A tail of two stories.

Schrödingers catLook what the cat refused to drag in, someone wittier than yours once said. To touch on Syria with a ten foot barge pole is to set oneself up for controversy or worse: ridicule. So keep it light, and you might be able to persuade yourself folks are laughing at your jokes. Or better yet, don’t talk about it at all. As famous cat-ignorer Erwin Schrödinger knew, if you ignore a thing hard enough, you don’t have to worry about it being alive or otherwise. Way cheaper than buying cat food or cleaning out the litter box, and certainly more convenient than pondering the lives and/or death of one hundred thousand people. You know, human beings.

Feline torture enthusiast Schrödinger also knew that two things, seemingly mutually exclusive, can be true at the same time. The glass is half full; but the glass is half empty. I am a brilliant scientist; but a terrible pet owner. Or, and this is where things get hair-ball-y: The Syrian opposition is fighting to save a country from genocidal tyranny; but the Syrian opposition, a ragtag of reluctant democrats, armed teens, and wild-eyed Al-Qaeda affiliates are tearing asunder an ethnically diverse, secular haven led by an occasionally stern patriarch with a lisp holding firmly against imperialist threats.

Which is it? Should the casual observer resign to flipping a coin? Shall we look away and assume the cat always lands on its feet? How does one call heads or tails on such an animal? What was God thinking? Better yet, what was he smoking? And where can I get some?

Zen MeowThat was Zen.

In early 2011 a bunch of school kids spray-painted the Egyptian revolutionary slogan on a wall in Daraa, Syria: “The people want to topple the regime.” The children were arrested and beaten by government goons. Subsequent protests were brutally repressed, evoking ever-wider demonstrations, and increasing government atrocities to the point where Gandhi himself would have considered raising his voice ever so slightly. And thus, popular protests slowly, surely, but most of all bloodily, became a civil war.

This is Miaow.

Two and a half years later oddly-whiskered Bashar Al-Assad is banking on his buddies in Iran, their Hezbollah baddies in Lebanon, oh, and Russia for weapons, cash, and boots. The noble Syrians meanwhile, gunning for freedom, economic opportunity equal to that of the president’s ethnic minority, and the right not to be gunned down for wanting those things, have awoken to awkward bed partners indeed, thinking: Where are my clothes? What time is it? And: Who the fuck are these clowns?

Proxy and the Banshees.

Saudi-Arabia, ever the champion of universal suffrage, is weighing in. Ostensibly bored of funding every reactionary madrassa from Lahore to Casablanca since the fifties, Osama Bin Laden’s exploits in Afghanistan, and as recent as last year squashing a democratic uprising in neighboring Bahrain, the house of Saud discovered they should now support Syrian democracy. With a straight face. Qatar; the military powerhouse you never suspected, Turkey, and the United States are all rooting for people power as well. Ish. Wikipedia still calls it a civil war. Which is true. But it’s fast become a proxy war too: A conflict where outsiders pick your country to fight each other directly or cajole and arm others what they haven’t the cajones to do themselves. Sometimes entire countries are invented merely to serve that exact purpose, but let us not drag Belgium into this.

I can haz warz?

lolcat1It sounds good. Perhaps a little too good. Bomb the evil, chemical weapons-wielding dictator. Not much. Just a little. Just enough to take out his air force, a few tanks here and there, otherwise known as his strategic advantage over the opposition. Nit-pickers can debate why wait until a hundred thousand folks have died to get upset about the latest one thousand just because the particular method carries an eerie historic connotation. Fair point. All these things are true. We should have done something then, and we should do something now.

Herding cats.

At peril of stating the obvious, it is clear all of the interested parties have a thing or two to win or lose. However with an ever-growing list of participants, is it reasonable to expect a predictable outcome if the ante is upped, after the Washington surgeon strikes with all the precision of three hundred Hummers falling from the skies? Will Syrians be better off when Assad, thusly needled, is left in place, only angrier?

Doing something about a war shouldn’t mean having a bit more war and hope –fingers crossed- at the end you have a lot less war.

International affairs haven’t changed much from, say, 1914. It’s a very lightly supervised kindergarten. Obama doesn’t trust the ex-KGB guy. Putin simply doesn’t like black people and besides, is way too busy looking for his shirt. Iran can’t play because, you know, they have beards. Assad has a funny moustache. Meanwhile the meat machine grinds and grinds.

A declaration of war.

lolcat2They know you went on that porn website yesterday. They know you ‘liked’ that video that claimed 9/11 was an inside job.  They know you love funny cat videos. What they cannot do is stop you from doing any of the above. The Internet is a weapon of much distraction.  It should be. No one needs to stay angry twenty four seven. It only takes a minute or two. Thanks to the Internet I know exactly which weapons manufacturer is financed by my bank (www.banktrack.org). I have emailed/Facebooked/Tweeted, and they have felt obliged to spend time and resources responding. We are finding out which politicians are wined and dined by those merchants of death. We have unprecedented access. You have no excuse not to fight back. All it takes is a keyboard, and they are cheaper than ever. It takes a minute or two to tell your politicians: “Put that thing back in your pants.” These two things are true at the same time: There are billions of us. We are nice, but we are going to cut your dick off.

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Nein! 11

It’s eleven September. The American presidentials are heating up. I’m in a street-side coffee shop in Fez, Morocco where your humble host will be residing for the coming three weeks. Means I pretty much have to write something. Anything. How many years has it been now? One forgets. Move on. Time to get a life, America. Something along those lines. Yes, yes, evil never sleeps. Remain vigilant and all that. Of course. Ask Norway. Get it?

Perhaps, for once, I’ll forgo my feeble attempts at analysis. It behooves one to take a breather every so and again. Every now and often. See what I just did there? Neat. I’ll just look at the donkeys cart past laden with cardamon and animal hides, kids and their iPhones, and the ubiquitous CCTV eyes dotting the medina. Interesting times, my friends. Interesting times. “Tanneries this way!” “Thank you.” Visited one yesterday. I’ve never seen such a terrible thing.

Guy selling ostrich eggs to guys, promising easier access to tits

Meanwhile the coffee shop is filling up. Not sure how long I can impose my big-ass laptop on these smallish tables. Then again, whatever. I’m sure there’s a swell juxtaposition here, albeit I wouldn’t be doing justice to all the other poetic whathaveyou’s. Tradition meets computer. Good old coffee meets Power Horse and this huge can-shaped RedBull fridge cramping twelve hundred years of history. Ample-chested, deep-cut-dressed Moroccan anchor lady explains a French industrialist’s shameful tax evasion -to Belgium if my Fusha serves me right, half-naked Israeli teenagers huddled around a single gas mask ready to pounce should Iran or Hezbollah do the uber-likely unthinkable. Update: they switched to bikini beach shots now. Cars, soap, global affairs. Nothing sells that shit like tits. Lots of them. Big ones, small ones. Covered from the nose down, or fully exposed. It does not matter. Man-kind will be hanging from that teet for some time to come. While that may be unavoidable like hair on three week-old yoghurt, guys, let’s not forget they’re not ours. Behave a little. Chill on the war against women. From the streets of Cairo to the US Republican party, back to the souq in Fez where, needless to say, your authors is having the time of his life.

Nobody is free until everybody is free. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. Oh, and everybody is poor until nobody is poor. Perhaps that’s more slogan than analysis. I sure as shit hope so, because I wasn’t going to analyze, compare, or lecture. And that worked out well, didn’t it. Now a moment of silence, please, in respect for the dead. All of them.

Bush lied. Blair lied. There, I said it. Our generation will see the likes of you in court. Let’s not forget that Saddam, although not the type to fuck you in the asshole and do you the courtesy of reaching around to help a feller’ out as they say, had nothing to do with them towers coming down. A million souls will haunt you. Analyze that.

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Sinai

Bull in a china shop

Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”

“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”

Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.

Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.

With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.

Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen  citizens’ participation in society.

While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.

Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?

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Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East

This shit is really happening.

Good lord. I mean that literally. And by literally I mean as an incantation to someone or something to please, stop this from happening. Or maybe just cut out the bad bits, the stuff that actually kills people. The Hollywood way, as perceived by a seven year-old version of yours truly: innocuous A-Team jeeps flipping over and worst-marksmen-of-the-world gunfire. And if some anonymous border guard does have to get hurt, no more than a sprained ankle please, let there be less kin to wail and scream to the heavens in vicarious ligamental agony. As in, no one was injured in the writing of this book.

And yet, eerily, Egyptians, Israelis, and penumbrous groups are following the script. A year and a half after the revolution the battle still rages. In many ways, it hasn’t yet begun. The generals have sacrificed the big cheese, but the kidney stones are still there. Any nurse will tell you: stand back when old men prepare to pee. Meanwhile, somewhat less metaphorically, the Sinai/Israel border heats up. “We gave up this land, and for what?” Israelis lament. Egyptians clamor to amend the Camp David accords that prohibit their army from deploying on the peninsula in a meaningful way. The Bedouin tribes of the Sinai, not just neglected but actively discriminated against during the Mubarak years, claim to be on top of things. Eking a living from scrape-barrel tourism and yes, smuggling, the tribes have maintained a balance amongst themselves, maintaining a semblance security, tolerating and at times pushing back state authority. However, cracks are beginning to show.

The old generals, eager to show up their erstwhile foes and current holders of the scepter, didn’t have to look far for the new rulers’ achilles heel. Israeli contingency plans have long been drawn up. They too had rather see the Muslim Brotherhood gone. The Palestinians of Gaza meanwhile, kettled in and desperate, will do what kettled in and desperate people do. They will find a way. Wouldn’t you?

The dice are rolling. And man, this book is alive in a way I wish I entirely wished it wasn’t.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Indigenous Rights, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Revolution, seismic changes

It’s the army, stupid.

When you talk to pacifists, and I consider myself one, you often hear: “Well, we don’t want to abolish the army of course. You need them for peacekeeping missions in silly countries that need peacekeeping missions. Oh, and a guy in uniform can fill up a sandbag better than anyone in case a levee breaks.” What they forget to mention, obviously, are zombie outbreaks, large disgruntled apes, and bad-ass aliens. No, not immigrants, I mean actual beings from outer space that have come to pop a straw in your neck and drink your blood like a juice box. Armies are great. In addition, whereas a country’s police protects ordinary citizens against each other, armies protect a country’s institutions in case said citizens disagree a little too enthusiastically with the way things are going. And by ‘things’ I mean ‘money’.

Sometimes the army itself becomes so much a part of a country’s institutions and economic fabric, that you can’t really trust citizens to offer any meaningful critique as to its workings and goals. Of course nothing instills a wary public of an army’s raison d’être than the occasional war. In that sense, the Cold War has been the most elaborate attempt at having your cake and eating it. Out of control defense spending without the all-out destruction of civilian infrastructure. As good as anyway, barring the silly countries that were simply clamoring to host the odd proxy war. They’re fucked now, and in dire need of peacekeeping missions. Just the thing our guys are good at. You break it, you buy it, sort of. Too cynical, anyone? Must be the rain pouring down in buckets as Brussels prepares for tomorrow’s Fête National, scripted and organized by, you guessed it. Thinking about our boys in Afghanistan who are doing such a brilliant job saving Afghans from themselves and the accrued results of 200 years of Western altruism.

Meanwhile on 23 July Egypt will look back on the 60 years that have elapsed since the army removed king Farouk from office. Evil tongues called him a puppet. If that was the case, I wouldn’t want to have been the guy pulling the strings. King Farouk was somewhat on the chubby side. Anyway, what a wonderful 60 years it’s been. One has to credit this band of military brothers for their unfailing business savvy, changing horses mid-stream, and thus riding out the cold war on the right side of history, pocketing billions in support from the greatest army on earth called the United States.

Believe everything they say.

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Bab el Hadid

When Youssef Chahine authored “Bab el Hadid”, known in English as “Cairo Station” in 1958, it was promptly banned for 20 years. People and censor alike were shocked by its realistic portrayal of a troubled society. Chahine introduces us to Qinawi (played by himself) a poor, perverted newspaper vendor, and Hanuma (played by Hind Rostom, Egypt’s erstwhile Marilyn Monroe), as the beautiful woman constantly chased by police for peddling soft drinks illegally. Abu Serib is Hanuma’s soon to be husband who desperately tries to form a union opposing an old crony who calls the shots in and around the station. Trains arrive and leave every minute, spewing out and absorbing people from all walks of life. Like the place, the movie is a microcosm of the country and times. Not just then, but acutely, today still.

Chahine weaves in a women’s protest march, and a band of young musicians reveling in a fusion of rock n roll and, well, Egypt. Delectable Hanuma sells them Pepsi and a smile. Passersby disparage this infliction to native culture. “It’s all those new-fangled ideas. They lead us straight to hell,” says a man, funnily enough with a Sabena poster behind him. Headscarves are few and far in between. It seems like a different epoch altogether. And yet, men’s attitudes to women, not just the perverted Qinawi, are a grim reminder of how little has changed. The economics of frustration -no job means no house means no wife means no sex means exploding thirty year-olds- remains as it was in 1958.

The film itself also remains as it was back then; a masterpiece of human cultural achievement.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Middle East, seismic changes

Wanderers of the Desert

A young teacher arrives at a village in the middle of the desert. His task is to, well, teach the children. Only problem is, the entire village is cursed, and the children disappear one by one to join a group of ‘wanderers of the desert’. Before leaving, a well speaks, urging them to break all mirrors in the village, and use the shards in an unexplained ritual. The story-telling of this beautifully shot film is both loose and low-paced, in step with recent Arab history. Torn between the mystical, anecdotal past, nostalgia for Andalusia -a paradise lost, and modernity in the guise of the wrathful police officer, the youth vanish into an aimless existence.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ‘Al-Haimoune’ or ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ perfectly captures the soul of the Arab World pre-revolution. Not in detailed exegesis, but as a broad metaphor for homelessness. A representative of the national state inspires confidence nor inspiration. The past offers a mere labyrinth of illusion, fairy tales, and unsubstantiated longing. The village itself, ruins of beautiful courtyards and crumbling arabesque walls, are reminiscent of so many abandoned villages formerly inhabited by Jews, the archetypal wanderers of the desert whose exile ended half a century ago but only in name, and not without displacing another people.

Whence from here? As the era of oil draws to a close, so must the Middle East’s subservience to the West that actually began long before the discovery of crude. The ballot box can only be the start of the end of wandering. Both Arabs and Jews have a long road ahead crafting a new symbiotic identity. Out of the desert and into a modernity that is not premised on the sword.

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Filed under Arab Spring, end of oil, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Palestine, Tunisia