the tyrant’s wife


Dear Asma, It’s been five years since we last saw each other, but as your country has burned at the hands of your husband over the past year, I, along with the rest of the world, have wondered where you’ve been amid this madness. Then, late last week, I saw that you had finally broken your silence by emailing a British newspaper to express your support for your husband, Bashar al-Assad. As your countrymen are being tortured and murdered by the regime that bears your last name, I imagine the trips we took together are far from your mind. But I am writing to remind you of the experiences we shared—and of the Asma I once knew—when we, along with 300 other women, came together to promote peace in the Middle East by biking across the region. We first met in your palace in Damascus in 2005. You looked beautiful; as always, you were dressed in the most fashionable clothes. The last rays of the September sun streamed in from the balcony and onto your hair, perfectly styled, as you spoke to 300 women who were in Syria to “cycle for peace” on a trip run by a group called Follow the Women.

more from Parvaneh Vahidmanesh at Tablet here.

a paean to small science


“Shut up and calculate!” As physics became more mathematical and abstract during the past century, that phrase—first uttered by physicist David Mermin—became its mantra. Indeed, the more that physicists stopped worrying about what their complicated equations meant and simply ran the numbers, the more progress they made. Some of their predictions have now been confirmed by experiments to 10 decimal places or more— the most accurate predictions in history. But the cost of this progress was striking: physics became more and more alienating as fewer and fewer people understood it. As Frank Close explains in The Infinity Puzzle, for a long time even physicists felt discontent at this state of affairs. The book brims with charming anecdotes about particle physics between the 1950s and 1980s, when breakthroughs came almost too fast to be comprehended and every scientist seemed to be maneuvering (and occasionally begging) for Nobel prizes. But the book also plumbs the origins of modern physics, especially troubles with the concept of infinity.

more from Sam Kean at The American Scholar here.

V S Pritchett: the short story comes of age


The origins of the short story in different regions of the world – where it came from and when, how it developed – vary from country to country. Although its birth was most often a natural transformation of what was there already, occasionally the change that occurred was more dramatic, coming from nowhere, without a pedigree of tradition or of anything else. The vitality of America’s first stories owes much to such newness, to an untrammelled purity that challenged, without being at odds with, the classicism of Russia’s vast contribution to the same literary development. In Europe – particularly perhaps in France and Germany – the influence of the antique continued, then slowly withered. “A child of our time,” Elizabeth Bowen called the modern story, irrespective of its source, and she was right. At the very heart of modernity, it belonged to a briskly different age and almost perfectly reflected it. Its matter-of-fact brevity did, its sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth. Troubled Ireland took to it; Italy, too; in England it didn’t much appeal. Overshadowed by the riches and delights of the Victorian novel, it was regarded by literary England as little more than a poor relation living on the crumbs scattered by the popular success of fiction that flourished as fiction never had before. But these humbly gathered crumbs were more wholesome than they might have been. They nourished a modest art, and in modesty the English short story eventually found itself.

more from William Trevor at The New Statesman here.

Mae C. Jemison

From Biography:

Mae-Jemison-9542378-1-402Physician Mae C. Jemison was born October 17, 1956, in Decatur, Alabama. On June 4, 1987, she became the first African American woman ever admitted into the astronaut training program. On September 12, 1992, Jemison finally flew into space with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47. In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison received several awards and honorary doctorates.

When Jemison was chosen on June 4, 1987, she became the first African American woman ever admitted into the astronaut training program. After more than a year of training, she became an astronaut with the title of science mission specialist, a job which would make her responsible for conducting crew related scientific experiments on the space shuttle. On September 12, 1992, Jemison finally flew into space with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47. During her eight days in space, she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on the crew and herself. Altogether, she spent slightly over 190 hours in space before returning to Earth on September 20. Following her historic flight, Jemison noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits

John Tierney in The New York Times:

NovelDo you make decisions quickly based on incomplete information? Do you lose your temper quickly? Are you easily bored? Do you thrive in conditions that seem chaotic to others, or do you like everything well organized?

Those are the kinds of questions used to measure novelty-seeking, a personality trait long associated with trouble. As researchers analyzed its genetic roots and relations to the brain’s dopamine system, they linked this trait with problems like attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behavior. Now, though, after extensively tracking novelty-seekers, researchers are seeing the upside. In the right combination with other traits, it’s a crucial predictor of well-being. “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, the psychiatrist who developed personality tests for measuring this trait. The problems with novelty-seeking showed up in his early research in the 1990s; the advantages have become apparent after he and his colleagues tested and tracked thousands of people in the United States, Israel and Finland.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

First, grant me my sense of history: I did it for posterity, for kindergarten teachers and a clear moral: Little girls shouldn't wander off in search of strange flowers, and they mustn't speak to strangers. And then grant me my generous sense of plot: Couldn't I have gobbled her up right there in the jungle? Why did I ask her where her grandma lived? As if I, a forest-dweller, didn't know of the cottage under the three oak trees and the old woman lived there all alone? As if I couldn't have swallowed her years before? And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf, now my only reputation. But I was no child-molester though you'll agree she was pretty. And the huntsman: Was I sleeping while he snipped my thick black fur and filled me with garbage and stones? I ran with that weight and fell down, simply so children could laugh at the noise of the stones cutting through my belly, at the garbage spilling out with a perfect sense of timing, just when the tale should have come to an end. .

by Agha Shahid Ali
from Through the Yellow Pages
publisher: Sun Gemini Press, 1987

Stray Notes on Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The ubiquitous presence of the peacock in Indian art and religious iconography is seen across the last two millennia and dates back to the Mauryan period. Peacock motifs are even seen on Indus vases and pots. From temples carvings, bronzes, sacramental and cosmetic adornment, to thrones and miniatures, the peacock has a quite a prominent place in the subcontinent. (See Christine Jackson’s Peacock for further reading). It is fabled that St. Thomas the Apostle visited India and was accidentally killed by the arrow of a peacock hunter outside his hermitage in Mylapore, the ‘land of the peacock scream’. PeacockNightMayil in Tamil or Mayura in Sanskrit is the mythological vehicle (vahana) of the god Karthikeya or Muruga – the son of Shiva. San Thome Basilica is popularly believed to be the original burial site of the saint.

Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night forms part of a Ragamala manuscript of Deccani miniatures of the 16th century. Some confusion persists as to a precise provenance, but both the medieval Bahmani sultanates of Ahmadnagar (see Taarif-i Hussain Shahi) and Bijapur are suggested, Mark Zebrowski writes in Deccani Painting (1983). In particular, the Bijapur sultan Ibrabim Adil Shah II was known not just as a connoisseur of the arts, but as an accomplished musician, poet, calligraphist and painter himself, besides being well versed with Islamic and Hindu mystical traditions. His book of poems, Kitab-i Nauras, (read here) Zebrowski writes, “is strongly Sanskritic in vocabulary and contains numerous descriptions of ragas and raginis, with accounts of their moods, activities, and attributes”. Zebrowski further suggests that since the nine remaining Ragamala paintings (it is speculated that there are more) bear ‘crude Sanskrit inscriptions’ and a few equally ‘crude’ translated Persian words, it is difficult to ascribe them entirely to either one of these sophisticated schools but they seem instead to indicate ‘a provincial milieu’ and perhaps are linked to a larger Persianate style across Northern Deccan, western Gujarat and southern Malwa, with some regional variations.

The fragmentary Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night, remains a fine example of this era of Deccani miniatures and is evocative of monsoons, for it is the onset of the rains that signals the peacock’s mating season and as depicted in this particular work, Zebrowski writes, “…a male flies from tree to tree shrieking his mating cry, startling tiny birds roosting in delicate new foliage. Long, white raindrops coldly fill the black sky. As rains and peacocks are poetic symbols of unrequited love, the missing portion of the page may have contained a lovesick lady, waiting for her lover who has not come”.

Read more »

Why Is the Amazing Movie Directed by Angelina Jolie not on the Oscar List?

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash


A few weeks ago I saw the movie that Hollywood sex symbol Angelina Jolie wrote and directed: In the Land of Blood and Honey.

It is the most impressive debut of an auteur filmmaker since Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City.

Yes, I said Rossellini. (OK, Roma, Città Aperta came after his anti-fascist trilogy, but it was his big international debut.)

If you take the current crop of American actor-directors — Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Ron Howard — not one of them has directed a movie which comes even close to the seriousness, intensity, depth and artistry of Jolie's rookie film.

Let alone write such a movie, which none of them can do.

Not one of them, in fact, has made an arthouse film. They don't make the kind of films you go and see at an arthouse; they make movies for duplexes.

But Jolie, in a blazing contrast, has created high-art cinema.

And not simply because of the serious nature of her subject — the brutal Bosnian War of the 1990s, when the Serbs genocided Muslims and mass-raped women in concentration camps.

But also because of her depiction of a somber love story amidst this horror.

Read more »

Alfred’s Tale

by Akim Reinhardt

GrumpyI first met Alfred nine years ago, shortly after moving into my current home. I was brand new to the neighborhood and had only been there a week when Baltimore was blanketed with a fresh coat of snow eight inches deep. Around here, that’s well more than enough to shutter schools and keep most people out of work.

I was barely awake, walking around the livingroom in jeans with no shirt or socks when I heard a tremendous rumble and thump outside the window. My primal, territorial instincts took over. The rage began to well up inside me as I prepared to defend my new holding, even if it was a rental. Who dare invade my domain!

I peeled back the curtain to see kids roaming through the streets, engaged in a massive snow ball fight free-for-all. “Alright, Reinhardt,” I said to myself quietly, “you’re only thirty-five. Don’t become a grumpy old man just yet.”

Children of all ages were streaming everywhere. A rather large one had come cascading over a short wall and onto my porch, then onto yet another, clumsily flopping across the connected rowhomes, and thereby creating the most immediate ruckus.

I got on some clothes, went outside, and started firing snowy projectiles. Sensing the opportunity to act out every kid’s fantasy by safely attacking an adult with impunity, the juvenile chaos coalesced into a children’s army. I held them off for a while, relying on a rapid fire release and some bear-like growling. But in the end their numbers were too large. They drove me back into my yard and up the stairs to my rear porch. In the end, it was all I could do to close the latch to the back gate as a fusillade misshapen snowballs reigned down upon me.

All in all, it had been a successful introduction to the neighborhood.

Read more »

If I had my own Super PAC…

Sarah PACI'd like to have my own Super PAC
That on my behalf could attack
Of course any sign of collusion
Would be just an illusion
I wouldn't tell them how to act

I know that no contact's allowed
But what's the harm if I just say out loud
“It would so make my day
If your ads were to say
That only I stand out in the crowd”

Oh, the money you'll all want to raise
To make sure you can heap me with praise
And will you please read my mind
Where you'll happen to find
The names of those I'd like to faze

The PAC's name's no concern of mine
Whatever you choose will be fine
But if I had a voice
And was given a choice
I might suggest “Sarah's Divine!”

But of course, it's all up to you
My friends won't be on your crew
We won't speak and won't meet
I'll be just shocked when you tweet
Some of the slander and lies that you'll spew

So I guess that what I need right now
Is to find someone rich I can wow
I mean, really rich
Then I'll make my pitch
But all connivance I'll disavow

Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

1328742337529Glenn Greenwald regularly does us a service by not only reminding us of the ongoing assault on civil liberties and human dignity in the Obama-directed war on terror but also pointing out the hypocisy of liberals and progressives in their support of the policy. Perhaps literature can move us more than reportage. Jacob Silverman on Alex Gilvarry's novel about Guantanamo, in The Daily Beast:

Novelists like to congratulate themselves for their research; time spent in Google’s far-flung quadrants is worn as a badge of authenticity. But some novels leave more to invention than others, often by necessity. Alex Gilvarry’s strange hybrid of a book is one.

“They don’t know allow novelists in Guantánamo Bay,” Gilvarry said, provoking laughter from the capacity crowd attending his book-release party last month at The Strand’s rare-books room.

Gilvarry, who is 30 and a few inches past six feet, is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. His debut novel tells the story of Boyet (“Boy”) Hernandez, a five-foot-one-inch Filipino immigrant who, after attaining an evanescent fame as a fashion designer in New York, is shipped off to Guantánamo Bay for his alleged connection to terrorists. The book is, unsurprisingly, a satire—no other genre could encompass two such divergent topics.

Combatant’s peculiar cocktail of themes—immigrant on the make, post-9/11 burlesque, sybaritic send-up of fashion and hipster Brooklyn—goes down smoothly because Gilvarry writes with authority, if often with tongue firmly in cheek. “I did as much research on fashion as I did on Guantánamo, which is ridiculous,” he said.

Indeed, while Boy’s tale runneth over with references to Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de La Renta (whose “immigrant narratives” the fashion aspirant devoured while growing up in the Philippines), it’s equally replete with touchstones from the war on terrorism and the post-9/11 security state. A publicist named Ben Laden (no relation) is detained by airport police “because of ‘homophonic similarities,’ ” causing him to miss a runway show. The copy of the Quran that Boy receives in “No Man’s Land”—his word for Gitmo—was previously owned by David Hicks, an Australian detainee who was released to his home country in April 2007.

Other references come from forgotten annals of pop culture—there’s a Lou Diamond Phillips sighting—or appear as coded versions of familiar American archetypes. There’s a self-aggrandizing pop star named Chloë, whose music promotes a kind of aggressively sultry chastity (her album is called Blueballer). We encounter familiar political iconography, as when Sheriff Michaels—a Shepard Fairey-like artist—superimposes a leaked photo of the imprisoned Boy with “damp shades of red, white, and blue” and stamps the word “BEHAVE at the foot of the image.” The poster becomes a sensation, emblematizing Boy’s plight.

It’s this facility with pop culture and with deconstructing its avatars that adds a layer of piquancy to Gilvarry’s satire.

America’s Failed Promise of Equal Opportunity

Jefferson_lincoln_99-460x307Alex Gourevitch and Aziz Rana in Salon:

Americans are increasingly aware that the ideal of equal opportunity is a false promise, but neither party really seems to get it.

Republicans barely admit the problem exists, or if they do, they think tax cuts are the answer. All facts point in the opposite direction. Despite various tax cuts over the past 30 years, not only have income and wealth inequality dramatically increased, but the ability of individuals to rise out of their own class has declined. Social stagnation is increasingly the norm, with poverty rates the highest in 15 years, real wage gains worse even than during the decade of the Great Depression, average earnings barely above what they were 50 years ago, and more than 80 percent of the income growth of the past 25 years going to the top 1 percent. In fact, since 1983, the bottom 40 percent of households have seen real declines in their income and the same goes for the bottom 60 percent when it comes to wealth. We know what the economic status quo does: It redistributes upwards.

Despite the ambiguity of their goals, the Occupy protests have made one point abundantly clear: The mainstream Democratic alternative is paltry stuff. For the most part, Democrats disagree that tax cuts and deregulation are the solution, and instead argue that the state should be used to guarantee equal opportunity. For instance, cheap, publicly available education, job training and affirmative action are all justified on the grounds that each American should have the skills to compete and the labor market should treat everyone equally.

Sunday Poem


Señor, señor, can you tell me where we're headin ?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon ?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor ?

Señor, señor, do you know where she is hidin' ?
How long are we gonna be riding ?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door ?
Will there be any comfort there señor ?

There's a wicked wind still blowing on that upper deck
There's an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck
There's a marching band still playing in that vacant lot
Where's she held me in her arms one time and said, Forget me not.

Señor, señor, I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon
Can't stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor ?

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
He said, Son, this ain't a dream no more it's the real thing.

Señor, señor, you know their hearts is as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I'm ready when you are, señor.

Señor, señor, let's overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don't make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, señor ?

by Bob Dylan

Fighting for Scraps

Pankaj Mishra in The New York Times:

MishIn “The Drowned and the Saved,” Primo Levi describes an experience that fatally undermined many of his fellow condemned at Auschwitz. Entering the death camp, he had hoped, he wrote, “at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune.” Instead, there were “a thousand sealed-off monads, and between them a desperate covert and continuous struggle.” This was what Levi called the “Gray Zone,” where the “network of human relationships” “could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors,” and where “the enemy was all around but also inside.”

It may seem grotesquely inappropriate to recall Levi’s struggles for survival in a Nazi camp while thinking of the apparently self-reliant individualists of a slum called Annawadi near Mumbai’s airport — the setting of Katherine Boo’s extraordinary first book, which describes a few months in the life of a young garbage trader, Abdul, and his friends and family. After all, these plucky “slumdogs” may be — in at least one recent fantasy — India’s next millionaires, part of the lucky 1 percent able to savor the five-star hotels that loom over Annawadi. Certainly, as noted by Boo — a staff writer at The New Yorker who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2000, when she was a journalist at The Washington Post — they are not considered poor by “official” Indian benchmarks; they are “among roughly 100 million Indians freed from poverty since 1991,” when the central government “embraced economic liberalization,” “part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism,” in which a self-propelling economic system is geared to reward motivated and resourceful individuals with personal wealth.

More here.

Phillis Wheatley: 1753 – 1784

From Progressive Eruptions:

PhyllisWheatleyPhyllis Wheatley was America's first African-American poet. A bronze sculpture, by Meredith Bergmann, celebrating Ms. Wheatley is on the mall on Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Mass. Wheatley, a slave in colonial Boston, was our first published African-American poet. Her pose is derived from the only extant image of her. She represents youth and Imagination.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

I read this poem as supremely sarcastic in the poet's intent. “Twas mercy brought me from my “Pagan land…” Really? Mercy took her away from her “Pagan” land? And taught her “benighted soul?” Benighted by the white masters? The most heartbreaking lines are the last 3: “Their colour is a diabolic die.”/Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,/May be refine'd, and join th' angelic train.”

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).