I Love Tinariwen

They describe their music not as rock or blues or soul but as “assouf”, which means nostalgia. The song Assouf, from the album Aman Iman (Water is Life) is sublime. But then there’s nothing about them that isn’t. This is music that’s as thrilling as melancholy, as festive as plaintive. It’s gritty, it’s ghostly – yep, it’s holy.

As an aside, I never thought I’d say it but there’s something about the group’s founder, Ibrahim, that reminds me of Jimi Hendrix, the one I thought no one could ever resemble. They do look alike. They both have the same cool cat charisma too. I know, comparing isn’t fair at all; Ibrahim is entirely his own thing (perhaps Jimi was channeling Ibrahim), as is everyone else in this Touareg band that various sites “place” on the map differently. Mali, Algerian border, Niger – like the Sahara, they transcend nations. No surprise then that no one sounds like them. They’ve been around for a while (since 1982) and have a fascinating history that I only found out about today, though if this is the first time you’re hearing about them, skip the history and absorb the music.

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US launch of The Geometry of God

It's the eve of the US launch of my third novel, The Geometry of God. I'm trying to find just the right thing to say. I think I'll just do as Mehwish does in the book and send one of her drawings.
The drawing is called "Nana's hearing" and the ear is especially important. So are the toes.

A book, a film, a record

My album of the year is "The Hazards of Love" by the Decemberists. This summer I had to hear it every day or I'd get in a bad mood. Have only recently overcome, to some extent, those delicious withdrawal symptoms. Good to know I can still get that deeply immersed in a record, the way I used to get in my teens -- with Jimi, or Led Zep, or Pink Floyd. There was something about "Hazards" that moved me at the same chemical level, evoked the same intensity, provided the same nourishment. It's fabulous that a band today is still honoring the concept of the album as an art form that works as a whole -- like a novel -- so each song is a chapter in a larger tale. So few records today, even good records, hold together in the same seamless way. And "Hazards" transitions are simply brilliant. As my tabla ustad used to say: it's the gap between the notes that make the notes. The Decemberists have those gaps in their blood.

Another discovery of the year is a Turkish-German film from 2007, called The Edge of Heaven, by director Fatih Akin. Again, it was the structure that enthralled. I have a weakness for interwoven storylines; for multiple characters with ties to one another that unravel slowly, surprisingly. (In this way it was like another favorite, Babel.) The Edge has been described as "unagitated" and that's pretty apt. Though the themes are painful, the telling is unglamorous, and the acting entirely understated. Baki Davrak, who plays the son of the Turkish immigrant who ignites one of the downward spirals, was a smooth kind of troubled: the calm before the storm, except the calm and the storm in him were one. Nursel Kose, who plays the Turkish prostitute, was nothing like a Hollywood Julia Roberts hooker. She had a face lined by a zillion emotions; she felt real. And her daughter, a political activist played by Nurgul Yesilcay, was a fiery fantastic. I have not found women characters as strong, conflicted, and multidimensional in any other recent movie. Will definitely follow this director, and this cast.

Absent by the Iraqi writer Betool Khedairi is my book recommendation. In a sense, it's told in a similar tone to The Edge of Heaven: calm, unadorned. It weaves a story that's deeply painful, yet the delicate telling prevents it from crumbling under the weight. The book's set after the 1991 Gulf War and before the 2003 US-led invasion. Sanctions and bombings are the backdrop. But it's the resilience of the characters that the book is about. There is no self-pity. No preaching. Just incredibly innovative and moving ways of getting by. That it takes place before the 2003 war just makes it more cruel, more heart-wrenching ... If life in Iraq was so hard before, what about now? I'm honored I have the chance to teach this book in the fall.

Ten Against Torture

Amnesty International solicited ten powerful letters urging Obama to act on investigating and punishing the torturers. The contributors include Stephen King, Alice Walker, Ariel Dorfman and Sister Dianna Ortiz.

You can read the letters on their web site:

http://amnestyusa.org/ Type "Ten Against Torture" in the search bar. The letters are really worth reading.

Taxi to the Dark Side; Show the Images and Prosecute the Torturers

Last night I finally saw the 2007 documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. The film is structured around the disappearance and murder of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who, along with his passengers, was imprisoned without trial in Bagram Air Base. There he was beaten to death by American soldiers. As the war in Afghanistan escalates, the film should be required viewing.

Moving from Bagram to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, it shows footage of torture that is impossible to watch without feeling sick. We’ve seen the images of naked men piled in a pyramid; of a detainee with a dog collar and a woman soldier dragging him around on a leash; of bloodied prisoners being intimidated by dogs. Seeing it again doesn’t make it easier. But it just gets worse. The “new” images, such as those of prisoners being forced to masturbate, confirm what one British prisoner who was later released says, “If they weren’t terrorists when they came in, how can they not be terrrorists when they leave?”

Interspersed between the images are a series of powerful interviews with American soldiers, all of whom say they acted on orders from above, and that the abuse was hardly a case of “a few bad apples”. What happened at Abu Ghraib happened at Bagram and at Guantanamo. It was sanctioned and normal. There is footage with Dick Cheney boasting, “Use any means available.” And John Yoo gloating, “The president can authorize torture.” These men are still walking free.

By the time the film was released, over 83, 000 detainees were in captivity, all without trial.

In April this year, US President Obama revealed his torture policy: let the war criminals roam free. This is his way of focusing on the future. Pretty ironic, for a guy who drew heavily and movingly on African-American history in his acceptance speech. As he knows, there can be no moving on without remembering and addressing the injustices of the past.

Will Attorney General Eric Holder prove the better man? Holder was quoted this month in Newsweek as saying that he’s considering “appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices,” exactly what Obama is trying to avoid. Holder’s wife, Sharon Malone, is quoted in the same article as drawing “a direct line from the sins of America's racial past to the abuses of the Guantánamo Bay ... Both are examples of ‘what we have not done in the face of injustice’.” Amen. I’m going to be hopeful about Holder. Read the full article here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/206300

But Obama’s decision not to investigate the Bush regime’s war crimes becomes even more sinister when viewed in conjunction with his decision to censor the images of new footage that has surfaced from Abu Ghraib. An article in today’s Telegraph UK has details of what the footage includes: the rape of a female prisoner by an American soldier; the rape of a male teenaged detainee by a male translator; the sexual assault of prisoners with wires and a phosphorescent tube. Read the article:

Obama’s decision to keep these images away from the public eye is supported by Major General Antonio Taguba, who conducted the Abu Ghraib prison inquiries. Their reason? As the war in Afghanistan escalates, the public outrage the photos will engender will “imperil the safety of US troops”. Once again, the safety of Americans is more important than the safety of others, and more important than upholding universal principles of human rights and human dignity. The Geneva Convention? Already the next generation hardly even knows it ever existed.

The creator of Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney, has said he made the film in the spirit of moving “away from the dark side and back to the light.” There can be no light without showing the truth about prison abuse, and prosecuting the criminals behind it.

White Guys With Soul

I have to listen to Bon Iver's new album "For Emma, Forever Ago" at least twice a day. I'm addicted to this man's falsetto. You can be too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62i9Sodwp5o This video features an even more stripped down version of the first song, "Flume". Listen to it, but also listen to the entire record.

Another record I'm compulsively listening to is Radiohead's "In Rainbows". Here are two songs from it, "Reckoner" and "House of Cards":
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBalSWs5ngY and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nTFjVm9sTQ I'm also addicted to this man's falsetto.

Swat Beyond the Valley of the Hanging Chains

As a teenager, I visited the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. It was a short stop; my family and I were on our way to a longer trip in the Kaghan Valley. I remember my father saying he would show us Swat one day. He would take us into the mountains and through the meadows and lakes so I could finally see the geography that had for years conjured up images of freedom and space in my cramped, city-bound imagination. And not only mine: for centuries Swat had been popular with visitors from all over South Asia, and from the rest of the world, not only for its beauty but for its rich history and aesthetic. Like Kashmir, it was once a princely state, and people knew it for its profound cultural dynamism.

I also remember loving the name “Swat”. Pronounced s-waath in Pushto, it is spoken as two syllables, not one, and it is a soft, whispery kind of word, something you might hear in a feather if you leaned very close.

We never did return. And now it is as if Swat is not s-waath but so-what.

Since 2007, the area has been controlled by the Taliban. Education for girls has been banned; over two hundred schools have been bombed. Those who dare to resist the Taliban’s rule are tortured and publicly beheaded or publicly shot. A recent example is the case of Bakht Zeba, who, after criticizing the Taliban for stopping girls from attending school, was hauled out of her house, beaten, and shot. People have even been killed on mere suspicion of resistance, and the killings justified in the name of Islam. It is estimated that 1,500 people have died in the fight to restore sanity to the valley. Newsline, a Pakistani monthly news magazine, reports this month that in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley, “residents often wake up to find bodies of those executed by the militants slung from electric poles in the central square.” The square has been renamed Zibahkhana Chowk. Slaughter Square.

When in the fifth century, the Chinese pilgrim Huain Tsang described the Swat Valley as "the valley of the hanging chains," he was referring to the lush mountain slopes that in the spring and summer were carpeted in fruits and flowers. He was not referring to corpses strung on electric poles.

For the past eighteen months, on the local radio station, the Taliban routinely broadcast the names of those they kill. Instead of the reassuring sounds of goat-bells and the Swat River, the residents of this once quiet valley are hearing the names of those they’ve lost, or those they fear they’re about to lose. More than 300,000 residents have fled. For those who stay, besides education for girls, other banned activities include: watching television and films, dancing, singing, shaving beards, not dressing in an “Islamic” way. Sound familiar? Is this Pakistan or is it Afghanistan? The movement’s leader is Maulana Fazlullah, an admirer of Afghanistan’s Mullah Omer. He has been joined by those who’ve fought in Waziristan, Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Until this week, for the past eighteen months, the Pakistan Army had been deployed in the valley to fight Fazlullah and his men. The soldiers hid while the Taliban roamed the streets, patrolling them and everyone else.

On February 16, the Pakistani Government called it quits. It announced that it would stop fighting the Taliban forces. Swat Valley, historically revered by Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike, is now officially recognized as belonging to a band of criminals and their grotesque version of Islamic Law.

The valley is a mere 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. If this isn’t an open invitation to the Taliban to creep south toward the capital, what is?

President Zardari’s decision has come three weeks after US President Barack Obama authorized the use of two US-drone missile attacks on Pakistan. At least fifteen innocent Pakistani villagers died. The US attacks on Pakistan were in direct contravention of International Law. But just as the Taliban enjoy their own warped version of Islamic Law, the United States continues to enjoy its own warped version of International Law.

Between June-December 2008, under President George W. Bush, thirty recorded US missile strikes were launched in Pakistan, in breach of every International Law known to the international community (to which we dare not include the United States). Though President Obama continues to be perceived in the United States as a president for change, in addition to the January 23rd attack on Pakistan authorized by him, he has this week authorized the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. This is not a change in US foreign policy. It is an escalation of the same policy. And it will lead to more of what it has led to so far: an escalation in the numbers of those joining the Taliban, and in those who are targeted by them.

Since the summer of 2008, those who have suffered the most attacks from both the United States and home-grown terrorists have been Pakistanis. Last year, Pakistan suffered a death toll of over two thousand from suicide bombings. Add to that the thirty missile strikes under Bush, plus the first one under President Obama, and the creeping reality of Talibani rule, and you have a country that is seething with despair.

Is Pakistan the next Afghanistan, or it something even worse? Is it, as M. Reza Pirbhai warns in a recent article, the new Cambodia? (See http://www.counterpunch.org/pirbhai01292009.html) Mr. Pirbhai makes a strong case. He reminds us that the US attacks on Pakistan are not the first time that the US has bombed an ally. It did the same in Cambodia, when, as in Pakistan, those who died were mostly civilians, while, as in Pakistan, the government shrugged. Cambodia was bombed on the orders of President Nixon, who, as with President Obama, was elected “on the promise of change in war policy.” While Nixon approved the clandestine bombing of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong “hideouts” in Cambodia a few months after coming in office, Obama has openly approved the bombing of Taliban “hideouts” in Pakistan a mere three days after coming in office. (Of course, unlike Nixon, Obama openly threatened to invade an ally country repeatedly during his presidential campaign.) Under Nixon, US ground troops openly entered Cambodia a year after the secret bombings. Before the end of this year, are the residents of Islamabad going to see American soldiers in their backyard?

Here is the most terrifying part of Mr. Pirbhai’s warning: “Most Cambodia specialists agree that Nixon’s Cambodia policy drove large numbers of peasants into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, just as Pakistan observers and officials argue the US air assaults and threats of ground incursions, coupled with the Pakistan military’s use of force in the border regions with Afghanistan, is whipping up anti-government and anti-US/NATO sentiment among common Pakistanis.”

Who will reach Islamabad first: the Taliban or US troops?

Closing Gitmo

Barack Obama's move to close Guantanamo Bay is a huge relief. Let this not be a reason to forget the horrors of those who were made to endure it. Mohammad Saad tells his story:

The real reason for the massacres in Gaza

In his Jan 7 op-ed piece for the New York Times, "What You Don't Know About Gaza", Professor Khalid Rashidi quotes Moshe Yaalon, Israel's Defense Forces chief of staff in 2002, as saying, "The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people." This is the real reason for Israel's war on innocent civilians. Not to take out Hamas but to take out the collective Palestinian will to resist the occupation. Read Rashidi's article. It's succinct. It's deadly urgent: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/opinion/08khalidi.html

Another terrific piece is by Dennis Loo on the World Can't Wait web site. I quote: "Israel's complaints that Hamas is using human shields represents the tired old refrain of imperial powers going after a population in resistance." Loo's article is longer, but passionate and very well-argued. Please read it too:

Robert Fisk on Palestine, again

Fisk comes through again with this article in the Independent UK:
The photograph is devastating. I can't remember ever seeing an image of a Palestinian child soaked in blood after an Israeli attack in a major US paper. How many more will have to bleed before the US stops supporting Israel? Or even condemns it?

A second article by Fisk appeared in the Independent just today. In it he describes talking to journalists around the world about the attacks on Gaza, always to be interrupted by a supporter of Israel claiming that 10 Israeli deaths (that too mostly of soldiers) is somehow worse than 700 Palestinian deaths (mostly of civilians). Here's a quote: "My favourite moment came when I pointed out that journalists should be on the side of those who suffer. If we were reporting the 18th-century slave trade, I said, we wouldn't give equal time to the slave ship captain." Here's the link: