Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good opening stanzas

I'm not one for poetry, to be honest. Not like I have anything against it, but I just wasn't raised knowing anything about it.

But these two sentences are how you open a story:


Go there.

The situation is unpromising.

Via this link via someone on Twitter and I honestly can't remember who.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Half Awake in this Fake Empire

Arabia! How I love my new neighborhood: Sand, nondescript, non-color buildings framed by piles of dirt, and the sounds of calls to prayer! You are truly a beauty to behold! Up next: pix of razor wire, machine gun nests, more sand/dirt, and neon lights...And of course, more pix of me in my abaya. Must laugh...

...via Facebook.

Goodness. This...what have we done? 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Turkey: Before all of this politics mess

This is turning into far more of a microblog than anything of substance, but if you care about all things Turkey and/or photography and/or me, you should check out LIFE's photomontage of Turkey of yore.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Finally. Thousands of Words on Turkish Soccer.

I'm not totally enamored with Gulizia's writing or the fact that Batuman is cut off mercilessly by a paywall. It's literally thousands of words about soccer in Turkey, in the context of the Middle East and in the context of the 1980 Coup. You should read them both and embrace how wonderful the sport is in Turkey.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On being a sixteen year-old son (edits)

As I try to turn this into a Real Thing, I'm going to do public editing because, hey, why not?

I lost my virginity when I was sixteen. It isn't a particularly great story, or one I particularly felt like sharing, but I feel it's pretty zeitgeist-y for that age. I remember driving (I was driving! In a car! Me!) back to my house after watching a high school football game on Friday, getting caught waiting at the train tracks while going home. My parents were out of town for the weekend and my girlfriend was coming over the next day. I remember thinking to myself, "Hey! I could have sex tomorrow! How cool would that be?"

I don't talk to that girl anymore. No good reason why not, other than "16 year-olds are idiots." It may seem obvious now, but at the time telling her, "I thought there was no way a girl like you hadn't had sex already" was a really dumb and cruel thing. But that's ok. Life moves on. Teenagers are well known for making poor decisions at full speed. The best we, as a society, can hope for is that they'll finish growing up with a minimum of bodily and mental injury. That's often as much a matter of luck as it is of parenting or being part of student government or whatever. Having sex for the first time is a synecdoche of the teenage years; close your eyes and just hope that you get through it without any long-lasting negative consequences. Life will go on.

And it's true, life does. I'm still amazed that, despite all the evidence I gave them to the contrary, my parents decided I was well enough worth keeping around. That age-sixteen year I went on two different college tours. I went on an east coast swing where I visited about a dozen schools, including Maryland solely because my sister thought I would be able to find a suitable girl there. After seeing who I ended up dating at UMd, I wonder if she ever regrets that suggestion. As the youngest in my family, I had a lot of hopes and dreams imprinted upon me, that I would become the son/brother they hoped for. I never really did become what they expected of me when I was sixteen, but they loved and still love me all the same.
Later in the year, as the spring showed up - in typical Midwestern fashion, a month or so late - me and my father took a road trip in a big loop around. It was another ostensible college tour; UCincy and Vanderbilt, I guess, but it was really an excuse to be around each other. We went to the Louisville War Museum, the Louisville Slugger Bat Factory, a half-dozen good restaurants, at least three Graeter's, and a Reds game. My beloved Reds had one of those years when they were in first place on June 7 and would finish the year 29 games out. Because I was sixteen, I just knew, at the time of that trip, that this would be their year. Sixteen year-olds are gullible like that.

Looking back on it, I am impressed with how my father treated me. He always treated me as the son he expected me to be, not the son I was. I remember throwing a temper tantrum one day because of something Halloween-related, and he just glanced over at me, told me I was being immature, and to stop being immature. He let me make my own decisions, especially around the college deal. He was alright with me pursuing ROTC, considering West Point, and all of that. I think a lot of this was because he was comfortable knowing that my role models, him, his father, his father-in-law principally, were good ones. Like most sixteen year-olds, I was both horrified to follow and inexorably drawn to my father's path. It never occurred to me that he could be incorrect back then. Not because he said he was infallible, but because most children find their parents infallible.

Even now, at the ripe old age of 24, when I should know better, traces of that filial belief in infallibility remain. Despite being confronted by any number of monsters and jackals in the legal community at my father's funeral, I stuck around law school. Despite all evidence pointed contrary, I stayed awake through the October evenings in 2010 to watch the Reds roll their way past the Phillies in the playoffs. Despite anything I know he would've said if he was still around to tell me, I don't think I'll ever be able to be the father he was.

Without knowing much of him, I doubt Anwar al-Awlaki was half the man my father was. My father was a lawyer who could have spent a lot of hours golfing or whoring or whatever else partners at law firms do. Instead, he built a pro-bono program to help people fight their way out of debt without going through the crippling and humiliating bankruptcy process. Al-Awlaki gave speeches on who to murder and how.

Given that, though, I don't know what al-Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman, thought of his father. One can be a bad person and a great father. One can be a bad person and a worse father. They are two independent  variables. In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, Slavenka Drakulic has a story about Ratko Mladic's relationship with his daughter. He doted on her and did everything he could for her, including sending her abroad for a better education. When she learned in school that her beloved father was the mass-murderer responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, it took her years to process how that could be the same man who she saw eating sausages and rooting for Red Star Belgrade. She was much older than sixteen when she killed herself with father's prize pistol, knowing she would never be able to confront him with how she felt.

We will never know how Abdulrahman got along with his father; whether they argued about America's role in the world, where young Abdulrahman should go to university, or maybe even about the Rockies chances in the upcoming year. Abdulrahman was born and partially raised in Colorado, after all. Sixteen year-old Abdulrahman was killed in a drone strike along with his father in Yemen.

He may have grown up and become another virulently anti-American idealogue like his father. He could have also gone to med school and become a pediatrician. When I was sixteen, I wanted to join the CIA and go after terrorists. Had I followed up on that dream, I could have ended up being part of the decision to kill Anwar, his son, and others. Instead I spent a sleepless night wondering how I was just a few seemingly-miniscule life decisions away from actively pursuing the trial-less execution of two American citizens, one of which was born in 1995 (a year that, until now, has always been shorthand for "the year Eddie George won the Heisman").

The youngest person executed in the United States, Sean Sellers, was sixteen when he killed a store clerk, his mother, and his stepfather in 1999. He was afforded a public trial and a full trip through the appeals process before he was executed by lethal injection ten years later. Abdulrahman was the same age when he was killed by a Hellfire missile that can be traced back to the secretive Join Special Operations Command (JSOC). Sellers had a trial, went through the juvenile justice system, and was given full opportunity to defend himself before execution. Abdulrahman likely did not know he was a target. US officials asserted that he was in his twenties, and needed to be refuted by the al-Awlaki grandparents sending a copy of his birth certificate to the Washington Post. If Abdulrahman was having lunch with friends and family - even vehemently anti-American friends and family - in his hometown of Denver, he would be put through juvenile justice and likely have nothing on his permanent record. But since he did the same in Yemen, a country the United States is not at war with, he was targeted and killed.

To say Abdulrahman was executed in a manner befitting a just system is not something easy to say with a straight face. The teenager was killed blithely, without regard for his guilt other than by association, without regard for his demographics other than his lineage. If Abdulrahman did indeed have anti-American feelings, and if JSOC indeed has a national security interest in executing every teenager with anti-American feelings, there wouldn't be enough missiles to kill them all. Teenagers are supposed to be the ones who think that their beliefs, hopes, and dreams are matters of life-and-death, not the Armed Forces.

I have no idea what Abdulrahman's political views were and how much of a threat they posed. He was  given less rights then someone arrested for triple murder. He may have sworn to dedicate his life to destroying America. He may have sworn his allegiance to Tim Tebow and the Broncos, also. His ideology, the only reason he was killed, is locked away as a state secret. His quite malleable ideas may now be spattered on the ground, but they're not a matter of public discourse.

Sixteen year-olds are foolish. There's a reason we don't let them vote, go to war, drink, or any of that. We don't expect them to make good decisions. We don't expect them to be fully grown-up, with a life plan that is inflexible and unchangable. We expect them to love their parents and trust them. And we - you, me, and everyone else with a navy blue passport - killed one of them, one of those gawky, foolish, teenagers, for doing just that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ashgabat is well on its way to being the 21st Century version of the Land of Ozymandias

On being a sixteen year-old son

I usually hate getting publicly political. I still do, actually. But considering that this blog isn't actually used for anything anymore, I figure I may as well use it to try out writing again.

I lost my virginity when I was sixteen. It isn't a particularly great story, or one I particularly felt like sharing, but I feel it's pretty zeitgeist-y for that age. I remember driving (I was driving! In a car! Me!) back to my house after watching a high school football game on Friday, getting caught waiting at the train tracks while going home. My parents were out of town for the weekend and my girlfriend was coming over the next day. I remember thinking to myself, "Hey! I could have sex tomorrow! How cool would that be?"

I don't talk to that girl anymore. No good reason why not, other than "16 year-olds are idiots." It may seem obvious now, but at the time telling her, "I thought there was no way a girl like you hadn't had sex already" was a really dumb and cruel thing. But that's ok. Life moves on. Teenagers are well known for making poor decisions at full speed. The best we, as a society, can hope for is that they'll finish growing up with a minimum of bodily and mental injury. That's often as much a matter of luck as it is of parenting or being part of student government or whatever. Having sex for the first time is a synecdoche of the teenage years; close your eyes and just hope that you get through it without any long-lasting negative consequences. Life will go on.

And it's true, life does. My junior year in high school was a whirlwind of SAT tests, lacrosse, and the worst teacher I ever had. This English teacher was one of those tyrannical liberals who believed that independent thought was only effective when subservient to an agenda. That class turned me towards the neocon parts of the web; I started reading James Lileks (who, to be honest, I still enjoy the non-political writing of) and was as pro-W. as a non-voter could be. I remember printing out some article Lileks wrote about how Michael Moore and Bowling for Columbine was full of shit, and showing it to my mother. She was disappointed by me, for sure, but I remember her telling me that despite any window dressing, Bowling for Columbine's message of "Not Killing People" was a good one. I agreed, I suppose.

But Moore's resemblance to that English teacher still rubbed me raw. At the end of the year, that teacher told me not to even try for AP English, that I was not a writer with any potential. Because I was sixteen, I believed him. This bastion of liberalism made me understand that my thoughts were not worth sharing with the world.

Thankfully, my parents believed in me. Still do, as far as I'm aware. I'm still amazed that, despite all the evidence I gave them to the contrary, they decided I was well enough worth keeping around. That age-sixteen year I went on two different college tours. I went on an east coast swing where I visited about a dozen schools that wouldn't let a lazy kid with good test scores like me in. I visited Maryland solely because my sister thought I would be able to find a suitable girl there. After seeing who I ended up dating at UMd, I wonder if she ever regrets that suggestion. As the youngest in my family, I had a lot of hopes and dreams imprinted upon me, that I would become the son/brother they hoped for. I never really did become what they expected of me when I was sixteen, but they loved and still love me all the same.

Later in the year, as the spring showed up - in typical Midwestern fashion, a month or so late - me and my father took a road trip in a big loop around. It was another ostensible college tour; UCincy and Vanderbilt, I guess, but it was really an excuse to be around each other. We went to the Louisville War Museum, the Louisville Slugger Bat Factory, a half-dozen good restaurants, at least three Graeter's, and a Reds game. My beloved Reds had one of those years when they were in first place on June 7 and would finish the year 29 games out. Because I was sixteen, I just knew, at the time of that trip, that this would be their year. Sixteen year-olds are gullible like that.

Looking back on it, I am impressed with how my father treated me. He always treated me as the son he expected me to be, not the son I was. I remember throwing a temper tantrum one day because of something Halloween-related, and he just glanced over at me, told me I was being immature, and to stop being immature. He let me make my own decisions, especially around the college deal. He was alright with me pursuing ROTC, considering West Point, and all of that. I think a lot of this was because he was comfortable knowing that my role models, him, his father, his father-in-law principally, were good ones. Like most sixteen year-olds, I was both horrified to follow and inexorably drawn to my father's path. It never occurred to me that he could be incorrect back then. Not because he said he was infallible, but because most children find their parents infallible.

Even now, at the ripe old age of 24, when I should know better, traces of that filial belief in infallibility remain. Despite being confronted by any number of monsters and jackals in the legal community at my father's funeral, I stuck around law school. Despite all evidence pointed contrary, I stayed awake through the October evenings in 2010 to watch the Reds roll their way past the Phillies in the playoffs. Despite anything I know he would've said if he was still around to tell me, I don't think I'll ever be able to be the father he was.

Without knowing much of him, I doubt Anwar al-Awlaki was half the man my father was. My father was a lawyer who could have spent a lot of hours golfing or whoring or whatever else partners at law firms do. Instead, he built a pro-bono program to help people fight their way out of debt without going through the crippling and humiliating bankruptcy process. Al-Awlaki gave speeches on who to murder and how.

Given that, though, I don't know what al-Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman, thought of his father. One can be a bad person and a great father. One can be a bad person and a worse father. I don't know, I mean, they are two independent  variables. In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, Slavenka Drakulic has a story about Ratko Mladic's relationship with his daughter. He doted on her and did everything he could for her, including sending her abroad for a better education. When she learned in school that her beloved father was the mass-murderer responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, it took her years to process how that could be the same man who she saw eating sausages and rooting for Red Star Belgrade. She was much older than sixteen when she killed herself with father's prize pistol, knowing she would never be able to confront him with how she felt.

We will never know how Abdulrahman got along with his father; whether they argued about America's role in the world, where young Abdulrahman should go to university, or maybe even about the Rockies chances in the upcoming year. Abdulrahman was born and partially raised in Colorado, after all. Sixteen year-old Abdulrahman was killed in a drone strike along with his father in Yemen.

He may have grown up and become another virulently anti-American idealogue like his father. He could have also gone to med school and become a pediatrician. When I was sixteen, I wanted to join the CIA and go after terrorists. Had I followed up on that dream, I could have ended up being part of the decision to kill Anwar, his son, and others. Instead I spent a sleepless night wondering how I was just a few seemingly-miniscule life decisions away from actively pursuing the trial-less execution of two American citizens, one of which was born in 1995 (a year that, until now, has always been shorthand for "the year Eddie George won the Heisman").

The youngest person executed in the United States, Sean Sellers, was sixteen when he killed a store clerk, his mother, and his stepfather in 1999. He was afforded a public trial and a full trip through the appeals process before he was executed by lethal injection ten years later. Abdulrahman was the same age when he was killed by a Hellfire missile that can be traced back to the secretive Join Special Operations Command (JSOC). Sellers, for better or worse, had a media circus surrounding his execution. He had a trial, went through the juvenile justice system, and was given full opportunity to defend himself before execution. Abdulrahman likely did not know he was a target. US officials asserted that he was in his twenties, and needed to be refuted by the al-Awlaki grandparents sending a copy of his birth certificate to the Washington Post. If Abdulrahman was having lunch with friends and family - even vehemently anti-American friends and family - in his hometown of Denver, he would be put through juvenile justice and likely have nothing on his permanent record. But since he did the same in Yemen, a country the United States is not at war with, he was targeted and killed.

To say Abdulrahman was executed in a manner befitting a just system is not something easy to say with a straight face. The teenager was killed blithely, without regard for his guilt other than by association, without regard for his demographics other than his lineage. In Gettysburg, the 1993 Civil War film, Jeff Daniels intones that in America, "[W]e judge you by what you do, not by who your father was." That seems to not hold water today. If Abdulrahman did indeed have anti-American feelings, and if JSOC indeed has a national security interest in executing every teenager with anti-American feelings, there wouldn't be enough Hellfire missiles to kill them all. Teenagers are supposed to be the ones who think that their beliefs, hopes, and dreams are matters of life-and-death, not the Armed Forces. Unlike we may for a sixteen year old, we would not expect JSOC to send a 10-pound Hershey's Kiss to apologize to a girl they offended.

I have no idea what Abdulrahman's political views were and how much of a threat they posed. He was  given less rights then someone arrested for triple murder. He may have sworn to dedicate his life to destroying America. He may have sworn his allegiance to Tim Tebow and the Broncos, also. His ideology, the only reason he was killed, is locked away as a state secret. His quite malleable ideas may now be spattered on the ground, but they're not a matter of public discourse.

Oscar Wilde, of course, said it best, "I am not young enough to know everything."That said, sixteen year-olds are foolish. There's a reason we don't let them vote, go to war, drink, or any of that. We don't expect them to make good decisions. We don't expect them to be fully grown-up, with a life plan that is inflexible and unchangable. We expect them to love their parents and trust them. And we - you, me, and everyone else with a navy blue passport - killed one of them, one of those gawky, foolish, teenagers, for doing just that.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

US anti-terror establishment just straight making things up at this point.

Kucera noted how Kazakhs and Turkmen are among those given special, anti-terror, screening if they run into immigration troubles. Meanwhile, Kazakhs say that its Kavkatsii people coming into West Kazakhstan, not Kazakhs themselves, causing problems. IWPR also has a very neat interview on how the Kazakh government is trying to clamp down on terrorism; basically just persecute and prosecute anyone who doesn't follow state-sanctioned religious bodies.

Besides the sketchiness of treating Hizb-ut Tahrir as a terrorist organization, Kazakhstan treats the prospect of terror just as I'd expect: lots of distrust and random jailings, but no outright violence. I'm not sure what American-sponsored WARNING SIRENS are really hoping to do.

I'm really lazy and really have other, more pertinent things to worry about. But the problem of "Islam-related terrorism in the CIS" tends to all boil down to "Chechnya be real messed up and have some serious funding behind its insurgency." But that's not as much fun as nefarious global networks and 5th columns and all of that stuff. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

All of the News

Not a real post. Just a real excuse to link to this article for nefarious future purposes.

Wired's Danger Room had a huge expose/longread a bit ago about how DARPA was getting its hands dirty in quantitative analysis in the Afghanistan war effort. It's an interesting read for many purposes; politically bureaucratic squabbles, the efficacy of data in counterinsurgency, the efficacy of COIN, and the like. But there's a great big gaping whole in the article. It never explains why the DARPA program will help. How will knowing traffic patterns, stability of markets, and possible targets help "win" the war? What is the desirable end state? How will targeted executions help get to that end state? How will stable fruit prices help get to that end state? How will knowing traffic help get to that end state?

All of the program's goals have been goals for a while. Those goals have not seemed to matched with the overarching goal. It sounds like explaining "we can win the baseball game if we get a touchdown and maybe have some luck on set pieces." I just have a very difficult time seeing the connection, and this link is assumed without being proven. Maybe I'm just cranky, or maybe its really disconcerting.

Much better and more illuminating is this AREU piece on land rights in Afghanistan. It sets up the background, the problem, what is being done, and possible solutions, all very quickly and all without getting too technical. Its an interesting, relevant, topic, done well.

I'm not even gonna touch NYT/WaPo/CNN style reporting. There's just nothing of substance there. I'm sure there's room for attractive, simple, changes. I'm not sure on how to go about them.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Land Under Their Feet...Amen!

The story of the protection of religious minorities in Georgia is quickly turning into my favorite of the summer. Giorgi Lomsadze is doing great work and is keeping me, personally, highly entertained. And it just keeps getting better.

Not only does Georgia have the Caucasus' highest rate of Facebook penetration (which is not surprising) but the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Bartolme Pirtskhalashvili, is one of the most popular people on it. And how is he spending his time on Facebook? By cursing - literally - the lawmakers who are protecting minorities.
May the head on their shoulders be damned, the shoulders above their chest, the chest above their waist, the waist above their thighs, the thighs above their knees, the knees above their shins, the shins above their feet, the land under their feet … Amen!
I love the idea of curse-via-internet. A curse is only as good as its audience, and Facebook gives one as good an audience as any. I'm not sure I would curse Georgian soil, myself, but that doesn't seem to stop Father Pirtskhalashvili now, does it?

It's all very American, I think. Like just because Sakashvili is so American, everyone else in Georgia is following his lead. I'm, um, not sure I'd use the US as my role model if I was a Caucasian country, but I'm not, so I won't.

As much as the Orthodox Church is a bastion of Georgian life, it seems odd to have it be such a politicized thing. But I guess that acknowledging minorities is a bit of de-religifying Georgian culture, so the Georgian Patriarch has to come out against it, in some sort of Kabuki theatre. But to curse Georgian soil? Really?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

They fall on people and then those people are dead, you dumb motherfucker!

Title courtesy of Peter over at Sorry, everyone. While I'm not as gung-ho as he is, I certainly appreciate the sentiment.

People die. Everything turns brown and rots and goes back to Earth unless it's made of some sort of fucked up chemical. One of the greatest advancements I've made in my own life is being okay with this. I used to be stuck awake at nights imagining my eminent demise. Now I'm stuck staring at the havoc I've wrought, intentionally or unintentionally, and how it affects others. Much better.

Though not an expat anymore - even if Denver should really count - I have a bit of that lifestyle tattooed on my brain. I'll be back out of Los Estados before the next president is sworn in, to be sure. One of the attitudes of expat lifestyle that jabbed at me was the ability to willfully disconnect oneself. To start talking about bacon and music that speaks to us as a lost generation, man, instead of staring at the fire surrounding. Let alone getting out some water.

The latest news coming out of Turkey has been all Fenerbahce (let them burn, signed xoxo yabancarslan) and the recent election (AKP is at this point as newsworthy as the sun rising). Which is just another reason why I've fallen in deep, deep, love with Mashallah. Their most recent piece, eaning on the work of Yaşar Adanalı and Fatıh Pınar is pretty spellbinding.

Istanbul will burn. The overheating GDP is one thing, analyzed expertly by, erm, expert Aengus Collins. But the rapid beige-izing of Istanbul: Conventions! Condos! Creperies! destroys the lives of the individuals with promises of future growth. Future growth that will be empty if it exists at all.

Istanbul is only a few years away from toppling into its own peculiar form of Gulag Archipelago, much like the one Southern California has become. It won't be because of Islam, it won't be because of the West or the East or oil money or some cock-eyed notion of Browns not understanding capitalism. It will topple in a way much similar to Ireland's recent Stuka of a fall: real-estate driven growth.

Michael Lewis' bit on Ireland was published a bit ago, and is certainly worth a full read. Here's a sample pullaway:

[M]ore than a fifth of the Irish workforce was employed building houses. The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of the country’s G.D.P.—compared with less than 10 percent in a normal economy—and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had almost 15 times as many people to house. He learned that since 1994 the average price for a Dublin home had risen more than 500 percent. In parts of the city, rents had fallen to less than 1 percent of the purchase price—that is, you could rent a million-dollar home for less than $833 a month. The investment returns on Irish land were ridiculously low: it made no sense for capital to flow into Ireland to develop more of it. Irish home prices implied an economic growth rate that would leave Ireland, in 25 years, three times as rich as the United States. (“A price/earning ratio above Google’s,” as Kelly put it.) Where would this growth come from? Since 2000, Irish exports had stalled, and the economy had been consumed with building houses and offices and hotels. “Competitiveness didn’t matter,” says Kelly. “From now on we were going to get rich building houses for each other.

Sound familiar? But at least Ireland is small; smaller than Istanbul. Mashallah looks at how the rejiggering of the urban fabric doesn't just leave room for shifting, it leaves great big gaping holes that are expected to be filled because of Growth! and Enthusiasm!. This will not work as well as optimism would have it.


I'm generally bullish on Turkey and think things are going to work out. Most things I've read to the alternate have been based more on "Well, I dated a Turkish guy and he was an asshole," than statistics. This Mashallah piece is the first genuinely new, interesting, and affecting news I've read in a long time about Turkey. The attached videos are also spot-on. The maps are readable and influential and they actually talk about real estate developers in Istanbul like they're humans with strengths and foibles, not some Titans of Industry made of granite and Wall Street Journal columns.


The more I read of Mashallah, the more I start to think that most for-profit journalism in the region is choosing Option J  instead of positive, forward-pushing, work. And there a few good blogs, but most of them are trash (or, in the case of Istanbul Alti; compost).


So this is what I'm getting at. The growth of Turkey being paraded around, the "Westernization" the "you can get Starbucks here!" and the general bemusement of it not being the same place it was in the 1980s is the sausage, and one shudders to think of how it's made. Much like how we run our cars, our ferries, our Levent on the crushed corpses of dinosaurs and supercompressed trees, the above-ground life of Istanbul is anchored by the crushed dreams of family men and their starved infants. The bar one frequents with the dreadlocked Germans used to be someone's home. It's always nice to look in the mirror and reify that.


Barring that, go to Mashallah to be able to identify a few of the ruins in the rubble.

Well, at least Georgia makes me happy. Sure ain't making the Azeris grin.

I literally just wrote about the hilarity of Georgia giving kinda/sorta anyone who wants it Most Favored Religion status. The Caucasus Muslim Board, "a body set up in 1937 with semi-official links to the Azerbaijani government, has operated an office in Tbilisi, ostensibly to advocate the interests of Muslims in Georgia." doesn't really agree with me.


The EurasiaNet story goes into detail, but basically these folks think that THEY are the true arbiters how Muslim life in Georgia, but the new committee created by the Georgian government, for the Georgian government, will likely usurp at least a bit of their power.


I'd consider coming out pro-Caucasus Muslim Board, if for nothing else than because its chair is named Allahshukur Pashazade, which is a pretty danged fantastic name. But I don't see how giving Georgian Muslims their own avenue for intra-state issues is going to do too much damage to the Ummah. Sure, it'll probably knock the Caucasus Muslim Board down a peg, and political organizations exist to justify themselves politically and that's why they're upset. But you'd think that the Board has enough issues on their plate. If Georgia thinks that they need to shake up their religious structure, it'll probably be worse for the incumbent religious organizations than said organizations' adherents. 


I'm pretty sure the whole thing is ado about nothing, but it at least is worth getting looked at a little bit closer. It's good to know that PACs work in Tblisi like they do in Washington: for themselves, not each other.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Georgia Continues to Make Me Smile

Georgia can make me happy like few other countries. Not because they necessarily always do things right, but because they always do things differently. By trying to find clever solutions to their problems, they make themselves into a fun little test-case. Saakashvili's patent disregard for internal protests in order to appease the Washington money chute may appear in the goofiest of ways. I find it really endearing.

Take a new law coming up, giving protected status to minority religions in Georgia: the Muslim and Jewish communities, the Roman Catholic Church, Armenian Apostolic Church and Evangelical Baptist Church.

This is weird because Georgia is 84% Georgian Orthodox,  10% Muslim, 4% Armenian Orthodox, and 1% Catholic. The rest is a hodgepodge of Jews, Baptists sure, but also Old Believers, Yezidis, Lutherans, et al. While I'm a pretty big fan of religious tolerance, I find it amusing to see how people pick and choose their tolerances.

These six groups were chosen because they have "deep historic ties" to the Georgian land, if not the Georgian state (which is Georthodox above all, as any skyline of Tblisi could show you). But Evangelicals? Really? They came in after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Misha's Georgian state apparatus is smart. They know that a lot of their reputation isn't just standing up to Russian authoritarianism, whatever that means. And its not just fighting terror, Pankisi Gorge besides. But it's also being a model republic in a checkered land, and THAT means protecting the check-box minorities. Absurdistan (which, it seems, has a purty new cover) does a hilarious send-up of "We are friends of the Jews!" but Evangelicals are just as important if you're trying to get money from certain establishments. A friend of God is a friend of the US, of course. It's amusing to see Georgia kowtowing to that.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Finest Gozleme in all of Turkey

Gozleme in and of itself isn't all that remarkable. Crepe-thin dough wrapped around a layer of [spinach, potato, ground meat] warmed over the buttered bottom side of a pan. But the purported etymology of the word, "göz al-melek", or "eyes of an angel" betray its value. Gozleme is travel food at its finest; simple, warm, filling without being rich, and simple to make. Kindly ignore the old women in Sultanahmet windows slaving over their electric griddles. Gozleme is food for the soul that comes from the soul, it asks far more from its maker.

Get out of Istanbul. This is usually the best way to start a story of an American in Turkey, you can only learn so much from a cramped quarter of Cihangir, jewel of the world and cubic zirconia of the Facebook. Turkey is very big and we are very small, and to find good road food, one must find the roads. For as much respect THY has earned in bolstering their in-flight menu, you won't receive anything of repute in the puddle-jumper to Erzurum, to Diyarbakir, or to Trabzon. There are those that swear by trains, and while I respect it, I am not one of them. Trains are alien impositions to Anatolia, the magic of the Texas Eagle appears as hokum once you get east of Ankara. The train will be populated by the grim and its canteen is stocked with the grimy.

But the buses. Say what you want of a militaristic society, the roads are paved and hue of fine slate, perfect for 12-wheeled Mercedes or 2-treaded Abrams. A modern bus will stop every few hours for refreshments, have a dutiful attendant and all the reading light one can ask for. Ethyl cologne is the perfect refresher after a 16-hour journey, along with a Styrofoam cup of tea.

More importantly, however, is the bus' role as the last remaining conveyance of anonymity. What with airline security, jocular taxis, and officious engineers, the private bus company's clerk is a stolid and unenquiring soul. Pay with cash, most likely the type with Kemaleddin on the reverse. Have your foreign-sounding name dutifully recorded as "Adı Soyadı" and be on your way. Invisibility and quietude follow you on your trip, though perhaps a dubbed Kurt Russell movie will as well. Introspection is a gift.

Don't get to used to the somnambulance, though. Once the bus stops for fuel and food, you'll be thrown into the last vestige of terrain travel, the rest stop. Expect to be charge 75 kurus for the bathroom and 8 lira for a doner. What you're looking for is something to quiet your stomach and contain the warmth to lull you back to sleep. What you're looking for is gozleme.

Though you'll be tempted to eat at each stop, that is the fool's decision. The best meals defeat the best snacks as assuredly as paper beats rock, and you'll want to eat hardy at your destination. What's more, modernity has stripped most of the peculiarities from place. It's no easy task separating Karaköprü from Karaağaç, Şımşrpınar from Sarıyaşı. The OPETs will guide you to your destination, but not to your happiness. The cleavage between the two is the stuff of yearning.

But if you ask any Southern American gentleman where to find the best Southern American food, his eyes will light up and he'll tell you of the gas station with the pit smoker out back. A friend of mine - only slightly bilingual - once tried to convince me that the "gas" in the American "gas station" is a corruption of the German "Gast," that the point is not to refuel your car but to stoke the coals in your heart with conversation and rib-sticking food. On the bus to Tatvan, my seatmate told me at the Acıpayam stop that he was returning home to Lake Van, where he had not been for seven years. When I asked him what he missed most, he didn't respond for the rest of his cup of tea. Before lighting up his third cigarette of the break, he said, "the old buses."

Apparently, it was not just the roads and autos that modernized with Ozal's Turkish Tiger. The entire rest stop system was razed and built anew. Village kaymakams and muhtars realized the steady stream of revenue a refuelling spot in their town represented, they crawled over each other for the opportunity to grovel in front of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Karayolları Genel Müdürlüğü. Especially in the east, they promised more captured "PKK" members, more Village Guard recruits, more urbanization, less Islam. Winners and losers may have been selected arbitrarily or no, but it seemed my Tatvan'li compatriot felt something was amiss.

At Bitlis, just west of our destination on the shores of Lake Van, my seatmate Kurban told me I should get off. I doubted he was interested in the ancestral home of William Saroyan, so I left with him at an hour just a shade too early to be called morning. "Gülselam may not be living," he told me, "but I am sure her family still cooks."

Kurban and I waited 83 minutes for a bus to pick us up, a rust-and-blue affair with a handpainted sign promising Baykan in our future. We wouldn't stay long enough to see the bus hold up its end of the bargain, as I followed Kurban off shortly after settling in, thanking my good sense for packing a light bag and trusting the boyish smile on his craggy face to make this all worthwhile.

The three-legged stool's homestead equivalent welcomed us. A porch of a sort, surrounded by rugs of a kind a Grand Bazaar tout could buy a car on and a morose-looking Kangal were all I could see in the gathering light. "Where are we?" I asked my seatmate and tour guide. "The map says Tatlıkaynak," was his reply, a bit more ambiguous than I would've hoped.

As he walked into the house I stayed outside. Always unfamiliar with the etiquette of strangers, the sounds of Kurmanci gave me an even better excuse to get in a staring contest with the dog. I was squatting next to the fella in a crease of sunlight when a shadow blackened our dirt. I look up to see a vest I could use as a hammock topped with a beard and kaffiyeh.

"Hamidullah Kazanlıoğlu," Kurban gestured me over. "He speaks even worse Turkish than you, but he has gathered that you are hungry."

Our conversation never got far beyond that, even over strong tea. As gracious as a host Hamidullah Bey was, he couldn't wrap his head around the concept of an American student studying abroad nor could I mine on what exactly he did for a living. His insistence on using "talib" to mean "student" and my casual mix-up of "yayla" and "ayla" certainly did not help matters. The smell of melting butter was tantalizing, however, as Kurban and I kept glancing at each other and smiling, as if we just landed dates with the two prettiest girls in school.

While talking (or to be more exact, staring) with my new friends, a woman who could've been anywhere within ten years of my age came around to place three square folds of dough on the low table. I roll my eyes along with most when I hear of Flaubert or Loti's obsession with the headscarved, silent, woman. It is a disgusting trope that speaks of fantasies of submission, of in-utero colonialism, and of gross disrespect. However, when a woman comes to my table to serve food, make eye contact, offer a puzzled look of, "you're not from here, are you?" and then walks away, it is only human to have my curiosity piqued. I feel less shame than shrug about that.

Forks and napkins are clearly out of the question. Plates do nothing that rugs cannot manage. Eating a piping hot origami of butter, dough, and sharp white cheese with dirty hands is best done artfully, rather than with tact or skill. The science of gozleme only adds to this. It's outer shell crisps and browns in spots but only in spots; less like a crepe and more like a $25 pizza. To avoid losing too much of the interior, an eater must choose when and where to eat the crisped parts and where to go for the chewy. Saying the filling is "white cheese and herbs" is akin to saying mountains are rocks and dirt. The cheese is crumbly and tangy. Less of a slap than feta, to be sure, but the greenery (greenery that the Turkish language, in a bout of hand-waving, labels as "grass") adds depth and a nice Spring-y aspect. The gozleme fills me with warmth and genuine enthusiasm. If something this simple can taste so good, my own simple self may be able to accomplish something. Kurban's historiographically-dubious explanation of the history of gozleme, something to do with shepherds and empty pans and the long horsetravel along the Anatolian steppe, gets drowned out by my reverie and suddenwistfulness.

After finishing the last bite and squinting at the hills trying their best to cover up a brazen autumn sun, Hamidullah snaps me out of my catatonia. "When are you going back to America?" He asks.

And just like that, I remember. This is not my home, this is just a vacation. I stand less of a chance of becoming a True Turk than Apo himself. Just another suburban boy off trying to define himself through the myriad life choices of others, trying to collect cool stories to tell skinny girls when I return to DC-area bars.

"I drive back tomorrow," I say. "After I get some rest and find some dessert."

"Do you mean you will fly back?" He says, after a brief consult with Kurban in Kurmanci, making sure he at least half-understood me correctly."

"No, I meant to say drive. I need to tell everyone from here to Istanbul to have breakfast with you one day."

We were then able to see the beard and kaffiyeh split into a canyon-wide smile.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Truth Windows

As I often do, I'll lead with BLDGBlog:
[I]f we could simply scrape aside some paint and plaster and see, for once, the truth, the Real, the scaffolding, the code that makes and sustains the everyday worldly environment; though, I suppose, any attempt to over-literalize such a thing—even the portentous, Frodo Baggensian name of a "truth window"—would come out as, well... exactly like an architecturally themed remake of The Matrix (perhaps resembling the unwatchable film Dark City). 
 He's wrong - Dark City is a fantastic movie. But everything else about Truth Windows is fun and fascinating.

I've written about the unders of Istanbul previously, and I still think it's worth a mention again. I love the optimism of the term "truth window" as in "ah yes, we've finally understood it." If we see the scaffolding of Istanbul, we understand Istanbul. Or, if we can make fun of the zaniness of Almaty, we'll come that much closer to solving Kazakhstan.

Beirut has come somewhat towards this assumption. The real, real, interesting story of Le Maison Jaune is taken as a symbol for Beirut itself. From its sumptuous beginnings to its noble heritage to its bloody, terrifying, use during the Civil War. It is a symbol and a birthmark at once.

Istanbul? Well, Istanbul still sells itself as the city of Paleologues and Sultans, of Ancient Greeks and the mysterious harem. If locals know the truth, there is certainly less opportunity to celebrate it. Honesty doesn't seem to work as well in buildings as it does in books.

Maybe it's because Turkey is too optimistic in its self-image. The forward glance, looking upward and ever-onward conflicts with the cockroaches that would show up if truth windows were set up. It's odd, even though Brazil uses it on their flag, "Order and Progress" would fit Turkey an awful lot, as well. Order & Progress fly in the face of the inchoate, anarchic underpinnings of cities like Istanbul. They give a pat on the head and make cooing noises about industrialization and GDP to the very real and very serious environmental problems that occur.

Well most every government does, I suppose, and it's a problem for all of the G-20 states (and quite a few that fall in below there). But if nobody takes my idea before then, I'm going to have periscopes in the sidewalks in time for Istanbul Bienale 2037.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Blame it on the Business Cards

Been on a long, unexpected, absence from the internet for the past few months. Maybe you noticed, probably you didn't, but it's about time I get back into this thing. In the past few months I've gradually made my way westward until I've ended up in Colorado studying water allocation for the summer. The intention is to use Colorado as a case study to see how water gets divvied up in the US (Colorado is a headwater state for about 20 million people. It's like the Kyrgyzstan of the Mountain West, but with less NGOs). While I'm here I'll be studying up on Islamic Law, and I'll move on toward post-Socialist models in the fall. On that note, if anybody has any suggestions beyond Wael Hallaq's A History of Islamic Legal Theories, be kind enough to let me know.

All I've been doing is reading books and retweeting @RickMuscles for the past few months. Now that's about to change. I'm going to be keeping a research log of sorts up on here if Istanbul Alti's server continues to be obnoxious. I'll be keeping on looking at Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia and natural resource law. I'll be keeping on giving my unsolicited opinion. Istanbul Alti seems to have died the death of apathy; the result of having life goals that supersede enthusiasm. I hope it returns, but there are other projects in the meantime.

But until then, I felt more attention shoulda been brought to this EurasiaNet article on a Turkish arms dealer being the power behind the throne in Turkmenistan.

First: ordering translations of Rukhnama. Genious. It may be my new favorite slimy toady move: demand the honor of translating the unhinged ramblings of the man you want to curry favor with.

Second: "It's been eight months. We hear good words (from Berdimuhamedov), but we see no actions. Nothing has changed -- except they've taken down Niyazov's pictures and put up Berdimuhamedov's. Turkmenistan cannot recover from Niyazov and become a relatively normal country without democracy, an open economy, and rule of law." aka "They don't trust me anymore. So I'm going to mention the 'Western-oriented reformer' bullet points."

Third: "The US was most keenly interested in getting Chalik's assement of Berdymukhamedov's readiness to get Turkmen gas flowing to the South Caucasus, and mentioned a feasibility study of that era. Chalik replied that Berdymukhamedov, while interested, was non-committal, and probably because he "cannot make this decision on his own" -- an intriguing claim about the figure everyone on the outside sees as indispensable to every deal." aka Chalik knew that Nabucco was a dead, stupid, misguided deal and didn't want to be the one to tell the U.S.

There's something about Central Asian Republics that make individuals feel like they can come in and change it in their image. No doubt Chalik was influential to the Niyazov regime: if I was running an atavistic security state, Turkish ex-military dudes are right up there with South African and Israeli ex-military dudes, but without all of the baggage. Chalik got stuff done, and is clever enough to do mention grave concerns about backsliding and a security-run administration. Of course it's a security-run administration, any transitory country relies on the whim of the men with guns. Chalik should know this, assuming he was in Anatolia in 1980.

I love the story of a shady arms-dealer who built his way up to Richeliu stature, only to be removed by the sudden death of his sponsor. As insinuated by my reference, there's something delightfully 18th Century Europe about it.

Garbanguly is relatively young, only 53. Assuming status quo (which is a relatively safe assumption for Turkmenistan, though I said the same thing about Libya not so many months ago) nothing dramatic will change in his regime. But as more schools get built - even if Fethullahcilar get shut down - and the internet gets built up, there should be something interesting going on a couple decades out. Especially as the Communist old guard die out and people brought up through folks like the Turkmenistan Civic Value and Youth Foundation get responsibility.

The Turkic Spring is still some time out, but it'll be a blast once it gets started. As long as shady militaristic types like Chalik stay near the fringes of it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I'll get back to writing about real things at some point, I promise. But until then I'm going to keep up the book reflection part of this blog while I watch Bashkortostani public access news because that's what there's to do in Cleveland. I'll start when I start. Until then, well, books.

As I write this I realize, I'm not born to be a writer. I might be able to turn a phrase, to tell a story, but I will never be able to really weave something true to life, or even a gross enough approximation. You might think you have style, maybe some class, and then you look up and compare to - not even Tolstoy - but Grann or Tyler the Creator and realize that it is hopeless to start. All you'd be doing is beating against the current.

Heaping praise on War and Peace isn't even an attractive thing to do. It's a goddamned classic of literature, it hardly needs my validation. But it is relevant. If you happen to be unemployed for a decent stretch of time, it's worth picking up.

Why did I pick it up? Because I was told to, and I listen to my elders. A Real Person Writer told me I ought to get into Russian fiction, so I asked him what. After going back and forth between his collection and what I could find in the Cleveland house, we settled on W&P. So what I'm trying to say is, I did it to try to impress, to try and validate myself. Not sure if it worked, but at least I picked something up along the way.

The plot is simple, actually. The setting is Napoleonic, from Austerlitz in 1805 to about 1820. There are 5 major families, but really 4 main characters: Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, Andrew Balkonsky, and Pierre Bezhukov. Everyone has their favorites, I'm sure, but Natasha is a Audrey Hepburn-type, Nicholas is a headstrong man who wants to have a rustic/heroic streak. Andrew is an older, wiser, Nicholas and Pierre is Tolstoy's mouthpiece, a man who falls into money and then fences with the consequences. They all have their pros and cons (I'm #teamandrew) to be sure, and the side characters are just as full and often more interesting, like the dastardly Dolokhov or probably my personal favorite, the speech-defected Denisov. It's fairly enjoyable that Tolstoy feels no need to wrap up everybody's story and make sure we have a Fugees-esque finality to everyone, even if there are two wholly separate epilogues.

It's about more than Napoleon, of course. Tolstoy takes his time, going on monologues to destroy the 1860's concept of greatness, attempt to reconstruct historiography, or prove that God exists and there is no such thing as free will. All heady stuff, for sure. And it's difficult to pretend these are all some soft subtleties, Tolstoy hits you over the head with these things and talks like a college professor for ten, twenty pages at a time. The book is certainly one of those big important books, and again, I wish I was a better writer so I could take some lessons of the craft from Tolstoy. The way he describes characters, the way he continually talks through people's heads is fun to read and interesting to look at.

But as I said, I'm hardly a writer. All the same, using rich people as a lens through which to view history is a more interesting plot device than it sounds. Tolstoy says straight off, "I don't know the serf classes and I will not pretend to" in one of his monologues. And with rich people you can travel, speak French, and do a whole lot in that sort. And the protagonist of the book, Pierre, is an only moderately opaque version of Tolstoy himself. And all of the war scenes are of officers riding around, taken from Tolstoy's Caucasus years into the steppes west of Moscow.

W&P is probably most known for its war scenes, widely lauded as some of the most accurate in the history of literature. I wouldn't know, of course, but there's lots of interesting looks at the concept of bravery, the indefinability of glory, and such and sundry 19th century concepts that still live on today. It's interesting to read about how these concepts were tired and irrelevant in the 1860s, and yet we still use them today. How we still talk of Napoleon's glory, of the pomp of battle, like we're still marching out in red wool coats in a line of battle, shooting 3 shots a minute under Major Sharpe.

Tolstoy refers to the guerilla war in Spain at the time, and talks degradingly about the Russians' version of the same. It's clear that he didn't like how war was, but certainly doesn't care for where it's going. Making Dolokhov a guerilla was probably not a coincidence.

There's lots to talk about, about war, about class, in War & Peace. I'm not going to pretend to be the Spark Notes version, though. It's a good book to read if you have a month or two to kill.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Passage to India by E.M. Forester

If you're as big into Central/South (or really, Cool) Asia as I am, you are probably reading some of the good stuff that Jonathan Shainin writes, or what he posts on his Twitter feed. One of his larger rages in the past week or so has been against the Guardian, that ol' English rag that apparently has been celebrating the British Empire and all of its good.

That wasn't all that much good. It's fun to look back wistfully, of course. When I first set off for Central Asia, I was with a bunch of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians celebrating the triumph of their spirit. It's, well, sometimes a bit off from the truth.

Probably the seminal novel of British India is Passage to India, which came out in 1924 at the sunset of the British empire. Forester was pretty pissed off from his experiences in India, or at least upset enough to write a fictionalized account (there is no Chandrapore) of how Indians and Anglos interact.

Passage to India is a great read because it's an easy read. It reads less like a Merchant Ivory production, which I was expecting. For being nearly 90 years old, the characters are fresh and their English is very easy to understand. They're each sketched out individually, and for having the whole Anglo vs. Indian divide, it's not Sharks vs. Jets, its a feud that develops into a race war. None of the main characters are entirely good or entirely evil. Some of the side characters may seem it (particularly the Nauwab Badhur) but you realize they're just following their own path. I remember getting into a long talk with some older gentleman in a hostel in Split a month ago. He was very proud of finishing his first book and was explaining that, "the funny thing about characters is, they don't always do what you want." I couldn't really believe for anything I've ever written, Lord knows, but I did believe it here.

Like any very good book, Passage to India is just as much about the human condition as anything else. The characters are set down their paths by external coincidences, unable to stop themselves from fulfilling some certain destiny. The fate of the country can be seen in the fate of the characters, and the whole fate/God/reason thing comes into play as much as the reader allows it to.

There's a reason why Passage to India is one of the triumphs of the English language. I was lucky to pick up an aged copy at a book exchange for free, and it was one of the better accidents (OR FATE OMGZZZ) I stumbled into the past year. So yeah, worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Linkages to various things on Islamic Law online (Afghanistan version)

All credit goes to Tim Mathews for finding all of these. I just wanted to have them for posterity for myself and whoever else would be interested.

Following is a quick 4 sources for Islamic Law online, in English, about Afghanistan. If you're into those sorts of things, you ought to check them out.

Rebuilding Civil Law in Afghanistan

Legal Education in Afghanistan Prior to the Soviet Invasion

Library of the International Islamic University (Malaysia)


The Legal System of the I.R. Afghanistan

Friday, February 18, 2011

Come on, Karimov. You're not even trying anymore, are you?

A dark spectre is haunting Uzbekistan, according to Karimov. There exists a force, slippery yet destructive, that is out to destabilize the most stable country in Central Asia, according to Karimov. This group of Islamicist Terrorists coming to destroy us all? The Jihadists.

Seriously. This is even lamer than "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

Whenever somebody tells you about the nefarious Muslim plan to take over the world, remind them: you don't want to turn into Uzbekistan.

I'll hopefully add more, but I've been attacked by a pretty bad case of the lazies.

Book Review: History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg

There's a pretty rad book exchange off a side street in Asmali Mescit neighborhood here in Istanbul. Full of old folks who tell awesome stories and let you take books from 'em for free...yeah, it's a good deal.

And I was sitting there, trying to find some more books, when I stumbled upon The History of Danish Dreams. Considering I have Danish friends and turn into a deaf mute whenever talk gets going about their homeland, I figure it would be a good introduction. And the author apparently is an ex-mountaineer, ex-fencer, and ex-ballet dancer, so he seems like the kind of dude I'd patronize.

So the book follows 4 generations or so of a family tree from Denmark's medieval feudalism into the 1970's. Apparently most of that change happens in the 20th century, and the book could be better called "Denmark in the 1900's: a novel"

There's some likable characters and some fun quotes. The 1920's were an awesome time to be rich, apparently. And lawyers and the law make for terrible people, but if you ran in my circles, you'd know this already.

And honestly, I finished this book a few weeks ago and it didn't make that much of an impression on me. Maybe it was a mediocre translation, who knows? But let's just move on and start talking about Central Asia again sometime soon.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When all you have is a hammer

Trite sayings aside, Joshua Foust cleared up why, no, military solutions to everything under the sun do not actually make sense.

In the realm of the military, he did everything right, including seeking local confirmation of where to hand out reconstruction money. But the realm of the military is wrong—it is structured wrong, and it provides the wrong incentives. 

I remember listening to a talk given by Dr. Nazif Shahrani back in the day about the numerous different solutions that are possible to deal with Afghanistan. And instead there's a lot of "ARP! Kill Terrorists! ARP!" Which sounds great, it really does, but it doesn't always match up with reality.

Not much more because Mubarak's about to speak. But hey. There's this. And remember: if al-Ikhwan has a place in the new Egyptian government EVERYONE STAY CALM

Saturday, January 29, 2011

No, [Country] Does Not Exist for you to Imagine a Sandbox Full of People You Like

I started writing this about Tunisia, then put it to rest. I decided to pick it up again about Egypt. I initially wanted to entitle it "What we talk about when we talk about revolution" but Gawker dissuaded me of that.

So Tunisia exploded, ever-so-quietly. One day Ben Ali was doin' his thang, and then a week later, he's cooling his heels in the Gulf. Which, much like Kyrgyzstan before it, provoked a great reaction by people who have no clue what they're talking about. And in the absence of facts, it has been then decided to project wildly and uglyily.

Clearly, Wikileaks or Twitter or somesuch technology isn't responsible for the revolution. Tunisians are. Food costs skyrocketed, people were starving, and people didn't like that. This is not a tricky story. Ben Ali wasn't particularly nasty of a dude, but there was lots and lots of corruption and eventually enough middle class people didn't care for it. Again, this is not a shocking story.

But different analysts have taken to this revolution to explain why their worldview is correct. And in doing so, they've rejected any sort of agency by Tunisians themselves in order to explain - pedantically - how the world works. There are literally dozens of examples of this, but I'm going to latch on to two because, well, I can.

Ian O. Lisser explains that, you see, Libya and Algeria are in much more precarious positions then Tunisia:
Like Tunisia, Algeria has been unable to offer a viable future to masses of unemployed or underemployed young people. Unlike Tunisia, the sheer scale of the problem in Algeria is much larger, Islamism is the leading force of opposition, and the political culture is more intolerant and violent.  A new revolt in Algeria, should it come, holds the potential for another protracted and bloody conflict between extremists and a military-backed state.
Yes, Algeria and Libya are much larger than Tunisia. They are also all next to each other. That's about where the comparison ends. You can criticise Ghadaffi all you want, but the fact is, he keeps people fed. It's a socialist state there, and thus a bit more resilient until the top really comes off. Which, thanks to energy wealth, will be a long time coming (unless Ghaddaffi does something bizarre, which, you know, wouldn't actually be all that bizarre).

Algeria has been at a low-level civil war for a while now. This is not new news. This is not relevant to Tunisia.
This may need to change. Europe has an obvious stake in the future of the southern Mediterranean, not least because of the large North African communities in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, and the direct links to European security. As in the Balkans in the 1990s, an effective response sometimes requires a new geographic frame. If the last decade underscored the importance of the Gulf to the future of the Middle East, the next decade may be just as much about the Mediterranean as a place that matters. Strategy toward the Mediterranean—Europe’s near abroad—is likely to be an increasingly important test of European Union foreign policy and transatlantic cooperation. 

King Leopold's Ghost? More like Albert Camus' Zombie. Mr. Lesser runs some "Mediterranean Advisors LLC" company and has some sort of background in Portuguese and Middle East and Turkey and North African advising. Hey, I'm all for making your own way in life, but inventing a map and them co-opting life events to fit that map is a bit of a stretch. That said, he seems like a smart enough dude. He views things through his lens, a lens that un-ironically incorporates the term "Near Abroad" but hey. Reasonable minds can differ. But note the lack of a Tunisian voice besides "mass of Tunisians." I'm going with something here.

The hooligans over at Ricochet, though, well, are something else. Ms. Berlinski published the bizarre "most frightened people in the Middle East" picture which includes Abbas of Fatah (someone I can assure you she does NOT want ousted out of power popularly) and al-Assad (who will lose power...how exactly?) and some other guys I don't really recognize because let's just say, they're not that far up the Hottest Heads of State Power Rankings. It's charming in its own way. Because this happened once, it will happen all over! Everything has been fine in Lebanon since the Cedar Revolution! Palestinians voted in Hamas which was universally respected and not at all complicated!

The follow-up went from endearing to creepy-crawly. "You're on your own, but you can do it" wraps it up pretty well actually. This went from revolution to cute little kid on the jungle gym while parents watch.

But then I think about the suppressed premise. Are the Tunisian people really so mindless and childlike that absent a sign that the West is interested in promoting democracy in Tunisia, they'll just lose their enthusiasm for democracy and hand their country to the Islamists? If so, I doubt democracy has much of a chance in the first place.  
 This paragraph makes me indescribably angry. Ms. Berlinski writes the excuse - that these people aren't ready - in order to hedge her bets on what happens. We are pro-democracy, sure. But not so much that we'll take responsibility if the democracy isn't the democracy we like. It's the most equivocal of all equivocalities. We'll like you if you look like us, but express concern if you do not.

And that's just it. Equivocality. Mildly worded messages. One of the things I, personally, struggle with is the divide between how much I care about these places and how little they care about me. At the same time, it's quite rewarding. I can write, I can talk...but I don't have a stake. This offers me a lot of freedom. At the same point, I write for a foreign audience. I struggle to see why a Turk should listen to me.

Which is why the "you can do it!" rhetoric is...bizarre. It puts the foreigner up as judge and jury of the revolution. But not the executioner, the foreigner is too equivocal.


The Americans, in particular, who travel and opine tend to come through the International Relations/Political Science/Diplomacy educational rigmarole. Taught how to express yourself in polite, measured, tones so as to appeal to a base and to avoid having to take a stand. It's an excuse to be uneducated, and if educated, it's an excuse not to go on a limb. Rather judge the Arabs then make a stand that can be judged.

The Foreign Policy type of media is giddy, of course. It gives them excuse to be Important and to rush to judgments. "Egypt's burning", "Falling Pharoah" and some such. Never mind that al Jazeera is running circles around all of them. Nathan Brown is someone I can support, though:
While in the 1980s, Mubarak's "stability" was welcome, today it reeks of stagnation, cronyism, sycophancy, and slow decay. 
Sycophancy needs more print in these sorts of things. More fightin' words, more creative thinking. More of the sort of thing that actually involves investing yourself in change, not investing yourself in analysis.

Instead, there are eyeglass-adjusters and belt-lifters. The sort of people who are dismayed and shocked that the AKP has power, that al-Ikhwan is a political player, that Tunisia exists outside of Roman ruins. It's all quite boring.

The fun of the internet is that everyone can be an expert, everybody can give their point of view. But the explosion of analysis comes at the lack of actual news. This is, again, not a new or thrilling revelation.

Us expatriates do more than our fair share. Wearing our passport pages like armor, the places we've been allow us to give opinions. The exoticness of our friends' names, the snarkiness of our Facebook albums make up our new CVs. "Can YOU believe the barbarousness of the locals?" "That they would do things so DIFFERENTLY than us?"

We get off on telling people how cool we are, how we are in fin de ciecle Paris or 1920's Berlin or other such romantic notions. We abhor the thought that this does not make us interesting. That our foreignness doesn't make us special, just desperate. Frightened by our insipidness at home that we must take refuge in a place where our existence makes us interesting.

But the locals are never good enough for us. We give due pittance and sympathy to the people who die in the revolutions, only to imagine what the revolution means. At the first sign of foment, of froth, we begin dreaming of a country full of people like us. That because we understand the country better, we can make a better country. Nevermind what people think, we seem to know what they truly believe.

So continue with the even-handed outrage, the meek-mannered thunder. The coy protest and the put-down of the locality. Our transnationhood makes us more worldly and more knowledgable. Because I took a course in college, y'know, I know the right path for Egypt, for North Korea, for Timor Leste. It's more than wanting to be around people like us, it's wanting people around us to be more like us. Egotism masquerading as charity, tapioca pudding, but free-range, all-organic, Whole Foods tapioca pudding. Instead of taking bold stands, we boldly stand elsewhere.

It's boring, it's terribly trite, and its just rich white folks convincing themselves it's more than just imperialism. More than just expressing our own dreams in ways that gets other people killed, puts other people in jail.

And I know I'm as guilty as anyone of this, and that I shouldn't be like a law school Kanye, putting out my soul in poorly-worded internet broadcasts. I'm not sure what I should do, I'm not sure what you would do. But the status quo is pathetic enough to keep on going, which mild words and tut-tutting proceeding.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sayyet Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. Or; It's Complicated

Claire Berlinski has started a "history of the Muslim Brotherhood" that I did not sit well with.Teleological to the maxx, it looks at the Muslim Brotherhood through history in order to explain how it got to where it was today. I was a bit discomfited by the original post and the follow up, but Ms. Berlinski was gracious enough to let me get into a formal debate. She gave me membership privileges on her site, but as you will see soon enough, I had a lot more than the 200 word limit to say. And besides, I feel that the master-pupil relationship that comments sections make for are usually inappropriate and turn what should be a give-and-take into a classroom environment. So I have posted my full response here, and I hope that, if you come here from Ricochet, you will be kind enough to read it.

Sayyid Qutb is the magic link for people concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood. It follows that, if Qutb was a Brother, and Qutb said some nasty stuff that later inspired Zawahiri and bin Laden, then the Brotherhood is responsible for Zawahiri and bin Laden. This leaves out a very important part of Qutb's life, a part that is pretty obvious from the most famous picture taken of him:

Qutb spent a long time in prison. And, to paraphrase Office Space, not nice, white-collar, conjugal visit prison (not that he would take much advantage of the conjugal visits, it would seem).

After World War II and the British Empire's decision to stop being an empire, the Free Officers Movement deposed the Egyptian King and set up a socialist republic under Gamal Abdel Nasser. I'm skipping a lot of history here, and I'm always fascinated by how the Egyptian military, fresh off of being embarrassed by the nascent Israeli state, was able to retain power, but we'll have to move on.

As one could guess, an Arab Socialist State wanted little to do with the Islamic state preferred by MB. From 1945-54, there's a whole lot of instability in Egypt, something that it is hard to absolve the Brotherhood from or to implicate them in. It all really depends on which lunatic fringe of the internet you'd prefer to read. The fact is, Brothers fought Israel, Brothers fought the Egyptian state, Brothers fought the English, Brothers fought Brothers...again, instability. It's very difficult for Americans to understand the anarchic panic of an unstable state. Say what you want, but Nasser at least brought stability. He also brought tens of thousands of Brothers into jail. Qutb was one of them.

Prison, as it goes, changes a man. Qutb was never that charismatic before, but he became morose under the beatings, torture, and general Kafka-sity of prison life. When talking about Qutb, its always fun to read his things before imprisonment:
It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.
...and...
On the whole this theory [Socialism] conflicts with man's nature and its needs. This ideology prospers only in a degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship. But now, even under these circumstances, its materialistic economic system is failing, although this was the only foundation on which its structure was based. Russia, which is the leader of the communist countries, is itself suffering from shortages of food.
This is the sort of stuff that would get you a pat on the head from your Sunday School teacher today.

Prison...changed things when he was sentenced in 1952. He became far more pessimistic and found a Utopian religious society to be the only way out. Needless to say, before he realized this plot, he was hanged for being part of a plot to assassinate the Egyptian President under what could charitably called a show trial. This was 1966.

There are two major gaps here: The first is that as an inmate, Qutb was unable to take part in the Brotherhood and was sidelined by MB leadership for being, well, an unstable prison-bound author. It warrants mentioning, of course, that he has no formal clerical training and really seemed to strongly dislike Imams, al-Azhar, or any form of religious life. He joined MB not as a youth, but in 1951, at age 45, as a propagandist for them. He used the MB as a political opportunity to lash out at Egypt's encroaching socialism. He was a member for less than 2 years by the time he was arrested. He would've been a footnote to history if he didn't have to go and get martyred by the Egyptian state (though writing beautiful Arabic would've certainly helped him stay in the Area Studies curricula of the universities that a certain type of Ricochet-li loves to fume about).

So how much he actually was a member of the Brotherhood is dubious. Also, remember that end date, 1966. You know what part of the 1966 world order is still relevant in 2010? Pretty much none. He didn't even get to get upset over the 6-Day War, or to see what real Islamic Revolution looked like in Iran, or to see Sunni hardliners take over Mecca.

Qutb was a writer and a philosopher. Not a politician. His works have been seized by politicians to make their points. The "Islam as an underdog locked in struggle with the West" narrative pushed by al-Qaeda makes use of his prison writings, which are full of plaintives for a better world and fumations at the world as it is. The Muslim Brotherhood also takes advantage of his writings. They cite entirely different paragraphs.

In much the same way that EVERY American politician has a favorite Founding Father, every Muslim politician (and I include bin Laden as a politician because after all, he is trying to change the political scheme of the world. Bin Laden gets lots of other titles as well, I'm sure) promoting an Islamic way of life has a favorite Qutb quote. The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has very carefully tread between embracing Qutb and keeping him at arm's length. They published a book, Preachers not Judges which can best be said to be a very polite refutation of Qutb's writings as related to politics.

As I mentioned earlier, I would strongly, strongly, urge you to read Nathan Brown's "The Muslim Brotherhood's (and Egypt's) Qutb Conundrum"  in Foreign Policy. He is far more well-read on this subject then me. The dude knows his Islamic movements. He concludes with this:

Since its re-emergence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Brotherhood has gradually stepped up its social and political engagement, working not to create a tiny countersociety but to persuade all of Egypt to follow its path; the goal has been reform of the entire society along Islamic lines. That strategy has led to a very uneven but still quite real political maturation; it has also led to a mix of successes and frustrations. Qutb speaks to the frustrations. Those who find the society too distant from Islam are less likely to prioritize engagement in the short term. They will seek instead to focus on the faithful and perhaps to reform the society not through broad social and political work but through a more elitist approach.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a political movement, a political party. Much like how Sarah Palin and Lindsey Graham are both members of the Republican Party but speak to different wings of it, Qutb and, say, Ali Sheikh-Ahmed do similar for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb speaks to a part of the Muslim base that the Brotherhood wants to expand into, and they would be fools to villify Qutb. In fact, it is a very, very, powerful argument that MB adheres to a more pacifist definition of Qutb's works and brings people eager to join a violent Jihad to instead choose the Brotherhood's "Great Jihad" of charitable works. This would not be a bad thing.

So, Ms. Berlinski, what shall we cover next? The Brotherhood and Palestinian Territories? Their greater transnationalism? The role they've played since the fall of the USSR? And meanwhile, Hizb ut-Tahrir is wondering just who you have to publish in order to get an audience in the United States these days. Their branding experts are REAL upset they didn't go with a simple English translation like al-Ikhwan did.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood: A History, A Counterpoint.

Claire Berlinski has started a "history of the Muslim Brotherhood" that I did not sit well with.Teleological to the maxx, it looks at the Muslim Brotherhood through history in order to explain how it got to where it was today. I was a bit discomfited by the original post, but Ms. Berlinski was gracious enough to let me get into a formal debate. She gave me membership privileges on her site, but as you will see soon enough, I had a lot more than the 200 word limit to say. And besides, I feel that the master-pupil relationship that comments sections make for are usually inappropriate and turn what should be a give-and-take into a classroom environment. So I have posted my full response here, and I hope that, if you come here from Ricochet, you will be kind enough to read it.

Thank you for inviting me into a debate, and I'm sorry that it took so long. I got held up at work doing work-like things and the lot. But I think it's a debate worth having because, as you intimated, there are a lot of Muslims out there, and it is worth understanding branches of political Islam so the wrong one isn't barked up.

To understand the Muslim Brotherhood, one has to look at the context in which they began. We will move on to the post-war Brotherhood tomorrow, as you say. The context involves the Islamic context, the geographical context, and the chronological. First, we need to establish some ground rules when we talk about Islam.

Islam is an evangelical religion. Some branches more than others. It seeks to convert non-believers and asks its adherents to act as ambassadors for the religion and to live their lives religiously. It is no different from Evangelical Christianity in this regard. Both groups seek to turn the world to the "true" religion and have a similar millennial scenario that involves everyone on Earth being in the true religion or very, very, sorry they're not. But there is no reason to be more skeptical of one form of evangelism than the other. Religions are allowed to seek converts. It's always amused me how it's the most religious people who are frightened of the evangelism of others. If you're right, what's the harm of the other guy? (For the record, I am religious, and am neither Evangelical Muslim nor Christian).

Also, the different schools of Sunni Islam, and the different qadis and scientists and what have you, all have different judgments of "great" and "small" jihad. This concept is totally different then the concept of "Jihad of the sword" (Jihad bil Sayf) that may only be pursued via fatwa. It used to be only the Caliph could command Jihad bil Sayf, but then the Caliphate fragmented (and was never really whole to begin with) and now any grouch with good handwriting can issue the perquisite fatwa. Note that al-Banna goes out of his way to not use the term "Jihad bil Sayf" - he makes no claim to Caliph. He also rejected violence. MB has rejected violent means from its inception in 1928 (4th graph from bottom) until current day (election of Badie as leader).

The Muslim Brotherhood is very much a conclusion of its geography and the time of its birth. It was born as a transnational, anti-Western, religious movement when all three of these things had very different definitions then they do now. Al-Banna has a theological connection to Muhammad 'Abduh, the 19th Century reformer who was a fascinating mystic, journalist, and lawyer who "wanted to make Islam compatible with 19th-C secularism." Both al-Banna and 'Abduh studied Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani, who was one of the first people to successfully unite Muslims -at least theoretically - from Indonesia to Morocco under a modernizing ethos.

Al-Banna's anti-Westernism is quite similar, in fact, to Woodrow Wilson's anti-Imperialism. He promoted democracy and parliamentary rule as an alternative to the heavy-handed policies of British Egypt and the corruption of the Ottoman Empire. He took notes from the failure of the Khalifat Movement of India and the Jadidism of Russia to create, as Berlinski said, a slower, more gradual shift to power. One could make a comfortable analogy from al-Banna to Gandhi, Nehru, and the other heroes of the Indian Independence movement. He just wasn't as good a politician as them.

That said, he was an interesting man. He started the Muslim Brotherhood at age 24 with a few friends. He preached in coffeehouses and flophouses, to the poor that the al-Azhar clerics wouldn't make eye contact with. His group went from 800 in 1936 to 200,000 in 1938. He was on to something.

The Muslim Brotherhood emphasized (and emphasizes) social justice and aid for the impoverished and punishment for the corrupt. This has led the group to make many political decisions that people on a center-right blog would disagree with, in terms of aid programs, escalated taxing, and the like. These programs, however, are hardly outside the barn of political debate. Welfare is something to be argued about, not shot over. In addition, many of the Muslim Brotherhood's aid policies are just as similar to YMCA or the Salvation Army as they are to Hezboallah. Soup kitchens, education (through a religious lens, of course), and work programs. This is not the reinvention of the wheel.

The demise of the Muslim Brotherhood under al-Banna, pre-war, is linked to that anti-corruption stance and the enormous growth I mentioned earlier. A break-off group was formed that rejected al-Banna's peaceful stance, which forced him to make a compromise in order to regain control, promising the formation and training of "battalions." But 1940 happened first. The Desert Fox Rommel was embarrassing British forces and Africa seemed lost. Tom Bradby's God of Chaos gives an idea, though its set in 1942. The British set up martial law based in Cairo, and the Muslim Brotherhood was in contact with the dozens of Nazi spies in the region. This is 1940: the U.S. was still in touch with Nazi Germany, for the record. And the Brotherhood played both sides, shutting down the battalions and setting up "families" instead, and giving out aid to families injured in German bombing raids. For the rest of the war, the Brotherhood kept an uneasy truce with the British-backed Egyptian government. As promised, we'll get into post-war later.

So if we're talking about the Muslim Brotherhood as a group, we're discussing an explicitly anti-violence organization that fell along the vaqf tradition of Egypt, but trying to bring it in line with 20th century determinationist and nationalist movements. It was a natural course of Islam and Egyptian history at that point, and it was sparked by the, well, whatever you want to call him, certainly energetic al-Banna. The translation and propagation of Mein Kampf and The Protocols is nasty and certainly regrettable. But I'm not ready to string Lindbergh up, either. It stands to mention that anti-Jewish violence in Egypt wouldn't take off until the Israel-Palestine wars. In fact, despite the fact that Brotherhood members were arrested for violence, well, again. Context. It was a violent time. Cairo was under martial law, and the Muslim Brotherhood was made up of some of the most desperate Cairenes. Al-Banna tried to have cooler heads prevail, and was largely successful. Things got a lot worse after his assassination and after the Israel-Palestine...unpleasantness.


Keith Ellison would not be born until 1963.