May 2007



[Photograph by Michael Kamber for the New York Times.]

While the news media feed on the battle between congressional democrats and the Bush administration over the war budget, the war continues day by day with no congressionally prodded end in sight. The war in Iraq also dominates the field of political play for the next presidential election, with Bill Richardson declaring his candidancy yesterday and in no uncertain terms blasting the current war policy. But in all of this the war does not really reach us. Yet it is possible to reach out and feel some of the pain of the war. In today’s online New York Times, Michael Kamber, a photographer, provides a slide show of an attack on an army unit in which an American soldier was killed. I suggest you ignore the talking heads of politicians today and see for yourself the agony of loss on a battlefield with no visible enemy. Don’t wait to see the name in the paper; absorb the context that took a life needlessly to satiate the ideological appetite of the current lame duck (pun intended) administration.

Daniel Martin Varisco

There are not as many travel accounts by Western authors visiting the Middle East as sand particles in the great Arabian desert, but the number is considerable just the same. One of the younger visitors, arriving in the British held port of Aden in 1896, at the age of 22 was G. Wyman Bury, whose intrigues and failed attempt to navigate the so-called “Empty Quarter” left him a broken man and brought him to an early death at age 46. It did not start out that way. Spending a year in Morocco, the young English lad described himself there as a “callous youth just out of his teens dropping in haphazard on a real tribe accompanied by a mission-taught Moor and a large liver-coloured pointer who had more sense than his master.” (more…)


[Illustration: Khalil Yaziji found two bodies outside his shop, al-Jazeera.]

So what is today’s top story of violence in the Middle East? Take your pick: the Lebanese army vs. Fatah al-Islam in the camps of Tripoli, a Taliban-ignited bomb exploding in a market and killing civilians in Afghanistan, an assassination attempt on the mayor of Mogadishu, six U.S. soldiers and an interpretor killed in Diwaniya in southern Iraq, more deaths in Gaza. Reading the news (I almost made the anachronistic slip of “picking up” a newspaper) today is a time warp back to the revelationary isle John of Patmos and his prophetic vials of plagues. I am not referring to an incendiary end of the world scenario spun by the late Jerry Falwell (may he rest in Baptist solitude), but the continuing hell on earth. If you think this is about religion (or democracy), think again. Remove the politics (and American involvement or influence) from each of the stories above and the religion is reduced to a drizzle.

So here is my pick of the day, one from the little guy. Al-Jazeera, which has the resources and access that Western journalists can only dream about, published a piece by reporter Laila Haddad, who interviewed a variety of ordinary Palestinians living through the nightmare of Gaza these days. It is worthwhile looking at the violence from the ground-up, a welcome break from the bird’s-dropping view usually spun in the media. Here is what Khalil Yaziji, 26 years old, a shopkeeper and banker thinks of his present and future: (more…)

When former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas visited the Persian Maku region of the Kurds in 1950, he was aware that tensions were high. “Would Russia invade?” he asked. “Would the United States ‘let’ the Kurds have an independent province or state in Persia? Would the United States help the Kurds against Russia as it helped the South Koreans?”

As an astute observer, Douglas recognized that the politics of the day were shaped by more than ideology.

The Maku region has a population as poor as any in the Middle East. A third of the people are Kurds, roaming with meager herds on poor marginal land between Persia and Turkey. Most of the rich bottom lands are owned by a few men who are not Kurds, and who live in Tehran, Paris, London. They represent the worst of absentee landlords. (more…)

What went wrong in Iraq? It seems as though it might make more sense to ask why didn’t anything go right. When Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the good news was that a brutal tyrant named Saddam Hussein had been ousted from power. For the billions of dollars thrown at modern Mesopotamia, the result is now in painful hindsight a bloody (and I do not simply mean the British expletive) mess with no good in realistic sight. The litany of bad news has morphed into a politically untenable tsunami, destroying all good intentions in its wake. One of the top stories in today’s news is the alarming rate of deaths among contractors working alongside the American military in Iraq. In the first three months of 2007 almost 150 were killed, often because they tend to be “soft targets,” but increasingly because U.S. troops are stretched thin outside the surge-happy capital. Even Chatham House, hardly a left-leaning lean-to in British politics, has neon-lighted the handwriting on the Babylonian wall with a recent report by Gareth Stansfield, who argues in a paper released Thursday that “Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation.” You know things are really bad when the U.S. military creates its own shared channel on You-Tube.

The reasons are so obvious four years after the patriotic fever orchestrated by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz gang of neocons that it almost seems trivial to keep repeating them, so perhaps the best thing is a Letterman-like line-up of the top ten real stupid mistakes made so far (it ain’t over until the fatuous voter sings) by recent U.S. foreign policy in Iraq: (more…)

The year was 1875. As reported in The Cosmopolitan (for January, 1898), the governor of New York proposed a fund raiser for the expected visitors in the upcoming American centennial celebrations. New York City’s high society was mobilized under the direction of Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton Cullen, granddauther of Alexander Hamilton and wife of General G. W. Cullen. Mrs. John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Belmont assisted in gathering 230 elite ladies and gentlemen to pose in various tableaux from “The Puritan Family at Prayer” to “Miss Egypt” shown here. Here is a nostalgic tidbit of vintage American Orientalism when the digs in Egypt were still very fresh. But for a nation that had only abolished slavery slightly over a decade before, it is clear that the race to end racism had only just begun. (more…)

[Illustration: An astronomer calculates the position of a star with an armillary sphere and a quadrant in this illustration from a 16th-century Ottoman manuscript, ART ARCHIVE /UNIVERSITY LIBRARY ISTANBUL /DAGLI ORTI]

[Note: The current issue of “ARAMCO World” has a long and well illustrated article on the history of the sciences in the islamic World. This is written by Richard Covington, an author based in Paris.]

Like astronomy, which evolved from the practical necessities of finding the directions and hours for prayers, Islamic mathematics was very much a hands-on affair at the beginning, a product of the marketplace and of the need for pragmatic legal precedents. Both algebra and the use of zero had the same end in mind—streamlining computations for business deals. Al-Khwarizmi had a hand in the development of both.

In his Kitab al-jabr (Book of Algebra)— the word comes from the Arabic word jabara, “to restore”—the Baghdad mathematician spells out his no-nonsense intent: “It’s a summary encompassing the finest and most noble operations for calculations which men may require for inheritances and donations, for shares and judgments, for commerce and all sorts of transactions that they have among them such as surveying tracts of land, digging canals and other aspects and techniques.” (more…)

As the pundits continue to pounce on Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, it is interesting to look at the sentiments of a former justice, William O. Douglas. In 1949 and 1950 this distinguished jurist visited Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Trans-Jordan and Israel. “I wanted to see for myself the power and strength of Asia and to understand the forces that brew its revolutions,” Douglas writes in the foreword to his Strange Lands and Friendly People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).

The trips were unconventional. For the most part I kept out of the lanes of tourist travel. While I saw some of the sights and visited the capitals, I spent practically all my time in the mountains and villages, traveling on foot, by horseback, or by jeep and stopping to talk with most of the goatherds and peasants I met along the way…

“The Arab world I visited – Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq – has a placid quality which makes for great charm and creates an intimate and friendly atmosphere where one finds relaxation and a reflective, contemplative mood. One learns courtesy there. (more…)

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