Expert Panel Shines Light on ISIS

My article:

Two months after President Obama launched air strikes in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group known as Islamic State or ISIS, the operation now has a name—”Enduring Resolve”—a reference to the long, difficult task of combating such an amorphous organization.

In an October event at the School of International Service convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Moderator David Gregory began the talk by posing the question about how well the war on IS is going.

“It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” explained Ignatius, reaffirming the need for the U.S. to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want the American help.’”

David Ignatius CSIS Panel

He also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat IS might be a more appropriate style campaign than the air bombing one used thus far. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He was of the firm conviction that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed framed ISIS in a tribal Islamic context, a topic he wrote a book about: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam. Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.”

Akbar Ahmed Chatham House 2013

One major distinction he made, however, is that this code has become mutated. Out of the trifecta of bravery, courage, and revenge, revenge is seen as the only thing left. He underlined that the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. That conflict is not Islam vs. the West but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.

Ambassador Ahmed explained that tribal Islam is a militaristic culture and one that is constantly in conflict with Islam itself—for example, tribal Islam eschews the inroads made for women by Islam, such as inheritance rights. “We need to understand the context of these movements and not call them Islamic movements.” In couching the conflict in center vs. periphery, Ahmed also suggested that public opinion in Pakistan, for example, is in favor of strikes against ISIS, whereas public confidence in Iraq has collapsed. He believes that Muslims worldwide support the fight against ISIS and that getting the support of the people is important in forming an alliance.

Susan Glasser Politico New America Foundation

Susan Glasser spoke a bit more on the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the President and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion that an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks.”

All three panelists expressed the opinion that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.

David Ignatius discussed some of ISIS’ tactics, referring to the beheading of people as “their version of shock and awe. The element of raw physical intimidation, of an almost pornographic  level of violence, is what is so attention-grabbing.” But he referred to the case of Al Qaeda that had grown so hated because it made so many enemies in fighting a sectarian battle against more than the U.S. “It is not possible to brutalize your way to success.” He explained that ISIS is able to gain wealth by engaging in kidnapping, selling oil, and taking over central bank branches. They also have clever strategies for gaining recruits. In addition to a powerful social media empire, they have the practice of attacking prisons, specifically in Mosul and Ambar, whereupon liberating several thousand prisoners, they gain new fighters from that cadre. “They are really smart in how they plan operations.”

Watch the entire video here.


E-Team Film Review

My review of the film E-Team

E-Team, co-directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, is an immersive look into the work of Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team, a group of people that travel to war-torn countries, document human rights abuses world-wide, and then draw media and government attention to those crimes.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is in its insider look at exactly how this sort of work takes place, the perils involved, and the authenticity and rigor expected. More specifically, the team is careful to get thorough (multiple) eyewitness accounts, which preempt questions about the veracity of the reports produced by Human Rights Watch. We meet Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, a husband-and-wife team, who are literally on the ground as bombs are going off around them in Syria. The viewer gets a keen sense that this is not the fare of an armchair philosopher IR wonk; Anna and Ole do not wait until “conditions are safe” to make their way to the conflict areas.

The film’s portrayal of the civil war in Syria is especially poignant. They smuggle themselves across the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 by literally running across a barbed wire fence. There, they take the testimony of frightened Syrian villagers who huddle with them in an apartment rattled by the explosions outside. The sense of terror is palpable, and the feeling of death ever present. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, a mother who has just lost three of her sons, says, “What is the point of talking?” as she cries. E-Team convinces us that even in the incredibly cynical world of politics, the stories of the people suffering – trapped in a situation beyond their control – have incredibly gravity and that suffering should not go unnoticed just because it is so rampant.

We also meet the E-Team’s other members: Peter Bouckaert, a weapons specialist, and Fred Abrahams, the “father” of the group. Abrahams testified against Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav Tribunal, recounting the atrocities he encountered in Albania. Abrahams’ testimony against the smirking Milosevic is an illustration of what happens when the heartbreakingly human meets with the glib heartlessness of the political. The team’s work aims to simply give voice to those who were forever silenced, to shine light on the hidden.

E-Team, despite its very political matter, stays clear of pontificating asides. In fact, one gets the sense that the kind of work Human Rights Watch does is very much the kind of work that journalists should be doing: documenting stories, gathering accounts of various witnesses, and speaking on issues of concern to all of us as humans. Yet, they seem to be able to do more than journalists can. For example, it is their report on the Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons that spurs UN Security Council action on the issues and negates the rebels being blamed for the attack.

The team also visits Libya to document survivors’ accounts of Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians and protesters in 2011. Here we see how the knowledge of weapons experts like Peter is used to pinpoint who fired what weapons, when, and how. In other words, the film does a great job of illustrating the breadth and veracity of HRW’s reports and the extensive knowledge of the people compiling those reports. The organization’s mission, in its own words, is not necessarily to effect policy change per se but rather to document abuses and alert us to them. Despite the harrowing and dangerous nature of their work, the team members come across as atypically down-to-earth and not even a little bit self-righteous or arrogant. The adrenaline junkie zealot stereotype is not to be found here.

E-Team benefits from incredibly tight editing and crisp cinematography that belies the guerrilla-style film-making usually associated with this genre. The engrossing storyline and behind-the-scenes look at human rights work gives the viewer a lot to appreciate.

Time Is Illmatic Film Review

My review of the documentary Time Is Illmatic

“My poetry’s deep; I never fail.”

Twenty years after the release of Nas’ seminal debut album IllmaticTime Is Illmatic offers us a peek behind the curtains of its creation. Unlike other documentaries of its ilk, this is not the standard fare of the “let’s cram as many famous people as possible to sing paeans to the artistic genius” oeuvre. In his feature directing debut, the former graffiti artist One9 directs this not like a wide-eyed fan boy eager to deify Nas but like a museum curator, looking to recreate a piece of history all hip-hop fans, regardless of their position on Nas, would be curious about. Nas describes Illmatic as a record whose intent was “to make you feel that hip-hop is changing, becoming more real.” He wanted to offer a cinematic look into Queensbridge, New York, of the 1990s. Whether Illmatic is *the* hip-hop record of all time is an irrelevant question; few records have come along that have clearly changed the trajectory of their genres and left an indelible mark, regardless of whether they were the first to do so or the best to do so. Illmatic to hip hop is what DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is to turntablism.
Time Is Illmatic does not require that its audience pay homage at the feet of hip hop royalty and instead offers a hushed-breath-reverance-free look at the making of one of the important records in hip-hop history.Time Is Illmatic starts with a look at Nas’ upbringing, which had a momentous impact on his career as an emcee. His father, jazz musician Olu Dara and his mother, Ann Jones, raised Nas and his younger brother Jabari, a.k.a. Jungle, in an Afro-centric cocoon of art, books, and music quite divergent from the typical Queensbridge household. Nas himself explains that he did not grow up in need. He eloquently speaks about the impact that his father’s library and worldly orientation had on his rhyming; even his name was a reminder to take pride in his roots (“Nasir. That’s the name of a king!”). His mother nurtured him and taught him to work hard. Even though Nas’ father is often cited as the more artistically influential part of his life, Jungle identifies their mother as the anchor and protector.

Time Is Illmatic does not rely on pundits to analyze the social circumstances Illmatic was borne out of, save for a short cameo by Cornel West who discusses the origin of the projects and why so many African-Americans were forced to live in them. But it nevertheless paints a vivid picture of the milieu. For example, Olu Dara describes enrolling Nas into school as “enrolling him into hell. This was not a nurturing school system.” Their father encourages both Nas and Jungle to drop out of school after the eighth grade, despite protests from their mother, because he wants them to follow their entrepreneurial dreams and be men rather than boys. Nas and his upstairs neighbor Will Young, aka Ill Will, start making music in a serious way in between intense bouts of “baking brownies and taping videos” (how’s that for a hip-hop confession!). The hip-hop scene at the time is fresh, colorful, rich.
Fans of old-school hip-hop will also revel in the film’s coverage of the neighborhood rivalries and MC battles on tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx.”Featuring interviews with Illmatic producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., and DJ Premier, Time Is Illmatic certainly knows how to create the setting in an organic way. They bring to life Queensbridge in 1994 and paint a vivid picture of the “N.Y. state of mind.” Hip-hop has always had a close relationship with space and Illmatic is well-established in that pantheon. Illmatic is a look inside a neighborhood ravaged by crack and violence, one where “any and everybody made money by crack or was impacted by it.” Time Is Illmatic is the story of the Queensbridge projects as much as it is the story of Nas. He reflects emotionally on the personal losses he has suffered and on how most of the people from back in the day are either dead or in jail. Q-Tip also makes an appearance, in which he reflects on the poignancy of “One Love,” which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: “Congratulations, you know you got a son. I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?” Nas’ dissection of what the system of incarceration does to a community – the damage it inflicts on families and not just the person in jail – is trenchant.
Time Is Illmatic lovingly and honestly chronicles the making of an album that would influence many generations after its release. Like Olu Dara’s jazz staccatos, it has a clipped, vintagy, Wild Style-esque ethos that has an authentically poetic cadence. By allowing Nas and his family to narrate, it offers a richness that could not have been unearthed in any other way.

Book Review: The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

My book review of The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language is essentially the literary and literal antithesis of Eat, Pray, Love—it upends the insufferable, Oprah-sanctified-and-sanctimonious trope of a privileged white woman who travels to exotic locales to “find herself” and replaces it with something all the more magical in its realism. The acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine stories that conjure emotions and places with the kind of natural story-telling that eschews cheap grabs for our emotional investment, reliant on lachrymose and saccharine writing, and instead explore the truism that “home is really where they love you.” The vibrant characters in The Other Language travel across the globe, but the territory covered is far wider than merely geographical. The book is a beautifully-written testament to the absurdity of ideas like “finding yourself,” whether it be through travel, escapism, or intervention. The natural fluency and virtuosity of Marciano’s writing will take you on an engrossing journey and speak to you in a language you can viscerally understand.

In the title story, “The Other Language,” Emma is a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She travels with her father and brother and sister from Italy to a summer vacation in a sleepy Greek village. The story presents the reader with one of the most trenchant and genuine examinations of death and how it thrusts those left behind into a social limelight that makes their personal pain all the more difficult. “The adults had decided they were too small to be told such dreadful particulars, as if their mother’s death was just another protocol they had to observe, like never ask for a soft drink unless they were offered one and never fish inside a lady’s handbag…They assumed death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind.” To “survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person.”
On the Greek island, Emma develops a crush on an English boy…and of course, she must learn to speak English to communicate with him. Marciano’s touching description of Emma’s language teacher—Joni Mitchell, singing songs about “the wind is in from Africa,” is such a vivid picture of how people often learn a new language. Emma, “didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” “The Other Language” elegantly captures the indelible mark adolescence often leaves on our lives. Emma’s fascination with English causes her to move to America, where she “made sure to pick up every mannerism and colloquial expression that might polish her new identity.” The bitter-sweet melancholy and wistfulness one experiences when looking back is profoundly conveyed by Marciano’s writing.
The other stories in the book also share this theme of a seeming schism, unraveling, separation, followed by the discovery of something that perhaps was there all along. In, “Chanel,” which sort of recalled O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Three Magi,” for me, a woman buys a Chanel dress she cannot possibly afford. Eventually, she cannot possibly afford to part with this dress she has never worn, yet has now transformed into a talisman of sorts, one harkening to past “glories,” now long-gone. The dress is a reminder that finding out what is glorious simply requires a change of viewpoint. In “Big Island Small Island,” a man has escaped to an island off the coast of Tanzania. Marciano’s description of him as a “beached hippie” is incredibly humorous and apropos. Beached whale; beached hippie; beached human…all the same, in essence.
In another one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Presence of Men” is about the friendship between an extraordinary local seamstress and a divorced woman named Lara who escapes to a small Italian village after her divorce. Her past life keeps tearing at the seams of her new one, with everyone wondering what Lara is running away from, blaming it on all on some kind of a midlife, post-divorce crisis. Until she sheds the vestiges and togs of her past, everything else is only so much curtains…and obfuscation. Of course, there is yoga involved, too. But only in an incredibly hilarious way—Lara, a former yoga teacher, has the proverbial awakening that yoga is not about doing poses that give you a swollen knee (literally, in this case) and about forcing ideas about “living in the present” on yourself. Yoga happens when one isn’t paying attention to yoga. Yoga is realizing that you are not really trying to do anything with yourself.
The Other Languageexplores romantic relationships in a (mercifully) histrionic-less and melodramatic-free way (in case you are wondering why Oprah did not pick this book to sing paeans to instead of Eat, Pray, Love). The characters are all due for some big realizations; the locations are incidental to their process of disentangling. In “An Indian Soiree,” a husband and a wife decide to end their marriage, perhaps all too easily. Nothing catastrophic happens—apparently, they just choose to. “They had to say things to each other that would make turning back impossible and they obliged…How odiously clichéd it all sounded, and yet—at that very moment—so utterly real and satisfying.”
The stories are all of reinvention, but not the kind of clichéd, spoon-fed reinvention that comes seemingly all-too-readily in books like Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, the characters might be in exotic locales, but the locales are not the self-realization catalysts. “After seven years of European life, she found herself smiling at the predicament she’d found herself in. It was a reminder that there were still places in the world where one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers.” The reinvention often comes only by seeing things that were already there—in that sense, this book will not give you “why am I not traveling” complex. You don’t need to incinerate all vestiges of your “comfortable” life to travel far, as long as you can do that some of that traveling sitting at home, it suggests.
Marciano is not in the business of cheaply tugging at the heartstrings, but her deceptively simple and evocative prose will do that effortlessly and pull you along on a tour-de-force journey rich with sensory details like, “the pots of basil on the windowsills to keep the mosquitoes away.”