Friday, November 30, 2007

Travel Note

I'm leaving early in the morning for Kuwait, and won't be back until late next week. When I return, I'll have one or two more Oman write-ups and presumably a Kuwait one. I'll also be back to more frequent current events commentary. I've been pushing through a lot of other work recently, and as you can tell from the string of sci-fi episode reviews, have felt like analyzing something with less import.


Babylon 5 Review: "Mind War"

This is the first Babylon 5 episode that I think of as truly good, though not all earlier ones were as bad as "Midnight on the Firing Line" and "Born to the Purple." It's the first time the show used a solid, wonder-evoking sci fi plot which simultaneously advanced its larger arcs and portrayed some of the key issues the show would explore without getting preachy about them. Both the main and secondary plots were strong, and contributed to the development of major characters and the larger B-5 universe.

Babylon 5's portrayal of telepaths always struck me as far more realistic than we usually see. Yes, they serve many social functions, but everyone is also afraid of them, and even the terminology, in which non-telepaths are called "normals," conveys society's judgment. People hate the Psi Corps, but the whole reason it exists is because of people's fear of telepaths. This was hinted at in a conversation near the end of "Midnight," when Talia argued that the Corps was necessary to protect normals, and Susan, who hates the Corps specifically as the daughter of a rogue telepath, claims it traps its own members as well as those who refuse to join, which Talia doesn't then understand.

These issues, which reach their fullest development in the fourth and fifth seasons, are already painted here in lots of light touches in how the characters relate to each other. Talia's conversation with Sinclair in the station's tram, while it looked horrid on the DVD, is also very poignant, doing what I've previously criticized season one for not doing: using Talia's personal experiences to highlight issues in the life of a telepath, such as why they hang together and the ongoing struggle to shut out the voices in their minds.

The issues of power inherent in telepathy are made in a different way through Jason Ironheart, whom Psi Corps experiments have turned into something far more powerful than humanity can yet become. The show doesn't dwell much on his ablities. They simply are, something that inspires fear and yet carries a hint of wonder in his ultimate "becoming." The idea that humanity may find certain powers attractive for which it remains unready is hit several times during the first season, and here there is no question that the Psi Corps would misuse this power. Ironheart's knowledge that it can be used for good supplies another subtle theme, that progressing to some higher level implies in part conquering the demons within.

The B plot, in which Catherine Sakai encounters some highly advanced aliens at Sigma 957, goes well with the Ironheart story, while giving G'Kar some depth I don't think we'd seen to this point. The fear and joy at the galaxy's unexplained wonder echoes the themes of the main plot in another arena, while we get the first hints at some of the Narns' distant past that will play a role in the show's overall arc. Like the main plot, it, too, was well executed and a pleasure to watch.

There were a few moments where the episode displayed the show's youth. The weird sound effects and hand gestures that accompanied telepathy were thankfully dropped in later seasons, and Bester wasn't quite his classic self yet. However, while his yelling in the docking bay when he met Sinclair, Talia, and Ironheart broke an effect, a lot of this was because his role as psi cop was split with Kelsey and because in the case of Ironheart, he really wasn't in control of the situation, as he usually is. What's more, this episode didn't delve into the ambiguities of his role as a bad guy spawned by the world represented by the good guys - for now, the Psi Corps is simply trying to gain power in illegal ways for presumably evil purposes.

Altogether, this was a nice piece of work, one of too few times where new elements of the B-5 world were explored in a show-don't-tell manner, and one which worked as one of the best single episodes of the first season. As I've noted, it's at its best when you see it as part of a larger arc, but as a single piece, I'm calling it 8/10.


Settlers' Legalism

In his Washington Post series, Amir Bakshi talks to a resident of Silwan who says the following:
"Jawad has fought hard to keep his family’s land. Forty years ago he was born in the jig-saw-like house we sit in. When his union-organizing father died in 1998, a group of Israeli settlers appeared at Jawad's door, claiming the recently-deceased man had sold them the deed to the house. Jawad took them to court and won. He says it taught him that, 'you can use the system to resist.'"

I wish it gave more details, and it speaks well of Israel that the Palestinian actually won this case. Too often the laws are rigged to favor Israeli Jews, especially in conservative Jerusalem. I also wonder what the settlers were basing their case on. In any case, the idea that all land used for settlements is acquired through purchase is an important element of the settlers' mythology, and one stringently argued by the supporters overseas on whom the most extreme depend:
"'The [orthodox] American Jewish community is instrumental to our existence here and our survival here,' David explains. Each year David and the Hebron Jewish Community host a fundraiser in New York where tickets cost $180 per head. Attendance regularly tops twelve hundred. He sends out regular podcasts to American faithful over iTunes, explaining how America is crucial to providing funds for social services like schools and maintenance operations. They're also important, he says, for settling."

As usual, due to the sensitivity of the topic, I need to add some sort of disclaimer. I'm just quoting what he says here. I've never personally researched American Orthodox Jews' attitudes toward the settler movement. I do, however, know that those in the United States who do support it are important to its success.

Labels: ,

al-Qaeda in North Africa

Earlier this month, al-Qaeda announced a merger between itself and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG. Andrew Black examines this development, and concludes that nothing about this will enable the group to overcome its effective suppression by Libya's security forces. However, he also calls attention to the fact that the LIFG merged with al-Qaeda central rather than al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Algerian organization formerly known as the GSPC. It may be that al-Qaeda doesn't consider Libya part of the Maghreb, or that personal connections between LIFG and al-Qaeda leaders led to approaching the joining this way. However, Black's observation tying this to the previously reported divisions within AQIM over the al-Qaeda merger bears noting. Al-Qaeda's global jihadist philosophy really doesn't seem to be getting anywhere in North Africa, despite some serious efforts.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Firefly Episode 11: "Trash"

It's hard to know what to say about "Trash." It's there, it's pretty good, but it's not easy to go and dig out what made it good without just summarizing the plot. It strikes me as what might have become a typical Firefly outing if the show had gotten a longer run. The caper is fun, with lots of little moments and great acting that make for a highly enjoyable episode.

"Trash" features the return of Saffron, who left a bad taste in my mouth with "Our Mrs. Reynolds," but came off better here. This wasn't just a case of not having as many flaws as "OMR," but also the fact we got to see Christina Hendricks pull off some great acting. I imagine it's not easy to act as a character who is themselves acting, but she does it really well. She admits Durran is the husband she actually fell for, but how much of her breakdown in the shuttle was an act? I'm inclined to believe a lot of it, but the episode doesn't seem to resolve it one way or the other. Either way, I saw enough here to suspect Saffron could have been a good recurring character.

Mal's response to her interactions with Durran was great to watch, some of the most quietly funny lines in the whole series. His argument with Inara seemed contrived, and his reaction to the "petty" seemed unduly sensitive, but it's certainly plausible he could have an odd spot for that sort of thing. I like the thought of Mal setting Inara up as a failsafe, though it also seems clear Inara was just looking out for Mal's reputation when she told Saffron they expected things to go this way all along. Mal certainly let his guard down in the shuttle after they escaped from the feds.

The B plot, while small, was very, very good, and makes me revise my "Ariel" rating to a solid 10/10. Commenter Sandy said in that post that Simon knew about Jayne's betrayal all along. I initially thought he figured it out in this episode from River's sensing of Jayne's fear, but Sean Maher's acting clearly conveys that he's in control of the situation there, and betrays no surprise whatsoever. This also clears up why the alleged change of plans Jayne used to get them out of the examining room didn't come up, as Jayne wouldn't mention it, and Simon is clearly intent on ignoring the matter. The scene in Serenity's medical bay is perfectly played, and River's warning at the end is also just perfect. Jayne's reaction to Simon, which Adam Baldwin manages to convey with only his eyes, is a very human moment.

So altogether, I liked this a lot. Not only is it a fun and solid outing, as I said, but thanks to the Simon/Jayne material and the suspicion that was laying groundwork for further Saffron developments, I'm giving this an 8/10.
Durran: "Now I'm intruding."
Saffron: "Durran, this isn't what it looks like."
Mal: "Unless it looks like we're stealing your priceless Lassiter, 'cause, that's what we're doin'. Don't ask me 'bout the gun, though, 'cause that's new."
Durran: "Well, I appreciate your honesty. Not, you know, a lot, but..."


Babylon 5 Review: "Born to the Purple"

Some episodes are dull, others make no sense, but "Born to the Purple" is one of that rare breed that is both dull and non-sensical. Not only that, but I have no clue why it exists, unless they wanted to firmly establish Londo's emotional longings - I'm assuming this is part of why he sympathized with the lovers in "The War Prayer." In addition, the characters again weren't written that well. Did Londo and G'Kar start getting along when I wasn't watching? Did the writers have any clue what they were doing at this point?

The plot concerns a female slave named Adira who had seduced him so as to steal his "Purple Files" for her owner. Whether advanced races would have slavery is an old argument I won't go into, except to note that the concept carries a lot of different practical meanings in different societies. For almost 300 years, Egypt was ruled by military slaves. However, for the rest of the series, despite a good bit of Centauri politics, we never hear of these files again, and all Adira does is die, which any number of other characters could do just as easily to achieve the same effect.

Adira's departure is unconvincing. She says that the wounds are still too fresh, but what is she talking about? Londo is obviously over it, and he's the one who would have more to get over. If there were some deal where she hated realizing that she would betray a loved one, it should have been brought out explicitly. This story, however, didn't have the imagination for even that common a theme. That's not the only plot hole. Why did Talia have to ask Sinclair if Londo was telling the truth about a woman's life? I'd imagine it qualified as both an intense emotion and a surface thought at that point.

The B-plot concerning the death of Ivanova's father was good, but too small to really affect the overall quality of the episode. It did establish just how isolated she is from others, something what would be the character's main personal weakness throughout the series. Get this, though: After years of being a fan, I only just realized that she has only one "n" in her surname.

Is Vir a complete idiot? What's with playing the games before critical negotiations? That was a bit overboard even for him, and made him look like a lazy teenager more than any sort of professional. The idea that Londo had some sort of power also contradicts what eventually develops, as it was pretty firmly established later that both he and Vir were shunted off the Babylon 5 because their houses saw them as embarrassments.

Anyway, I'm giving this a 3/10, and not planning to watch it again anytime soon.

UPDATE: Oh, one more thing. This is twice in the first three episodes that Londo "Poison was always the weapon of choice in the old republic" Mollari has used frontal violence. They pretty clearly made a chance in the whole manner and bearing of the character, probably in tandem with Peter Jurasik's bombastic delivery and Hungarian accent which came to be his trademark.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Babylon 5 Review: "The War Prayer"

I see no reason to review Babylon 5's first season in order. Not only is it almost entirely standalone episodes, but they're mostly standalone episodes that could have aired any time during that season. It's ironic that the show which started a trend in serialized science fiction television initially carried over so little from show to show, but I guess that's just how much TV has changed in the past 15 years. This also means I won't feel stalled on having to write a particular review, as I am now on Firefly's "Trash."

"The War Prayer" is an episode with some good themes, but has a pedestrian plot put together in such a clunky manner that we never actually wind up exploring them. The basic idea is the rise of what I guess you could label speciesist groups on Earth in the wake of humanity's near-extermination in the Minbari War. In other words, this is Babylon 5's version of Enterprise's "Demons" and "Terra Prime." Compared to that mini-arc, however, "The War Prayer" is simply adequate but uninspired.

The face of the Home Guard is Malcolm Biggs, a former lover of Ivanovna who has appeared to try to rekindle their relationship after eight years. The only parts of that relationship I bought were the parts where she tried to slow him down and when she told Sinclair at the end she was fine. Quite frankly, it felt just like a plot device that allowed Sinclair and Ivanovna to infiltrate the local Home Guard cell, which apparently hasn't learned that you reveal all your plans after the loyalty test.

Biggs's relationship with Ivanovna is frustrating in part because it could have been used to crack him open a bit, much like we got a sense of Paxton as a three-dimensional villain on Enterprise. He obviously wasn't this way when he was with Ivanovna, so what changed? Why would he think Ivanovna would agree with him? Instead what's suggested of the Home Guard's motives comes from Garibaldi, Sinclair, and Roberts. Biggs just walks around recruiting whoever falls into his lap, a creature of his cause more than a human part of it.

The B-plot, concerning two Centauri youth seeking Londo's help in avoiding arranged marriages, was better, mainly because of the way it developed Londo and Vir, both as individuals and in terms of their relationship. It is, I think, no accident that this happened together, as both were very quirky, often comic characters whose depth was often revealed in their relationship with each other. Londo is a cynical older man, but he wasn't always so, and Vir serves to remind him of that more idealistic self, much like Kennit and Wintrow in Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy. Throughout the series, we see Londo often belittling but also affectionately relying on and protecting Vir, even to the point of sending him away when he worried Vir might start getting corrupted by his own growing darkness. At the same time, Vir, though awkward and bumbling, has a moral core that lends him the courage to be Londo's conscience, and in fact to be trusted by Londo at critical times. This was a relationship that was far more than the sum of its parts.

The other characters ranged from adequate to way off. I didn't recognize even the season one G'Kar in that hotheaded rabble-rouser. As usual, Michael O'Hare had some good moments but also plenty of unconvincing ones as Sinclair. I liked the way they ran Ivanovna here, as a woman whose priority is going to be her career, and a career in a traditionally male (to the viewers) field at that. Delenn also had some nice moments.

Babylon 5 first season was called "Signs and Portents," and it introduced a lot of themes with which the show would go on to do great things. Unfortunately, the writers were seemingly content just to introduce them, as if they were checking off boxes in what would be needed for the show's overall arc. That could have done that and still told compelling stories, but they just didn't. The plot here probably merits a 4 or 5, but because of the fine character work, I'll knock it up to 6/10.



Yesterday's summit in Annapolis was meant to restart a peace process. The most difficult element of this process will, as usual, be implementation, not negotiation. Mahmood Abbas's weaknesses are well-known, and I've blogged previously about Ehud Olmert's coalition situation. (Click on the Israel tag to find the most recent posts.)

The new elements in the Annapolis Declaration are the 2008 timetable and the American monitoring mechanism. Both show just how weak Abbas's negotiating position is in all this. The only way he can survive politically is to deliver concrete measures toward Palestinian statehood and economic prosperity. Both of these depend on Israeli goodwill; Olmert needs nothing from the Palestinians, and his best political move, to be cynical about it, might be to position himself as the peace candidate (a role Barak obviously doesn't want) but never actually concede enough to threaten his government.

Will an American government fault Israel for failing road map responsibilities in an election year? I doubt it, and if it does, the Democrats will be all over it. Hillary Clinton has already staked out a stance on Jerusalem to the right of Avigdor Lieberman's. The Palestinians would, at the very least, prefer joint monitoring by the entire Quartet, but instead they get the United States, and a timetable that ties the entire process to an election year.

If the timetable is extended, however, as these things often are, they will be dealing with a new president who won't have to face voters for years and would definitely want to start with a landmark foreign policy success much like Bill Clinton lucked into getting to host the signing of the Oslo Accords.

I don't know how all this will play out, of course, but for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, I hope it ends well. This is not a trite sentiment. Time is quickly running out for the two-state solution. Israeli nationalists have played their cards very smartly and persistently, leading to facts on the ground that cannot be easily undone. If Israel can no longer consider a viable Palestinian state, then either Israel will cease to exist, or the Palestinians will. The former most likely happens via a one-state solution which Israelis still see as poisonous; while the latter would most likely happen slowly, as Israelis will not tolerate open ethnic cleansing carries out in their name. Either way, I predict two more generations of bloodshed.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Labels: ,

Monday, November 26, 2007

Babylon 5 Review: "Midnight on the Firing Line"

In her voice over for the third season credits, Commander Ivanova begins, "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed." I found myself thinking of that as I watched this episode, which wasn't that great as a storyline, and totally missed the mark as the de facto Babylon 5 pilot. In fact, I think it can only really be enjoyed by someone annoyed at the Arab-Israeli conflict on the eve of a pointless peace conference.

This main plot to this episode involves a Narn attack on the Centauri mining colony of Ragesh III. This wasn't a good choice, as no one cares about Ragesh III - not even the Centauri government, and certainly not the viewers at this stage. The secondary plot concerned space pirates. On a series that set out to tell an epic story such as The Lord of the Rings in television format, this was not a promising beginning.

It's instructive to compare this outing with season two's "The Coming of Shadows." Leaving aside the use of Turhan and the Shadows, there are, perhaps deliberately, lots of parallel scenes between the two episodes, none of which makes "Midnight" look better in comparison. I mean, compare Sheridan's confrontation with the murderous G'Kar to Garibaldi's with Londo here, and you'll see what I mean. This show also suffered from some of the meeting syndrome that plagues early Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you're going to use council meetings as our window into a galactic crisis, you at least need to get into some grand courtroom-style drama.

When we come to care about Narn-Centauri issues, it's because we care about the people involved and the series's larger plotline. At this point, there is no larger plotline and Londo and G'Kar just seemed smug and annoying. Instead of using personalized characters to give us a sympathetic window into their people, both are explained entirely through their people as a faceless collective. One sympathizes with the reported Earth public opinion that doesn't want to get involved.

Babylon 5 had some ambitious philosophical themes, of which the most important was probably the means by which we grow, both personally and collectively, creating the future through our own actions. None of that was even hinted at here, with Londo's cynicism about galactic peace carrying the day. If it weren't the pilot, that might have been okay, and in fact there was probably value in driving home the point that the station is more Nimbus III from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier than the United Nations. As it stands, however, this episode simply has no hook, and falls accordingly. I give it a 2/10.


The Enemies of Peace

I know people who participated in this:
"After an afternoon prayer rally at the Western Wall for the failure of Annapolis peace parley drew 15,000 participants, activists from the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip (Yesha) were making the final preparations for another anti-Annapolis protest in the capital's Paris Square Monday evening."

One of them was breathless with the excitement and exhilaration of it all. It makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, like a pilgrim in an unholy land.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Green City

One thing I respect about the UAE is its commitment to the environment. This is pretty ambitious:
"To affirm its stand on the environment, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, also known as Masdar, has invested $5 billion (Dh18.3 billion) to establish the world's first green city. The development, extending more than six square kilometres, is presented as the only city with zero carbon dioxide emissions.

"'Masdar is another major milestone for Abu Dhabi government with a key objective to position Abu Dhabi as a world-class research and development hub for new energy technologies, while ensuring that Abu Dhabi maintains a strong position in world energy markets,' Al Kindi said."


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hamas on Annapolis

Hamas's response to the Annapolis peace conference is to threaten to make their Qassam rockets deadlier. They're also behind some anti-Annapolis protests:
"Also Friday, Gaza's militant groups, including Hamas, rallied tens of thousands of their supporters in a public protest against the upcoming summit, saying no such negotiations can deliver Palestinian rights...

"Local Hamas leaders told the Gaza demonstrators Friday that over the next few days they will hold rallies and public events against the conference, culminating in a Gaza City public meeting to coincide with the Annapolis parley...

"Riham Abu Khater, 17, said she opposed participation at Annapolis as it amounted to recognition of Israel.

"'Nothing good will come out of it. Good will only come from the language of fighting, and from force,' she said."



I didn't notice anything last night, but I'm convinced I felt the first one mentioned here. I bet some of the more religiously inclined right-wingers are discerning God's views of Annapolis in all this.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Israel's Nutty Right

Is it just me, or is the really crazy part of Israel's right more vocal than usual? I base this only on the fact the past few months have seen a serious uptick in the number of people bringing up the most extreme pro-Zionist views I'm aware of. According to some, Israel was largely uninhabited before Zionist immigration. The West Bank settlers are courageous heroes for braving Palestinian terror to reclaim their ancestral land. Israel has ceded a great deal to the Palestinians and gotten nothing in return.

For some reason, even though I was already in a bad mood, I wandered over to Arutz Sheva, where I read an opinion piece arguing that American foreign policy is driven by anti-Semitism, and compares the Annapolis conference to Auschwitz. This piece by two Hebron settlers contains a view of history shared by an important slice of Israelis even though it's as much theologically driven insanity as what Hamas cooks up. Also, while I agree with Jonathan Dresner's comment on this post, the dominant impression was left by a commenter who also sees Annapolis as equivalent to Auschwitz and alleges that the U.S. Department of State is anti-Semitic. I think all these crazy views circulate in some fora where I simply don't pay much attention, away from the newspaper editorial pages and comments of leading politicians.

However, I can't resist bringing up the reported reluctance of many Arabs in East Jerusalem to become part of a Palestinian state. Far be it from me to throw a wrench into negotiations, but has any Israeli government ever considered making the status of Jerusalem's neighborhoods subject to popular vote within those neighborhoods?


Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan

IWPR reports that Hizb ut-Tahrir is quietly gaining support in southern Kyrgyzstan. Here's an example of what's been happening:
"The group’s role in this event (Eid al-Fitr celebrations in a town called Nookat), and the response of local government, provide an object lesson in how the authorities struggle to find an adequate response – they do not want to allow Hizb-ut-Tahrir free rein, but using tough tactics to stop it can prove counterproductive...

"He (government official) said the trouble began on October 12, when about 300 party supporters turned up on the main square in Nookat along with ordinary Muslims keen to mark the end of the fasting period with a traditional feast.

"'At first, we welcomed the initiative to hold a big celebration of the Muslim feast,' said Aliev. 'But Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists started using this event for their own ends.'

"Before the Eid festival, about 1,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to fund the celebrations, and also to pay for a new state school for girls who want to follow the Muslim dress code.

"Hizb-ut-Tahrir members told IWPR they helped with logistical arrangements for the party.

"'When we announced the holiday, ordinary Muslims responded, with some giving rice and others [cooking] equipment,' said one of the organisers, 66-year old Jibek Asanova from the village of Kara-Oy...

"However, police stepped on and blocked the street celebrations. 'The police wouldn’t let the tightrope perform do their act, and made us cook the pilaf at home and bring it to the square.'

"Aliev confirmed that police stepped in but said they only did what was necessary and acted 'within the bounds of the law'.

"Hizb-ut-Tahrir says the authorities’ actions caused widespread discontent among Nookat residents, and the event transformed into a demonstration involving some 15,000 people...

"Activists say that having lost control, the local officials had to call in a different kind of authority – known Hizb-ut-Tahrir members – to pacify the crowd."

My read on this is that Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group dedicated to the peaceful promotion of often fundamentalist Islam, saw supporting local Eid celebrations as a chance to connect with religious villagers in the south. This is what the state feared. This kind of subtle mixture of religious observance with political goals is common, especially in Islam, but undoubtedly new in the formerly repressive environment of post-Soviet Central Asia, where governments are used to controlling a formal religious establishment and not having to deal with these sorts of popular movements.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Palestinian Governance

The November 2007 Arab Reform Bulletin is dedicated to the Palestinian territories. I don't have anything to contribute, and it defies highlighting, but you can read the whole thing here.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Negative Campaigning

Former and would-be future Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian is admitting to past errors:
"Speaking on November 16 to some 20,000 supporters at a rally in Yerevan, Levon Ter-Petrossian admitted to having made major errors during his tenure as president from 1991-1998, for which he expressed 'belated but sincere' apologies, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian singled out as his gravest error of judgment having appointed two Armenians from the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian, to government positions in Yerevan."

Robert Kocharian played a role in Ter-Petrossian's ouster and succeeded him as president. Serzh Sarkisian is the nominee of Kocharian's party against Ter-Petrossian.


Oman: Sinbad's Heirs

In Oman, you realize that water is life. All around you have the salt flats of the Persian Gulf's Arabian shore and the vast rolling sand sea of the Empty Quarter. However, running in a band from the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, through the northern United Arab Emirates, and then along or just removed from the coast until Ras al-Hadd, the Arabian Peninsula's easternmost point, are the Hajar Mountains, a deep brown range which brings the water table closer to the surface it frequently bursts forth in springs to produce Oman's famous wadis, the streams which flow between and beyond the mountains toward the Gulf of Oman, giving rise to vast stretches of greenery ranging from date palms to a midwest American density of grasses and spread throughout cultivated fields by sometimes centuries-old stone channels known as aflaj which local folklore once held to have been built by the order of an amalgamation of Solomon and the mythical Persian ruler Jamshid.

However, Oman's people and much of its history have been shaped not only by the waters which irrigate their land, but by their proximity to the sea, part of the porous membrane between medieval cultures that was the Indian Ocean world. The 1001 Nights character Sinbad the Sailor was based in Basra, but born in Sohar, an Omani port which in the 10th century was among the Islamic world's largest cities, an entrepot for goods and sailors from India, Africa, and even China and the lands beneath the winds which are today the islands of southeast Asia. Among the important goods introduced to the rest of the Middle East via Oman were foodstuffs - the mango, sour orange, possibly the banana, and definitely the coconut. During the 9th and 10th centuries, sailors based in Oman sailed with extra crew to islands in the Indian Ocean, where they would cut down coconut trees, build extra ships, and sail back full of coconuts.

Modern Sohar is regarded as one of the nicest cities in Oman. White is the overwhelmingly dominant color, and as in the rest of the country, building codes keep the architecture very traditional. The skyscrapers seen in other Gulf states are nowhere in evidence. One attraction is the large white 13th-century fort which also houses a nice museum covering natural, cultural, economic, and political history, though due to reduced hours I wasn't able to finish seeing it. The city's main draw, however, is the beautiful, well-kept corniche, where you can walk along the beach where the gorgeous waters of the Gulf of Oman wash up against the smooth sand below the level of a sidewalk lined with light blue light-poles.

I only stayed there for three hours. I would have liked to stay longer, but the afternoon heat was stifling, amplified as it was by the sub-tropical humidity of the ocean shore just north of the Tropic of Cancer. More than any other day of my trip, I spent a lot of time just trying to stay cool. As in Upper Egypt and the northern Emirates, people religiously observed an afternoon siesta beginning between 1 and 2 and lasting until 4, and when I could swing it I finally gave in and just joined them, having figured out that they knew what they were doing. After the fort closed, I slipped into the only one of the seafront biryani shops that was still open along that part of the seafront, and then hiked a short distance inland to a department store called al-Jadida, where I purchased new washcloths, a pair of kitchen scissors, and a new razor before heading back to my base in Muscat.

Between Sohar and Muscat is the Batinah coast, perhaps the most fertile area of Arabia, where wadis eventually meet the sea and a high water table between the mountains and the coast keep the plants growing even some distance away. The surnames spoke to the region's history. Those familiar with my dissertation will understand why al-Yahmadi and al-Farahidi brought to my face a smile of recognition, but one also sees lots of al-Farsi and al-Balushi. The former refers to those whose ancestors were Persian; the latter, to the Baluchs of southeastern Iran and western Pakistan. Both have been part of Oman's cultural fabric for as long as we have records. In ancient and medieval times, some geographers classified Oman as part of India, and the ancient Egyptian reliefs depicting the inhabitants of the provinces of ancient Persian rulers portrayed the Omanis as very similar to South Asians in dress and grooming. For a time Oman even controlled an overseas empire in East Africa and the coast of what is now Pakistan, and if memory serves the last South Asian outpost was relinquished only after Pakistan's independence. Despite this integration into Omani society, however, non-Arab groups retained their own identity through means other than onomastics; a generation ago, Baluchs still usually spoke their own language.

The place where I was staying was right along the shore, in Muttrah at the Fish Roundabout along that corniche there. In everything the Omani government has tried to balance openness with concern for tradition, and by a deliberate policy they have tried to price themselves out of the range of backpackers whom they fear would bring moral corruption. As a result, this was the only place in the capital where you could find cheap accomodation, with "cheap" meaning about $45 a night for a room similar to what you'd get at an American Econolodge or Super 8. Fish Roundabout was near the fish market, and as you left in the morning you were usually greeted to the strong smell of fish from nearby. The seafront also had an array of coffeeshops and eateries. Most of these were more of the standard Arab sheesha joint than Starbucks-style, though you did see the latter here and there in other parts of town.

The one night I didn't stay in Muscat was spent down at Sur, Oman's easternmost major city near the easternmost point on the Arabian peninsula. It's general area, where the Gulf of Oman/Persian Gulf commercial zone opens out into the broader Indian Ocean region, has probably always had a major port of some description. Thirteen miles up the coast from modern Sur are the ruins of Qalhat. Books routinely say it dates back at least to the 1st century, but I suspect they're getting that from a primary source they shouldn't be trusting on that point. In any case, you can at least get it back to the early Islamic period archaeologically. Today there is a village by the name based economically around an oil and natural gas refinery; the ruins of the historic Qalhat are on a bluff overhead. Rising at Sohar's expense, the city was at its height during the 13th and 14th centuries when it was the main Arabian city of the Hormuzids, a client dynasty of the Mongol Ilkhanate.

Getting there today is probably harder today than it was 700 years ago, as the coast road between Sur and Muscat isn't fully paved, and many taxis won't even bother. On the way back to Sur, my driver told me that technically it was illegal for taxis to drive there, but the police were that rigorous about it. The city completely destroyed by the Portuguese for resisting their rule, and most of its buildings are down to their foundations. I was only able to orient myself with the aid of a topographical study by Paolo Costa which I had brought from Jerusalem. The exception is the Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam. Local tradition claims it is the tomb of the Queen of Sheba, but it is almost certainly the mausoleum constructed for the Hormuzid Baha ad-Din Ayaz by his wife, frequent deputy, and probable successor, Bibi Maryam. That folklore, however, may be why the Portuguese left it alone.

Sur ultimately replaced Qalhat as the main port of this region, known as the Sharqiyya. As usual, the buildings are almost entirely white. Although a large fort about 250 years old overlooks a nice lagoon into which ships of old were guided by three lighthouses, I think in modern times fishing is a bigger maritime industry than international trade; as the sun sets, you see a number of fishing boats heading back home to prepare for the next morning's market. These fishing boats are all dhows, the most important vessels in this part of the Indian Ocean, and Sur is famous for dhow-building to this day. I saw the yards along the lagoon, but as with Ras al-Khaimah, I was not there when anyone was actually building a dhow. In any case, their two most notable characteristics are the lateen sail, the triangular sails mounted at an angle to the mast also used on Nile feluccas, and the fact that they are sown together rather than nailed, which proponents claim adds valuable elasticity to the frame.

Before I finish, I can't resist mentioning the Magan Boat Project, which works out of Sur. The object of this group, which is associated with Qalhat excavator Tom Vosmer, is to try and solve mysteries about the construction of Bronze Age sailing vessels by building replicas, sailing them until they sink, and then comparing the debris with the remains we have from the Bronze Age. In 2006, it was reported that they determined that sailors during the Bronze Age probably tried to plug leaks in the bitumen with bits of rope, as there was a good match when the crew of scholars did that on their most recent voyage. Eventually they hope to actually complete a voyage from Oman (ancient Magan) to the Indus delta in what is now Pakistan.

The larger point of all this is that the sea has been one of the most important factors shaping Oman, and today represents an important element of the ideology of its heritage. Another important part, the desert, mountains, and wadis of the inland region, I'll go into later.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Iranian Anti-Sufism

I keep expecting Iran's ongoing crackdown on Sufi orders to turn into a bigger issue than it seemingly has been within Iran. RFE-RL reports on what's been happening:
"In broader terms, Lahiji sees the demonization of Sufi Muslims in Iran as a strategy by Ahmadinejad's regime aimed at discrediting individuals or groups that pose political challenges to the power of Iran's conservative Shi'a clerics.

"'It's not only about the other sections of Islam. It's all the sections of society. In the last two years, the civil society of Iran -- the journalists, the students, the women, the [labor unions], the teachers, the universities -- all are victims of these very, very aggressive politics,' he says. 'And the other Muslim groups are [treated] the same. It's the result of the political aggression of Ahmadinejad.'"

Lahiji is actually a Paris-based Iranian exile. I'm generally skeptical of Iranian exile groups, and suspect he may be exaggerating Ahmadinejad's role in things. While I have noted an increasing level of political repression in Iran, that dates back to the last days of Khatami, when it was driven by the clerical side of the government. That said, Ahmadinejad is theologically conservative, and neither his followers nor those of the more traditionalist hard-liners would have much love for mysticism. Here's a bit of background:
"In fact, just a week before the violence in Borujerd, Iranian Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Parviz issued a statement saying there is no place for the promotion of Sufism in Shi'a-dominated Iran.

"Parviz's remarks followed complaints from Shi'a clerics about state television coverage of the Rumi International Congress, an event in Iran commemorating the 800th anniversary of the birth of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.

"Parviz, who also served as executive director of the committee for the Rumi Congress, said the clerics' complaints focused on news broadcasts about performances of Sama, the Sufi practice of gathering to listen to religious poetry that is sung and often accompanied by ecstatic dance or other rituals.

"The U.S. State Department says Tehran's actions and rhetoric have created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all religious minorities in Iran.

"It also says Iran's government-controlled media has intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities since Ahmadinejad's election.

"It notes that in late 2005, a shari'a scholar in the holy city Qom, Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani, called for a crackdown on Sufi groups after labeling them a "danger to Islam." Since then, articles attacking Sufis have proliferated in Iranian national newspapers.

"In February 2006, police closed a building in Qom that was being used as a house of worship by Sufis from the Nematollahi Gonabadi order. When Sufis responded by staging a protest in Qom, clashes broke out and Iranian authorities arrested more than 1,000 people."

Qom is Iran's most important center of Shi'ite religious learning. I don't know where the cleric mentioned would fit in Iran's political spectrum.


Pakistani Rape Law

I've mentioned before that Pakistan's rape law, which in practice makes it more likely that the woman will be punished for alleged adultery than the man for sexual assault, is grounded in really shoddy legal reasoning and goes against, really, the past 1400 years of Islamic jurisprudence on the topic. Asifa Quraishi, the Islamic law professor at the University of Wisconsin's law school, lays the whole issue out in detail in an article you can download here that was published in multiple formats in the United States, Pakistan, and Malaysia. In a nutshell, sexual crimes are supposed to be hard to prove, and people who make false accusations or spread gossip are penalized. Violent crimes of personal injury, of course, are more easily punished. The geniuses who wrote the relevant laws in Pakistan decided that rape was primarily a sex crime.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mike Huckabee

While I would never vote for him, Mike Huckabee's foreign policy views are refreshingly sane for today's Republicans. He has the right sound bites for the GOP primary electorate, but when you go into the details it's clear he's actually close to Democratic views on a lot of issues.

For now, I'll let slide the implication that the Sunni/Shi'ite split is an ancient and intractable hatred.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Jewish Arab Refugees

Someone else agrees with my long-standing belief that Israel should play up the existence of Jewish refugees from Arab countries in trying to resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees:
"The government needs to bring up the issue of hundreds of thousands of Jews who left their homes in Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel as part of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, the president of the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries said Thursday.

"About 850,000 Jews fled Arab countries after Israel's founding in 1948, leaving behind assets valued today at more than $300 billion, said Heskel M. Haddad.

"He added that the New York-based organization has decades-old property deeds of Jews from Arab countries on a total area of 100,000 - which is five times the size of the State of Israel...

"Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - with estimates ranging from 400,000 to 750,000 - left Israeli-controlled territory in 1948 and 1949, and they, along with their millions of descendants, make up one of the prickliest issues to be dealt with by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as part of any resolution to the conflict.

"Haddad said that the key to resolving the issue rested with the Arab League, which in the 1950s passed a resolution stating that no Arab government would grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, keeping them in limbo for over half a century.

"At the same time, the Arab League urged Arab governments to facilitate the exit of Jews from Arab countries, a resolution which was carried out with a series of punitive measures and discriminatory decrees making it untenable for the Jews to stay in the countries."

Because I'm dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, I need to assert that this is not the same as the military operations aimed at removing Arabs from central Israel during the Israeli War of Independence, and certainly doesn't justify anything now happening in the Occupied Territories. However, I think it's one of many important facts about Israel and Israeli history which is not widely known, especially in the Arab world, and one that could contribute to an end to the conflict, which would be good all around.

Labels: ,

Changing Sponsors

One main reason guest workers in Gulf countries are so easily abused is the sponsorship system, though which their legal presence is tied to a specific employer rather than something they have as individuals. This means that any conflict with that employer could lead, not just to unemployment, but to deportation back to desperate economic conditions. An Emirati reform making it easier to change sponsors means nothing:
"The Ministry of Labour has amended rules for sponsorship transfer allowing expatriates to change their jobs without having to spend one year with their original sponsors, a senior official said on Thursday...

"Humaid Bin Deemas, Assistant Undersecretary at the ministry, told Gulf News that earlier an exemption from the minister was needed in order to be able to transfer sponsorship before completing one year.

"'However, since two weeks exemptions are no longer needed but the NOC from the previous sponsor is still a prerequisite and the applicant will have to pay a fee of Dh500 for each month remaining to complete this mandatory period. The procedure could be done at the customer service counter at the ministry and applicants no longer need to approach the minister's office,' said Bin Deemas.

"He (Khalil Khoury of the Works Permit Department) added that the cost of sponsorship transfer depends on the qualification of the concerned employee. For instance, a person with Master's degree would have to pay Dh1,500 for approval while a person with low educational qualification will have to pay Dh 5,000 for the same. The cost of approval of internal work permit to move to another company owned by the same sponsor is Dh500."

First, workers still need permission from their existing sponsor. In addition, as you can see from the last paragraph, the fee structure is ridiculously regressive. It's about three Emirati dirhams to a dollar, so the middle manager with his masters can easily afford the $500, which is probably far less than his monthly rent, but the poor construction worker from Bangladesh who lives in company housing is never going to have the $1600 he needs, nor will the Filipino maids people on the right like to worry about. These fees are in addition to the additional $165 or so for each month remaining of the original year.

These labor policies are disgraceful. This is an area where the United States can and should use our influence to push for reform.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tajikistan's Religious Law

Back in August, I highlighted a new law on the registration of religious groups in Tajikistan. IWPR reports on the current state of play, with the law still under discussion, if somewhat less restrictive than what was on the table last summer. The main point I wanted to note, however, is the opinion from IWPR that the law is targeted squarely at foreign missionaries in the country, especially Protestants. An analyst quoted by RFE-RL had thought it was anti-Sunni; I found that interesting, but couldn't see where he was getting it.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Concerning Settlements

I just got back from an event at the Yakar Center for Social Concern marking the English release of Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal's Lords of the Land about the Israeli settlement movement. One point that surprised me was that many of the settlers Israel has in the West Bank are there involuntarily. I don't understand all the legal issues, but the net point is that once you have a house in a settlement, you are unlikely to be able to unload it except with government compensation, and the Israeli government has been refusing to extend the Gaza compensation regime (such as it is) to places like Ariel which it wants to use as a bargaining chip. When you consider a lot of those "settlers" were probably put there to begin with when the Shamir government just planted tons of Jews immigrating in the Soviet Aliya in West Bank settlements, this picture becomes even more problematic.

What actually left the biggest impression on me, however, is just how strong militant religious Zionism is here in Israel. Is there any other country in the world today where right of conquest is routinely invoked to justify control over territory? Plenty of people in the audience were also quite quick and quite natural with arguments based in theology that settling all of Eretz Israel was not only acceptable, but an actual obligation for the Jewish people. And no, this isn't an isolated band of nuts who happened to show up at this event to counter it. I hear similar things from otherwise ordinary people here in Jerusalem. I understand this is, not even the Israeli right, but a segment of the Israeli right. However, that segment is also much larger than I thought it was before coming here, and, more to the point, has kept Israel moving in their direction at one pace or another for most of its history, even though most Israelis think they're nuts.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, November 12, 2007

Hijab in Tunisia

I hadn't heard about this story until now, but Nasima Alli tells us why a Tunisian court ruling against a hijab ban might be interesting:
"In 1981, then Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) ratified law number 108 banning Tunisian women from wearing the hijab in state offices. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tunisian government issued more restrictive enactments including the infamous 102 law which considers hijab a sign of 'extremism' and as a result banned it. Unofficially, Tunisian women have been encouraged to put aside the hijab and veil in public streets and social gatherings and have at times been the victims of harassment for being disobedient...

"Meanwhile, and despite a crackdown on Islamists in Tunisia, some women militants have decided to wear the hijab despite the ban. That includes the famous lawyer Saida Al-Akrami, which characterized the ban as unconstitutional.

"For now, the Tunisian courts seem to have sided with Ms. Al-Akrami and those that are on her side of the debate. On October 11, 2007, the law was rescinded after being deemed unconstitutional by the Administrative Court of Tunis. This ruling came from a lawsuit which was filed by schoolteacher Saeeda Adbalah who was suspended from work after she refused to take off her veil. The lawsuit was filed against the Education Ministry and needless to say that she won...

"The most important one relates to the ruling act itself suggesting that either the government allowed it or the courts have taken a contrarian position with the risk of upsetting the government...In the final analysis, it is likely that the courts agreed with the arguments put forward by the opponents of the ban, showing perhaps that the justice system in Tunisia is itself looking for some autonomy and seeking to distance itself from the government. The outcome ultimately will depend on the response of the latter, which is not likely to endorse a ban reversal."

The whole post is worth reading. (Hat tip: Arabist)


Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Middle East often dominates the headlines, but China remains a crucial part of the broader geopolitical picture. Over at American Footprints, we've decided to start addressing these issues by adding as a front-pager the pseudonymous China Hand. Naturally, his first post is on Pakistan, which several of us have paid attention to lately. China Hand's personal blog is here.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Firefly Episode 10: "War Stories"

This episode has a lot of great moments and produced some of the series's more memorable lines, but I still have trouble dealing with the whole. That whole follows two main threads. One is Wash's relationship with Mal and Zoe. That aspect was fine, and well telescoped through earlier arguments we'd seen bits of, such as one in which Wash wanted to just tell Mal they were taking time I'm. (I don't remember which episode.) The problem I have is with the show's use of torture. Torture is a live issue in most of the world, including, these days, in the United States. I also think it's been well handled within the genre, most notably in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Chain of Command" and Martok's character arc from later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Cheryl Cain, however, took the Hollywood route of simply using it as a plot device to show Our Heroes being heroic and the Bad Guy being bad. The philosophy woven throughout the episode is mentioned at the beginning, when in a nice bit of continuity, Simon and Book are discussing the aftermath of "Ariel." Book refers to the belief attributed to a Shan Yu that the way to meet the real person is to torture them. This, let it be said, doesn't seem to make any sense as a reason for what was done to River, but that aside, this philosophy is continually invoked, forming the show's philosophical backbone.

After Wash gets bothered by Zoe telling a war story, something she shares with Mal. Wash's jealousy has roots in an insecurity fed by the fact Zoe defers to Mal as captain and has a much longer history with him. That and a later fight over the fact Zoe agreed with the captain in rejecting one of Wash's ideas drive him to sabotage the shuttle with which they're going to take some of the medicine from the Saint Lucy's heist to a local fence. His price for fixing it is that he and not Zoe will accompany Mal on the mission, which Mal, anxious to get underway, simply agrees to after Zoe bows out.

The two are then captured by Adelei Niska from "The Train Job," who plans to punish them for going back on their deal by torturing them to death. The scenes right after they were captured were good, with Wash trying to deny his obvious fright, while Mal tried to both deal with him and figure out what's going on and how they can escape. The two start an argument, which continues once Niska has begun torturing them, and Niska seems to actually enjoy following their argument, as it means they're not breaking and he might be able to prolong their agony.

After the crew ascertains what happened to them, they pool their money and Zoe goes to Niska's skyplex to offer ransom. Niska offers only one, but is thwarted in his hopes of forcing her to choose when she quickly picks her husband. He then offers Mal's severed ear as "change." On the DVD commentary, Alan Tudyk wonders if she chose Wash just because she knew he wasn't going to last, but her concern for Wash is evident, and she shows no signs of planning a rescue before Wash brings it up. I guess this newfound respect and courage is supposed to be the "real him" brought out by the torture.

The rest of the crew takes up arms to join in the rescue mission. Book's knowledge of things preachers don't generally know is put to good use here, and I like the fact Jayne looks to him in a fight even though the source of that knowledge remains unknown. Sean Maher and Jewel Staite also get props for great acting jobs from the moment their characters decide to join the rescue. In fact, something about this whole show really brought out just how good this ensemble can be. The action sequences were also good.

The problems I have with the show's handling of torture really come out in the ending. Mal was literally tortured to death, then tortured a bit more, and yet still strong enough to fight with Niska's muscular henchman? I simply don't buy it. What's more, while the line about how the captain doesn't have to finish the henchman himself is funny, when you think a minute it shows just how the writers took torture and its psychological effects as a Hollywood cliche rather than a real part of life. Mal stops being human and becomes some sort of superhero whom nothing can stop. Once he's back on the ship, though he's still in pain, as when he tried to laugh and when Jayne slaps him in the torso as he claims Zoe's soup, he's still very much himself. The whole thing seemed disrespectful to actual victims of torture.

Perhaps I'm moralizing about this a bit much, and I admit I tended to be put off by the gruesomeness of some of the torture scenes regardless of any philosophical qualms. Still, the show goes in for its Shan Yu view of torture despite the evidence based in psychology that it does things to people from which they have to recover. Despite the many things it does well, I have to knock it down to 7/10.
Zoe: "Preacher, don't the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin'?"
Book: "Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps."


Kefaya Plots Return

Egypt's Kefaya movement, which I saw at its height in 2005, is plotting a comeback:
"'Kefaya is set to make a comeback stronger than before,' George Ishaq, a prominent activist in the group, told Gulf News. 'To this end, the group is now revising its agenda so as to leave no room for divisions, which have plagued some political parties in Egypt,' he added.

"'Furthermore, the spectre of hereditary succession in Egypt looms larger,' he said, referring to allegations that Mubarak, 79, is grooming his influential son Jamal, 43, to take power after him...

"Emad Siam, a member of the group, urges in a paper that Kefaya should adopt a clear-cut political and socio-economic manifesto.

"'Kefaya has to unequivocally define its political and social commitment towards a specific class in society,' Siam says. 'There is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong and impractical, however, is to claim that the group represents all social powers at the same time,' he adds."

These changes aren't as dramatic as they sound. Although Kefaya kept a big tent, it was always dominated by leftists. However, with an officially set program they'll be liberated from having to avoid stances and actions that would drive others away.


Friday, November 09, 2007


This is some more of the gorgeous Nile of Upper Egypt, specifically Aswan. The islands are among those which form the First Cataract. The pink building is a hotel, but I don't remember which one. In the distance overlooking the river from the sand bluff you can see the mausoleum of Aga Khan III.


Knesset Peace Math

I've occasionally played the Knesset peace math game, but Daniel Levy has put together a comprehensive post on where everyone stands. I don't remember exactly when this came down, but I though Avigdor Lieberman had signaled some flexibility on Jerusalem, whereas Levy claims he is an absolute rejectionist on that issue. Perhaps he "clarified" some statements when I was traveling. He also has 67 of the 120 votes in favor of serious peace moves, but that's including the Arab parties and assuming no one bolts from Kadima. It's possible Olmert could work that, especially if he can get some support from Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Where I found Levy's post most interesting is his analysis of intermediate steps:
"Of course much depends on what issue is being brought to a vote. Prisoner releases, checkpoint removal and easing of closures all do not require Knesset approval—they can be challenged by no-confidence motions but coalition allies (Shas, Yisrael Beteinu) have all opposed such measures in the past without threatening to bring down the government and that is unlikely to change.

"A settlement freeze, outpost removal, IDF redeployment and re-opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem also need not be taken to a Knesset vote—but these issues have not been tested in the current Knesset and the opposition would seize on any of them in order to push no confidence votes, pressure and embarrass reluctant coalition allies. IDF redeployment is the easiest to do politically but the most difficult to convince the security establishment on. The Knesset traffic can almost certainly bear the token removal of a few outposts—but not implementation of the actual Roadmap commitment of removing all outposts erected since March 2001.

"Declaring a settlement freeze would possibly take PM Olmert into new coalition territory and lead to a coalition re-shuffle. If the US is insistent and Olmert convincingly depicts the settlement freeze as the price for not making concessions elsewhere, for broader Arab participation in the process (i.e. Saudi Arabia) and for maintaining an international front against Iran, then the politics of a freeze can be surmounted with only limited and not fatal coalition damage. The East Jerusalem institutions would be a much more challenging political stretch, although it is worth noting that this is a Roadmap deliverable that the Palestinians rarely mention."

It is extremely frustrating that dismantling settlements which are illegal even under Israeli law is such a tough proposition politically.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Karimov Enters the Ring

Everyone assumed that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov would still be in charge a year from now despite formally being term-limited out of office. The only question is how he would go about holding on. Now we know:
" On November 6 Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov announced his decision to enter the upcoming presidential elections on December 23. Karimov’s choice to seek another term provides a short-term solution to the fears of potentially ruthless competition for state power among local politicians and business elites. Almost certainly Karimov will be returned to office for another seven years, and, at age 69, his health may enable him to hold on to power for even longer...

"A number of regional media outlets have harshly criticized Karimov’s 'agreement to remain president for yet another seven years.' However, some local and international experts agree that changing leadership in Uzbekistan this year could lead to a prolonged, severe struggle among current political elites and the secular and religious opposition. But if Karimov and his government fail to generate a solution in the next few years for a peaceful transfer of power, escalating tensions and even armed clashes are likely."

This "peaceful transfer of power" itself will, I'm sure, not be democratic. Why do people even get excited with these speculations?


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Robertson for Rudy

Josh Marshall's take on this is hilarious


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mongol Military

Military history isn't really my thing, but I did just read The Mongol Art of War by my friend and reader Timothy May, and found it really interesting. Good military history has a certain "daily life" feel to it, particularly in a situation like that of the Mongols in the days of Genghis Khan and his immediate successors. After all, as May notes, while not every Mongol fought in his campaigns, Genghis Khan did organize all Mongol society in support of them. The issue of recruitment was one which affected all Mongols, their subjects, and allies, and for the multitudes who were recruited, training, equipment, and supply were important aspects of their lives. Tim's writing style (I feel strange continually calling him by his surname) is very lucid, and he most of the book is purely descriptive or narrative, with only occasional forays into an issue of historiography.

After his chapters on assembling and equipping armies, tactics and strategy, important generals and campaigns, battles, and sieges which show how it all fits together, May includes a chapter called "The Legacy of the Mongols" about their impact on the history of warfare, illuminating an important connection with the Nazi blitzkrieg. Russia formed an important connecting link, as the Russian principalities, especially Muscovy, adapted Mongol tactics when under Mongol domination and kept using them until Peter the Great's reorientation toward the West, after which they continued to be part of the standard curriculum in Russia's military academies. Eventually we reach the 20th century, when some thinkers in different European countries felt fast-moving tanks and mobile infantry could play the same role as Mongol mounted archers. The Blitzkrieg drew upon both a Mongol-influenced Russian strategy called "deep battle" and a German tank commander named Hans Guderain who had studied the works of earlier theorists J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart, both of whom drew upon Mongol strategies. These same doctrines influenced the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, so that it may be as I think some have said, and the U.S. went back into Iraq with "the warfare of Genghis Khan."

Labels: ,

All Politics is Local

Colin Kahl gives his view of Iraq's current trajectory:
"Iraq is moving in the direction of a highly decentralized state. It will not be a neat three-way division as soft partition proponents envision. Rather, 'all politics is becoming local,' in the sense of some relatively homogenous provinces, and others with pockets of homogenous and mixed communities, all attempting to provide for their own security and governance. In this emerging context, I don't think that the emergence of a stable security equilibrium in Iraq necessarily involves some huge grand bargain inside the central government that addresses every Sunni grievance and fully includes them in the national political process. That was the old notion of national reconciliation -- and, as your recent commentary on Maliki points out, it is not likely to materialize anytime soon. A minimalist notion of national accommodation, in contrast, would focus on two and only two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could *potentially* lead to a stable equilibrium."

He goes on to explain in more detail, and also becomes the first analyst I've read in a long time who advocates staying in Iraq for a while longer yet.

UPDATE: Abu Aardvark rounds up reactions.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Yasser Arafat is Still Dead

Matthew Duss takes issue with Martin Kramer's invocation of the idea that because Yasser Arafat rejected peace deals in the waning days of Ehud Barak's premiership, the parameters worked out there are unworkable. However, he misses the obvious point that Arafat is dead, and any new negotiations will take place with his successor, Mahmood Abbas, a man who was in 2003 the cornerstone of the Bush administration's plans to sideline Arafat. Abbas's government poses its own challenges for a peace process, sure, but at the very least we should be discussing those rather than basing our policy off what a different Palestinian leader did with a different Israeli leader almost a decade ago.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Labels: ,

The Rising of the Son

In Egypt, Gamal Mubarak continues to be groomed for the presidency:
"Traditionally, the presidential candidate had to be head of the party's political bureau.

"But in the spring, the constitution was changed to require only that the candidate be chosen from the members of a new structure called the Supreme Committee.

"Saturday's measure, passed during the opening day of the party's general convention, elected Jamal to that committee, which has 50 members. The move is seen as a more discreet way of setting him up as a presidential candidate than appointing him to the party's political bureau."


Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Ter-Petrosian Campaign

Levon Ter-Petrosian, post-Soviet Armenia's first president, is up against the levers of power he once controlled as he seeks to make a comeback:
"Public television has already begun to broadcast negative coverage of Ter-Petrosian. A Sunday evening programme called 360 Degrees took viewers back to the former president’s time in office, when the country was undergoing an acute economic crisis. For 22 minutes, the program showed gloomy black-and-white footage of those times, reminding viewers of a series of political murders that had been committed. The blood shown on the screen was made more vividly red for effect.

"Several television reports about the October 26 rally showed pictures of Freedom Square half-empty, apparently using footage of scenes shot before the demonstration started.

"The organisers of the rally told IWPR that almost all television channels had refused to air a video announcement about the forthcoming event, even though it had been sanctioned by the authorities...

"The authorities also responded with heavy-handed tactics to a march held by Ter-Petrosian supporter on October 23 to publicise the rally. Demonstrators clashed with police on one of Yerevan’s central streets, and several marchers and four policemen were injured. The marchers said later that the policemen had demanded that they stop handing out leaflets and surrender their megaphone."

Armenian politics is characterized by corrupt competition rather than strongman dictatorship, and the main players are the businessmen, most of whom probably stay legal primarily because they're the ones helping write the laws. I'm far from being deep enough into the weeds of it all to understand whether that directly relates to Nagorno-Karabakh. Ter-Petrosian's support for a peace agreement with Azerbaijan over the conflict was the proximate cause of his 1998 ouster by his own government.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rabin Remembered

Tonight, 150,000 people went to a Tel Aviv rally marking twelve years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin:
"The annual rally is held in Rabin Square, where the prime minister was gunned down by ultra-nationalist Yigal Amir after a large peace demonstration on November 4, 1995...

"The rally also included performances by leading Israeli singers, such as Aviv Gefen, Rami Kleinstein, and Sarit Hadad.

"Hundreds of police officers, paramedics, and firefighting personnel were deployed for the event. As of 4 P.M. Saturday, police closed off all major streets in the area around the square.

"Israel officially marked the 12th anniversary of Rabin's slaying last week, according to the Hebrew calendar. But the rally in Tel Aviv has become an annual pilgrimage for ordinary Israelis to show respect for the beloved leader."

The article also mentions the "Free Amir" movement on the Israeli right. I've talked to people in Jerusalem who are convinced Amir was a fall guy for a deeper conspiracy, possibly involving Shin Bet, which is apparently supposed to make us all feel sorry for the guy. It's actually been one of a number of Jerusalem rumors which have brought home to me the fact that while conspiracy theories in the Arab world get more press in the United States, some Israelis can put together plenty of their own.


Ambassador Recall

Morocco is recalling its ambassador to Madrid over King Juan Carlos's plans to visit Ceuta and Melilla:
"Morocco recalled its ambassador to Spain yesterday to show its irritation at plans by King Juan Carlos to visit Spain's two north African enclaves, which Morocco claims as its own.

"Spain said the king would make his first visit as head of state to the small, densely populated cities of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco's Mediterranean coast next Monday and Tuesday, accompanied by Queen Sofia.

"High-level Spanish trips to Ceuta and Melilla are rare and a visit by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2006, the first by a Spanish head of government since 1981, raised hackles in Morocco."


Friday, November 02, 2007

Firefly Episode 9: "Ariel"

"Ariel" is one of the most powerful Firefly episodes, largely because of the last few minutes. The directing was good enough that I noticed it, which I don't normally do, and the weaving together of the hospital theft story, Simon and River's issues, and the Jayne betrayal is flawless on the emotional level. The only problem is that at the logical level, certain elements simply don't make sense, and it requires a major suspension of disbelief to conclude that what Jayne did wouldn't come out very quickly.

I love the understated title, which suggests just a run-of-the-mill episode that you only find out at the end plans to deliver a bang. In some ways, it reminds me of Babylon 5's "Objects at Rest," though here the relationship-altering drama was quietly woven throughout the episode rather than brought out suddenly at the end, and it took place in the middle of a season rather than in a planned penultimate episode, which changes the expectations game. It's a title that says simply, "Let's hear about what happened at Ariel," with no clue as to the actual situation.

The early chatting among the crew gives us a good idea of what the core worlds are like, fleshing out earlier vague statements and the flashbacks in "Safe" with discussions of the concrete attractions found on the inner planets, as well as what Zoe at least perceives as over-regulation by the authorities. Normally we are out on the frontier; here is the world of plenty, and we understand a bit of how much Mal and those like him value their independence by the fact they fought not to become part of it.

River's stabbing Jayne across his "Blue Sun" T-shirt is a nice arc-related visual, one to which our attention is called verbally by her "He looks better in red." It also helps take the edge off Jayne's decision to turn them in for a reward, as in his mind she has clearly become dangerous. Jayne is loyal to himself, not the crew, and when he thinks the crew is starting to slip off the rails of a sensible, profitable life, he feels little compunction about starting to go his own way.

Simon's hiring of the crew is well scripted, and he lays out his plan in the time-tested manner in which capers are cinematically laid out. All these scenes were simply fun, though the brief concern about stealing medicine seemed too forced, an obvious concession to the network's concern for not drifting into glorifying crime. I mean, couldn't people hypothetically need most of the stuff they steal or smuggle? Simon is also clearly becoming more comfortable in the world in which he has found himself, earning a bit of respect even from Jayne.

Jayne's attitude toward the siblings is something I watched the show three times trying to pin down. There are three places - when Simon is saving the patient in the hospital, when they learn what happened to River's brain, and when Simon confronts McGinnis, when Adam Baldwin has to convey something entirely without words, and his success was mixed. What I caught in the first of those scenes was concern over whether they would be followed, though the simple fact the scene exists makes me suspect there was supposed to be more. In the second he seemed bothered and disgusted by what had been done to River, though he's amoral enough that it didn't deflect his plans any. It's when Simon confronts McGinnis that I think he showed a clear respect.

The plot holes, or at the very least, the parts where the plot seems badly stretched, are those which involved Jayne's betrayal plot. Why wouldn't the authorities want to nab the fugitives at the earliest possible opportunity? I can see Jayne wanting to keep them away from Mal and the others, which explains why they weren't waiting at the entrance. However, why wouldn't they be ready to just come to the recovery room, or the room with the brain scanner? The most important reason, of course, is that the plot needs Simon to get the scans; given that, we're left filling in the blanks on our own.

Those blanks can probably be filled in several different ways, but there is a bigger problem in how Jayne avoids detection by the crew afterwards. Mal knows they went out the back entrance - that's how he knows Jayne betrayed them. In fact, putting such a move into the betrayal plan may have been done by the writer just to give Mal something to go on. In any case, this means that on the way back to the ship, they went over how they were captured. Jayne had told a lie about Mal allegedly ordering a change in plans. How does this not come up? Even if it doesn't come up then, why not in the next day or so? I just don't buy it.

One forgives those flaws, though, because of the good character drama, which comes to a head at the end when Mal confronts Jayne about what he did. This, too, isn't as strong as it could have been, as for some reason the writer felt compelled to make Simon look like a naive fool right beforehand. In any case, Jayne thinks he got away with it when Mal, whose earlier comment about the payday was clearly loaded strikes him. The keelhauling scene shows a lot of who Mal is, and in the end, a bit of who Jayne is. Mal values loyalty above all, and both gives it to and expects it from his crew. This is the opposite of Jayne's attitude. At the very end, though, he begs Mal to hide his treachery from the others, showing when pressed a sense of shame and remorse that moves Mal to give him another chance. This is great stuff.

We also got our first extended look at the Hands of Blue, who kill a number of people just for having spoken with Simon and River. Their slightly off way of moving is well conceived, and the fact of their existence as well as their actions shows how important the River's secrets must be. It's too bad we didn't get to see the original resolution to all of this, though Serenity was awesome in its own right.

As you can tell, I liked this episode, despite some plausibility issues. Those issues are the only reason I can't go higher than an 8/10.
Jayne: "What are you taking this so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the feds!"
Mal: "Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! But since that's a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around then you got no place here! You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact."

UPDATE: After considering "Trash," I've decided to revise this rating to 10/10.