More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost and—if we are to believe the police and intelligence agencies of dozens of countries—assassinations are still being attempted and plotted because Muslims have been angered by the display of such images. In December, a suicide bomber inspired by other insulting drawings of Muhammad attacked a busy shopping street in Stockholm; on Friday, a court in Copenhagen sentenced a Somali man to nine years in prison for attempting to kill Westergaard.
Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for this violent response. There is no explicit ban on figurative art in the Quran, and representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent. There are numerous such depictions—faceless or veiled as an indication of his holiness, or even depicted with facial features—in manuscript collections. It is only quite recently that Muslims living in the west have begun lodging objections to the reproduction of these images in books.
When invited by The New York Review to write about the very successful western (if it is a western; about which more follows) and Coen brothers movie adaptation of Charles Portis’s twice-filmed novel True Grit, we watched Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version starring John Wayne and Kim Darby, Joel’s and Ethan’s version, and also read Portis’s much-praised novel, on top of which we breezed through quite a few reviews, as well as portions of the production notes.
This is a question poets get asked often. The quick answer is nowhere. This can’t be right, you are thinking. You’ve read plenty of poems about poets walking in the woods, rolling in the hay and even taking a sightseeing trip through hell. True enough. Nevertheless, poets, even when they are fighting in a war, rarely take off their slippers. Doesn’t Homer’s blindness prove my thesis? I bet every one of those eyewitness accounts of Greeks and Trojan slaughtering each other, and the wonderful adventures Odysseus had cruising the Mediterranean, were dreamed up by Homer while waiting for his wife to serve lunch.
Sure, many poets would deny this. Here in the United States, we speak with reverence of authentic experience. We write poems about our daddies taking us fishing and breaking our hearts by making us throw the little fish back into the river. We even tell the reader the kind of car we were driving, the year and the model, to give the impression that it’s all true. It’s because we think of ourselves as journalists of a kind. Like them, we’ll go anywhere for a story. Don’t believe a word of it. As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes wide open.
As US-backed strongmen around North Africa and the Middle East are being toppled or shaken by popular protests, Washington is grappling with a crucial foreign-policy issue: how to deal with the powerful but opaque Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has taken an increasingly forceful part in the protests, issuing a statement Thursday calling for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. And though it is far from clear what role the Brotherhood would have should Mubarak step down, the Egyptian president has been claiming it will take over. In any case, the movement is likely to be a major player in any transitional government.
Ben McGrath writes a shocking article in the January 31 New Yorker. Drawing partly on the extensive reporting of Alan Schwartz in the New York Times, he traces the high rate of degenerative neurological diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.) in football players. “N.F.L. players,” McGrath writes, “are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis.” On one Sunday last October, “at least eleven N.F.L. players were concussed.” Since the impact of head-to-head run-ins on the field is equivalent to minor car crashes, a knowledgeable observer estimates that 20 percent of pro players on the field are already suffering incipient dementia. Nor are these injuries confined to professional games.
The January 31 ruling by US District Judge Roger Vinson of Florida that the new health reform law is unconstitutional in its entirety was immediately hailed by Republicans and Tea Party activists, who have made overturning the law their chief goal. The second federal district court judge to invalidate President Obama’s health care law, Judge Vinson reasoned that if the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to require citizens to buy health care insurance as a means of regulating “interstate commerce,” there would be no limit to Congressional power. It could require us to buy cars, bread, or even broccoli, as all could equally be said to be economic actions that would promote commerce. Surely, Vinson maintained, there must be some limit on Congress’s power. Thus, he concluded that neither the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the authority to regulate “interstate commerce,” nor the Necessary and Proper Clause, which authorizes any appropriate means that might further that goal, affords Congress authority to regulate “inactivity,” by requiring those who can afford it to purchase health insurance.
The Fighter might more accurately have been titled The Fighter and His Family: it’s a boisterous, brilliantly orchestrated ensemble piece at the paradoxically near-still center of which is an Irish-American boxer (Mark Wahlberg), whose once-promising career, like his grim hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, is on what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral. Just nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and Christian Bale as supporting actor, the current favorite in that category—the film is based on the life and career of former junior welterweight champion Micky Ward, most famous for his three brutally hard-fought bouts with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003. It is also a group portrait of working-class Irish-Americans in a blighted, postindustrial landscape: the brawling, clannish, emotionally combustible Ward-Eklund family for whom Micky is the great hope and from whom, if he wants to survive, let alone prevail as a boxer of ambition, he must separate himself.
On Tuesday, February 1, we headed to Tahrir Square for the “million man” march with some apprehension. After a week of growing protests, the military, which had arrived on Friday, had increased its presence in downtown Cairo, and the perimeter of the square was now completely barricaded with concrete blocks and metal barriers. Just two narrow entryways had been left—each manned by a dozen soldiers and just as many civilian volunteers. Despite the soldiers’ promise not to use force, many of us who entered the square wondered if they would trap us inside, and then, perhaps even shoot. By 4 PM however—well after the 3 PM curfew set by the military—we knew no harm would come, and the protest turned into something of a festival.
The army and the protesters worked together to weed out infiltrators trying to stir up trouble, and the crowd began chanting about the people and army being one. Estimates of the turnout varied, from one million to three. There was barely an empty square foot in the entire square and adjoining streets; people sang, played cards, shared meals, and later in the evening, began to talk of holding a soccer tournament, together with the army. One Al Jazeera correspondent compared it to a rock concert. People spoke of feeling pride at being Egyptian, some of them for the first time in their lives.
The current turmoil in Egypt and the prospect of the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime apart from everything else raise questions about the country’s nuclear program and where it might be headed. This is particularly interesting since a leading candidate to head the new opposition appears to be Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who has been critical of the Egyptian program in the past.
Located near the site of its ancient predecessor, in the heart of historical Alexandria, the remarkable Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria, which opened in 2002, has been uncomfortably close to the turmoil that now wracks Egypt, and especially Egypt’s cities. First a suicide bomber attacked one of Alexandria’s Coptic churches on New Year’s Eve, killing 21 Egyptian Christians and injuring a hundred (including several Muslims worshipping at the mosque across the street). Now, for the past week, tens of thousands of young Egyptians have taken to the city’s streets, calling for more freedom, more jobs, lower prices, and democracy, unfazed by a harsh government crackdown and episodes of violence in which some three dozen Alexandrians have been killed. So it was a great relief to read the message “To our friends around the world” from Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Library, who reports that when unrest broke out on Friday, a cordon of young people rushed to surround the Library complex (which includes conference halls and a planetarium) and protect it from vandalism.