Monday, December 27, 2010

Gazistan in Real Life-istan

I'm not very good about being loud about these sorts of things, but I just wrote an article on Iranian refugees living in Turkey.

The flood of Iranians coming westward, according to many refugees, includes spies and Revolutionary Guard informants. Even in Afyon, the refugees rarely talk to each other, not knowing who to trust and who to avoid. This is why, on one of the most important and family-centric holidays on the Islamic calendar, a lonely Iranian can find himself singing Ghazals, a form of Persian poetry, to anyone who will listen. 

Check it out on the Babylon & Beyond blog.

Friday, December 24, 2010

WaPo shrieks "AIEEEE! Muslims!"

I've been a bit skeptical of Washington Post's "On Faith" section for a bit. It's a "conversation on religion and politics" written by and for mainstream Christian thought. Their front page on Dec. 24 may be misleading, sure...but yeah. We're not dealing with a lot of different thought processes here. Not even black churches, which are pretty darn Christian.

So God help us all when they deign to talk about the Muslim world.

The beginning of the piece based in Tatarstan starts warmly. It's the trope about the lost young man who has left a life of trouble to find God. We all know it.
Rustam Sarachev should have had a hangover the first time he set foot in the central mosque here. He had wanted to throw a raucous party the night before, a send-off for himself on his way to Islam. But the guys he was with had mocked him for even thinking about the mosque, and had gone off drinking on their own. 
Of course, Sarachev made the mistake of going to a mosque, not a church.
They learn at the mosque that Allah is punishing Iraqis for their heresies. They learn that 9/11 was carried out by American agents, or maybe agents from somewhere else, to provoke a war against Muslims. But they learn, too, that those who want to go and join the fight in Afghanistan, or Pakistan - and young men who aimed to do precisely that have passed through Almetyevsk - are in error. This is not the time. Islam needs them here, in Russia. 
Sigh. There's also plenty of Life-in-Russia sketches that are less Dostoyevsky - or even LeCarre's attempts - and more like this particular gem.

Tatar Islam is a fascinating thing, and one completely ignored by this piece. No mention of Jadidism, the late 19th century Islamic revival that was cut down by Communism.No mention of Ismail Gaspirali, the Crimean intellectual who spread the printed word among Muslims and did more for them then these oh-so-scary Saudi-backed Imams ever could. We're certainly not going to mention the quixotical, fascinating, quest of Ismail Enver and his journey through exile into an impossible new world order. And certainly not the powerful force and the steely gaze of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was part Johnny Appleseed, part Cotton Mather. You could at LEAST give a shout-out to the most Tatar of all Tatars, one Charles Bronson.

This is all on wikipedia, too. I'm not requesting more than a few hours of reading before this story is written. Maybe Mr. Englund could also look up the article on Jihad.

Being a Muslim in Russia is no fun. Grozny is enough of a disaster, but thousands of migrant workers and you know, people who are in their hometowns, get persecuted all the damned time.

And the maps, no context. Just..."Geeyah! Muslims!"

I don't understand the fear of some teenager turning from a life of crime to one of, what seems, just kinda chilling at the mosque all day.

The piece objectifies Islam, objectifies Tatars, and just basically paints them all as a bunch of weirdos we could never understand. There's no context of what Sarachev now believes, how he goes through life, or anything like that. Oh, and we have our standard "Ewwww, Kurban Bayram" bit too with the sacrificed goats. And no mention of Ibrahim/Ishmael = Abraham/Isaac.

It's just another missed opportunity to try and draw a picture of Islam that American can understand and be sympathetic towards. Instead, it's something different and scary. "On Faith" is, pretty much, "On Our Faith" to the exclusions of those out their whose last names are not Meacham or Quinn.

It's too damned bad that this counts for a puff-piece in one of the biggest newspapers out there.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"There goes the caravan of bearded ninjas screaming down the street in their jihadimobiles, yelling slogans about the liberation of Palestine."

Damn, I'm pissed off nobody told me to meet Nir Rosen when he came to town.

I'm in the middle of something truly bizarre here. Like that scene  in Sean of the Dead where Sean's all "when I was a boy...he touched me." and then his mom is like "no he didn't" and that's that.

So more to be written when I have a firmer grasp.

ADDITION: and more, yet completely unrelated, from the land of great writing. Edited, though, to make it about ME ME ME ME ME.

I remember stripping off layers of sweatshirts that had begun to take on the unmistakable scent of rowing, throwing them into the corner of someone else's apartment, and talking about whatever the hell felt like the most fun to talk about, feeling like the only bitterness in the world was from the cheap beer.

I miss crew :-(

Monday, December 6, 2010

There is No Good Reason to Read Robert D. Kaplan, I Must Make that Clear

A friend of mine, a really sharp journalist, nice & funny guy, and generally someone I've always liked, told me to go buy him Robert Kaplan's new book when I took a trip to the states last week. I was pretty against this, and told him as much, but as I said, he's a nice guy. So I got it for him. And then he was all "What's so wrong about Robert Kaplan, anyways?"

I told him how Kaplan just kinda makes stuff up, doesn't research well, and finds facts to support his theses. He's also kind of creepily paternalistic and all foreign women are "girls". Really, I should have (and am now) directing him to Tom Bissell's fantastic excoriation. But I also decided to write my own after reading the latest of RDK's in the WaPo.

The thing about Kaplan is that he's actually a decent writer, especially as a travel writer. What he says isn't necessarily true, but it sure is evocative. It's a far way from, say, Tom Freidman's literary gymnastics that tend to end with faceplants. Kaplan writes well, but he uses words for how they sound or what they evoke, not for what they mean. He's a great travel writer and a miserable policy writer. Because his beliefs are more grumpy-old-man then actual policy. So shall we begin?
What is the cause of such turbulence? The absence of empire. During the Cold War, the world was divided between the Soviet and U.S. imperial systems. The Soviet imperium - heir to Kievan Rus, medieval Muscovy and the Romanov dynasty - covered Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and propped up regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The American imperium - heir to maritime Venice and Great Britain - also propped up allies, particularly in Western Europe and East Asia. True to the garrison tradition of imperial Rome, Washington kept bases in West Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan, virtually surrounding the Soviet Union.
 His "imperial ancestors" have less to do with truth, more with evocation. He invokes exoticism and trade, sure, but he'd be just as accurate saying "heir to the Roman Empire and the Mongol Hordes," or even "The Malinese and the Hothian Empires." For either. There's also the question of propping up "regimes" vs. "allies" and to ask whom surrounded whom. This whole paragraph is really just a recitation of Civilization V details that sound erudite but really aren't.
The breakup of the Soviet empire, though it caused euphoria in the West and led to freedom in Central Europe, also sparked ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees. (In Tajikistan alone, more than 50,000 people were killed in a civil war that barely registered in the U.S. media in the 1990s.)
Somewhere in Australia, Christian Bleuer weeps.
The Soviet collapse also unleashed economic and social chaos in Russia itself, as well as the further unmooring of the Middle East. It was no accident that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell, just as it is inconceivable that the United States would have invaded Iraq if the Soviet Union, a staunch patron of Baghdad, still existed in 2003. And had the Soviet empire not fallen apart or ignominiously withdrawn from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden never would have taken refuge there and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, might not have happened. Such are the wages of imperial collapse. 
The causes of the invasion of Kuwait are kind of complicated, and y'know, it maybe was just a coincidence with the Berlin Wall thing. Besides that, the U.S. had a history of invading Soviet client states.  Oh, and bin Laden was in Afghistan before the Russians left. He had a big part to say in getting the Russians to leave. This is pretty really basic history.
Now the other pillar of the relative peace of the Cold War, the United States, is slipping, while new powers such as China and India remain unready and unwilling to fill the void. There will be no sudden breakdown on our part, as the United States, unlike the Soviet Union, is sturdily maintained by economic and political freedom. Rather, America's ability to bring a modicum of order to the world is simply fading in slow motion. 
Really? China and India don't want to be superpowers? Do we have any sourcing for that whatsoever? Or is that just a trope we're gonna see repeated? Oh, and you know that nobody saw the USSR collapsing, which was why the Berlin Wall was such a seminal moment. So it could, conceivably, happen unexpectedly again. That's what "sudden breakdown" means. And let's not mention "economic freedom" and "no sudden breakdown" in the same sentence. That'd be awkward.
Then there is America's military power. Armies win wars, but in an age when the theater of conflict is global, navies and air forces are more accurate registers of national might. (Any attack on Iran, for example, would be a sea and air campaign.) The U.S. Navy has gone from nearly 600 warships in the Reagan era to fewer than 300 today, while the navies of China and India grow apace. Such trends will accelerate with the defense cuts that are surely coming in order to rescue America from its fiscal crisis. The United States still dominates the seas and the air and will do so for years ahead, but the distance between it and other nations is narrowing. 
Wait, I thought that the whole "new way to wage war" thing was about a non-reliance on simply military might, because simple military might is fallible. Really, I thought if we learned anything since the Afghanistan invasion, it's that big militaries are not infallible. Also: an attack on Iran is a really, really, bad idea and I hope is not a given. And: the US still spends pretty much more than every other country combined on its military. And: there's reason to think that the Reagan era contributed to the current crisis, and is not the polar opposite of it. Kaplan just states trite things without giving reason to support it. It's like when Grandpa Bill talks about fighting the Nazis when you're watching baseball. I hate the Cubs too, but lets be serious.
Terrorist acts, ethnic atrocities, the yearning after horrible weaponry and the disclosure of secret cables are the work of individuals who cannot escape their own moral responsibility. But the headlines of our era are written in a specific context - that of one deceased empire that used to be the world's preeminent land power and of another, the world's preeminent sea power, that finds itself less able to affect events than ever before, even as it is less sure than ever of the cause toward which it struggles. 
Hey smart boy, you like puzzles? Here's two sentences. Diagram them. (my attempt: individuals who are slaves to their morals do things like terrorism, ethnic atrocities (what the fuck is an "ethnic atrocity?"), pining away like schoolchildren, and tell secrets. Headlines are written under the understanding that a land power and a sea power are unable to affect events, the understanding is unsure of why it struggles.)

This is no indictment of President Obama's foreign policy. There is slim evidence of a credible alternative to his actions on North Korea, Iran and Iraq, while a feisty debate goes on over the proper course in Afghanistan. But there is simply no doubt that the post-imperial order we inhabit allows for greater disruptions than the Cold War ever permitted. 
It kinda reads as an indictment, but hey, that's fair. But why are we suddenly cool with the Cold War being a good thing? The Cold War kinda sucked for a lot of people, we don't need a sepia tone to it. But this is what I mean, Kaplan uses nice words with absolutely no meaning behind them.
Husbanding our power in an effort to slow America's decline in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world would mean avoiding debilitating land entanglements and focusing instead on being more of an offshore balancer: that is, lurking with our air and sea forces over the horizon, intervening only when outrages are committed that unquestionably threaten our allies and world order in general. While this may be in America's interest, the very signaling of such an aloof intention may encourage regional bullies, given that rogue regimes are the organizing principles for some pivotal parts of the world.
Which leads me to ask: how do you expect us to get to a post-Iraq and a post-Afghanistan world? How will a "lurking air and sea force" prevent future Iraqs and Afghanistans? Did  the U.S. not have a lurking air and sea force before Iraq and Afghanistan? Or would this force instead be a signal of aloof intention (whatever that means), in which case would it be a good or bad thing for these "organizing principles" in "pivotal parts of the world"? When reading this graph, I can almost see Kaplan biting on the lobe of his glasses in a pose of studied thoughtfulness.
During the Cold War, North Korea was kept in its box by the Soviet Union while the U.S. Navy dominated the Pacific as though it were an American lake. Now China's economic dominance of the region, coupled with our distracting land wars in the Middle East, is transforming the western Pacific from a benign and stable environment to a more uncertain and complex one. 
Man, Japan is gonna be sooo mad they weren't relevant in the Pacific. Indonesia, too. How soon we forget the 1980's meme that we're all gonna be speaking Japanese soon. How soon we forget the spectre of an unaligned Sukarno. This whole paragraph translates to, "Say, you know I have a book coming out about the western Pacific?"
With its improving mine-warfare capability, seabed sonar networks and cyber-warfare in the service of anti-ship ballistic missiles, not to mention its diesel-electric and nuclear submarines, China will make U.S. Navy operations more dangerous over the coming years. 
 ...if it wants to, that is. They probably won't start bombing American ships for funsies.
As for Taiwan, China has 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles pointed at the island, even as hundreds of commercial flights each week link Taiwan with the mainland in peaceful commerce. When China effectively incorporates Taiwan in the years to come, that will signal the arrival of a truly multipolar and less predictable military environment in East Asia. 
Will the incorporation be violent or not? Isn't that really interesting to discuss? And there are a lot of variables at play. Again, this is just a gloss-over without mentioning any tactile facts, just making a supposition, then jumping to a conclusion based on that supposition. Like saying, "I asked my daddy for a pony for Christmas. I can't wait to see it race in the Kentucky Derby!"
In the Middle East we see the real collapse of the Cold War imperial order. The neat Israeli-Arab dichotomy that mirrored the American-Soviet one has been replaced by a less stable power arrangement, with a zone of Iranian influence stretching from Lebanon to western Afghanistan, pitted against both Israel and the Sunni Arab world, and with a newly Islamic, and no longer pro-Western, Turkey rising as a balancing power. 
If you think the Israeli-Arab dichotomy was neat, boy, I have an Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88 to sell you. I could also mention the Untied Arab Republic, the invasion of Mecca, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more. Let's not even touch the issue of Palestinian Refugees. This happens to be the one paragraph that I really know things about, and thus the one, to me, that he comes off the most ignorant. Kaplan refuses to let facts get in the way of what he wants to prove.

And I'm gonna drink some 1 Euro beers tonight just to laugh at the idea of an Islamic Turkey. then I'll work on a German advertisement at work to laugh at that not-pro-Western thing.
Yes, empires impose order, but that order is not necessarily benevolent, as Iran's budding imperial domain shows. U.S. threats against Iran lack credibility precisely because of our imperial fatigue resulting from Iraq and Afghanistan. Out of self-interest we will probably not involve ourselves in another war in the Middle East - even as that very self-interest could consign the region to a nuclear standoff. 
And here is where I'm not sure if Kaplan knows the difference between "empire" and "diplomacy/trade".
One standard narrative is that as we recede, China will step up as part of a benign post-American world. But this presupposes that all imperial powers are the same, even when history clearly demonstrates that they are not. Nor does one empire sequentially fill the gap left by another. 
Then why did we have that whole, "heir of  the Kieven Rus and the New York Giants" thing in their previously?!?! That wasn't all that long ago!
While the Soviet Union and the United States were both missionary powers motivated by ideals - communism and liberal democracy - through which they might order the world, China has no such grand conception. It is driven abroad by the hunger for natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals and metals) that it requires to raise hundreds of millions of its citizens into the middle class. 
I'm pretty sure China stands for something to themselves, even if not to Kaplan. I'm beginning to doubt he can find it on a map, though, so maybe not.
This could abet the development of a trading system between the Indian Ocean, Africa and Central Asia that might maintain peace with minimal American involvement. But who is to fill the moral void? Does China really care if Tehran develops nuclear weapons, so long as it has access to Iran's natural gas? And Beijing may not be entirely comfortable with the North Korean regime, which keeps its population in a state of freeze-frame semi-starvation, but China props it up nevertheless. 
I love how "analysts" are always somewhere between "ancient trade routes! silk road!" and "dusty deserts full of benighted tribesmen" when describing the non-white realms. And the entire concept that we can talk about a "moral void"  with straight faces when discussing imperial strategy seems a bit...facetious.
It can be argued that with power comes moral responsibility, but it will probably be decades before China has the kind of navy and air force that would lead it to become an authentic partner in an international security system. For the moment, Beijing gets a free ride off the protection of the world's sea lanes that the U.S. Navy helps provide, and watches us struggle to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan so that China can one day extract their natural resources. 
Peter Parker over here isn't sure if China counts as a partner, but then uses more weird logic. There is very little protection of world sea lanes, because there is very little need for it. Piracy protection as it is now is too expensive, so unless a magic-bullet solution is found, just sending cruisers into the Straits of Molucca is a fig leaf. I'm not sure why Kaplan is demanding China throw good money after the U.S.'s bad. And I don't think he realizes how much China is investing into Central and South Asia.
Looming over all of this is the densely crowded global map. Across Eurasia, rural populations have given way to megacities prone to incitement by mass media and to destruction by environmental catastrophe. Lumbering, hard-to-deploy armies are being replaced with overlapping ballistic missile ranges that demonstrate the delivery capabilities of weapons of mass destruction. New technologies make everything affect everything else at a faster and more lethal rate than ever before. The free flow of information, as the WikiLeaks scandal makes clear, and the miniaturization of weaponry, as the terrorist bombings in Pakistani cities make clear, work against the rise and sustenance of imperial orders. 
I like how "incitement by mass media" is a bad thing. Dammit, we want our masses uneducated! It's also worth mentioning that the only "overlapping ballistic missile range" is the new NATO one projecting into Syria and Iran. And I don't think you can even play Six Degrees between Wikileaks, weapon miniaturization, and the Pakistan insurgency. My favorite part of this, by the way, is his shoe-horning of Wikileaks into a discussion of military spending. So he can be "trendy" instead of "hawkish."
The American empire has always been more structural than spiritual. Its network of alliances certainly resembles those of empires past, and the challenges facing its troops abroad are comparable to those of imperial forces of yore, though the American public, especially after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is in no mood for any more of the land-centric adventures that have been the stuff of imperialism since antiquity. 
Great, now you went and upset Sarah Palin, too with that "spiritual" bit. And I'm pretty sure you said earlier that all empires are different. Rome didn't have F-16s, Alexander didn't face Taliban with wireless communications. NEITHER were democratic and saw the politicizing of war like the U.S. does. And I think using "land-centric" as a qualifier is a bit specious. I don't think anyone is going to be all cool with a naval/aerial war instead because either a) it won't work or b) it won't be just naval/aerial. Drones don't solve it all.

And it warrants mentioning that a naval invasion of Iran is going to be kind of impossible, because the U.S. will be all penned in like Salamis in the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea is, well, inland. So I'm not sure how that would get worked out, but what am I? A Grand Strategist?
Americans rightly lack an imperial mentality. But lessening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities. 
Though this reads as a conclusion, it's really anything but.  He just spilled hundreds of words talking about the American Imperial Mentality, then now says it doesn't exist. Without ever defining what it could possibly be. He says we shouldn't become disengaged, but never previously mentions disengagement. He never attempts to link (or, for that matter, define) disruptions to a lack of American engagement. In fact, it would not be too hard to link things like Islamic-framed insurgencies, Wikileaks, a yell-tastic Iran, to American engagement done sloppily.

So, this is my beef with Kaplan, and why I believe he should not be read. His thesis, I suppose, is that America must act as an empire. But his conclusion states that Americans don't have an imperial mentality. He doesn't really define either. All of his examples, all of his actual foreign policy and his contextualization, solely exist to prove his thesis that America should act as an empire. Any examples to the contrary are ignored. And everything is so poorly researched and lazily sewn together.

This is all kind of expected in a op-ed, though. What really gets my goat is the slight-of-hand of it all. The conviction of an expertise lying in weasel words and non-attribution. His viewing of history through hater-blockers, then open-mouthed awe at any possible disagreement. He says things that sound smart to the non-experts, giving them ammunition to quote, creating this vicious circle of insipidity that leads to really bad decisions. Because nobody, all of the sudden, knows how behind the 8-ball they really are.

Mr. Kaplan reminds me of Nashville. Not the aboreal, bbqful, Nashville. But the beige, corporate, Nashville of country music infamy. My favorite writer on the internet, Orson Swindle, once dedicated a few paragraphs to Nashville music, and I suggest that you read them to get a feeling of where I'm coming from. This, my dear Kaplan-reading friend, is the sort of journalism you're after:
Originally country music was written by men and women who barnstormed up from the electricity-free rural cowplots they were born in, and who alternated writing songs about drinking and fighting and fucking with songs about drinking while fucking, fucking while fighting, or about combinations of the three that happened while driving semi-trucks.
You know real country singers because they are either now all dead or semi-retarded from years of excessive alcohol and drug abuse. They did not have six-pack abs and did not manage their money. They died in fiery plane crashes and holding bottles of liquor; they clutched their hearts and fell to the ground when whole pieces of fatback clogged their arteries after years of eating vile road food. They were not pretty.
Just replace "country music" with journalism and this sounds like the life you would love to read about, learn what they had to say.

Kaplan's idea of journalism? Well, it's more like this:
You and the entire industry cranking out music that tells people exactly what they want to hear about themselves and their lives.
A more fitting epitaph for Robert Kaplan's writing cannot be found. Under the window dressing of "telling the hard truth" he just reaffirms what middlebrow politicians and their staff want to hear about American power, moral imperialism, and the like. And he won't let truth get in the way of an op-ed or a book deal.

It's not researched fact, it's just a truth that you want to hear. And that's why there is no good reason to read it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

I've never really actually seen 300, but I always got a giggle with the line, "This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this." This is less because I find rape funny, more because I found the Slate review of the movie fantastic:
Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the "bad" (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men (not gay in the buff, homoerotic Spartan fashion, but in the effeminate Persian style). Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws. Elephants and rhinos (filthy creatures both). The Persian commander, the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is a towering, bald club fag with facial piercings, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.
 But I came here not for 300, but for The Island of the Day Before. Similarly, though, it was very long, and I did not enjoy it. Which is odd, honestly, because I loved Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - one of my favorite books. This one was a whole lot more like, well, slogging through 500 pages written by a Semiotics professor.

The plot is kind of fantastic, though. A man gets shipwrecked, latches onto a raft, and then washes up onto an abandoned ship. He can't swim, so now he's shipwrecked on a ship. this ship, of course, is riddled with secrets.

And then, lecturing ensues. It's all about Renaissance thought and the shaky move from Godly knowledge to secular knowledge. Again, this sounds really interesting, but somehow it wasn't executed that way. I think Eco tried to get a little too clever with his story-telling, going for the non-linear narrative, but its just not all that well executed. That said, Jules Mazarin makes an appearance, and its always nice to see him. A major plot point is the sheer inscrutability of the International Date Line and the complexity of Longitude, which is a Thing, I guess. My favorite explanation of Noah's Flood comes up in the book (the flood is full of yesterday's water coming into today), which is really neat also. Seriously, ask me some time to explain this flood theory to you, it's great stuff.

But unlike the other Eco books I've read, this one isn't more than the sum of its parts. I just never got into it as much, and I doubt I would've been able to read the whole thing if I wasn't traveling so much. So I don't have a great verdict for this one, go ahead and skip it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Blog Roundup Where Wikileaks and Good Writing Provide Entertainment

I am welcoming myself back to the internet after a couple of vacations. One traipsing through Central Turkey and the other through Ohio. The former involved lots of desserts, the second involved terrible movies and lots of deserts. But now I'm back to far milder and far more interesting climes.

That said, I'm just into getting back into things and catching up. But I'll start with this pretty awesome bit from Slate on a Baghdad Holiday. It gets to the point of what it means to be conflicted about Iraq. Even people who really really care, who are really really focused on the country, have no clue what to do. I'm not as focused; my attention lies eastward, as you may have gathered from this blog. I generally leave Iraq to the people who really get what's going on there in a way that I don't. That said, this is more about life and political belief and imperialism than it is about Iraq itself. Worth a read.

And then there's Wikileaks. Probably the most interesting story going on right now, and I'm just getting caught up and have no clue what to say about it. Yet. There's plenty of voice for or against what the Assange-ites are doing, and plenty of good and bad things to say about it. That said, my take at the moment is that there are just all of these fantastic hidden narratives that have come out of it. So many little stories that could be entire full-length features. I wish I had any hand in fiction so I could steal them. My two favorites:
There's plenty of other stories, including the gradual and inevitable truth that there are invented Islamicists and Terrorists "running" around Central Asia. I fully expect NewEurasia to be on top of that as time goes on.

So yeah, it's a great story that's only going to get better. I'll have more to say on it when there's more to say on it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The One Where I Agree With Religious Nationalism

This dude tried to write a LOLified story of how ridiculous a religious cleric is in Georgia. I don't think that he succeeded.

Here's how it goes, and stop me if you've heard it before: The spiritual leader of Georgia, one Patriarch Ilia II, raised a protest about a Buddha statue in Tblisi, saying that it would be unallowable in "a holy land" and reminiscent of the Persians (who, y'know, were not cool with the whole Buddha thing themselves). It's a ridiculous quote on it's face, I won't argue that.

But the Patriarch's got a point. The writer of this EurasiaNet piece, Mr. Lomadze, writes how The Buddha Bar is a part of " a posh recreational space in the city's historic downtown" and mentions that hey, there's a mosque and a synagogue downtown. As if Tblisi just needs some urban renewal, like Baltimore or something.

It's disingenuous to mock the Patriarch for this. I can wear my "I've been to Tblisi" hat, here, y'know. Tblisi has a little island of "posh recreational space" inhabited by expats and Misha's select, and then there's acres and acres of slums. Because of the inscrutable goofiness of the Georgian language, there's no intermingling. You have the Anglophone or, at best, Russophones, who talk with the well-educated Georgians. And the rest are just fodder.

I was grossed out in Tblisi because I was smoking cuban cigars and drinking high-end vodka, listening to Manu Chao sing of torching the fat cats, and in a country where I didn't understand one word. I'm hardly a bloody-heart sort of guy, but I did recognize the inherent creepiness of it. That bar area is like a FOB of businessmen. The Buddha Bar is a symbol of these, to pardon the phrase, capitalist leeches who don't give a fuck about Georgia. People who are doing their time to build up their exoticness cred, maybe cover a little war or somethin' about sticking their thumb in Ivan's eye, and then go back and REALLY start making their money. Misha's mistake was thinking that these guys were the America who'd support him, and not the actual rest of the people who were a bit more realistic then them.

Georgia, of course, ain't that exotic. And it's getting far less so. Misha's latest machinations involve a series of hotels on the Black Sea and other things that made me write:
There's too much room for corruption and graft. Too much of an excuse for Americans to talk about "helping Georgians" and not giving a damn which ones they help. Lots of rich, connected, Georgians will benefit. Lots of poor Georgians will be disillusioned.
I'm pretty sure this falls into the same category. People see the country as place to make a quick buck, and they don't really care about the long and complex history of the region. It's not full of people, its full of sales opportunities! I know this may sound overly snarky, but I am very concerned here. It's really disheartening for me to see, after all the digital ink spilled by Joshua Foust and the gang over at Registan, that absolutely nothing positive has come out of Afghanistan. That things are completely and utterly fucked with a minimal sense of accomplishment in Afghanistan. I'd hate for Georgia to follow that path, and the Buddha Bar reminds me of the "drinking in Kabul!" stories of old and new.

Book Review: Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917 by Austin Jersild

"Gunib is high. Allah is higher. And you remain below."

Yeah, so it's not from Orientalism & Empire and is actually just a quote from Shamil, who, by the way, was captured/surrendered at Gunib.But it does a good job of giving you a frame on how awesome the Caucasus are.

Jersild's book is hardly a history of the Caucasus, and reads more like a story of the end of the Tzars and the end of an Empire. If you don't know your Avars from your Ingush, your Cherkez from your Chechen, you'll probably get lost in some of the details. And I have to admit to not knowing my Georgian kings or really the history of Georgia at all, so there was some frantic wikipedia'ing at the beginning of this read. But kind of like how you can tell the truth better through a novel, this snapshot of the Caucasus does a better job than trying to fit in a thousand years of history into 160 pates.

There are lots of fun stories. There's the story of James Stanislaus Bell, an Englishman who fought against the Russians in the 1800's, less for Britain, more for the difference of it. He is sadly not on wikipedia, but he does make an appearance on Gustavus von Tempsky's page, who was something of a Central American, Prussian, less interesting Bell. There's fantastic stories of revenge and blood feuds. And this isn't even touching the actual academic stuff.

The actual academic stuff is, of course, very interesting.There's a chapter on Shamil in exile and how he was paraded around as Le Grand Kavkaze, including how the Russians tried to turn his children into good Russians, and were shocked SHOCKED that his son fought for the Ottomans in the 1900's. There's stories of how the Kavkaz muhajirs to Turkey then got Turkified by Ataturk and the Republic and became Turks, while the ones who stayed in the Caucasus kept their identity a bit stronger, which came to an interesting turn when the two peoples began to meet in the 1990's. Who was the "truer" Kabard, or something like that. And even though the book doesn't cover the Soviet times, there is a whole discussion on how the Russian Empire tried to get Kavkazi to turn back to their cultural roots, but not their religious roots. Because, y'know, they are two different things and all. And the Georgia stuff, well. If you've not been paying attention before 2006, you wouldn't realize that Georgians and Russians worked together for centuries. Long story short: the Kavkaz is COMPLICATED, yo. And it's hard to do real service to that.

So there's some great stuff in there. Also, it does a fun little bit on the legal system(s) of the Russian Empire, which you know I'm a sucker for. And everything is very well-cited and there's an immense bibliography. I read it for fun, sure, but it absolutely works as an academic book. It's well-written and can be breezy to read, but is jam-packed with information.

So if you're at all a nerd about the Caucasus, especially Georgia, it's worth a read. And to both of my readers, I have a question: I need to read more on the Caucasus besides this and Yoav Karny's Highlanders. So if you have any suggestions...please, let me know.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

For a book published in 1998, Amsterdam is remarkably out of date. Like any good O. Henry novel, it gets most of its plot push from a lack of access to cell phones. Between that, mention of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and a charming use of a post card, it's all so...Britishly quaint. Which is amusing because the 24-7'ing of the news cycle is another major point of the book.

I'm not complaining. You wouldn't complain of similar issues in a Dickens novel, so I don't see why you should here, either. Amsterdam is probably the first book I've read that won the Booker Prize, and it's an incredibly well-written book. The characters are all human and all interesting, the dialogue is realistic, and it's a pleasure to read in the rainy, gloomy, weather we've been having in Istanbul recently. In October/November, Istanbul turns into London, and it was fun to be transported there by a book. McEwan is good at that.

Don't be alarmed, however, at the amount of death, funerals, evil greedy sadistic people and the like. It's a dark book full of dark people. It ain't the sort of thing that will reaffirm your faith in humanity. Amsterdam is more like what the world would look like if everyone was a Christopher Hitchens clone.

And its a thriller. You are aware that bad decisions will be made, but not quite sure how. Like waiting for the killer to strike in a horror movie, you're stuck waiting for the decision to be made. It makes for page turning for sure.

That said, it was a good read. It's relatively short and I read the vast majority in one night when I couldn't be bothered to leave the apartment. I'll be on the lookout for the rest of McEwan's books that I've heard such good stuff about. It's rare you find discussions of love and loss, hate and friendship, vanity and vaingloriousness in 170 pages. But it was a great 170 pages.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why the Rubber Bands? They Representin' the Struggle, Man.

Not only is the title topical, but its from one of the awesomer rap songs of the decade, in my opinion.

I've gotten a lot of questions for what the deal is with my twitter personality. The truth is, it's just a little illustrator doodle I did a couple of years ago. This guy:

...probably should hold a very strong resemblance to this photo by Woqooyi Galbeed of a Somali man. I just changed some colors and made his skin color a bit more pan-swarthy.

And I deleted the gun from the image, making it just the cut-out image of a gun for a reason. But it turns out the reason got lost under the ability to go, "oooh! Gun!"

Fortunately, C.J. Chivers is writing a book about, well, The Gun. He's a fantastic writer, of course, and he gave an interview with Foreign Policy recently that did a great job of explaining why I kept the cut-out of the gun, and not the gun itself.

And in that interview, he explained the symbolism of the AK-47:

As the rifles have moved about the world, they have been appropriated by all manner of combatants to have all manner of meanings. The rifle's evolving iconography is a fascinating subject because it shows how both governments and combatants view themselves...This is a rich and rewarding line of reporting. In it is a pantheon of modern war. Saddam Hussein handed out rifles that were plated in gold; they were strongman party favors. Bin Laden has made a point of being photographed with the version of the rifle carried by Soviet helicopter crews in the 1980s, a clear case of the rifle, almost like a scalp, signifying martial cred. (In this case, he might be trying a little too hard, because there is no credible evidence I know of that he was ever involved in downing a Soviet helicopter.) We'll see more of this. To governments and combatants alike, symbols matter, and the Kalashnikov can be assigned an almost infinite array of meanings. 
That was a huge quote, ok. But the gist is: it's not a gun, its a symbol. And what i was trying to get at with the illustration was that it's ok to get rid of the gun and keep the symbol. Let the symbol of revolution ride (albeit, in my case, a bit sarcastically) without the gun. It's a bit hokey and pie-in-the-sky, yeah. But I enjoyed the way it was executed, so I kept with it.

And I'd love to say that the Urdu writing is because of this guy or something, but truth be told, it was just that I was learning Urdu at the time and thought that it would be cool. So it translates as "This is your revolution," meaning that the operative "you" should replace the gun with, well, whatever you want to be revolutionary about.

So basically, it's one of those half-serious, half-revolutionary things that 21-year-olds are wont to do. And yeah, I just think it looks really cool, so I kept it. I can't take myself seriously enough to think that its actually a serious, through-provoking, move towards freeing our minds, man. I just think it's cool. Hopefully you do, too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Blog Roundup where we all stand in awe of the power of facial hair

It wasn't that long ago that I was writing about the meaning of the moustache in Turkish history. Today we leave Turkey and discuss the far more important category of facial hair: the beard.

This is all inspired by a discussion I've had with the hirsute yet well-coiffed friend of mine who told me of my need to grow out my beard. "A man is only a man once he has a beard," says the friend, "and the belly? Well, you can't have a beard without having a belly below it."

Inspiring stuff. Made only more so by my discovery of the greatest picture I've ever found of the Black Keys. Ohio? Retro typography? An out-of-place Masjid? Dan Auerbach's beard? Check x 4:

The fun only continues when another friend of mine found an out-of place flag at the Istanbul Marathon. As she was walking across the bridge she found a flag that she couldn't recognize. Red-and-white stripes on the bottom on a green field, complete with a Takbir. I had a hunch it was Caucasian, and what do you know, it's the flag of the Islamic Emirate: Caucasus Edition.
This is important, of course, because man, flag of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus? In Istanbul? Too cool, too cool. Doesn't get much more obscure in a militarist sense than that. Unless there are some Free Aceh folks running around. And of course, you can't mention the Caucasus without mentioning the beards. Even though I just discovered that Chechnya has (at least of Feb. 2009) an Ethnographic Museum. Complete with the Chechen version of a Civil War Reenactor:
And finally, and really, what you're all waiting for...a pictoral history of the sociology of beards in Iran. The pictures are all interesting, but I found this one particularly beautiful. It's like the Fairey "HOPE" poster of the Islamic Republic:
I don't care about the politics one way or another, its a beautiful piece of art.

There is also a link in that above piece on an ancient book of Pogonologia which, I mean, YEAH.

So I've long since disposed with the narrative of this blog, as it now just contains everything not-Turkey-enough for Istanbul Alti. But beard posts in time for OPERATION WINTERFACE should be good enough.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rusya'dan Cin'a, Turkestan yoksa

There's a saying that has followed the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline that I don't remember the exact Turkish phrasing of. It might have been like the title of this, but I don't remember exactly. I'm good that way. Anyways, the idea behind the pithiness was "From Azerbaijan to Turkey, but not in Armenia" to reflect the political realities of the time.

Well, similar sorts of things are going on in the East. Russia is currently bidding and building a pipeline that goes into China. It skips the Amur entirely and comes into China from Manchura. Which is really inconvenient and a pain to build, but hey, it keeps those persnickety Uighurs away from it. This here is another break they can't catch after, well, they haven't caught many.

This sort of thing is actually pretty standard. And its a drop in the bucket in costs compared to the whole lots of major issues that can go wrong with sloppy security on pipelines in Siberia (link is to one of my favorite Cold War stories, btw). So yeah, its cynical, its wasteful...but it theoretically works. Until some dude gets pumped up about Buryatia Azadi or something.

But its fun to see this sort of thing. Buck-passing and shrugging about big nasty problems because hey, we have money to make. It's not rare or at all newsworthy, but I like mentioning it anyways.

And in semi-related news, Columbia University has discovered Central Asia. It's worth a read, for sure, so check out their bit on water ish, bad formatting and all. It only begins to get at some of those problems and doesn't even mention Roghun. But still, lets give them the pavlovian response they expect from CAsia nerds.

Caucasus Slap Fight!

My posting here has become very slapdash and incredibly not-on-point as I move from Central Asian/Caucasus issues related to natural resources and architecture to my new Internet Life, the only independent newssource of Turkey. That said, Gazistanesque is my first and main love, and I am still following everything I can coming out of there. And my links on the right hand side are fairly busted by now, I realize (sorry Steve LeVine!). But once the Alti gets up and going, I'll be able to dedicate more time to this. So bear with me in the meantime.

I just wanted to remark on the hilarious flame war going on in the Caucasus Emirate. The problem with a loose confederation of various power brokers in a small region competing over resources and infamy is that they generally act like bands on a tour. Who gets what hotel room, who gets to be the headliner, and who gets choice of beer. Or, uh, something like that.
Admittedly, they look like a Yiddish ZZ Top

So some of the - admittedly translated - quotes are kind of fantastic

- "...When we equalized what we have in our souls with what we have in our tongues, Muhannad exposed himself as an opponent of the Emirate."
-"there is no one who has been at his side longer than we have, or who knows him better than we do.... We thought about this for a long time, we prayed to Allah so as not to destroy the accord among fighters." But they finally concluded, in Vadalov's words, that "we do not have the right to follow evil.""
-"Gaziyev defines their goals as "cleansing our country of the enemies of Allah, establishing Shari'a law to defend the poor and disadvantaged, and bringing up our future generation in the Muslim faith." Their rhetoric, however, is less aggressively jihadist that that of Umarov's faction."

So its important to remember then whenever terrorists or other somesuch violent separatists are represented as these uncommonly evil Sauron's without humanity...well...they probably still have some humanity. People are people. They are subject to the same jealousies, whims, and foibles as most every other of the 6 billion of us. They forge friendships and alliances just the same way the rest of us do, just with different goals in life.

Also, props to Long War Journal for a) making their work impossible to quote and b) cheerleading rather than reporting. Classy, guys. There's a reason you're mocked by the people you try to reach out to. And a reason why RFE/RL and Eurasianet are trusted and you, well, aren't.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Central Asia Matters (or Hey, I'mma try to get back on point)

Drezner Bey wrote in the increasingly-irrelevant Foreign Policy Blog that Central Asia doesn't matter. Steve LeVine then responded that, well, yeah, it kinda does. You can probably imagine which camp I fall into.

What the brown sandal militia in Washington often forgets is WHO things matter to. For example, the midterm elections don't matter to me. I know I'm an American, I know that there's this whole third political party thing happening...but man, I'm not in the US right now. I have no clue who is doing what. I'd have no clue who to vote for. So, y'know, I won't.

But you know who Central Asia matters to? Central Asians. So yeah, putting blinders on other human beings' cares, wants, and desires is pretty darned ugly, no? Do I REALLY need to link to NewEurasia again? Guess so. And if real people with real families and real hopes and dreams don't matter, here are eight quick things that I had in my reading list about Central Asia, and why they're important to you, John Q. Publick.
  1. Jihad! For all the consternation about rising tides of Islamic law/rule/vaguely frightening things in Central's mostly nothing. That said, the article I linked to is fascinating for lots of reasons. Joshua Foust, the Mullah of Registan (Nathan Hamm would be the emir, of course. And Michael Hancock is the goofy Hoca who is debating whether or not we can call Hamm "Khan"), has written a lot doubting the existence of Chechens in Afghanistan. And, well, I believe him. But if there are proven Daghestanis in Tajikistan, then Chechens in Afghanistan is really not all that far off. It's not the same thing as proof, but at least its reasonable suspicion. There may be something to this "Global Islamic Threat" after all...But can we stop using Jihadi? I just found a book this week that called Isa Yusuf Alptekin a "Jihadi for the Turkic world" and I mean, really?
  2. Central Asia is a virtual sandbox for corruption. I realize including Afghanistan here may not be perfect, so, I dunno, lets talk Roghun instead. Either way, the steppes are littered with the carcasses of good causes and the wastes of corrupt people. This has, in the past, led to Real Big Problems for the U.S. and will continue to do so in the future. There are good lawyers on the ground, and it's worth working to help them.
  3. Journalistic freedom is important. Even if you don't think the story is worth hearing, you can't deny that every story has a right to be heard. You don't have to have the window open, but people are allowed to yell. Freedom of the press is an issue in the Caucasus and Central Asia (Turkey, too!) on a very basic level. If you don't think that my first three sentences here are true, there are 75 families who may disagree.
  4. Nobody has any clue what's going on in Afghanistan on a very basic level. "Empire Gone Mad" is about as well-put as possible, there's lots of talk of change but nobody knows what to change to or from. Afghanistan may be excepted from Central Asia because of the past 30 years of history, but its still very much a patch in the Central Asian quilt. It's not quite as pat as, "understand Central Asia and you understand Afghanistan" but there is a whole lot to be learned from the Turanic and Persian influences on the country.
  5. The environment there is falling apart. You probably know about the Aral Sea, massive strip mines, desertification, and the maw of hell in Turkmenistan. The planet is changing, and it is REALLY changing over there. So, you know, that's a thing.
  6. And on the same note, there's heeyuuuge natural resource wealth in Central Asia. Afghanistan's gotten some news for it recently, but well, it's a common, continuing, trend.You should read about it.
  7.  The rise of private military companies is...interesting, at least. There's lots of grumbling stateside about contractors like Xe and the like, but there is sometimes some well-reasoned debate as well. And sometimes you just run into something so sketchy (to quote, " In 2007, their armoury of Kalashnikovs was seized by the police despite their documentation being in order, the company believed that the raid was orchestrated by competitors in the Ministry of Interior to seize parts of their business.") Books have been written about PMC's, but The Book has not yet been written. I know a good professor over at UMd who wants to write comparing the PMCs of today to the Swiss Mercenaries of yesterday. So you could contact him, I guess.
  8. I'm one for aphorisms, and one of my favorites is, "Every day you wake up, thank whatever God you believe in that you were not born in Grozny." The place is a Bartertown-esque wildland, and only the more so for being completely ignored by not-Russians. I'm not sure what you could do to change that, I'm not sure what I could do to change that. But I know it could start by caring.
So hopefully that's enough reasons for you, Drezner, to care about Central Asia. And if you don't care about something, well, that's alright. As I've mentioned, there are many things I don't care about. But demanding ignorance is displaying arrogance. And it's pretty darn foolish to do both as American policy.

The USA may be on the downswing of empire, and is not an omnipotent God by any means. And all the money and caring in the world aren't going to fix any of the myriad of problems in Central Asia. But maybe, little-by-little, something could be put together. Eventually, starting with little design projects, or doing locality-centered development work, you could help a couple of dozen lives. It's better than nothing. Nothing, in fact, is a terrible policy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whereas I make an attempt at long-form writing and, quite literally, come up short

1,500 words. None of them too great. This is my first time writing something remotely creative since, oh, high school, so any criticism is very very much so welcome. Let it be known that I haven't even edited this sucker.

I should start my Sarajevo story with how it ended. On the flight back to Istanbul when 7:53 Sarajevo time hits. I smell Bosnak Borek. Not the timid, limpid kind you get at Simit Sarayi that needs a few healthy lacings of sumac, but the spicy, snappy Sarajevski variety. Ripe with fennel and pepper, tasting more like Italian sausage than kiyma. It’s Iftar time at ~10,000 meters. Come ye brothers and enjoy our meat.
I spend a lot of time in Istanbul mocking the “East v. West” tropes. The same trope exists in Sarajevo, sure, and it’s just as tired. It’s like Samuel Huntington somehow mindwormed into all of us and convinced the world of its own polarity. The world is shades of grey, and all the more wonderful for it. When I was fresh out of high-school, I remember running into a man who, looking back on it, couldn’t be much older than my current twenty-three. He was out hiking where I was hiking, taking some time to cool his mind after a friend committed suicide. He wasn’t there to lecture, of course, but he said something that stuck in my mind. The guy warned me off of any form of extremism. Apparently nobody told Doc Huntington. And I don’t mean this to be wistful and preachy, I mean this to say that describing Sarajevo as any sort of dichotomy gets you wrong from the start. There’s more to these places then who has planted their flag there. There’s more to Sarajevo them bombs, tunnels, and roses.
There is Ottoman stuff. The stuff I can’t live without. Learn about Gazi Husrev Bey by wandering his mosque and medrese. The mosque is a ways away from the imperial masonry of Istanbul, Edirne, or Bursa. There is as much woodwork as stonecutting and as much enamel as pearl. There are a few mosques and other such religious buildings in and around the old city, Bascarcija. The scale is far more human and there is certainly a vernacular touch to all of it. And unlike some of the bigger Turkish sites, the Ottomanica in Bosnia is a bit more alive. The old houses have laundry hanging from them, not menus. The mosques are inhabited by old dudes with beards, not young blondes with Leicas. A tremendous amount of money has come from the Gulf and from Turkey to rehabilitate the Ottoman buildings and create a more vibrant Islamic life in Sarajevo. A lot of this could be construed a bit suspiciously, and I will say that I was a bit stranged out by the green flags and Shahadah on a black flag. The latter is typically used to symbolize an Islamic outpost in the Dar al-Harb. Seeing it in a tourist mosque in Muslim Sarajevo was a bit strong. But the newly-minted medrese within the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Bay Medrese compound was tastefully executed and shiny as all-get out. They even humored me with Turkish. And it should go without saying (but it won’t) that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish buildings were all well-maintained and well-mapped. The New Synagogue, from c. 1904, was as loud-and-proud as I’ve seen a synagogue outside Israel. The new Orthodox Church was right on the main square and flanked by a group of men commenting on two of their kind’s match on one of those comically-oversized chessboards. You couldn’t ask for a more heavy-handed picturesque of Eastern Europe.
There is food and drink. I could detect hops in the beer, a far cry from the Natural Light masquerading as Efes in Turkey. There’s widespread and cheap espresso. I’m no coffee drinker, but I was informed by my Bosnian agent that what one does in Sarajevo is sit in a café on Ferhadija and drink espresso. So I did. It was better than it sounds, and just as pretentious. The food was meat-and-dairy, but I’m young and brash enough to have no problems with that. Zeljo in Bascarsija was the place to go for cevapi – sizzling kofte in oven-fresh bread, covered with kajmak (not kaymak) and served with a side of “hell yes!” Simple grills, done well, will never steer you wrong. There are a few variations on the meat-and-bread sort of thing, and I suppose one could get sick of it on a longer stay. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sopska salata when I had it. It’s your standard cucumber-tomato-onion-pepper sort of salad, but occasionally topped with an absurdist dollop of sour cream. It’s as good as the ingredients are fresh, and they were plenty so in my case. I’ve already discussed the burek and don’t need to go further. Cevapi, though, is really the start of the show. I like to assume that it comes from the Turkish cevap, or answer. As in, if someone asks you a tough question, you just answer by handing them cevapi. I wrote a thesis-y thing on Balkan foods, and I think cevapi was the answer to that, too.
There’s nature. The Miljacka really isn’t it, it’s too wimpy to be considered much of anything. But if you wander to the far side of town from Basarcija, you get to Vrelo Bosne, the spring of the Bosne river. It’s kinda bucolic vernal paradise. Also highly recommended, particularly in the summer, when the weather is cold and the patio restaurant serves a mean desert that’s basically just apple pie filling covered with ice cream. Once you get past the children playing and the dogs chasing frenetically after ducks, Vrelo Bosne is quite peaceful. I caught a nice hour-long catnap in the shade of a linden, and if anyone thought I was a drifter, they were at least nice enough to keep it to themselves.
There is history. I won’t bore you with the Ottoman stuff, and honestly, the museums won’t either. The whole Ottoman thing is treated more as an occupying force than 300 years of history. But the modern history museum confronts the Balkan wars unflinchingly and evocatively. What struck me the most was a sign marking “Uniform of a Sarajevan Militia Member” to a vest, jeans, and a pair of Adidas. If Mladic tried to argue that there were no innocents in Sarajevo, there were certainly no professionals, either. The fighters – on both sides, it should be mentioned – were far more “dudes with guns” than anything resembling the Yugoslav Army of 5 years prior. There’s not as much Tito worship as I expected, I regret to say. There is, however, a Tito Café that has “SMRT FACIZMU” banners. And another museum that was a bit negative on the whole Cetniks thing. So it’s not as if the Time of Josip Broz was entirely forgotten. Just lost in its own aftermath, I suppose. But the museums are cool. As long as you don’t have your heart set on looking at the actual Sarajevo Haggadah, not just an interactive computer demonstration of the Sarajevo Haggadah, because the real thing cannot be sullied by non-diplomatsonphotoops eyes. But at the same museum, there’s awesome natural history on display, including raging taxedermied otters.
There are mountains. I mean, people from Colorado would probably call them hills, but I was duly impressed. Sarajevo is, compared to my expectations, pretty small; only ~300,000 or so people live in a valley carved by the sputtering Miljacka. And above the valley are steep-enough rises that give a view of the whole settlement. The guide books warn sternly that irregulars of the Republika Srpska used these hills to rain down mortar fire on the town, writing about it half-gawking and half-tutting. But the pines are odiferous and the views are spectacular, even if the steadily eroding gun emplacements are more than a bit unsettling. I was convinced I would hike to the top of one of the mountains before realizing that, my God, I have a flight to catch. I was still able to grab lunch at some chalet about 2/3 the way up. There are hiking paths and guest houses abound up there, I’m optimistic I’ll return and conquer.
And if I conquered, well, I’d hardly be the first. Calling Bosnia a “Crossroads of Empires” is probably not as accurate as “a relatively low-lying place that stands between geographical chokeholds (hi, Poland!), but it still gets said anyways. Bosnia’s got its own thing going on, for sure. There’s certainly lots of influences from all sorts of places, but it’s still…Bosnia. And Herzegovina. They even have their own coat of arms and anything.
It’s a real place, not just the projection of Huntingtonists and their ilk. Real people live there, and they’re more interested, I would imagine, in hanging out with friends and falling in love and that sort of thing then serving some sort of post-imperialist vision. Let it go, learn about the place for what it is, not for how it may or may not represent your views of what you want it to be. I’m not a Balkanologist. I’m no Mazower. But I’m no Robert D. Kaplan either. Sarajevo isn’t the epicenter of this Medievalized European concept. It’s just a place. A pretty place, if I may say so myself. One worth checking out sometime.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

He's got real estate that's better than that

Some of my first writing that I actually still find readable was my first few views on Georgia. I still love the place, and I still recommend everyone visit it. And now, apparently, Sakashvili wants to make it at lot easier for you.

These two stories aren't at all unrelated. On one hand, Trump is buying real estate in Tblisi and Misha is opening up the Black Sea coast for tremendous new development. On the other, Georgia turns to English as its secondary language, away from Russian. The second is pretty straightforward. And yeah, I predicted it, but it wasn't like it was that difficult to discover. Columbia-educated Sakashvili has been turning towards the US for nearly two decades. This was more a formality than anything else...though I'd be interested to hear how far-ranging the decree is. Will students away from Tblisi be doing English as well? I really don't know how far their reach is.

The development bit is more interesting. Some of the stuff sounds really, really, dangerous. To wit:
Specifically, the government is offering hotel developers 27 plots on 11.3 hectares of undeveloped, state-owned Black Sea-area land for $1 per plot. Under the program, overseen by the Autonomous Republic of Achara, any investor willing to invest at least two million lari (approximately $1.1 million) in a beachfront hotel zone will qualify for an array of business incentives, including free utilities and no sales or income tax for 15 years.
To qualify for the tax holiday, participating hotel projects – each having a requirement that a building cannot be taller than seven stories -- must be completed by August 1, 2011. 
So yeah, that's not what I would call safe, planned, development. In fact, I would bet that means shoddy construction, cheap labor, and all sorts of cut corners. And lots of money going back to Tblisi and New York more than anything else. Bascially, the ugliest points of tourism. God help us all when the developers discover the mountains. There is a back-pat about it, the whole "but no trees can be taken down" but lets be serious. This is going to be a tremendous renewal project. And I'm not optimistic that it will be done well. There's too much room for corruption and graft. Too much of an excuse for Americans to talk about "helping Georgians" and not giving a damn which ones they help. Lots of rich, connected, Georgians will benefit. Lots of poor Georgians will be disillusioned. Sakashvili is smarter than me, so maybe he knows what he's doing here. But as I said, I'm pessimistic. I'd hate to see the country piss away its natural beauty to get 15 dudes a few more million.

 And finally, there's separatism in the North Caucasus. You probably knew this already, and you probably knew that Russia thinks that Georgians, Americans, Saudis, and everyone besides Chechens are to blame. It's a well-written article. So for those of you that are complaining that this isn't a navel-gazing travel blog, and those of you that have no clue what I'm talking about when I go full-Kavkaz, read Vatchagaev's piece. It's pretty danged good.

So yeah, I owe a report on Sarajevo, and I'll get to that eventually. I'm trying to do long-form, but that's just totally not happening so far what with work and all. So I'll let you know how that goes.

Read about the Caucasus until then.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Call me Causobon because I make things up

When Taches d'Heiule is quoting DFW, things have gotten weird on the internet. And since the internet happened, we can really write whatever we want to on it. So in the interest of saying whatever I want, I'll run through a DFW-style thought experiment, and one that flies in direct opposition to what I said in my last post.

Instead of talking about the future of Islamicism, what if the entire concept of Islamicism didn't really exist? What if, because it is so difficult to really define a movement that is so disorganized and de-centralized, we can see if the movement exists at all? If its not, instead, a teleological explanation of numerous different disparate movements?

I'm not just saying stuff to be all Hipsterrunoff, I swear. The main crux of my argument is that Islamic governments and movements don't help each other out without a good reason. Kosovo, for all of it being the Muslim Outpost in Europe that all Muslims are supposed to want, has gotten very little aid - or even recognition, from other Muslim countries. Kashgar, a metropolis in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, the Far East of Islam, has been similarly ignored. Simply put, the sort of people who are big on the world stage don't want to upset Russia or China unless they absolutely have to. Growing the Caliphate and sticking the white flag all over does not qualify as worth it.

And on the same point, the folks that do want to stick it to Russia have no problem supporting political Islam in one way or another. Definitely-not-Muslim Poland recently sorta-arrested-but-then-didn't a Chechen separatist. And there's a wikipedia list of places that are named after Dzhokar Dudayev. Guess where they are.

Islam as a political movement is, of course, complicated. The whole uncited mess that is "Iran donates to AKP's Campaign" makes little sense from an economic standpoint ($25,000,000? For what?), from a diplomatic standpoint (why are only un-named Foreign Service officials the ones talking about it?), and also from a Islamic-axis standpoint (why is a Twelver supporting Sunni orthodoxy?). If true, it only makes sense from a political standpoint, that is, Iran is supporting their neighbor and trading partner. Religion, honestly, doesn't apply. If its true.

Islamic Finance has fascinated me for a while now. It is presented as not just a morally superior way to bank, but also a corruption-free way to bank. Which is, of course, awfully nice but may not always be true. Corruption is as corruption does. Corrupt dudes (and chicks) live all over the world despite any purported religious leanings.

So on my quest for finding the underpinnings of Islamic Banking, I kept on running into the same answer. Islamic Finance, according to those who know, is a fig leaf. As one of those experts said:
...engagement with the [Islamic Banking] industry can only lead to one of two outcomes: (i) co-option and corruption if one remains engaged and perpetually engaged through incoherent justifications, or (ii) frustration, demoralization, and eventual disengagement. 
So they're just like any other bankers. Cretins. Jackals. Makes sense, actually.

This is where my train of thought leads. Purportedly Islamic actors still act for their own gain, not any particular Muslim leaning. They do what will help them gain/retain power (I mean politicians here, not Imams, Hafiz, or any other sort of legitimately religious person. Just politicians). Selling "their own" down the river is done just as often as, well, anyone else does. Window dressing may be different, but the underlying shittiness of politicians is the same.

And until someone can convince me otherwise, I'm going to go with the current understanding I have of Islamic finance. That its just an excuse for dudes who want a lot more money to do so under the name of Islam. Makes sense, actually. So I'm sure (and I welcome!) someone will correct me, yeah, this at least makes the argument cohesive.

If you believe all of the following, political Islam is a paper tiger. Sure, there may be some really bad dudes who use Islam as a rallying call, but that's hardly new news. And if political Islam is a paper tiger, then real, religious, Islam, is nothing to fear. And thus articles like Andy McCarthy's make no sense.

Terrorists get pointed at as terrorists solely because they fall under the scope of political Islam. Which is a logical fallacy if you subscribe that political Islam doesn't exist as a movement. And thus conversionaires who are doing their task to convert people to Islam aren't just creepy proselytizers, but instead nefarious masters-of-dark-arts who are destroying America. There's a whole entire diabolical conspiracy there that involves labelling any Others as, well, Others, that there's really a strong argument against existing.

And I should reiterate that I'm not completely convinced that everything I just wrote is true. It's much more of a Foucault's Pendulum assemblage of facts into something that looks like a coherent theory but may not be.

But its food for thought. Not saying that you should believe it, but saying that if you run into Andy McCarthy, you can say "well, but I read this thing once..." and have fun with it from there.