A Look Into Hizbollah’s World View

In openDemocracy, Fred Halliday on Hizbollah and his 2004 meeting with Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbollah’s deputy head.

The discussion with Sheikh Naim Qassem was in some ways different from many other interviews I had conducted with middle-eastern political figures over the past years. The sheikh remained calm and succinct throughout the conversation, and avoided long historical excursions of the kind most radical politicians in this region (as elsewhere) regularly indulge in. The British were not blamed for too much.

We began by discussing the history of Hizbollah. In the interview and at much greater length in his book, Sheikh Naim Qassem described the situation in the late 1970s and early 1980s: on the one hand, the “disappearance” and apparent murder of the then Shi’a leader Imam Musa Sadr, while on a visit to Libya, presumably because he had objected to the Libyan attempt to hegemonise the Shi’a community in Lebanon.

With the first Israeli military intervention in 1978 and then with the triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran in early 1979, a number of radical Shi’a groups were formed, with the aim of promoting the place of the Shi’a in Lebanon, a country where they had been the least favoured religious group – despised by Christians and Sunni Muslims, but abused also by the Palestinians who tried to take over southern Lebanon in the 1970s, creating their own “Fatahland” near the Israeli frontier. At the same time these radicals were inspired by the Iranian revolution’s call for an “Islamic government”, along the lines propounded by Khomeini, and sought initially to replicate this in Lebanon.

Kansas Deals Blow to ID in Curriculum

From The New York Times:

Kansas voters on Tuesday handed power back to moderates on the State Board of Education, setting the stage for a return of science teaching that broadly accepts the theory of evolution, according to preliminary election results.

With just 6 districts of 1,990 yet to report as of 8 a.m. Central time today, two conservatives — including incumbent Connie Morris, a former west Kansas teacher and author who had described evolution as “a nice bedtime story” — appear to have been defeated decisively by two moderates in the Republican primary elections. One moderate incumbent, Janet Waugh from the Kansas City area, held on to her seat in the Democratic primary.

If her fellow moderates prevailed, Ms. Waugh said last week, “we need to revisit the minutes and every decision that was 6-4, re-vote.”

Letter from Beirut IV

by Rasha Salti

[NOTE: See Rasha’s earlier communications here and  here.]

(This siege note I wish to dedicate to Maher. –RS)

The history of earlier drives into Lebanon shows that even as the Israeli war machine gains momentum, so do the chances of terrible accidents and atrocities. In 1982, under the protection of Israeli forces, Christian Lebanese militias carried out the now infamous massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Ten years ago, during a campaign against Hizbullah similar to the one now underway, Israeli gunners blasted a United Nations monitoring post at the South Lebanese town of Qana, where terrified locals had taken refuge. More than 100 civilians were killed in a barrage that lasted only a few ghastly seconds. International outrage quickly forced Israel to end its offensive.

The Israelis say they are being more careful this time around, not least because they don’t want to be forced to stop. “The presidential approval by Bush, the surprising level of support he’s giving Israel, the patience he’s giving Israel—it looks as if there’s a great amount of slack being cut to us,” says a senior Israeli security source, who did not want to be identified by name because he is not authorized to speak on the record. “Absent a Qana, it might go on.”

–from the article “Torn to Shreds” in last week’s Newsweek

Bearing witness to a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one’s being (or home)

Coming into consciousness of, or bearing witness to, a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one’s being (or home), feels very much like the experience of being in the proximity of a very powerful explosion only at an extremely, extremely slowed motion. Taking stock of the information on time, place, and the toll of victims, watching televised transmission of rescue workers piling a kindergarden in rigor mortis, is identical to the astounding sensation of the air being sucked from all around, that typically precedes the explosion. And at some point, it all sinks in, the information processes into information, and the images breakdown into their compositional elements (rescue worker carrying four year old with hand stretched to the sky and fingers wide spread), and you explode, or implode, with some sort of a system shut down. For a split second your heart does not beat the way it is used to, and your lungs don’t quite inhale or exhale according to the book.

9:00 am, or somewhere around there. I am zapping between al-Jazeera, LBC, BBC, Future TV, and my new discovery of this war, Sky News. I have to finish some proposal text to send to funders to collect desperately needed funds to support the army of volunteers and the programs for displaced kids. I cannot disappoint “Nouna”, I have to be at the library at 10:00 am with the text in English.

9:05 am, or somewhere around there. Yasser Abou Halileh, who just landed in Lebanon from Jordan is catching his breath on al-Jazeera. He arrived to Qana and just reached the shattered shelter site. Qana was carpet-bombed throughout the night. The air-bombing was not a “surprise” to anyone, because the Israeli army dropped flyers advising residents to leave. The bodies piled in the shelter ravaged to rubble were of people too poor to afford the ride from Qana to Sidon or Beirut, or people with disabilities.

Qana besides being an extremely poor village in the anemic economic orbit of Tyre, was also the site of one of Christ’s miracles, then a little short of two thousand years later it housed a UNIFIL base (UN peacekeeping force), and a notorious Israeli massacre of fleeing hapless southern Lebanese villagers at said UNIFIL base. Yasser and his team headed for Qana because rescue workers alerted the media to the possibility of another massacre. The shelling did not stop as rescue workers lifted bodies from under rubble.

You know the rest of the story. An Yasser’s story as well, it is no different from any correspondent that suddenly becomes a human being, a father, a brother, a son and Yasser was looking for words to put together into sentences to report the first report of the massacre. When he and his camera arrived, rescue workers were on site, slowly pulling bodies from under the rubble. Yasser is catching his breath and slowly, you can feel the air being sucked from all around him, children of all sizes, mostly small and extra small (some are barely a few months old), piled next to him, covered in ashen powdered concrete.

As Yasser must have been experiencing “the explosion” of “implosion”, that’s when I felt the air being sucked from all around me. I jumped from my bed and ran hysterically in the house looking for someone in my family to tell the news to. And when I did, I realized that a vacuum cloaked me. I heard myself speak, I saw myself put my shoes on, pack my bag, feel tightness in my chest, say goodbye to my parents, walk out into the street. Walk out into the street. Flash of the voice of Yasser hiccuping wiith emotion. Nothing unusual about this Sunday morning. Forgot the laptop. Forgot what I owed Nouna. Flash of the image of the rescue workers leaning in half to be able to go into the ravaged building. Back up. Back upstairs. Flash of baby lying on rubble, her cutie derriere dripping a pool of blood and powdered concrete. Al-Jazeera’s screen. Zap, maybe it’s a mistake. An exageration. Text message from Rula: “Are you watching al-Jazeera?” I grab my purse again, leave. Come back: the laptop. On the street, as I wait to hail a cab, I wonder why there is not a trace of powdered concrete in the air. I could taste it in my mouth.

10:15 am, or somewhere around there. Municipal building, 3rd floor, Beirut’s Municipal Librairy. Elevator working. Flash of rescue worker carrying a baby girl, barefoot, covered in powdered concrete. Her arm sticking out, upright in rigor mortis, her palm wide and fingers stretched as if she were trying to reach out. At the municipal library that morning, there was a training workshop for the volunteers from the NGOs that are in charge of overseeing the settlement of the displaced in the schools around Beirut. A training workshop for educational games and activities around the book and storytelling. I walked in, greeted Nouna and another lady, I know I was not very present, the vacuum still cloaked me. I just said to them, as best as I could make coherent sentences “there was a massacre in Qana”. Most of the volunteers had woken up and rushed to the workshop without hearing news.

I put my laptop in the office, and sat, stood up and started calling people. Everyone was choking in shock, rage and horror. Rula was out of her mind, zapping frantically. Only al-Jazeera showed images, BBC and CNN had a very down-played report. She beckoned me to make phone calls. Who could I call? I am nobody. I called friends, and more friends, people in the know and out of the know. Then a text message came: Protest in front of the ESCWA building at noon. I was beginning to breathe again. Condoleezza Rice was supposed to land in Beirut sometime around noon.

11:00 am, or somewhere around there. I was still sucked into the vacuum. Things moving around me were confusing, I could not quite mediate with reality. My mind was racing. The flashes of dead bodies were still coming. I needed to describe them, in gruesome detail to someone. Whoever I called, described them to me, in their gruesomeness: “Did you see that baby girl with her buttocks drenched in blood?” She was there in front of my eyes, off course I had seen her.

I typed something in English on the laptop. I called Nouna. We discussed it. I repeated the things she said to me so they would sink in. One of the attending volunteers could not hold still, who smoked outside, paced, and checked her cell phone about ten times, walked over to us and said she was going to the protest.

12:00 pm, sharp. I was back on the street. I walked towards the ESCWA (basically the offices of he UN and UN-related institutions) building. The street was filled with people, men, women, children carrying flags, Lebanese, Hezbollah, and Amal, walked decidedly, almost angrily in the direction of the ESCWA building. By the time I got there, there was a mob scene in front of the building. Young men (and a few women) were banging on the gates, throwing rocks to the windows that were bouncing against the glass and falling back on them. The release of rage was collective.

The sheath of vacuum around me, inside me, dissipated. The explosion/implosion was now happening to me. I felt myself transform into a magma of anger and sorrow at once. I felt my own rage channel to the crowd, I stood on the sidewalk, sucked into the magnetism of the mob, my body totally merged with theirs. The flashes from the al-Jazeera broadcast were no longer caged inside me. They were wafting away. The flags were pulled down and instead the masts in front of the fancy structure were now flagging Hezbollah, Amal flags and portraits of Hassan Nasrallah.

(When people later criticized the mob scene for “attacking” the ESCWA building –”Was it necessary?”– I was surprised they did not have that rage, or that they could not comprehend it.) The crowd that unloaded into downtown Beirut was at that point mostly comprised of the displaced from the southern suburb. They shouted: “Hezbollah, Nasrallah, wel Dahiyah killa” (Hezbollah, Nasrallah, and the whole of the southern suburbs.)

On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Media Center building where newsmedia post their cameras and microphones and their anchors shoot their live shots, people were screaming at cameras.

The crowd was growing fatter and fatter, now people were coming more prepared, they had signs and banners, in Arabic and English.

I came across Mohammad, a friend, and finally, finally I could cry. I burried my head in his shoulders and wept helpless.

Mohammad led me to the Media Center building. I sat in one of the offices with windows onto the street. More and more people were coming. Army and internal security personel were also arriving. They stood by and watched. At some point a truck carrying some sort of a load of something parked in the lot across the street from the ESCWA building. It became a stage atop which various spokespersons stood and delivered speeches. I guess someone brought a voice magnifier, and someone else brought a tape and a tape player because soon there were also chants blaring. The flags flying on top of the crowd were now of several political parties: the “Free Movement”, the Communists, the Syrian Nationalist (the most overt supporters of Hezbollah). The most touching scene was of sunni and shi’i sheikhs huddled together, hand in hand almost talking and then delivering speeches. From the window of the 6th floor, I could see their round head coiffe and robes.

Randa sent a text message from Cairo. I asked her to call me. She was weeping and I begged her to call her activist friends and organize a mobilization in Cairo. I wanted to weep, and hated myself for stiffening my upper lip. I borrowed Mohammad’s phone and started to call friends across the world, hysterically, begging them to organize protests. I was nonsensical. I woke my sister in New Jersey. My tears were now flowing silently.

I felt I was going to collapse. I had to leave and be quiet for a while.

I walked home, a long, long meditative walk in the punishing heat of a late July afternoon. It was 2:00 pm. Everyone urged me to write something, a “siege note” for Qana. I could not.

Instead I slept. My eyelids felt heavy from crying.

Unscathed

Maher called. I woke up. He said he was leaving with a team of journalists to Tyre. Did I want to come. (I did not know.) I should be ready in ten minutes if I wanted to come. I said no, I was not thinking and I regretted it for the rest of the day. Until now when I write, I regret it.

Maher is a filmmaker. When this war started he was in Paris. He went nuts after a few days and decided to return. He wanted to be here for the war. He came on one of the ships that the French sent to evacuate French passport holders. His voyage was surreal, but that’s another story.

He has a project to establish a website to collect and disseminate the record of the lived experience of this war, lest it should lapse from the collective record again. He has started to distribute cameras to young filmmakers, artists, even volunteers to record, film, transcribe the mundane and the non-sensational everyday of surviving this war. The website is not ready yet, but as soon as it s, I will publicize it.

Maher had been itching to go to Tyre, closest to one of the sites of battle. He went with the convoy of journalists and humanitarian aid workers. If my rage took me to the street and the mob scene, his would drive him to the front, to the site where the hurt is most poignant. He told me he was going to Qana, and I was not surprised.

I called him the next day in the afternoon. He had indeed been to Qana, and visited the site, and smelled death. From his voice, I felt that something had happened, something that still impressed him greatly. His locution was more sullen than lazy, but I could barely make out what he said, and I kept asking him to repeat himself. He did not get exasperated, his voice was detached. He was speaking to me from a different world.

My heart sank. He said Qana was exactly what I saw on TV. He kept referring to going through Srifa as being very difficult. “Very difficult” he kept saying. Nearly all of Srifa is destroyed. Limbs covered in powdered concrete emerge from between the ravages of collapsed buildings. No one has had the energy or courage to pull out the dead. The Red Cross and Civil Defense ambulances have been targetted relentlessly by Israel. When the guns will quiet, we will discover that Qana is small-time compared to Srifa. There is a pattern emerging now: Marwaheen, Srifa, Blida and Qana: terror to induce forced displacement (or pardon my French, “deportation”). Scorched earth and mass graves, this is how we achieve the New Middle East.

Screenhunter_3_6

Screenhunter_6_3

Maher said nearly 60% of Bint Jbeil has now become flat rubble. Most of its central area. There two limbs stick out of collapsed buildings, and the smell of death is everywhere. While rescue workers pulled out the dead from that shelter in Qana, the IDF was shelling the only functioning hospital in Bint Jbeil, a day prior to Maher’s visit. That’s how battered Bint Jbeil was, even its hospital the IDF decided was a Hezbollah stronghold and posed a grave security threat on the well-being of the children of Kiryat Shmona who prefer to go to school and not dwell in shelters after they have kissed the shells that their army will shower on Lebanon to implement UN Resolution 1559 and eradicate terror.

In the convoy to Bint Jbeil, journalists outnumbered the rescue workers, and they found a group of elderly men and women who were trapped in a shelter. They could not ambulate without assistance and had not eaten for four or five days. They were carried out and given some water and driven to places where they could receive the care they needed.

Screenhunter_4_6The BBC produced a number of excellent reports from Bint Jbeil, in heir backdrop, I saw Maher’s face. His demeanor confirmed the impression I had after speaking to him on the phone. Maher had seen the face of death. Not death as in the sorrowful but inevitable expiring of everyday life, and not the death of a soldier on the battlefield. He had seen the face of organized, carefully orchestrated, mass-scale death, the planned death of hundreds and thousands as a solution to restoring power hegemony in a region.

You never leave a mass grave unscathed. Maher had seen several that day. Even if helping survivors seems like a life-affirming release, it will not alleviate the burden, the imprint of the face of death. I know he has been branded for ever now and there is not much anything that can be done about it. My forever beloved Marwan worked on collecting the bodies of victims in Sabra and Chatila after the massacre. Seeing the face of death was so overwhelming he left the country shortly thereafter. He moved to London and did not return to Lebanon for decades. You can still feel the brand of that mass grave in the lining of the timbre of his voice, in the lining to his gaze, there is a mute inconsolable sorrow.

I don’t know if Maher will leave Lebanon, but I know he will return to Beirut markedly changed. For the time being the pull of the mass graves, of the people trapped in shelters, of bodies surging through rubble is too powerful, he wants to be near them. While the journalists he drove down with have left Tyre, he called last night to say he is tempted to stay. His voice felt he called from a netherworld, Israel is now engaged in a massive ground offensive in the south.

This siege note took a couple of days to write. I could not find my words or sense of self after news of the massacre on Sunday.

The map above locates the infrastructure, mainly transport and vital sites, that have been bombed over the past days. It clearly reveals the siege that different cities/inhabitants have undergone and still suffer from, it also shows how Israel’s fierce assault on Lebanon completely violates the Geneva conventions & international law relative to respect for human rights in armed conflicts, through it’s massive destruction of vital civilian utility sites and infrastructure. The other map of locations bombed is being updated daily on www.lebanonupdates.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Hive

Marshall Poe in The Atlantic Monthly:

HiveSeveral months ago, I discovered that I was being “considered for deletion.” Or rather, the entry on me in the Internet behemoth that is Wikipedia was.

For those of you who are (as uncharitableWikipedians sometimes say) “clueless newbies,” Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. But it is like no encyclopedia Diderot could have imagined. Instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You, I, and any wired-up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted. For reasons I’d rather not share outside of therapy, I created a one-line biographical entry on “Marshall Poe.” It didn’t take long for my tiny article to come to the attention of Wikipedia’s self-appointed guardians. Within a week, a very active—and by most accounts responsible—Scottish Wikipedian named “Alai” decided that … well, that I wasn’t worth knowing about. Why? “No real evidence of notability,” Alai cruelly but accurately wrote, “beyond the proverbial average college professor.”

Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind.

More here.

Letter From American In Ramallah

Ali Eteraz in his eponymous blog:

Following is a letter from an American in Ramallah, who is a friend of a friend. Checkpoints, Nasrallah, IDF, jokes, arrests, kidnapping — it’s all in there. We pick up after the initial greeting:

I apologize for the huge gaps in my emails. These past few weeks have
been very very busy and it has become nearly impossible for me to plan
ahead of time. Yesterday I was planning on going to Hebron when my
friend called me and told me that there was going to be a huge rally
“welcoming” Condalezza Rice. Sure enough he was right. The rally was
enormous. All of Ramallah—all the stores, all the supermarkets, all
the food stands—shut down protesting her arrival and the entirety of
the city hit the streets yelling, screaming, and chanting. So while
Condalezza was talking peace in Arafat’s compound, the entire city was
on the streets telling her to ‘go back to where she came from.’
Judging from the rally, it seems that Abu Mazen, the Palestinian
president, and Condalezza Rice were the only two people in all of
Ramallah (or more accurately all of the West Bank) who didn’t realize
that Condalezza was wasting her breath talking to a powerless
government and a powerless people. I guess the Bush Administration
never got the newsflash that more than half of the Palestinian
government was detained only a few weeks back by Israeli soldiers and
now are being tried in court. There are a few leaders who managed to
escape the roundups and the Israeli soldiers have come into Ramallah
nearly every night looking for them.

More here.

jon lee anderson in lebanon

Nasrallah

A middle-aged woman in a black chador came over. When I asked if she minded living underground, she smiled and said, in a gravelly voice, “It’s all the same to me. If Israel and America want to do this to us, all we can do is to bear the situation, so if we have to stay underground we will. We don’t mind staying here as long as the boys are O.K.”—a reference to Hezbollah’s fighters—“and as long as Sheikh Nasrallah is fine. We can bear anything. Death is normal to us, and, anyway, it means we’ll go to heaven.” She told us that four children had been born in the underground garage. Two were boys, and they had been named Waaed, which means “the promising one,” and Sadeq, which means “the truthful one,” “because Sheikh Nasrallah says, ‘We have the promise of liberating the south.’ ” She added, “We don’t think the Israelis will come to Beirut, but, if they do, we know what to do with them.” A young pregnant woman standing next to her laughed and made lunging, stabbing motions with her hand.

more from The New Yorker here.

spooky real estate writing

I fall in love with individual books all the time, books I praise passionately, even promiscuously, to anyone who will listen. Out of the hundreds I read every year and blog about, though, only a few speak to me so loudly that I bestir myself from torpor and plunge into fanatical book-fiendish evangelizing. Toni Schlesinger’s Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories came to me for review this January in the form of a ridiculously cumbersome wad of xeroxed eleven-by-seventeen pages, inadequately secured by binder clips: it weighed three or four pounds, at a guess, with the flat cartilaginous heft of a stingray. Once I recovered from the format, I felt the shock—painful, delightful—you experience when you encounter something so perfect you’re furious you didn’t know about it sooner. My list of such things includes the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” Paradise Lost, Fabergé eggs, and the taste and texture of meringue. You will have your own list, but find a place on it if you can for this collection of the columns Schlesinger wrote for the Village Voice from 1997 to 2006 under the rubric Shelter.

more from The Believer here.

Entropy and Anthropic Explanations

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has a great post on Ludwig Boltzmann, entropy, and anthropic explanations.

A recent post of Jen-Luc’s reminded me of Huw Price and his work on temporal asymmetry. The problem of the arrow of time — why is the past different from the future, or equivalently, why was the entropy in the early universe so much smaller than it could have been? — has attracted physicists’ attention (although not as much as it might have) ever since Boltzmann explained the statistical origin of entropy over a hundred years ago. It’s a deceptively easy problem to state, and correspondingly difficult to address, largely because the difference between the past and the future is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world that it’s too easy to beg the question by somehow assuming temporal asymmetry in one’s purported explanation thereof. Price, an Australian philosopher of science, has made a specialty of uncovering the hidden assumptions in the work of numerous cosmologists on the problem. Boltzmann himself managed to avoid such pitfalls, proposing an origin for the arrow of time that did not secretly assume any sort of temporal asymmetry. He did, however, invoke the anthropic principle — probably one of the earliest examples of the use of anthropic reasoning to help explain a purportedly-finely-tuned feature of our observable universe. But Boltzmann’s anthropic explanation for the arrow of time does not, as it turns out, actually work, and it provides an interesting cautionary tale for modern physicists who are tempted to travel down that same road.

Can the Bombing of Dresden be Justified?

In The Weekly Standard, Hitchens considers whether the destruction of German cities was justified.

There is something grandly biblical and something dismally utilitarian about this long argument between discrepant schools of historians and strategists. In the Old Testament, God reluctantly considers lenience for the “cities of the plain,” on condition that a bare minimum of good men can be identified as living there. The RAF code name for the first major firestorm raid on Hamburg was “Operation Gomorrah.” And this was a city that had always repudiated the Nazi party. Some say that Dresden was not really a military target and that it was obliterated mainly in order to impress Joseph Stalin (perhaps not a notably fine war aim) while others–Frederick Taylor most recently–argue that Dresden was indeed a hub city for Hitler’s armies, and that doing a service to a wartime ally is part of the strategic picture in any case.

This leaves us with a somewhat arid and suspect antithesis: Were these bombings war crimes, and if so, were they justified on the grounds that they shortened the duration of the criminal war itself?

Anthony Grayling, a very deft and literate English moral philosopher, now seeks to redistribute the middle of this latent syllogism. He argues from the evidence that “area bombing” was not even really intended to shorten the war, and that in any case it did not do so. And he further asserts that the policy was an illegal and immoral one by the same standards that the Allies had announced at the onset of hostilities. This, at least, has the virtue of recasting a hitherto rather sterile debate. And some of what he says is unarguable.

The Night Listener

Thenightlistener_bigposter_3
Patrick Stettner has a remarkable talent for telling stories about trust, narratives, and what happens to our relationships when we lose faith in the truth of what we are told. His new film, The Night Listener, adapted from the Armistead Maupin’s novel, has a few layers of this, oddly leading one review to state, “Although the movie opens with a claim that it was “Inspired by a true story,” I almost wish it hadn’t, simply because the tale is strong and genuine enough to stand on its own without the prop of a true story claim.” “Genuine enough” that the claim to truth is just a “prop”: both strange and quite an endorsement. The film opens this Friday.

Armistead Maupin’s 2000 novel The Night Listener pre-dated the Jayson Blair and James Frey scandals that challenged readers’ trust in dramatic “true” stories. But Maupin anticipated the issue when he personally became subject to a story he began to suspect was more or less than met the eye. An investigation followed, and Maupin ultimately fashioned The Night Listener, a fictionalized version of his experience. The slippery natures of truth, fiction, lies, and wishful thinking now get full play in the screen adaptation of The Night Listener, starring Maupin’s friend and fellow San Francisco native Robin Williams.

Life After Earth: Imagining Survival Beyond This Terra Firma

From The New York Times:

When the dust settles after World War III, or World War IX, humanity will still want to grow pineapples, rice, coffee and other crops. That is why in June on the island of Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, all five Scandinavian prime ministers met to break ground on a $4.8-million “doomsday vault” that will stockpile crop seeds in case of global catastrophe.

Arc1

While it boasts the extra safety of Arctic temperatures, the seed bank is just the latest life-preservation plan to reach reality, joining genetic banks like the Frozen Ark, a British program that is storing DNA samples from endangered species like the scimitar-horned oryx, the Seychelles Frégate beetle and the British field cricket.

To a certain group preoccupied with doomsday, these projects are laudable but share a deep flaw: they are Earth-bound. A global catastrophe — like a collision with an asteroid or a nuclear winter — would have to be rather tame in order not to rattle the test tubes in the various ark-style labs around the world. What kind of feeble doomsday would leave London safe and sound?

More here.

Forty Winks: Science and Sleep

From Science:

Sleepgrass_ccl_160_jpg Do you tend to hit the snooze button on your alarm clock several times before getting out of bed? Does it take you forever, on certain days, to get yourself together before you leave the house? How many mornings have you decided that you need an extra cup of coffee just to get started, or an afternoon slug of espresso to make it through the day?

Do you ever take catnaps at your desk during lunch hour? Are there times when your patience runs so thin that you can barely listen to the stories of a colleague whose company you ordinarily enjoy? Do you recall snapping at your supervisor or your partner only to regret it moments–or days–later? Do you fall asleep in front of the TV when you come home from the lab? These can all be signs of a sleep deficit, which can cause a number of different problems if you choose to overlook them.

Recently, I attended a late-afternoon lecture given by a visiting scholar I had been looking forward to hearing. As the lights dimmed and he began his PowerPoint presentation, I felt my eyelids closing. As my chin fell onto my chest, I don’t know whether I was more startled or mortified. As I looked around to see whether the speaker or anyone else in the small group had noticed, my heart was pounding. The fear of a recurrence kept me vigilant for the rest of the lecture.

More here.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Random Walks: Heart of Darkness

Jackchick_1 “No man can be said to know anything, until he learns that every day is doomsday,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously observed. By that standard, there is no one more knowledgeable than Jack Chick, the controversial founder of Chick Publications, purveyor of fine evangelical propaganda since the 1960s. For decades, Chick has been a one-man prophet of doom and gloom, seeing Satanic conspiracies  and signs of the pending Apocalypse lurking in every corner.

It’s a safe bet that anyone reading this has encountered at least one example of Chick’s work. He has both rabid fans, and equally rabid detractors, inspiring both the Jack Chick Museum of Fine Art, and an archive devoted to parodies of his signature style. Yet very little is known about the man himself, who is notoriously reclusive (partly from natural shyness, and partly out of paranoia, convinced — like any true conspiracy theorist — that his enemies are trying to assassinate him). He hasn’t granted an interview since, oh, about 1975. But here’s what little we do know.

Jack Thomas Chick was born April 13, 1924 in Los Angeles, California. A sickly child, he was fond of drawing cartoons growing up. He was also a member of his high school drama club, which sparked a long-standing interest in the theater. In fact, he attended the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theater on a scholarship in the early 1940s, whose former students also include Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. After a stint in the army, Chick returned to the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his future wife, Lola Lynn. She was the daughter of fundamentalist Christians, yet apparently agreed to marry him anyway, even though he was, by his own admission, a foul-mouthed heathen. Thanks to his in-laws’ influence, he eventually converted. 

Chick took the biblical exhortation to spread the Gospel very much to heart. He dreamed of being a missionary, or a preacher, but was purportedly too shy for public speaking. That’s when he hit upon the idea of evangelical tracts, inspired by their use as mass-market propaganda by Chinese communists. He worked days as a technical illustrator at Astro Science Corporation, and drew his comics at night. His first, and most popular, tract, This Was Your Life, appeared in 1964, in which a drunken, lustful, godless protagonist dies suddenly and is forced by an angel to view scenes from his “wasted life” before being condemned to the fires of hell. It is still in print today.Chickend1jpg_2   

The huge success of that first little tract spawned an entire industry: Chick Publications now has tracts  devoted to every conceivable threat to evangelical Christianity (real or imagined), denouncing premarital sex, abortion, evolution, homosexuality and AIDS (God’s judgment, of course), astrology, Freemasons, Halloween, witchcraft, rock music, and just about every other facet of modern American life. By the 1970s, Chick had conceived of a more elaborate, full-color, full-sized comic series. He teamed up with an African-American painter and illustrator named Fred Carter to produce The Crusaders, detailing the adventures of two men, fighting evil and spreading the Gospel wherever they went. I was addicted to the series as a child: they had all the elements of good horror, and didn’t skimp on the gory details. Carter’s illustrations are so vivid in their depictions of sex and violence that some critics have described the series as “spiritual porn.”Chickend2jpg_2

But then Chick made a serious miscalculation. He published a new adventure featuring the Crusaders, this time based on the “testimony” of a supposed former Jesuit priest named Alberto Rivera. Rivera claimed to have left the Catholic Church after uncovering the Vatican’s plans for world domination, beginning with its systematic discrediting of mainstream Protestant churches (usually through sexual temptation of spiritually weak ministers). The first tale, simply titled Alberto, was followed by six others, each more paranoid than the last, accusing the Catholic Church of (among other things) participating in the Holocaust, the Jonestown massacre, and the rise of Communism.

The Alberto series proved too crazed and paranoid even for diehard evangelical Christians accustomed to fire and brimstone. They could accept that record companies and rock bands worshiped Satan, that demon possession was real, and that Halloween was evil, but not that the Pope was out to get them. It didn’t help Chick’s waning credibility that another tale in the Crusader series, Spellbound, turned out to be based on fraudulent allegations by a supposed “former Grand Druid” named Johnny Todd, who claimed there were Satanists in the US performing human sacrifice. And on July 15th, a longtime Chick collaborator, Ken “Dr. Dino” Hovind, was arrested for tax evasion — specifically, for refusing to pay taxes on his religious theme park, Dinosaur Adventureland. (Hovind helped Chick revise the classic anti-evolution tract, Big Daddy, among others.)

In response to the growing outcry, many Christian bookstores stopped carrying Chick’s comics entirely. (When I tried to buy the Crusader series as an adult — in a misguided fit of nostalgia — the salesclerk confessed they usually kept them in a special “restricted” section in the back, and were currently “out of stock.” I ended up ordering them online.) Even Christianity Today, a popular magazine with mainstream evangelicals, denounced Chick Publications for its overly zealous anti-Catholicism. The dislike was mutual: Chick eventually resigned from the Christian Booksellers Association, claiming they had been “infiltrated” by Catholic operatives. Rivera himself apparently died in 1997 of colon cancer, although no self-respecting conspiracy theorist would ever accept an official death certificate as proof of anything other than a massive cover-up. Chick and his followers claim Rivera was assassinated by the Jesuits via a special poison designed to give victims terminal cancer.

Chick has a few scattered fans outside the wingnut evangelical enclave, most notably underground comic artists R. Crumb (whose work Chick would frankly find appalling) and Daniel Clowes, whose screenplay for the film Ghost World received an Oscar nomination. Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning creator of Maus, is far less complimentary, telling The Independent in 2003, “It makes me despair about America that there are so many people who read these things.”

Spiegelman has it right, in my opinion. Chick comics are nothing more than propaganda masquerading as harmless entertainment. Their only purpose — overtly stated by Chick himself — is to quite literally scare the hell out of us. It’s a tried-and-true method of manipulation, used to great effect by evangelical groups in their zeal to “win souls for Christ.”  It certainly worked on my childhood self; even adults find them disquieting. I once loaned my collection of Crusader comics to PUNK co-founder Legs McNeil, whose tastes ran to the extreme, to say the least. They gave him nightmares. Clowes reported that one night in college he read 80 Chick tracts in a single sitting, and admitted, “I had never been so terrified by a comic.”

When I was around 10, I saw a Christian film called A Thief in the Night, about the supposed “end times.” (The title derives from a Biblical verse pertaining to the Second Coming, which says that Jesus will return “like a thief in the night,” when we least expect it.) Chick had nothing to do with the film, yet it followed the same simplistic formula: a skeptical, unbelieving woman is warned repeatedly that the Rapture is imminent, yet even when her husband converts, she puts off making a decision — until one morning she wakes up to find he has been raptured, along with all the other born-again Christians, and she has been Left Behind. The sequel was even more grim: we witness the rise of the Antichrist, who turns America into a police state where everyone is required to receive the Mark of the Beast (a bar code on the forehead or back of the hand). Anyone who resists is rounded up, imprisoned, and summarily executed. The final scene depicts our unfortunate heroine being forced to watch as a close friend is guillotined for refusing the Mark — her final chance to be “saved.” (The implication: accept Christ now, so you can be raptured and not have to go through that whole guillotine bit to get to heaven — or otherwise burn in hell.)

Evangelicals milked the effect on audiences for all it was worth, following every screening with an “altar call” — in which those now scared out of their wits were invited to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Needlesss to say, my ten-year-old self was terrified. Even though I had technically already been “saved” at the age of 8, largely to please my recently born-again mother, I figured I’d better head up for the altar call again — you know, just in case. Nor was I the only one. Practically every single person in the church did the exact same thing. A former college roommate of mine saw the same films as a child and confessed to being equally traumatized.

Are fear-induced religious conversions sincere or genuine? I doubt it. It certainly didn’t “take” in my case. These days I’m a diehard agnostic, and far happier for it. I prefer cheeky biblical irreverence to evangelical horror, eschewing Chick comics for the far more entertaining Web comic, Holy Bibble.  But like Spiegelman, I am dismayed by the seemingly unquenchable American thirst for the kind of Apocalyptic, fear-mongering garbage being disseminated by Chick and his ilk. There are more than 500 million of Jack Chick’s comic books and tracts in print, and they have been translated into over 100 languages, making him the world’s most published living author. (Technically, he’s self-published, but still…) Then there’s the bestselling Left Behind series of end-of-days novels penned by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, using the book of Revelations in the bible to weave a story of apocalyptic events — again, little more than thinly disguised Christian propaganda, yet hugely popular among the Christian community.

So what? You might be thinking. People like a good scare now and then, and besides, it’s only fiction. But it’s far more subversive than one might realize, especially since the line between fact and fiction is so easily blurred when it comes to things like Bibical prophecies and religious beliefs. For instance, the tragic outbreak of violence in the Middle East  over the last week or so seems to have fanned the flames of Apocalyptic conspiracy theorists. LaHaye has been featured in Newsweek (with the heading “Are These the End Times?”). His co-author, Jenkins, and another Christian author, Joel Rosenberg, were interviewed by Kyra Phillips on CNN in a segment specifically citing the current conflict as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. That’s right: CNN interviewed two writers of fiction as if they were expert scholars on the Middle East. (You can read portions of the transcript here.) That’s right up there with Congress asking Michael Crichton to give expert testimony on climate change.

I confess to puzzlement as to why the mainstream media would give so much prominent space and air time to this kind of unfounded conjecture. It’s probably all about ratings, but that’s no excuse. My objection has nothing to do with sincere personal faith, with which I have no quibble. But this is exploitation of tragic events at its most despicable. Yet once again, people are lapping it up unquestioningly. Perhaps it is more comforting to take refuge in wild religious scenarios and conspiracy theories, rather than face up to the truth: sometimes the worst, most fearsome “monsters” are to be found in the darkest hearts of men.

When not taking random walks on 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

Open Letter from American Jews

TEXT OF JEWISH VOICE FOR PEACE CALL TO ACTION:

On July 6, in a full-page ad in The Times of London, 300 British Jews cried out against the collective punishment of the people of Gaza with the anguished question, “What Is Israel Doing?” Several weeks later, as the Middle East sinks deeper into chaos, that question is ever more urgent.

Hezbollah’s attack on an IDF outpost was a violation of international law. And after Israel attacked Lebanon, Hezbollah fired missiles at Israeli cities, killing and injuring civilians. This is not morally acceptable, whatever the provocation.

But Israel’s response — an explosion of violence and collective punishment directed against airports, bridges and populated neighborhoods of Lebanon — is an even greater crime. And now Lebanon, like Gaza, is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

In the face of so much violence and suffering, the United States’ vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions calling for a cease fire are immoral and irresponsible.

We call upon U.S. Jews and others to join us in support of Israeli peace groups who write: “The only way to guarantee a different future of peace and security is by ending the occupation and establishing a relationship of equality and respect between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israelis and the neighboring nations.”

We call upon the U.S. government to use its influence with Israel to stop the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and Lebanon; to work with the international community to impose a cease-fire and prevent any further loss of civilian life; and to work for the immediate start of direct, good-faith negotiations.

Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and massive human rights abuses against the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples are opposed by many Jews in Israel, the U.S., and throughout the world.

Attacks on civilians will not bring peace, security or justice to Palestinians, Israelis, or Jews anywhere.

Click here to sign the petition.  [Thanks to Jonathan Kramnick, and also Alan Sokal.]

Below the Fold: Deep States and the American Coup

Michael Blim

In Turkey, they call it “the deep state.” Inside their state, Turks believe, is another state composed of key people spread throughout its military and civil administrations that conspire to move Turkish society in directions they prefer, regardless of what the nation or its politicians want. If the deep state considers that Kurds once more pose a threat to Turkish sovereignty, a Kurdish independence sympathizer is killed and his bookstore blown up, as happened in November, 2005. Though persons attached to the state police intelligence division are discovered involved and likely responsible for the attack, the indictment is quashed and prosecutor is sacked. On May 18, a judge against state employment or university enrollment for Muslim women wearing headscarves is shot down in his courtroom. His murderer, though portrayed as a right wing Islamist crazy, is also shown to have had cell phone contacts at the time of the assassination with a low level military official. The military orders a “spontaneous” demonstration of tens of thousands that reaffirms the secular nature of the Turkish state before the Ankara grave of Kemal Attaturk. Provocations, it seems, make for great marches, and for well-aimed warning shots across the bow of the current Islamist government that very much wants women to be able to wear headscarves.

The deep state, then, is not exactly a complete second state. It does not collect taxes, control borders, educate children, and so on. It is a network of well connected persons whose organization acts as a parasite on the official state. The deep state borrows its host’s powers from time to time to redirect both the official state and nation toward courses of action the deep state favors. Precisely because it is not the surface state of post offices and public works, its workings are only partially visible. This murkiness provides it with plausible deniability both as an organization and with respect to its actions. Sometimes a deep state gets lucky when one of its own takes over the official state by election or by coup. Other times, the deep state so batters or usurps state power that it succeeds in what Andrew Bacevich calls a “creeping” coup.

With September 11, the American deep state took over, and the coup galloped rather than creeped. Bacevich writes about the post-September 11 Congressional resolution: “The notorious Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 was a straitjacket compared to this spacious grant of authority.” (London Review of Books, June 8, 2006, 3) The American deep state, that is the organizational network created inside the state among cold warriors located in successive Republican White Houses and the Defense Department since Nixon’s reign, and whose most visible present figures are Cheney and Rumsfeld, received its mandate. State violence in all its forms was their weapon, and they could now use it with impunity. The virtually unlimited war-making powers of an American president were their cover, much as European tyrants long ago used the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Congress and the Judiciary supinely gave up what little of the Magna Charta remained the American constitution.

Still, there were things that a deep state, even in charge and legitimate, chose to hide. Wholesale wiretapping, torture of combatants and suspects, secret torture camps, domestic spying are (thus far) among them. Like war crimes, our deep states apparently realize that it is best to keep one’s plausible deniability in some sensitive areas.

What of other deep state shadow worlds? Is Pakistan’s deep state responsible for the Mumbai bombings, just as it has been so assiduous in creating paramilitary groups in Kashmir and friendly neighbors out of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Is its president, General Musharraf, the successful head of the deep state, or its oft-embarrassed creature? (It begs credulity to think of Musharraf in this context as a victim.) While American deep staters fume, they seem unsure of the state(s) to which Musharraf is a part, or they know and are either powerless or pleased.

In Italy, a deep state thrived throughout the postwar period, abetting the Mafia, suborning bomb-throwing neofascists, and punishing native Communists. For a long while, it seemed institutionally unable to cope successfully with the leftist terrorism. Many people then and now have wondered whether the deep state was using left terrorism as a weapon against the communists themselves (by the eighties, they were its primary victims), and as part of a campaign to turn the country further to the right. American involvement helped the development of the deep state along. The US CIA during the Cold War had organized and bankrolled its own version of a Masonic lodge called Gladio through which key politicians, generals, state bureaucrats and business people stood ready to step in to stop a left-wing takeover and to cover up American breaches of Italian sovereignty. Another self-described Masonic lodge, the P-2, bankrolled by influence-peddlers and most likely the Mafia, struggled to erect a deep state of a more domestic, entrepreneurial sort, though the membership list often overlapped that of Gladio. The P-2 list, however, added a key Vatican banker and illustrious Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian premier, monopolist media magnate, and one-time Mafia money launderer. P-2 was exposed and discredited, and the Gladio story surfaced after the Berlin Wall fall as just another tale of how the cold war had created deep states in many sensitive political outposts of the American empire. Along with the fall of the Italian postwar political elite in the beginning of the nineties, the Italian deep state seemed done for, though ordinary Italians found it hard to shuck the impression that nothing in their country’s political life is what it seems.

But America’s worldwide war against terrorism had need of one once more and began in Italy under Berlusconi to create one, this time based largely (as is known so far) in the intelligence services. The deputy head of the Italian CIA was arrested several weeks ago for helping the US CIA kidnap and deport a certain Abu Omar from a Milan street to an Egyptian jail for torture and possible private execution. Italian magistrates are now trying to figure out how far the conspiracy goes, but no one would be surprised if Berlusconi, America’s self-proclaimed best European friend, were finally shown to be cognizant of the plot.

Omar’s kidnap by the CIA was one of scores conducted throughout Europe. The European Parliament has traced over 1000 secret, unauthorized flights flown by the CIA in European Union territory over the past five years. The purpose of the flights was to kidnap EU citizens or residents like Omar and to deliver them to secret locations worldwide for “rendition,” torture under an Orwellian tag.

So our deep state meets their deep state(s). The tracks between us and them, as in the Cold War, are becoming deep furrows once more. The American war on terror, and the legitimization of our deep state’s coup, have quickened the pace of illegal, undemocratic acts by it among many and fostered the growth or revitalization of deep states around the world.

And finally we return to the Turks, for whom we might thank for the highly ingenious concept of the deep state. In thanks, we might warn them that they had better watch out. For some time, relations between the US deep state and the Turkish deep state were quite cordial. The Turks were the right kind of Muslims (secular), and their military was determined to keep Islamists from weakening Attaturk-inspired secular state. Its military and ours have had strong links since World War II, and our government, overtly but often deep state-wise covertly has supported several Turkish military coups. The Turks gave Americans air bases for no-fly Kurdish zones after the first Iraq War. Turkish generals had developed strong ties with the Israeli military, and had stood against Turkish Islamic movements seeking a more religiously friendly domestic politics.

But the Turkish state refused to open up or permit a northern front against Iraq in the 2003 war, a source of lasting pique among American deep staters. A recent blog reported that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld expressed concern that Turkey was moving toward Islamic fundamentalism. Policy institutes close to the Defense department, it was said, were sounding an alarm that current Islamist premier Recep Erdogan was using the EU admission process to both weaken the deep state-involved military and to make Turkey more Islamic at home and abroad.

One wonders what might happen if Turkish internal tensions increase. Now that America is a unitary state and the deep state is in charge, Turkish politicians probably shouldn’t expect the usual American split-the-difference advice, consisting of the ambassador that supports the government, and the Pentagon general that supports the coup. America now speaks with one voice, and the Turks among others should beware.

Letter from Beirut III

by Rasha Salti

[NOTE: See Rasha’s earlier communications here.]

Every day, I have to ask at least twice or three times what day it is, where we are now in July (Please tell me this war will be a July affair only). The calendar of the Siege barely sticks in my head. It’s Day 16 or 17 when I am writing now. I don’t know.

I have also tried to the best of my abilities to keep up to date with professional commitments from my former life. It’s almost impossible, but if I stop I know I will fall apart entirely. It is surreal to write emails following up with work. The world outside is decidedly distant. The mental image of my apartment in New York is practically impossible to summon. Avenue A, the deli at the corner and the Yemenis who own it, all lapsed. This is what happens when you are under siege. Or these are the first effects of the siege, maybe when time will pass, my perception of the world will change and my imagination will be back at work, I will have this imagined geography of where I once was and people I once knew. I know I am not alone in this. My friend Christine said to me yesterday that she forces herself to go to the office to keep from going insane, but she cannot remember anything about her work before the siege started. The renowned Lebanese novelist, Elias Khoury, said this morning on al-Jazeera that he is so reminded of past experience with Israel’s wars that he feels he is living between a time of memory and the present time. This war is not exactly a replay of 1982, but we cannot help recalling 1982. I keep joking that the “veterans” of 1982, those of us who endured that Israeli murderous folly, should get some sort of a break, a package of mundane privileges, free internet, free coffee, parking spots.

Beirut has been spared and life has resumed an almost normal pace. The sound of Israeli air raids comes every so often just low enough to spread chills of horror and fright. But the droves of displaced who arrive here every day have transformed the space of the city. Their wretchedness is the poignant marker of the war.

We live from day to day. The scenarios for the conclusion of this war seem very difficult to articulate, even to imagine. The US is intent on the continuation of the war, Israel has suffered a defeat and the goals it has set to determine some sort of victory don’t seem fathomable. The Israeli press was beginning to ask a few intelligent questions until the IDF suffered losses in an ambush set-up by Hezbollah. One damn ambush, a mere handful of soldiers, and the entire press corps went ballistic overnight. They were all about flattening Lebanon, hurting the government, bringing out the big guns, more troops. One damn ambush where a mere handful of soldiers were faced with a reality they were not prepared to contend with: that Hezbollah guerrillas are well trained and will fight without blinking to defend the land from a ground invasion. What a funny army! What a funny society! What do they expect when they go to war with a guerilla?

One of their pundits (or officials) said that Israel was only using 10% of its military capacity. Imagine, 10% for a mere 3 or 5 kms squares! The arithmetics in Israel are suddenly emerging. For a very long time I have wondered what the equation is between the death of brown people and a single “white” life. There must be some sort of a secret arithmetic someplace in someone’s drawyer that guides “outrage” in the western world. Off course Rwanda came to shatter all notions of an arithmetic. Then came the killing of Rachel Corrie, a white face with a brown heart. She did not count. Or at least it took a lot of pull to make her death a reason for outrage in the mainstream of the western world. In this war, other equations have emerged, for the still breathing life of a single Israeli soldier, the deaths in Gaza are enough to crowd a cemetary. And just recently, we had the famous equation, for every shell in Haifa, 10 buildings go down in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (This was verified on Tuesday: 23 shells brought down 10 buildings). But I digress… It’s a losing battle and they should negotiate a settlement and avoid more bloodshed and wretchedness for us all. This a time to be smart, not bloodthirsty.

The shelling in the south has been astounding. People are trapped in villages for days without anything: no food, no water, no electricity, no medicines. They were sending out calls for help and no one could get to them because the Israelis would not let ambulances come near (two were shelled in the past two days). The UN has been allowed to deliver some basic rations of food and medicine but they have been scarce. The Beqaa has been shelled ruthlessly as well.

The humanitarian tragedy is beyond description. One of the local television stations airs the cries of help from citizen trapped in their homes under shelling: so and so has not eaten for a week, so and so needs diabetic medicine, so and so needs his chemotherapy, so and so needs to be let out, so and so, so and so… The messages scroll, and scroll, and that’s all I can see and hear. I can think of very, very little else. In fact, I obsess over these messages, of people trapped under shelling, bodies under rubble. I keep having fantasies of a huge, huge civilian procession of human shields walking alongisde convoys of food, medicine, ambulances, that defy Israeli’s military superiority in the air. A similar mass of people that took to the street when it was aggrieved by former Prime Minister Hariri’s death that walks fearless and relentless to the south. A human convoy of hundreds and thousands of people just taking back the country and lending their bodies to rescue their brethren trapped in villages. Civility turning the tide on barbarism. A crazy dream that ought neither be crazy nor a dream. Perhaps one day…

My Palestinian friends are irked again that because Lebanon is “sexy”, the world watches Lebanon while Gaza is being sliced and bled. This is due to the ruthlessness and savvyness of the western media. On the Arab media, there is as much coverage of the Israeli horrors in Gaza as there is of the dose administered to Lebanon. In all cases, as Israel is now waging a war on these two fronts (in addition to its adventures in Nablus), something unexpected has happened. The two fronts are now inexorably linked. Gaza is nothing like the entire geography of Lebanon, politically, sociologically, culturally the two geographies could not be more different, and yet, as the same shells explode and kill there and here, and the flow of images from there and here is uninterrupted, the geographies have merged. The tacit alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah could not have achieved this proxiness. Their dead are now our own, our siege is theirs, there is a tandem of solidarity, of tragedy, of resilience, of defiance.

I have stopped accompanying journalists, I started to hang around the schools and other sites where the displaced have been relocated. I go from disappointment to outright rage at the governments’ failure at responding appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. The other face of this country’s victory is and will be its handling of the humanitarian crisis. The challenge is of an unimaginable scale. It is clear that the government neither has the wherewithalls or the know-how for handling it (and I would add will because when there’s a will, there is a way). Closer to a third of the population is displaced. The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Health, and a slew of other public institutions have been subsumed in the pettiness of internecine political fighting. Not a single appointed official has had the guts or displayed the resolution to tend to the problem appropriately. If a crisis will erupt and I believe it will, they will have to be held accountable.

They parade on TV and in the streets, with their neat hair and pressed suits, moving from their air-conditioned meeting rooms to restaurants for “power lunches” and so-called coordination meetings, while hundreds and hundreds of volunteers are actually carrying the burden of this problem. What a shame this political class has proven to be. To make matters worse, they whimper and nag about how the Lebanese state has to be “reinforced” to diplomats and foreign envoys, while their OWN people sleep on mattresses (if they are lucky to have been given one) and walk around barefoot in circles wondering how they are expected to make a living.

In wars, there are two fronts: the battlefield and the civilian front. The critical civilian front in this war is not the unaffected handsome and well-to-do of Lebanon, but the 800,000 displaced. If Hezbollah are waging the war on the battlefield, the other field has been left to be tended to by bands of NGOs and charity organizations. The NGOs have shouldered the brunt of the burden, but only a handful charity organizations are not attached to the extremely petty ambitions of a political figure or group. And the ugliness of their short-sighted calculations (just as during the parliamentary elections that followed March 14th) have prevailed as they hand over sacks of sugar and rice. Some charity organizations have had the arrogance to force those who receive relief aid to hold up a photograph of the so-called political figure! Others ask them to pledge their loyalty or simply pledge their vote! This is how the political class is “rallying” around the country! This is how they face Israel’s might!

I spent the afternoon yesterday in Karm el-Zeytoon, a neighborhood in Ashrafieh (that translates literally to “olive grove”) where some schools have been opened to house some of the displaced from the south and from Beirut’s southern suburb. I went to visit friends who were in charge of the Nazareth Nuns school (a public school). A band of dashing young men and women, not yet thirty years of age, that have taken upon themselves the task of ensuring the well-being and safety of some 120 or so men, women, children and elderly. Some in that band of volunteers belong to the Democratic Left movement, and the school, as are two neighboring other schools, are under the charge of the Samir Kassir Foundation.

Although they have established a schedule of shifts so as not to have their entire lives taken over by their volunteering, still, their entire lives are on hold and all they do in effect is tend to the displaced. The atmosphere inside the school was convivial, slow-paced but a low-grade tension is impossible to ignore. All throughout my visit I was smitten by their grace. They have had to organize every single aspect of everyday survival in that school: spaces where people sleep, the use of bathrooms, the overall hygiene of the place, “house-cleaning”, collection of garbage, preparing meals, keeping stock of supplies, medicines, medical needs of the group, fun and games for the kids, security of the site, etc. That night, they were going to have the first attempt at screening a DVD in the school’s open air courtyard (Finfing Nemo). They are not yet thirty years of age and yet they have to sort through the everyday problems that arise between adults their parents’ age.

A nine-year old boy came nagging to T. (one of the main volunteers), as he and I chatted in the makeshift “salon” (a broken table and school bench at the side of the gateway to the school). He wanted T’s permission to go to a printer’s shop where he had heard he could find work on a day to day basis. He implored him. T. promised he would talk to the boy’s father that night and they would see. The boy told him that some man in the group assured him that he would find him work. T did not have the heart to lecture him about the ills of child labor. The boy was in turmoil over the humiliating state of his family and was eager to share the burden with his father (a taxi driver whose earnings have gone extremely low).

At the opposite end of the open courtyard, R. (another volunteer) was trying to settle a dispute between two women. Khadijeh was upset with Hanadi because Hanadi had gotten all uppety and defiant that day and reneged on her duty to clean the bathroom and her sleep area. Khadijeh had cleaned in her place just to avoid a clash with other people in the group. Hanadi and her were related by marriage, Hanadi had provoked her. She had gotten uppety because her husband Ali, who works as a mechanic somewhere in the southern suburbs had gone back the day before and opened shop and earned some hard-needed cash. He claimed to have come back with 1,000$ in his pocket, bragged about not needing hand-outs and charity. It was probably a lie, but his wife was so tired of the brunt of humiliation she no longer felt obliged to abide by the rules that regulated their lives in that shelter. The women’s screams got loud at some point, until Khadijeh walked away. It took some time for them to cool down. The other residents looked away, a discreet gesture to give the two women space for privacy. That’s all the privacy afforded to people there, a gaze turned away. Otherwise, strangers have had to live with each other, their privacy shattered, their intimacy stripped.

Half an hour later, R. went to the back of the school building, I saw her, Khadijeh and Hanadi sit around a pot of freshly brewed coffee and cigarettes, sorting things out in gentler tone.

Another volunteer walked in carrying medicines for the group. He held a list in his hand and the bag of prescription drugs in the other. He went looking for each one, he knew them one by one. An hour later, a volunteer doctor came in, and that same volunteer went over the cases with him. He knew them one by one, who was allergic to what, who was breastfeeding and could not take that particular prescription, who had not reacted well to that medicine… I was in awe.

R. finished her seance with the two women and came back to sit with me. I played cards with a six year old with one elbow in a cast and eyes sparkling with humor. An elderly overweight woman came over and asked R. to find her and her sister a room. She could not tolerate the heat or the mosquitoes in her old age and health conditions. She begged her. She wanted to die in dignity, not like that, on a mattress in a school. She could barely hold back her tears.

I left them reluctantly. I was worried about the volunteers as much as the displaced. Until when could they go on on like that? Civil society is not equipped to supplant the government in that daunting task.

Two days ago, a TV station caught Walid Eido (a parliamentarian from Beirut, and one of the particularly mentally challenged from Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal movement –God forgive Hariri for plaguing us with his own band of court-jesters), lounging on the beach, playing cards. They split their screen and aired images of the hapless displaced. The contrast was sinister. The next day, this illustruous representative of Beirut rushed on television to seem busy and babbled on as if he were in the “know”. I hope that this war will be the end of his ability to walk the streets of Beirut. Do you understand my rage?

In my last siege note, I ranted about the Arab political class. Yesterday morning Hosni Moubarak served me with another stellar illsutration of his mugnificence. On his way back from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, he stated publicaly that Egypt would never go to war with Israel for Lebanon. Egypt is a country that is currently struggling with its development and was negotiating growth and could not put all this at risk for the sake of Lebanon. That same morning, the Egyptian government raised the price of gas by 30%!

Dignified! Contrast that sense of dignity with the Lebanese injured who refused to be flown over to Jordan for treatment because of the King’s support of the Israeli war on Lebanon.

On a final note I would like to correct something I wrote from my last “siege note”. I said that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Lebanon. I need to ammend that and say that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Gaza, in the increase of settlements in Palestine, in the construction of the apartheid wall and in the genocide in Darfur. These are its 2005-2006 achievements that linger in my memory. There could be more.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Colonial Tourism

44 years after the Algerian War of Independence, the pied noir return to Algeria in a new “colonial tourism”. I wonder what Fanon would have made of this.

Josiane, an imposing former schoolmistress with forearms like sandbags, came out of the terminal building into the white African sunshine and made a speech.

“This is where we come from! This land belongs to us all, it’s all of ours! No-one can take that away from us! No-one!” she cried, breaking into tears.

A polite round of applause. A “Bravo Josiane”. Everyone was a bit tired after the flight, not really up for this.

But as people carried on getting on the coaches, she started up again.

“We never should have left! We would have made Algeria the most beautiful country in Africa!”

From a round of applause to a ripple. What with the heat and everything, Josiane was getting a bit carried away.

Colonial tourists, and their sometimes rather unusual items of political baggage, are returning – on package holidays to the past, to a time when they were young, and “Algerie” was “Francaise”.

Sen on (Other) Faith Schools in the UK

Amartya Sen on Britain’s faith schools.

[Sen] wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools “are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it’s not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it’s dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it’s being defined by its ‘community’, which is primarily religion. That also drowns out all other cultural things like language and literature. I am a believer in the importance of British identity.”

But he wanted the definition to be framed in such a way that allowed the evolution of a “plural multi-cultural society”, rather than a “mono-cultural” one in which different groups lived side by side with little interaction. “We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups,” he said. “We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues – and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything.”