Monday, June 25, 2012



Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied

I always knew my father really liked computers, but never realized the extent of his obsession until I was in middle school. After a long day at school and various extracurricular activities, I returned home to resume some school assignments on the computer. Only I encountered a problem: the computer was lying in tiny little pieces across our living room floor. In shock, I remember stepping towards the defunct computer, as if in a trance. My foot was subsequently pierced by one of the computer’s small little screws, hidden in the rug.

It was at this point that I lost it: In the mind of this middle school overachiever, all of my hard work (my papers, my power point presentations, etc.) had just been destroyed by my father. I don’t remember exactly what I did; but I remember feeling as if I was about to weep in exasperation. My father rushed in, explaining his decision: “You know how long the computer was taking to turn on? Once I am done, it will go faster.” I felt like crying out, “If the computer works at all!”, but ultimately decided to remain quiet. Needless to say, that night, my father reassembled the computer. The following morning it did work, and yes, it was faster.

Speaking of computers, my family has always been PC people. Once, my father got his hands on a Macintosh, a computer which in his opinion ran too slow. However, when he went to take the computer apart to "fix it," he found himself unable to do so. In fact, he had to use his PC laptop to get the information to reassemble it. According to him, Apple makes Macs un-fixable except by those in the Apple Store, thus running a monopoly over computer repair. I bring up this point not to join in the Mac-PC debate, but rather as an introduction to a video to a comedy skit, which in my opinion perfectly represents the current events of the 2000s: Apple Presents the IRack. Not only does it describe the Apple craze that engulfed the United States culture, but it also goes into the foreign policy of the U.S. during this time, in particular the issue of Iraq.

When searching for a book about Iraq, I wanted to find a book that brought light to the current events of the U.S. invasion from a historical perspective. I was a bit afraid that if I chose a book focusing solely on current events, I might not get an unbiased approach. I eventually chose Toby Dodge’s “Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied.” Although I found the book very interesting, by the time I finished the first chapter, I was worried that many of the concepts were flying over my head. Instead of focusing on the U.S. invasion and occupation, it focuses on Britain’s involvement in Iraq following World War I. The book delved into concepts otherwise foreign to me – the Mandate System, inner-workings of the League of Nations, and land policy. In the Preface and the Conclusion (in my opinion, the most accessible parts of the book), the author makes comparisons between the British and American control of Iraq.  Ultimately, although the book was challenging, I learned a great deal.
While abroad, I received many questions about the United States' invasion of Iraq. Most of these questions came from friends, wanting to know what American citizens really thought about this issue. Remembering back on the emotional and patriotic high after 9/11, it seemed to me that people were willing to support even the most drastic of actions - without knowing all of the facts. I was interested to read the book's reasoning for the invasion of Iraq, which was the “broadest possible definition of terrorism.” It quotes President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, when he termed the Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), stating that they “were a grave and growing danger not only because they were ‘seeking weapons of mass destruction,’ but also because they ‘could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.’”

While the book mentions the United States, it is really a book about British involvement in Iraq. It ends by stating the danger of the United States to repeat the past mistakes of Britain in this area of the world. Interesting aspects of Britain’s involvement include:

  • The idea of the Mandate States: Due to changes in international thought and the declining power of Europe, a new system was created after World War I. The idea was for a powerful nation (like Britain) to help maintain order and develop institutions in a country (like Iraq), so that it could achieve sovereignty. Britain faced many problems that the United States also has faced: the resources that are necessary to maintain order (capital, soldiers, infrastructure, etc.)
  • The rejection of Ottoman institutions: The Ottoman Empire was viewed as a negative and corrupting force by the British. Thus, when the British took control of Iraq, they rejected these institutions, favoring to create their own. This led to many problems about how to maintain control of the country. The United States, in contrast, wanted to use the existing institutions of the Sadam Hussein regime to maintain order; changing them once order was established. However, the institutions were weak because of economic sanctions and collapsed after the United States invasion.
  • The “Noble Savage:” The British had an unrealistic view of the Iraqi rural areas and tribes: they viewed tribe people as uncorrupted by the Ottoman Empire and tribes to be democratic in nature. Since the Mandate system stipulated that democratic institutions be established, many of these institutions, focused on the democratic tribes, were thus “ill-conceived” (page 89.)
  • Airplanes and Despotic Power: In order to silence criticism at home, Winston Churchill started replacing “costly imperial troops by the newly formed Royal Air Force” (page 131) in order to maintain order. As less money was spent and less causalities incurred, the British people put up less resistance to the country’s involvement in Iraq. “By relying on aircraft, the Iraqi state developed a modern but nonetheless despotic state power. State institutions did not penetrate society, and therefore the state’s presence became neither permanent nor legitimate to the Iraqi people” (page 145.) Interestingly, I see similarities between modern warfare tactics of the United States, in particular the use of drones.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012



In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria

While browsing the web in May (my ultimate procrastination when studying for exams), I came across an article regarding Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria. The article delved into her very European upbringing – born in the United Kingdom to Syrian parents, obtaining a degree in computer science, and working for Deutsche Bank – and the hopes of Syrians of what her presence might mean to the country and its development. It then contrasted her modern image with the present-day situation in Syria: discontentment in the country following the emboldening Arab Spring, overall chaos, and young people being killed by government forces.

When searching for a book regarding Syria, I found myself faced with two choices: a cultural book describing the archaeology, history, and the customs of the Syrian people, or a political book that documented the al-Assad regime. Despite my worries of reading solely opinions, I opted for the latter choosing Andrew Tabler’s “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.” In short, I did not want to read that “all is well and good in Syria” in books written during the optimistic wave of the early 2000s with the rise of Bashar al-Assad to power. I felt that based on the recent developments, it was important to gain an understanding of this government, its structure, and the international community’s stance. Moreover, this book was published in 2011, thus containing more recent information.

Based on the title of the book, I was expecting a good deal of the book to be about the United States. Fortunately, the book did not focus on the United States as much as I first assumed.  Andrew Tabler (whose blog contains a lot of interesting information regarding the recent developments in Syria) lived and worked in Syria with relative freedom from 2001-2008, despite the fact that he was a United States journalist. Fluent in Arabic, he became disenchanted with Egypt following the general population’s anti-American sentiments following the attacks on 9/11. He basked in the relatively liberal atmosphere of Syria, where women wore westernized clothes and people expressed their concern, asking if the author had any relatives or friends affected by the attacks in New York. Having met directly with first lady Asma al-Assad, he garnered her support to start the first English-language magazine, detailing Syrian affairs. Working under one of the NGOs to which she offered her patronage, he was able to witness the changes in Syria during these tumultuous years.

One of the main issues which the author noted was the presence of the West and the United States. The Syrian government, which prided itself on being secular, increasingly developed ties with Islamic groups, which intensified with the United States’ presence in the Middle East, most notably its presence in Iraq. Syria began to forge ties with Iran, whose government type is an Islamic Republic. Islamic rhetoric was also increasingly evident in the government. Bashar al-Assad stated in a speech, “We must be steadfast in facing this foreign attack… This region has two options: chaos or resistance. In the end, we are going to win, one way or another, even if it lasts a long time. Syria is protected by God.” (page 118.) Tensions intensified when a group of Syrians demonstrated and set fire to Danish, Swedish, and Chilean embassies, following the presence of a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. (The author stated that in a country as strict as Syria, these actions would have to be tolerated by the Syrian government.)

Although this book delved into several topics, including those of international relations and economic forces, what I found most interesting was the topic of reform. When Bashar al-Assad became president, there was a feeling of optimism, as they believed his rule would allow more liberty than that of his father, Hafez al-Assad. This optimism continued as the Syrian people expected reforms to the Baath Party. However, the reforms that were implemented were not near enough to satisfy the Syrian population. The Epilogue states the power of the Arab Spring on page 233, and how it has affected the population. No one is above the government crackdown, including children. I feel as if there is a great lesson to be learned from the al-Assad regime in Syria, and the importance of implementing reforms. Only time will tell what will occur in Syria, but one thing I know: I now feel knowledgeable enough to look forward to these new developments.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Monday, June 18, 2012



Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender

Trying to come up with some clever introduction about Kuwait, I found myself befuddled. Typically in such situations, I ask myself; how did I first come to learn about Kuwait? Unfortunately, I had no clear answer to this question. Perhaps I learned it during middle school when I was forced to memorize a bunch of countries and their capitals. The problem to this seemingly perfect answer was that the capital name seemed to escape me. (This was fixed by a quick Google search, when I embarrassingly discovered that the capital’s name is… wait for it… Kuwait City.) However, I did have some random facts about this small country. For example, I knew of its geographical location between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I also vaguely knew that the United States engaged in some conflict in the country before I was born and still has presence in the country. A family friend who works for the Air Force recently returned to the United States after serving several months at a military base in the country.

However, when it came to choosing books, I was becoming increasingly exhausted with reading books about conflicts. Summer was in its bright glory and I was getting tired of books about death. Thus, I opted to choose a book on a different, but equally interesting, topic. I chose a book entitled “Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender” by Haya al-Mughni.

As a newcomer to this subject, as well as to gender issues in the Islamic world, I found the book both interesting and accessible. Interestingly, the author immediately ties in gender issues with socio-economic issues at the very beginning of the book: “Access to resources and privileges, which are mediated by kinship and class relations, divide women and set them apart. By virtue of their class membership, upper-class women have much wider opportunities than others.” Thus, the beginning of the book is dedicated to the history of Kuwait and how the socio-economic divides (which persist to this day) first came into being. By the time Kuwait established its independence, it began to benefit greatly from oil revenues, perpetuating class divides, but not creating them.

Before the oil industry, there was the pearling industry. This industry forged both divisions and partnerships. The small ruling class and the small merchant class often had similar interests, which were often contrary to the lower classes, including fishers and nomads. In order to maintain wealth and avoid conflict, families often arranged marriages between kin. This increased the differences between class divides and interests.

Some interesting facts include:
  • By the time this book was published in 2001, women had not yet received the right to vote, despite much debate and controversy. After looking up more information, women were given and able to exercise this right for the 2006 elections.
  • Kuwait is a small country, and has a small workforce in order to sustain a modern economy. This has been used as reasons for both sides on the rights of women. On page 56, the author states that many Kuwaitis believe that more women are needed in the workplace, instead of offering jobs to foreign workers. Others have noted that when women enter into the workplace and receive good jobs, they must then higher a foreign-born keeper for their children. They argue that the important jobs of rearing the next generation on Kuwaitis should be raised by a Kuwaiti woman, rather than a foreign worker. Thus, women’s place is in the domestic sphere.
  • During Sadam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait in 1990, many women took up an armed role against the Iraqi invasion. Many were involved in resistance, and two brave women planned a bomb attack, attempting to destroy an Iraqi delegation. This received the attention and praise of many politicians, who offered them more rights. Many of these promises were never kept.
  • The black abbaya, or veil, is still very important to Kuwaiti society. It is important to note that the laws pertaining to women often affect the women in the lower classes the most. Upper class women (from the traditional ruling and merchant classes) are able to travel abroad without adhering to a dress code, have well-paid, respectable jobs, and run the women’s organizations in the country. Lower class women are more likely to be convicted by the laws pertaining to the behavior of women.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 



Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds

My parents asked me to embark on Mission Impossible: obtain a fully-cooked whole turkey in time for Thanksgiving dinner (which would occur in two days time). The location was Barcelona, Spain. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by this. Not only was I a full-time student running between classes in several different locations, but new challenges also seemed to keep arising. For example, I found a raw turkey only to discover the apartment’s oven was too small to cook a raw turkey.

Enter the hero: El Corte Ingles – the granddaddy of department stores. To me, El Corte Ingles is a magical place where you can merely whisper what you need and it will appear before you, including groceries, translation services, musical instruments, and cell phones. (My most magical El Corte Ingles moment came when my friends and I posed for some photographs in the fragrance section as a part of a marketing campaign. After returning to the United States, I discovered my image was chosen to be printed and plastered up on posters throughout Spain.) When I explained my dilemma to a representative from El Corte Ingles, they immediately recognized my plight and provided my family with a beautiful, delicious turkey.

My El Corte Ingle "magical" photograph.
The reason why I am mentioning Thanksgiving dinners is because of the subject of this blog: Turkey, the country. When I was a kid, my boy crush drew a picture of a greasy hamburger and a Thanksgiving turkey on the Mediterranean Sea – “Greece” and “Turkey,” respectively. Needless to say, I thought it was the cleverest thing I had ever seen.

Studying the economics of Europe while in Barcelona, the question of Turkey invariably came up. It was a similar question to that posed in the book I read about Georgia: “What is Europe and how large should Europe grow?” Turkey has aspirations to join in the European Union, and for a while, the aspirations were viewed as a reality (at least by many in the Turkish population.) Unlike Georgia, however, Turkey already benefits from NATO membership. Thus, I wanted to find a book which would not only delve into the recent history of Turkey, but also focus on the modern developments of the country. I found this book in Stephen Kinzer’s “Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds.”

(As a classical music lover, I must digress to express my elation when within the first few pages, the author notes Mozart's opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail and how it affected the European's mindset regarding the Turkish people. For classical music buffs, this opera was highlighted in the film Amadeus.) 

So, should Turkey be a part of Europe? As I am neither Turkish nor European, I do not feel like I can really offer an answer to this question. However my opinion as an American is “Grow. Expand. The more, the merrier.” According to the book, the reforms implemented by the Turkish government in order to be eligible for EU membership had a deep impact on its people, particularly its minorities. Turkey created a strong nation based on solidarity, nationalism, progress, and secularism – mantras of Kemalism – based on the rule and legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after World War I. It was this nationalism and emphasis in a Turkish identity which further separated many ethnic groups living in Turkey from the mainstream. Perhaps the two main ethnic groups in Turkey which receive the most media attention are the Armenians and the Kurds.

While the author briefly mentions the Armenians (for those more interested, please go to my book review about the country of Armenia), most emphasis is placed on the Kurds. The Armenian genocide was conducted by the Ottoman Empire, before the modern state of Turkey existed. However, this atrocity has never been formally acknowledged by the modern Turkish state. The author’s opinion is that Turkey must recognize this in order for reconciliation to take place. The Kurds, however, are a much more pressing issue, brought to light during the Iraq War. The Kurdish people are without a homeland, dispersed between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Since 1978, many Kurds have been using the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) as a means to demand rights by conducting attacks. The author brings this conflict to life, detailing his own experience being interrogated by the Turkish police by being suspected to be involved in Kurdish unrest. Having spent much time in Turkey, he also details the change in attitudes and expectations, most notably during a visit to the Kurdish region in 2005. On page 139 the power of “Europe” and the security that “being European” provided the Kurdish people are described.

This has recently changed. In 2006, Turkey received several blows in regards to the status of their application to the European Union. According to the author, “Europe had fallen into an identity crisis of its own. By falling victim to insecurities, its fear of the changing words and its perception of being threatened politically, economically and above all culturally, Europe seemed to say that, at least for the moment, geography mattered more than ideals. “ (page 225.) This was a change from the past, which hoped that by offering membership to Turkey, better relations with the Islamic world might be established in the future. For those from Europe and/or Turkey, what do you feel about the expansion of Europe?

Two other interesting topics included in this book that I would like to mention are: 1.) the power of the military and 2.) secularism and its relationship with women’s rights.

The power of the military was key to the Ottoman Empire, which had at one point, expanded into Europe. (The Ottoman Empire nearly took Vienna in 1521.) The military has continued to play a key role, and its relationship with Turkey’s modern-day democracy seems to be in the process of being defined. The author noted that “between 1960 and 1980 they [the military] toppled four governments, each time with considerable popular support.” (page 177.) I would love to know from the Turkish people, how they feel the power of the military has affected them (if any.) What does conscription entail? Does the military have a strong presence?

Another topic which interested me was that of the relationship between secularism and women’s rights. When Atatürk came to power, he implemented many reforms, including replacing Turkey’s Arabic script with Latin script. He also banned the veil worn by women for religious purposes. Today, although the veil is allowed, it is still a contentious issue. Many women believe that the reappearance of the veil is a threat to their personal identity. Others feel as if they were not given their rights when the veil was banned. Interestingly, if a politician’s wife wears a veil in Turkey’s relatively-secularized society, there is often controversy.  For women who wear this veil, why have you chosen to do so? Where do you stand on this argument?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Saturday, June 2, 2012



The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma

Television was never a big part of my family’s life. But, my parents were devout watchers of a sitcom, which due to the laughter in the background, I termed “The Funny Show.” I was never allowed to watch along with them when I was young, but grew to be a true Seinfeld lover when I grew older. (As a classical music lover, I must digress to note one of the reasons why I love Seinfeld so much: its episodes geared for the classical music community. Who can forget Crazy Joe Davola dressed up like Canio from I Pagliacci? Or Elaine’s classical music conductor boyfriend?) The reason I mention this is because my first introduction to Burma/Myanmar was actually through Seinfeld. As devotees of this program well know, Elaine’s boss, Peterman, would constantly bring new fashions from the country back to the United States.

However, this was not my only knowledge of this country. Most recently, during a 4th of July family get-together, I had the opportunity to meet the girlfriend of one of my father’s cousins. They have since married, but at the time, she was a Ph.D. candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. She is from Burma and we had a very interesting conversation regarding her life growing up in this country. Through what she described, I saw Burma as more than just Peterman’s stomping ground and Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy.

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U is an incredibly interesting book. Similar to the Iranian author whose book I read, this author is an excellent ambassador due to the diversity of his experiences. He is the grandson of former UN Secretary General from Burma, U Thant. He spent much of his childhood in the United States, experiencing the strong influence of the western culture, while preserving his unique Burmese heritage.

The author states in the beginning of the book that it is his goal to give the reader a sense of Burma. He states that in order to understand the current political and social changes that have taken place in modern Burmese history, it is first important to understand the past. And he delves deep into the past, but in a manner that is quick-to-read and easy to understand. The book starts explaining the events of 1885 with the fall of the Burmese monarchy: why the monarchy fell, European colonial ambitions, and how it affected the internal situation of the country.
Burma can be characterized by its diversity of ethnic groups. A part of the ancient Chinese Silk Road, it was constantly influenced by outside forces. The monarchy was often seen as a way of preserving power and negotiating between these many ethnic groups and tribes, as the kings would often marry daughters of the chieftains to negotiate peace. Thus, when Great Britain’s colonial aspirations led it to take over the country (in a manner that infuriated many of the Burmese population and left many enemies), the centralized power began to fall apart at its core. There was no longer one unified Burma. The author then goes on to describe more recent Burmese events: Burma’s involvement in World War II, the rise of the military dictatorship, and popular Burmese figures, including his own grandfather. Throughout the book, there is a personal touch, as the author describes his own family history and how the events of the world personally affected their lives.

Some questions that I would like to ask, after reading the book:

1.)    How far in time must one go back to get a true sense of the history of a country or a place?
2.)    What was the impact of European colonial ambitions on Burmese society? How can we compare these with the history of other countries who were colonized by the European world?
3.)    How did freedom movements manifest themselves in Burma? How do freedom movements generally manifest themselves? How should we, in the international community, react to such movements?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

When I told my grandmother that I was reading a book about Sri Lanka, she was enthusiastic to share with me her own knowledge about the country: “I never knew where Sri Lanka was, but then began to see it appear on a lot of clothing tags. It’s off the coast of India.” (And no, my grandmother doesn’t know this fact due to being a perpetual shopper. For ten years she worked as a boutique lady once a week at Steinmart. She was recently rewarded with a lifetime 25% discount for all purchases due to her outstanding dedication. Needless to say, I have a hunch that most of the family's Christmas and birthday presents were once merchandise at this store.) I was fortunate to learn about Sri Lanka through a different means other than textiles.

I started voice lessons at a very young age. (My mother nearly had a car accident with me attempting to sing “Der Hölle Rache” in the back seat, and decided that I needed to learn some different music.) While taking lessons at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, I met rising operatic soprano from Sri Lanka, who has since sung with the New York City Opera - shout out to Tharanga Goonetilleke. This led me to have an interest in the country. I was subsequently distraught with the 2004 tsunami which devastated the southern coast of the island.

That being said, I did not know very much about the country, let alone its government or conflicts. When I was searching for a book, I came across a book entitled Tea Time with Terrorists: a Motorcycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Mark Stephen Meadows. The concept of terrorism is a very sensitive – but also a very relevant – topic in our modern world, which made me look at the book several times. It claimed to not only explain the conflict within the island of Sri Lanka, but also aspects into the history and evolution of terrorism.

This book is part-memoir, part-travelogue. It details the personal journey of the author, seeking to find answers to terrorism following the events of 9/11. He eventually decided upon Sri Lanka, looking into the conflicts between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. These are two ethnic groups living on the island of Sri Lanka, in which the Sinhalese are the majority and the Tamils are the minority. Conflict and terrorism has been rampant, especially following 1976 with the formation of the militant LTTE group, or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. These two ethnic groups typically hold different religious beliefs. Most Sinhalese hold Buddhist beliefs, while most Tamils hold Hindu beliefs. (As you can imagine, the conflicts thus result in the destruction of many religious shrines, which intensifies the conflict. One such event was the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth by the LTTE in 1983, outlined in pages 158-161.)
The author traveled extensively throughout Sri Lanka, documenting his experience through photographs, videos, illustrations and writings, many of which can be viewed on his website. While I personally enjoyed the book and the author’s voice, I will note that there are not chapter-by-chapter notes, nor is there an index (which would make it much easier to find pertinent information.) Instead, there is a glossary, a selected bibliography, and timeline.

Some aspects of the book that I would like to mention are: 1.) the Sri Lankan life (outside its capital of Colombo); 2.) suicide attacks; and 3.) the role of the media. The author had the opportunity to experience the Sri Lankan life firsthand. He spent a long time in the countryside, and in fact, made a trip to Tamil-controlled northern areas of the country by motorcycle. His experiences are certainly eye-opening. Another aspect that I found especially interesting is one of the assertions made by the author that Tamil militant groups developed and put into practice suicide attacks. The author goes into the development of many of the terror groups on this island, their associations with terror groups in several countries of the Middle East, and their practices of suicide attacks. The author also discusses the role of the media, and how one group’s use of the media can change the world’s perception of a conflict. This made me wonder about my own perceptions on conflicts, and how these might not represent the true nature of these conflicts.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!