Friday, October 21, 2011

a kaddish for qaddafi. of sorts.

This one is reposted from kaddish in two-part harmony, but maybe it belongs here as well, what with all the Ibn Khaldun and thoughts about current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Comments are welcome at either site.

I feel like I'm supposed to write a kaddish for Qaddafi. And I'm having a lot of trouble doing so. What I want to do is defend him somehow. Say that he's been maligned for decades. Tell you about the jokes Tunisians (Libya's neighbors to the the west) used to tell about Qaddafi, all the way back in the 1970's...

In those days, Tunisians used to sneak over the border 'basbor de-la-lune' into Libya to work. They'd cross over at night, their passports being nothing but the light of the full moon. Qaddafi put people to work. Even Tunisians.
In Tebourba, people said that just working in a cafe in Libya brought home more money than anything they could do back home.  And so they'd go. And they'd stay until they'd made their fortune. Two years. Five years. And then they'd come home briefly, bearing massive gifts. Sewing machines and heaters. Fancy fuzzy carpet and grandfather clocks. Electric fans and electric ovens. Even if the electricity couldn't handle it. They brought the hope of employment and wealth. And then they'd be gone again. To bring back more.
Tunisians used to joke that Qaddafi gave everyone a car and everyone a house.  Every Libyan, that is. And that Libya was so rich, that when the car ran out of gas, they'd just abandon it right where it stood. Libya was that rich.  It was a very Tunisian joke. Tunisia was surrounded by rich neighbors, and their humor was the worst kind of self-deprecating.
Until last year. When Tunisia led the way.
And then the neighbors followed.
Qaddafi was killed today.
And the media is still making jokes about him. How ludicrous he was. The crimes he perpetrated. Remember when Reagan called Qaddafi a 'Barbarian and a rat fink'?  It was headline in the SF Chronicle way back when. Today, even NPR still felt the need to joke about Qaddafi's hats, his ego, and his tent. The media has enjoyed decades of making him look clownish and stupid. A country bumpkin who ended up in power. Although, he never did hold any official title beyond 'colonel.'
My favorite Qaddafi story is when some Minister in Tunisian President Bourguiba's cabinet handed him an edict, and the first president of the republic signed it, sight unseen. Only to discover that he'd just given his country away. To Qaddafi.  Under the edict, Bourguiba would stay president of the newly combined nation, and Qaddafi would head the military.
When Bourguiba realized his mistake, the story goes, he threw the Minister in prison for a while, and went on national TV.
"I'm an old man," President Bourguiba said, "and someone took advantage of me."
Tebourbis told me this story. They loved this story.
And then Bourguiba—right there on the tube in front of his entire nation—admitted that he'd made a mistake.
He picked up the edict in his two hands, held it up for all to see, and tore it to pieces. Khalass. No more treaty.
God, that was simple.
And that was the difference between the two North African leaders.
Qaddafi tried to merge Libya with Egypt, too. And Chad, as well. It just never seemed to take.
I was once in Chad when Qaddafi was visiting N'Djemena. As we traveled south from the capital, the tribesmen were riding north to pay him homage.  Thirty five years later, he still had sub-Saharan and even Tuareg allegiance, even in recent days. He desired a greater Maghrebi union. And believed that kings and royalty were anachronistic in the modern age. That the Middle East and North Africa should let go of monarchy already. For himself, no title, just rule. Seems he was more opposed to titles than despotism.
Long live the revolution. That's what Qaddafi used to say.
But if the rest of the world is holding its collective breath for the blossoming democratic institutions any time soon, you can say kaddish for that one starting right now.
Yes, I know. You're sick of my invoking Ibn Khaldun. But there it is. A prediction of yet another oscillation of elites. The 'Arab Spring' may well be an upheaval against a generation of despotic rulers across the Middle East and North Africa. But expect preexisting opposition factions, parties, and leaders-in-exile (or prison) to step into power vacuum more than democratic proceedings.
But if democratic institutions somehow miraculously do flourish one day—thank this eager new generation (with their cell phones, smart phones, social networks) for finally doing what every generation before them could not manage. Keep in mind how the 'Arab Spring' started. In Tunisia. With one young man. Underemployed, and bureaucratically hampered. One young man with no future at all.
Unemployment of a plugged in hip new generation. Linked in to global scene. Aware of options and lack of options. No movement, uprising, or revolution has solved that one at all.  Not anywhere. Not even here.
The next leader and government of Libya is going to have to do at least one thing that Qaddafi did. He—or she—is going to have to somehow put this next generation to work.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

call me daddy — day one in the foster home

Malkah was two. Or maybe three. Or somewhere inbetween. I don't remember. I only remember one thing about that moment. And that would be the door.

The door was huge. And the adults who answered the door seemed huge as well. Malkah had been taught, I guess, her politesse. She was dressed as well as she could be. She was soft spoken and polite.

The door opened. And so she said,

"Hello Mr and Mrs S—" and the two of them loomed over her from inside.

The door opened wide enough for her to step inside.  I think she had a little bag of stuff with her. A change of clothes, probably.

The house smelled funny. Not bad, just funny. Unfamiliar.  Later Malkah would identify that smell as cooking smells. But I don't remember what.  So. Smells, the first impression. That's more the point.

The door closed with a decisive click.

And he smacked her one. Loud and hard, right across the face.

"That's for not calling me 'daddy,'" he said.

He glared down at her. His jowls had turned bright red.

Here's what I wonder.

I wonder if anyone had bothered to tell her what was about to happen.

I wonder if she had any idea of how long she would be staying.

I wonder if she had visitors.

And most of all—

I wonder what that first day must have felt like.

All I know, is that after dinner the whole extended 'family' went into the living room to watch TV.  Papa bear sat in his big overstuffed arm chair. That was the only thing that Malkah noticed. The only thing that mattered.

She found in her hand a giant pair of scissors.

Quietly, she slipped behind Mr. S's chair and sat on the floor behind him.  She grabbed a handful of her long dark hair.

And started cutting.

A memory.

The sound of cutting. Soothing and safe.

Until the yelling started all over again. And the smacking. And the burning.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

the retirement

They live on a large island on the west coast. Of Norway. Population 3,500. It's got panoramic vistas of the water in every direction. No high rises. Even the few new houses look sleepy and old.  Wooden houses, right up to the rocks and the water. It looks very very quiet. But they've got a little boat and they go fishing. And if the cat gets lost, there's an animal-man who can conjure kitty home.

If there were any woods, I'd say it was very back woods. But there aren't any. There are just neighbors not too close, and a market you can walk to. Though you wouldn't want to hike back with a heavy load of groceries.  Retired, remember. So, yes. They have a car.

So. They live in this remote, idyllic place. The kind of place I tend to dream of.

And then there's Thailand.

They've been to Thailand thirteen, fourteen times. They're hooked on Thailand.

And they've been to Disneyland. The one in Florida.

And they've been to Spain. And France. And Turkey.

But mostly, it's Thailand.

"What did you used to do?" I asked.

"I worked for a big company. Service."

I'm not sure what that means. And it didn't get any clearer.

They were animated and delightful and energetic. Got in almost at midnight last night. Their host had started to worry. But they'd been to a million places that I myself had never been to in my own city. Truth be told, I know nothing about what-to-do-or-see in my own town.

I've decided that Norwegian is an impossible language. It appears to be composed of mostly slurry vowels.  I can't get a grasp on a single word without some major explication.

I've decided that remote idyllic islands might not be something I should dream about, at least not for moving to in case of actual retirement. I mean, here they are living in Paradise, wishing it weren't quite so cold, and traveling abroad as much as possible.

Actually, they're having the time of their lives.  Visiting places like my home town.

And I've been invited to their remote island.  And sure, I accept, how could I not?  And maybe I will master some of those slurry Norwegian vowels. And maybe I'll go fishing upon that quiet sea. Maybe I'll walk down the path to their painterly water's edge—

Only to discover that I live where I'm supposed to. Only to find that I'm doing what I should.

But there it was, for a brief moment, right in front of me: Two people. With no papers to grade.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

from AIPAC, with love

My mom gets all this AIPAC mail.

"Dear friend," it reads —

The word 'Nazi' doesn't appear until the third line, just before the word 'annihilation.'

The word 'Holocaust' doesn't appear until the next paragraph (a whole line further down from the above).

A tragedy is revealed. A tragedy, I suppose, that if enough people had been paying attention, if enough people had been donating money, perhaps, maybe, possibly — tragedy could have been averted.

But that's if you're reading the 'Dear Friend' missive, which is the most subtle part of AIPAC mail.

What hits you hard over the head every single time you open one of these mailings—are the maps.  Large enough to post on your bulletin board.  Sturdy enough to use for school.

Map One is titled: Israel and its Neighbors. Oh my, how shocking, the map screams out.  Poor little David to the Goliath that surrounds.  This is more effective visually in that the map starts with Morocco and goes all the way to Iran.  Look at all those Arabs, ouch!  Be paranoid, the map tells you. Be very very afraid.  The caption on the bottom reads:

Israel is surrounded by Arab nations and Iran. These countries outnumber Israel more than 650 to 1 in terms of land and 56 to 1 in terms of population.

Map Two is titled: The Iranian Missile Threat.  And it's another high-drama map, this time with looming Iran in the middle almost 3D on the page. In darker color is the range that Iran could strike if it just felt like it.  Gee whiz, all the way to India, though India's not the point.   This map's caption says:

Iran has ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear or chemical warhead a distance of 1,500 miles. Tehran is developing missiles that could reach the United States.

There are two more scary maps.  I'll spare you. But way at the bottom is the following disclaimer, which I think is hilarious:

These maps are for illustrative purposes only and do not imply any views regarding future agreements between Israel and its neighbors.

Is that a peace threat?  God forbid Israel should have good relations with the neighbors. I mean, what would AIPAC do then to raise big bucks?

When I was a kid, the approach was radically different.

Plant trees, we were told.  Plant trees in the Holy Land. Make it flourish, make it thrive.  We'd buy little leaf-stamps and put them on our own little poster trees. And when each leaf was paid for, we knew our tree would be planted. And that someday we'd see our tree.

It was a hopeful pitch. And I like it much better.

Even the neighbors can sit under my tree. And be shaded from the heat. And eat from its fruit.

That's planting trees. Not pulling ancient groves up from their roots. For security purposes.

Offer me to plant trees, AIPAC, and I'm happy to comply. Even the Occupied Territories could use more trees...