Archive for September, 2013


My previous post was on three worthy Moroccan films I’ve seen of late. Moroccan cinema has become quite good, probably the most interesting in the Arab world at the present time. There’s also some good stuff coming out of Algeria, including two films I’ve seen in the past three months. The most recent one is ‘Yema’, which is set at an undetermined moment during Algeria’s army-led regime vs. Islamist insurgents sale guerre and entirely in a small farm on a remote hillside (somewhere in the petite Kabylie). I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—the anglophone world’s premier critic of Maghrebi cinema—describe the pic

Algeria’s fratricidal battle between the government and fundamentalists is played at the micro level in Djamila Sahraoui’s three-hander “Yema.” Designed as a Greek tragedy, the telegraphic story is set in a stunning landscape where a mother grieves for her soldier son, killed by Islamic insurgents affiliated with his brother. Beautifully lensed by Raphael O’Byrne (“The Portuguese Nun”), “Yema” (meaning “mother”) has all the trappings of the ancient classics, yet feels equally antiquated; it’s worthy without transcending a static iconicism…

Like a grieving Virgin Mary, Ouardia (helmer-scripter Sahraoui, “Barakat!”) prepares her son Tarek’s body for burial. She’s confined to her home and environs by a one-handed guard (Samir Yahia), taking orders from his superior (Ali Zarif). Gradually it’s revealed that the superior is Ouardia’s younger son, a mujahideen fighter she blames for Tarek’s death. The younger brother also stole the elder’s wife, further embittering their disconsolate mother. Everyone is wounded emotionally and physically by the country’s conflicts, and only Ouardia’s dogged cultivation of her garden produces life from the parched soil. Visuals further the sense of an epic tale recounted on a human scale.

There’s not a lot of action in the film but it’s absorbing. I recommended it (particularly for Algeriaphiles and those interested in the dynamics of civil wars). Another review is here, French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.

The other Algerian film seen lately—actually a French film with Algeria theme—is ‘Né quelque part’ (literally, “born somewhere,” but given the unsatisfying English title ‘Homeland’), by first-time director Mohamed Hamidi (from the Paris area, a founder of the well-known banlieue-themed Bondy Blog, and who normally teaches economics and management for a living). This is a comedy (or perhaps a dramedy) for le grand public, about a 26-year-old Parisian law student named Farid (actor Tewfik Jallab) from an Algerian immigrant family, who’s asked by his ageing father to go en catastrophe to the family’s village (near Tlemcen), to deal with the local authorities’ intention to raze the house the father had built there for his retirement. So Farid has no choice but to drop everything and go to Algeria, where he had never set foot. Now this wasn’t too credible—immigrant families who periodically return to the bled invariably take the kids with them—, nor was it credible that he wouldn’t understand a word of Algerian darija, but that’s okay. At the airport he’s met with open arms by relatives he’s seeing for the first time, one a cousin played by comic Jamel Debbouze—who is hugely popular in France (and in my family)—, who take him to the bled, where he encounters the whole range of zany, offbeat characters. And the rocambolesque story takes off (in short: Farid intends to stay only a few days but, against his will, is retained there for considerably longer). The movie is quite funny—indeed hilarious—, particularly if one knows Algeria and Algerian humor. Immigrés vs. blédards dynamics are naturally a theme. Algeriaphiles will definitely appreciate it. So despite a few contrivances and implausibilities I give it the unreserved thumbs up. I was thoroughly entertained. Review in English is here (the film showed at Cannes), French reviews (good) here, and trailer here.


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This is a slick new Moroccan film I saw recently, about three youthful petty thief layabouts in Tetouan and how they decide to go legit. One, the thuggish Allal, takes the Islamist route (which is legit for some, though not all); another, the protag Malik, falls in love with attractive hooker Dounia and seeks to settle down and leave the life of crime. But corrupt police inspector Debbouze, played by director Faouzi Bensaïdi, twists Malik’s arm to become an informer in return for releasing Dounia from jail, where she found herself after a police raid. And all sorts of problems for Malik ensue. The screenplay is not extremely original—as this review justly observes—but the film is engaging and with incontestable qualities (acting, camerawork, sociological interest).

A nitpicking remark: contrary to what this review says, Tetouan is not a port city. The seaside scenes in the pic were in Martil, which is several km to Tetouan’s east. The film being set entirely in Tetouan and Martil was of particular interest to me personally, as I was in both last month. Tetouan is well worth the visit if one is in that part of Morocco: the medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the new city that juxtaposes it was entirely built by the Spanish—as it was the capital of the Spanish protectorate in northern Morocco (1912-56)—, so has the character and feel of a city in southern Spain. And Martil is one of the resort towns on Morocco’s westernmost Mediterranean coast. It is not particularly interesting so far as beach resorts go except that the tourism along that stretch of coast—running north to M’diq and Marina Smir (due south of Ceuta)—is entirely Moroccan—middle and upper-middle class, and with many Moroccan immigrants in Europe home for the holidays, but hardly any Europeans—and with some of the Moroccan women in two-piece bathing suits, which one would not see among nationals in any other Arab country (Christian parts of Lebanon excepted and maybe a restricted-access beach or two in Algeria or Tunisia). Culturally speaking, Morocco is not the Middle East, Egypt, or—when it comes to the status of women—Algeria.

Most of the above paragraph admittedly has little to do with the film, which offers a representation of the bas-fonds in contemporary urban Morocco. For this reason alone—but in addition to its cinematic qualities—I recommend it. French reviews are good. Trailer (with English s/t) is here. Et voici un entretien sur France 24 avec le réalisateur (à partir de la 4ème minute).

Another Moroccan film I saw recently was ‘Rock the Casbah’—which is, bizarrely enough, the second film with this exact title I’ve seen in the past six months (the other was from Israel)—, by director Laïla Marrakchi, who did the 2006 hit pic, ‘Marock‘, the subject of which was Casablanca’s jeunesse dorée. This one, which focuses on the same social stratum as does ‘Marock’, is set and shot entirely in Tangier (where I spent two weeks last month). The story in brief: rich family patriarch, Moulay Hassan (played by Omar Sharif), dies—he’s seen in the movie in flashbacks—, which brings the whole family together for the funeral, and with the usual family histoires one gets at such gatherings. The mainly female cast is stellar; it is, in itself, a draw for the film. The Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (whom I’ve seen in at least 15 films over the past decade) is Moulay Hassan’s wife, Aïcha, and who has three grown daughters, two of whom live in Tangier—Mariam (played by Lebanese actress/director Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (the Moroccan-Spanish-Belgian Lubna Azabal)—and one in New York, Sofia (the rather beautiful Moroccan-American actress Morjana Alaoui), who’s married to an American—and with a kid who speaks neither Arabic nor French—and arrives in Tangier en catastrophe after many years of absence. There was a fourth sister in the past but she committed suicide under murky circumstances that are revealed in the film. Sofia does not get along with Mariam or Kenza and there are issues with her mother, and all sorts of stuff comes out while they’re supposed to be mourning their deceased father/husband, with deep, dark family secrets revealed and la totale. The film is alternately humorous and melodramatic—it’s one for le grand public, not a film d’auteur, and with more French spoken than Arabic, signifying that the director had an international audience in mind—, and with a screenplay that is—like ‘Mort à vendre’—not entirely original. We’ve seen it many times before. But while not a chef d’œuvre, the pic is entertaining, the ensemble cast is great, the deep class and gender hierarchies in Moroccan society are dealt with head on, and I loved the scenes of Tangier (places and streets I strolled along just three weeks before). So I recommend it. Hollywood press reviews are here and here. French reviews are here. Trailer is here.

For the record, I saw a film at the Tangier cinémathèque last month, ‘Le Temps du terrorisme’ (‘The Time of Terrorism’), by director Aziz Saadallah, which so far has opened only in Morocco. It’s a curious film, set in a residential quartier in the heart of Casablanca, of a divorced middle-aged television screenwriter, played by Saadallah, working under a deadline but en mal d’inspiration and who becomes the target of ire of his neighboring Islamist greengrocer, who reproaches him for moral turpitude and a generally decadent lifestyle (consuming alcoholic beverages, frequenting women with whom he is not related). The film goes back-and-forth between the screenwriter’s cultural, social class, and ideological clash with his intolerant, increasingly fanaticized neighbor and the screenplay he needs to finish, which is progressively inspired by this real life clash. The worthy message of the film is the mounting danger of Islamist extremism in Morocco. The one English discussion of the film I’ve come across is here. Trailer is here. As the film won’t be making it to Paris—let alone outre-Atlantique—anytime soon, at least one can read about it here on AWAV.

rock the casbah laila marrakchi

zaman al irhab

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Qatar: modern-day slavery

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

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

The Guardian has an article with accompanying 9½-minute video on Qatar’s World Cup “slaves”: the migrant workers in that accidental country who are forced to work for no pay while building the stadia and other infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar was amazingly, incredibly chosen by FIFA to host. The Guardian has been on a tear on the issue over the past week, with one article asserting that “Qatar World Cup construction ‘will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead’,” and another asking “How many more must die for Qatar’s World Cup?” (See also the Qatar 2022 coverage in the excellent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.)

Qatar may pledge to reform its migrant labor practices but it won’t. Just as it won’t end the Kafala system of tying foreign workers to employers, confiscating the former’s passports, and requiring exit visas (and which does not only concern manual laborers from poor countries; e.g. see the article in yesterday’s Libération on what it’s like to work for Qatar Airways). Qatar won’t change on this score—nor will other states of the Arabian peninsula—because the master-slave mentality is almost inscribed in its cultural DNA (see my previous blog posts on this theme here, here, and here). To expect Qataris—or Saudis, Emiratis, etc—to voluntarily change their ways on this—and in the absence of democracy, a civil society (and with independent trade unions), or anything even halfway resembling the rule of law—would be akin to politely asking an antebellum Mississippi plantation owner to free his slaves, pay them correctly, offer decent working conditions, etc. For this reason alone, FIFA needs to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament and award it in extremis to a worthy country (if UEFA countries are eligible, England or Turkey; if not UEFA, Australia or the US).

What a batshit crazy decision to award the tournament to Qatar. It is clearly unreasonable to be playing sports in 50°C temperatures—air conditioned stadiums or not (and what happens when people are not in the stadium? where will the masses of fans spend their free time?)—and shifting the tournament to the winter will almost certainly not happen—regardless of what FIFA and UEFA are saying on this today—, as it will come in the middle of soccer season in Europe and conflict with the Winter Olympics. Qatar is simply unfit to be hosting the tournament. In addition to the labor issues and climate, the country only has one city worthy of the name—and which has no public life to speak of—, the distractions and amusements for the fans—notably bars and members of the opposite sex in abundance—will not be available (at least not in the quantities necessary for a month-long happening of this scale), and the prospects for cultural friction will be considerable (can one imagine the tens of thousands of rowdy, beer-swilling English, German, etc fans on the streets of Doha or Al Rayyan for three whole weeks—with nothing to do between matches and thus bored out of their minds—, and crossing paths with the hordes of Saudis who are certain to descend on the emirate for the event?). Forget it, Qatar just doesn’t have what it takes to be hosting the World Cup. Even Mongolia would be a better choice. The campaign to strip it of the tournament is apparently gaining steam in FIFA. Très bien.

UPDATE: Business Insider has a post on the “11 reasons why the Qatar World Cup is going to be a disaster.” One pertinent point about scheduling the tournament in the winter is that it will conflict with the final phase of the American football season, thereby dramatically reducing the level of interest in the US—a major FIFA growth market—and wreaking havoc with the television contract there. And a World Cup elimination match would almost certainly fall on Super Bowl Sunday. Just can’t see FIFA doing this. Or the Fox Broadcasting Company agreeing to it.

2nd UPDATE: It appears to be open season on Qatar this week, as the BBC website has a piece up on how “Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers [are] ‘appalled’ by work conditions.” They’re shocked, shocked!

3rd UPDATE: The Business Insider piece above links to an item about the possible price tag of Qatar 2022, which could be as high as $220 billion. Even if it’s only half that—though one supposes it will likely be far more—, this is, objectively speaking, an obscene amount of money to be spending on a one-month sporting event. One may easily come up with a list of more socially, economically, and humanly useful ways such a sum could be spent. All the stadiums and related infrastructure built for the event will give a new dimension to the term “white elephant.” This has long been a problem for major international sports events—particularly the Olympics—and looks to be a big one for Brazil next year (e.g. see the NYT article earlier this week on the stadium under construction in Manaus and, more generally, the social movement in that country against the diversion of economic resources that hosting the event necessitates). The fact is, the World Cup and Olympics tend not to be a good economic deal for the hosting country—when a not downright bad one (e.g. Montreal 1976, Athens 2004)—, and particularly if that country is not among the world’s richest. Now Qatar may be flush but it is simply unconscionable to be blowing that kind of cash building sports stadiums and gleaming infrastructure that will eventually be swallowed up in the sand.

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

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I have had absolutely nothing on this blog on the Fukushima accident, which is not to say that I haven’t been following the story closely over the past 2½ years and fretting over it. A certain number of articles I’ve read on the subject, including lately, have been alarmist, indeed catastrophiste, as to the situation at the plant and how it could go from bad to worse, particularly in the coming months. But I just read this article in Slate by former WaPo journalist Paul Blustein, who lives in Japan, informing us that “[m]uch of what [we]’ve heard about the nuclear accident is wrong.” The article is based on an initially secret—and still not widely known—evaluation of the accident by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The bottom line: there is no plausible worst-case scenario that threatens the city of Tokyo. Even in the most nightmarish of eventualities, 30 million people—or even a portion of that—will not need to be evacuated. A very interesting article and absolutely worth the read.

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In a 7-minute video here.

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Blue Jasmine


It opened in Paris today, so I went to see it (MK2 Odéon 17h50 séance, if anyone wishes to know). I’ve seen every last film Woody Allen has ever made, so was obviously not going to skip this one. Reviews in the US, where the pic opened two months ago, were very good, French reviews so far are tops (both critics and Allociné spectateurs). But two highbrow cinephile friends outre-Atlantique, with whom I usually—though do not always—agree, gave it the thumbs way down. My verdict à chaud: though not quite as categorical as my two friends, I largely share their dim view. The film is watchable and I did not actively dislike it. But I did not like it either. First, I do not care for Cate Blanchett as an actress and found her character antipathique and without interest. In short, I couldn’t stand her (not only her character but her, period). Second, almost all the characters were social class caricatures. Quasi cartoon characters. Third, whatever the moral of the story was—money can’t buy you love, or love is more important than money, or whatever—was banal and so what? Not original.

When the film ended a woman in front of me clapped and shouted “bravo!” A woman in the row just behind exclaimed “Woody Allen, qu’est-ce qu’il est tordu!” (i.e. what a twisted mind he has)…

Speaking of twisted minds, I regret to say that I thought this is what director Claire Denis had after seeing her latest film, ‘Les Salauds’ (in English: ‘Bastards’), earlier this month. Claire Denis is a highbrow director, whose films are generally unknown by the grand public and inaccessible to it (not in the physical sense of not being able to see them but in making sense of what one is seeing). If you were to ask your average French movie-goer—le cinéspectateur lambda—what s/he thinks of Claire Denis’s films, the response would invariably be “connais pas” (never heard of her). If one has seen several Claire Denis films, this is a sure fire sign not only of cinephilia but of possible cinésnobisme (I’ve seen 5 of her 11 feature-length films, which may or may not qualify me as a snob). ‘Les Salauds’ is the noir-est of films noirs. To call the story bleak would be an understatement. The cast is first-rate—with Vincent Lindon (always excellent), Chiara Mastroianni, and future vedette Lola Creton, entre autres—but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor. Almost all the characters are antipathique. The film is just so glauque (sordid). Worse, it’s reprehensible, indeed despicable, and particularly the ending. One leaves the theater revolted, if not repulsed. In point of fact, the film had no redeeming value, despite its technical quality and that of the performances. French reviews were mixed but Allociné spectateurs downright hated it. Hollywood press reviews (the film premiered at Cannes) are here, here, and here. See it if you like but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Why couldn’t Claire Denis have made a film like her 2009 ’35 Rhums’ (in English: ’35 Shots of Rum’), which I saw on DVD a few months ago? Now this was one fine movie—stellar US reviews are here—, set in Paris and its northern banlieues, and with an almost all-black cast (African and Antillais), including the wonderful, beautiful, sublime actress (and budding director) Mati Diop. If one does not like ’35 Rhums’, then one is almost by definition not a cinephile. Nor a cinesnob.

Les Salauds


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The rise of the new new left

Labor Movement And An Organized College Walkout Add Support To Occupy Wall Street Protest

[update below]

If one didn’t see it, Peter Beinart has a very interesting essay of this title in TDB, dated September 12th, in which he foresees a bright future for a revived left wing politics in the US. The lede

Bill de Blasio’s win in New York’s Democratic primary isn’t a local story. It’s part of a vast shift that could upend three decades of American political thinking.

This is one of the more thoughtful reflections I’ve read on the general subject in a while. I don’t know if Beinart is right but sure hope he is. His essay is lengthy but really worth the read.

À propos, the right-wing TWS’s in-house economics writer, Irwin Stelzer, has a post on the TWS blog, dated September 21st, on what he regretfully sees as the possible revival of trade unions in the US. I don’t know if Stelzer is right but sure hope he is!

If one needs just one little reminder of how loathsome the Republican party has become—and why America really needs a revived left wing politics and robust unions—, read Timothy Egan’s post, “Red state pain,” dated September 19th, on the NYT’s Opinionator blog.

UPDATE: The NYT has a most informative article about Bill de Blasio’s youthful participation in the 1980s Nicaragua solidarity movement: “A mayoral hopeful now, de Blasio was once a young leftist.” (September 23)

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Video blogger John Green explains in this great 8-minute video that has been circulating over the past month. Green is very smart and offers the best, most succinct—and entertaining—explanation one is likely to find on the subject.

In a follow up video, Green presents a 5½-minute “capitalist case for health care reform,” which is also on the mark. I’ve been making much the same argument for years now but he says it better (and is more entertaining than I could ever be).

His video website (with brother Hank), VlogBrothers, is here.

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Hugh Roberts has an excellent review essay in the latest LRB on four books on the “Arab spring” in Egypt. It’s one of the best analyses I’ve read on what’s happened in that country over the past three years. I was going to have some money quotes with commentary but will pass on that. Just read the whole thing. You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: Eills Goldberg, who’s one of the better political science MENA specialists around, has a lengthy analysis on his blog comparing the coups in Egypt (2013) and Chile (1973). (September 19)

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Two-State Illusion

Jerusalem, May 8 2013 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Jerusalem, May 8 2013 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below]

This is the title of an op-ed by Ian Lustick in the NYT Sunday Review, the subject of which is—what else?—the Israel-Palestine conflict and the apparent near impossibility that the I-P negotiating process—such as it is—will culminate in the creation of a Palestinian state. The two-state solution is an “illusion,” so it is asserted—dead, for all intents and purposes —, and with

the fantasy that there is a two-state solution keep[ing] everyone from taking action toward something that might work.

The “something that might work” is suggested in passing: “one mixed state,” i.e. the one-state solution. Now this argument, which I consider to be asinine, stupid, and a waste of time to even discuss, has been made countless times over the years by gauchiste activists and other tiersmondistes, engagé academics, pundits who don’t know what they’re talking about, and liberal Zionists—ex and/or current—who have thrown up their arms in despair at the right-wing lurch of Israeli politics—and lost their heads in the process (isn’t it striking how the subject of Israel makes people crazy and on all sides of the issue?)—and the impasse in the peace process (as if Israel alone is responsible for this).

I normally wouldn’t bother writing a whole post on such an op-ed were it not for the identity of the author of this particular one. If one doesn’t know it, Ian Lustick is a professor of political science (with endowed chair) at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of Penn’s Middle East Center, one of the leading specialists of Israel in American political science since the 1970s—he’s a founder and past president of the Association for Israel Studies—, and is a first-rate social scientist all around. Professor Lustick is a major scholar and with a record of academic achievements and publications considerably longer than mine will ever be. Which is why I am stunned that he has written such a breathtaking piece of bullshit—and published it in the NYT no less, where it will be read by millions. Professor Lustick is manifestly one of those (ex-)liberal Zionists referred to above, though, given his stature as a top flight political scientist, has no business writing such nonsense and on his subject of specialization to boot. And this political scientist will not let him get away with it.

Allow me to cite and discuss some of the problematic passages in his piece (for the whole thing, go here)

True believers in the two-state solution see absolutely no hope elsewhere. With no alternative in mind,

There is no “alternative in mind” for the simple reason that there is no alternative to the two-state solution. Not one that can be negotiated in any case.

 and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions, they are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.

Advocates of the two-state solution admit to a man or woman that getting there will be arduous, and many (myself among them) are not too optimistic, but none—not to my knowledge, at least—are portraying it as implausible or no longer possible. And as the parties to the negotiations—Israel, Palestinian Authority, the US—are formally committed to the two-state objective—however unlikely this may seem in the foreseeable future—, one simply cannot pronounce it dead and buried. An analogous issue is Turkey joining the European Union. No one will bet a kuruş on this happening anytime soon—and certainly not in this decade (and absolutely not if the current Turkish prime minister still holds executive power)—but so long as the accession negotiations continue in Brussels, albeit at a snail’s pace, and neither party is about to put an end to them, one cannot foreclose the prospect of eventual Turkish EU membership.

In re to the “peace process,” so long as this continues, however fitfully, and the two-state solution is the only one on the table, then that solution necessarily remains within the realm of the possible.

It’s like 1975 all over again, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco fell into a coma. The news media began a long death watch, announcing each night that Generalissimo Franco was still not dead. This desperate allegiance to the departed echoes in every speech, policy brief and op-ed about the two-state solution today.

What a peculiar analogy. Franco was going to die sooner or later. This was a 100% certainty. Franco was a human being. Human beings die. The two-state solution will (or will not) come about as part of a process, and processes only die when the parties to them decide to let that happen. And none of the aforementioned parties to the I-P process is seriously considering allowing that process to die.

True, some comas miraculously end. Great surprises sometimes happen. The problem is that the changes required to achieve the vision of robust Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side are now considerably less likely than other less familiar but more plausible outcomes that demand high-level attention but aren’t receiving it.

What precisely are these “plausible outcomes”? The “one mixed state”? But what on earth makes this outcome—which is, objectively speaking, utterly implausible—more likely than the “changes required” to bring about a two-state solution? Professor Lustick simply asserts this, after which he moves on to this pearl:

Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government.

I don’t get the bit here about a “small state.” Is Professor Lustick suggesting that a fundamentalist Palestine is more likely than a secular one only if the latter is “small”—presumably limited to the West Bank and maybe Gaza—or that a fundamentalist Palestine is more likely tout court? As for strong Islamist trends, it is odd that Professor Lustick would write this in September 2013, with all that’s happened in Egypt this summer, Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in Syria (for the time being, at least), and the Tunisian Ennahda on the defensive, entre autres. Now it should be said that if an entirely free-and-fair election had taken place on the West Bank these past few years, one would have confidently predicted a Hamas victory over the corrupt, sclerotic Fatah—though it should also be said that there is not the slightest chance of Hamas contesting any election on the West Bank (or of Hamas allowing Fatah to do so in Gaza), now or in the foreseeable future. But in the hypothetical event that such an election were to be organized, say, next week, one would predict a Hamas victory with far less confidence; again, due to the new situation in Egypt, the fiasco of Morsi’s presidency, and the fact that Gaza, thanks to the Egyptian military regime, really is an open air prison now. Hamas is thoroughly isolated and no one is going to come to its rescue—not Tayyip Erdoğan, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim, or anyone. Khaled Mashal will not be setting foot in Palestine anytime soon. Nor in Syria or Egypt. And if Hamas tries to break out of its isolation by provoking another little war with Israel, the Israelis will kick the shit out them yet again, as in 2008-09 and 2012, and with the total support of the US, tacit support of Europe, acquiescence of the Russians, and benevolence of Arab regimes. There will be the usual demos and incendiary op-eds and blog posts, but Israel will pay no price for it. And when it’s over the world will forget about Gaza as it did after the last flare-ups there, and with Hamas as isolated as ever. Pace Professor Lustick, the predicament of the Gazawis and experience of Islamists in power during the “Arab spring” thus do not augur well for a brilliant Islamist future in Palestine.

The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist.

I can hardly believe that a specialist of Israel would commit such rubbish to the written word. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project? Insofar as the existence of Israel is inseparable from the Zionist project, this signifies the disappearance of Israel tout court. But how does a fully constituted nation and state disappear short of its inhabitants being exterminated? Perhaps Professor Lustick thinks the Jews will simply all depart en masse, emigrate to America and Australia, or just wander the earth, or something. Is there any precedent in modern history of a nation closing up shop, voluntarily winding up its existence, and its inhabitants dispersing to the four winds? Pour mémoire, Israel is a state with a GDP of $250 billion—greater than that of neighboring Egypt, with ten times the population—, per capita GDP at PPP of $31,000—just a shade below the EU 28 mean—, an economic growth rate of 3.5%, the highest percentage per capita of engineers in the world by far, et j’en passe. How does a state with an economy of this order—and which shows few signs of major structural weakness—cease to be?

On the question of war, the only entities with which Israel could possibly wage this are Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran. On a war with Hamas, see above. Hizbullah: the instant Hizb rockets hit an Israeli city and kill lots of people and/or any Hizbullahis cross the international border, the Israelis will turn large parts of Lebanon into a parking lot. There is no chance—none whatever—that Hizbullah will come out of such a conflagration a winner. And it is unlikely it will end in a draw as in 2006. As for Iran, let’s not talk about that (as, among other things, a war initiated by Iran would possibly bring about the nuclear destruction of that country, which no mentally sane person could possibly wish for). Cultural exhaustion? What on earth is this supposed to mean?! When it comes to the cultural form I know the best—cinema—, Israel is one of the more dynamic countries in the world. And in literature too (as it happens, I am currently reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land). Demographic momentum? Israel does indeed have it, with all those ultra-Orthodox breeding like rabbits. Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs) are also having lots of babies, though that fertility rate is beginning to drop. The widespread notion that Israeli Jews will be demographically overwhelmed by Palestinians within its 1967 borders is without foundation (I do not include the West Bank-Gaza here, as there is no reason to; Israel will never—and I repeat, never—reoccupy Gaza or West Bank area A, assume responsibility for its population, and incorporate it into the state; not even the far-right Naftali Bennett and his party advocate this).

As for evacuating enough West Bank settlers to allow a Palestinian state to exist, it’s pretty much understood on all sides that the great majority of settlers will stay where they are, with the big blocs annexed to Israel, lands swaps, etc. Professor Lustick knows this.

While the vision of thriving Israeli and Palestinian states has slipped from the plausible to the barely possible, one mixed state emerging from prolonged and violent struggles over democratic rights is no longer inconceivable.

This is an amazing statement. Absolutely incredible. How does Professor Lustick envisage these “prolonged and violent struggles”? Violence normally involves people getting killed. Will the Palestinians wage this violent struggle the way they always have, i.e. with asymmetric warfare (e.g. rockets fired into populated areas, shooting up crowded buses, kamikaze bombers blowing themselves up in pizzerias and discotheques, that sort of thing)? But the Palestinians have already tried this strategy at so many points in their modern history and have met with utter defeat, indeed catastrophe. Each time they did it, the Israelis smashed them. When embarking on “violent struggles” the Palestinians have experienced nothing but defeat in the end. So why would such a losing strategy become a winning one in the future? And what Palestinians is Professor Lustick talking about? There is not a snowball’s chance in hell the PCIs will go down the violence road (and which Professor Lustick knows full well; the PCIs were the subject of his doctoral dissertation after all, so he is fully informed on them). As for West Bank Pals, they’re somewhat hemmed in by that “apartheid wall” (which was one outcome of the last Intifada). And it’s dicey for Gazawis to get within even a kilometer of the Israeli border, lest nervous IDF soldiers open fire on them. So one wonders where the legions of Palestinians will come from to participate in these “prolonged and violent struggles.”

As for the “democratic rights” over which they would be struggling, what is Professor Lustick talking about here? I have no idea. And on the “one mixed state”: when confronted with this cockamamie notion I always ask (e.g. here) the person advocating it the same question, which is to provide a credible scenario as to how such a state could come about in the foreseeable future, i.e. before we’re all dead. If the said state were to be born through violent struggle, i.e. war, please explain how Israel will lose this war (see above). If the mythic one-state is the fruit of a political process, then how does one see the Knesset passing it—which political parties will vote aye?—and then it being ratified by the Israeli electorate (and with the inevitable qualified majority)? Needless to say, I have never gotten an answer to any of this from a one-stater, as they don’t have the answers. And I don’t expect them from Professor Lustick.

All sides have reasons to cling to [the two-state] illusion. The Palestinian Authority needs its people to believe that progress is being made toward a two-state solution so it can continue to get the economic aid and diplomatic support that subsidize the lifestyles of its leaders, the jobs of tens of thousands of soldiers, spies, police officers and civil servants, and the authority’s prominence in a Palestinian society that views it as corrupt and incompetent.

True. Does the PA have an alternative?

Israeli governments cling to the two-state notion because it seems to reflect the sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority and it shields the country from international opprobrium, even as it camouflages relentless efforts to expand Israel’s territory into the West Bank.

Also true. And as Professor Lustick acknowledges, Israel’s Jewish majority does indeed want that peace process, thus indicating that it favors a two-state solution (provided that it brings real peace and ends the conflict). As for settlement expansion being camouflaged, come off it. This is way out there in the open. Israeli governments couldn’t camouflage it even if they tried (and why would they want to, given that settlement expansion pleases certain domestic constituencies?).

American politicians need the two-state slogan to show they are working toward a diplomatic solution, to keep the pro-Israel lobby from turning against them and to disguise their humiliating inability to allow any daylight between Washington and the Israeli government.

Nonsense. American administrations (not “politicians”) want the I-P process to continue because this is a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the region, and under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It has nothing to do with lobbies or disguising humiliations.

Finally, the “peace process” industry — with its legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists — needs a steady supply of readers, listeners and funders who are either desperately worried that this latest round of talks will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, or that it will not.

This sentence lacks clarity. I don’t get it. If the latest round of talks leads to the establishment of a Pal state, the legions of consultants et al will still have many services to render, as the state will be sous perfusion internationale for a long time to come.

But many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of “If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!”

“Many Israelis”? How many is many? Certainly some Israelis see their future demise. Collectively speaking, Jews—for reasons having to do with history (and maybe some collective Jewish psyche, I don’t know)—have existential fears, but fear of demise in no way signifies that demise is in the actual realm of the possible. As for the State of Israel’s permanence, see above.

Those who assume that Israel will always exist as a Zionist project should consider how quickly the Soviet, Pahlavi Iranian, apartheid South African, Baathist Iraqi and Yugoslavian states unraveled, and how little warning even sharp-eyed observers had that such transformations were imminent.

Professor Lustick: pour mémoire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were multinational states that broke up into their constituent national components (constituent nations that had always had, on paper at least, the constitutional right of secession). And Pahlavi Iran, Baathist Iraq, and apartheid South Africa were political orders and which gave way to new orders. Israel is not a political order; it is a nation. And nations do not disappear or give way to other nations. Independent nations may lose their national independence for a stretch or entirely vanish from the map (e.g. Poland 1795-1918), but the flame of nationhood remains. Iran, Iraq, and South Africa are still there, as are Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Estonia, etc etc. If the Israeli nation goes, it’s gone forever. Extinguished. And with its people dispersed (or exterminated). Bad analogies, Professor Lustick.

In all these cases, presumptions about what was “impossible” helped protect brittle institutions by limiting political imagination. And when objective realities began to diverge dramatically from official common sense, immense pressures accumulated.

JUST as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics. When those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations. As we see vividly across the Middle East, when forces for change and new ideas are stifled as completely and for as long as they have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sudden and jagged change becomes increasingly likely.

The bursting balloon here is the hot air from this passage. Don’t they have editors at the NYT Opinion page?

History offers many such lessons. Britain ruled Ireland for centuries, annexing it in 1801. By the mid-19th century the entire British political class treated Ireland’s permanent incorporation as a fact of life. But bottled-up Irish fury produced repeated revolts. By the 1880s, the Irish question was the greatest issue facing the country; it led to mutiny in the army and near civil war before World War I. Once the war ended, it took only a few years until the establishment of an independent Ireland. What was inconceivable became a fact.

Yes, the Irish Question: Britain occupied Ireland, incorporated it into the UK, and oppressed the Irish people; the Irish people struggled for their independence and, in the end, won it. The Irish Question was resolved with the two-state solution.

The prospect of a Palestinian state on the West Bank-Gaza was inconceivable in Israel 25 years ago. Outside the Israeli hard right, it is universally admitted today.

France ruled Algeria for 130 years and never questioned the future of Algeria as an integral part of France. But enormous pressures accumulated, exploding into a revolution that left hundreds of thousands dead. Despite France’s military victory over the rebels in 1959 [sic], Algeria soon became independent, and Europeans were evacuated from the country.

Ditto. For the French, Algeria was an integral part of France. But Algerians were not Frenchmen and did not want to be. They struggled for their independence and won it. The two-state solution.

Algeria’s Europeans were not evacuated, BTW. They fled or departed voluntarily. And though the great majority of them (over 80%) were born in Algeria, were deeply attached to the country—it was their home—, and had never set foot anywhere else, there was no right of return for those who fled in 1962. Some tried to go back in the months following Algerian independence but it was impossible. Independent Algeria said no. And they lost all their property and assets, and with no compensation. It was a terrible tragedy for them but that’s the way the historical cookie crumbled. Just sayin’.

One another thing. The Irish Sinn Fein never laid claim to any part of England, Scotland, or Wales. And the Algerian FLN never had irredentist claims on metropolitan France. The borders of the Irish and Algerian nations were clearly, explicitly fixed by those two movements and accepted by the colonial powers (Ulster was a stickler but that was dealt with), rendering independence and their two-state solutions relatively unproblematic. For the Palestinians and the state of the Israel, it’s another matter altogether.

THE assumptions necessary to preserve the two-state slogan have blinded us to more likely scenarios. With a status but no role, what remains of the Palestinian Authority will disappear. Israel will face the stark challenge of controlling economic and political activity and all land and water resources from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The stage will be set for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.

Professor Lustick is speaking in the future tense here, looking into the crystal ball and assuring us of what it is nigh certain to happen years from now, of the calamities that will befall Israel, the Palestinians, etc. Professor Lustick, who is a smart political scientist, knows better than to do this.

Fresh thinking could then begin about Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region. There could be generous compensation for lost property. Negotiating with Arabs and Palestinians based on satisfying their key political requirements, rather than on maximizing Israeli prerogatives, might yield more security and legitimacy. Perhaps publicly acknowledging Israeli mistakes and responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians would enable the Arab side to accept less than what it imagines as full justice. And perhaps Israel’s potent but essentially unusable nuclear weapons arsenal could be sacrificed for a verified and strictly enforced W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East.

Now he’s wistfully speaking in the conditional (could, might). Allez

In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.

This passage almost leaves me speechless. I can hardly believe that a political science I-P specialist could write it. It reads like a 1970s Trotskyist tract from my college days (of the revolutionary potential of an alliance of class forces that objectively shares the same class interests through its relationship to the means of production blah blah). So Israeli IT entrepreneurs—who work all the time and party in Tel Aviv’s bars when they’re not—are going to reach out to their entrepreneurial counterparts in Ramallah… And Sri Lankan and Nepali domestic workers will link up with their Palestinian sisters on the other side of the “apartheid wall” (and ally with their entrepreneurial Tel Aviv employers while they’re at it, with whom they naturally share objective interests)…  And Haredi settlers in Beitar Illit will break bread with Salafists in Hebron…. And the grandsons and granddaughters of 1950s Iraqi and Moroccan immigrants will discover their Arab roots during their military service, while manning checkpoints or participating in night raids in West Bank villages… And then there are Tel Aviv’s gays—whom Professor Lustick forgot to mention—, who will propose organizing joint Israeli-Palestinian LGBT parades in Nablus and Gaza…

Professor Lustick, what mind-altering substances did you consume before writing your op-ed?

Professor Lustick mentions “Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region” and “a radically new environment,” which presumably means the “Arab spring.” One thing I have been struck by is the lack of reflection by those in the pro-Palestinian camp of the consequences of what has happened across the Arab world since January 2011 on the whole Israel-Palestine question. In addition to the electoral victories of forces particularly hostile to Israel, i.e. Islamists, one has witnessed the region descending into total chaos: the future of Egypt, which is in a downward spiral, is bleak; the catastrophic situation in Syria will no doubt get worse (and with any outcome, no matter what, bad news for Israel: a reinforcement of Iranian influence or Islamists in power in Damascus); Lebanon—which is not a nation, never has been and never will be—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) in turn; Jordan is looking increasingly unstable; Iraq is in an open-ended civil war; who knows what’s going to happen in Saudi Arabia…

In other words, the Arab world is going to hell in a handbasket. And if the Palestinians had their own fully sovereign WB-Gaza state, there is no reason to think that it would not follow in the path of its neighbors (with Fatah and Hamas tearing each other apart). The two-state solution remains in the ultimate interest of all parties to the conflict but, with the “Arab spring,” there is no way that even a Labor-led Israeli government will allow for the creation of a Palestinian state that doesn’t carry ironclad security guarantees for Israel (and which will likely involve an IDF presence on the West Bank over a long transitional period). A Palestinian state is almost certain to see considerable limitations on its sovereignty. Not great for the Pals but if they really want a state—which is an open question—, that is sure to be the price.

One may get the impression from all this that I’m pro-Israel. Not at all. I just call it the way I see it.

UPDATE: I just read the commentary on Ian Lustick’s op-ed by Philip Weiss (here), on his sort of eponymous blog Mondoweiss. Weiss does the same thing as I, quoting Lustick and then commenting. I will leave it up to others to decide if Weiss is a stupid idiot or not. (September 17)

2nd UPDATE: Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar succinctly skewer Lustick’s piece (here) in TDB’s Open Zion blog. (September 17)

3rd UPDATE: Journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner dismantles Lustick (here) in The Jewish Journal. (September 18)

4th UPDATE: University of Houston prof David Mikics takes Lustick apart (here) in Tablet. Among other things, he cites a 2010 piece by Lustick in Forbes, on Israel and Hamas, that is prompting me to question the praise I heaped on him as social scientist. I need to think about this one. (September 18)

5th UPDATE: Journalist and editor Noam Sheizaf, addressing Lustick’s op-ed, has an excellent commentary in +972 magazine (here) arguing that the “Two state vs. one state debate is a waste of time [and] political energy.” Sheizaf is a sharp analyst. I linked to and discussed a similar article he wrote in +972 in March 2012 (here). (September 20)

6th UPDATE: Martin Kramer, writing in Commentary, takes Lustick to the woodshed (here). (September 24)

7th UPDATE: Yitzhak Laor of Haaretz has a column on “The left’s one-state colonialism,” in which Lustick’s op-ed is mentioned. The lede: “If there is a place where the left – its ranks who support the one-state solution – converges with the right, it is not in the image of a single state, but in the colonialist disregard of the Palestinian right to self-determination.” (September 30)

8th UPDATE: Engagé academics Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon—who are co-founders of the progressive Israeli think tank Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy—methodically rubbish Lustick’s piece on TDB’s Open Zion blog (here). Lustick responds to it and other Open Zion critiques here. Among other things, Lustick demonstrates once again that he does not understand the Franco-Algerian case. (October 2)

9th UPDATE: Emeritus professor Jerome Slater, writing on his ‘On the US and Israel’ blog, politely deconstructs Lustick’s piece (here). (October 8)

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Maaloula, September 7 2013 (photo: SANA)

Maaloula, September 7 2013 (photo: SANA)

The rebel/Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaida linked) takeover of Maaloula last week and effort by the Syrian army to take it back have been getting a lot of coverage (e.g. NY Times here, Patrick Cockburn in The Independent here, WaPo here). If one doesn’t know it, Maaloula is the mainly Christian (Melkite Greek Catholic and Antiochian Greek Orthodox) town some 50 km north of Damascus where Aramaic is spoken, one of only three such localities in the world left (all in that corner of Syria). What a goddamned tragedy. If Maaloula is seriously damaged or destroyed, it will be yet another crime against humanity—against the historical patrimony of the world—in that country (e.g. see the video here). I visited Maaloula in May 2010, with a former student/now friend in Damascus named Souraya, her mother, and a family friend of theirs from Maaloula (and native Aramaic speaker). As it happens, I saw Souraya just the other day, for the first time since that Syria trip, as she is now in Paris. Life in Damascus—where she’s lived all her life except for a few years of higher education in Paris—had become too difficult (she was working for a large Western corporation that closed its offices there; in terms of her politics, she is an uncompromising supporter of the regime). Following events in Syria by the minute (via numerous iPhone apps), she told me that the entire Christian population of Maaloula fled the town when it was invested by the rebels, mainly to Damascus (including the family friend of hers whom I met). The Sunni residents of Maaloula behaved poorly toward their Christian neighbors when the rebels arrived, so Souraya informed me, though the nearby Sunni village of Ayn al-Tina gave the fleeing Christians refuge. So we’re not talking about a black-and-white sectarian conflict here.

Here are some photos I took of Maaloula during my visit there, on May 25 2010.


Above: Heading out from Damascus.

A fine restaurant on the outskirts of Maaloula, where we had lunch before heading into the town.


There are no doubt more churches per capita in Maaloula than in Tulsa, Oklahoma…















Above: The footpath to the church and monastery on the other side of the mountain.




Melkite priest. We listened to his mass in Aramaic (sounds like Hebrew).

Looking west. Lebanon is maybe ten km past the hill.


Back in town, on the other side of the mountain.





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In the Fog

В тумане

Four days ago I had a post on a recently seen film from Georgia, which I wrote while watching the France-Georgia World Cup qualification match (not a good game for Les Bleus; ended in a scoreless tie). Now I am watching, as I write, the France-Belarus qualification match, live from Gomel (Belarus’s second city, whose existence I was unaware of until this past week). As it happens, I saw a Belarussian film last spring, ‘In the Fog‘ (en France: ‘Dans la brume’), set in 1942 in the western Soviet Union during the Nazi occupation. Here’s a description from one review

Moral dilemmas don’t come any bleaker than in Sergei Loznitsa’s adaptation of Vasil Bykov’s novel, “In the Fog.” Set in a Nazi-occupied region of the Soviet Union, this existential parable explores three possible responses to an impossible situation and concludes that, in the end, none makes any difference. As remorseless in style as it is in message, “In the Fog” offers little hope and few pleasures, but earns admiration for its elegant exploration of the lowest depths of the human condition.

In the first of many long, uncut sequences, the film opens with a tracking shot following three prisoners accused of sabotage as they are marched through an occupied village to their deaths. The screen fades to black, and cuts to Burov (Vlad Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), two partisans sent to liquidate Sushenya (Vladimir Svirsky), who is believed to have turned in the three executed men in order to save his own life. Burov, a childhood friend of Sushenya, agrees to the condemned man’s request to be shot and buried in a pine grove, some distance from his home, to spare his wife and child. This slight kindness backfires when the pro-German local police discover them, and a firefight ensues.

Three flashbacks interrupt this central narrative, each from the point of view of one of the main characters. In the first, Burov, months earlier commits an impulsive, petty act of vengeance against the police, forcing him to flee and take refuge with the partisans. In the next, Sushenya, held in custody with the three saboteurs, refuses the German commander’s offer to let him go if he collaborates. But he is released anyway to lure in the partisans who will be sent to kill him. And in the third flashback, Voitik, who, unlike the others, is motivated neither by justice nor compassion, confronts a situation in which he, too, must make a moral decision.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Neither fear nor courage saves us,” and so it is with these three. Each ends up in the fog, the nebulous, amoral void that remains when total war revokes all values. Loznitsa’s film operates in a fog of its own, its characters sleepwalking to their inevitable fate, without appeal or hope of vindication.

Reviews of the film have been good in both France and the US (where it opened in June), with the NYT’s Manohla Dargis giving it the thumbs way up. And TNR devoted a whole article to it. It’s certainly well-done and well-acted but is more a film for critics than audiences IMHO, as I found it just a little too slow paced and austere. The subject matter may have been grave but it left me indifferent at the end. À chacun son appréciation.

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Istanbul Olympics


Thank God Istanbul didn’t get them. As one gleans from the above image—by a local anti-Olympics group—hosting the games would have had all sorts of deleterious consequences: white elephant facilities, ecological carnage, bulldozers working overtime 24/7 and razing at will—as if Istanbul needs more of that (and with the AKP’s construction clientele enriched ever further and with the attendant corruption)—, and damage to the city’s historic and cultural patrimony. And this being Turkey, there is the matter of demonstrations and the way the police there deal with them (I wonder if the IOC wasn’t thinking of Mexico City 1968 in its deliberations). And then there was the question of cost (image below). Turkey may have boomed economically over the past decade but that boom is slowing down and with the economy hitting some walls. The Olympics are colossally expensive and almost always huge money losers. Economically speaking, the games would have been a bad investment for Turkey. (À propos, Parisians—myself included—were so disappointed that Paris lost out to London in hosting the 2012 games; but in the years after 2005, when that decision was made, there were no regrets; what a relief Paris didn’t get them).

Last but not least, there’s prime minister Erdoğan. Winning the 2020 games would have been a huge political and personal victory for him. Losing them was a big slap in the face. And if there’s anyone who needs to have his face slapped—figuratively and perhaps literally too (what an interesting idea)—, it’s RT Erdoğan. It was reported that big crowds gathered in Taksim Square on Saturday night to celebrate the city not getting the games. How gratifying.

On the Turkish activists who campaigned against Istanbul hosting the games—and lobbied the IOC—, ex-Istanbul based journalist Jay Cassano has an informative article in Jadaliyya.

Changing the subject from the Olympics, Christopher de Bellaigue had a very good piece in Slate two weeks ago, on “Turkey’s hidden revolution.” The lede: How Prime Minister Erdoğan accidentally fostered a generation of Turkish liberals. The emergence of a significant liberal current among the forces vives in Turkey was one of the revelations—for those outside Turkey, at least—of the Taksim Gezi Park movement in June. A very positive development, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire. The existence of this current is a big difference between Turkey and the Arab world. The latter lacks it. Tahrir Square is not Taksim. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

UPDATE: Journalist Cengiz Çandar has an article in Al Monitor on Istanbul losing the Olympics.

How much will the Olympics cost?

How much will the Olympics cost?

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The Hunt & A Hijacking


This film from Denmark, which opened in the US in July, has left no one indifferent, at least not among those I know who’ve seen it. E.g. one cinephile friend, in an email, called it “a must-see film…reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” Another wrote that “Mads Mikkelsen was excellent in this film…I recommend highly.” But then one couple—and with highbrow tastes— “actively hated it”… Such contrasting reactions are probably inevitable given the subject matter: a middle-aged man—divorced with children—in a well-to-do Danish town, an upstanding member of the community known and respected by all, who works with the children in a nursery school and, out of the blue, comes under suspicion of molesting one—based on a tale the child recounted to the school director—, and overnight becomes a social outcast and kept at a distance even by his best friends, all while vehemently protesting his innocence (and he manifestly was innocent). US reviews of the film have been good on the whole, as were reviews in France, where the pic opened last November. Le Monde’s critic panned it, however—putting it in its films “to avoid” category—, prompting me to initially strike it from my “to see” list. But after a few weeks of its run I noted that the audience reviews on Allociné were particularly high. And as I have asserted numerous times, when in doubt go with the Allociné spectateurs over the snooty Parisian critics. So I went to see it and am glad I did. It’s an engaging film, well acted, and at no point rubbed me the wrong way. And it effectively depicts the Kafkaesque nightmare of a man falsely accused of one of the worst crimes possible short of murder. One comprehends why those accused of pedophilia, even if they are utterly innocent, contemplate suicide, or even end up committing it. I was reminded of the numerous day care abuse scandals/hysterias in the US—e.g. the one in Minnesota in the 1980s—and that ended with the defendants’ acquittal, and of the outrageous Outreau affair in France. Of course there are pedophiles out there but the issue here—the one treated in the film—is those who are falsely accused of this—by mythomaniacs or children under the âge de raison, invariably coaxed by adults—and of the collective hysteria that ensues. It’s a delicate subject, needless to say. I recommend the film. If one doesn’t like it, that’s okay. Chacun son goût.

Another Danish film seen recently was ‘A Hijacking’, about a Danish-owned freighter on its way to Bombay—and to the scrapyard after—that is seized by Somali pirates and held for ransom, with the hostage drama lasting for several months, the ship—having dropped anchor out in the ocean—being provisioned with food and water by boats from the Somali coast. The film alternates between the ship and the shipping company headquarters in Copenhagen, which has to deal with the situation and the pirates’ ransom demands. It is very effective in depicting both. On the ship—where the drama is seen through the eyes of the ship’s cook (played by actor Pilou Asbæk)—, one feels the despair of the crew as the crisis drags on and the sanitary conditions go from bad to worse, not to mention the hostages’ permanent state of terror, of being at the mercy of the kidnappers—the actors here are all Somalis, recruited in Kenya— who speak nothing but Somali, are totally inculte, their fingers permanently on the trigger, have a distinct lack of empathy, and little regard for human life. At the Copenhagen HQ, one equally feels the dilemmas of the company CEO (actor Søren Malling)—and the intense pressure which he is under—as he negotiates with the pirates—who have an English-speaking intermediary on board (he says he’s just the translator, not a pirate, but who knows?)—by satellite phone and fax, and their absurdly unreasonable ransom demands—and who has to decide when to follow or not to follow the advice of his hired negotiating expert, who is experienced in dealing with Somalis (played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who does this in real life; when it comes to cultural codes, Somalis and Danes—and Westerners in general, and even most non-Westerners—are not on the same wavelength). Again, the film is very effective on all counts. Slick, well done, and absolutely “realistic.” The way things were depicted in the film are no doubt the way they really happen. Kudos on this to director Tobias Lindholm (who, BTW, co-authored the screenplay of ‘The Hunt’ with that one’s director, Thomas Vinterberg). Reviews in the US (where the film opened in June) have been very good. In France too (both critics and Allociné spectators). But I won’t say that I enjoyed sitting through it, as I felt too strongly the hostages’ terror, the anguish of their families in Denmark, and the pressure on the negotiators at company HQ as they had to deal over several months with the crazy Somalis thousands of miles away. For me at least, the film was a little too angoissant. But that’s me. Others are less squeamish (which I know for a fact). So I recommend the pic, malgré tout.

As it happens, the lead article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “12 Minutes of Freedom in 460 Days of Captivity,” is an excerpt of a book due out this month about a young Canadian woman’s hostage ordeal in Somalia (A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout with Sara Corbett). And Slate had a piece on it a week ago, “460 days in a hell of captivity: An interview with Amanda Lindhout.” Given the high-profile advance publicity, it’s bound to be a best-seller. And à propos, Business Insider—a trashy but fun website—had a slide show recently entitled “The worst place in the world: See what life is like in Somalia.”

I actually have a personal relationship with Somalia, which I’ve mentioned here.

Back to movies: For the record, I saw a film from Iceland—a country that was part of Denmark until sixty years ago—last spring, ‘The Deep’ (en France: ‘Survivre’), by Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur. The pic reenacts a real life story from 1984, of a young, corpulent fisherman (actor Olafur Darri Olafsson) whose trawler capsized and sank in the ice-cold waters a few kilometers off the Icelandic coast, and who managed to swim to shore. Having spent six hours in the water—and with the air temperature below freezing—his survival was literally a miracle, as lasting that long in such cold water was/is simply not possible for the human body. He thus became an object of medical/scientific study—in Iceland and the UK—, with doctors and scientists trying to comprehend how he could have possibly survived the ordeal. A freak of nature. But he was otherwise just a regular guy (though who, as a child, had lived through his town being buried in lava from a volcanic eruption; so for a simple country boy from Iceland he’d been through a lot). It’s not a bad film. Reviews are positive (here, here, and here; French here). I won’t recommend going out of one’s way for it but it’s good for DVD.

ADDENDUM: It occurred to me after posting this that there is a common thread in these three films, which is the protagonist—a man in his 30s-40s—going through a terrible ordeal that hits him out of the blue and that could end in personal ruin or death. He is a victim of circumstances—of larger forces—over which he has no control but that are linked to his employment, and that were a possible, if unforeseen, occupational hazard given the nature of what he does (and that he would not have contemplated when taking up his line of employment). Each man is saved (or vindicated) in the end but does not come out of the ordeal unscarred.



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Alain Frachon, éditorialiste et chroniqueur du Monde, a eu une bonne analyse il y a dix jours de la puissance américaine—ou plutôt, de son absence—dans le Moyen Orient. Un passage clé

Barack Obama, le contraire d’un homme à la gâchette facile, s’apprête à sanctionner par la force l’emploi de l’arme chimique en Syrie. Au Proche-Orient, l’épisode renforcera dans leurs convictions tous ceux – ils sont nombreux – qui diabolisent l’Amérique : quoi qu’il arrive, coupable de tous les malheurs de la région !

Elle tirerait les fils des tragédies en cours. Cheftaine du monde occidental, elle manipulerait, corromprait, intimiderait ou séduirait les uns et les autres avec toujours le même sinistre et noir désir : priver les Arabes de la maîtrise de leur destin.

L’Amérique en éternelle puissance suzeraine du Proche-Orient ? C’est un mythe, une légende. Mais ils sont plus partagés que jamais.

Exemples. La presse du Caire accuse les Etats-Unis d’avoir propulsé les Frères musulmans au pouvoir pour mieux asservir l’Egypte – les éditorialistes ne précisent pas comment. La propagande de Damas affirme que Bachar Al-Assad est victime d’un complot américano-israélo-djihadiste – Washington, Al-Qaida et Israël coalisés pour en finir avec le seul régime qui tienne tête aux Occidentaux. Sur le Net, une rumeur incrimine l’hypocrisie prétendue de Barack Obama : le président américain, voyez-vous, n’attendait qu’un prétexte, celui de l’attaque chimique du 21 août, pour intervenir en Syrie…

La légende de la surpuissance des Etats-Unis – et de son président – ne s’embarrasse pas des faits. Elle les ignore. Elle est l’une des formes d’une maladie que l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS) a oublié de traiter dans la région : la “complotite”.

La complotite : un dérangement psychologique, voire une maladie mentale. Je l’ai dit depuis longtemps.

Un passage sur l’Egypte

De même que la capacité des Etats-Unis à exercer une influence sur la situation en Egypte s’est avérée largement “surestimée”. A plusieurs reprises, les Américains ont mis en garde Mohamed Morsi contre sa dérive autoritaire, sectaire et suicidaire. Sans succès. Passé le coup d’Etat du 3 juillet, ils ont supplié le nouveau “patron” de l’Egypte, le général Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, de ne pas aller à l’affrontement avec les Frères musulmans. Là encore, sans le moindre succès.

Aucune des pressions exercées par Washington n’a intimidé les généraux égyptiens. Pas même la menace esquissée, et restée en suspens, d’une interruption de l’aide militaire de 1,3 milliard de dollars accordée chaque année au Caire depuis 1979.

Le texte entier de la chronique se trouve ici.

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Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

[update below]

A US intervention, that is. If it indeed happens, which is now looking uncertain in view of the current vote count in Congress. On verra. But if it does happen, what will be the reaction in the Arab world? On this, Marc Lynch has an important article in FP. Money quote

Despite the intense efforts by these Gulf states [Saudi Arabia, UAE] over the past two years to build public support for the Syrian opposition, Arab public opinion remains sharply divided over what to do about Syria and broadly hostile to American military intervention regardless of views on other issues. The one thing which seems to unite this fragmented and intensely divided Arab public is a rejection of American meddling. Forgetting Iraq may be one of the 10 Beltway Commandments, but Arabs have not agreed to move on. Arab leaders may harp on American “credibility” and the costs of not acting, but those sentiments likely do not extend far beyond regime circles. It is exceedingly difficult to find any trust in American intentions or positive views of America’s role in the region — and hard to imagine how U.S. military strikes would change those views for the better. As former Al Jazeera boss (and strong supporter of NATO’s Libya intervention) Wadah Khanfar put it, “this strong desire to eradicate the regime will never be translated into support for American military intervention.”

One may object that there was practically no opposition on the “Arab street” to the intervention in Libya, though to which one may counter that Libya was an exception in view of the universal hatred of Qadhafi across the Arab world, by regimes and peoples alike. And the Libya intervention had a clear—if not explicitly stated—objective and by which success could be measured—regime change—, and that could be accomplished by physically terminating the ra’is. Syria is different, obviously, as regime change is not the US goal—and could not be achieved even if it were—and the probability of a successful intervention, however “success” is defined, is minimal at best. And the US, which is already in a minority internationally on the question, is sure to be vilified ever more in the Arab world. So an eventual Syria intervention really is looking like a fool’s errand.

And then there’s the attitude of the US military, which will carry out the eventual intervention bien entendu. On this, Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major-general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, has an op-ed in WaPo, “A war the Pentagon doesn’t want.”

Also worth reading in WaPo is a post by Max Fisher on “A terrorism expert’s Twitter rant about how we get Syrian rebels all wrong.” The expert, who is no dummy, is Charles Lister, head Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre. His bottom line: Syria is “immensely complex” and one must not forget this.

Columbia University’s Richard Betts has an article on the Foreign Affairs website—its most viewed at the moment—on “Pick[ing] your poison: America has many options in Syria, none are good.”

Continuing his campaign for a US intervention, Hussein Ibish has written an “Open letter to Congress on Syria,” in which he argues that “US credibility, not only in the Middle East, but globally, requires military action in Syria.” Peut-être.

Finally, I must link to this tribune in Le Monde of a week ago by the great Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, “Il faut une bonne fois pour toutes mettre fin à la dynastie Al-Assad en Syrie.” To my knowledge, al-Azm has never been exiled from Syria. Until now. With views like this, he probably won’t be going home anytime soon.

UPDATE: Marc Lynch posted on FP the other day “A Syria reading list,” offering “a selection of some of the most useful books [emphasis his] for making sense of what’s happening in Syria now and what might be coming.” Very useful. Lynch writes that

The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale’s sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I’m shocked that it doesn’t seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can.

I entirely agree. It’s a great book. I’ve read it twice—and touted it in a post last year.

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The Business of Guns

(Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America)

(Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America)

[update below]

I received an email the other day from a representative of a website, Minute MBA, “that provides education and industry insights to current and prospective MBA students,” promoting a short video that “offers a politically-neutral snapshot of the financial state of the American gun industry.” It’s pretty good, so here it is. In just over one minute the video gives a good idea as to why serious gun control in the US—now or ever—is rather unlikely (and it’s not about the Second Amendment).

UPDATE: Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) has a post on the HuffPost politics blog, describing how “Hawaii has shown that gun control works.” One thing she neglected to mention—and that would reinforce the argument for national legislation—is that Hawaii is way out in the ocean, so that its gun control regulations cannot be easily undermined by firearms brought in from across state lines. (September 26)

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Keep Smiling


I am presently watching on TV, as I write, the France vs. Georgia World Cup qualification match, live from Tbilisi. As it happens, I saw this film from Georgia just last week. Voilà the intro from The Hollywood Reporter’s review

A pitch worthy of an R-rated knee-slapper is taken to much darker, and slightly overwrought, ends in Keep Smiling (Gaigimet), an energetic and often despondent Georgian dramedy… The debut feature from writer-director Rusudan Chkonia follows ten highly desperate housewives who enter a beauty contest in the hopes of nabbing a coveted apartment and $25,000 prize, but find themselves subjected to the whims of media hounds, chauvinist pigs and their own domestic nightmares…

It’s a pretty good film. Gives a good insight into contemporary Georgia and its mœurs, shaped as they’ve been by the catastrophic Soviet legacy. The terrible situation of Abkhazia refugees figures in the pic. Variety’s review is here. French reviews are good. Trailer is here. Recommended.

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The Bush Burden


Timothy Egan has a great commentary in the NYT on one legacy of the Bush administration—and on the current Republican party. Le voici

He’s there in every corner of Congress where a microphone fronts a politician, there in Russia and the British Parliament and the Vatican. You may think George W. Bush is at home in his bathtub, painting pictures of his toenails, but in fact he’s the biggest presence in the debate over what to do in Syria.

His legacy is paralysis, hypocrisy and uncertainty practiced in varying degrees by those who want to learn from history and those who deny it. Let’s grant some validity to the waffling, though none of it is coming from the architects of the worst global fiasco in a generation.

Time should not soften what President George W. Bush, and his apologists, did in an eight-year war costing the United States more than a trillion dollars, 4,400 American soldiers dead and (more…)

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[update below]

Voilà my favorite member of the French government. For those who don’t know her—which includes no one in France but just about everyone outside—, she’s the Minister of Justice (since May ’12), was a deputy from French Guiana for some twenty years, is affiliated with—though is not a formal member of—the center-left PRG—a small party permanently allied with the Socialists—, and was a candidate in the 2002 presidential election (the first ever presidential candidate of color to qualify for the ballot; she received 2.4% of the first round vote), which was when most people (myself included) learned about her. She was the guest last night on France 2’s weekly prime time political interview show ‘Des paroles et des actes’, where a first-tier politician is grilled for 2½ hours (no commercial interruption) by journalists and opposition politicians. I wonder how many American politicians would subject themselves to such an exercise. It was Mme Taubira’s first time in the DPDA hot seat and she succeeded with flying colors. She was excellent, on both form and substance (highlights are here). She was well spoken, fast on her feet, responded to or parried the tough questions with aplomb—and the stupid ones too, e.g. on her views on intervening in Syria, which is not in her ministerial purview (and as if she’s going to publicly break ranks with her government)—, and avoided langue de bois (Franz-Olivier Giesbert was à côté de la plaque in pronouncing her guilty of this). Her response to the question on her youthful advocacy of independence for Guiana was exactly as it should have been: no apologies but circumstances changed and I therefore changed my mind, period. And she dominated the sarkozyste Christian Estrosi, her major political detractor these days and who was invited to spar with her on the show.

In addition to her personal style—on this level even politicians on the right like her—she’s been great on the issues. It was a big surprise when she was appointed Minister of Justice, as she has no background in the law—her higher academic degrees are in economics and agro-alimentaire—, but she’s been very good in the job. She successfully steered the gay marriage bill—an issue I posted on exactly once—through parliament and which she defended brilliantly (and, as one knows, the opposition to it was virulent; thus her high negatives among voters of the right). Her big issue now is the impending penal reform bill, which includes some important measures, notably on introducing probation—both for convicts on early release and as a substitute for sending lesser delinquents to prison—into the penal code (which exists in the American system, of course, but not in France) and abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing (an insidious measure introduced by Sarkozy—and one of the worst in the American criminal justice system, in some states at least). The right is all bent out of shape over this and with Estrosi leading the charge (accusing her and the government of laxisme, angélisme blah blah). But their arguments are purely demagogic. When it comes to prisons and the criminal justice system, there are stark differences between the right and left—and which remind me of why I’m on the left. It’s too bad the Taubira-Estrosi exchange last night, which lasted twenty minutes, wasn’t a full-fledged debate, as Mme Taubira would have left Estrosi on the floor.

So with Mme Taubira, A Star Is Born. But the Place Vendôme is as high as she’s likely to go, as she has no ambitions to be PM, let alone président de la République. Who would want those thankless jobs anyway?

UPDATE: Here’s the full 2½ hours of Mme Taubira on DPDA, for those interested.


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