Kings & Cabbages

The Alice of Counter Revolution: Tom MacMaster’s Gay Girl in Damascus Blog

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The White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts

From February to June of this year, 40 year-old married American student Tom MacMaster published his Gay Girl in Damascus blog with the ambition of “being celebrated as the unlikely voice of Syrian revolution.”  Apart from a mild scolding for his duplicity, the media has dismissed the case as a species of oddity variously described as a freak of vanity to the typical fascination nursed by white heterosexual men for lesbianism. After a remarkably self-serving mea culpa penned by MacMaster, the blog has been shut down, slated to disappear like the White Rabbit plunging down into Wonderland.

However, the Rabbit ought to be examined before the debris Internet oblivion entirely swallows him up. The timing of the blog’s run, during the cresting and waning of the Arab Spring, is an interesting one, especially considering the US State Department’s tactic to use social media in order to steer the events away from an Islamic outcome and towards a Middle East sporting “beer and bikinis”, as the title of a New York Times article once put it. In the mandate of the Pentagon and its European satellites, the Middle East they desire is a moveable feast of resources and veritable playground of pleasures, and it simply cannot be dispensed with.

Gay Girl profiles such sleeper issues calculated to the reroute self-representation away from the Muslim street. MacMaster crafted a half-Syrian, half-American avatar: Amina Arraf, an openly gay Syrian woman who decided to blog as “a way of being fearless.” Lifting the classic feminist formula of the personal equals the political, MacMaster linked Amina’s decision to come out of the closet with the political protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.  “I believe that if I can be ‘out’ in so many ways, others can take my example and join the movement,” he wrote in a post. Gay Girl in Damascus aimed to provide political commentary on Muslim politics—Amina described her family as well-connected with parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been anxiously monitored by the US and Israel since the Egyptian uprising.

An MA student at the University of Exeter, MacMaster’s blog played up its persuasiveness by displaying knowledge of the regions’ complex political geography, and a willingness to make the necessary anti-imperial gestures. In the “My Father, the Hero” post that first vaulted A Gay Girl in blogosphere celebrity, MacMaster manufactures an incident where state security forces come to question Amina and are driven off by her indignant father. “She is not the one you should fear; you should be heaping praises on her and on people like her,” supposedly declares the father to the security forces. “They are the ones saying alawi, sunni, arabi, kurdi, duruzi, christian, everyone is the same and will be equal in the new Syria: [t]hey are the ones fighting the wahhabi most seriously.”

Tom MacMaster and Britta Froelicher

MacMaster’s wife, Britta Froelicher, is a student of Syrian political and economic affairs at the University of Andrews, and she undoubtedly had a close connection with the Amina project. Some photos of Syria on the Gay Girl blog were traced to her Picassa account, and MacMaster admitted that “[s]he is extremely knowledgeable and obviously a great consultant for such a project” even as he contradictingly insisted that he “was the sole author.”

Through Arraf, Macmaster advocated the embrace of a gay lifestyle that was entirely compatible with Islam. “I consider myself a believer and a Muslim: I pray five times a day, fast at Ramadan and even covered for a decade,” MacMaster wrote. “I believe God made me as I am and I refuse to believe God makes mistakes.” At the same time, “her posts vividly describe falling for other women, finding a Damascene hair salon full of gay women and having a frank conversation with her father about her sexuality,” as described by The Guardian. “For my family it is a preferable outcome than a promiscuous heterosexual daughter,” Macmaster joked at one point.

Arraf’s blog won glowing praise from Middle Eastern gay activists like Sami Hamwi, editor of the online website, and media outlets like Time Magazine, which blazoned its tributary article with the title, “Lesbian Blogger becomes Syrian Hero.” After MacMaster was “outed” by online journalists like The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, MacMaster defended his choice to use a lesbian persona by saying that he was motivated “to develop my writing conversation skills … I liked the challenge.”

Of course, while MacMaster denies sexual titillation plays any factor in the decision, he was unable to adequately explain why he carried on a romantic email correspondence with a Canadian woman called Sandra Bagaria who believed herself to be involved with Amina. And if Britta Froelicher also “consulted” on the emails, Bagaria might be even more discomfited by learning that she was involved in psychological three-some.

Even as MacMaster’s mea culpa frames the blog as an exclusively personal exercise, there is really no need to separate individualistic ego-stroking and erotic gratification from the broader political project of assisting the state-sponsored counter-revolution to defang the Middle Eastern revolutions. From the Iranian election onwards, when the Hilary Clinton urged Green Revolution supporters to tweet on the State Department feed, the United States has worked to covertly transform social media from a platform of collective organization that can be inconveniently used to topple a Mubarak or Ben Ali, into a vast optical eye that will monitor, stoke, and disorder the disenfranchised publics of the Middle East.

An exquisite example is the Obama’s administration’s efforts to develop “shadow Internet” and mobile phone systems that will operate even after the a state decides to shut down the network, in order to easily mid-wife regime-change in governments resistant to US policies. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” wrote Hilary Clinton in an email on the subject. The initiatives include furtive cell phone networks in North Korea, $50 million cell phone towers erected on US military bases in Afghanistan that the Pentagon hopes will resist Taliban sabotage, and a $2 million “Internet in a suitcase” project. In short, the edgy, avant-garde voice for social change is to be colonized through James Bond-esque technological gimmicks.

Of course, the how-to for hijacking governments, political parties, and social movements doesn’t simply involve hardware. There is also a soft-porn content to counter-revolution—the attractive White Rabbit is revealed to be an emissary of the militaristic Queen of Hearts who can only punctuate her interactions with “off with their heads!” Laying aside their duplicities, contradictions, and secrecies, the question of whether or not MacMaster and Froelicher were on an intelligence payroll is besides the point. What is clear is that they eminently fit within a swirling atmosphere of political desperation that is struggling to wrestle the aspirations of the Muslim world to the ground.

MacMaster’s Gay Girl in Damascus is about mastery—there is a certain desire to have the manufactured homosexual identity become the masthead for anti-government protest in Syria, where US-led insurrection is mimicking and blurring genuine demonstrations for political freedom from the ground. In pixilated stage-rooms, militant secularism at odds with the deeply feared Islamic politics is yet another fault-line to be massaged, along with race, tribe, class, and ethnicity, in order to detonate the population into demographic splinters. Gay Girl preened the liberal ethics of self-determination in the face of a patriarchal state, but is revealed to be the poster-guy for a US patriarchal war machine gone amok. It’s like General Patton in drag.

Demonstrations in Syria

Hamwi bitterly criticized MacMaster for fogging live efforts on the ground within the vortex of Syrian politics. “I say shame on you!!!” he wrote. “There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country.” The feminist critique applies here, as well. Even as corporate and government bidders can randomly raise the profiles of certain websites, irrespective of its value to the public, Gay Girl’s “independent voice” masks the experiences of Iraqi women refugees in Syria forced to become burlesque dancers to entertain Gulf sheikhs holidaying for dirt-cheap gratification. While the fictional Amina Arraf can become a celebrity, widows and orphans contending with the war brought to their doorsteps yet again, remain nameless and story-less. So much for democratizing power of the Internet.

Counter-revolution works by mimicking revolution in order to eventually suffocate it. Since the Middle Eastern conflagrations, US cowboy policies have been painstakingly hidden behind support for social media activism and personal expression. The psychedelic Wonderland of the world wide web is sufficiently grafted to the military industrial complex that an artificial, alien voice can come to eclipse flesh and blood identities struggling for public expression. Calls for a Facebook or Twitter revolution in the Muslim world are an aporia, especially considering who the shareholders and board members of these multi-billion dollar companies are. In short, to channel Gil Scott-Heron’s famous anthem—don’t expect the revolution to be televised.

Written by Kings & Cabbages

June 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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Reviewing Manning Marable’s New Biography on Malcolm X

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable. Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2011. Hardback. $30.00

If you are familiar with Malcolm X, the Muslim civil rights activist who was assassinated in February 1965, it is a safe bet that you know him through The Autobiography of Malcolm X published by Alex Haley or the Spike Lee film. The starting premise of a new biography by Columbia professor Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is that those two famous sources are compelling works of narration rather than fact. His densely researched biography hopes to occupy the gap between myth and legend, using newly available archives to flesh out the charismatic figure who still manages to arrest generations beyond the grave.

Before reviewing the biography itself, it should be noted that the irony of life imitating art proves true for Marable’s own life. Devoting a book on a man who famously raced against time to develop into a leader with transcontinental appeal, Manning himself succumbed to his long-standing lung condition three days before the April 4, 2011 book launch. Marable is one of the most prominent academics of African American and race studies, having written and edited 24 books. His colleague, Princeton University’s Cornel West, calls Marable a “grand radical democratic intellectual.” Like the Autobiography itself, Marable’s decade-long project is now poised to take on a posthumous life after the author’s passing. A Life of Reinvention has received mostly positive reviews, and is making a significant intervention in Malcolm X’s reception in public and scholarly circles.

While Haley’s Autobiography is a compelling text on many levels, Marable stresses that it is a work of representation emerging in collaboration between two very different men. Firstly, Malcolm condenses events from his past for narrative coherence, changes names to protect confidentiality—and hides a few skeletons. Haley’s own slant on the story must also be considered. Marable takes issue with Alex Haley’s efforts to show Malcolm X as becoming more “integrationist” with the US system towards the end of his life, a reflection of the writer’s own liberal Republican beliefs.

Haley held no sympathy with Malcolm’s political conviction that the system must be challenged, but was fascinated with him as an African-American “demagogue.” The friendship between the two men indeed generated a “powerful book,” as Haley calls it, but it is a fact that Haley retained significant editorial control over the work. Case in point, Malcolm X wasn’t allowed to revise his earlier chapters on Elijah Muhammad after the split because Haley believed it would mar the book’s “dramatic impact”.

Marable’s research benefits from additional archives available to him: newly released FBI documents revealing the extent to which they infiltrated the Nation of Islam (NOI) and other black organizations, and the scale of their surveillance against Malcolm; interviews from top-level members of the Nation, including current minister Louis Farrakhan that reveal the dynamics between Malcolm and the NOI before and after the split. Also to note is that as a radical black scholar, Marable places strong emphasis on the growth and development of Malcolm’s politics, and the role played by Islam within his political evolution. These elements were downplayed in the Autobiography, perhaps because Haley was not really interested in either.

When narrating his beginnings to Haley as the NOI’s star minister, Malcolm tends to overemphasize the lowly condition from which he emerged, in order to emphasize the transformative power of the Nation. Marable capably describes the formative impact of his childhood, particularly the influence of his parents and their Garveyist beliefs. Louise and Earl Little were a politically aware couple drawn together by a common interest in social justice. Both were devoted followers of Marcus Garvey, the early 20th century Caribbean reformer who advocated that African Americans must uplift themselves through self-pride and the necessity for blacks to establish their own businesses and institutions. Malcolm’s desire to align himself with Asia and Africa during and after his tenure with the Nation of Islam, and his profound belief in black self-determination derived in great measure from Garvey’s belief that blacks should separate themselves from whites and return to their native lands where they could uplift themselves as “mighty race.”

The chapters on Malcolm’s childhood place strong emphasis on his relationship with his parents, and the repercussions they would have on his personal and political life. Malcolm would accompany his father to various Garveyite advocacy meetings, while his mother taught her children language skills by making him and his siblings read aloud Garvey newspapers. Louise, a beautiful Grenadan woman fluent in both French and English, even taught her children the French alphabet. According to Marable, Malcolm’s lifelong fascination with words can be traced back to his mother.

Louise’s nervous breakdown, following Earl Little’s murder and her attempts to hold together her family for years in an antagonistic white community, had a powerful impact on her precocious child. His shame at her mental illness, coupled with his relations with an Armenian white woman called Bea Cargulian (Sophia) with a fetish for black men, implanted a strong distrust of women after he became a NOI Minister. (In the Autobiography, he famously tells Alex Haley that “all women by their nature are fragile and weak” and that he only trusts his wife Betty 70 percent).

A Life of Reinvention is perhaps most engaging when describing the pre-NOI years, when Malcolm went from “Sandwich Red” who would play the buffoon as expected by whites of blacks to behave on his railway job, to the “Detroit Red” making his mark as a hustler, gangster, thief in the colorful black underworld of Boston and New York. Marable brings in contemporary African American scholarship on the idea of “performance” or self-invention to illustrate the underlying motif of the book: Malcolm remaking himself over the course of his life from the trickster in African American folktales to the speaker or truth-sayer, creatively integrating the narratives he was familiar with from the African American community with new ideas and beliefs encountered on the global stage.

Marable describes the impact of music in the jazz clubs frequented by Detroit Red on the transnational activist Malik El-Shabazz. Gifted with an excellent tenor voice, Malcolm “[came] into maturity during the big band era.” He picked up on the “cadence and percussive sounds of jazz music, and inevitably his evolved speaking style borrowed its cadences” (p.91). The widely storied charisma that he unleashed in verbal delivery was first trained in Harlem’s jazz and entertainment clubs.

Marable also illustrates that Islam was part of the national landscape while he served as the NOI star minister, and that his exposure to Islam was a fundamental catalyst driving him from the Nation and towards political activism. The Ahmedis already had a large presence in the United States, and despite his own deviations, Elijah Muhammad also saw the Nation as part of the broader Muslim ummah, calling African Americans “Asiatic blacks.”

In addition, the Nation, in the years following Malcolm’s national prominence, hosted diplomats visiting New York from a number of Muslim countries. A network of scholars, diplomats, and foreign students studying in the United States advised the NOI to move away from its racism to Islamic universalism. Elijah Muhammad was unwilling to abandon NOI mythology due to the status and wealth that his position as self-proclaimed ‘Messenger of Allah’ brought him. Malcolm would not initially, out of personal loyalty, contradict the ideology (including the bizarre Yacub myth) of the man he credited as opening for him a new life.

Marable generally displays a solid grasp of Islamic aqeedah in navigating the differences between NOI and Islam proper, thanks in large part to the input of Columbia graduate student Zaheer Ali. The Nation attracted a number of African Americans and Malcolm himself through its Garveyite call for blacks to separate from exploitative economic and social structures run by whites, and to lift themselves and their community by supporting Nation businesses. However, this soon translated into extortion for the sake of enriching Elijah Muhammad—Temple officers were told to pressure individual members of the Nation from selling as many as 150 copies of the Nation newspaper Muhammad Speaks, at the threat of excommunication or worse.

Marable illustrates how brutal the organizational machinery of the Nation grew over time. In order to maintain power, the Nation relied on keeping its members separated from the world. Malcolm, however, couldn’t separate himself from the real world predicament of blacks facing against a racist society, which paved the way for the point of no return. The Fruit of Islam, the black militia formed to protect Nation members, began to harass, brutally beat up, and even kill members suspected of resisting Nation authority. The book describes the dynamics of Malcolm’s relationship with key NOI officials and captains, illustrating the networks from which he gained his most bitter enemies and devoted supporters following the NOI split. These include Joseph Gravitt, captain of the Fruit; Benjamin Goodman, his faithful supporter; and Louis Walcott (later Louis Farrakhan) who he mentored, only to see him occupy his position in the NOI. The final chapter looks at how US law enforcement agencies and antagonistic members of the NOI might have worked together in his assassination.

As a Life of Reinvention makes clear, Islam was a catalyst for Malcolm’s political beliefs, not just the endpoint. The insular strands of Malcolm’s Nation thinking would inevitably conflict with his growing savvy in mobilizing the black street, his increasing solidarity with Asian and African countries undergoing anti-colonial struggles, and his contact with both Islamic globalism and other colleagues in the civil rights movement. Elijah Muhammad had made hajj and his son, Akbar Muhammad, had studied Islam at Al-Azhar, signposting the journeys that Malcolm himself would take in one of the most distressing periods of his life.

Islam and his deep-rooted Garveyism worked together in encouraging him to craft an internationalist platform for justice. And Marable shows that while Malcolm pilloried figures like A. Philip Randolph, the black labor leader, as integrationist Uncle Toms, he also worked closely with some of them. Randolph appointed Malcolm to his Working Committee for Unity in Action, while he was a Nation minister; and according to Marable, the two men shared a strong respect for one another.

The book also pays attention to his interactions with the media and analyzes his speeches, charting his rise as a national figure. As Malcolm increasingly engaged with the civil rights movement, he began to shape it—delivering speeches to black activists and college students, he began to electrify young activists, including members of the Black Panther Party and the SNCC, influencing them towards militant grassroots mobilization against unjust power rather than working with the system at the top. After embracing Islam and broadening his platform of activism to the Pan-African world, he became a magnet for young activists wanting to contribute to issues, especially bright women. These included the famous poet Maya Angelou, who helped organize his visits to Ghana and who moved to Harlem to work with his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) the weekend before his assassination.

The book spends time sketching out his two trips to the Middle East and Africa before he was killed, illustrating the extensive network of contacts he built. Malcolm developed political connections with heads of state, like President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He visited and gave lectures in Beirut, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Lagos, Egypt, Kuwait, Zanzibar, Tanzania and other locations, where he also wrote articles about US racism in newspapers and developed an international network of relationships with students, intellectuals, and leaders.

This meant that when Malcolm began to mobilize foreign governments to charge the US before the United Nations for violating African Americans’ human rights, he actually began to have the clout to pull it off. Marable also describes how he built a strong affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, first establishing contacts with their Beirut branches and then engaging with their Cairo center. Malcolm studied Arabic for several months in Cairo, and received religious instruction from the Brotherhood. He corresponded with Said Ramadan. His ties with Cairo and Saudi Arabia resulted in his being appointed the World Islamic League’s U.S. representative, and being awarded thirty five fellowships for students interested in studying Islam abroad.

But even as he developed spiritually and politically, he had yet to educate his fledging organizations, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and OAAU to follow the new direction. “Malcolm’s great strength was his ability to speak on behalf of those whom society and state had denied a voice due to racial prejudice,” writes Marable,”[h]e could now see the possibility of a future without racism for his people, but what he cold not anticipate were the terrible dangers closest to him, in the form of both betrayal and death.” (p.520) Marable also speculates that as Malcolm learned more about Islam, he may have been inspired by the story of Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, in making “a conscious decision not to avoid or escape death.” (p. 430) The final chapter attempts to engage in detective work surrounding his assassination, but it is perhaps not as successful—it tends to get bogged down in minutia and micro-details rather than laying out a comprehensive picture for the reader.

There are some decided flaws in the book. The first is that it is too heavy on facts without setting them within an analytical framework. At times, it reads like a chronology of events that the reader is obliged to slough through. There are illuminating revelations about Malcolm X, but the author makes a few speculations about his personal life that cannot be backed up by evidence. For instance, he uses a rather vague diary entry by Malcolm to suggest extramarital relations with a woman called Fifi had taken place while he was touring Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Marable also portrays a strained and ultimately, unhappy relationship between Betty and Malcolm. Readers are given a look into the hardship and loneliness borne by Betty, who married a man living the life of an inveterate traveler and who was away for longer spans of time than he was present. These observations certainly have weight. However, Ilyasah Shabazz and other children have portrayed a different kind of relationship that may not register in a researcher’s field notes. Also, Marable’s interviews with protégé and later rival, Louis Farrakhan, while useful for sketching out Malcolm’s relationship with the NOI, should not be taken as an authority when describing his personal life and character.

Overall, A Life in Reinvention displays intensive research and admirably fills in the gaps that must be present in any autobiography. It skillfully sets up the social and political context for the events in Malcolm X’s life. The book places a much-needed emphasis on politics rather that just personal history, and shows the catalyzing influence of Islam on the extraordinary activist. Marable is sympathetic towards Malcolm and his causes of militant organization and Pan-Africanism, which benefits his scholarship. A Life in Reinvention redresses the slant of other biographies that tend to focus on scandal and sensationalism in order to denigrate a figure still viewed as controversial. Certainly, there are weaknesses in narrative power and dramatic intensity that the Autobiography captures so well. There are also a few interpretations that seem more speculation than fact. Marable’s swan song should be seen, not as a replacement for the Autobiography, but an important supplement that helps round out the life of a man who still seems compelled to speak beyond the grave.

Written by Kings & Cabbages

June 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

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Donald Trump Plays Hard Nosed Presidential-Shark to G.W. Bush’s Cowboy Gunslinger

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Donald Trump, billionaire businessman and celebrity personality who hosts reality shows like The Apprentice, has recently announced himself as a Republican candidate for the 2012 Presidential election. As a Republican candidate, Trump has already passed the litmus test of Islamophobia by appearing on the 700 Club and declaring that “we have a Muslim problem.” He is currently leading the pack in a preliminary popularity poll of Republican candidates. Aye, polls and the hand of fate work in mysterious ways.

Donald, America's Savior?

Of course, the unwritten rule for every Republican candidate trying to reach out to the Bible belt is to tar American Muslims as a virulent domestic threat. Liberals who declare that the US stands for freedom of religion and that racism is against the Civil Rights Act enshrined in the US Constitution are unpatriotic namby-pambies. “We’re so politically correct, the country is falling apart,” Trump bemoans. For Donald Trump, “we” absolutely have a Muslim problem: “Look what’s happening. Look what happened right here in my city with the World Trade Center and lots of other places. . . I didn’t see Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center.” Donald Trump believes in absolute profit and no less, so it’s providential that he didn’t experience any blowback in airing his views of Muslims. “It was very interesting,” he said, “I thought that was going to be a controversial statement . . . but actually it was very well received.”

In Trump’s world, personal belief doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with actions and lifestyle. Trump’s well-documented excesses and his amorous conquests smoothly mesh with him being a devoted Bible man. As per Trump: “I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing.” Who knew that Trump was the reincarnation of a Jamestown colonial immigrant, who fervently believed in the credo of God, glory, and gold? For The Donald, though, who is inordinately fond of getting photographed around the yellow-hued metal that seems to setoff his Cheetos-tan, the order in which the three are ranked might be anyone’s guess.

Even though he notes that “he is not an expert in the Koran,” he doesn’t hesitate to condemn the scriptural revelation followed by a quarter of the world’s population. “[T]here’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe,” he confides to the 700 club. “I mean things are happening, when you look at people blowing up all over the streets that are in some of the countries over in the Middle East,” expounds Trump, “[t]here’s a lot of hatred there that’s [coming from] some place.” Are The Donald and Peter King golfing buddies?

Trump is hoping that his “bluntness is success” TV persona will provide the antidote for a public tired with a gutless and wishy-washy President Obama. In outlining his foreign policy positions, he projects a tough-talking New York mogul with a sense of entitlement reminiscent of G.W. Bush’s silver-spoon fed cowboy gunslinger. Trump declares that he would force China to currency manipulation or face a 25 percent tariff on all exports to the United States, and that “OPEC oil-producing nations would have to drop the price of a barrel or oil to $40-50 or face America’s wrath,” as Reuters puts it. Donald Trump also complains about providing free security to Saudi Arabia and South Korea, and announces that a dollar tag would henceforth be placed on American military protection.

Arab and Muslim populations sick and tired of the American military bootprint would of course welcome the idea that the laser guided missiles raining down on them would no longer be gratis and would jump at the chance to ask the Pentagon to close shop and high tail for home. While Donald Trump gets show-business, he may not understand the military-industrial complex enshrined at the heart of the US economy. What if in Trump-esque world, Muslims could choose whether they wanted US military on their soil? Then, its no guesswork that the lavish lifestyle afforded by the teetering US economy to the 1% of the population to which he belongs wouldn’t survive the week.

Written by Kings & Cabbages

April 13, 2011 at 10:30 pm

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Libya and Bahrain are Accelerating the Decline of the Middle East as a US Satrapy

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The most self evident fact about the Middle East Revolutions—fanning outward from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and goodness knows, what other country—is that things will never be the same. For one, Israel is experiencing an existential crisis that is altering its perception of easy hegemony in the region. As Daniel Levy notes in a Haaretz op-ed,

Indeed, whether by design or not, the peace treaty with Egypt ushered in the era of the Israeli “free hand” in the region. Even though it has not delivered real security and has encouraged an Israeli hubris that can be both dangerous and self-destructive, that era of hegemony is something that Israelis are instinctively uncomfortable about losing.

Meanwhile, the US has lost critical face in the region, torn between its rhetoric and its cold, hard need to preserve hegemony in a region on which its economy depends. Losing power is rather a cyclical process—when you lose power, you are perceived as weak; and when you are perceived as weak, you depreciate more power. US reactions mark a fundamental break between Egypt and the subsequent revolutions—the tense 18-day drama enabled the US to paper over its intense anxiety with moth-worn liberal rhetoric. But even as the US attempted to ricochet the events by importing popular unrest in Iran via the State Department’s new Farsi Twitter account etc., the plot thickened. If Egypt’s Suez Canal remains the heartline for world energy and military transportation, connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, then Bahrain’s strategic location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf itself was a far  shocking development. And the cherry topping this Molotov Sundae is Libya, Africa’s largest oil exporter, going up in flames as Qaddafi proves himself to be the psychotic, delusional kook that he is.

Meanwhile, Iran has maneuvered itself as a regional player in the region, breaking through its geographical isolation. Israeli newspapers worriedly reported that Iranian warships have indeed traveled through the Suez and entered the Mediterranean after 39 years. Clearly, the intention was to announce the end of the Middle East as a US satrapy bowing before the legionnaires deployed in suits and fatigues.

And as the Libyan people plead with the international community to intervene against Qaddafi and avert the bloodbath he is wrecking, the UN and US remain paralyzed. And if the Arab world’s dignity deficit has significantly fueled the revolutions, the US’ public squirming on the hot seat as it is being forced to take a moral stand against its own interests, is rapidly generating a prestige deficit. Let’s give The Jersusalem Post the last word here:

Perhaps if more pressure had been brought to bear against Gaddafi when he just might have been ready to listen, Libya’s citizens would not now be getting shot down in the streets by a “mad dog” regime. At the very least, the UN would have retained a modicum of moral legitimacy.

Written by Kings & Cabbages

February 22, 2011 at 9:31 pm

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Dabangg Strikes Bollywood Gold—Tragic News for Art Lovers Everywhere

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In the Jan 2011 Bollywood Filmfare Awards, Shahrukh Khan and Co. walked the red carpet and were handed glitzy awards in the endless panorama of celebrity self-congratulation, as Stephen Colbert once quipped. Predictably, SRK and Kajol won the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards—apparently, the afterglow of their mega-hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is as tenacious as the half life of plutonium waste. Now, normally I don’t have high expectations for the tastes of Bollywood Awards Committee—or for that matter, of the Academy Awards, where apparently the British monarchy’s lobby has locked into a comfortable cut on for royal-philic movies [Any movie on the stodgiest and most boring British monarch, revealing them to be “real” people with “real” problems beneath the capes and crowns Must. Win. An Oscar. The King’s Speech, here’s looking at you. And no, don’t try to use my Firth-mania against me. It takes all of  Mr. Darcy’s charm to rescue the man responsible for unleashing the genetic disaster known as the Windsor family in the world].

But my jaw literally dropped Bollywood gave Dabangg, Salman’s latest love-offering to his sculpted body, the Best Picture Award. This was a new low. Sure, there were some cute items about the movie. The over the top cheesiness, played just right in a few scenes like ’50s style decor channeled in a contemporary diner. Salman Khan’s look, which the intrepid stylists rescue from his usual Charlie Sheen-meets-Arnold Schwarzenegger (i.e. druggie meets steroid beefcake) into a Ray-Bans bedecked macho cop who is able to channel the actor’s real-world bad boy appeal into the Bad Guy Gone Good, thanks to the Woman He Loves.

But seriously. This is a terrible movie. The  plot has more gaps than the dress Rihanna wore to the Grammys. There is next to nothing characterization (surely a crime when you’ve hired legends like Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia), and an endless sequence of action and fighting that have been lifted wholesale out of The Matrix. [Part One, because the CGI demands of Parts II and Parts III would have been above the budget of newly minted director Arbaaz Khan. And if the androgynous Keanu Reeves can actually whiz above sky scrapers, such a feat is impossible to imagine with Salman, as tightly as the man is packed with steroids]. Imitation as parody can be undeniably cool (Lady Gaga has apparently made a career out of out Madonna-ing Madonna), badly executed imitation is not. Its laughable to see him racing with outstretched arms discharging his revolvers even he evades a hail of bullets—in a rural train depot reeking with cow dung.

The directing sucks too, even though Filmfare saw fit to bestow Best Director on Arbaaz Khan. The martyr-mother is a crappy stereotype for Dimple to play—I still have fond memories of her tour-de-force as the alcoholic divorcee in Dil Chahta Hail, who becomes the muse but refuses the advances of the young artist in her building. Dabaang offers other cinematic gems: the final scene, where Salman Khan kills the villain by forcing him to choke on the exhaust pipe of a tractor. But this doesn’t even come close to the scene where he discovers the villain is responsible for the martyrdom of the martyr-mother: his eyes bulge and as the camera rapidly pans around his uber-sculpted form, his chest muscles and biceps expand like frog’s gullet and tear the shirt right off his back. I have no double that Salman Khan was responsible for this cinematic gem, referencing Arbazz Khan’s thanks to his brother’s “creative” inputs in the movie. His thought process, if I may be so bold to presume to enter the no-man’s land of his cranium, was probably like this—the hero’s so cool, he doesn’t even have to rip the shirt off his back for fan service . . . his biceps do it for him!

BUT—the songs are adorable. It’s now possible for Bollywood to turn crappy movies into hits just by commissioning good songs (often with Pakistani singers) and playing them on Zee TV a few months ahead of the release date.

Salman Khan’s gyrations smack of Elvis, the cheesiness rescued by playing it over the top. His annoyingly macho persona is softened the neon colored hearts sparkling in the shade of his sun glasses (literally). The fantasy sequence with Sonakshi Sinha, who comes off as earthy and ethereal all at once, persuades you that she could really reform the corrupt cop obsessed with his masculinity. And then there is the music itself—Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice infusing the delicacy and fervor of Sufi musicality into a very temporal song. Score!

Written by Kings & Cabbages

February 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm

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Egypt and Violence: Or, How to Hijack a Revolution

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Photo of young Egyptian Protester from Nicholas Kristof's Blog

Camels, horses and swords? Really? It was a situation deadly serious, and yet there was something irrepressibly droll about the image of sword wielding Mubarak thugs making a rush through Tahrir Square. A political ironist would find rich material in the scenario: the head of one of the most ultra-equipped militaries of the Middle East using the props for a Egyptian television drama on the Mameluk era. Or as a blogger puts it, as if someone ransacked the store house of a documentary on the American Revolutionary War.

So, if Tahrir Square is a stage, what kind of play is being staged on it? An intriguing question, indeed. Clearly, Al-Jazeera and Press TV coverage of the events changed the game, making it impossible to ignore and sideline like a squabble in the boondocks. With the world watching, a quiet genocide was never in Mubarak’s cards. Even Mubarak’s “thugs” are more for psychological war than anything else: the molotov cocktails, tear gas, beatings and other intimidation tactics are designed to break the crowd’s spirit rather than to crush down lives. (Yeah, the camels). Even more interesting is the army’s position. What do we make of their supposed “neutrality,” even as more than 800 Egyptians–men, women, and children—are being injured before them? Then arbitrarily breaking up the hired “pro-government supporters” and the demonstrators, like a holier-than-thou referee on the wrestling shows? Hardly neutral, I’d say. This too is psy-war, the projection of power that clearly states that they are the decision makers, the diva anchoring the whole opera.

Mubarak is in strategic denial, telling Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview (wait, wasn’t she being attacked by the pro-Mubarak crowds a few minutes ago?) that he’s tired but he’ll nobly staying on for the sake of Egypt (and not the Egyptians). But there is no way he would have held on as long as he had if this popular storm didn’t threaten Israel’s geopolitical existence. In a Feb. 1st NYT op-ed (titled “Israel, Along Again?” or “Islamists at the Gates”, Yossi Klein Halevi outlines Israel’s David-Goliath complex in the Middle East

The fear of an Islamist encirclement has reminded Israelis of their predicament in the Middle East. In its relationship with the Palestinians, Israel is Goliath. But in its relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel remains David.

Yes, that’s despite having the fourth largest military in the world, and the benefit of having annual handouts of $3 billion from the US Congress.

And should Israel’s border with Egypt “fall,” as the military lingo puts it, then the hermetically-sealed Gaza blockade will be broken. And while tiny, preternally divided Lebanon may encourage military incursions in service of Greater Israel, Egypt’s size and heft and population density makes it quite another matter. And this is why the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty must stand at all costs. As a young Egyptian graduate student put it, “We have peace, but we have no dignity”.

So, the mess in Egypt is the result of two different solutions tested out. Number one, Mubarak stays, as Netanyahu and Israeli brass insist he must, by dividing the crowd, maintaining low-degree violence over the demonstrators, and starving them of supplies. Number two, a representative government that allows limited forms of political expression but will essentially maintain US and Israeli security agreements.

It’s very probable that the second option will happen. Mubarak is done—he’s tired as he puts it, and the aging potentate is getting close to his expiration date by now. He’s run through his legitimacy by now—the “camel attacks” were the last straw, a self-mockery of his 30 years of iron rule. It’s as if Leonardo da Vinci took one of his self-portraits and drew Hello Kitty ears on it. The latest bluster about not leaving the country is probably a last act of service he is rendering to his US and Israeli handlers, an act of self immolation.

Time is precious in this situation, especially to the round-the-clock Pentagon crisis action team that is making sure this doesn’t go too disastrously for the US of A. Mubarak becoming a political suttee is giving them just that—time. By voluntarily going down in flames, Mubarak is allowing US journalists to loudly join in the calls for democracy and belated rack up some street cred (including Anderson Cooper, who twittered his being attacked by Mubarak thugs, but nary a scratch on his handsome mug). [Side note: It’s rather whiplash-inducing to observe employees of ABC and FOX to get arrested and threatened, receive “million percent” regrets from the Prime Minister, and accept invites to presidential chats at Mubarak’s place].

And oh yes, the rewards: what better transitional government than the kind that the protesters are too exhausted and tired to take political control of?

As the arch-conservataive William Kristol writes on the NPR website and in his own Weekly Standard, its a must to . . .

get the U.S. engaged — to some degree publicly, but on all cylinders privately. Our ability to shape events is limited, we keep on being told. That’s true — but we don’t know how much we can do until we try. And what’s the downside? We can’t bring back the status quo ante.

Written by Kings & Cabbages

February 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm

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Tribute to Malcolm X

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This is running in the current issue of Crescent Magazine, just wanted to post it on my blog as well. The article was written in commemoration of the 46th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death.

On the month marking out the 46th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, the task of tabulation his political legacy is a rather delicate enterprise. In US cinematic culture, he is perhaps known best from Spike Lee’s 1972 film., recently selected for the National Film Registry. (Even as the Academy Awards continue to shun Spike, it’s nice that the Library of Congress finally recognized his magnus opus as a great film).

I used to teach the Lee film to US students, as a way of re-introducing them to streams of experience and resistance that have been shunted off from US public consciousness. For, it is a fact undeniable that the mainstream American narrative sidelines Malcolm X in favor of Martin Luther King, whose own life has been frozen in time at the 1964 March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech. (MLK’s clips about racial harmony in the US are endlessly replayed, but his later stands on US accountability to the black underclass and war-stricken Vietnamese get deleted).

Since Malcolm X, through the evolutions of his thought, believed in calling a spade a spade—or as he said, “truth is truth”—he is still blacklisted in US memory-making as an angry racist. Or “the angriest black man in America,” the press called him at the time. A fact he mourned in the seminal Autobiography of Malcolm X, his life’s account narrated to and published by the writer Alex Haley.  On his return from the Hajj, he fearlessly made the break between the Nation of Islam spokesman and the new man by declaring that he was now thinking for himself, where as before he spoke on behalf of Elijah Muhammad. “I had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” he wrote to his friends from Mecca, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.”

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Written by Kings & Cabbages

February 1, 2011 at 2:17 am

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