Monday, January 31, 2011

Situational Updates - what's going on where?

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First, a point of personal frustration – the Egypt issue certainly deserves attention, but it's sucking up almost all of the news right now. Given the limits of most foreign news agencies’ Middle East division, we certainly aren’t getting the wider picture. Al Jezeera is better than many, but with finite resources. I have little doubt that the germ of similar events is being carefully extinguished in many other countries while the world watches Egypt.

That being said, events in Syria have gotten some attention - Assad  has moved from the denial stage of the Kubler-Ross model to the bargaining stage. Two days ago the Syrian state media apparatus was claiming that the Egyptian protesters were calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador - part of the classic, “when in doubt, blame Israel” strategy that is so often the norm in the Islamic sections of the Mediterranean. Today his tune has changed and his attention has shifted to domestic affairs, claiming that Arab rulers need to do more to accommodate their people's rising political and economic aspirations. Assad's obvious intention here is to appease the Syrians before thousands of them end up in the streets. His strategy is probably a sound one - dispense visible (but limited) reforms, and do his best to distinguish himself from Mubarak. It may or may not work - I think it will for the time being (i.e. the next six to twelve months).

Yemen seems to be trying the same tactic, but they’re a day late (3-5 days, really) and a dollar short. I have far less faith in their ability to pull such a thing off, and I fear that there is ugliness and long-term instability in store for the country.

Meanwhile, back in Tunisia where this whole thing started, the two highest profile Tunisian opposition leaders returning from European exile show serious promise for a positive outcome for the country - Moncef Marzouki and Rashid Al-Ghannushi. It is, of course, still too soon to tell what the response will be. (I should probably just end every paragraph with that qualifier and be done with it.)

Events in Sudan since the partition vote have gotten…interesting (for lack of a better term). As the country seeks to resolve a procedural debate over to whether it was 98% or 95% that voted for partition, some protests are popping up in the north against President Omar al Bashir. It's a small factor right now (though it spurred some violent government reaction) but stay tuned…

So -Who aren’t we hearing about?

Libya and Morocco in particular have been awfully silent for the past few days. The King of Morocco is visiting France right now, which may or may not be  a coincidence - Morocco is hardly a police state and not really capable of an Egyptian-style media lockdown, and so the lack of protest buzz is probably not indicative of something more sinister. 

Libya, on the other hand, is locked down tighter than an off-color reference to batrachian anatomy. Ghaddafi, in a rare moment of discretion, has actually shut up, which speaks volumes about how serious his situation must be at this point. 

On that note, it’s never a good sign when Ghaddafi is exercising more tact and judiciousness than your own leaders – Israel, I’m looking at you.

Israel is doubling-down on the stupid. A conflict of opinions is to be expected - arguing politics is the national sport of Israelis, but a sense of panic has begun to seep into the editorial columns and blogs. The Israeli government has been telling their diplomats to pull for Hosni in their host countries. "We must therefore curb public criticism against President Hosni Mubarak” they were told on Friday. A comment like this reeks of either denial or idiocy (or both…it can always be both).
  • They’re not doing Mubarak any favors by pulling for him.
  • They’re not doing themselves any good by hitching their wagon to a dying donkey.
Oh well…if the Israeli government wants my advice I’m sure they can figure out how to get a hold of me.

On that note, one more state has formally recognized Palestinian statehood within the ’67 borders, and this time it’s not a random South American country. Cyprus, one of the most popular Israeli vacation destinations in the world, sent Abbas a letter of recognition today. Frankly, if Abbas can keep pulling these in he may survive the fallout from the al Jazeera leaks.


Well, that's it for now, I'm sure tomorrow will bring new revelations. Stay tuned for a piece on the Muslim Brotherhood and Part Two of my piece on Self-Immolation in the next few days - maybe tomorrow, if the snow cancels my other plans.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Grim Egyptian Humor

At this point it’s clear to pretty much anyone with a TV set or an internet connection that the Egyptian citizenry is pretty pissed off in general, and extremely pissed off at President Mubarak in particular. What we’re seeing in the streets of Cairo, and all across Egypt is a pretty dramatic example of what happens when the chickens come home to roost.

As I’ve said before, I have a compulsive need to provide context and I’ve always believed that humor is a particularly effective window into a culture. Towards that end, I’ve pulled some choice jokes from an article entitled “The Politics of Laughter: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak in Egyptian Political Jokes” written by Samer Shehata almost twenty years ago. (He's a good person to pay attention to)


A fox in the Western Desert escaped to Libya and the Libyans asked,' Why do you come here?' The fox said, “Because in Egypt they arrest camels.” The Libyans said, “But you are not a camel.” The fox then said, “Of course not, but try telling that to the police!”

(This is an almost universal joke from repressive police states. I first heard it from an Afghani friend of mine in reference to the ISI – Pakistan’s secret police. According to Shehata “Different versions of the joke have been documented in communist Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia, and in 12th and 13th century Iranian sources.”)


A little ancient Egyptian statue was unearthed, but no one could find out anything about it's background. They summoned expert historians and archeologists from abroad, and still they couldn't find out a single thing about it. The Egyptian secret police heard about the statue, and they said,“Give it to us for twenty-four hours.”
“Twenty-four hours! What can you do in twenty-four hours?”
“None of your business. Just give it to us.”
So the police took it, and before the day was over, they came back with it and said, “This is King So-and-so, son of So-and-so; he ruled at such and such a time and place", and so on and so forth. They told the researchers everything they had been wondering about.
“How did you find all that out? Did you locate his tomb?”
“No." said the police, "He confessed.”


Once someone saw a man with his nose bandaged and asked him, “Why is your nose bandaged?” The man said, “I had a tooth removed.” The first man said, “Why didn't you have it removed through your mouth?' whereupon the reply was, “Can anyone in this country open his mouth?'


Hosni Mubarak was in a very important meeting with all of his ministers when he got an urgent phone call from Suzanne (his wife). He got up and took the phone call and asked her what the emergency was. Suzanne said, “Oh Hosni, Hosni, our house has been robbed!”
Mubarak said, “Impossible, I’m in a meeting with all of the crooks in Egypt right now!”


There was an international conference on surgical operations and representatives of many of the countries of the world attended. The French surgeon told about a man who was in a serious accident and was hurt badly and had to have his heart and kidneys replaced. “Today” the French surgeon said, “he is a professional wrestler.” The English surgeon spoke about a man who was a marathon runner and was hurt badly and had both of his legs replaced and today was still a champion marathon runner. All the representatives, in turn, told about the best operations performed in their countries. Finally, the Egyptian surgeon got up and told of a man who had a brain that didn't work and had it replaced with the brain of a monkey and was now president of Egypt.


When Nasser became president he wanted a vice-president who was dumber than he was, so as not to cause him trouble or pose a threat to his power, so he chose Sadat. When Sadat became president he too wanted a vice-president dumber than he was and picked Mubarek. Mubarek has not yet found anyone in Egypt dumber than himself.


Suzanne (Mubarak's wife) asked Mubarak why it was that in the days of Sadat Egypt would get much more money from the Americans. Mubarak said, “Because Jihan (Sadat's wife) would go to America and Carter would kiss her here  and here (pointing to both cheeks) and give Egypt two billion dollars.” Mubarak said, “You should go to America to help Egypt (and be kissed by Bush).”
Suzanne said, 'Isn't it forbidden? (in Islam or social practice)”
“No it isn't, but when you come back to Egypt go to the Nile and wipe both cheeks (making a wiping motion on both sides of the face) with Nile water immediately.”
Suzanne went to America and Bush kissed her twice and gave Egypt a check for two billion dollars. When she came back to Egypt she went to the Nile and washed her cheeks, whereupon she saw Zaki Badr (minister of the interior) washing his anus. She asked, "Where did you come from?"
He said, "Saudi Arabia."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Self-immolation: Performing Protest with Fire -- Part 1: Background

Introduction: the Jan. 2011 regime change in Tunisia can be traced back to a single trigger event - On Dec 17th a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was publicly abused and humiliated by the police for selling  vegetables without a permit. Frustrated at the obstacles to simply making a living and the denial of simple human dignity he publicly set himself on fire. The jarring intensity of the act caught the attention of the Tunisian public, who strongly identified with the young man’s plight. Several more incidents of self immolation followed in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria and Egypt, and majorly contributed to the burst of protests and revolutions across North African and the Middle East.

Self immolation as performed political protest has been a high profile practice since the early 1960’s, but until now has been largely unreported in the Arab world. Last years ago in Toronto I delivered a paper on self immolation. Given that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the catalyst for such unprecedented events in the middle east (including a string of subsequent self immolations) I wanted to cannibalize some of last year’s paper to shed a little light on this practice. This is part one of a three-part blog, part two can be found here.
(Note: Although the term self-immolation is most commonly used to designate the public performance of protest through suicide by fire it can be used much more broadly - to immolate simply means to sacrifice and carries no specificity with regards to ideology, methodology or motivation.)

son llamas
los ojos y son llamas lo que miran,
llama la oreja y el sonido llama,
brasa los labios y tizón la lengua,
el tacto y lo que toca, el pensamiento
y lo pensado, llama el que lo piensa,
todo se quema, el universo es llama,
arde la misma nada que no es nada
sino un pensar en llamas, al fin humo:
no hay verdugo ni víctima...
-Octavio Paz

Performing the act:
On June 11, 1963 Vietnamese Tich Quang Duc, Buddhist monk and head abbot for a large Buddhist monastery stepped out of a small car on an unremarkable Saigon street. Approximately 200 other monks were already present, and upon his arrival they formed a wide circle around their abbot as passersby stepped back and took notice.  After brief conversation with a few of his fellow monks, TQD walked to the center of the street-space ringed by monks and onlookers and settled into a cross-legged meditation posture.

He had with him a plastic jerry-can partially filled with gasoline. Two of his fellow monks emptied the contents of the can over him and moved to the boundary outlined by approximately 200 other Buddhist monks and nuns.  Tich Quong Duc recited a short mantra to the Buddha of compassion, struck a match, and lit the gasoline that was soaking into his clothes and the packed dirt road beneath him. As he burned other monks chanted into a bullhorn, "A monk Burns himself to death.  A monk becomes a martyr."  AP photographer Malcolm Brown and New York Times writer David Halberstam were present for the event, having come on the recommendation of a Vietnamese journalist who insisted, “Something is going to happen. You should come." Thanks to the presence of the two reporters the act was captured on camera and in newsprint; their retelling of the story through words and images seared the idea of self-immolation into the global vocabulary.

Prior to that event the idea of self immolation was a foreign concept to most of the world, but despite its novelty the intensity of the performance gave it immediate and dramatic relevance – particularly in the light of civil rights struggles in the United States and fresh memories of Gandhi’s legacy in India. Other ideological movements appropriated the tactic to other settings and other causes, but Tich Quang Duc’s initial iconic act on that hot Saigon morning still stands as the original performance against which all subsequent self immolations are judged. Despite the fact that other examples of fiery self immolation can be found in the historical records of Buddhism in China and Southeast Asia, this singular act captured on film clearly established Tich Quong Duc as the grand patriarch of modern self immolation's genealogy of performance.

Between 1963 in 1975 dozens more Vietnamese monks performed their own variations on Tich Quong Duc’s grim street theater protest suicide. Others also recognized the compelling nature of the act and its potential for impact - it was borrowed, cited, and reenacted in different settings, under different circumstances, and for different causes, showing its versatility as means of protest and self expression. Even in Vietnam, it was used to send multiple messages depending on the political environment. The first cases of self immolation in Vietnam were in protest to the abuse and disenfranchisement of Buddhists under the predominantly Catholic Diem regime.  After Diem’s overthrow, the monks utilized self immolation as a tool to protest the immorality and brutality of the broader Vietnam conflict and the American role in Indochina. Following the US withdrawal the monks utilized self immolation as a protest against their mistreatment by the Communists government. During this same time (1963-1975) at least four Americans were inspired by Tich Quong Duc to perform self immolation in protest to the Vietnam War, as a declaration of solidarity with the actions of the Buddhist monks, as a nonviolent expression of protest against injustice, and a plea for peace.

Simultaneously, between 1966 and 1969 an even larger wave of self immolations took place in India. Dalits protesting the caste system inequalities that resulted in a grossly unequal distribution of opportunities, services and access to resources – a situation deemed unjust and inhumane by the lower Indian castes. India experienced a second wave of these protests in the 1990’s, when another large wave of Indian self immolation took place against disenfranchisement and exclusion of those same groups from colleges and employment. Additionally, during the late 60’s and early 70’s several similarly enacted instances of self immolation took place in Eastern Europe as protests against the occupation of several Eastern European countries by Communist Russia and remonstrations for the failure of the west to respond. These immolations took place in East Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France and Czechoslovakia, but by the 1980’s the practice of self immolation as a political tactic had generally dropped from favor outside of Asia. Aside from a small handful of exceptions, the vast majority of the self immolation events that have taken place in the 21st century have occurred in China, South Korea, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Tibet. It may be that the practice is also used parts of Asia that have a limited degree of global interconnectivity (e.g. Burma and North Korea).

Characteristics of the act.
“To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.” -Tich Nat Han
It may seem obvious to state this, but self immolation is traditionally a tactic employed by the disempowered, regardless of its religious or ideological pedigree. As DeCertau states, "The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.” In this case, the actions of Tich Quang Duc provided the basic script, which is now citationally evoked in each subsequent performance of self immolation (deliberately or not). This supplies the act of self immolation with some common overtures. Self immolation is generally performed as an expression of protest against injustice, prefigured upon the premise that all human life has value. The clear dissemination of this message is essential to the act of self immolations, and the effectiveness of the practice is in large part contingent upon the unignorability of the performance. It is a jarring and unsettling specter: a human being publicly engulfed in flames by their own hand and free will, It is in no way a private act, and it is done with an audience in mind; an audience that varies according to its message and setting. Some variations of the act seem directed outwards towards a global audience (particularly the Czechoslovakian and early Vietnamese examples of self immolation). Others, like those in India and South Korea seem to be much more domestically oriented, intended to convince or remonstrate a narrower local audience. It is not always clear if this is the case, reception in the international news may not be in accordance with immolators’ objectives.

One continual insistence made by researchers into the issue of self immolation, and by close friends of the self immolators is that their actions are not the work of mentally unbalanced individuals. Even the initial performance by Tich Quong Duc was defended as rational and constructive by his friend and colleague, fellow Buddhists monk Tich Nat Han. “I explained to her that the venerable Tich Quang Duc was over 70, that I had lived with him for nearly 1 year at Long-Vinh pagoda and found him a very kind and lucid person, and that he was calm and in full possession of his mental facilities when he burned himself.”

Based on the journals of self immolators and interviews with people who knew them well, it seems to generally be the case that the act is only planned for a few days or weeks before being implemented, usually precipitated by a relevant event, or a prior self immolation. Often times self immolations come in clusters or waves over a period of days or weeks (See "The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines" by  Loren Coleman). This singularly bounded act is thusly given unity of ideology and action. It needs little preparation, simply a location, a match, a flammable liquid, and conviction. In the words of DeCertau, “The intellectual synthesis of these given element takes the form, however, not as a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is "seized". This is particularly relevant because another important characteristic of self immolation is the speed inherent to the act. The event must be executed swiftly, or the practitioner risks interruption by the authorities and a dilution of message. Self-discipline and conviction grant credibility to political issues, and the painfully terminal nature of self immolation is no exception. The extended suffering provides a secondary platform, however.  An ideological message that might otherwise be blunted or misappropriated can be clarified and repeated by a survivor.

Self immolation is dramatically different than the other well known form of protest suicide: hunger strikes. Hunger strikes are usually conducted with a specific outlined goal or set of goals that, if achieved, will prevent the death of those protesting. Self immolation is not presented as a threat to ensure concessions, it is not used as leverage but as a spectacle, instead; a remonstration and a cry of outrage whose immediate goal is self-death in the hope of later equity towards others. A hunger strike is stretched out over days and weeks, slowly intensifying as the possibility of death approaches, whereas self immolation can reach its climax long before any remedying action can be taken. The visible intensity of self immolation is the better part of its power. Movie footage from Tich Quang Duc’s 1963 performance shows nearby police officers standing agog, unable to act, and overwhelmed by the reality of the tableau before them.

(End part 1)

Part 2 is here

Continuous live BBC updates on the situation in Egypt

New media in action - follow it here.

Look for a new blog post tonight - Part one of a three-part post on self-immolation and what its unprecedented appearance in the Arab world may mean.

The story so far...

So the funny thing is, I started writing about the new developments in the Middle East last week, and since that time things have gone from bananas to apesh*t.

First of all, all bets are off in Israeli and Palestinian politics right now. Al Jazeera, perhaps inspired by the Wikileaks dump, released decades of private negotiation conversations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Crazy stuff. I don’t know where to begin, actually. Suffice to say, Mahmoud Abbas, the semi-official leader of the Palestinian Authority (at least the parts that aren’t in Gaza) has at various times offered Israel far more than what anybody might imagine in exchange for some semblance of dignity and independence. (Although, given the near total capitulation evidenced in his overtures, he may have given up on dignity a long time ago)

Israel, still reeling from a variety of corruption investigations, and Ehud Barak’s sudden breakaway from the relatively strong (and quite conservative) Labor Party, has settled into their favorite pastime, arguing with each other about politics. In the meantime, the Palestinians (having learned something from the Israelis over the past several decades) have taken up doing the exact same thing. In this case, Palestinians in Gaza are loudly denouncing Mahmoud Abbas for his duplicitous actions that were ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinian peoples (but conducted without their knowledge or consent). In the West Bank, however, Palestinians have identified the true criminal in this situation: Al Jazeera – some have gone so far as to accuse them of forging the documents entirely, or at the very least, releasing them to undermine Abbas’ authority (who knew such a thing existed?)

Most surprising for Israelis in this situation is the fact that, for once, the finger of blame isn’t pointed at them. (at this point, responsibility for the actual leaking of the documents is being ascribed to an American employee of Al Jazeera, but further revelations are still forthcoming.)

At the same time, there’s been a groundswell of support for an end-run around the stalled peace process through direct declaration of Palestinian statehood. Russia and several South American countries have already made it clear that they will recognize an independent Palestinian state. Ireland upgraded the Palestinian mission in Dublin to full Embassy status, and the Palestinian mission in DC started to fly the Palestinian flag last Wednesday.


But, a Middle East that contains only Israel and Palestine is, frankly, not a very interesting Middle East at all. Well…interesting perhaps, but not nearly as interesting as the Middle East with all the other stuff. So - riots in Tunisia, riots in Egypt. Additionally, there are also been reports of riots in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Libya.

Thanks to the beauty of Google, a map of all of these places can easily be found with a click of the mouse.

Rather than expecting you, my stalwart reader, to extensively research all these places I’ll give you a very quick overview just so you know what’s at stake (but further reading is always encouraged).

Algeria: Tenuous stability has been the norm for the past decade. In 1991 conservative Islamists won big at the polls during an election year, scaring the pants off of several people. The military (with some western backing) stopped the elections and took over to prevent a Muslim rise to power. The result: a decade of vicious civil war that only ended post 9/11 when the US started pouring money into the war on terror (which included the Algerian government’s anti-Islamist military actions). The government was ranked 105 out of 178 on the 2010 corruption index, which isn’t too bad (but it isn’t that great). They have substantial natural gas reserves keeping their economy afloat, but they have serious unemployment issues and a ballooning under-thirty population.

Yemen: For a goodly party of the 20th century Yemen was two countries – North Yemen and South Arabia. In 1990 they unified as the Republic of Yemen, and in 1999 they held something that vaguely approximated free elections (the winner just happen to be the guy who had been the military dictator for the previous nine years). Ranked 131 out of 179 countries on the 2010 corruption index Yemen has just enough oil revenue to keep the government functioning. They face 65% unemployment, a ballooning under-30 population, and 70% of their citizenry are addicted to a leafy chewable narcotic called qat. Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses – In Yemen, narcotics are the opiate of the masses. Yemen could get very ugly very quickly – people don’t have much respect for the government and there’s already a low level civil war going on up north.

Jordan: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is run by a smart royal family, has a good human rights record, and is only 50 of 179 on the 2010 corruption index – way better than most of its neighbors (Qatar, Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE are the only nearby countries with a better record). The economy isn’t great, but it’s stable - local protests probably won’t do much here.

Libya: Very quiet from the outside. Some protests, but it’s a big country with a small population, and a robust military/police junta. Qaddafi is the longest serving African dictator, and he didn’t get there by being sloppy. You can call him crazy, but don’t call him stupid. Barring a military coup and/or Qaddafi’s death nothing will change unless he decides The times they are a-changing. He may even figure out a way to turn this to his advantage.

Egypt: Could be very ugly. Best case scenario - Mubarak flees (rumor has it that his son has already left), elections are held, elBaradei becomes president and everyone is happy. Worst case scenario – Mubarak gets overly possessive about his presidency, police action becomes military action, clubs and teargas become bullets and tanks, and Cairo ends up like Baghdad in 2004/2005. We’ll have a better idea of what’s happening after Friday evening prayers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Last week's pre-blog blog.

Exciting stuff...

In the past week we’ve seen the Sudan vote to split into two countries, a process that seems to have been relatively peaceful and one that could bring a much needed modicum of stability to east Africa.

Tunisia has been undergoing an unprecedented change in leadership, one of the most significant ones in decades for the greater Middle East, as it disrupts the continuity of succession. This is made all the more dramatic by the fact that is seems to have been triggered by an incident of protest through self-immolation, an act that is almost unheard of in the Arab world. Two cases of self immolation in Tunisia have been followed by several more acts done in solidarity in Algeria and Egypt. The implications of the political upheaval in Tunisia are being watched with particular interest in Egypt, where a similarly unhappy populace deals with corruption, despotism, unemployment, and general unhappiness.

Another interesting issue, the International Court of Justice is laying out their tribunal that will point fingers for the 2005 assassination of Lebanese president Rafik Hariri. Rumor has it that is will not just name Syrian president Bashir Assad, but will also lay a substantial amount of blame on Iran. The repercussions of this, by itself might not be all that significant, but combined with the instability in both Lebanon and Iran this is one more log on a fire that might be getting very hot soon.

Oh, and by the way, the Lebanese government just collapsed.
Hezbollah’s political wing pulled out of parlament, leaving the government constitutionally unable to function. Saad Hariri, the current president (and son of the assassinated former president) is being pressured to denounce the ICJ tribunal’s findings regarding his father’s assassination (somethingthat he’s not likely to do), and the only person who can restore legitimate functionality to the Lebanese government is Walid Jumblatt, a savvy Druze politician whose decision will speak volumes about which way the political winds are blowing.

Meanwhile in Iran, the Stuxnet computer virus has pushed their nuclear ambitions back anywhere from 2-5 years. Their nuclear program was never as good as they, or Israel, wanted everyone to think, but their hopes for establishing a reputation as a nuclear power are now pretty much shot. The US sanctions have wreaked havoc on their economy, and the Islamic Republic’s grip on power and legitimacy has been reshuffling ever since the 2009 election controversy.

And then there’s Israel and Palestine. The recent rightward swing in Israeli politics has started to come apart at the seams – Avigdor Leiberman’s hyper-nationalist push for loyalty oaths and orthodox-control over Jewish identity have begun to cause a backlash, Ehud Barak’s incompetence has led him and his cronies to break away from the Labor party as a preemptive measure against removal from
leadership, and Netanyahu…oy.

(this is where I stopped writing last week)

Blame Ray.

Blog. Blog blog blog blog blog.

I’ve done this before and failed miserably.

I used to try to post regular blogs back in the days of MySpace (oh so long ago).

I even tried to transition to a formal blog page, but I didn’t get very far.

The problem for me is I tend to write fairly slowly when it comes to writing anything of substance. Frankly, I also tend to write fairly slowly when what I’m writing has no substance whatsoever.

Lately, however, I’ve been stringing together longer pieces of coherent thought. In the past two weeks I’ve written two nearly complete pieces of current events commentary. The Arizona shooting got me writing, and the recent events in the Middle East have kept it going…

Here’s the thing…for most people, reading the news from the Middle East is like reading an unfamiliar complicated serial comic book. Very intense things are happening, people are continually referring to things that happened in the past, you don’t really know who any of the characters are, and the whole thing – let’s be frank – seems a little implausible.

So maybe a few weeks later, or a few months later, you pick up another issue of the comic book. You still don’t know what’s going on, you’re no clearer on the back story, the whole thing still seems implausible, but you recognize one or two of the characters.

But at some point you pick up that comic book and something happens – a particularly snappy piece of dialogue catches your eye, an oblique connection clicks into place, a friend who’s been following the story explains one of the characters’ background, you recognize a recurring motif…for whatever reason you become engaged.

That’s where it starts. That’s when you get hooked. Some people never get there, some people are brought there by circumstance, some people are born there. Me, I’m not sure when the bug bit me, but I’ve been watching the Middle East for quite some time, and 2011 is shaping up to be a very interesting year.

Today, my old friend Ray mentioned that he had been enjoying some of my recent Facebook rantings on Middle East geopolitics (I have an insatiable need to provide context) and he suggested that I take up blogging in the public sphere.

I once saved Ray’s life in the parking lot of a diner in central Pennsylvania.
There is a Chinese saying, “if you save a man's life you are thereafter responsible for him.” It is, therefore, not for my own selfish needs for attention and ego gratification, but rather out of obligation to Ray that I accept his commission and set myself to the noble work of blogification.

If reading the news from the Middle East is like reading an unfamiliar comic book, think of me as that guy who’s been following that comic for years and feels a compulsive need to explain who everybody is and why they’re doing what they’re doing. But not just that comic book…I’ve also been reading all of the spinoffs, the team-ups, the one-shots, the crossovers, and the graphic novels. And I’m here to tell you all about them. You’re welcome.