The Arab whodunnit: crime fiction makes a comeback in the Middle East

Jonathan Guyer in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_827 Oct. 05 17.15From Baghdad to Cairo, a neo-noir revolution has been creeping across the Middle East. The revival of crime fiction since the upheavals started in 2011 should not come as a surprise. Noir offers an alternative form of justice: the novelist is the ombudsman; the bad guys are taken to court.

“Police repression is an experience that binds people throughout the Arab world,” writes Dartmouth professor Jonathan Smolin in Moroccan Noir: Police, Crime and Politics in Popular Culture. That experience of repression did not simply pre-date the 2011 uprisings; it stimulated the revolts themselves.

The genre has long been popular in the Middle East though often considered too lowbrow for local and international scholarship. Mid-century paperbacks – shelves of unexamined pulp, from Arabic translations to locally produced serials, along with contemporary reprints of Agatha Christie – languish in Cairo’s book markets. Writer Ursula Lindsay quips: “Cairo is the perfect setting for noir: sleaze, glitz, inequality, corruption, lawlessness. It’s got it all.”

A variety of new productions – cinema, fiction and graphic novels – address crime, impunity and law’s incompetence. Novelists are latching onto the adventure, despair and paranoia prevalent in genre fiction to tell stories that transcend the present. Ahmed Mourad’s best-selling thriller, The Blue Elephant, now showing in cinemas across Egypt, is one of many unsentimental reflections. British-Sudanese author Jamal Mahjoub has also penned three page-turners under the nom de plume Parker Bilal, taking the reader from Cairo to Khartoum.

Enter Elliott Colla. The American scholar has written Baghdad Central, a meticulously researched whodunnit set in wartime Iraq, 2003. With the pacing of film noir, Colla seizes the disorder of the US occupation.

More here.

We are told that we are an irrational tangle of biases, to be nudged any which way. Does this claim stand to reason?

Steven Poole in Aeon:

Ship-of-fools-56457563Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow(2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

More here.

‘I am not a spy. I am a philosopher.’

Ramin Jahanbegloo in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_54985_portrait_largeThe heavy steel door swung closed behind me in the cell. I took off my blindfold and found myself trapped within four cold walls. The cell was small. High ceiling, old concrete. All green. An intense yellow light from a single bulb high above. Somehow I could hear the horror in the walls, the voices of previous prisoners whispering a painful welcome. I had no way of knowing whether they had survived. I had no way of knowing whether I would. So many questions were crowding my mind. I heard a man moaning. It was coming through a vent. I realized that he must have been tortured. Would I be tortured, too?

I was, and am, a philosopher, an academic. Life had not been easy for Iranian intellectuals, artists, journalists, and human-rights activists since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005. As a thinker on the margin of Iranian society, I was not safe, and so, rather than stay in Iran, I had accepted a job offer in Delhi, India. I had come back to Tehran for a visit. On the morning of April 27, 2006, I was at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport to catch a flight to Brussels, where I was to attend a conference. I had checked in my luggage and gone through security when I was approached by four men. One of them called me by my first name. “Ramin,” he said, “could you follow us?”

More here.

How Not To Understand ISIS

Alireza Doostdar at the University of Chicago Divinity School website:

Depositphotos_52569927_original_zpsb269c28aThe group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or simply the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or IS) has attracted much attention in the past few months with its dramatic military gains in Syria and Iraq and with the recent U.S. decision to wage war against it.

As analysts are called to explain ISIS’ ambitions, its appeal, and its brutality, they often turn to an examination of what they consider to be its religious worldview—a combination of cosmological doctrines, eschatological beliefs, and civilizational notions—usually thought to be rooted in Salafi Islam.

The Salafi tradition is a modern reformist movement critical of what it considers to be misguided accretions to Islam—such as grave visitations, saint veneration, and dreaming practices. It calls for abolishing these and returning to the ways of the original followers of Prophet Muhammad, the “salaf” or predecessors. Critics of Salafism accuse its followers of “literalism,” “puritanism,” or of practicing a “harsh” or “rigid” form of Islam, but none of these terms is particularly accurate, especially given the diverse range of Salafi views and the different ways in which people adhere to them [1].

Salafism entered American consciousness after September 11, 2001, as Al-Qaeda leaders claim to follow this school. Ever since, it has become commonplace to demonize Salafism as the primary cause of Muslim violence, even though most Salafi Muslims show no enthusiasm for jihad and often eschew political involvement [2], and even though many Muslims who do engage in armed struggles are not Salafi.

ISIS is only the most recent group whose behavior is explained in terms of Salafism.

More here.

Sunday Poem


I am not shaving, I'm writing about it.
And I conjure the most elaborate idea—
how my beard is a creation of silent labor
like ocean steam rising to form clouds,
or the bloom of spiderwebs each morning;
the discrete mystery of how whiskers grow,
like the drink roses take from the vase,
or the fall of fresh rain, becoming
a river, and then rain again, so silently.
I think of all these slow and silent forces
and how quietly my father's life passed us by.

I think of those mornings, when I am shaving,
and remember him in a masquerade of foam, then,
as if it was his beard I took the blade to,
the memory of him in tiny snips of black whiskers
swirling in the drain—dead pieces of the self
from the face that never taught me how to shave.
His legacy of whiskers that grow like black seeds
sown over my cheek and chin, my own flesh.

I am not shaving, but I will tell you about the mornings
with a full beard and the blade in my hand,
when my eyes don't recognize themselves
in a mirror echoed with a hundred faces
I have washed and shaved—it is in that split second,
when perhaps the roses drink and the clouds form,
when perhaps the spider spins and rain transforms,
that I most understand the invisibility of life
and the intensity of vanishing, like steam
at the slick edges of the mirror, without a trace.

by Richard Blanco
from City of a Hundred Fires
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998

Life as an orphan in a plastic tent city, bombing Iraq (again) and keeping my “Juslim” name

Jemima Khan in New Statesman:

JemimaZaatari camp in Jordan is a chalky pop-up city and temporary holding pen for the collateral damage from Syria’s civil war; 80,000 refugees, mostly women and children, existing in orderly limbo. Most left Syria on foot, in the dark, with only the clothes they were wearing and – if their house was not already pulverised – their door keys and documents. I have met many refugees since I started working with Unicef 13 years ago and regardless of nationality, disaster or host country, they all share one thing in common – the knowledge that they are the world’s unwanted; bereft of home, hope, possessions and expression. It was an encounter with a child refugee that first led to my involvement with Unicef. I was distributing tents to Afghan refugees who had fled civil war at the Jalozai camp in Peshawar, north-west Pakistan. It had been nicknamed “Plastic City” because its inhabitants were living in plastic bin liners during the monsoon season, with no shelter, food, water or sanitation. The Pakistani government, its resources already stretched and with resentment still high from the last influx of Afghans during the Soviet era, had refused to allow aid agencies access to the camp.

A small, emaciated boy in dust-coloured rags was bent double under the weight of a 25-kilogram tent. I told him to go and get an adult to help him. He explained that his mother had just died in the camp and his father had been killed in the fighting. He had no adult relatives and he was now the head of the household, responsible for the survival of his five younger siblings, including a small baby. He was seven years old, just a few years older than my eldest son at that time, who was still incapable of even running a bath unsupervised. His story, I learned, was far from unique.

More here.

First sentences of non-fiction texts: The Top Ten

John Rentoul in The Independent:

Double_helix_paAfter an online debate with Brian Moore over the opening sentence of 'A Tale of Two Cities' (best of lines, worst of lines), which I would have rejected for my Top 10 First sentences of novels even if it had not been too long, I thought we should turn to non-fiction.

1. 'The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful'

Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936. Thoughtfully nominated by Man Ray.

2. 'L'homme est né libre, et par-tout il est dans les fers' (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, 1762. Chris Sladen tied himself to the original French.

3. 'A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe'

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. Issy Flamel put forward Helen McFarlane's 1850 translation.

4. 'We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones'

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998. Nominated by Emma Hutchings.

5. 'No comet blazed when I was born'

Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, 1989. Brought to light by Mark Bassett.

6. 'The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad'

FR Leavis, The Great Tradition, 1948. Adam Lent does not say whether he agrees.

7. 'There are idiots'

Larry Summers, US Treasury Secretary 1999-2001, unpublished paper on efficient markets. Offered without prejudice by Ian Leslie.

8. 'Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire'

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, 2013. From Ian Johnston.

9. 'We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold'

Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1972 (it's partly autobiographical). Nominated by Twlldunyrpobsais.

10. 'We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)'

James Watson and Francis Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”, 1953. From Damian Counsell.

More here.

Heinrich Himmler, family man: Why “The Decent One” is the most haunting documentary I’ve ever seen

Andrew O'Hehir in Salon:

ScreenHunter_826 Oct. 05 10.28Much of the history of human thought has revolved around our efforts to understand the nature of evil, which have never yielded anything like a satisfactory result. We are fascinated by serial killers and murderous dictators, torn between the obvious fact that they are human beings like ourselves and the conviction that in some fundamental way they must be different. Fictional embodiments of evil, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron or J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, are essentially reassuring because they are nothing except evil; both are built on the Satanic pattern, meaning they were once pure, but have left their uncorrupted selves far behind. Even the perversely noble Satan of “Paradise Lost,” after nine days of torture by fire, knows only one purpose: “immortal hate” and “eternal War irreconcileable” against the power of heaven.

Set against this conception of inhuman monstrosity we have the countervailing evidence, famously marshaled by Hannah Arendt under the controversial term “the banality of evil.” In latter days, many scholars and Holocaust survivors have contended that Arendt misapplied this term to Adolf Eichmann. (Most notably, the late Benjamin Murmelstein, who knew Eichmann well, told “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann that Eichmann was a sadist and a zealous anti-Semite.) But the dispute over Eichmann’s personality oversimplifies the profound philosophical insight that lies behind Arendt’s phrase, which speaks to the fact that people who do terrible things, and who hold beliefs most of us find noxious and inexplicable, often appear to be entirely normal in other areas of life.

More here.

the novels of Yoram Kaniuk

Last-jewMona Gainer-Salim at The Quarterly Conversation:

Kaniuk draws the reader into his fictional world as a participant, not just a spectator. The reader is forced to consider his own role in relation to the work, to reflect on his reactions and allegiances. This is true not only of The Last Jew, but also of much earlier works. Published in 1971, Adam Resurrected too centers on a Holocaust survivor, Adam Stein, who is now a patient at Mrs. Seizling’s Institute for Rehabilitation and Therapy, a pristine, state-of-the-art facility perched incongruously on a desolate chain of hills in the Israeli Negev desert. Contrary to expectations, Adam Resurrected is remarkable for its humor. Adam is by nature a trickster who starred in his own circus before war; now he uses his extraordinary intellect and flair for performance not only to give lectures for the other inhabitants, but to seduce nurses and generally to bring everyone at the Institute under his spell. Throughout the novel, he concocts a dizzying succession of schemes that veer hilariously between brilliance and absurdity. The chapter “Watermelon!” is dedicated entirely to one such escapade, in which Adam devises a plan to collect hundreds of watermelons from patients’ relatives by convincing them that an ailing fellow patient loves nothing more in life than these. However, through all his gags, it is impossible not to be disturbed by Adam’s ability to make us laugh, for Adam survived the camps by virtue of this very gift, playing a dog for the amusement of the camp director, Commandant Klein.

Each laugh Adam elicits in the reader is immediately followed by a suspicion that tragedy has been forced into the guise of comedy, and that we have been fooled into the wrong response.

more here.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

UrlTerry Castle at The New York Times:

Plot — in the ordinary sense — is frequently subordinated to dialogue in Mantel: In fact, as in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel, the dialogue seems almost to become the plot. Two ill-assorted characters — again, usually a man and woman who have never met before — bicker with each other from within some new and unanticipated intimacy. However obscurely, both seem to want something from the other. Yet the male figure does little but boast and prevaricate and subtly threaten; the woman seems mostly alienated, a bit mad even, and only becomes more so. (It’s not clear, by the way, that eros ever has anything to do with these Beckett-like exchanges.) Conversations thus peter out into muffled strings of cliché and nonsense; loony-bin theories go unchallenged; and, by the story’s end, one fears the worst. Dialogue itself can be suborned, sometimes by death. In “The Long QT” — in which a wife comes unexpectedly into her kitchen during a noisy party to find her husband in a clinch with a buxom and brainless woman named Lorraine (“It’s sad to be called after a quiche”) — instant personal extinction is simply a matter of walking from one room into another.

But, most important, all of Mantel’s stories share a similar design on the reader. One gets the feeling she wants both to frighten us (at times more than a little) and make us laugh. She likes to take us for an eerie spin and then leave us, to grimace and be gay, by the side of a road somewhere.

more here.

trying to make sense of contemporary art

0aaf5c14-6fac-452f-a560-da495ac43d39Jackie Wullschlager at The Financial Times:

There are some forms of success, Degas said, that are indistinguishable from panic. The 21st-century art market is one. Prices soar, museums bloat, buyers swarm, but still everyone involved – collector, dealer, commentator, curator and even artist – operates within a frenzy of anxiety and self-justification. Is this because contemporary art is radical and difficult to fathom, or because it is empty and cynical?

It is certainly ubiquitous. “Contemporary art is steadily becoming the lingua franca of international culture,” claims Ossian Ward. “Artists have become models of unrivalled creativity . . . In their ability to make markets for their work and ideas, they inspire entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders of all kinds,” argues Sarah Thornton. Grayson Perry counters that “art is spirituality in drag”. Each author is embedded in the art world, but all three assume the position of ethnographers dissecting the behaviour of a particularly outlandish tribe.

From biennales (“a guilt-free occasion to bitch”) in Venice, Istanbul and Shanghai to museum openings in London and Doha and studio visits in New York, Beijing, Devon, Thornton spent four years crossing five continents conducting interviews to “explore the nature of being a professional artist today”.

more here.

In Facebook’s Courtroom

Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:

Josh-Kafkaesque-690Earlier this month, when TMZ released a video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer, his fiancée (now wife), in an Atlantic City* elevator, the online response followed a pattern that’s both familiar and strange. It began straightforwardly enough, with people on Facebook and Twitter sharing the reactions that best articulated their outrage. (“Watch Keith Olbermann’s Takedown of the NFL!”) But, from there, it grew more baroque. In my Facebook feed, people hate-likedterrible reactions to the video. Others wrote impassioned posts addressed to supporters of Ray Rice, even if they didn’t know any supporters. Some used the video as a “teachable moment” to share facts about “#domesticviolence,” or helpfully suggested as-yet-unblamed parties who could also be criticized. (“Why is no one talking about the role of alcohol in this?”) A widespread response was meta-outrage: asking, in an outraged tone, why there weren’t an even greater number of outraged Facebook posts about Ray Rice.

There’s nothing senseless about any of this: the world is a maddening place, and so the Web, which reflects the world, has a lot to be angry about. If anything deserves to become a target of collective frustration and anger, it’s the Ray Rice video. At the same time, though, there can be something unsettling about the Web’s communal rage, even when that rage is justified. The Rice video is part of two unfolding stories. On the one hand, there’s our increasing awareness of unchecked violence—an awareness facilitated, as Margaret Talbot pointed out in a recent Comment, by viral videos distributed on the Web. On the other hand, there’s Web culture’s increasing tendency toward anger as an end in itself. In recent years, the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgment, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life. We all carry in our pockets a self-serious, hypercritical, omnipresent, never-ending, and unpredictable justice system. Pick up your phone and court is in session; put it down and it’s in recess.

More here.

Hollywood Salaries Revealed, From Movie Stars to Agents (and Even Their Assistants)

From The Hollywood Reporter:

ScreenHunter_825 Oct. 04 15.25How bad is the decline in actor salaries over the past decade? Despite the huge sums still being raked in by such superstars as Robert Downey Jr. (his $75 million comes from his 7 percent, first-dollar slice of Iron Man 3, as well as his $12 million HTC endorsement deal) and Sandra Bullock (a 15 percent, first-dollar deal on Gravity and about $10 million more for her summer hit The Heat), most actors are feeling a definite squeeze, especially those in the middle.

“If you're [a big star], you're getting well paid,” says one top agent, “but the middle level has been cut out.” Sometimes with a hacksaw. Leonardo DiCaprio made $25 million (including bonuses) for The Wolf of Wall Street, while co-star Jonah Hill got paid $60,000. Granted, that's an extreme example — Hill offered to do the part for scale (and got an Oscar nomination for his trouble).

More here.

Saturday Poem

Mistaken Identity

I thought I saw my mother
in the lesbian bar,
with a salt gray crew cut, a nose stud
and a tattoo of a parrot on her arm.
She was sitting at a corner table,
leaning forward to ignite, on someone’s match,
one of those low-tar things she used to smoke,

and she looked happy to be alive again
after her long marriage
to other people’s needs,
her twenty-year stint as Sisyphus,
struggling to push
a blue Ford station wagon full of screaming kids
up a mountainside of groceries.

My friend Debra had brought me there
to educate me on the issue
of my own unnecessariness,
and I stood against the wall, trying to look
simultaneously nonviolent

and nonchalant, watching couples
slowdance in the female dark,
but feeling speechless, really,
as the first horse to meet the first
horseless carriage on a cobbled street.

That’s when I noticed Mom,
whispering into the delicate
seashell ear of a brunette,
running a fingertip along
the shoreline of a tank top,

as if death had taught her finally
not to question what she wanted
and not to hesitate
in reaching out and taking it.

I want to figure out everything
right now, before I die,
but I admit that in the dark
(where a whole life can be mistaken) cavern of that bar
it took me one, maybe two big minutes

to find my footing
and to aim my antiquated glance
over the shoulder of that woman
pretending not to be my mother,
as if I were looking for someone else.

by Tony Hoagland
from What Narcissism Means to Me
Graywolf Press, 2003

Can life in a nursing home be made uplifting and purposeful?

Atul Gawande in The Telegraph:

SUMM_Being-Mortal-_3061591cIn 1991, in the tiny town of New Berlin, in upstate New York, a young physician named Bill Thomas performed an experiment. He didn’t really know what he was doing. He was 31 years old, less than two years out of family residency, and he had just taken a new job as medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, a facility with 80 severely disabled elderly residents. About half of them were physically disabled; four out of five had Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of cognitive disability. Up until then Thomas had worked as an emergency physician at a nearby hospital, the near opposite of a nursing home. People arrived in the emergency room with discrete, reparable problems – a broken leg, say, or a cranberry up the nose. If a patient had larger, underlying issues – if, for instance, the broken leg had been caused by dementia – his job was to ignore the issues or send the person somewhere else to deal with them, such as a nursing home. He took this new medical director job as a chance to do something different. The staff at Chase saw nothing especially problematic about the place, but Thomas with his newcomer’s eyes saw despair in every room. The nursing home depressed him. He wanted to fix it. At first, he tried to fix it the way that, as a doctor, he knew best. Seeing the residents so devoid of spirit and energy, he suspected that some unrecognised condition or improper combination of medicines might be afflicting them. So he set about doing physical examinations of the residents and ordering scans and tests and changing their medications. But, after several weeks of investigations and alterations, he had accomplished little except driving the medical bills up and making the nursing staff crazy. The nursing director talked to him and told him to back off. ‘I was confusing care with treatment,’ he told me. He didn’t give up, though. He came to think the missing ingredient in this nursing home was life itself, and he decided to try an experiment to inject some. The idea he came up with was as mad and naive as it was brilliant. That he got the residents and nursing home staff to go along with it was a minor miracle.

…Thomas believed that a good life was one of maximum independence. But that was precisely what the people in the home were denied. He got to know the nursing home residents. They had been teachers, shopkeepers, housewives and factory workers, just like people he had known growing up. He was sure something better must be possible for them. So, acting on little more than instinct, he decided to try to put some life into the nursing home the way that he had done in his own home – by literally putting life into it. If he could introduce plants, animals and children into the lives of the residents – fill the nursing home with them – what would happen?

More here.

Market-Driven Behavior

David Bromwich in The New York Times:

BookPaul Roberts thinks a society that wants it now is untenable, and he has written a prophecy to tell us why. He begins “The Impulse Society” with a parable: a visit to a rehab center for online gaming addicts. We come to see a player’s outlook, largely a matter of finding suitable opponents, may be changed by the recognition that there is more to life than that. But are we not all players, Roberts asks, when we surf the web and respond yes or no to the “choices” we are spoon-fed?

Though he writes in a neutral tone, Roberts sees that the dangers are great: “With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.” Our society, he fears, is in the process of enacting “the merger of self and market.” Part of the merger is involuntary. Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have supplied consumer data to the government, but Americans were never asked to approve the National Security Agency’s Prism and XKeyscore systems, which can record the movement of Internet users from site to site and the composition of emails from start to finish (including deletions). That extraordinary evolution of surveillance came from government and market together acting as a shepherd without the consent of the sheep. But if we are watched more than we realize, and more than we would like, it is also true that we have acquired an irrepressible eagerness to watch the lives of others. We pay to be the spectators of our own loss of privacy.

More here.