January 2008

Tomorrow I am scheduled to teach a class on the political advice of Niccolo Machiavelli, some five centuries removed. If this noted Florentine were alive today, he would probably display an unseemly Italian gesture at the political disarray of his beloved Italy and the ineptness of the world’s remaining superpower’s involvement to his geographic Orient. Can you imagine this advice in an updated edition of The Prince: when in doubt or unwilling to act, form a study group. Just over a year ago we had the highly touted and now conveniently shelved Iraq Study Group. The media touted the prominent bipartisan members, the report was available free to the public, and the sitting President more or less brushed aside any recommendation that did not flatter him. This would no doubt please Machiavelli’s realism. He just surged ahead, sending more troops rather than admitting a flawed policy in the first place.

Each day the news media report suicide bombings, now more commonly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. For some this might mean the surge is working. But what about the surge in violence outside Iraq, especially in Afghanistan, the place it all started. Somebody forgot to form a study group for Afghanistan, but now we have it. (more…)

Saudi judge ignores Quranic rights in harsh decision over the ‘Girl of Qatif’

By Khalid Chraibi
Arablife.org, Tuesday, 22 January 2008

In a memorable scene in Ingmar Bergman’s movie Wild Strawberries, Isak, the central character, dreams that he is standing in court, waiting to be sentenced. But he has no clue as to the charges against him. When the judge declares him guilty, he asks, bewildered: “Guilty of what?” The judge replies flatly: “You are guilty of guilt”. “Is that serious?” asks Isak. “Unfortunately,” replies the judge.

The verdict in the case of the ‘Girl of Qatif’, as the incident has become known worldwide, is as bewildering to most people as the judge’s verdict was to Isak. How can a young bride of 18 who has been subjected to the harrowing experience of being blackmailed by a former ‘telephone boyfriend’, then gang-raped 14 times in a row by seven unknown assailants, be further brought to trial for the offence of khalwa and condemned to 90 lashes? How does one justify raising the punishment to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail when she appealed the first sentence?

The case had all the necessary ingredients to become an instant cause célèbre, when word of it reached the global news agencies. It received very large coverage in the media, with the verdict being criticized by commentators, politicians and citizens in all walks of life, within the region and in far away countries.

Amnesty International protested against the flogging verdict (which was also applicable to the men involved in the case), observing that “the use of corporal punishment constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” It added that “the criminalisation of khalwa is inconsistent with international human rights standards, in particular, an individual’s right to privacy.” The sentence against the ‘Girl of Qatif’ and the boy who sat with her in the car “should therefore be declared null and void”. (more…)

The Iraqi Poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

[Note: This is the twelfth in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For more information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #12

Baghdad 3/12/1960

My Dear Beloved, Adunis,

Your letter arrived a long time ago. I would have responded to it before now had it not been for the mid-year examinations and the numerous corrections of notebooks that accompany it. I work now as a lecturer and not as an employee in the secondary schools due to the dire need for English teachers. I am one of them.

It is kind of you to remember your brother who loves you immensely and who respects you greatly both as a person and a poet.

I am still of the same opinion concerning my trip to Lebanon. It will take place during the summer, God willing. Would I succeed in finding a job sufficient to sustain me, my wife and my child? I do not know. However, I am prepared to teach even if that is my least desirable wish. (more…)

By Timothy Daniels

Former President Suharto, long-time dictator of Indonesia, has passed away on January 27, 2008. He came to power during a shadowy “coup” in 1965 which resulted in the charismatic first president, Bung Sukarno, being unseated and imprisoned and in the massacre of thousands of people in what came to be known as the “year of living dangerously.” Bung Sukarno was a leader of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War era and architect of an unifying ideology (nasakom) which sought to include nationalists, religious organizations, and communists—the three main streams of the anti-colonial movement—within national governing units. US political officials viewed Bung Sukarno as a threat to the “free” and “democratic” First World and Suharto, an opportunistic lower-ranked colonel, as the military strongman to keep Indonesia under western influence. (more…)

Blast site in Beirut, left; Wissam Eid, right

Another city, another bomb, more deaths. It could be anywhere in the Middle East these days, but I am referring to a bomb that went off in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut yesterday. If you lived in Beirut you would see the devastation without media cleansing. An Arabic report is viewable at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=70b_1201323034 and needs no translation, but the BBC also has a video report at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=fc6_1201258935. For the raw footage of the aftermath another video is also on the net at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=010_1201257690.

According to the latest reports at least five people died, including Wissam Eid, a senior intelligence officer, as well as more than 40 wounded. It was shocking enough in a country that has witnessed so many bombings and bloodshed, most recently the loss of Major General Francois al-Hajj, who was killed on Wednesday by a car bomb. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has declared today, Saturday, a national day of mourning in Lebanon.

Look at the picture of Wissam Eid, posted above. Look beyond this one face to the mutilated bodies of thousands that die each year from bombs and guns, not just in the Middle East. Are there any tears in your eyes today or is this just somebody else’s problem because it is somebody else’s face? (more…)

In last night’s GOP presidential debate, hosted by MSNBC, the Huckabilly former governor of Arkansas laid an egg and he can hardly blame Chuck Norris in absentia for such a wisecrack. Asked if the war in Iraq has been worth all the blood shed, Huckabilly defended Bush’s rationale by comparing the lack of evidence in the massive search for Iraqi WMDs to an Easter Egg hunt. A colorful comment for the Late Show, but one that ultimately leaves egg on his face. Asked later about his all-encompassing religious conservatism, the Huckabilly said he even respects Americans who do not have faith (as long as they vote for him, perhaps), although he conveniently avoided looking for Mormon support. It appears that part of his weight loss may have been in his cranium. (more…)

The Iraqi Poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

[Note: This is the eleventh in a series of translations of selected letters of the noted Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. For more information on the poet, click here.]

Letter #11

My Dear Adunis, (1)

First of all, I hope you will forgive me for writing to you on this kind of paper. It is all I have in the house right now since I have just returned from night school. Perhaps you will now understand the reason why I have been tardy in responding to your letter. Working day and night does not give me any time to write.

I received the final version of your poem. I notice that you have paid attention to what I wanted to alert you to concerning the earlier version of the poem: namely, the excess use of rhymed paragraphs among those that are written in prose. Your poem that was published in the latest issue of “Shi’r” was more successful in this regard. Haven’t you seen how the versifiers have exploited free verse? (more…)

Remember the Exodus? Even if you never saw Charlton Heston part the waters Hollywood style, the story of the mistreatment of the descendants of the patriarch Jacob of Israel and their harrowing escape from the clutches of a hard-hearted Pharaoh has been retold millions of times over the past two millennia or more. In that story the more that Moses and brother Aaron demand “Let my people go,” the more the burden on the people, including the last straw, literally the last straw, in a work force up against a mud brick wall. Things got so bad that even the supervisors tried to reason with Pharaoh, but to no avail. So Moses in frustration turned to his Lord and complained in plain King James English:

And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all. (Exodus 5:22-23)

Then came the plagues worthy of a passionate Mel Gibson remake: Nile water turned into blood, frogs everywhere, pesky gnats and flies (hardly anything new, I should suspect), the heavy vegan-friendly killing off of horses, donkeys, camels and flocks, then festering boils, heaven-sent hail and fire (an interesting notion for resolving global warming), lots and lots of locusts (some of which may have been kosher), total darkness and then the ultimate weapon of killing every non-Israelite firstborn. One would think this would be enough for several movies, but the journey has not even begun. That exodus, hardly a march of triumph, would condemn the brickmakers of Egypt to forty years wandering in the desert. Where is Mel Brooks when you need him?

Yesterday the irony of contemporary politics put the exodus in reverse. (more…)

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