In Disguise

by Jen Paton

The man disguised as Mirza Abdullah, better known as Richard Francis Burton, was overcome when he glimpsed Mecca for the first time. Burton spent years perfecting his language, his dress, his mannerisms, his very way of moving, to go undetected into a city forbidden to outsiders. And when he finally saw this city, he felt himself drawn admiringly inwards, rather than outwards: “It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine. But, to confess the humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of pride.”

348140-gay-girl-in-damascus In January 2011 two modern-day Westerners in disguise sought to insinuate themselves into “the Orient”, or at least its virtual space. An American man and his wife posed as a lesbian blogger living through a heady time of revolution. They took the name of Amina Arraf, named her blog “Gay Girl in Damascus,” and began chronicling the life of a completely imaginary Syrian-American woman, returned to her father’s homeland to “be a part of the change that is coming.”

Back in January, as the Middle East shook, “Amina” wrote she had to do something “bold and visible”, and that was writing a blog as an out woman in Demascus, under her real name, with “my photo.” Her writing was compelling, and she was bold. When Amina’s cousin came online last week to post that she had been detained, her readers, some of whom felt themselves friends, sounded the alarm.

And then, masks began to come off. The publicity surrounding her detention led to Newsnight’s report last week that the photographs on Amina’s blog were actually of Londoner Jelena Lecic, who had no connection to Syria. This cued the furious investigation of Andy Carvin of NPR (whose account is here), the Electronic Intifada, other news organizations, and a fleet of increasingly furious, and betrayed, Twitterati, to track down Tom MacMaster, a graduate student in medieval studies at Edinburgh, and his wife, Britta Froelicher, an expert in Middle Eastern studies and Syrian economics. Late last night, MacMaster posted a confession on Amina’s blog, which was titled an “apology” but was anything but. MacMaster wrote that “ I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

Read more »

Some Accounting For Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan)

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Charminar_hyderabad_india_photo One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.

In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.

Read more »

Oscar Hijuelos returns to Havana and finds a family of strangers

Oscar Hijuelos in Newsweek:

1307758152832 The city of Havana in the late 1940s, with its romantic ambience, its splendid sea-worn architecture, and its wall-to-wall music, was at the heart of my best-known novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Though I had only passed through the city as a boy in 1955, I based much of my novel’s portraiture of Havana on both the music I listened to as a youngster and the stories I had heard about it from the Cuban old-timers who would come to our apartment in Manhattan.

I can remember the colossal excitement that erupted in our little kitchen on New Year’s Eve 1958, when the Spanish-language radio announced that the forces of Fidel Castro were on the verge of entering that city. Toasts were made all around. Little did we know that Fidel’s revolution and the American embargo that resulted would bring an end to an epoch when Cubans like my folks, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, could legally travel to the capital of their patria. No, during those years of the Cold War, Havana, like the rest of Cuba, became an abstraction, a forbidden city that seemed to vanish from our reach.

More here.

Nico Muhly’s tale of Two Boys: don’t expect Facebook – the Opera

Tom Service in The Guardian:

ENO’s viral video advertising Nico Muhly‘s new opera is a kick-ass three minutes of social networking lampooning. However, it’s got zippity-squat to do with the work itself. Far from questioning “how odd your online life is”, Two Boys is a human drama of obsession, love, fantasy, identity and detective work. It’s also not really about “what could go wrong” online. This is a bit of a euphemism for being induced to masturbate on-cam for someone you think is a hot chick but who turns out to be a teenage boy, and then be forced through months of psychological manipulation to stab them.

The point is, the drama of Two Boys will be, or should be, profound and tragic, rather than merely critiquing the trivialities of friend-inculcation on Facebook, as the viral video, produced in collaboration with flyer-merchants Don’t Panic and starring Jolyon Rubinstein, makes out. At least that’s how it seemed to me watching rehearsals for the piece, looking at the score, and talking to the composer himself.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Street Kid

The window opens to a field of sagebrush—
California country northeast of San Francisco.
The sun burns into the hill.
This night is his first taste
of a new ache in the adam's apple,
the hard, dry knot,
a fresh loneliness.
Twilight whirrs with meadowlarks
and insects crawling down the glass
between the bars, and he,
apart from the other boys,
the cool toughs playing ping pong
before lockup, hears his heart stop
the tear before it leaves the eye.
Injun Joe, the nickname given him
by the brothers, the blacks, the chicanos,
is not afraid of the heart of darkness,
but of his own soul beating like a fist
against the wall.

by Duane McGinnis
from American Indian Prose and Poetry
published by Longman Canada Limited,
Toronto, 1974

The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?

From Edge:

Wilson640 TIMOTHY D. WILSON, the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, is author of Strangers To Ourselves (“the most influential book I've ever read”, Malcolm Gladwell), which was named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the Best 100 Ideas of 2002 He is also the coauthor of the best-selling social psychology textbook, Social Psychology, now in its seventh edition. His latest trade book is Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.

“If liberating the unconscious had been Wilson’s only contribution to psychological science, it would have been enough. But it was just the start. Wilson has since discovered and documented a variety of fascinating ways in which all of us are “strangers to ourselves” (which also happens to be the title of his last book—a book that Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, correctly called the best popular psychology book published in the last twenty years). He has done brilliant research on topics ranging from “reasons analysis” (it turns out that when people are asked to generate reasons for their decisions, they typically make bad ones) to “affective forecasting” (it turns out that people can’t predict how future events will make them feel), but at the center of all his work lies a single enigmatic insight: we seem to know less about the worlds inside our heads than about the world our heads are inside.

The Torah asks this question: “Is not a flower a mystery no flower can explain?” Some scholars have said yes, some scholars have said no. Wilson has said, “Let’s go find out.” He has always worn two professional hats — the hat of the psychologist and the hat of the methodologist. He has written extensively about the importance of using experimental methods to solve real world problems, and in his work on the science of psychological change — he uses a scientific flashlight to chase away a whole host of shadows by examining the many ways in which human beings try to change themselves — from self-help to psychotherapy — and asking whether these things really work, and if so, why? His answers will surprise many people and piss off the rest. I predict that this new work will be the center of a very interesting storm.”

— Daniel Gilbert, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory; Author, Stumbling on Happiness.

More here.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Gold “There's a Hassidic legend, that in any point of history, there are 36 pure souls for the sake of whom God doesn't destroy the world. And they don't know who they are,” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein tells me. It's early Saturday morning, and we're having breakfast in New York's Washington Square Hotel. The dining room is small, put in almost as an afterthought, and barely has room for the guests waiting anxiously for a fresh batch of coffee. Goldstein is dressed in a simple long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, not completely awake – the consequence of constant travel and an inability to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. As a young girl, Goldstein suspected that her father, a cantor in White Plains, New York, was one of those 36 pure souls. In her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, the figure of Azarya, a boy genius who has to choose between science and his orthodox Jewish community, is another one. Secular saints, Goldstein calls them both, comparable to Spinoza.

Goldstein, 61, has a powerful presence and a mind that seem too large for her petite figure. She is a philosopher, novelist ( “36 Arguments” is her seventh work of fiction), and author of two nonfiction books. Goldstein has received numerous awards and grants, including a MacArthur fellowship, or “Genius Award.” In 2011, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. She and her second husband Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology at Harvard, are considered one of Cambridge's true power couples.

More here.

ashbery does rimbaud


If Rimbaud anticipated the Surrealists by decades, Ashbery is said to have gone beyond them and defied even their rules and logic. Yet though nearly 150 years have intervened since Rimbaud’s first declaration of independence, many readers in our own age, too, still prefer a coherence of imagery, a sameness of tone, a readable sequential message, even, ultimately, what amounts to a prose narrative broken into lines. Enough others, however, find the “crystalline jumble” intellectually and emotionally revitalizing and say, Yes, please do interrupt the reverie you have created for us to allow an intrusion of Popeye! Besides his early absorption of Rimbaud’s work, Ashbery brings to this translation a long and deep familiarity with French life, language and culture, particularly artistic and literary culture, and the experience of having translated many other French works over the years — by Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Martory (as well as at least one detective novel, as the amusingly renamed Jonas Berry). These translations are part of a larger body of Ashbery’s work that has served to offer us — his largely monolingual Anglophone readership — access to poets of another culture, either foreign or earlier in time. (Notable, for instance, is his keenly investigatory, instructive and engrossing “Other Traditions,” the six Norton Lectures that open our eyes to the work of such luminaries as John Clare and Laura Riding.) In tandem, then, with his own 20-plus books of poetry (not to mention his teaching and his critical writings on the visual arts), Ashbery has extended his generous explicating intelligence to the work of many others, most recently in “Illuminations.”

more from Lydia Davis at the NYT here.

India: A Portrait

India_A Portrait

There are 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 1.2 billion of them live in India, making it famously the world’s biggest democracy by far. In the thriving, striving new Indian economy, businessmen make sudden, amazing fortunes, as the American robber barons did in the 19th century, and regularly place on the Forbes list of the world’s most wealthy. Yet at least 300 million Indians live in desperate conditions, many of them starving. The poor are sometimes literally bulldozed out of the way for developments, the underclass of the dispossessed and disenfranchised is huge: The go-go sub-continent might look like a democracy only for the elite. “With its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty … its competing ideologies, its lack of uniformity, its kindness and profound cruelty, its complex relationships with religion, its parallel realities and the rapid speed of social change — India is a macrocosm, and may be the world’s default setting for the future,” writes Patrick French in “India: A Portrait,” in which he mingles historical analysis with on-the-spot reportage, aiming to capture the country in all its teeming, volatile complexity. The result is rich, engaging and indeed multi-hued.

more from Richard Rayner at the LAT here.

mamet loves palin


Why, if he so loves small-town America and its values, does he live in the liberal enclave of Los Angeles? “There is a lot of work. My wife works there,” he says and then he mentions his daughters. “They are very, very beautiful. It once occurred to me: being able to write is like being the pretty girl at the party. You can’t be diffident about it because that’s a lie but it’s nothing to be arrogant about.” The waitress returns and Mamet asks if she has any fresh fruit. She offers us two plates of berries, bananas and sliced apples. “Yum, yum,” he says appreciatively as the fruit arrives a few minutes later. We are discussing Hollywood and his liberal friends and colleagues. “It is very amusing to listen to some people of my acquaintance who not only own summer homes but transcontinental jets going on about greed and how greed is ruining our country,” Mamet says with a laugh. “You get rich through luck. You get rich through crime. You get rich through fulfilling the needs of another. You can be as greedy as you like. If you can’t do one of those three things, you ain’t going to get any money.” We close with his Phil Spector film and, as Mamet describes a monologue from it, it is clear how much he identifies with the defiantly eccentric and isolated producer – and with Lawrence of Arabia. “He [the Spector character] talks a lot about Lawrence. He loved Lawrence. Either he loved him or I do, I can’t remember. He says in the film Lawrence wanted the one thing that he couldn’t have, which was privacy. He simply wanted to be by himself. Did that make him a monster?”

more from John Gapper at the FT here.

Pakistan After Osama

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Himal South Asian:

ScreenHunter_04 Jun. 11 10.50 Why was Pakistan’s warrior class never tamed by civilian rule? The answer must be sought in the foundation of Pakistan and the state of confusion into which it was born. Beyond the simplistic notion that Hindus and Muslims were incapable of living together, the idea of Pakistan was unclear from the outset. Although he made many speeches, Mohammad Ali Jinnah left no manifesto and authored no book before his untimely death. Critical questions were thus left unanswered: Would the new state be capitalist or socialist, liberal or theocratic, modern or tradition-based? On what basis would power be distributed between its different regions? How would defence, education, science, health, etc be prioritised?

With no clear answers, and lacking a clear basis for legitimacy or direction, the state quickly aligned with the powerful landed class: the army leadership and the economic elite joined forces to claim authority in a nation without definition or cohesion. The Kashmir dispute gave reason for the military to become powerful and to make the acquisition of modern weaponry an overriding priority. The Americans happily obliged, given the burgeoning cold war. A fatal attraction for guns steadily drew Pakistan into the US orbit.

More here.

The Red Juice in Raw Red Meat Isn’t Blood

From Misconception Junction:

Raw-meat-300x192 Nearly all blood is removed from meat during slaughter, which is also why you don’t see blood in raw “white meat”; only an extremely small amount of blood remains within the muscle tissue when you get it from the store.

So what is that red liquid you are seeing in red meat? Red meats, such as beef, are composed of quite a bit of water. This water, mixed with a protein called myoglobin, ends up comprising most of that red liquid.

In fact, red meat is distinguished from white meat primarily based on the levels of myoglobin in the meat. The more myoglobin, the redder the meat. Thus most animals, such as mammals, with a high amount of myoglobin, are considered “red meat”, while animals with low levels of myoglobin, like most poultry, or no myoglobin, like some sea-life, are considered “white meat”.

Myoglobin is a protein, that stores oxygen in muscle cells, very similar to its cousin, hemoglobin, that stores oxygen in red blood cells. This is necessary for muscles which need immediate oxygen for energy during frequent, continual usage. Myoglobin is highly pigmented, specifically red; so the more myoglobin, the redder the meat will look and the darker it will get when you cook it.

More here.

Lessons From Jane Austen

From The New York Times:

Jane In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot. At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

More here.

Restaurant Photos Help Nail Bean Sprouts in German Outbreak

From Science:

Beans Today, researchers at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German center for disease prevention and control, confirmed the suspicion in what they call a “recipe-based restaurant cohort study.” “The problem is that many people do not remember exactly what was in the food they had for lunch or dinner days ago,” says Gérard Krause, head of infectious epidemiology at RKI. To address that problem, the researchers identified five travel groups that had eaten at a restaurant in Northern Germany. There were EHEC victims in all five groups; altogether, 19 of the 112 diners had become infected. (The name of the eatery has been kept secret.) On Tuesday and Wednesday, research teams swarmed out to interview the groups' members. Using order lists, bills, and photos, they managed to determine for most of the guests which items on the menu they had chosen. At the same time, three researchers went to the kitchen to find out how exactly the food was prepared and what ingredients went into each dish. “Only by bridging the memory gaps of the guests with the detailed knowledge of the chefs could we find out exactly what every guest had consumed,” says RKI President Reinhard Burger. “Those photos really helped us as well.”

The researchers returned to Berlin on Wednesday evening and started entering the data into their computers. A statistical analysis, ready at 6:00 Thursday morning, revealed that people who had eaten sprouts were 8.6 times more likely to have become infected with EHEC than those with sprout-free meals. All 19 guests who had fallen ill had eaten sprouts. On the strength of this evidence—and because a total of 26 EHEC clusters has been traced back to the sprout farm in Bienenbüttel—the BfR officially exonerated the other vegetables at a press conference here today. Households and restaurants were advised to destroy any sprouts they had in stock and any food that might have come into contact with them.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

by Li-Young Lee
from Poetry Out Loud Anthology
The Poetry Foundation, 2005