Wednesday, September 19, 2012



Spirit of the Phoenix

As a foreign language student, I hardly ever read without a pencil in hand in order to underline important words/phrases which I do not know the precise definition. I then review all of the words once I complete the book. It is a lengthy process, but I figure that the reward is worth it. Needless to say, when I sat down to read the book I chose about Lebanon, habit took over: Reading the prologue, I found myself underlining a couple of words per page. After (somewhat embarrassingly) remembering that my first language was English, I set the book down for about a month before I picked it up again. What was it supposed to be – a SAT vocabulary book?

Speaking of the SAT, how I hated that test! My history with the SAT is one that spanned over the course of many years. I was one of the “lucky few” in South Carolina who were selected to take the SAT as a 7th grade student. (I do not mean to brag too much, but I will mention that my 7th grade scores were higher than the state’s average high school senior.) I started re-taking the SAT in the 11th grade. I found an interesting correlation: Every time I re-took the SAT, I became more adept at finding the answers to their questions, resulting in an average 80 point increase each time I took it. My score ultimately depended on how many times I was willing to wake up early on a Saturday morning to take some godforsaken test.

Luckily, I am no longer expected to spend my Saturdays filling in bubbles anymore. Instead, I can spend Saturdays doing more interesting things, like reading the books of the Global Book Challenge. The book I chose to read on Lebanon was Tim Llewellyn’s “Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon.” The author, who is a former BBC reporter based in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut for years, shares stories from his past in this book. Not only is the book informative, but has a very personal touch, as the author shares the people whom he had seen and the places where he had visited during Lebanon’s many years of conflict.

One of the things that struck me about Lebanon is the importance of its location. Lebanon is located to the north of Israel, making it a key player in the conflict between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Although Lebanon is a key player, the country itself is unorganized and disjointed. The author describes two forces at play in Lebanon today: Israel and the rest of the Arab world. “’For Israel... the only way to be safe is to be the strongest state in the midst of fragmentation’” (page 82.) In this way, it is implied that Israel wants Lebanon to remain weak and unorganized, so as to appear as the leader in the region and perhaps gain more international support. The author also provides an interview in which it is said, “’For 30 years now the Arabs and Iran have been using Lebanon to fight Israel’” (page 68.) While the author acknowledges this, he also notes, “This is true, but the Lebanese have never been strong or coherent enough to resist outside interference and blandishments” (page 68.) In short, Lebanon is a country caught between competing forces.

Lebanon boasts a diverse population, which makes it vulnerable to outside powers wanting to impact international affairs. It has many unique groups of people of different religions living within its boundaries. Once a protectorate of France in the years leading up to World War II, Lebanon was the home to many groups who lived in relative peace, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians. Also, following the creation of Israel, Lebanon has been the home to many Palestinian refugees. For many years, Lebanon experienced such prosperity that it was considered something along the lines of the Switzerland of the Middle East. In 1975, Civil War broke out in Lebanon. Lasting fifteen years, it was devastating to the economy.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1990, Lebanon has remained unstable. Popular political figures are often assassinated by sectarian fanatics, or by people promoting foreign interests – as was the case with former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. (Many believe that Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor, was somehow involved in Hariri’s murder.) Tensions in Lebanon are prevalent still to this day. The author ends the book by saying, “As I write, the 18th attempt in six months (since November 2007) to put a new president in place has failed” (page 229.) This inability to work together to accomplish a common goal has doubtlessly taken its toll on the Lebanese people.

As I mentioned, the author was a BBC correspondent. I particularly appreciated this when he shared his experience at the Chatila refugee camp (sometimes called the Shatila refugee camp), which is located in the vicinity of Beirut. This refugee camp was the home to the 1982 Shatila Massacre, during which thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian Shiite civilians were slaughtered. I had never heard about this event, but found his account quite moving.

As I finish this review, I would like to clear up the matter regarding the SAT-level vocabulary that I mentioned at the beginning. First of all, the author is British. (I know that it is not a good excuse, but I thought I might try it anyway...) Once I restarted the book after having read books about Lebanon's neighbors, I was able to get through the book very quickly. All in all, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Lebanon, but it is probably best to have some knowledge about the area first.

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



Yemen: The Unknown Arabia

I might be a little over-optimistic, but I expect this academic year to be the best year of my life thus far. I started this fall semester by skipping the entire first week of classes to have an epic week with friends and family in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention. Next semester will be just as epic: I am looking forward to returning to Barcelona in January for a month-long internship in the opera industry. Starting in February, I will spend the last semester of my undergraduate career in Berlin, Germany.  

Moreover, I am taking four interesting courses this semester: a government course entitled “International Conflict,” an economics course entitled “Education and Inequality,” and two German language courses. I must admit that I am already starting to feel a little overwhelmed by how much the German language has consumed my life. Despite this feeling, language acquisition and immersion are not foreign to me. In fact, two of my three majors are in foreign languages. I also undertook an entire year of undergraduate Mandarin Chinese (a GPA-breaker for some, a GPA-booster for me.) In middle and high school, I was a top student in both my Latin and French classes.

While I have become quite adept at communicating in different languages, I will admit the subtleties of languages escape me – even the subtleties of the English language. I always use incorrect – and often bizarre – prepositions in writing. (Needless to say, this blog post is the result of several rounds of editing.) I also try to avoid slang or informal speech while talking because it is just so embarrassing when I mess up. My friends will never let me forget when I accidentally said, “That’s right down my street” instead of “That’s right up my alley.”

The author of "Yemen: The Unknown Arabia," Tim Mackintosh-Smith, was first attracted to Yemen because of his work as a linguist. He particularly chose to engage in language study in Yemen because the local Yemeni dialect is the most similar to classical Arabic. As a linguist, his entire book is filled with interesting tidbits of information about the Yemeni dialect of Arabic. He also draws connections between the Yemeni way of speech and the country’s unique history and heritage.  

I knew next to nothing about Yemen when I first chose this book, so learning about its history and culture was an interesting read. I knew that Yemen was very conservative towards the role of women in society, so I assumed that Yemen had many cultural ties to its geographical neighbor of Saudi Arabia. Thus, I was surprised to hear about its unique history and development.

Two interesting aspects about Yemeni culture include:
  • The spread of the Yemenis over the Arab World: The author shared a story in which a taxi driver refused to accept pay because he noted that the author spoke with a Yemeni accent. He said that Yemen was the land of his grandfather, and thus, he could not accept pay. Interestingly, the taxi driver was not referring to his recent family history: There has not been a mass migration from Yemen to the rest of the Arabic world in recent years. In contrast, Yemenis were participants in the early Islam conquering armies, spreading Islam across the Middle East. Thus, many Arabs claim to have a personal and familial connection to the Yemeni culture.
  • Yemen was very influential throughout ancient history. First of all, it controlled the entrance to the Red Sea (which would set it on the radar map of many European colonizing powers for centuries to come), and thus, had an advantage in trade. In fact, throughout ancient times, Yemen was known as a spice producer, especially of such spices as myrrh and frankincense. It is also worth noting that Yemen was not a nomadic society like its neighbors. In contrast, Yemen was an agricultural society and was a part of the Queen of Sheba’s geographic domain.

To be honest, if I had the chance to re-pick a book about Yemen, I would probably not choose this particular book. This is not because I disliked it, but rather, I have developed a greater interest in current Yemeni affairs than in the history of Yemeni society. This interest actually developed after one of my friends posted a video on her Facebook page which discusses the use of drones by the United States. In particular, this Al-Jazeera video talks about the drone strikes which have occurred in Yemen, despite the fact that the U.S. is currently not at war with Yemen.

This book is pre-9/11, meaning that it was published in 2000. Thus, many recent political developments are not included in this book. The book does delve into some political matters, including the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. However, I would like to know more about recent Yemeni political developments. Based on some quick research I did following the reading of this book, it is evident that the Arab Spring of 2011 had significant effect on Yemen. Also, as of February 2012 the US Department of State has issued a Travel Warning to anyone wishing to visit the country.

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



Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society

While I have greatly enjoyed the resumption of courses for the most part, I have been slightly bothered by one observation: Many of my classmates do not seem to be nearly as excited as me to be there. Without wanting to sound too preachy, I was raised to view education as a unique privilege – one that I probably would not have if I had been born in a different geographic location or at another time in history. Thus, I find it incredibly frustrating when I see people sitting in front of me perusing Facebook in the middle of a lecture. Perhaps even more frustrating (or humorous, depending on how you look at it) are the students who so-stealthily text in the middle of class by ingeniously hiding their hands underneath their desks. As for me, I do things the relatively old-fashioned way: pencil, notebook, and a leather knapsack. I do have a cell phone, but I hardly use it on a daily basis. My friends can tell you that it might take days for me to return a text.

Another thing which irks me about my educational experience: the number of non-informative Power Point presentations that I have been forced to sit through. I believe that our society should redefine Power Point as “an exercise to make a twenty-minute research session on Wikipedia seem substantial enough to get a decent grade.” Although I do not consciously try to be rebellious, I try to challenge the undergraduate norm as much as I can. Those who have sat through one of my Power Points know that I go all-out: raw data, graphs, and charts. (I often include data in other languages, just for fun.) I always have two – if not more – bibliographic or sources slides. I am of the opinion that if I present on a topic, I must understand that topic to the best of my ability given the time constraints. Presentations should not be judged on someone’s willingness to stand in front of a group and sounding eloquent, but actually conveying information, ideas, and research in an efficient manner.  

As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, I actually enjoy reading technical articles and books. I like studying graphs and charts because I believe that one can decipher numbers to get a better understanding of a particular situation. Thus, I was very excited to get my hands on Emile Nakhleh’s book, “Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society,” which features a wide assortment of graphs and charts.

Although it was originally published in 1976, it was re-released in 2011. In this edition, the author includes a very interesting preface linking this book to the events of the modern day, particularly with the events of the Arab Spring, which have deeply affected Bahrain. The author was the first Fulbright Scholar admitted into Bahrain. His research, which outlines the political development of this society following the creation of the country’s first constitution in 1973, was very controversial and was unable to be published in Bahrain until recently.

The preface states that the insights into Bahrain society made by this book are very applicable to the modern times. In 1973, the emir unexpectedly issued a constitution providing citizens with certain rights, including the right to vote in the election of a National Assembly. However, due to conflicts among leaders, the constitution was soon discarded. In 2011 during the Arab Spring, many protestors called for the restoration of the 1973 constitution. The author makes an interesting point that in 1973, the Bahrain people saw the constitution as somewhat of a gift from the emir, while now they view it as a right that was taken away from them. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, tensions have rocked the tiny country of Bahrain, most notably “the bloody confrontations in Bahrain’s Pearl Square.”

This book delves into several topics – including education, communication, labor issues, foreign policy, and the development of democratic structures. Although I would like to outline each of them, I think it might be best to offer a broad overview of Bahrain. (Also, the research in this book is almost 40 years old.)

So, what is Bahrain and where is it? The answer is pretty simple: “The State of Bahrain is an archipelago of some 33 low-lying islands and islets, only 5 of which are inhabited, located in the Gulf equidistant from Saudi Arabia and Qatar” (pages 7-8.) It is a very small country that is like the other Gulf states in most ways, and different in others. The author notes one notable difference in that Bahrain was actually able to establish independence for itself in 1970, somehow surviving despite territorial claims of other, more powerful nations: “Without any doubt the greatest diplomatic achievement of the Khalifa family in recent years has been the attainment of independence for Bahrain as an Arab state and its acceptance by the international community as such” (page 103.)

Like the other Gulf states, Bahrain is run by a ruling family. This makes political development in Bahrain a very interesting topic, with the author equating it to a sort of modernization of tribalism. (Interestingly, religious factors do play a role in Bahrain society, as the author notes: “The relatively wealthy Sunni minority Al Khalifa family continues to rule Bahrain, a small island country in which the large Shia majority is generally excluded from power and influence.”) Like the other Gulf states, prior to the discovery of oil, pearling and agriculture were the two main industries in the country. Although oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, Bahrain lacks the same rich resources as its Gulf neighbors, which means that it has been forced to develop and expand in other ways.

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