The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

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Saturday, April 19, 2003
Narrow victory

It looks like KULMIYE's claim of victory in the Somaliland presidential election was premature. The National Electoral Commission today certified Dahir Riyale Kahin, the candidate of the ruling UDUB party, as the winner by 80 votes out of more than half a million cast. It is not immediately clear whether KULMIYE has accepted defeat or whether there will be a recount. The situation is likely to be tense, given that many of KULMIYE's supporters went to bed last night convinced that their party had won; if the country gets through this peacefully and without damage to constitutional rule, then it deserves to be called a democracy.

In the meantime, Yvette's coverage of the election is continuing, with a discussion of how people chose candidates and an international observer's view of the voting.

UPDATE: KULMIYE has rejected the results, alleging that "the figures given by the electoral commission for some polling stations did not tally with the count approved by its representatives." There have been reports of sporadic clashes between KULMIYE and UDUB supporters in Hargeisa and other cities (although, as Yvette reports, others seem to be taking it in stride). This doesn't look good.

UPDATE 2: KULMIYE is taking its dispute to the courts rather than the streets. For the time being, it seems like the challenge to the election results will be handled in a constitutional manner.

Miriam's cup

Via Ampersand: Elayne Riggs has an interesting discussion of feminist haggadot (scroll down to April 16). There's another complete feminist haggadah here, and Naomi Chana (how could I not add someone with that name to the blogroll?) discusses why feminist Seders are likely to go mainstream. On a slightly different tangent, Eszter has a Passover page including a humanist haggadah that she wrote. Those looking for something more traditional (well, mostly) should be sure to check Kesher Talk frequently, because Judith Weiss is keeping a running Passover chronicle with many fascinating links.

Taking up the conversation

Daniel at Trivial Pursuits has an interesting discussion of Zionism that follows in large part from the two-state debate on The Head Heeb. Be sure to read the comments too - and Randy McDonald's response to him is here.

Feast of freedom?

How Baghdad's 40 remaining Jews are spending their Passover.

Friday, April 18, 2003
Round two

Olusegun Obasanjo has all but declared victory in tomorrow's presidential and gubernatorial elections, despite an increasing amount of protest over the results of last Saturday's parliamentary poll. With results continuing to trickle in, the ruling PDP appears to have secured an absolute majority in both houses of the legislature, although likely slimmer than before. A political tracking map in This Day predicts that the PDP will also win a majority of governorships tomorrow, with the opposition ANPP leading or contending in ten northern states and the Alliance for Democracy leading in Lagos and contending in a few other states. The newspaper also published its gubernatorial endorsements, several of whom, however, are not favored to win. (A map of the 36 presently existing Nigerian states can be found here, with more state-by-state data here.)

In the meantime, the storm over the National Assembly poll is threatening the remainder of the voting. Nigerian press organizations continue to describe the election as free and fair, but there are increasing reports of fraud, especially in the southeast, by international monitors. The national electoral commission has announced that the parliamentary vote may be rerun in Delta State if the reports of irregularities are confirmed, but opposition parties insist that the election was permeated with fraud throughout the country.

The main opposition candidate in tomorrow's presidential election, Mohammed Buhari, has stopped short of threatening a boycott but has set conditions for accepting the results and threatened mass action in the event of widespread fraud. Obasanjo responded with a letter to Buhari accusing him of threatening Nigerian democracy. In the meantime, some state party organizations have gone farther; a coalition of 13 opposition parties in Enugu state has withdrawn from subsequent elections, and the opposition in Cross River state (via Africapundit) is threatening to do likewise unless electoral irregularities are addressed. If the boycott spreads to a significant number of states, the national parties' stance may become moot.

Significantly, both of these states are in the southeast, which is the home of the disaffected Ibo and river delta minorities. Fears have been increasing, not only of a possible military coup, but of a repeat of the 1967 secession of the southeast. Former Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, speaking in Enugu, condemned Obasanjo as a "modern day Emperor Nero" and warned that a "repeat of the events of 1967 to 1970" is possible if the PDP tries to rig the election in the southeast.

Ham and cheese hillel on rye?

The Seder is over, and I've washed enough dishes for three small restaurants, but the most burning question of Passover remains: Was the sandwich invented more than 1700 years earlier than is commonly believed?

Credit for the invention of the sandwich, of course, is usually given to John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived between 1718 and 1792. His biographer, naturally, rejects the famous rumor that he invented the sandwich in order to have more time at the gambling tables:

There is no supporting evidence for this piece of gossip, and it does not seem very likely that it has any foundation, especially as it refers to 1765, when Sandwich was a Cabinet minister and very busy. There is no doubt, however, that he was the real author of the sandwich, in its original form using salt beef, of which he was very fond. The alternative explanation is that he invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o'clock.

But was Sandwich truly the inventor, or was the sandwich in fact a creation of Rabbi Hillel in the days of Herod the Great?

The evidence is somewhat inconclusive. The English text of the haggadah used by my family at Passover reads as follows:

When the Temple stood, Hillel used to combine matzah and bitter herbs in a sandwich and eat them together, doing as the Torah says: They shall eat the Passover offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

This would seem to place the origin of the sandwich before the birth of Christ. A few Seders ago, though, someone (I will not say who) became curious as to the Hebrew derivation of the word "sandwich." Upon examination by an unimpeachable translator - my mother - it was revealed that the Hebrew text said only that Hillel ate matzah and bitter herbs "together." This leaves open the question of whether he ate the bitter herbs with one slice of matzah or two.

Further evidence is provided in Tractate Pesachim 115a, which says that "it was related of Hillel that he used to wrap them together, for it is said, they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." The term "wrap" seems to be very telling. It is admittedly difficult to imagine "wrapping" anything in matzah, but this choice of words does seem to indicate that there was matzah on both sides of the bitter herbs.

This means that, centuries before the Earl of Sandwich was a gleam in his mother's eye, Hillel bit down on a horseradish sandwich on unleavened - admittedly a rather pathetic sandwich, but the basic principle was there. Some authorities state that he might have added the Passover offering to his creation, resulting in a much more substantial meal of lamb and horseradish on matzah. The well-known brittleness of matzah no doubt made this a difficult mouthful to swallow, but experience demonstrates that it's possible if the sandwiches are kept small and enough horseradish is used as a bonding agent.

Some of Hillel's contemporaries considered sandwiches heretical, opposing the eating of matzah and bitter herbs together because the former was a biblical commandment and the latter a rabbinic one, and the two should not be mixed. Still others believed that matzah and bitter herbs should not be eaten with a single blessing, because both had independent religious significance. In modern times, however, some commentators have recognized that the sandwich has a religious significance of its own:

Eating the matzah and marror [bitter herbs] sandwiched together as one, indicates a profound appreciation of God's behind-the-scenes direction of our world. Marror represents the bitterness of our slavery and exile. Matzah denotes dual concepts. It was the unleavened poor man's bread that we ate as slaves in Egypt. But it was also the bread of our freedom, which we had to finish baking before it had time to rise, because God decreed that the time for us to be redeemed was now. Eating marror and matzah together symbolizes our recognition that God is always with the Jewish People — in times of exile and in times of salvation.

So the next time you go to a deli, recognize the true inventor of a meal that is both spiritual and tasty. Order a "hillel."

Egyptian watchdog

The Cairo Times profiles Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif.

Thursday, April 17, 2003
Citizenship for zai-Nichi

Via frequent commenter Factory: The Japanese legislature is considering an amendment to the country's citizenship law that would permit "zai-Nichi" - Asians whose families have lived in Japan since before World War II - to become citizens without changing their names. Currently, "any resident of Japan wishing to acquire citizenship must not only complete a set of complex procedures but also adopt a family name written with characters included on the official list of commonly used kanji." It is estimated that 500,000 zai-Nichi, most of them Korean, live in Japan and have special permanent resident status, and are not widely encouraged to become citizens - even by many progressives, who prefer to view them as "living witnesses to Japan's past wrongdoings." If passed by the Diet, the amendment - along with another proposal to allow ethnic Koreans to hold dual citizenship - will make it easier for them to obtain citizenship, but it is anticipated that many will not.

Sliding toward tyranny?

Representatives of the Swazi media industry have proposed a system of self-regulation:

With financial assistance from the UN Development Programme and the British government, media practitioners drew up the plan, unveiled on Thursday, that would allow media consumers to register complaints about inaccurate news stories with a media mediator. If the mediator's investigation finds an error, he may ask for a retraction and an apology to be published or broadcast. More serious cases would be referred to a panel of inquiry.

The move is seen as a means of forestalling government regulation, which was threatened again in a recent speech by the Information Minister. Past attempts at press regulation have been forestalled by the courts - which, along with the media, are among the few independent institutions in Africa's last absolute monarchy - but with the Swazi legal system at its current impasse, the government has tightened its control of state-run media and again threatened to impose draconian measures against independent journalists. The independent media are hoping that self-regulation will at least buy them some time, and that the increasing international pressure on the monarchy to respect the rule of law will ultimately prevent them from being muzzled.

Democracy comes to the Gulf

Qatar may be the next domino in Arab democracy, with a referendum scheduled for April 29 to approve the country's first permanent constitution. If approved, the constitution will establish a parliament in which two thirds of the members are elected by universal suffrage, to replace the appointed consultative council that has existed since 1995. Last week, the Qataris also voted in the emirate's second local elections, in which Sheikha al-Jufeira became the first female elected official in the Gulf.

UPDATE: An unofficial translation of the draft constitution is here. In many ways it seems long on principles and short on specifics, and some of the articles in the bill of rights are qualified, but it definitely represents a shift in the balance of power from the emirate to a popularly elected legislature. The emir retains considerable constitutional authority, but his powers will be formally limited for the first time, and the legislature will be able to override his veto under certain circumstances.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003
The Feast of Freedom

Happy Passover to all my Jewish readers. Naomi and I are off to my parents' for the Seder; I'll leave you with an interesting Jerusalem Post article summarizing the debate among Israeli archaeologists about whether, and to what extent, the Exodus story is corroborated by ancient Egyptian records. You might also be interested in reading some of my previous thoughts about the holiday.

Somaliland votes

While the second election of the Third Nigerian Republic continues to unfold, Somaliland has just completed its first presidential election. The election, which follows local elections last December, marks the completion of Somaliland's transition from clan-based to democratic government under a constitution approved in 2001. There were some irregularities reported, particularly in the Sool region where some clans associated with neighboring Puntland boycotted the voting, but overall turnout was high and the election appears to have been fair. Somaliland has apparently passed a test that many recognized nations still have not, and even opposition leaders are arguing that the smooth election makes the case for international recognition.

Yvette at A Taste of Africa, who is part of an international observer team in addition to her civil-society work in Somaliland, is keeping a running chronicle of the election [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] and her stories are nothing short of inspiring. If anyone still believes that Muslims can't do democracy, they should go to Somaliland, a Muslim country where the people are not only participating in a democratic election but glorying in it.

The election pits the ruling UDUB party against the free-market, pro-woman KULMIYE and the nationalist UCID, with UDUB widely expected to win. The final results may be announced as early as Friday; in the meantime, the UDUB site is updating the count as it comes in. At the moment, with about 380,000 of an expected 800,000 to 1,000,000 votes counted, UDUB is in the lead with approximately 47 percent to KULMIYE's 38 percent and 16 percent for UCID. KULMIYE and UDUB are practically even in the capital - a substantial improvement from the opposition's showing in the local elections - and the opposition is leading in the Sanaag region as well as among the few Sool voters. Whatever the results, though, it appears that Somaliland has won.

UPDATE: As of 10 p.m. Hargeisa time Thursday, UDUB is holding onto a bare 7000-vote lead over KULMIYE. The opposition party has taken a commanding lead in Togdheer region as the votes from Somaliland's second-largest city, Burao, are coming in. Yvette reports that the situation is tense at the national electoral commission due to the closeness of the vote, but that it is still calm overall.

UPDATE 2: KULMIYE is claiming victory. According to the party's web site, representatives of all three parties signed the provisional results at 2 a.m. Hargeisa time. If this claim is true, and if UDUB continues to acknowledge the results, Somaliland is on the way to a peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party to the opposition, something that many African nations with far longer histories have not yet managed.

Good news

The Côte d'Ivoire unity government is finally complete.

The Microsoft challenge

This week's Village Voice discusses Microsoft's job interviewing practices:

Bill Gates's baby certainly doesn't follow the usual script in selecting staff, as illustrated in William Poundstone's forthcoming book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle (Little, Brown). The Redmond, Washington-based behemoth gets some 12,000 résumés monthly; if lucky enough to be plucked from the herd, an aspiring 'Softie journeys to headquarters for a day-long interview mill. Current employees pummel supplicants with confounding math and logic puzzles, occasionally jacking up anxiety levels with openly rude behavior.

They also volley an eccentric type of non-quantitative question, resembling a Rorschach blot or a Zen-koan parody: How would you make an M&M? Which U.S. state would you remove? How would you design Bill Gates' bathroom? After long hours of straining the mind's muscles to the limit, the exhausted candidate may feel he's not only been asked how to move Mount Fuji, but lugged it across Honshu on his back.

The one that caught my attention for most of the subway ride home, however, was this:

"Some of these questions aren't brainteasers per se, but more like guesstimates," Lerner explains. "They might ask, 'How many traffic lights are there in Manhattan?' They might not have the right answer, but they want to see how a person would go about estimating the number. And then they might say, 'OK, can you give me another way you might come to that estimate?'"

My fuzzy math was as follows: I figured that Manhattan is, on average, ten avenues wide (more in some places, less in others, and then there's Central Park) and is 250 blocks from end to end, give or take a dozen. Assuming that 95 percent of these intersections have signals (some minor ones don't, especially around the edges) and assigning an arbitrary 2.5 signal heads to an intersection (most intersections between one-way streets will have two; those between wide two-way streets will have more) gives 5937.

I'm certainly nowhere near correct, but the trouble is that now I have no way of telling how wrong I am. A LEXIS search doesn't reveal any answers, and even the New York City Department of Transportation's traffic signal FAQ is ponderously unhelpful; the closest I got was a reference to 11,000 traffic lights in the city as a whole. It could be that more than half the lights in NYC are in Manhattan - many more outer-borough intersections don't have them - but it's more likely that my estimate was high. On the other hand, the 11,000 may refer to intersections rather than signal heads, in which case my guess was in all probability low. If anyone can end the mystery, please do so.

And if anyone wants to know my answers to the other questions: I'd move Mount Fuji by jacking it up and rotating the earth to the desired position, I'd make an M&M by starting with two and eating one, I'd remove New Jersey because that would shorten my drive to DC slightly more than removing Maryland, and I'd design Bill Gates' bathroom with an alarm system to let the office help know when he's leaving. Do I get the job?

Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Foreign brother

This week's Ha'aretz family profile is of an Chinese guest worker and his Filipino girlfriend, who live in a mixed neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. He's very candid about his life and plans, he tells some hair-raising stories of being defrauded by employers, and he left a note at the Western Wall in Chinese.

An ominous sign

The Nigerian opposition has reportedly rejected the results of the parliamentary election, claiming fraud despite international monitors' finding that the election was generally free and fair. Thus far, the opposition parties have not called for a boycott of pending presidential and state elections, and are instead appealing to the national electoral commission and the courts to redress irregularities. The commission has responded, ordering a second day of polling in districts where there were credible allegations of fraud. This may not satisfy the opposition, however, which has rejected the results in their entirety and is discussing the formation of a united front. If a compromise cannot be reached, then Nigeria may conceivably be on the slippery slope to a repeat of 1983.

More African blogs

Noticed in the blogosphere: Swamp Cottage (from Kenya), Page Count (from South Africa) and Aderemi's Moonlight Tales (by a Nigerian living in the UK).

Starting early

Allison Kaplan Sommer provides some Passover humor.

UPDATE: More humor from Judith Weiss.

Monday, April 14, 2003
Nigeria update

The latest returns in Nigeria show the People's Democratic Party holding onto its majority with 116 of 207 declared seats. The opposition All Nigeria People's Party of Gen. Mohammed Buhari, however, appears to be cutting into the PDP's lead in the north; it now looks like the PDP will lose some of its 221 seats in the House of Representatives, and that the voting will break down along regional lines. Buhari and incumbent president Olusegun Obasanjo - both former military dictators - will face off in the presidential election on April 19.

Krio and the courts

An interesting meeting between the African diaspora and the law occurred in the pages of today's New York Law Journal. The meeting took place in Part 19 of the Bronx County Supreme Court, where George Smith was on trial for the attempted murder of Sierra Leonian immigrants Edwin and Gerald Sambolah:

Although Edwin Sambolah is fluent in English, his brother Gerald, who arrived more recently, is not. Rather, Gerald speaks Krio – a language peculiar to Sierra Leone. Therefore, he requested the assistance of a Krio interpreter, and one was obtained after some difficulty. The resulting testimony gave rise to much controversy during the trial...

Defense counsel objected that Krio "is not some kind of language that one goes to a university and studies" and that it is "nothing more than a Patois [sic]... and English with a bad accent." In addition, defense counsel raised continual objections to the interpreter's translations of the witness's remarks. He argued that certain words of the witness were recognizable as English, that the interpreter merely paraphrased the English words, and that such paraphrasing was incorrect... In counsel's view, no interpreter was necessary, and the jury should have been instructed that they could consider Gerald Sambolah's testimony as they heard it from [his] mouth and not as translated by the interpreter.

The court was thus faced with an elemental problem - is Krio a language, or simply "English with a bad accent?" Surprisingly, this appears to be the first occasion on which an American court - or any other court outside Sierra Leone - has confronted the history and nature of Krio. The Bronx judge got some of the details wrong - that's what happens when courts use encyclopedias and the Oxford English Dictionary as their exclusive references - but he came to the right conclusion.

Krio, like the languages that are described elsewhere as "creoles" or "pidgins," is an amalgam of standard English, colloquial English and tribal languages. It is, specifically, similar to Jamaican Creole, which is natural given that many of the former slaves settled in Sierra Leone during the nineteenth century were Jamaican and that many Leonians still have family ties in Jamaica. (Berthan Macaulay, a former attorney general of Sierra Leone who I met while researching my article on the common law of revolution, now practices law in Kingston.)

In Sierra Leone, Krio is the mother tongue of about a tenth of the nation's population, and is a first language among descendants of slaves and detribalized urban residents. It is a common lingua franca among the rest of the population as well, and Ethnologue estimates that it is understood by as many as 95 percent of Leonians. In his written opinion, the judge described the language thus:

The problem in this case is that Krio, in light of the history of Sierra Leone, contains many English words, albeit in combination with some native expressions. Thus, in listening to Gerald Sambolah's testimony in court, it was apparent that much, though by no means all, of what he said seemed recognizable as English. Indeed, as noted by American journalist and author Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, in listening to "the many English-based Creoles in the world, such as Krio... there is the thorny problem of deciding whether a person is speaking English or something that is like English but is really a quite separate language."

It has been said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, and by that measure, Krio doesn't quite qualify. The official language of Sierra Leone is not Krio or the widely spoken tribal languages of Mende and Themne, but English. On the other hand, Krio is unlike most creoles in that it has a standard spelling, set down in a 1980 dictionary compiled by Clifford N. Fyle and Eldred D. Jones. In addition, since few Leonians understand standard English, Krio is commonly used in the media, business, schools and the courts. Scholarly articles have been written in Krio, and Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone's premier university, features classes in Krio as part of its Honours Linguistics curriculum. The Bronx court thus had no trouble finding that "Krio, although related to English, is a separate and distinct language that cannot be understood without an interpreter."

Curiously enough, the judicial use of Krio is now an issue in Sierra Leone itself. Article 24 of the statute governing proceedings of the recently created international war crimes tribunal provides that "[t]he working language of the Special Court shall be English." Although defendants who do not speak English are entitled to interpreters, the proceedings will not be simultaneously translated and the trial minutes will be published in English only. Moreover, the right to an interpreter is not extended to witnesses. This rule has been criticized for making the proceedings less accessible to the Leonian public and for disadvantaging Krio-speaking witnesses:

[S]ome defendants and witnesses are likely to speak only Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, or a tribal language. Because there are relatively few languages spoken in Sierra Leone, it would not be a large burden for the SCSL to provide translation services to both defendants and witnesses, as do the ICTR and ICTY [...]

Translating into more accessible languages [also] increases the likelihood that the population will understand, and thus support, the work of the SCSL. Under Article 17(4)(f), the accused has the right to an interpreter "if he or she cannot understand or speak the language used in the Special Court." While this is a good beginning, translation should be expanded so that ordinary Sierra Leoneans can be informed about the Court and understand its proceedings.

It would, indeed, be peculiar if a Krio-speaking witness were entitled to an interpreter in the Bronx but not in Freetown.

Crossing the border

It's no fun being an illegal alien in Botswana, where thousands of Zimbabweans have come to find work and escape poverty and violence:

"Many times we find odd jobs like doing the laundry or cleaning around the house, but the women often refuse to pay and call the police on us instead," said one of the women who wait by the Dutch Reformed Church in an interview with Mmegi.

Botswana has a long-standing illegal immigration problem; like the United States and southern Europe, it is a relatively wealthy country with several poorer ones within easy access. The recent collapse of Zimbabwe's economy and civil society, however, has accelerated the problem, with as many as 125,000 Zimbabweans a month crossing the border into a country of 1.7 million people. Many of the Zimbabweans don't stay, but thousands have made their way to the cities where Botswanan labor unions accuse them of putting local laborers out of work.

Some employers, though, see another parallel to the United States - the Zimbabwean laborers are willing to do work that Botswanans won't do:

"We could never cheat Zimbabweans. These people are our lifeblood. Batswana would rather queue up to offload stock or furniture, but not work with the mortar and Zimbabweans are a ready labour," said a manager at the company. However she pleaded with this paper not to publish her company name as that would mean closure of business for them when the police come to their premises to arrest immigrants.

The Botswanan government has built an electric fence along the border and is considering an amendment to the immigration law that would raise the fines for smuggling or employing illegal immigrants. For now, though, an electric fence seems a trivial obstacle compared to the disintegration of Zimbabwe.

Sunday, April 13, 2003
New to the blogroll

Via the comment board: Take One, a blog by a 17-year-old Iranian. No apparent relation to Iranian Girl, but he shares her taste for Forugh Farrokhzad poetry, and he has some interesting things to say.

PDP ahead in Nigeria

Despite sporadic violence and fresh Ijaw-Itsekiri clashes in the Warri area, Nigeria's parliamentary election proceeded smoothly with heavy turnout in all parts of the country. Preliminary results suggest gains for the ruling People's Democratic Party, which may indicate an advantage for incumbent Olusegun Obasanjo in presidential elections next weekend. The vote will represent the first time that Nigeria has elected two successive democratic governments.

The Vanguard gives a state-by-state analysis, and presidential candidate Sarah Jibril of the Progressive Action Congress shares her thoughts about what's at stake on April 19.