Thursday, January 31, 2008

Holy Land Snowfall

This is one of the countless snowmen that popped up in Jerusalem yesterday. Like most snowmen in this part of the world, though, he didn't live very long.


Labor Sources

Bahrain wants to diversify its guest labor force:
"The Bahraini government has stressed the need to look at alternatives and options for new manpower markets to avoid dependence on specific countries that could impose their own labour conditions.

"Labour sources on Monday told Gulf News that Gulf countries have started negotiating with Vietnam over sending Vietnamese workers, mainly in the fields of mechanical engineering, construction and food-processing industries."

Bahrain certainly doesn't want foreign countries imposing their own labor conditions. These democracies like India and Bangladesh tend to have governments which respond to their workers' needs and try to impose basic safety and wage standards. Working with a fellow autocracy such as Vietnam is much better.

Later in the article, Bahrain's Minister of Labour says guest workers pose a greater danger to the Arab Gulf states than an Israeli attack. He obviously doesn't realize how many Israelis are anxious to get up a war against Bahrain. =)


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Babylon 5 Review: "The Parliament of Dreams"

Watching this was definitely a pleasant surprise. All I remembered about it was the festival of religion, and the final scene where Sinclair represents humanity through its diversity of religions. That really missed the point. What we had instead was a vehicle for introducing important secondary characters Na'Toth and Catherine Sakai, as well as making a number of meaningful allusions to the themes upon which the series built, with important foreshadowing thrown in for good measure. As a standalone it's still pedestrian, but as part of a larger whole, it worked just fine.

The new characters first. In the early 1990's, Star Trek and Babylon 5 both did a lot to break the mold of traditional science fiction female character types. DS9 had Kira and Dax as regulars, which set the stage for Torres and Janeway on Voyager. Babylon 5 gave us Ivanova, Talia, Delenn, and later Lyta and Lochley as regulars, as well as secondary characters. In addition to Na'Toth and Catherine, there was Tessa from seasons four and five, and probably others I can't remember offhand.

The issue with Na'Toth and Catherine, however, is that both were simply dropped very early in the series. Na'Toth would be revisited in season five's "A Tragedy of Telepaths"; dealing with Catherine would be left to JMS's wife in her novel To Dream in the City of Sorrows. As I've become acquainted with both from rewatching season one, I'll definitely miss them when next I see later years, as they add a lot to an otherwise dreary year.

The most interesting plot on its own terms is Sinclair and Catherine's relationship. JMS took the innovative step of actually writing his sci fi commander as a real person, and that, together with the great chemistry of the actors, made this relationship feel more genuine after a single episode than some other shows accomplish over an entire season or more. Garibaldi is also aware of what's going on, and his interactions with Sinclair again strike me as real, and let us see that the two are genuinely old friends without having one of them state it openly.

The plot about the assassin after G'Kar didn't work as well for me, mainly because I have trouble relating to G'Kar as a militant nationalist. (To be honest, I think the Narns as a whole were written with a deliberately different tone in later seasons, about which I'll say more later.) You do see a bit of difference between him and Londo, however. G'Kar's position is somewhat analogous to Londo's in "Born to the Purple," but where Londo the experience court operator cuts a deal with Sinclair, G'Kar the former resistance fighter trusts no one and seeks allies in the underworld. As with Londo's purple files, G'Kar's time on "the council" never plays a major role, and the whole point of this is to let us see Na'Toth as a strong, clever, capable, and outspoken aide who is nonetheless loyal to her assignment.

In the middle of all this, Lennier shows up, so green he won't even look at Delenn. The real Minbari contribution to this episode, however, is their religious ceremony. I gather that B5 fans used to mine this for clues the way Harry Potter fans did with the chess game at the end of Sorcerer's Stone, and JMS did say it was significant. I haven't gone over it and the rest of the series thoroughly yet, but the most obvious significance surrounds Sinclair. The fact it doubles as a marriage ceremony lends further support that had he stayed as commander, Delenn and Sinclair would have married and Catherine would have been lost on a survey mission "out on the rim." The fact the ceremony recounts Valen forming the Grey Council is also significant given the events of the Battle of the Line and "War Without End."

The parallels with Christianity in the Minbari ceremony are striking. First is the fact this is a meal commemorating the formation of a community. Beyond that is the stuff about victory that is seen as defeat and death that brings renewal. I don't immediately see significance in that, but could be wrong. "The one who is to come," is part of the Minbari prophecy we hear so much about, and invokes "the one" whom we first hear about from Zathras in "Babylon Squared." There's also: "This is your death. The death of flesh. The death of pain." This may set up G'Kar's memorable insight from his Bodh Gaya: "Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams." I'd need to rewatch later seasons to see if other aspects of G'Kar's path relate to the Minbari invocations, setting up a situation in which this ceremony shows something of where the characters are now, as opposed to where the show's philosophy eventually points.

The Centauri religious ceremony is played for laughs. I liked Vir's, "He has become one with his inner self." As I was reminded by this, however, it contains a serious point regarding the Xon. In the show's backstory, the initial Centauri expansion followed directly on the defeat of the originally oppressive Xon, thus making the Centauri part of the cycle where violence and oppression breeds more violence and oppression, a cycle currently playing out in the Narn expansion after Centauri oppression. Somebody apparently identified this as a pattern in Babylonian history, which I suspect overstates matters, but may do for discussing the show, as JMS said in a DVD commentary track that he named the station because of the series arc's resemblance to Babylonian history and mythology. It's also related to the theme of Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," which provided the title to another season one outing and clearly influence the show's arc.

Yet another point is Sinclair's affection for Tennyson's "Ulysses." (What are the same chances both B5 commanders would frequently quote that work?) This has added meaning after Garibaldi's conversation with Sinclair at the end of "Infection." The section he listens to here, about roaming with a hungry heart, clearly applies to his relationship with Catherine and desire to try and make it work out with her. As JMS says on the commentary track to "Chrysalis," she has been the one true love of his life, regardless of any complications.

All this makes me forget about the cheesy ending where representatives of all human religions are lined up as a demonstration of diversity. Taken as a whole, the show emphasizes on several occasions that at our best, humans have a gift for building communities. Furthermore, the show does make religious diversity a feature of Narn culture, and the idea is probably simply inapplicable to the polytheistic Centauri or the Minbari with their special history. Furthermore, the show also makes "at our best" a meaningful condition. It's telling that the lines Starfleet personnel on Star Trek use to describe "evolved humanity" turn up on B5 only in the mouths of President Clark's propagandists. Since Sinclair seems to regard the entire celebration as cheesy, I can buy he'd do something like this.

So where does this leave us? Like I say, a lot of this episode works best in the context of the broader series, which makes it hard to judge. On the whole, I'd put it the slightest bit below "Mind War," for a weak rather than solid 7/10.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Turkish Headscarves

Turkey looks set to end the ban on headscarves in its universities:
"Turkey's ruling party agreed with an opposition party Monday to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves in universities of the mainly Muslim but secular nation.

"Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party and the Nationalist Action Party said in a joint statement that the two parties agreed to make changes in the constitution and the Higher Education Law to allow female students wearing head scarves into universities.

"A constitutional change would need a two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly. The two parties have more than enough legislators.

"Wearing of head scarves in universities was first banned shortly after a military coup in 1980 but implementation of the ban has varied over the years."

I didn't realize the ban was that recent.

UPDATE: Gareth Jenkins reports that in order to push through the measure undoing the ban, the AKP cut a deal with an ultra-nationalist party. The price? Plans to amend the law against insulting Turkishness have been scrapped.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Babylon 5 Review: "Infection"

According to episode notes, JMS said he wished this episode would just "vanish into the night" and rated it as possibly the worst of the season. Maybe I just went in with exceptionally low expectations, but I didn't think it was that bad. We're definitely ahead of "Midnight on the Firing Line" and "Born to the Purple" here. In clarifying, he said: "I tried to use the Nelson/machine as a metaphor; it wasn't supposed to be about the Nelson/machine, but about the kind of people who would create it, the kind of people who would sell it, and the kind of people who would confiscate it even KNOWING what it was." That, I think, strikes closer to the mark. This show didn't actually do much wrong, but it also didn't do very much right.

One problem going into this show is that we'd seen it before, in Star Trek's "The Changeling". In fact, we're really watching a prototypical TOS plot here, complete with the captain outwitting the machine, organic though it may be. The show tries to transcend that with the remains of JMS's focus on the thought behind such a device, but without any development it just comes across as a bunch of pious cliches. Sinclair tells the Ikarran his people became so obsessed with the enemy that they became the enemy, but how on earth does that apply? We're supposed to be thinking of Earth there, as we see when the government's bioweapons division comes to confiscate the artifacts. I can also see the idea of the metaphor, in hate or obsession turning people into machines, which would go very well with the show's overall arc. JMS is right, though, that it just didn't work.

Speaking of the arc, I was surprised over just how significant this episode was. Exhibit A is Interplanetary Expeditions. I'm not sure Franklin's opinion of them as cheating holds up, though it is interesting that we never see them actually do anything good despite hiring people we like. At the same time, we learn they're a front for a bioweapons firm. Does this just get forgotten? No one seems to remember it in "Messages from Earth," when people talk cheerfully about having seen the ads. The idea of organic technology is also established, though I'm not sure just how much that matters in the end.

Garibaldi's talk with Sinclair at the end is a nice bit of character work. I found myself drawing a connection between Garibaldi's comments about not being able to find a reason to live, and so looking for a reason to die, and Lorien's question of Sheridan in a later season: "Why are you here? Do you have anything worth living for?" Assuming he also would have said that to Sinclair, there's the start of a good character arc there. As it is, the show frequently portrays living as a courageous choice. We also met our first annoying reporter. JMS was an investigative reporter in San Diego before going into TV. He must have had some annoying experiences to write every journalist we meet as Rita Skeeter.

That about wraps things up. This wasn't very good, but I have a hard time calling it bad, and if we grant that the Ikarrans were idiots there were no major plot holes. That makes this a fairly bland 5/10.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Disqualified Reformists

RFE-RL reports on the disqualification of reformist candidates for Iran's forthcoming parliamentary elections:
"Iranian reformists on January 22 reported that many registered candidates for parliamentary polls scheduled for March have been disqualified, Radio Farda reported that day, citing Iranian agency reports. A spokesman for the Reformist Coalition Headquarters, Abdollah Naseri, said the disqualified candidates include members of the last, reformist-dominated parliament, and of the Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization -- two reformist parties that have publicly criticized the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The registrants were disqualified by electoral executive boards appointed by the Interior Ministry to check candidates' backgrounds. The head of the Interior Ministry's election headquarters, Alireza Afshar, earlier said that 3,000 hopefuls had criminal or legal records of varying gravity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). The records of some former lawmakers might include prosecution on slander-related charges for critical speeches they made in parliament and elsewhere. Tehran-based academic Sadeq Zibakalam told Radio Farda that 'clearly...the governing system is very serious about the disqualifications.'"

This report didn't actually provide numbers to get a sense of how things stand.


Masdar City

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is set to become the world's first carbon-neutral city:
"The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has just officially unveiled its plans to build the world's first carbon-neutral city. Situated on Abu Dhabi's desert outskirts, 'Masdar City' is designed from the ground up to be the first completely environmentally sustainable city and a hub for renewable energy research. The UAE's rulers hope Masdar will eventually house at least 1,500 businesses and 50,000 people, powered by solar and other renewable energy sources.

"Residents will be able to get by on foot, despite the region's blistering climate, thanks to architectural techniques that promote shading and help generate cooling breezes. Stops for the city's solar-powered "personalized rapid transport pods" will be no further than 200 meters apart. Lord Norman Foster, the founder and head of the architectural firm in charge of the Masdar development, said the project 'promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future.'"

The UAE was recently cited as having the world's worst ecological footprint. In fairness, however, while some Emirati projects, such as the artificial islands, are not well thought out from an environmental standpoint, a lot of this probably relates to the country's hot desert climate and oil-based economy. When I was there, I found a lot of environmental awareness, especially in Abu Dhabi.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Settlement Freeze

Ha'aretz is reporting that all Israeli construction in the West Bank is completely frozen:
"Israel has completely frozen all new construction in West Bank settlements, despite recent comments by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel would treat construction in the major settlement blocs differently from building in most settlements.

"Olmert has categorically denied approval for all new construction tenders, including in the so-called consensus settlement blocs, which Israel intends to keep in any future peace accord with the Palestinians.

"The freeze also applies to the construction of public institutions, including schools and kindergartens. Olmert recently sent an official letter to relevant cabinet ministers instructing them to refrain from authorizing any construction in the West Bank without his and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's prior approval...

"According to information made public several days ago, Barak had ordered settlement construction frozen beyond the parameters set forward by Olmert. Among other things, the defense minister said his approval is even needed for the private purchase of a home that has already been built."

This is great news, and a sign that Olmert's government is serious about negotiations with the Palestinians. The settlements themselves are a disgrace. They try to present themselves to sympathetic Americans as normal middle-class families, and there are many who were lured there by subsidized housing or simply dropped during the Soviet absorption period, but the movers and shakers behind the settlement project are militant religious fanatics living out messianic fantasies predicated on the belief that God cares deeply who lives in particular stretches of desert. Israel's continual support for their efforts, which includes even providing unauthorized ones with access to Israeli infrastructure, is a frankly expansionist project.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Haddad Adel's Manuever

Farideh Farhi suggests that yesterday's political loss for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may owe more to parliament speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel that Ayatollah Khamene'i:
"In Iran, though, the commentary was much more skeptical and focused not on Khamenei’s action but Haddad Adel’s. Why did he publicize this? Why did he do it now? To some the move was a good one but rather late. After all, as one current reformist deputy put it, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly violated legislative authority on financial matters by making promises of major projects in his numerous provincial trips without going through the required funding process in the parliament. Even more problematic the parliamentary leadership had said nothing despite repeated complaints by various deputies.

"A couple of conservative deputies, frustrated by the parliamentary leadership’s passivity, were more brutal, pointing out that Ahmadinejad’s unilateral moves had undermined and weakened the institution of the parliament which instead of 'being behind the government was more held in its fist.' This is why to them what Haddad Adel did seemed more like a 'propaganda move' to hide the lowering of the status or weakening of the parliament that had occurred under Haddad Adel’s own leadership.

"Etemad newspaper saw the move less in terms of shaping public opinion and more as part and parcel of an attempt to force the conservative coalition to place Haddad Adel on top of its list of candidates for the city of Tehran, enhancing his chance of re-election but also for becoming a speaker again. This was more than anything else 'a message about Haddad Adel’s spiritual influence and current position in the Islamic republic and that because of this influence the conservative leadership has no other choice but to accept him as the list leader and probably his leadership again in the 8th parliament.' One deputy quoted in the Etemad piece even goes so far as to suggest that the whole thing was a mere personal feud between the two men."


Exodus in Reverse

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are flooding into Egypt after Hamas destroyed two-thirds of the wall separating Egypt and the Gaza Strip, rendering irrelevant Israel's attempts to apply significant economic pressure to Gaza as retaliation for the rocket fire and Sderot and part of a broader strategy to bring down Hamas in the strip. Israel says it expects Egypt to take control of the situation, but President Husni Mubarak is cooperating with Hamas:
"Speaking at the Cairo International Book fair, Mubarak told reporters that when Palestinians began breaking through the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah in force, he told his men to let them in to buy food before escorting them out.

"'I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons,' he said, in answer to reporters' questions.

"Mubarak said his border guards originally had forced back the Gazans on Tuesday.

"'But today a great number of them came back because the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege. Egyptian troops accompanied them to buy food and then allowed them to return to the Gaza Strip,' he added.

"Mubarak also criticized Hamas for continuing to fire missiles into Israel, saying that it was not helping the situation. He said that he had been in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and helped convince him to resume fuel shipments into Gaza."

From a political standpoint, Mubarak has no choice in the matter. If his troops had acted differently, they would be contributing to Palestinian suffering in a direct way rather than just the indirect way of providing Israel with diplomatic legitimacy for which he is criticized with Egypt. His actions here are a bow to political reality from which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should take lessons, as his people, apparently caught flat-footed, sputter that Hamas is trying to reap political benefits.

Hamas won this round even if they did manufacture the crisis, which I frankly don't believe. The world sees people suffering more than those in Sderot saved by Hamas actions. I hate Hamas, and even I have some fuzzy feelings about this. Even sources in Israel's Defense Minstry say that, "the situation did not unfold in recent days precisely as we would have wanted." On the eve of the release of the Winograd Report, Ehud Olmert led Israel full throttle into international condemnation and probably a lasting defeat in terms of its ability to control the Rafah border crossing for the near future.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Khamene'i Thwarts Ahmadinejad

Could this be the beginning of a long-expected turning of Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i on Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
"Iran's supreme leader on Monday reversed a decision by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ordered him to implement a law supplying natural gas to remote villages amid rising dissatisfaction with the president's performance.

"The move by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was a major rebuke to the hardline president, whose popularity has been plummeting amid rising food prices and deaths due to gas cuts in the midst of a particularly harsh winter.

"In response to a request by the parliament, Khamenei ordered the president to implement a law spending $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) from the Currency Reserve Fund to supply gas to villages after he baulked for budgetary reasons."

I wonder what sorts of political themes were woven into Ashura commemorations in rural Iran?


Victories for Saudi Women

The government of Saudi Arabia has given women the right to stay alone in a hotel, and will soon legalize driving:
"The Arabic daily Al Watan, which is deemed close to the Saudi government, said the Ministry of Trade issued a circular to hotels asking them to accept women in their rooms even if they were alone provided that all their information is immediately be registered at a police station in the area, AP reported...

"Authorities also plan to issue a decree by the end of the year to lift the controversial ban on women driving.

"The move is designed to forestall protests for greater freedom by women, which have recently included campaigners driving cars through the kingdom in defiance of a threat of detention and loss of livelihoods."

In addition to the many activists who have called attention to these issues, some credit should go to King Abdullah. In the Saudi context, he does count as a reformer.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Monday, January 21, 2008

French in Abu Dhabi

I should probably say something about the French military base in Abu Dhabi. Frankly, I was more surprised by the fact that the Louvre is starting a branch museum there. The larger point in that comment is that France and Abu Dhabi simply have ties in a number of fields, and I suspect this small assignment of 500 soldiers can be taken at face value. The French certainly want the status of a deployment in the region, and the Emiratis undoubtedly feel that having a small French contingent will contribute to the region's stability, which is their main strategic interest. This does have the long-term potential to disrupt the American monopoly on western forces in the region, but that's so far down the line from where we are I don't think it's worth considering at this point.



How is Israel's attempt to pressure Hamas in Gaza going?
"Security officials in Jerusalem said Sunday night that the electrical supply difficulties in the Gaza Strip were greater than Israel had previously expected when it cut off fuel to the coastal territory earlier in the day.

"Gaza City was dark Sunday night after the Hamas government shut down the Palestinian power plant that supplies some of the electricity in the Strip.

"Hamas spokesmen blamed Israel for the power shortage following the closure of the border crossings through which fuel for the power plant is brought into Gaza, but Israel said it is providing 75 percent of Gaza's electricity and Egypt is providing another 5 percent. Nonetheless, the Jerusalem sources said the fuel supply to Gaza was tens of percent less than planned, a problem exacerbated by the closure.

"'There is certainly a shortage of fuel,' a security official said. 'Nonetheless, it's clear that Hamas is blowing up the crisis for its needs, in order to take advantage of the pictures of darkness in Gaza for its public relations needs in the Arab world and the international community.'

"Four hours after the blackout, Hamas said that five patients died because of the cutoff of electricity in hospitals."

OK, so can we turn the power supply back on now? It's clearly the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, and would also deny Hamas the PR victory it will undoubtedly win. This tactic by Israel is no better than the indiscriminate rocket fire to which it has been subjected.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Romney

I can only quote Matthew Yglesias:
"This morning, Mitt Romney had more delegates than John McCain. Following today's primaries, Romney's lead has grown even larger because Nevada has more delegates than South Carolina and Romney won a larger proportion of the vote in NV than McCain got in South Carolina. Naturally, the press is declaring this a big win for McCain. I just saw Howard Fineman explain that 'there is no longer any strong candidate in the race' to oppose McCain. Nobody but the guy who's leading, that is."


Friday, January 18, 2008

Obama and Kenya

I meant to blog this ages ago, but forgot. Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been actively working for a solution to the turmoil in Kenya:
"White House Democratic hopeful Barack Obama has called Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga to urge peace talks without preconditions in the wake of election violence that has killed hundreds, his spokesperson said on Tuesday.

"'Barack Obama spoke with Raila Odinga on Monday,' spokesperson Bill Burton told AFP. 'He urged an end to violence and that Mr. Odinga sit down, without preconditions, with President (Mwai) Kibaki to resolve this issue peacefully.'

"Obama is 'trying now to speak with President Kibaki,' Burton added...

"The 46-year-old Illinois senator has spoken by phone with Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Rannenberger and Archbisop Desmond Tutu in between campaign stops, and also recorded a statement that aired on Voice of America radio, Burton said."


This Gaza Business

The ongoing conflict involving the Gaza Strip shows how difficult peacemaking is in the Middle East right now. Frankly, I see no grounds for condemning Israel for its response to the ongoing rocket attacks on its territory. On the other hand, conditions in Gaza are pretty terrible, and Israel bears as much of the blame for that as anyone else. I doubt the timing was designed to hinder peace talks. If it did involve ulterior motives, they lie in the forthcoming Winograd Report and Yisrael Beiteinu pulling out of the coalition, as well as the need to demonstrate to the Israeli public that the country can respond to attacks like this, which many fear would come from the West Bank, as well, following a peace agreement. On the Palestinian side, I really wish there was more of a movement to blame Hamas for its continuing provocations, but Abbas is vulnerable to charges of being a quisling, and so probably has to keep toeing the line he does in the name of Palestinian unity.

The potential bright side in all this is the possibility it might lead to a ceasefire on the Gaza front and renewed talks between Fatah and Hamas that might give the latter some stake in a successful peace process. As silver linings go, though, that's so thin as to make one think it's probably an illusion.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Islamic University Dress

In the sort of move that can only radicalize the average devout Muslim, Tajikistan is banning Islamic dress at Islamic universities:
"Less than a year after he effectively eliminated Islamic-style head scarves in public schools, Abdujabbor Rahmonov has ordered male students at the Islamic University of Tajikistan to don suits and ties and shave their beards, and he has vowed to introduce teacher uniforms there and ban the head scarves, known as hijab.

"It is the latest indication of the balancing act confronting Tajik officials who are outwardly keen to discourage unsanctioned religious practice from getting a foothold. That effort has included the closing and even bulldozing of 'illegal' mosques and testing of imams to demonstrate their fitness to lead congregations.

"Speaking in the Tajik capital on January 11, Rahmonov said Tajik traditional cloting -- a dress reaching below the knee, worn with pants -- is modest enough to wear at Islamic schools and during prayers, and does not violate Islamic guidelines.

"He then ordered male students at the Islamic University to shave their beards and wear suits and ties to classes. Rahmonov also announced that a special uniform would soon be introduced for teachers at the school."


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Romney Juggernaut

The media obviously isn't covering it this way, but Mitt Romney actually has a commanding lead in terms of the overall vote so far in the Republican primaries.


Yisrael Beiteinu Gone

With a blast of racist rhetoric, Avigdor Lieberman has pulled Yisrael Beiteinu out of the government:
"Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman announced his party's departure from the coalition Wednesday morning, saying the rightist party would not tolerate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the core issues of the conflict...

"Lieberman, who served as strategic affairs minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, said peace talks must address the issue of transferring the Israeli Arab population to Palestinian control.

"'From our point of view, the concept of land for peace is out of the question,' said Lieberman. 'The principle must be exchanges of territory and population.'

"The outgoing minister said a withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders would not bring peace or an end to terrorism. 'You know what will happen the day after we withdraw to the 1967 borders?' asked Lieberman. 'Israeli Arabs will request Palestinian citizenship, and will continue to receive social security payments from the State of Israel...'

"'Our problem is not with the Palestinians, it is with Israeli Arabs,' he said. '[Israeli Arab MKs] Ahmed Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh are more dangerous than [Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled] Meshal and [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, because they operate from within.'"

Olmert's coalition now depends on Shas, which has threatened to leave if Jerusalem is discussed in negotiations, which it will be.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Gaza Fighting

I woke up this morning thinking I would write a post about Israel's ongoing settlement idiocy, including the new building in East Jerusalem. Instead, I'll save that for later and comment on the reaction to events in Gaza:
"At least 17 Palestinains were killed earlier on Tuesday in raids on Gaza City. Of those, at least 14 were members of armed groups, and 13 of them were Hamas militants. One of the other fatalities was a 65-year-old man, Palestinians said. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the raids as 'a massacre' which would not be forgotten by the Palestinians.

"'There was a massacre today against our people, and we say to the world that our people will not remain silent against such crimes,' he said."

Israel, frankly, wants nothing to do with Gaza. So why did all this happen?
"President Shimon Peres said as long as Gaza militants continue to fire rockets into the Jewish state, 'we are left without a choice but to answer and stop it.'"

This massacre talk is clearly over the top. In fairness, I think Abbas knows this and is just playing to the street. In broader terms, this shows how much power Hamas still has to derail the peace process.

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Insulting Turkishness

Turkey's Parliament, which still hopes to move toward EU entry, wants to amend the law against insulting Turkishness:
"Working together, Deputy Prime Minister (and former minister of justice) Cemil Cicek and incumbent Minister of Justice Mehmet Ali Sahin announced on January 7 that under the amended provision, prosecutors must obtain permission from the Justice Ministry to be able to press charges and that the ambiguous word 'Turkishness' would be replaced with 'the Turkish nation' (Today's Zaman, January 9)."

It's not clear to me what the difference would be in practice between insulting Turkishness and insulting the Turkish nation, though the latter term is perhaps more concrete. The other part of the reform, requiring the permission of the Justice Ministry, is more useful in practice. I get the sense a lot of the prosecutions for this offense come from local nationalist prosecutors. If the government has to keep the law on the books for political reasons, this would at least restrict enforcement.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Messed Up Democracy

It looks like the long-discussed dissolution of the Palestinian Parliament might finally be coming to pass:
"The PLO Central Council, which met in Ramallah on Sunday, is expected to vote to dissolve the current Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC], which is dominated by Hamas. The council is also scheduled to call for early parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.

"However, it's unclear how such elections would take place in the Gaza Strip, which is entirely controlled by Hamas.

"Several Fatah officials have also called to dissolve the PLC, which has been paralyzed since Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip in June.

"The move is set to deepen divisions among the Palestinians and further consolidate the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is also likely to hamper efforts by some Arab countries to patch up the differences between Fatah and Hamas."

It seems odd to point out that there is no provision in Palestinian law for dissolving Parliament in this fashion. However, there's also no provision in Palestinian law for seizing control of the Gaza Strip the way Hamas did. Yes, Hamas won the parliamentary elections, but Abbas won the presidential election, so nothing there was really about which group should rise to power as a result of "democracy." Although I supported pushing Hamas initially to recognize existing diplomatic agreements, Israel and the U.S. kept up the pressure long past the point where they needed to, making the current situation all but inevitable.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jamra Gate

This is Kuwait City's early 20th-century Jamra Gate seen from the outside against a backdrop of the skyscrapers of the modern city.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kuwait: In Purgatory's Shadow

Kuwait City's Scientific Center has more than just animals. An IMAX theater shows both nature documentaries and feature films, and there is a room where educational games teach children about the environment. Kuwaiti environmental children's games are different than those in the United States. Although I declined to buy a ticket, I could watch through the window as Kuwaiti children laughed and screamed playing at discovering new oil wells, refining oil, guessing possible new uses for oil, and putting together a lifestyle with as many products that use oil as possible.

Outside the Scientific Center was a reminder of how Kuwait had once existed off another natural resource, pearls. Although the upper Gulf was not nearly as rich as the pearl beds off Bahrain and Qatar, there were enough to support a community of a few hundred pearl divers, which were collected and traded in sewn dhows such as those I've mentioned in writing about other Gulf countries. This was the major industry around 100 years ago in the days of the man who is considered the founder of modern Kuwait, Mubarak the Great.

Late in the 17th century deep in the Arabian interior, the rise of the ‘Anaza tribal confederation triggered a series of nomadic migrations, one of which resulted in the formation of the B. Utub near what is today Qatar. From there they went to the head of the Gulf, but denied permission to settle within the Ottoman Empire, they went instead to a fort, or Kut, along a harbor just outside of effective Ottoman control in the domains of the B. Khalid. This was the beginning of Kuwait, named from the diminutive of Kut, in the mid-18th century.

At that time the B. Khalid, weakened by internal strife and pressure from the Wahhabi Al Saud power based in the interior, were in their last decades. During the late 19th century, the time of Midhat Pasha, the Ottomans took more interest in the area, though their usual means of staking a claim was to bestow a title on local rulers and persuade them to fly the Ottoman flag. According to Al Sabah historical tradition, however, it was when the emir Muhammad al-Sabah began getting too close to the Ottomans that his brother, the Mubarak the Great mentioned above, assassinated him and took control. There is undoubtedly something self-serving in this account, as Mubarak himself initially pursued a pro-Ottoman course, but when the Ottomans kept insisting on moving toward integrating Kuwait with Basra province administratively as well as notionally, Mubarak shifted gears and began seeking an alliance with the British. This was often against the better judgment of the latter, who had no major interests that far up the Gulf and were leery of confronting the Ottomans over it. This did not change until about the time of World War I and the construction of the Baghdad railway. All that aside, however, it is the age of Mubarak and his sons Jabir and Salim, the progenitors of today’s two branches of the Al Sabah dynasty, that is marked most frequently around the city.

As with the Gulf’s other major cities, Kuwait City today is a sprawling city filled with skyscrapers and stretching over numerous named neighborhoods many of which were formerly their own villages. It’s also expensive, with a tall coffee at Starbucks or Costa Coffee going for $3.70. I was lucky to find reasonably cheap lodging thanks to a hotel above a strip mall in Salmiya district where I got a room for about $65. This was a good five or six kilometers from Kuwait City central, the original site of the metropolis by that name. Here you will find much of the country’s cultural and administrative core. Along the waterfront is Sief Palace, though I found out from a bemused taxi driver it isn’t used as a residence, and is just “palace” in the administrative sense. Near that in the downtown area is the Kuwait Stock Exchange, while out Arabian Gulf Road heading back toward Salimya in the east is the fish market and Sharq Souq, perhaps the cream of the Kuwaiti crop of the shopping malls for which the smaller Gulf states are famous.

Maybe it’s because I both spent all my time in the city (as opposed to the UAE) and it wasn’t a religious commemoration (as it was in Bahrain), but Kuwait seemed to have the deepest commercial Westernization of any of the smaller Gulf states I’ve visited. (I didn’t make it to Qatar, and can’t think of a convincing reason to bother doing so at this point.) It wasn’t just the Christmas decorations, though they were everywhere, with giant lighted balls hanging from mall ceilings, tinsel lining shelves all over the place, and more Christmas trees and snow scenes than I suspect figured into traditional Kuwaiti culture. Santa Claus, in case you are interested, was appearing at the Marina Mall on December 7. Even the diversity of western chains seemed greater, as perhaps best seen in the Johnny Rockets by my hotel between McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

In any case, traffic near the Kuwait City center is also bad, especially right where I wanted dropped off my second day there, al-Sur Street, which comes just before the numbered “ring roads” which circle the center with increasing circumferences. “Sur” is Arabic for “wall,” and, yes, this was where the city’s wall stood from 1920 until 1957. As is common in Arabian cities, the walls did not just follow the boundaries of the built-up area, but included substantial open land to one side where the Bedouin could set up camp when they came to trade or seek protection. Today the gates remain, modest structures to be sure by the standards of such things, with twin wooden doors set in what looks like adobe but may have simply be mud covering rocks and boulders, as in Oman.

For more on Kuwait’s heritage during that time, you can visit the ethnographic section of the Kuwait National Museum. Although the lighting is so dim you sometimes have trouble seeing anything, it consists of a number of booths along a winding walkway which show shops and houses of early 20th century Kuwait City, complete with a soundtrack of noises one might have heard on the streets at that time, such as fruit vendors calling out prices and the blacksmith banging on hot iron. Next door in the Sadu House you can also, if you were of a mind, see Bedouin weaving and buy its products.

That is about all there is to the museum these days, however, and the reasons lie in the most recent episode in the desert city’s desire to escape Mesopotamia’s dominance. Its roots may lie in the 1958 coup which brought the Arab nationalist government of Abd al-Karim Qassim to power in Baghdad. Qassim never pursued expansionist policies, but he did employ expansionist rhetoric. It was in his time that the name “Arabian Gulf” entered the Arab diplomatic lexicon, and his government which sought to activate in its own name the old Ottoman claim to Kuwait, a claim which served Iraq’s national interest while appealing to the twin villains of conservative royalty and British imperialism. Qassim’s government soon fell, but its broader claims continued, and were finally acted on in 1990, when under Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

As with most undertakings by the late, rather unlamented Iraqi dictator, the Iraqi invasion and attempted annexation of Kuwait was brutal, and not only to museum collections. Kuwait’s national symbol is the Kuwait Towers, two large and one smaller towers used for water storage and electricity generation. You can go up in them to look over the city and harbor through really dirty windows, which seems to make a cheap date for locals as well as a way for visitors to kill off an hour or so. The Iraqis wanted to wipe out all traces of Kuwaiti national identity, and, unable to destroy the towers themselves for infrastructure reasons, set about trashing the interior, damage seen today in a serious of pictures which label the Iraqis as “barbarian invaders.” The transfer of materials from Kuwait’s to Iraq’s national museum was also part of that. Some materials were saved, however: Along a side street in Jabriya, out by the Fifth Ring Road, is the ornate home of a former government minister who collected antiquities named Tariq Rajab. His collection became the kernel of a museum in his home. On the morning of August 2, as word of the Iraqi invasion spread, the curators bricked up the main entrance and otherwise disguised the building so no one would know there was anything of interest there. Among the treasures preserved were many manuscripts, including a unique scientific work by al-Kindi.

The most important tolls, though, were not on buildings and artifacts, but on people. For the first two months of the occupation, an underground movement resisted the occupying forces. The steps the Iraqis took to suppress it were brutal. I talked to one Nubian guest worker who recalled, his voice thick with the memory, how it was dangerous just to go outside to run an errand, as if anything happened to an Iraqi soldier in an neighborhood, a unit would go through the neighborhood firing randomly. It wasn’t even totally safe being inside, as bullets could break through the windows, and you had to have your hiding places.

Although the active resistance sputtered out, the cells remained, looking for the day when they could do some good. In late February, that day came. Members of one cell gathered in a tan brick house in the suburb of al-Qurain, planning to support the forthcoming coalition ground invasion. They were, however, found out, the house was surrounded, and the twelve resistance members who were within were killed. Today the ruined building is a museum, were you can see all the holes made by bullets and shells, as well as the van which transported the Iraqi troops and the white Iraqi intelligence car. In the bottom room are also copies of documents from the occupation, outlining Iraqi orders to destroy all houses in which they found Kuwait flags or other national symbols, send to Iraq for punishment a six-year old boy who was running in the street with a Kuwaiti flag, or deal with a demonstration by waiting until all the demonstrators where there and then opening fire.

After I left, I found out there was also a “Museum of the Crimes of Saddam Hussein” somewhere, as well as graffiti thanking American and other coalition troops out on the road which became known as the “Highway of Death” as the coalition kept bombing the Iraqis after they were already in retreat; the remains of Iraqi military vehicles are allegedly still visible near Mutla Ridge. It is easy to say that the Gulf states are lucky because they have so much oil, and Kuwait in particular is ridiculously wealthy in that commodity. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have clearly had a national trauma, one commemorated all over, but most notably in the city’s tallest structure, Liberation Tower, a communications tower finished in 1993. I suspect that these events will come to play the same sort of identity-defining role that the “Great Siege” seems to in Gibraltarian history, one which will ultimately be unknown to the rest of the world, but which to the inhabitants represents the moment when their independence was finally directly challenged and hence confirmed.

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Huckabee: Not Sane

Matthew Duss calls attention to Mike Huckabee's views on a Palestinian state:
"When asked about a Palestinian state, Gov. Huckabee stated that he supports creating a Palestinian state, but believes that it should be formed outside of Israel. He named Egypt and Saudi Arabia as possible alternatives, noting that the Arabs have far more land than the Israelis and that it would only be fair for other Arab nations to give the Palestinians land for a state, rather than carving it out of the tiny Israeli state."

This probably belongs in the ignorance category as much as anything else. He obviously doesn't realize that the proposed Palestinian state consists of occupied territory which Israel has never annexed, and in a sense his belief that the Palestinians should have a state shows some sense of fairness. At the same time, this level of ignorance is appalling, especially for someone who has been to Israel nine times. Don't politicians do anything useful on these junkets?


The New Parliament

I really didn't pay much attention to last month's parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan, which were won decisively by the party of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Predictably, there are nor fears that the body will simply become a rubber stamp to a strong executive. I'm sure it will. Next question?


Friday, January 11, 2008

Radioactive Dust

This news from Central Asia is rather troubling:
"On January 9, Kyrgyz officials announced that they had taken possession of a small load of radioactive substance discovered aboard a train bound for Iran. The material has been placed in a special area in Kyrgyzstan, but questions are being raised about the nature and quantity of the substance, who was behind its transport, and how the train carrying it crossed three border checkpoints before being detected...

"Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official from the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, said on January 10 that the material was Cesium-137, a product of nuclear reactors and weapons testing that is often used in medical devices and gauges. But it could also be used in a crude radioactive explosive device -- a 'dirty bomb' -- and underscores the fact that despite some progress since 1991, parts of the former Soviet Union are still littered with sites where lethal radioactive materials remain largely unsecured...

"The Kyrgyz news agency reported on January 9 that the levels of radiation being emitted from the train car were so high that Emergency Situations Ministry asked for volunteers to go and unload the cargo. Four people wearing special protective clothing volunteered to venture into the wagon where they discovered the source of the radiation: dust and waste material on the floor, which they swept up and deposited in a bucket. The bucket was then sealed in concrete and stored in a special facility...

"Kubat Osmonbetov, a geologist, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Cesium-137 and Cesium-140 are definitely lethal in large doses. Osmonbetov also noted that there is a uranium-processing plant in northern Tajikistan, raising the possibility that the Tajik train in question may have been used in the past to transport radioactive material and that remains of that material had somehow been left in the wagon."

The article addresses the fact this train was bound for Iran, but I really see no plausible connection with the Iran's nuclear program. An additional possibility is that terrorists could be involved in some sort of trafficking hoping to make a dirty bomb. Occham's Razor, however, suggests the train previously carried some radioactive cargo in the past, either from the Tajik nuclear plant or for something related to those medical devices. The troubling aspect is that Central Asian states apparently don't have appropriate safety or security protocols in place. This train made it through three previous checkpoints! We can only hope Kyrgyz crime lords didn't just bribe security officials to look the other way.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Coming of President Bush

I thought that the armada of police cars along the highway from Ben Gurion into Jerusalem this morning might have been for my benefit, but they were probably actually getting ready for President Bush's visit, which is turning the city into a nightmare. You can see a list of road closures here; it looks like they're just the ones connecting the King David Hotel with Rehavia, where Peres and Olmert live. Lisa also notes a highly limited, temporary change to local satellite TV offerings.

Right now, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall is eerily quiet. There's some construction and maintenance going on, and a few groups of people strolling around, but for the most part it seems people are just avoiding the hassles of downtown.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Public Service Announcement

If you are flying Iberia and a flight attendant offers you a white packet labeled "milk" to go with your coffee, do not, under any circumstances, actually stir the white liquid contained therein into your coffee.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bound for Washington

Tomorrow morning I catch the train for the first leg of my trip to the AHA meeting in Washington, DC. Sadly, I won't be able to make any of the sessions. The happy reason for this is that I have plenty of job interviews, which I've been preparing for during the past few days. Wish me luck!