In a region where politics is not only governance but popular theater, Jordan’s first parliamentary election since the eruption of the Arab Spring two years ago provided a brief moment of comic relief. In the heart of the capital, candidates erected marquees like vast Bedouin tents, and handed out coffee from Bedouin copper flasks. But for all the entertainment, King Abdullah II’s claims that Wednesday’s election would mark Jordan’s transition to democracy seemed hyperbolic. In fact, the election was boycotted by five opposition parties, including the oldest and most powerful, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a raft of former prime ministers, and even according to disputed official figures less than 40 percent of the kingdom’s voters bothered to register and vote.
In a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out. For example, many years ago I dreamt that I was on stage during the performance of the opera Aida about to sing the famous aria “Celeste Aida” in which Radames, the young Egyptian warrior, voices his hope for victory in a coming battle and proclaims his love for Aida, the Ethiopian slave. I wear some kind of helmet that is about to slide down and cover my eyes, hold a lance in my hand, and worry about what will happen next, because although I know the melody, I can remember only the opening words and figure that I’ll have to fake the rest by making up words that sound Italian. I do that, but I now have another fear, a high note that awaits me toward the end of the aria that I’m sure I won’t be able to hit—so to avoid it, I sing the opening over and over again like an old LP record that’s skipping. Thankfully, I awoke and in due course became aware that I was lying in bed in a motel just outside Buffalo, New York.
It is essential for the creative writer that there be, or be perceived to be, a usual way of saying things, if a new or unusual way is to stand out and to provoke some excitement. Naturally, anyone writing with the level of creativity of a D. H. Lawrence needs a copy editor willing to accept that rules can be bent and broken. But that doesn’t mean such editors have no role. It is important that the “special effect” stand out from a background of more conventional prose, and that a deliberate departure not be mistaken as something merely regional, British perhaps, or simply that there not be so much clutter around it of one kind or other that it is hardly noticed.
The lost wolves of New England have been on my mind lately, as winter settles into the woods below our house and the lives of the local predators—the hawks and owls and the raucous coyotes—are increasingly exposed among the bare-leafed trees. Wolves have not been welcome in our woods for a very long time. Among the first laws instituted by the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 was a bounty on wolves, which Roger Williams, who fled the colony for its religious intolerance, referred to as “a fierce, bloodsucking persecutor.” By the mid-nineteenth century, our New England sages were already lamenting the loss of wildness in both landscape and society, and invoking wolves rather than eagles as a sort of national icon.
Both sides of my family are from the South: my mother’s from Georgia, my father’s from Virginia. Though my parents left Atlanta soon after I was born there, we often visited southern relatives in Atlanta, Louisville, and Birmingham. I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family. But even apart from the contrast in grandmothers, I always liked the South, though my northern accent made me an outsider there as a child (the family “Yankee”). But the current South is willing to cut off its own nose to show contempt for the government.
Access to the Internet, and the prosecution of Aaron Swartz for the crimes he was alleged to have committed in advancing that cause, are not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, issues raised by Swartz’s death. A third is depression.
Like an Eagle (1967), the first Afghan feature film shot entirely in Afghanistan, takes as its subject the jeshn—the country’s annual national celebration, analogous to an “independence day” like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. The Afghan jeshn would continue to be a major reference point for Afghan films, as it would for Afghan society itself, right up to the present day. Significantly, the jeshn is anchored neither to a single historical event, nor to a fixed date on the calendar. Instead, it has been a shifting set of commemorations that reflect the continually changing identity of the twentieth-century Afghan nation-state.
The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth. As of December, the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where. Effectively searching this mass of unstructured data, this barnyard of straw, will be more difficult than people may think.
For nearly a decade, despite constant tensions—and even large-scale terrorist violence—between Pakistan and India, there is one thing the two nuclear-armed states have kept largely intact: their 2003 cease-fire agreement in Kashmir. Over the past week, however, that agreement has suddenly seemed in danger of unraveling, with alarming killings along the defacto border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and threats of further escalation by senior officials on both sides. Though it has until now received little attention in the international press, this new confrontation poses a grave threat to the entire region. We ignore it at our peril.
President Obama’s nomination of his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, to head the Central Intelligence Agency poses a genuine conundrum. On the one hand, he is associated with some of the most troubling aspects of US counterterrorism policies. He is the architect of President Obama’s expanded “targeted killing” policy. He was deputy executive director of the CIA when the agency was engaged in “rendering” terror suspects to secret prisons, where they were “disappeared,” often for years, and subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse. On the other hand, he has reportedly fought for greater transparency on the drone program, and has argued forcefully for trying terrorists in civilian courts and for closing Guantanamo. Who is the real John Brennan?