Saturday, September 30, 2006

Popular Wisdom

David Brooks' NY Times column on 9/28 is one of the things that irritated me enough to drive me back to blogging. [The link above will only take you so far if you are not a NYT subscriber. Now, I firmly believe that everyone should read a paper newspaper everyday and the NYT is an excellent choice but I remain bewildered by their insistence on keeping so much on-line content behind subcriber firewalls.]

Saturday, five smart, intelligent letters to the editor in response to Brooks' column were published. My favorite comes from Utah.

To the Editor:
David Brooks acknowledges that modern nations mark their greatness by economic wealth and that "Islamic extremists will continue to compete and grow until mainstream Islamic moderates can establish a more civilized set of criteria for prestige and greatness."

Why, then, does Mr. Brooks continue to support the violence of war as a means of ending the violence of terrorism? Given his reasoning, wouldn't it be far wiser to divert the billions of dollars we are spending on the Iraqi disaster into the economic development of Palestine?

Wouldn't viable ports, secure water sources, healthy agribusiness and manufacturing plants be more productive in the fight against Islamic extremists then military action?
Janet Ellington
Salt Lake City, Sept. 28, 2006

Yes, I can think of nothing that would reverse al-Qaeda's appeal than a strong economy with high levels of employment for young men. In the Arab world, young men without jobs face a future without marriage in a society where marriage and fatherhood are still crucial signs of maculinity and adulthood.

To the Editor:
If, as Mr. Brooks avers, Islamic extremism is not a result of "short-term historical circumstances, but of consciousness and culture," why did the Bush administration and Mr. Brooks believe that 150,000 Western troops, even with billions of dollars, chould change than in jig time?

Grand delusion, indeed.
William W. Goetz
Bedminster, NJ, Sept. 28, 2007
I would only add the political litmus tests that kept many smart, experienced, Arabic-speaking Americans from government positions in the occupation government destroyed any chance that we ever had of moving the consciousness and culture of Iraq in any particular direction.

To the Editor:
David Brooks says countries in the Arab world do not define their national glory economically. In fact, their arrogance stems directly from the money they receive from the West for their oil.

Without the petrodollars flowing into these regimes, they would find themselves quickly at odds with their people, who anger would be pointed at their leaders, resulting in the overthrow of these totalitarian regimes.

The "grand delusion" is that we can maintain our present level of oil consumption, attacke regimes that were contained (Iraq) and talk about attacking other countries (Iran) when we do not have enough troops to maintain order in a country previously defeated (Afghanistan).

President Bush siad he was the "decider"; I see him as the "delusioner."

Brian Gallagher
White Plains, Sept. 28, 2006

Mr. Gallagher does not mention that fact that most of the arrogant, petro-fueled regimes, encourage their populations to see "attacks on Islam" coming from the West as a way to divert their energies away from home-grown political change. Everytime, the western media, commentators, authors, playwrights, etc. carelessly criticize Islam, they play right into this dynamic.

All in all, these letters indicate to me that Americans deserve so very much better from the currrent administration.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Call to Arms

The Bush/Cheney administration mishandling of the war in Iraq and the (mis-named) War on Terrorism makes me physically ill. The administration is pouring oil on a burning fire and doesn't seem to understand why the flames won't go out. I have been immobilized lately and not blogging. But I can feel my internal gears starting to shift. Because this is something I know about, I know about the Middle East, I know about Islam, I know Arabic, I know about the daily struggles of ordinary people in the region, AND I know about America, I know about party politics, and "framing issues" and, dammit, I have a sleeping baby in my lap. I have skin in this game. I want a different, better future for my family, for America, for Syria, for Iraq, for Afghanistan.

Time to write the Senators again, my own, and Chuck Hegal, and John Warner, and John McCain, and Patrick Leahy. Time to write David Brooks, and Keith Olbermann, and my local paper. It is time to say (as if it had to be said) that America should not use torture, it is an ineffective technique to again information, it hardens the resolve and desperation of the enemy and it is morally corrosive to the torturer and the society that condones it.

And time to starting blogging again.

Susan G at Daily Kos is fired up too. Billmon has a new post up even after declaring he was taking a break. The Islamic Society of North America has a new President, Ingrid Mattson. It is Ramadan, it is the middle of Jewish High Holidays, and today is the Feast of St. Michael and All the Angels. Election Day is 39 days away. Time to get back to work.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Ooh, Billmon! I'm either laughing or crying, not sure which!

Please read.

Islam 101

Over the weekend I got an email from a college friend asking about book recommendations on Islam. I teach courses on Islam in the contemporary world and have been meaning to post some recommendations for quite a while. Thanks Tony for the push.

First of all, there is no single perfect book on Islam. Islam is a major world religion with 1427+ years of history. It is a big, diverse ocean of belief, practice, experience, and history as are all the major religious traditions. You can study it for a lifetime and never exhaust the subject. I've been reading, studying, and living among Muslims for nearly 18 years!

But everyone has to start somewhere. I start my students with Emery Bogle's book Islam: Origins and Beliefs. It is a bit dry in places but I like it because it integrates Shi'a Islam into its history. It is a short yet comprehensive look at the development of Islam and Islamic history. Your average "intro to Islam" book is from a Sunni perspective. Indeed, Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims, but Iran is nearly 100% Shia and Iraq around 60%. With this administration's call for democracy in the Middle East and its implementation in Iraq, Shi'a Muslims are empowered in ways that they have not been in the modern era. We will see the implications of this shift for decades to come.

An amazing resource for getting a sense of what the scriptures and textual traditions of Islam are like is John Alden William's book, The Word of Islam.

This semester I am also having my students read Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near. I'd like to stand on street corners and hand this book out to passers-by. Shadid speaks Arabic and spent the months before and during the invasion among Iraqi civilians. It is an important book and it is now available in paperback.

Blogs and web sites are also an important resource. Look over at my sidebar. There's a reason Juan Cole's Informed Comment is on top. My advice: read it and read it daily. A year from now you will have gained a much better perspective on the Middle East, Islam, and contemporary politics.

A wonderful way to get a sense of the perspective of ordinary, moderate, modern Muslims is the web site Islamicity. Browse around. They have many articles on the history, texts, and practices of Islam. Here is a recent piece disputing the link many people make between Islam and violence. It is a valuable place to get a sense (in English) of how Muslims debate and frame these topics themselves.

More books and web sites tomorrow.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Honestly, I'm trying to avoid a lot of the 9/11 remembrance stuff going on today. I shy away from blogs with posts remembering 9/11. But baby Butter is asleep in my arms so I'm stuck in front of my keyboard . . . so I thought I'd take a moment to remember.

Peaches. My memories of September 11, 2001 are tied to peaches. Like so much of the country, it was a beautiful day here. We had the windows open and exchanged the sliding glass door to the deck for the screen door. 'Skandar was three and R was just a baby herself, 8 months old. I was home with them all day. We were building a new house and were scheduled to have a storage unit dropped off in preparation for putting our current house on the market. One of the last things DH said to me before he left for work was "if you are going to use these peaches for babyfood, you need to make it today." Overripe peaches. I was happy to add poaching and blending peaches to my to-do-list for the day.

Life seemed so full and so good. I got the kids breakfast. The house was still full of cool morning air. Blues Clues was on TV and I was on my knees chasing my crawling daughter when the phone rang. I don't remember whether it was DH or my mother who called first. "A plane hit the Trade Center?" Ominous, but interesting.

I changed the TV to CNN. I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. I couldn't get up to speed. They were re-playing footage from a local NY station of a young green reporter standing outside with a view of the towers behind him. He had been sent to report on the first plane that no one had really seen. The one that might have been a little single engine plane. As he was trying to explain to viewers what had happened the second plane appeared over his shoulder, the reporter at first thought it was an example of the regular flight paths across NYC and pointed it out to viewers. Then when it hit, disappearing into the second tower, he lost his composure and said, "Oh my God, what am I seeing?" In the passing years, I have never seen that footage again but I remember it so well because it summed up my own feelings in those first minutes of learning of the disaster. What am I seeing? I was frustrated with the cable coverage and finally realized that the networks would be covering it was well. When I turned to ABC and saw Peter Jennings, I was relieved. Peter could make it make sense to me. And he did. We kept the TV on ABC for the rest of the day and into the early morning.

By the time I got up to speed, the first tower had fallen. I called my husband at work in disbelief. (He had been on a business trip the week before, we were so gratful he was not travelling). how could the tower have come down? Then on live TV, as I was watching, still on my knees, crying aloud for the lives being lost before me, the second tower fell.

Three-year old 'Skandar complained about where Blue's Clues had gone. Trying not to cry, I told him that it was important that mommy watch the news instead. He called "mama's fire show" and went outside to play with his trains. I talked to my sister living in DC, my friend Martha, my friend Linda, my mom again. Right on time, the man with the drop-off storage unit appeared with his truck. We talked about the attack a bit outside as he unloaded the unit, the sky so blue and so clear. Then I asked him in as I filled out the paperwork and we sat together on the couch, two total strangers and watched the TV.

At some point that afternoon, I went into the kitchen and there were the peaches. Still soft and ripe, still waiting to be pureed into babyfood. It was painful to look at something so everyday and ordinary and so unchanged when it seemed that everything around us was different. I thought of all the couples whose exchanges that morning had been filled with such ordinary talk and who would never be able to talk to one another again. Babies who wouldn't know their fathers, mothers gone from their children.

Late in the afternoon of September 11, 2001 I sliced peaches and put them in the blender. I carefully poured the puree into an icecube tray and froze it. Tears slid down my face, in sorrow for everything that was different and for everything that was unchanged.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steve Irwin

After a break from blogging I alway wonder what will motivate me to start posting again. Last week Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, died. Had I been blogging daily, a post would have surely been dedicated to him. My father would have had his 70th birthday tomorrow. There might have been a post about my own sense of loss and grief. But somehow I could put those things off, mediate on them alone rather than rev up blogger.

I'm surprised and saddened that what has spurred me back to blogging is the news of Steve Irwin's sudden death. Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. His end came not from a crocodile but from a stingray in a freak accident while filming a show for Animal Planet. (Apparently the show was to be called "Ocean's Deadliest.")

I first discovered the Crocodile Hunter in 1997. I was just back from 15 months in the Middle East. Most of that time I had been living with a local family that spoke no English. They had a black-and-white tv but no sattelite dish and the parents frowned on videos (aside from a few ancient movies like Antar wa Shaddad). I had a hard time readjusting to America and an even harder time handling American popular culture. The two bedroom, two-bath apparent I shared with my husband and two cats was bigger than the house I had just been living in with as many as thirteen other people. I was lonely and adrift. And in this period, I was drawn to Steve Irwin. I have a weakness for real people doing dangerous things that they love. But those early shows with Steve and Terri and their dog in canoes at night looking for and capturing live crocodiles were magnetic. The risks they took were unbelievable, the connection between them was papable. Later that year, pregnant for the first time, I remembering telling DH that "this baby can grow up and be anything it want, anything but the crocodile hunter."

A few years later Steve and Teri had their own child Bindi (named after a crocodile). As my kids grew up, Animal Planet and Steve's shows, particularly Croc Diaries with behind-the-scenes views of Australia zoo, were a favorite destination. We even talked about some day visiting Queensland Australia to see the zoo. Zoos, animals, and animal facts and trivia are a common preoccupation among my children in no small part thanks to Steve Irwin.

And now, at age 44 with two young children, his parents, and Teri left behind, he is gone.

For a time, my brother produced celebrity profiles that were syndicated to foreign markets. He has interviewed everyone. I always affected a studied nonchalance, refusing to get excited about any celebrity, Marlon Brando, ho-hum, Bono, Paul McCartney, vaguely interesting. Only once did I get truly excited, when I learned he had interviewed Steve and Teri Irwin (as part of the media tour with the release of the Croc Hunter movie). "Steve and Teri Irwin?! You interviewed the Croc Hunter, OMG! Did you get a picture, what were they like?" My brother said that TV toned down Steve. That in real life he was ten times as enthusiastic. Talking about animal conservation, he would gesture so broadly and bounce in his seat that he kept hitting the boom mike and once even accidently knocked into Teri.

I've known a few larger-than-life personalities like Steve Irwin in real-life. They are forces of nature, trailing ideas, plans, projects in their wake. Full of passion and enthusiasm for their life's work. The world is a little poorer place when they are gone.

Steve Irwin, you will be missed. Godspeed.