Show Me the Money: Representation of Women + Capital in Media

My article for District Fray Magazine

Shakira sang about she wolves in the closet, which (albeit not) might as well have been a reference to the absence of popular media portrayal of the She Wolves of Wall Street. Kept pent up for far too long, women’s roars are finally falling on some eager ears. 

In reality and on screen, Wall Street has been a boy’s club. Not only are women less represented, but they are also less remunerated. Citi — one of the world’s largest banks– reported in 2019 that its female employees earn 29 percent less than its male employees globally.

But women are wresting the wads away from the dominant grasp in some surprising ways, including starting their own investing clubs and creating new enterprises during the pandemic.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are some bankable portrayals of women and money:

  1. Equity–is a corporate thriller that follows Naomi Bishop, an investment banker working on the IPO launch of a Silicon Valley company. While taut and engaging (and thrilling), it is also a very sophisticated exploration of the power dynamics on Wall Street between and among genders. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is Naomi’s deadpan, “I like money.” Taking a Wall Street opening bell hammer to the groan-inducing gold-digger trope, director Meera Mennon, portrays women as enjoying the competition, the chaos, the hard work of their careers but the perks, too (hello, enviable power wardrobe). And while Naomi’s character has been a caretaker for those around her, she reminds us that “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
  2. Drug Short on Netflix’ “Dirty Money”–Dubbed the “femme fatale of short trading,” Fahmi Quadir, a brilliant short seller who left a Ph.D. program in algebraic mathematics for a career on Wall Street, takes on drug behemoth Valeant…and wins.The recent Gamestop kerfuffle and techbro Elon Musk’s relentless Twitter beef has shorted short sellers, portraying them as predatory. Fahmi is a testament to a different kind of a short seller–one who looks to identify corporate malfeasance and (yes) reap the rewards. When she says, “I do my work in the shadows,” she is referring to the fact that short selling is sleuthing and hours of poring over quarterly earnings reports. In other words, you won’t find the kind of information Quadir unearths readily available and even less so revealed by the companies themselves. Short selling is especially male-dominated, so this documentary on a world understood by very few is illuminating: “All short sellers are outsiders. And women are especially outsiders in this world,” says Quadir.
  3. Capital in the 21st Century–”We have a mythology that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, but that’s really never been true,” says Rana Foroohar, financial journalist associate editor of the Financial Times, in this documentary take on Thomas Piketty’s tome of a book. Foroohar’s commentary features prominently in the film. And her recently-released bookDon’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech” is a searing indictment of the extent to which tech behemoths are monetizing our data.
  4. Bethany McLean’s podcast “Making a Killing” Known for her book “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, McLean takes issues you may think you understand and complicates them, featuring clever titles like “Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse.” Her more recent 2018 book “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World” is also thoroughly engrossing and a must-read for the energy heads out there.

While portrayals of women in finance have been scarce, the tide is certainly turning, as is the cash flow, with more women asserting their seat at the table at this former boys’ bastion.

Book Review: Kink: Stories, Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Its titillating subject matter aside, this collection is strangely uninspired.

Kink’s veritable all-star-writer roster and exciting subject matter belie how drearily humdrum the collection is. The anthology tackles BDSM and other “unconventional” relationships yet fails quite spectacularly in whipping itself into shape (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Contributions by bestselling authors Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, and Carmen Maria Machado are surprisingly un-titillating.

In attempting to capture complex emotions, however, Kink succeeds at times, such as in “The Cure,” where Melissa Febos writes, “She didn’t care. Her not caring was voluptuous, sensual. It was a most substantial absence. It filled her like a good meal. She had had enough.” Elsewhere, the narratives are weighed down by tropes, as in Larissa Pham’s “Trust,” where we get the ubiquitous empty-shell metaphor: “She feels delicate and hollowed out, like an empty seashell.”

Of course, writing about love and desire is not easy, and some of the stories do it in a straightforward, moving way. Here again is Febos:

“The first time he slept with a woman who asked him to hit her, it felt like a window had opened inside him. He’s not sure what happened, exactly — that she saw something in him and touched it, or if the thing in her was so powerful, it moved the thing in him. All he knows is how it felt — where there was blank space, a rupturing.”

In other tales, we see these supposedly “alternative” relationships normalized: “After some discussion, they decided they’d both benefit from professional guidance. It was like doing yoga, they figured. Hazardous, at first, to go through the poses without an instructor’s help,” writes R.O. Kwon in “Safeword.”

Kwon’s story is a trenchant commentary on the commodification of desire and how, when the self-care ethos meets capitalism’s “we have a solution for everything you desire” motto, even our intimate lives aren’t sacred or private. (When it comes to consumerism, there is no safe word.) Kwon also shows us that practitioners of BDSM are not immune to the groan-inducing banality of eroticism becoming a chore:

“He was tired. His right shoulder hurt. He didn’t want to hit Julie anymore — he wanted to get out of here. He wanted to untie her and take her home, soothe her and have sex with her, his wife, whom he loved. But he kept going. Finish the session, he told himself.”

“Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus similarly demystifies the supposed danger and subversiveness of BDSM relationships by narrating the ways in which they’re dating scenarios like any other:

“He told me he would put me on probation. If I consented, we were entering the second stage. The rules were: He’d decide when and how often we would see each other. He’d decide when and how often we’d talk on the phone. I would not know his address or phone number, but I was free to leave him as many voice mails as I wanted, providing that they made him hard. I found this very liberating. How many hours had I spent in ‘normal’ dating situations, pondering the etiquette and timing of the post-fuck call?”

One of the few outstanding pieces in the collection is Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” (translating to “master”), in which an American teacher has a tryst with a Bulgarian man in the latter’s home country, where the LGBTQ lifestyle is still hush-hush. Greenwell’s prose is evocative and precise:

“He lived on a middle floor of one of the huge Soviet-style apartment blocks that stand everywhere in Sofia like fortresses or keeps, ugly and imperious, though this is a false impression they give, they’re so poorly built as already to be crumbling away.”

Unfortunately, Kink ultimately fails in its power play for the reader’s excitement; I had to force myself to get through it, and not in a good way. While its subject matter still sorely lacks literary representation, this anthology doesn’t contribute much to the conversation.

Book Review: The Horror is Us by Justin Sanders (Editor)

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Riffing on that famous quip that “horror is other people,” the authors in this slim, affecting anthology from Baltimore-based Mason Jar Press speak of the horror that is us. The stories are pithy — most run just a few pages — but powerful in their parsimony.

Laura Walker’s “A Trick of Uncertain Light,” for instance, at first appears to be a simple tale of a girl stranded in a car on a dark desert road who encounters a guy driving a tow truck. But she’s not a girl in a car; she is “a rabbit feeling the primal liquid-boned fear of desert prey.” And the man in the truck hasn’t stopped out of concern. “Something’s not right. I can feel it the way you can sense the threat of storm when the wind kicks up before the clouds start rolling in.”

The imagery is evocative: “He cuts off my response, slices into the fear of the moment, spilling it.” Fear is spilling toward an inexorable end here, one that is not described and, hence, looms even larger. “Besides, there are things that bullets can’t stop from happening.”

Abigail Teed’s “Rise” and “The Pine Witch” by Alexandria Baker are both about a return to something from the past. The former has Native American mythological elements, while the latter features Wiccan notes. Continuing the theme of the everyday gone awry, the coven in “The Pine Witch” isn’t too far removed from members of a sorority house, sort of like a modern (and far less corny) take on the 1996 supernatural-thriller movie “The Craft.” As with other stories in the collection, the menace is unnamed — and thus all the more terrifying — and the words relentless in their simplicity: “I closed my eyes and reveled in the smell of burning flesh.”

Another brilliant offering is Justin Sanders’ “Baphomet and Blue,” about a Neo-Nazi death cult. The subject matter is all too believable and seemingly plucked from the headlines — police racism and brutality — but it’s given a sinister twist. A music fest turns brutal as participants wreak havoc and enact the violent reality idealized in the songs. As the author points out, “White power music is the number one method for recruiting new members.” Evil sometimes wears a badge instead of a pentagram.

Comic-book writer Scott Bryan Wilson’s “The Enthusiastic Butcher” is a keen dissection of our social-media-obsessed world. Its protagonist cuts deeper and deeper into himself (on several levels) in a vanity-fueled quest for attention and an escape from a life of loneliness. “He was like a king washed up on a desert island, his subjects sending him messages in bottles.”

The tale is a trenchant commentary on the terrifying ways in which we as a society keep pushing beyond boundaries personal, ecological, and global. The first cut is the deepest — or not, it seems to suggest.

Though spare, The Horror Is Us is nonetheless incisive and provocative. Its stories are smartly curated and fleshy, making it a must-read for any fan of the horror genre in its most modern iteration.

A Spotlight on The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

My article for District Fray Magazine

For the past 10 years, the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival has celebrated Palestinian culture. It has been an umbilical cord to a motherland that increasingly lives on only in the hearts and minds of its people driven into diaspora. The festival has not only been a border-defying place to hear often-unheard voices, but it has preserved traditions imperiled by extinction. It has reaffirmed a sense of identity and community for Palestinians the world over, and offered a look behind forbidding walls.

Founded in 2011 by three women – Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar – it has showcased both local and international artists and been hosted by Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Goethe Institute, and Studio Theatre. This year, like the diasporic culture it represents, it has gone beyond the confines of a space and into the virtual realm. Though the festival ran from October 1-10, you can still stream the films, watch the lectures, and support through volunteering and donating.

The festival has highlighted a variety of creative mediums. This past summer, the organization hosted four cooks who offered free cooking and culinary history lessons for Sufra Sundays. Two female Palestinian DJs played free sets this year, and previous years have offered Dabke dancing lessons and breakdancing.

One of the highlights of the festival was Tatreez & Tea. Wafa Ghnaim, the author of the book “Tatreez & Tea” and the creative mind behind Palestinian embroidery workshops, explains the origins.

“I started Tatreez & Tea in 2015 as an oral history documentation project,” Ghnaim says. “My mother has been teaching tatreez since she came to the United States in the 1980s and, before that, she taught at refugee camps.”

Tatreez is an Arabic word meaning embroidery. Palestinians are renowned for their cross-stitching, which shines amongst the already very rich textile traditions of the Levant.

“I learned tatreez, not embroidery,” Ghnaim adds. “To say ‘tatreez’ is a true reclamation of the practice.”

In the Palestinian tradition, tatreez is passed down from mother to daughter. This is why it is such a strong thread to family and identity.

“Initially, I never saw it as a special skill because I learned tatreez when I was a young child. It was just such a natural thing and something that was always around me. My mother had dreamt of writing a book, and I wanted to make her dream a reality.”

In 2015, Ghnaim applied to a number of grants and received every one of them.

“I was a no-name coming on the scene. My mom was really the traditional artist and cultural worker. I took this as a sign that I should really do this.”

The festival’s intersectional orientation is another way in which it differs from other festivals. Bhasma Ghalayini, the editor of “Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba,” shares the process of creating this first anthology of Palestinian science fiction.

“When I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, we had very limited access to books or films,” Ghalayini says. “You had to ask people traveling abroad to bring you back those things. I was working as a translator for Comma Press, a British publishing company, which had released “Iraq + 100,” a book that posed the question of what Iraq would look like in 2103. I wanted to do a similar project with Palestinian writers. The Nakba in 1948 displaced 700,000 Palestinians. This catastrophe that all Palestinians have a connection to seemed like an appropriate date on so many levels.”

Sci-fi is a new genre for the writers featured in the collection.

“We are not used to writing about anything in an imaginative context because it feels like it is almost too much of a luxury to write about the future,” Ghalayini adds. “But if you think about it, the current situation has all the makings of a dystopian future: siege, surveillance, lack of resources and water, pollution.”

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival offered a diversity of perspectives, and a thoughtfully and lovingly curated glimpse of talent and creativity that bursts beyond any physical walls. Learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival and like the festival on Facebook.

Decoding Dog Behavior in D.C. Parks

My article for District Fray Magazine

Longtime D.C. resident and fourth-year PhD student in George Washington University’s Department of Anthropology, Courtney Sexton studies the coevolution of humans and dogs. She is particularly interested in nonverbal communication and behavior.

Sexton’s graduate program requires students to undertake an internship in the public understanding of science, promoting how to present scientific information to nonscientific audiences. When her internship project got funded by the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation, she knew she was on to something.

“D.C.’s dogs and dog parks have been a controversial topic,” she says, “less so because of the dogs and more so because of their human guardians.”

She started thinking about the project at a time when the public discourse around dog ownership and public space was particularly contentious. And while many dog owners are aware of their responsibilities to their animal companions, they may perhaps be less aware of what their animal friends are trying to communicate to them.

This is how Decoding Dog Talk was born. Before the start of the pandemic, Courtney planned to host a series of Tail Talk tables at dog parks and recreation areas across the city where residents could get free information, diagrams and mini demos to help them learn basic principles of dog behavior.

“Most humans are not in tune to the subtleties of dogs’ language,” she explains. “Hint: Not all tail wags are created equally. Being armed with even a basic understanding of dog behavior could reduce stress on the animals and increase their quality of life – [which is] always a challenge for city pets – and help to avoid complications and confrontations with neighbors and other members of the community.”

After the fur-ruffling that New York Times article “The Dog Park is Bad, Actually” caused, this sounds like a much-needed thing to yap about. Dog parks are great places for play, but they certainly have downsides as well.

“The reason why I would like to be there for those Tail Talks is it’s hard to give general advice. The context is critical to understanding the body language of the dogs. Not all tail wags are happy. Also, the owners tend to space out while their dogs are constantly looking to them for guidance on how to handle social situations.”

Sexton says the way humans often view social and antisocial behaviors in dogs is quite wrong.

“I hope to impart on folks the importance of the contextual clues in body language and the trigger warnings that hint their dog is about to get into a fight,” she adds.

The fights between dogs can sometimes lead to their learning inappropriate behaviors like bullying – and then repeating those behaviors outside the park. Knowing how to recognize signs of aggression and learning how to control the dogs in that case is especially important. Simple obedience commands are critical in a dog park environment. While Decoding Dog Talk is on hold, learning about dog communication is definitely barking up the right tree. And as Covid restrictions lessen, Sexton plans to starting hosting safe, socially distant Tail Talk Tables.

“I was actually able to host one socially distanced Tail Talk Table at the Virginia Ave Dog Park a couple of weeks ago, and it went great.”

Learn more about Sexton’s project here and listen to her speak on the topic here

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

A Solid Foundation: Why has the housing market weathered the economic downturn so well?

My article for the Kogod School of Business

A wave of pandemic-induced uncertainty has thrown a pall over America’s economic performance, yet one sector remains a defiant shade of rose against a generally dark background. Why are home sales rebounding so quickly, with some locations reporting a return to the days of bidding wars? Is this a meaningful and lasting trend or simply a function of limited data from which to draw conclusions? “I think everyone in the industry is asking themselves what the new normal will be after such a cataclysmic event,” says Professor Steven Teitelbaum, who teaches Kogod’s Real Estate Development class and works in transit-oriented development and smart growth.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.

What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.

The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.

Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”

The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.

A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.

From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.

A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.

With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.

While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.

Book Review: The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project

My review  for the Washington Independent Review of Books

An in-depth look at the export of conservative Islamic teachings from the Arabian Peninsula.

The term “soft power” is ubiquitous enough that it has long left the international relations arena behind and moved into public discourse. It seems intuitive that changing hearts and minds is a much less costly and subtle route to hegemony. But what sort of work is soft power and what sort of an export is ideology?

Krithika Varagur’s The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project is an incisive, salient, and comprehensive exploration of the sort of philanthropy that comes with a heaping side of religious proselytizing. Varagur brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s export (intentional or incidental) of Salafism and portrays soft power for what it really is — messy, highly unpredictable, and a far cry from the puppet-master-like characterization it has recently received.

The author offers three case studies on three continents: Indonesia (where she lived for several years); Nigeria and the rise of Boko Haram; and Kosovo, which has the dubious honor of having “contributed more foreign fighters per capita to ISIS than any other country in Europe.”

It would be wrong to characterize this book as a “follow the money” exposé, all the more so because that trail has been cold for decades. Money is no longer flowing as it once did; Mohammed bin Salman, the new Saudi prince, seems especially uninterested in the grand dawa pursuits of his predecessors. Instead, Varagur’s journalistic acumen shines in her interviews with imams, government leaders, students, and the media, and in her own observations.

Dawa refers to the call or invitation to Islam, akin to mission work. The State Department estimates that as much as $10 billion has gone to charitable organizations as part of the Saudi dawa. Saudi Arabia’s Dawa Ministry has a staff of over 9,500 people, a $1.86 billion budget, and is responsible for dawa, as well as the maintenance of mosques inside the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s dawa project reached apotheosis following the 1973 oil embargo, which made the kingdom flush with petrol wealth. The Islamic University of Medina, built by King Faisal in the 1960s, brought its students into the Wahhabi fold. The oil money went toward such large projects in Indonesia as, for example, a university, a large Saudi embassy, and the presence of a “religious attaché.”

“Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century preacher who sought to purify his faith of the idolatrous and blasphemous practices that he thought corrupted the austere monotheism at the heart of Islam,” writes Varagur. Wahhabism lent the Saud family the religious legitimacy necessary to entrench the monarchy and shelter it from more global influences, like that of Pan-Arabism or socialism.

Varagur presents both the dim view of Salafism and its appeal (Wahhabism is a Saudi-specific term; its outside counterpart is called Salafism). Its obsession with minutiae — like how to pray, what music (if any) to listen to, and whether to take pictures with cats — speaks to its conservatism.

The flipside of what Varagur calls its small-mindedness is its austere simplicity and, she astutely points out, its accessibility: Doctrinal knowledge comes directly from texts, which are nowadays available online and simple enough to not require a mediator.

Although Saudi dawa has waned in influence and investment, The Call demonstrates how ideological ecosystems take on a life of their own. The influence of Salafism is much more apparent now, perhaps because the problematic link between charitable aid and religious indoctrination is equally so.

For example, Saudi dawa helped rebuild the Ache and other regions of Indonesia devastated by the 2004 tsunami, gaining a foothold for its puritanical brand of Islam. Indonesia, a modern and tolerant Islamic society, now has an anti-Shia league, and Ahmadiyya Muslims have been driven into refugee camps.

Perhaps one small shortcoming of The Call is Varagur’s failure to draw parallels between Christian development organizations and the rise of intolerant Christianity abroad (Nigeria comes to mind). She remains steadfastly focused on Salafism, when situating her argument into a larger context might have served it.

Ultimately, Varagur argues, the intersection between political Islam and the public sphere is complicated. But three consequences, in all of her case studies, are that an educated class of Salafi scholars, who then shape the local religious landscapes, emerged; there is rancorous intolerance against Shia and Sufi Muslims; and there is greater popular consumption of Salafi books and media worldwide. A turn toward fundamentalism breeds an environment of intolerance and strife.

“The Saudi project,” she writes, “can be chaotic and full of contradictions.” So has been the response of the rest of the world to it. In the past, the West was all too happy about the way in which conservative Islam served as a counterweight to leftism and communism and stabilized the monarchy’s control of the region. But the West has also mistakenly attributed myriad conflicts in the region to historical theological differences, which are actually fairly modern and political in their origin.

Krithika Varagur writes with the precision and nuance of a seasoned journalist. The Call is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the complicated history of the Saudi state and its religious missions. The book also raises questions about the uneasy and problematic connection between aid and proselytizing.

Book Review: Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos.

Olstein, a poet, writes this book as a rumination on the nature of pain, riffing on her experience with migraines that she describes as “a headache that lasted three months acute-chronic, chronic-acute.”

When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums: “Left brow like a pressed bruise, an overripe peach you accidentally stuck your finger into.”

But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst. For example, there is an entire chapter on the color of pain. And navel-gazing moments like this one: “Drowning, live pain, has a way of flooding you with the present.”

When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain. Her deadpan lines — “We’re notoriously bad at talking about it, even literally, as in, do you have it, how much, what kind” — will leave readers nodding enthusiastically.

Her accounts of dealing with various healers are equally wry and amusing. She uses an example of good medicine as someone who asks her whether she has found anything that increases the pain, rather than decreasing it. And we can all relate to the humor behind well-meaning advice that fails to deliver: “She’s visibly disappointed I report back miracleless.”

Some of the choices that Olstein makes, however, will confound more than cheer. She dedicates no less than two chapters to Joan of Arc. Why? Because “Joan’s refusal to translate her experience into acceptable terms” is apparently analogous to the trials of pain sufferers, and because “she was a woman surrounded by prying, know-it-all men who pelted her with questions.”

Readers may be willing to hang their coats on such flimsy pegs, but Olstein doesn’t stop there. Exploring the work of obscure philosophers like Antiphon the Sophist will, again, do no favors for those wanting to deny the characterization of poetry as affected and decadent.

Then, we have a whole chapter on the TV show “House.” While the program’s exploration of pain makes this rumination salient, in today’s rapidly moving pop-culture zeitgeist, it feels quite dated to discuss a show that ended in 2012.

Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists: “Opium poppy, ordeals, orthopedist, Ovid.”

The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.

Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.