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For a book published in 1998, Amsterdam is remarkably out of date.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 Asia...it'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.