tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Syria chastised for denying legal rights to Kangaroos

"The defendants have no chance of defending themselves."
--Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch

An dense fog of culturally biased figurative speech blew across Syria this week when Syrians were told that their government apparently has been cracking down on dissident kangaroos, rounding them up and subjecting them to the show trials of the Supreme State Security Court.

A headline on Al-Arabiya's website [ENGLISH] proclaimed "Syria must close its kangaroo court," which shocked many unassuming Syrians because, of course, they were not aware that there were kangaroos in Syria.

The news story is based on a recently released 73-page report [Also in ENGLISH] from Human Rights Watch called "Far From Justice: Syria's Supreme State Security Court."

Said HRW's Middle East director about Syria's judicial system: "It's a kangaroo court providing judicial cover for the persecution of activists, and even ordinary citizens, by Syria's security agencies."

Incredulous Syrians responded to this news with, well, incredulity. "I didn't know we had any kangaroos," said one Syrian who asked to remain anonymous but who is in fact named Hamoudi Yousif al-Homsi. "But they can be sent to court, like us humans?! I guess I've been living in a hole."

While it's true that Mr. al-Homsi has been living in a hole, he also brings up a valid point: if this is literally about a kangaroo kerfuffle--which must be the case because there is no Arabic equivalent of kangaroo court--why is Human Rights Watch so interested?

No doubt Syrians are wondering: Where is Kangaroo Rights Watch?

The Tuque Souq is wondering: Who's this report for anyway?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Egyptian secret police take blogger on joyride

When Egyptian activist and blogger Philip Rizk went to a demonstration to protest the Gaza war, he had no idea that the Egyptian mukhabarat - secret police - were planning to give him a 4-day vacation in jail.

He certainly didn't have a clue that he'd be treated to a high-speed getaway on his way to his incarceration.

But that's what happened. According to a posting on the blog of one of Philip's friends who witnessed these events, the mukhabarat took Philip and his lawyers into a local police station--after he was arrested at the demonstration--while his friends were asked to wait outside. Then:
All hell broke out at 11 p.m. The lawyers rang down to say that Philip had been kidnapped: state security officers had told him that they wanted him for questioning without the lawyers in a room next door. They took him downstairs and put him in a Suzuki microbus which, when it appeared at the police station's exit, we attempted to prevent moving by blocking its path. It forced its way through while state security officers frenziedly threw us out of the way.

Moftases meanwhile had started his car. Droubi and I got in it, Moftases put his foot down and the police attempted to stop us moving by standing in front of it. Moftases drove anyway.

There then followed a car chase, Moftases establishing that if he ever tires of Psychiatry he should consider a second career as a rally-driver. The microbus – whose rear number plate had been obscured by a piece of cloth – moved at great speed through the busy main street before suddenly veering off into a neighbourhood of narrow alleys where it attempted to lose us. They hadn't reckoned on Moftases.

Philip was sitting at the back of the microbus, with roughly four or five men including the driver in front. At one point he turned around, saw us, and smiled. I hope we provided some comfort, however fleeting.

This – extreme speed, dangerous overtaking, sharp turns - went on for about 45 minutes. I don't mean to make it sound exciting. It wasn't. It was sickeningly absurd and unglamorous (a Suzuki microbus for God's sake), frightening, dangerous, and I needed the toilet throughout.

After about half an hour it turned around and went back the way it came. Playing with us, we thought.

It turned out that they had been waiting for a police general who had been at the police station to get himself and his assistants to a police checkpoint building where they extended barriers across the road. We were done for: the microbus – and Philip – disappeared into the night.
Philip was held in jail, blindfolded, without charge for more than 4 days before he was quietly released. He says he was not tortured, only interrogated repeatedly. He was accused of being both a Hamas spy and an Israeli spy.

While he was in detention, the mukhabarat broke into his home and seized his personal documents, cameras, computers, even the passwords to his blog and email accounts.

He denies enjoying the high-speed chase.

There are more than 18,000 political prisoners in Egypt, including many young activists/bloggers. One is Dia Eddin Gad, who was also swept away by the mukhabarat while protesting the assault on Gaza. His whereabouts are unknown. His blog - Sawt ghadeb ("Angry Voice") - has not been updated since before he was kidnapped.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Save Mohamed Kohail: Update February 2009

Earlier this month, the fate of Mohamed Kohail for the first time in 2 years looked infinitesimally sunnier after the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia decided against upholding the death sentence against the Canadian citizen, his brother Sultan, and a third co-defendant who is Jordanian.

The Council asked the lower court to revisit its ruling and death sentence. This is not the same thing as the Supreme Council rejecting the death sentence; by not upholding the ruling the Supreme Council is basically asking the lower court: "Are you sure?" The Kohails are far from in the clear.

[Brief background: the Kohail bros. are on death row in Saudi Arabia for allegedly causing the death of a schoolmate in a brawl in January 2007. They are Canadian citizens of Palestinian origin. Find out more in our Tuque Souq Mohamed Kohail bureau.]

Liberal MP Dan McTeague (Pickering-Scarborough East) is Parliament's point man on the negotiations to free the Kohails (at least from the clutches of the Saudi justice system). Click here to send the Hon. McTeague an email, encouraging him to step it up and free these boys on death row.

Also, an update on an item we mentioned in an earlier Kohail post:
There is an online petition for clemency for Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan national who is facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for allegedly causing the death of an infant she was babysitting; Rizana was 17 at the time. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Ms Nafeek is very ill in prison and must undergo surgery while awaiting the outcome of her trial.

[Also not so unrelated: this press release from the Canadian Association of Journalists came across the wire today about freelance Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, who is still missing and presumed kidnapped in Somalia for 6 months now.]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Big Dance for Waltz with Bashir? [Update: No]

The much-celebrated, must-see animated documentary Waltz with Bashir--an Israeli film by Ari Folman about one man's journey to reconstruct his memory of war--is expected to land the honour of Best Foreign-Language Film at tonight's Oscar bash, the 81st Academy Awards.

On its way to the Oscars, Waltz with Bashir has picked up the U.S. Writer's Guild award for Best Documentary, Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, and Best Picture by the U.S. Society of Film Critics (a tough bunch to impress). It also won 6 Israeli Ophir awards (the Israeli Academy Awards).

Despite its surface topic--the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Israel's oversight of the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla--the film was received well and thoughtfully in Israel.

The Tuque Souq enthusiastically gives it 2 thumbs up (though I'm still of two minds about the stylistic decision made at the end of the film, which I won't spoil), and highly recommends pairing the film with the legendary narrative journey into a memory of the Lebanon War, Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetfulness--a classic and unforgettable book!

Waltz with Bashir is Israeli cinema's eighth nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film; the previous seven all came up short, including Joseph Cedar's Beaufort last year (a film also about the Lebanon War).

Only 1 Arab or Middle Eastern film has ever won even half of this award: the Academy considers Z, the 1969 winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, a French/Algerian film. Algeria has had 3 other nominations. Iran (Children of Heaven; 1998) and Palestine (Paradise Now; 2005) have had 1 each.

[Oscar Update 1: Waltz with Bashir did not win at tonight's Oscars. Um, I hope I didn't jinx it.]

[Oscar Update 2: Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman was wearing a tuque tonight. More on this development as it develops.]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tayeb Saleh passes away at 80

"Everyone starts at the beginning of the road, and the world is in an endless state of childhood."
--Tayeb Saleh, Season of Migration to the North

Critically acclaimed Sudanese writer, journalist and novelist Tayeb Saleh passed away this week at the age of 80.

Famous for illuminating the intersections between cultures and modernity, Saleh is especially acclaimed (or sometimes disliked) in the Arab world for depicting the contradictions inherent in cultural struggles on both sides of the modern East/West divide, which is a major theme of his work.

Obits & bios on Tayeb Saleh:
Tayeb Saleh's masterpiece was a short novel called Season of Migration to the North (Arabic موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال) published in 1966, an all-time favourite of mine. It is sometimes referred to as an Arabian Nights in reverse, and has been called the best Arabic-language novel of all time.

In 2001, the Arab Literary Academy named Season of Migration to the North the most important Arabic-language novel of the 20th century, and a year later an international literary panel included this novel on a list of the 100 best works of all time.

[Season of Migration to the North on Google Books.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How to start your own Israeli settlement in 7 easy steps

So, you want to start your own settlement in the West Bank and you're not sure how to do it. Well, assuming you're not Palestinian, it's a super easy, gluten-free recipe:

First: Find some land
You need a starting point, an existing settlement, preferably one whose residents have a history of settlement activism, violence, racism, and/or messianism. For example's sake, let's say Efrat. Efrat (or Efrata) is located in the southern West Bank, between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, in a circuitous cluster of settlements known collectively as Gush Etzion. [Click on map to enlarge.]

Second: Take the land
You'll want to strike out on your own by taking over a hilltop or two adjacent to the existing settlement. You can do this in one of two ways. You can either conscript a bunch of gun-toting settler teenagers - known as the Hilltop Youth - to take over your hill, set up a few caravans, and scare the living daylights out of Palestinian civilians.

Or, a more subtle strategy would be to apply to the office of the Commander of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Coordinator of Government Operations for Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) to have the area of your future settlement declared a 'Closed Military Zone.' You will argue that this is necessary to maintain the safety and security of the current settlers, who need a buffer zone between them and the Palestinians.

Depending on the current situation, it might even help to have some of your more radical settler kin go out into the olive groves and attack Palestinians, to further your contrived evidence that the military should close the area.

Third: Guard the land
The Palestinians will protest the 'closed military zone' with grassroots activism and legal challenges in Israeli courts. You see, this land you're taking over is Palestinian farmland, olive groves, pastures, et cetera; land which has belonged to families and nearby villages for centuries, and for which legal title could have been drawn up in the Ottoman era.

You will counter that the land you want is a natural extension of an existing settlement bloc and, being uninhabited with no legal record since 1948, should therefore fall under the civil jurisdiction of the settlement.

Fourth: Wait out the futile appeals process
Time to wait. While the Palestinians are going through the appeals process, they are in the meantime mostly barred from working the land now in dispute, because of course it is a closed military area. After a few years, it appears that the land really is wild and unclaimed.

In the example of Efrat, Palestinians will make a series of 8 appeals to the IDF Civil Administration for the West Bank (which is subordinate to the IDF's Gov't Ops division) and the Israeli civil courts; all 8 appeals will be rejected. Then a 9th appeal will be accepted by an Israeli court on the grounds that, clearly, this is not a military zone but Palestinian farmland that is essential to the survival of nearby Palestinian communities.

It might seem that your hopes of starting your settlement are dashed. But don't worry; this appeal will be de facto overturned by the pro-settler Civil Administration with the implicit backing of the Israeli military.

How is this possible? Well, even in the odd case where an Israeli court has ruled in favour of a Palestinian claim to West Bank land, it's not like the Israeli courts have the power to actually force the Israeli government to instruct the Israeli military to enforce the rule of Israeli law in a place (the West Bank) that is under perpetual military rule and in perpetual political, legal and jurisdictional limbo.

I mean, what Israeli politician has anything to gain by siding with a pro-Palestinian court ruling? That would be just too crazy.

The land you want for your settlement will be declared 'State Land' and fall into the hands of the Civil Administration (yes, the same outfit that had the de facto power to whimsically overturn the Palestinian appeals), which probably won't even bother to tell the Palestinians what has happened.

Fifth: Lobby your elected officials
Before you can begin formal construction of your settlement (although really, no one is going to stop you at this point), the Civil Administration must allocate jurisdiction of the land to the Israeli Ministry of Housing. This is tricky, because it requires the consent of the Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

Luckily for you, pro-settler parliamentarians, like Benny Elon, have disproportionately large representation in Israel's government, the Knesset. Time and again, Israel's fractious coalition governments must grease the squeaky settlement wheels in order to function. Either your pro-settler Knesset blocs will trade a few votes with the Prime Minister to have your request approved, or if they are in the coalition they will threaten to pull out and torpedo the government. If you're lucky enough, your Prime Minister might just be a settlement fan himself.

Either way, you're only a Hamas rocket or other distraction away from having the Ministry of Housing formally register your land, at which time you (and you alone) can apply for building permits and start knocking down those thousand-year-old olive trees.

Sixth: Find some settlers
Okay, you've got your (ahem) legal title from the Civil Administration and your construction permits from the Ministry of Housing. Your contractors (if the Israeli military hasn't done this already) extend a road or two from the existing settlement bloc onto your new settlement land. Any number of companies (even Canadian ones) are available to construct your cookie-cutter settlement houses and condos.

The Israeli military is helpfully suppressing any Palestinian initiatives to claim and work their land.

So now, you just need some settlers to live in your settlement. Fortunately, this is the really easy part.

If you want a nice, happy Zionist community without too many radical strings attached, then you'll want to make your pitch to working-class and recent immigrant Israelis with the following incentives:
  • The Israeli Ministry of Housing offers low-interest or interest-free mortgages and loans which can essentially turn into grants if you can't pay them back;
  • The Israeli Ministry of Education subsidizes most of the costs of education in settlements;
  • The Israeli Ministry of Trade provides tax incentives and business grants for anyone starting a business or establishing an industrial zone in a new community, such as a settlement;
  • The Israeli Ministry of Labor provides extra benefits to social workers and other community workers to help the new settlement get off the ground;
  • The Israeli Ministry of Finance used to offer as much as a 7% income-tax break to settlers; while this has been taken away as of 2003, in general settlers on a per-capita basis are the beneficiaries of 150% more government spending than non-settler Israelis;
  • Free Orange T-shirts!
Or, if you want to speed up the settlement process and guarantee that your settlers won't agree to any future government plan to relocate them back to Israel as part of some "peace process," you should target ideologically resolute settlers - the Gush Emunim types - whose fervent religious nationalism (and proclivities toward large families) might secure you a more lasting, if more unruly, settlement community.

Seventh: Bake at 500 degrees forever and ever!
Mazel tov! You now have a fully functioning, peace-process-killing, per-capita-GDP-sucking, resource-draining, Palestinian-poverty-perpetuating, international-law-violating, ecologically unsustainable, implicitly racist settlement in the West Bank.

Whether you're planning for the messiah or just your retirement, you're on your way to personal fulfillment at the expense of the well-being, happiness, prosperity, security and hope of millions of other people.

[Related post: Israel admits it's known about settlements for at least 4 years]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Economic woe threatens Somali Pirate industry

The writing was on the wall; it was just hard to read from way out to sea.

Last week the 5-month-old MV Faina affair, in which Somali pirates seized a Ukrainian arms ship and held it for ransom, was resolved peacefully when the pirates agreed to the paltry sum of $3.2 million and released the hostages.

After seizing the ship last fall, the pirates were reportedly expecting to negotiate an exchange of the vessel and its crew for a ballpark figure of $20 million, but that was before the global financial crisis, which took the wind out of the ransom market.

The 85% plummet in value of their only commodity has many pirates worried that the MV Faina affair is a bellwether for the future of the industry; piracy has already dipped in 2009 after 2008 saw industry growth of more than 200%.

Already some economic analysts are arguing that the pirates must diversify their financial interests or face total ruin. Relying on a single source of revenue in a market with elastic demand is tantamount to steering a ship of fools. There will be no taxpayer-funded bailout, the analysts warned.

At least some Somali pirates seem to have given up hope; recently ten of them were captured without a struggle by a Russian naval vessel, whose crew witnessed the pirates dumping their weapons into the sea in a futile attempt to pass as itinerant fishermen.

Veteran Somali pirates, however, say that with a few cutbacks in their lifestyle, they will be able to ride out the storm. They may have to downgrade from RPGs to bottle rockets, from AK-47s to Super Soakers, and from parrots to plastic parakeets. But they will survive this crisis.

[Related post: Pirates seize tanker, make a fortune in oil futures]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Iranian Presidential Candidate in Hot Water over Middle Name

Former Iranian President Mohammad G. Khatami announced this week that he will once again run for his country's highest elected office when Iranians go to the polls in June.

Mr. Khatami was president of Iran from 1997-2005, during which time he was known as a moderate and reformer who expanded social, economic and political freedoms in Iran. He has criticized his rival, current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for turning Iran into a pariah state.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, or "Dina" as we like to call him, was feeling a bit on the defensive until a news story, released by Fox News Iran, revealed that the "G" of Mohammad G. Khatami's middle initial actually stands for 'George.'

Now it is Mr. Khatami who is on the defensive, as his campaign has been forced to deflect criticism that his middle name sounds an awful lot like Iran's sworn enemy, George W. Bush.

Already many Fox News Iran pundits are calling Mr. Khatami by his full name whenever they mention him, and are questioning his patriotism.

Here's a partial transcript of an interview yesterday between Fox News Iran and candidate Khatami:

Fox News Iran: "George? Isn't that a terrorist name?"

Mohammad Khatami: "No, it is the name of one of my ancestors."

FNI: "It sounds like a terrorist name."

MK: "It's not a-"

FNI: "Seriously, are you really Iranian?"

MK: "Yes of course. I was president for 8 years. And if the people of Iran elect me again-"

FNI: "But George is a Christian name. So you're not a Muslim?"

MK: "I am a servant of Allah, a cleric, a man of peace and-"

FNI: "Wait, wait. So you are a Christian."

MK: "I am a Muslim."

FNI: "But you just said you are a Christian."

MK: "No, you said-"

FNI: Your name is George. You grew up in Germany, a Christian country. Do you eat Schnitzel?"

MK: "No, well yes, I've eaten Schnitzel. But I only studied in Germany. I was born on Iranian soil."

FNI: "Oh really, then what colour is our flag?"

MK: "It's red and white and green."

FNI: "Aha! It's pistachio green. Not just any green. If you were a real Iranian you would have used the qualifier 'pistachio.'"

MK: "Wha-"

FNI: "How long have you been an ally of our enemy George, your namesake?"

MK: [Staring in disbelief]

FNI: "How long have you been following the teachings of Jesus Christ?"

MK: "But in the Holy Qur'an, it says..."

FNI: "Aha, so you are a Christian. Why don't you just go to Israel."

MK: "But Israel is a Jewish country."

FNI: "Oh, so you're Jewish now, are you?"

MK: "This is ridiculous."

FNI: "Are you saying that because you're some sort of terrorist Christian Jew terrorist who's called George who is a terrorist?"

MK: "I'm leaving."

FNI: "Well, there you have it. Mohammad George Khatami, left-wing radical candidate for president of Iran. Thanks for being on our show."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israeli Election 2009: Mayhem edges Chaos at the tape

To the victors go the spoils;
the losers, their pants are soiled.
--William Shakespearey

The results are back from Israel's 18th Knesset elections race. According to exit polls:

is the surprise winner, having come from behind to defeat Chaos. In third place, Raging Hatred, while Absence of all Reason finished a distant fourth, just ahead of Medieval Tyranny. And at the back of the pack we have Blind Aggression, Wistfulness, the Party Formerly Known as the Communist Party, Oppressed One and Oppressed Two, and finally, Kill 'em All and Let G-d Sort 'em Out.

It will take some time for Mayhem to form a coalition government, and it will need an Absence of All Reason to function, along with some Medieval Tyranny. But look for Chaos to try to form its own majority bloc also with Medieval Tyranny and some Raging Hatred, and then Kill 'em All and Let G-d Sort 'em Out.

Okay here are the actual exit-poll results of the 2009 Israeli Knesset Elections, for which almost 65% of the country's 5,278,985 eligible voters case a ballot:
Kadima (Mayhem): 30 seats
Likud (Chaos): 28
Yisrael Beitenu (Raging Hatred): 15
Labor (Absence of All Reason): 13
Shas (Medieval Tyranny): 9
United Torah Judaism (Blind Aggression): 5
Meretz (Wistfulness): 5
Hadash (ex-Communists): 4
3 each or fewer to Rahm, Balad, Jewish Home and the National Union
The Knesset factory:
Churning out unruly coalition governments since 1948

Tzipi (aka "Could be Worse") Livni, head of the Kadima party, will get first crack at forming a coalition government. She'll be Israel's second female Prime Minister. [Note: the first one, Golda Meir, was once described by David Ben-Gurion as "the best man in the Israeli government" -- so she may not count.]

Sorry, the Marijuana Holocaust Survivors Party did not win enough votes for a seat in the Knesset. Maybe next time, dudes.

"Voting in Israel is, in fact, a lot like going to the dentist. For days before you mull it over, you worry. You deny, you hope for the best. There's a nagging ache that you hope will not turn out to be what you fear. You wonder whether it's worth doing this at all. The bottom line: While the best you can hope for may be no better than the way things are now, the worst may be catastrophic. In the end, then, what is the difference between voting in Israel and going to the dentist? [Avigdor] Lieberman."
-- Ha'aretz blogger Bradley Burston

Finally, don't despair, democracy watchers, for the end of the 2009 Middle East election series. More is on the way. Algeria has a presidential election on April 9. Yemen will hold Parliamentary elections on April 27. Iran votes in June. So does Lebanon. The Palestinians are due for a vote or two before the year is out.

[Update Feb 11: For final official ballot tallies, click here.]

Israel's Pro-Marijuana Holocaust Survivors Party

This item got lost at the bottom of Sunday's wordy Israeli Election Preview, but certainly deserves its own post:

For today's national elections, the Israeli Marijuana Party has joined forces with the Holocaust Survivor's Party to form the joint Pro-Marijuana Holocaust Survivors list. And here's their campaign spot:

And (all in Hebrew, but you don't need Hebrew to get it) another commercial plus an Israeli news story about the bizarre alliance:

Back with more on the Israeli election results after the polls close tonight.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tuque Souq 2009 Israeli Election Preview

We don't want to fear-monger and tell you to pack your bags and head for the hills (of Jordan), but polls open in Israel in less than 48 hours and things ain't looking so good. While last-minute surveys hold that the Likud Party remains in the lead for the throne, it has become startlingly clear that the coveted princess of this election is not Benjamin Netanyahu but Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman (pictured) leads the far-right, secular-nationalist, pro-transfer party called Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel is our Home"). In recent weeks, his iron-fist rhetoric in post-war polling among voters has led many to conclude that the balance of power in the next Israeli government will be wielded by a racist who advocates the mass expulsion of Arabs from all of Israel.

Before we get to further analysis, here is a breakdown of the current standing of Knesset parties (blue indicates parties in the current coalition govt), and a poll prediction for Tuesday's vote.
Current Knesset:
Kadima 29 seats
Labor 19
Likud 12
Shas 12
Yisrael Beitenu 11
Nat'l Union/NRP 9
Pensioners 7
United Torah Judaism 6
Meretz-Yachad 5
United Arab List 4
Hadash 3
Balad 3

Latest Poll Prediction:

Likud 26 seats
Kadima 23
Yisrael Beitenu 19
Labor 17
Shas 10
Nat'l Union/NRP 6
Meretz-Yachad 6
United Torah Judaism 5
United Arab List 4
Hadash 4

(Notes: With 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition needs 61 seats to govern. The party that finishes in first place gets first crack at forming a coalition, but if it fails then the runner-up finisher gets a crack. Parties must win at least 2% of the popular vote to qualify for a seat in the Knesset. The Pensioners Party is the latest here-today-gone-tomorrow Israeli party. They came from almost nowhere to nab 7 seats in 2006 and swing Ehud Olmert's Kadima-led coalition. Then the party split, and now it's all but gone.)

Naturally, the poll-leading Likud party is interested in having Lieberman's bloc join it in a coalition government. Things would then get sticky as the religious Shas Party probably wants nothing to do with anti-religion Yisrael Beitenu. So a hypothetical Likud-led government might have to include either Kadima or Labor to add up to a majority of 61.

Ehud Barak's inches-left-of-centre Labor Party is also pulling at Lieberman's sleeve. Kadima smells blood and hopes that enough right-wing fence voters will choose Lieberman over Likud so that Kadima ends up finishing in first place.

Then there's Shas, the Sephardi/Mizrahi ultra-orthodox party, which once upon a time held the fulcrum that Lieberman now wields. Used to be, Shas and its 12-or-15-odd seats would be enough to tip the balance of any coalition, and Shas was usually willing to join any government so long as it secured certain financial and moral guarantees from the government. (Shas is particularly fond of childcare subsidies, since the Haredim have such large families, and it opposes secular marriage ceremonies, which Lieberman staunchly supports.)

Recently, Shas's spiritual leader, the rabbi Ovadia Yosef, warned right-wing voters who sit on the fence between religious and secular that "a vote for Lieberman gives strength to Satan."

Lieberman, true to form, is basking in the glow of all this pre-election pomp. Despite his objectionable, physical ugliness, he's apparently quite popular among young, first-time voters in Israel. And despite his stomach-turning moral ugliness, he's already boasting that in the next Israeli election, his party will win over the most hearts and votes of Israelis.

So will Tuesday really be Avigdor Lieberman's bal débutante? Will Netanyahu get squeezed out between the far-right and the near-right? Will a fourth- or even fifth-place finish spell doom for Labor?

What if Likud and Yisrael Beitenu finish 1-2 but short of a combined majority? Would all the other parties (except presumably the also right-wing NU/NRP) unite to deny Netanyahu and Lieberman a chance at a possibly ruinous government?

Other election news/issues/tidbits culled from the final week of the campaign:

Further-right-than-Lieberman Baruch Marzel will be a poll-station monitor in the city of Umm al-Fahm, Israel's second-largest Arab city, which people like Lieberman and Marzel hope to force its residents to choose between loyalty to Israel and loyalty to Palestine (and expel the latter). This could get ugly.

The aforementioned Shas Party is showcasing its adaptability to the 20th century by promoting the political role of women in the ultra-orthodox community.

Could the Meretz Party, the white doves of the Israeli political flock, be shot down and stuffed for good? Ack, even Ha'aretz has turned on Meretz.

After the Israeli election commission reluctantly lifted its earlier ban on Arab parties participating in these elections, many in Israel's Arab communities are considering a boycott of the polls on Tuesday.

Oh, there are a whopping 33 political parties competing in Tuesday's election. That's a new record, even for a partying electorate like Israel's. The coolest party of the lot:

The Pro-Marijuana Holocaust Survivors Party!!

(This is not a joke. Click here to watch a Holocaust survivor encouraging you to toke up -- at least medicinally.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Camels jockey for position to annoy tourists in Egypt

There's something spectacularly amusing about spending a cold Friday afternoon in Toronto reading the user-generated reviews of the Great Pyramids of Giza on the popular travel website TripAdvisor.com.

Chortling over these reviews, it seems to this blogger that everyone loves Egypt and loathes Egyptians; travellers seem especially annoyed with the timeless art of haggling for camel rides.

"The camel drivers and hawkers are annoying, but just tell then you are albanian and they leave you alone."

"They use intimidation and threats to extort money out of you."

"...they tried to get us for about $50 each."

Ah, the travellers travelled to meet the untravelled in well-travelled lands, but the untravelled weren't what the travellers had travelled so far to see.

Rhetoric, please: What is a great pyramid without a camel haggler?

Feeling Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, it seems that when the traveller preconceives an egoistical experience of travelling that is equidistant from pure fantasy and reality, he is the blindest of all humans, for he neither imagines nor sees his travelled place for what it really is.

With the stout capabilities of my imagination I could visit the pyramids in my mind's eye as I sit next to a snow-covered window. Or with the blessings of our era I could hop on a plane to Egypt and visit the pyramids with my own true senses. But I wouldn't expect them to be the same trip.

Besides, why travel halfway around the world to let yourself be annoyed by the same species that lives on your street?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Arabian Nights update

An update from an earlier post... Oxford's Arabic literature guru Geert Jan van Gelder has an article in the latest Times of London Literary Supplement on the new translation of Arabian Nights, with more analysis on the history of English-language translations.

“Three English translations from the Arabic appeared in the course of the nineteenth century. Edward William Lane, a good Arabist, produced a version in 1839 that was acceptable to a Victorian readership, which meant that he had to omit a fair number of stories, passages and poems.

“More complete was the version by John Payne (1882–4), which was soon overshadowed, and to some extent plagiarized, by that of Richard Burton (1885–8), a translation as eccentric as Burton himself. His obsession with matters of sex and eroticism (he also put his name to a translation of the Kama Sutra) is obvious not only from his copious notes, but also from the translation itself; Burton’s wife Isobel saw to it that an expurgated version was published for a general readership.

“Burton’s language, too, is eccentric and pretty unreadable, such that a not unlikely title might be 'The Shroff who Futtered his Cadette with the Two Coyntes.' Such words may be useful for players of Scrabble; modern readers deserve something better.” [MORE]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Qaddafi chosen leader of all Africa after near no-show vote

Over the din of a few groans from fellow African leaders and dignitaries, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi was selected as the new head of the 53-member African Union yesterday.

The AU presidency revolves regionally, and it was North Africa's turn. Either no one else from the region (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria) wanted the job, or Qaddafi fiendishly told his fellow North Africans that the vote was scheduled to take place at the bar around the corner.

Either way, Qaddafi is now technically Africa's highest-ranking political figure.

The Colonel is anxious to get to work in his new role, promising to accelerate the formation of a "United States of Africa."

"I hope my term will be a time of serious work and not just words," Qaddafi said in his inaugural speech.

Though AU prez has no real power over the sovereignty of each of its individual members, he does play an important role in directing Africa's relations with the world's other political and economic blocs, and in resolving intra-African disputes.

Right now that means Qaddafi will play a role in resolving political unrest in Mauritania and Madagascar, to name two, and in fighting AIDS, poverty, corruption, economic exploitation... oh and that unresolved thingy in Darfur.

Is Muammar up to the challenge?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Camel milk puts you in the mood for loving camels

Camel milk is known to be a naturally salty, high-protein, low-fat, low-lactose milk that sustains nomadic camel herders in the harsh Saharan climate.

Since 1989, the Tiviski camel dairy in Nouakchott, Mauritania has been manufacturing pasteurized camel-milk products -- cream, yogurt, cheese, butter -- for local sale. It's the first camel dairy in Africa. Unfortunately, due to both logistical hardships and stiff import/export regulations governing pasteurized milk products, your camel-milk experience will have to come very close to the camel; i.e. in Mauritania itself (although the New York Times reported last year that limited quantities of "Camelbert" cheese were available in the Big Apple).

It might be worth the trip. Camel milk has long been considered an aphrodesiac. In producing camel-milk products, the Tiviski dairy relies on the teet-squeezing efforts of a thousand nomad camel herders who harvest the milk. That's gotta be a sight!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

YouTubers debate Obama's peace plan and who works hardest: Jews, Muslims or Spanish

On Monday President Barack Obama gave his first interview to an Arab TV station, al-Jazeera rival al-Arabiya. [Full transcript here.] The chat is already must-see TV on YouTube, but as usual the comments are a must-read. Highlights:

obama is as green as a they come. lol! what did he actually say in this interview anyway? nothing.
What the hell are you talking about that's EXACTLY what he was doing...this man is a Godsend US ambassador to the Muslim World! He actually displays a little thoughtful INSIGHT into the affairs of the contemporary Muslim world and all of a sudden you're freaked out? That's why he is the president and you are not (thank God).
a godsend to the muslim world? lol! really? and your perspective and authority on the subject is what? mtv? or are you into obama because matt damon likes him? because your depth of understanding of foreign policy is about as deep as a mud puddle and just as murky.
My "perspective" and "authority" is based on the fact that I belong to the Muslim faith, was born lived in a predominantly Muslim nation for several years, and have independent studied the diverse history and cultures of both Asia and the greater Muslim World for a decade before majoring in political science at Vanderbilt. What makes you so noxiously hostile towards a President before he has even completed his "100 days?" Likely because blind cynicism is simply the adolescent "cool thing" to do.
What crap...what factors are there to listen to? Israel is under constant threat of terror from the Muslims. If Israel gives up territory, the reponse is terrorism. If Israel talks about peace, the response is terrorism. If borders are opened Israelis are killed, like today..3 Israelis killed at the Gaza border crossing. The envoy is a lebanese and will be very unfair to Israel, since he basicially supports terrorism and hezbollah is probably his blood family. Muslims are jealous of usa!!
yeah right, if muslims were jealous of america would they not just copy your bill of rights and constitution? You obviously do not understand the conflict one bit. Israel needs to go back behin the borders from 1967, befor that time the region was very peacefull and acording to both my parents one of the niced places to be. The israelis are bullies. Hamas are criminals and need to be stoped but the same goes for the current israeli government.
Why is it that nothing ever comes out of any of the Muslim countries, aside from terrorism. Maybe praying with your brain to the floor 5 times a day, is counterproductive to creating ideas to better mankind. How long do you work, if you have to go pray and clean your feet 5 times a day? Then a lunch break. We are working 9 hour days with short breaks,and Muslims work about an hour in a nine hour day? Let's just send all our hard earned money to all countries where they pray rather than work.
shows how much you know about the muslim world, and that is exactly the problem. If you do not understand the country you are in conflict with you can not find a solution. A preyer only takes 5 min and muslim people are as hard working as most people i know. I would say they work more than the spanish do. Educate yourself a bit.