Wednesday, February 28, 2007

the redirection seymour hersh

Brilliant article by Seymour Hersh, on all the different motivations and interest groups rocking the middle east. The last section of the article is not complete.

The New Yorker, Mar. 5, 2007

The Redirection

Is the Administration's new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?



In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The "redirection," as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia's government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration's perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country's right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that "realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region."

After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. That calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq's Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The new American policy, in its broad outlines, has been discussed publicly. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there is "a new strategic alignment in the Middle East," separating "reformers" and "extremists"; she pointed to the Sunni states as centers of moderation, and said that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were "on the other side of that divide." (Syria's Sunni majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.) Iran and Syria, she said, "have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize."

Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.

A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee told me that he had heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not been adequately briefed. "We haven't got any of this," he said. "We ask for anything going on, and they say there's nothing. And when we ask specific questions they say, 'We're going to get back to you.' It's so frustrating."

The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney's office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, "The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.")

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy "is a major shift in American policy—it's a sea change," a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states "were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq," he said. "We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it."

"It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what's the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals," Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. "The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line."

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that "the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War." Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. "The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq," he said. "It's doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down."

The Administration's new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its strategy for winning the war in Iraq. Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put "fear" into the government of Prime Minister Maliki and "make him worry that the Sunnis could actually win" the civil war there. Clawson said that this might give Maliki an incentive to coöperate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Even so, for the moment, the U.S. remains dependent on the coöperation of Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as U.S. allies. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the White House back Maliki. A memorandum written late last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the trends have been in the opposite direction. As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has steadily increased.

Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council official, told me that "there is nothing coincidental or ironic" about the new strategy with regard to Iraq. "The Administration is trying to make a case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni insurgents to American interests in Iraq, when—if you look at the actual casualty numbers—the punishment inflicted on America by the Sunnis is greater by an order of magnitude," Leverett said. "This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them."

President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out this approach. "These two regimes"—Iran and Syria—"are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Bush said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration's message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran's interference.

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. "The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can," a former senior intelligence official said. "They had five hundred locked up at one time. We're working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they've been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans." The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who "get scooped up and released in a short time," after they have been interrogated.

"We are not planning for a war with Iran," Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, announced on February 2nd, and yet the atmosphere of confrontation has deepened. According to current and former American intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran. American military and special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq.

At Rice's Senate appearance in January, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, pointedly asked her whether the U.S. planned to cross the Iranian or the Syrian border in the course of a pursuit. "Obviously, the President isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq," Rice said, adding, "I do think that everyone will understand that—the American people and I assume the Congress expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces."

The ambiguity of Rice's reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:

Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, "We didn't cross the border going into Cambodia," in fact we did.

I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the President is talking about here, it's very, very dangerous.

The Administration's concern about Iran's role in Iraq is coupled with its long-standing alarm over Iran's nuclear program. On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, "of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world's supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world." He also said, "If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried. . . . The threat Iran represents is growing."

The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on Iran's weapons programs. Current and former American officials told me that the intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in Iran, includes a claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental missile capable of delivering several small warheads—each with limited accuracy—inside Europe. The validity of this human intelligence is still being debated.

A similar argument about an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass destruction—and questions about the intelligence used to make that case—formed the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. Many in Congress have greeted the claims about Iran with wariness; in the Senate on February 14th, Hillary Clinton said, "We have all learned lessons from the conflict in Iraq, and we have to apply those lessons to any allegations that are being raised about Iran. Because, Mr. President, what we are hearing has too familiar a ring and we must be on guard that we never again make decisions on the basis of intelligence that turns out to be faulty."

Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the President. In recent months, the former intelligence official told me, a special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours.

In the past month, I was told by an Air Force adviser on targeting and the Pentagon consultant on terrorism, the Iran planning group has been handed a new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities and possible regime change.

Two carrier strike groups—the Eisenhower and the Stennis—are now in the Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's southern coast.) The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House's not being "foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008."


The Administration's effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.

Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back its fellow-Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw. A European intelligence official told me that the meeting also focussed on more general Saudi fears about "the rise of the Shiites." In response, "The Saudis are starting to use their leverage—money."

In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S., which is crucial to the Saudis. Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar. A former Saudi diplomat told me that during Turki's tenure he became aware of private meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney and Abrams. "I assume Turki was not happy with that," the Saudi said. But, he added, "I don't think that Bandar is going off on his own." Although Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said, he shared his goal of challenging the spread of Shiite power in the Middle East.

The split between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to a bitter divide, in the seventh century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis dominated the medieval caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, and Shiites, traditionally, have been regarded more as outsiders. Worldwide, ninety per cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, and are the largest Muslim group in Lebanon. Their concentration in a volatile, oil-rich region has led to concern in the West and among Sunnis about the emergence of a "Shiite crescent"—especially given Iran's increased geopolitical weight.

"The Saudis still see the world through the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Sunni Muslims ruled the roost and the Shiites were the lowest class," Frederic Hof, a retired military officer who is an expert on the Middle East, told me. If Bandar was seen as bringing about a shift in U.S. policy in favor of the Sunnis, he added, it would greatly enhance his standing within the royal family.

The Saudis are driven by their fear that Iran could tilt the balance of power not only in the region but within their own country. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its Eastern Province, a region of major oil fields; sectarian tensions are high in the province. The royal family believes that Iranian operatives, working with local Shiites, have been behind many terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, according to Vali Nasr. "Today, the only army capable of containing Iran"—the Iraqi Army—"has been destroyed by the United States. You're now dealing with an Iran that could be nuclear-capable and has a standing army of four hundred and fifty thousand soldiers." (Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops in its standing army.)

Nasr went on, "The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis"—Sunni extremists who view Shiites as apostates. "The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can't put them back."

The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of Sunni extremists, who object to the corruption and decadence among the family's myriad princes. The princes are gambling that they will not be overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and charities linked to the extremists. The Administration's new strategy is heavily dependent on this bargain.

Nasr compared the current situation to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.

This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that "they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was 'We've created this movement, and we can control it.' It's not that we don't want the Salafis to throw bombs; it's who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."

The Saudi said that, in his country's view, it was taking a political risk by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration. "We have two nightmares," the former diplomat told me. "For Iran to acquire the bomb and for the United States to attack Iran. I'd rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed."

In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction. At least four main elements were involved, the U.S. government consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states shared its concern about Iran.

Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression and to begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between the two factions. However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms.)

The third component was that the Bush Administration would work directly with Sunni nations to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.

Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington's approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations. Syria is a major conduit of arms to Hezbollah. The Saudi government is also at odds with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar. (A U.N. inquiry strongly suggested that the Syrians were involved, but offered no direct evidence; there are plans for another investigation, by an international tribunal.)

Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, depicted the Saudis' coöperation with the White House as a significant breakthrough. "The Saudis understand that if they want the Administration to make a more generous political offer to the Palestinians they have to persuade the Arab states to make a more generous offer to the Israelis," Clawson told me. The new diplomatic approach, he added, "shows a real degree of effort and sophistication as well as a deftness of touch not always associated with this Administration. Who's running the greater risk—we or the Saudis? At a time when America's standing in the Middle East is extremely low, the Saudis are actually embracing us. We should count our blessings."

The Pentagon consultant had a different view. He said that the Administration had turned to Bandar as a "fallback," because it had realized that the failing war in Iraq could leave the Middle East "up for grabs."


The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has an extensive infrastructure, an estimated two to three thousand active fighters, and thousands of additional members.

Hezbollah has been on the State Department's terrorist list since 1997. The organization has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed two hundred and forty-one military men. It has also been accused of complicity in the kidnapping of Americans, including the C.I.A. station chief in Lebanon, who died in captivity, and a Marine colonel serving on a U.N. peacekeeping mission, who was killed. (Nasrallah has denied that the group was involved in these incidents.) Nasrallah is seen by many as a staunch terrorist, who has said that he regards Israel as a state that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood Israel in last summer's thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies on America's support but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. (Photographs of Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on the cheek when she visited during the war were prominently displayed during street protests in Beirut.)

The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors' conference in Paris, in January, which the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight billion more, including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis. The American pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in military aid, and forty million dollars for internal security.

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. "We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we're spreading the money around as much as we can," the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money "always gets in more pockets than you think it will," he said. "In this process, we're financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don't have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don't like. It's a very high-risk venture."

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting "to hijack the state," but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. "Salafis are sick and hateful, and I'm very much against the idea of flirting with them," he said. "They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly."

Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous." Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. "I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah," Crooke said.

The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.

In 2005, according to a report by the U.S.-based International Crisis Group, Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and the son of the slain former Prime Minister—Saad inherited more than four billion dollars after his father's assassination—paid forty-eight thousand dollars in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted that many of the militants "had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan."

According to the Crisis Group report, Saad Hariri later used his parliamentary majority to obtain amnesty for twenty-two of the Dinniyeh Islamists, as well as for seven militants suspected of plotting to bomb the Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut, the previous year. (He also arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination, in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.) Hariri described his actions to reporters as humanitarian.

In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. "We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here," he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn Lebanon into a "theatre of conflict."

The official said that his government was in a no-win situation. Without a political settlement with Hezbollah, he said, Lebanon could "slide into a conflict," in which Hezbollah fought openly with Sunni forces, with potentially horrific consequences. But if Hezbollah agreed to a settlement yet still maintained a separate army, allied with Iran and Syria, "Lebanon could become a target. In both cases, we become a target."

The Bush Administration has portrayed its support of the Siniora government as an example of the President's belief in democracy, and his desire to prevent other powers from interfering in Lebanon. When Hezbollah led street demonstrations in Beirut in December, John Bolton, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., called them "part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup."

Leslie H. Gelb, a past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Administration's policy was less pro democracy than "pro American national security. The fact is that it would be terribly dangerous if Hezbollah ran Lebanon." The fall of the Siniora government would be seen, Gelb said, "as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the United States and the ascendancy of the terrorism threat. And so any change in the distribution of political power in Lebanon has to be opposed by the United States—and we're justified in helping any non-Shiite parties resist that change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy."

Martin Indyk, of the Saban Center, said, however, that the United States "does not have enough pull to stop the moderates in Lebanon from dealing with the extremists." He added, "The President sees the region as divided between moderates and extremists, but our regional friends see it as divided between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunnis that we view as extremists are regarded by our Sunni allies simply as Sunnis."

In January, after an outburst of street violence in Beirut involving supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew to Tehran to discuss the political impasse in Lebanon and to meet with Ali Larijani, the Iranians' negotiator on nuclear issues. According to a Middle Eastern ambassador, Bandar's mission—which the ambassador said was endorsed by the White House—also aimed "to create problems between the Iranians and Syria." There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks with Israel, and the Saudis' goal was to encourage a breach. However, the ambassador said, "It did not work. Syria and Iran are not going to betray each other. Bandar's approach is very unlikely to succeed."

Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of Syria, and has repeatedly told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct control of the religious leadership in Iran. In a conversation with me last December, he depicted Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, as a "serial killer." Nasrallah, he said, was "morally guilty" of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the murder, last November, of Pierre Gemayel, a member of the Siniora Cabinet, because of his support for the Syrians.

Jumblatt then told me that he had met with Vice-President Cheney in Washington last fall to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be "the ones to talk to," Jumblatt said.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of a radical Sunni movement founded in Egypt in 1928, engaged in more than a decade of violent opposition to the regime of Hafez Assad, Bashir's father. In 1982, the Brotherhood took control of the city of Hama; Assad bombarded the city for a week, killing between six thousand and twenty thousand people. Membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The Brotherhood is also an avowed enemy of the U.S. and of Israel. Nevertheless, Jumblatt said, "We told Cheney that the basic link between Iran and Lebanon is Syria—and to weaken Iran you need to open the door to effective Syrian opposition."

There is evidence that the Administration's redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood. The Syrian National Salvation Front is a coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005, and the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, "The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement." He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the Front's members met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.

Jumblatt said he understood that the issue was a sensitive one for the White House. "I told Cheney that some people in the Arab world, mainly the Egyptians"—whose moderate Sunni leadership has been fighting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for decades—"won't like it if the United States helps the Brotherhood. But if you don't take on Syria we will be face to face in Lebanon with Hezbollah in a long fight, and one we might not win."


On a warm, clear night early last December, in a bombed-out suburb a few miles south of downtown Beirut, I got a preview of how the Administration's new strategy might play out in Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, who has been in hiding, had agreed to an interview. Security arrangements for the meeting were secretive and elaborate. I was driven, in the back seat of a darkened car, to a damaged underground garage somewhere in Beirut, searched with a handheld scanner, placed in a second car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and transferred again. Last summer, it was reported that Israel was trying to kill Nasrallah, but the extraordinary precautions were not due only to that threat. Nasrallah's aides told me that they believe he is a prime target of fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives, as well as Sunni jihadists who they believe are affiliated with Al Qaeda. (The government consultant and a retired four-star general said that Jordanian intelligence, with support from the U.S. and Israel, had been trying to infiltrate Shiite groups, to work against Hezbollah. Jordan's King Abdullah II has warned that a Shiite government in Iraq that was close to Iran would lead to the emergence of a Shiite crescent.) This is something of an ironic turn: Nasrallah's battle with Israel last summer turned him—a Shiite—into the most popular and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region. In recent months, however, he has increasingly been seen by many Sunnis not as a symbol of Arab unity but as a participant in a sectarian war.

Nasrallah, dressed, as usual, in religious garb, was waiting for me in an unremarkable apartment. One of his advisers said that he was not likely to remain there overnight; he has been on the move since his decision, last July, to order the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid set off the thirty-three-day war. Nasrallah has since said publicly—and repeated to me—that he misjudged the Israeli response. "We just wanted to capture prisoners for exchange purposes," he told me. "We never wanted to drag the region into war."

Nasrallah accused the Bush Administration of working with Israel to deliberately instigate fitna, an Arabic word that is used to mean "insurrection and fragmentation within Islam." "In my opinion, there is a huge campaign through the media throughout the world to put each side up against the other," he said. "I believe that all this is being run by American and Israeli intelligence." (He did not provide any specific evidence for this.) He said that the U.S. war in Iraq had increased sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from spreading into Lebanon. (Sunni-Shiite confrontations increased, along with violence, in the weeks after we talked.)

Nasrallah said he believed that President Bush's goal was "the drawing of a new map for the region. They want the partition of Iraq. Iraq is not on the edge of a civil war—there is a civil war. There is ethnic and sectarian cleansing. The daily killing and displacement which is taking place in Iraq aims at achieving three Iraqi parts, which will be sectarian and ethnically pure as a prelude to the partition of Iraq. Within one or two years at the most, there will be total Sunni areas, total Shiite areas, and total Kurdish areas. Even in Baghdad, there is a fear that it might be divided into two areas, one Sunni and one Shiite."

He went on, "I can say that President Bush is lying when he says he does not want Iraq to be partitioned. All the facts occurring now on the ground make you swear he is dragging Iraq to partition. And a day will come when he will say, 'I cannot do anything, since the Iraqis want the partition of their country and I honor the wishes of the people of Iraq.' "

Nasrallah said he believed that America also wanted to bring about the partition of Lebanon and of Syria. In Syria, he said, the result would be to push the country "into chaos and internal battles like in Iraq." In Lebanon, "There will be a Sunni state, an Alawi state, a Christian state, and a Druze state." But, he said, "I do not know if there will be a Shiite state." Nasrallah told me that he suspected that one aim of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer was "the destruction of Shiite areas and the displacement of Shiites from Lebanon. The idea was to have the Shiites of Lebanon and Syria flee to southern Iraq," which is dominated by Shiites. "I am not sure, but I smell this," he told me.

Partition would leave Israel surrounded by "small tranquil states," he said. "I can assure you that the Saudi kingdom will also be divided, and the issue will reach to North African states. There will be small ethnic and confessional states," he said. "In other words, Israel will be the most important and the strongest state in a region that has been partit.....


I saw a powerful movie about the trauma of mass rape conducted by Serbs in Bosnia, in the 1990's. The movie titled Grbavica, deals with Sarajevo residents Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) who is struggling to raise her 12 year old daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic). There are not too many jobs that Esma can find, so she ends up at a loud bar, where her she keeps feeling like she is revisiting her rapists. She does not have much support, other than from one friend who helps her babysit her daughter. She goes to a group support meeting, mainly to collect money that has been given out by the state, to women who attend the support group meeting.
Sara was told by her mother, that her father is a Shaheed, who was killed by Serbs, while he defended Bosnia. Sara also puts up with the taunting of her classmates when she and her mother are too poor to pay for a special school trip.
The movie moves with the pace and emotions of Esma and Sara, and shows how the effects of rape, violence and trauma effect all aspects of there lives.

India's missing girls

The Guardian has a shocking story about female foeticide in India, the largest population doing these abortions are university educated. Also the ultra sound machines were being provided by G.E., an American company, followed by Korean and now Chinese companies are supplying the growing demand.

The demographic consequences of mass female foeticide are most pronounced in the most developed parts of India. In Delhi, one of the richest cities in India, there are just 827 girls per 1,000 boys being born. Not far away, in the wealthy farming belt of Kurukshetra, there are only 770.

At the heart of the matter lies the most sacred institution in Indian life: marriage. New money has raised the price of wedlock, a ritual still governed by the past. Not only do most Indians believe in arranged marriage, in which dowry payments are made; there is also a widespread acceptance of the inequality between bride-givers and bride-takers.

The bride's side, according to convention, is supposed to give but never take from the groom's family. In today's India that translates into an evermore expensive gift list of consumer goods. Decades ago, a wealthy bride's father would have been expected to give gold bracelets. Today it is jewellery, fridges, cars and foreign holidays - and the bride's family may end up paying the bill for the rest of their lives.

A son, by contrast, is an asset to his family. Even leaving aside the wealth his bride will bring, a boy will retain the family - and the caste - name. He will also inherit the property, and is seen as a way of securing parent-care in old age.

Indians, therefore, have come to view the girl child as a burden, an investment without return. A favourite Hindi saying translates as: "Having a girl is to plant a seed in someone else's garden." One of the results is that women themselves face immense family pressure to get rid of the girl in their womb. Feminists in India argue that criminalising women who have done so is to ignore how fiercely patriarchal the value system is. As some see it, a woman who participates in the killing of her own child is actually denying her own self-value and should not be punished but be treated with concern.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why Working Women Are Stuck in the 1950s

Alternet has an interesting story by Ruth Rosen about the realities of working women who try to balance children, caring for their parents and communities, with no support of the state.

The media constantly reinforce the conventional wisdom that the care crisis is an individual problem. Books, magazines and newspapers offer American women an endless stream of advice about how to maintain their "balancing act," how to be better organized and more efficient or how to meditate, exercise and pamper themselves to relieve their mounting stress. Missing is the very pragmatic proposal that American society needs new policies that will restructure the workplace and reorganize family life.

Another slew of stories insist that there simply is no problem: Women have gained equality and passed into a postfeminist era. Such claims are hardly new. Ever since 1970 the mainstream media have been pronouncing the death of feminism and reporting that working women have returned home to care for their children. Now such stories describe, based on scraps of anecdotal data, how elite (predominantly white) women are "choosing" to "opt out," ditching their career opportunities in favor of home and children or to care for aging parents. In 2000 Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, wearily responded to reporters, "I still meet people all the time who believe that the trend has turned, that more women are staying home with their kids, that there are going to be fewer dual-income families. But it's just not true."

Such contentious stories conveniently mask the reality that most women have to work, regardless of their preference. They also obscure the fact that an absence of quality, affordable childcare and flexible working hours, among other family-friendly policies, greatly contributes to women's so-called "choice" to stay at home.

The secret violence that challenges Britain’s Asians

Sunny Hundal writes on domestic violence within the British Asian community, and how it is compounded when a South Asian bride is brought over from the subcontinent.

Last week a young bride was living in fear of her life after managing to escape from a violent husband and his family in Manchester. She had suffered six months of domestic violence and verbal abuse. She said that “family honour” made it difficult for women in similar circumstances to admit to domestic problems and feared that her escape would bring shame on her own family.
“This is happening to many other Asian girls — our lives are being destroyed. Something needs to be done,” she told the Manchester Evening News.
It is indeed happening to many other Asians girls around the country. Today I will present a documentary for the BBC Asian Network radio station highlighting domestic violence against women. It focuses on brides who have come over from South Asia and their particularly difficult position.
In 2005 the Government recorded just over 10,000 women coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as part of a marriage. There is a discussion to be had on why so many British Asian men feel the need to marry someone from where their parents were born. Being fairly libertarian in my outlook, I’m not all that concerned about who people choose to marry or from where. I don’t have anything against such transnational marriages. After all, my brother found his bride while travelling around India and I happily attended his wedding in New Delhi.
But I am concerned about the attitudes that underpin some of these marriages and the consequences for the brides. The view of most British Asian women we interviewed was that these men simply wanted someone who was submissive and willing to do their bidding. We even found men who openly admitted such attitudes.
The more pressing problem is that women who come here as brides are very vulnerable to the whims of their husbands. What happens if the marriage fails? What if she is beaten by her husband or in-laws? One in four British women is a victim of domestic violence within her lifetime but at least most of them will have someone to turn to. Overseas brides face problems unique to their circumstances that make them more vulnerable.
First, there are legal issues. These women are usually unsure of their nationality because they have to rely on their husbands to apply for citizenship. They frequently don’t run away because they fear deportation. They may even be unwilling to contact the authorities, believing the police may be as unsympathetic to their plight as those in South Asia.
Then there are communication problems. Transnational brides usually have nobody to turn to for support; many don’t speak English or know much about British society; some are even prevented by their husbands from meeting outsiders.
One campaigner at a leading ethnic minority women’s group admitted that brides from South Asia were overrepresented in cases referred to them. This doesn’t take into account those women who are too afraid to run away. Unfortunately not enough is said or done about gender-related violence, while terrorism or racism continue to dominate the news.
In many cases where ethnic minorities are involved, social ills such as forced marriage, so-called honour killings, domestic violence and even rape are framed by self-appointed “community leaders” and even by the Government as problems of culture or religion. But the problem here isn’t culture or religion — it is the sexist attitudes towards women that some people hold.
This Government, instead of making small noises about deploring violence against women and not tolerating so-called honour killings, needs to take firm steps in fully supporting such women if they face domestic abuse. At present most victims face not only difficulty getting access to social support but also have to go to extraordinary lengths to prove they are genuine victims.
The legislation also needs to change to put the naturalisation process into women’s hands, rather than that of their partners. One activist described the Government’s attitude as racist because it discriminated against these victims on the basis of their nationality.
Labour has also failed to take meaningful action against forced marriages, which is part of the broader problem.
There is also a need to ensure these women become active British citizens. Last week the Commission for Integration and Cohesion said that new entrants to the UK should learn English. But teaching English is not just about integration. More important is that it is empowering.
Most campaigners I spoke to agreed that language was a key barrier in learning more about British society and getting help. Translation services are part of this problem — taking away the woman’s incentive to learn English, whether or not her husband lets her. Rather than funding these services the Government should phase them out while expanding ESOL (English for speakers of foreign languages) classes, which have miserably failed to keep up with demand.
In addition, we need greater self-reflection of the attitudes of many Asians who not only use culture or religion as a cover for controlling women, but also invoke “family honour” as a means to hide abuse underneath their very noses.
Activists who challenge these attitudes usually invite howls of protest from some government-appointed community leader or accusations of being “a traitor” for airing dirty laundry in public.
But highlighting such social problems is not about tarring everyone with the same brush. It is about highlighting misogynistic attitudes that lead to many vulnerable women being abused or abandoned every year.
Progressive voices from within the British Asian community and outside need to help and empower these brides as women, not simply ignore them as unfortunate victims of cultural attitudes.
Sunny Hundal is founder of the think-tank New Generation Network. He blogs at Lost In Translation is on BBC Asian Network today at 6.30pm.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Singur and Nandigram

Tehelka reports from Singur and Nandigram, on how the development debate is unfolding in Bengal.

Events in Bengal suggest that one cannot road-roll an economic boom in India. It is idle to get trapped into simple factory vs farm, industry vs agriculture debates. Economic ideas in this country have to be more agile than that. At the height of the Singur and Nandigram unrest, an editorial in The Telegraph said, “History does not offer the option of first obtaining consent then proceeding with industrialisation. Industrialisation must take place, therefore land must be obtained. How it is obtained — with consent or otherwise, is a subject of political management.”

It is this kind of hard position that events in Bengal belie. “Development with a human face” cannot be an empty promise in India. Human faces have an uncomfortable way of asserting themselves. Two weeks after Nandigram erupted, around 150 activist groups from far flung corners of India gathered at Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, near Nagpur. They had come to share experiences. More significantly, they had come to merge causes. In other parts of India, groups much more militant than these are also making common cause. Their grievances are very similar: they demand democratic process. Consultation. Consent. Participation. And most of all, an effort for equitable growth.

That is the fundamental question the people of Nandigram and Singur have thrown up. Does development in India have to have only one face? Or can we find the courage of imagination to understand that wealth can have different natures?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Maya Masi, Dominic Uncle, Nina and Seby

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Geeta Bhua& Miso

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Nayan Phupha & Miso

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Ateesh Mamu & Miso

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Katie & Miso

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Sujata Masi & Miso

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Katie & Miso

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Emmy & Miso

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Mamu & Miso

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Ma & Miso

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Papa & Miso

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Nani & Miso

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ABC Carpet and Home- Retail Therapy

ABC Carpet and Home, is having a promotional event, titled Gateway to India.

Amrita critiques it here.
On Saturday, I went to ABC Home on 19th and B'way, to check out their India promotion, and ended up taking a wrong turn into what they are calling their marigold theater for the duration of the promotion(..."our platform for arts, wisdom and healing" according to the brochure). It's a sale room hung with mostly Benarasi saris at one end to form a stage, and partially peopled with random wood or alabaster murtis, mostly of Krishna and Ganesh, and strewn about with flea market chairs and variously sized cushions all upholstered in more Benarasi silks. The cushions were for the audience, who had to take off their shoes at the entrance, as if entering a temple, but actually to keep the cushions clean. One had already been offered Deepak Chopra teas, unsalted cashews and dried fruit near the entrance and told to consume them before entering the marigold theater. Retail personnel wafted about in ghagras and dreamy expressions, acting as bouncers because Patti Smith was there. There was a collection of very large thangka-type paintings of Tara up on the walls too, by Romio Shrestha, who wore full Tibetan ceremonial dress, and, as it turned out, had become friends with Patti Smith at William Burroughs' funeral-- but that revelation came much later. I claimed a flea market chair while ABC's Creative Director made her faltering speech about being overcome by spirituality and the sound system started up with New Age violins mewling away, and wondered how this would play in India if a shop in Gurgaon were hung with ball gowns and scattered with creches and madonnas and pietas, and everybody had to sit in little gold ballroom chairs and cross themselves while a store executive talked about his admiration for the West. Anyway, there might as well have been incense, since Romio asked everyone who felt like it to close their eyes while he talked about how much the female principle was needed in the world today. Quite a few women did close their eyes, clearly confusing spirituality with self-hypnosis, while the violins went on. I realized actual religious teachings of any sort would never do for these people. When Romio had called Patti Smith a goddess the third or fourth time, it was her turn to take the mike and play and talk and sing, so the mewly music was turned off and she did her own wailing-growling thing and played her alternately musical and bizarre chord progressions, explaining that she could perform her most difficult works with ease because of the positive energy in the room. The room was of course full of people acting out their perceptions of spirituality and behaving like they had taken opium, with a few Indian onlookers at the edges wearing vacant expressions. Patti Smith explained that her last song was about William Blake, a 19th (okay) century Londoner who had addressed the inequities of his day by claiming that all people contained the Divine within --whatev, it went to show how gullible/malleable you had to be. After all this was done, and the audience told they could disperse, it turned out that all this was to sell four books, two quite remarkable and under-priced ones of Romio's paintings, so huge that only a strong man could pick up both at once, plus one by Patti Smith about her own life and -- Deepak Chopra's Kama Sutra. I asked a woman how long she though India would be reflexively connected with this sort of spiritualty. Her eyes glossed over while she thought. "M-m-m-m-n, forever!" she said.

Siddhartha extends the debate while discussing the marketing of tourism to India.

I feel ABC carpet and the Tatva Tours promotions are all events that attempt to generate sales during the month of Feburary, when retail sales plummet. I do not think, that ABC carpet is going meditative or is actually helping Indian craftspeople or promoting Indian arts and crafts. They are attempting to bring customers in through these in store talks, the by products of which will generate big ticket sales and a buzz, that is so essential for retail. There creative sales directors are smart and are picking up on the trend of spritual India, by having chanting by Krishna Das, Buddhist talks by Sharon Salzburg and Jivamukhti yoga by Sharon Gannon.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Day My Skin Came Of

A powerful piece of writting by Sonny Suchdev, he is angered by black kids attacking other kids of color, like himself. I saw this piece in Sepia Mutiny and was written by Amardeep.
Sonny Suchdev, an activist and member of Outernational, a progressive 5-member band, writes about the time he crumpled to pieces in a New York subway after having his turban ripped off his head by a stranger.

When I was in the fifth grade, a classmate yanked off my dastar, my turban, on the playground one day, perhaps because it seemed funny to him. I will never forget how I felt walking around school the rest of the day with the black cloth of my dastar hanging off my joora, a Punjabi word for bun, because I didn’t know how to put it back on. Humiliated. Enraged. So so alone.

Now seventeen years later it’s the same shit.

I’m riding the F train like usual in Brooklyn when dozens of kids – perhaps in junior high – get in my subway car on their way home from school. The train is bustling with adolescent energy.

As the train stops at 4th Avenue, I hear a boy yell “Give me that!” as he and his friends run out the train door. The next thing I realize, my dastar has been yanked completely off my head. My uncovered joora dangles, and I am in complete and utter shock. Everyone on the train is staring at me. Other kids from the school are both laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Not knowing how to react, I stand up quickly, look out the doors of the train car and see a group of young boys of color running down the stairs. Startled and confused, I pick it up my dastar from the grimy platform and get back in the train.

One of the boys of color across the car from me asks, “Are you okay?” Two other boys he is with high five each other as they laugh and say things that I can’t understand. An older South Asian man sitting across from me just shakes his head and doesn’t make eye contact with me.

I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so so alone. Why did he do that? Why? Was it fun for him? Did he impress his friends? Does it make him feel like he has more power than someone else – someone who looks like an immigrant, a foreigner, Bin Laden? I am so enraged. I want to break something, I want to beat the crap out of him. My arms keep shaking uncontrollably as if they’re ready to explode. I walk towards the back of the raised platform and thrust my elbow into the phone booth. The pain that vibrates into my elbow and throughout my arm somehow makes me feel like I accomplished something.

I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twenty something years of this shit is going through me at once – the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go back to your countries, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumor heads, all of it. But somehow pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it’s the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday.

I think about the Sikh gurus who were tortured and killed by emperors in India because of their religious identities, their turbans forcibly removed and their scalps cut off for refusing to cut their hair and give up their identities.

I think about the thousands of Sikhs brutally murdered by state-sponsored programs in northern India in 1984. Balbir Singh Sodhi shot dead in Phoenix on September 15, 2001 by a self-identified “patriot.” And all the young turban-wearing boys in this country being harassed and humiliated at their schools on a daily basis. I didn’t have this sort of analysis in fifth grade, but on an emotional level I’m still that nine-year-old on the playground right now.

I try to put my dastar back on but it’s too windy. Eventually I get it on messily, cross over to the Coney Island-bound platform, and go home, wishing for the comfort of someone who has gone through this, someone who might understand.

I am now remembering the words of one of the young boys of color in the train as I walked off: “Stay up,” he said, wishing me the strength to not let this hurt me. As I step back from the pain, I think the greatest tragedy is why people of color are doing this to each other. 17 years ago on the playground it was a black boy as well. Somehow it’s more hurtful when other people of color target me than when white people do. With white people, I often go straight to anger, but with folks of color, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. The way this white supremacist system pits black people and immigrants against each other is truly tragic.

But, I will do my best to “Stay up” until the next time.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Which Babies Are Real Americans?

Alternet has an interesting article on how to define an American baby. Is a baby born to an illegal immigrant "not" American? Anti-immigration hysteria and anti-choice propaganda come together in a neat and terrifying package.

Yuki Lin , born on the stroke of midnight this New Year’s, became the winner of a random drawing for a national Toys “R” Us sweepstakes. The company had promised a $25,000 U.S. savings bond to the “first American baby born in 2007.” However, Yuki lost her prize after the company learned that her mother was an undocumented U.S. resident. Instead, the bond went to a baby in Gainesville, Georgia, described by her mother as “an American all the way.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alaa Al Aswany

The Hindu literary review has an interesting interview with Alaa Al Aswany, an Egyptian novelist. A dentist by profession, he has written, Imarat Ya'qubiyyan (The Yacoubian Building) which has been the highest selling Arabic novel since its publication in 2002. The screen adaptation of The Yacoubian Building became the most expensive Arabic film ever produced and was released in 2006.

In fiction we create characters based on real life people we see; only they become more significant, deeper and more beautiful. From the whole spectrum of the human experience I try to create a work that reflects the many-layered nature of reality. When people read a novel and mirror their lives through the characters they meet in the book, they realise that a certain situation can have many versions of the truth. They become more understanding and less judging, as we are all largely the result of our situations. And that is the beauty of dwelling on the secrets of the heart while writing.

Motherhood as a retail trend...

Interesting article by Janina Stajic on the realities of Motherhood.

Pick a major American city, wander down one of its trendy shopping streets, and on any given block you will likely see a plethora of stores devoted to all things maternal. Most obvious are stores selling pregnancy clothes, with larger than life posters of gorgeous, very pregnant women in styles any self-respecting, non-pregnant New York fashionista would be scrambling to wear.

Next to them are the baby supply boutiques with everything you could possibly want to accessorize your new role as mother (and the life of your newborn). Strollers big enough to be in the SUV section at your local car dealership -- with prices to match -- are parked next to cribs fit for a princess. Mixed in for good measure are the educational toy stores, the cloth diapering stores, the organic cotton baby clothing stores, and the baby beauty product stores. All proof that motherhood has become a trend.

Now, often trends, particularly fashion trends, are quite fun. Who doesn't love experimenting with new colors (remember when red was the "new black?") and new styles such as huge purses, thigh-high boots and over-sized sunglasses? However, turning something as life-changing as motherhood into a trend is, at best, misleading and, at worst, totally irresponsible. Some women, drawn in by the trend, become completely disillusioned when they realize that motherhood isn't always as delightful as donning the latest offerings from the runways of Paris (or the cheap runway imitations).

This motherhood trend has been partially fueled by the seemingly endless supply of A- and B-list celebrities popping out their progeny left, right and center. It started with Demi Moore and her groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover. And now, stories of pregnant stars and celebrity mothers are as ubiquitous as stories about their disintegrating love lives.

These aspiring celebrity mothers look stunning during pregnancy (Britney Spears notwithstanding). And, one to two weeks after giving birth, they appear with their little ones looking as though they had just spent the past two weeks with a personal masseuse, instead of going through the most painful experience known to womankind and staying up all night with a newborn.

The other culprits in this breeding bonanza are the industries and businesses that have woven a misleading myth of motherhood into our popular culture. They are following in the prestigious footsteps of the hugely successful wedding industry, which realized they could make millions by creating and perpetuating the dream of a fairy tale wedding and perfect marriage -- a myth if ever there was one.

And now, in a bid to repeat this success, a new industry has been born: the motherhood industry. Set up solely to sell women a new myth, the myth of the problem- and pain-free motherhood, it focuses only on the very best experiences that motherhood offers: the wonder of being pregnant, the experience of nursing a child, of watching them sleeping in their crib, of reading them classics such as Goodnight Moon and of course, of taking glorious walks with your partner and your perfect little bundle of joy tucked inside that SUV-sized stroller.

The fact that pregnancy can be extremely uncomfortable (to say the least), that nursing can lead to cracked and bleeding nipples, that your baby might wake up every hour of the night for the first year, that Goodnight Moon loses some of its charm after the one hundredth reading, and that you will have to learn how to maneuver your huge stroller through a busy mall while clutching a screeching 2-year-old, are facts that the motherhood industry conveniently overlooks.

Indeed, the relentless, challenging, overwhelming, sometimes downright depressing parts of motherhood are entirely disregarded.

And what of those gorgeous looking celebrities who seem to make the transition to glamorous mother without effort? Well, most celebrity mothers probably have spent the first two weeks post partum with their masseuse (oh, and their newborn). Celebrities can also add personal baby shoppers, lactation consultants, personal baby nutritionists, nighttime doulas, daytime nannies, and post pregnancy fitness instructors to their already existing arsenal of cleaning ladies, personal assistants and chefs. Any new mother would do the same -- and look gorgeous doing it -- if she could afford to.

So, what happens to the average everyday woman who may have felt a little unsure about becoming a mother, but who gets drawn into the trend being perpetuated by popular culture? Who, in her desire to have the cool new "pregnancy look," the new cute baby look, and imitate the celebrity mothers, conveniently overlooks, forgets, and disregards the fact that, unlike some of her previous fashion foibles, this one is forever? She cannot simply put it into the Goodwill bag with the 80s hypercolor T-shirts and the side ponytails.

Many women, if the blogs and the media are correct, are surprised and disillusioned when they discover what being a mother is really all about. They fall for the motherhood trend, hook, line and pacifier, and are bewildered when the experience does not live up to their expectations.

An article published in a major Canadian newspaper interviewed several new mothers who seemed to be surprised to discover that motherhood can actually be extremely challenging and, wait for it -- boring. Many of them were desperate to find someone else to look after their children and return to their pre-baby lives.

And these mothers are not alone. The Internet is full of stories and blogs of women disillusioned with their motherhood experience, some so much so they have voiced regret at having children, a feeling that does not bode well for the future psychological health of their offspring.

Comments from these mothers include such thoughts as “children are mind-numbingly boring,” and “looking after children makes women depressed” to the slightly more disturbing: “I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before these kids. Now I’m an overly-exhausted wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband,” and the even more disturbing: “It is no secret to my children that I consider myself to be carrying out a prison sentence and I'm counting the days 'til I am free."

And little real support is available to help them cope with their disillusionment. There are, of course, endless parenting advice books, all promising to put the reader on the fast track toward their fantasy motherhood experience. Most of these books have overtly misleading titles such as The Happiest Baby on the Block or The No-Cry Sleep Solution. The fact these books often end up gathering dust in the back of a cupboard before your child has reached his or her first birthday, suggests just how effective they are.

And let's not forget the thousands of products that promise to transform your life with baby into everything you thought it could be. The fact is that no products or books are going to give you the motherhood you imagined when you bought the fashionable pregnancy clothes, the gorgeous crib and the fancy stroller. And the reason? This motherhood does not exist. There will be moments that live up to the image fueling the motherhood trend, but they will always be offset by moments that seem to come straight out of a Stephen King novel.

So what to do? Well, a good place to start would be to stop treating motherhood as the new black. Perhaps those considering having kids, should be allowed to dream about their new pregnancy wardrobe and wander through the baby stores imagining how darling their little one will look in the fuzzy pink baby Ugg's playing in the new princess sandbox. And then, they should be asked to spend 48 hours at home doing some repetitive mind numbing task like data entry, with only a couple of minutes per day to either eat, grab a shower, or get dressed. During the first night they will be woken every three hours, but still required to function the next day, performing their mind-numbing task and again with only a few precious minutes to themselves (if that). The second night they will be kept up, with only a few hours here and there to sleep while various wet sticky, smelly substances are thrown at them, in a bid to demonstrate what it might be like to look after a sick baby.

By providing potential mothers with this balanced perspective, they will be able to make a more informed decision. Instead of falling for the motherhood trend and only later discovering it is not all it's advertised to be (suffering through endless hours of disillusionment and boredom, until finally hiring a nanny and running screaming from the house), women will come into their new role much more aware, much more prepared and much more able to deal with the challenges and joys of being a mother.

Even the stores and the culture promoting the motherhood trend will benefit from offering a more balanced view. An increase in the number of satisfied mothers will, in turn, produce more satisfied, grounded children. This will help to ensure fewer children get involved in gangs, drugs and shooting sprees and instead become functioning members of society, with lots of money to spend on things such as beautiful but unnecessary mother and baby products.

A fantasy? Perhaps. But no more so than the myth of motherhood now being perpetuated. This is not to suggest no one should ever again have children because it is so awful. It is simply trying to point out what should be obvious; you can't base your decision on having a baby on the same criteria you would use to buy the latest iPod or the cute little outfit you tried on at Sak's yesterday.

Which brings us back to the question: to procreate or not to procreate? Well, if you think you want to have a baby, you will need to look into the idea much more deeply. Start by talking to other women about their experiences with motherhood and reading about it. A wealth of information on motherhood is available on the Internet and in bookstores. A few to try include BellaOnline, a compendium of articles on whether or not to become a mom, and books such as Do I Want to Be A Mom? A Woman's Guide to the Decision of a Lifetime by Suzan Eram and Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives by Lori Leibovich.

If you still can’t decide, try to clear your mind and look at both sides of the equation. Let yourself by pulled into the dream for a moment (we all know that fantasy roll playing is a very good thing). Imagine yourself wearing, and looking gorgeous in, the funky new pregnancy fashions. Gaze at the stroller in front of you, and envision you and your partner strolling along with latte's in hand while your perfect baby, dressed in the latest Robeez and GAP Baby outfit, coos at the birds. Then, before you find yourself dragging your partner home to get on with procreating, pause. Shift this vision to the darker side, and now picture you and your partner practically running, with a screaming baby in your arms, in a desperate attempt to get home, as the latte you ordered congeals in the bottom of the stroller. Then imagine doing this after having only slept for two hours the night before.

If both these images are ones you think you can handle, then talk some more, think some more and nudge your partner toward the bedroom. If not, then perhaps take your hard-earned money, buy yourself a sexy, non-pregnancy top, a bottle of wine, and lead your partner to the bedroom -- or whatever location is most convenient -- birth control and all.

Tagged as: motherhood

is a freelance writer, mother and community activist. She teaches pre/post natal yoga and is the chair of the Nanaimo Mother & Baby Society.

Monday, February 19, 2007


On the arrival of a new life in my life, I feel a sense of death approaching, am not sure why. My uncle has been very sick, I just heard my grandmother fainted and has suffered injuries from her fall. I guess the new arrival brings change, joy at her arrival, coupled with an immense sadness at what’s happening around me. A sense of destruction, of Kali cutting through darkness, and the search through that, obfuscation of the light. Of relationships shattered, of bonds broken of anger run rampant. Of insecurities brimming to the surface, of past securities disappearing. A sense of responsibility looming, to love and support a new life. She comes with her own Karma but it is my responsibility to support her and give her everything that I can for her to follow her own pre ordained path in life. At the same time prepare for the passing of an older generation that has given me, us so much love, wisdom and joy by there luminous presences.

The terrible bomb blasts aboard the Samjhauta Express add to this feeling of unease. What a world to bring a child into right now. With innocent people dying in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, India and Pakistan.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

change in civics text books by NCERT in India

Anjali Puri has an interesting article on the 12th grade Civics text books published by N.C.E.R.T.

I remember studying it and getting extremely bored with its perspective and lack of opinion on any matter, in its attempt to sound neutral and objective. But things seem to have changed for the better. This welcome change is quite a departure from Murli Manohar Joshi’s attempt to change the history text books to provide a more positive Hindu slant to Indian history.

What are the following doing in a school textbook? 1) A picture of blank editorial space to protest the censorship of newspapers; 2) extracts from the Shah Commission's report on the Turkman Gate atrocities and the custodial death of a student called Rajan; and 3) a statement that the centralisation of powers within the Congress party made it impossible to check the slide into authoritarianism during the Emergency. Find out by reading the new Class 12 textbook on Indian politics since Independence.

What do Ayesha, a bright Baghdadi schoolgirl who lost her leg to a missile, South African Jabu, whose father is pushing him into an MBA programme, and Andrei, a Russian immigrant in Australia who defies his mother by wearing blue jeans to church, have in common? Answer: they are all affected by US hegemony.
These Class 12 books go much further, by drawing teenagers who are or will soon be voters, into the maelstrom of contemporary Indian politics and the politics of the post-Cold War world.

They will be the first schoolchildren to engage critically with epochal post-Independence events, such as the linguistic reorganisation of states, the wars with China and Pakistan, the Emergency, the Punjab and Kashmir crises, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the rise of OBCs in Indian politics, the Ayodhya dispute, coalition politics and the Gujarat riots.

Friday, February 16, 2007

my little darlin

Amitav Ghosh relocating to India

Times Of India has an interesting article on Amitav Ghosh winning the Padma Shri, along with Khushwant Singh and Ravi Dayal.

Ghosh's life too is at an ephiphanous point. After being a Bengali in Brooklyn for many years, like Piyali, he's now leaving the US to return home, to shuttle between familial Kolkata and his new Goa residence. The Padma Shri, he feels, couldn't have come at a better time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


The way to happiness:
Keep your heart free from hate, your mind free from worry.
Live simply, expect little, give much.
Scatter sunshine.
Forget self, think of others.
Try this for a week
and you will be surprised.

~ Norman Vincent Peale

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fair and Lovely

Salon has an article by Andrew Leonard about fair and lovely cream and it's use among poor Indian women.

Race, poverty and skin-whitener
You've got to wonder what the atmosphere is like when Aneel Karnani and C.K. Prahalad rub shoulders in the hallways at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. The two professors have similar backgrounds: They both graduated from campuses of the Indian Institute of Management (Karnani from Calcutta, Prahalad from Ahmedabad); they both have Ph.D.s from Harvard dating back to the 1970s; and they both are very interested in the economic lives of the poor.

But that's also where they differ, and in the world of academe, the rhetoric is getting a bit pointed.

C.K. Prahalad is famous in development circles as an evangelist for a concept known as the "bottom of the pyramid." The "BoP" represents the billions of poor people living on the planet whose buying power is, says Prahalad, a terrific, and stunningly underexploited, business opportunity. A good summary of his views can be found in an article he co-wrote with Allen Hammond in 2004 for Foreign Policy, "Selling to the Poor." He's also written a book on the subject, "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits," and if you are willing to wade through a generous dose of hype, you can visit a somewhat overenthusiastic Web site devoted to his life works.

In August, his Michigan colleague, Aneel Karnani, blasted the BoP concept in a paper titled "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage," calling it "at best a harmless illusion and potentially a dangerous delusion." The gist of his critique: Not only isn't the market as big as Prahalad claims it is, but the very act of encouraging poor people to consume products that they don't need may actually make them worse off. Instead of trying to get them to buy more stuff, argues Karnani, we should be striving to find ways to help them produce more, so we can buy from them.

Prahalad answered this blast in muted tones, in a five-page response posted to the NextBillion.Net Web site (which is part of the World Resources Institute, an organization for which Prahalad serves on the board of directors). He ended his self-defense with a polite coda: "This is a longer letter than I usually write. Because of the high regard I have for you I have taken the time to give a detailed and diligent response. Hope it helps." But this week, Karnani released a new working paper, "Doing Well by Doing Good Case Study: Fair and Lovely Whitening Cream, an exhaustive look at one of the products that Prahalad has previously named as an example of something that can be successfully sold to the very poorest sectors of society, for both profit and social benefit. Fair and Lovely is manufactured by the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, and marketed in India by a Unilever subsidiary, Hindustan Lever Limited.

In "Selling to the Poor," Prahalad and Hammond declare:

Beyond such benefits as higher standards of living and greater purchasing power, poor consumers find real value in dignity and choice. In part, lack of choice is what being poor is all about. In India, a young woman working as a sweeper outdoors in the hot sun recently expressed pride in being able to use a fashion product -- Fair and Lovely cream, which is part sun screen, part moisturizer, and part skin-lightener -- because, she says, her hard labor will take less of a toll on her skin than it did on her parents'. She has a choice and feels empowered because of an affordable consumer product formulated for her needs."

In "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage," Karnani scoffed at the notion that a skin-whitening cream could be considered socially positive, noting that such creams have been widely pilloried for playing into sexist and racist stereotyping.

This is no empowerment! At best, it is an illusion; at worst, it serves to entrench her disempowerment. Women's movements in countries from India to Malaysia to Egypt obviously do not agree with Hammond and Prahalad, and have campaigned against these products. The way to truly empower this woman is to make her less poor, financially independent, and better educated; we need social and cultural changes that eliminate the prejudices that are the cause of her deprivations.

In his response, Prahalad dismissed the criticism: "I know that you think 'Fair and Lovely' is a bad idea. This is an ideological stance."

This must have annoyed Karnani, because his newest paper is a comprehensive study of how Fair and Lovely has been marketed in India. (Thanks to NextBillion.Net for the link.) Fair and Lovely is a skin cream whose "special patented formulation" supposedly "safely and gently controls the dispersion of melanin in the skin without the use of harmful chemicals frequently found in other skin lightening products" and that is "proven to deliver one to three shades of change," according to Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL).

Karnani establishes with little room for disputation that Unilever and HLL have been playing on racial sensitivities to market Fair and Lovely to poor women in India and elsewhere in Asia. The television and magazine advertisements he describes would not last a nanosecond in Western markets, if any advertising director was suicidal enough to run them. They show depressed dark-skinned women getting progressively more light-skinned, and in the process, getting good jobs, landing boyfriends and achieving happiness. In India, two egregiously racist advertisements were forced off the air after a lengthy controversy.

Prahalad is fond of stating that corporations can "do well by doing good" -- that by marketing to the poor they can make money and achieve a socially responsible goal. And if you go to HLL's home page you will see, up front and center, that "HLL believes that to succeed requires the highest standards of corporate behavior towards our employees, consumers and the societies and world in which we live." Karnani makes a convincing case that Unilever and HLL are not living up to their own self-avowed standards.

Fair and Lovely is clearly doing well; it is a very profitable and high growth brand for Unilever in many countries, especially in India. The company is not breaking any laws; millions of women voluntarily buy the product and seem to be loyal customers. However, it is, at least, debatable whether it is doing good. It is unlikely Unilever is fulfilling some "positive social goal" and might even be working to the detriment of a larger social objective. This paper does not mean to demonize Unilever. But, there is no reason to canonize Unilever either.

One can reasonably ask whether focusing on one product to the exclusion of all others is an effective rebuttal to Prahalad's larger theses on whether the poor represent an underserved market and whether companies can both "do well and do good." That is a huge and complex subject, and both men agree that such examples as Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank show that there are indeed socially beneficial ways to provide services, for profit, to the poor.

But there's one thing that doesn't get mentioned in either of Karnani's papers or Prahalad's rebuttal, and it's an odd omission. Prahalad serves on the Board of Directors of HLL. Karnani's thorough-going attack on the skin cream has to be read, in part, as a direct attack on Prahalad personally, for condoning, at some level, a marketing campaign based on pushing the message that happiness, beauty and success are dependent on having skin that is light, instead of dark.

I know what cold winter days are like in Ann Arbor. I'll bet it can get even colder in the faculty lounge at the Ross School of Business.

UPDATE: I spelled Aneel Karnani's last name wrong in the original post. Ithas been corrected.

-- Andrew Leonard

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