20 September 2017

Struggle Session


Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World begins in 2014 in Soma, western Turkey. That May, a coalmine fire killed 301 workers. The Turkish government handled the situation in typically exemplary fashion; one aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kicked a distraught protester and was subsequently “diagnosed with soft tissue trauma” in that leg, as the Guardian reported.
Hansen, an Istanbul-based regular at the New York Times Magazine, arrived in Soma expecting to write about the catastrophe’s more technical details. Instead, she ended up taking a crash course in American-Turkish relations courtesy of the miners and residents.
Her interlocutors believed that no one could understand such disasters without considering phenomena ranging from the United States’ Cold War machinations, which included its support for labor unions that neither empowered or protected workers, to IMF (read: US) policies Erdoğan embraced, which destroyed traditional livelihoods and drove folks into the mines.
Hansen writes that, of all the things she discovered during her time in Soma, “the resilience of my own innocence was the most terrifying.” This innocence had sustained a superficial and compartmentalized worldview that either failed to acknowledge the United States’ destructive international behavior or excused it on the basis of presumed good intentions. “Americans,” Hansen writes, “are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.”
While Hansen’s own recognition of this fact may have been a long time coming, her blunt deployment of the e-word offers a welcome respite from most mainstream commentators. Other New York Times writers, it seems, don’t have time to address the United States’ international adventures because they are too busy bleating for war or arguing that McDonald’s will bring about world peace. READ MORE AT JACOBIN.

14 September 2017

Letter from Iran: Under the shadow of the Assassins' castle, part III

The Region

I returned to Si-o-se pol a few days later in the company of a young man called Hamid, an employee at a carpet shop next to the Imam Mosque at Naghsh-e Jahan whom I had met after circumventing the entrance fee to said mosque by slipping in with a tour group. I had told Hamid about my morning jogs on Chahar Bagh and he had pledged to take me to a “normal” place to run: the parks along the riverbank.
I first made the acquaintance of Hamid’s colleague Hussein when I exited the magnificence of the mosque and was busy congratulating myself on having saved six dollars. Hussein approached, asked where I was from and why I didn’t have a guide, and gave me a high five when I told him about the six dollars. Some small talk ensued, with Hussein complaining that the Iranian government was “suffocating” its people; he then backtracked to assert that there was in fact room to breathe despite the rules and that the mullahs had at least charitably refrained from blocking the VPNs that were necessary to access Facebook.
Having presumably guessed from my stunt at the mosque that I was not the ideal carpet customer, Hussein nevertheless invited me to the shop where he worked with Hamid and several other young men. As it was lunchtime, we sat on the floor and shared a vat of rice made with saffron and pomegranate plus a smaller vat of yogurt on the side. Over successive servings of tea afterward, the boys showed me some of their more unique wares including two carpets woven by Afghan refugees in Iran who had incorporated patterns involving warplanes, guns, and tanks. Hamid, a former volleyball player with pronounced upper body muscles and curly hair, lamented what he termed “Iranian racism” toward Afghans, and poured me another cup of tea despite my protests that I was already orbiting.
All of the young men present were involved in the phenomenon known as couchsurfing, by which they and their couches or spare rooms hosted foreign visitors to the land—one of whom, a European, had reportedly written the definitive account of couchsurfing in Iran. As Hussein described it, the couchsurfing business was another earthly luxury that—while certainly not condoned by the mullahs—was not actively thwarted. He speculated that my exemption thus far from the permanent guide rule was also a government ploy to give me “just enough freedom.”
Hamid, who professed to have learned English from couchsurfers, announced that he was taking me to the “hipster café” at the other end of Naghsh-e Jahan. Passing in front of the Imam Mosque, we paused so that Hamid could show me photographs on his cell phone of the winemaking process currently underway at his house. He estimated that the final product would be ready for consumption in 35 days, which meant I would miss out.
Hamid had abandoned his volleyball career because of sanctions, he said, which had caused funding for sports teams to plummet. Indeed, the S-word could be invoked to explain a variety of predicaments on the contemporary Iranian scene, from the decidedly trivial—when I was unable to change my plane ticket online the Turkish Airlines office staff in Esfahan shrugged: “Sanctions”—to the more life-threatening. In a November 2013 New York Times post, Beheshteh Farshneshani listed some of the repercussions of sanctions over the past year and a half alone: “[F]amilies living in poverty rose from 22 to more than 40 percent… and the price of food regularly consumed by Iranians—for example, milk, tea, fruits and vegetables—skyrocketed. Moreover, the health of millions of Iranians has been compromised due to the shortage of western medical drugs and supplies.”
That same year, the Guardian reported that the waivers built into the sanctions regime “to ensure that essential medicines get through… are not functioning, as they conflict with blanket restrictions on banking, as well as bans on ‘dual-use’ chemicals which might have a military application.” As for past examples of dual-use items, these might have included the chemical weapons utilized in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran—with the complicity of none other than the United States. Predictably, such history has not interfered with America’s self-appointed role as arbiter of international justice and decider of what weapons countries can and can’t have. Israel, for one, is permitted a vast nuclear arsenal in rather blatant contravention of the very nonproliferation treaty that is trotted out to justify punishment of the Iranians—who, according to the United States’ own National Intelligence Estimate, halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003. Obviously, the Israelis are also permitted to perennially bitch and moan about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, and to periodically threaten attacks.
In The Iran Wars, the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon writes of the “financial war on Iran,” a nation that had “emerged as a laboratory for concocting innovative ways to inflict economic damage.” Some of the products of innovation, apparently, were the “collapse of the Iranian currency” in 2012 and a situation in which “factories and plants [were] firing employees by the hundreds of thousands.” Now, for all the rightwing hullaballoo over Barack Obama’s globally imperiling mullah-appeasement scheme—read: the nuclear deal and allegedly attendant sanctions relief—the sanctions regime has hardly been disappeared. When I asked Hamid about the deal, he threw up his hands and said he couldn’t keep track of which sanctions had been lifted, which had remained, and which had been newly imposed. On the bright side, he said, his volleyball training had meant that, when the time had come for his military service, he’d been able to serve as a sports instructor rather than a combatant. READ MORE AT THE REGION.

09 September 2017

Letter from Iran: Red Shi'ism at the underground bookfair, Part II

The Region

Every Friday morning in Esfahan, a used book fair is held in an underground parking lot on Taleghani Avenue, named for an ayatollah described by Abrahamian as “the most popular cleric in Tehran” during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Had he not perished shortly thereafter, he “might have provided a liberal counterweight to Khomeini.”
Prior to his revolutionary activity in the 1970s, Taleghani was a supporter of the secular nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh, victim of that infamous coup jointly perpetrated by the Americans and British in 1953 to make the world safe for imperial control over the oil business. Nowadays, imperial representatives up in arms over the contemporary orientation of the Iranian state would do well to contemplate Abrahamian’s observation that this very coup—in destroying Mossadegh’s National Front and the communist Tudeh Party (literally the Party of the Masses) via arrests, executions, and the like—“paved the way for the eventual emergence of a religious movement.” Abrahamian explains: “In other words, the coup helped replace nationalism, socialism, and liberalism with Islamic ‘fundamentalism.’… One can argue that the real roots of the 1979 revolution go back to 1953.”
The post-coup years, however, hardly made a run-of-the-mill “fundamentalist” out of Taleghani, who, Abrahamian writes in Iran Between Two Revolutions, produced an important work arguing that “socialism and religion were compatible because God had created the world for mankind and had no intention of dividing humanity in to exploiting and exploited classes.” Far more appealing, no doubt, than Gods who tell George Bush to invade Iraq.
I ended up at the used book fair on Taleghani Avenue as an indirect result of my decision to attempt a morning jog on Chahar Bagh. The jog required some preparations, as I was unsure what to do with my hair and my requests for a solution were met with blank stares from employees of all sportswear shops at which I inquired. One employee tactfully suggested that it might be “strange” for someone to run on Chahar Bagh, but his colleague shot him down. I would later discover that there were plenty of joggers in Esfahan but that they wisely confined their movements to the banks of the Zayandeh Rood, the currently waterless river. In the meantime, I concluded that the most sensible course of action was to purchase a cheap black headscarf for running purposes, and proceeded to a headscarf vendor one block over from my hotel.
As no English was spoken I was assisted in my selection by the vendor’s friend, a man in his early thirties named Hadi who asked what I did for a living. I said I wrote opinion pieces. He nodded vaguely and sought further clarification: “The opinions of your country?”
Hadi told me that he himself had a bookshop between Imam Hussein Square and Naghsh-e Jahan but that he wouldn’t be at the shop the following day because he had to attend to his tables at the used book fair on Taleghani, just past Imam Hussein Square off Chahar Bagh. He drew me a map and said he would bring a box of English books.
I arrived at 9 a.m. after an uneventful morning jog to the appointed underground parking lot to find people streaming out of the entrance with garbage bags full of books. I descended into the space and stood gaping at the crowd until Hadi appeared beside me and conducted me to his domain along the far wall, where customers were combing through stacks of everything from religious texts to Kafka to astrology to stock-purchasing guides. According to Hadi, uncensored books were in high demand, and he showed me a few censored manuscripts along with their older, unabridged counterparts for purposes of size comparison. I asked him what would happen if this component of his operation were discovered; he shrugged and said he didn’t think it would be that huge a deal. Of course, censorship was hardly a singular pastime of the Islamic Republic; the phenomenon was endemic under the West’s favorite shah, who had also presided over an apparatus of torture as well as rampant political imprisonment including such stunts as the criminalization of Dr. Ghulam Hussein Sa’edi, a psychologist who, Abrahamian writes, “had become the country’s leading playwright and had been arrested in 1975 for publishing depressing literature.” READ MORE AT THE REGION.

08 September 2017

September 11, version 16.0

Middle East Eye

On September 11, 2001, I was in Austin, Texas, preparing to travel to Italy to spend the academic year at the University of Rome.
As my departure was not until the end of the month, I got to witness the saturation of every available physical and rhetorical space with American flags and patriotic propaganda - as well as other more creative national coping mechanisms.
Certain Texan acquaintances of mine, for example, phoned in a massive delivery order to Kentucky Fried Chicken and spent the night of 11 September consuming it in front of the television set, with the explanation that “comfort food” was required in such times of tragedy.
President George W Bush, for his part, ran around issuing eloquent threats to the terrorists such as that the US was gonna “smoke ’em out of their holes”.
I myself had not been enormously surprised by the attacks; decades of screwing over other countries will, after all, often produce blowback. I had, however, always been prone to a curious form of extreme anxiety - in fifth grade, I diagnosed myself with epilepsy for no reason and descended into total panic for a period of several weeks - and thus, in the aftermath of 9/11, found material to inspire all manner of new and exciting manic behaviour.
I hallucinated anthrax-dispersing crop dusters; I hid in bathrooms and under desks. I crouched on sidewalks when planes flew overhead. From my apartment in Rome, I watched the launch of the war on Afghanistan on Italian TV and was convinced the world was ending - which it was, of course, for a lot of Afghans and others, but not for me.
I eventually got over the anthrax fixation and, when I subsequently returned to America in time for the run-up to the war on Iraq, I didn’t even find it necessary to stockpile duct tape in accordance with US government anti-terror instructions. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

05 September 2017

Letter from Iran: To Lebanon and back, Part I

The Region

A sixteenth-century Persian proverb has it that Esfahan is “half the world.” When I visited the city five or so centuries later, in October of 2016, I was assisted in my appreciation of its charms by a handy volume I came across in a bookshop where I had taken refuge after one of various near-death experiences crossing the street. In Esfahan: A Tiny Earthly Paradise, Iranian civil engineer-turned-tour operator and intermittent poet Mahmoud Reza Shayesteh makes the case that any expedition to the half-world necessarily entails a “quest for the second half of this world inside one’s self through a spiritual elevation… perhaps enabling one to embrace a world of perfection.”
Over the centuries, Esfahan has hosted its fair share of guests, some more spiritually inclined than others. Passing from Sassanid to Arab rule, Esfahan became the capital of the Seljuk empire in the eleventh century before being invaded by the Mongols and then Tamerlane, who reportedly presided over the massacre of more than 70,000 Esfahanis on a single day in 1387. As the story goes, towers of decapitated heads were constructed around the city walls, and blood flowed in the Zayandeh Rood—the now-usually-dry river that divides Esfahan on an east-west axis.
The city fared better under the Safavid dynasty and was again appointed imperial command center in 1591 by Shah Abbas I, who relocated the capital from Qazvin for various reasons including, Shayesteh writes, that “the climate of Qazvin did not suit him.” Esfahan was revamped into a gem of architecture, art, and culture—in other words, perhaps, “half the world.”
The day of my arrival to Esfahan, I was operating in my own sort of half-world—a result of having achieved one of the top three hangovers on record thanks to a friend’s birthday festivities in Dubai. The pain was rendered more acute when the Emirati immigration official who stamped me out at the Dubai airport launched into a rendition of the Santana song “Maria Maria,” inspired by my first name. He asked why I was traveling to Iran alone; I said everyone else was busy. He volunteered companionship on the next trip.
The plane ride was characterized by the scent of McDonald’s French fries courtesy of a woman in my row with a collection of takeaway bags. Earlier in the year, CNN Money had in a bout of shrewd sociocultural analysis determined that, while the rest of the world was wondering how the removal of certain sanctions on Iran would affect oil prices, the burning question for Iranians was: “Will Tehran get McDonald’s fries now?” (Answer: no.) READ MORE AT THE REGION.

29 August 2017

America’s secret Caribbean colony

Al Jazeera English

This year, the inhabitants of debt-ridden Puerto Rico marked a dubious anniversary: one entire century of United States citizenship.
The island was charitably commandeered by the US in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, but the conferral of citizenship didn't take place until 1917 when, The Economist has noted, the move "conveniently allowed 20,000 [Puerto Ricans] to be drafted into service in the first world war the following year".
In addition to the luxury of being eligible to fight and die in every US war since, Puerto Ricans have enjoyed numerous other perks as Americans do. 
In the 1940s and 50s, for example, there was a pretty cool law prescribing 10 years of jail time for anyone who said, sang, or whistled anything that could be construed as being against the US government.
Add to that a lengthy campaign of forced sterilisation of Puerto Rican women, the conversion of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques into a US military base and navy bombing range, and the suffocation of the local economy for the benefit of US corporate financial interests, and you wonder how Puerto Rico could possibly be better off independent. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

17 August 2017

DEA Scrambles to Increase Budget Tapping Funds from War on Terror

The Washington Spectator

In February 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that, with the help of some European partners, it had partially busted a “massive” drug trafficking and money-laundering operation being conducted by “Lebanese Hezbollah’s External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC).”
Observers familiar with repeated U.S. attempts to stigmatize Hezbollah with the narco-terrorist label should be forgiven for their skepticism over the renewed charges. Never mind that Hezbollah has never mentioned an External Security Organization; Western experts know best. And clearly, anyone with a “BAC” must be super-serious about drugs.
According to the DEA, members of the Hezbollah BAC had “established business relationships with South American drug cartels, such as [Colombia’s] La Oficina de Envigado, responsible for supplying large quantities of cocaine to the European and United States drug markets.” Proceeds from drugs and money laundering were then allegedly used to buy weapons for the Syrian war effort.
This was not the first time the United States had claimed to catch the Party of God red-handed with illicit substances—although this particular plot was somewhat inferior to previous ones in terms of entertainment value. For years we’ve been treated to breathless reports, often courtesy of concerned neoconservative and Zionist think tanks and individuals, about Hezbollah’s Iran-backed narcotic incursions into our very own hemisphere.
We’ve seen Hezbollah waging “cocaine jihad,” instructing Mexican drug lords in the arts of bomb-making and narco-tunnel construction along the U.S. border, collaborating with Brazilian prison gangs, establishing sleeper cells and training camps willy-nilly, and participating in transatlantic drug runs with great ease—according to one prominent U.S. expert—thanks to Venezuela’s alleged “geographic proximity to West Africa.” In 2010, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) alerted the Department of Homeland Security to the idea that droves of incarcerated gang members in the United States were suddenly sporting tattoos in Farsi. Another enduring favorite among the fearmonger set is the fact that it is possible to travel by air from Caracas to Tehran, which can only mean bad things.
The Hezbollah-in-our-backyard hype serves a number of convenient functions. It renders the organization a direct threat to the homeland, justifying both continued U.S. militarization of Latin America and ongoing antagonism toward Iran on a global level. Particularly during the final years of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, U.S. propaganda conflating various national nemeses into a single Islamo-socialist narco-jihadi-terror menace lurking just across the southern border sought to discredit a whole lot of folks in one fell swoop.
As’ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American political science professor at the University of California, Stanislaus, remarked in a recent email to me on the barrage of narco-allegations leveled against Hezbollah: “They actually remind me of the Cold War days when I first came to the United States and I would read fantastic claims by Zionist groups trying to connect any and every Palestinian group to various communist plots worldwide.” Perhaps some Zionist or Saudi propagandists would also like to link Hezbollah to global warming, he suggested. READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.

16 August 2017

Does Albania have an America problem?

Middle East Eye

Among the more eccentric features of the Albanian landscape these days are an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers scattered throughout the country’s farms, mountains, beaches, and city centres - an enduring testament to Albania’s Cold War history of self-imposed isolation under Stalinist ruler Enver Hoxha, who in addition to detecting ubiquitous enemies also banned religion and private cars.

After the fall of communism in the early 90s, certain of Albania’s international enemies were quickly rehabilitated - hence the current existence of a George W Bush Street in the capital of Tirana, a George W Bush statue in the village of Fushe-Kruje, and a (perhaps prematurely erected) Hillary Clinton statue in Sarande.

In his book Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe, Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch, describes the scene awaiting the convoy of visiting US Secretary of State James Baker in 1991: “[A]n ecstatic mob engulfed the cars, hoping to glimpse the guest from the West. Men threw flowers, kissed the windshields, and tried to carry Baker’s limousine into town.”
Similar enthusiasm was on display for the visit to the Muslim-majority nation of the aforementioned Bush in 2007, when, as Abrahams notes, the Albanian post office also “issued a set of commemorative stamps”.
I myself can safely report that Albania is the only country out of the 60-plus I have visited where my admission to being American has elicited the word “fantastic” in response. During my stay this summer in a small coastal town in south Albania, a town resident found it necessary to set off 4 July fireworks.
Of course, the US has got more than just a stamp collection out of the arrangement. International affection is, after all, meaningless unless it can be exploited for politico-economic gain. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

10 August 2017

Power to Truth


On 6 August, Israel confirmed its intentions to shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Jerusalem. The Israeli Communications Minister explained that the decision was “based . . . on the move by Sunni Arab states to close Al Jazeera offices and prohibit their work.”
To be sure, there’s no better way to market oneself as the only democracy in the Middle East than to follow the example of regimes that jail and whip pro-democracy writers.
But the move against Al Jazeera is simply the latest episode in an ongoing war on press freedom and freedom of speech in Israel — a war that itself merely assists Israel’s more physical war on Palestinians, African refugees, and others.
And while Al Jazeera may have temporarily seized the spotlight, we mustn’t forget the lower-profile cases of journalists fighting to speak truth to power.
Take independent Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen, for example, who reports regularly on Israeli racism against Africans and other injustices. Sheen is currently being sued for defamation — to the tune of 750,000 shekels (more than $200,000) — by Israel Ziv, former head of the operations directorate of the Israeli army and founder of Global CST, a security consulting firm involved in projects from Latin America to Africa. According to a 2001 article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, one of Ziv’s nicknames during his army days was “Reich Commander.”
The lawsuit is the result of a January 2017 dispatch by Sheen for Electronic Intifada, in which Ziv appears as one of the top ten “ringleaders in Israel’s war on Africans.” READ MORE AT JACOBIN.

09 August 2017

On the Lebanon-Israel border: A room with a (militarized) view

The Region

My first glimpse of Israel took place in 2006, shortly after the conclusion of what the Lebanese call the July War and the Israelis call the Second Lebanon War—a title that conveniently rounds down the number of times Israel has mercilessly assaulted Lebanese territory.
My friend Amelia and I had embarked on a postwar hitchhiking tour of Lebanon, which in many areas amounted to a tour of rubble, bombed-out bridges, and oil-coated coastline. Over the course of the 34-day conflict, Israel had dispensed with some 1,200 lives in the country, the majority of them civilians.
We arrived late one evening to the south Lebanese town of Kfar Kila, situated directly on the Israeli border, after hitching a ride from a soda delivery truck in the village of Houla. Lacking any sort of plan and dependent entirely on the goodwill of the Lebanese, we made the acquaintance of a young man called Ali who invited us to stay the night at his family’s house and graciously refrained from inquiring as to why the hell we were wandering around a recent war zone in the dark.
Most of Ali’s family had fled northward following the onset of hostilities in July; an uncle had remained behind to look after the cows, four of which were ultimately martyred by the Israeli army. From the balcony of the house one could observe the glittering Israeli outpost of Metulla, which shone in blissfully uninterrupted contrast to the Lebanese side of the border, where electricity cuts continue to be a more regular phenomenon than electricity itself.
The arrival of daylight offered new scenes to behold of Israeli military vehicles and bulldozers, barricades and barbed wire, while also revealing Israel to be distinctly greener than its northern neighbor—a perk, no doubt, of usurping Palestinian water supplies. Ali escorted Amelia and me down the road to Fatima Gate, the old border crossing between Lebanon and Israel where Edward Said famously threw a stone in July 2000, shortly after Israel’s forcible eviction from the country it had occupied for 22 years. It was suggested that Amelia and I throw a stone, as well—an option that was politely rejected in light of the presence of Israeli soldiers burrowed under a heap of camouflage just across the fence.
In subsequent years, the Israelis apparently deemed the existing border fortifications insufficient and took it upon themselves to construct a new-and-improved boundary. Visiting Kfar Kila these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled upon Donald Trump’s fantasy for the US-Mexico border. A looming cement wall now adds to the myriad ways Israel has militarized and obstructed the regional landscape—all, of course, while supposedly making the desert bloom. READ MORE AT THE REGION.