Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of books, (11 books so far; 13 are planned all-in-all) about the Baudelaire children, three rich siblings heir to a sizeable inheritance after their parents die in a mysterious arson attack at their mansion.

The first three books of the series have been adapted by screenwriter Robert Gordon of Men In Black II fame, starring Jim Carrey as the villain, the beastly Count Olaf, a distant relative of the Baudelaires who, in the story, is an actor by profession.

The author, Lemony Snicket, is a pseudonym of Jewish author Daniel Handler. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Worchester, majoring in English and American Studies, and is now a fulltime author.

The Series of Unfortunate Events is distressingly true to its title. It is indeed, a series of extremely unfortunate events that come tumbling down ruthlessly on the Baudelaire orphans almost at a regular interval of 10 pages. Dark and depressing, important characters are brutally murdered, and the cruelty the orphans face almost brings tears to your eyes.

In an interview on, he says:

"I think you learn something from any good book, and I think that one's education comes largely from literature. But over and over, the message of children's books is, 'If you behave well, you'll be rewarded.' Which is not a very Jewish message. It is just not an interesting message to me, and not a true one."

"Judaism doesn't really promise any reward, they just emphasize that good behavior is more or less its own reward,"

Amid the terrible circumstances faced by the orphans, they remain tremendously resolute, never despairing and always doing the right thing. And so, Handler introduces humour in the dark and dreary context of the story, never forgetting to keep at least one sympathetic character in every book.

Handler talks to the reader in a conversational first-person tone, and describes and explains "difficult" phrases and words in the context of the story. As such, after reading the first 6 books in the series, I would suggest these books to any adult or child, because there is actually much to learn from Handler's narration.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Chronicles of Narnia on the Silver Screen

After the sweeping success of the screen adaptation of the Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, I learnt somewhere on the internet that the Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis, were also being adapted for the silver screen. Having not been much of a reader for most of my childhood, my only experience at fantasy was Raymond E. Feist who took for his own much of the concepts introduced by the fantasy of Tolkien.

So, upon seeing a single-volume version of the Chronicles of Narnia, I immediately picked it up, without hesitation and took it with me to Bangladesh, to read over the vacation. After having read the first four books of the Chronicles, including the prequel "The Magician's Nephew," I feel that adapting these books to the silver screen should be immensely difficult.

Lewis unabashedly includes talking animals in his narration, which may be wonderful for the mind's eye but I believe quite difficult for a cinematic treatment. Whether chosen to be fully actor-driven or the more technically demanding computer graphics-driven, the talking animals of Disney will no doubt haunt whatever semblance of awe and reverence a director may try to endow upon a talking lion, Lewis's deity figure, Aslan.

Speaking of deities, I also find the religious themes quite blaring and bluntly presented, when the White Witch kills (crucifies) Aslan and Aslan rises up again (is resurrected) in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," and how the lion makes Shasta and his friends feel for his whiskers and nose when they disbelieve he is indeed a lion, much in the great Christian tradition of insisting on Jesus's diophysitism, his simultaneous humanity and divinity.

In addition to that, Lewis doesn't do as good a job as many of his latter-day heirs like Raymond E. Feist and Robert Jordan when relating battle scenes. His narrative, at least in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" seemed to purposefully omit a refined treatment of the melée in the battle scenes, which left me somewhat disappointed.

The film adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia are being undertaken by director Andrew Adamson who has both Shrek movies in his directorial resume, and the special effects are being helmed by the genius of Weta Workshop, owned by Peter Jackson and the magic behind the Lord of the Rings. Seeing the featurette they released recently on the creatures of Narnia, however, I just might give the movie a fighting chance now.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Suffering of Minorities in Bangladesh

In the December 10th issue of the Daily Star Weekend Magazine, they put up a cover story on the plight of Hindus in Muslim-majority rural Bangladesh.

"[...] the community that was subjected to merciless beating, humiliation and [continuous] persecution by a group of miscreants out to grab their land, saw no signs of empathy from the local authorities. [...] I ask her how old she is. 'Four kuri and five,' a villager chips in. This means four into twenty, plus five; which makes her 85. At this age she has enough reason to worry over the safety of her community. The land the usurpers are out to grab is the sacred cremation ground that has been a part of this village for as long as she remembers.

"[...] during the atrocious attack, the whole community found itself at the receiving end of a premeditated aggression. Some received severe beating and some ended up with near-fatal injuries. Gouri Das, around fifty, was brutally attacked. On the palm of her right hand, she bears the deep gash of being struck by a sharp weapon. There is another cut on the right side of her head. As she speaks it becomes clear that there is little she remembers of the mayhem, as she was knocked unconscious from the first few blows [...]. She does however, remember her first attacker. "It was Kader, son of Mafizuddin, who struck me on the head with a sharp weapon," she asserts. She cannot tell "who else beat her up later". As she gained consciousness, she found her sari missing.

"Hari Dasi, another 40 year-old villager, found herself in the same predicament. She was literally trampled by a bunch of men, men who knew no mercy. [...]

"The patch of land, the main cause of the atrocity, lies [beside] a pond. [...] For the Hindus of this region it is a sacred ground, as it is their final resting-place. Broken earthenware is scattered all over the ground, signs of cremation punctuated by mounds of earth, under which the remains of the dear ones are buried. [...]

"[The] girls of the Hindu community at Gopalpur village have stopped going out of the house in fear of these miscreants who openly harass them on the streets.

"Malati Rani [is] a seventeen-year-old girl. [...] Faced with the question of why she stopped going to school from which she received a stipend, Malati is hesitant. Her answer to why she quit school is short: 'they swear at me.'

"In the face of the worst attack on the Hindu community by the group of land-grabbers and their henchmen, not much has been done by the authority to mitigate the victims.

"Lakhshan recalls the previous year's incident. 'When they scooped out all the fishes out of the pond beside the cremation ground and the temple, a case was filed. Even the newspapers took it up. At first the law enforcing agency seemed very active, but soon everything died down,' laments Lakhshan.

"[...] a group of people installed a water pump to siphon out the water from the pond next to the cremation ground. The ground is only 27 acres, but it has been a source of a lot troubles since the day the land grabbers targetted it as the next piece of land for usurpation. The miscreants consisting of Lal Miah , Ibrahim, Jahangir, Kader, Mojibor, Zohurul, Ziaur, Malek [and] Hashem [...]. There was a string of women who stood in a circle, guarding the water pump. When the people of the community rushed to put a stop to the siphoning, one of the men said, 'charaler po (son of a commoner), don't cross the limit; if you do, we will file a case for repression against women and will throw you out of this country.'

"They waved off the threats [...]. 'If we cannot protect our own religion what's the use in keeping on living. This small patch of land has been our cremation ground, it has been so since the time of our ancestors.'

"What followed after that was something no one from Subhash's community ever anticipated. The band of men, who installed the water pump and were trying to siphon the pond, rushed toward the paddy field, where they kept their weapons hidden. Armed with machete, sticks and lances, they swooped on the community that had little protection from the authority, let alone any influential group or men.

"The invading men went looking for women and children. They scrambled inside their houses. They beat them up, slashed them and plundered their homes [...].

"Sixty-five families have categorically being victimised by this 'land-grabbing clique.' It is more a case of wresting properties from the weak than of religious persecution. As Hindus of the locality are the weakest, they keep losing their lands to aggressors who reign the localities with their muscle as well as social and political clout. This is the reality of Bangladesh, and the village of Gopalpur is no exception."

I find little solace in recognising this as not so much a religious issue as it is merely an issue of victimisation because of one's locus on some pecking order. If being weak is tantamount to welcoming oppression, then we are no better than animals.

Bangladesh's human rights records has plumetted in the past few years and chronic lawlessness fanned by gusts of misrule and irresponsibility has become the law of the land.

All of the names of the perpetrators were Muslim names.

"Do not oppress and do not be oppressed."

- The Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Patriotism and Objectivity

The Daily Star has done it again! Some time in October, I stumbled across a "Letter to the Editor" on the main page of the Daily Star, a newspaper I check daily (except during Eid, because, hear this, the newspaper stops publishing during Eid! Wow, only in Bangladesh).

In this very interesting "Letter to the Editor," a man laments the "international conspiracies" hatched against Bangladesh, one such accusation levelled at Bangladesh that basically says Bangladesh is "Asia's most dysfunctional country." I believe he was referring to Time magazine's infamous article, "State of Disgrace." Although, I think the article was a bit harsh, I think it hits the mark close enough.

Rather vexed by the argument that patriotism dictates being blinded to realities that may be harsh, I wrote a reply, which I thought never got published. But apparently, it did, and I discovered it in the Daily Star's archives just tonight! Almost a month after they published it!

"In response to Md Shahidul Islam's letter to the Editor on 27 October, I couldn't help but chip in my opinion on this matter of patriotism and reality.

"I believe the common man should make it a point not to believe in "conspiracies" like the "international conspiracies" Md. Shahidul Islam quotes to "stop [Bangladesh's] progress." It is extremely naive to think that in this world, with problems as deep as looming water shortages, global warming, energy crises, genocide and wars initiated for purely political and economic ends, anybody would care about a small country in South Asia that most people have never heard of. It is indeed true that truth is stranger than fiction, and on most occasions, conspiracies are very easily mistaken for stupidity. The two are divided by a very fine line. The harsh reality about Bangladesh is that nobody really cares what happens in this far corner of the world, and no international conspiracy is out to get us. Disregarding the vast majority of our politicians that come from the lowest crust of our society and academy, if notable intellectuals say something, it's time to listen. If intellectuals say Bangladesh is a den of terrorism, it's time to give the situation a look.

"People, however learned, are always subject to their ego [sic], and it is possible that some intellectuals are known for their verbosity and over-emphasis, the academic equivalent of making a mountain out of a mole hill. As such, I would agree that to say Bangladesh is a den of terrorism like, say, Afghanistan was, is libellous. But to say that our patriotism dictates that such a claim, or any other claim that potentially reflects on our nation negatively, is an international conspiracy to hamper the progress of a fledgling, immature democracy, is no less than sheer denial.

"The fact that our bureaucracy is viciously corrupt is undeniable. Whether we are the world's most corrupt is debatable, but the fact that corruption is a part of life is as true as the sun rises from the East.

"To be patriotic is admirable. To be blind to your own mistakes is blameworthy and will harm nobody but yourself."

In response to my response, another fellow wrote a Letter to the Editor.

Maybe I should write a reply.

So much for my Blog Hiatus.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Tech Support Generation

"Next week, millions of college students and young professionals will head home for the [...] holidays. We’ll sit with our families in warm, [...] dining rooms [...], reminiscing over old photographs, [...] and … Please. Let’s be frank. We are going home to fix our parents' computers."

"We are the Tech-Support Generation. Our job is to troubleshoot the complex but imperfect technology that befuddle mom and dad, veterans of the rotary phone, the record player and the black-and-white cabinet television set."

"For our parents, the lingo is foreign and indecipherable. IP address? Why should they even have to know what that means? The worst part is that they know it should and can work—if they can just crack the alien code. When they can’t get it to work, they make preposterous compromises they never would accept with a new car or household appliance."

Story of my life.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Blog Hiatus

I'm on Blog Hiatus until the 27th of November.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Sheikh Zayed Expires

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'oon.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, 33-year ruler of the United Arab Emirates, my birthplace, passed away yesterday.

Whatever the merits or demerits of his rule, this unlettered Yemeni has made his mark in history.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Osama, The Return

As the new Osama bin Laden tape appears just in time for the US elections in 2004 and the repercussions of such a tape being spoken primarily in the election context, insurgents in Iraq are growing bolder, and rasher.

The spate of kidnappings is getting worse with every subsequent headline. What is strange, however, that the kidnappings don't make much sense. By kidnapping an Irishwoman that lived and worked in Iraq for so many years as a humanitarian and married an Iraqi, I have no clue what they hope to achieve except enrage their own brothers.

Now, they have kidnapped a man from the world's third most populous Muslim country, Bangladesh. 42-year-old Abul Kashem, along with a Dinesh Rajaratnam of Sri Lanka, were kidnapped last week, though kidnappers are still strangely silent on their demands.

I think the general trend of declining popularity of the terrorists and insurgents should only be accelerated by recent events.

Osama bin Laden has enjoyed popularity, to a limited extent (and, I believe, now waning), in countries like Pakistan and most of the Arab states. The insurgents, however never got as much screentime as Osama, and so never had much of a chance to garner a following among the simpleton Muslims of the world. Whatever caliber of adoration they may have had to start with, it can only be declining considering their lowly tactics and sheer lack of taste.

The popularity of these groups should be severely declining in the Arab and other Muslim states. Moderate Muslims have always condemned the Wahhabi attitute of indiscriminate killing, but now I daresay even the Wahhabis are starting to get a little unnerved.

Bangladesh has a strong Saudi-backed Wahhabi movement. All fundamentalist issues in Bangladesh arise from Al Qaeda, the standard-bearer of Wahhabi fundamentalist activism while the Saudis fund fertile hatching grounds for Al Qaeda in their mosques and numerous madrasahs.

I've seen the kidnappings in a revolting light, always. But I'm wondering what the fundamentalists in Bangladesh, once open backers, now cornered into latent support of Osama bin Laden because of the success of the liberal Bangladeshi media, are thinking now.

There are several ways to look at it, I imagine. Al Qaeda doesn't depend so chiefly on popularity per se on their activities. No doubt, as a lethal activist movement, they're not out to win any popularity contests, but their main source of manpower is from the madrasahs that they fund in and around the Muslim world who are not subject to the opinions of the educated and opinionated middle-class.

With as much open negative publicity they're getting by kidnapping and killing what the normal man would perceive as standard, everyday people, not even sparing Muslims, their recruitment grounds, I would imagine, should be growing thin.

I wouldn't be so brash as to think that the end of Al Qaeda is anywhere on the horizon because of negative Western publicity. The Wahhabis have tremedously powerful machines of propaganda. I do find it difficult to imagine with all that has been happening with car bombs killing Iraqi civilians and tales of grizzly night-time murders of rookie Iraqi policemen splattered in the front news, how they can possibly enjoy any support at all, even from within.

Anybody that still supports Osama bin Laden, after he made the strongest references to his involvement in the September 11th attacks in his recent tape, must be ill in some form or another.

The days of conspiracy theories are over.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Afghans in Middle Earth

"A New Zealand court was considering whether to order two Muslim women to remove their burqa veils when they testify in a fraud case an issue that has sparked a debate about how much immigrants should change to fit into society here."

"The two, both Afghan [...] refugees, have refused to remove their all-encompassing burqas in court while giving evidence for the prosecution."

"But defence lawyers have insisted on seeing their faces when they testify, saying 'we need to see the body language' of witnesses."

"If the women are ordered to remove their veils and they refuse, they could be held in contempt of court and face penalties that include imprisonment."

"Defence lawyer Colin Amery told the radio station that people who come from outside New Zealand 'cannot expect to impose an alien culture, clothes and so on, upon a system of law which has always had openness,' [...] adding that migrants when in Rome (must) do as the Romans.'"

Boy, do I hate that phrase.

The loyalty of these women is admirable, Masha Allah, and understandable that the superior thing to do is to fight for what one believes in, that it is superior to cover the face as was the practice, although the face does not qualify by Sacred Law as awrah (part of the body that must be covered for basic decency). However, to say that one would be in trouble with God for taking off the niqab would be incorrect, since traditional Hanafi jurists (Afghans are primarily Hanafis) have said that maintaining niqab is difficult in the West and there is no blame in removing it.

However, the women are confronted with a situation of conditioning, just like normal people. Not used to exposing their faces in front of men, they have grown accustomed to the personal freedom that they perceive in being covered from head to toe, not dissimilar to the personal freedom other women feel by not covering.

This judgemental attitude of believing oneself to be "open" and another to be "closed" must be abandoned. All societies have norms and unwritten restrictions that are easily circumvented over time. That the Muslims choose to document them to preserve their perception of decency is, if anything, to their credit. Since "open" Western culture chooses not to have any such standardized moral code, they are open to integrate foreign elements of culture and norms, and by taking in refugees and immigrants, must be prepared to handle these elements in a manner that is mutually beneficial.

These immigrants come from distant and foreign lands where they grew up, and have known nothing else. They leave behind their families and possessions not out of will but out of need. A more compassionate and understanding stance needs to be taken, to reason with them and help them integrate rather than cornering them by judging them for being different and impoverished.

Like most immigrants, they have much to offer.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Arab Problem: A Fear of Expression?

According to Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former correspondent for the New York Times now residing in Dubai and writing for UAE-based Gulf News, the biggest "gene" in the Arab psyche is fear of expression.

After reading his article, I saw a little advertisement where the Gulf News asked for responses from readers, albeit crippled (understandably) to only a hundred words. And so I wrote the following:

"Mr. Yousef is mistaken. First, he states the Arab problem is fear. This is wrong, it is ignorance and complacency. Second, he mentions 'hordes of enemies [...] poised at the gates.' I see no enemy but the Arab himself.

In addition, he calls for "reform" of "what is left" of Arab civilization. I cannot differ more. Islam, the standard-bearer of Arab civilization for more than a millenium thrives at full bloom, and needs no reformation, but a wholesale abandonment of "reformation," namely Wahhabism.

Finally, his statement that the US is a robust democracy is highly debateable; the candidates are as different as Coke and Pepsi, and it has the lowest and most class-skewed voter turnout of any Western democracy."

I summarized Mr. Youssef's arguments and put in my thoughts on the ones I found most pertinent within the 100-word limit. But I had much more to say.

Indeed, the Arab problem is not fear of expression. After living in the United Arab Emirates for the first eighteen years of my life, most of the Imaratis I ever met had little to express. Limited in their faculties of expression and thinking, the few that were intellectually inclined gave their loyalty wholesale to the dictator Sheikh Zayed, regardless of his numerous wrongs and misdeeds, simply because he was, I quote, "a good leader."

The intellectuals who had the courage to be vociferous were summarily silenced, but their primary audience and source material during their short tenures were expatriates, "foreigners" like myself.

I refuse to believe the Arab problem is fear of expression. The expression, for the few who have the taste for it, is there. Like I mentioned in my feedback, it's ignorance and complacency. They are vastly ignorant of their rights and the rights of others by common human standards, and unforgiveably complacent with their wealth. The vast majority of Imaratis are whole-heartedly fond of Sheikh Zayed, and those that are dissatisfied (and trust me, there are) are few and far between.

Youssef M. Ibrahim says:

"It even affects expatriates and visitors who come and go, so much that many of the foreigners who live among us in this Arab world become a version of Lawrence of Arabia, striving to be more Arab than the Arabs."

I have absolutely no idea where Mr. Ibrahim draws this conclusion from. The heart of Arabia in which T. E. Lawrence lived was primitive, barbaric and had little or no foreigners in them. Lawrence went to Arabia because his passion was Arabia.

Today, Arabs are no longer primitive, endowed with as much technology as money can buy, and their governments are barbaric only when nobody is looking. Modern Arab culture is exclusive and grossly adulterated by "Counter Strike" and "Friends," only "open" to Westerners, who enjoy a cup of Qahwah, sitting uncomfortably in a tent considering the possibility of a belly-dancer.

People like my family, educated professionals from Muslim India, lived there for 26 years without the name of a single local Arab family we were close with, and children of the United Arab Emirates like me and my brothers, learn Arabic and discover Islam only after leaving our desert abodes.

Society in the United Arab Emirates exists in pockets, each pocket neatly containing a single ethnicity. Arabic is not popularized as a language and no effort made to make it a more widely used. The language of taxi drivers is what goes, effectively Urdu or what forms of it exist from the majority Afghan taxi drivers. Arabs themselves take to learning Urdu, as is widely seen in places like Dubai, where marketability has a higher premium than in oil-rich, laid-back Abu Dhabi where I grew up.

There is no drive for integration whatsoever, and I have not seen any such versions of T.E. Lawrence in my time.

He then says:

"Hordes of enemies are poised at the gates, and huge internal pressure for change lies within."

By enemies, I can only infer countries like the United States, and the specific case of Iraq, as he himself mentions later in the article.

I see no enemy in the United States. The only enemy I perceive is the Arab himself. Endowed with wealth beyond imagining for over half a century, he has accomplished little but his own destruction, alienation and abandonment of his brothers in Palestine and consummate moral and spiritual impotence, that a vicious secularist and murderer as Saddam enjoyed popular support among the Arabs before the Americans swooped in on him.

I daresay, the enemy the Arab faces is much more menacing than any father of civilian carpet-bombing, or any Daisy-cutter that fell upon the innocents of Iraq.

"And if we cannot reform what is left of Arab civilisation will evaporate making place for a new agenda set by someone else."

The mindset of "If it doesn't work, reform it" has become so deep-rooted, that all other possibilities (like returning to a millenium of successful, pluralist tradition) is ruled out. This comes from a desire to be accepted not through integration, but through assimilation. The only "reform" I can visualize is the undisputed import of unlimited democracy where the will of the mob rules all, and unlimited freedom of speech, both unlimitedly Western in their inception and application.

Reform has been the bane of the Muslims, inciting violence and murder within the pluralist Muslims of old. Reform is not the solution, but revival.

In conclusion, despite the harsh poverties facing not only Arabs, but all Muslims alike, we must maintain the Prophetic tradition of optimism; no matter what "agenda set by someoene else" should befall us, we are fully aware of Who has set the Ultimate Agenda.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"Airport Wahhabis"

Stephen Schwartz is a Jewish writer and journalist. He is a vociferous opponent of Wahhabi fundamentalism (and many other things). The following passage reminded me of one of Ahmed Deedat's talks where Sheikh Deedat mentioned so-called Saudi "petrodollars."

"The vast mafia of princely parasites, over some 70 years, further exacerbated the clash between Wahhabi claims of fundamentalist puritanism and the real character of their rule. Previously known for mixing religious piety and political opportunism, the Saudis introduced the new and even more outrageous problem of their private immorality. The Saudi aristocracy would become known as 'Airport Wahhabis'--once their private jets left the runways, bottles of whisky appeared, women's veils disappeared, and a high time was had by all. The 'Saudi oil prince' became an unparalleled symbol of debauchery, ostentation, and waste, as well as ignorance, prejudice, and brutality. Expenditures to clothe and bejewel their women, indulge in their children, build and decorate their palaces, and otherwise satisfy their appetities became legendary. Their tastes led them to taverns, casinos, brothels, and similar establishments. They bought fleets of automobiles, private jets, and yachts the size of warships. They invested in valuable Western art they did not understand or like and which often offended the sensitivies of the Wahhabi clerics. [...] Yet at the same time, they dedicated a large portion of their wealth to the promotion of international Wahhabi radicalism, in a desperate attempt to bridge the gulf between pretense and reality.

"How was it that the grotesque duplicity of the Saudi regime--fostering official puritanism and unofficial degeneracy, proclaiming loyalty to Islam while rooting out its traditions, and agitating for the wholesale destruction of Israel while proclaiming loyalty to the United States--was ignored for so long by Western leaders and public opinion?"

- Schwartz, Stephen. The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. Doubleday, 2002.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

US Presidential Debates, 2004: Points to Note

I'm glad they only plan three presidential debates and not more. The repetitiveness really gets to you toward the end. The same points were repeated over and over again: 95% of crates uninspected (why doesn't anybody do anything about that, Kerry's said it on public television like four times already), 75% of Al Qaida brought to justice (Bush was smart enough to actually paraphrase that to "three quarters;" hats off to his trainers), 90% of the cost of the war borne by American taxpayers, Kerry's consistent inconsistency, X-ray the cargo but not the cargo hold (any airport authority people listening?), 125,000 Iraqis trained, spread "freedom" and "liberty," et cetera.

A few points to note. First and foremost, Dubya improved markedly on the second and third debates. I bet he had to do a lot of homework for it, but he did a good job. The first debate was a joke, I think he was surprised John Kerry actually opposed him. He had a look on his face that spelled "Is this guy with me or against me?" But he improved in the second and third debates. He even used a long word in the third debate: he said the word "exaggeration," albeit after a dramatic (no doubt preparatory) pause. It's a miracle he didn't get a standing ovation from the audience that very moment, though I suppose the audience agreed to stay silent (where's the fun in that?).

Secondly, I don't know about other viewers, but Dubya's smirking was getting decidedly vexatious as the debate wore on. I have no clue what it is he finds semi-humorous enough to get him to smirk through the entire debate. I tried doing it myself, and I figured if I kept this up, I'd get face cramps by the first half hour.

At one point during the third debate, the questioner asked the President about homosexuality. He asked whether he thought it was a matter of choice or birth. George W. Bush's answer was a good one: he didn't know. His ambivalence reflects that of the scientific community, where definitive evidence for a genetic basis to homosexuality is yet to be found.

When John Kerry was asked about it, he mentioned Dick Cheney's daughter as a strong "it is a matter of birth" response. I winced when he did that, because I didn't think taking Cheney's daughter's name was a wise thing to do. Of course, that's just me and my naivete. The truth is the Cheney's have used their daughter to show their "compassionate conservative" outlook during their campaign for a while now. Although George W. Bush didn't mention anything about it after John Kerry made his response, there has been a public outcry after the debate.

I don't think anybody's going to raise the issue that George W. Bush didn't mention anything during the debate. Now, Dubya's come up with an official position on it. I don't see why he didn't make it clear during the debate, I'm sure many people would have liked that. I think this is a case in point: Dubya's plain slow. He's the pretty little doll, the ever-smirking simpleton. If anything needs a response, you can count on his speech-writers to include that in his next speech, or his trainers to teach him to make the point at a later date, but saying something on his own? Nuh-uh. This matches with Paul O'Neil's vicious indictment of the President's complete lack of participation in cabinet meetings.

One more point to note. Considering how much of a mess the United States is in, or any country for that matter, the sheer enormity of such a responsibility, how can anyone actually campaign for such a job? I wouldn't want such a job even if people begged me to take it and I knew I had the ability to carry it out properly.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" was the highlight of these debates. I found myself intently looking forward to the 5-minute video clips they put up at their website after every debate. Jon Stewart, the host, is an absolute riot. It's a shame we don't have these back in Bangladesh. We have much more material than the Americans do.

Which reminds me of one of Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad's "Religion & Ethics: Thought for the Day" that the BBC features. In his 8th July entry, he reminds us that jokesters offer a "healthy disillusionment [of] institutions that have grown cruel, or complacent, or corrupt."

As Sheikh Murad puts it, "by pulling our legs, they keep us on our toes."

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

An Encounter With Dr. Douglas Osheroff

It’s a very refreshing experience to meet great people every once in a while. Sheikh Nuh says in his talks that the soul thirsts for wisdom, and good company.

I had the opportunity of observing a Nobel Laureate today, a Dr. Douglas Osheroff. His autobiography can be found here. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996, sharing it with three other colleagues for the discovery of superfluidity in Helium-3, whatever that means.

Dr. Osheroff came off as an archetypical sweet, old man. Slightly hunched over, grasping the arms of the sofa he was sitting on, he spoke in a low, consonant voice and placed the quips flawlessly to keep the students involved. I suppose Americans are generally well-known for their easy-going attitude, a tendency to not take things too seriously and tremendous sense of humour. However, I particularly liked his insistence on humility.

Upfront, he said that he was not looking for the discovery that lead to the Nobel Prize, and maintained that most scientists that get Nobel Prizes are just ordinary people. Perhaps as consolation, he opined that although Stanford is home to about seventeen Nobel Laureates, it endows no particular advantage on an educational institution to excel. Obviously he was addressing the scientific community’s (and my university’s, no doubt) collective ambition for the Nobel Prize or some such appellation of achievement; I share no such ambition.

Side Note: Too many professors I have seen are quite taken by the concept of the Nobel Prize. One such Organic Chemistry professor of mine insisted on mentioning something of the Nobel Prize in almost every lecture, having had a Laureate as his supervisor during his postgrad at Harvard.

However, reading his autobiography where he talks candidly of his academic troubles, watching an interview and hearing him talk up-close and personal, it is truly gratifying to see people with the instinctive insight to insist on humility and not looking at oneself as above others.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Rethinking the Solutions, Revisited

The Daily Star is Bangladesh’s premiere English language daily. It runs a website which it updates daily and has archives as far back as November 2001. This website is at the top of my list when I want the lowdown on what goes down in and around Bangladesh.

It hosts, from my perception, an above average array of patrons of the sciences, with frequent op-eds that come from some of the more intellectually inclined from among our educated middle and upper classes.

One such piece caught my eye the other day, a rather detailed essay on long-term solutions to the floods in Bangladesh by a Dr. Nazrul Islam. My previous blog entry, “Rethink the Solutions,” was partially inspired by his latter piece on October 2nd, though after blogging, I discovered the Daily Star’s archives and dug up his article from August 10th and the opposing article on August 13th, both of which he refers to.

They make for some interesting reading, and so the links are here for reference in order of appearance:

  1. A Permanent Solution to the Floods, by Dr. Nazrul Islam, August 10th 2004
  2. Permanent Solution to Flood: Point to ponder, br Engr. Amirul Hussain, August 13th 2004
  3. Cordon Approach or Open Approach?, by. Dr. Nazrul Islam, October 2nd 2004

At the time of writing my October 2nd blog entry, I wasn’t familiar with Dr. Islam’s complete opinion. Though after reading the entire chain of articles, I find a startling similarity between the approach of Dr. Islam and Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad’s article on the Turkish earthquakes.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Rethink The Solutions

On September 13th 2004, the capital city of Dhaka was completely inundated after a 72-hour splurge of torrential rain. One of Asia’s megacities, for three days thereafter, came to a grinding halt, and the centre of the economy of a nation of more than 120 million people was shut down.

The rainwater inundated 25 of WASA’s water pumps, used to pump water out of the city, rendering them unserviceable. The remaining pumps were ineffective anyway, as the heavy winds that accompanied the rain took down the power lines servicing them. As Mother Nature’s attack, seemingly engineered for the suffering of her inhabitants, withdrew, and the city officially at a stop, rickhsaw pullers were charging exorbitant rates for trafficking passengers because of the increase in demand, businesses were forced to close down and drinking water became scarce as 10 million souls in and around Dhaka, bewildered, wondered if God had no decency, sending down such untold suffering only weeks after the “official” floods receded.

It is too simplistic to say that the natural disasters God sends at us are divine punishment. However, we pave the way for our own suffering, by divorcing ourselves from the land and from ourselves, unleashing the forces of nature, long held at bay by our connection and realization of the realities in which we live.

The world exists as a play between the attributes of the Divine. The Compassionate, The Merciful and the Gentle also appears as the Overwhelming, the Just and the Avenger. Thus the world is a play of darkness and light, of joy and hardships and of celebration and mourning.

It is a strange thing to witness that after so many years of thriving civilization in the low-lying delta lands now known as Bangladesh, only with the advent of the promises of “modern technology” do floods cause suffering to more people.

As Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad so eloquently puts it, modernity serves but one idol: money. What is termed today as “progress,” serves neither the people nor the realities of the land, but dedicates itself wholesale to the outward semblance of the corporal world.

As Dhaka grows horizontally and vertically without rest or restriction, already-impotent city authorities are being pushed to the blinding edge. Their incompetence, indulgence in bribery and corruption, short-sightedness and complete disregard of their responsibilities are destroying one of the world’s largest cities.

The concrete monstrosities that have mushroomed in modern-day Dhaka are partly to blame. An inflated indicator of economic progress, many of these ill-constructed, badly maintained and sometimes abandoned structures are built on former water bodies that served as buffer storage for the sudden deluge of rainwater that hits randomly. These high-capacity structures also put a tremendous strain on a neglected low-capacity sewage and power distribution system that the authorities just cannot be bothered to cope with.

But we all know this. The news regurgitates these reasons every day. Where, then lies the solution? A thousand-kilometre coastal barrier along the shores of the Bay of Bengal? I believed Bangladesh missed an immense opportunity at being a miracle of modern innovation by reverting wholesale and without thought to the architecture of her former European masters.

The "modern" outlook of infrastructure in Bangladesh should be completely abandoned and the traditional solutions brought back to the fore. The roads that line Bangladesh's countryside and run shamelessly through what used to be rivers should all be dismantled, and the nation put on a program to regenerate the rivers, ultimately to be reinstated as the primary mode of locomotion through the country. A new industry of research, development, innovation and ingenuity should be built from the ground up for these vehicles. Major roads such as those that run between Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna and other major cities should remain intact, but remodeled to allow rivers to do their job.

Dhaka and other major cities should be cordoned off, their limits set and the city authorities should set up long-term plans for raising these cities to the skies if they need to expand outside their generous boundaries. Major cities should be modeled after the villages, dotted with ponds and lakes that the villagers know are excellent storage for excess rainwater, and sections of the city should be leveled and gardens planted to improve the water uptake of the soil that is essential to ground water regeneration. All areas within city bounds should be landscaped to allow water to run off into these water bodies and parks, that have the capacity to store the excess rainwater.

If corruption was erradicated, funding even these ambitious projects would become much less of a problem. International aid has always been ready, but our politicians don't have the credibility to make our case. International organizations like the World Bank come in, sanction multi-billion dollar projects modeled after the solutions they used in wherever, by foreign engineers who have never lived in the country, that know nothing of the realities of Bangladesh and spend a lot of money churning up good, God-given soil only to be hit harder by the floods the next year. The politicians don't mind, because they get a healthy 10% of the aid and several hundreds of thousands of taka in bribes from local contractors who need the contracts. Overpaid foreign specialists are brought in, that siphon most of the aid money back with their luxurious salaries as engineering graduates from our most prestigious institutes loiter unemployed and after wallowing for years, take their brilliance to a foreign land. This vicious cycle must end.

Our people stand at a crossroads. We can either choose to realize the realities in which we live and mend our ways, or we can continue on the path to perdition, in which case natural disasters are just the beginning. The world’s climate is changing, and Bangladesh will be among the first nations to be swallowed by the sea. Radical solutions are needed. We must do something.

Decision 2004, Reprinted

The following is an article by the owner of this blog, from The Ridge, the official NUS campus magazine. It appeared in the October 2004 issue.

The 2004 US presidential election promises to be among the more interesting ones in recent history. As its status as the world’s sole superpower grows as a result of a series of unilateral aggressions against sovereign states (with debatable results, necessity and international support), American politics is becoming more and more relevant to those abroad.

How It Works

Contrary to popular belief, public opinion in the United States is not split into two neat halves. The great American electorate actually breaks down into thirds. Incumbent George W. Bush controls a third on the right, challenger John F. Kerry controls a third on the left, and then we have the centre, called swing-voters, who do not hold loyalties to either party. It is the swing-voters that John F. Kerry and George W. Bush are trying to woo, and it is the swing-voters that ultimately decide who the president will be. They constitute a mere 10% of the electorate.

The centre has been behind the incumbent for the large part of George W. Bush’s 4-year tenure. They supported him during his invasion of Afghanistan soon after the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and they largely supported his alarmist and grossly misinformed arguments for an invasion of Iraq.

American casualties in Iraq, however, have crossed the 4-digit boundary to a thousand and are still going strong. Pictures of Abu Ghraib haunt the American military’s reputation. With Bush’s tax cuts explicitly favoring the rich, a larger proportion of the 200-billion-dollar cheque for the war in Iraq comes from the middle class, and only two years after a record budget surplus the nation has the largest budget deficit in history.

With parameters such as these surpassing psychologically important levels, and an increasingly critical media brought to shame for its reproachfully biased dissemination of the administration’s pitch for war in early 2003, George W. Bush should have something to worry about when appealing to the votes of the centre swing-voters.

The Race

Bush’s continued competitiveness, and near lead, in public opinion polls, however, comes to show exactly how ambivalent the public is. Though not too keen on Bush, swingers do not seems too keen on Kerry either.

Bush’s lead on Massachusetts Senator Kerry owes heavily to his publicized persona as an established wartime president and Kerry’s fundamental disadvantages as a “waffler.” Only two senators throughout American history have actually gone on to become presidents. Senators have to pass many votes for and against bills of similar themes under different circumstances and these public records can be used with remarkable effectiveness to challenge a contender’s decisiveness and credibility.

In addition, re-election bids are more of a referendum on the incumbent’s performance in the past 4 years than an election. It is more of a decision as to whether or not the incumbent has done things well enough rather than a 50-50 choice, so the election is essentially Kerry’s to lose.

A Bipartisan Farce

American foreign policy as of late has shifted toward “pre-emptive strikes” and “regime change.” It insists on both safety at home and touts the noble cause of (selectively) endowing democracy abroad to those under the yoke of tyranny. Despite the noble rhetoric, America has the lowest and most class-skewed voter turnout among any Western democracy.

Tens of millions of voters regularly abstain from presidential elections, with a less than 50% voter turnout in 2000. The class gap is marked, with only 40% of eligible citizens in families with incomes of less than $15,000 voting, compared to 76% of families with incomes of more than $75,000 during the 1996 elections. The gap is projected to have increased in subsequent elections.

A significant portion of potential voters (and ultimate abstainers) in America look at bipartisan politics very skeptically. The Democrats and the Republicans, to them, is much like Coke and Pepsi; same product, different packaging. Their skepticism also owes itself to the fact that American politics revolves largely around big business. Six out of ten of Bush’s major campaign contributors are financial firms, and Kerry fares no better.

Noam Chomsky rather harshly contends that democracy in America “is to be construed as the right to choose among commodities.” Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT and notable intellectual, maintains that real issues such as the economy and jobs are pushed to the background, and superficial vagaries such as “qualities,” “leadership” and “personality” are brought into the fore to marginalize the public and transfer decision-making to “unaccountable private power systems,” a “virtual Senate” of private investors and lenders.

Exploitation of a Tragedy

The Republican campaign insists that September 11th 2001 changed the face of the world forever. As such, only an experienced “wartime” president would be fit for the role, or else, as Dick Cheney stated on September 7th 2004 to reporters in Iowa, America could be hit again.

The attacks on September 11th 2001 were carried out on American soil, and represented a level of creativity not imagined possible by terrorists. Yet, according to their own investigations, the attacks were in planning for years before their near-flawless execution. It marked the beginning of a “War on Terror,” though it being dubious at best to declare war on an abstract noun.

America’s over-emphasis on terrorism has become a sickness of sorts among politicians and bureaucrats around the world. When questioned with the possibility of negotiations with the terrorists of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Beslan bungle on September 6th, 2004 Vladimir Putin cited the possibility of the United States negotiating with Bin Laden. To leverage the severity of the crisis, links to Al Qaeda were mentioned, which have since been discredited. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal called Al Qaeda attacks on Saudi soil on May 12th 2003 “our 9/11.” Former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani perversely stipulated August 30th 2004 that the nation owes it to the victims of 9/11 to re-elect George W. Bush.

When foreign and domestic politicians use a tragedy shamelessly and repeatedly to push their own agenda, it no longer becomes a tragedy. It becomes a marketing tool. The Republican insistence on a “new world” based on the gruesome events of September the 11th 2001 and the follow-up scare tactics are a masterful execution of the first rule of thumb in politics: when in trouble, change the topic.

The election next November can go either way, but both ways are similar enough in terms of foreign policy (most relevant to us) to cause worry. As the United States continues to dominate the world political and military scene, the chances of the common man coming under its thumb continue to increase. Despite the great freedoms endowed by the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allies almost 60 years ago, the subversion of public awareness and exploitation of the media threatens the fabric of free society and the right to self-governance, and ultimately undermines international law as has now become painfully apparent. From this side of the ocean, however, all we can do is watch.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

About The Author

Iftekharul Haque (view profile) was born in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on a cold and foggy Wednesday morning, at 6am, on February the 22nd of 1984.

What followed was a relatively uneventful and peaceful life, Al Hamdu Lillah, with his parents and two bullying big brothers who finally left him alone when he outgrew them at age 16.

He graduated from The International School of Choueifat, Abu Dhabi in June 2002, after 6, generally traumatic, years.

He is now doing his undergraduate in Life Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Saudi Arabia: A Nation on the Edge

Originally written in author's personal log, April 2004.

Saudi Arabian civilians have been the victims of the modern brand of terrorism as early as 1995, but only since 2003 has the momentum built speed. And so the Royal Family puts forth its most powerful weapon: Islam (or at least the part of it they want to show).

The scholars have finally begun to speak up, it seems. In a Reuters article on April 23rd 2004, this "cleric" (no further reference) has said (in response to the suicide car bombing of April 21st):

"God has promised wrath, damnation, painful torture and an eternity burning in hell for he who deliberately kills a Muslim... Unjustly killing a Muslim is the gravest crime which cannot be atoned..."

"I tell all Muslims that this act is a sin, it is one of the greatest sins... Aiding, calling for, or facilitating the murder of a Muslim is tantamount to involvement in murder and all who do so will be thrown by God into the flames of hell, for so dear is the sanctity of Muslim blood."

Two things to note. First of all, this scholar is making a statement based on current affairs, and second, it’s being published. Both of these facts directly point to the fact that the government had a direct hand in them.

The “intellectual community” in the traditional Muslim world, ideally, comprises primarily of Islamic scholars. They are the defacto go-to guys for major decisions and opinions from the Islamic outlook, which forms the sole basis of the society, economics and politics of the country.

Today, however, the entire Middle East is completely void of intellectualism, a place where the educated may live, but are instructed not to talk. Unbiased criticisms against the government and open opposition are unheard of, and Friday Sermons are written down for the congregational Masjids and distributed and the Imams made to record their sermons for submission to the Ministry of Awqaf.

This comment by this unnamed "cleric" was entirely engineered by the government of Saudi Arabia, because they’re finally beginning to feel the bite of the perverse fallacy that is Al Qaeda’s terrorism and the vicious brand of sectarian Islam they practice.

Targeting civilians is unlawful. This is unequivocated, not subject to abrogation under any circumstances whatsoever, no matter what bin Laden says. Though it is noted that the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) ended the Biblical age, crimes against humanity were commonplace in their time, and the Prophet and his Companions (Allah be well pleased with them) suffered untold amounts of torture at the hands of the pagan Arabs, and civilian murders were never legalized, even after the belated legalization of justified armed conflict several years after their expulsion from Makkah. After the September 11th attacks, when the world was looking to Islamic scholars for their say, not enough voices were heard to condemn the attack. The shocked silence of the Arab and Muslim world at large was appalling.

Now that Al Qaeda is targeting local Muslims within the Holy Land, the vast majority of whom partly or explicitly support Osama bin Laden and look up to him for standing up to America for so long, it must say something for the interesting mix that will become of the Middle East (or at least Saudi Arabia) in the years to come.

The Saudi monarchy has been slowly losing their grip on their subjects for a long time now, as the United States, their staunchest ally and primary reason why they’re in power at all, seems to sporadically and momentarily forget their ties to the Royal Family when they criticize them. With a swelling teenage and young adult population, growing idealism and the smack of reality that hits when you realize your country is a farce of the international community, the Royal Family should be worried, and I bet it is.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Highway Blocked, Cars Set Ablaze on Student's Death

"A female student of Jahangirnagar University [...] was killed in an accident on [the] Dhaka-Aricha highway in front of the university main gate yesterday morning, sparking [a] massive protest by the grief-stricken fellow students."

" [...] they vandalised about 10 roadside shops and set fire to three. They set three buses, four trucks, three CNG- run three-wheelers and five pick-up vans ablaze."

"Jakia Sultana Sumi, [...] perished on the spot."

" [...] seven people including associate professor of English department Kawsar Hossain have been killed so far in road accidents near the campus. Kawsar was killed on February 1, 2002."

"The demonstrators demanded construction of speed breakers at important points on the road and setting up of traffic police boxes where required."

"The university authorities held an emergency syndicate meeting to take decisions on the students' demands."

Another tragic and pointless loss of life, and another round of my countrymen practicing unlimited freedom of expression. I don't know what's scarier now, freedom or tyranny.

The sad truth of it is that had the students not gone on a rampage and directly threatened the very operation of a crucial institution of tertiary education, nobody would have cared to install these basic safety facilities, which previously actually killed an associate professor. This reactive attitude is appalling; safety measures should be implemented regardless.

I'll be glad if we ever get out of this pit of irresponsibility, immorality and unruliness within my lifetime. Second generation Bangladeshis (those born after independence, i.e. after 1971) are turning up to be even worse than their predecessors, who today run the country, and a fine job they're doing.

At least the first-gen'ers had to fight for something, their independence. Not only did these vandals not fight for anything, they're fat on corrupt, undeserved money and 30 years of ill-governance and consummate lawlessness. We're a nation on the edge.

Even if global warming convinces the Bay of Bengal to swallow us into oblivion, I'm afraid it's just gonna spit us back.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)