Archive for June, 2013

Reading Albert Camus in Taksim Square (photo: George Henton/Al Jazeera)

Reading Albert Camus in Taksim Square (photo: George Henton/Al Jazeera)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

The above photo is borrowed from this great slide show on the Al Jazeera website, “The Taksim Square Book Club,” of standing men and women protesters reading books. Check it out. I’ve been very impressed lately by Turkish civil society and the forms of contestation that are being developed there.

Check out as well Jenna Pope’s pics in her blog post “The Turkish uprising: First-hand experiences from an American photographer.”

Claire Berlinski has an excellent article in City Journal, “Notes on the Turkish Troubles: America’s muted response is both confusing and disheartening.” Her critique of the US response to what’s been happening in Turkey is nuanced and on the mark.

See also Claire’s fine running commentary, on a site called The Tower, that carries the unfortunate title (not of her doing) “The Gezi Diaries: Can we still call Turkey civilized?,” in which, entre autres, she skewers

every single lazy journalist and policy wonk, professional sycophant, diplomat and idiot pundit who’s never so much as visited this place, the duly-funded social scientists and craven Western politicians and everyone else who for years swallowed Erdoğan’s nonsense and helped to manufacture the fantasy that Turkey was getting more and more democratic by the day.

I’m curious to know who some of these “duly-funded social scientists” are (perhaps I know one or two).

The policy wonks who have aroused Claire’s ire cannot include Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress, who, in a first-rate analysis, assures us that “Erdoğan is gone, way gone.” Inshallah.

On the FP website, Istanbul-based journalist Piotr Zalewski discusses “The Protocols of the Interest Rate Lobby.” The lede: “Whether it’s shadowy bankers, America, Israel, or Iran, there’s no end to the conspiracy theories spun by the Turkish prime minister’s supporters — and their opponents.” Make sure to watch the bit from the episode of the ‘Ekip 1’ TV soap opera he links to. One does not need to understand Turkish (which I don’t) to get the gist. It’s a doozy.

In this vein, see the piece in Al-Monitor by Istanbul-based writer Amberin Zaman, “Foreign journalists called conspirators in Turkish protests.”

ScienceInsider has an interview with Sabancı University astrophysicist Mehmet Ali Alpar, the head of Turkey’s new science academy, Bilim Akademisi—formed by scientists who resigned from the Turkish Academy of Sciences after the government took control of it in 2011—, who speaks out on the protest movement.

UCLA doctoral candidate Timur Hammond has an update from Turkey, “The past present: Turkey, Erdoğan, and the Gezi protests,” on the website of the journal Society and Space: Environment and Planning D.

On The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ site, Istanbul publisher Can Oz (pronounced ‘John’, for those not acquainted with the Turkish alphabet) says “I can never trust the Turkish police and government again. For years I did not speak up enough, but no more. I could lose everything, but I cannot live a dishonorable life any longer.”

And finally, in a post aimed at non-Turkish readers, blogger Ali Kıncal explains “Turkey’s protests: What really triggered them and why they will continue.”

My ongoing posts on Turkey will continue, you may be sure of that.

UPDATE: McGill doctoral candidate Michael Ferguson has a most interesting article in Jadaliyya on “White Turks, Black Turks, and Negroes: The politics of polarization,” in which he discusses Erdoğan’s politics of class resentment and its racialized metaphors, and how Erdoğan has denigrated the country’s Afro-Turk community while stoking up that resentment.

2nd UPDATE: Turkey-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller has a very good article on The White Review website, “Occupy Gezi: from the fringes to the centre and back again.”

3rd UPDATE: Another interesting post by Zeynep Tufekci on the Technosociology blog: “‘Come, come, whoever you are’. As a pluralist movement emerges from Gezi Park in Turkey.”

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Anti-gay marriage demonstration, Paris, March 24 2013 (photo: Thomas Samson/AFP)

Anti-gay marriage demonstration, Paris, March 24 2013 (photo: Thomas Samson/AFP)

[update below]

This is my first post on the French gay marriage controversy—which is settled, it’s done and finished الحمد لله—and likely my last. I stayed away from the issue and generally avoided discussing it, as I was somewhat conflicted and it’s admittedly not one at the center of my preoccupations. I’m all for civil unions and strongly supported the PACS when it was enacted back in ’99 but wasn’t sure about gays marrying au même titre as heteros or, above all, adopting children—though having read some of the well-considered arguments for and against the mariage pour tous law I finally came down for it. I also felt that President Hollande was wasting time on what was mainly a symbolic issue (as the number of people directly concerned by it is very small); on this I agreed with Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who regretted that Hollande was distracting himself with secondary issues such as the mariage pour tous when there were, objectively speaking, far more important matters at hand and of much greater concern to French people in their majority (i.e. the economy and unemployment).

I have found a couple of aspects of the controversy interesting. One was the opposition to the mariage pour tous of a not insignificant minority of people on the left—including in my personal entourage, and younger as well as older—, which I cannot imagine in the US (the virulence of my numerous lefty American friends—personal and FB—on the gay marriage issue is striking, plus students who are not necessarily on the left). It reminds me of the Islamic headscarf issue and the 2004 French law; American liberals and leftists almost unanimously disapprove of the law when it comes up in discussion and are surprised, even stunned, to hear French leftists strongly defend it (I’m recounting personal experience here).

À propos, David A. Bell of Princeton University has a good article on the Foreign Affairs website, “Liberté, Égalité, but Not Homosexualité: Why French Feminists Are Fighting Gay Marriage,” on the opposition in France to the law and how the arguments differ from those in America. It begins

The only thing clear right now about the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision on the Defense of Marriage Act — the law that bars the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages — is that Americans will read the verdict as the latest salvo in a long-running culture war. But it is worth remembering that this is a culture war that is increasingly being fought internationally — and often in terms that do not line up with the debate in the United States. Americans have become accustomed to thinking of the argument against gay marriage as being motivated by religious conservatism. But that is not necessarily true elsewhere.

France offers an instructive example. Although 60 percent of the public supports gay marriage, the country has been beset by vitriolic protests since the National Assembly narrowly passed a marriage equality law last spring. From a distance, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets may have seemed little different from the evangelical activists often seen at similar demonstrations in the United States. But Americans would be surprised to discover how different their motivations often are.

Key passages

…opponents of marriage equality in France’s mainstream parties have mostly kept their distance from religious groups. Relatively few of the street protesters interviewed by reporters talk of God, wave the Bible, or have verses from Leviticus tattooed on their arms. (Which should come as no surprise, given that France is a largely secular place, where barely half the population even still identifies itself as Catholic and regular religious attendance does not even reach ten percent.) Indeed, the most prominent opposition has come from the ranks of professional groups such as law professors and psychoanalysts, whose U.S. counterparts generally favor marriage equality by large margins. A considerable number of public intellectuals have also expressed loud opposition to the law, including the essayist Alain Finkielkraut, the novelist Jean d’Ormesson, and the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski (the wife of former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin)…

…in truth, the extent of opposition to marriage equality has at least as much to do with the vexed and tortuous story of a quintessentially modern phenomenon: French feminism.

Americans often think of France as a country well disposed to feminism, thanks to the pioneering writings of Simone de Beauvoir and others. And the reputation is not without reason. Abortion has been legal in France since 1975, and French women enjoy paid maternity leave and subsidized child care. In June 2000, the French Parliament passed a law without parallel in the United States (although quickly watered it down) mandating that political parties designate women as half of all their candidates for elected office.

Feminist issues have also divided the French intellectual world, however, and the disputes have strongly influenced how the marriage equality issue has played out. An important current of French thought, which has no real American equivalent, has maintained that while women deserve equal rights, these rights must not entail the supposed erasure of sexual difference. Historians and philosophers such as Mona Ozouf and Philippe Raynaud have seen a particular threat in American-style protections against sexual harassment, which they have labeled “sexual Stalinism.” The sociologist Irène Théry has called for a féminisme à la française that acknowledges the “asymmetrical pleasures of seduction.” The philosopher Sylviane Agacinski goes so far as to call sexual difference the true basis for sexual equality in law. The “parity” in elections demanded by the 2000 law, in her view, reflected the natural division of the human race into complementary male and female halves. Other feminists countered that the law should pay no attention to gender beyond guaranteeing equal rights for all…

This strong emphasis on the complementary roles of men and women has had a remarkable effect on the French marriage debate. Unlike in the United States, most opponents of marriage equality have had relatively little to say about the morality of homosexual sex acts, or about threats to the “institution of marriage” in general. Instead, they speak above all about children, insisting that a psychologically healthy family life rests on the union of a man and woman. Back in 1999, when the French Parliament approved a form of civil union, much of the opposition centered on this issue.

This spring, precisely the same concerns have dominated the manifestos against “marriage for all” issued by groups of law professors and psychologists. And interviews with ordinary protesters have shown just how effectively the arguments of philosophers have filtered down to street level, with one figure after another explaining their opposition to the reform in the same way. To quote a popular protest banner: “Un père et une mère c’est élémentaire” (“A father and a mother is elementary”). And the 60 percent support for same-sex marriage has not changed the fact that a majority still favors banning child adoption by homosexual couples. In short, although religion and homophobia obviously fed into the recent protests, the rhetoric employed by the opposition has trickled down from the intellectuals (as one might, indeed, expect in France)…

A second aspect of the gay marriage controversy I found interesting was the significant number of young people who were involved in the social movement it spawned on the right and the massive street demonstrations that were organized (and demos not being a part of French right-wing culture). The April 18th Le Monde had an article on this, “Une génération de droite se construit contre le mariage gay.” The lede: “Pour beaucoup de jeunes manifestants, le mouvement est un acte fondateur.” Here are passages I underlined

Pour Carol [Ardent, candidat à l’agrégation de lettres, et responsable du blog Le Rouge et le Noir], si les jeunes sont si mobilisés, c’est d’abord parce que leur génération est touchée par les divorces des parents. «Beaucoup d’entre nous ont souffert de l’absence d’équilibre père-mère et nous sommes conscients des dégâts que cela peut causer.»

The (right-wing) demonstrators got a little taste of the French police and the way they go about their job

La violence ? Il faut la chercher du côté de la police : «J’ai vu des jeunes filles de 22 ans, tout au plus, menottées violemment alors qu’elles étaient inoffensives, raconte Louis-Joseph Gannat, devant l’Assemblée nationale. Il ne faudra pas s’étonner si le mouvement se radicalise après ça.»

Ha! So now right-wingers—some of them, at least—know what it’s like to be manhandled by the police and treated poorly, even when one hasn’t broken any law…

And then there’s this, from a 22-year old law student, who denounces

une atmosphère «cathophobe» et affirme avoir perdu beaucoup d’amis «qui ne sont pas ouverts au dialogue» depuis son engagement tardif, en janvier.

Un sentiment revient en boucle : les jeunes opposants au mariage pour tous n’acceptent pas de voir leur engagement «caricaturé», réduit à une démarche violente et homophobe par les politiques et les journalistes. «On nous dénigre, estime Clémence Grosjean, jeune professeure d’histoire-géographie.  Il y a un ras-le-bol de ne pas être pris au sérieux. On nous a traités de fascistes mais je n’ai pas envie de mettre fin à la République ou à la démocratie !»

A “cathophobe”—i.e. anti-Catholic—atmosphere. Earlier this year a student (French, bright) in one of my Master’s courses spoke emphatically during a class discussion—on the culture of French laïcité—of what he considered to be a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in France, with practicing Catholics being stigmatized. He said that this was even true for students in private Catholic schools, with those who opt to take catechism—an elective class in schools sous contrat—being made fun of by their peers. He was seconded by a couple of other students, one an Italian, who recounted his own story of what he felt was a prevailing anti-Catholicism in France. Very interesting. As I tend not to frequent regular church-going people (or regular mosque or temple-going), I had no idea.

The Le Monde article concludes with a quote from a student about how the anti-mariage pour tous movement has forged a new generation of activists on the right, in much the same way as the anti-CPE movement did for young people on the left (and the anti-FN movement of the 1990s). One thing is for sure: the right in France is more mobilized these days than is the left. And will likely continue to be in the coming two or three years.

UPDATE: Richard Posner has a good essay in TNR on “How gay marriage became legitimate.” (July 24)

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Standing men and women, Kadıköy, June 18 2013 (photo: Stephen Freer)

Standing men and women, Kadıköy, June 18 2013 (photo: Stephen Freer)

[update below]

Latest links.

Journalist Nicholas Birch has an article (h/t Claire B.) in The Majalla explaining that “The alternatives to Erdoğan offer more of the same,” in which he disabuses those—myself included—who may be trying to see in Gül or Arınç an AKP alternative to Erdoğan. They’re like the sympathetic mother (Gül, Arınç) and the stern father (Erdoğan), so Birch suggests. When dad is away—as Erdoğan was for four days in the Maghreb a couple of weeks ago—mom is there to comfort, but when dad gets home he retakes charge and mom stifles herself. As for Fethullah Gülen, BTW, he is much more on the same page with RTE than he is not, despite some differences between the two.

On the Al Jazeera website, Umut Özkırımlı, professor of contemporary Turkish studies at Lund U. in Sweden, has an interesting analysis of “The odour of Gezi: On the dangers of crass populism,” in which he asserts that “The Gezi protests have shown us that ‘White Turk elitism’ has created its own Frankenstein – ‘Black Turk populism’.”

Translated into American, “black Turks” are akin to “real Americans,” mainly from the Red State heartland—hard working, pious, conservative, etc—and with Erdoğan their Sarah Palin (on steroids); “white Turks” are the elitist liberals, who live on the Upper West Side, Chicago’s Hyde Park, San Francisco, Boulder, Madison, etc. C’est ça.

À propos, Jonathon Burch of Reuters reports that “In Turkey’s pious heartland, protests seem world away.” The dispatch is datelined Konya, which is—no offense to Konya—Turkey’s Tulsa Oklahoma. The Konyans generally don’t approve of what’s happening in Gezi Park.

FWIW, Canadian analyst Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya—who has some liaisons dangereuses and may be a bit louche—has a report on a website called Global Research on “The tale of a Turkish summer: is there a link between ‘Occupy Gezi’ and the IMF?

And Richard Weitz, in a pretty good take in The Turkey Analyst on the Obama administration’s reaction to what’s been happening, says that “Turkey protests rattle Washington.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Yegane Güley of Öztürk & Partners in Istanbul has a must read article (h/t Claire B.) in The Lawyer, “Protests in Turkey: a lawyer’s experience.” Money quote

The blind eye to Gezi Park legal proceedings is only one example of Erdogan’s “rule of law”. Constitutional amendments on 12 September 2010 provided him with the tools to redesign the judiciary and the legal system and having achieved this, he is now simply uncontrollable. If a court’s decision is not what Erdogan or his clan wants then the judges sitting to hear that particular case are replaced by those who will have the decisions the prime minister wants.

And in Slate, Istanbul-based writer Jenna Krajeski has an article on pious women in the Taksim Square movement, “‘Our Sisters in Headscarves’: In Turkey, both sides want to claim religious women as their own.”

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Emine, Tayyip & Angela, Istanbul, March 29 2010  (photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Emine, Tayyip & Angela, Istanbul, March 29 2010
(photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

Europe edition.

Reuters had a dispatch on Thursday on “Turkey warn[ing] Germany not to play politics over EU entry talks,” which quotes Turkish EU affairs minister Egemen Bağış trash talking Angela Merkel, who has criticized the Turkish govt’s response to the protest movement

If Mrs Merkel is looking for domestic political material for her elections, that material should not be Turkey…If Mrs Merkel looks into it she will see that those who mess about with Turkey do not have an auspicious end…

Yeah, don’t mess with Turkey. Or else…

The prospect of Turkey joining the EU in the coming decade has been looking increasingly improbable these past two or three years but with this kind of talk—not to mention the fallout of the protests—, I would say the probability has lessened that much further.

And then there’s this report of PM Erdoğan “declar[ing] that foreign-led conspirators he alleges are behind the anti-government movement in his country also are fomenting the recent unrest in Brazil,” with him saying (and I trust the translation of the quote is accurate)

“The same game is now being played over Brazil…The symbols are the same, the posters are the same, Twitter, Facebook are the same, the international media is the same. They (the protests) are being led from the same center…They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.”

One wonders who this “center” is and who “they” are. And if the good Turkish PM doesn’t, by chance, have them in mind…

I think it would be nice for a modern, forward-looking Turkey to join the EU in the next decade—say, on the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic—, but if this is the prevailing mentality at the summit of the Turkish state, no way. Not a chance.

À propos, Yigal Schleifer has a post on the informative EurasiaNet website asserting that “‘Kneejerk Anti-Westernism’ could complicate Ankara’s foreign policy.” And not only with Europe. Looks like Turkey has gone from having zero problems with its neighbors to having all sorts of problem with them. And with countries that are not its neighbors.

Also à propos, Turkish Policy Quarterly has an article (written before the current protests) by U. of Toronto doctoral candidate Tuba Eldem, “The End of Turkey’s Europeanization?

And if all this weren’t enough, the WSJ’s Moneybeat blog had a downbeat post on Friday on the Turkish economy, saying that “Turkey can’t catch a break.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Twenty prominent Turkish academicians, artists, and intellectuals have signed a letter (en français) to the foreign affairs ministers of the EU member states—”Un appel des démocrates turcs à l’UE“—calling on the European Council not to freeze Turkey’s accession negotiations to the EU. Turkish liberals—who are with the protest movement to a man and woman—are strongly supportive of Turkey’s EU candidacy and would clearly feel undercut if the prospect of membership were to fade.

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Last December I had a post on Robert Kagan’s article, “The Myth of American Decline,” that, as I noted, President Obama was quite taken with. I thought it was good too. In this vein—of America continuing to be Nº1—, here’s something from the not bad website Business Insider, on the “10 reasons why America will continue to dominate the global economy for years” to come. Every bit on the list is correct. I have never believed for a nanosecond that China will overtake the US in any of the domains essential to being a superpower: economic, military, and cultural global reach. In the latter two China cannot hold a candle to the US and never will (never meaning in the lifetime of anyone reading this). Economically there are too many structural impediments to China overtaking the US in the foreseeable future (not the least of which is that its nominal per capita GDP is less than one-eighth that of the US; and closing that gap before the end of the century is realistically not in the cards). As for the EU overtaking the US, no comment.

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Taksim Square, June 18 2013 (Photo: AP)

Taksim Square, June 18 2013 (Photo: AP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

Duran adam. That’s Turkish for ‘standing man’, which is the new and original form the protest movement has taken since Erdoğan’s crackdown last weekend—way to go, Turkish civil society!—, and that UNC prof Zeynep Tufekci analyzes in a very interesting post, “Be quiet and don’t move so you can be heard.” Among other things, she writes that the Gezi Park movement was in fact coming to a peaceful conclusion after the PM’s meeting with the Taksim Solidarity Platform but that Erdoğan dramatically worsened the situation with his demagogic rallies over the weekend, incendiary and mendacious rhetoric, and in sending in the police to brutally clear the park.

Turkey’s PM may be an authoritarian bully but “Turkey’s problems go beyond Erdogan,” as Istanbul-based Atlantic Council fellow Sabine Freizer argues in a cogent analysis of the country’s political system and its numerous problems (e.g. the functioning of political parties, the electoral system’s 10% threshold).

On the FP website, Steven A. Cook had a good piece three days ago on “The strong man at his weakest,” in which he argued that “Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has never had more support — or a bigger challenge to his rule.”

In a dispatch from Turkey in the Boston Review, misleadingly entitled “Turkey’s non-crisis,” Pakistani-Americans Wajahat Ali and Haroon Moghul offer their impressions of events there. Turks had a soft spot for Pakistan back in the ’60s and ’70s, as Pakistan was one of the very few countries which showed sympathy for the Turkish position on Cyprus (though Pakistan did not recognize the “independent” state the Turks set up there after 1974, an issue on which Turkey has been 100% isolated internationally).

On the subject of Pakistanis, the ageing international caviar gauchiste Tariq Ali has a post on the LRB blog on his visit to Ankara this past week and what he observed there. I normally avoid Tariq Ali except when he writes about his native country—the only subject on which he is of interest, in my book at least—but had to read this one. And it’s not uninteresting, as he describes the nightly demos that have been taking place in my old quartier in Kavaklıdere, where I spent four of my teen years and still feel an attachment to four decades later.

On Turkey’s capital—which has become a nice, livable city since my time there—, METU sociology doctoral candidate Önder Güneş has a piece in Jadaliyya, “‘All of a sudden!’: Gezi Park resistance in Ankara.”

And continuing its fine coverage of the events in Turkey, Jadaliyya has an article just up by Zeynep Kurtulus Korkman (sociologist) and Salih Can Aciksoz (anthropologist) on “Erdogan’s masculinity and the language of the Gezi resistance.”

On the subject, more or less, of the tough guy Turkish PM’s manhood, the well-known Boğaziçi U. sociologist Çağlar Keyder has a post on the LRB blog on the Gezi Park protesters and “The law of the father.”

And for those who read français, journalist Defne Gürsoy has a new blog on the Mediapart website on the events in Turkey.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Istanbul-based journalist Yigal Schleifer had an interesting blog post last week, “Turkey: One nation, one flag, one state, one man,” which he concluded with this observation

Put all together, the elements of Erdogan’s speech [in Istanbul on June 16th] made it clear that the turmoil that is gripping Turkey right now is not really a battle between Islamists and secularists, but one between “old” Turkey and “new” Turkey. The PM and the AKP might have been a fresh force in Turkish politics when they were first elected in 2002, but Sunday’s Erdogan did not sound much different than the hard-line Kemalists he took on and defeated over the course of the last decade (albeit with a religious veneer). “Now the AK Party discourse appears xenophobic, anti-Western, inward-looking, anti-globalization and pro-status quo. I used to describe the Kemalists-secularists-nationalists in these terms just a few years ago,” Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University and former supporter of the AKP, wrote yesterday in a Today’s Zaman column.

At one point during his speech, Erdogan touted his party’s achievements by listing the endless kilometers of new roads it has built and the multitudes of expensive infrastructure megaprojects it has in the works. It was another indication that Erdogan was firmly stuck in the past. These are all impressive achievements, but a truly new Turkey needs to built through more than constructing new roads, bridges, airports, dams and malls. It also needs to built by raising a new generation that’s no longer captive to the paranoia, fear mongering, nationalism and jingoism of the past. With yesterday’s speech, Erdogan decisively made clear he was leading a march back to Turkey’s intellectual bondage of the past.

And the folk group Kardeş Türküler (Songs of Fraternity) has this song, “Tencere Tava Havası” (Sound of Pots and Pans), which looks to be a theme song of the Gezi Park movement.

2nd UPDATE: Author Jason Goodwin has a blog post, “Erdogan and the Janissaries: Istanbul residents have always treasured their green spaces.”

Erdem Gündüz, the first 'duran adam'

Erdem Gündüz, the first ‘duran adam’

Erdem Gündüz, June 17 2013

Erdem Gündüz, June 17 2013

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This was the hit light comedy in France this spring (English title: The Gilded Cage), seen last weekend at our neighborhood cinoche (held over by popular demand). It’s a comedy à la portugaise, about a Portuguese concièrge in an upscale building in Paris’s tony 16th arrondissement (quartier Passy)—where she has faithfully served the haut bourgeois propriétaires for thirty years—, her (skilled) construction worker husband, and their two children—high school and university age—, who, having grown up in France, are more French than Portuguese. The film begins with the couple learning that they have unexpectedly inherited property and a tidy sum of money in their home village in Portugal but that requires them moving there within three weeks, otherwise it will all be donated to the local parish. They naturally decide to take early retirement and do so but their haut bourgeois tenants pull out all the stops so that they stay—finding good concièrges these days is not easy—, plus the husband’s boss, who considers him irreplaceable. And the matter is further thickened by the romantic involvement—initially unbeknownst to the parents—of the bourgeois boss’s son with the immigrant worker’s daughter. Again, it’s a light comedy. Un bon divertissement. An inoffensive crowd pleaser. Some of the scenes are quite funny, e.g. when the immigrant couple invite the boss and wife—and future in-laws—over to dinner. It’s the first film I can think of that focuses on the Portuguese community in France—and makes light of clichés about Portuguese immigrants—, which has been the single largest immigrant community in the country since the 1950s (and which is sizable in Paris’s eastern banlieues, out where I live). Maghrebis and Africans, who are now well-covered in French cinema, aren’t the only significant immigrant population in this country. The immigrant characters are all played by Portuguese-origin actors—though they mainly speak French in the film, which they wouldn’t in real life in talking among themselves—and with director Ruben Alves dedicating the film to his family (so it’s his personal story too). My wife particularly liked that the film showed real working people, which she insisted French films rarely do (I’ll have to think about that one). The film also depicts a profession—building concièrges, such a fixture in France—that is fading, as condo owner associations are increasingly contracting with outside cleaning and maintenance companies once the concièrge retires (and as ours has done). Reviews of the film were good and with Allociné spectators giving it the thumbs way up. A crowd pleaser, like I said.

On the subject of crowd pleasing French films, one I saw recently—on DVD—was Guillaume Canet’s ‘Les petits mouchoirs’ (English title: ‘Little White Lies’), which was a big box office hit in France in 2010 but that I paid no attention to at the time. It’s a French version of ‘The Big Chill’—and that Canet said inspired the film—, about a group of mid 30ish friends from Paris, all bobos, and their annual summer vacation together in Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast, and with all their interpersonal dramas and histoires—and with the backdrop the terrible motorcycle accident of one of the members of the group who was to be with them. French reviews of the film ran the gamut and American were mixed (though Roger Ebert liked it), but Allociné spectators gave it the thumbs up. And as I always say, the Allociné spectators are invariably right. Trailer is here. The film is not flawless and, at 2 hours 20 minutes, is long for what it is—and the length was one of the reproaches of the critics—, but I didn’t think this was a problem. The cast is A-list, the acting good, and it’s an all-around engaging film (and, after all these years, I will finally assert that Marion Cotillard is beautiful; yes she is). I saw it with several people—American, French, and German—and we all liked it (and I liked it more than I did ‘The Big Chill’). So if one is looking for weekend evening entertainment, this is a safe choice.


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The Bling Ring


[update below]

“An artful, fun examination of why hating America is often completely justified.” Voilà the tagline of Asawin Suebsaeng’s review of the film in Mother Jones. As it happens, I saw it last night. My excuse: (a) It’s playing at my neighborhood theater, a mere twelve-minute walk from chez moi, and (b) I’ll see anything by Sofia Coppola, as I loved ‘Lost in Translation’ and enjoyed ‘Marie Antoinette’ (okay, I thought her last film, ‘Somewhere’, was a waste of time but gave her a pass on that). As for this one, it is, shall we say, not essential. Now the pic is indeed an incisive portrayal of trash American celebrity culture in all its trashiness and of the IQ-challenged multitudes who are riveted to it, but don’t we know this already? While watching the film I was aware that it was based on actual fait divers—which is announced at the outset—but could hardly believe it, as it seemed not credible that fabulously rich and famous pop culture personalities—some of whom I had never heard of (shows you how à la page I am)—would leave gates and doors of their sumptuous Beverly Hills or Malibu villas unlocked while absent (sure), keys under the mat (duh), and with no alarm system (don’t insurance policies require this?), enabling rich, drugged-out teenage airheads to burglarize them not just once but several times, coming back for more and having parties there while they were at it. But such did happen. It really did. Trop bizarre…

On thing I must insist on: the trash popular culture and obsession with mindless material acquisition depicted—and implicitly critiqued—in the film is not specifically American. It is everywhere. The media in France or elsewhere on the vieux continent may sweep it under the rug, or strive to maintain appearances, but these countries are indeed afflicted by it. And it may not yet have reached places like Chad or Malawi, but if they ever become even moderately prosperous they will get it too. C’est sûr et certain. When it comes to this downside of the human condition, America is simply the trailblazer, c’est tout.

Another film on American young people seen recently was ‘Frances Ha’. The ones in this are a little older, of a higher intellectual caliber, and more sympathique. It’s a trifle of a film, about the trials and tribulations of a mid-20s moderately talented dancer recently graduated from Vassar named Frances (actress Greta Gerwig), who lives in NYC and is trying to figure out her life. Since she’s American and is in America, she perseveres despite setbacks, never gives up, and you know it will all work out for her in the end. I have numerous former American students in this age cohort and thought of them during the film. So far as I know (mainly via FB), life is working out for them. Reviews of the film are very good on the whole. It opens in France on July 3rd.


For the record, I should mention a film seen on DVD in the US a couple of weeks ago, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, that I wasn’t able to see during its run in Paris earlier this year. I hadn’t liked anything I’d seen by the director and would have skipped this one were it not for the theme, of a cult leader clearly modeled after Scientology founder Ron Hubbard (I have a perverse interest in cults and those who are attracted to them). The word of mouth on the pic wasn’t too good—the principal critique being that it was too long and boring—but I thought it wasn’t bad. Not that I’ll unreservedly say it was good either, but it did hold my attention and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who dominates the film, was amazing (he’s a great actor; as for Joachin Phoenix, I haven’t yet decided if his performance was stellar or if he was overacting). À chacun de faire son propre jugement.

UPDATE: The latest London Review of Books has a review essay of the book The Bling Ring, by Nancy Jo Sales, author of the Vanity Fair article hyperlinked to above.


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Le Joli Mai


Saw this fascinating 2 hour 20-odd minute documentary, which dates from 1962 and was re-released in a restored version four years ago—when it showed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, though only opened in Paris last month. Here’s MoMA’s synopsis

Directed by Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme. Marker had recently made essay films about contemporary Israel and Cuba—films with a decidedly revolutionary bent—when in [May] 1962 he decided, for the first time, to take the pulse of his own country. With the French-Algerian War coming to a bitter and brutal end, Marker joined now-legendary cameraman Pierre Lhomme in conducting hours of interviews on the streets of Paris. The result is a fascinating political and social document, a snapshot of French citizens reflecting on the meaning of happiness, whether personal or collective, even as they confess anxiety about the future of their families and their nation. Restored by the Archives françaises du film du CNC, this original French release version features voiceover narration by Yves Montand, through which Marker offers his own wry and poignant commentary—as he does with some cleverly revealing interpolations of image and sound—and music by Michel Legrand.

And here’s Vincent Canby’s review in the NYT, dated June 10 1966

CHRIS MARKER is one of France’s more gifted filmmakers and a man whose work has been seen in the United States only on rare occasions—film festivals and the like. Therefore those interested in the motion-picture art will be grateful that his documentary “Le Joli Mai” opened yesterday at the New Yorker Theater.

Mr. Marker has a penetrating camera and a penetrating mind. Both are employed with a searching persistence in this film, dissecting Paris, dissecting the people who live in Paris.

It is not the tourist’s Paris or even the Parisian’s Paris, but rather the Paris of the social worker, the newspaperman, the policeman, the man whose work takes him down the forbidding alleyways, the menacing dead-end streets and who asks questions, endlessly asks questions, questions, questions.

Mr. Marker will approach a clothing salesman in front of his shop and, while a handheld camera explores every angle of the man’s face, every item of his clothing, the man will be asked blunt questions about life—what gives him pleasure, what are his difficulties, what are his ambitions, what is life all about?

The light of Paris is captured as well as it has ever been captured on film—a gloomy, oppressive, forbidding light that every now and again becomes a lovely light, in fact the loveliest light in the world.

There are some enthusiasts of France’s cinéma-vérité movement who would have us believe that theirs is a radically new force in the motion-picture art. That is not true. Many of the techniques employed, many of the subjects explored, stem from the documentaries of an earlier day, particularly those made in the United States in the nineteen thirties.

But what can be said is that Mr. Marker’s gifts as a filmmaker are formidable and that, in the opinion of this corner, he is the best of the French school practicing the documentary art at the present time.

“Le Joli Mai,” made in 1962, is a film with faults. It lacks the cohesiveness that a central theme would have provided. It has one ending and then another. Mr. Marker used both because he was not able to exercise the discipline to edit one of the endings out.

Similarly, some of his longer interviews should have been chopped, or perhaps omitted. Two hours and four minutes is long for any motion picture. The English subtitles are somewhat sketchy and the soundtrack of the English commentary provided by Simone Signoret is a bit cloudy.

Yet, more importantly, there is much in this film that a motion-picture enthusiast will want to see, and Mr. Marker’s artistry is well deserving of exposure on these shores. Besides, who is there who can resist Paris, Paris in May and a Paris that one has not seen before?

Pace Mr. Canby, I didn’t detect faults in it—none glaring, at least—, think it was overly long, or that interviews could have been omitted. The film gives a portrait of France—cinematically speaking one of the most complete that I’ve seen—at a key moment in its recent history: at the end of the Algerian war and the mid point of les Trente glorieuses. One comes away from the film with strong impressions, one being of the low standard of living—and particularly the poor housing conditions—of the lower classes. Quoting Variety’s 1962 review, the film “gives the oo-la-la capital a new look and brings it down out of the frou-frou to reality.” Large parts of Paris and the inner banlieue were slums. And the city was dirty (polluted, the ancient buildings and monuments caked black with centuries of soot and grime, and generally run down outside les beaux quartiers). For the proletariat, the tours et barres of the cités constructed on a mass scale during those years were a godsend. As a couple of the interviewees made clear, people couldn’t wait to move out of their quartiers populaires or bidonvilles and into an HLM. Vive le logement social! Some of the interviews are particularly interesting, e.g. the lower class women, the student from Dahomey (now Benin), the young Algerian ouvrier, the former priest turned CGT militant… Reviews in France have predictably been tops (both critics and Allociné spectators; trailer is here). For those who have the slightest interest in modern French history and society, it’s a must see.

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Image credit: Femen France

Image credit: Femen France

It’s not looking good in Turkey. Not at all. PM Erdoğan, acting ever more the dictator, manifestly believes his intransigence can bring the protest movement to heel and he may not be wrong. EHESS postdoc and Turkish politics specialist Benjamin Gourisse had a pessimistic op-ed in Libération last week, “L’AKP ou l’impossible alternance,” in which he argued that the AKP has effectively taken over the Turkish state apparatus over the past decade and that this has major implications for the country’s political future. The AKP has placed its men in all key positions in the state administration, brought to heel the judiciary—not to mention the military—, and thereby controls the totality of public institutions in the country. In the process, it has created a large electoral clientele—including the business community—, thereby insuring that it will not suffer what in French is called the usure du pouvoir. The AKP is as entrenched in power as was the Daley machine in Chicago in the 1960s (my analogy) and with almost no realistic possibility of an alternation of power anytime soon. So no matter how badly Erdoğan behaves, he’ll likely be able to ride out the storm.

As for taking Abdullah Gül’s place in the Çankaya Köşkü next year, on n’en est pas là…

In another Libé op-ed, “Taksim: la Turquie polarisée,” Nora Seni of the Université Paris-VIII discusses the heavy symbolism of Taksim Square as a lieu de mémoire of the Kemalist legacy, an historic rallying point of political and social contestation, and in the heart of the part of Istanbul that most incarnates lifestyles antithetical to those of the AKP electorate. Thus Erdoğan’s fixation on transforming the square and the area around it.

One factor that may be contributing to Erdoğan’s confidence—though he could probably live without it—is the knowledge that Turkey is currently an “indispensable partner” for the West—and particularly on Syria—, as Deutsche Welle, quoting the Carnegie Endowment’s Sinan Ülgen, reports on its website.

Even if this weren’t the case, Erdoğan would have little to worry about from that corner, in view of the Obama administration’s realpolitik and EU’s spinelessness.

Claire Sadar has a good analysis on her Atatürk’s Republic blog of “The Prime Minister’s speech” last Sunday, in which she cites an equally good op-ed in Today’s Zaman by Brooklyn College historian Louis Fishman, “The Gezi Park protests, the Middle East and the secular-religious divide.”

Michael Koplow of the Ottomans and Zionists blog, in a post examining the “Master Linguist” Erdoğan’s rhetoric and the apparent strategy behind it, wonders if the Turkish PM “has completely lost his mind or if this is a deliberate strategy, but no matter what the answer is, the Turkish government is looking more foolish and unhinged by the hour.”

The Istanbul-based Turkey specialist Gareth Jenkins had a worthwhile essay last week in The Turkey Analyst, “The Turkish protests and Erdoğan’s disappearing dreams.”

In an NYT op-ed that probably everyone has seen by now, “Turkey’s false nostalgia,” Boğaziçi University historian Edhem Eldem critiqued those in the opposition who hark back to a supposed Kemalist golden age that was not so golden.

In a piece in Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse, Ankara-based journalist Tulin Daloglu says that “Women will decide the extent of Turkey’s religiosity.”

Finally, take a look at academic Jim Meyer’s “Three questions re Turkey” on his interesting Borderlands blog.

À suivre.

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Brick Lane, London E.1

Brick Lane, London E.1

Le Monde’s latest ‘Culture and Ideas’ supplement has a most interesting interview with Canadian journalist Doug Saunders, the title of which translates as “dense cities are those where migrants succeed the most.” Saunders is the author of a couple of books on immigration: Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Muslims Threaten the West? On the problems of immigrant integration in continental Europe, he cites, entre autres, cumbersome laws and regulations on launching small businesses and opening shops (Belgium, France, Germany), and restrictive legislation on citizenship acquisition (Germany).  Here’s the interview, which is absolutely worth reading

Le journaliste Doug Saunders travaille pour le quotidien canadien The Globe and Mail, basé à Toronto. Pour écrire Du village à la ville. Comment les migrants changent le monde, il a sillonné durant des années une trentaine de banlieues de la planète, avec l’appui de chercheurs spécialisés. Entretien, alors que l’Assemblée nationale vient de débattre, jeudi 13 juin, sur la question de l’immigration professionnelle et étudiante.

Quand on parle d’immigration, on a souvent en tête l’idée d’étrangers allant de pays pauvres vers des pays riches. Selon vous, il faudrait d’abord considérer ces migrants comme des personnes allant de la campagne vers la ville. Pourquoi ?

Les gens se font de fausses idées. Ils imaginent que tous les Polonais émigrent vers le Royaume-Uni ou que les Mexicains migrent en masse vers les Etats-Unis. En fait, des personnes originaires de régions spécifiques de certains (more…)

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Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 15 2013 (photo: imggaleri.hurriyet.com.tr)

Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 15 2013 (photo: imggaleri.hurriyet.com.tr)

So it turns out that PM Erdoğan wasn’t being conciliatory the other day after all. I even read (confirmation needed) that during his Thursday meeting with the Taksim Solidarity Platform he shouted at one of the (female) representatives and stormed out of the room. He’s been a bully all his life, so why would he change now? My FB news feed has been inundated all day with videos of yesterday’s police operation in and around Gezi Park. Hallucinant. E.g. see this reportage from Germany’s ZDF TV (w/English subtitles). The behavior of the Turkish police exceeded anything their French counterparts ever did during May ’68, that’s for sure (and the French police have never drenched demonstrators with water cannon spiked with chemicals). The police even pursued protesters into the lobbies of the five-star hotels near the park, as one sees in the ZDF reportage and also in this YouTube. The Saudis and Gulf Arabs who frequent those hotels are likely making other plans for their summer holidays.

To keep up with the fast-moving events in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, here is a news ticker, updated every couple of minutes.

This is really bad, et on craint le pire. Erdoğan looks to have painted himself into a corner. If he were to climb down and be conciliatory—which would seem to be out of character for him—he probably thinks he’ll look weak and will lose both his authority and the respect of a part of his base. But if he hangs tough and brings down further repression—which would definitely be in his character—all hell could break loose, his image abroad would be definitively shattered—and with the attendant economic consequences for Turkey—, and he’ll probably still lose part of his base.

So what could Erdoğan’s strategy possibly be? What’s his end game? Claire Sadar of the Atatürk’s Republic blog had an interesting post on this last Tuesday, “Clueless in Türkiye,” in which she speculated that he may have none. In her analysis, she refers to a new approach to game theory developed by UCLA political scientist Michael Chwe, which argues that powerful players in a conflict who would normally have the upper hand may, in fact, have no strategy at all in dealing with weaker parties. They’re “clueless.” RTE does indeed look to be this right now.

In looking around the Atatürk’s Republic blog I came across a post from last November, “Prospects for a liberal Turkish society,” by the Ankara-based M.James, whose full identity is undetermined but is clearly a political scientist (and a sharp one). This is one of the best academic-type analyses I’ve read lately on the Turkish political system.

The gauchiste academic webzine Jadaliyya is continuing its extensive coverage of the Turkish protests, most recently with an essay by Ankara University political scientist Pınar Melis Yelsalı Parmaksız, “#resistankara: Notes of a Woman Resisting.”

Istanbul-based journalist Piotr Zalewski has a piece in Foreign Affairs on “The Turkish media’s darkest hour: how Erdogan got the protest coverage he wanted.”

And earlier last week The Guardian had a six minute video, “Ekumenopolis: the roots of Istanbul’s protests,” which is

A short version of a prescient 2011 documentary Ekumenopolis, by Turkish film-maker Imre Azem, which details the uncontrolled, money-driven expansion of Istanbul as the city heads towards a population of 15 million people – twice the size of London. It sheds light on current events as prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s police clash violently with protesters outraged by plans to build in a city centre park.

À suivre.

In the meantime, here are a few more photos from imggaleri.hurriyet.com.tr of yesterday’s dramatic events in Istanbul.











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Last October I had a post on Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who I called the front-runner in the June 2013 Iranian presidential election. He ended up a distant second, with 16% of the vote. I hadn’t heard of Hassan Rouhani back then. Not that I’m an Iran expert or anything, loin s’en faut, but, FWIW, my wife asked me a few hours ago, while we were walking to our neighborhood movie theater, what I thought of Rouhani’s stunning first round victory. My instant response: it’s great news (duh), as (a) it shows that the Iranian people are moderate in their majority, want to live normally like any other normal people, and would quite certainly cast off the regime of the ayatollahs and mullahs if they possibly could; (b) it incontrovertibly proves that the 2009 election was fraudulent, as the result in that one was close enough so that the regime could rig it, whereas this one was simply too decisive for that; as we say here, le pouvoir iranien était obligé à se rendre à l’évidence; (c) everyone knows that Ayatollah Khamenei institutionally calls the shots and that the president of Iran is the rough equivalent of a French prime minister hors cohabitation—but without even the formal constitutional powers accorded a French PM—, but that the president can influence domestic policy nonetheless, and, above all, induce a relative liberalization of the moral order imposed (mainly on women) by the basij, who can do what they want when the conservatives have the upper hand, but less so when relative liberals are in the ascendancy (so much as I understand how Iranian politics works); and (d) the already minimal prospect of a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is now reduced to near zero الحمد لله; with the moderate Rouhani’s victory, it’s just not going to happen, period.

Voilà my 2¢. For a take by a veritable expert, see the instant analysis (2½ pages in PDF) by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Shaul Bakhash, on “Rouhani’s surprising election.”

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Following from my previous post on I-P, I want to mention this Israeli film seen recently (titre en France: ‘Alata’), that I would rate even higher than ‘The Attack‘. As it has a gay theme and is aimed at an LGBT audience, it hasn’t received as much attention as it should, which is too bad (it has only played at one cinema in Paris, in the gay friendly Marais). The film is centered on the relationship between a yuppie Tel Aviv lawyer, Roy (actor Michael Aloni), and a Palestinian M.A. student (in psychology) from Ramallah, Nimr, who is at Bir Zeit but has special authorization to pursue his studies at Tel Aviv U. (Nimr is played by the non-professional, previously unknown actor Nicholas Jacob, who is an Israeli-Palestinian/Italian from Haifa; I thought at first that his name was a pseudonym but it’s apparently for real). Jewish-Palestinian gay love is not an original theme (e.g. ‘The Bubble‘) and one I don’t find too interesting in itself, but the politics in the film are subtle and sophisticated. First, the homophobia and taboos in Palestinian society, causing gays there to flee to Tel Aviv, where they find acceptance in the city’s vibrant gay subculture but live in legal limbo, are coerced into informing for the Shin Bet, and can be deported illico—and to near certain violent death once back in the Palestinian territories—on the whim of the Shit Bet officer who has total power over their fate (and who does not risk being overruled by any political or judicial authority). There is no “pinkwashing” here, as director Michael Mayer explained in this YouTube interview (and which has excerpts of the pic). The cynicism and cruelty of the Israeli security apparatus is starkly on display in the film, as is that of the armed Palestinian gangs in the territories (such as depicted in the film)—and with the two perversely colluding when it comes to gays (and no doubt on other things as well). Secondly, the film starkly portrays the impossible situation in which Palestinian outcasts find themselves, be they Israeli collaborators—invariably coerced into it by the Shin Bet—or those who have violated prevailing cultural norms and/or sullied the family honor. There is no possible existence for them in their own society but they can’t live in Israel, where legal residence is almost never granted and they are not wanted in any case (the sequence where Roy takes Nimr to meet his otherwise liberal parents is right out of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’). And not having a state—and thus no universally recognized passport—, the option of emigration is complicated, when not impossible (holders of PA or refugee documents are invariably refused visas to most countries in the world, including the entire Arab world plus Turkey; the Schengen zone, the US, Canada, and Latin American states are their only hope). This is one of the better films I’ve seen in the way it depicts the tragedy of the I-P conflict as it affects Palestinians as individuals. Reviews were merely okay on the whole—this one was positive—, though the almost always reliable audience rating on Allociné gave it the thumbs way up (and when there’s a discrepancy between the critics and Allocine.fr audiences, always go with the latter). And the final scene will cause one to quietly shout out ‘Vive la France!’

Another Israeli film seen in recent months—also about love, sort of—was ‘Fill the Void’ (en France: ‘Le Cœur a ses raisons’), which is yet another cinematic portrayal of the us et coutumes of the ultra-Orthodox world (there have been several good ones over the years, e.g. ‘Kadosh‘, ‘My Father My Lord‘, ‘Eyes Wide Open‘, ‘God’s Neighbors‘). This one is particularly interesting in that the director, Rama Burshtein, is herself a Haredi convert, so knows the community from the inside. The film is almost an ethnography. I’ll let Haaretz journalist Vered Kellner describe it

‘Fill the Void’: A film that speaks Haredi, but with a secular accent

At long last Rama Burshtein’s movie provides an authentic picture of ultra-Orthodox society but it’s the director’s secular past, and not Haredi society’s silencing of women, which pushes her to express herself.

By Vered Kellner | Jun.03, 2013

While watching Rama Burshtein’s film “Fill the Void,” I thought of nothing. I just cried. I cried, I was startled, I was galvanized.

But only a few minutes after walking out of the film, which opened in New York theaters last weekend, a troubling thought occurred to me. Could the first film to come from deep within the ultra-Orthodox world, aspiring to be an authentic response to all the embarrassing and folkloristic portrayals of Haredim on the big screen, have come from anyone who hadn’t become observant as an adult, like director Rama Burshtein, but by a filmmaker who had been born and raised within the Haredi ghetto?

For those who may have missed the first incarnations of this saga, the most successful Israeli film of 2012, “Fill the Void” tells the story of Shira, a Haredi girl of 18, for whom it has come time to find a yeshiva student to marry who will be suited to her status and temperament. The plans get disrupted, however, when her sister dies in childbirth with her firstborn son, leaving behind a young widower and their baby.

Shira’s environment expects her to step into her late sister’s shoes and marry her brother-in-law, which throws her into the epicenter of an emotional and familial storm. This might sound a classic story for an uninhibited telenovella, but because it is taking place in the Haredi world, the audience is invited to dive into a sea of restrained emotions, beneath which effervesce impressive depths.

Among other things, this film’s achievement is that it provides us with an inside look at the Haredi world. There is none of the judgment or romanticizing that one usually finds in movies with Haredi characters, but observations born of honesty and complexity. And it works. Although the movie is full of love for its characters, plies us with Hassidic music and the modest Haredi aesthetic, and portrays the community’s solidarity admiringly, it doesn’t flee from dealing with the challenges posed by the Haredi way of life – for example, finding mates via matchmakers or the attitude toward older singles.

But even if the film provides a look from within, most of its audience is observing from without. And as one of those observers, it was hard for me not to wonder about the dissonance that exists in a movie written and directed by a woman that describes a society in which women’s voices are silenced. In the movie there are a few scenes in which the men are seen singing around a table or at a wedding (and they sing very melodiously), while the women are in an adjoining room or on the other side of the divider, looking on in silence. Behind the silence is a diluted memory of longing, restrained by years of being educated to be voiceless.

This is particularly obvious during a moving scene of Shira playing the accordion to help her nephew fall asleep, while his father listens. She’s forbidden to sing, but she can play. Her voice may be considered lewd, but her fingers on the accordion keys speak for her in a way that circumvents the restrictions of halacha, Jewish law. Perhaps, in the same way, directing this film was a halachic bypass road for Burshtein. She does not appear in the film, nor would she have, even if she was inclined to acting. Such a role would not be considered modest, according to her community. But her voice is heard via her instruments: The secular actors who are free to publicly express themselves.

Perhaps Burshtein can live peacefully with the silence that is imposed on Haredi women, because she has found a way to express herself, between the lines and within the limits. But is this mode of expression also available to women who are Haredi from birth? Would Burshtein have succeeded in harnessing all the necessary emotional strength to make a film if she hadn’t grown up in the secular world that pushed her to express herself? To create? Is it coincidence that the best films about Haredi society have been made by latecomers to observance (like Burshtein and Shuli Rand, who made “Ushpizin”), or by those who have abandoned observance, like David Volach (“My Father My Lord”)?

Kibbutz society has been caught up in a similar dissonance. For years it was nourished by revolutionaries who had abandoned the old world in which they’d grown up, and chose a life with sharp ideological boundaries. These new members had bountiful creativity and inspiration (for example, writers Natan Shaham and Amos Oz, or artist Moshe Kupferman), not least because they arrived at the kibbutz saturated with a rich culture that they chose to alienate themselves from.

But did something from their freedom of choice trickle down to the next generations, those who were born and matured under the indoctrination? Is it coincidental that the bursts of kibbutz creativity came from those who joined the kibbutz out of choice, or those who left it in anger or simply lack of interest (like Meir Ariel, Ayin Hillel, and Matti Caspi)?

It seems as if what spurs significant creative work in closed societies is the tension and friction between them and the outside world. Whether it’s by those who recently entered, or by those who have recently left, the road to serious creativity seems to pass through the space between the two worlds. The essence of inspiration is derived from this tension.

That’s what Burshtein has done in “Fill the Void.” That is its power. And what it means is that the first movie to speak “Haredi” fluently, the film that finally provides audiences with an authentic picture of Haredi society, is in fact a bilingual film – or one that speaks with one fused voice – Haredi and secular at the same time. It draws from both worlds, merging secular sensibilities together with a Haredi viewpoint more accustomed to condemning that secular world’s frames of reference.

US reviews are very positive, French reviews generally so. A highbrow, hard-to-please stateside cinephile friend thought it excellent. I was a little less bowled over but will definitely give it the thumbs up. If you’re looking for an ethnography of the Israeli Haredim, this is it.


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Image Credit: David Klein

Image Credit: David Klein

Italian Middle East scholar Lorenzo Kamel has a good, on target commentary by this title in Al-Monitor. Absolutely worth reading. He begins it with mention of his meeting three years ago with Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian Authority’s new Prime Minister, who

appeared to me as a statesman with a clear vision and a strong sense of purpose…. While fully supporting the self-determination of his people, Hamdallah stressed that discussing the one or two-states solution is risky, because it can de-focus the attention from the real priority: Palestinian rights and equality of treatment. Furthermore, the then-president of An-Najah University pointed out that a sustainable peace could not be achieved without deliberately engaging local women: This, he claimed, was the reason why most of their students (56% in 2010) were women. Finally, Hamdallah noted that only a nonviolent grass-roots struggle had the potential to achieve change instead of only shaking the status quo: A standpoint that mirrors Erich Fromm’s approach. Human beings, the German social psychologist wrote, have “continued to evolve by acts of disobedience.”

After that meeting I further realized that the endless debate over what Tony Judt defined as “the only real alternative” — a single, binational state — to the two-state solution was (and is) an empty and counterproductive exercise.

Très bien. I entirely agree.

Kamel, pour l’info, is a visiting fellow at Harvard, has an M.A. from the Hebrew University in Israel studies, and has been a visiting fellow at Birzeit. So he knows all sides of the question. Among his other articles is one from Nov. ’11 in +972, “Colonizing the West Bank in the name of security and religion.”

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Richard Falk

I just came across this interview that Richard Falk, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories—and Princeton emeritus professor of international law—, gave this past May 31st to 9/11 Truther and anti-Semite Kevin Barrett, host of “Truth Jihad Radio,” which appears to be a program on a flaky, obscure network called American Freedom Radio. I’ve already said it once on this blog and will say it again: Professor Falk is a nutcase and a whack job whose UNHRC position discredits the already discredited UNHRC. This interview with the crackpot Kevin Barrett—a man with whom Falk is manifestly on the same political wavelength—, discredits Falk even further (if such is possible). Let me state it categorically: Falk needs to be fired from the UNHRC. Immediately! Ambassador-to-be Samantha Power will do well to make an issue of this upon assuming her responsibilities.

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PM Erdoğan meeting with representatives of the Taksim Solidarity Platform Ankara, June 13 2013 (photo: aksam.com.tr)

PM Erdoğan meeting with representatives of the Taksim Solidarity Platform
Ankara, June 13 2013 (photo: aksam.com.tr)

[update below] [2nd update below]

It looks like PM Erdoğan, after trash talking the Gezi Park protesters and issuing threats as is his wont, has decided to lower the temperature and initiate dialogue. C’est bien. He does have some political skills, after all, and must have become aware of the damage the heavy international news coverage of the protests has inflicted on his image and that of Turkey under his rule. “Turkey’s house of cards tumbles down,” as Michael Koplow aptly described it on his Ottomans and Zionists blog. Money quote

Perception matters a great deal in world politics, but in Turkey’s case perception has been even more important, as it fueled Turkey as a figurative growth stock all the while masking some very serious problems. As should now be clear to everyone, Turkish democracy is not nearly as robust as the government wanted the world to believe. Turkey under Erdoğan has had a real problem with creeping authoritarianism that is looking a lot less creeping every day. And yes, the problem is authoritarianism and not Islamism. This has been a recurring theme for me, as lots of people have a hair trigger when it comes to any action on the part of the AKP that has a whiff of Islamist rationale behind it while glossing over the much larger issue, which is garden variety autocratic and illiberal behavior. (…)

Turkish economic growth has been driven by foreign borrowing and increasing reliance on energy imports from Russian and Iran, which have led to an over-leveraged economy and a structural current account deficit, neither of which have any prospect of abating in the near future. There is a civil war taking place right across Turkey’s southern border, and not only is it not going to end any time soon, the Turkish military is in such a sorry state as to be unable to respond to the downing of its aircraft or to stop the Syrian military from shooting across to the Turkish side. These are all problems that have existed in one form or another for some time, but now that Erdoğan has decided to go postal on his own citizens, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Turkey to paper them over.

Turkey is about to see its foreign financing disappear as the perception of Turkey as an island of stability goes up in a cloud of tear gas smoke. The enormous building projects designed to attract the 2020 Olympics are now going to be used solely by Istanbul residents, since not only will Turkey not get the Olympics but regular tourists are going to stay away in droves. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can also forget about hosting various foreign conferences, as Western countries are going to elect to forego the optics of meeting in a country where protestors are being dubbed as marginal terrorists. The next time that Davutoğlu insists that Turkey isn’t a model for anyone while actually implying that Turkey is indeed a regional exemplar for Arab states to emulate, who is going to take him seriously? The next time Erdoğan crows about how the European economy needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe, who isn’t going to dismiss him out of hand? What Turkish diplomats are going to have the gall to seriously talk about Turkish democracy as a genuine success story? All of those issues that Turkey was able to largely keep under wraps by painting a portrait of a country on the rise, a country with a vibrant economy and a vibrant democracy and a vibrant diplomacy, are now about to be exposed to the world.

Yep. Claire Berlinski, in a first-rate reportage in The Spectator, discussed “Turkey’s agony – how Erdogan turned a peaceful protest into a violent nightmare,” in which, entre autres, she noted

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strenuous effort to aggravate the situation by making speeches so unrepentant and inflammatory that the benchmark Istanbul Bourse tumbled with every word that came out of his mouth. One speech, in particular, caused the stock exchange to tank by 7.5 per cent. (I leave it to the mathematicians to calculate the per-word cost of that speech to the nation’s GNP.)

Claire is a great writer. And perceptive too. E.g. she offers this

Nonetheless, somehow the command seemed to have come down from above — from where, no one knows — to call off the dogs for the day. Several days earlier, Erdogan, thank God, had scuttled out of the country to attend some exceedingly urgent North African pourparler, leaving his beleaguered underlings to handle the chaos. Within hours of his departure, the police withdrew from Taksim, leaving only their burnt-out vans as mementos. And for a few days, Taksim and Gezi Park became the City of Evet.

Let me explain. In 1978, Jan Morris — to my mind one of the century’s greatest travel writers — visited Istanbul. She wrote a superbly observed essay titled ‘City of Yok’, which would be loosely translated as ‘City of No’, but ‘No’ doesn’t quite capture the entirety of it. ‘I don’t speak Turkish yet,’ she wrote, ‘but yok appears to be a sort of general purpose discouragement, to imply that (for instance) it can’t be done, she isn’t home, the shop’s shut, the train’s left, take it or leave it, you can’t come this way, or there’s no good making a fuss over it.’ The opposite of yok is evet— meaning yes, and it has no analogous counter-associations, which tells you something right there.

But on Friday night, I strolled through Taksim and Gezi Park, and for the first time in the decade I’ve lived in Istanbul, I found myself in the City of Evet. It felt like a free country. I have never seen anything like this before in Turkey. (…) And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder.

Among the protesters’ grievances was the prime minister’s imperious effort to pass restrictive new laws on alcohol sales, so in a gesture of special defiance, entrepreneurial protesters — or maybe just entrepreneurial Turks — sold ice-cold beer from coolers. (I’ve never before seen anyone sell beer from coolers in the streets of Istanbul.)

There were commies and pinkos of every species sharing that beer with right-wing whackjobs of every stripe — groups that in the 1970s fought gun battles here, drenching the streets in blood and leading to the 1980 coup. The communists didn’t seem the sort to worry about — when people complained that the price of beer had risen in response to demand, they shrugged: ‘What can we do? If people want to sell it, we can’t stop them.’

There were trade unionists and doctors and ordinary yuppies and, mostly, college kids; there were gays, Alevis, Sufis and yogis; there were impromptu skits — all making fun of the government, and some of them very funny but untranslatable both linguistically and culturally; there was impromptu dancing (innocent and sexless by western standards), barkers enjoining the crowd to jump up and down for the liberation of the park (and everyone did), a stall that advertised itself as the park’s new free lending library, and vast crowds of people smiling in a silly, carefree way that grave Istanbullus, serious people, people who dress in dark colours and worry terribly about what the neighbours will think, rarely do.

Claire sadly concluded that after the police intervention earlier this week, Istanbul had reverted to being “the City of Yok.” With RTE now trying to calm things down—possibly as the AKP’s ‘Anatolian Tiger’ base may have sent him friendly suggestions that he do so—we’ll see if Istanbul can once again become the City of Evet.

On Istanbul’s days last weekend as the City of Evet, UNC-Chapel Hill prof Zeynep Tufekci offered this essay (w/pics)—and which Claire says “is really worth reading”—on “What do #occupygezi Protesters Want? My Observations from Gezi Park.”

In a post in The Utopian on “The Gezi agenda,” NYU doctoral candidate Onur Alper makes observations similar to those of Zeynep T. and Claire above, such as this

There’s a reason why it has been so difficult to keep the power of the Turkish state in check. To do so would have required groups that have little in common to stand up for each other’s rights—a feat of coalition-building that no political group has truly accomplished until today. Intriguingly, it is in this respect that the Gezi Park protests are perhaps unprecedented. For the few days last week when police was nowhere to be seen, Gezi Park looked like a remarkably inclusive fairground of discontent. Groups with different—at times even clashing—ideologies and causes had set up tents where they freely made their voices heard. There were Kurds, Alawites, secular nationalists, communists, anti-capitalist Muslims, LGBT activists, feminists, environmentalists, members of the state theater company frustrated by increasing pressure from the government, labor unions, and even fans of football teams with a record of fierce rivalry. (The forms of expression were similarly varied: there were conventional speeches, formal manifestos, placards with witty slogans, graffiti, chants, yoga, group dances, and live music performances.) Even though challenges abound on the road ahead, the atmosphere of solidarity that has emerged amidst horrific police brutality may help the movement build a lasting, united front for freedom and democratization in the years to come.

Following in this vein, Hürriyet news editor Emre Kızılkaya has a post on the Huff Post blog, in which he informs the reader that “Behind Turkey’s viral revolution, there are mad men (actually women).” Many women taking leading roles in the Occupy Gezi movement, and which is being fueled by social media. Kızılkaya says he’s sure about one thing

Like the right-wing in the United States, Islamo-conservative Turkish government fails to read the changes in demographics and how “minorities” are being empowered by and with the New Media.

This is how hundreds of thousands of seculars, Kurds, ultra-nationalists, far-leftists, environmentalists, feminists, white-collars, blue-collars, 70-year-old women and 17-year-old students from all corners of Turkey come together to make an urban, pluralist and decentralized pact to say “No!” to an increasingly divisive and authoritarian central government.

The renowned cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson—whose existence I admittedly learned of just today—has a most interesting post on his blog, in which he rhetorically asks: “Could the 10 year illness be afflicting Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan?” The illness in question is what happens, neurologically-speaking, to people who exercise executive power for a decade or longer. Money quote

Power’s effects on the brain have many similarities to those of drugs like cocaine: both significantly change brain function by increasing the chemical messenger dopamine’s activity in the brain’s reward network. These changes also affect the cortex and alter thinking, making people more confident, bolder – and even smarter.

But these same changes also make people egocentric, less self-critical, less anxious and less able to detect errors and dangers. All of these conspire to make leaders impatient with the “messiness” of opposition and contradictory opinions, which we can see clearly in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s intransigent and aggressive response to the demonstrators, including his infamous claim that “there is an evil called twitter” and that “social media is the evil called upon societies”.

The neurological effects of unconstrained power on the brain also inhibit the very parts of the brain which are crucial for self-awareness and what Erdoğan has to realize for the sake of Turkey’s future is actually the hardest thing for any human being to appreciate – that his own judgment is being distorted by 10 long years in power.

This is the strongest argument one will find for the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution. Also for the revised Article 6 of the French Constitution (merci Monsieur Sarkozy).

On the question of RTE’s now ten-year rule, the NYT’s Tim Arango has a good dispatch today, explaining, entre autres, how the Turkish PM’s reactions to the protests have been driven in part by his sense of personal victimhood and class resentment.

Also in today’s NYT is an op-ed by former CIA analyst Graham E. Fuller—and author of books and reports on Turkey—on “Turkey’s growing pains.”

FWIW, the BBC News website has a piece—that the eccentric academic Norman Finkelstein saw fit to post on his blog—on “Turkish voices [that] back Erdogan against protests.” As if we didn’t know that lots of Turks side with their PM, including on this issue…

And for those who have the time, WINEP has a 1 hour 20 minute Policy Forum discussion with James F. Jeffrey and Soner Cagaptay, “Turkey: will protests at home affect its foreign policy?

UPDATE: The Russian website PenzaNews has an article on how “Turkish protests indicate growing independence of civil society,” in which several Turkey specialists are quoted. One, the Istanbul-based analyst Iason Athanasiadis, had this to say

The events unfolding in Turkey are typical of the instability that develops in countries where a government supported by a largely popular rural base improves their material conditions (even while exploiting this base by impoverishing them long-term by extending easy credit and sponsoring neoliberal policies, but that is another story) but crashes up against a privileged urban elite for whom material goods are not a primary concern…

[The protesters] are also angry at the changing of Istanbul’s appearance from that of a minimally-maintained global capital with nearly two thousand years of history whose cosmopolitanism, minorities and religious and secular architecture were sacrificed during the Kemalist period to the necessities of creating a mono-lingual, mono-religious nation state united around Turkic nationalism. As Istanbul’s mayor, Erdogan spruced up and modernized the city, whereas as prime minister, he ushered in a neoliberal crony capitalism whereby political allies suffering from an Anatolian nouveau riche aesthetic were brought in to build the kind of Westernizing infrastructure that, in the opinion of the protesters, detracts from Istanbul’s essential atmosphere.

An Anatolian nouveau riche aesthetic… And pace Erdoğan, a lower class Beyoğlu one too.

2nd UPDATE: Washington-based communications scholar Ali E. Erol has a post on his new blog, The Daily Direnis, entitled “A sociolinguistic look at chapulcu & chapulcu identity: Utopic Robin Hoods of Turkey.” The blog’s tagline: Analysis, Commentary, and Interpretation of #OccupyTurkey and Turkish Democracy.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

The police are tear gassing Taksim and beating up people as I write. Not looking good…

In the meantime, a few links from the past few days.

If one didn’t see it, The Economist had a good overview three days ago, “The new Young Turks,” in which it examined Erdoğan’s “ham-fisted response” to the protests. Talk about an understatement.

Istanbul-based journalist Joseph Logan has a good piece in MERIP, “In search of the building blocks of opposition in Turkey.”

The lefty webzine Jadaliyya has had a number of good articles and commentaries on the events, including an interview with Haluk Şahin, Istanbul-based communications professor and media person, who discusses the “Turkish media’s moral bankruptcy.” See as well the piece by UCLA and Columbia doctoral candidates Timur Hammond and Elizabeth Angell, “Is everywhere Taksim?: Public space and possible publics.”

For her part, Harvard doctoral candidate Zeynep Pamuk, in “a letter from Istanbul” in The Utopian, weighs in on “The 50 Percent,” which is what the Gezi Park protesters know they are (i.e. they would never claim to represent 99% of the Turkish population).

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin discusses some “Clues on Turkey in jailing of educator” Kemal Gürüz. Her column begins

If you want to understand why tens of thousands of young urban Turks have been demonstrating against their government, you need look no further than the tragic plight of Kemal Guruz. Guruz, one of Turkey’s most distinguished academic reformers and the onetime head of Turkey’s Higher Education Council (known as YOK), has been held without charges in a maximum-security prison for nearly a year.

A reminder of the on-going Ergenekon/Balyoz affair. On the matter of conspiracy theories, they’re naturally all over the Internet in regard to the current protests. If one looks for them, one will find them. One I’ve come across is by a flaky Indian retired career diplomat—and ambassador to Turkey in the immediate pre-AKP years (all going to show that one can rise to a senior position in a major diplomatic service and be a flake)—named M.K. Bhadrakumar, who has a column on the website Asia Times (which will publish absolutely anything), “Et tu, Gül? Then fall, Erdoğan,” in which he suggests that the Turkey protests may all be a US-Gülenist plot… No joke.

As the US’s strings are, of course, pulled by the Jews Zionists, well, we know who’s really behind it all… (the good former diplomat doesn’t bluntly state it in these terms, though does hint at it toward the end; just connect the dots, as they say; ou suivez mon regard…).

The Gezi Park protesters would no doubt disagree that they’re mere dupes in a larger conspiracy. As one explains in this Amnesty International YouTube, they just “want the Prime Minister to listen.” Too bad he’s not the listening type.

And here are “25 examples of the best street humour from Istanbul, Gezi Park (#occupygezi) protests.” I doubt any conspiracy could come up with these.

UPDATE: VICE has a must watch video of “The lawyers of Istanbul [clashing] with police today.”

2nd UPDATE: On the WaPo opinion page, Steven A. Cook has an op-ed (dated June 7th) on “How Europe can save Turkey.”

3rd UPDATE: On the matter of conspiracy theories, the Turkish Press Review Blog has a post (June 13th) on how some in Turkey are alleging that the “‘Gezi Park protests [are] fuelled by foreign media’.”

4th UPDATE: Fehim Taştekin, columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Istanbul daily Radikal, has a piece (dated June 10) in Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse on “The religious voice of the chapuls.”

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The Attack


[update below] [2nd update below]

Following from my previous post, on ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, I need to mention this film I saw ten days ago. It was the indirect subject of my post early last month on an idiot Lebanese blogger in California who trashed the film, which was directed by his compatriot Ziad Doueiri, though without having seen it. Quel con. I said that I’d see it on the day it opened in France (which I did) and would write about right away (which I didn’t). It’s good. Riveting, complex, well-acted and, while not totally flawless, well-done overall. The film is based on Yasmina Khadra’s 2005 novel L’Attentat, about a prominent, highly regarded Palestinian surgeon in Tel Aviv, Amin Jaafari (played by Ali Suliman), whose wife blows herself up in a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing several people, children included. Jaafari suspected nothing of his wife, refused to believe she had anything to do with the attack at first, but had to face the incontrovertible facts. Losing his Jewish friends and status at work, he set out to find out what happened, of how his wife, who had given no hint of such militancy, could do such a thing, and which took him to his family’s home in Nablus, where he hadn’t been in years (the Muslim-Christian thing got a little confused here, as he was Muslim but his wife Christian, and who was supposed to be from Nazareth). I wasn’t entirely convinced by the idyll of the way he depicted his relationship with her but thought the politics of the film were good, in terms of the way the reactions of the Jews and Palestinians were portrayed after the terror attack. And shooting everything on location—in Tel Aviv and Nablus—was effective.

As for the brouhaha over the film—of its banning in Lebanon and condemnation by the Arab League for violating the Israel boycott—, it was much ado about nothing IMO, as I can’t imagine that any cinema in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world would touch it with a ten foot pole, official ukase or no. Doueiri may be Lebanese—though with a French passport, enabling him to travel to Israel—but it has the feel of an Israeli film: with Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian actors and mainly in Hebrew. And IMO, the Palestinians, politically speaking, come across rather less well than do the Israelis. If I were 100% committed to the Palestinian position, the film would make me uncomfortable I would think. In an interview in Le Monde, Doueiri—who called the making of the film “la plus grosse galère de ma vie” (the biggest pain in the ass of my life)—said that the Qatari minister of tourism, in explaining why the Qatari producers did not want to be mentioned in the credits, told him

“Ton film place sur un pied d’égalité le point de vue des Arabes et des Israéliens. Cela nous pose un problème. Nos faits et gestes sont scrutés par Al-Jazira. Nous sommes impliqués dans toutes les révolutions arabes. Ici même, au Qatar, les islamistes guettent. Tu vois l’arbre, nous voyons la forêt.”

But then, a couple of Lebanese and Syrian FB friends in Paris—who do not exactly have tender feelings toward Israel—said that they liked it. So this looks to be one of those films that may be interpreted in varying ways. I’ll look forward to more reactions from people from the region—who really should see it and form their own judgment.

As for the reax in Paris, both critics and Allociné spectators have given it the thumbs way up.

UPDATE: NYT Magazine staff writer Robert F. Worth discusses ‘The Attack’ in an article just up (June 14), in which he asks “Can we imagine the life of a terrorist?

2nd UPDATE: Also in the NYT Magazine is an article on “The effort to stop ‘The Attack’” (from being screened in Lebanon and the Arab world).

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Saw it. Didn’t like it. The dialogue is contrived or clichéd, the characters are one-dimensional or caricatured—except for maybe Riz Ahmed’s Changez—, and some of the passages unlikely to preposterous—particularly the Lahore café scene with the reporter/CIA guy and the CIA stake-out and extraction. Totally ridiculous and not believable. Changez’s prise de conscience in Istanbul also stretched credulity (as did the whole Istanbul sequence). The novel is apparently well-regarded but the movie doesn’t work IMO. And in view of the mixed reviews, others clearly share my view. I’ve liked what I’ve seen by Mira Nair up to this one. Every director is entitled to one misfire, I guess.

Now I should mention that the friend with whom I saw it, who is of South Asian Muslim origin—and has lived in the US for two-thirds of his life—, liked the movie. He related to Riz Ahmed’s conflicted sentiments, which spoke to him and his experience. It would be interesting to know how other first-generation Muslim immigrants in the US feel about the film.

One theme in the movie is the suspicion, discrimination, and humiliations to which Changez was subjected in the aftermath of 9/11 and how this set off his progressive change in attitude. I am quite sure there was a fair amount of this in the collective hysteria and paranoia that followed that traumatic event—I was in France then and didn’t return to the US until late ’02—, though felt that maybe the film exaggerated it a bit (and I would like to know if there were indeed random strip searches by the INS at airports and with anal inspections). But my aforementioned friend, who was living in California at the time, said that while he got a few mean looks on the street, most people were polite, even going out of their way to assure him that his ethnicity/religion was not a cause for suspicion. The same thing was recounted to me six years ago by one of the directors (Palestinian) of the Raleigh NC Islamic Association, who said that after 9/11 local churches and synagogues spontaneously reached out to the association and invited its members to ecumenical events. I won’t say this was an “only in America” reaction but it wouldn’t happen in a lot of other countries (not in India or Russia, entre autres, that’s for sure). On this level at least, Americans are a good people. And tolerant.

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