Letter from Beirut II

On July 15th, we published a Letter from Beirut, written by my Israeli friend Moshe Behar’s friend, Rasha, who is in Beirut. That letter got wide exposure on the web, through many links, and since then NPR’s Radio Open Source has been publishing excerpts from her emails to them. (See here, and here.) Today, I have received a long email from Rasha which I have decided to publish here in its entirety:

Dear All,

My siege notes are beginning to disperse. I write disjointed paragraphs but I cannot discipline myself to write everyday. Despair overwhelms me. A profoundly debilitating sense of uselessness and helplessness. Writing does not always help, communicating is not always easy, finding the words, deciding which stories should be included, and which should not. The experience of this siege is so emotionally and psychically draining, the situation is so politically tenuous… I miss the world. I miss life. I miss myself. People around me also go through these ups and downs, but I find them generally to be more resilient, more steadfast, more courageous than I. I am consumed by other people’s despair. It’s not very smart, I mean for a strategy of survival.

My day started today (in effect it is Day 13 of the War, but just another morning under siege in my personal experience) with news from Bint Jbeil, reported on al-Jazira. Ghassan Ben Jeddo, the director of the Beirut office was analyzing the situation on the southern front in Bint Jbeil. He announced flatly that Hezbollah had conceded to the military surrender of Bint Jbeil, that the IDF had besieged the town, and that the town had been almost entirely flattened to rubble. My breathing became tight. I knew well, and had been told for days, that military defeats and victories were very tricky to determine in this type of unusual warfare, because a conventional army has clear retreats and advances whereas a band of guerrillas behaves in an entirely different way. The military defeat in itself did not really matter enough to cause tightness in my chest, although I was a little worried about the IDF feeling empowered to proceed with “scorched earth” plans or some other nightmarish fantasy. My breathing became tight because I immediately thought about some 1,500 people, making up some 400 families whom I had heard the day before were trapped in Bint Jbeil. Some were displaced from villages around Bint Jbeil. They were trapped there in two buildings, one of which was a government school. I could not imagine what they were living on. As the al-Jazira showed footage from around Bint Jbeil, there was a continuous soundtrack of pounding from Israeli tanks. I could only see them and hear that pounding: were they huddled together? Were they laid down on the floor, their hands over their heads? How does one survive 2 days of continuous shelling like that? Had they any hope of fleeing?

They stayed with me, the 1500 souls in Bint Jbeil. I went to the public garden where displaced people were now living, I went to the cooperative supermarket in Sabra, I went to an air-conditioned cafe with WiFi, and the 1500 souls were with me. I had lunch, tried to write, still with me. Until after sunset, a journalist friend told me he had interviewed the mayor of Bint Jbeil in the afternoon. The man had suffered a stroke this past Sunday and had been evacuated for treatment. By today he had recovered and was struggling to find a way to get the remaining 40 Lebanese-Americans trapped in Bint Jbeil. My friend allowed me to sigh with some relief, the trapped souls were 400 not 1,500 today… (Most of the residents of Bint Jbeil are Lebanese-Americans from Dearborn and Detroit Michigan.)

Is there a point to relaying on to you the events of the past few days? I am still stuck to the television. I am still living from breaking news to breaking news. I now get things from the second-tier horse’s mouth, so to speak, journalists whom I have taken to hovering around. Khiyam shall soon be rubble. As is Bint Jbeil. After Khiyam will be Tyre. The Beqaa has received pounding. Israelis targeted factories, some operational, others under construction. None were Hezbollah fortresses of course. They also hit a UNIFIL outpost last night killing UN international observers.

This will be a long note because it is a cluster from the past few days. It will most likely be a tedious read. It reflects my encounters these past few days, conversations and discussions with friends journalists and analysts as well as vignettes from Beirut under siege. As I attempt to tie all of these sections together, I am back at the Cafe with WiFi. Yesterday they played the soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know if they were aware of the “post-colonial” and “postpost-colonial” dimension. Condi was in Jerusalem. The Bedouins were firing rockets at Haifa. And Faisal spoke late into the night, promising the rockets would go further than Haifa. Today, they have a Charles Aznavour playlist. Somebody with executive power in this cafe is a shameless sentimental. This is the first sign of a return to normalcy in my experience so far. I, an unrepentant sentimental as well, am very fond of Aznavour, this playlist has been the soundtrack to my convalescence from amorous setbacks, it is a first tangible reminder that I had once a different life.

Hezbollah, Now the Symbol

It took a few days into this war for Hezbollah to acquire a new power of signification. The semiologists, the political sociologists, and hords of regional experts and policy advisors have to watch this carefully, they better at least, if they are to understand this moment and the new political idiom. And they have quite something to contend with, Hassan Nasrallah’s pronouncements, al-Manar TV, the video productions, the manufacture of image and meaning.

Hezbollah have now become the only Arab force to have refused to accomodate, even slightly, Israel’s missives and caprices. They are undaunted by the military might of the IDF, its awesome ability to bring wretchedness to a people and a country and its ability to shrug at international laws regulating warfare, conflict and non-aggression. They are also undaunted by the moral highground provided by the US, and presently the Arab League and the International Community (whoever this construct stands for). In that, they have won the hearts and minds of Arab masses. The so-called Arab street (that vague beguiling force at once vociferous and inept that the western media have reified into a pressure valve of the potential/appetite for Terror –or anti-western sentiment) has been won in heart and mind by Hezbollah’s retaliation to the Israeli assault. The Arab world is mesmerized by this movement that has developped the ability to fight back, inflict pain and for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict pose a real threat to Israel. Hezbollah does not have the ability to defeat the Israeli army. No one in the region can and none of the Arab states is willing, in gest or merely using the power of suggestion, to challenge Israel’s absolute hegemony. (I don’t know whether Iran can or not, but in principle Israel’s military abilities are superior to the Islamic Republic’s conventional army.)

In its careful study of a military strategy for defense, conducted in full cognizance of the movement’s weakness and strength and of Israel’s weakness and strength, Hezbollah has achieved what all Arab states have failed to achieve. Since the war broke out, Hassan Nasrallah has displayed a persona and public behavior also to the exact opposite of Arab heads of states, he may be in the “underground” for security reasons, but he is not disheveled, he speaks in a cautious, calculated calm, a quiet dignity. His adresses have been punctuated with key notions that have long lapsed from the everyday political vocabulary in the Arab world: responsibility (for defeat, victory and the toll on Lebanon), dignity, justice, compassion (for the suffering inflicted on people and for the Palestinian Israeli victims of Hezbollah shelling in Nazareth and Haifa). A stark contrast with the political class in the Arab world that speaks of “calculated retreats”, “compromises for peace”, and the real politik convictions that induce Amr Moussa to cast himself as the gesticulating pantomime for the Saudis and the Americans. In an interview with al-Jazira, Ahmad Fouad Najm, the famous Egyptian popular poet quoted a Cairene street sweeper who said to him that Hassan Nasrallah brought back to life the dead man buried inside him. This is the “pulse” of the much-dreaded Arab street. This too is a measure of Israel’s miscalculation. Moreover, at the moment when Sunnis and Shi’as have been blinded in murderous rage in Iraq, when Idiot-King Abdullah of Jordan and a handful of barbaric Wahabi pundits babbled on about the dangerous emergence of a “Shi’i crescent” in the region, Israel’s assault has brought to the fore a solidarity that transcends the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Arab world, and consolidated a front of those who reject Israeli hegemony and those who cower to it in fear.

This new symbolic power beyond the boundaries of Lebanon was willed by Hezbollah in the postwar, it peaked in 1996, when Israel conducted its notorious “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. After the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed the credit for liberation. Some analysts saw the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied south as a strategic move to end the “Lebanon” file, and deprive Syria from a crucial hand in its negotiations with Israel (Hafez el-Assad died shortly after). Other analysts saw the Israeli withdrawal as Hezbollah’s defeat of the IDF in a long, long war of attrition. Nevertheless, Hezbollah represented itself in its propaganda machine as the only armed force in the Arab and Muslim world to have in fact defeated Israel.

In this present crisis, and from Hassan Nasrallah’s first pronouncement (the radio/audio adress he delivered), the “open” belligerance that Israel is conducting on Lebanon has been represented as a turning point battle in the saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A saga replete with humiliating defeats for Arab armies, a turning point because Hezbollah promised to deliver a victory (as it has achieved many victories in the past). In other words, he transformed this present conflict from a “Lebanese” question into an Arab and regional conflict.

The significance of defeat and victory is bearing a deep impact far and beyond the boundaries of Lebanon. This is one of the reasons Condoleeza Rice’s notion of a “New Middle East” smacks of first rate hubris. The “New Middle East” is taking shape elsewhere, or the real new Middle East is here, and there is little the White House, Ehud Olmert, 23-ton shells autographed by the beautiful children of Israel (the pictures are quite astounding) dropped in the middle of refugee camps to unearth underground bunkers of “terrorism”, can do about it.

In the first few days of the Israeli assault on Lebanon, there was barely any movement in Arab capitals. The Arab world seemed content watching us burn on TV, our fate seemed sealed with the Arab League meeting. I remember writing my rage in one of these dispatches. However, after Nasrallah’s first adress, which ended with the spectacularly staged shelling of the Israeli warship, Hezbollah’s sustained ability to hold its fort and to shell cities as far as Haifa and Nazareth, in addition to the sight of Israel’s sustained massacres of civilians and destruction of Lebanon, turned the tide. Hezbollah’s position in the region and in Arab consciousness is etched with an empowering, invigorating significance.

The New Middle East, Conspiracy and Hassan Nasrallah’s Televised Address

Condoleezza Rice showed up in Beirut two days ago. The message she carries is that the US will not enforce a ceasfire. Israel estimates it needs an additional week before the atmosphere is “conducive” to a ceasefire. This means they need a week to achieve their aims. Their aims have changed over the past two weeks, although they have formulated a set of demands to the White House and the G8.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora on his way to the Rome conference said he did not expect the meeting to produce a ceasefire. Only Kofi Anan seems to expect that from this high-profile meeting.

She did not speak of a New Middle East in Lebanon, in fact there were no public pronouncements made in Lebanon, but she did hold several press conferences in Israel, where reference was made to this new map. The “New Middle East” has not been officially unveiled by the Americans.

It emerges at a moment when Israel has failed at undermining Hamas with all the means the world has afforded to support it: diplomatic pressure from the US and EU, an effective paralysis of Hamas’ ability to govern, an internal conflict between Hamas and Fateh, the incarceration of cabinet members and parliamentarians, a humanitarian siege, and a full scale military assault on Gaza. The Palestinian population has yet to unseat Hamas or question the legitimacy of its position.

This moment is also when Iraq seems to have effectively slipped into a civil war and the US and UK occupation forces are neck-deep in a quagmire with violence escalating to frightful scale. Civil conflicts and violence develop a momentum and logic of their own that create their own hell, and Iraq seems to be teetering at the precipice of this hell with no sign of decisive and effective intervention to bring it to a halt. This moment is also when the negotiations with Iran over the development of nuclear weapons are taking baby steps and in circles.

With the war in Lebanon, the “moment” in which the “New Middle East” is unveiled is a moment where Hezbollah has emerged as a force that is able to humiliate the Israeli military on the field of battle, and represent the Israeli civilan leadership as reckless, confused and bloodthirsty. Hezbollah define their victory as maintaining their ability to deter Israel from assaulting Lebanon, namely, deterring a ground attack (the battle in a cluster of villages has been going on for 5 days now) but mostly firing rockets and missiles into the Israeli interior. In that regard, they are so far victorious.

So the question is on what grounds are the US, Israel and the EU imagining the “New Middle East”? And how do they imagine its implementation?

Past midnight last night, al-Manar television announced they would broadcast a pre-recorded adress by Hassan Nasrallah. He wanted to present his views and reactions to the diplomatic activity that has been taking place in the past few days. He also wanted to send a message to the nation, Israel and the wider world regarding Hezbollah’s strategy in this conflict. For Nasrallah the “New Middle East” was the final indication that Israel’s assault was premeditated (and part of a greater US plan) and that Hezbollah’s victory would be the principal bullwark to thwarting the conspiracy of this “New Middle East”. He also revealed that Hezbollah had now received information that Israel had planned the assault on Lebanon and Hezbollah for September or October. Israel planned to roll a massive ground force across the borders, with a cover from the air targetting Hezbollah leadership and roads and bridges that aimed at crippling the movement from responding. The element of surprise was key to the success of that military strategy. With the present conflict, Israel had proceeded with its plans, but without the element of surprise. And that is one of the reasons Hezbollah have the upper hand so far. And finally, he reiterated the “surprises” that Hezbollah had delivered to Israel thus far: the warship, hitting as far into Israeli territory as Tabariya, hitting as far as Haifa. He announced that Hezbollah was now ready to hit targets “beyond Haifa”, at a time of their choosing. Did he mean Tel Aviv? Would he hit Tel Aviv? Was it his retaliation at psychological warfare?

This morning, Olmert’s office announced they had heard Nasrallah’s threat and would respond accordingly.

More on Being a Proud Arab

Saudi Arabia pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and whatever to help Lebanon in these tragic times. I wish the political class of this country had the spine and intelligence to reject this fortune or negotiate its political cost from the position of the empowered. Hezbollah is changing the terms, and unfortunately the cabinet of Fouad Saniora, as well as the Hariri movement is still behaving in total subservience to Saudi Arabia, protecting Saudi hegemony in this country and the region.

The Jordanians sent us a plane load of emergency relief supplies. It just landed in our destroyed airport. The Israelis gave the Jordanian plane the security cover. Jordan and Kuwait are sending environmental experts to help us clean the sea from the oil and fuel spills that Israelis dumped. Did I mention this? Did I mention that after their warships retreated to a distance safe from Hezbollah’s firepower, they spilled enough oil to cause an environmental disaster on our coastline? Did I mention that no one has been able to fish a fish and that the shores are now pitch black?

This said, I still cannot get over, or forgive the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian actions vis-a-vis the Israeli war on Lebanon. There was a chance to stand upright, to redress from the hunch of servility. For a moment there was an opportunity to salvage dignity and turn the tables for good. They chose to cower, to protect US and Israeli interest and extend moral cover for Israel to destroy this country. The Arab League is complicit in the destruction of this country. Fawwaz Traboulsi said it time and time again on television stations, they have a myriad means at their disposal to shake Israel and the US if only to impose red lines, to defend a notion of sovereignty. They could have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, they could have suspended the peace accords with Israel, they could have threatened a regional escalation during the Arab League meeting. Saudi Arabia could have used its hegemony over the oil market or its deposits in US banks. Instead, Amr Moussa opined that the road map for peace was defunct. This is servile complicity.

Imagine how much they would have gained in the eyes of their societies and as regional actors, had they simply stood in one line-up in the face of Israel. Obviously, it is hubris on my part to imagine these heads of states capable of any action beyond humiliating subservience. This is one of the meanings of defeat. The total relinquishing of agency and dignity.

The political culture that prevails in the Arab world has a very select cast of roles for officials (whether elected or not), at heart they are variations on three main roles: taxidermists, court-jesters and kitchen undercooks (the more accurate word is in French, “marmitons”). They resurrect dead effigies, brandish defunct ideologies, they gesticulate and throw fits to soothe, distract, and deter, or they slice and dice, pick-up the peels and clean-up in the “big kitchen” of regional politics. This too is a face of defeat.

There has been much, much ink spilled on the impact of “defeat” on Arab societies, identity, political culture, etc. The other meaning of defeat is the inability to imagine political alternatives beyond the debilitating bi-polar pathology (and I use the metaphor with the psychic disorder in mind) of US/Israel vs. fundamentalist political Islam. These simply cannot be the two options for citizenship, identity, governance and political representation. (Perhaps it is impossible in Palestine because occupation is war, and war creates situations in extremis –and yet the Palestinians, Moslems and Christians, did not cower from electing Hamas into government, in cognizance of the costs). And so far, that “third” option (obviously not Blair’s “Third Way”) is not yet clear or cogent.

In the present conflict, a secular egalitarian democrat such as I, has no real place for representation or maneuver. Neither have I and my ilk succeeded in carving a space for ourselves, nor have the prevailing forces (the two poles) agreed to making allocations for us. That is our defeat and our failure. In Lebanon, we are caught in the stampede and the cross-fire. As I noted in one of these siege notes, I am not a supporter of Hezbollah, but this has become a war with Israel. In the war with Israel, there is no force in the world that will have me stand side by side with the IDF or the Israeli state.

It was my foolhardy hope, that the Lebanese front that emerged after the mass mobilization on March 14th would rehabilitate its nearly depleted political capital (depleted down to its most base and vulgar sectarian constituencies) and refuse to meet with Condoleeza Rice. Out of principle that the US and Israel are waging a war on one of the chief agents in Lebanon’s political landscape. Instead, all these handsome men and women showed up at the US embassy, smiling, wearing their Sunday suits, aping the display of servility that the Idiot-Kings and Senile-Presidents-for-Life display at the Arab league meetings. She showed up at the embassy and enjoyed this band of court-jesters and taxidermists society while the Depleted Uranium Smart Bombs were delivered from the US military base in Qatar to Israel.

Was I foolhardy to have once seen an opportunity for change when the March 14th mobilization swept the capital? Surely now, in light of this war. And you would think that by reading newspapers, this band of brothers (and sisters) would learn something. You would think that by watching what happened to their equivalent band of brothers in Fateh would inspire another behavior. To no avail. Look at the pathetic story of Mohammad Dahlan. Once a proud young man from Gaza, once a hero of the Palestinian resistance, once a prisoner in Israel’s gaols, once a popular leader in the streets of Gaza. He was so corrupted by power, he became the US Foreign Secretary’s Boy Toy. His street smarts became thuggery, his humble origins fed his appetite for cheap thrills: nice suits that he never hung well on his shoulders, fancy cars that he never had a chance to drive on decent roads, fine cuisine that he never knew how to order and first class tickets to capitals where he flew to surrender more and more and more servility. The story of Dahlan, although small and borderline insignificant should be told to children. I look forward to the day when he will not be able to walk in the streets of Palestine. Why do I single out Dahlan when so many others like him roam the unpaved roads of Palestine, because for a brief moment I believed he was a man. A time long ago that I cannot recall now.

In Lebanon, the Displaced, the Schizophrenia

Within Lebanon, the situation is different. The White House and Israel are hedging their bets on an internal rift. The most dangerous would be a Sunni-Shi’i divide. So far the country has been united, but warning signs are let out everyday. The sectarian polarization is still cut grossly along the lines of the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camps, they cut across the conventional sectarian rifts that polarized the country during the civil war, and to some extent in the postwar. In every speech, Hassan Nasrallah has hailed and expressed gratitude for the fantastic popular support that has rallied around the resistance. The council for sunni religious associations met yesterday, reiterating their support for the resistance and condemning the silence and cowardice of the Arab world.

It is compelling to see the hords of volunteers tend to the displaced. There are two main organizations channeling emergency aid and resources to the NGOs tending to the displaced, they are the Hariri Foundation and the National Relief agency. The management of relocating and lodging the displaced has been less than ideal, and I am of the opinion that the government has not really galavanized its full abilities to face up to the crisis. The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health and other concerned public agencies are coordinating efforts to bring some order into the chaos. However, there is increasing critique that they are not marshalled as they were in the past. True the scale of displacement is harrowing and keeps increasing everyday and the government has never had to contend with a challenge so tremendous. We now count 800,000 people who are displaced. Access to shelters, schools and other sites of relocation has been uneven. Problems have begun to emerge. I have made an effort to collect as many anecdotes as possible, to get an overall sense of the situation. So far, I have not been able to. The overwhelming question seems to be managing the distress and frustration of the displaced and the exhaustion of volunteers. The crisis seems to drag, and longer term solutions will have to be implemented because immediate emergency solutions are usually not sustainable over time.

The anecdotes tell stories of everyday heroes and everyday greed and sectarian prejudice. It’s a mixed bag. Unanimously however, the work that Bahia Hariri, sister of slain former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and parliamentarian from Sidon (the northernmost first city in south Lebanon), has been stellar. Using the arm of the Hariri Foundation in Sidon, she is housing 12,500 displaced from the south (mostly Shi’ites) and tending to all their needs. There are ironic anecdotes too, for example schools in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh have been opened to house Lebanese refugees.

The brunt of this war are felt unevenly in the country. The eastern suburb of the city and significant areas in the mountains have been more or less spared from shelling and violence. Occasional Israeli air raids spread fear. The targetting of the broadcast tower for the major Lebanese television stations that claimed the life of an employee at the LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) was a poignant reminder, but the astounding wretchedness inflicted on the South and the Beqa’a have not been inflicted elsewhere.

This is not atypical of Lebanon’s exprience of its civil war and of the postwar occupation of south Lebanon. This dysynchrony in “experiencing” the Israeli assault translates sometimes to a schizophrenia. There are people sun-tanning, partying, taking it easy while others are displaced. This too is part of the political class’s engagement in the war. They could inspire a different mindset.

In the Israeli invasion of 1982, I was in West Beirut. I was 13 years old. All my friends and classmates fled the siege of West Beirut. The political rifts were different then, but I remember that when I returned to school after the withdrawal of the Israeli forces that fall, I carried the burden of the trauma of the siege while my classmates had memories of fun and games of that summer spent in the mountains. While they recalled witnessing shells fall on Beirut from a distance, I recalled their sound as they exploded. I resented all the stories they told of that summer. They were all happy stories. I shut my ears when they recalled them. Until now, there are a set of songs that were popular then, that I cannot hear without feeling a pinch of anxiety in my stomach. It’s the impact of that trauma. Part of the reason I cannot leave Beirut is that I don’t want to become like them. It’s like a pledge I made to myself. But this is happening again, on a smaller scale, because the shelling has reached beyond the southern suburbs of Beirut and the south.

These distances that separate the people of this country have to be bridged somehow. The “united” front has to find a more cogent gel. We have everything to win if we are able to meet that challenge. We have our country to win. If we remain hapless victims who beg, and who remain beholden to the “charity” of Arabs we will never have full sovereignty… Hezbollah’s victory can be articulated to become Lebanon’s victory (this too might be naive folly on my part, but I need to believe this, at least for the next few days, so just humor me). Particularly now that the Syrians are making noises about plans to roll their rusted tanks and army of underfed and illiterate soldiers with its thuggish command back in the country.

I am so weary of the return of Syrian control over Lebanon. The Syrian people, all those pictured cursing the Lebanese for their arrogance and lack of gratitude should protest against a re-entry of the Syrian military into Lebanon. And if the self-described “last fort of dignity of the Arabs” are inspired to fight Israel, they have the entire front of the Golan to do so. The Lebanese will not liberate the Golan, the Syrians will have to. You don’t subcontract liberation. Moreover, Hezbollah has claimed time and time again that they are prepared for the long haul and don’t need a bullet from any of the Arab states.This is another reason for the Lebanese political forces to band around the resistance and shield the country.We might have a chance to rebuild this country without owing a percentage of every contract to a thug from the Syrian junta, and that feels like humane relief.

I will end this siege note with another of the obsessions that taunt me. People caught under rubble. In describing the surreptitious commonplace horror of the civil war in a televised interview perhaps ten years ago, the famous Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury drew the following scene. While everyday life was taking place, traffic, transactions, just the mundane stuff of life, and as you walked passed buildings, you knew that in the underground of that commonplace building, there might be someone kidnapped, waiting to be traded or simply held in custody for money or whatever reasons militias kidnapped for. And you walked by that building.

I am haunted by the nameless and faceless caught under rubble. In the undergrounds of destroyed buildings or simply in the midst of its ravages. Waiting to be given a proper burial.

UPDATE (1:17 am, 7/27/06):

I am happy to see that Rasha’s dispatches from Beirut have also been picked up by the London Review of Books, now. See here.

Fighting Poverty Effectively

A few years ago, I posted on the Poverty Action Lab and its approach to development: randomized trials to see what works and what doesn’t. The new issue of the Boston Review is out, and in its New Democracy Forum, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, the Lab’s director, has a piece on sensible developmental aid policies.

It has been established that figuring out what works is not easy—a large body of literature documents the pitfalls of the intuitive approach to program evaluation. When we do something and things get better, it is tempting to think that it was because of what we did. But we have no way of knowing what would have happened in the absence of the intervention. For example, a study of schools in western Kenya by Paul Glewwe, Michael Kremer, Sylvie Moulin and Eric Zitzewitz compared the performance of children in schools that used flip charts for teaching science and schools that did not and found that the former group did significantly better in the sciences even after controlling for all other measurable factors. An intuitive assessment might have readily ascribed the difference to the educational advantages of using flip charts, but these researchers wondered why some schools had flip charts when a large majority did not. Perhaps the parents of children attending these schools were particularly motivated and this motivation led independently both to the investment in the flip charts and, more significantly, to the goading of their children to do their homework. Perhaps these schools would have done better even if there were no such things as flip charts.

Glewwe and company therefore undertook a randomized experiment: 178 schools in the same area were sorted alphabetically, first by geographic district, then by geographic division, and then by school name. Then every other school on that list was assigned to be a flip-chart school. This was essentially a lottery, which guaranteed that there were no systematic differences between the two sets of schools. If we were to see a difference between the sets of schools, we could be confident that it was the effect of the flip charts. Unfortunately, the researchers found no difference between the schools that won the flip-chart lottery and the ones that lost.

Randomized trials like these—that is, trials in which the intervention is assigned randomly—are the simplest and best way of assessing the impact of a program.

Also see the comments by Ian Goldin, F. Halsey Rogers, and Nicholas Stern; Mick Moore; Ian Vásquez; Angus Deaton; Alice H. Amsden; Robert H. Bates; Carlos Barbery, Howard White, Jagdish Bhagwati, Raymond C. Offenheiser and Didier Jacobs, and Ruth Levine.

Another Look At Ending Farm Subsidies

In the Guardian Unlimited, Crooked Timber’s Daniel Davies on farm subsidies.

You would not think, in the normal course of events, that a sensitive and intelligent person would go to Ghana, spend a few days walking round and talking to locals, have in-depth briefings on the local economy and come away with the following policy prescription:

“What a great country! You know what they really need though? More expensive food!”

You would not think this, but the fact is that this is basically what Bob Geldof said a year ago, it is the official position of the Make Poverty History campaign and it figured in three of the four articles CiF published yesterday about the collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks. It is perhaps the silliest and certainly the most tenacious commonplace of the development world; the view that farm subsidies are intrinsically evil.

The trouble is that the truth is a little bit too simple to be credible. Farm subsidies in the EU and USA mean that we sell some kinds of foodstuffs (mainly grains, milk products and sugar) to Africa and other countries cheap. So cheap, in fact, that the Africans etc can buy our imported goods cheaper than they can produce them for themselves. This is good news.

No, stop, yes it is. If you can buy something for cheap, then that is good news. Food being cheap is good news for Africa. It isn’t bad news. I promise you it is as simple as that.

Do No Harm

From The Washington Post:Abuse1

OATH BETRAYED: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror. By Steven H. Miles

Vulnerable in body and mind, we look to our physicians for compassion — which makes torture that’s abetted by the medical profession especially horrific. Jacobo Timerman, a victim of Argentina’s “dirty war,” wrote of the special pain of seeing a doctor present in the interrogation room, of the sense of abandonment that lay in knowing that a person of science “is with you when you are tortured by the beasts.”

But the link between healing and torture is hard to sever. In the Renaissance, special “torture doctors” helped inquisitors choose their interrogation methods. In August 2004, Steven H. Miles, a bioethicist and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, reported in the British medical journal the Lancet that the United States had, in effect, returned to the era of the torture doctor. In Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Miles wrote, “The medical system collaborated with designing and implementing psychologically and physically coercive interrogations.” Miles’s charges were detailed: Death certificates had been falsified, he wrote, and military health personnel had reported incidences of torture belatedly, if at all.

More here.

Homing instinct of bees surprises

From BBC News:

Bee_2 Bumblebees can navigate their way home over distances of up to 13km (eight miles), a UK research team has shown. The study also found only worker bees seemed to have this homing ability. Bees pollinate flowering plants and therefore play a crucial role in food webs, but numbers of the insect in Britain have been declining recently. The team said the homing research would inform conservation strategies that sought to adapt landscapes to create optimum habitats for bees.

The University of Newcastle-led group took some 20,000 bumblebees belonging to the common species Bombus terrestris and tagged them with tiny identification numbers. The bees were then dropped in different places around north-east England and left to make their way back to the nest. The scientists set up a webcam in the hive to record the homecomers. Early results show the bees will fly varying distances but some that were left at a garden centre in Heddon on the Wall in the Tyne Valley – about 13km from their nest – could get home safely. This is a big leap on from previous studies which had suggested bumblebees could forage out to about 5km (three miles) from the hive.

More here.

A Code Beyond Genetics in DNA

Nicholas Wade in the New York Times:

Dna_6Researchers believe they have found a second code in DNA in addition to the genetic code.

The genetic code specifies all the proteins that a cell makes. The second code, superimposed on the first, sets the placement of the nucleosomes, miniature protein spools around which the DNA is looped. The spools both protect and control access to the DNA itself.

The discovery, if confirmed, could open new insights into the higher order control of the genes, like the critical but still mysterious process by which each type of human cell is allowed to activate the genes it needs but cannot access the genes used by other types of cell.

More here.

The def of ridic

Ashley Parker in the New York Times Magazine:

It hit me. I was becoming my 17-year-old sister. Though I was five years older, full sentences eluded me, and I had subconsciously decided that abbreviating all of my thoughts was fun. And cute.

Justine’s love affair with language — or rather, the anti-language — started gradually enough, and I think that’s why I never noticed it. At first, when my mom would ask Justine if she had a lot of homework, Justine would reply, “Obvi,” or “The usu.”

Then things got worse. Awkward became awk, actually became actu, typical became typ, amazing became amaze and hilarious became hilar. Something utterly hilar, of course, became TOPOSH — Top of the Pillar of St. Hilar — but there was nothing TOPOSH about the situation. As the older sister, I tried to do my part. Sometimes that involved throwing my sneakers at her, and sometimes it was as simple as, “Hey, Justine, you’re an idiot.”

“That is so rudabega,” she would say, before rolling her eyes and gliding out of the room.

More here.

Change Comes to Tiffinwalas

A short while ago, I came across this Anthony Bourdain piece on the tiffinwalas of Mumbai.

In the BBC, the tiffinwalas may be seeing changes in how they work:

[I]n an attempt to boost awareness about their service they are going a little bit more high tech.

They tiffinwalas have set up a website and an SMS service to increase customer numbers.

This has come as a surprise to many, as many of the lunchbox carriers are illiterate.

Savvy about their business and finance as they are, very few of them have even heard of the internet.

The new technology has been built for them by a software engineer Manish Tripathi who has been adopted as an honorary tiffinwala.

Kuspit on Conceptualism and tragic beauty

To put this a different way, if Pop art can be understood as high art’s homage and submission to popular culture, in acknowledgement that it was better to join an enemy with which one could not compete than be slaughtered, then Conceptual art can be understood as high art’s suicide in acknowledgement not only of its psychosocial irrelevance but also its meaninglessness. Its need to be taken over and supplanted by philosophy — Hegel thought this was inevitable, that is, consciousness, knowing itself, would become a matter of pure ideas in no need of materialization to become self-evident — follows from its loss of purpose in the modern world. Art was beside the point of modern life — it could never feel secure in an age of science and technology — but philosophy was never beside the point, because it always had the last word, like some deus ex machina. If the owl of philosophy flies at dusk, as has been said, then the philosophicalization of art that occurs in Conceptual art symbolizes the night that is falling on art.

more from Artnet Magazine here.

ethnic studies

It may be hypocritical to assert that courses dealing with ethnicity are designed to foster what is imagined by university professors to be “culture.” As the product of two generations of neo-Marxist teachers, the idea of teaching ethnicity is not very different from the “folk” cultures fostered under Stalinist bureaucracy. Ethnic Studies might be educationally useful for some white Americans of what is disingenuously termed our “mainstream culture,” since perforce they know little or nothing about the ethnic groups proliferating in their midst. Conceivably such courses could be helpful in accommodating social tensions because they afford a democratic means of political manipulation, for supporting “culture.” Notwithstanding, Ethnic Studies is quintessentially a university notion: it mistakes documents for reality. And providing an Ethnic Studies center or department is your typical administrative device for defusing the unhappiness of minorities in a pluralistic society headed always towards the Western achievement (eclectic only in dress, music, arts, and cuisine). It is also a vicious product of the ignorance and anxiety of our school bureaucrats — scientists and sociologists — for, by politicizing scholarship, it avoids critical thought about values. In essence, our Ethnic Studies centers exist to placate political demands; unfortunately, academics rush to develop and elaborate courses of study that are products of their long hours of lucubration in a library … or surfing the worldwide web’s inchoate cloaca of unfiltered documents.

more from California Literary Review here.

Smooth operator

From Guardian:Shakespeare_6

In Ben Jonson’s celebrated phrase, he was not of an age, but for all time. Universal and timeless, Shakespeare remains a mirror to every generation. Ours is no exception. Recently, to an unprecedented degree, we have seen ourselves as much through his life as in his work. The past decade has seen a festival of celebrity Shakespeare, the pop-culture bard. So, in Tom Stoppard’s witty and suggestive film, he was ‘in love’. In Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 bestseller he became the ‘Will’ of Will in the World. In Dominic Dromgoole’s recent memoir, Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life, he is ‘Will’ again, a fellow thespian, and by implication the perfect side-kick and mentor to the new director of London’s Globe. Last week his First Folio was auctioned at a price (£2.8m) that would not disgrace a top impressionist.

More here.

Cigarettes could slash blood-alcohol levels, making smokers drink more

From Nature:Smoker_1

A new study helps to explain why smokers tend to have boozier nights out than non-smokers. The work, done in rats, shows that a heavy dose of nicotine can cut blood-alcohol levels in half. If cigarettes similarly lower intoxication in people, it could mean that smokers need to drink more than non-smokers to get the same buzz.

Many studies have shown that smokers tend to drink more alcohol than non-smokers, and a number of reasons are proposed for this. People who indulge in one habit may be simply more inclined to indulge in another, and socially both habits tend to go hand-in-hand at pubs and parties. Researchers also know that both nicotine and alcohol trigger a release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, but that indulging too much in either habit can breed tolerance to the drugs and reduce this pleasurable reward. So heavy users of one may boost use of the other to help bring their dopamine response back up.

More here.

What is Nasrallah’s Game?

In The Nation, Adam Shatz looks at what Sheik Sayed Hassan Nasrallah hopes to achieve.

Nasrallah’s objectives most likely lie elsewhere. Since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal (“the first Arab victory in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” as Nasrallah often notes), Hezbollah has faced mounting pressure, from the West but also at home, to lay down its arms and become a purely political organization–a fate the party dreads, since it prides itself on being a vanguard of Islamic resistance to American and Israeli ambitions in the Middle East. This pressure dramatically intensified with UN Security Council resolution 1559 (2004), which called for the disbanding of all Lebanese militias, and with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year. By conducting a raid that was likely to provoke a brutal Israeli reprisal, Nasrallah may have gambled that the fury of the Lebanese would soon turn from Hezbollah to the Jewish state, thereby providing a justification for “the national resistance” as Lebanon’s only deterrent against Israel. So far, Israel (with the full support of the Bush Administration) has played right into his hands, inflicting more than 300 casualties, nearly all of them civilians, and pounding the civilian infrastructure, eliciting sympathy for Hezbollah even among some Lebanese Christians. By striking at Israel’s Army during its most destructive campaign in Palestine since 2002’s “Operation Defensive Shield,” Nasrallah must have known that he would earn praise throughout the Muslim world for coming to the aid of Palestinians abandoned by the region’s authoritarian governments, a number of which have pointedly chastised Nasrallah’s “adventurism.” And by bloodying Israel’s nose, Hezbollah could once again bolster its aura in the wider Arab world as a redoubtable “resistance” force, a model it seeks to promote regionally, especially in Palestine, where Nasrallah is a folk hero, and in Iraq, where Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the radical Shiite Mahdi Army, has proclaimed himself a follower of Hezbollah and has threatened to renew attacks against US forces in solidarity with the Lebanese.

Shalizi on Criticality

Cosma Shalizi is guest blogging at Crooked Timber and begins with a discussion of the mechanics of disordered systems and optimized criticality, based on the work of Osame Kinouchi and Mauro Copelli. (For those of you who missed it, see also Azra’s piece on self-organized criticality and cancer.)

Neurons, like muscle cells, are “excitable”, in that the right stimulus will get them to suddenly expend a lot of energy in a characteristic way — muscle cells twitch, and neurons produce an electrical current called an action potential or spike. Kinouchi and Copelli use a standard sort of model of an excitable medium of such cells, which distinguish between the excited state, a sequence of “refractory” states where the neuron can’t spike again after it’s been excited, and a resting or quiescent state when the right input could get it to fire. (These models have a long history in neurodynamics, the study of heart failure, cellular slime molds, etc.) Normally, in these models the cells are arrayed in some regular grid, and the probability that a resting cell becomes excited goes up as it has more excited neighbors. This is still true in Kinouchi and Copelli’s model, only the arrangement of cells is now a simple random graph. Resting cells also get excited at a steady random rate, representing the physical stimulus.

Kinouchi and Copelli argue that the key quantity in their model is how many cells are stimulated into firing, on average, by a single excited cell. If this “branching ratio” is less than one, an external stimulus will tend to produce a small, short-lived burst of excitation, and there will be no spontaneous activity; the system is sub-critical. If the branching ratio is greater than one, outside stimuli produce very large, saturating waves of excitation, and there’s a lot of self-sustained activity, making it hard to use a super-critical network as a detector. At the critical point, however, where each excited cell produces, on average, exactly one more excited cell, waves of excitation eventually die out, but they tend to be very long-lived, and in fact their distribution follows a power law.

Selected Minor Works: Where Turks Still Menace

Justin E. H. Smith

[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing may be found at www.jehsmith.com]

An eighth-grade English textbook published in Bucharest in 1978 begins with an inspiring hortation from President Nicolae Ceasescu: “Let you learn, learn and learn,” he beseeches the pupils. “Let you explore, explore and work. Let you relate tightly education to research and work. Only by so doing can you become good patriots, good revolutionaries, reliable citizens of socialist Romania, devoted champions of her independence and sovereignty.” As we advance through the lessons, we find many such helpful phrases as: “I hope I shan’t get too excited in front of the Union of Communist Youth members!” and: “The umbrella opens and closes by itself. It is an automaton.”

For the past month I have been hidden away in a small village in the Carpathian mountains, attempting, when not writing the book I came here to write, to learn, learn, and learn a bit of Romanian history. We are in the village of Parau, halfway between Sibiu and Brasov, about 50 kilometers to the west of the old boundary between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that part of the world under at least nominal control of the Ottoman sultan. The inhabitants travel in horse carts, wear traditional clothing, and every evening drive their cows home from the fields down the village’s dirt roads.

Picturesque, indeed. But some days, when I long to go to the little shop in the village to buy some near-stale bread or a can of corn without being stared at like some alien, I can’t help but think to myself: this is the last and greatest stronghold in Europe of what Marx dared to call “the idiocy of village life.” Old ladies scurry past the town’s church making the sign of the cross in fear and ignorance. Kinder, Kirche, Küche, as the Germans say, seem to constitute the ultimate horizon of these women’s dreams and ambitions.

The villagers stare at us with absolutely no concern for discretion as we take our nightly post-prandial strolls. It is summer and the weather is fine and we are in need of a stroll after dinner, that is all, but the intensity of the gazes from every nook and, presumably, behind every window-shade always make us feel as though we are doing something terribly wrong, as though we ourselves were the devil incarnate. You’re just lucky I’m not black, I tell my wife.

Half of the population of Romania is engaged in subsistence agriculture. For the most part, the peasants conduct their lives without using money, getting what they need by producing it themselves or bartering what they’ve produced. Most of the people who live off the land, I was told by a member of the Romanian learned class, have no idea what Europe is, let alone anything like a considered opinion on the pros and cons of EU accession.

Yet everywhere one goes one sees signs of Romania’s longing to join. The little schoolhouse in Parau has waving outside of it, from left to right, a Romanian flag, an EU flag, and a NATO flag. This is particularly odd when we consider that Romania is not yet even a member of the European Union, and we certainly wouldn’t find this sort of EU-pride in countries that are members. The EU flag, it seems, reveals no official affiliation, but is rather a symbol of psychogeographical orientation: do not confuse us, it says, with our neighbors to the East.

Americans who, in the PC-frenzy of the 1990s, trained themselves to stop saying ‘Oriental’, would be amazed to observe how that term is employed around here: ‘Oriental’ is whatever the Romanians hate about themselves, whatever is left over from Ottoman domination, whatever cultural contagion the nomadic Gypsies –whose language is closer to Punjabi than to Romanian— have spread to their hosts, whatever it is that is making EU accession so difficult. Corruption is ‘Oriental,’ as are potholes, inflation, and street dogs. The desire to purge the ‘Oriental’ also manifests itself in the form of a general aversion towards Arab, Turkish, and Indian cuisine, and a common belief that this food is prepared unhygienically. One woman I spoke to reported that her lips sprouted blisters within hours after she dared to try a Lebanese restaurant in Bucharest. Another woman told me that, while she has never actually been to Turkey, she believes that Turks are very dishonest, and that the widespread habit of dishonesty among Romanians must be a consequence of Ottoman influence. I lived for a year in Istanbul, I replied, and I experienced no significant instances of dishonesty. In Romania, in contrast, I have experienced a total of one significant instance (I foolishly gave a vendor a large bill and he gave me too little change in return).

Anyone who spends more than, say, five minutes in Bucharest will inevitably hear, blaring from cars and restaurants and homes, some very, very bad music. This music is “manele“, it is the perpetual soundtrack of lower class men in muscle shirts and gold chains and in Mercedes Benzes they ought not be in a position to afford. As in rap, the texts consist principally in boasts and threats. As far as I can tell, it is produced with no real instruments, it is cheap and forgettable, and it sounds to my ear as though it could just as easily come from Egypt or Turkey. And needless to say, the learned classes hate it. An anti-manele campaign that has been picking up steam recently instructs Bucharesters to blast Mozart from your homes and cars in the hopes of drowning out the ubiquitious trashy Oriental synth-pop.

This is meant to be a defense of high culture against the vulgar, but does it not also perfectly reflect the fundamental divide in the Romanian identity: The Ottoman Empire versus the Austro-Hungarian, Istanbul versus Vienna? Tipper Gore may hate the violent and misogynistic content of rap music, but it has been a long time since any respectable American has been permitted to bemoan the popularity of “jungle” music, to speak as though we are under musical siege by the savages. But the anti-manele rhetoric is not just about music. It’s also about geopolitics and history.

More than one Romanian has explained to me that it is simply Romania’s destiny to be ruled by some empire or other. In bad times, the empire is based in the East (Istanbul, Moscow); in good times, it is based in the West (Rome, Washington). A Romanian ambassador I spoke with in Western Europe described the routine visits he paid to other ambassadors shortly after arriving in his new assignment. The American ambassador was warm if busy, as were the Europeans. The Russian ambassador, in contrast, had a succinct speech he was evidently instructed by Putin to give: don’t think you’ve seen the last of us. The threat is not (and probably never was) communism, but Oriental despotism. I have heard more than one Romanian claim that the Russians are the direct descendants of Genghis Khan, and that there is a discernible continuity from the days of the Mongol invasions to Russian politics today.

Romania is not the only country with the bad habit of projecting everything it doesn’t like about itself towards some geographical or imaginary East. I’ve heard many Russians describe Chinese food as ‘dirty’, and Turks themselves disdainfully describe their version of manele as ‘arabesk’. Much of the rhetoric of Southeastern Europe as the last line of defense against Muslim invaders turned much nastier during the Yugoslav wars than at its present, irritating din in Romania. But what is interesting about the Romanian version is that, in their case, unlike that of the Slavs, Greeks, and Albanians, there is some solid historical, or at least linguistic, reason why they imagine themselves as more Western than their neighbors.

On the European side of the Bosporus Strait, in a northern suburb of Istanbul, there stands a tower erected in the 15th century. It is called the ‘Rumeli’ tower, this being the Turkish form of the ethnonym ‘Roman’. Romans, in this sense, are not citizens of Rome, nor even directly the one-time citizens or subjects of the Roman Empire. They are, rather, Europeans as opposed to Turks. Until 1453, the Bosporus was understood to be the absolute and final barrier between the two realms, but with the fall of Constantinople and the following centuries of Turkish advances –most famously all the way to the gates of Vienna in 1529–, the southeastern part of Europe was transformed into a grey area between two worlds.

All of this is particularly pertinent for our understanding of avian flu, an odd media phenomenon that may or may not have some distant correlate in epidemiological reality. Avian flu, the story goes, is a plague that encroaches upon the West from the East, and that has as its cause unhygienic Oriental food-handling practices. When we first heard of it, it was wreaking havoc in China. Before long, it had made its way to Turkey, and immediately after that cases were reported from Romania: it had snuck past the Rumeli Hisari as Rome’s watchmen dozed. Soon enough, entire neighborhoods of Bucharest were under quarantine, even though not a single case of human-to-human transmission had been reported, anywhere.

The impression this westward progression no doubt left on readers of low-brow newspapers like Das Bild in Germany or The Sun in England was nothing new, but only the latest reinforcement of a basic feature of European geography since at least the 15th century, according to which civilization as we know it is threatened from the east, and the greater Balkan region is conceived as the buffer zone. Once any menace, whether bird flu or the infidel hordes, moves across the Bosporus from Asia Minor into Europe proper –that is, from Turkey to Romania– the uncontested Europeans in Bremen and London know it’s time to worry.

Every Western scholar who has studied Balkan nationalism inevitably comes back to Freud’s famous description of ethnic hatred between neighbors as ‘the narcissism of minor differences.’ Increasingly, it strikes me that Southeastern Europe is that part of the world where the differences between Christianity and Islam begin to disappear, where the one smoothly transitions into the other. One might propose that the head scarves women wear in the Christian East are an indicator of the proximity of Islam. What are mislabeled ‘babushkas’ in the United States, in an unconscious jump from the garment to its wearer, are said to be merely ‘cultural’, while Turkish head scarves are a feature of ‘religion’. In spite of having read the French government’s report on ‘laïcité’, I dare say I still don’t really understand the difference, since I’m not sure what religion could be if not a set of arbitrary rules that appears, from the inside, to be grounded in the eternal order of things. A Bulgarian babushka will feel just as naked with her hair exposed as any Turk, and she will probably feel that this nakedness is bad for reasons having to do with the moral order represented by her big-bearded priest and his thick-walled house of worship. That sounds like religion to me.

The great Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga, who figures on the new Romanian one leu bank note, defended the idea throughout his long and distinguished career that Romania is, in its essence, what is left over of Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II. According to him, “after the transformation of 1453, in many ways only on the surface, Byzantine culture annexed itself to the Gothic world of Transylvania… to the Romanian principality of Moldavia, and, through different means, transmitted itself to the West during the Renaissance.”

Iorga was a nationalist and a chauvinist, who wrote dismissively of “this Stambul of the Turkish rulers, who were not even able to find a real new name for it.” I am an amateur observer of all of this, one who has spent time on both sides of the Bosporus, but always with other, pressing professional obligations that have prevented me from studying the history that interested Iorga in more detail. I have learned enough, however, to have become convinced that the questions of national and religious identity that interested Iorga are of tremendous importance, and that they must be studied by scholars who share none of his allegiances.