Sunday, November 30, 2008

Catechism Of The Doomed

Question: Israel Behind Mumbai Attacks?

Answer: “It is clear that Mossad is involved in the whole affair. An entire city has been attacked by Mossad and probably units of mercenaries.”

Tarek Fatah: “As ridiculous as this may sound, chances are that countless Muslims are deluding themselves into believing that it is not their co-religionists who are responsible for the savagery let loose on India, but some hidden U.S.-Zionist conspiracy against Islam.”

In fact, not just Muslims.

UPDATE I: Calling that great city by its proper name (Bombay):

I hope I am not alone in finding the statements about Bombay from our politicians to be anemic and insipid, and the media coverage of the disastrous and criminal attack too parochially focused on the fate of visiting or resident Americans. India is emerging in many ways as our most important ally. It is a strong regional counterweight to Russia and China. Not to romanticize it overmuch, it is a huge and officially secular federal democracy that is based, like the United States, on ethnic and confessional pluralism. Its political and economic and literary echelons speak English better than most of us do. Its parliament in New Delhi—the unbelievably diverse and dignified Lok Sabha—was viciously attacked by Islamist gangsters and nearly destroyed in December 2001, a date which ought to have made more Americans pay more attention rather than less. Since then, Bombay has been assaulted multiple times and the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan blown up with the fairly obvious cross-border collusion of the same Pakistani forces who are helping in the rebirth of the Taliban.

: In the above piece, the "saps" who would blame the Bombay massacres on, say Bush and Blair - the "moronic faction" that has "not yet been heard from" - has been heard from now, loud and clear. Eamonn McDonagh responds to that faction here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

When Was The Last Time Tariq Ali Said Anything Remotely Sensible?

Perhaps senility is sufficient to explain Tariq Ali, but it isn't adequate to explain why he can spout utter gibberish from one end of Canada to the other, and throughout his book tour, almost without exception, the news media just slobbers on his slippers. I love this bit of Ali's wisdom: "The last Canadian prime minister who tried to strike out an independent position for Canada was Pierre Trudeau. Since that time, things have got worse."

Here's a brilliant exception, from Tahir Alsam Gora, in the Hamilton Spectator. In it, the brave Tarek Fatah (a former comrade of Ali's) explains why he didn't bother showing up at Ali's appearance in Toronto: "I preferred to stay away, as Tariq Ali has betrayed the principles of progressive politics by making common cause with Islamists. He considers Hezbollah heroic and the murderous Taliban as a Pushtun movement."

The depth of Ali's betrayal of anything remotely approaching progressive politics is his analysis yesterday of the Mumbai terror attacks, in Counterpunch, which Principia Dialectica correctly headlines thus: "When A Socialist Defends Barbarism."

There should be nothing surprising about this sort of thing by now. Counterpunch is a profoundly reactionary journal which is happy to provide a platform to the Taliban-supporting Canadian economist and drooling antisemitic lunatic Eric Wahlberg. For a review of the depths of depravity to which Counterpunch has sunk, here is a must-read.

Ali's Counterpunch analysis is actually not an analysis, but a transparent exercise in evasion. It's all somebody else's fault. It's about the beastly behaviour of the Indian government in Kashmir, the "anger within the poorest sections of the Muslim community against the systematic discrimination and acts of violence carried out against them," and so on. As if this could somehow explain why the "Deccan Mujahadeen" chose to target the Jews at Mumbai's Chabad house, where we now learn that the young rabbi
Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka are among the dead.

Something is strangely missing, in other words, from Ali's account. Perhaps if Counterpunch had given him more space, or if he'd had more time in his busy schedule, Ali might have explained how the disaffection of some minority within India's vast Muslim population should result in a bloothirsty attack on Mumbai's small and cheerful community of Lubavitchers. Why? Was it their sinister candle-lightings, their poverty-eradication program, their kosher meals for young Israeli backpackers?

Ben Cohen is watching developments. As is Eamonn McDonagh.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Which Side Are You On?

From the American scab organization Codepink, currently sucking up to the theocratic-fascist regime in Tehran, on a goodwill mission conceived a couple of months ago by 125 leaders of the American "peace movement" and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

"So when a policeman approached us, asked where we were staying and said, 'Come with me,' we wondered if we might be getting arrested for Jodie’s bare ankles. He was smiling, though, so we followed him to the police car. It turns out that he and his partner, who was sitting in the police car, were just really nice guys who wanted to give us a lift back to the hotel. We joked around with them, took a photo of me in the police car, and rode back to the hotel in style!"

An hour ago I received this email from Eric Lee at LabourStart:

"This morning I received news that jailed Iranian teacher union activist Farzad Kamangar may be hanged within the next few hours. According to the Education International, he has been taken from his cell in Tehran's Evin prison in preparation for execution. The guards have told him he is about to be executed and they are making fun of him, calling him a martyr. We need your help and we need it right now."

The LabourStart website must be swamped with responses because it's been down for the last 15 minutes, but you can send letters of protest to the Iranian regime via the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, here, in less time than it takes to listen to the song in the video below. So make up your damn minds:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Strange Case Of Hassan Diab, From "An Age Of Murder."

The evidence against Ottawa's Hassan Diab, now facing murder charges arising from the 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue, looks a bit sketchy thus far. But whether Diab is guilty or innocent of the charges he faces, there might be something useful about the trial, to the extent that it casts some long overdue light on a period Jeffrey Herf describes as an "age of murder . . . a product of the intersection of antisemitism with left-wing radicalism."

Many may dispute the proposition that this age has truly passed - athough perhaps not that it has passed in its German phase - but here (and the whole thing here in .pdf), Herf bookends the period thus: Between the placement of a bomb by the "West Berlin Tupamaros" in that city's Jewish Community Center in 1969, and the 1992 attempt by the Rote Armee Fraktion to blow up a Budapest bus filled with Russian Jewish émigrés.

It's also illuminating to read Herf's essay alongside Mathias Kuntzel's arguments for situating the roots of contemporary Islamist Jew-hatred within the tradition of European fascist anti-semitism. For just one recent eruption of that classic, drooling pathology abroad in Arab society, here's a television interview with Syrian economist Sharif Mazloum, who traces the current global financial crisis back to the scheming of the Zionist lobby during Richard Nixon's presidency, the control of the world's gold supply by the Jews, and even further back, to the Zionist assassination of John F. Kennedy (peace be upon him).

The General, who pointed me to Herf's essay, also advises it be read alongside this.

Meanwhile, speaking of being squeezed between an arrogant disregard of history and certain parties with their fingers on nuclear buttons, I see this is the predicament in which the Irish Independent is placing Cork hurling manager Gerald McCarthy, which is wholly unrelated to all of the preceding, but amusing to notice nonetheless.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quiz: "So how will Obama appeal to Canadians once the rosy afterglow wears off?"

"In particular, how will his presidency sit with the Canadian anti-American coalition, the New Democratic Party, the Greens, the Bloc Québécois, and all those raging grannies of whatever age who despise the United States and all its works?"

So asks Jack Granatstein. His answer: "Not well is my guess."

My answer would be: the verdict from Canada's pseudo-left was already in, well before Obama was elected. Four months ago, Linda McQuaig had already written him off as "resolutely in sync with the existing script prepared by Washington power brokers, not even veering far from the Bush White House. . . he's not subhuman [but] he's just as warmongering as Bush." Months before that, even, the senile John Pilger - from whom Canada's pseudo-left punditocracy conventionally takes its cue - had judged Obama to be "a glossy Uncle Tom."

My guess, then, is that the default position will be this post-election line - uttered in Obama's defence, if you don't mind - which has already been regurgitated countless times: "Obama is the candidate of the ruling class and he has the job of rescuing American imperialism and American capitalism."

If we're in the guessing business today, mine would be that there is only one serious electoral hope for the Canadian centre-left. It's this guy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christie Blatchford Wins Governor-General's Prize (And My Small Part In That)

As one of the three judges for this year's Governor-General's literary prize for non-fiction, I can now confess - with today's announcement - that I agonized for weeks about Christie Blatchford's book.

This was my third term on a GG non-fiction jury, and I am proud to say that I'm almost pathetically scrupulous about judging literary prizes. I give every nomination more than a fair shake, even the frivolous titles, because when I'm doing jury duty I always find myself waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night, at least once, after having had a dream that goes something like this:

I'm finally at the jury meeting in Ottawa after a summer of reading books, and the first thing my fellow jurors say is this: 'What an incredible surprise! Who knew? Such brilliance, and in a little book about puppies! Who would have thought?' And then I remember the little book with the cute baby collie on the cover that I chucked across the room after reading half the preface.

In the case of Blatchford's Fifteen Days, all summer I kept telling myself: No, this book can't be that good, you like it so much because of your own notorious preoccupation with the cause of Afghan liberation, your fellow jurors will give you a withering look and you'll feel like an eejit for putting it on your shortlist.

I didn't trust my own judgment.

But, as it turned out, my fellow jurors Chantel Hebert and Marian Botsford Fraser turned out to have been similarly haunted by the power and grace of Blatchford's work. They were at least as enthusiastic as I was, and perhaps as surprised by how moving, how elegant and engrossing, a book like this could be. Fifteen Days is nothing like the fashionably detached and cynical high-brow stuff that so often passes for journalism about Canada's military mission in Afghanistan (Chris Wattie's Contact Charlie being a fine and notable exception). Instead, Blatchford relies on straightforward, plain-language, real-world reportage, and the result is easily in the same league as Michael Herr's Dispatches - which is not just a classic of war reporting, but a classic in the genre of literary journalism.

To her great credit, Blatchford is possessed of an enormous affection for the central subjects of her book - the working soldiers, and their families - and she's also possessed of that rare writer's intelligence that consists mainly of knowing when to just get the hell out of the way and let the book's subjects speak for themselves.

If you've read much of Jimmy Breslin or Studs Terkel, you'll know well enough to put Fifteen Days on the same shelf with their books.

And kudos to the other four non-fiction titles we shortlisted, too: Douglas Hunter's God's Mercies - Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery; Sid Marty's The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek; James Orbinski's An Imperfect Offering - Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century; and Chris Turner's The Geography of Hope - A Tour of the World We Need.

In other literary news and gossip, I see in the Globe that the novelist Timothy Taylor is giving high and well-warranted praise to one of my usual hangouts, the Vancouver Review (in the latest issue, I'm on about Michael Petrou's fine book, Renegades, on the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War). I have to confess that in Taylor's essay about VR, I especially got a kick about this bit: If I had to choose a favourite piece, an exemplary piece, however, one that captured the spirit of the magazine while pointing to its central concerns, I would have to choose Terry Glavin's harpooning of Greenpeace pieties in the Fall 2004 issue. There would have been any number of counterintuitive ways to illustrate the piece. But Ms. [Gudrun] Will's and Mr. [Mark] Mushet's idea seems somehow beyond improvement. They chose a recipe: "Minke Whale with Juniper Berries."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Is This Ritual Performance "News"?

How often does Karzai have to engage in this predictable routine, performed solely to demonstrate that he is not merely another belligerent in Afghanistan's bandit wars or a "puppet" of the foreigners, before it's just not newsworthy anymore?

November, 16, 2008: President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has offered to provide security for the Taleban's reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, if he agrees to peace talks. Mr. Karzai made the offer despite the multi-million dollar bounty offered for the militant leader's capture by the United States.

September 30, 2007:
President Hamid Karzai yesterday offered to meet the Taliban leader and give militants a government position only hours after a suicide bomber in army disguise attacked a military bus, killing 30 people – nearly all of them Afghan soldiers.

January 9, 2006: Mr Karzai had said he would be happy for Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to "get in touch" if he wanted peace.

The dance always ends the same way. . .

November 17, 2008: A Taliban militant leader rejected on Monday an offer from Afghan President Hamid Karzai of safe passage for insurgent leaders who wanted to talk peace.

It's called the politics of gesture. Also known as the Khattak:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Afghan elections: "This is what we must do, as people who believe in civilization."

My essay in today's Vancouver Sun is about the Afghan struggle for democracy:

KABUL- The most ambitious undertaking in the history of the United Nations has reached a critical crossroads at an unlikely, desolate place on the outskirts of this war-battered city. It's on the Jalalabad Road, just beyond the Hodkheal district, a slum notorious for its gangs of murderers and thieves.

From the outside, the headquarters of Afghanistan's Independent Elections Commission (IEC) looks just like a maximum-security prison. Inside, a grim collection of Quonset huts houses the command centre of the first major test of Afghanistan's embryonic democracy.

The forces massing to scuttle the upcoming Afghan elections are not just the illiterate jihadists terrorizing the Afghan countryside, or the suicide bombers that haunt the Jalalabad Road. Foreign diplomats in Kabul have been especially busy lately, whispering their intrigues to western journalists. The upcoming elections should be cancelled or postponed, they say. Afghanistan could be further destabilized. Better the devil you know, the security challenges are too great, and so on. Not a few of Afghanistan's warlord parliamentarians are quietly counseling the same course. . .

One thing I didn't have room for in the story was this message the journalist Jafar Rasouli - the international-affairs adviser to Karzai quoted in the story - wanted me to pass along: "Will you please tell Canada, thank you. Thank you to all the brave young sons and daughters, the soldiers, who are here with us. Thank you. Thank you."

Negotiating with the Taliban: "Anybody who does this is not a friend of Afghanistan."

From my essay in today's National Post:

Among Kabul's human rights activists, student leaders and women's rights groups, the big fear isn't the spectre of Taliban militias rolling back into Kabul. The much greater threat comes from places like Washington, Tehran and Islamabad. It's the clamour for a backroom deal with the Taliban (with President Hamid Karzai's signature on it for the sake of appearances). The stink of a looming betrayal is everywhere, and Kabulis, betrayed so many times before, can smell it a mile away.

Even Karzai's closest supporters are starting to get sick of it. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Spanta recently uttered a blistering rebuke to "so-called peacemakers" after the Saudis quietly brought together some Taliban-connected characters in Mecca and the President's businessman brother, Qayyum Karzai. Spanta says he's had quite enough of schemes to "surrender this land to the enemy."

When Karzai was elected in 2004, he was already saddled with several vicious warlords that had been talked down from the mountains. Ever since, he has been promising Afghanistan's remaining insurgents that he will embrace them, too, if they pledge to honour the Afghan constitution and respect the rule of law. In return, the Taliban have consistently thumbed their noses at Karzai. Nonetheless, in recent weeks, entreaties to the Taliban have gone into overdrive.

"We do not trust these things that are happening behind closed doors. It is coming from outside the country," Fatana Gilani, the head of the Afghanistan Women's Council, told me the other day. "Anybody who does this is not a friend of Afghanistan."

Now I want you to imagine a boot, stamping on a human face, forever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Salaam Alaikum. Wa Alaikum Salaam.

I thought I'd just let the people speak for themselves this time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Flanders Fields, The Poppies Grow

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shuja Means Brave

Shuja is 28, a proud Kabuli, a driver, a fixer, father to four-month-old Shahazad, husband to Kutsia, and survivor of four deaths.

The first was when he was a small boy. It was during the "Hekmatyar Time," so called according to the local custom of dividing Afghanistan's recent history into periods named for the prime causes of the country's agony at the particular time; in this case, after one of the most vile mass murderers in Afghan history, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A Russian-made missile landed in the little courtyard of Shuja's family home, when everyone was eating breakfast. It didn't explode. It just destroyed some grapevines, and broke a window. The missile was more than half a metre in length.

The second death has left its evidences in small scars around Shuja's eyes. This was also during the Hekmatyar Time, when Shuja was perhaps 11, and Hekmatyar's fanatically Islamist Hezb-i-Islami militants were raining bombs down upon the people of Kabul from the hilltop necropolis of Shahada. A huge missile landed almost at Shuja's feet, just a few metres away. It happened near the Iranian embassy. About 100 people were killed in that one blast, and more than 300 were severely injured.

The third time was in July, 2004, in Ghazni, when Shuja drove over a landmine. The car immediately behind him was turned into a small, crushed and compacted chunk of metal, with a dead man inside it. "I don't know who that guy was," Shuja said. The car Shuja was driving sustained two flat tires. Shuja fixed the tires, and drove on.

Shuja's most recent death occurred near Massoud Square, in September, 2006. At least 16 people were killed. "It was a suicide bomber. He drove right past me in their car, around me. And it went into the convoy. There were shrapnels coming down everywhere, but it did not break my car. It was such a huge blast. The whole plaza. Even the trees were on fire."

Shuja is a good friend to have. He's good fun. He's not to be messed with.

In Dari, Shuja means "brave."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

In Vancouver Review: A Tribute To The Canadian Volunteers In The Spanish War

Renegades: Canadians in The Spanish Civil War, by Michael Petrou, 281 pages, softcover, $24.95. UBC Press.

They say history is always written by the victors, but that is not quite true. History is written by people who can write. So, just as there are reasons why roughly 1,700 Canadians sailed off to defend the Spanish Republic 70 years ago, no less important are the reasons why the job of telling their story honestly and properly has ended up falling, all these years later, to Michael Petrou, a 34-year-old senior writer for Macleans magazine.

To begin with the latter reasons: Unlike the American volunteers who fought in Spain, the Canadians had no Ernest Hemmingway, Martha Gellhorn or John Dos Passos to valorize them. Unlike the British, the Canadians had no W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender or George Orwell. Only 32 of the Canadian volunteers are known to have had any kind of post-secondary education.

And yet to Spain the Canadians went, to take up arms in defense of the Spanish Republic. Madrid's leftist government had been abandoned by the west's great democracies, left to fend for itself against several divisions of Spanish troops and 75,000 Arab mercenaries from Morocco, commanded by the Spanish general Francisco Franco. Another 75,000 soldiers, 660 aircraft, 150 tanks, and a trove of munitions were at Franco's disposal, provided by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Germany's Nazi regime had sent in a further 16,000 soldiers, 600 fighter and bomber aircraft, and 200 tanks.

The Canadian anti-fascist volunteers were workers, "far more proletarian" than the British or the American volunteers, the Spanish War veteran Irving Weissman recalled years later. In Spain, they fought like lions. They fought barefoot and ate grass, and at least 400 of them never made it home. "They were very, very working class. The overwhelming majority – it was stamped on them," Weissman remembered.

They were not the sort of people who would end up as columnists for the Toronto Star, then, but there's more to it than that, and there's more to Renegades than anything that has been written on the subject before. It's not just that Petrou had access to the extensive and recently-opened Soviet files on the Canadian volunteers (Moscow's secret agents in Spain were obsessively suspicious about the Canadians) or that Petrou took pains to interview the handful of surviving volunteers. It's not just that Petrou is the first journalist to plumb the depths of the RCMP files on the volunteers, which the Mounties were updating as recently as 1980.

It's that from the beginning, the saga of the Canadian volunteers has been obscured by taboo and maudlin hagiography, and it's been recounted in a way that hollows out the core of the story. Down through 70 years of trade union pamphleteering, symposium-convening, veteran-honouring and folk-club singalongs, it has been as though there are some things that are just better left unsaid.

Until Petrou, no one delved too deeply into what William Beeching, the author of the gushing Canadian Volunteers: Spain 1936-1939, once privately described as the "Pandora's Box" of the story. But Petrou opens that box, and just one thing lurking inside is the embarrassing fact that even the fabled Mackenzie-Papineau battalion, named after the leaders of Canada's 1830s' rebellions, was a propaganda fiction. There was no Mackenzie-Papineau battalion until the Canadian volunteers themselves forced its establishment after having arrived in Spain to discover that it didn't even exist. And throughout the entire Spanish sojourn, the battalion was run almost exclusively by Americans.

It is no surprise, then, that Renegades, which Petrou began as a doctoral thesis at Oxford University, has not become the toast of the left-wing press in Canada, or that Petrou has not been feted by a national tour of labour halls across the country.

"There is, unfortunately, a moral bankruptcy in broad sections of the left today, in its inability to recognize real fascism if it's opposed to the United States or whatever," Petrou told me during a recent conversation. Although that has been true for some long while, it only offers a glimpse of why the story of the Canadian volunteers has been so inadequately told until now. It is a story of acute contemporary relevance. After all, it fell to those Canadian workers, particularly, to take up arms against fascism in the first place, years before Britain, the U.S., Canada, and the other western democracies recognized fascism for the global, existential threat that it was.

It helps to know that an astonishing number of the Canadian volunteers who set off to fight on the side of the Spanish republic were Vancouverites. At least as many came from Vancouver as from the much larger city of Toronto, and there were twice as many Vancouverites as there were volunteers from Quebec, the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, combined. One in four of the Canadian volunteers came from the sparsely populated western provinces, and at least 350 were British Columbians, almost all of them from Vancouver.

Similarly, among the thousands of international volunteers who made their way to Spain from a dozen countries, the Canadian contribution was out of all proportion to Canada's size. With a population ten times greater than Canada's, the United States managed to muster only twice the number of volunteers. From a country with five times Canada's population, the British volunteers numbered only a few hundred more than the Canadians. . .

Go Canucks.

That's from my essay on the Canadian contribution to the Republican cause in Spain, in the latest Vancouver Review (on newstands , or better yet, subscribe). The essay is largely a review of Mike Petrou's brilliant and moving book, which you should buy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thursday Night, Clocking Off Work

Everything shuts down Thursday afternoon, and there's a great feeling around town between the time people start heading home and the 5 o'clock call to prayers. Windows rolled down, Akbar Baghlani cranked up loud, with Shuja, Baktash, and Greg the Kiwi, and these gum sellers caught us at an intersection.

I'm reliably advised there's an Afghan version of Marilyn Manson's Personal Jesus that's quite popular in town.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Baktash Muqim, At The Grave Of His Martyred Cousin: "I Want To Be A Journalist"

KABUL - In the old cemetery in the Barakey neighbourhood, the inscription above the raised stone coffin within the most prominent shrine reads, in Dari: "Shaheed Ajmal Naqeshbandi, son of Engineer Ghulum Haider Naqeshbandi, was born in 1981 to a Muslim family. After graduating from school, he became a journalist. He could speak English, Urdu, Arabic and Pashto. On February 14, 2006, he went to Hellmand to make his reports, and he was kidnapped by the Taliban, and they killed him brutally. He was kind to his people, and was intolerable to the enemies of Afghanistan. Ajmal Naqeshbandi will always be remembered with honour by the people of Afghanistan."

Ajmal was kidnapped along with the Italian journalist for whom he was working - Daniele Mastrogiacomo of La Repubblica - and Mastrogiacomo's driver, Sayed Agha, in Helmand province, on March 5, 2007. Agha was murdered on charges he was "spying for foreign troops." President Karzai agreed to release five ranking Taliban prisoners as ransom in exchange for Mastrogiacomo, but refused to ransom Ajmal, who was beheaded on April 8, 2007.

There was an uproar. The Naqeshbandi family says the Afghan government ended up paying a ransom of $30,000 and a Toyota land cruiser for Ajmal's remains, which had been left in the desert for three days. The body was returned to the family, in Kabul, with its head sewn back on.

The high street in Barakey, one of the poorer sections of Kabul, is now called Ajmal Naqeshbandi Road, and its whirling and chaotic traffic circle is called Ajmal Naqeshbandi Square.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"In Kabul, Obama Fans Ready To Party"

KABUL -Among the things you'd least expect to find in this teeming, heartbreaking, war-ravaged city is the prompt pizza delivery service, the great Italian restaurant called Bocaccio's that's run by a family of Tajiks, and you can bring your AK47 to the bank with you. You just check your gun with the door clerk and pick it up on your way out. Just the other night I met a young American magician named Zack, who manages a local circus and roars around town on a motorcycle.

But one of the oddest things about Kabul is that it's home to some of the most hardcore Barack Obama supporters in the world. Susan Marx, the organizer of the Afghanistan chapter of Americans Abroad for Obama, thinks it's all a bit strange, too. . .

The rest, in today's Tyee, here.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Note To All Youse Literati

I can now reveal what kept me some dang busy over the summer: I did jury duty (my third time) for the Governor-General's Prize in literary non-fiction. Truth be told, I could have disclosed this some days ago, but I've been a bit preoccupied. Quill and Quire has a round-up of the shortlists here, and the prize winners will be announced in Montreal November 18.

Back to work. . .

Riding With Mad Max Across The Kandahar Plain, To Visit With Ehsan Ullah Ehsan

I had no idea that it was possible for an early '90s Toyota Corolla to move so fast. My driver (who I will call Max) could outrun Mario Andretti, I swear. The only really dodgy moment was when we got stuck behind an ISAF convoy. This is never a good idea, but it was that much more spooky because the convoy got blocked by a jack-knifed oil tanker truck, and Max got a bit jittery, thinking maybe it was a trap.

To get around it, the convoy made its way down into the rocky bumper-car ground beside the highway and everybody else followed. Max uttered ''Inshallah,' and off the road he roared. A few cars got bogged down in the dust, but not Max. We were back on pavement in seconds.

"It is called Baghdad Road," Max said, as we roared towards Kandahar City. "It is a nickname." I thought that was the nickname for the Kabul-Jalalabad Road. Maybe there's two? I could see why it would be called that, though, all the way into town from the airfield. Craters and ripped-out sections of steel highway fence, from suicide bombers, and IEDs. That kind of thing.

Ehsan called from town on my Roshan. He sounded frantic. "Where are you? What is happening?" We're fine, I said. Then we got stuck in another traffic jam on the main road inside town, and Max started getting jittery again. "Very dangerous," he said, and spun the wheel, tore down a sidestreet, then switchbacked a few blocks and made his way down the old road that winds through Kandahar's narrow old streets. And of course the traffic got blocked up again. But this time, it was donkey carts and pushcarts and flocks of sheep, masses of people, bicycles and motorcycles. "It is very dangerous," Max said again, and then proceeded through the crowds like a seamstress threading a needle.

Then we made it to Ehsan at his sanctuary, behind high whitewashed walls, down a dusty Kandahar backstreet. It's called the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre. It is an oasis of civility and decency and learning in this city. It's a refuge for women, a school, a library, a computer lab, an adult-education centre, and an internet cafe. Ehsan Ullah Ehsan conceived the idea, and he runs the place, and he is one of the people I'll be writing about, which is the reason I'm in this beautiful country.

Ehsan had just received another "night letter," a death threat. We spent the morning together and talked about things. I don't know that I've ever met a more courageous person, anywhere, in my entire life.

This morning, back in Kabul - which is a different place altogether - there was no dearth of jitters here after this. But note this part: A local resident who attempted to prevent the abduction was killed in the attack. . .

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Wandering Around This Great And Hospitable City, Allegedly "Baghdad At Its Worst."

Took the day off. Spent my time strolling around Murad Khane, Kabul's ancient centre, and its adjacent bazaars and neighbourhoods. Packed with people doing their afternoon shopping and errands; strangely, everybody's stock portfolios appear to have have held up here (joke). Lamb and naan for lunch. Met some Sikh spice merchants, Shujah bought a kite, that kind of thing. You can tell I'm some sort of kaffir, so people go out of their way to smile and say hello.

The trick is to vary your routines - I have no routines, check - and don't draw attention to yourself in strange and conspicuous ways - check. Do these thinks, be sensible, and Kabulis will take care of the rest: