Month: March 2011


Some of the folks on the team compensate for being away from home and family by eating. Food gets fetishized. Not so much the food at the KBR dining facilities, although there are the quirks there, the exotic things some eat when away from home: chunks of blue cheese by the salad bar, sliced boiled beef tongue for lunchmeat, Nutella. But the true fetishizing happens in spending money on food. There’s a real Thai restaurant on base, staffed and run by Thai nationals who got the contract and rotate over here for six months or a year like the AAFES and KBR workers, and a Turkish restaurant operating under the same circumstances (the Thai place is better), and a pizza and sandwich shop, and a tiny, smoky two-picnic-table kebab shack that’s mouth-wateringly excellent on the other side of the runway. Guys will spend fourteen Euros for dinner or four Euros for lunch, sometimes two or three times a week. “It’s my only luxury,” one of them says. “It’s the only thing that gives me pleasure here, besides Skyping with my wife.”

Or folks compensate by going to the gym. It’s open 24 hours, and there’s usually a wait for the treadmills. Everybody reads, of course. There are swap bookshelves everywhere, weirdly diverse (or not so weirdly; as diverse, perhaps, as the military itself): there are the usual titles you’d expect, Tom Clancy and Dan Brown, and Mack Bolan The Executioner, whose novels I had never encountered until I saw one of the series on a bookshelf at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California in 1993, and who I never saw after I got out of the Army until I came here, but there’s also a copy of The Book of Mormon on the same shelf as an old library-bound hardcover of The Hite Report, and a while back I spotted Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives a couple shelves down from Grace Paley.

And the pirated DVD shop at the bazaar does booming business. Every DVD is $2, lots of them of movies that are still in the theaters (I’ve watched Black Swan and The Adjustment Bureau while I’ve been here), although many are DVDs of the movies being shown in movie theaters, so you sort of get the whole experience. Since we’re prohibited from taking them home to the U.S., some folks buy one or two or three a week and just leave them on the swap shelf, which makes for a sizable library. From what I’ve seen, I’m anticipating that The Hangover and The Losers will get picked up a lot more often than Inland Empire and Enter the Void, but you never know.

My habits are pretty much what you’d expect.

reading desk

I’ll cop to being selfish: I’m not going to leave any of my scholarly books on the swap shelf. (I am planning on leaving my Afghan books behind, though, and Chronic City is very far from the Jonathan Lethem I know and like.) There are two seasons of The Wire on those hard drives on the left, as well as about 260 GB of my music collection, mostly ripped from CDs just before I left. And while it sounds OK on the Bowers & Wilkins 600s at home, the Sony earbuds I brought with me weren’t cutting it, so I ordered the pair of Etymotics there on the keyboard. They go much deeper into your ear than other earphones, so they’re a initially little uncomfortable. We’ll see how well I get used to them tonight as I give them a test drive and take a look at Zombie Economics.

Warren Zevon, “The Hula Hula Boys”
Metric, “Satellite Mind”
Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Match Box Blues”
Outkast, “The Way You Move”
The Clash, “Straight to Hell”
David Bowie, “Modern Love”
Morphine, “Honey White”
Dengue Fever, “Sui Bong”
Emmylou Harris, “Walls of Time”
Greg Kihn, “Breakup Song”
Joan Jett, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
Depeche Mode, “Stripped”
Lupe Fiasco, “The Coolest”
M.I.A., “Jimmy”
Beck, “Farewell Ride”
Melvins, “At a Crawl”
My Brightest Diamond, “Feeling Good”
Rachid Taha, “Kelma”
The Grass Roots, “Midnight Confessions”
Firewater, “Borneo”
Sisters of Mercy, “This Corrosion”
Steve Earle, “Copperhead Road”
Natacha Atlas, “I Put a Spell on You”
Talking Heads, “Girlfriend Is Better”
Neko Case, “Furnace Room Lullaby”
Jurassic 5, “What’s Golden”
Led Zeppelin, “Over the Hills and Far Away”

Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

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