Sunday, 6 October 2013

Politics are Global, Art is Local: Mashrou' Leila Hits Toronto for a Transcendent Concert

Mashrou3 Leila Toronto
L-R: Firas Abu Fakher (guitar), Haig Papazian (violin), Hamed Sinno (vocals)
Ibrahim "Sketchy Bob" Badr (bass guitar), Carl Gerges (drums, unpictured).

There are very few musicians and musical groups for which I will express unqualified love. Mirah is one--Souad Massi is another. But at the top of the list, the group which I have loved without qualification or irony for a year and a half now, is Mashrou' Leila (sometimes transliterated Mashrou3 Leila).

I was introduced to them while I was in Beirut, and have always been gutted that I missed what was reportedly an epic performance at the 2012 Baalbek Music Festival. But I have the great fortune of living in Toronto, and this past weekend Mashrou' Leila came to town, performing for a sold-out crowd at our own Lee's Palace as part of the Small World Music Festival.

If you have never heard that music, I cannot recommend it enough. The only way to formally classify Mashrou' Leila is as 'indie arabic rock,' but that is a drastically insufficient description--it would be more appropriate to call them 'freaking awesome, and with a violin.'

Their music breaks convention in both lyrics and sound, combining elements of rock with traditional Arabic and more Armenian and klezmer sounds--particularly on the break-out tracks Fasateen (tr. Dresses--see the video below) and Taxi. They have odes to lovers--hetero- and homosexual--criticisms of the instution of marriage and the economic considerations that make it such an impossible pressure for so many young people...even their political statements (The Checkpoint) are not oriented towards large scale criticisms of politics in the middle east but towards the fears and suffering that those conflicts cause on the ground.

Founded in 2008, while Lebanon was still clearing up the detritus of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war, Mashrou' Leila formed when some of the original members put out a call for musicians at the American University of Beirut. Their music is unique to the Middle Eastern scene, and they are constantly sold out.

In 2012, they cancelled as the opening act for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in Beirut--they had been violently criticized for agreeing to open for a band who were going to be playing in Israel in the near future and were opposed to the boycott of Israel. What was more interesting than their cancellation at the time was the fact that their fans took to the internet to shame those who had wanted them to cancel--as one young Lebanese man put it: "It's not their fault, and they should get the exposure. You want to shame the RHCP? Go, listen to Mashrou' Leila, and walk out when the RHCP start playing." It was, to put it mildly, a more nuanced response than most boycott activism has received in recent years, and it is a testament to the love that ML fans have for their music.

Hamed Sinno Toronto
Lead vocalist Hamed Sinno: the man can MOVE
Because their songs are local, their audience, even when it is a sold-out concert crowd, feels local as well. The concert in Toronto was packed with Torontonians whose families come from across the Middle East: where I was standing there were Palestinians in front, Yemenis to the right, Some Syrians to the left...and I didn't even look behind me to catalogue the Lebanese, Egyptians, and others who I'm sure were there. I would not have been at all surprised to find a handful of Israelis in the crowd...although they may have chosen to speak English. Even more remarkable was that this late-evening concert, at a venue which serves alcohol by a band whose lead singer has become perhaps the most famously openly gay Arab performer today, attracted hipsters, pot-smokers, and hijab-wearing (and presumably observant) Muslim women.

What was true is that everyone, absolutely everyone, was happy to be there.

And how often is that true? How often is there a band that can speak to the hopes of people across political, social, and religious boundaries? Who can make everyone happy?

As much as it may establish that I am lacking in irony (and perhaps realism) the joy of that concert has still not worn off for me. And this week, while I read and analyze the news in from Syria, while I worry about Lebanese friends in Beirut and Syrian refugees who I love in Lebanese, Jordanian, and Turkish camps...when politicians of every stripe and passport make me want to scream...I'm going to remember this concert. And I am going to remember the joy of all the people in that room, and how, for a short period of time, our unified joy in truly transcendent art allowed us to be together as individuals.

And the thanks goes to Mashrou' Leila.

You can (and SHOULD!) download their self-titled album Mashrou' Leila and their second album, El Hal Romancy (The Romantic Solution) on iTunes. And make sure to check out the videos on their Youtube channel. Enjoy.

PS. This was their Toronto premiere, and they have only played Montreal once before this tour--let's hope they'll be back soon!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Academic Chef: The Pumpkin

One of the benefits of this blog is that I feel no particular need to make the posts fit into a pre-conceived theme. Practically speaking, it means that when I start thinking about things beyond a certain period of time, I can simple start writing about them.

I have been thinking a lot about food for the past couple of years--and not only because of my many friends and colleagues (academic and otherwise) for whom the creating and analysis of food is a professional and personal joy. I've come to believe that the study of religion increases our appreciation of food, food which fulfills social functions, creates bonds between human beings and often (as in the case with many rituatl foods) between the human and the divine.

Our desire to cook ritual food connects us to divine calendars--our creation of sustenance for other human beings is a fulfillment of social and ethical responsibilities.

Plus, let's face it--as an academic who is constantly engaged in two or more long-term projects, projects that take years to fulfill, to be able to create a sustaining and pleasurable sensory experience in a short amount of time is the most incredible experience. Five years to write a dissertation, but only half an hour to make soup. It's therapy.

And by gum, if we are obligated to feed ourselves and others we should damn well do a good job!

The challenge of the academic chef (or really anyone who loves to cook but who has a more than full load of work responsibilities to keep up with) is how to cook in a way that is actually practical. We can't cut corners in research and writing, both of which are occupations that will simply demand all of the time we can give them--and committee and administrative work is a notable black hole.

So how can we cook delicious food, and eat delicious food, in a way that does does not leave us full of guilt about time spent outside the library.

By cutting corners. And before you take this as a negative, there are a lot of corners which really can be cut.

Hence what I hope will be a new series on this blog, "The Academic Chef," which I will fill with the corners that I have learned to cut. And this not a food blog...if you REALLY want pictures, ask and I will attempt to oblige. But you don't need pictures to eat food. Just taste the bloody stuff. As long as it tastes good, who cares?

Topic 1: The Pumpkin

I'm not a veggie person. In fact, left to my own devices I am more of a hamburger and fruit-roll-up kind of person. (Also cheese--big blocks of cheese....) But I have started trying to be healthier, and my current obsession is with pumpkins.

The first thing you ALWAYS end up doing with a pumpkin is roasting it. The easy version?

Roasting Pumpkins:

Cut pumpkin (small pie pumpkins are best) in half. 
Scoop out seeds and guts. 
Rub oil all over the inside; sprinkle a little salt if you like. 
Throw on baking pan--bake for 45 minutes at 350-450F, depending on over and size. (When they are done, a fork should slide right through the skin. 

The internet seems aghast that one might not save all the seeds, carefully clean them, and then roast the seeds for a snack. In truth, you SHOULD save them and do this--it is delicious. But if you don't have time, don't stress about it. If you feel obligated not to waste, take those guts (seeds and all) and spread them in a garden or somewhere where there is dirt--very good for the soil. 

Once your pumpkins are roasted, there are basically two things to do with them: stuff them with yummy things, or puree for soups and pies.

Stuffing Pumpkins:

You do not need a recipe for this. Seriously. Your pumpkin is already cooked--you throw in some other foodstuff, bake again for 15-30 minutes (depending on filling), and eat. 

If you want to fill it with meat, just make sure you pre-cook the meat. I suggest preparing meat for tacos (and by the way, using the taco mix in the supermarket as a filling is NOT a mortal sin) and using that, but any kind of ground meet works--mix some almonds, other nuts, and/or some friend onions into your ground meat mix if you want extra texture. 

Just make sure you cook the meat before-hand. Once it is ready, stuff into the pumpkin halves and cook for about 20 mins. 

If you are filling with veggies, DO NOT cook before filling (or, in the case of tough veggies like potatoes and carrots, cook for about 5 minutes). A pumpkin full of soggy veg is fun for no one. Instead, cover the veggie-stuffed pumpkins with tin foil and cook a little bit longer (about 30 mins, depending on temp) until the veg is the consistency you like.

When you are done, wrap each half in tin foil--they will keep three days in the fridge and indefinitely in the freezer, and each package is basically a lunch in itself.

Pureeing Pumpkins

Pumpkin puree is awesome, and will keep for weeks in a sealed jar in the fridge. There are ways to make it for pie and ways to make it for soup, but what you REALLY want to do if you are short on time is roast a whole bunch of pumpkins at the same time and then have it ready to use for EITHER soup or pie. Here is a generic recipe that I have found equally good for both:

Peel the skins off the pumpkins--put the cooked flesh in a bowl, add some apple juice, and blend (food processor, hand blender, doesn't matter. The point it to get it smooth). You will probably need to add apple juice as you go to make it easy to blend--don't add too much at a time. If you want to use maple syrup as your sweetener, you can use both apple juice and maple syrup to get your blend.

Throw in some nutmeg, salt (around 1ts/2cups of filling, I would say), and some sugar--again, I prefer maple sugar, some people swear by brown...don't worry about using too little, since you can really add this again later. 

Put your blended pumpkin mix on the oven, simmer (with a lid to avoid spatter) for 10-20 minutes until it is very thick. Let cool completely, transfer to sealed container, put in fridge. 

For Pie: Buy a pie shell. (You have a dissertation to write--you are NOT making dough from scratch!) Preheat over to 450, and pre-cook the shell for about 10 mins (keeps it from getting soggy.) Peel and slice two or three apples, and then sautee them in maple syrup with cinnamon until partially soft. Pour some of your pumpkin mixture into a pot--add some maple syrup, or really WHATEVER you like (I'm going to try adding some chocolate sauce next time). Spice it up with some cinnamon, and make sure you test for taste regularly. Put the sauteed applies in the pie shell--smooth the pumpkin mixture over the top--cook for 20 minutes or so. Eat. 

For Soup: Soooo easy. Dump pumpkin mix in pot--I recommond adding some more apple juice. Add chicken broth or onion soup mix, as you like--judge the amoutn of water you use on the basis of how thick you want the soup to be. If you are going dairy, add milk or cream to make it super rich. Heat. Don't forget salt and pepper. Eat. 

Yeah. So. That's it. Time for me to dissertate. Or make pie. Hmmm...I DID write this post while my pumpkins were roasting...

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Quick Guide to Quebec's "Charter of Values": The Good, the Bad, and the Racist

 Quebec is the second most populated province of Canada, with a population of slightly more than eight million.  Unlike the rest of Canada, Quebec, which was settled largely by French immigrants, is predominantly Catholic. For decades, some political parties in Quebec have been fighting to secede from Canada and form their own autonomous province (how that would work re passports and currency, no one really seems to know.) Quebec has also been notorious within Canada for its anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant leanings: in 1995, during the last referendum over secession, the vote to secede failed by less than one percent. In admitting defeat Premier Jacques Parizeau specifically blamed the "money and ethnic vote"--widely understood to be a reference to Jews. (Note: At the time the vast majority of Quebecois Jews were English-speaking, and English-speaking Quebec voted overwhelmingly against secession.) Since Quebec gives immigration preference to those who speak French, the rate of immigration from former French colonies (i.e., of North African and Middle Eastern Muslims) is higher than it is the rest of Canada.

While something resembling the Charter of Quebec Values has been rumoured for some time, it was only last week that the Parti Quebecois (PQ) unveiled the text of the proposed charter, along with this accompanying graphic to visually demonstrate the types of religious expression that will be permitted or prohibited to those who work for the state.  (NOTE: in Quebec, this includes all teachers and hospital personnel, as well as judges, non-elected personnel, and those running even private but state-accredited daycare and nursery school facilities.) It would, however, permit elected officials to wear "overt and conspicuous symbols" provided that they wore such symbols at the time of their election.
Tzitzis and tichels would also be prohibited
The text of the Charter of Quebec Values includes the following claim: "The wearing of ostentatious symbols is itself a type of passive or silent proselytism which is incompatible with the neutrality of the State, the proper functioning of its institutions and their secular nature. Regardless of the behavior of the person, such a sign of religious character is likely to raise doubts that that the State is neutral and appears neutral."

The Bad

I'm going to have to put this in bullets, since the level of ridiculousness of this legislation is epic.

Crucifix on Mount Royal
1. Apparently Christianity is no longer a religion. As visible from the graphic above, the only permitted symbol which is actually a traditional symbol of religious belief is the crucifix. Rings, earrings, and necklaces have NO traditional place in Islam or Judaism. People wear them, but it does not necessarily indicate any kind of faithfulness or observance.

In addition, the famous illuminated crucifix that can be seen across the city from its perch on Mount Royal will not be removed...because it's a cultural landmark.

Quebec's Provincial Legislature
Oh yes, and the crucified Jesus hanging on the wall of the
provincial legislature will also not be removed...because it is just cultural.

And concerning whether or not Quebec's move towards 'secularism' means that people will no longer be called upon to swear on a Bible, one of the bill's proponents, Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville told a reporter “Oh, my God...we’ll get back to you.”

2. Religious Symbols and Religious Expression:
For Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, wearing a hijab, tichel, kipah, or turban is NOT just a religious symbol--it is a religiously mandated expression. For Christians wearing a crucifix may be simply a symbol of their personal religious affiliation--for other faiths, these are not symbols, but a vital part of adherence to their religious beliefs. Asking a Catholic to remove a crucifix is limiting the extent to which they can EXPRESS their religious beliefs: asking a Sikh to remove his turban, a Jew his kippah, or a Muslimah her hijab is to limit their ability to FOLLOW their beliefs.

3. Yes. It. Is. Racist.
 It must be said. Just take a quick look at the relative demand for sunscreen among those who will and will not be affected by this legislation. Seeing a lot more brown? Yeah.

The Good

This bill will probably not pass. And, if it does, the epic stupidity of the bill will only be matched by what will probably be an instantaneous and even  more epic smack-down that it will receive when challenged under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Yes Yankees, Canada has one of these. It comes in very handy.) The Charter enshrines freedom of religious expression as one of the foundations of Canadian law: section 2(a) of the Charter specifically identifies "freedom of conscience and religion" as one of the fundamental freedoms of Canadian citizens. In legal practice, (see particularly Multani v. Comission) the precedent has been set that the right of citizens to wear religious 'symbols' which are integral to the practice of their faith cannot be infringed upon except when it poses an actual danger to others.

However, there is what is a 'notwithstanding clause' in Section 33 of the Charter: according to this highly controversial provision, the provincial government has the right to override certain sections of the Charter for a limited period of time.

This is what one might call the nuclear option.

The Ugly

If I had to estimate, I would say this bill is motivated by 20% deep-seated racism and an overwhelming 80% ugly separatist politics. If the bill actually passes when it is presented to the legislature (which given the demonstrations it has sparked and the fact that some members of the coalition that supports it have already jumped ship is questionable) and is then overturned by the Canadian Courts, separatist parties will have a platform from which to declare that the rest of Canada just does not understand them. 

Which unfortunately means the rest of Canada will have to listen to them whinge about their inalienable right to be racist xenophobes.

On the plus side, every time Canadians have to listen to that whinging, they can be proud that such people are a minority in Canada, and that their right to infringe upon the freedoms of others and undermine the ideal of mosaic multiculturalism in Canada has been, emphatically, shown the door. 

I hope.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A Jewish Women's Guide to 'Muslimah' Fashion

If your rabbi would object to this, there is nothing
anyone can do to help you.
Before you laugh at the notion of a serious person being interested in fashion, the aesthetics of clothing are both creatively and intellectually inspiring. Fashion often reflects the way that women of faith express their creativity through clothing, where women push, re-appropriate, and literally embody their faith and traditions in the way they display and arrange their bodies.

The rules for orthodox Jewish and Muslim women are not that different.. For women of both faiths, modesty is an essential pre-requisite for clothing--and neither faith contains any prohibition against the beautiful and creative. In other words, for Jewish and Muslim women of faith who are interested in fashion the emphasis tends to be on color, cut, layering, and textile juxtapositions, rather than on who can find the shortest skirt or the most deeply-plunging neckline.

Wiwid Hawat
There are some differences: Jewish women only cover their hair after marriage, and unlike their Muslim sisters many versions of orthodox Judaism forbid women from wearing pants (as an extension of a prohibition against women dressing like men and vice versa). However, many modern
orthodox women believe this prohibition only extends to wearing pants that are either extremely revealing (I'm looking at you, skinny jeans), or actually made for men. Orthodox Muslim women usually cover their entire arms, while Jewish women will often sport three-quarter sleeves. And most frustratingly for observant Jewish women, there is a prohibition against wearing clothing of mixed fabrics (i.e., linen and wool)--whether Jews can exempt synthetic fabrics from this restriction is a matter of debate.

But both traditions cover the elbows; both traditions cover the collarbone; and both traditions stay away from all variations on clothing that is prone to wardrobe malfunction.

All of these rules make, in general, for some really fascinating fashion. And for women out there who have no affiliation with any faith, these fashions are far more comfortable than anything you will find in a fashion magazine, as well as being genuinely eye-catching.

To those who suggest that 'modest' fashion should not draw any attention: to be modest does not mean to be invisible. There is no regulation requiring self-effacement as such. To draw the eye because of an orginal juxtaposition of textiles is not immodest, only drawing the eye for the purposing of mesmerizing it with breasts.

Boring, unflattering clothes are not a part of either tradition, although due to a lack of appropriate mainstream clothes women of both faiths have often been left in the terribly unappealing world of elastic-waisted denim skirts and mens button-down shirts. The internet now provides a wealth of alternatives.  I cannot speak to the reasons (a far bigger population of consumers?) but many of the best and most afforable sites are dedicated to muslimah fashion, and the Jewish girl with a good, creative eye can do some amazing things. While this clothing is often called 'Muslim' it is appropriate for any woman who prefers to cover the majority of her body, either for faith-based reasons or simply out of personal preference.

So PLEASE! Put away the elastic-waisted denim skirt!! And take an interfaith look at some of the options that are available.

From Zarir. Please send samples!
Shukr: A reliable, dependable store with good prices. Their skirts/pants are nothing remarkable, but they have some wonderful things in shirts/tunics (perfect for pairing with a long skirt). All clothing is long-sleeved and the fabric composition is noted for each piece.

Zarir: If I could click my fingers and make it so, these Iranian designers would be on top of the fashion world. They are not the cheapest thing around, but they are absolutely incredible. Their Facebook page is almost better than the website, and they will respond regarding prices and shipping arrangements. It's worth it! But make sure you won't get them arrested if you ask them to ship to Jerusalem.

Artizana: Reliable store with some lovely styles out of California. Decent prices too!

Dian Pelangi
Sorayya: Beautiful designs and combinations, perhaps more geared towards the modern orthodox, and the young and urban (depends on how you feel about ankles, really).

SixteenR: Mostly scarves, but if you are a married orthodox woman looking to mix it up, some of the styles are quite wonderful.

Wiwid Hawat, "W": Out of Australia, you can see this interesting designer's work on her blog as well. You'll have to be fashion-forward and confident to rock this one, but there is nothing here your rabbi could object to.

Dian Pelangi: Totally bloody gorgeous. Just go to the website and look.

Have some fun. And if your rabbi objects to might be time to ask him if he's really worried about modesty, or if he's just scared of strong women.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Aren't Hoodies Terrifying?

Martin Luther King Jr. April 4th, 1968

Travyon Martin

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Surviving Graduate School Exams: Practical Advice

Feels like Judgement Day. Kind of is.
I've had several months to reflect on the fact that I passed the general examinations for my PhD (sometimes called comprehensive exams/comps, qualifying exams/quals, or The Academic Endurance Test from Hell). If you want to read something that will discuss at length about how terrible and useless these exams are, this is not the article for you: while I take some issue with the ways the exams are administered in different departments, I found that, as a prelude for the final formulation of a dissertation topic, nine months spent reading as much primary and secondary literature as possible is extremely helpful.

So, for those of you who encounter this piece while preparing for your own exams, take heart: this experience is painful, for you and everyone who loves you, but in the end it can and will make the work you do significantly better. Who knows? In the course of reading thousands of pages, you may come across authors, texts, and ideas that radically change your research for the better.

It is possible.

What follows is a list of advice for those preparing for their exams. I wish I could say that I took all of this advice, but I didn't. Most of it I tried to follow; often I succeeded only partially. And really, that is the upshot of all of this advice: ride yourself hard but give yourself a break.

1. Reading lists: When coming up with these lists, be ready to let things go. This advice pertains to books you really want to include but your committee is skeptical of, and to books that a member of your committee really wants you to read but you think are useless and irrelevant. In the first situation, take a deep breath and agree with your committee: just because a text is not on your reading list does remove a book from your list, nod enthusiastically! You can only be examined on texts that are on the list, so every deleted text represents a week of your life that you get back. In the second situation, take a deep breath and agree with your committee: it takes less time to read the damn book than to fight about it (and potential lay the groundwork for personality conflicts that will haunt you into the dissertation writing phase). And I hate to say it, but sometimes they are right.
not mean it cannot be a significant part of your thesis. In fact, any time your committee wants to

Summary: Get the bloody reading lists finalized as soon as possible, so you can get on with the reading! And whether you mean it or not, agreeing with everything your committee says at this point can only be to your benefit.

2. Schedule: you need a schedule. Some kind, any kind. Whether you are strict and have a calendar that lays out exactly how many days you will spend on each text, or if you set a general goal for each week or month, you need a schedule (particularly if, like me, you are expected to read through a fifteen page bibliography). Personally, because I was working with classical, medieval, and modern texts, I began with a schedule that was roughly chronological: later, when I realized that my first exam would focus on the modern texts that I had barely begun to work through, I had to upend that schedule. Be flexible.

Note 1: This schedule will ensure that you put in the inter-library loan requests and Amazon orders on time: there is nothing worse than arriving at a highly-anticipated text on your schedule only to discover that it is checked out of the library for the next four months.

Note 2: You will not always achieve your goals. Freaking out is part of exams. If nothing else the schedule will let you know when to start getting seriously worried. 

3. Write summaries. A 1-5 page summary of an essay or source will be of incredible value when you are revising just before the exam, and it will be of even greater service when your exams are over and you are putting together a bibliography for your dissertation proposal.

4. Keep a notebook of 'pull-quotes' that you may want to use in the exams. I was not allowed to bring any notes or books into my exams, but I had about twenty of the most dramatic and important quotes memorized. A correctly used and accurate quotation will impress the hell out of your examiners, plus make you feel incredibly intelligent when having conversations with other PhD nerds.

5. Cross-reference. Personally, I bowed to the power of colored markers. If you can identify a couple of themes and assign them a particular color, you can highlight the sections of your summaries and the specific quotes that pertain to that theme. That way when you are flipping through your notes and preparing for specific thematic questions you will be able to quickly identify the most relevant passages.

6. Make time for things you love. I'm grouping a number of things under this category, since what gives people pleasure is always different. Building things, cooking, Twitter, drinking, sex, Angry
Also read all strips available at PhD Comics need an occasional release. Make time for it, because if you don't it will sneak up on you like chocolate cake on a dieter, and instead of spending a designated couple of hours on Sunday in a cathartic Twitter flame-war, you will end up hating yourself for allowing yourself to be distracted each morning as you desperately cling to/avoid your schedule.

7. Close the damn windows on your computer. Particularly if you are using your computer for note-taking or research, close your email, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you use. Give yourself an hour or two every night to respond to emails and engage in social time-wasting, but I cannot recommend enough getting some distance from the always engaging but often useless online world.

8. Eat well. Enough said, and everyone says it: most people, including myself, don't do very well with this. It is incredibly important. As the exams approach, you may find yourself afflicted with 'exam tummy' and no longer able to enjoy your usual comfort foods: try to find a few things that are not bad for you that your stomach can take. I recommend hard ginger candies. If you have colleagues studying for exams at the same time, keep track of each others' exam dates and try to suport each other in those last few weeks when spending more time getting dinner than it takes to dial Domino's seems like an inexcusable waste.

9. Exercise. See above. Personally, I can't focus on serious texts when I am sweating my brains out: my solution was to set the treadmill to go slow enough that I could write notes while I was walking. I probably didn't gain any muscle mass or lose any weight, but I managed to finish a decent analysis of Farabi's Ideal City while getting ten miles under my belt. Exercise moved your blood and makes you think better--it is not a break from studying, but something that will make your work better. And if you can schedule in more energetic work-outs, all power to you!

10. Meet with your exam committee regularly, particularly in the two or three months just prior to the exams. In a general sense, this will be good for you: your committee members are, theoretically, highly conversant in exactly what you are researching. On a more practical note, meeting with them regularly will make them like you more, and gives you the opportunity to lead the conversation in directions that interest you as they are contemplating the questions they are going to ask.

11. Remember that you love what you do. In many ways, these exams are an endurance test. They test your ability to retain and synthesize information, how well you are capable of interpreting and adapting to the proclivities of your committee members, and your ability to control your gag-reflex right before your oral exam.

But the reason you are writing these exams is that you love what you do: this is (almost) the last hoop you have to jump through before you dive into your dissertation topic, before you actually begin to write about that amazing idea, period, or person that is the reason you decided to put yourself through the rigors of graduate school in the first place.

It's just a test. And guess what? It may be just about the last one you ever have to take.

Good luck. Eat lots of chocolate.

And wish me luck with my dissertation proposal.

Friday, 5 July 2013

'Welcome' to Syria: Hezbollah Legitimates Its Opposition

Syria Lebanon
On the right, a woman wearing the Syrian flag. On the left, the Hezbollah logo.
Above, in Arabic, "Resistance!"
Internationally, Hezbollah is well-known for its top ranking on lists of terrorist organizations. By many measures, 'The Party of God' has earned that designation. Emerging in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon (a move aimed at displacing Palestinian fighters in the Lebanese south), Hezbollah's platform has always been about the expulsion of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory. The 1985 Hezbollah Program closes with the statement that:

We see in Israel the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve. This enemy is the greatest danger to our future generations and to the destiny of our lands, particularly as it glorifies the ideas of settlement and expansion, initiated in Palestine, and yearning outward to the extension of the Great Israel, from the Euphrates to the Nile.

Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.

Interestingly, this section of the Program was not widely disseminated, although it was included in readings of the program. In the pursuit of their stated aims Hebzollah has consistently aimed missiles at northern Israel, engaged in attacks against Israeli's both in the Middle East and abroad, and has kidnapped and killed members of the Israeli military in the disputed areas, most famously kidnapping two soldiers from the border region in 2006--the Israeli response to that attack resulted in a two month war that killed over 1400 people. Hezbollah has been accused of the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, the attacks in the 1990s on the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, the 2003 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and the 2012 bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.

The Jehad Al Benna Development Association
At the same time, within Lebanon, Hezbollah has fulfilled many more complicated functions. In a country where the national government has long been accused of endemic corruption and inefficiency, it is Hezbollah which has, more often than not, helped Lebanese citizens pick up the shards of their conflict-torn lives. In the aftermath of the 2006 war, when thousands of Lebanese citizens were left homeless and the government seemed unable to provide the aid needed to rebuild their homes, Hezbollah stepped in to provide housing, arrange for reconstruction work, and assist those whose livelihoods had been destroyed to re-establish themselves. Publicly in Lebanon and much of the Middle East, their violent and uncompromising fight against Israel (or in Hezbollah terms, the Zionist entity) has been balanced by their social and educational work, and the fact that (not unlike the Yakuza in Japan after the 2011 eathquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster) they take up much of the slack of an often narcissistic and unbelievably inefficient government.

To understand Hezbollah's position at the moment, it is perhaps less important to rehearse Hebzollah's position vis-à-vis Israel, and more important to recall that Hezbollah is primarily a Shia organization (although in the last ten years, as it has become a more established political party, it has aquired a number of allies on the Lebanese Christian political scene). Funded by Iran--the largest Shia country in the world--and supported by Syria (whose Alawite leadership has long been friendly to Syria's Shia that to the Sunni population), Hezbollah represents the significant Shia population of Lebanon and, as a Shia political party, is often regarded as an organization which protects the rights of a Muslim minority which are often persecuted and attacked in majority Sunni countries.

Which brings us to 2013, and why Hezbollah has finally either a) become a real political party or b) destroyed itself.