Monday, November 12, 2007

Before the Storm...

I'm hoping my ambition didn't overload my meager talents in this post. Good luck, reader(s).

Beirut, Lebanon - kind of...

My ringtone wakes me up. I pick my head off the sofa cushion and paw at the table feeling for my phone. The display tells me it's a long distance call. I answer.
On the other end I hear muffled gunfire, lots of it.
"Listen to this," I'm told, "I'm going to stick the phone out the shebehk (window)."
The crackle of Kalashnikovs morphs into a loud hiss of feedback; the tiny ear speaker can't handle the noise. I yank the phone away from my ear.
"Did you hear that?"
"Yes, I heard it, how could I have not? What's going on?"
"It's Hezbollhah!"
The phone's back outside the window again, more feedback, then slowly the shots ebb and then a new sound, cars honking, takes over. I briefly picture a nightmare scenario, firefights in streets, Hezbollah fighters crossing the airport road into a Sunni neighborhood. That can't be, I think, it's too soon. Plus, why are honking their horns?
"What's going on?"

Baghdad, Iraq - Bab al Sheikh neighborhood

The neighborhood is calm. People feel free to play music, drink arak, and hang in the barbershop talking politics... frankly. The vitriol directed at the central government, the insurgents, the militias, the Americans, the terrorists is withering but witty. The people here still smile. This is old Baghdad; the Baghdad that dates back to the times of the Caliphate, the grand libraries and the luscious gardens - to a time when it was the jewel of the world. The resident families have lived here for generations, they have intermarried, their children have grown up along side each other. They know each others sectarian affiliation but it doesn't matter; in this place you are from the neighborhood first, and everyone looks out for each other, no matter what.

Baghdad, Iraq - Ghazaliyah neighborhood, ground zero of the Petraeus surge

This is the Western edge of Baghdad. From here it's a straight shot to Fallujah and Ramadi, right through Abu Ghraib. To the north is the Shiite neighborhood and Sadrist stronghold of Shula. Ghazaliyah, before the invasion, was a mostly Sunni middle class neighborhood. Now it is an exclusively Sunni neighborhood, and poor. The Shiites were driven out or killed and the Sunnis with enough money have fled the fighting. The entire neighborhood is surrounded by miles of concrete blast barriers, and the only ways in and out are manned by U.S. soldiers and "Ghazaliayh Guardians," a U.S. armed and funded "concerned citizens brigade" (the current euphemism for militias allied with the Americans). This seems to have slowed, if not stopped, the flow of Shiite Jeish-al-Mahdi (aka JAM aka the Mahdi Army) fighters from Shula pouring south into Ghazaliyah, sweeping in and leaving mutilated bodies dumped in the ditches and empty lots between the two neighborhoods. It has also eliminated the need for Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist militias, invited into the neighborhood to counteract JAM. Al-Qaeda and their ilk, the cure, tuned out to be worse than the disease; demanding money, enforcing rules that made life unbearable and killing anyone who disagreed. Most of their members are gone now, those that have stayed behind have joined on with the Guardians; working closely with the Americans. The talk among many of them is of revenge. They have exacted some, but there are still many blood debts to be paid. The thirst has yet to be quenched. Revenge against the Shiites to the north, revenge against the central government. (The Americans, until recently charter members of this list, are now glaringly left off.) They talk of retaking Baghdad, which after years of fighting and ethnic cleansing is a predominantly Shiite city. They plan for the next act, a bloody one. But for now, it's calm.

Baghdad: B denotes Bab el Sheikh, and G, Ghazaliyah

Beirut, Lebanon

It turns out that Nasrallah has just made a fiery speech. In the speech he pledged Hezbollah would never disarm, demanded that the cabinet be sacked and declared that early parliamentary elections are the only way out of the current impasse. He also suggested that the head of the military should be a nationalist who would fight Israel. (The man has clearly lost his mind - if the army can barely take on a trapped Islamic militia what can they do against the IDF? They'd be wiped out inside a week.) After the television address concluded, Hezbollah members took to the streets, firing volleys into the air to send a message - we may be hidden but we are numerous, ubiquitous, armed to the teeth and not to be be trifled with. For them laws don't apply, international resolutions don't apply, the constitution doesn't apply, logic doesn't apply - only brawn applies and they have it and are not about to give it up.
And Hezbollah are not the only ones in the region unwilling to give up their arms.

Before Edward Wong, a New York Times correspondent, left Baghdad for a new assignment, he wrote his first and only analysis/opinion piece about the situation in Iraq. He concluded the political parties of Iraq were not laying the groundwork for peace, they were arming for war.
(Recent example: The Iraqi government, Shiite dominated, just spent millions dollars on a huge order of Chinese weaponry, most of it destined for the National police and the Interior Ministry. The same police who are, for all intends and purposes, the uniformed arms of Shiite militias - state sponsored death squads. And the same Interior Ministry that was caught red-handed holding Sunnis without cause and torturing them. The Iraqi government turned to the Chinese after the US balked at providing weapons to organizations with such - deserved - reputations.)
I wrote Mr. Wong an email thanking him for all the reporting he'd one over the years and mentioned to him that I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war and compared it to present day Iraq. Here's my exact quote (please excuse the righteous indignation):
"The suits talk, the militias fight, the generals and presidents come and go. The ceasefires and promises of peace come and go too (but at a faster clip than the generals). On the ground, for you, John Q. al-Aziz, nothing changes. Like a hurricane, you just have to wait it out and hope your roof doesn't get blown off. Only this hurricane is not blowing away for a long time."

Mr. Wong wrote me back, saying that the people of Iraq were basically doing just that. Waiting for the storm to pass, and they are not optimistic that it will be over soon or that the worst has passed.

Iraq is now in the eye of that hurricane. The surge, destined to end in a few months, has only brought certain parts of the country under control. The eastern countryside is as wild and violent as as any part of Iraq has ever been. And even where it is calm, the situation is extremely fragile.

There is a precedent for the current U.S. tactics and their results; the French counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria under the command of Général Maurice Challe.

Challe was brought in at a critical moment. The FLN, the Algerian resistance, seemed absorb heavy blows from the French military and continue on, virtually unaffected. The French military, meanwhile, was short on manpower after years of fighting. It had lowered the criteria to enter the army in order to increase the number of recruits. And at home, the French population grew restless as more blood and treasure was sank into the sands with little effect. A change in tactics was needed.
Under Challe, the French army was was moved off its static and dispersed bases and put into the field, and concentrated into the resistance strongholds. The goal was to push the resistance out of its safe havens. Mass arrests were curtailed, seen as cumbersome and counter productive. The use of informers and French-allied Algerian militias was emphasized. The military plan was coupled with a political plan, whose aim was to improve the the image of the French occupation among the general population. The public works programs were intensified. In the field, with the help of Algerian eyes, the enemy, previously invisible, could be targeted. The resistance decreased significantly under the pressure; there were even mass purges after the first few informers were discovered (ironically, the purges did more damage than any informer could have dreamed). The FLN was pushed out of the large cities (walls were built up during the battle for the capital, Algiers, and access to certain neighborhoods strictly controlled) and the FLN was confined mostly to the countryside. The French went to work, building up areas they now controlled.
This, by now, should all sound eerily familiar. And it should. General Petraeus has read the history, and he knew a tactical success when he saw one. He has modified these tactics brilliantly to fit Iraq and the tactics have been, just like in Algeria, largely effective.
But there is a reason the French are no longer in Algeria. The tactics outlined above provided a tactical success but not a strategic one. The factor fueling for the war remained unchanged; most Algerians wanted the French out of Algeria. And today in Iraq the fuel is plentiful, the political factions are still armed and still bent on destroying each other and unless they're Kurdish, Iraqis have little appetite for the "South Korean model" that many American generals and politicians are proposing; an open ended, large-scale military presence.
Al-Qaeda are weaker, but not defeated. The level of sectarian strife, mostly carried out by armed wings of political groups, has slowed but not stopped. The situation could reverse very quickly, and it most likely will. A tragedy has five acts; I'm sure we haven't reached the fourth and it's possible we're still haven't seen the third.

More on this film soon.

Lebanon is now still mired in act one; it has yet to be struck by the full force of the storm. The only thing holding the country together is the army. But for how long can it hold together? How long before an order is refused? How long before Hezbollah brands it as loyal to a government of spies and traitors?

In Iraq and Lebanon, the problem is not between sects (who have previously lived alongside each other peacefully), or inside the societies (which were relatively coherent until recently) or some backwardness in the culture (American women in the 1890s couldn't vote or hold most jobs, but that didn't seem to hurt the peace or slow the growth during the Gilded Age). The problem is the political groups are also armed groups. These parties will never give give up their arms because their arms are a central pillar of their party platform. Without the guns, they wouldn't be important, because their parties are not built on ideas but on strength. They are protectors of their followers, not advocates for them. These parties don't have policies papers, or reforms to champion; their only goal is to rule. The politics practiced are distinctly of the zero-sum variety. Compromise is weakness, victory through strength and unyielding resolve is seen as the only way forward. This has knock-on effects. First, the parties fight amongst themselves for power. Second, the large and organized armed groups weaken the government, hurting its ability (to say nothing of its desire) to function normally. Third, the people, unable to get justice from an impotent government (if it's even trying to deliver it, that is) mete it out themselves, with all the obvious complications that entails.
The populations are left sitting there, waiting, while outside civil strife rages with no one strong and neutral enough to put a lid on it, the normal business of government is left unattended and blood feuds and clan rivalries drag on endlessly.
The conflicts have a momentum of their own. Nobody wants them except the people fighting in them.


Lebanon and Iraq are starting to feed off each other.

Watch this video for proof.

Just like in the 1970s with the Palestinian militias, Syrian intelligence is slowly making links, arresting, interrogating, and co-opting key elements of the insurgency. Damascus main transfer point for the Sunni jihadis and the Syrians have taken full advantage. Some of the most dangerous and the most useful jihadis have been deposited in Lebanon, mostly in and around Tripoli and the inside the Palestinian refugee camps. There can be little doubt that the Syrian intelligence apparatus would love turn some groups into their clients.

- A beautifully written article in the Nov 12 New York Time by SABRINA TAVERNISE and KARIM HILMI
- Jon Lee Anderson's Nov. 19 New Yorker article about the surge.
- Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (a powerhouse of a book)
- Unnamed sources in Beirut and Baghdad
- That NYT video linked above (quite frightening, huh?)
- The film, The Battle of Algiers (an overlooked masterpiece)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

R.I.P. Norman Mailer

1923 - 2007

An Interview

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Well, it happened again. I fell in love. It only took 5 minutes. I'm now head over heels.
Unfortunately, it's a book.

I was hacking away deep in the jungle that is yet another novel when I picked up my new obsession. After a few pages I immediately abandoned my failed expedition through the lands of fiction - Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential had me. I bought it a while ago and I did try to read it once but I started in middle (nasty habit) and quickly lost interest when I started another book before fully committing myself to it (nastier habit, which I just perpetuated). Now, I read it whenever I can; on the commute, on the way to a friend's house, at lunch, late at night when I should be sleeping. The other day I made the mistake of placing the book on my desk at work. It was torture; the temptation too great - I really wanted to read it. The book beckoned...
"Not now, they'll see us!" I thought. I had to put in a drawer.
Or what about when I brought it out to a pub on Friday night? I could squeeze in at least 15 minutes of reading time on the subway before I reached my destination, I figured. I had to stash it in a friend's purse when I got there and explain why I brought a book out with me on a Friday night.

I know, I know... "A book by and about a cook? That sounds sleep inducing." But you're wrong. It's actually one of the wildest and most entertaining books I've ever had the privilege to read.
Don't believe me? Here's an excerpt (from a chapter describing the first time Bourdain and his friends get to run a New York kitchen):
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to 'conceptualize'. Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Pot, quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we'd send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get. We worked long hours and took considerable pride in our efforts - the drugs, we thought, having little effect on the end-product. That was what the whole life we were in was about, we believed: to work through the drugs, the fatigue, the lack of sleep, the pain, to show no visible effects. We might be tripping out on blotter acid, sleepless for three days and halfway through a bottle of Stoli, but we were professionals, goddammit!
See, not exactly the Julia Child biography (but it does have good recipe ideas inside).

There are plenty of reviews of Kitchen Confidential available online, so I won't delve into the details; this is more of a personal slant. Suffice to say boy falls in love with food, boy gets kitchen job, boy drops out of college and goes to chef school, boy moves to New York, works in a collection of restaurants of varying quality (most go bankrupt), boy becomes drug addict, gets clean, redeems himself with chef job at Les Halles.
Also, there's a chapter about dick jokes and a couple more about his right hand men in the kitchen (men so badly behaved it's a miracle they are not in jail or dead). Some of events and people that populate the book are so outlandish that it's difficult not to think that the author went James Frey on us; embellishing for our entertainment.

I found the cook as rock star and the kitchen as insane asylum to be irresistible lures. It helps too, that Bourdain is a francophile with an appreciation for bandes-dessinés. Reading the book, for me, is like hanging out with a kindred spirit. Anyone who refers to vegans as a "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarians is clearly my kind of guy.

And like Bourdain, I've always been fascinated by cooking from an early age. Lebanese food was my first love; those childhood Sunday afternoon lunches at my grandmother's were the highlight of my week. I can still taste those dishes; warak einab (stuffed grape leaves), coossa ma dibis remayhn (meat stuffed zucchini with pomegranate syrup), shish-barak (meat wrapped in dough and cooked in yogurt). Crowding around that dining room table with my extended family on Sundays was my atheist church.
Some of my best food experiences also happened in Lebanon even after I started living in Canada. That calf's brain, warm and spread on bread with sliver of garlic. Or the first time I had cracked open a fresh sea urchin and scooped up the succulent, salty, bright orange roe. All the food too weird or too dangerous to be served in Canada is one the things I look forward to when I get off the plane in Beirut.

The cooking, while interesting, was not what I enjoyed the most. It was the Bourdain's descriptions of another favorite hobby of mine that really kept me turning the pages: general debauchery. As I get older my nocturnal activities have grown more tame and the majority of the miscreants have been culled from my stable of friends. Things are slowing down; like an aging power-pitcher, I'm losing my fastball (but don't be fooled, like Schilling I can still get the outs). That's why I had so much fun to living vicariously through the documented misdeeds of others in Kitchen Confidential, however unbelievable. Which leads to the coincidence that occurred on Friday night and why I now believe all the tall tales Bourdain recounts in the book.

Friday night, post-pub, after retrieving my book from it's purse prison:

I was on the subway, riding home, when I overheard a girl engaged in an animated discussion with two Japanese proto-punks and I, in my infinite wisdom, chimed in. Thirty seconds later I was getting off the subway at a station that wasn't mine and following three people I didn't know to God knows where. The trio turned out to be cooks at Flow, and I, surprised by the apparent serendipity of the moment and spurred on by Kitchen Confidential, was tagging along on whatever late night unwinding these kitchen workers had planned. I soon found myself in a stranger's dark and smoky living room, swallowed up in a mushy futon, drinking pilfered eau de vie, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to several lengthy treatises delivered by people of questionable sanity. The finer points of pharmaceutical drug abuse, why shoplifting isn't stealing is you really need it, how dumpster diving (aka freeganism) is great way to procure fresh produce, how much GHB it takes to reander someone unconscious - the topics discussed and behavior described varied between the odd, the worrying and the outright criminal. Later I, unwisely, tried to read a passage of the book to one cook (maybe she'd find it/me funny?) but she quickly cut me off - "The only thing I read is the funnies." (I'm going to assume she skips over Doonesbury ... and who under 60 still calls comics funnies?). She then went ahead to display ADHD behavior straight out of a textbook. And as she told endless stories with no point or conclusion, switching topics without warning and at full speed, I realized Bourdain wasn't embellishing - these people are nuts. When he calls his line cooks "a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths" he is not exaggerating.

The next night I went to a concert. After the show we ended up at a boisterous after-party in a 2 story studio on Queen west (see, like Schilling, I'm still effective). The party was populated by Latin Americans, mostly from Columbia and Argentina, the music was a disjointed mix of house and cumbia and the drinks ($5 a pop) were strong enough to strip paint. The party was fun but the atmosphere was vaguely threatening (as it usually is when people start arguing loudly in a language you barely understand), most the people there were high on more than one drug, and I almost got myself into trouble when I conversed with the wrong girl (her boyfriend was, to put it charitably, unimpressed). That being said, it was still more normal than hanging with those three cooks. Even though we were just sitting around, those three line cooks had more intrinsic menace than a whole room of drunk, posturing Latin men.

And since this entry seems to have no rhyme or reason... two simple recipes everyone should have in their repertoire and that are usually made incorrectly:

Bolognese sauce (a modified version of Mario Battali's):
Handful chopped pancetta.
Some hot pepper flakes.
A big onion, chopped.
Same volume as chopped onion of chopped carrots and chopped celery.
Few cloves of garlic.
1/2 pound of ground beef (medium)
1/2 pound of ground pork
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of milk (full fat)
2 - 3 cups of chicken broth (make it yourself if you can, it makes a big difference)
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste or preferably some Pomi (boxed pureed tomatoes)
2 bay leaves
Lots of thyme (fresh is better)
Olive oil

Fry pancetta and flakes with oil, add carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Fry until softened (don;t brown them). Add meat. When meat is cooked add wine. When dry add milk. When dry again, add stock, tomato paste and bay leaves. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2. When done, finish with fresh thyme and olive oil.

4 large tomatoes, stemmed and seeded.
two handfuls of white bread (crusts cut off)
Garlic (2 to 5 cloves, depends how much you like garlic)
Handful of parsley
1 shot glass sherry wine vinegar (can use other types, but balsamic should be a last resort)
1 normal cucumber or half an English one, peeled
1 red pepper (seeded, skin it if you want, but it's a pain in the ass)
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup olive oil
A good blender

Soak the bread in water for a couple of minutes, squeeze out the water. Blend everything (pulse the bread a little first) except the olive oil until smooth. Slowly pour in the olive oil as the blender is mixing (your goal is to emulsify the oil). The soup should be a peach colour when you're done. Serve alone or with croûtons, chopped boiled egg, chopped cucumbers, etc.

The colour you're after is on the left.
If you've ever seen gazpacho that wasn't that colour, it wasn't gazpacho.

And a quit tidbit about learning to cook.
Learning that creating good food was not magic and that I, even I, could do it was has been and till one of my great joys. All it took was many idle hours, no one to cook for me, copious amounts of green, and the Food Network. I never actually cooked anything that I saw, but watching some smooth-talking, bloated, self-satisfied publicity hound whip up a meal in 22 minutes coupled with the munchies provided me with enough motivation to walk into the kitchen and try to make something. Since then I've become a quite competent cook; definitely still an amateur, not close to the speed or precision of needed in a professional kitchen, but confident enough to feed family and friends well without too much stress.
It wasn't easy though. Along the road to competency, there were many hapless attempts and failed experiments due to inexperience and over-reaching. Other frustrations were brought on when an urge for adventure out-grew my tolerance for manual labor.
I still vividly remember an ill advised calamari fry with my roommate (another food lover) that ended well past midnight. We spent hours cleaning, washing, cutting, breading and then frying a box of squid the size of a small desktop commuter. Not exactly a clean job; I ended up covered in squid guts and hot oil. We then stayed up late drinking beer and eating so much squid that I though tentacles would sprout out of my urethra.
Or last fall, I committed myself to feeding 8 people with fresh, hand-made ravioli. If I had any idea how long it takes to make and roll out (by hand, with a rolling pin) enough dough for 100 ravioli, I would never have tendered the invitation. After that experience, whenever I see old Italian widows wandering through my neighborhood, with their black clothes, golden crucifixes and unsteady gaits, I'm tempted to kiss the rings of these high priestesses of pasta.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Banana-less Republic

Lebanon is living a deranged version of Groundhog Day as two rival political groups fight for control of the presidency. Meetings are held, gabbers gab, and everyday the headlines are the same. What no one notices is that while the two groups fight to get their man in the lead role in the play, the producer is running out of money, the theater is on fire and no tickets have been sold. That's why I hate writing about the place now. It's just too depressing.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

When I last lived in Lebanon, my aunt and I would meet once or twice a week or so and go down to the Corniche for a walk along the seaside, a berd'aan (orange juice) and the occasional pistachio ice cream.
She has a doctorate in Middle East history and knows Lebanon intimately (she's lived there from birth and never left during the war).
Our conversations were often political, and when they were no country's politics were more discussed than Lebanon's. As two (we think) reasonable people we were often bewildered by what passed as acceptable behavior from our politicians.
A line that that I often repeated was that "Lebanon is like a banana republic without any bananas." I always drew a laugh, but it's a lot less funny right now.

It's a country with a population of medium sized metropolis and with an area akin to some American and Canadian national parks. Running the place is not exactly the most difficult logistical challenge governance has to offer. That being said Lebanon teeters on the edge of self-annihilation.

Lebanese national debt tops 50 billion dollars. I'm going to write that in full, along with population and GDP, so you get the full picture (the zeroes bring to life).
50,000,000,000 $
4 ,000,000
That means that each man, woman and child owes approximately 12,500$ but makes less than half of that year. That's not even the worst part. The worst part is that most of that debt is owed in at interest rates in the neighborhood of 20% and in American dollars. And, just as a topper, the government is still running annual deficits in the billions of dollars. So, the debt will continue to grow, and become more and more difficult to service every fiscal year. No country on Earth faces such a macroeconomic problem. Without foreign assistance Lebanon would already be in default.

But wait... there's more. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Population density is almost 350 per square km (putting Lebanon in the top twenty densest nations) but much of the infrastructure was built before the civil war and is simply not equipped to deal with the extra input. Sewage is dumped out of an overloaded system directly into the sea. The electricity grid, powered by some of the most economically inefficient generating systems in the world, lurches along, Frankenstein-like, somehow still delivering electricity - but for how long? Garbage is brunt as there is no room for it. Tap water isn't potable. One third of the population lives below the poverty line. And those are just some of the problems... education and health haven't even been mentioned.

How is it possible that after 60 years of independence we have still not figured out how to rule ourselves semi-competently? China and India have populations made up of a variety of ethnic groups and surpass 1 billion and manage to self-govern. Vietnam's population is 87 million, has survived a devastating civil war and now boasts a surging economy. Meanwhile tiny Lebanon cannot even organize itself in a rudimentary manner.

Honestly, I'm tired of it. Lebanon is a basket case. It's a prize barely worth fighting for, yet our politicians fight over it like mangy dogs struggling over a carcass. I'd like to call such behavior irresponsible but I don't think the word fully encompasses the moral depravity of their actions. The real danger in Lebanon is not falling into one sphere of influence or another but that the country will collapse into an unlivable giant ghetto.

We don't need resistance or pride or freedom. At the end of the day all three and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. What Lebanon needs is a modicum of competency and sanity. It's not our place to be the flag bearer for Islam or liberal democracy. We are a tiny country with gigantic problems. Let's try and solve those first. They'll be plenty of time for fighting and foreign affairs later. Use all the clichés you want - now or never, the last chance, crunch time, etc - if we don't get our act together soon, the whole edifice of state will come crashing down on our heads and we won't be able to dig ourselves out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Frontline Rules

Frontline, to me, has gone beyond being a great show, it's become an institution. When I hear those first few bars with their string and the brass staccati, I get goosebumps. It's the only show that I'm currently watching by myself (I watch a couple of other shows but those are with friends and more of a social event).

On the Frontline website you can watch new programs as soon as they come out as well as 61 archived episodes.

There are two episodes that demand to be watched:

Tank Man: The story of Tiananmen Square and its role in shaping the economic reform of China

I was still a child when the protest were staged and then crushed, but the memory has stuck with me and led to intense curiosity about that time in 1989. I still remember the day when I first watched this online. I was absolutely hypnotized. The events surrounding Tiananmen Square are crammed with such extremes of human behavior, it's dizzying. I have never been more proud of humanity than when I saw Chinese protesters confront the the fisrt divisions of the Chinese army not with guns, or Molotov cocktail or even anger but with reason and compassion. They turned back armed men sent their to kill them, if necessary, with nothing but their minds and hearts.
I have never been more ashamed of humanity, though, than when another division of troops, more hard-line this time, came a few days later and shot and killed people whose only crime was asking for the rights of free speech and assembly. A section where unarmed protesters were shot at but refused to retreat, resulting in volley after volley of gunfire forced me to pause the show, sit in the dark, and regroup before I could continue.
The last third of the documentary, dealing with the economic liberalization of China, while lacking in drama, is still equally compelling.

If you want to know what's happening in Burma right now, watch this episode... I imagine it the Burmese military is not behaving much differently than their Chinese counterparts.

The Persuaders: exploring the cultures of marketing and advertising in America

Not quite as weighty but still fascinating. It's worth watching just observe to Clotaire Rapaille in action. A French psychiatrist who lives in the a Versailles-like mansion located in American suburbia, he is what would happen if Dr. Strangelove climbed out of his wheelchair and walked into the boardrooms of Madison avenue.

There's also the hilariously absurd story of Song, an airline with an advertising campaign so clever that consumers could not figure out what it was Song did or sold.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Flower Lamps, Turtle-Necked Dancers and the Awkward Segue Game

Thursday night was art night. I had two invitations from two different friends to two different art exhibitions.
The first I attended was a traditional gallery showing where friend A (a Dutch, mutton-chopped, beret wearing Luddite - and yes, he is as eccentric as he sounds) was exhibiting some lamps he made (pictured on the left at another gallery).

I like his lamps; bright metallic and glass flowers growing out of junk computers and other assorted electronics. Most of the other work on display were classical still life paintings (look, a pomegranate!). One painting could only be described as a close-up of a gaping, swollen anus.

After that, I jumped on the subway, rode it across town to the Tranzac for Sensory Lab for (according to the poster) a night of art, dance and music where friend B (tech-savvy PhotoShop master, illustrator, film editor and Ottawa transplant) was the film curator and print designer. He showed me how he made the poster. I'm not a good enough writer to describe the technical aspects of its design interestingly but rest assured, it's awesome.

The event featured short films, dance, musical acts and some other more nebulous artistic endeavors (I'll save you trouble vicariously living through those by omitting them).

Interpretative dance... I've tried and I don't get it. The only way I can sit through it quietly is to let my mind wander or to view it from a completely anthropological perspective, and therefore reduce the participants to analogs for chimps at a zoo ("I wonder what that one's doing? Oh... he's picking lice off this thigh."). All the reaching, head in the hands and running circles is to me, a little ridiculous. Yearning, an emotion rooted in stillness and introspection, is very difficult to get across through motion. I'm sure there's something I'm missing but for me the whole art form doesn't compute. Whatever, personal opinion. (This is more my style - no yearning here. I wonder if any other possible pandemics have dances named after them?)

The best musical act featured at Sensory Lab was Chinawoman, a local female singer/songwriter with an unfathomably deep voice.
Her live performance isn't nearly as dour as her recorded work (which makes Cat Power sound like the Venga Boys). Live, there were even a few stretches that were (dare I say it?) fun and light-hearted. In sum, an enjoyable set. The musical highlight was an upbeat Russian folk song she played as a finale. The crowd approved, clapping to beat... I was tempted to order cold vodka shots for our group to complete the experience but the the song ended before I could follow through on that ill-fated idea.

Another moment stood out too, but for entirely different reasons. After her song "Party Girl," a quirky song performed with a smirk and a hint of playfulness (and with lyrics that repeat the words Party Girl about 60 times throughout) she addressed the audience and deadpanned:
"That last song was called 'Party Girl.' (pause) And now for my next song 'I Kiss the Hand of my Destroyer.'"
This immediately led to our table breaking the record for most knowing glances in a two-minute span while she earnestly belted out a ditty that, I can only imagine, was inspired by some awful event that involved an-ex boyfriend and was quickly followed by a deep depression. We are still not sure whether Chinawoman meant the segue to be as funny as it was but we were in no doubt that is was indeed hilarious, intentional or not.

Any way, the next day, the "Awkward Segue" game was born. It's easy - basically mad libs via email. Someone starts and then everyone tries to top each other. For example:

"Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum...
Thank you. That last song was song was called 'Sugarplum'. And now for my next song, 'The Razor Blade Feels Cold against my Wrist.'"


"Sweetness and light, sweetness and light, sweetness and light, sweetness and light...
Thank you. That last song was song was called 'Sweetness and light'. And now for my next song,
'You Cheated on me with my Sister when I was Pregnant.'"

Or how about this: "Day at the Beach" and "I Swallowed 80 Sleeping Pills in a Motel Room and had my Stomach Pumped." The possibilities are endless. So play along at home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Movie Review - Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case

In today's Russia a man yells "Aux barricades!" and the mob replies with all the enthusiasm of a herd of cud-chewing cows.

I like my Russian intellectuals iconoclastic and Andrei Nekrasov fits the bill; a savage, greasy gaggle of keratin that passes for a hairdo, a scarf slung haphazardly around his neck, brow in a perpetual furrow, eyes that suggest relentless insomnia and a demeanour that alternates between despair and effervescence - the man is a pleasure to watch and listen to. He has produced a first person advocacy documentary of the highest caliber. It's passionate, outrageous and riveting. Through the prism of the Litvinenko poisoning filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov tells the story of post-communist Russia and the role the FSB (the Russian secret service and successor to the KGB) has had in shaping it.
This is the movie Michael Moore would have made if he was (a) Russian and (b) talented.

Film rests on three pillars - Nekrasov's personality, charm and energy, the great archival footage he has amassed and the intense interviews (the ones with Litvinenko and now deceased journalist Anna Politkovskaya standout more then the others). All of them are interesting to watch but they also give a glimpse of larger trends in modern Russia.

In one memorable vignette, Nekrasov tries and fails to find a copy of the Novaya Gazeta, an independent opposition newspaper, among the numerous newsstands that surround the central square in St. Petersburg. All he came up with is mountains of Russian Maxim and FHM. He does run into a fellow cynic, an old and almost toothless man. The old man is holding a book about Russian history. Nekrasov comments that's it's a very good book. To which the old man replies "You know what this book is? It's bullshit." Nekrasov, confused, insists that the book is worth reading. The old man clarifies "You know why this book is bullshit? Because it's interesting and in this country anything that's interesting is called 'bullshit.'" And with that he stumbles off, looking for what looks like the 6th or 7th vodka of the morning.

Nekrasov also includes an astonishing segment from a town-hall style show that aired on NTV (the last independent TV station, since shut down by the Kremlin) after a showing of his film about the war in Chechnya. The film was highly controversial as it graphically depicted the civilian toll of the war on the Chechen people. When the crowd is asked to comment on the film a middle-aged man is the first to volunteer. He states his name and occupation (he's a professor of political science at a Moscow university) and goes on to comment, matter of factly, that killing Chechen children is OK because "they will grow up to be terrorists." As the host and some of the audience stare on in stunned silence he goes on to reassert his point. (I would love to sit in on that guys classes... I can only guess what his views on the Khmer Rouge or Stalin are, but I'm sure they'd just as enlightened as his views on Chechnya.)

Litvinenko appears throughout the film, in excerpts from several interviews, some with Nekrasov, others with Russian journalists and in an excerpt from a famous press conference where he led a group of dissident FSB agents, who refused illegal orders, in exposing corruption inside the bureau. With Nekrasov, Litvinenko explains the system used for bribing, corrupting and then owning judges by the FSB. A judge is first asked to return a guilty verdict in a case with marginal evidence in exchange for money, or a better assignment or a better flat. Later, the judge is shown a document accusing him of bribery. An FSB agent explains to the judge that since he's a friend of the service he won't need to worry about it and tears up the document in front of the judge. The judge is now trapped, he can either continue to accept bribes in exchange for greater and greater perversions of justice or he can refuse the bribes and be charged with corruption (and be tried in front of another corrupt judge). It's just one way the FSB slowly choked the fight out of the Russian system. Litvinenko describes other ways too but his main claim underpinning his narrative is that near the end of Yeltsin's presidency, the FSB staged a silent coup and took control over the main levers of power. Not a very controversial claim, Putin himself was a KGB and FSB member since high school, but it's something that's rarely talked about in the press and never spoken about publicly in Russia.

The portrait of Russian society that emerges is of a place that has traded freedom and morals in exchange for order imposed with brutal, corrupt force and that the country seems content with the bargain although unaware of the bargain's full consequences. Incorporation of Western culture may be visible throughout Russia but the non-commercial aspects, (debate, questioning of authority, civil society) are clearly having a harder time catching on.

The most eye-popping aspect of the movie are the harsh accusations leveled at the FSB and Putin. The evidence for some of these charges barely rise above the level of conjecture but others are backed with official documents.

Here's a sampling:

- FSB bombing Moscow and blaming Chechen terrorists in order to justify the war and then the inevitable harsher security measures that come with conflict.

- FSB staging an attack against it's own military in downtown Grozny, Chechnya.

- FSB and the Russian military selling Russian arms and even Russian soldiers, who were used as slave labor, to Chechen leaders.

- Putin and his cronies siphoning millions from the fund set up to buy food for poor St. Petersburg residents during his stint as mayor (this charge has documents to back it up).

- FSB killing journalists critical of them and government policies (Anna Politskaya, interviewed in the film before being gunned down in an elevator, being the most famous example).

- FSB ordering the murders of political opponents of the Kremlin (in an interview Litvinenko alleges he was ordered to kill
Boris Berezovsky. This is later corroborated by by some colleagues of his.).

Nekrasov admits when he doesn't have the goods to back all these accusations but he also makes it clear that if the evidence was out there, the FSB keeps it very well hidden.
At the end of the film, though, one is left in no doubt about two things: first, that the FSB killed Litvinenko and that, second, he was a decent man. It was the end of a long struggle that started with him exposing corruption and ended with his poisoning by an ex-FSB agent in a London hotel (the accused assassin is also interviewed for the film and even has the gall to offer his guest tea). I was left with the impression that true liberal democrats have four possible roles in Russia, powerless mutes, exiles, prisoners or martyrs and that the dividing lines between those roles can be very thin.

The movie's not out yet - but it will be soon (I hope) - so when it does, it's definitely worth a gander (even if I just spoiled half of it).

Here's the closest thing I could find to a clip: it's in French, a TV interview is mixed in and it doesn't give you any kind of reasonable facsimile of what the film is like, and all in all, it's fairly useless. But hey, I'm doing this for fun, so standards are pretty low here.

Monday, October 08, 2007


It's not Paris or Vienna (understatement) but every now and then Toronto surprises you.

Even if it's in that dreary, industrial, L.A. river kind of way.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mercenaries - An Unregulated Free Market

As the controversy around Blackwater and other private military companies (hold on, isn't that the definition of mercenary?) has started to die down I'm reminded of an anecdote I read in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's excellent Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
(A great book. Funny, tragic, serious and easy to read. I remember pounding it out in a few days last Christmas. Well worth the effort.)

You can find it in its entirety on pages 142-146, I'll summarize it here.

It starts off with a portrait of Ben Thomas, an ex-Navy SEAL who was struggling to make ends meet as a mix martial art fighter in Florida. On a friend's recommendation he applied to work for Custer Battles, a mercenary group hired to to protect the Baghdad airport. They promised high pay, top of the line equipment and important work.

Please check out the C.B. website. Absurdity on a a remarkable scale (combined with horrid web design). Here's a direct quote: "Iraq is a nation and marketplace wrought with challenges, obstacles, and malevolent actors. However, Iraq offers contractors, traders, entrepreneurs as well as multi-national enterprises an unprecedented market opportunity. The ability to identify, quantify, and mitigate this myriad of risks allows successful organizations to transform risk into opportunity."
Well then, sign me up! Anyway...

Well it turns out that Custer Battles may have misled Mr. Thomas. He soon found himself poorly equipped and picking up seized Iraqi weapons for "recycling" (he suspected the company just sold them off on the black market). One day the inevitable happened, his team was ambushed. Thomas found himself pinned under their S.U.V. being fired at from multiple directions. He spotted one of his attackers, squeezed off one shot, hitting the Iraqi in the hip. The others insurgents scattered. After a moment, Thomas and his co-workers went in to take a closer look at the Iraqi he had just shot.
According to Thomas, "[the victim's] guts were spewed out like someone has uncoiled him and spread him out."
Now a bullet to the hip doesn't usually do this. Frequently, with proper medical care, a bullet to the hip is quite survivable. But this was not a normal bullet. Thomas was using a super-charged soft-point bullet (extra gun powder without a full metal jacket). These softer bullets do not hold their shape when they enter flesh but instead mushroom creating large and horrific exit wounds. The U.S. military forbids the use of these bullets. Doing so could result in a court-martial.
But Ben Thomas isn't covered by military regulations. He isn't covered by Iraqi law either (thanks to this Iraqi law put into place by American administrator L. Paul Bremer). And until today, Ben Thomas wasn't covered by American law.

That's why when the military ordered U.S. mercenaries to stop using non-standard ammunition the order was ignored. They couldn't make them. These mercenaries were a law unto themselves.
"Out here, there are no rules," Thomas said. "You do whatever you have to do to protect yourself."

Now that's just one story and a fairly tame one at that. There are thousands more that are a thousand times worse. The documentary No End in Sight (referred to in an earlier post) contains a video made by the employee of one these companies firing a hail of bullets at every every car that come to close to his convoy. No warning, just death... and all tastefully accompanied by the Elvis classic "Mystery Train." (see below)

This is a dirty war and Blackwater et al. are the dirtiest thing the Americans bring to it. Throughout history rich countries have used mercenaries when their own troops are either too few or are considered too valuable for a certain task. And throughout history mercenaries has always been more ruthless and less disciplined than the army they support. (Too bad no one in the White House seems to be a revolutionary war buff.) For the most part, nations have discovered mercenaries to be a high cost, low reward stop gap. In the U.S. the cost is money, in Iraq it's people.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

No Comment Necessary

Thursday, September 13, 2007

General warns of Iraq being overrun by Iraqis

Also reports "major improvements."

Washington - Over two days of testimony General Petraeus delivered dire warnings to Congress on the consequences that would result from a US military withdrawal from Iraq.
"If we leave they'll be running the whole place, without any input from us," he said in a reply to a question from Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE).

"Instead of massive sectarian unrest and general chaos going on under our noses we'll have to watch helplessly from the outside. I mean not making much of difference from the inside is one thing - but making no difference from the outside is unacceptable. Additionally, without us there who are they to blame for the lack of electricity, security or jobs? Leaving them in such a state of confusion would be cruel."
The general went on to point out that during the surge the mood among Baghdad residents has improved drastically, going from suicidally depressed to merely an acute sense hopelessness.
"At this rate Iraqis will be terribly unhappy be the end of the decade. I think that's a significant achievement."
He concluded his remarks with a prediction for his next report, due in six months time.
"The next time you see me, I really believe we will be down to a thousand murders a month. But maybe I'm being too optimistic. Don't hold me to that."
Ambassador Crocker, also testifying in committee sessions, told congressmen that the passing grade in Iraqi schools would be lowered to 30%, in line withe new definition of success being used in the country.
"You have to keep up with the times. This is exactly the kind of dynamic and flexible educational system we envisioned in 2003. Realistically, reaching less than 50% of your goals is still clearly a success."

And that ends the Onion rip-off portion of this blog.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Monday morning will be a doozy...

No one knows what's going to happen on Monday morning but a lot (A LOT) of brokers are going to get ulcers worrying about it this weekend. If you're walking down Wall street just remember to look up if things are go badly. Nobody wants to be killed by falling overweight trader in Bruno Magli's.

I have family members who work in the finance in Hong Kong, Paris and New York and none of them are sleeping well tonight.
Imagine a whole office doing this:

As a tip for next time: Maybe it's not a good idea to rate loans without enough collateral given to unreliable borrowers as AAA or AA. Just an idea. It's not like these defaults came out of nowhere. I saw a loan on American TV with an ungodly interest rate and NO CREDIT CHECK! That's insanity. This lesson had to be learned, hopefully it won't be too costly.

And as a mild pick me up:

What makes this video really cool is the setting and the huge cast. What makes it disturbing in the bald middle-aged guy playing the teenage girl role.


As an add on. The chicken/egg thing was an argument hashed out over some Budweisers... and my opponent still thinks my argument is circular. I stand by it. And by the fact that I can type drunk.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The drunk dial. With a keyboard.

Q: What came first - the chicken or the egg?

A: The egg.

1. The first egg did not contain a chicken.
2. The first chicken was hatched from an egg.

There. I just had to get that off my chest. Now if you'll excuse me, i have a big meeting with a hang-over in 8 hours or so.

Professor Murder
(random music link)

Dizzee Rascal - Sirens (I just like the horse)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

No End in Sight

Why is it so bad in Baghdad?
Don't like to read incredibly depressing, long winded books?

Someone made a movie.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Swift Boats anyone?

Running for president in the US is a full contact sport. John Kerry found out the hard way. Now it looks like it's Rudy's turn.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Iraqi Refugees

I found this on the the excellent Healing Iraq blog. A story about the Iraqi refugees in Jordan and the circumstances that led them to leave.
Originally aired on Dateline on SBS Australia.

Sometimes I fell like Iraq is an immense reservoir of suffering that is always being filled with new tears. What a heart-breaking place.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Friday, June 29, 2007

Hammering a Screw

Canada day is July 1st. Canada is at war but life goes on here undisturbed. We have little idea of what's happening in Afghanistan. In most of most of the country the central government is nothing more than a rumor and in the east the American military is racking up a high civilian body count creating widespread unhappiness among Afghans. This path will only lead to trouble.

Canadians are posted in the province of Kandahar (15), birthplace of the Taliban.

As an immigrant Canadian from a war-torn country I find it strange to think that our country is at war. Every week we hear about more soldiers dying in Afghanistan while at home most Canadians couldn't point to Kandahar on a map or tell you the difference between Pashtuns and Tajiks.
Many are under the misconception that Canada is engaged in "peacekeeping operations." That Canadians are dying to provide security and stability and help the Afghan government stand alone. Well Canada is not.
The Canadian military is fighting a, so far, low level insurgency (if Iraq is high level). The goal, as stated publicly, is to wrestle control Kandahar province away from the the Taliban and other local militias.
That's all well and good but the fight is going on in complete opacity. The NATO and Canadian spokespeople only offer vague platitudes espousing "progress" and "good-will." Reporters covering the conflict rarely leave the military bases and when they do they are accompanying a military mission or patrol. If they do ever run into locals they do so within eyesight of soldiers. Additionally locals probably don't see much difference between the foreign troops and the reporters along for the ride. Odds are neither group will ever discover the true local sentiment.
And when fighting insurgencies unvarnished information from locals is crucial.

Fighting a war against and army is like hammering a nail. The more force the better. In this situation the military is trying, as I heard a US soldier say once, "to break things and kill people."
Fighting an insurgency and against a guerrilla force is like tightening a screw. The right tool and precision is key to success. Counter insurgency depends more on small, correctly calibrated actions than large scale shows of force.
From a NATO perspective, there is one big problem in Afghanistan right now. First is that both strategies (counter-insurgency and traditional war-fighting) are active in the theater at the same time. In the east Americans are bombing, attacking villages trying to kill any opposition.
Meanwhile Canadian, British and Dutch troops are trying to mount a classic counter-insurgency in the south with a limited number of soldiers.
Both these regions are majority Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the ethnicity of the majority of Taliban fighters. Any heavy handed measure undertaken by the US military (like killing school children last week) is going to have blow back all across the Pashtun heartland. No matter how careful the Canadian, British and Dutch troika try to be as they try to drain Taliban support they will be continuously undermined by inevitable errors in the US controlled zone.
(Errors are inevitable when bombing from from the air in civilian areas. Even a success rate of 90% in picking out and hitting the right targets will result in many civilian casualties.)

It's also important to point out that not all Afghans shooting and bombing Canadians are Taliban.
The new western-backed central government in Kabul is dominated by warlords who made up the Northern Alliance, an organization made up of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, although President Karzai is a Pashtun. The Northern Alliance fought a long civil war against the majority Pashtun Taliban for a long time (which they won thanks to American air support after 9/11). So trying to to bring the south and east under government control will inspire some ethnically based resistance (which will probably only be expanded by civilian casualties). In addition to, there are probably many drug-lords in the area who dislike foreign eyes snooping around.
Fighting an insurgency requires dividing your enemies and co-opting as many groups as possible. Lumping together all resistance under the moniker of Taliban is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it will unify the resistance and make it harder to defeat.
Events in Anbar province in Iraq are perfect example of this. During the Rumsfeld era all Iraqi resistance was labeled al-Qaeda or terrorists and not to be talked to or negotiated with. During this period resistance was fierce and Anbar fell completely out of US control. Recently the American military has managed to co-opt several militias -Islamic Army, 1920 Revolutionary brigades, etc- so that they are now shooting at al-Qaeda and not Americans. Anbar has gone form al-Qaeda safe haven to a contested area again.
Just because someone shot at you before doesn't mean they have to shoot at you forever. In tribal societies switching sides during a conflict is a deeply rooted tradition.

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is trouble. Undermined by American tactics and our own denial. But it can be turned around.
We live in a democracy, a democracy were politicians are extremely sensitive to changes in public opinion. By becoming more informed and demanding more lucid, more truthful and detailed information from our government a change in policy is still possible (putting pressure on the US to be more discriminate would help, for one).
Unless the Canadian public becomes more involved this endeavor is likely to end in failure. That would be a black mark on us all and a tragedy for Afghanistan.

"You don't send an army to war. You take a country to war."
- Tim Russert, NBC

A Guardian article about one of many raids in Afghanistan showing how hard it is to get at the true facts.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Played with fire, got burned.

That's what should be written on the gravestone of Fatah in Gaza.

Fatah got exactly what it deserved.
That may seem a bit harsh but let's review the recent history:

Hamas won the legislative elections and that victory granted them the right to form a government and rule the "country."
This was a big problem because in Fatah's eyes it is the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In the aftermath of the elections Fatah members, who make up the vast majority of state employees, refused to accept the results. They had powerful allies: Israel, the US and other Western powers. A plan was set into motion.

- Starve the Hamas government of funds.
- Arm and train security forces loyal to Fatah only.
- Work through President Abbas and ignore Hamas in all political dealings.
- Encourage Fatah (who did not need much encouragement) to stonewall Hamas at every turn.
- Hope these policies cause a crisis, then Abbas could call for early elections which Fatah would win.

So, from the beginning Fatah bureaucrats and soldiers refused to take orders from Hamas ministers and used all means (legal and illegal) to thwart Hamas.
This led to the first round of factional fighting which ended with a Saudi brokered peace and a Hamas led unity government containing several Fatah and independent ministers.
This agreement was supposed to allow Hamas to rule but in a more tempered manner with more Fatah input. It was hoped, unwisely as it turned out, that with this new government that foreign aid would begin to flow again. It did not. The Bush administration repeated that any government containing Hamas would not be acceptable to them or their allies.
(I listened to a lot of American speeches about democracy in the middle east. I must have missed the part where they mention that they get to pick the winners.)
Many Fatah hardliners also did not agree with the new arrangement. The hardliners with American help continued to confront Hamas. The biggest hardliner of them all, Mohamed Dahlan (the Fatah military man in Gaza and Abbass' national security advisor), began working with the Americans and the Egyptians to train and arm a "Presidential Guard" in Gaza, with the tacit support of the Israelis, that would report directly to him and and not to the Hamas cabinet. This was direct a military challenge to Hamas in their stronghold.
The fact that this challenge was led by Dahlan added to the affront. Hamas and Dahlan have a history.
He not only spent the 1990's arresting Hamas members and having them tortured in the some of the very buildings overrun by Hamas yesterday, but he is an excellent example of Fatah corruption. He owns several opulent villas in the territories, he's a millionaire several times over, and has a reputation of always looking out for number one, party and country be damned.
When Dahlan's men crossed the border from their Egypt , where they were training, into Gaza during the first few days of fighting their was now no turning back. Hamas was never going to back down to Dahlan and his private militia. A decision was then made at the top levels of Hamas, if we cannot convince them to recognize our strength and let us rule, we will force them. Total victory was now the goal.
Hamas fully released their military brigades (the Qassam brigades), while holding back their executive force (the "legal" security forces) as a reserve. It wasn't needed. The Qassam brigades proved to be too strong for Fatah's disorganized and unmotivated fighters.

Fatah played with fire by not allowing Hamas to run the government through the official channels. Fatah got burned when Hamas removed all obstacles to their rule. Hamas members may not be the sophisticated, urbane politicians that the Fatah men are but they are not stupid. They knew what was going on. They could read the papers. They could read the plan in motion against them.

Hamas leaders saw this plan in action and when they felt themselves cornered they came out swinging. Borrowing from the Israelis it used a provocation (Dahlan's military build up) in order to create facts on the ground. Now Hamas cannot be ignored. No matter what happens now (like when Abbas dissolved the cabinet and ignored the parliament this morning), at a bare minimum Hamas will control Gaza.

There's new sheriff in town: a Hamas fighter in Mohamed Dahlan's office in Gaza.

What's next?
Collective punishment on a massive scale.
From the NYT:
In security terms, Israel would like to seal off Gaza from the West Bank as much as possible, to prevent the spread of Hamas military power there, where Israeli troops still occupy the territory. Israel would also like to confront Hamas with the responsibility for governing Gaza: providing jobs, food and security for its people.
Political Moves as Calm settles over Gaza, Steven Erlanger and Mike Nizza, June 15th

An Op-ed by Matrin Indyk (former US ambassador to Israel) in the Washington Post:
The failed state of Gaza that Hamas controls is wedged between Egypt and Israel. Its water, electricity and basic goods are imported from the Jewish state, whose destruction Hamas has declared as its fundamental objective. One more Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into an Israeli village and Israel could threaten to seal the border if Hamas did not stop its attacks.

The Israeli government will make sure that Hamas will be unable improve conditions in Gaza. The American administration hopes that Gazans will blame their misery on Hamas and turn on the party and weaken it. The Israelis spout this line publicly too (although they probaly don't believe it).

What will actually happen? The tight restrictions imposed on Gaza will give Hamas any easy excuse and and a group to blame for the conditions in the Strip (see Fidel Castro's script). They will probably become more militant. After a while rockets will be fired from Gaza. "Resistance operations" will probably start in the West Bank to support the "brothers" in Gaza. Etc, etc.

The sigh inducing ballet of violence continues.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Blood in the Water

Part of a phone conversation I had today with someone in Beirut:

Me: How are things?
Beirut: Eh.

Me: Do you think its going to get bigger?

Beirut: Probably.

Me: No, I mean… isn’t this how it started last time?

Beirut: (silence)

Me: This is how it started last time.

Beirut: Yeah it is… (longer silence)

What a strange feeling. Vacationing with my brother in Provence in a an old stone house with a pool, a garden containing fig and olive trees, rosemary bushes big enough to hide in, mint so abundant that every breeze carries with its sweet perfume. Meanwhile, through newspapers and snippets of news programs you watch your homeland disintegrate. And make no mistake that’s exactly what’s happening. The state is weaker than ever and close to ceasing to function. Three hundred Islamists of unknown origin and even more mysterious motives and sources of support are giving the army as much as it can handle. Other groups in other camps are threatening reprisals raising the possibility of several other fronts opening up. And what’s more, other bigger sharks are circling this sinking ship of state: Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

A little surreal being here.

And hearing about this.

Lebanon sat at a historic crossroads. After March 14th everything was possible, many of them good. Now many things are still possible, most of them disastrous.
The euphoria of the moment blinded everyone to the fact that Lebanon was still in a state of crisis. Our problems did not leave on the backs of Syrian tanks. The opportunity was not to start anew but fix the problems of the past. Decades of civil war and Syrian oppression had frozen the country in a political stasis with multiple simultaneous crises. We just forgot they were crises because we had been living with them for so long.
- A sectarian system of government whose only products are deadlock, clan politics, and increased sectarianism.
- Palestinian refugees with fewer rights than their brethren in Israel.
- Hezbollah armed and dangerous.
- Massive and commonplace flouting of civil authority (not paying electricity, water and tax bills was considered normal).
- A civil service based on the twin colonial models of the two previous empires ruling Lebanon (French and Ottoman) in need of serious reform.
- A government with a vast majority of its members had shown themselves during the civil war to be completely incapable of putting anything ahead of their little fiefdoms.

Maybe there wasn’t enough time to address these problems before last summer’s war. Maybe solving these problems in a country like ours is out of the question. And maybe not trying hard enough is why we have a country like ours.

The Lebanon of my teens and early twenties is gone. It wasn’t perfect, far from it, but it provided me with some of the happiest days of my life. The Lebanon of my childhood is back, and all that Lebanon provided me with was terror, exile and exasperation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Iraqi Journalists interviewed by Charlie Rose

Many times the western media forgets that the real story is happening in Iraq and instead choose to concentrate on fights between the American President and Congress, or how the war affects the legacy of a retiring British PM. While these seem important for Iraq and Iraqis they are about as as irrelevant as the score of the Red Wings game.

Skip ahead to the 35:00 mark for the segment in question.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The American Dream on Television... and The Wire

The Wire is best television show I've ever seen. The reason why lies at the core of the American psyche.

The American dream is the core of American national mythology. We all know it by heart: work hard, choose correctly and America will reward you. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the foundation of American government and society. The dream is based on freedom of choice, hard work and justice triangulating in such a way that make success and happiness possible for anybody.
The dream is present and disseminated, in one form or another, on almost every TV show made in the U.S.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than on reality TV competitions such as the Apprentice, Survivor, America's Next Top Model and American Idol (to name 4 among dozens). On these shows a bunch of competitors duke it out for a dream job/prize. It is basically an American dream narrative in miniature with commercials. Work hard and choose correctly the dream is yours. But these shows are not a proper exploration of the American dream (except in proving that the dream is still alive in the general public). Reality TV competitions are rigged. Rigged, not in terms that the winners are predetermined, but rigged because the fact that there will be a winner is predetermined - someone has to win. At the end of the Apprentice Trump is not going to announce that nobody was impressive enough and therefore no competitor will get the job. In real life the odds that someone among 30 aspiring singers one will sell 100,00 records are highly unfavorable. On American Idol, two singers or more selling millions of records is inevitable. There will be a happy ending for someone, guaranteed.

This guarantee is also present on the TV version of chic-lit (Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Sex and the City, etc.). These women-oriented shows are based off the premise of freedom of choice and happiness. The core question in these shows is simply this: who will the women choose to date/sleep with/mary/etc in their quest for happiness? On these shows a happy outcome is certain; the girl will always end up with her price charming - it's hard to imagine Sex and the City wrapping up with Sarah Jessica Parker being alone. The drama on these shows is rooted in the ups and downs on the way to bliss (and by the audience suspending logic and believing that these women risk ending up alone). So here too happy endings are guaranteed.

Crime/action drama is a little different. The American dream is prominent here also but another American obsession is in the foreground: the battle between good and evil. On these shows here "good" characters must defeat "evil" characters in order to preserve American society and the keep the dream alive. "Good" guys might do some bad things (see 24's Jack Bauer) but its all in the name of freedom, justice and the American way. The line between "good" guys and "bad" guys is clearly delineated and characters stand on on side or the other (no straddling please) with skin color and accents sometimes helping the viewer out as to whom is on each side. On most shows victory inside the hour or series is certain; 24, Prison Break, CSI, Shark, etc. On some of the of the more sophisticated shows (let's say Law and Order) the bad guys sometimes get away, but the essential ingredients are the same: good vs evil in form of good guys vs bad guys with the survival of the American dream hanging in the balance.

The Wire is different. Characters are not good or bad. And the show does not center around the protection of the American dream from nefarious villains. On the streets of Baltimore the dream is dead. In fact, it's been dead so long that people do not even complain that it is gone; it has been forgotten - completely and utterly.
The struggle between drug dealers and police is not viewed through the prism of justice or good vs. evil - it is just presented to us straight up. We do not cheer for a side and one side is not better than the other. Most of the time the top levels of the drugs gangs behave more ethically that the executive levels of the police and their political bosses.
The characters are not free to choose, and their hard work guarantees nothing. Life in the American slum is arbitrary and merciless. The characters are trapped; their fates certain all they can do is rage against the heavens.
Drug dealers will die violently or in prison. Poor children will grow up to sling drugs on the corners. Good police officers will upset the political establishment and be punished. Reforming politicians will be stonewalled at every turn. Good friends will be forced into betraying each other. Choices are illusions disguising the truth; they are at best are limited and usually lead to dead ends.
Intitutions limit the individual's choice to such a degree that the walls close in around him. This one of the main themes of the show.
The only winners are not people but these institutions with their inherent hypocracy and corruption. On the show, institutions force compromise on individual at every level of organizations with the sum of the compromises being a complete dilution of the original goal. The political system goes on, corrupt and inept, not benefiting anyone or anything but itself - no matter who is elected. The drug economy and its sister the drug war will go on indefinitely fueled by economics and fed by a constant source of fresh drop-outs and rhetoric and .
In Baltimore happiness is not guaranteed, nobody looks out for the little guy, choices are absent and the only inevitabilities are struggle and death. Many things make the show great - plot density, the great acting, multi-faceted stories, characters being believable representations of flesh and blood people and any other number of strengths. But The Wire's treatment of the American dream in contemporary America, clear-eyed, serious and honest, is its trump card.

Here's some proof of the show's brilliance. Two monologues delivered by one of my favorite characters, Bunny Colvin, talking more sense than it's safe to.