given his ties to the Syrian regime, this could also be seen as part of their ongoing quest for peace talks.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


A common complaint about liberal bloggers like Juan Cole is that they spend more time attacking domestic American opponents than they do the foreign enemies they claim we should be united against. Ali Eteraz just discovered that LGF has posted more about CAIR than Osama bin Laden.

Azerbaijan Energy Prices

Azerbaijan's government has announced prices increases on several forms of energy, including natural gas and gasoline. The report in RFE-RL, however, doesn't say whether this is connected to the country's current dispute with Russia's Gazprom, either directly or through rhetoric as a means to justify the increase and minimize popular discontent through nationalism. Either way, while many Azerbaijanis are benefitting from the country's energy boom, enough aren't that this will hurt.

And on a side note, what's up with the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party? Do they really think the government has a plan to "destroy the Azerbaijani people?"

Monday, January 08, 2007

What's on TV?

The United States and Egypt are feuding over al-Zawraa, the Iraqi Sunni insurgent TV network broadcast by Egypt's Nilesat satellite company. According to the article in Gulf News, "The Iraqi station features non-stop scenes of US troops being picked off by snipers, blown up by roadside bombs and targeted by missiles." The United States wants the government to get rid of the channel, which has recently been broadcasting old footage on a continuous loop. Egypt, however, insists the station doesn't appear to be breaking any laws, and that there are formal complaint procedures they need to go through if they do.

As charming as I find official Egypt's concern for due process and an open society, I suspect Egypt's real motive is here:
""In one montage, the Iranian flag is superimposed over the faces of Iraqi Shiite leaders - including Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Graphic 'crawls' at the bottom of the screen contain such messages as, 'The natural place for criminals and thieves is with the mafia of Moqtada Al Sadr,' a reference to the militant Shiite militia leader."

Chalk this up as another example of an American ally in the Arab world trying to stir up anti-Shi'ite sentiment for its own policy purposes.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Barak In

Ehud Barak's bid to unseat Amir Peretz as head of the Labor Party has gotten a lot of support from the party establishment. Part of this, I suspect, is the fact they know what they're getting, but by focusing strictly on the position of Defense Minister as the leadership prize, he's also leaving open the question of who will lead the party into the next elections, something his more ambitious colleagues probably appreciate. The third candidate, Ami Ayalon, is furthest left, but still able to criticize Barak over the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. I don't really have a horse in this race, but do think Peretz needs to go. The initial excitement about his being the first Arab Jew to lead a major party has waned in the face of the self-serving attitude Imshin long ago warned of. His attempts to form a domestic-oriented coalition with Likud when he voters were clearly interested in Labor's left-wing foreign policy is one example of this, and he's also had a difficult learning curve as Minister of Defense. The latter also is what allowed Avigdor Lieberman to sneak into the government as "Minister for Strategic Threats," which some see as Olmert showing a lack of confidence in Peretz.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Blame the Persians

From the file of examples of how many Sunni Arabs see Shi'ites as Iranian catspaws, we can look at Abu Aardvark's examination of reactions to Saddam Hussein's death:
"It's very, very interesting that a big chunk of the Arab media and political discourse is currently venting its anger over the nature of the Saddam execution against Iran. What began as calculated sectarian anger with the Iraqi government, the Sadrists, or Iraqi Shia has quickly - and largely without explanation - morphed into anger with Iran. The big rally in Amman, which seemed to go off without any of the usual obstacles presented by state security forces, focused on denouncing Iran - including reported calls on Hamas and Hezbollah to sever ties with Iran and on the Jordanian government to do the same. Lots of articles in the Arab (especially Saudi) press have shifted the focus towards Iran."

Joshua Landis also has an unusual case of the same phenomenon in Lebanon, where Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused Shi'ites of being Zoroastrians:
"Jumblat’s reference to the Shiites as Magian is not only an accusation that they are kufr, but just as importantly, an accusation that they are Persian. It suggests that they have deep and nefarious cultish reasons to take orders from Iran and are merely an extension of that distant power."

Abu Aardvark's analysis of the Sunni/Shi'ite divide in modern Arab politics is worth reading in full, and provides an important sense of the progress of this (modern) phenomenon which I've blogged about quite a bit.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Firefly Episode 1: "Serenity"

As the show's intended pilot, "Serenity" does everything you could ask. Not only do we get to know all the characters, but many of their future interactions are hinted at, as well, in the midst of an entertainingly told quiet but not boring storyline which kicks off the arc that would define the series. FOX's decision not to air it until last was one of their many dumb decisions in the way they handled Firefly.

The episode opens with the Battle of Serenity Valley, in which Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds leads a daring operation that he thinks may turn the tide in his side's favor. Despite the operation's success, his commanders opt to surrender to "The Alliance," and Mal and Zoe are the only two survivors from his unit. From Mal's despair, we flash forward six years to when he and his crew from the small, worn transport Serenity is performing an illegal salvage operation on a wrecked spaceship when they are caught by an Alliance cruiser. They escape, but not before the cruiser puts out an APB on them.

This encounter brings out something I like about the series, in that the Alliance isn't actually villainous, and in fact, in most shows would represent the good guys. The cruiser's captain is understandably contemptuous of what he sees as a group of scavengers turning profit off a tragedy, while a little later in the show, the ship's pilot point out that, "We're criminals. If everything we're right, we'd be in prison."

The crew had been hired to steal the goods by Badger, a crime lord on Persephone. Badger, however, refuses to touch the goods now that they're known as stolen, and refuses to pay. Mal decides to try selling them to a woman named Patience on a moon called Whitefall, saying he doesn't hold a grudge over the fact she once shot him.

On board also are three passengers they had taken on to make extra money and give them an excuse for their next journey: the elderly Derrial Book, a Shepherd (Christian Preacher) fresh out of the abbey and going to do God's work in the universe; Simon Tam, a wealthy, somewhat edgy and pushy doctor from the Alliance worlds with a large storage unit; and Lawrence Dobson, a schmo. There is also Inara Serra, a Companion (courtesan) who has been with them for awhile hoping to see the universe while getting them access to places that wouldn't accept just any rundown freighter.

Mal tells them the Alliance has ordered them to drop medical supplies on Whitefall, batting back an array of questions from Simon. However, they detect a message from within the ship to the alliance, meaning there is a mole on board. Mal immediately believes it's Simon and confronts him in the cargo bay, but Book to the side declares he has the wrong man. The Dobson appears, holding a gun. The gun, however, is primarily aimed at Simon, whom Dobson says is a wanted fugitive.

In the resulting commotion, Dobson shoots Kaylee, the ship's young and perpetually happy mechanic. Simon starts to treat her, but when an Alliance cruiser appears, he refuses until Mal agrees to change course and flee. Initially stubborn and continually put off by Simon's elitist manners, Mal gives the order at a moan of agony from Kaylee, and then he and Simon get her to the medical bay where she is treated. Mal, however, decides to find out what all this is about, and opens Simon's container, which turns out to be a cryogenic suspension chamber containing his sister, River, whom he has rescued from an Alliance facility where she was being harmed in some unknown manner.

Mal decrees that they will be put off at the next stop as a danger to the crew, despite protests and an open promise by Inara that if he puts them off, she's gone. When they reach Whitefall, however, Dobson escapes, beating up Book in the process. (Book had been Dobson's protector on the ship, especially against Jayne, the ship's tough who wants to kill him as quickly as possible.) He then goes to the medical bay and takes River, threatening to kill Kaylee if she does anything. Eventually he reaches the cargo bay with her, where Simon confronts him with a gun. After another shuffle, Dobson has a gun to River's head and Book hobbling off to the side. Mal, returning from an exciting visit to Whitefall, sizes up the situation while striding aboard the ship and shoots Dobson. They then escape from the Reavers (did I mention them in all this?). In the end, Mal offers Simon a position on board as ship's physician, which he accepts.

I went through a lot of summary mainly because there was a lot worth summarizing. Much of what I didn't mention is also good, such as Mal's encounter with Patience on Whitefall. Also important are the key interactions between characters, particularly Book and Inara, Mal and Simon, and Mal and Jayne. The dinner scene does a good job establishing the crew as a family-like atmosphere with Mal at its head; when Jayne is taunting Kaylee over her crush on Simon, Mal gives him one warning before ordering him to leave the table.

This also establishes Mal as a protector of the crew, and one easily ties this to the opening in which he lost almost everyone under his command. What's more, no matter how much he pretends otherwise, he's responsive to their opinions, as his decision to allow Simon and River to stay is prompted as much as anything by the urging of the wounded Kaylee and Inara's strong stand. Further strenghtening this point is the fact his reluctance to do so is grounded in the danger they pose to the crew, a point with which he at one point confronts Simon in what I believe was a test.

"Serenity" also did a great job at establishing the universe, both the lawless atmosphere of the outer worlds where the characters do business and the cultural elements which show creator Joss Whedon wished to mingle - the crew drinks out of Western-style mugs while eating with chopsticks. The ship itself is also established as an important character - not much to look at, but a home with which everyone is bonded and which given the proper care can perform.

The one element that seemed too much was the Reavers. The plot could have gone just as well without them, and it would have given the audience less to try and assimilate if their introduction had been postponed just a couple of weeks to "Bushwhacker." Still, this was a great introduction to the show, one which as an episode I would assign 8/10.
Mal: "Had a good day."
Simon: "You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages... half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you're harboring known fugitives."
Mal: "We're still flying."
Simon: "That's not much."
Mal: "It's enough."


Friday, January 05, 2007

Azerbaijan Won't Pay

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who has historically tried to accomodate all major players in the Caucasus, has announced that his nation would rather risk shortage than pay Gazprom's price for natural gas.
"Azerbaijan has ceased importing gas from Russia as of January 1. Despite the anticipated shortage of gas in the country -- compounded by an unanticipated production delay at the international Shah Deniz gas project -- Azerbaijan has refused to pay $235 per 1,000 cubic meters of Gazprom-delivered gas in 2007. President Ilham Aliyev turned down such 'commercial blackmail,' telling the Russian media, 'I cannot allow that to happen. Azerbaijan is no longer the kind of state that can be forced into anything' (Ekho Moskvy, December 23).

"Gazprom’s final proposal to Azerbaijan in late December increased the volume offer to 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas for 2007, though still far below last year’s 4.5 billion cubic meters. And it raised the asking price from $230 to $235 per 1,000 cubic meters for 2007, compared with the $110 price charged to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in 2006. Moscow left the price unchanged for Armenia in 2007 in return for property takeovers in that country; but it more than doubled the price to Azerbaijan and also to Georgia, which ruled out property transfers to Russia...

"Both Azerbaijan and Georgia have considered the possibility of emergency imports of Iranian gas in small volume to tide them over the winter. In Azerbaijan’s case, Iran was willing at the end of December to supply 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas in 2007, but the talks on the price were inconclusive. In January-February 2006, Azerbaijan transited small but critical volumes of Iranian gas to Georgia through the Astara-Gazi Mahomed-Gazakh pipeline during the Russian energy blockade of Georgia. Recalling that situation recently, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza declared in Tbilisi that no one can 'tell Georgia to refuse buying Iranian gas and freeze in winter.'"

Maybe the BTC pipeline is finally cutting into Russia's geopolitical clout?

Turkmenistan's Krushchev?

Based on his campaign promises, Turkmenistan's new leader Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov may break with some of his predecessor's worst abuses:
"But presenting his election program, acting president Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov suggested he would reverse Niyazov's policy if elected at polls on February 11.

"'I consider that the international network internet and new communications technology must be accessible for every citizen,' Berdymukhamedov said late on Wednesday.

"It was not immediately clear if Berdymukhamedov, who pledged loyalty to Niyazov's line after his death and is the favourite to win election, intended to try to open up the isolated country to outside influences...

"Niyazov drew sharp international criticism too over his policy on education in which he reduced the number of school years, ruled invalid foreign education degrees and imposed curbs on learning foreign languages.

"Berdymukhamedov, who made his comments at a public meeting, drew applause by promising to lengthen the number of years at school and send gifted children to study abroad."

Aid to Abbas

Ha'aretz claims to have documents proving that the United States is providing aid to Palestinian forces loyal to President Mahmood Abbas. There have been a lot of stories like this floating around, and I'm pretty sure that both Israel and the United States want to strengthen Fatah against Hamas in the potential Palestinian civil war. In this case, however, I feel like more context is needed for the story. Isn't the United States supposed to provide funds for Palestinian security services as part of peace agreements? If so, then is this aid part of that? Was it part of the frozen aid that is now being unfrozen, thus showing favoritism to Fatah in that respect? Finally, if this really was some sort of big secret, why leak it, making Abbas appear an American puppet?

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Firefly Reviews

For Christmas, my brother and sister-in-law got me the complete Firefly TV series DVD set. Firefly, of course, is the greatest creative loss to science fiction television, as it was cancelled after only half a season. The fact that Serenity, the 2005 movied based on it, won the Hugo Award is testament to its excellence, as is the dedication of the hordes of "browncoats" who keep clamoring for more. Although not a fan in the most extreme sense, I've decided to try my hand at reviewing each episode as I watch it. I've never tried this before, as I don't like feeling committed to watch every episode of a TV show I like, and but in this case there are only 14, I have them on DVD, and they're just new enough to much of the world not to be thoroughly hashed over. (I include myself in those to whom they are new, as I never saw the show until the run-up to Serenity, and still haven't seen every episode.)

I'll probably have the first review up this weekend, but won't commit to a schedule beyond that. After all, I've been thinking the past week or so that I need to relax more, not give myself more deadlines to meet! However, if you drop in about once a week or so, you'll probably find something new.


Episode 1: "Serenity"
Episode 2: "The Train Job"


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Baku Today

I think this picture captures a lot of modern Baku. Dominating it is the Dom Soviet, the old Soviet administrative center, while just past that is the Hotel Absheron, newly renovated to cater to the business travellers who flock in participating in Azerbaijan's oil boom. You also see a crane where a new building is going up that looks to make the city's aesthetic as seen in the skyline just a little more haphazard.

You can see additional Azerbaijan pictures here, with prose accompaniment in my Caucasus travelogue entries Black Gold Glittering and Into the Mountains.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Secret Heir

Here's an interesting bit. Turkmenistan's interim leader Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov may be benefitting from (or encouraging?) rumors that he is a hidden son of Saparmurat Niyazov. The physical resemblance probably helps with this. Maybe Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who is currently without an heir, should search through his country for a suitable candidate?

Canada Notes Afghanistan

The United States may have forgotten Afghanistan, but Canada is well aware of what's happening:
"Canadians made a spectacular switch from Liberal to Conservative governing regimes in 2006, but a gritty little war half a world away was the overwhelming choice as the top Canadian news story of the year.

"The war in Afghanistan started in 2001 and steadily faded from the world's headlines as the focus shifted to Iraq, but five years later Canada's small part in the fight to calm the country hit home with bloody clarity.

"Newspaper editors and broadcasters left no doubt that Canada's mission in Afghanistan was the top news story of the year. In the annual poll by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News, the war in Afghanistan easily outranked the Conservatives' electoral victory by a margin of 91-44.

"The Canadian Soldier was chosen the Canadian Newsmaker of the Year in poll results announced last week."

This American is grateful for the efforts of our NATO allies against those who attacked the United States on September 11.

(This was originally posted at American Footprints. I don't normally crosspost Afghanistan stuff and a lot of terrorism material, but decided to make an exception in this case.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Bakiev Strikes Back

Many people, myself included, hoped that the November constitutional changes in Kyrgyzstan were another step in a long-term transition to democracy. However, a few days ago President Kurmanbek Bakiev succeeded in regaining his power over the Prime Ministership after threatening to dissolve Parliament if it did not agree. Opposition leaders are calling on the public not to recognize the newest changes, and we may see another round of street protests. Left unstated in the coverage I've read is that the earlier resignation of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov seems to end the power-sharing arrangement between those him and Bakiev that followed the March 2005 Tulip Revolution, though there may have been a prior agreement.

For the time being, all these constitutional battles clearly just a forum for the power struggles of largely undemocratic elites. The true steo toward democracy will be when they stop fighting over the rules and begin to compete openly advancing competing agendas.

Saddam's Demise

It's a testament to the sheer ineptitude of the Bush administration that they even managed to screw up executing an evil dictator. As Abu Aardvark notes, the Americans have played a role in the timing of events. Steve Benen points out that Eid al-Adha was probably a terrible choice of timing:
"It was a slap in the face to Sunni Arabs. This weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice, on which Muslims commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God. Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday -- and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.

"The timing also allowed Saddam, in his farewell address to Iraq, to pose as a 'sacrifice' for his nation, an explicit reference to Eid al-Adha. The tribunal had given the old secular nationalist the chance to use religious language to play on the sympathies of the whole Iraqi public."

The timing issue has dominated Arab discussion:
"The decision to execute Saddam on the Eid has swamped pretty much every other aspect of the Arab discussion of Saddam's fate. Anger over the timing has probably overwhelmed any other sentiment (with 'it doesn't change anything, Iraq is still a mess' coming a close second). Just a very quick roundup: Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, and Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, former editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat and current director of the Saudi al-Arabiya TV, turn in virtually identical columns today expressing delight over Saddam's execution and shock and outrage over the timing. Ghassan Cherbel, editor of the more Arab nationalist paper al-Hayat, also focuses on the Eid issue. Officials from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have all expressed surprise and anger over the Eid timing. This reaction was entirely predictable, which makes it hard to explain as anything other than intentional. Maliki did it this way for a reason - maybe not a good reason, or a smart one, but a reason nonetheless."

I suspect Muqtada Sadr - al-Maliki's chief military backer - of hoping to keep violence going to ensure his own power, and the Bush administration is just along for the ride.

UPDATE: I may have blamed the Bushies too quickly here, as David Kurtz has sources claiming that American officials did express concerns over the timing.