Saturday, October 22, 2011

The World's Level of Insanity Just Dropped a Notch or Two...

The Iraq War ended again Or, more accurately, will end again. This time the president didn't land a Lockheed S-3 on the USS Abe Lincoln. There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging in the background while he dipped his Cohiba in a fine Port and propped his feet up on the head of one of those Saddam statues that had been ripped down by an M1 Abrams.

This time there was a speech that simply said the troops will be home by the end of the year. No mention of the failure to reach an agreement concerning troops staying in Iraq. We did all the heavy lifting and now it's time to call it a day. Turkey and Iran will stomp down hard on the Kurds then shift their focus into carving up the rest of Iraq. And in the next 15-20 years, we will be back over there killing and being killed over another Big Nothing. I'm a bit conflicted over how to feel about all this. I remember watching Colin Powell make a fool of himself in front of the UN. It was supposed to be the "Boo-Ya!" moment of our time. The equivalent to the Adlai Stevenson address to the UN during the Cuban Missle Crisis (one of my all-time favorite moments in history). Instead of giving clear cut proof, Powell presented some pictures of trucks in a desert. They could easily have been a semi full of oranges parked in Barstow. Skepticism filled me in at that moment and it never left. I'm for war under the right circumstances, but if your reason's aren't even clear to yourself... But for now let's try to enjoy the fact that a soldier's family can rest a little easier in the coming months.

Qaddafi. I awoke the other morning, turned on my laptop and saw the "Breaking News" banner next to a picture of Ole' Moammar. The initial reports of his capture gave me a strange sense of excitement. I was already looking forward to his trial when moments later "capture" turned to "killed." The ideal scenario was not to be. The man said he would die in Libya. A dictator to his own fate.

It would have been nice to march him in front of the Human Rights court, but in reality Libya would hand him a death sentence and nobody would bark about it. A lot of people on TV were wondering why he was killed. They seem to forget that this is an armed revolution of the people. These fighters aren't trained military. When this fight started most of them didn't even have guns. Now everyone is worried about the country falling into a civil war. I think that's unlikely. A number of the NTC higher-ups are members of the parlimentary government that Qaddafi allowed to operate to ease the fears of the West so they would do business with Libya. They wanted a voice and Qaddafi needed a smokescreen. There is already talk of votes in the summer. Sec. Clinton is offering the almighty aid dollars to help rebuild. An interesting stat I learned yesterday: NATO bombers (mainly French and British) dropped so many bombs during this intervention they ran out and had to buy some from the US stockpile. I don't know if the income from that is calculated into the news reports about how much the US spent on pounding Moammar into submission, but it is an interesting point. Even though we are active in two wars of our own (Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention "operations" in Pakistan, Somalia, etc.), we still have enough bombs to go around.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Observer of Culture: A Discussion with Rabih Alameddine

            It is a cool, evening in Norman, Oklahoma, and Rabih Alameddine, author of Koolaids:The Art of War, I, the Divine, The Perv and The Hawkawati, lights a cigarette. Alameddine is Lebanese, but he spends the majority of the year in his home in San Francisco, California. “Do you travel to Beirut often?” I ask. “I spend about four months out of the year there,” he answers as he flicks the ash from his cigarette. I comment on the ongoing unrest in Syria and ask about the effects it has on his home country. Alameddine explains some of the differences between Syria and Lebanon, neighboring countries who have different perspectives on the way they interact with the West.“[Syria] hasn’t been as developed. In Lebanon they, sort of, destroyed everything to build skyscrapers.” Alameddine says.
            This is one of Lebanon’s complexities that appear in Alameddine’s writings when he references a label Beirut has come to be known by: the “Paris of the Middle East”. It is one of the Middle East cities that welcomes and embraces Western culture. Adding to the mix in cultures is the diversity in the religious communities found in Beirut. Sunni, Shia, Jew, Druze, Protestant, and various sects of Catholicism are present. I ask Alameddine if his book reflects the real Beirut, and if he feels that his American audience tends to see him as the sovereign voice of Middle Eastern literature.
            “Even if you read my book, you’ll get a different side, but you still won’t know.” He pauses to take another drag from his smoke. “Whenever you get something outside of the dominant culture, say American Indian, a lot of people will read one book and think, ‘Oh. Now I understand!’ But nobody would, say, read John Updike and go ‘Oh! I know America now!’ For anything outside of the dominant culture the assumption is the writer carries everything.”
            Alameddine encounters this assumption fairly regularly. It is one of the quirks we Americans have come to practice when dealing with non-dominant cultures. “I went on NPR, I swear to God, for an hour the questions were all about Islam. And you know finally I had to say ‘Do you guys know that I am not a Muslim? I can answer these questions to the best of my ability…When I go to a festival nobody ever asks me ‘How do you write?’ it’s always ‘Do you think there will be peace in the Middle East?’ Hell if I know!”
            There is some benefit to be had by being a cultural outsider. It allows one to observe cultural elements in ways that those inside the culture may not have the ability, or luxury, of doing. “There’s something wonderful about watching another culture from the outside.” says Alameddine, “As an outsider you can also be a good observer of American culture…of what I would call the dominant culture. There’s a lot of non-dominant cultures in the United States, but there is one dominant culture.”
            This idea of observing something like culture from an outsider’s perspective does not necessarily mean that you have to be totally detached from the subject. Alameddine is well aware of this and the role it plays in his writings. “You cannot write about something if you’re totally enmeshed in it, and you can’t write about something if you are totally distant from it. It’s finding the right balance. How far can you pull out without being too distant, but if you’re totally in it, you can’t see it.” remarks Alameddine.
            Alameddine’s novel Koolaids: The Art of War presents stories revolving around the AIDS pandemic and the Lebanese Civil War in a fragmented and non-linear format similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. “When you write these stories,” I ask, “do you start out and finish a whole story, or do you take a story to a certain point and start the next one?” Alameddine responds, “With Koolaids I did. But, also, Koolaids was just a run on thing I did very quickly, but I had been building up for it for a long, long, long time. So the stories were in my head and I just sat down and [wrote them]…I think non-linearly, but I write linearly, so it comes out linearly, but I usually start at the beginning and end at the end. With the later book [The Hawkawati] I actually moved things around a lot, with Koolaids I didn’t, and sometimes I think I should have.” The first thing I noticed when I read Koolaids was the way Alameddine plays with time the way Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five. “The important thing about Slaughterhouse-Five that’s also similar to Koolaids in some ways,” says the author as he stomps out the remaining ember of his cigarette, “is it’s not just non-linear and fragmented, it’s repetition…it goes like a sort of constant cycle…Nietzche said something about ‘eternal return’ what [has] happened will happen again.” It will be interesting to see what stories this observer of cultures will share next.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The 2011 Neustadt Festival (part one)

What an incredible week! I attended the Neustadt Festival at the University of Oklahoma for the first time.

The festival is held annually. Depending on the year, the award of the Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature or the Nuestadt International Prize for Literature is announced. (More Info Here)

It began Tuesday night at the Norman Depot with readings by Oklahoma authors. Nathan Brown hosted the event with Dorothy Alexander, Joey Brown, Ken Hada, Carol Hamilton and Benjamin Myers. They took turns sharing their favorite poem (by an author other than themselves) before reading from their own works. There was time for a brief question and answer session with the panel afterwards.

Myself and the rest of the Neustadt class had the privilege of sharing an evening with the jurors of the 2012 Neustadt prize.

The 2012 jury was made up of these authors:
Rabih Alameddine
Gabeba Baderoon
Norma Cantu
Andrea De Carlo
Nathalie Handal
Ilya Kaminsky
Yahia Lababidi
Miguel Syjuco
Samrat Upadhyay

That evening I had the opportunity to have a great discussion with Rabih, who is originally from Lebanon but splits his time between San Fransisco and Beirut, about his novels, the Arab Spring, stereotypes that we Americans see the world through, Obama and the Palestinian struggle. I will blog more on this soon.

As Rabih and I began to talk more on these topics, other jurors were thrust into the Rabih. Yahia, Gabeba, Nathalie, Rabih and I had a few moments of conversation before the evening had to end, but it was a powerful conversation.

It is in moments like these, in the exchange of ideas, in the exchange of thoughts and opinions and the willingness and desire to listen, these moments help us to look beyond the difference in race, or nationality, or religion, or politics and helps to remind us that our commonalities are far more important than our differences.

In the next episode:
The jurors read their works.
More discussion with Yahia and Rabih.
An afternoon with Miguel Syjuco.
The Banquet and Virginia Euwer Wulff accepts the 2011 award for Children's Lit.