Ten Long Years

December 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Came home to a radio review of the year. They’re playing edited highlights of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Just makes me angry. I’m disgusted at the complete and utter failure of Western policy and Western governments – and in more than slight part, Western societies – since. It’s hard to imagine how they – we – could have got the ten intervening years more wrong. It’s not even worth talking about the years beforehand. Ten years in which it turned out the free world was in the hands of the people with the very least understanding of why the free world can be only the whole world or nothing at all. Ten years spent supporting the kinds of people we’ve spent this year watching get kicked out – or murdered in the street; ten years spent making ready the next batch, at home and abroad. Ten years in which governments and politicians and armies and diplomats have achieved not a single thing making good in any way at all upon all the lives that have been lost. I am disgusted to hear it recalled as though we were still living in that moment. No one lives in the past; everyone is dead there.

Categories: Opinion

The Mystery of Language: Numbers

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

So I’m in Osman’s Continental Supermarket and there’s an Arab couple in there looking for fish because they’ve got Christians coming for Christmas and they aren’t sure exactly what type of fish it is Christians eat at Christmas or something. (They should have asked me. I could have told them: turkey. Anyway, I thought it was Fridays that Christians eat fish? I digress…)

As I head towards the checkout I overhear the husband saying to his wife:

عشرة كيلو ارز 10.99.

(’ashar kilo aruzz, ten ninety-nine.)

I’ve written it that way because it’s exactly how he said it. Thing is, it translates as “Ten kilos of rice, £10.99.” So why is the ten of kilos in Arabic and the ten of pounds in English? It makes obvious sense, but then in other ways it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the casual speech of a true bilingual.

Anyway, more importantly, children, since you’re here and you’d like to know – these:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Arabic numbers, right? No! These are Arabic numbers:

٠‎ ١‎ ٢‎ ٣‎ ٤‎ ٥‎ ٦‎ ٧‎ ٨‎ ٩

So if those are real Arabic numbers, what do the Arabs call them? ‘Numbers’, presumably, in much the same we in Yorkshire call Yorkshire Tea ‘tea’ and the Germans get confused about measles. But, no, they call them ‘Indian Numbers’.

Alas, they appear to be just as confused as we are.

० १ २ ३ ४ ५ ६ ७ ८ ९

Yes, those are Indian numbers. What do the Indians call them? I don’t know. Let’s hope it’s just numbers.*

*(For the record, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests you can differentiate between the numbers as used in Europe, the US and elsewhere by using a lower case spelling of arabic – i.e. ‘arabic numerals’ – 1, 2, 3, etc. – as opposed to ‘Arabic numerals’ – ١,‎ ٢,‎ ٣, etc. I don’t know if there’s a name for this convention of de-capitalising adjectives otherwise derived from proper nouns, but it’s one I use generally: spartan  or byzantine rather than Spartan or Byzantine when not used literally: “The Byzantine emperor alone in a spartan room; a Spartan general, a byzantine plan.” No marks for historical accuracy, obviously.)

Banking on Democracy

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman directs readers to report highlighting declining support for democracy in parts of the old Eastern Bloc – specifically those parts comprising ‘New Europe’.

This should be no surprise. These are countries only a generation or so removed from outright tyranny and dictatorship. Democracy itself is still at the stage of needing to prove itself in those countries; it’s folly to presume that once a country shakes off the shackles of dictatorship democracy becomes an unquestionable part of its make-up. Freedom and repression are points on a sliding scale, and since no democracy is perfect – and a number of them very flawed indeed – democracy can exist at a range of points along that. The notion that the move from dictatorship to democracy is the crossing of some clearly demarcated line, and that no one would ever want to go back, is laughable; the concepts involved are simply too vague, people can go back without realising that’s what they’re doing.

Democracy is defined by the form in which it exists. Countries which have long been democratic often have a variety of examples from their own history to draw upon, and it’s easier to see improvements in the system of democracy as the solution to its failings. Where democracy is younger and newer, with perhaps a single example – that of the present and recent past – occupying the popular imagination, the danger of the baby going out with the bathwater is all the greater. Differentiating between flawed or failed forms of democracy and democracy itself as flawed and failed is not nearly so simple as we’d like to imagine. People’s beliefs and expectations are rightly shaped by their own experience; the experience for those in new democracies is different to that in ours, with a different set of past or collective experiences to contrast it with. It’s easy to assume that the more recent ghost of totalitarianism should be all the more incentive towards continued support for democracy, but of course mightn’t it equally be all the more reason to see its failures as the same?

The economic systems in most of the developed world are profoundly undemocratic; this is sustained variously by the contradictory myths that the free market is essentially cognate to democracy anyway, or that it can’t be, and that it must be left to obey the laws of its own nature: interference, even if democratic, will break it.

It’s all rubbish, of course, since the economic systems in questions are already hugely regulated in favour of existing, well-financed vested interests anyway. They’re just undemocratic, not non-democratic (which we might, of course, allow certain things to be – like individual choice, for instance). The financial services industry in Britain has itself a seeming monopoly over economic policy. The failure of democracy to prevent economic catastrophe understandably paints it in a very negative light for those affected. Some might attach blame to democracy, others might feel it revealed as hollow and illusory, and in both cases the strength and degree of the sentiment will, of course, vary from individual to individual, but it shouldn’t be any surprise negative sentiment manifests most strongly amongst those with the most disappointing experiences of democracy – not those with the least democracy (support for democracy is shown to be rising in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), who have a perspective allowing them to perceive something of its ideals rather than its realities, but those it has let down the worst: Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, where democracy has not brought with it what was promised. Which one do we want to be the first in modern Europe to fall out of the democratic club?

This is dangerous stuff. Economic circumstance had a huge role to play in the rise of Hitler; economic grievance motivated the Bolsheviks and communist revolutionaries elsewhere, even if the immediate economic circumstance might not have been quite as closely entwined with their rise as was the case in Germany with fascism.

The basic lack of democracy within our economic systems is manifesting even now in the argument that economic concerns must come first, that the views of the market should come first as the only way of fixing things. That’s a dangerous lie. Shadows rising in the east remind us that the needs of democracy – of peaceful, free and just societies – must come first. That means listening to the people, not the money. We’re told that ignoring the signals coming from the markets risks the recovery. But ignoring the signals coming from the people risks everything else.

Greek Tragedy & A Culture of (Self) Deceit

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Sacred rivers flow uphill:

Justice and all things are reversed.

It’s men who are the traitors now.

There’s no more faith in oaths sworn to the gods,

Our reputation will be turned to good,

We women shall have honour,

And ugly slander hold us down no more.

 

No more we’ll hear the age-old songs

Celebrating women’s faithlessness.

Till now Apollo, lord of song, has not bestowed

The gift of inspired lyric song

On women’s minds; or we’d have echoed back a hymn

Against the race of men. The length of time

Has many tales to tell of men as well as women.

Drama’s never really been my thing. The examples with which I was confronted as a youth typically demonstrated a writing style that didn’t really do very much for me either as a reader or a writer. I know there’s all that stuff about how plays were written to be performed, or the words written to be heard and, bla, bla, bla, and that’s all fine, but it still adds up to being something which I don’t really find all that engaging. I don’t think it’s missing the point to be put off a performance art by not liking the words – it’s just a personal tendency; with songs I tend to listen to the lyrics, with films I often find myself bored or perturbed if the film displays flaws that I imagine to stem from the writing, or tries to obscure them (or bypass the need of writing almost entirely) with a barrage of special effects and cheap tricks. For anyone who’s familiar with Games Workshop, I remember my old boss, Jervis Johnson, always saying how he was the only person he knew who would open a new game and go straight past the toy soldiers to look at the rules: I’m much the same with the written word in general.

I also resented the forced pre-eminence of Shakespeare at school. Shakespeare’s alright, but it’s just an inane intellectual fallacy to suppose for even a second that one writer could stand so head and shoulders above everybody else as to make their work virtually obligatory – that’s simply impossible; the judgement is subjective – or that it should somehow serve to represent better than anything else the vast and uncountable expanse of English literature as a whole. That’s just bollocks. Reading so much Shakespeare when there was time to read so little overall just seemed narrow-minded to me. I don’t know why we couldn’t have read the script to Chinatown or something.

Lately, though, as part of my rather varied studies with the Open University (Chinese, History, and Ancient Greek so far) I’ve been reading Euripides’s Medea. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically famous because it’s about a woman who murders her children. It also features Jason, as in Jason and the Argonauts. Medea is the wife he acquires at the end of his search for the Golden Fleece. I’ve really enjoyed it; so much so that I’m inclined to try reading more Greek drama.

The verses quoted above are sung by the chorus as the second ode, essentially recapping Medea’s frustrations with the male-dominated world she lives in and several of the play’s main themes. It’d be easy to make a very modern reading of the way this has been translated (and let’s not forget it has been translated) but apparently there’s evidence to support both the view of Euripides as some sort of proto-feminist, or of him as pretty much a misogynist. (I wonder myself if the ode above might not have been received, and perhaps even intended, contemptuously, so caution with any parallels to modern views of women’s plight in our more recent past.)

I’ve also recently been reading of a modern translation, or interpretation, of the One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. The idea of women being particularly unfaithful or treacherous, as encapsulated in the excerpt from Medea above reminded me of a similar theme in One Thousand and One Nights. The Al-Shaykh (pronounced Ash-Shaykh) version is quite sexually graphic – some of this undoubtedly exists in the original, but I certainly think Al-Shaykh has emphasised it for the sake of the obvious discussion it provokes. For example:

Shahryar’s wife again called ‘Mas’ud, Mas’ud!’ and a solid, heavily built black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, saying, ‘What do you want, you slut? Allow me to present Sa’ad al-Din Mas’ud.’ He pointed to his prick and Shahryar’s wife giggled and fell on her back and opened her thighs, ready for him.

Or:

The porter kissed her on the mouth, bit her and pulled her towards him. Pointing between her thighs, she asked him, ‘What is this, my love?’

‘Your cunt,’ said the porter.

‘You have no shame, what is it?’ the shopper said, pulling his ears and slapping his neck.

‘Your womb, your clitoris, your hole, your well, your pussy, your slit, your egg factory.’

(It wasn’t. It was ‘the basil that grows on the bridges’, apparently.)

One Thousand and One Nights is basically built on an obsession with women’s apparent infidelity. Shahryar’s wife cheats on him, so he kills her, then takes a virgin every night, killing each one in the morning, until one, Shahrazad, prolongs her own life by the simple expedient of telling the king each night a new story with a cliffhanger ending so that he has to keep her alive until the next night. Women’s infidelity occurs a lot in the individual stories Shahrazad recounts, too. Apparently women are always at it, sometimes they’re caught, punished, invariably with death, often by being chopped into pieces (at least once mistakenly), and so on. It’s pretty grim. It’s obviously not something Al-Shaykh has inserted, so has to be assumed to echo attitudes common to the stories’ probably male authors – the same attitude, more or less, seemingly displayed by Greeks (and the audience for plays like Medea was almost certainly exclusively male; women were probably not permitted to attend the theatre) about 1,500 years earlier.

The thing is, cultures displaying those attitudes, seem to get rather a different treatment in the popular press, so to speak. You could take One Thousand and One Nights and its description of Shahryar hacking his unfaithful wife to pieces and you probably wouldn’t find too many who weren’t at least tempted to draw a parallel between this and the treatment of women in the Arab and Muslim worlds today. That’s fair enough, but then the Greeks, of course, are held up as a classical civilisation, a beacon of enlightenment whose example did much to inspire the free, democratic world of the modern day.

That’s obviously bollocks, isn’t it?

We’ve got a very incomplete knowledge of Greek literature. The loss of most of the corpus in ancient times means what we have left is a more or less random sample. It mightn’t necessarily be the best, though in quite a lot of cases we do have some idea of what the Greeks themselves thought of certain works in relation to contemporary pieces, and we might presume some kind of factor in favour of the most popular or most highly-valued being the most likely to survive (though careful with that), but either way it’s hugely incomplete. (That creates, incidentally, the same kind of lacuna in our knowledge we create unnecessarily in the study of English by focusing on Shakespeare to the exclusion of so much else.)

So we have only an incomplete knowledge of Greek culture and don’t necessarily have access to the best parts of it, and yet it comes labelled as classical, the presumed leading light of historical culture. Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

Obviously, we can still judge Greek literature and philosophy for ourselves: a lot of it holds up to analysis pretty well, and has done for people in many places and times. It’s just that the Greeks themselves were obviously very far from enlightened in lots of ways and we do ourselves a disservice if we overlook that. I really don’t think ‘classical’ is a very helpful label for anything at all; I’m going to stop using it as much possible. ‘Historical’ will do. It was a long time ago, there’s no merit or purpose in trying to judge the distant past or the people who lived in it but by the same token nothing good comes of uncritically attaching labels like classical to it. I rather suspect it lulls us into a bit of a false sense of security regarding our own sense of freedom, democracy, and enlightenment: we’re Europeans, so we must be good at it, it’s where it all comes from – only that where it came from, it went hand in hand with slavery, tyranny, and repression, of course.

That’s a different question from the one as to whether or not modern Islam happens to have more in common with its medieval counterpart than does, say, European society (and, thus, more in common than it should), but when European society, and European thought, and European democracy, offer their heritage as evidence of their righteousness, we do have to be a bit more critical. If democracy came from a place and a time when women weren’t even allowed to go to the theatre, should we assume our own version is everything it’s cracked up to be, or are they just unrelated phenomenon sharing the same name? There’s a lot of other similar questions that spring to mind when we start to wonder what is the reason for us thinking our culture is superior? (Or ‘superior in some ways’ if you baulk at that premise.) That’s not necessarily to say that it isn’t – I haven’t much time to the kind of cultural relativism that says no such thing is possible, and I don’t really have a problem with arguing that in several important ways we probably are ahead of the game – but we do need to be critical. That’s easily and frequently done in terms of politics, human rights (and particularly rights for specific groups), foreign policy, economics (and the question of wealth), but it needs to be done culturally, too, and that’s easily overlooked. It needs to be done for precisely that reason: the fact that so much of it seems to rest on a presumption of such a thing as classical culture, and that actually being worth something. I’m really not sure that it is.

Categories: Opinion

The Maltese Fact Hunt

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been to Malta twice. Once when Warner Bros. were paying (don’t ask) and once when Sheffield United were paying (don’t ask). Or possibly the Maltese government, I don’t know (don’t ask; I’m not really as exciting as these random snippets make me sound). On both occasions I spoke English. Defiantly so, in fact. Although what I was defying, I’m not really sure, since Malta is officially bilingual and the ling of those bies which isn’t Maltese is English.

Since I last went to Malta, in 2009, I have started learning Arabic. In fact, looking back at my old notebooks, it looks like I started learning Arabic only a month or so after returning from Malta, though the two weren’t connected.

Maltese is something of a curiosity. It’s a Semitic language, an offshoot of Arabic in much the way that English harks ultimately from an ancient German language, and French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on from Latin. The big difference with Maltese being that its ancestor, Classical Arabic – or something very much like it – is still spoken today. By about 300 million people.

The fact that Maltese is a descendant of Arabic tends to surprise even a lot of very knowledgeable, well-travelled folks, though does elicit knowing nods from those who’ve been there and witnessed its truly unpronounceable place names.

That’s not a prank. (For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx’.)

The oddity of Maltese is more than just a linguistic claim to fame, though. It reflects the islands’ importance out of all proportion to their size, and their central location at the crossroads of history: its people have been Christian since Roman times but speak a language derived from a form of Arabic that arrived centuries later; it’s a country where 98% of the population is Catholic but call their god Allah. Separating it, ultimately, from Arabic (or more accurately the other Arabic dialects) is the influence in the interim of the Normans, Italians and British.

Given that I’ve been to Malta (and, in fact, my late grandmother grew up there, and spoke Maltese in her youth) and that I’ve since reached a level of Arabic where not only can I butcher the language but where people will know I’m doing it, I was curious as to how similar the two actually remain. So, today, on a short soiree to the library to get out of the rain, I picked up a somewhat ancient copy of Teach Yourself Maltese. (Indeed, there is no less ancient copy; it was written in the 1960s and is long out of print – supply and demand and tiny island with unpronounceable place names and all that.) Since Sheffield Library recently installed self-service machines, and I can now take out books about languages without being asked inane questions about “Going there on holiday?” (it makes me very sad to have to avoid libraries for the same reason I avoid hairdressers, but such is the way of the world), I decided to borrow it and bring it home with me for a fuller analysis.

I already had a vague idea of how the letters of the Latin alphabet used to write Maltese might correspond to the Arabic script, and this proved to be more or less the case, with a few difficult to guess ones (like ‘x’, pronounced sh, apparently) finally explained (though a few inconsistent variations in equivalents seem to exist). I started flicking through the sample vocabulary and phrases, finding many similarities: Maltese baħar ‘sea’ (Bahrain means ‘two seas’, from the same root), daar ‘house’ (Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania means ‘House of Peace’), layl ‘night’ (origin of the name Layla; the 1,001 Arabian Nights are known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa-Layla; don’t know who Alf was or why there were two Laylas), and gżira ‘island’ (from the Arabic equivalent of which comes Al-Jazeera) all being essentially identical. I expected nouns to be similar, but even verbs – qara ‘he read’ (the name of the Qur’an just means ‘reading’ – it comes from exactly this word) – and short phrases proved similarly recognisable. Obviously, the longer the phrase, the more English and Italian loanwords crept in and the more my understanding declined accordingly (from the Italian, you swines, and the overall effect of the changed word balance – not from the English).

I daresay pronunciation varies a bit, so I’m not sure how much actual, live Maltese I’d be able to understand if attempting to communicate in person – certainly very little if attempted at anything like normal talking speed – but I still find it fascinating that Maltese still displays such similarity to a language from which it diverged much as English long ago split from the ancestors of German, Dutch, and Geordie. And look how distant and incomprehensible those languages have become to one another since.

I can’t say this exercise has achieved a great deal – other than, you know, providing me a bit more trivia in a life built around its pursuit – but I’ve tended to find the principle of ‘drinking from many wells’ is a worthwhile one, particularly when it comes to languages. Some concepts obscure or difficult to comprehend in one language – like when is it ‘I’ and when is it ‘me’ in English and why do they differ (answer: because of case) – are better illustrated and might be more easily understood in languages where they’re used more broadly – such as, in this case, Greek, Russian, or  Yankunytjatjara (yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that last one off Wikipedia) – and grasping the concept doesn’t always require learning the language in any comprehensive sense. Perhaps my afternoon spent taking the comparative approach to Semitic languages will do something to reinforce my vague understanding of Arabic.

As far as Maltese goes, though, I’m not really in a position to do much more than make the odd (fairly confident) guess at the meaning of a few basic words, and the odd (rather less confident) stab at pronunciation. To take our earlier example – Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx – I can now say confidently it’s probably something to do with the sunset, and rather less confidently that it’s probably pronounced something like: ترجقت انزل الشمش

Roughly speaking.

向左向右,错错错! (or Left and Right, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!)

August 5, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been learning Chinese for about nine months. The language is okay but I still can’t use chopsticks.

I’ve just started trying to read some very simple Chinese books. Finding material for reading practice in other languages is often very difficult. Most of what’s available is too hard and not really designed for learners, and there’s often not much help in knowing what’s available or where to find it. Learning a language is easy – there are books for that, and CDs, and websites, and classes, and all the rest of it – but what you get in those are single sentences or short paragraphs by way of simple exercises for reading and comprehension: read a short passage, answer a few questions. The gap between that kind of thing and the actual act of reading, say, a website or newspaper, let alone a book, is vast, and there’s often very little to bridge it. Even when you can find ‘simple’ books of the kind that might ostensibly be at your level it can be a frustrating experience when the authors have written with a particular course or range of topics in mind, which may be utterly different from those you yourself learned, presenting a mass of vocabulary you’ve never seen before, no matter how simple it might be.

Chinese is better than most in this regard, because the Chinese government promotes a standardised test – the HSK – with a fixed list of vocabulary and topics covered at each level. A lot of material for people learning Chinese is based on this, so if you’ve got a rough idea of your own approximate level on the HSK you should have a good idea of what you will and won’t be able to manage.

Having only recently ventured so far as to start looking for examples of Chinese to read for myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this does actually hold up in practice, and there’s a much bigger, better designed and more accessible range of books for Chinese learners than for students of, say (and this is from experience), Arabic or Russian. What I found specifically was the Chinese Breeze series of ‘Graded Readers’ – a range of about sixty books at eight levels, based around vocabularies of about 300 words up to vocabularies of several thousand.

That just left the matter of choosing the book itself. I hunted around on Amazon, but the search function threw up a bit of a hotchpotch of books at different levels, and of multiple editions of the same book, some of which were out of print and unavailable anyway, so it was hard to make a straight comparison. One of the first ones I came to stood out as sounding like exactly the kind of book I didn’t want to read (or so I thought; bear with me, comedy fans), the vomit-inducingly titled Can I Dance With You? Great, I thought. If I want to learn Chinese I’ll have to wade through the Chinese version of Mills & Boon, if Mills & Boon were written for retarded five year olds. There were a few similar titles amongst the bunch, so in the end I settled on Two Children Seeking the Joy Bridge. If it proved to be a kids’ book, that’d be fine by me.

As it turns out, it’s certainly a story about children. Whether or not that makes it a kids’ book, I have no idea. My level of Chinese is so basic anyway that I’m not sure there’d really be anything to choose between a kids’ book from one for adults. I was really impressed with the book, though. I could read it with just enough difficulty to make it worthwhile but without it becoming frustrating. Great. Cracking. Onto the next one…

Oh yes. The next one.

There’s a short introduction to the series at the start of each book wherein the publishers explain that the series covers quite a wide range of genres (“detective, adventure, romance, fantasy, science fiction, society, biography, horror, legend, etc”); understandably so – not everyone learning Chinese necessarily shares my fascination with, say, the living conditions of the rural poor at the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, or the ways in which a knowledge of Chinese might be used to foment worldwide popular revolution; some of them probably just want to read Mills & Boon.

So, turning to the back to the peruse the list of other titles, I wasn’t surprised to see our old friend Can I Dance With You joined by the rather ominously similar-sounding I Really Want to Find Her… and Whom Do You Like More?
Snore.

But what’s this? The first one in the list is called Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! Cue schoolboy giggles from me. How unfortunate, I thought. They’ve probably got no idea what connotation the word ‘wrong’ carries for anyone under the age of about 40.

Oh no, wait. Maybe they do.

错错错!
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

June 8. Beijing. A pretty girl lies dead on the floor her luxury home. A slip of paper found on her body reads, “I’m tired. Let me leave…” At the bottom of the slip of paper is a signature: Lin Shuang-shuang.

Shuang-shuang has a twin sister called Dui-dui. The two girls look so similar that others can hardly tell who’s who. Is the one who died really Shuang-shuang? Then where is Dui-dui? If the one who Dui-dui as someone claimed, then why is the signature on the slip Lin Shuang-shuang?

Hmm, yes, pretty wrong – a perception not helped by a cover as tasteful as this.
Not at all what I would have expected, so I move on to number two – I Really Want to Find Her… A tale of heartbreak after holiday romance? Love at first sight glimpsed through the window of a moving train? Oh no.

我一定要找到她•••
I Really Want to Find Her…

She is really beautiful. Just one look at her photo and three guys, Dai-wei, Jie-fu, Qiu-tan, are all determined to find her! The photo was given to them by their professor before he died. And nobody knows where in China this girl is. How can the guys find her? And what happens when they finally see her?

I couldn’t begin to imagine. Especially considering there’s three of them. Is this what dying professors do in China? I’m beginning to sense a mild Chinese obsession with pretty girls and dead people. (Okay, that’s a universal obsession; maybe I’m just gaining first insight into a peculiarly Chinese version of it.) Then it’s Can I Dance With You? Cheesy titles, it seems, are not always what they seem.

我可以请跳舞你吗?
Can I Dance With You?

A smart young man suddenly gets into big trouble.

Oh, here we go… Something to do with a pretty young girl by any chance?

He just fell in love with a pretty girl a few days ago, but now the police are at his home and want to arrest him.

She’s dead, isn’t she?

The bank he works for lost 10 million dollars, and the police list him as a suspect.

No! Curse these unpredictable Chinese and their narrative wiles.

Of course he is not the robber! He even knows who did it. But can he find evidence to prove it to the police? It’s all just too much. Also, will he be able to see his girlfriend again?

Not if her name’s Shuang-shuang. Or Dui-dui. Or if the professor with the weird dying wish has got anything to do with it. Maybe I’m complicating things. I’m so confused.

There’s one obvious snorer in the bunch – Whom Do You Like More – which really does sound like the kind of romantic drivel I was trying to avoid in so unwisely writing off Can I Dance With You? (And where does the dancing come into it anyway? Oh, wait, that must be when he met the girl, mustn’t it? And it was her who robbed the bank, wasn’t it? What a bastard.)

Anyway, then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the book I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to discover…

向左向右
Left and Right: The Conjoined Brothers

Left and Right are two brothers.

(Those are actually their names. They’re written in characters in the title so it’s not just the vagaries of translation or anything. Put them into Google translate if you don’t believe me. Obviously, if you find yourself the parents of a pair of Siamese twins what you really want to do is make their life even easier by giving them names like Left and Right.)

Left and Right are two brothers. Even their parents don’t know who is older and who is younger, as they are Siamese twins.

(I’m reminded here of the way in which English laws on royal succession would reckon the first twin born as the eldest, and hence the rightful heir, whereas the French would reckon it to be the second, as he must have been the one conceived first. Anyone want to proffer any suggestions as to the prevailing logic in the matter of ‘oldest’ and ‘youngest’ as it pertains to Siamese twins? No, please, don’t. Anyway, is this a thought that pops into your head if you have Siamese twins? “Hmm, I wonder which one is the eldest…”)

They must do everything together. They play together, eat together, and sleep together. Most of the time they enjoy their lives and are very happy. When one was sick, the other helped his brother take his medicine and he got better. However, it’s no fun anymore when they sit in class together but one brother dislikes the other’s subjects…

What? Wha…? I’m just…

Left and Right. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

(I’ve ordered the lot, obviously.)

UPDATED: With links.

Categories: Nonsense, Opinion, Reviews

Wisner not wise

February 1, 2011 5 comments

Tonight, Frank Wisner is in Cairo. Wisner is the former US ambassador to Egypt. The White House describes his visit as that of a private citizen, despite official State Department advice to American citizens to avoid the country altogether.

“The US says it is despatching a representative to Cairo to help it understand the situation on the ground. Officials say Frank Wisner is a private citizen, not an envoy.”

The BBC further reports:

“The US state department is tight-lipped, saying only that he is already in Cairo and ‘has the ability to talk to Egyptian leaders’. It seems the former ambassador’s job will be to drive home the need for wide ranging political reforms and what American officials describe as an ‘orderly transition’. There’s a feeling among Western diplomats here that President Mubarak has yet to draw the necessary conclusions from events unfolding throughout his country. It may fall to Mr Wisner to say that unless the Egyptian leader acts fast, there may be no alternative but to leave.”

Wisner was US ambassador to Egypt for five years from August 1986 to June 1991, taking in the Gulf War, in which Mubarak offered the US unqualified support. Wisner went on to serve as ambassador to India and the Philippines, and in the Clinton-era Department of Defense.

Wisner maintains a considerable interest in the Middle East and is clearly viewed by the White House as something of an expert and an insider both. Interviewed in 2005 on the subject of that year’s Egyptian presidential election, Wisner commented that:

“The final results of the election are obviously not in, it’s too soon. But I think there’s very, very little doubt in anyone’s mind that Mubarak will win this election and win it handily. It is, nonetheless, a major development first and foremost for Egyptians and the emerging political class, which will draw many lessons from this day on how the election was conducted. It was the first step in a process of managed political change and reform that Mubarak has launched. It’s significant for the United States because it marks a major outcome for policies that we’ve advocated strongly–that Egypt, the dominant nation in the Arab world, set the pace in democratization.

[…]

The next steps are what’s really important. After all, what we’re looking at here is a managed political process. The government wants to–as was decided by Mubarak–move Egypt down the road to democratic reform, democratic inclusion. But like everything that has typified his presidency, he’ll be very careful about it.

[…]

I think the point I want to make is that an historic day occurred yesterday in Egypt. A page was turned. A first important step was taken. There will be many steps in the future.”

There weren’t. They never came. Mubarak won the election 88.6% of the vote and everyone knows where we stand today. The interview – conducted by Bernard Gwertzman of cfr.org and published in the New York Times – makes for grim reading now. It’s hard to know whether Wisner’s answers are the result of fawning or denial. Throughout, Wisner depicts Egypt – and, worst of all, the will of the Egyptian voter – through a seemingly opaque lens of US foreign policy delusion: voters are apathetic and will not vote for anyone but Mubarak, they fear that a newcomer will not know how to run the country, there were “no instances of repression; there wasn’t heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation.”

Why Wisner should have been so hopeful is anyone’s guess. Seemingly little had changed since the end of Wisner’s own tenure as ambassador, some 15 years earlier. Shortly after Wisner’s return to Washington, Human Rights Watch concluded in their World Report that:

“A state of emergency has been in force in Egypt almost continuously for over twenty-four years. The broad powers of detention that it affords has led to tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests and the related widespread practice of torture.

[...]

The need to thwart terrorism, prevent assassinations, and control drug trafficking are justifications offered by the government for the continuation of the state of emergency.”

Wisner left Egypt in 1991. That was written in 1992.

Of the United States’ role in pushing Egypt towards democracy and reform, Human Rights Watch concludes that:

“Egypt’s human rights record, including a pattern of torture of detainees held in prisons, police stations and SSI detention centers, continues to escape serious public scrutiny by the Bush Administration and Congress. Despite significant U.S. leverage, and the opportunities presented by frequent high-level meetings between Egyptian and U.S. officials in 1991, the Bush Administration refrained from any public expression of concern about human rights violations in Egypt. To the contrary, Egypt received massive debt write-offs and other U.S. and international financial assistance to strengthen its shaky economy. No human rights improvements were required of President Mubarak in return for this assistance.”

This was all on Wisner’s watch. He was the direct link between Mubarak and the Bush administration, and the Reagan administration before that. The active condoning of torture is an allegation that dates from the time of Bush the Younger, and not the Elder, to whom Wisner ultimately reported, but these do not exactly appear to be the credentials of the ideal candidate to “drive home the need for wide ranging political reforms”, or to tell Mubarak to go.

Wisner’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs continued long after his departure from Egypt. In 2002, Wisner co-chaired a working group for the James Baker Institute (Baker, as Secretary of State to the first President Bush, was effectively Wisner’s boss during his time as US ambassador to Egypt) and the Council on Foreign Relations (who also conducted the blithely optimistic 2005 interview) on post-war considerations relating to the then-imminent – and already by then inevitable – invasion of Iraq. The result was Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq, published in 2003, a couple of months prior to the beginning of the war itself.

The report is largely credible, ominously predicting, through its urgent calls to avoid them, much of the war and its aftermath’s ultimate course – (“The road will be long and difficult. But without serious early planning for ‘Iraq the day and decade after,’ a painful future awaits not only the Iraqi people, but American interests in the region as well. Military victory will be quickly overshadowed by political defeat if the United States does not get reconstruction right, and reconstruction may be the hardest part.”) – and is far in advance of anything produced by the Bush administration’s own war-planners. Credible as it may be, the report does offer some insight into the thinking of the political and diplomatic establishment – somewhat outside of Bush’s own – from which its views are drawn.

“It is possible that Saddam will be overthrown prior to the end of hostilities, with a new Iraqi strongman or a national salvation committee taking power in Baghdad … the United States should be prepared to work with it and to help it establish the broadest, most favorable terms for post-conflict international involvement on disarmament and reconstruction.”

This is perhaps unsurprising – wars are different to protests or demonstrations, different even to revolutions, and justifications may suffice for one which do not in the case of the others – but the report goes on to make the rather more general point that:

“Achieving security and stability in the Middle East will be made more difficult by the fact that short-term necessities will seem to contradict long-term goals.”

Seemingly referred to here is the whole Middle East, not just Iraq. Wisner was the working group’s co-chair, along with Edward P. Djerejian; the words are not necessarily his but it’s hard to believe, that the views presented do not at least partly reflect Wisner’s own school of thought.

Nor has Wisner’s work in the Middle East been purely diplomatic or governmental. Wisner currently serves as international advisor to Patton Boggs, a US Top 100 law firm with offices in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates whose own website boasts of being “consistently ranked as the nation’s top lobbying firm” and, notably, of their expertise in the Middle East:

“Our attorneys also represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies, and we have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf.”

That would be the elite, then. Further, Patton Boggs boast:

“We have also handled negotiation of offset agreements and managed contractor disputes in military sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act.”

And that would be the $1.3 billion in military aid that makes Egypt the second largest recipient of US aid after neighbour Israel.

That’s not it for Wisner’s outside interests. As well as the expected memberships of various think tanks and not-for-profits, he also served on the board of the distinctly for-profit Enron.

“When Wisner was US Ambassador to the Philippines (1991-92), Enron was in the midst of negotiations to manage the two Subic Bay power plants. When Wisner left Manila in July 1992, Enron won the deal and began to manage the plant in January 1993.”

Wisner joined the board of Enron in 1997, immediately after the end of his three-year stint as US ambassador to India. Enron became notorious during this period for a series of deals in which local Maharashtra state authorities were tied into purchasing electricity from Enron’s Dabhol power station at vastly inflated prices. A change of government in India led to the project’s cancellation part-way through construction. Enron then attempted to charge local authorities a maintenance fee, despite supplying them no power. It’s highly unlikely that such a high stakes investment involving a company the size of Enron would proceed without some involvement from the American ambassador to the country concerned. Writing in the year of Wisner’s appointment to the board of Enron, but before the accounting scandal that finally brough the company down, Vijay Prashad comments:

“Frank Wisner, Jr. was a big catch for Enron Corporation. His lineage is impeccable, since his father, Frank Wisner Sr., was a senior CIA official (from 1947 until his suicide in 1965) who was involved in the overthrow of Arbenz of Guatemala (1954) and Mossadeq of Iran (1953). Wisner Junior was well-known in the CIA and he worked as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs; his current boss, Kenneth Lay, Chief Executive Officer of Enron Corporation, also worked for the Pentagon during the US war in Vietnam. With “economic espionage” as a task for the CIA (see PD, 12 October 1997), there is little doubt that Wisner used this instrument during his long-tenure as Ambassador in Asian nations. A Wisner staffer told InterPress Services this year that “if anybody asked the CIA to help promote US business in India, it was probably Frank”.”

Since 1997, Wisner has also served as Vice President of External Affairs for AIG, the US insurer whose trading in credit default swaps and subsequent liquidity crisis precipitated the worldwide banking crisis.

None of which is illegal on Wisner’s part. Directorships and a variety of board positions are par for the course for retiring members of the higher economic, political and diplomatic classes. Many are remote positions requiring little involvement. Arm’s length capitalism – like arm’s length diplomacy and arm’s length politics – hides a multitude of sins, and Wisner is not necessarily a knowing party to anything he shouldn’t be, but this is the man seemingly chosen to carry America’s message to a brutal and repressive ally who has long outstayed his welcome and whose people are dying in the streets to see him gone.

It may not be through ill will that Frank Wisner is well-disposed towards strongmen and short-term necessities, but his are short-term necessities which have outlived all else and left long-term goals seemingly all-but-forgotten long ago. His connections are typical of his class; they provide him the influence for which he has been chosen as Obama’s unofficial emissary, but those are connections – whatever we may make of them in the West – which in Egypt and the wider Arab world find their mirror in the cronyism without which regimes like Mubarak’s could not survive. They will be seen by Egyptians – standing in the shadow of American-made tanks in the centre of their nation’s capital, chanting for their president to depart as they and we know he should have done long ago – as nothing less. Why should they be? What is Frank Wisner doing there? What good can he do? His presence there now may be as ill as Hosni Mubarak’s own, and the message he brings one it may prove murderous to let the dictator even hear.

Selected sources:
1. “Frank G. Wisner,” NNDB
2. E. P Djerejian et al., Guiding Principles for US Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq (Council on Foreign Relations, 2003)
3. “Patton Boggs | Middle East | Our Experience” [Web]
4. “Q&A: Egypt’s presidential election,” The New York Times, September 8, 2005
5. Vijay Prashad, “Trade Secrets: The Power Eliter – Enron and Frank Wisner,” People’s Democracy, November 16, 1997
6. World Report 1992, Egypt, World Report (Human Rights Watch, 1992)

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