The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons
Saturday, March 22, 2003
The Head Heeb World Tour: Western Europe, part 1
Western Europe is a veritable hotbed of Head Heeb readers, usually accounting for about a fifth of my visits on any given day. My European readers represent a wide cross-section of the continent:
The nation of Austria has existed under that name for more than 1000 years. A diploma of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III dated November 996 refers to the region south of the Danube as Ostarrichi, an archaic form of the modern name Österreich. The diploma documents a land grant in the Neuhofen area that played a part in forming what would become the Austrian nation:
The granting of land located in the foothills of the Alps to the south of the River Danube was by no means a unique occurence. Only the previous year the bishopric of Freising has obtained royal demesne near Ulmerfeld. Further transfers of land followed, so that, little by little, Freising came to possess extensive holdings in the valley of the River Ybbs. Incidentally, during the 1990s, other places in this region have celebrated the 1000th anniversary of their first recorded mention (e.g. Krems, 995). More than eighty per cent of the settlements in the region came into being during the Babenberg era, that is to say before the middle of the 13th century.
The name "Ostarrichi" refers to "eastern kingdom" or "eastern lands."
When it isn't putting foreigners on trial for crimes against humanity, Belgium is famous for its beer. Belgium is as much a beer-drinking country as Germany and the central European nations, with more than 450 varieties. In addition to the standard pilsners and lagers, Belgium produces such unique varieties as the wheat-based lamb ic ale (often flavored with fruit), white beer and Flemish brown ale. Many of them take some getting used to, especially for someone like me whose taste in beer is traditional, but they're worth the effort; I personally recommend the Hoegaarden witbier.
To go with the beer, try the mussels for which Belgian cooking is famous, including this recipe.
How can you not like a country with a queen called "Daisy?" Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is one of the few modern monarchs who would probably be noticed even if she weren't of royal blood; she is an accomplished illustrator, painter and stage designer and has created vestments used in Danish cathedrals. She has also pushed the envelope of modern European monarchy by speaking on political issues during her annual addresses from the Amalienborg palace, advocating greater tolerance for immigrants.
France's claims to fame also include something alcoholic: wine. An expert on the subject recommends Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Lalande or, if that's out of your price range, Chateau Carbonnieux, made at a 14th-century monastery:
The monks were notorious for selling their wines to the Ottoman Sultan labelled as 'mineral water' so that the emperor could avoid Muslim strictures against alcohol. The wines which pleased the court of Constantinople are just as good today, and very competitively priced.
Contrary to rumor, the French also drink beer, especially in the region bordering Flanders where biére de garde is a long-standing tradition.
After being almost wiped out during the war, the Jewish community of Germany is again 100,00 0 strong. As many as 75,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have arrived since 1990, to add to the Eastern European Jews who settled in Germany during the immediate postwar period. Berlin is the center of a Jewish community of 12,000, with an emerging Jewish district centered on the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse.
The integration of the Russian Jews has not been entirely smooth, due to both intracommunal tensions and an increase in anti-Semitism. Germany has, for the most part, not been the scene of anti-Semitic outbreaks like those in France and Belgium, but tensions between the Jewish and Muslim immigrant communities are high due to spillover from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the far right has also flirted with anti-Semitic politics. Anti- Semitism has become a particularly sensitive topic in Germany in light of the country's history; a number of high government officials including Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer have spoken forcefully against its resurgence, but in some ways it remains an elephant in the room.
Ireland, which for two centuries was an exporter of people, is coming to terms with being a country of net immigration. In 1992, for the first time other than a brief spike in the 1970s, Ireland had more immigrants than emigrants, and immigrants are currently entering the country at a rate of more than 40,000 per year. About half of these have been returning members of the Irish diaspora, but EU membership and rising wealth has brought immigrants from the UK, the other EU nations and the rest of the world. Ireland now has significant communities of, among others, Pakistani, Malaysian and Filipino nationals.
Immigration to Ireland is not an entirely new phenomenon; Chinese, Italian and Jewish immigrants settled in the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the 1990s, however, Ireland became known as the "Celtic Tiger" for its rapid economic growth, and has developed a thriving high-tech sector. The per capita GDP of Ireland has in fact surpassed that of the UK, leading to a reversal in the historical flow of people between the two countries.
Irish society and law is just beginning to catch up to the reality of immigration. As the Irish Centre for Migration Studies notes:
Ireland thus experienced, within a short space of time, a substantial rise in non-Irish immigration, mostly from other EU countries, and a smaller but significant rise in non-EU immigrants, whether asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants or immigrant workers on short-term work permits. The country has thus been faced with the difficulties of constructing immigration and integration policies against a background of a rapid changing picture, limited experience, a less than positive attitude towards difference and a largely monocultural tradition. Apart from the rather ad-hoc arrangements made until the recent past for asylum-seekers and refugees, and the more formal arrangements now in place for the same community (although these are unsatisfactory in a number of significant respects) it would be fair to say that there was little that could be described as an ‘official planning process' on immigration.
Recent legal reforms have given greater protection to the rights of foreign workers and regularized the immigration regime to a greater extent, but there is still progress to be made.
The Head Heeb World Tour: The Middle East
The politics and courts of Egypt are a frequent subject on this journal. Today, we honor one of the great political figures in modern Egyptian history: Saad Zaghloul. Zaghloul, a French-educated lawyer and nationalist leader, was appointed minister of education in the cabinet of Khedive Abbas Helmi II. He used this position - and his subsequent appointment as Minister of Justice in 1910 - as a platform to agitate for British withdrawal from Egypt.
In September 1918, as the First World War was ending, Zaghloul began to organize a popular front, or wafd, to demand independence before the Versailles police conference. After confrontations with the British authorities, Zaghloul was arrested and deported to Malta - a measure which precipitated Egypt's Revolution of 1919. In the face of popular demonstrations, Zaghloul was released and permitted to go to Paris. Within three years, the British troops had withdrawn and the Kingdom of Egypt was established under Fuad. Like Ireland, which also achieved nationhood that year, Egypt would not become fully independent until 1936, but from 1922 onward it substantially guided its own destiny.
In the first elections under the constitution of 1923, Zaghloul's Wafd Party won a commanding majority and he became prime minister. He was forced to resign in 1924 due to scandal, but returned the following year and held the post until his death in 1927. Throughout the kingdom period, the Wafd Party was a dominant political force in Egypt. Like other political parties, it was dissolved under Nasser, but re-emerged during the Sadat era and became part of the secular liberal opposition. Zaghloul himself is honored with a statue in front of the Cairo Opera House.
Iran is currently in the midst of celebrating Norooz, a 13-day holiday marking the beginning of the Persian New Year. Norooz, which begins on the first day of spring, is a pre-Islamic holiday that still incorporates Zoroastrian practices such as jumping over fires for good luck. For a time after the revolution of 1979, Islamic authorities attempted to suppress the pagan elements of Norooz, but in recent years they have become more lenient:
Today, Norooz is celebrated as splendidly as ever. Setting the Haftsin (Norooz table) and sitting around it at the turn of the year, wearing new garments, presenting Eidi (gifts of crisp paper money) to children, sprinkling rose-water, eating sweets and celebrating sizdeh-be-dar (13th Farvardin or 2nd April) are practiced by Iranians, even those living abroad.
This March, Iran begins the year 1382 on the Persian calendar. Iranian Girl gives her reflections on 1381.
Iraq is the cradle of civilization, and also the cradle of board games. Phluzein describes the Royal Game of Ur, which existed before 2600 BC and is "theorized to work along the same principles of backgammon; i.e., the object is apparently 'to be the first to have all the pawns out of the game.'" A set of rules has been derived by modern scholars, but nobody is sure how the game was actually played or what it really symbolized:
It is interesting to note that they are taken to be "refuges" and are described as "important" by the 2nd Century BCE tablet (that describes some aspects of the game) from the British Museum.
Phluzein also speculates on the role the game may have played in cultural diffusion between Sumeria and Knossos.
The last Jew in Libya, Esmeralda Meghnagi, died last year, but Libyan Jewish traditions are alive and well in Israel, where there are more than 40,000 Jews of Libyan descent. Many Libyan Jews now live in Yafo, where the first Libyan immigrants arrived in 1948 and their Judeo-Arabic language can still sometimes be heard; an eighteenth-century synagogue reopened by Libyan Jews is still in use. Because of the similarity of Jewish and Islamic dietary restrictions, Libyan Jews shared many of their neighbors' recipes such as spiced sausage and marinated chickpeas, as well as their own distinctive Sabbath fish; all of these are eaten today in Israeli restaurants.
Lebanon is the source of the largest diaspora in the Arab world, numbering several times as many as the population of Lebanon itself. The great Lebanese migration began more than 100 years ago, with Lebanese merchants and prospectors arriving in South Africa as early as the 1880s and settling in the Andean countries during the early twentieth century. The large Lebanese communities in the United States and Canada also began during this time. The famous Lebanese community of West Africa was established during the French colonial period in the 1920s when Lebanese merchants settled in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, gradually spreading throughout the neighboring countries.
The Lebanese diaspora is a classic "merchant minority" similar to the Jewish, Gujarati and overseas Chinese diasporas. Lebanese immigrants arrived as small merchants and, like many merchant minorities, have succeeded in business and politics. Members of the Lebanese diaspora have been senators and governors in the United States and have risen to the presidency of Ecuador as well as owning major companies. In many West African countries, Lebanese immigrants and their descendants dominate economic activity. Unfortunately, the Lebanese diaspora has also been subject to the same resentment and prejudice as other merchant minorities; in West Africa today, they are widely accused of controlling the diamond trade and fomenting civil wars, and have been the targets of violence.
The Khaleej Times is the newspaper of the South Asian community in the United Arab Emirates. Indians and Pakistanis account for about half the UAE's population, first arriving as contract laborers but establishing themselves in technical, managerial and civil service positions; South Asians today are an important part of the UAE's business community. They are particularly prominent in the UAE's commercial capital of Dubai, where 65 percent of the population is South Asian and English is the semi-official language of business. Due to the UAE's restrictive citizenship laws, most South Asians - even longtime residents - retain the status of foreign workers, although some few have been able to obtain citizenship through marriage. For an interesting weblog by a South Asian living in Dubai, check out Queen of Arabia.
Danger in the delta
The politically volatile Niger Delta is aflame as an uprising among the Ijaw minority is spreading throughout the Warri region. The rebellion follows ethnic clashes last month between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri minority, and is spinning increasingly out of control with the seizure and destruction of villages by Ijaw rebels. Villagers and oil workers are fleeing the area, and next month's general election is in jeopardy.
The oil-rich delta has historically been a turbulent part of Nigeria, with the delta minorities demanding ownership of the region's resources. In 1995, the conflict between the delta minorities and the government entered the consciousness of the world when protests by the Ogoni people over resource ownership and environmental damage led to the execution of noted author Ken Saro-Wiwa by military authorities. The current rebellion, however, pits minority against minority, with the Ijaw demanding a regional government separate from the Itsekiri.
The government has reportedly sent troops into the area and engaged the rebels in pitched battles, but a spokesman for the Nigerian army denies planning a direct counterattack. The government may be running out of time, however, before the beleaguered Itsekiri take matters into their own hands. A legislator in Delta State, impatient with the military response, has already called on the Itsekiri to take up arms and defend themselves. If this crisis isn't resolved quickly, then Nigeria could face a full-blown civil war in the delta region.
Friday, March 21, 2003
The Head Heeb World Tour: Sub-Saharan Africa
The first leg of the Head Heeb World Tour takes us to the following countries:
Modern Ghana takes its name after one of the greatest empires of sub-Saharan Africa. Ghana was the first of the organized Sahelian kingdoms which thrived on the trans-Sahara gold and ivory trade:
Although it originated in the late fourth century, Ghana only became a major regional power near the end of the millenium. Although the state was originally formed by Berbers, it was built on the southern edge of Berber populations. Eventually the state became dominated by the Soninke, a Mande speaking people living in the region bordering the Sahara. They built their capital city, Kumbi Saleh, right on the edge of the Sahara and the city quickly became the most dynamic and important southern terminus of the Saharan trade routes.
The empire of Ghana, however, never expanded into the territory of the modern Ghanaian republic. The Republic of Ghana was named in honor of Ghana's ancient imperial glory and the tribes of the Gold Coast may have traded with the Ghana kingdom, but the two had nothing else to do with each other. Perhaps the greatest precolonial civilization of the Republic of Ghana is the Asante, a tributary empire based in Kumasi that was famous for its woodworkers and goldsmiths.
Somaliland is gearing up for presidential elections scheduled for April 14, the first under the country's new constitution. The country has already passed the test of transferring power peacefully upon the death of President Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, and the coming election will be hotly contested by opponents of the ruling UDUB party. The election is hampered by a shortage of money, but the people of this unrecognized nation are expecting a successful vote.
South Africa is the home of, among many other ethnic groups, the unique Griqua people. The Griquas are a mixed-race group descended from Dutch and Khoisan stock, who settled the area known as "No Man's Land" in the 1860s under the leadership of Adam Kok. An elected Griqua government, which issued coins [1, 2], printed bank notes and had a flag, existed in the Eastern Cape between 1863 and 1879, when it was incorporated into the Cape Colony. The Griquas today are South Africa's smallest recognized ethnic group.
According to the Lusaka Lowdown, Zambia's capital city is developing a diverse cuisine, and street names are as political an affair as in any other city. The country is also home to a unique brand of English [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].
The immigration of expatriate investors, many of them displaced commercial farmers from Zimbabwe, is proving controversial, with many Zambians feeling that the government should concentrate on helping small local businesses instead. With former President Frederick Chiluba on trial for theft and current President Levy Mwanawasa under attack for corruption and ineffectiveness, however, the prospects of a speedy resolution look dim.
Ignore the War Central Event: The Head Heeb World Tour
As part of The Head Heeb's ongoing "Ignore the War Central" project, the next three days will feature a link to each of the 45 countries from which I have received visitors. The articles may concern politics, current events, sidelights on life, 5000-year-old relics - basically, anything that catches my interest. And yes, two of the countries are Iraq and the United States - but don't worry, the war will take a back seat to other matters.
The future of the center
Ari Shavit interviews Dan Meridor.
Via Mirabilis: A village in Syria where Aramaic is a living language. And Phluzein provides an example of Sumerian sexual innuendo from a 4000-year-old love poem.
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Zimbabwe on the edge
As protests against Robert Mugabe's government continue in Zimbabwe, the surreal treason trial of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai continues with the testimony of a third witness. The witness, Vice-Admiral Robert Mhlanga, attempted to bolster Ari Ben-Menashe's testimony by describing a telephone call in which Ben-Menashe warned of the alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. While he admitted that the tape provide by Ben-Menashe was poorly recorded and inaudible, he stated that the detailed account of the coup plot made him take it seriously. He's essentially a secondary witness, and his testimony lasted only half a day; it is anticipated that the prosecution will call eight more.
In the meantime, the Movement for Democratic Change, of which Tsvangirai is leader, gave the government a two-week deadline to reach a negotiated settlement or face escalated mass protests, including a march on the presidential palace. Dropping the treason charges would be a good start.
The Court of Cassation
My recent discussion of the acquittal of Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim led some people to wonder why the highest court in Egypt, the Court of Cassation, has a French name. The answer, as this fascinating article in Al-Ahram relates, is that modern Egyptian law developed at a time when Egypt was under heavy French influence:
Since the arrival of the French scientific mission at the turn of the 19th century, the City of Light was the destination of most of the educational missions sent to Europe. As a result, not only did the majority of the growing Egyptian professional and intellectual cadres receive their certificates in France but French became the second language in Egyptian schools. In addition, most of the European literary works selected by Refa'a El-Tahtawi and his disciples for translation were French.
The original cour de cassation, the constitutional court of France, was among the institutions founded in the wake of the French Revolution, in July 1790. During the Napoleonic era, it continued to be the highest court in France, and many countries with French- influenced legal systems placed similar courts at the apex of their judicial structures.
French influence on Egyptian law and government continued well after the British occupation in 1882, and was a bone of contention right up to the time Egypt gained full independence in 1936. The Egyptian Court of Cassation retained its essential civil-law structure and does so to this day, albeit with an overlay of English common law and Ottoman customary law. Under the current Egyptian constitution, shariah has been added to the sources of law, and the Court of Cassation has been called upon to give judgments in shariah cases and determine the interplay between shariah and civil law. With the appointment of Tahani el-Gebali,, Egypt's first woman judge, to the supreme court, a woman with a degree in Islamic jurisprudence will be participating in the court's resolution of shariah issues.
With the exception of the Nasser period when the rule of law in Egypt was virtually destroyed, the Court of Cassation has been famous for its independence and commitment to constitutional rule. Unlike other judges, members of the court are not civil servants, and they report only to a judicial council made up of other sitting judges. The current constitution grants the judges broad powers of review over the constitutionality of laws and government actions, and it has frequently defied the Mubarak government in politically sensitive cases. There's more to Egyptian civil society than many people think, and the Court of Cassation is one of the reasons why.
Notes from the classroom, part 3
It's strange to think about something as prosaic as midterm exams at a time like this, but the academic calendar won't wait.
In my student days, which aren't all that long ago, I didn't care for tests. As far as I was concerned, I was the one paying the tuition, so the school should take my word for it that I learned something. Unfortunately, the schools - which are, at bottom, a credentialing system - didn't see it that way.
Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, I'm still not sure I like the idea of testing. An impractical, idealistic part of me still believes in learning for its own sake, guided by the professor but untrammeled by the need to meet others' expectations. But, just as I went to college to get a credential, now I have to give one.
Creating a test, I've found, is harder than taking one. First, there's the matter of what to test. In any law course, rote learning is the least important of skills. A lawyer who can recite the law book by heart is an idiot savant; what matters is the ability to apply its principles to the gray areas of which the world is made.
In law school, the standard format for measuring this skill is the long essay - an involved, convoluted fact pattern followed by questions that pose knotty legal problems. This format, though, is impractical at the undergraduate level. In contrast to the leisurely law-school exam periods - which are often three hours or more - my exam had to be given in an hour and fifteen minutes. Undergraduate students, who haven't been through the brainwashing of the first years of law school, also aren't as sophisticated in legal thinking and issue-spotting.
In the end, I settled on a combination of short essays and multiple choice, but even there, my lawyer's soul won out. In several of the multiple choice questions, there was no clearly correct answer. The object was to pick the best answer rather than the "right" one - and I let them know that if they weren't sure, they had the option of providing an explanation. Anyone who could come up with a good explanation would get credit even if his answer wasn't the one I originally had in mind.
Overall, it seemed to go well. I was a bit surprised at how many people showed up late - some of them by 20 minutes - but most of them were able to finish in the available time. They seemed to understand the questions, and there weren't many complaints or cries of anguish. At the same time, it wasn't too easy - most of them took the entire class period, they used different approaches to answer the essay questions, and it's easy to tell those who learned the material from those who didn't.
Now I have to grade the damn things.
Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Ignore the War Central
It's officially started, and my prayers are with all the soldiers as well as the people of Iraq. That's the last you'll hear about it on The Head Heeb for the time being, though, because I'm now declaring this blog "Ignore the War Central." Until the end of the main military operations in Iraq, I'm going to write exclusively about the many things that are happening in the rest of the world and that affect thousands of lives nowhere near the Middle East. It probably won't make much difference given that there's very little war coverage on this blog, but it's more important now than ever to make sure that the fog of war doesn't obscure the world.
To start with, check out Zack Ajmal's articles on cousin marriage and forced marriage. Both posts are part of a larger series on marriage in the Muslim world, particularly Pakistan.
UPDATE: Zack's series on marriage continues here.
Mixed signals in Egypt
The Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim case is over. The sociologist and democracy activist who was twice convicted of defaming the state in Egypt's infamous "state security courts" was acquitted at an unprecedented third trial before the country's highest court. The Court of Cassation, the famously independent constitutional court, heard Ibrahim's case last month and announced its verdict yesterday, sending the message that the Egyptian judiciary can defy the government in political cases.
A different signal, however, was sent by the verdict in the Queen Boat case, the trial of 50 men accused of "the habitual practice of debauchery" after a 2001 police raid on a Zamalek gay hangout. Like Ibrahim, they were tried in a state security court, an inexplicable decision in light of the fact that none of them had been engaged in political activity. In fact, the Queen Boat trial was held in an emergency state security court, which did not even have the limited appellate procedures that were available to Ibrahim.
The Queen Boat defendants were, effectively, charged with being gay; homosexual activity "is not explicitly illegal under Egyptian law but consensual gay relations have been prosecuted under morality laws–notably, the 'debauchery' charge found in a 1961 law on prostitution." In November 2001, 21 of the 50 were convicted and given prison sentences of one to two years; the other 29 were acquitted. They took the only avenue of appeal available to them and petitioned the district military governor to reverse the verdict. In June 2002, he did, ordering a new trial in a regular criminal court for both the convicted and acquitted defendants. The retrial, which ended this week, resulted in the 21 convicted defendants being convicted again - and receiving stiffer three-year sentences in place of the ones that were imposed before.
The defendants will now have the ability to appeal through the regular judicial system, and given that Egyptian human rights workers have described their trial as one "without witnesses or defense arguments," they are likely to have compelling grounds. Hopefully, the Egyptian appellate courts will show the same independence and commitment to justice in the Queen Boat case as they did in Ibrahim's.
The comments that were lost in the March 15 maintenance sweep have been restored, but everything since then was wiped out. Fortunately, I manually archived all comments made between the time of the sweep and about 4:30 PM EDT today, and I'll repost them in the name of their original authors. They should be restored momentarily.
UPDATE: All comments have been reposted. Let it never be said that The Head Heeb is not a full-service blog.
Two who've been there
Dragan Antulov has a very thoughtful and measured analysis of the Iraq war from the point of view of someone who has seen warfare in his native Croatia. And in case any of you haven't already seen it, I'll be the hundredth blogger to link to Salam's opinion of the invasion.
Yasir Arafat has resolved a rare parliamentary rebellion by ceding the power to name cabinet members to newly appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The willingness of the Palestinian legislature to stand up to Arafat can only be good for Palestinian civil society. Unfortunately, the two issues that impact most on the Palestinians' future - control of security forces and negotiations with Israel - remain firmly in Arafat's hands.
The appointment of Abu Mazen was an opportunity for Arafat to kick the ball firmly into Sharon's court. A prime minister with authority over negotiation - even if Arafat continued to consult with him and exercise influence behind the scenes - would have removed Sharon's ability to cite Arafat as an obstacle to continued peace talks. After insisting on the appointment of a prime minister for so long, Sharon could hardly have treated it as a non-event; in order to maintain credibility, he would have had to take some meaningful steps to return to dialogue and ameliorate the conditions in the Palestinian territories. Because Arafat insisted on retaining final authority, though, Sharon can now continue to stand behind his position of "not negotiating with Arafat." Unless he is given power to negotiate with Israel, Abu Mazen's appointment will be just another act in Arafat and Sharon's odd symbiosis.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Casualty of ivoirité
An Ivorian rebel tells why he joined the ranks:
Ablo says for a while it seemed he might escape the fate of other migrant workers. At school he excelled and he also turned out to be a very talented distance runner. In 1998 he won the marathon in a national competition, prompting the Ivorian sports federation to try to obtain for him Ivorian citizenship.
Ablo's parents, migrant workers from Burkina Faso who settled in Côte d'Ivoire before he was born, were driven across the border as refugees at the beginning of the civil war.
Mass action: opposing views
The government-owned Zimbabwe Herald doesn't seem to approve of the first day of mass protests against President Robert Mugabe:
Two buses and a truck were burnt and reduced to shells while several other vehicles and shops were stoned by organised gangs which went about intimidating people in high-density suburbs throughout the country on the first day of mass action called by the MDC.
South African wire service reports, however, tell another story:
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters and anti-government activists erected roadblocks Tuesday as opposition calls for nationwide demonstrations against the Zimbabwean government gained momentum, witnesses said.
The protests have been called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and will continue indefinitely, in the hope of repeating the victories of the "people power" movements that brought down Ferdinand Marcos and Slobodan Milosevic.
Yair Sheleg reports that the special rabbinical courts designed to speed the process of converting to Judaism may create more problems than they solve:
... the court has ways of imposing initial barriers. Customarily this is a "court emissary," the man who accompanies the prospective convert and provides the court with an assessment of what he or she has undergone. According to Ish-Shalom, the court emissaries, who have a purely technical role, have been transformed into "filters" that sift out those they deem unsuited for the conversion process.
The special conversion courts were established by the Israeli chief rabbinate in 1995 to clear the backlog resulting from regular rabbinic judges' reluctance to hear conversion cases. In 2001, however, these courts were placed under the jurisdiction of the rabbinical court system, thus placing them under the control of "the entity [they were] originally intended to bypass." The five courts currently hearing conversion cases are idiosyncratic in their demands, with those in Haifa, Jerusalem and Yemin Orde regarded as the most demanding.
Monday, March 17, 2003
The holiday of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of the ancient Persian Jewish community from extermination, begins tonight everywhere except Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, which was a walled city at the time the Purim story took place, the celebration begins at sundown tomorrow and is called Shushan Purim. In addition, Jews in some cities celebrate Purim holidays at other times of the year (known as purim katan or "little Purim") to commemorate a local deliverance from catastrophe.
As usual at this time of year, I'd like to put in a good word for Vashti, the Persian queen who was divorced to make way for Esther of Biblical fame. Her crime, or so the Book of Esther relates, was her refusal to dance naked in front of the king's drunken party guests. While it is no doubt fortunate for the Jews that Esther was in a position to thwart Haman's evil plans, divorce and disgrace seems a harsh fate for a woman who wanted to retain her royal dignity. When you read the megillah tonight, spare a thought for one of the world's first feminist heroes.
The Khmer Rouge on trial
The United Nations and Cambodia have agreed on the outlines of an international tribunal to try former members of the Khmer Rouge regime. The framework - which has been worked out in detail, including budget and sources of financing - must still be approved by the General Assembly and the Cambodian parliament, but this is likely to be a formality given the high-level participation in the negotiations. After more than two decades, the victims of the Khmer Rouge may soon get their day in court.
Concerning Rachel Corrie
By now, most of you have probably heard of the death of Rachel Corrie, killed by an IDF bulldozer during a home demolition in the Gaza Strip. There's been a great deal of commentary about the incident in the blogosphere, both on the left and the right, some of it measured and most of it hysterical.
Make no mistake about it, Rachel Corrie's death was a tragedy. I strongly condemn those who are now gloating about it or saying that Corrie deserved to die. That is sickening, and it is morally equivalent to the gloating that sometimes emanates from the supporters of Hamas at the deaths of suicide bombing victims. Nevertheless, I think the rush to judgment against the IDF - especially the more hysterical allegations of "murder" and "terrorism" - is at the least premature and very possibly unwarranted.
First, it should be remembered that Rachel Corrie put herself in harm's way and assumed the risk of her activities. She knew, when she decided to stand in the way of an armored bulldozer, that she might be hurt or killed. Her death is a tragedy, but she died as a soldier - a courageous one - rather than a bystander.
Second, I have no reason yet to doubt that her death was a tragic accident rather than a deliberate killing. I believe that the IDF's record in operations involving international peace activists should give it the benefit of the doubt; Corrie's death is news precisely because peace activists are so rarely killed or harmed. If the IDF were in the habit of deliberately killing nonviolent protesters, there would be many, many more incidents like Corrie's. There have certainly been hundreds if not thousands of opportunities to kill peace activists during the past two and a half years; the fact that such incidents are not commonplace suggests that the IDF generally has respect for human life.
The fact that the IDF bulldozer was armored - which reduces the operator's field of vision and ability to hear surrounding noises - should also be taken into consideration. According to someone who claims knowledge of such matters - and I have no way of evaluating her claim - Corrie was standing in the operator's blind spot.
I've also seen a great deal of play given to the allegation that the bulldozer backed over Corrie after running her down, which apparently occurred when she jumped onto the bulldozer plow and then slipped off. I can speak to this from personal knowledge. I've handled a fair number of automobile accident cases as an attorney, and it's quite common for drivers to back up after colliding with pedestrians in the belief that they are moving their vehicles off the body. Sometimes, as in Corrie's case, this only makes matters worse - but, without more, it is not an indication of criminality.
It may be that, upon investigation, it will turn out that criminal activity took place. However, it is far too early to reach a verdict now. As most of you know, I oppose both Sharon and the occupation, but I think that the knee-jerk vilification of Israel that has followed this incident, and the imputation of the acts of a single bulldozer operator to the IDF as a whole, is not warranted. I am in substantial agreement with this comment by Tal G:
It seems obvious to me that it's hard to know exactly what happened, but that the bulldozer driver should be regarded as innocent until there are strong indications to the contrary (as any driver would after someone jumped in front of his vehicle).
Comments giving alternative views can be found at Amish Tech Support, Ampersand, Counterspin Central, Kesher Talk, Little Green Footballs, MaxSpeak, Nathan Newman, Shock and Awe, Silflay Hraka, Tal G. [1, 2, 3], The Talking Dog, TBogg, veiled4allah and WampumBlog. References are in alphabetical order and imply no endorsement or condemnation; the views I endorse and condemn have been made clear above. Don't follow the LGF or Amish Tech Support links, though, unless you're prepared to see people rejoice over Corrie's death.
UPDATE: There's a reasonably thoughtful debate going on in the comments section of Counterspin Central. Some flaming, but less than might be expected given the nature of the subject, and there appears to be an emerging consensus that Corrie was not deliberately killed. There's also a discussion taking place on a Ms. Magazine bulletin board.
UPDATE 2: Miranda may have an answer based on the investigation of a Russian-language Israeli newspaper.
UPDATE 3: A constructive idea has come out of all this from Kynn Bartlett: starting a sister-city relationship between Corrie's hometown of Olympia, Washington and Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Anyone living in or near Olympia should support this idea; there's everything to gain from mutual contact and understanding. Kynn updates here with a copy of Olympia's sister-city affiliation policy; there apparently have to be sister-city committees in both Olympia and Rafah, and the Olympia committee has to present a 12-month work plan and show sources of funding. If anyone in Olympia is interested in getting a committee together, I'll help out with the work plan; the sister-city idea is a good one no matter what you think of Corrie or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
UPDATE 4: More from Ampersand. My non-answer to his article is in the last three paragraphs of this comment.
UPDATE 5: Civax provides a balanced comment on Corrie's death, and Diane discusses the person who sent her there. And, via Diane, more on the ISM from No Cameras.
The case for Somaliland
Talks on the reunification of Somalia are continuing in Nairobi, but they will take place without the Republic of Somaliland. The breakaway republic in northwestern Somalia has declared that the negotiations are simply not its concern:
According to a statement issued on Sunday by the region's information minister, Abdullahi Duale, Somaliland was not a party to the Somali conflict.
Somaliland, which occupies the territory that was known as British Somaliland during the colonial era, is under increasing international pressure to join the Nairobi peace talks. Ironically, this pressure is occurring at a time when Somaliland is solidifying its position as an independent state.
The Republic of Somaliland "declared unilateral independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991," although the hard part was probably finding something to declare independence from. The past decade has actually been Somaliland's second experiment with independence, having been an independent nation for five days in 1960 before uniting with Italian Somaliland pursuant to a dubious referendum. After the collapse of Somalia following the Siad Barre era, a convocation of clan elders met at Hargeysa; on 15 May 1991, they declared the establishment of an independent republic.
Throughout the 1990s, Somaliland was governed by the Council of Elders and Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, a president elected by the council. Democratization was delayed by a civil war during the mid-1990s, but a transitional constitution was adopted in 1997, and parliamentary elections were subsequently held. A constitutional convention continued to meet with the goal of facilitating Somaliland's transition from a tribally-based republic to a democracy, and the final draft of a permanent constitution was completed in 2000. In May 2001, the constitution was approved by 97 percent of the voters in a referendum that was generally regarded as free and fair by international observers, although there were some reported irregularities in the Sool region and the vote may have been more an endorsement of independence than the constitution as such.
The Somaliland charter creates a constitutional regime that bears some resemblance to Iran. Although religious freedom is guaranteed, Islam is the state religion, and Article 33(1) of the constitution states that "promotion of any religion in the territory of Somaliland, other than Islam, is prohibited." Other provisions of the constitution entrench some aspects of shariah as Somaliland law.
The constitution provides for democratic multiparty elections, but these are subject to a religion-based vetting system. Candidates for office are required to be Muslim and "of good moral character" in addition to being secondary-school graduates, and the political parties law of 2000 prohibits parties that do not affirm a commitment to shariah. An electoral commission, of which all members must be Muslim, has responsibility for ruling on applications for registration by political parties and examining candidate lists.
The House of Elders also continues to exist as a concession to the clan-based roots of Somali society. Members of this house are required to be 45 years old - an advanced age in a country where life expectancy hovers around 48 years - and must be "[people] who [have] a good knowledge of the religion or an elder who is versed in the traditions." It is understood that most of the members of this chamber, which can initiate "legislation relating to religion, traditions (culture) and security" or review non-financial laws enacted by the House of Representatives, will be traditional clan elders.
Article 115 of the constitution also creates an ulema, or religious council. Unlike the Iranian Council of Guardians, it does not appear that the ulema has direct veto power over laws or candidates for office. Nevertheless, it is empowered to provide opinions to the government, legislature and courts as to whether a particular law or administrative act violates shariah, and can do so on its own as well as when requested. It is likely that in a traditional country like Somaliland where the judicial system is still in the early stages of development, the ulema will wield considerable influence.
Within these limitations, however, Somaliland has made great progress toward democratic rule, especially at the local level. Local elections in which the ruling UDUB party faced stiff opposition were held in December 2002, and national elections are scheduled for later this year. A lively press, including the independent English-language Somaliland Times, has developed in Hargeysa, and the country's first university was inaugurated in 2000.
The human rights record of Somaliland has been mixed, especially during the civil war of 1994-96. According to Amnesty International, there have been scattered allegations of torture, politically-motivated prosecutions and official intimidation of judges and journalists. Nevertheless, Amnesty gives the Somaliland government credit for improving human rights:
In Somaliland and Puntland, where central governmental administrations have been re-established, the human rights situation is markedly better than in other regions of former Somalia. Somaliland went through a period of localised civil war in 1994 to 1996, but has largely avoided the bitter factional fighting to which Mogadishu and parts of the south have been subjected. The Somaliland administration in Hargeisa has made significant progress in rehabilitating political, social and physical infrastructure.
The international position of Somaliland is more problematic than that of Puntland, a district in northeastern Somalia that has declared its intention to participate in a future federal Somali state rather than declaring independence. Somaliland has thus far not been recognized by any other country, although there has been informal cooperation with Sudan and Ethiopia. Relations between Ethiopia and Somaliland are particularly close, with each country maintaining a liaison office in the other's capital, but Ethiopia has been reluctant to be the first nation to recognize Somaliland's independence. Britain and the EU have also sent informal missions and aid to Somaliland, with the EU using the Somaliland port of Berbera to ship food aid to Ethiopia.
The case for international recognition of Somaliland is a strong one. It is an imperfect democracy, but it has provided a functioning state to its citizens for the past twelve years, which is more than can be said for anyplace else in Somalia. Most residents of Somaliland have no apparent desire to reunite with Somalia, and an argument can be made that their consent to unification was never properly obtained in the first place. Nor is there any compelling reason to reconstitute Somalia in its pre-1990 form, which is a demonstrably failed state united by little besides language and colonial borders.
The future of Somaliland may be as an independent state or as a constituent part of a federal Somali republic. That choice, however, should be up to Somaliland's people.
UPDATE: A blog from Somaliland!
Sunday, March 16, 2003
A fishy story
The Skvirer Hasidic community of New Square in Rockland County is abuzz over a prophecy allegedly received from a fish:
The story goes that a 20-pound carp about to be slaughtered and made into gefilte fish for Sabbath dinner began speaking in Hebrew, shouting apocalyptic warnings and claiming to be the troubled soul of a revered community elder who recently died.
Language Hat (added to the blogroll) comments on the Hebrew words that the carp allegedly used.
This incident supposedly happened about a month ago, and has been making the rounds of the haredi community since. Breakout apparently occurred when Zev Brenner, a New York radio personality whose programs are popular among Orthodox Jews, discussed the story on his show last week.
According to the New York Times, the carp story "jibes with the belief of some Hasidic sects that righteous people can be reincarnated as fish." I've never heard of such a belief before, but stories of reincarnation and possession are certainly more common within the mystical cabalistic and Hasidic traditions than elsewhere in Judaism. Hasidic beliefs also include the concept of the dybbuk, a "wandering soul" that can take possession of a human body, although dybbuks are usually the souls of evildoers rather than holy men, and I've never heard of one taking possession of an animal.
The choice of a fish also seems strange given the association of fish with the Christian religion. In at least some countries, including many of the Central and Eastern European countries that formed the cradle of Hasidism, the Christian symbolism of fish is specifically associated with carp, which are traditionally served at Christmas dinner. The New Square carp - which itself ended up as someone's dinner - seems an odd choice of messenger for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
UPDATE: A. Saadya explains the significance of fish in Hasidic lore:
That the souls of the righteous might enter a fish is consistent with the tradition that at the time of the Flood, fish were not punished since they had not sinned; and by their very nature they survive and thrive in the water.
I'm still not sure, though, whether there are prior Hasidic stories that specifically relate to reincarnation in the form of fish; I've done some research over the past day or two, and I haven't found any.
UPDATE 2: Correspondent Bob Cohen informs us that a jar of gefilte fish in Bnei Brak has reportedly called upon Saddam Hussein to disarm. Somehow, I don't think the Bnei Brak story is meant quite as seriously as the incident in New Square.
The government of President Ange-Félix Patasse in the Central African Republic has fallen to rebels believed to be loyal to former army chief Francois Bozize. The coup came soon after the departure of the Libyan soldiers who had been propping up Patasse's unpopular government, and two days after Patasse announced his intention to explore dialogue with the rebels. A team of Central African peacekeepers replaced the Libyans late last year, but they apparently did not resist the coup. Patasse was out of the country when the capital was seized, and is reportedly now in Yaounde.