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.