Archive for June, 2009

Applebaum on Morocco

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

It almost never fails. When a Western reporter goes to Morocco to write about the process of democratization, the resulting article will inevitably mention sartorial choices and give them positive or negative values. Jeans = good. Jellabas = bad. At Slate, Anne Applebaum visits Morocco and finds that many women “would not look out of place in New York or Paris.”

So what? What does Moroccan women’s fashions have anything to do with human rights and democracy? Under King Hassan, Moroccan women used to dress much less conservatively, but that didn’t mean that the country was a haven of human rights. Just look at what happened to women activists during the Years of Lead.

Her contention that protesters outside Parliament were “politely” waving signs is bizarre. If she had spent any kind of time, day after day, watching what happened to them, she wouldn’t be praising their politeness or the police’s restraint. The elections themselves are really nothing to write home about: turn-out was low and the results were, as usual, entirely unsurprising. If this is what she qualifies as “transformation from authoritarianism to democracy” then Lord help us all.


The Latest Coetzee

Monday, June 29th, 2009

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of J.M. Coetzee, so I’m anxiously awaiting the release of his new novel, Summertime, which won’t be out here in the U.S. for quite a while. Fortunately, the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books includes an excerpt. Here’s a little taste:

By the time he arrives for his first stint, Mrs. Noerdien and the counter hands have gone home. He is introduced to the brothers. “My son John,” says his father, “who has offered to help with the checking.”

He shakes their hands: Mr. Rodney Silverman, Mr. Barrett Silverman.

“I’m not sure we can afford you on the payroll, John,” says Mr. Rodney. He turns to his brother. “Which do you think is more expensive, Barrett, a Ph.D. or a CA? We may have to take out a loan.”

They all laugh together at the joke. Then they offer him a rate. It is precisely the same rate he earned as a student, sixteen years ago, for copying household data onto cards for the municipal census.

With his father he settles down in the bookkeepers’ glass cubicle. The task that faces them is simple. They have to go through file after file of invoices, confirming that the figures have been transcribed correctly to the books and to the bank ledger, ticking them off one by one in red pencil, checking the addition at the foot of the page.

They set to work and make steady progress. Once every thousand entries they come across an error, a piddling five cents one way or the other. For the rest the books are in exemplary order. As defrocked clergymen make the best proofreaders, so debarred lawyers seem to make good bookkeepers— debarred lawyers assisted if need be by their overeducated, underemployed sons.

You can read the full excerpt here. Summertime features Coetzee himself as a character: the novel is about an English biographer who is working on a book about the now-dead writer “John Coetzee.”


Quotable: José Saramago

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

I love Saramago’s work, and now that summer is here and I am not tied to any deadlines I have been able to indulge myself by reading those of his novels I hadn’t yet gotten to. Here is a little excerpt from The Double:

What do you do when you’re not at school, Oh, I read, listen to music, occasionally visit a museum, And what about the cinema, No, I don’t go to the cinema much, I make do with what they show on TV, You could buy a few videos, start a collection, a video library if you like, You’re right, I could, except that I haven’t even got enough space for my books,Well, rent some videos then, that’s the best solution, Well, I do own a few videos, science documentaries, nature programmes, archaeology, anthropology, the arts in general, and I’m interested in astronomy too, that sort of thing, That’s all very well, but you need to distract yourself with stories that don’t take up too much space in your head, I mean, given, for example, that you’re interested in astronomy, you might well enjoy science fiction, adventures in outer space, star wars, special effects, As I see it, those socalled special effects are the real enemy of the imagination, that mysterious, enigmatic skill it took us human beings so much hard work to invent, Now you’re exaggerating, No, I’m not, the people who are exaggerating are the ones who want me to believe that in less than a second, with a click of the fingers, a spaceship can travel a hundred thousand million kilometres,You have to agree, though, that to create the effects you so despise also takes imagination, Yes, but it’s their imagination, not mine,

Photo credit: here.


Iran’s Revolutionary Road: Beware the Echo Chamber

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

What a strange week this has been. The Mexican navy seized more than a ton of cocaine that had been stuffed inside frozen sharks, the Venezuelan government banned Coke Zero because of unspecified health concerns, and American neo-conservatives suddenly developed a pious concern for the Iranian people. Bill Kristol, for instance, wrote passionately in the Washington Post about “the brave Iranians demonstrating for freedom and democracy” and urged President Obama to “speak for liberty. Speak for America.” In the Weekly Standard, Michael Goldfarb expressed the fervent hope that the administration would “stand up and support the Iranian kids who are pleading for help as they’re beaten in the streets.” In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg begged the president to “look to the real Iranian street at the moment of its greatest need, when its heart may be open to loving America.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that these same people wanted to bomb the country. When he was on the campaign trail in 2008, John McCain responded to a South Carolina voter’s question about Iran by singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb / bomb, bomb Iran.” The neo-cons have consistently argued that Iran was a hostile theocracy ruled by a genocidal madman, and that, were it to acquire nuclear weapons, it would undoubtedly use them against Israel. Using diplomacy with Iran, they said, was utterly futile. A small contingent on the left, meanwhile, pointed out a rather inconvenient fact: it was George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that emboldened Iran and turned it into a regional power. Using force would only further destabilize an already volatile part of the world. And in any case, given the costly wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, the U.S. could ill afford to open yet another front. Engagement with Iran, they said, was necessary.

Going into the presidential elections, the neo-cons didn’t expect much because the candidates in Iran have to be vetted by the twelve-member Council of Guardians, half of whom are appointed by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and half elected by the Majlis. This essentially means that no true reformist would ever be allowed to run. A few liberals, however, were hoping that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister who now chairs the Iranian Academy of Arts, would defeat the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi is not a reformist (he served under Ayatollah Khomeini, for God’s sake), but he seems to many people to be more of a pragmatist, someone who would be more open to dialogue.

What happened on June 12 took both camps by surprise. The state-run news agency called the election for Ahmadinejad just two hours after polls closed, even though there were nearly 40 million ballots cast. Despite his lackluster performance as president, Ahmadinejad had seven million more votes in 2009 than in 2005. Furthermore, he won in Tehran (where he is reportedly unpopular) as well as in places like Khameneh (Mousavi’s hometown in East Azerbaijan) or Aligoodarz (Mehdi Karroubi’s hometown in Lorestan). Soon after, images of demonstrators brutally repressed by riot police began to filter in from the country. Free and fair elections do not usually result in popular uprisings of the magnitude we saw on our computer and television screens. It was clear that the elections were a fraud.

While the neo-cons’ calls for a muscular reaction are hardly surprising, several people from across the political spectrum seem to have joined them in demanding a louder response from the White House. Andrew Sullivan posted a steady stream of eyewitness accounts, videos, and tweets (much of which unconfirmed) over the weekend following the election. He switched the color of his blog banner to green, in solidarity with Mousavi supporters. He urged Western governments not to recognize Ahmadinejad as the victor in this election. In the Nation, John Nichols found Obama’s response to be “tepid” and “disappointing” and wished that the president would take a clue from Nicolas Sarkozy, who boldly declared that the events in Iran are “a tragedy.” (By the way, one little detail that seems to have escaped the attention of those who loved Sarkozy’s comment: he was speaking from Libreville, where he was attending the funeral of his good friend Omar Bongo, the dictator who has ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 41 years.) In the New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote that, although he had in the past argued for engagement with Iran, he felt that “in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval. ”

This echo chamber worries me, because it seems to me it could easily pave the way for further escalation and eventual military action. Which is why Obama’s cautious stance so far on Iran is the right move. At the moment, all we know for certain is that the will of Iranian voters has been obstructed and that they are letting their voices heard. The breathtaking protests we are seeing may be pro-Mousavi, but they are also just as likely to be anti-regime (in fact, I rather suspect that Mousavi is now thrust into a role he did not foresee). I hope that the will of the people prevails.

One thing is clear, however. Polls have shown that Iranians feel that nuclear weapons are a proper deterrent in a neighborhood that already includes nuclear-armed powers (Pakistan, Israel) and multiple American bases (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey.) Regardless of who will lead Iran for the next four years, the country’s nuclear ambitions will not go away.


Reading: Book Soup

Monday, June 15th, 2009

I am doing a reading tonight with Chris Abani and Rob Spillman, to help promote Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Literature. Here are the details:

Monday, June 15, 2009
7:00 PM
Reading with Chris Abani, Laila Lalami, and Rob Spillman
Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, California

The anthology includes work by J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, and many others. I have an essay in it about North African literature. If you live in L.A., come on by and say hello!


Under the Barbarian

Monday, June 15th, 2009

I have an opinion piece at The Nation about the proposed $800 million cuts to the budget of the University of California. Here is how it begins:

In the fall of 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, he famously told Fox News, “The first thing that you have to do is not worry about should we cut the programs or raise the taxes and all those things.” He did, in fact, appear to worry about these things a great deal, though he seemed consistently to reach the wrong conclusions. Schwarzenegger’s first act in office was to repeal an unpopular but highly effective vehicle-licensing fee, which would have generated $4.2 billion a year and would have helped to close the $8 billion deficit the state was facing. Because of California’s Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for any increases in tax rates, the state had very few easy options for increasing its revenue. Now, after five years of Schwarzenegger’s leadership, the deficit has ballooned to $24 billion.

And of course you can read the whole piece at the magazine’s website.


Abdourahman Waberi’s In The United States of Africa

Friday, June 12th, 2009

I have an essay in The National about the work of the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, whose most recent novel is In The United States of Africa.

Most African fiction to which English-language readers are exposed seems to be exclusively concerned with the question of “what is?” The plight of child soldiers, the Aids pandemic, life under apartheid, the clash between traditions and modernity – these subjects make up the bulk of what English-language publishers translate. One plausible explanation for this is that too many British and American publishers view African literature through the prism of ethnology. And since their primary understanding of Africa comes from headlines about the continent’s troubles, it makes sense that novels exploring these subjects would attract their attention. Perhaps this is why writers such as the Congolese Wilfried N’Sondé or the Moroccan Fouad Laroui, whose work often addresses broad themes of love, friendship and betrayal, have never been translated into English.

Fortunately, the University of Nebraska Press has broken with this trend. It recently published In The United States of Africa, by the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, a novel that seems entirely concerned with the question of “what if?” What if Africa were the world’s locus of power? What if Europe and America were the third world? How would one perceive, think and speak about each continent? Which races and ethnicities would be described with specific and nuanced expressions – and which with vague and essentialist phrases?

You can read the full essay here.




Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I quite enjoyed this post by Pico Iyer, in which he writes about his journey to a simpler life, a life of contentment.

I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

You can read his entire piece here.


New Reviews

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Gaiutra Bahadur reviewed my novel, Secret Son, for the New York Times this weekend. The paper ran a long excerpt from the first chapter. There are also reviews in the Brooklyn Rail (by Paul Charles Griffin) and in the summer issue of the Harvard Review (by Laura Albritton).

While I was in New York last month, I did an interview with Ed Champion for The Bat Segundo Show; that podcast is now available here.


Style vs. Substance

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Despite the unusually gloomy weather here in Santa Monica, I feel like summer is already here. I’m done with my book tour, I met two pressing deadlines, and my last class of the quarter at UC Riverside was yesterday. So I’ve had some time to catch up on the news and especially on the coverage of Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, most of which seemed to me to be encomiums. (And I say this as someone who likes Obama. But liking Obama and agreeing with him on Middle East policy are two different things.)

It simply isn’t true, as I’ve heard some commentators say, that this was the first time that a sitting U.S. president quoted from the Qur’an, invoked Palestine and the plight of the Palestinians, or promised to stop Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The main difference, it seems to me, was one of style, not substance. Obama brings his considerable charisma and his compelling life story to this speech. He was exceedingly careful in his choice of words and avoided any direct confrontation. Another advantage for him is the fact that people everywhere, both here in the United States and in the Middle East, are so relieved not to have to listen to the bellicose and idiotic words of George W. Bush anymore. This is why so many people paid so much attention to this speech.

One important test of this new approach, to my mind, is the settlements. Obama has already told Netanyahu that he wants a complete stop to Israeli settlements and that he won’t accept “natural growth” exceptions. If he can do that, then this speech will be remembered as a turning point; if he can’t, then it will go the way of all the speeches by the previous five administrations: nowhere.


Quotable: Maxine Hong Kingston

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Mohamed-V university, I was assigned Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I remember very clearly reading that stunning first line (“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”) and not being able to put down the book after that, despite having to reach for the dictionary so many times. That book resonated deeply with me for reasons that really didn’t become clear to me until a long time later. Yesterday, in my introduction to creative writing class at UC Riverside, my students and I discussed the opening chapter, “No-Name Woman.” This is how it closes:

The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death. Always hungry, always needing, she would have to beg food from other ghosts, snatch and steal it from those whose living descendants give them gifts. She would have to fight the ghosts massed at crossroads for the buns a few thoughtful citizens leave to decoy her away from village and home so that the ancestral spirits could feast unharassed. At peace, they could act like gods, not ghosts, their descent lines providing them with paper suits and dresses, spirit money, paper houses, paper automobiles, chicken, meat, and rice into eternity essences delivered up in smoke and flames, steam and incense rising from each rice bowl. In an attempt to make the Chinese care for people outside the family, Chairman Mao encourages us now to give our paper replicas to the spirits of outstanding soldiers and workers, no matter whose ancestors they may be. My aunt remains forever hungry. Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead.

My aunt haunts me-her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.

It was a useful chapter for our discussion of truth, whether in fiction or nonfiction.


Department of WTF

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Harper’s Scott Horton links to footage from an interview that General Petraeus gave to Fox News, in which he argued in favor of the release of the remaining photographs showing alleged prisoner abuse.  Says Horton:

Petraeus argued in favor of release, saying “Let’s lance this boil.” He feared that the damage from withholding the photos would be greater than that from releasing them, because it would fuel suspicions that the photos are worse than they are. General Ray Odierno took the opposing view, and Obama sided with Odierno, although my sources say this is strictly a timing decision, and that Obama fully intends ultimately to release the photos.

That last bit seems somewhat optimistic.  At Salon, Glenn Greenwald points out that Obama is actively supporting a new bill, sponsored by Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, called The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009.  Greenwald explains:

[This bill] literally has no purpose other than to allow the government to suppress any “photograph taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009 relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States.”  As long as the Defense Secretary certifies — with no review possible — that disclosure would “endanger” American citizens or our troops, then the photographs can be suppressed even if FOIA requires disclosure.  The certification lasts 3 years and can be renewed indefinitely.  The Senate passed the bill as an amendment last week.

If this is what the Obama administration calls transparency, can you imagine what obfuscation might look like?

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