Empire of Empires

It seems as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun, yet with many a deep intestine difficulty, and human aggregate of cankerous imperfection, — saying, lo! the roads, the only plans of development, long and varied with all terrible balks and ebullitions. You said in your soul, I will be empire of empires, overshadowing all else, past and present, putting the history of old-world dynasties, conquests behind me, as of no account — making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf — I alone inaugurating largeness, culminating time. If these, O lands of America, are indeed the prizes, the determinations of your soul, be it so. But behold the cost, and already specimens of the cost. Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear? If you would have greatness, know that you must conquer it through ages, centuries — must pay for it with a proportionate price. For you too, as for all lands, the struggle, the traitor, the wily person in office, scrofulous wealth, the surfeit of prosperity, the demonism of greed, the hell of passion, the decay of faith, the long postponement, the fossil-like lethargy, the ceaseless need of revolutions, prophets, thunderstorms, deaths, births, new projections and invigorations of ideas and men.

Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1868

The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected all these other avenues, instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.

Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America’s image. The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better. Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country’s politics. With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless.

This grand strategy is “imperial” at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries. One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries—save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea—would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests.

John J. Mearsheimer, Imperial by Design, 2010

Sunday Reading for 2010

Me, in 2010, on the River of Time
Me, on the River of Time

We, who privilege chronological time over all else, are maddeningly a-chronos or poly-chronos in our personal memories. Often we imbue a specific space with time, and when we leave it, we arrest the passage of time, there, to our last memory. We do this more often with persons – especially loved ones.

Other timelines, which would give other weight to categories such as “professional life” or “ability to hit a squash ball” would produce different line charts, I am sure, but 2010 is the pits – this much is certain. Also, 2009. 2008 had a nice run from Aug-Dec. 2007 was misery. 2006 was near-deadly. 2005 was Sox.

Guess I have been on a bad streak? And then I read this:

Irom Sharmila, in Manipur, has fasted for 10 years to protest to the brutal, legal regime of the Assam Rifles:

Since Sharmila launched on her epic fast, many women in this deeply troubled emerald valley have invented other unique forms of non-violent resistance. One that most scarred the conscience of the nation was in 2004, after political activist Thangiam Manorama was raped and killed by security forces. Soldiers of the Assam Rifles allegedly broke down the door of her home, blind-folded her, tied her down and gang-raped her for many hours. They left her brutally ravaged body on the roadside, her genitals disfigured with knife wounds, her body full of bullets, with their customary impunity.

There was unprecedented anguish across the valley, and women quietly mobilised in every locality to gather at the gate of Kangla Fort, the seat of the Assam Rifles. Until the last moment, they kept secret their mode of protest. Suddenly the women gathered at the gate of the Fort stripped off all their clothes, shouting ‘Rape us, kill us, take our flesh’. Tunuri, a grandmother who participated in the protest, recalls that until that moment, soldiers holding back the protesting women, threatened them with their batons and guns. But after the women stripped, the soldiers ran into the fort, bewildered and shamed. The women stood naked, challenging their enemies for a full half hour. The pictures of these naked women in every newspaper and television channel the next day brought home the torment and humiliation of the women of Manipur to people outside the valley as no other protest could.

I realize that Indian democracy is having a worse 2010. The verdict against Dr. Binayak Sen handed down on Dec. 24th is shocking and harrowing in its language of order. This review of the verdict at Kafila will help you align yourself and you can also read my older post on this subject.

Also in the “Lost” column of 2010 are the “illegal” immigrants in US – nearly 800,000 of whom were deported summarily by the Obama administration. Pakistan, with its flood, and its suicide bombings. Minorities in Pakistan, be they Ahmadi or Christian. Democracy in Iraq or in Afghanistan. 2010 was just a bad year, I submit to you, gentle readers. I dare not diminish your accomplishments this year, I dare only cosmically label 2010 as The Year That Ought To Have Ended Way Earlier Or Had Never Got Out of Bed. That is 2010.

  • This map of facebooked world created by Paul Butler is significantly read as a map of web-literacy.
  • There were parts of this review which read Foucault’s idea of the author with Bush’s idea of writing a memoir, that I found really funny. Like laugh out loud. Eliot Weinberger won the internets that day.
  • Every time a new Tony Judt piece comes out, I am reminded that 2010 took him away from us.
  • Olivier Roy has been right for a long time, and I suspect he is right-er than Charles Taylor about secularism. This review in NYT is, however, quite unsatisfactory for such an important book.
  • When will Matt Tiabbi be taken seriously as a latter-day Mark Twain? Needs to happen now. Also, Eliot Ness?
  • I really wanted to like this piece on language and I ended up only kinda liking it. Instead, I really liked John Lahr’s discussion of Elia Kazan at the NYer. It really made me think about 2010.

Safrnama-e al-Qahirah IV

I drank a lot of tea. I drank more coffee. Yesterday, I think I had a caffeine-withdrawal headache-from-hell. Cairo, you did me wrong. If there is one complaint I could humbly launch against the Cairian food gods, it would be “masala” (ok, the kebabs were genuinely dry, everywhere, also) {Lahore food snob alert!}. But this seems petty. I enjoyed some amazing meals and I tried to photograph the best of them.

Safrnama-e al-Qahirah III

Khizr haunted me during my fieldwork. The legend is that he is a lost Prophet – rather a Prophet for lost souls, lost travelers, seekers. He appears when you least expect and guides you. He is immortal. He is dressed in green. When I was walking around lower Sindh, I would encounter his memory everywhere – tombs of those whose lives intersected with him, footprints of Alexander as he raced to catch him in the mist. I was looking for manuscripts and, as one wag put it, only Khizr himself could satisfy my needs.

I feel like I met Khizr in Cairo. He did have a green jersey. He was our guide. He did seem to possess the wisdom of the ages. He made Cairo come alive for me, made me see spaces I would have otherwise glossed over. It was wonderful to have shared his Cairo. Thanks, man.

These photos are of faces I saw, mostly from afar.

Next up, FOOD!

Ten Best Books of 2010

In December, it is the custom of taste-makers everywhere to create lists of the ten best things of the year. Taste-makers, aware that they will be called upon to perform this task, work hard throughout the year winnowing through possible entries into this category so they will be prepared by December to do their duty by the public. We are sad to report that no one at Chapati Mystery has properly planned ahead for the preparation of lists of the best things of 2010. But when we read lists drawn up by other people, and find names of authors we have never heard of such as a gentleman named Jonathan Franzen, we feel it is incumbent on us to create a list of our own. We must admit we were not paying much attention to whether or not the books we were reading were published in 2010. We could perhaps instead attempt to make a list of ten best movies, or ten best Broadway musicals, but we feel we have not engaged with these media with sufficient rigor. And so, with all good holiday cheer, we bring you instead our list of the ten best books we happened to read in 2010, regardless of when they were published.

(This list is alphabetically, and should not be taken as a countdown, or up)

  • Ali, Agha Shahid, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. The first time I carried it on the S-Bahn, I remember complaining about its heft – and its hard-cover. Then I opened it randomly: We shall meet again, in Srinagar,/by the gates of the Villa of Peace,/our hands blossoming into fists/till the soldiers return the keys/and disappear. Again we’ll enter/our last world, the first that vanished/in our absence from the broken city. I have never carried a lighter book with me. On ride after ride, I have reached for it, read a poem, a half-poem, two verses, a hint of a mood. Long ago, in another city, faced with another new beginning, I approached Faiz as a talisman, a mantra. This hardcover of Agha Shahid Ali fits the contours of my hands. (sepoy)
  • Asad, Talat & Mahmood, Saba, Is Critique Secular? Those crazy kids are at it again! Formidable scholars Asad and Mahmood give us the low-down on secularism, critique and the Danish Cartoontroversy. Make yourself the toast of any cocktail party when you smite down fellow party-goers’ paeans to secular critique with these erudite arguments! Additional essays by Judith Butler and Wendy Brown can be skipped. (lapata)
  • Devadasan, Rashmi Ruth, Kumari Loves a Monster. From the awesomeness that is Blaft comes a little jewel-like picture book full of Kodak moments documenting the happy romances of curvaceous damsels and a wide variety of monsters. The illustrations by Shyam are what make this a must-have item for any coffee table. (lapata)
  • DeWitt, Helen. The Last Samurai. This book, urged upon me by Jessa, rocked my world. Speechless, it made me. (sepoy)
  • Jalib, Habib. Kulliyat/Collected Poems. Zamana thak giya, Jalib hi tanha/wafa kay rastay par chal raha hai. ENUFF SAID. (sepoy)
  • Kumar, Amitava, Nobody Does the Right Thing. Much cyber-ink has already been spilled in these pages about this novel (published under the title Home Products in India). Suffice it to say, this is the great realist novel of Bihar you never realized you were missing. Oh, plus, it’s really well written, too! (lapata)
  • Life’s Too Short Literary Review. Had it just about up to here with the Granta issue on Pakistan, and even more so, discussions of the Granta issue on Pakistan? The antidote is in! This slim volume of terrifying (but not terrorist-centric) power is full of engrossing and original stories. As a major bonus, there’s also a translation from Urdu of lesbian erotica by celebrated author Mohammed Hanif. (lapata)
  • Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Both this and Mumford, I read before, but didn’t read before, if that makes sense. This book has truly asked me some seriously hard questions – which I have no answers for, but which I might spend a decade or so trying to answer. (sepoy)
  • Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. I literally quote this at cocktail parties. Ok, correction. I have not been invited to a cocktail party in years – but I quote this at pubs. Usually, people simply look at me “oh hai, crazy academic person.” But they don’t know that this 1968 classic is an astoundingly dark piece of work: The palace: the exchequer: the prison: the mad-house – what four buildings could more completely sum up the new order or better symbolize the main features of its political life. These were the dominants. Between them stretched the blankly repetitive façades; and behind those façades the forgotten and denied parts of life somehow went on.
    (sepoy)
  • Yashpal, This is not that Dawn. Did I mention that this novel is the War and Peace of Hindi literature? Oh yes, I did.

Safrnama-e al-Qahirah II

We were there for the sake of words. Words written by some in Europe about others in Asia. There was power embedded in those words – power to change Europe, power to arrange Asia. Ours was often a contentious gathering. Some believed, perhaps rightfully, that those days were long gone when locating words into histories and geographies shaped those geographies and histories. Others weren’t convinced. Every day, from 10 to 6, we would gather at the AUC campus and listen, or speak, about the philology of our historical work (and sometimes the other way around). There were lots of different texts which were shared, and talked about. After, we would be free to roam about. Even away from work, I kept seeing text everywhere. Here are some of those photos of Cairo (also from Alexandria, where we visited a rare manuscript collection).

Safrnama-e al-Qahirah I

Back from Cairo bearing some deep ridges in the psyche, and in the soul. There is so much to say about Cairo and I find myself unable to articulate any of it. It cannot be enough to claim, blithely, that I fell in love with Cairo. That sounds unright. Love has too many spikes on the ECG chart. Too exciting or too distressing. This was the closest I have ever felt to returning home – without having actually arrived home.

Near the end, I contemplated staying. I was told that a marriage to a citizen yields a passport in only 2 years. Also that going undocumented is quite possible. I imagined a business that would sustain me – adding masala to various street foods in Cairo. (they have bhutta without masala!)

Funny that I thought only of alternate careers.

Here are some first shots from Cairo – many more will come. These are exteriors only.