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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Review: Bus 174

On June 12th, 2000, a young man boarded a bus travelling through the middle-class Rio de Janeiro district of Jardim Botânico. What unfolded over the following hours transfixed the nation, and forms the subject for the documentary Bus 174, which seeks to show what happened, and explain the background behind the events.

The young man in question, Sandro do Nascimento, was a menino da rua, a street kid, who had been living rough on the Rio streets since he was only a child. He had originally left home after seeing his mother brutally slain in front of him. Like many thousands of other young people in urban Brazil he had spent most of his life sleeping rough on the streets, begging, stealing, and mugging to survive. He was a survivor of the Candelaria massacre, an infamous 1993 incident where several off-duty police officers killed eight street kids who were sleeping rough by the main cathedral in downtown Rio. In common with other street kids, Sandro had been in constant trouble with the police, spending time as a juvenile at the notorious Padre Severiano facility before escaping, and, in common with many other street kids, he had developed a taste for drugs, particularly, in his case, cocaine.

And so he entered the 174 bus on that fateful day, armed with a pistol. What began as a simple hold-up, of the type that is epidemic in urban Brazil, quickly transformed into a hijacking, as Sandro took the passengers hostage and declared a standoff. The police soon arrived. Unfortunately, Rio's ordinary police force is woefully under-trained in addition to being underpaid and lacking in basic resources (such as effective communications equipment), and they failed to establish an effective perimeter around the bus, which meant that the major television networks were able to penetrate the police lines and get right into the midst of the action as it unfolded. What had begun as a simple robbery quickly escalated into a media circus, with over 35 million Brazilians tuning in to watch the events unfold.

To tell the story of the hijacking of the 174 bus the director of this documentary, Jose Padilha, chose to, in essence, make two separate films that were then skilfully inter-weaved. The first film is a narrative, an account of the events of the hijacking, presented through the use of stock footage obtained from the various Brazilian television networks (particularly from the Brazilian media giant, Globo TV). Padilha judiciously cut together the hours of footage into a coherent and engaging story, keeping his own narration minimal, and leaving the description of the specific events mostly to his interviewees, the hostages, members of the media, and policemen who were at the heart of events as they unfolded.

The second film-within-a-film is a theoretical work, an investigation into Brazil's persistent social and economic inequalities, as understood through the events of the short but troubled life of Sandro do Nascimento. Padilha sees Sandro as emblematic of an entire caste of people that have been rejected by society, ignored and reviled by ordinary people and brutalized by the state. Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and life is very unpleasant for those at the very bottom of Brazilian society, the street kids. Sandro's actions on the bus, his frenzied rants, his unpredictable actions, served, in Padilha's eyes, as a way of confronting the rest of Brazilian society with the uncomfortable realities that tend to be glossed over in everyday life.

This strand of the film documents Sandro's life with a forensic precision, a process that helps to underscore Padilha's points about the very real problems that Brazil faces. Of course, having spent much of his life on the streets, Sandro's background does not lead itself to easy investigation; he had experienced none of the orderly procession through school and work that would characterize wealthier Brazilian twenty year-olds. However, with a bit of digging, Padilha was able to unearth a sizeable amount of documentation tracing Sandro's progression through life, particularly from the psychological reports that are commissioned for all young people entering juvenile detention facilities. Padilha was also able to track down Julieta do Nascimento, Sandro's maternal aunt and his sole surviving relative that had kept some contact with him through the years. She had even spent a long time attempting to take custody of him when he was in the juvenile system, yet had found herself stymied at every opportunity by the Rio state bureaucracy. In one of the more poignant scenes, Padilha interviews the woman in the satellite slum of Nova Holanda who had taken in Sandro as her own in his late teenage years, and had provided him with food to eat and a roof to sleep under, as well as the sort of motherly attention that he had been so desperately searching for ever since his own mother was killed.

In filling out the details of Sandro's life, Padilha also spoke to Yvonne Bezerra, a social worker who had once worked with the Candelaria children before the massacre (and who chillingly recounts how in the aftermath a poll organized by the radio station found most respondents backing the police officers responsible), as well as a variety of his former associates from the streets, such as Rogerinho, who had also survived Candelaria and had spent many years committing crimes alongside Sandro. To further flesh out his themes of the problems of Brazilian social exclusion, economic inequality, racism (for most of the very poorest are, like Sandro, black), and state corruption and violence, Padilha also spoke to Rodrigo Pimentel, a trained sociologist and captain in BOPE, the elite special police squad, and Luis Eduardo Soares, a Rio sociologist, as well as to a variety of unconnected street kids, who simply describe the struggles of their daily lives. In order to better explain Sandro's desperation, Padilha also takes the viewer inside the Brazilian prison system, whose vastly overcrowded cells see men living in absolutely feral conditions, brutalized by beatings, torture, and abominable conditions - Padilha's point is that the horror of such places does not serve to rehabilitate, but merely to brutalize further.

After hours of the standoff, Sandro left the bus with a female hostage, perhaps hoping to escape on foot. He was immediately fired on by a member of the special police force, and in the chaos that followed, the female hostage, Geisa, was shot dead. Immediately the vast crowds of people that had gathered on the periphery of the scene descended as a mob to kill Sandro, who was pulled out of the melee by police officers, who then threw him in the back of a van and proceeded to beat him to death in the full glare of the television cameras.

In many ways, Bus 174 covers much of the same territory as the celebrated Brazilian film City of God, but unlike that film there is no hope on offer, no redemption; which is unsurprising because the demands of a fictional narrative are, or at least tend to be, different from the requirements of documentary film-making. This is not, needless to say, 'fun' viewing. It is not light, it is not frothy, but what it is is a thought-provoking exploration of both the enormous scale of Brazil's social problems, as well as what the practical impact of those problems means at the individual level. If you are at all interested in the second most populous country in the Western Hemisphere, I would suggest tracking this down.

|| RPH || 5:50 PM || |

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Wahhabis on Lockdown

Just briefly (I really need to go out), check out this blog post on Wahhabi indoctrination in American prisons. A quote:

First, the al-Haramain Foundation distributed The Noble Qur'an, translated by Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners. This translation uniquely advances a radical interpretation of the Muslim holy book through the use of footnotes and bracketed material that does not appear in the Arabic text, but rather serves an entirely "explanatory" function. An early footnote in this translation lays out, at length, the importance of jihad: "Al-Jihad (holy fighting) in Allah's Cause (with full force of numbers and weaponry) is given the utmost importance in Islam and is one of its pillars (on which it stands). By Jihad Islam is established, Allah's Word is made superior, . . . and His Religion (Islam) is propagated. By abandoning Jihad (may Allah protect us from that) Islam is destroyed and the Muslims fall into an inferior position; their honour is lost, their lands are stolen, their rule and authority vanish. Jihad is an obligatory duty in Islam on every Muslim, and he who tries to escape from this duty, or does not in his innermost heart wish to fulfil this duty, dies with one of the qualities of a hypocrite." Thus, this translation both rules out non-military interpretations of jihad by specifying that it involves "full force of numbers and weaponry) and also states that it is "an obligatory duty on every Muslim."

Even fairly innocuous verses were transformed into further justifications for jihad by this translation's explanatory brackets. Verse 2:3, in other translations, lauds those who "spend of what We have bestowed upon them." Al-Haramain's translation adds an explanatory bracket directing believers to spend this money on sponsoring jihad: "[i.e. give Zakat, spend on themselves, their parents, their children, their wives, etc., and also give charity to the poor and also in Allah's cause -- Jihad, etc.]"

As if this advocacy of jihad were not enough, many editions of this translation that reached the prisons contained an appendix entitled "The Call to Jihad (Holy Fighting in Allah's Cause) in the Qur'an," by Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, Saudi Arabia's former chief justice. That essay is, quite simply, an exhortation to violence. It outlines bin Humaid's case that jihad is obligatory against all non-Muslims. Bin Humaid explains: "Allah revealed . . . the order to discard (all) the obligations (covenants, etc.) and commanded the Muslims to fight against all the Mushrikun as well as against the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) if they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizyah (a tax levied on the non-Muslims who do not embrace Islam and are under the protection of an Islamic government) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued." His essay includes an appeal for the reader to volunteer for jihad: "Jihad is a great deed indeed and there is no deed whose reward or blessing is as that of it, and for this reason, it is the best thing that one can volunteer for. . . . [I]t (Jihad) shows one's patience, one's devotion to Islam, one's remembrance to Allah and there are other kinds of good deeds which are present in Jihad and are not present in any other act of worship."

|| RPH || 1:06 PM || |


OK, I'm back in London now, so more new content should be coming soon. Santorini was lovely, and my cousin Carmel's wedding was wonderful. I'm never dealing with Olympic Airlines again though (long story).

In the meantime, though, as follow-up to my post on what the west is, regular readers might be interested in the way that the discussion has developed elsewhere. Those in search of something more, er, controversial might find Kevin McDonald's essay on the subject interesting. I've mostly skipped through it, but from what I've seen, I think the points on 'simple families' in relation to individualism and the effects of the sexual altruism of the Medieval Church are quite interesting, but I am less sure about all the Jewish stuff, particularly the table of contrasts between European gentiles and Jews - I just don't see much evidence in terms of modern Jewish life and thought to support many of the contentions made (perhaps in the case of some of the more extreme Jewish 'community leaders', but not so in your garden variety everyday Jew). And his characteristics of (Christian) European cultural origins are pretty charitable; not 100% wrong, for sure, but an exaggeratedly good representation when set against an exaggeratedly bad representation of Jewish culture. I mean, European marriage patterns are exogamous and monogomous while Jewish marriages are endogamous, polygynous, and consanguineous? Perhaps once (although I am not really sure when polygamy was common among Jews, perhaps someone more knowledgeable on the subject can say), but now? When Jewish outmarriage rates in the United States (home to the biggest single Jewish community in the world) are, if I recall correctly, between 40 and 50%? I am just not convinced, at all. Neither am I by the dichotomy McDonald draws between Jewish and European ethnocentrisms. In the American context, certainly, I think it is hard to argue that today the public discussion of issues in terms of the narrow ethnic interests of European-American Christians is frowned upon; this doesn't mean that people don't think it. And it is particularly weird to paint this as some kind of evolutionary artifact, when it is quite clearly behavior that has been learned in the post-WWII period (and even then the question remains as to how deeply it has taken, and how much of it is just social pressure); even the most cursory pondering of the last five hundred years of European interactions with non-Europeans should be sufficient to puncture the idea that Europeans are by tradition low on the ethnic chauvinism scale.

Anyways, everyone knows McDonald has Jews on the brain, but I think the first maybe two-thirds of the essay are quite thought-provoking before it descends into his usual schtick of 'nefarious Jews turning White Christians against each other!'

|| RPH || 12:54 PM || |

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


I'm moving back to London tomorrow, and I won't be posting for a bit as I am then leaving on Friday for Greece, where my cousin is getting married. I'll be back in London on the 28th, when I will get back into the swing of things.

Before I go, though, here are some links (some new, some old) for your consideration:

A fascinating translation of an interview with Singapore's former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Fascinating on the question of China's rise and on the future of relations between the different nations of the North Pacific. He holds the quite provocative view that democracy is unworkable in multiracial societies; I'm not so sure that I agree, this opinion seems more like a post-facto justification for Lee's autocracy.

The Pub Philosopher on the warp speed migration of Somalis to Leicester over the last several years, which reminded me of a 2002 article by Jonathan Tilove on the settlement of Somalis in Lewiston, Maine (I have to admit to a certain irritation when one of the Somali leaders says one of the main reasons for choosing Lewiston was its generous welfare system).

David McDuff has linked to grim overview on the prevalence of nationalism and ethnic bigotry in Russia.

Curious about the origins of a sizeable chunk of Britain's Pakistani population? Have a read of this article about Mirpur, the Kashmiri region that was (and is) home to the largest slice of Pakistani immigrants to Britain.

Thabet from Muslims Under Progress on the difficulties of overlaying a Protestant/Catholic dichotomy on the Muslim Sunni/Shia schism.

And, finally, were humans responsible for the extinction 10,000 years ago in the Americas of megafauna such as mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers? Recent research suggests so.

|| RPH || 9:45 PM || |

Sunday, August 14, 2005

British Dialectical Variation

It's still alive and kicking:

HERE is the regional weather forecast: it’s going to be “nesh” in the southwest of England, “taters” in East Anglia and absolutely “foonert” in Kilmarnock.

All these words mean “cold” and are evidence that dialect is flourishing in this country, according to a study. The British have resisted the onslaught of television and the internet, and our language is more rich and quirky then ever before.

Dialect has even halted the march of so-called estuary English, the flat-vowelled accent of London and the Thames Valley. This was once thought to be so unstoppable that even the Queen was influenced by it.

The findings are the result of a survey by the BBC Voices project of 32,000 people around Britain. It confirmed the suspicion that many rural dialects have died out but discovered that they’ve simply been replaced by new words.

A study in the 1950s showed there were 84 different ways of saying “left-handed” in the study. Now there are 240. “People are often going on about the spread of estuary English and have wrongly led us to believe that we’ll all be speaking the same soon,” said Mick Ord, the director of the Voices project.

Instead the researchers found astonishing variation, with nearly 500 ways of saying cold, 521 different words for friend, and more than 700 ways of playing truant.

|| RPH || 4:59 PM || |

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Our Wars

Via Gene, Bartle Breese Bull on life for the 506th Infantry in Iraq: is the Fashion TV of the 3rd Platoon’s cyberlife — Bang Me and its online meat-market cousins, and They are places you can go online to see pictures of women, read what they say about themselves, and meet them or the weirdos behind the perky personas. If someone "bangs" you on, it means they like your photo and profile and want to be part of your Bang Me string. Then you e-mail each other back and forth and meet in a Wendy’s back home. Joseph Baggett, a 20-year-old Tennessee Wiccan, has a 98 percent positive response from 418 women on the site. His Bang Me portrait shows himself without his spectacles, holding erect an enormous M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon in the barracks bathroom. His Bang Me tag is "MentallySick."

The four-screen computer room is packed 20 hours a day with soldiers instant-messaging their women or parents, shopping for pickup trucks, and watching one another coax chatroom hotties into sexual -favors with lines like "Excuse me while I lock the door to my room." The wallpaper on the computers is always changing: a psychedelic pot plant, an Arby’s roast beef sandwich that morphs into a vulva, an altered Family Circus cartoon with the little blond kid pointing to his dead friend and telling his mother, "I’m Rick James, bitch." A nun smoking a bong, an advertisement for

As the soldiers surf for knives, baby strollers, old Ford Mustangs, and inflatable German nurses, their talk hangs in the room like smoke, dissipated only when someone is killed and communications are shut down for three or four days while the family is notified. Outside it could be a freezing, muddy night or a warm spring afternoon. In the windowless room the fluorescent light and the disembodied chill of cyberculture never change. "Check out this site, You can shoot the fuckin’ deer from Iraq and the company will send the meat to your family…. That’s a man, dude. That’s definitely a man…. Hey man, that slut banged me, too…. This is what I got waiting for me back home. [On the screen is a photo of a pretty four-year-old girl in a pink tutu.] Just five more months of good luck and I see my daughter. [A loud knock on wood] It’s a shame her mother is such a cunt, though…. Jesus, my driver and gunner from when I came here with the 3rd Infantry in the invasion, they just came back to Iraq, got re-deployed — they just got fucking blown up. Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ. [I hear the soldier breathing in and out through his nose for ages, behind me at his computer while I work at mine.] Jesus Christ…"

Dipping back in time, have a read of this 1996 story about the US military presence in South Korea from, I think, Rolling Stone:

A civilian employee of the Army, Public Affairs is the official source of information on relations between U.S. soldiers and Koreans and is regularly quoted in stateside newspapers and appears on CNN and NPR as a spokesman for the military. He's a heavy set, ex-military man in late middle age who doesn't seem too keen on helping me report. In fact, he seems to despise me. His attitude is basically: Reporter, shut your mouth and listen to me, there are absolutely no problems here. Anything short of th at enrages him.

Public Affairs' attitude is consistent with the army chain of command's reluctance to acknowledge any type of deviant behavior in the ranks. Every incident is dismissed as an aberration, a few bad apples. When I asked a Pentagon public affairs officer f or the numbers on crimes committed or on UCMJ actions, he tells me that's the old army, those problems are such a small part of today's military he's not even sure if they keep track of things like that. When I persist I find out that of course they do.

Public Affairs keeps me waiting in his office as he talks openly to his buddy on the phone about where to get a good Korean prostitute nowadays. He complains that some of these girls won't even touch an American guy now, preferring the rich Koreans and Japanese with their BMWs and asks rhetorically if his buddy can imagine how it feels to be snubbed by a whore.

Access to post means seems to mean listening unquestioningly to Public Affairs lecture me on Korean culture, offering "uh-huh" when he says Korean is "a completely fucked up language," "uh-huh" to "Korean women aren't used to foreigners because most Asian men have small penises."

Public Affairs insists that all the problems between GIs and Koreans are caused by the irresponsible reporting of the Korean press. In May of 1995 a large brawl broke out among American soldiers and Korean passengers on a subway train, the latest incident in a series of crimes involving GIs and Koreans. Eight months later, when the issue was still resonating in the press, Public Affairs' stateside newspaper quote was: "The American guys were giving better than they were getting."

Er, incidentally, I'm moving back to London on Wednesday (long story).

|| RPH || 10:38 PM || |

Friday, August 12, 2005

Topic for Discussion: What is the West?

As if something so complex could be unraveled in just one blog post!

I didn't want to derail this very entertaining thread on the interplay between reggaeton and dancehall (ok, yes, mostly one-way traffic I know) and the wider influences on Jamaican popular music, but one of the curious things is that, several times, there was talk of Jamaica and 'the West', as if there is an assumption that the two are wholly separate entities.

I find this interesting because this rationale is also usually extended to all of Latin America as well, that it is somehow separate from 'the West' in an intrinsic way (which is somewhat odd considering that, say, Argentina is proportionally much much whiter than the US!)

Now, of course I am not saying that Jamaica, historically and culturally, is not profoundly influenced by the remnants and ghosts of the various African groups brought to the island as slaves. Yeah, the Black Atlantic and all that. It would be completely crazy to ignore the fact of African cultural continuities. Yet it also seems foolish to deny that Jamaica has not also been profoundly influenced by British (and more generally European) cultural, social, political, and economic forms, in all sorts of ways, from big-ticket items like religion and language down to the minutiae of daily life. After all, although the rastas may be the image that comes most to mind among the average white American when contemplating Jamaica, the reality is that the majority of Jamaicans are Christians, quite often of a conservatism and doctrinal strictness that is little different from that practiced by, say, white Evangelicals in suburban Atlanta. Wayne Marshall, who is a dude of dudes, has repeatedly pointed out the impact on Jamaican popular culture of the onlsaught of American popular culture that comes with being so close (geographically, linguistically, and in some ways, culturally) to the United States.

The same can surely be said for Latin America, with the main European influence being Ibero-Catholic as opposed to Anglo-Protestant; but the important point is, these various nations are as much the children of Europe as they are of either Africa or the indigenous Americas, if not more so.

So, then, for discussion purposes, can the various 'Third World' nations of the Carribean and Latin America be considered legitimately part of the West?

What is the West?

Is it just wealthy and prosperous nations? If it is, then what then of the Ireland of forty years ago?

Is it just a polite way of saying 'countries with a white Christian majority'? Then what then of non-white minorities in nations like the United States or Britain? Are they permanently, in a fundamental way, 'non-Western'? Or, for that matter, countries in the Southern Cone of South America, all of which are Catholic majority and are mostly peopled by the descendents of European immigrants? Or, indeed, of Israel, it is a Middle Eastern country, quite clearly, but is it also part of 'the West'? (Well, yeah, imo)

Is it just 'Europe plus the formerly British settler societies'? Why are we squishy about the Spanish (and Portuguese) settler societies being part of 'the West'? Is is just the fact that they are poor and often composed of people who are not-wholly-white (which, in our one-drop obsessed minds, we see as not-white-to-any-degree, ie we'll look at the mestizo and see the Aztec, but rarely the conquistador) or is there something else at work?

So, finally, what is this beast, The West?

|| RPH || 2:18 AM || |


Today being the fortieth anniversary of the Watts Riots, some of you might be interested in this story from the LA Times, following around the Homicide squad from LA's Southeastern Division, which covers the most dangerous, gang-infested neighborhoods in the city. It's quite long, but it's well worth a read.

You might also be interested in an article from last year entitled "Infinite Ingress", about California's seemingly unstoppable population growth, and the strain it is putting on the state's infrastructure. A taster:

The Eagles were right: This could be heaven or this could be hell. But the more closely you examine California's plight, the more the heaven part looks iffy. No other state has so many residents (Texas ranks second, but with almost 40% fewer people), and no other state comes close to matching California's annual net population increase. In Los Angeles County and five surrounding counties—Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial—the population now stands at more than 17 million. That's nearly 6% of the U.S. population, one in every 17 Americans, all within a four-hour drive—if you can find four hours when the traffic isn't bad. At least 20% already live in crowded housing, and poverty levels have increased steadily for three decades. Yet during the next 25 years the region is projected to grow by 6 million.

This is not exactly a formula for a Golden State.

Most of the conversation about growth these days revolves around principles of growth management—"smart growth" in planning-speak. Schwarzenegger is heading down this road, rhetorically anyway. Smart growth emphasizes increasing density in cities as an alternative to sprawl, enabling people to live close to where they work, minimizing environmental impact, preserving open space, and encouraging public transit, bicycling, and walking rather than driving. But the discussion is always about accommodating growth, never about slowing, limiting, or stabilizing it. Mention the idea of somehow trying to limit the population and politicians react as though you have suggested that our society eat cats and dogs instead of cows and pigs. Curb population growth? The very notion is unthinkable because—well, this is America.

"How do you do it?" Feinstein asks. "Are you going to tell people not to have children? I don't think so. I have never had a single county official say, 'We have decided we want to slow growth in our county, and here's how we want to do it, and we need the federal government's help.' "

|| RPH || 12:30 AM || |

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

'Have To' and 'Should'

OK, I fully admit to being in a terrible mood when I wrote the last post. Way it goes, huh? "When crabby, don't blog". But the kernel of my irritation with the issue I flagged up from reading the article in question was, I think, fair, even if my wording was more ranting than warranted.

America offers millions of people the chance to come here and improve their lives. For some people coming here is a disaster, but for most America offers opportunities, or at least securities, that aren't available at home. In return I don't think it is unreasonable to ask those who come here to learn our language (English may not be the official language, but it has clearly played a singularly important role in integrating people into American life over the centuries, whether their last names were Helms, Conte, Chang, Ahmed, Martinez, Goldberg, etc etc etc). They don't have to if they don't want to, as we can't really boot people out for not speaking English, but they should. If someone is only briefly here, is only passing through for a few years, then it's no big deal, but if you are here to settle permanently, then really it is disrespectful to the native-born population who have allowed you the opportunity to build a new life not to learn their language. This is not just for America, but for anywhere, really. If you are settling permanently in a new country, you should at least make a fist of learning the local tongue, out of respect for your hosts.

There is a difference here between have and should. I don't think that America, or any other English-speaking nation for that matter, should restrict immigration rights only to those who demonstrate English proficiency upon arrival (which would in any case be impossible to enforce, considering the chaos on the southern border), but I do think it is not unreasonable to ask those who do come here to learn English.

|| RPH || 6:32 PM || |

Monday, August 08, 2005

Dans Les Bainlieues

Fadela Amara wants to break the law of silence which has masked the violence of the suburbs, mafia-style.

The petite woman with the narrow face and the little pig-tail grew up in a suburban housing development in Clermont-Ferrand, a working class city in the South. "We thought at the time that the French republic was going to give us immigrant children a chance as well." Freedom, equality, fraternity – France's founding principles – are still seminal terms for the 40 year old. Like many daughters of immigrant parents, she didn't enjoy equal rights as she grew up in the 1980s either, but the common commitment to anti-racism movement brought the sexes closer together. The number of forced marriages decreased and the number of female Muslim students increased. Since the economic crisis of the 1990s, however, the clocks have started ticking backwards again.

Fathers in immigrant families don't only lose their jobs when they're unemployed. They lose their authority in the family. This position is then occupied by their eldest sons who, although they may not be able to find legal employment, can provide for the family through their work in "parallel economies": car theft and drug dealing. With the authority they inherit, they are able to impose their conservative notions of religion and morality onto their social surroundings. Their spiritual nourishment comes from the Islamic fundamentalists, whose influence in the suburbs continues to rise.

For girls in the neighbourhood the message is: take on traditional female roles, dress chastely, don't go out and most importantly, remain a virgin until you marry. This unwritten law doesn't only apply to Muslim girls. The north African young men, although they constitute a minority, command the non-Islamic populations in the suburbs as well: African immigrants and lower class French.

Rebecca Hillauer "Neither Whores Nor Submissives"

|| RPH || 3:10 AM || |

Saturday, August 06, 2005


A small vignette from the fall of Enron.

Late in the evening on August 20th, 2001, a broker at the Houston branch office of the financial services giant UBS Paine Webber sent out an email to seventy-three of his clients. His name was Chung Wu. Wu, a native of Hong Kong, had arrived in Texas as a student in the early 1970's. Staying, he worked in accountancy and finance for a variety of different businesses in the Houston area before, in 1982, starting his own Houston-area chain of Chinese restaurants. In 1998 he sold off his restaurants and went to work for Paine Webber as a broker.

Three years later, working late into the night, he sent out this fateful email to his clients, all current or former employees of the energy services giant Enron, advising them to sell their shares in the firm. Only three days earlier Ron Barone, the chief Enron analyst at UBS Warburg, had rated Enron stock as a 'strong buy', saying that the value of Enron shares was "likely heading higher than lower from here on out." Chung, however, said in his email that, "(the) financial situation is deteriorating in Enron and price drops another $7.00 from last P/E report while most of the others (in the energy business) stay the same or improve...I would advise you to take some money off the table even at this point...Time is value and waiting and waiting to make a decision would cost you a fortune. For a capital asset investment we always should know the price we would sell at."

The next day the email began to be circulated within Enron, enraging many within the firm, and by that afternoon Wu found himself unceremoniously fired, prompting Enron's Andrew Brown, in an internal email, to describe Wu as "way out in left field" who "won't be bothering any more of out employees." Wu's boss, Patrick Mendenhall, apologized profusely for Wu's actions, pointing out that his views ran contrary to Barone's official forecasts, and firing Wu for sending out an unauthorized email that ran contrary to the firms official forecasts.

Of course, Wu was right, and it only took a couple of months for it to become obvious just how right he was, as Enron collapsed in breath-takingly spectacular style.

|| RPH || 10:40 PM || |

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Whither Genocide?

In response to the death of SPLA leader John Garang, Nathanael at The Rhine River has written a wonderfully eloquent post on the Rwandan genocide, that great necropolis of the modern era, and fore-runner for today's horrors in Darfur (although of course the situation in Darfur is nowhere near as horrible). He looks at Veronique Tadjo's L'Ombre D'Imana (In the Shadows of the Creator), an exploration of the difficulties of speaking about genocide in the immediate aftermath, the crushing trauma that hangs over victim and victimizer in the years following. A taste:

The people whom Tadjo gives voice have different problems. They are businessmen who want stability to restart their enterprises. They are tens of thousands of men and women who wait in crowded prisons for justice. They are the daughters of the perpetrators. They are the wives who gave themselves to soldiers to save their children. They are the children who have experienced impromptu, and unhealthy, maturation. They are people who were simply afraid. They are the ghosts of those whose bodies cannot be identified. And of course, they are the Tutsi who pretend that they are now safe among the people who would eliminate them.

An urban legend explores the contradictions inherent in reconciliation without justice. It is a story about a woman who lives with the man who killed her husband. Does he know that she saw him in the act? Does he know that she has AIDS? How can a woman sleep with such a man? Her immediate needs take precedent: she has fallen ill, and it is he who takes care of her.

A pastor returned to Rwanda to face justice. He had been charged with the care of four children as the parents went into hiding. The militiamen found the children and killed them. The militiamen threatened the pastor if he did not participate. He struck a child with a single blow, then ran away. What did he hope to accomplish by returning, telling his story, and facing the tribunal? Is he not, in some sense, a victim as well? He tells the judge, "“Let me disappear." His example raises the question about what can be achieved with justice.

|| RPH || 11:42 PM || |

American Journalist/Blogger Assassinated in Iraq

From the New York Times:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 3 - An American journalist from New York who was writing about the rise of conservative Shiite Islam and the corruption of the Iraqi police was abducted and shot dead Tuesday evening in the southern port city of Basra, American and Iraqi officials said Wednesday. The reporter's interpreter was also shot and is hospitalized in serious condition.

The reporter, Steven C. Vincent, an art critic and freelance writer who had worked in Basra for months, was the first American journalist to be attacked and killed during the war. A handful of American journalists have died in vehicle accidents or from illness.

Mr. Vincent's body was found late Tuesday less than three miles north of the city center. He had been shot three times in the chest, a hospital official said, and the body was dumped in the street. His hands were tied in front with plastic wire; there were bruises on his face and right shoulder, and a strand of red tape that had apparently been used to blindfold him hung loosely around his neck.

An officer in the Basra police department said Mr. Vincent had been working on an article about the role of policemen in the recent assassinations of former Baath Party officials.

On Sunday, The New York Times Op-Ed page printed an article that Mr. Vincent had written about the British military in Basra, in which he sharply criticized the British for allowing religious Shiite parties and clerics to take control of Basra and populate the security forces with their followers.

He wrote that a police lieutenant had confirmed that a few fellow officers were carrying out assassinations of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, apparently in revenge for the oppression of Shiites.

"He told me that there is even a sort of 'death car': a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment," Mr. Vincent wrote.

Conservative Shiite parties have strengthened their hold on Basra since the elections in January, and many members of Shiite militias have joined the police force.

You can see Vincent's blog here, and an obituary with a bunch of links to various articles at NRO here.

|| RPH || 11:50 AM || |

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Maruf Khawja on the generation gap among British Muslims.

William Dobson on why the Japanese are unlikely to succeed in their attempts to get a place on the UN Security Council.

Tara McCormack argues (quite controversially, I'd hazard) that Srebrenica and the wider Bosnian Civil War have incorrectly become morality tales in the West.

Claudia Diehl on the issue of how serious Germany's 'brain drain' really is.

|| RPH || 9:42 PM || |

Monday, August 01, 2005

Letter from Tajikistan

Note from Pearsall: My good friend Alyssa has recently arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where she is going to be spending the next month doing field research for her ethnomusicology degree at SOAS. She's sent a couple of emails that I've found fascinating, and happily enough she's agreed to let me post them in a slightly edited form. Enjoy!

July 24th

I'm in Dushanbe now, taking a break from a wedding which was really hot and they kept feeding me and toasting to happiness with yet another shot of vodka. I'm feeling a bit ill now, but I have to go back, because Nobovar, who is the man with a band here, is playing his funky stuff. Apparently it’s just the crowd pleasing substance-less boogie music (all the women in shiny red, black, and green dresses, snapping their fingers and waving their arms to the tunes) I will be traveling to the mountains in a few days to hear the real stuff, the Sufi music...

My language skills are a bit pitiful; I audited a Persian class, and Tajik is basically Persian with a few different words, and a heavy accent- I tend to understand the Pamiris who are not first language Tajik speakers either. They speak slower and more

I'm here with my friend Sarah. I'm trying to find some healing music - played by the Bahkshis, and some rubab music from the Pamir Mountains... The Pamiri people, sponsored by the Agha Khan to travel, are the culture makers here.

Before I arrived in Dushanbe, we had to change planes in Moscow, with an overnight stay. We were met at the airport in Moscow by Doulat, Hamid's (my dutar teacher's husband, who is head of BBC Central Asia Service) colleague at the BBC’s Uzbek/Russian service. Moscow is such a horrible place! Evil looking hungry dogs picking at the windfall from dumpsters, white and black crows that look like vultures, and people who seem set to fight for anything - to push you from your spot on the sidewalk, because they want to put their feet there.

Doulat lived in a two room apartment with his wife and four children. He made us sleep in his daughters' beds and his whole family slept on the living room floor for us... He was tired and strung out, but generous beyond his means. His children were awe struck, with gaping grins and "asaloms" to us.

We left Moscow after one night and a brief tour of "Revolution Station" (with its statues of men holding various guns) and Red Square. We took a Tajik Air flight to Dushanbe- the engine sounded scary, but the flight turned out to be more comfortable than the BA flight to Moscow.

Z------ and S------- from the BBC Tajik service met us at the airport in Dushanbe (needless to say, extremely small and parochial...); they booked us in at a nice hotel for a night, an old Soviet ballroom/theatre type building.

Nobovar, who speaks some English, met us the next day, and he subsequently found us an apartment, introduced us to his band, took us to the Gurminj Instrument museum set up by his grandfather, and is giving us some friends to meet in the Pamirs.

The streets are lined with huge trees, the people are beautiful and very laid back, and it is very hot!

July 29th

Today was a very good day in Dushanbe. The sun was hot, I had chronic digestive problems, our gold-toothed landlord insisted on letting the entire handyman population (and our over-familiar Pamiri neighbor sneaked in as well to smile at us as we sat bent over in agony) of Pushkin Block 30 come into our bathroom to fix our water pump, which had been broken during the aforementioned season of illness. I met my Falak teacher Umar Timur, who has agreed to exchange folklore lessons, specifically on the dutar-i-mayda, for English lessons. He invited me to an old men’s toi, which is a wedding party, this Saturday at 5:30 in the morning where he is playing. Apparently we can go and sit with the old men as long as we sit with the musicians. We spent a few hours in the Conservatory building, which was being rebuilt, the sun streaming in over the baking lot of rubble into our little un-fanned room. Umar played the tar and sang, because he had forgotten his dutar and the bow to his gidjak at home. Sarah fell asleep in the corner like a cat. We tried to make our way to the National Museum, across from the wave-shaped fountain with a very dynamically positioned statue of Lenin, swimming towards the ancient treasures, locked behind thick carved wooden doors. Instead, we went to the Bazaar, in search of moo-moos.

The previous bazaars we had been to, both near the northern edge of town, sold mostly food, cassettes, and tools. Varnas Bazaar had mountains of watermelons and giant cantaloupes, fragrant and juicy. We walked through Varnas last Tuesday on our way to find the Great Game Travel Company which I had paid to sort out my Pamir Visa while still in England. We left the bazaar, past a few burnt out cars on a rubble track next to the German embassy, turned the corner past the US Embassy (which appeared to be a giant white castle behind high wooden and metal gates), crossed the Proloterskaya footbridge, and entered a suburb of gated houses on dirt streets. A large painted image of a pipe smoking colonialist, completely out of place, indicated the tour company, which turned out to be run by a grinning Irishman; he told us that we were too late register with OVIR and would have to pay 400 somoni ($120) in fines, and my Pamir visa would be another few days.

On Monday we had been thwarted in our attempts at registering by a variety of problems, including Naghina, the daughter of Doulat, who was the associate of Hamid’s who had given us beds (his daughters’ beds while he and his entire family slept on the floor in their two room apartment- he insisted!!). We were supposed to give Naghina $50 from Doulat, and get our return plane tickets back from Dushanbe to Moscow, register with OVIR, etc… All of which failed - failure in the heat is so much more painful, because you are left panting and defeated in puddle of your own bitter perspiration, without the energy or dignity to move on. But this man at the Great Game Company claws together his existence from the funds of wealthy trekkers wanting a nice safe adventure holiday in the Pamirs with lycra-gortex brand new hiking boots and shiny four wheel drive vehicles and guides who speak perfect English - so I left the air-conditioned office feeling a little refreshed and ready for the challenge of avoiding the KGB in the Pamirs who may check our papers and chuck us out of the least it’s adventure!

But yesterday I discovered that I needn’t worry about such trivialities, as long as I have my faithful host Nobovar, a very kind and generous human being who leads a group called Shams, after the poet companion of Sufi mystic Rumi. I was given his contact details from Federico at SOAS, who lived in Dushanbe all last year, studying music and nationalism. Nobovar is the leader of the most famous band in Tajikistan, as he reiterated to us on many occasions. Before being the frontman for Shams he had been a middleweight champion wrestler, then a soldier in the civil war for two years, before he moved to Kazakhstan with his band to escape the mounting violence against Pamiris. The Pamiris had wanted to secede because after the dissolution of the Soviet government they were not getting much economic support, and there’s really no arable land in the crunchy dry and high Pamirs.

Nobovar has said many times that life was much better during the Soviet period. People in the Pamirs lived communally, without locks on the doors, and everyone had enough money, musicians were celebrated and on state pensions, and the university in Khorog flourished. Nobovar became famous at the end of the war in 1997, when he came to Dushanbe with his group (which had already been going without him for a previous 11 years under a different name, and playing only rock music) and sang a song about (something?? I still haven’t figured this out yet) in the style of Pamiri meets Sting, with the voice of a Sufi. He knows everyone here, especially in our little Prospekt Pushkin which is near the Gurminj Museum (a museum of Pamiri instruments started by Nobovar’s actor/musician grandfather) and Nobovar’s studio, his domain to the extreme. It takes about half an hour to walk down the little avenue because he is constantly stopping to place his hand on his chest and bow to the admirers and acquaintances.

When we told him of our registration problem, he was shocked, “Why did you go alone to register??? It’s ok, I will do it. It’s a big problem not to register. You will have to pay lots of money.” He took us to the city OVIR office where we waited outside with weary-looking Tajiks under a green plastic sheet overgrown with orange trumpet-flower vines, as he went inside and argued with the tourism officer. After this we went to the Republic OVIR where he somehow got into the office of the chief of tourism. The office was air-conditioned; a tv set in the corner playing Russian mafia soap operas. The chief smiled at us and revealed a mouth completely full of gold teeth. He said that we should come to his house for dinner later, stamped our passports, and let us go. Altogether the whole process of stamping and paying $35 each just to register here took about an hour. The only reason that we got away without paying a hefty fine of $600 for registering late, as Nobovar told us, was that the chief liked his song.

After registering, Nobovar took us to the Russian Cultural Center, a huge yellow mansion with white columns on the northern edge of town, with the green-grey mountains rising up in the distance behind it. He had to leave his ID card at the door before taking us inside to a large room containing a theatre with a class of dancing girls from the age of 7-14 sitting in the pews. He asked the dance teacher where the electrician was; as we left the girls clambered on stage and did thrusting hip movements, then pretended to be fishes - it was all very graceful. We went down the hallway bedecked with paintings of Russian soldiers charging through mountainous villages and the streets of Dushanbe (very odd), and then handed my defunct minidisk (whose recording function had died) into a room with three nervous looking electricians who fixed it in 2 hours. Brilliant!

So everything went well today- and that’s a taste of life here on the fourth day of experiencing it…

P.S. - here is an episode from day one:

The first evening in Dushanbe we were met by S------- and Z------ from the BBC Tajikistan. They took us to the Hotel Vaksh, a soviet ballroom construction, on
the square next to the national ballet theatre. A disgruntled old woman in a flowered moo-moo, the standard dress for all classes of women here (although some women wear Western clothing, this does not appear to be a class demarcation), gave us our $25 room overlooking gushing fountains and old drooping trees planted by Stalin 80 years ago. S------- had finished her MA in sociology at Delhi University a few years before and had gotten her post at the BBC straight away.

I asked Z------ how she started working at the BBC. I already knew that she used to be an actress. "Oh, it's a long story," she said, in perfect English, and then continued at the cajoling of S-------. "It is an amazing story. She used to be a cleaner at the office. We call her Cinderella", said S-------. "The BBC was interviewing 100 women for the post of cultural analyst," said Z------. "I was serving tea to them. I had to take the job as a cleaner. I needed money after the war, and there were no jobs in the movies anymore anyway…" She had been in films in Libya, Syria, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, and Belgium. "So, they didn’t like any of the girls, and finally they asked me. They said, ‘Hey girl, what do you know about the war?’ So I wrote them an essay about what happened to culture here. They gave me the job, and two years later, I’m running the whole BBC office here."

Still a very glamorous woman, dressed in jeans and a loose white cotton shirt, with embroidered flowers along the seams, her large black mane, loose around her face, she says she uses her well-known appeal in business. “Yes, Why not?” she says.

P.P.S. - The height of fashion: gold teeth, moo-moos, and arched monobrows- if the hair in the middle isn’t there it is painted in...

|| RPH || 4:30 PM || |