Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I recently met an Omani who plays in the Omani Orchestra, and he reminded me of how confusing the issue of music is in the Arab world. Flip through the satellite channels and you'll find tens of music stations playing anything from Shakira to Nancy Ajram (a popular Lebanese singer) to more traditional Saudi men singing and dancing in a circle. Most Arabs I have met are familiar with American and Lebanese popular music. Yet there is a really large cultural gap in appreciating music that lies between the Gulf and other Arab countries.

When I lived in Egypt, I regularly went to concerts (check out Wust al Balad for a taste of my favorite Egyptian band). There were several clubs that featured live bands and a cultural center and opera house that hosted various concerts. Bahrain had a number of bars which had Pilipino bands, but aside from a few talented musicians most were simply background noise for scantily clad female dancers. Oman and Dubai also have dance clubs, some including the dancing girls, but I have yet to meet a local musician from any Gulf country except for ironically, Saudi Arabia, the one place where it is technically illegal to have concerts so they happen privately. Most of the Saudis I met were educated in the West or not Saudis but residents of Saudis.

Local musicians are rare in the region because some Muslims see music as wrong, because it is seen as competing with the musical poetry of the Quran. Even more Muslims see any instrument involving blowing (this includes trumpets, clarinets, or any other wind instrument) as being un-Islamic, so therefore wrong. I had a friend who taught in an upscale private school in Muscat who always had a hard time convincing Arab Muslims to play any wind instrument. Even traditional instruments are rare, such as the oud.

This brings me back to my Omani friend, the one who plays violin for the Royal Oman Orchestra. They are building a new concert for the group, which is comprised of Omanis and visiting guest soloists and conductors. Or at least that's what he told me, because they have no website, not many articles available in English, and their Facebook page was last updated 6 months ago. It frustrates me that it is so hard to find these local pockets of art and expression.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Back to Basics

After a nice, long extended holiday, I'm coming back to blogging. I've done a lot of thinking in my time away from blogging to think about what blogging is. I'm restarting this blog for one major reason: I want people to understand my experiences and perspective on the Middle East.

I've been reading a lot of blogs lately on the region, particularly Oman. I've found some good ones which I'll share and some poor ones which I hope that I won't be like. I want to try out some new topics and styles and formats to see what works, so I can't tell anybody exactly what the blog will become.

However, I can say that I don't want to regurgitate other writers work, pass on hearsay, or mindlessly bitch/praise about Oman, Arabs, Americans, or anybody else. All countries, parties, groups, organizations, and people including myself have flaws and strengths, and any criticism or praise should not be taken as a personal attack on a group. I like living in Oman, I liked living in other countries that I visited, and I like America too.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pro-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and economic doom-saying

Reading the news has been overwhelming lately. The AIG bailouts, Obama and really all governments seem to be bogged down with economic problems, but 3 articles caught my eye this week.

First of all, yet another article on the transformation of Saudi Arabia. This one is from Newsweek, and it talks about King Abdullah and his building response to extremism since 9/11. It's a good read, and it does a good job of talking about what his efforts mean and the obstacles he faces. If you don't have the time, it talks about how bizarre it is that the reforms of Saudi come from the King and not the people. It is a good reminder of how far Saudi Arabia has come in the past 90+ years. It would have been nice to see more on how the government created this ultra conservative society through adopting one of the most conservative interpretations of Islam around (Wahabi) but hey, at least it talked about why the US government has taken to calling Saudi Arabia a "moderate" Arab country.

Next, John Mearsheimer comes back for more in Foreign Policy, I wrote about his (and Walt's) book before, and it recieved a lot of criticism. Here he talks about Israel's election of Netanyahu, and the rise to power of Avigor Lieberman, a man who openly advocate the removal of all Palestinians, even Israeli citizens, from Israel. I think that's called genocide by most people, but I might be mistaken. Great article, but just like his book, he really could have used more sources because its such a hot button issue. The real question that he is asking is not about what Israel should do, but at the end, how America should respond to an Israeli government that is not willing to compromise to make a peace deal.

On a third and even more depressing note, I have to mention the Rolling Stones article by Matt Taibi. Honestly, this doesn't have much to do with the Mid-East, but it does have to do with my mini rant on AIG from before. He talks about all the garbage that went down leading up to the current crisis, and I think its a really good long explanation on what people did to cause the situation. If you can understand the economic lingo thats in it, its awesome. Hunter Thomson would be proud.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

AIG part 2

So, it looks like I spoke too soon, people in America are pissed. I just hope that something fair can be done about this situation that returns at least the majority of the money and that Wall Street understands the gravity of the situation. 

Also, I don't advocate any sort of violence whatsoever. I do think that people who are clearly acting in a unethical manner should be punished by any legal means available, and I think the outrage in this situation is 100% justified. That said, people shouldn't be stupid. That goes for angry people, and bankers too.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

WTF is going on in America

So I know that the whole world is in what many call the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but what are people doing? I follow the news pretty regularly overseas, and from a distance I so I really only see the media’s responses. In general, they are pretty fluffy in my opinion. The first real, widespread and widely publicized response that caught my eye was Jon Stewart. This is not surprising, as he was one of the first people in the media to start talking about Bush’s massive mistakes and daily hypocrisy. His roasting of CNBC has been so pointed, so spot on, and oh so funny cause its true. Yet it leaves me with one question…

How can regular Americans not be absolutely furious with Wall Street Bankers and high level CEO’s today? I don’t understand it. We blame the government for trying to save the capitalist system, but when it comes to the investment banks shelling out millions of dollars to idiots and criminals, that’s ok? And while some of them might be decent people (I have my doubts), they are certainly all idiots or criminals because they must fit into one of the two categories below:

a.       They got paid millions of dollars to not understand the market and lose more money in a year than many countries have as their GDP. Or

b.      They manipulated the market to make as much personal money as possible and then screw over the companies they worked for by leaving them with the bill.

There is no letter C here. That’s it. They either weren’t as smart as they claimed to be (and were paid to be) or they were, and scammed us all out of billions of dollars. Why aren’t people angry? If people understand that the government needed to give them money to fix the system, why aren’t people grabbing pitchforks and torches and walking to New York City? AIG is giving their executives 100 million dollars worth of bonuses? I don’t know, maybe I just get angry too easily, but I can’t wrap my head around this stuff. I would think that there would be people trying to get either legal claims against these guys or try to harass them. 

Israeli Lobby

There it is. I said it. Talking about Israel is the third rail of all politicians in America and even elsewhere in the world. I'll get to international countries later, but let's start at home. Charles W. Freeman Jr. withdrew his name for consideration from Obama's National Intelligence Council, largely over concerns regarding his positions on Israel. Here was the comment that cost him his job:

 He said that "Israeli violence against Palestinians" was a key barrier to Mideast peace. (As seen here)

While exiting stage left, he also blamed the dreaded "Israel Lobby". Oy.

If I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me about the Jewish Lobby, I would be a rich man. Granted, the questions range from, "Why do Jews run Congress?" to "Why doesn't America care about Palestinian children? Is it because the Jews control the banks?" Seriously, these questions are normal and accepted, if not encouraged, throughout the Arab world.

First, I don't agree with these questions at all. I think saying that Israel represents all Jews and equating the two terms is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as saying that all terrorists are Muslims or that any country speaks for all of Islam. There are numerous Jewish groups that disagree with Israeli policies on personal and religious grounds, just as there are many Muslims who disagree with Saudi Arabia or terrorists or any other country. I don't mean to leave out similar word and identity games for Christians or any other religion; I just don't have the space for it in my blog.

So back to Israel: No, Jews don't control Washington, or the banks, or are single handedly responsible for the financial crisis. However these ignorant questions don't mean that we as Americans shouldn't look at the power of the conservative Israeli lobby AIPAC in Washington. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all spoke before AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They donated about 2.5 million dollars to various candidates in 2008, but if you want a good idea about what most people are talking about read Mearsheimer and Walt's book. There are some problems, but it gives you a good starting point for seeing how powerful the pro-Israeli lobby is in America. Check out AIPAC's own site here.

My point is simple, and at this point obvious: For conspiracy theorists and deniers of the political influence of Jewish Israeli lobbyist organizations, AIPAC and other pro-Israeli organizations are real and powerful. It is not a clandestine organization that controls decisions people make any more than agricultural lobbies control any politician. They simply are a powerful voice that must be considered when working in Washington. They started the campaign against Freeman and won it primarily over his comments regarding Israel.

My other point is that however unpopular Freeman is at the moment, he is right in his original quote: Israeli violence is a major hurdle to the Middle East peace process, and I will go one step further. If Obama wants to see peace in the region, he will have to push Israel to make tough concessions for a final peace deal with the Palestinians. I am not saying that Israel does not have a right to existence or self-defense nor that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are as innocent as children. I just don't think that America can afford politically or morally, to favor only Israel on this point. This is not a new opinion, only something that I think needs to be said over and over again until it actually happens. Furthermore, denying or exaggerating the strength of the pro Israeli lobbies including AIPAC is dangerous. As I say to everybody I meet who claims that Jews control the world or that anybody who criticizes Israeli policy is anti-Semitic:

Jewish does not mean Israeli—and while they are politically significant, so are old people (AARP), farmers, and gun rights activists (NRA).

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hot, Flat, and Friedman


Like much of the developed world, I've read several Thomas Friedman books and many of his editorials for the New York Times. This is actually quite remarkable, because most of the time I would say I have only a mediocre at best opinion of the man's writings. This is largely due to the sheer number of stupid questions from intelligent people asking about my opinions on From Beirut to Jerusalem, and how I feel about that book and his attitude towards the Middle East in general.

Don't get me wrong, I think Friedman is an excellent writer, and probably does the best editorials on the widest range of subjects that I've ever read. His books regularly discuss the most complex issues of the day, and remarkably are still easy to read and understand. I generally read his works in order to assess where mainstream America is or is going to be soon on major issues including trade, globalization, environmentalism, and Middle Eastern Politics.

However, that's not why I read his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. I got is as a gift from a friend, and didn't have much going on. I can now say, that Friedman's transition from reporter to self-proclaimed national cheerleader is complete. Once you accept this, and the fact that Friedman regularly simplifies complex ideas for mass consumption, and that he often casually takes ownership of these ideas, it's a great book and I highly recommend it. Let me explain:

Friedman is open and honest about the book being an outline for why a green revolution is necessary and how to go about creating one. I think he fully succeeds in this, namely in his opposition to passive environmentalism and poor policies by the US government. It has excellent advice on how to change America's policies to favor green development.

Friedman casually coins new terms that already exist: A good example of this is Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics": This states that "as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down". While I think there is an important message here, it is by no means a law, and Friedman is by no means the person who originally came up with it. It also is not unique to oil. This law is basically a corollary to the idea of "Rentier States". A staple of Middle Eastern politics, it basically flips the American rally cry of "No taxation without representation" on its head and says OK, we'll give you health care, schools, sometimes houses, and business advantages, and you let us do what we want." My beef with Friedman isn't that I think he's wrong, it is that he "created" a theory that already exists in a better form.

Finally, Bahrain: I have lived in this country. It's nice, and I'm sure the ruling family is very nice as well. When Friedman spoke ravingly about the enlightened Royal Family of Bahrain and their strides towards democracy, however, I took offence. Check out Freedom House's assessment of Bahrain. In short it describes the 100% government owned press, the discrimination of the majority Shiite population by the Sunni ruling family, and my favorite part: the regular crackdown of civil protests (Shiite of course) by the majority foreign security forces. Yup. That's right, they have a mercenary police force and yet the Shiites aren't able to get even low ranking government jobs.

In short, Friedman annoys me at times in this book, particularly his assessment of Petropolitics and Bahrain. However, I would still recommend this book to a friend. It's packed with information that is generally correct about the complexities of the world regarding global warming and the changes that America needs to make right now. His ability to explain and simplify is truly a gift, if one that needs a little more tweaking.