July 22, 2006

العدوان الثلاثي

Fifty years ago, one Arab leader stood to nationalize and recuperate the Suez canal. Less than three months later, the armies of three countries went into full invasion to seize the Sinai peninsula and bring Nasser’s nose into the mud. The Chosen State had its good reasons. It wanted to put an end to skirmishes with the Egyptian army near and around Gaza. The French had theirs, they wanted to punish Nasser for aiding and abetting the guerillas in Algeria. But it was Britain that had the biggest stake of all. Imperial Britain had never swallowed the surprise change of regime in Cairo in 1952, nor the unceremonious evacuation in 1954. Their grudge and animosity toward Nasser was in overboard.

It was a hugely successful operation from the military point of view, but a political disaster nonetheless. Thanks to a change of heart by Eisenhower. Sir Eden had to resign. Nasser emerged victorious.

Fifty years on, another Arab leader, with another n.s.r rooted name, stood to declare an operation to recuperate his compatriots. Less than three hours later, the mightiest army south of the Atlantic, backed by the mightiest nation under the sun, and the biggest plus the wealthiest countries north of Eden, went into action.

This time around, the Chosen State of God -and Immaculate Conception of Lloyd George -had its excellent reasons too. It wanted to keep a militant PoG well at bay from its border. But it’s the U.S. that seems most adamant on seeing this operation go to its full-fledged natural conclusions. Syed Nasrallah called it an account settling operation. And a settling of accounts operation it is. To fathom the phantomlike state into which the southern suburb of Beirut was reduced to, one must go beyond the cold calculus of total disarming of PoG, cutting Iran to natural S-size, and tightening the noose around Damascus. The near complete destruction of Harat Hreik (a la Second World War) may have something to do with evening the scores for the dark old days of hostage taking and marines’ disaster of the 80’s. The U.S has yet to swallow the loss of Iran, the embarrassing speedy withdrawal of the Marines from Beirut, and now the derailment of its plan in Iraq. A Bedouin Arab, unlike what al-Maghout thought, is not the only grudge-bearing species. A Bedouin of Anglo-Saxon stock is no forgetful, much less forgiving. Especially when the time is finally right. Turning-in the pother cheek is best left to Arabs.

Speaking of which, one chosen newspaper of the chosen people may have been truthful in reporting that a leading Arab leader had called a Chosen Prime Minister to urge him to keep up the good work. The speed by which the normally lethargic Larger Kingdom reacted to the break of hostilities is both bewildering and suggestive. It is either a new found Washingtonian efficiency -in the person of Prince Bandar- has inched closer to the ears of his uncles than originally thought, or that the text was readied a long time beforehand.

Arab regimes are in no position to join or supply the war effort themselves of course – except in cases where control of their own street is involved, but they have an awesome technology at their disposal: satellite TV and earthly newspapers. If you watched Al-Arabiya TV, or read Al-Watan’s of Saudi Arabia, of Kuwait and of Bahrain, you just can’t miss it. In the 60’s and 70’s it was the presumed menace of Communism,this time it is the Shia arc. This is a Kissinger-Perez war at its best.

Just like in 1956, this may very well turn into a similar result. A military win, but political disaster for nonetheless.

July 14, 2006

peace of the slaves

If good and bad movies can get a sequel, why not unfinished wars. If “Pirates of the Caribbean” has a sequel, why not release pilots over the Middle East. If the United States of America can revisit Desert Storm, why can’t the Chosen State of Israel make a repeat of Beirut 1982?

It is not out of total volition of course. The Chosen State has to resort sometimes to painful options in order to fully protect the Chosen People. God and America would approve, and Europe won’t mind, so who else matters? Why not receive the demolishing engineers' shopping list, and let the aspiring evening edition of a Sharon pick and choose the ones which best suit his psychological profile before passing it to the pilots who will, once again turn the famed Arab nights into broad daylight.

It is not that Arab civilian lives don’t matter. They do. Just like the Iraqi Dinar and the Lebanese Pound, they carry a certain value, but you need to use the proper nonofficial foreign exchange rate. To arrive at that, you may need to know the balance of firepower, before calling for help from a very busy international community. Which cares about lives of people to the left of the decimal point. That may be unfair, but that's always been a European thing.

A busy international community doesn’t mean it has no time for proper manners and good taste. So proper calls for restrain and avoiding severe damage to infrastructure are in order. They go well with wine and the spirit of next Davus conference. A place of guaranteed calm, electricity, water and bridges.

Until then, affected parties, chief among them Arab engineers, are strongly advised to do something to shield their hard built infrastructure from impending doom at the receiving end of infrared technologies. They are strongly urged to apply now for an ISO certification. To fill the forms necessary for an Israel Security Offer, the applicant has to warrant that the installation in question is in a jurisdiction of good and neighborly relation with the Chosen State, or striving to have one. Fortunately, most of Arab lands are in this compliant and domesticated category. There are two exceptions, for which work is in progress to bring them to the obedient, servile fold.

In a matter of few decades, or several ones, history will tell about a people who came from the depth of the holocaust to the height of arrogance of power, only to match similar Nazi disregard for the life and dignity of the other. As well as its fate.

Or, just like in movies, the sequel may harbour surprises of its own.

July 10, 2006

the passing of the dana pearl diver

He chose dawn to embark on his quiet journey into sunset. And chose a perfect date too, the eighth day of the seventh month of the sixth year of the new century. A struggle that lasted from the very bottom of the old one is now over. For this distinguished man, peace and easy breathing is finally at hand.

I never knew Ahmed Al-Dhawwadi (1938-2006). Like many, one only saw him after he returned from exile in 2001. Like most, one only read the writings of a certain “Saif bin Ali”, his name de guerre, when and if access was possible to that underground, uncertainly published newsletter. So it was an incredible surprise to see the man in flesh. The contrast between an historic Saif and a physical Ahmed could not be any starker. Here is a man who looked so humble, so unassuming, he could easily pass as your retired Bapco neighbour. You can even be reminded of early pearl divers. (There is a lot in common between pearl divers and political activists. Not least of these is the pursuit of the dana of happiness and freedom amidst the vagaries of high seas). Here you are across a political figure so modest, so unobtrusive, there is not the customary front porch moving ahead to keep you at a distance, wary of trespassing. Incredibly, your few degrees of separation seem at times to belong more to you than to him. Which left you to wonder, how did a man of such disposition and demeanor come to lead the earliest modern, underground political organization in the entire Arabian Gulf and Peninsula in the first place?

Comrades of his certainly can better answer or dispel superficial impressions. My only tidbit of an answer came one evening a couple of years ago as I was heading toward the favourite tea section of a supermarket. There, I noticed a frail man in a thoub carefully and calmly reading the contents of one package. Then of another, then of a third. Was it the extra care of an ailing man, or simply the enduring hesitance of exile? Here is a man who saw a lot, been through a lot, but still manages to deliberate on a tealeaf matter. It was a human moment that said a lot about the man, and perhaps about the political moment of the country as well. Few moments later, he was ahead of me at the cashier. The young lady took the cash, gave the change without taking her eyes from the cash machine. She was, like many on the island, oblivious to the piece of history that has just left.

July 08, 2006

dim times for bright minds

A mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but that’s a wasted reminder to the brilliant folks of the Ministry of Education. Next to how it treats its economically disadvantaged, a country is judged by how it treats its intellectually endowed. Sadly, this country gets the red mark on both tests. If you need a certificate of that, then look no further than the plan of scholarships for high school achievers announced by the Ministry over the last two weeks. It is a dim attestation, duly stamped and notarized, of the state’s complete neutrality toward the future and well-being of the country, and a Ministry’s on long leave of absence from modern times.

For a starter, you would expect the boom in oil prices to be reflected in more offerings in range and in number of scholarships this year. In fact -when it comes to coveted fields and countries of study- the reverse is true. The number of sponsored students to Britain for example was almost halved this year (in comparison to 2003/2004). This year, there are six sponsorships, two each in Building Services, Welding (at one Adam Smith College), and Auto-Mechanics. You can’t get a more liberal education than that.

Much of the hyped 1700 or so scholarships and sponsorships plan is essentially a miserly imitation of what is known as a loan and bursary scheme elsewhere. A scholarship here amounts to only BD 600 per year. The cost of the program for new students is under 2 millions BD. Add to that cash strapped University of Bahrain saying they are sending no postgraduate students abroad this year, and you get the fully dim picture. (For a fuller picture, BNA is pleased to report that the full and complete musical band of BDF is currently in Paris to perform in the 31 Expo of Martial Music in Albertville. Yesterday, they played the tune of “Hamad, You Are the King” to the enchanted crowd of a French Republic. To a tune of a million BD perhaps?).

As for the actual distribution of these scholarships, the girls are dealt the Shia treatment (as in distributing electoral constituencies). Regardless of the girls sheer numbers and grades, the boys are always guaranteed more than their fair share and then some. Certainly, the vast majority of these seats are destined for the University of Bahrain. Not to belittle the struggling U of B - with all due deference to those amongst staff and students who are doing a heroic effort in the face of extremely adverse situation- but U of B is simply not known as good nurturing place for young minds. At best, it can admirably serve as an intellectual hibernation phase.

Even at that, the program comes with heavy strings attached. You are in a bind to work for the Ministry of Education numerous years post your graduation. You are not allowed to change your field of study. And you are made to sign a paper declaring yourself and family open to all legal liabilities in case of breach of contract, and to acknowledge (at least in years past) that tour scholarship is a royal Makramah conferred on you.

Yet, the most detrimental thing about the program is its fantastic detachment from modern academic times. You may have entered a new millennium, but the Ministry is yet to. You don’t want to be in the shoes of those young students who descended on the registration hall at Umm Salamah School this past week…

You thought the most vital –and exciting- research is being done in genetic engineering and microbiology? You aspired to be part of a preparedness plan for what the future holds in genetic screening, cloning or biological threats? Forget about biotechnology and settle in for one of 15 places for a general biology course available only at the U of B, and strictly to become a teacher at the Ministry’s schools (to date, 12 of these remain naturally vacant).

You heard a great deal about the McKenzie advisory study, and you wish to become a top-notch economist from a world-class university to save the state millions in advisors and consultants fees? Your chances are scarce indeed. There is none. Political Economy, Public Administration? International Relations (oops, there are two for IR at University of Qatar, of all places).

You read a lot about financing agreements in hundreds of millions, all in English and all entrusted to the pricey hands of foreign law firms, and you seek to become as good as them by going to the likes of Yale? Why raise the bar too high when U of B is your best training bench.

You always dreamt about tipping the balance in this country in favour of capable physicians whose diagnosis stands a better chance than flipping a coin? You may have homeopathic medicine left as an option if you are out of the precious 19 sponsorships to study medicine this year. Five of these highly coveted places went (judging by name) to students from the frantically naturalized category (who are entitled to scholarships from their home countries no less). One is apt to be more openhearted and less intolerant, until you see a Zahrraa, a Fatima, a Leila, a Maryam and a Hawraa, with grades above or close to 96%, registered under a nursing course. Obviously, the door to medicine was slammed shut just before them. The same door was kept –exceptionally?- open to a student with a grade of 91% albeit from a private school. These same private schools got seven out of the 16 available sponsorships to yet another coveted country of study: New Zealand. This may not be the best case of proportionality, but it is a beautiful odd of a statistics nonetheless.

The good folks at the Ministry of Education have no time for any of this of course. They heard it all before. They are on record as saying they are not in the business of satisfying the whims of particular students, but only care about the greater public interest, which happens to coincide with the Ministry’s. How about other ministries’ then? They have their own plans as well. However, these are closely guarded secrets for the certifiably more loyal, not necessarily the brighter, minds of their own.