Category Archives: Afghanistan

Clocks

Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.

Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.

Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that

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The Labor of Being Social

After a series of back-and-forth emails among the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the contractors themselves, we arrange a face-to-face meeting at one of the bases. The Afghans who stand to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting are not included in the meeting or in the email exchange. Afghans don’t do business by email, for the most part. They talk face-to-face in the most senior person’s office. They have tea.

The meeting is held on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. The military calls them conexes or milvans. The shipping containers are bolted together; holes are cut with torches for windows; thin sheets of laminate are riveted or scabbed onto the corrugated steel walls, and electrical junction boxes and conduit and plumbing screwed onto the interior face of the laminate. The only available room large enough to accommodate all of us belongs to one of the Christian chaplains. There are three amplifiers, a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, an upright piano, stained glass appliqué paper on the steel casement window, stacks of bottled water, a rough-hewn plywood lectern, particle-board shelves lined with ecclesiastical and religious-themed books and DVDs: Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, Chris Fabry’s Dogwood, study bibles, hymnals, Robert Wilson’s The Story of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. We sit in a semicircle in plastic chairs. Above us, we hear the sound of pigeons nesting in the gaps of the corrugated steel.

There are discussions of the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend: local universities, regional universities, online programs, United States universities. Funding is the primary concern, and the funding roadblocks to raising the English-language expertise of the faculty. We talk about TOEFL prep programs. One of the contracting officers observes that the multimillion-dollar contract for literacy instruction is the biggest contract in Afghanistan.

Later, one of the senior academic mentors on our team notes that his email inbox has recently filled up extraordinarily quickly, to more than 2,600 messages. “And all of it for nothing,” he says. “These don’t get anything done.” I remark again that the Afghans don’t use email: their communication is almost entirely face-to-face.

C. Paul Olson points out in his essay “Who Computes?” that computers replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive. Composition classes operate at least in part based upon a labor theory of value: one learns by doing, and the more work one puts into doing, the more skilled one typically becomes.

My conversation with the senior academic mentor shifts topics to the goals of literacy instruction, and what training in computer use might do for the Afghans. “If we come back and they’re doing all their communication by email and planning with Powerpoint,” he says, “we’ve failed.”

On Receiving a Shipment of Computers

Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.

Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:

First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media': devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)

I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.

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Inside, Outside

Two meetings, less than a week apart. One is in a large room with black leather couches around the perimeter, the most senior person’s desk — this is his office — in the corner furthest from the door. More important people sit closer to the position of power; less important closer to the door. The floor is covered by two matching large 10 x 15′ Afghan rugs in black and red and green and white. In front of the couches there are faux-wood coffee tables with chrome feet and floral-design clear glass tops. A bookcase with sagging shelves sits in one corner. Gilt-framed maroon velvet bulletin boards hang on the walls with organizational charts and calendars and quotations in Dari, and framed plastic-covered maps bracket a gold-framed photo portrait of President Karzai in the place of honor between the windows.

The couches are filled: there are a total of nineteen people in the room. There is an initial speech of 25 minutes or so, noting academic issues that have come up, offering guidance. There is some discussion of the fact that a Web presence and a Facebook page for the Academy have been authorized, and that “These will solve most of our problems.”

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Your Afghan Playlist?

A question for you, reader: what American or English-language songs would you play for Afghan students in order to both (1) introduce them to the broad range of English-language musical culture and (2) help them build their English listening and interpretation skills and familiarity?

There are some rules. My question is educationally motivated, so any music shared should support Afghan and Islamic values, and should promote the values that the Afghan educational system is trying to promote.

  1. No references to alcohol or drugs.
  2. No references to extramarital love, lust, or dating, and no references to sex. (That includes innuendo.)
  3. No misogyny. (Women-positive lyrics much encouraged, as long as they don’t violate #2.)
  4. Nothing that would be perceived as non-Islamic proselytizing. This includes no mentions of Jesus, the Bible, or biblical figures.
  5. Consider carefully the place of cursing and anti-establishment rhetoric in the context of a fledgling Islamic republic attempting to promote the rule of law.

Here’s an inital stab pedagogy: every week, make a playlist available to students. For homework, have each student choose a song he or she likes best and try to write down and learn the lyrics. In class, do some karaoke-style recitation, and then have discussion about vocabulary, cultural referents, and interpretation.

I’m seeking as diverse a sampling as possible, and hoping for music that might in some way be both representatively American or Western and that might be stuff they haven’t encountered before. I’d be grateful for any and all suggestions in the comments.

(One last thing: the class in question will also include a film portion. Any ideas for great American movies that fulfill the above criteria are welcome, as well.)

Hope When the Roads Turn Black

Things here seem to stay where people set them. Our mentor team rotates, here for 45 days or three months or six months or a year, and some of the Afghan instructors rotate in and out as well. In Lab 15, there are four dead computers gathering dust under desks and in corners — two Dells, two off-brand — in addition to the 20 sheet-shrouded operational computers running down either side of the long room with a single row of battered metal chairs facing front in the middle. There are computer parts in tattered cardboard boxes, a boombox for playing English-language listening and conversation practice cassettes and CDs, a DVD player, a VCR, a marker- and dirt-smudged Smart Board hanging on the wall. In the back corner of the room, there is a metal wheeled cart with a TV set and a dirty mug and three boxed sets of children’s games. Each of the operational computers has a small uninterruptible power supply next to it because of how unreliable the electricity is. Under the teacher’s desk, there are two more power supplies on their sides, unused, a white thermal carafe, styrofoam forms for packing electronics, woven reed baskets, a CRT and a 13-inch flat-panel monitor, remote controls hidden under stacks of years-old student papers, an empty rosewater bottle. The rooms we work in accumulate the detritus of instruction, including the superannuated technological capital associated with computer-based teaching.

afgh_mud_huts

When I first arrived here, I moved freely from my office overlooking the airfield to Lab 15 or to other classrooms to observe the Afghan teachers, though that freedom of movement was and is circumscribed by the boundaries of the small campus. It’s fenced on all sides, accessible only through checkpoints with gates, crew-served weapons, and armed guards. We drive past the airfield to get here: on one side the civilian Kabul International Airport that the Ariana and Kam and Safi jets fly out of with the few here wealthy enough to travel on them, and on the other the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters and C-27 cargo planes of the Afghan Air Force. It was easy enough to take a break from working on the computer — before I learned to I needed to get out of the office and move in order to do my job — and watch the planes taking off and landing, just as I used to watch the cargo ships go up and down the Hudson from my office at West Point.

I see similarities to the large-scale mobility of the multinational military presence here — the helicopters and cargo planes, flying missions and materiel and personnel beyond, within, and across Afghanistan — in the critique Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu offer in “Composing in a Local-Global Context” (2009) of the formulation by which “success… is imagined in terms of the extra-territorial mobility achieved: the ability of the few across the world to constantly move, untied by emotion or responsibility to any one territory, identity, or career” (122). Transnational and transterritorial mobility is a marker of privilege, much as we see in “Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World,” where Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Gorjana Kisa, and Shafinaz Ahmed (2009) use “the term transnational… to signify a growing group of students who are at home in more than one culture… These students typically speak multiple languages, often including varieties of English from outside the United States, and maintain networks of friends, family members, and other contacts around the globe” (56). In some instances, mobility itself possesses agency, rather than the things that possess that mobility, as in Horner and Lu’s assertion that “the extra-territorial mobility of capital robs individual locales, lives, and lines of work of any vestige of stability” (123). The tribally and socially connected nature of Afghan culture feels deeply local, with little of the assumed privilege we associate with the American fetish for cars and planes and so-called footloose capital.

afgh_market_street

Since the recent incident, it’s become harder for Americans to move around the campus. We don’t go anywhere alone, and there’s a check-in and check-out system, and increased security measures all around. Body armor any time we go outside the gate, even if we’re still inside the wire. Within the gate, there’s little freedom of movement, and few places to go. We draw the shades in our offices, and I no longer watch the comings and goings of the planes.

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The Felt Bonds of the Social

I stood in a hangar with hundreds of others this afternoon. There were the doors open to the airfield and the cloudless haze-blue sky and the sounds of aircraft outside above the hushed murmur. I stood with the small group I knew, surrounded by others we saw in passing or lived nearby or talked to or dined with, but apart from the occasional hug or pat on the shoulder or back, there was still the Western reserve — maybe appropriate, given the official nature of the event — but still entirely different from the emotional intimacy I’ve learned to expect from the Afghans.

That’s been the thing that’s been hardest for me to learn here. Americans are schooled to sublimate our emotions, and I think those who work for and with and in the military moreso than most, although academics do it as well. When Americans work, we work. We’re blinkered by our on-task orientation, our email screens, our lesson plans. With the Afghans, I certainly didn’t understand that the first thing to do was to sit down and have tea, and that the second thing to do was to sit down and have tea again and perhaps talk about one’s family, and that what was most important was the respect and shared common feeling and emotional well-being of those with whom one would meet and talk and perhaps, eventually, work. I got more mileage here — perhaps fittingly — out of a five-minute story about my brother’s wedding than I did out of hours of discussing ideas about teaching, pedagogy, and writing.

That extends here in strange ways. Greg Mortenson has seen bad press lately for the apparent lies and corruption connected to the projects he’s written about in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Rory Stewart and Sarah Chayes talk about the apparent widespread acceptance of corruption in Afghanistan, and about the cavalier attitude toward some ideal of truth. I’m sometimes finding something similar. Afghans are amazing orators, especially when it comes to matters of pathos. What matters here is how you and your interlocutor feel about something: the facts are flexible. Questions of timeliness, validity, procedure, accuracy, cost, and accountability are all often secondary to the felt bonds of the social relationship. More than anything, the reciprocal ties of sociality are key.

It’s taken me three and a half months to start figuring that out; to start knowing that in practice. There are its corollaries: you respect the people you work with. As an American, you don’t argue with someone. You don’t make someone lose face. You accept someone’s hospitality. And if you’re going to build what you came to build, you can’t do it with weapons, or wearing body armor in your day-to-day interactions.

All of that has left me feeling unsettled, still, especially this afternoon in that hangar, when those bonds of the social were as quiet and solemn and solid as they were in our Western way, with those words about the enthusiasm sometimes forced and the determination with hearts sometimes heavy, and those words about having given the last full measure, and one by one people would stand at the call of their names until a name was called and no one stood, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another.

Downtime

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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