Thursday, May 28, 2009

Israel's Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade

I usually try to keep this blog apolitical, however following on Israel's attempt to legislate allegiance to the state by introducing a pledge of loyalty to Israel's Jewish and Democratic character (more here:, I could not help but be reminded of the brilliant episode of the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Now, a couple things. That Israel can be Jewish AND democratic is a fiction which is becoming ever-increasingly more difficult to believe. Secondly, while no stranger to Orwellian twisting of language and facts, the Israeli government has really outdone itself in the "Absolutely No Sense of Irony" department, as it forces its Palestinian-Israeli citizens to take a pledge of loyalty to the (allegedly) democratic nature of the state and punishing by imprisonment protests against said state.

Now, without further ado, an excerpt from Heller's Catch-22

Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that "The Star-Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was the greatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; to Captain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day so that he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

"The important thing is to keep them pledging," he explained to his cohorts. "It doesn't matter whether they mean it or not. That's why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what 'pledge' and 'allegiance' means."

Monday, March 23, 2009

More On Being a Male Feminist

This blog is quickly becoming a an extended feminist rant, but so be it.  I wrote the article below for an Egyptian magazine, but I don't know if or when it'll ever see the light of day.

My friend Francesco has a tendency to bellow various and sundry catchphrases that he has coined over the years:  he does so loudly, frequently, seemingly unprompted, and for no particular purpose that I can ascertain.  Among his favourites is the phrase “a little bit of feminism”.  Francesco’s general tendencies towards the Neanderthal-esque in other aspects of his life lead me to believe that he does not intend this as a rallying cry for the emancipation of women.  Instead, with his somewhat tenuous grasp of the English language, I suspect Francesco understands “feminism” to mean “lesbianism.”

He certainly wouldn’t be the only one.  When I taught English literature to first-year university students in Canada, feminist theory was to be introduced only after what eventually became a ritualistic recitation of caveats: No, feminists were not angry man-hating lesbians.  More worryingly still: No, feminism was not obsolete simply because women could now vote.  Finally: No, feminism is not applicable only “over there” (read: far-off places where people always seem to be at war and women always seem to be veiled).  I would end my spiel with the assertion that, differing interpretations notwithstanding, feminism at its essence boiled down to a belief in the equality of the sexes.  “Given such a definition,” I would tell them, “I would hope all of us would define ourselves as feminists…I certainly do.”

What invariably ensued was silence; a tense, uncomfortable silence broken only by an awkward giggle from the back of the class.  It may simply be because as a male I lacked the biological accoutrements traditionally considered necessary in order to join the ranks of feminists.  I did not meet the “member”ship criteria, if you will.  Whatever the reason, students in my overwhelmingly female classes not only showed a distinct aversion to identifying as feminists themselves, but also met my self-identification as such with a combination of scepticism, discomfort, and amusement.

For too many, the term “male feminist” is an oxymoron.  No doubt, there was a time during the evolution of the feminist movement when, in the face of an oppressively ubiquitous patriarchy, women-only spaces were necessary.  Thanks in large part to the gains made by the various feminist movements around the globe, men have come to be seen not only as welcome, but necessary allies in the sometimes seemingly quixotic quest to stamp out the systematic and systemic discrimination against more than one half of the world’s population by the other half. 

Perhaps it’s too easy to pick on Cairo as a case in point.  The sexual harassment which has reached pandemic proportions in this city has been well-publicized of late, but ­– with few exceptions – to no noticeable effect.  As is frequently observed, it is no small irony that the very same men who ostensibly hold the honour of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in such high regard, have no compunction about violating that of others.  Of course the reasons for this sort of behaviour – poverty, unemployment, urban anonymity, sexual frustration, a sense of emasculation, etc. – are manifold, but none constitute excuses.               

If, therefore, men are the problem – as we unfortunately so frequently seem to be – then only through the active engagement of men can solutions reasonably be expected to be reached.  Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the notion of male feminism gaining more traction is a curious zero-sum-game mindset which pervades the less enlightened of the male sex: seen through this retrograde lens, to be pro-woman is somehow, by definition, to be anti-man.  That which is good for women can only chip away at the privileges which men now enjoy.  It may be true that women’s liberation will require some concessions on the part of men, but if that is the case, then they are concessions of advantages men did not deserve in the first place.   

No one, least of all me, is saying that this will come soon or easily; the relinquishing of privilege for the sake of greater egalitarianism never does.  However, slavery ended only through the agitation of both black and white abolitionists, just as the advances made by the American civil rights movement were brought about thanks to the combined efforts of black and white activists.  So too will the pernicious patriarchy which afflicts us, both men and women, be defeated only when more men make a genuine call for “a little bit of feminism.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Egyptian Women Fight Back

I have in the past advocated the arming of all Egyptian women with pepper spray (currently illegal in Egypt) in order to deter would-be sexual harassers who have become a blight upon this country.  I can't take credit for the self-defence initiative reported in this BBC News article, but it's a step in the right direction.  Instead of the inocuous "restraint" technique mentioned in the article, however, can I propose the teaching somewhat more offensive Jason Bourne or Steven Segal type moves, preferably rendering the attackers' cojones vestigial?  This would have the added effect of controlling Egypt's ballooning population by sterilizing men who, quite frankly, have no business procreating in the first place. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Academia and its Discontents

This troubling New York Times article has been making the rounds lately among my predominantly humanities graduate student crowd.

None of us got into academia to get rich, but we all thought that we'd at least have a job.  We slogged through seemingly endless years of study, classes and essays.  We struggled through exams, comps, vivas...all to demonstrate to the powers that be that we are worthy.  And throughout the sleepless nights spent hunched over books or illuminated by the glow of a computer screen, fuelled by a concoction of espresso, ephedrine, and Red Bull, there was, at the very far end of the tunnel a dim, barely visible light towards which we slowly inched our way: Tenure.  

You see, academia is not unlike fraternities on a much larger, long-term, and more sadistic scale.  Academia's hazing rituals can last well over a decade, and include such perversities as marking towering piles of papers written by barely-literate first years or producing reams of research from which one's supervisor will pluck a single fact, figure or sentence to be used in his/her forthcoming publication (acknowledgement not guaranteed).  One does this while earning barely more than the minimum wage, burdened with tuition fees and past student debt, and subsisting almost entirely on ramen noodles.  Why you ask?  Because once we get past all that, once we get in, we're in for life.

Tenure is the ultimate in job security.  Barring gross misconduct (and even then), the tenured professor can not be fired.  The logic behind this, historically, has been that once an academic has established his/her credentials and abilities, he/she should be free to pursue research without fear of harassment from the institution.  Such an arrangement would have spared Socrates a rather nasty bout of hemlock poisoning.  And so, the US Supreme Court notwithstanding, academia remains one of the very last bastions of the job security afforded by what is essentially a life appointment. 

And now the NYT is telling me that it's all for naught?!  Am I to understand that my two undergraduate degrees and two Master's degrees (in lieu of any practical life skills, I prefer to obtain degrees in pairs) aren't worth the paper they're printed on?  That the nearly 1/4 of my life thus far spent in institutions of higher education engaging in all the aformentioned inane and perverse hoop-jumping has been wasted?  That my months of agonizing over writing the perfect doctoral research proposal would have been better spent in some sort of "gainful employment"?  Nay I say to that!  

Look, NYT, I know you're on the brink of bankruptcy, but just because you're going down doesn't mean you have to take us all down with you.  Sure, there's nothing you'd like more than for a mass exodus of disheartened graduate students to read your article, give up and drop out, thus flooding the job market and providing you with a source of cheap labour which you - having done your research so well into grad student habits - know you can abuse without hearing a peep of complaint (grad students prefer to voice their complaints in innocuous twitter tweets).  I'm on to you, but I won't play your game.  If I don't find a job after completing my PhD, I'll just do another one.  Degrees come best in pairs anyway. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

WebMD: Fuelling Hypochondria since 2005

I've been having some pretty brutal headaches as of late.  Not having a great deal of confidence in Egypt's ailing healthcare system (pun intended), I consulted the next best thing: WebMD.  My friend, Mindgrapes, has already blogged about her own experiences with WebMD here.  Like me, she entered her symptoms into the androgynous, Ken Doll-like model.  However, while she came up with 20 possible diseases for what I could have told her was probably a simple case of RSI from her incessant chatting/procrastinating, I came up with only one.  On the human model I indicated the head as the location of the problem.  Under symptoms I selected "Headache (worst ever)" (seriously, that's an option).  The diagnosis?  Brain Aneurysm.  

Given that I'm still alive and not paralyzed on either side of my body, I'm starting to doubt WebMD's diagnosis skills.  On the upside, there's a great niche market for Egyptian doctors.  Slogan: "We're marginally better than an inanimate website."   

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Cairo Blast

First of all, I was nowhere near the blast.  Everything I know comes from what I've been able to glean from the BBC and Al-Jazeera, so I'm not going to pretend to have any additional information that cannot be obtained from the media.  The available information is scant.

A bunch of us were out in another part of Cairo, also very popular with tourists, when one of us got a text from someone in London saying "heard about what happened, hope you're all okay."  It was the first we'd heard of anything happening.  After ascertaining what had happened with several more text messages, what surprised me the most was how blasé everyone seemed to be.  We noticed absolutely no increased security presence in the city, despite the fact that we were in an area densely populated with embassies, and we were sitting in a restaurant packed with tourists. For our part, aside from briefly exchanging theories about what had happened, who had perpetrated it and why, it was just another dinner out with friends.  Is this a function of growing up in the Mideast my whole life?  Was it because, in the grand scheme of things - between Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan... - this seemed minor (though this will come as no consolation to the victims and their families).  How desensitised are we becoming to these things?

Most information we have so far:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

BBC tackles Cairo Traffic

It's almost cute how indignant Christian Fraser seems to be over the traffic in this BBC report.  What's that?  Cars don't stop at a pedestrian crossing?  Oh mon Dieu!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Requiem for Saab

As the economic crises in which we are currently mired gradually worsened, one thought occurred to me: "what about Saab?!"*.  As the much larger mainstream automakers struggled to stay afloat, I knew the outlook for Saab looked grim.  The quirky little Swedish company always, inexplicably, played second-fiddle to its better-known compatriot competitor, Volvo, despite the fact that Saabs looked and performed better than the boring, boxy soccer-mom mobiles.  Saab was never a car with broad-based appeal.  Instead, the company relied on a small but passionate cadre of loyal followers.  I was one of them.

It was hardly love at first sight.  My first encounter with a Saab occurred when I was 9.  I had just arrived in Kuwait from Canada, and my father picked my mother, brother, and me up in an odd looking charcoal-grey hatchback.  "What kind of car is this?" I asked.  "It's a Saab, it's Swedish," came my dad's response.  I was unimpressed, and with good cause.  There seemed little to endear me to this odd and unconventional car, a 1988 Saab 9000i.  For starters, it was already 4 years old when I arrived in 1992, and the harsh Kuwaiti heat had not been kind to this Scandinavian car which was likely never intended for 50+ degree Celsius temperatures.  The roof lining was sagging because the glue holding it up had hardened, and the dashboard was beginning to crack.  The glove box was filled with screws and bolts which my dad had decided were "extras" after taking apart various parts of the car to repair himself (only the notoriously expensive Saab dealer was willing to touch the car to do repairs otherwise).  Perhaps most troublingly though, the family's quirky little Saab 9000 was different, and for a 9 year old desperately seeking social conformity, "different" equalled "bad."

Slowly but steadily, though, I began to see our Saab in a different light.  In its own junkyard dog kind of way, it was scruffy but lovable.  It was rough around the edges, no purebred Pomeranian, but rather a mutt with personality.  The more I learned about Saabs - their attention to ergonomics, the company's aviation past, etc. - the more I grew to appreciate ours. In 1996, time came to bid farewell to this car that I had learned to love.  It was therefore with much excitement that I came across a classified ad for a 1992 Saab 9000 in the newspaper.  We went to see it and found that it too was charcoal grey.  In fact, it was for all intents and purposes, the same car.  Saab had a habit of changing very little about their cars.  As my dad put it, "you can't improve upon perfection."  And it was damned near perfect.  We bought the car right there on the spot.

At this point the Saab had become my mom's car, my dad preferring his oversized boats of American cars.  He and I tried a little experiment. Unbeknownst to her, we switched out the old '88 with the '92 we'd just bought and replaced the keys on the key ring.  It took her a solid two weeks before she realized the difference.  The giveaway?  The old '88 had the hazard lights button on the steering column while the new one had it in the centre of the dash.  That humble little '92 Saab remained my favourite car until I left Kuwait in 2001.  It stayed with my dad for several years after that, my dad taking it out for a spin on weekends, until it came time for our second Saab to go out to greener pastures.    

Yesterday, Saab filed for "reorganization," Sweden's equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  GM had bought a 50% stake in Saab in 1989, seeking to fill a gap in its mid-luxury lineup.  For years it seemed as though Saab dodged the bullet of GM number crunchers who have historically been more interested in the bottom line than in imbuing any of their vehicles anything approaching individual personality. However, GM completed its takeover of Saab in 1999 and, tellingly, Saab has not posted a profit since 2001. 

I often speak of Saab having been my favourite car in the past tense.  Since GM's takeover, all those quirky little lovable attributes which earned Saab its loyal following were gradually phased out in a bid to give Saab mass-market appeal.  It seemed that GM had a similar outlook as my 9-year-old self: different = bad.  As Stephen Pope, chief global strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald, was quoted as saying in this BBC news article, GM "oversaw the destruction of the Swedish car company's soul."  Like Dr. Frankenstein, GM tried patching together parts from its various other brands to produce new Saabs, and the result was always, inevitably, a monster.  There was the Saab 9-3x, derisively called the Saabaru because, with the exception of about nine body panels tacked on to make it vaguely resemble a Saab, the car was for all intents and purposes a Subaru Impreza, a great car no doubt, but not a Saab by any stretch.  Perhaps even more catastrophic was the Saab 9-7x SUV, in actual fact just a Chevy Trailblazer in disguise.  It didn't fool many people though as I have to this day yet to see a single one on the street.

All of this fiddling meant that Saab purists gradually dropped out.  Meanwhile GM's attempts to capture greater market share with those who had perhaps never previously even heard of Saab failed.  No one was left to buy these once noble if not a little unusual cars.  It seems as though Saab and GM tired of each other as well.  GM wants to make Saab into an independent company by 2010, euphemism for wanting to shed the loss-making company.  For its part, becoming independent of GM is a core pillar of Saab's "reorganization" program proposed to the Swedish government, a tacit acknowledgement that, after dating for 10 years and being married for another 10, the marriage between Saab and GM just hasn't worked out.

In the current economic climate, the outlook for humble Saab looks bleak.  As people's wallets become ever lighter, they will choose tried-and-true over fresh and innovative, that's if they're going to be buying a car at all.  Who knows though, after shedding the dead weight that is GM, perhaps Saab will go back to basics, woo back its faithful followers who felt jilted by its flirtation with GM, and rise, phoenix-like out of the ashes.  For my part, I have yet to give up on my dream of owning a Saab - a real Saab. 

*note reference to the 1991 Bill Murray film "What About Bob?"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflections on Cairo: Galavanting in the Grotto

After much pestering, prodding, my girlfriend finally convinced me to go to the Grotto.  I remember hearing my parents wistfully recall the glories of Cairo's Grotto Aquarium, with its collection of rare fish, manicured lawns, and neatly identified species of flora.  For them, the Grotto's fall from grace stood in for Cairo's own.  And to be honest, they had a point.  We found the Grotto Aquarium had become a misnomer, with the only living fish to be found being a lowly Nile catfish alongside the bloated corpse of an erstwhile turtle.  Had we taken up the advice of the man at the door who accosted us with offers of a private tour of the Grotto, we may have encountered more, but we thought we'd try it out on our own.  True, there remained some labels on the various species of trees which inhabited this, one of Cairo's few remaining green areas, but with their Latin binomial nomenclature and Egypt's literacy rate at around 70% (just under 60% for females), one had to wonder what was the point?  Rather than crowds of Cairo's good and great perambulating throughout the park, parents walking hand in hand while excited children ran ahead, gawking and pointing at the next exciting new species of fish (this is how my parents recall it, though I imagine there is some romanticized revisionist memory at play), the Grotto was instead peopled by young couples.

Young couples were everywhere the eye could see, assuming the eye in question squinted into the many dark corners, nooks, and crannies which have made this the favourite place for amorous youths to escape the omnipresent glare of pesky parents, nosey neighbours, and stringent societal mores.  Once the reserve of Cairo's elite, the Grotto is now the refuge of Cairo's frisky.  

And what of it?  My parents are right, this Grotto does symbolizes Cairo at large.  Like Cairo, it has a certain adaptive, chameleon-like quality which has allowed both Grotto and City to weather what storms may come.  Constricted by an overbearing, conservative society where dating is something done either only "over there" (the hedonist West) or by those with loose morals, Cairo's young couples have sought sanctuary along bridges, dimly-lit sections of the Nile's banks, and here, at the Grotto, where boys in jean-jackets and slightly dated haircuts can freely clasp hands with girls who struck me as nonetheless coy and demure.  Perhaps because they know that society regards them as the vanguards of their most valued possession, their honour, and that their merely being here threatened that, the girls at the Grotto seemed somewhat more ill-at-ease than their male companions.  I wondered then, as I do now, if they felt power in their subversion as well.  Interested to get his take on the Grotto, I casually mentioned to my cousin, who is in his late twenties, that I'd been there.  "Oh?" he said, with raised eyebrow, "and what did you think?"  He did not stop to hear my answer before continuing "It's full of couples, youths, but lost youths."  My cousin, it seems, did not approve of the lurid goings-on he imagined occurring there.

Yes, Cairo, like the Grotto is the worse for the wear.  But one thing that recently struck me in the course of reading Max Rodenbeck's Cairo: The City Victorious (required reading for all denizens of this city), is that Cairo has been through a lot, much of it even worse than this.  Cairenes complained of pollution and overpopulation as far back as the 11th century.  And while it's impossible to tell what Medieval Cairenes would make of today's smog-filled city of nearly twenty million, it helps to keep things in perspective.  Cairo's recent history is but a hair's breadth on the timeline of this truly great and ancient city.  Despite our pretenses, as far as this Cairo is concerned, we are mere blips, destined to come and go like so many before us, while the city trudges along.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advice for Driving in Cairo...or anywhere else, really

Don't use advertising billboards as landmarks...they're apt to change periodically.