Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Born in Barcelona

Why can't the graffiti near my house look this good?

The Born district of Barcelona (courtesy of Ogo's Attic).

Intelligent Incarceration

I'm not sure if it's the author's name or the actual content of the article that leads me to quote it. Perhaps both. Although you've got to admit that 'Marcus du Sautoy' adds a certain charm to any blog.

In a comment piece for the Guardian, the professor of mathematics at Oxford University (boo!), takes an admittedly succint look at how the solitude of prison has in fact been instrumental in the development of mathematics.

In 1940, the pacifist and mathematician André Weil, brother of the famous philosopher Simone Weil, found himself in prison awaiting trial for desertion. An Indian friend of Weil's had once joked that "if I could spend six months or a year in prison, I would most certainly be able to prove the Riemann hypothesis" - the greatest unsolved problem of mathematics. Now Weil had the chance to put the theory to the test.

During those months in Rouen prison, Weil made a breakthrough on a problem closely linked to Riemann's conjecture. He wrote to his wife: "My mathematics work is proceeding beyond my wildest hopes, and I am even a bit worried - if it is only in prison that I work so well, will I have to arrange to spend two or three months locked up every year?" On hearing of his breakthrough, fellow mathematician Henri Cartan wrote back to Weil: "We're not all lucky enough to sit and work undisturbed like you..."

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Yusuf Islam and Music

I think most people admire Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) for his altruism but its his propensity for introspection that fascinates me. Since embracing Islam about a quarter of a century ago, he hasn't allowed himself to be pigeon-holed and continues to reassess his relationship with his faith. His evolving views about music serve to illustrate the case in hand. In fact, in this particular case he has felt it necessary to communicate these feelings via a document on his website entitled Music: A Question of Faith or Da'wah?.

Regardless of all the other unnecessary controversies surrounding me at the moment, I was saddened to recently hear that some voices in the Muslim community have been criticising me because of various record companies re-releasing and advertising a DVD and other past music albums. They appear to be making it out to be a question of Faith; it seems they have not yet understood certain fundamental truths about these issues. So I decided to respond and pray for Allah’s assistance to make the matter clear.

The issue of music within Islam is an ongoing debate amongst Muslim scholars; some argue that it is totally Haram (prohibited) and others argue that its allowance depends on the song’s conformity to Islamic values and norms. Whilst I agree that some songs and musical influences are haram, this judgement does not apply to every singer or every single note and crotchet played.

Different opinions about music indicate that it is not to be taken as a question of faith (‘Aqidah), but is simply a matter of understanding (fiqh).
He told Nigel Williamson of The Guardian:

"I don't think I ever actually said music was blasphemous. But I needed that break. I had to get away from the business because I didn't want it to divert me from my chosen path. I found what I was looking for and the Koran gave me the answer to the big questions in life. It would have been hypocritical to go on as before and be a phoney imitation of myself. But I never said I'd never make music again. It was just that there were a lot of other things I had to get on with in my life."

Yet he insists he has no regrets about cutting himself off from music for so long. "To be what you want to be, you must give up being what you are," he says. He still disapproves of the "negative aspects of what music encourages, like partying, drinking and sex". But at it's best he says music is a force for "healing".
The article posted on his website does provide one of the most ironic references I have come across for a while though:

Interestingly, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ‘Ulema have recently decided that the songs I sang as Cat Stevens provides a good example for the youth, to show that there are positive aspects to some music and art. Maybe the ‘Ulema in other countries should take a closer look at what’s happening to their youth, before the gulf between them becomes irreparable and too wide to bridge. We must be able to provide an Islamic alternative.
Who'd have thought? The Iranian theocracy being lauded for their liberalism!

Jacques Peretti's down with the kids

A friend of mine is due to be a father imminently. I hope he doesn't stumble across this - a painful read on child-related insomnia.

But the lack of sleep? That's not a breeze. That's wrong. I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of insomnia. Over the years, I have sampled its many-splendoured tortures, but I have to say that baby-related sleep deprivation has a quality all of its own. It's far stranger and druggier than drug-induced insomnia, where you just lie there gibbering tediously and imagining you're Jesus on the cross or a giant fern tree.

Or anxiety-based insomnia, where you lie there worrying about why yesterday Colin from accounts said, " SOME people are not pulling their weight round here," instead of simply, "Some people are not pulling their weight round here." Why " SOME people"? Who-some? Me-some? Play the phrase back 20 or 30,000 times, trying to decipher its infinite nuances, like Gene Hackman in The Conversation. You imagine Colin's face in slow-mo, stressing "some" in different ways, you imagine his head on a 50p piece, spinning in space, and then you kill him with an imaginary spike, and go to sleep. Except you don't go to sleep.

For an alternative hell, you may wish to try insomnia-based insomnia, where you lie there worrying that you're not sleeping because you don't have anything to worry about. It's tedious, and worrying, and before long you have anxiety-based insomnia, which at least means you have a specific focus to your night.
You can read the whole rant here.

Monday, March 28, 2005

On this day

The new 'On this day' feature comes courtesy of New Links.

Geometrical Cricket

I must admit that while watching the final day's play in Bangalore today, the geometry of the fielders' placements wasn't something I was keeping an eye on. India Uncut's Amit Varma was though as his post entitled The Delights of Geometry testifies:

One of the things I’m enjoying most about the Pakistan bowling performance today is the close-in field positions. The one with most symmetry was when Arshad Khan was bowling to Dinesh Karthik, with the wicketkeeper and the batsman being in the middle of a perfect hexagan [sic], with three close-in fielders on either side of the wicket. That became a pentagon when Shahid Afridi was bowling to Anil Kumble, with four men close-in on the off side, one man on the leg side. Danish Kaneria, meanwhile, has been bowling with an unequal heptagon, with five men on the off side – two slips, silly point, silly mid-off and short extra-cover – and two on the leg. Hexagons, pentagons, heptagons, fluid shapes with their corners moving as the batsmen change, or the bowlers change their tactics, and the two men in between, concentrating intently on that round piece of leather that follows a geometry of its own. This is Test cricket. Marvellous [sic].
I can just see Geoff Botycott during his next commentating spell using the on-screen marker pen to highlight an innovative octagonal fielding arrangement!

HRW International Film Festival 2005

Human Rights Watch, the NGO with the somewhat oxymoronic accolade of being the 'largest human rights organization based in the United States', has just held its International Film Festival in London this year. Three more films to add to the list!

...the festival's program has toured throughout America and Canada, giving Western audiences a rare opportunity to see passionately political filmmaking with a truly global dimension.

This year's event, held March 16-25 in venues across London, offered a trio of film on conflicts from the Middle East: Saverio Costanzo's "Private," Randa Chahal-Sabbag's "The Kite" and Margaret Loescher's "Pulled From the Rubble." Each respectively looked at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese-Israeli conflict and the human cost of the war in Iraq.
Read Ali Jaafar's review in Beirut's Daily Star.

BNP/Saudi Alliance!

The following item currently headlining Indigo Jo's blog scores pretty highly on the "you cannot be serious" front:

An investigation by the Sunday Telegraph (free registration may be required) reveals that the notoriously anti-Islamic British National Party (commonly called British Nazi Party, or as Amir Brooks memorably called them, Bigots with No Policies) has been using a Saudi-owned media company to publish their monthly newspaper, Voice of Freedom. The paper, which as the Telegraph points out, regularly calls Islam a “dangerous” religion, “is published at a printing works in Essex owned by a company in Saudi Arabia and staffed almost entirely by Muslims”.
(To bypass the free-registration malarkey don't forget to use BugMeNot.)

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Don't Panic

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy provided one of the leitmotifs of my childhood in the form of the number 42 - the answer to 'Life, the Universe, and Everything'. I was introduced to it by an uncle along with the gentle reiteration of the book's subtitle: Don't Panic. Douglas Adams' outrageous plot, eccentric characters and ridiculous philosophising meant the book lent itself to dramatisation with both television and radio serialisation.

However, (the usually much maligned) conversion to film always provides a completely different challenge with Lord of the Rings being the only successful adaptation of recent times that comes to mind.

The Hitchhiker's Guide may well be another to add to the list of successes though, if the trailer is anything to go by and Stephen Fry's casting as the voice of The Guide is inspired.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Trailer

Pass me the vomit bowl

I can barely bring myself to read this. My makeshift nemesis (and self-styled 'foremost Muslim intellectual') receives an award for 'excellence in Islamic thought'.

Cumbria - 'most racist region'

Today's Observer paints a gloomy picture of the state of race relations in England and Wales. The Macpherson report, published in 1999 in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence case, highlighted the problem of institutional racism but racism in general has been largely unaddressed. In fact, 'the main party leaders have been warned against inflaming racism during the forthcoming election campaign by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality'.

Some items that caught my eye:
  • Ethnic minorities living in parts of Britain are now four times more likely to have suffered from racism than they were before the last general election

  • In Cumbria, now statistically the most racist region in England and Wales, reports of racist incidents more than doubled, and have affected more than 6 per cent of the population. There is a similar picture in West Mercia, Cleveland, Hampshire and Staffordshire, all police areas with relatively small minority populations.

  • Scotland also saw a significant jump, from 2,242 incidents in 2000 to 3,800 last year, making it one of the 10 most dangerous regions of Britain.

  • By contrast, London, home to about 1.9 million of Britain's ethnic minorities, saw a decrease from more than 23,000 incidents in 2000 to just over 15,000 last year.

Extreme Accounting

The stale mediocrity of some peoples' existence can become overwhelming. Accountants are widely regarded as having the most stale and most mediocre of existences so it's actually quite encouraging to see that hot on the heels of extreme ironing comes extreme accounting. The brain child of Arnold Chiswick, self-proclaimed 'Major, 1st Airborne Insolvency Division and Founder and Sec., Extreme-Accounting' it's portrayed as an ejector seat for accountants from the sheer boredom that comprises their working lives.

Extreme accounting is the latest - and unlikeliest - adrenaline sport. Accountants visit challenging locations like mountain tops, seabeds, caves and rollercoasters. And, inspired by the extreme ironing craze, they take their work with them...

South African Keet Van Zyl [External Consultant specializing in Growth & Acquisition Finance, for Investec Private Bank, Cape Town] is the sport's reigning champion.

A spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting said: "It's a phenomenon that pushes accountants to their limits - and beyond."

Saturday, March 26, 2005


To whom it's relevant: Don't forget to put your clocks forward by 1 hour tonight! Click here for some more info on British Summer Time. You have William Willett (1857 - 1915), a builder from London, to thank for the initiative.

Global Domination

The Mehrali empire continues its relentless expansion as the Media finally succumbs. Well done Saajida!


Call me naive but I found these revelations in yesterday's Guardian (based on an internal UN report) regarding the misdemeanours of UN peace-keeping troops quite shocking.

The highly critical study, published by Jordan's ambassador to the UN assembly, was endorsed by the organisation's embattled secretary general, Kofi Annan, who condemned such "abhorrent acts" as a "violation of the fundamental duty of care".

The embarrassment caused by the misconduct of UN forces in devastated communities around the world - including Haiti, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia , East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - has become an increasingly high profile, political problem

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Road from Kashgar

Check out this stunning shot from Kashgar. It's part of a great photographic series on China's Westernmost province, Xinjiang by 'themexican'.

Monday, March 21, 2005


My grandmother passed away last Friday and was buried yesterday. I'll remember her as the most patient person I ever knew, a living embodiment of the words of Imam Ali:

A fool's mind is at the mercy of his tongue and a wise man's tongue is under the control of his mind.
In her case, the words of Rabindranath Tagore ring true:

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.
May Allah envelop her in His mercy and elevate her station.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


I went to see Simone Bitton's Mur (Wall) yesterday. It's a documentary charting the growth of the wall/fence/obstacle/seam-zone (depending on who you are) being erected 'by the Sharon government to divide the Palestine territories from Israel'.

The film's simplicity certainly makes it quite harrowing. Bitton converses with people either side of the wall in their respective tongues (she enjoys a Jewish and Arab heritage) and presents a stark and simultaneously bizarre state of affairs - many of the construction workers are Palestinians from local villages. The wall's futility is portrayed as perhaps only secondary to its cruelty.

Here are a selection of critics' views on the film.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Today I shall be mostly supporting...

An impartial member of the crowd at Mohali. Courtesy of the BBC.

Quelle surprise!

I'm entertaining (the admittedly belatedly cynical) idea that the publishing/critical review cartel is just as corrupt as any other operation in town. Reading through The Guardian's Special Report entitled 'A grand view', it's hard not to see it is as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Articles from The Observer

Two articles caught my eye from yesterday's Observer:

Beirut on the brink of an abyss
There is foreboding in Lebanon after Hizbollah flexed its political muscles last week. Peter Beaumont reports from the group's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley.

A new way of calculating the escalating crisis that has engulfed Lebanon since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bomb blast last month has emerged on the streets of Beirut. It is not to be found in the sizes of the rival demonstrations that have blocked Beirut's streets, but in the price of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Before Hariri's murder - blamed by many Lebanese on Syria, whose army and intelligence services have lingered in the country for 30 years - you could buy one for $100 (£52). These days, say Lebanese, you would be lucky to find a weapon for $700.
Be afraid, perhaps. But very afraid? No
The threat to Britain from Islamic militancy is far less serious than the government is telling us, says Jason Burke.

As you read this, there are no 200 'Osama bin Laden-trained volunteers' stalking our streets, as is claimed by the government. Nor are there al-Qaeda networks 'spawning and festering' across the country. Nor are Islamic militants cooking up biological or chemical weapons.

Nor indeed are there any 'terrorist organisations', as Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, calls them, nor are there 'hundreds of terrorists', as the Prime Minister told Woman's Hour. Nor are there legions of young British Muslims, enraged by perceived injustices in the Islamic world and by the supposed iniquities of Western policy towards their co-religionists, preparing to mount violent attacks.

Muharram in Bahrain

Chan'ad Bahraini offers some erudite insights into Muharram in general and its Bahraini incarnation in particular.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Puzzle of Aspirin and Sex

In the latest issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine Dr Richard Levin takes a deeper look at the differential effect of aspirin in males and females brought to the fore by the publishing of the Women's Health Trial.

To summarise, the Physicians' Health Trial conducted in the 1980s looked at an exclusively male population to see whether low-dose aspirin had any effect on reducing cardiovascular problems (e.g. heart attacks, strokes) and found "that aspirin significantly reduced the risk of myocardial infarction: the reduction was 44 percent in men 50 years of age or older who did not have clinical evidence of coronary disease. There was no significant effect on the risk of stroke and no effect on mortality from cardiovascular causes."

The current Women’s Health Study shows, at least in women younger than 65 years of age who do not have a history of cardiovascular disease, that aspirin has no significant effect either on the risk of myocardial infarction or on the risk of death from cardiovascular causes but that it is associated with a 24 percent reduction in the risk of ischemic stroke and a 17 percent reduction in the risk of stroke overall...The findings in men and women are opposite. How can this be?
This is not the first biological phenomenon wherein a gender bias has been noted. An association between autoimmune diseases and females has been long recognised and the differing hormonal millieux have been implicated.

Some fascinating insights in the editorial:
  • "Concentrations of salicylate are higher in women than in men after identical doses of aspirin, and platelets from women and men who have ingested aspirin show different responses when tested in vitro."

  • "Women have smaller coronary arteries, and quite remarkably, when a man receives a woman’s heart through cardiac transplantation, the smaller female arteries grow larger in the male recipients, independently of body-surface area."

  • "The cardiovascular systems of women and men are not the same, differing expression of disease follows, and the disquieting results of the current study should not be a complete surprise."
The article concludes:
On the basis of the Women’s Health Study, for now it would appear reasonable to avoid prescribing “low-dose” aspirin, defined as a daily dose of 75 to 100 mg or so, as a preventative measure for coronary disease in women under the age of 65 years unless the global risk score is very high.

But what about the prevention of stroke? Ridker and colleagues conclude, correctly, that the decision to prescribe aspirin for the primary prevention of stroke and other vascular events should be left to the patient and her physician, invoking an ancient truth. Hippocrates, dean of medicine on the island of Cos some 2400 years ago, popularized white-willow salicin, the precursor of aspirin, and wrote in the first of the Aphorisms, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”
Don't forget to use BugMeNot to get access to the full articles.

Pistachios anyone?

Cyrus Naseri, a senior Iranian negotiator, had this to say in response to George Bush's latest 'offer' regarding Iran's nuclear programme:

"It is too ridiculous to be called an offer."

"It is like trading a lion for a mouse," he told CNN. "Would the United States be prepared to give up its own nuclear fuel production against a cargo of pistachios delivered in truckloads?"


Spices and herbs aren't exempt from cyclical fads. Turmeric is the new black. Amongst myriad other claims, it has been linked with slowing down the progression of Alzheimer's disease, the prevention of alcoholic liver disease, the treatment/prevention of leukaemia and, most recently, being an anti-malarial agent.

The active ingredient is thought to be curcumin, the chemical that lends turmeric its distinctive yellow hue.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


A shameless link to a recent post (by me!) on the great city at Ibn Batuttah: The Muslim Travel Blog.

Another Species of Cedar

Despite Robert Fisk's acclaimed coverage of the conflict in Iraq, he appears most at home (for a foreign correspondent) when in Lebanon, where his finger remains well and truly on the political pulse. I naively believed that I had somehow passively secured a grip on Lebanese politics but recent events have rapidly remined me of the intricacies of the scene. I might dig out Pity the Nation and give it another go.

It was a warning. They came in their tens of thousands, Lebanese Shia Muslim families with babies in arms and children in front, walking past my Beirut home. They reminded me of the tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims who walked with their families to the polls in Iraq, despite the gunfire and the suicide bombers.

...But only 100 yards from the Lebanese opposition protests, the half-million - for that was an approachable figure, given Hizbollah's extraordinary organisational abilities - stood for an hour with Lebanese flags, and posed a challenge to President George Bush's project in the Middle East. "America is the source of terrorism", one poster proclaimed. "All our disasters come from America".

...The Beirut demonstration yesterday was handled in the usual Hizbollah way: maximum security, lots of young men in black shirts with two-way radios, and frightening discipline. No one was allowed to carry a gun or a Hizbollah flag. There was no violence. When one man brandished a Syrian flag, it was immediately taken from him. Law and order, not "terrorism", was what Hizbollah wished. Syria had spoken. President Bashar Assad's sarcastic remark about the Hariri protesters needing a "zoom lens" to show their numbers had been answered by a demonstration of Shia power which needed no "zoom".

...Either way, Lebanon can no longer be taken for granted. The "cedar" revolution now has a larger dimension, one that does not necessarily favour America's plans. If the Shia of Iraq can be painted as defenders of democracy, the Shias of Lebanon cannot be portrayed as the defenders of "terrorism". So what does Washington make of yesterday's extraordinary events in Beirut?
Click here for the full story.

The great divide

The baggage that accompanies hip-hop to produce 'hip-hop culture' (epitomised by the violent, mysogynistic US industry) unfortunately doesn't go missing on entering new countries as often as my luggage does. A full-scale lyrical (but bordering on physical) war is being waged between two of the leading lights of Israeli hip-hop: a rightwing Jew, Kobi Shimoni and his rival, the leftwing Arab, Tamer Nafar.

Rappers feud with each other the world over. Sometimes there's a reason, such as a perceived slur or a business arrangement turned sour; other times it's simply a matter of colliding egos. And sometimes, it's about the future of the state of Israel.

Kobi Shimoni and Tamer Nafar are both 25, both Israeli and both MCs. That's where the similarity ends. Shimoni, who calls himself Subliminal, lives in affluent Tel Aviv, where his business empire includes a studio, a record label, a publishing company and a clothing line. Nafar, who raps under the name TN in the trio DAM, lives in the dilapidated town of Lod, 10 miles to the south. Shimoni is a household name who has worked with US stars such as Wyclef Jean and whose last album went double platinum; Nafar has yet to secure a record deal. Shimoni gets calls from the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; Nafar gets stopped and searched in the street. Shimoni is Jewish; Nafar is an Arab.
Click here for the full story. You are warned that some of the language is rather unsavoury but sparse.

Friday, March 11, 2005

A Blessing in Disguise: a Jungian Reflection on the Sunni-Shia Split

My Tuareg-esque cyber wanderings have led me to a fascinating exposition of Jung's views as applied to the Shi'a-Sunni dichotomy in Islam courtesy of the group blog Ihsan.

The article itself is lengthy (but well worth a read if you have a moment) so here's a partially culled version:

One of the central concepts in Jungian psychology is the idea of the conscious and the unconscious. By the conscious, Jung meant the realm of our psyche that we know and are aware of...The area that we don’t see and know is our unconscious...The unconscious speaks to us in various ways, through our dreams, or by what we call ‘Freudian slips’, through accidents and illnesses, and even through people we like and dislike.

Jung continued to say that just as each of us has these layers in our individual, personal psyche, the same thing can be said about a society, culture or civilization...Jung called these “collective” consciousness and “collective” unconscious, and distinguished them from the personal conscious and the unconscious. This collective unconscious finds a way to speak to us through fairytales and myths in a symbolic manner.

...Interestingly, von Franz applies the same concept to the Sunni and Shia issue in her book called Individuation in Fairytales (1977). She states:

"In the Islamic world there is a terrific split between the Sunnite and the Shiite movement. The latter has always endeavored to be on the compensatory side of the unconscious and thus counteract the petrification of the Sunnite movement, the orthodox school which kept to the literal interpretation of the Koran and its rules. Within the Shiite sects alchemical symbolism flourished. Eighty percent of the great Arabian alchemists belonged to the Shiites, and not to the Sunnite sect, which for us is very revealing because alchemical symbolism, and alchemy in general, was not only, as Jung points out, a subterranean compensatory movement in Christian Europe, but had exactly the same function within the Arabic civilization. There too it belonged to the subterranean, more mystical complementary movements which counteracted the petrification of collective consciousness in a very similar way as it afterwards did in the Middle Ages for us. Particularly in Persia, these Shiite and Ismalian sects flourished, as did alchemy. It was the country where there was the greatest development, and one sees this mirrored even in such simple material as fairytales.... (p. 58)."

...Although von Franz only discusses about the Sunni movement benefiting from the presence of more subterranean Shia movement, it is obvious that the situation goes both ways. Both Sunni and Shia schools benefit from each other’s presence as each keeps the other in check and compensate for the imbalance. In The Tao of Islam, Murata (1992) talks about a similar interaction and compensatory functions between the two basic theological perspectives in Islam, i.e.) the external, legalistic approach of Kalam and the internal, sapiential approach of Sufism.

...From von Franz’s perspective, this ‘terrific split’ between the Sunni and Shia takes on a new light— what we often consider as a problem or at least a nuisance just may have been a blessing in disguise!


Just came across BugMeNot, an ingenious way of side-stepping those irritating logins for web sites that require compulsory registration and/or the collection of personal/demographic information (such as the New York Times, The Economist etc.)

If you're using Internet Explorer then Dean Wilson has created an IE context menu extension that will make your life vastly easier.

Amazonian fight for Chezenya

You've got to wonder why some people go to the trouble of churning out literary vomitus. The following is a reader's review of Tolstoy's Hadji Murat found on Amazon (quoted verbatim):

According to Frederik Stork (who is he btw?) this book will explain more on Chezenya than a thousand hours of CNN. It is one of the four praises on the back cover. Another one is by famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hadzji Moerat is a rebel, according to some, a hero, according to others. Which is exactly the point to me. A freedom fighter and a terrorist are no different, the only difference is how they are being percepted. If you think about it, it is true. I wonder if the US and their 'fight against terrorism' have thought about it.

Moerat fights for freedom of the Cheznyans, oppressed by the Russians. The era we talk about is 1850, though it could have easily been written a century and a half later. This is one of the reasons I love reading Tolstoj. His books are never dated. War and peace, his 1800-page masterpiece talks about Napoleon invading Russia. It could have been about any war. Tolstoj, one of the great Russian authors, has a strong sense of justice. He criticises the church, even though he is a Christian himself, he doesn't like the aristocracy, though isn't exactly working class himself, and he dislikes (in this book) the Russians, his country.

As an avid fan I have read quite a few books by Tolstoj. This is not my favourite. Not big enough, not deep enough, not compared to some of his classics. But that still means an extremely high level, that most authors will never reach.
If you're still interested, here's a more measured account of Tolstoy's work and here's something less frugal in its praise:

Hadji Murat is the real thing: a genuine classic, with an acute contemporary resonance. It speaks not only to Russia’s ongoing war with Chechen separatists but to the clash of East and West that concerns us all.

Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, elevates Hadji Murat to masterpiece status. It is my touchstone for the sublime in prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best that I have ever read. Bloom read the story 40 years ago and has been haunted by it since. I read it just a few weeks ago and the haunting is still fresh.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The oud man out

A friend is (hopefully, actually probably) wowing an audience into awed submission as I type, with his oud playing prowess. I shan't name him for fear of driving him into further reclusiveness as he is the living embodiment of modesty - the rock and roll hermit if you like. Sufficeth to say that he is gifted.

It also provides me with an opportunity to namedrop the likes of Anouar Brahem and Naseer Shamma and thereby exhaust my entire knowledge store on this particular subject. Short and sweet.

Which conveniently leads me to a whole area of Coca-Cola appreciation that I have hitherto been totally ignorant of: the US vs Mexican brew debate. Apparently the US version uses corn syrup as the source of its sweetness whereas across the border cane sugar lends it an allegedly more palatable edge. There was a thriving industry in bootlegging Mexican coke into predominantly Hispanic US cities. The North American Free Trade Agreement has legalised the whole process and by doing so seriously dented US coke's profit margin. So forget Mecca and Qibla Cola, coke is putting itself out of business! (Or at least its filthy profits aren't as filthy as they could be).

Middle East. Different Standards.

A reader's letter in the The Guardian today:

I think I've got the point (Bush sees Lebanon changes as move to free Middle East, March 9). There are good bombs and bad bombs and good armies of occupation and bad ones. Syria would be an example of a bad army of occupation, but the US and Israel would be good ones. Similarly, Iran's bomb, if it had one, would be bad, but Britain's, France's and Israel's are good. After all, we don't want to be encumbered with anything resembling a principle here.
And an interesting opinion piece in the same paper by Daphna Baram [Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. She was a fellow of the Reuters Foundation Program in Oxford University, and News Editor of Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir], the author of Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel, wherein she claims that:
"If my prime minister is a war criminal, so is Tony Blair....I agree that my prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is a war criminal. From the intentional killing of 69 civilians in the village of Qibya in 1953, through the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, all the way to the wild bombing of Palestinian cities in the last few years, his career is steeped in vile criminality."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The 13th Shi'a Imam!

Before the cyber fatwas come flying in, this is a tongue-in-cheek reference by some Iranians to describe President George Bush in light of his inadvertently(!) pro-Shi'a policies. The following article by William Beeman concisely considers the facts:

Iran's security chief, Hassan Rowhani proclaimed in October, 2004 that it was in Iran's best interest for George W. Bush to be re-elected over John Kerry. His comment left American commentators stunned in disbelief. However, it is now clear that Rowhani was right: the Bush administration has done more than any other American leader to advance the interests of Shi'a Islamic political leadership in Iran and indeed, in the rest of the Middle East. Some groups of religious supporters in Iran are beginning to call President Bush "the 13th Imam," an ironic reference to the 12 historical Imams sacred to the branch of Shi'ism dominant in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

President Bush's support for Shi'ism may be unintentional, to be sure, but there is no doubt about the effects of his administration's policies in boosting Shi'ite power throughout the region.

William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. This year he is Visiting Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University. His forthcoming book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs:" How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.
Click here for the full story.

Joe Sacco - Comic Genius

I realised I couldn't draw quite early on in life so I'm not too bitter. In fact I'm even open to appreciating others' efforts. Joe Sacco's efforts are definitely worth appreciating. I read Palestine and learnt more about the conflict, including the narrative of human suffering, than any number of re-readings of Avi Shlaim's works could foster.

Here are some excertpts from various sources eulogising the king of the genre.

January Magazine:
Comics have outgrown their superhero underpants, and cartoonist Joe Sacco specializes in one of their most dynamic young subgenres: the political comic book. Maltese by birth, Sacco grew up in Australia and the US, and chose comics as the unusual medium for putting his University of Oregon journalism degree to use. In his award-winning books, he unleashed the bad tidings he'd fetched from some of the messier parts of the world: the Occupied Territories during the first intifada, in Palestine, and war-ravaged Eastern Bosnia, in Safe Area: Gorazde. At this point, what's most surprising about the endeavor is not the choice of genre, but how wallopingly powerful it turns out to be in Sacco's hands.

Sacco is currently constructing his next book, based on his experiences in the Gaza Strip, which will doubtless propel him further into the literary and indeed journalistic stratosphere.

The Economist:
JOE SACCO is the heir to Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman; a throwback cartoonist/reporter who uses comics and caricature to tell true-life tales, thus reaching out to an audience that might never otherwise be roused by politics, anarchy or foreign wars.

Over the last 15 years, Joe Sacco's work has truly transcended the comic/cartooning genre, and he's produced some of the most moving and incisive visual journalism I've ever read on the world's trouble spots. This weekend's Guardian featured "Complacency Kills", an eight page diary of a trip to Iraq in the company of the Marines, and it's free to download here (36 MB, but really worth it if you have the bandwidth.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Koftay and Candy Bars

I don't necessarily agree with the the following (as the logic seems to fall apart in the last paragraph via the presumption of ignorance) but it's a well intentioned piece from AH Cemendtaur. You can literally taste the bile!

Let me be very honest about this. While I am very easy to get along most of the time, I do have my pet peeves. And what irks me most are people who are not tasteful with their speech; that is, people that mix languages, and especially those who mix English in Urdu. You know the kind of people I'm talking about. People who would say, "Main wahan jaa raha thaa keh all of a sudden I saw a big truck coming my way. Achha, us truck kee khas baat yeh thee keh it was full of old lumber," and so on. Ugghhhh! Man, Do I barf at that?!

I know that it is very common for my countrymen to speak that way, but that doesn't stop me from despising this lingua spurious. I am from the school of thought that believes that when you speak one language, you should speak just that language--when you speak Urdu you must only speak Urdu, and when you speak English you must say everything in English. And my position on this issue is not based on some queer ideas about safeguarding the purity of languages.

As a student of linguistics I know that languages are constantly evolving, and that when a language stops evolving it dies. I know that languages become stronger when they borrow words from other languages. I understand all that. I am not against borrowing foreign words into Urdu. My objection is on speech that is just loose-tongued; my annoyance are the people who bastardize Urdu with English without giving any thought to what they are doing.
Click here for the full text.

Comedy films leave viewers in good heart, says cardiologist

I suppose it means a lot more coming from a cardiologist but the godfather of hasya yoga (laughter yoga), Dr Madan Kataria, won't mind. The dollars just keep rolling in for this guy and there's no doubting he'll be laughing all the way to the bank. He's even advocating a Global Laughter Revolution (GLAR).

Laughter may after all be the best medicine. Comedy can make the blood vessels expand, step up the blood flow and leave viewers in good heart, a US heart scientist said yesterday.

Conversely a stressful film can cause a potentially unhealthy narrowing of the arteries.

..."Given the results, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease," Prof Miller said.
Click here for the full story.

"The Roadmap is back on track"

"The Roadmap is back on track - Copyright Steve Bell 2005" Posted by Hello

God Module!?

Professor Vilayanur S Ramachandran (he of Phantom Limbs fame and Reith Lecturer) develops some earlier research into the relationship between the temporal lobe and religious experience. might indicate that seizures in the temporal lobe strengthen certain neural pathways connected to the amygdala, meaning we attribute significance to the banal objects and occurrences. "If those pathways all strengthen indiscriminately, everything and anything acquires a deep significance, and when that happens, it starts resembling a religious experience," he says. "And if we can selectively enhance religious sentiments, then that seems to imply there is neural circuitry whose activity is conducive to religious belief. It's not that we have some God module in our brains, but we may have specialised circuits for belief."
Click here for the full story.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mohali beckons as the rivalry is renewed - India vs Pakistan

Let the battle commence. As always, I'm supporting the winner (thereby simultaneously irritating as many people as possible AND failing the Tebbit test!)

The Indian Fiction Top 25

(Courtesy of Kitabkhana)

Jerry Pinto, poet, journalist Who Actually Reads, and author, recently put together a list of the 25 Best Books in Indian fiction (English language, no translations):

1. Vikram Chandra: Love and Longing in Bombay
2. Aubrey Menen: The Fig Tree
3. Rohinton Mistry: Tales from Firozhsha Baug
4. Jhumpa Lahiri: The Interpreter of Maladies
5. Hari Kunzru: The Impressionist
6. G V Desani: All About H Hatterr
7. Vikram Seth: The Golden Gate
8. Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children
9. R K Narayan: Swami and Friends
10. Mulk Raj Anand: Coolie
11. Kamala Markandaya: Nectar in a Sieve
12. Anita Desai: Baumgartner’s Bombay
13. Amitav Ghosh: The Shadow Lines
14. I Allan Sealy: The Trotternama
15. Shashi Tharoor: The Great Indian Novel
16. Githa Hariharan: When Dreams Travel
17. Kiran Nagarkar: Raavan & Eddie
18. Shashi Deshpande: That Long Silence
19. Arundhathi Roy: The God of Small Things
20. Raja Rao: Kanthapura
21. Khushwant Singh: Delhi
22. Nisha Da Cunha: Old Cypress
23. Ruskin Bond: The Room on the Roof
24. Gita Mehta: The River Sutra
25. Indi Rana: The Devil in the Dustbin

Hmmmm. I've read four of the 25 (4,5,8 and 19). It would have been five but for the fact that Khushwant Singh's Delhi (his Train to Pakistan would have been a better choice) was so unpalatable that I left it unfinished.

I'm surprised Vikram Seth gets a mention with The Golden Gate rather than his magnum opus, the veritable doorstep, A Suitable Boy. But alas, perhaps I only say that so I could at least claim to have read exactly 20% of the featured titles.

Time to stoke up some controversy: any suggestions for a Pakistani top 25? (Or should we start with 10 and see how far we get?)

I don't believe it!

'French booksellers are braced for a rush of interest after another book from the author of The Da Vinci Code is translated into French.' BBC News.

Perhaps more disturbingly, 'The Da Vinci Code is being made into a film starring Tom Hanks.'

I hadn't realised it's been banned in Lebanon.


Ok. I'm getting seriously tempted by the acclaimed exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Not a bad excuse to head to the second city I suppose.

Levantine Lunacy

Hizbullah backs Syria to force political divide in Lebanon

Shias call for pro-Damascus protests in Beirut

Brian Whitaker in Beirut
Monday March 7, 2005

The Guardian

Hizbullah stepped dramatically into the Lebanese-Syrian crisis yesterday by calling a demonstration in support of Syria and raising the fear that a withdrawal of Syrian troops might not go smoothly.

The militant Lebanese Shia organisation, which is backed by Syria and Iran, said it planned to hold a mass demonstration tomorrow near the square where anti-Syrian protesters have been camped since the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri last month.

Until now Lebanon's Shia minority and their political organisations have stayed on the sidelines of arguments about the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops and intelligence officers.

Some observers had argued that Hizbullah's political interests would be best served by keeping quiet, because of the widespread unpopularity of Syrian influence in the country, but yesterday its leader, Hassan Nasrallah joined the fray.

Click here for the full story.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Majlis Memento

This particular post marks the beginning of a rather selfish initiative cloaked under a veil of altruism. I've decided to share a key point from each majlis [Arabic noun - meeting, session, gathering; initially established to commemorate the martyrdom of the 3rd Shi'a Imam, Hussein ibn Ali] I get the opportunity to attend. The hope being that by putting fingertips to keyboard, the neuronal connections responsible for that memory will be that little bit stronger.

This evening's take home point is an aphorism of Imam Hussein:

"Verily, people are the slaves of the world and their religion is superficial, only on their tongues. They are attentive to it as long as their material benefits are provided, but when they are tested, the number of true devotees dwindles."

Mothering Sunday

The perennial debate continues: capitalist exploitation or genuine appreciation? This is one occasion where I don't mind being socially manipulated. My sister and I opted for a hi-tech card with personalised message recording facility and the accompanying gift had, with the aid of the retrospectoscope, more than it's fair share of an ulterior motive!

Andalusian Facade

A wall of the Great Mosque of Cordoba ©Tauseef Mehrali 2005 Posted by Hello


Salaam alaykum! Welcome to the new look, post-Atkins diet, As you can see, the revolutionary tremors have transformed into a Richter scale shattering paradigm shift - I've succumbed to the blogging fad. You can access most of the old stuff via the navigation bar to the left. Let's see where this takes us.