August 2006


This month’s National Geographic Magazine has an extended interview with the Egyptian author (and dentist) Alaa Al Aswany, whose recent Arabic novel, The Yacoubian Building, is a major bestseller.

“Just who is the Arab world listening to? Not only radical sheikhs and militant politicians. The man whose voice has captivated the Arab public is a Cairo dentist by day and a novelist by dawn. Alaa Al Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building is a phenomenon—the best-selling novel in the Middle East for two years and the inspiration for the biggest budget movie ever produced in Egypt. The novel paints a poignant and uncompromising picture of life in modern Cairo, as seen through the eyes of a carnival of characters—from the richest and most powerful to the poorest. An outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime and a friendly, self-effacing man, Dr. Al Aswany studied dentistry, and the American way of life, in the U.S. He has a humanist’s love of pondering what makes people do what they do.”

To read the interview online, click here.

The recent battle between the IDF and Hizballah, following the civil war in Iraq that everyone but President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki recognize for what it is, has overshadowed the unabated genocide in the Darfur religion of Sudan. A recently released report by Amnesty International notes:

“Eyewitnesses in al-Fasher in North Darfur are telling us that Sudanese government military flights are flying in troops and arms on a daily basis,” said Kate Gilmore, Amnesty International’s Executive Deputy Secretary General. “Displaced people in Darfur are absolutely terrified that the same soldiers that expelled them from their homes and villages may now be sent supposedly to protect them.”

Darfur is not a part of the daily news, although it is a far greater humanitarian crisis in terms of lives lost than all the other conflicts combined. The genocide there is not very newsworthy, no tanks for a reporter to get embedded, no public relations handlers as in the case of Hizballah. It is almost impossible for anyone from the outside to report the conflict there and increasingly aid workers like “Doctors without Borders” can barely operate.

There are a number of organizations (e.g., Darfur Advocacy Fund) devoted to stopping the genocide. One of the main problems is raising consciousness. If you would like your’s raised, try the video game “Darfur is Dying.”

For a brief video introduction to the tragedy, click here.

Daniel Martin Varisco

One of the top stories in today’s New York Times is called “Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art.” This has all the media makings of another blown-out-of-proportion cartoonnami, especially since the exhibit was concocted by an Iranian newspaper (Hamshahri) in direct response to the Danish cartoons about Muhammad. Add to this the fact that more than 200 cartoons (of the 2000 plus submitted) are displayed in the Palestine Contemporary Art Museum in Tehran. So is this artistic tit for tat or just another op-ed tempest in a samovar? (more…)

If you have not yet come across the blog “Baghdad Burning” by an anonymous Iraqi who calls herself Riverbend, you should check it out. She is not able to post everyday, not so surprising given the state of affairs in Baghdad. But her blog is a rich personal perspective of living through a war-torn country as it continues to spiraling into nonsensical hell. Her earlier posts have been published in a book and now there is a play based on it being performed in Scotland. Here is a recent post from her blog.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Summer of Goodbyes…
Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words “Leave your area or else.” The culprits behind these attacks and threats are Sadr’s followers- Mahdi Army. It’s general knowledge, although no one dares say it out loud. In the last month we’ve had two different families staying with us in our house, after having to leave their neighborhoods due to death threats and attacks. It’s not just Sunnis- it’s Shia, Arabs, Kurds- most of the middle-class areas are being targeted by militias. (more…)


[”Cease Fire” by Samuel Bek]

Wars are never won until they can be relegated safely to the history books. The recent Israel/Hizballah flare up is no exception. The spin masters are at work with both the main proponents claiming victory. Since Israel for the time being maintains 30,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon, continues to dominate the sky and has not yet ceased its sea blockade of Lebanon, the winner should be obvious. With the deployment of UNIFIL and Lebanese troops to replace the IDF, the goal of stopping Hizballah military muscle would seem to be on target. But Israel’s latest reaction is the kind that the term “Pyrrhic victory” (closely following the Bush administration’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq) seems destined to define. The Katusha rockets will no longer thud aimlessly into northern Israel, but then there were hardly any being shot before Israel invaded. (more…)


“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso, 1937, left; John Donne, right

In four weeks of fighting, since the Hizbollah raid of July 12 on an Israeli military outpost, what started out as an apparent effort to retrieve two captured Israeli soldiers has escalated into a nightmare for all involved. According to the BBC, as of August 8 the results are predictably ugly, with Lebanon taking the brunt but Israel also suffering greatly:

Deaths: 998 Lebanese, 102 Israeli
Injuries: 3,493 Lebanese, 690 Israeli
Displaced: 915,762 Lebanese, 500,000 Israeli

If this were a movie, it would be a smash hit, since it has killed more than twice as many in the nearby Iraq War during the past month. Of course, the death toll in the latest Israel-Lebanon war has a way to go until it reaches the estimated 40,000 plus Iraqi civilians who have died since the U.S. invasion. And there must be another 149,000 deaths to equal the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), which also had Israeli involvement. It is even a steeper climb to match the estimated 400,000 victims in Darfur.

So how should we read death tolls? What do such lists account for beyond the obvious fact of people not dying of natural causes (unless you think war is natural)? Here is an experiment you can try on your own. Check out the war death tolls posted at Wikipedia. What is your first reaction: to look for the largest losses or to count up the total losses? Of course I can’t find any information on the number of people who have died from peace, even on Google.

As John Donne told it awhile ago,

“Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Daniel Martin Varisco


[Illustration: “Tyre, from the Isthmus” by David Roberts]

The Lebanese port city of Tyre has seen the wrath of the IDF. Many villagers fleeing the unrelenting bombing in the south fled to Tyre as a safe haven, only to find that the leaflets dropped from the sky lied. There is no peace in Tyre. Perhaps the message dropped should have been purely biblical, Psalm 83 for example. Most Christians in American can recite a line or two from the 23rd Psalm, the idyll of the good shepherd and a message of hope. It is oft read from the pulpit. But when was the last time you read Psalm 83. (more…)