The bible of gentrification was a book that would come to be assigned in every urban history course in the country: Jane Jacobs’s brilliant TheDeath and Life of American Cities. But in the new urban context, it seemed lost on everyone that Jacobs was writing about the lingeringly industrial, racially mixed (if not exactly integrated) city of 1961, before the crisis. She had not imagined white collars replacing blue ones, and white people driving out black neighbors. But over the next generations, as liberal policy abandoned poverty reduction and the poor were pressed to the frayed edges of city centers, Jacobs’s vision of self-regulating communities and small neighborhoods gave ideological cover to a version of city life she had explicitly rejected: white-collar, service-economy cities oriented almost entirely toward consumption. In place of Jacobs’s supersubtle network of human contacts, we would get demographically homogenized cities that celebrated absolute simplicity as hominess. (Witness the proliferation of restaurants with single, “folksy” names: Egg, Can, The Farm, Home, Spoon, and—of course—Simple.)

I’m back in Brooklyn, coincidentally, and came across this passage in an old issue of N+1.  Trivia: ‘The “landed gentry” alluded to in “gentrification” emerged as a new class in England in the late eighteenth century—a group of petit bourgeois possessed of country estates, but lacking the economic clout of the true aristocracy.’

Shelf Life

I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

The Embassy Fortress

So it seems the State Department’s office that regulates embassies’ design standards is once again returning to, well, design principles. Though for the US government that means much more than just architectural style: “design” for the bureau of Overseas Building Operations also means security issues, costs, and other factors that have made American embassies so drab and so evocative of tone-deaf, aggressive, and bunker-mentality foreign policy. But look at their website! The future London embassy might not be Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi, but it’s better than Baghdad… and certainly Cairo too.

I’m reminded of a paper I wrote as a modernism-loving undergraduate in Poughkeepsie, where I took up the challenge of not only defending, but praising the most ostracized building on campus: the 1959 foreign language building designed by Paul Schweikher. Here it is in its heyday. The building has aged badly, lost the purity of its concrete, vaulted barrel roofline, lost an Alvar Aalto-inspired auditorium, had AC units put in all the windows, and the Erwin Hauer-designed sculptural screens have been neglected. What does this have to do with American embassies? The building — a self-promoted island for foreign language study removed from the campus — was of a headier era of American design principles and international aspirations, often expressed through modernism. The building was raised on a plinth, the image of modernist (elevated) separation. English was not to be spoken inside; only foreign languages, especially Russian, sitting at booths in a state-of-the-art electronic language lab.

The ideas behind a facility dedicated to modern language learning techniques grew out of the design competition and construction of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York. The expression of these aims through modernist architecture had been set with the new “world headquarters” in New York, drafted by an international team of architects led by American Wallace Harrison and constantly prodded and berated by Le Corbusier. In addition, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted high school and higher education funding for mathematics, sciences and foreign languages, pointed to the political age of high-minded American ideals, like training for the foreign service and prosperity through modernization and development.

The foreign language building in question was inspired by an unrealized design for a new American embassy in Amman, Jordan in 1954, by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph’s Amman embassy was a kind of modernist tent, and not nearly the modernism-meets-the-Orient of Josep Lluis Sert’s American embassy in Baghdad. But Rudolph’s design was rejected, apparently for being designed too much like a “fortress.” In 1954 an embassy in Jordan could not be removed from the city; in 1959 the foreign language building that it inspired opened on the edge of a prestigious women’s college campus, asserting its concrete separation from all the brick, ivy, and quadrangles.

All this is to say that I have a soft-spot, or maybe a misplaced nostalgia, for concrete modernism, or at least for the illusion of American foreign policy ideals that they might represent. Or maybe I just like the irony of Rudolph’s Amman embassy being rejected for the very reason that has dictated American embassy design for decades. But before I get carried away with this bit of news from the State Department: a change toward design does not mean that good architecture will prevail. Just look at the runners-up for the London embassy contest. Eager praise for unforgiving, 1950s high modernism aside, would the US ever approve a great embassy design like this, today?

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

Rosier US-Egyptian relations

A 1953 “Report from the Near East” via the Travel Film Archive on “how Egypt, Jordan and Iran were working with the U.S. to stabilize the Middle East in the early 1950s.” Through the lens of Julien Bryan. I have a soft spot for these old propaganda reels. Americans like to imagine their rosier relations with Egypt and the Arab world in the 1950s, signaled most of all by US intervention in Suez in 1956. Oh for the halcyon days of postwar aid and development! (Paging Daniel Lerner).

If the 58 years of foreboding in this film are any indicator, the Hashemites should be nervous, though I’m sure they already are.

In Our Orbit: Fair Warning

I have a book review in the current issue of The Nation, on Tom Engelhardt’s The American Way to War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so here’s the first paragraph. Why not subscribe, or even get a digital subscription to The Nation, so you can read subscriber only content like this, and support the magazine that this week exposed the hypocrisy of Lou Dobbs. Also read fellow ex-intern Nick Kusnetz’s second report on ALEC, the legislative lobby leading the fight against healthcare reform.

The embarrassing percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate sent to impose Sharia—or is it socialism?—from sea to shining sea should take a look at the Pentagon’s books. Earlier this year Obama, formerly the partial antiwar candidate, sent Congress the largest defense budget since World War II: $708 billion for the fiscal year 2011, a sum that surpassed the 2010 defense budget of $626 billion, which grew this spring by $33 billion—the initial outlay for an additional 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Nearly $160 billion of the 2011 budget (up from $128 billion in 2010) covers “Overseas Contingency Operations,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These bloated numbers, plus the less-reported budgets and contingencies that reveal themselves in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, are not just “part of Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington,” in Tom Engelhardt’s terms. They are also proof that “war is now the American way,” as he writes, “even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands.” At the outset of his damning new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket; $16.95), Engelhardt, a Nation Institute fellow, writes, “And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it.”

Continue reading at The Nation.

Sayyid Qutb, man of his era — The National

See the article as it appeared in print here (PDF).

During the Second World War, Sayyid Qutb commuted to his government job in central Cairo on a train that ran north from his home in the suburb of Helwan. Qutb worked as a school inspector, but was also a man of letters who wrote novels, poetry and criticism. The Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz later credited Qutb as one of two literary critics who had been “responsible for rescuing him from obscurity”: Qutb had praised Mahfouz’s early novel The Struggle of Thebes, an allegory of Egypt’s anti-colonial struggle against the British told through the ancient Egyptians’ battle with the Hyksos invaders. In an interview in the 1990s, Mahfouz remarked that “had it not been for his tendency to extremism,” Qutb “would have become the most important critic in Egypt.”

Needless to say, this is not the picture of Qutb that exists today. In the nine years since September 11, Qutb has been enshrined as the intellectual father of radical Islam, the man whose ideas explain the beliefs of the 19 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – the inspiration, in other words, for an entire generation of Salafi jihadists. But as the historian John Calvert writes, in an extensive and vital new biography, the consensus that “the road to 9/11 traces back” directly to Qutb is ill-founded, based on a limited understanding of Qutb himself and an oversimplified account of the evolution of political Islam.

“Read backwards from the event of 9/11,” Calvert writes, “these accounts enfold Qutb in the al Qa’eda mantle in an attempt to make the variegated history of the Islamic movement into a cohesive narrative.” Relying on “short cuts” ignores a complex history and “subordinates particulars to an essential and enduring identity.” Against the anti-Muslim catcalls of right-wing politicians and “liberal hawk” writers like Paul Berman, who style themselves defenders of western culture against a singular Islamic tide, Calvert reads as a refreshing and scholarly rebuke: “Just as it makes no sense to confuse the outlook of Hamas, an organisation focused on redeeming land lost to Israel, with the pan-Islamism of al Qa’eda, so too is it unwise to assume a direct link between Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden.”

How did a writer and educator from Egypt’s new, urban middle class, whose early biography matches that of the cosmopolitan secularist Mahfouz, become an Islamist dissident who railed against – and was executed by – Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of the post-colonial Arab world? Calvert finds an answer in the social and political upheavals that convulsed Egypt in the middle of the 20th century. In careful prose, backed by volumes of archival research, Calvert situates the development of Qutb’s radicalism against the colonial and post-colonial struggles that framed the Second World War – a time when the Middle East was a hotbed of pan-Arab and Third-Worldist social movements in opposition to imperialism, Communism and the Cold War.

Calvert treats Qutb as a subject of history in his own right, and not merely as an “Islamo-fascist” caricature; and in so doing represents Qutb as an example of the possibilities and uncertainties of his era. In Calvert’s narrative, we trace Qutb’s development from transplanted villager and young, mostly secular nationalist in Cairo to budding Muslim reformer who described Islam as an economic, social and political corrective to the region’s malaise – from King Farouq’s acceptance of Britain’s hold over Egypt to the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.

In 1948, after Qutb formalised his ideological shift by completing Social Justice in Islam, his first major Islamist work, he left for America on a government-sponsored trip to study America’s education system. He was 42. In the popular narrative of Qutb’s radicalisation, these two years – in particular his time in Greeley, Colorado – ignited an anger at the West that he carried home. But as Calvert argues: “Qutb’s American experience reinforced, rather than provoked, the development of his Islamist sentiment.” He saw America as shallow, materialist, the vacuous Other to his own virtuous Self. Calvert retells this sojourn in detail. Qutb visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ten times to stare at the same French painting, “bothered” that so many Americans ignored it. He also confessed to liking American films; Qutb may have been celibate, Calvert writes, but he “singled out two stormy romances, Gone with the Wind and Wuthering Heights.”

As Egypt grew restless in the lead-up to the 1952 revolution, Qutb’s views hardened into a Third World leftism that placed Egypt in a transnational community of the “Muslim East”. After King Farouq sailed out of Alexandria, the Free Officers courted Qutb, eager to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into the fold, though he had not yet joined the Brothers. He did so the next year, in 1953, to take his side in a quickly deteriorating relationship between the new regime and the Brotherhood. A year later Nasser capitalised on a failed assassination attempt to round up the Brotherhood and neutralise his Islamist opponents.

Qutb spent nearly a decade in Tura prison. In foul conditions and under the tortuous treatment of Egypt’s police, his radicalism was fully formed. Displaying his scars to a court in 1955, he declared: “Abdel Nasser has applied to us in jail the principles of the revolution.” In this time he wrote Milestones, a short, radical text in which Western materialism and contemporary Arab society are cast as signs of modern jahiliyya or ignorance, a term meant to connote pre-Islamic Arabia. He included both secular pan-Arab governments and the prevailing religious order in his damning critique. Based on a voluminous study of the Quran that he also completed while incarcerated, Milestones popularised Qutb’s view of Islam as a complete societal and moral system for Egypt and the wider ummah.

After a brief release in 1964, Qutb was imprisoned again in another government sweep against the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which had reformed and plotted a government overthrow. Nasser was wary of making him a martyr, but when Qutb refused the “Pharaoh’s” offer of clemency, he was hanged in 1966. It had taken the government six months to ban Milestones, then on its fifth printing. Qutb’s death, and the subsequent failure of Nasserism after Israel’s victory in 1967, shook a generation of young people, among them Ayman al Zawahiri, a 15-year-old living in Maadi who went on to help found the Islamist group that assassinated Anwar Sadat. When Zawahiri was detained after Sadat’s death, he and other perpetrators were tortured, and their courtroom testimony echoed Qutb’s own experience under Nasser.

Qutb’s ideology did not spring unaltered from the Quran, despite his religious devotion, but was an articulated response to his age. Like Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was a kind of rebel layman, writing and preaching like an evangelist against al Azhar, Cairo’s thousand-year old seat of Sunni learning, which Nasser co-opted. He argued that any Muslim could learn fiqh or religious understanding; divine interpretation was not the sole property of the ulema. His death made him a martyr, and it is through his imprisonment and execution that the extent of his influence ought to be understood. Qutb’s Radical Islamism “is a fundamental, though disturbing aspect of the modern experience of Muslims,” Calvert concludes, “anchored in the historical record of suppression by imperialist outsiders.”

The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen recently reproached both The Economist and the historian Eugene Rogan for writing about Qutb’s centrality to modern political Islam without a mention of his anti-Semitism – in particular his book Our Struggle with the Jews. The book, Calvert writes, is a paranoid, reductive effort by Qutb to graft the historic discord between the Jews and early Muslims of Medina, told in the Quran, onto the Arabs’ modern-day struggle against Zionism. It is propaganda of a textual fundamentalist, which Qutb was. But remarking on it or not should not define all commentary on Qutb. Similarly, that the nihilists of al Qa’eda have adopted Qutb’s discourse of jahiliyya does not mean that Qutb would have endorsed its horrific programme. He never advocated killing innocents and despite invoking worldwide “ignorance” never labelled people kafirs.

Despite his discontents with America, Qutb would probably have been disturbed by September 11. Bin Laden and Zawahiri reversed the order of Qutb’s theory regarding societal and systemic change, Calvert argues, “which advocated as a first step the eradication of the perceived corruption at home”. More central to Qutb’s struggle and the durability of his radical message, therefore, is the fact that it was Nasser – Egypt’s first modern autocrat – who put him to death.

Source URL at the National.

The Nation – Roadblocks to Damascus

July 2, 2010 – The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria’s response to Israel’s unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that’s only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region’s busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford’s nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”

Read the rest of the piece at The Nation.

The Nation – Terrorist TV?

In this week’s issue of The Nation, I have a short piece on an absurd and misplaced bit of legislation that will hopefully soon die in the Senate, despite its overwhelming passage in the House. The full link is here, but it is behind a subscriber firewall — more reason to subscribe?

TERRORIST TV? In December the House passed a bill to sanction and label as terrorists Arab satellite providers that air “anti-American incitement to violence in the Middle East.” Though the bill targets the channels of Hamas, Hezbollah and other designated terrorist organizations, its broad language has been criticized as an attack on media expression in the Arab world.

Barely reported in the American press, the proposed legislation has simmered in Arabic newspapers and talk shows. In late January Arab information ministers met in Cairo, where they summarily denounced the bill, although the Arab League has been mulling over its own plans for increased satellite censorship.

HR 2278 defines anti-American incitement to violence as “the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States.” The bill directs the president to submit an annual report to Congress with “a country-by-country list and description of media outlets that engage in anti-American incitement to violence” as well as a list of the satellite providers that carry such broadcasts.

But it is the provision to tag as terrorists “satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists” that rattles observers. “Take something like Khaled Meshal, who’s the political leader of Hamas,” Marc Lynch, an Arab media specialist at George Washington University, told WNYC. “No self-respecting Arab TV station can afford to not interview him. So if they’re going to define any contact with Khaled Meshal as incitement to anti-American violence, then pretty much every TV station would have something to fear.”

Reporters Without Borders condemned the resolution as “discriminatory” and lacking “clarity.” The bill “contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage,” the organization said in a statement.

The bill passed by a wide margin of 395-3 in the House. The “nays” were two Texans, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Ron Paul, and Democrat Mike Honda of California. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is reviewing the measure.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History

From Historical Travel on The Faster Times.

First Obama named the first ambassador to Damascus in five years. Then the State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria – though not the 30-year State Sponsor of Terrorism tag. In a week of overdue warming, some observers might look to business next, even if Obama renewed economic sanctions last year.

Syria’s economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy.” Tourism is a quickly developed and expanding market already, even if it’s Middle Eastern and European investments pouring in and not American dollars.

Almost monthly for the past year or so, a travel section somewhere chalks up Damascus as the next Marrakesh, promotes Aleppo as a historic crossroads once again welcoming Westerners, or sings about Palmyra, Zenobia’s desert city on the silk road near Iraq. Americans visit, though in far fewer numbers than the French or Belgian, though the end of the State Department travel warning for Syria might change things. Or not… mind the reasoning of State:

“The current series of travel warnings were enacted in September 2006 following an attack against the Embassy, and were not based upon Syria being designated as a State Sponsor of Terror. Being a State Sponsor of Terrorism is not a basis for a travel warning.”

Syria has other designations, though, like history, something I wrote about at length in the Faster Times back in December. Travel dispatches from there can reference so many things, though they almost always hinge on the same: anecdotes of the old and exotic East, quite Orientalist pictures of ancient markets and mosques.

Syria has those, sure. It has a lot of other things, outside the cities, beyond the Crusader castles that represent more than a “reminder that conflict between Islam and the West stretches back centuries.”

A somewhat shorter historical view – the 19th century – presents a more immediate bit of Syrian travel and history in light of the news that an American envoy will return to a state for decades at odds with the US. The Embassy has been without its head since 2005, when the US withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb death of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

It’s a story about a Christian notable from Lebanon who became America’s first consul in Damascus in 1859. He witnessed a massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860, a sordid event in the city’s long history.

Read the rest at Historical Travel on the Faster Times.

Image via Wikipedia Commons: “Anonymous Venetian Orientalist painting, ‘The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus,’ 1511, the Louvre.”

Obama names Ford

Finally, after leaked names and anonymous diplomatic sources and wide spread reporting (including some of my own for The Nation), Obama has formally nominated Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years.

More news to come, I hope, to support this bit of optimism. Let’s hope he is confirmed and the Senate doesn’t grandstand too much on the overdue diplomatic thaw between Syria and the US.

1859 Photo of the American Vice Consul to Damascus, Mikhayil Mishaqa, via MidEastImage.

Historical Travel and Molasses

I’ve just launched a new beat at The Faster Times, for their Faster Travel section, called Historical Travel. The working tag-line is “far-flung destination chronicles and the Delphic past.” Historical narratives will be posted, along with original stories and columns by me on a range of travel subjects, all from the angle of history, ideally the strange and less-known cultural or social variety. I ought to say outright that the wonderful Atlas Obscura has already set a foundation for web coverage of what they dub “A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica.” Historical Travel will not aspire to that, but be more grounded in history while keeping an eye on the marvelous, revealing, ambiguous, Delphic past as a way to cover travel and travel writing. Please visit!

My inaugural post is on the 1919 Molasses Disaster (or Flood, or Explosion) that rocked my home town of Boston. It begins:

A wave of molasses, bursting from an exploded steel tank at thirty-five miles per hour, smothered two city blocks in Boston’s North End on a warm January in 1919. The strange disaster killed twenty-one and injured 150; an elevated train track buckled, a train derailed, buildings collapsed and a truck flew into Boston Harbor.

Molasses, the sweetener of the day and a prime ingredient for rum and industrial alcohol, was stored in a massive but shoddily made tank on the waterfront of one of the Boston’s most crowded and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Built by the Purity Distilling Company, it apparently leaked so much that its owners painted it brown to mask the drip of molasses, which local residents collected and used in their tenements.

More here.

Back to Damascus?

With the long overdue news that the US is sending an ambassador back to Syria, I wrote a short piece for this week’s issue of The Nation. It’s behind a subscriber firewall online, so eschewing the idea for paid online content, I’m pasting the story below. Although you should probably just go out and buy the magazine if you can. Mostly to read Lawrence Lessig’s cover story.

BACK TO DAMASCUS? Washington has nominated Robert Ford, a career Foreign Service officer, as its ambassador to Syria, a post that has been vacant since the United States withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Syria denied any involvement.)

Ford, currently deputy ambassador to Iraq, was ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. He ran a Coalition Provisional Authority office in Najaf in 2003, and from 2004 to 2006 he was a political officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he helped draft Iraq’s new Constitution, establish the transitional government and oversee elections in 2005.

The appointment of a career officer who speaks Arabic represents a shift for Obama, who has often chosen well-heeled friends and contributors for ambassadorial posts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of November twenty-four nominees were high-profile campaign “bundlers” who corralled more than $10 million for Obama. About half of all ninety-nine nominees either donated to Obama, other Democratic candidates or the Democratic Party.

Sending Ford to Damascus is part of the administration’s effort to back up Obama’s fleeting Cairo oratory. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted an unnamed American official saying, “Washington wants to help in launching direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel in the next few months.” But Joshua Landis, a regional expert who runs the popular Syria Comment blog, is not so sure. “The Syrians I have spoken to are skeptical that [negotiations] can lead to anything but frustration,” he said. “Netanyahu is not giving any ground to the Palestinians and there’s no reason to expect him to give ground to the Syrians.”

Reopening the ambassador’s residence is a step, not a solution. After all, last year Obama renewed harsh economic sanctions on Syria that were imposed by George W. Bush. And Syria holds the dubious distinction of being Washington’s oldest designated state sponsor of terrorism–since 1979.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

From The Nation.

Avi Shlaim, Abraham Burg and Ian Black on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English’s talk programs are so much better than CNN, among others. Too bad it’s barely available here in the United States. Here in this program of Empire, Shlaim, Burg and Black discuss whether Israel is involved in a colonial war, how quickly Obama has failed to live up to his Cairo speech vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and settlements, and other such topics that the US media would never touch. Have to say, the moderator Marwan Bishara still has to fill the void of semi-annoying host.

Mrs. Clinton’s statement was intended to clarify her remarks in Jerusalem, which had left some of her aides nonplused because she had not voiced the administration’s official position that settlements are illegitimate.

Though not a core subject in peace negotiations, Jewish settlements are a charged issue for Israelis and Palestinians because they involve building in areas that both claim as their ancestral lands.

How not to start the day: read bits like this in the Old Gray Lady, wonder why they go to pains to misinform. The words occupation, occupied land, international law, violation of international law, land seized in war, illegal annexation and the like were axed, because the Times doesn’t want you to think of the conflict like that. It’s about ancestral land claims and, in fact, colonies housing a half million Jews on the occupied West Bank (very much including East Jerusalem) are not a core subject in this nebulous thing called the peace process. No, they’re not.

Instead read this interview with Rashid Khalidi on He says very clearly what many others have on the need to negotiate confront the settlements:

The point is, though,that settlements were designed expressly to make a negotiated resolution of this conflict impossible. We have to accept this. They’re not just there because they happened to grow like mushrooms on hilltops. They were scientifically planned so as to cut Jerusalem off from its hinterland. They were scientifically planned to cut the West Bank into pieces. They were scientifically planned to prevent movement from point A to point B. As long as these objectives are achieved, there’s not a West Bank state. There is not sovereignty, there is not contiguity, there is not economic viability.These huge settlements have to either be removed or enormously shrunk or subjected to some other arrangement whereby the objectives for which they were established are defeated. I’m sure it would be hard for an Israeli government but otherwise you won’t have a deal, or you’ll have a deal that collapses immediately and then everybody will go back and say “well we told you so.” I’m telling you now, if you don’t deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won’t have a viable deal.”

Read Mondoweiss


An excellent blog on Middle Eastern politics and ideas. Recently, it posted this analysis of the lack of coverage and courage in leading American papers on the fallout of the Goldstone report and the continued legacy of Israel’s war on Gaza on the left in America (that is, its vaunted editors and writers don’t want to talk about it. One exception being Harper’s) :

The New York Times is covering the Goldstone Report. Where is it covering it? Well: the furor over the report among Palestinians. We’re pretty sure this is a good story. Neil MacFarquhar is on it. But it’s really not The Story, it’s just an angle of a hugely-important international story, and the only angle the Times is covering.

Here’s what the Times refuses to cover:

–the furor over the Goldstone report on the part of the Israel lobby in the U.S., and the pressure it’s put on the Obama administration, number one. Even J Street has been quiet about the Goldstone report, while it puts out a statement applauding an Israeli Nobelist.

–and what about the political jockeying over the report, the decision by the Obama administration to bury it and make the Palestinian Authority do the dirty work? Important story. Nothing. Mike Hanna of the Century Foundation said two weeks ago that the report’s troubling findings were going to be very “tricky” diplomatically for the Obama administration. He was right. He knows what’s gone down. Why isn’t the Times calling him for comment?

–the incredible discomfort that Goldstone, a Jewish judge who denounced apartheid, has created among liberal American Jews who know that Gaza was a horror but are afraid to face these facts. Nine dead Israelis, 1400 dead Palestinians: of whom the majority were civiilans. The Israelis destroyed the only remaining flour mill, destroyed chicken farms with bulldozers, and dropped white phosphorus on children. American Jews were never silent about napalm in Vietnam. Here they are tonguetied and helpless, and the Times is helping them to avoid this important question by suppressing the news.

–Nothing in the Times about the many Jews here who have supported Goldstone, including Jews Say No!

–No editorial yet in the Times.

This is about discourse suppression. It is related to the fact that the New Yorker, the leading cranial IV for the Establishment, has said nothing at all about Gaza in 10 months. No: Gaza and the persecution of the Palestinians there is an untidy embarrassment to  the liberal Establishment.

The New Republic has actually been more responsible than the Times and the New Yorker here. By publishing raving maniacs like Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi, it has at least informed its readers where it hurts, that this is ideologically disputed territory. The Times has told its readers, Only Palestinians care about this. More mush from the wimp.

One other point. Mainstream liberals are quick to call for people to speak out on Third World countries and once upon a time in Eastern Europe when human rights are suppressed. It’s easy to condemn the Soviet Writers Union or ministries in Africa for not speaking out against genocide. What’s hard is to report and speak out on issues that cause your own readers to squirm. The true measure of intellectual courage is, you go ahead and do it anyway. The Washington Post, the Times, the New Yorker and others have failed this test.

The photo is of posters in Gaza, which read “To the trash dump of history, o traiter Mahmud Abbas.” From Reuters, via the Angry Arab.

‘Bill Clinton is Syrian’ and other tales of Obama’s speech from Damascus

The traffic flowed through Damascus last Thursday, peaking as always in the early afternoon. There was little buzz about President Obama in Cairo, and given all the packed taxis and microbuses clogging the street, it was a typical day in Damascus – and no special arrangements to watch the speech.

“Of course I know,” taxi driver Adnan replied when asked about Obama’s visit to Cairo University. “He was in Saudi yesterday.”

The oil-rich kingdom is hardly popular here, owing to its mass accumulation of crude cash, its support for Sunni fundamentalism, and its closeness with America.

“Obama goes to Saudi, he goes to Egypt. He goes to Turkey and soon enough he’ll go to Israel,” Adnan complained. “But he doesn’t come here.”

Before an American ambassador returns to Damascus, before US sanctions are lifted, average Syrians will likely continue to ignore gestures of American oratory and reconciliation.

More of my recent HuffPost.


American-made death squads

Another side of the American remaking of Iraq, from the Nation:

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.


Better reactions to Obama

Sifting through all the reaction pieces — and posting here for the first time in a while — I found this op-ed by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif

The Egyptian state is doing pomp, and relieved (because of the security lockdown) of traffic and noise Cairo is playing along: the morning light is clear and free of dust, the flame trees are magnificent with their crowns of red massed flowers.

Writers life Soueif often make the best commentators:

Obama did what many of us hoped he would not do: he accorded faith a central position in the relationship between our different parts of the world: rather than human beings with different histories and different political interests and ambitions – and despite a quick acknowledgment of colonialism – we were essentially people of different faiths who would now make nice with each other. And such is our beleaguered state of mind here in this part of the world that every time he quoted the Qur’an, he was applauded. But then again, it seemed that it was the same 200 or so people who were putting their hands together – to less effect each time.

Also on the Guardian’s website was this op-ed by Ali Abuminah. Cheers for the British press. 

Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact….

… Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a justification for the creation of Israel. “It is also undeniable,” the president said, “that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

Syria e-mailing, etc.

That Syrian nuclear plant bombed by Israel last year was probably built with American money. Seymour Hersh quoted emails from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the New Yorker. It was a strange news week. On the latter, much of Hersh’s piece was full of the usual quotes from connected sources, though there wasn’t a huge amount of revelation. The best part, in my mind, combined substance with discrete Syrian charms:

Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?” Shara laughed, and added, “That’s my answer to your question about Iran.”

Harper’s Weekly Review

Which I read in an email digest for writing like this:

Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa. In Angola he warned against witchcraft, corruption, and condoms, and two girls were trampled to death at a stadium where he appeared. “I entrust them to Jesus,” he said, “so that he welcomes them into his kingdom.” Pygmies in Cameroon built a ceremonial hut outside the apostolic nunciature in Yaounde and presented the Pope with a basket, a cloth mat, and a turtle. A 34-year-old army-backed DJ, Andry Rajoelina, was inaugurated as president of Madagascar, dissolved parliament, and promised to hold elections within two years. A pink baby elephant was discovered in Botswana. A massive earthquake off Tonga triggered an underwater volcanic eruption that unleashed a 13-mile-high plume of smoke. “We are quite lucky,” said Tonga’s chief seismologist, “not to get a tsunami.”

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