Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hussein Ibish Has a Blog

A wee bit late to this party, but my good friend Hussein Ibish is now in full possession of a blog (Ibishblog) where he will hold forth on sundry matters relating to Palestine, the Middle East and related topics.

Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) and Executive Director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for American Leadership. He is also one of the most prominent and fearless pundits on Arab-American issues.

A taste of what you'll get there is this recent post -- "When Western professors drink the Islamist Kool-Aid" -- in which Ibish demolishes a hapless dope who argues that (to quote Ibish's paraphrase) "there is no such thing as Arab secularism, except among a 'Westernized-globalized class' which is not only inauthentic, but is also by definition an agent of imperialism and 'Orientalism.'"

It's worth reading the whole post, but Ibish's fourth graph eviscerates the unfortunate academic who wandered onto his radar so utterly that the rest of the piece is sort of like taking a hammer to smashed shards of pottery. Here it is in full:

Worse still, [the article] makes one of the most fundamental errors to be typically found in academic writing on postcolonial realities: it treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which the postcolonial world (or the academic in question) can simply pick and choose which elements of modernity it wishes to pull off the shelf and put in its basket, leaving others for the next customer. Quite obviously, it doesn’t work that way. Social, economic and political modernity, which is and has been an ineluctable and pervasive force in the colonial and postcolonial worlds, carries its own inbuilt logic of connections, dichotomies, causes and consequences. It is absolutely ridiculous to take one troublesome aspect of modernity in a postcolonial environment (in this case secularism in the Arab world) and dismiss it as an inauthentic imposition of Western colonialism, as if all or many of the other aspects of modernity were somehow less “inauthentic” or less of a tool of colonialism. Modernity is a package deal; you take it or leave it. And, since pre-modern formations were generally unable to successfully resist or remove colonial domination, and for many other reasons, the embrace of modernity in the postcolonial world has been irreversible for well over 100 years.

Ibishblog is already linked under my favorites at the right. You should make it one of yours.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Zagreb Student Protests

Word came down on Sunday that more than a month of student protests at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Zagreb had come to a rather quiet end. Protests at other Croatian universities -- including Rijeka and Zadar -- had ended their protests almost two weeks earlier.

I found out about the protests through a really wonderful post by Nina Power on her blog infinite thought. Power had been invited to speak to the students during the protests, and her post is a really keen analysis of the importance of the eruption of student fury and solidarity.

But before I dig into Power's thoughts, let me catch up the 99.9% of readers who have not been following the story --which has received very little coverage outside Croatia.

The university system in Croatia -- and throughout much of the Balkans -- remains heavily subsidized. Most students pay little or no tuition for their education, though this is rapidly changing. In Croatia, for example, 60 percent of undergraduates are now paying tuition. (This data comes from a wonderful summary of the protests at

The current wave of protests was sparked by the Croatian government's plans to end free graduate education -- and additional plans to step up the tempo of higher education in that country by only granting tuition relief to students who successfully complete their exams in a timely fashion.

So the students in Zagreb and elsewhere shut down the formal program of the university for over a month (something which had not been done since 1971, when the nationalist Croatian Spring was in full blossom), replacing it with an ad hoc program of lectures, plenums and other activities. The protests ended on Sunday, with students saying that they "no longer wanted to obstruct the work of their colleagues" (Again, quote from SeTimes.)

Powers' account of her visit to the protests is fascinating in a number of aspects. She says that the students were well-organized and had consciously "de-charismified" the protest. She writes:

Learning from the mistakes of the 60s, where students 'leaders' came to stand in for the voice of a generation (Dutschke, Cohn-Bendit), the Zagreb occupation has no clear figureheads (a fact that drives the media mad). Each night a statement is read by two different students, and everyone takes turns to run the plenum. It feels like a genuinely collective, democratic event.

The end of the protests was accompanied by the announcement that the students may renew their action in the fall. It will be interesting to see if that does indeed happen.

Viewed from the United States, which has long had a bizarre hybrid of private and public funding -- and where the burden of paying for one's education has long been shifted to the individual student and their parents -- the Zagreb protests might seem unrealistic and even quaint. (And Balkan higher ed has any number of problems, including "cash for grades" scandals and the inability to remove faculty who are unqualified or otherwise unfit to teach at the university level.)

But the flaws inherent in the U.S. system of higher education are real. In many cases, the lack of access to the best institutions for poorer students and the constant stress of budget cuts at even the healthiest schools stifles progress, crushes egalitarianism and opportunity, and needlessly funnels cash for basic research in the sciences and other disciplines through our military-industrial complex and its notions of that research's potential utility.

Seen in that light, the Zagreb protests are a sign that Croatia's students are resisting the march to that sort of system of higher education in their own country. It is a movement that is worth some closer scrutiny.

(Caricature of Dragan Primorac, Croatia's minister of science and education, as Pinocchio pilfered from infinite thought.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

More on the Kundera Scandal (Sigh)

A very long and detailed article about the Milan Kundera scandal by New York Review of Books staffer Jana Prikryl was just posted at The Nation.

For anyone who is steeped in the complexities of the scandal, the piece is riveting. The big news in the article is Prikryl's close examination of the multiple cross-cutting ripples of influence in Czech journalism, academe, literary culture and politics
that stoked the story.

And the first few paragraphs of the piece are a brilliant evocation and denunciation of the Czech Republic's abject refusal -- across political and intellectual divides -- to embrace its potential destiny as a cultural and political force in contemporary Europe. Unspoken in Prikryl's piece is the near-insanity of the country's global-warming-denying president Václav Klaus, but her close reading of the stultifying and oblivious stunt-art nonsense of David Cerný is staggeringly good.

Cerný is best-known for his painting of a Russian tank that stood as WWII memorial to the Soviet liberation of Prague in 1991. He settled on the color pink for his statement in the heady afterglow of the Velvet Revolution, but the provocative gesture -- set against Czechoslovak efforts to peacefully work out the departure of Soviet troops from its territory -- was read either as cheeky and knowing tweak or as a spit-on-the-grave of the Warsaw Pact. (And let's be clear, when I arrived in suburban Prague in September 1991, the withdrawal wasn't totally complete.)

In her article, Prikryl observes that Cerný -- who was clearly dancing on that thin Spinal Tappian line between stupid and clever in 1991 -- is now completely politically tone deaf 18 years on. His sculpture to "celebrate" the Czech accession to EU's presidency trafficked in every vulgar and stupid stereotype of Europe's recent past (swastikas, scab picking and a bizarre self-loathing). Oh, it's art, dahling. It's art. It's just not any good.

Pushing on from that strong opening gambit, Prikryl demonstrates a wonderful knack for separating out the various strands of unacknowledged conflict and ethical collision in the publication of the article linking Kundera to the denunciation of a Western agent in the Czech magazine Respekt -- and in the attempt to hold the novelist/essayist and playwright to account for the long-ago incident uncovered by researchers.

But for all of the delicate onion-peeling in the article, I am going to be immodest and suggest that The Nation piece is wonderfully-engaging embroidery around the central and largely-indisputable facts of the case that I set out a few months ago in The American Prospect.

The new evidence about careerism and cloudy motives and perhaps conflict of interest in publicizing this incident in Kundera's past are diverting but do not alter what we already knew. (1) This denunciation by Kundera that led to an arrest and long prison sentence did happen, despite the novelist's semantic shimmying away from it; (2) It was completely explicable in the context of its era (and Prikryl's article is weakest in its time-bending citation of Milan Uhde as a potential witness for the Kundera prosecution even as he defends Kundera); and (3) That Kundera's subsequent work and his elaborate fictive and non-fictive personas must be interrogated anew in the light of this news.

Prikryl agrees with the third point in large part, especially regarding Kundera's book-length collections of essays. And it is here that the literary critic -- armed with theory and strategies of close reading -- must also add empathy/sympathy to the arsenal of analysis.

Describing a new Kundera book of essays not yet published in English (and mouth-watering because Kundera tackles the immensely problematic works of Curzio Malaparte), Prikryl writes that "... at one point, recalling an argument he had with a journalist in the early '60s about the novelist Bohumil Hrabal, Kundera hazards a statement that one imagines he wouldn't mind having applied to himself today. Defending Hrabal's refusal to take a political stand in Communist Czechoslovakia, Kundera chided the journalist, who expected more from Hrabal: 'A single book by Hrabal renders a greater service to people, to their inner freedom, than all of us with our gestures and proclamations of protest!'"

As a close reader of Hrabal, it is hard for me to disagree with Kundera's assessment. (And to read Hrabal's self-flagellations in interviews and in works published in translation a few years ago as Total Fears, it is easy to not only reserve judgment, but to forgive any transgressions against outright dissidence by Hrabal -- real or imagined.)

The strangeness of the Kundera conundrum (as Prikryl terms it) is that as Kundera cites Hrabal, he does not follow Hrabal's path (however belated) of transparency. Prikryl's article peels much of the mystery around the circumstances of how and why this incident came to light -- but no one but Kundera himself can shed more light on the central mysteries of its imporatnace to his work and his life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

K.O.F.Y. : Belgrade via Lagos

Winston Kofy Ahman, aka K.O.F.Y, is a very difficult man to pin down. He is an African musician based in Belgrade, or so says his press release.

But even if we stipulate that his tale of international intrigues and travel (Lagos crack dealer and political activist who shared a cell with Fela Kuti in the late 1970s; unspecified activities in Jamaica and a stint as a doorman at a gay Latino bar in the go-go 80s) might not withstand the careful attentions of an investigative reporter, what are we to make of K.O.F.Y's strange and wondrous new record, Return of the Secretary General EP? (BTW: It's not an EP. But that's part of the title.)

The very existence of the record -- produced in Belgrade and available as a free download in its entirety at the website of San Francisco record company 3amdevices -- is clear evidence that there is indeed a K.O.F.Y in the world. And The Return of the Secretary General EP's spoken word recited over a blend of downtempo, house, ambient and Afrobeat is very much of this moment, even as some fondly anxious influences (The performance artist known as Copernicus and the Lee "Scratch" Perry of The End of an American Dream) look on in approval.

K.O.F.Y was discovered in Belgrade by Vukša Veličković -- a young Serbian writer and cultural gadfly who serves as the executive producer of the Return of the Secretary General EP. Veličković has made a splash in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans with his first novel, Gužva (which featured a CD soundtrack inserted in the book), and his cultural writing in various magazines there.

It's no accident that Veličković and K.O.F.Y ended up sharing a recording studio. They share a scathing vision of curdled world disorder and the cozy corruption of international jetsetting diplomacy. Aside from K.O.F.Y's blatant over-identification with former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, other African leaders -- including Robert Mugabe ("Mugabe's Lunch" is the record's first single and video) and Hosni Mubarak -- also get shoutouts on the record. (On "They Call Me K.O.F.Y," the artist instructs Mubarak: "We ask you not to use the washing machine and the dryer in the laundry room during the following times: Monday through Friday, 12 until 2 p.m.... we thank you for your understanding.")

But one could make the argument that for all the talk of Mugabe and Mubarak, Return of the Secretary General is actually a record about Serbia -- past, present and maybe future.

Its attitudes toward power and venality could just as well apply to Tito and Slobodan Milosevic as it does to Mugabe and Mubarak. And, oddly enough, K.O.F.Y's concerns are the same concerns as any creative young person in Serbia today: slow Internet connections ("Slow"), the hell of making a play at emigration ("Boat Trip"), and the collision of art and popular culture (a deranged riff on Britney Spears called "Piece of Me").

On "Slow," K.O.F.Y complains bitterly that "I cannot download movies from torrent websites. I cannot easily access file sharing programs." On "Boat Trip," K.O.F.Y dreams of emigration to America. "At first I wanted to go by boat.... from the coast of Africa to the U.S.A," he says. When his friends ask K.O.F.Y why he doesn't take a bus, he fumes bitterly: "You cannot go any fucking where by bus! You understand?" and "You cannot take a bus to the fucking United States of America! You take a plane! Or a boat like me!"

Return of the Secretary General EP
is full of great beats, dazzling wordplay ("Piece of Me" is particularly noteworthy in this regard) and a palpable sense of alienation and dislocation that has colored the experience of young people in Belgrade for the past 20 years. It also treads some complicated racial territory as it accomplishes this.

Under its very slippery surfaces, what K.O.F.Y and his executive producer have made is compelling listening. Check it out.

(If the 3amdevices site is wonky, as it was as I posted this, you can also download the record at LastFM.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mother Courage on the Road (via dog & pony dc)

"Reviewing" a work that's still "in-progress" is bad form. And that's not what I am going to do in this post. Review a work in progress.

But I am going to advise you to drop what you're doing if you can and go see dog & pony dc's Courage: a workshop production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Scena Theatre is also about to roll out its production of Mother Courage on June 1 (of which I hope to have more to say before it opens) -- and I don't think it's any surprise that this Brecht play is in the air in D.C. After all, Brecht took his inspiration for the play from Johann Grimmelshausen's The Life of Courage -- a violent bawdy sequel to Simplicissimus, Grimmelshausen's masterpiece about the Thirty Years War.

We're almost 10 years into war in Aghanistan and Iraq and now, essentially, Pakistan. War fatigue is high -- even at only one-third the distance. Our war also has some of the same stinks of Brecht (via Grimmelshausen)'s Thirty Years War. Who is Mother Courage but an outsourced arm of the conflict? And profiteering? Nope, nothing to relate to there in our own time, is there?

There are two other reasons I think you should go check out what dog & pony are doing with Mother Courage -- even at this early stage. (They will make their formal debut of the play next summer.)

The first reason is that this is a rare opportunity -- and a brave choice by director Rachel Grossman -- to open up the process and let the audience see how theatre really gets made. The production is still finding its legs in some respects. Gambits are being played. Traditional Brechtian devices are being forced to earn their keep or be jettisoned.

The second reason to go is that what's already there -- from the music (think Beirut meets Gogol Bordello) to the performances to the concept -- is already quite powerful.

And the power of the concept is really worth diving into a bit here. Grossman's already testing the sturdiness of Brecht's text by infusing it with a cabaret feel that's more Threepenny Opera than postwar Berliner Ensemble. (The fact that last week's workshops took place at Chief Ike's bar in Adams Morgan only heightened that effect.)

The cool thing is that we won't know until next summer how far Grossman decides to push this. But to me, just trying it in a workshop environment is a promising devlopment for Brecht and for the possibility of larger scale ensemble political theater in America. As someone who's taken shots at the outsized influence of Harold Pinter closing off the epic tradition in the U.S., I also think it's fair to say that Brecht's outsized influence (and the reverence that his diktats on presentation are given to this day) has been equally stultifying -- much to the detriment of his own legacy and what he can still teach us.

So go. Seriously. Go. And if you do, check out the production blog.