Thursday, February 26, 2009

Re-Thinking Afghanistan

I just watched a short film called "Rethinking Afghanistan". Fortunately, it's available to watch on the internet. It's only about 10 minutes long. I suggest that everyone who is concerned about the war being fought over there should watch this. "Rethinking Afghanistan" is the first film that I've seen that really gets it right.

In Afghanistan, the kinship bonds are stronger than the people's national identity. However, there is a saying in Arabic that (roughly translated) says "Me and my brother against my cousin; Me, my brother and my cousin against all others". The lesson that can be learned from this is that we will never get the people in Afghanistan to be on our side, unless we can become closer to them than the biggest force against them.

That's why the Taliban remains so strong. Even though they may dislike this "cousin", they are still closer to them than the American soldiers who are on their land. The Russians who fought there were closer to them than we are, yet we know how that invasion turned out. Eventually, Russia had to withdraw, but only after losing many soldiers and seriously weakening their military.

I realize that many Americans would like to believe that our military should have no difficulty defeating these people who are no more than dusty, desert dwellers in their eyes. They think that all we need to do is just send in the proper amount of troops and we can end this thing. Obama has already committed to increasing the troop levels over there and there's no shortage of people who are claiming that this is exactly what's needed. However, there are others who think that is one of the worst decisions he could make right now.

There's a good reason why Afghanistan is often referred to as "The Graveyard of Empires". Has any invading force ever conquered this land? Have we been successful over there despite the years and millions of dollars we've spent? Is the taliban spending that kind of money? No, but they are still just as strong as they were before we came. We need to figure out why that is before we send in even more troops and only see the same results as every other nation that invaded this land.

Watch the video in this post and then look at this explanation of Pashtunwali, the code of honor that dictates the behavior for all Pashtuns, from the cradle to the grave:


Ahhh!! Teh Blinding Ignorance

How I ended up on PajamasMedia is an unanswerable question. Anyway, this is such an ignorant post. First of all, the apostrophe is a part of the word. Without it, it's an entirely different word. Of course, the poster would have to be familiar with the subject matter in order to know that and he obviously isn't.

Furthermore, this isn't an example of the West bending over backwards for our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is an example of the West finding ways to make money. Many people who use this index would simply refrain from participating in the market if they couldn't find corporations that meet their standards. The existence of indicies like this one attract potential investors and THAT is why they were created, not because people in the West are inclined to make our society as pleasant and welcoming as possible to Muslims.

Fight Sheriff Joe Arpaio

If you believe that everyone has rights, regardless of their skin color or documentation, please consider signing this petition to the Justice Department asking the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, to put an end to the illegal and unethical practices of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Politicians and Privacy

Today I read an article on the Chicago Sun-Times site about Rahm Emanuel. It's from back in December when the Blagojevich controversy was just beginning. I happened upon it because I found a post on a blog that claimed Emanuel was hiding behind his kids just because he refused to answer questions while he was attending an event where they were performing. Apparently, Matt Drudge also reported this. What a surprise, right?

Look, being in government doesn't mean you aren't allowed to have private time with your family. Demanding a modicum of privacy, especially when there are children involved, isn't dodging or hiding behind anyone. I want my politicians to be family people. I want them to be folks who realize that children need parents to devote some time to them alone on a regular basis. That's just good parenting. I'm not even a fan of Emanuel, but I have to say that I think he did the right thing in this situation.

Progress for Women in Saudi Arabia

While people in the United States are still marveling over the fact that we now have an African-American President, other major (and positive) changes are occurring in Saudi Arabia, including the appointment of the country's first woman minister. The AFP reports:

RIYADH (AFP) — Saudis on Sunday cheered King Abdullah's sweeping government shakeup as a bold step forward, a day after he sacked two powerful conservative religious figures and named the country's first-ever woman minister.

"Bold reform," Al-Hayat newspaper said in its headline, while the Saudi Gazette heralded the shakeup as a "boost for reform" in the Muslim kingdom.

"Everything is fantastic. This is what we have been fighting for," said Ibrahim Mugaiteeb, leader of the Human Rights First Society, who has done battle with successive governments over rights violations.

On Saturday, Abdullah announced the first major government shakeup since he became king in August 2005, naming four new ministers, changing a number of top judiciary chiefs and shaking up the Ulema Council, the leading clerics whose interpretations of Islamic rules underpin daily life in the kingdom.

The king also named 79 new members to the consultative Shura Council, Al-Hayat said.

In major changes that appeared to target the ultra-conservative clerics who have dominated the judiciary, he replaced Supreme Judicial Council head Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, who Saudi activists say had blocked reforms for years.

And he replaced the head of the Muttawa religious police, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, who had led an aggressive campaign in the media for a strict enforcement of Islamic mores, challenging other more liberal figures in the government.

"The Saudi government reshuffle announced yesterday is not just a changing of the guard," the Arab News said in its editorial. "It is a clear sign of a major transformation in the kingdom."

Few were ready to predict just what changes on the ground could come from the king's moves.

Battles over public morality and women in senior jobs have been brewing for years, and the challenges to the Islamic conservatives have grown in recent months.

Women's groups have demanded more rights and the breaking down of barriers that limit their career opportunities; the public has clamoured for movies to be shown in cinemas, banned for 30 years; and rights groups have accused Islamic judges of harsh and inconsistent judgements.

And last week Princess Amira al-Taweel, the wife of Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, complained publicly that while she can drive anywhere else in the world, she cannot take the wheel of a car in her own country, because women are banned from driving.

But the symbolism of the king's changes is bound to have an impact. The most symbolic was the naming of veteran educationalist Norah al-Fayez as deputy education minister for women -- the most senior job ever granted a woman in the Muslim kingdom.

"She is one of the leading ladies of the country," Mohammad al-Zulfa, outgoing member of the Shura Council, told AFP.

Even so, the move for women did not go as far as some expected. In January, Saudi media had reported that the new members of the Shura Council would include six women, who have not been represented on the council in the past.

But none were present on the new list, making it likely that no women will be included in the consultative body before 2013, the next time appointments are expected.

More fundamental were the changes to the country's religious leadership, who dominate thinking in education, justice and social life.

The removal of Luhaidan, who embarrassed the government last September when he said that the owners of satellite television channels airing "immoral" broadcasts should be killed, is believed likely to open more doors for reform.

The same is believed of Abudullah's shakeup of the Ulema council. He named a number of new members, and for the first time ever included representatives of all four Sunni schools of religious law.

Previously only the Hanbali school, the ultra-conservative one which dominates the Saudi version of Islam, was represented on the council.

Zulfa said the king's shakeup will bring "a new, different mentality" to government.

Key to making sure the changes stick will be the king's most powerful adjutants, who remain in place in jobs they have held for decades, analysts say.

These include his half-brothers Interior Minister Prince Nayef, Defence Minister Crown Prince Sultan and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman, as well as Foreign Minister Prince Saud.

This is really a big step forward in the right direction, in my opinion. I think that the process of trying to give Saudi women more rights is going to continue to be difficult. There are elements of their society that are resistant to change. I can relate to that situation. The fight for equal rights is still going on here in the United States. I can't wait to hear what Saudi women have to say about these reforms.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

VanGoghGirl's First Ash Wednesday

Last week, VanGoghGirl asked us if she could go to mass with her best friend on Ash Wednesday. I was okay with it, but The German was a bit wary. He doesn't consider himself a member of any particular denomination. The church we usually attend is non-denominational and doesn't really require you to profess any certain beliefs or go through any particular ritual in order to participate in the services. He likes it that way and so do I. My daughter really enjoys going and is always looking forward to the next service. It's really an uplifting place. Of the times I've been there, I've only unequivocally disagreed with something the pastor was claiming less than a handful of times. I figure I'm not going to get much better than that at most of the churches here.

Last night when he and I sat down to talk about it again, it turned into a really interesting conversation. The German had some concerns because he doesn't want VanGoghGirl making a mockery of the services or the religion by going and participating even though she isn't Catholic (yet). His grandmother was Catholic and his mother was raised Catholic, so he really has a lot of complex feelings about the Church.

He was never baptized and he never really went to mass after his grandmother died, but she was a very strict Catholic and she was quite religious. By "quite religious", I mean that she brought her two daughters up as Catholics. Both were baptized and confirmed, too. The German also has many memories of the presents she gave him and his siblings, like their first Bible, his sister's first rosary, et cetera. He said that he could see himself perhaps becoming a Catholic one day in the future. He was brought up to see his faith as something that should be mostly expressed inwardly, so the quiet and calm nature of Catholic services appeal to him.

I grew up in a church where enthusiastic physical expressions of faith were derided as pure emotionalism. There were no accepted or appropriate outlets for those who wanted that sort of component to their worship. I think that's why I really enjoy going to a congregation where there's a lot of singing and live music and uplifting of arms and even some dance. I feel like I'm making up for lost time. I just want to let my spirit be free to feel and express those feelings and the congregation we go to gives me the opportunity to do that around others who also enjoy the same sort of expressions of worship.

Even though that's what I prefer, I can definitely understand why that might not really appeal to others. Some people find that sort of environment too distracting from the quiet contemplation that they seek to do when they worship. Some people just don't like to sing and dance and clap. Where we congregate, you can see folks who stay seated much of the time or don't sing that loud. It's a big enough congregation that you can do any of that and not draw much attention to yourself. The people in attendance tend to just leave others alone to worship however they need to.

Anyway, it was really interesting to hear more about The German's feelings on Catholicism and the possibility that VanGoghGirl would be one when she is an adult. He's a bit worried about whether it would be problematic to have a child with a different religion. He's concerned that she might start looking down on our beliefs because we aren't Catholic. What if she started trying to proselytize us? Would she start to think that she doesn't have to see us as her guardians in God's eyes?

My feeling is that becoming Catholic doesn't really represent a change in religion. To me, it's more of a change in traditions, kind of like a different flavor of ice cream. I'm more concerned about her not feeling close to God at all. I spent a lot of time feeling as if there was a angry God who was constantly displeased and disgusted with me. I felt like I could never get my behavior in line with what would required of me. It was drilled into me that our way of worship was the only correct way and that leaving the religion meant abandoning my relationship with my Creator.

I don't want that for her. I want her to feel as if her Creator is here to help her, to be there for her when she needs someone to turn to, when she doesn't have the words to express how she's feeling. I think we've given her the skills to view Catholicism with reasonable and compassionate eyes. I think she can understand that anything that someone tells you is from God is still limited by their own understanding and shaped by their experiences, and that she should keep that in mind when deciding how she feels about what they claim.

The German worries that she might still be too young and that since we aren't Catholic might make it harder to keep up with what she's being taught, so that we can help her process it in a healthy manner. After all, he's already seen us through our process of recovering from one set of unhealthy religious beliefs. I don't blame him for not being all that eager to start over with that. Still, I'm willing to give this a try.

I've been trying to learn as much as I can about Catholicism. I've studied Islam for about a decade now and I still feel like there's a lot I don't know, so I'm figuring that this is going to be a long process. However, if this is what it takes for VangGoghGirl to retain a feeling of connectedness to her spiritual self, then I down with that. These are the years when so many parents lose their children. The kids start turning to people who really can't give them the sort of advice or support they need. I can't let that happen. If I have to choose between her putting her energy towards being a good Catholic or her putting her energy towards trying to be what a lot of other folks tell girls they should be, I'd choose the Church.

Today, VanGoghGirl went to mass with her best friend and her mom. The mom checked the girls out of school and brought them to church. VanGoghGirl said they explained the steps to her and that they even had little pamphlets that showed you just what to do. She told me how she put her hands across her chest when she went up to the priest so that he knew she wasn't Catholic and couldn't take communion yet. She was really excited about being blessed by the priest. She still had her ashes on her head and said she told me that she was keeping it on until she took her bath tonight. Most Catholics I know rub off the ashes soon after they leave church, so I was a little surprised. She said a few of the kids at school questioned her and teased her about it when they got back to school, but she sounded really confident when she said that she can handle them. I was really proud of her. It sounds like she's prepared to defend her decision. I like that.

I don't know where this journey is going to take us next, but I think it's going to be okay. I haven't told The German but VanGoghGirl has mentioned to me that she'd like to take confirmation classes soon. I guess we'll have to see what she needs to do to make the next steps towards her goal.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez, Mon Chéries

Did all of y'all folks stuck in hopelessly uncool parts of the world know that today is Mardi Gras? The press reports that, even though the country is in the midst of an economic downturn, we've seen no decrease in the number of tourists visiting the state for the Carnival season. In fact, the preliminary estimates show that there are more Carnival tourists in town than there were last year.

I think that Carnival tourism will probably benefit from the poor shape of the economy because, as people are trying to scale back their spending, New Orleans will be a very attractive option. The only thing you really need is a hotel room to have a great Carnival vacation. You can buy a 32 oz. beer for $3 on any street in the Vieux Carre. You can pack your own lunch or you can sample the really unique, local cuisine at whatever price range you can afford. Once you have food in your belly and alcohol in your system, you're good to go.

The city of New Orleans offers good transportation from different spots in the city out to the parades, so you don't even need a car. In fact, Louisiana even offers a shuttle service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans for $12 each way. You can see the parades in both cities (the Baton Rouge Carnival atmosphere is a lot more tame than the one in New Orleans) or you can even get a super-cheap hotel in Baton Rouge and party in New Orleans if you want to save money on accommodations.

Would you like to see what it's like out here? Check out these videos!

This first one shows some of the many facets of the Mardi Gras celebration.

The Mardi Gras Indians featured here wear elaborate regalia made of completely hand-stitched feathers and seed beads. Afterwards, the entire suit is taken apart, never to be seen again. Each year, they spend hundreds of hours creating a new one for the Carnival season. It's a labor of love and a very expensive one, at that! Still, they labor away at it faithfully in order to put on a good show and represent their tribe well. The song that accompanies this video talks about this process.

A major part of the Mardi Gras Indian performances comes from the call and response singing that is accompanied by the brass band music. The audience becomes a part of the performance through this process that helps reinforce the culture because in order for it to work, the audience must know the appropriate response to what the Indian is chanting.

This video shows kids performing traditional second-line dancing on the porch of a Hurricane Katrina-damaged house. The true spirit of New Orleans lives on through the children who are keeping the culture alive and resisting the forces of gentrification coming from the post-Katrina carpetbaggers.

I love that the video below captured the anti-Mardi Gras folks out there with the crosses. Deep down inside, you know they are having fun watching the partying even though they have to make up an excuse for coming down here by trying to turn us from our "sinful ways".

This is a fantastic video featuring Big Chief Monk Boudreaux playing with a band called the Golden Eagles. It is a masterful combination of the unique Mardi Gras Indian culture with American rock music.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Taking Care of Each Other

The German finally had one of his long-awaited back surgeries. Who knows? If this one works out, he might not need to have the really major one that his doctors anticipate might be necessary. Anyway, that's why I haven't been writing. I'm trying to take care of him and keep him off of his feet, except for when he has to go to the bathroom. I tried to convince him to sit down and pee but he wasn't having it. Well, I've got to go now. Between unpacking boxes and taking care of my partner, I'm a little busy. Hopefully tomorrow will be a little bit better. VanGoghGirl will be coming home from by her best friend's house (where she had been staying so that she could get back and forth to school), and she'll be able to help out some until The German has recovered.

Au revoir!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Moving Day

Well, today we move out of our flat that was damaged by Hurricane Gustav. The new place has two bedrooms instead of three which is going to be a bit of a pain because we are giving up VanGoghGirl's toy room which, in the past couple of years, had become our office. In exchange, we're getting a flat with vaulted ceilings, a fireplace, all new appliances, a new air conditioner and water heater, bigger bedrooms (each with walk-in closets), and a bigger kitchen with a walk-in pantry AND hook-ups for a washer and dryer. It's freshly painted in a beautiful color somewhere between beige and peach. It's nice to have a gang of tall, strapping cousins to help out since The German can't pick up anything over 25 lbs.

Anyway, the next time I post, it will be from our new place.