In recent days, the protests and clashes over the Egyptian military's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsy have transpired amid a parallel battle over semantics -- specifically whether the dramatic events of the past week constituted a "coup." Adopting the loaded word has very real implications for everything from the future of Egypt's fledgling democracy to the more than $1 billion in aid Washington sends to Cairo each year. And, as with past international crises, nowhere is the debate fiercer than in the dark netherworld of Wikipedia forums. The heated back-and-forth over the title for the English-language page "2013 Egyptian coup d'état" (at least that was the title at press time) is a case in point.
On Friday, Iran's eight presidential candidates participated in the first of three televised debates ahead of the country's June 14 election, focusing this time around on the economic woes facing Iranians. And fortunately for those of us who don't speak Farsi, Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty live-blogged the whole thing. According to her account, the first half of the debate mainly consisted of politicians essentially agreeing on issues such as labor and inflation -- not exactly prime ratings fodder.
But halfway through the forum things took a delightfully unexpected turn. After returning from a break, the candidates were treated to a lightning round of sorts. As Esfandiari blogged:
In second part of debates, candidates will have to answer to short questions, test-like, they have to respond with one word. Aref upset, says I won't take a test. Anchor says it's not test.
According to Esfandiari, candidate Mohammad Reza Aref never quite warmed to the format, and kept stubbornly repeating that he didn't have a view on the issues being raised:
Presenter to Aref: Mr. Aref you don't want to answer any of the questions? Aref: I took tests some years ago. Presenter smiles.
As journalist Hooman Majd tweeted, most of the candidates shared Aref's frustration and took their anger out on the host:
Eventually, the moderator had the good sense to switch gears:
Presenter: in respect to candidates who objected , we stop our short questions. We show you some pictures, we want to know your interpretation.
What proceeded was, as Esfandiari put it, "a presidential Rorschach test" where candidates were shown pictures including a ship (prompting candidate Hasan Rowhani to reasonably reference how international sanctions are hurting sea transport) and a patient recovering from surgery in a hospital (which launched candidate Mohammad Gharazi into a more tangential discussion of Iran's obesity problem).
While all of this may seem a little ridiculous for those of us observing the Iranian election from afar, it's worth noting that U.S. presidential debates have experimented with similar formats (and let's not even get started on CNN's theatrics). During a February 2012 Republican primary debate, for instance, the candidates were asked to describe themselves with a single word. Newt Gingrich elicited laughter after going with "cheerful." Maybe sometimes one word can say it all.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Update: The streak continues. Arvind Mahankali, 13, won the 2013 national spelling bee with the German-Yiddish word "knaidel" on Thursday night, making him the sixth Indian-American winner in as many years.
When, in 2010, Anamika Veeramani correctly sounded out the letters to "stromuhr" (I hadn't heard the word before either) to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she captured the hearts and minds of the Indian and U.S. media alike. This was partly thanks to her inspiring performance -- and also because she had become the third Indian-American in as many years to win the prestigious competition. "Spelling champ's victory hat-trick for Indian-Americans," gushed, the Hindu, an English-language daily in India.
Indian-Americans have maintained their Scripps dominance ever since, having now won the title of America's best speller for five consecutive years. In fact, 10 of the last 14 winners have been Indian-American.
With the competition's finals coming up Thursday at 8 p.m., the world will soon learn if this domination will continue. Indian-Americans represented around a third of this year's semi-finalists, and two of them were siblings of past winners.
Just what accounts for this astounding success? As it turns out, we're not the first to ask this question. "Is it because of India's colonial history with Britain", wondered the Hindu back in 2010, "or is it something at the level of genetic programming?" The answer is neither as Darwinian as genetics nor as deterministic as colonialism.
Part of the explanation does have to do with education. In India, education tends to be more rote, with an emphasis on memorization. The Wall Street Journal quotes Sharmila Sen, a former English professor at Harvard, as saying:
The first generation immigrant parent brings with her/him a set of memories about how education works and what is to be valued. For Indians that is a memory of endless class tests doled out on a regular basis to evaluate our ability to retrieve information - spellings of words, names of world capitals, cash crops of states, length of rivers, height of mountains, and a plethora of minutiae charmingly labeled as General Knowledge.
In addition to bringing this educational emphasis to the United States, highly skilled immigrants tend to enroll their children in more academically oriented extracurricular pursuits, as Forbes notes. (As a first-generation American, I can attest to this, having parents who pushed piano and quiz bowl over organized sports).
But the phenomenon may have as much to do with where immigrants are going as it does with where they're coming from. As Sen went on to tell the Journal, the spelling bee represents a way for Indians to assimilate. George Thampy (winner in 2000 for the comparably easy word "demarche") echoed this sentiment, calling spelling "an American tradition that stresses diligence and studying."
Immigrants also tend to concentrate in specific fields, benefiting from existing networks and internal assistance. And Indian-Americans aspiring to the national spelling bee have definitely benefitted from one such network. As Slate puts it, Indian-Americans "have their own minor-league spelling bee circuit" -- the North South Foundation (NSF):
The NSF circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans-there are separate divisions for math, science, vocab, geography, essay writing, and even public speaking-and a way to raise money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India.
Originally conceived as a way for young people to gain access to Indian-American communities and educational resources, "in the last decade North South Foundation has transformed from an SAT prep course into a training ground for Scripps," according to Slate.
Spelling bees are an historically American-British sport (Slate, which deserves a nod for its stellar spelling bee coverage generally, has an amazing list of alternative contests that includes a Chinese speed-dictionary competition). But bees have slowly gained international traction. It's no surprise that India is among the countries that now boast regional spelling bees.
So will an Indian-American claim the crown again this time around? If past years are any indication, not even a fainting fit can stop a determined winner:
Alex Wong/Getty Images
What's in a name? When it comes to the body of water nestled between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula: a whole lot. For years, the Persian (to some) or Arabian (to others) Gulf has been a source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In 2010, for instance, Iran threatened to ban airlines that didn't use "Persian Gulf" from flying in its airspace. And just last year, Google received a warning from Tehran that it would face "serious damages" if it didn't definitively label the space "Persian" on its Maps. Now the conflict has spilled into the world of sports.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars News Agency reported that Iran's Football Federation will file a complaint against the United Arab Emirates "for using a fake name for Persian Gulf in the title of its soccer league."
The "fake name" Fars is referring to: the Arabian Gulf League. Mohammed Thani Murshed Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE's Pro League Committee, has announced that the country's professional soccer league will operate under the new name beginning in the 2013-2014 season.
"Football in the UAE is moving into a new phase, and with it we adopt a new name to take us forward from next season," he told a crowd at the Etisalat Pro League Awards in Dubai on Sunday. And while the remarks began innocuously enough, he left no doubt about the political undertones of the gesture, going on to say, "We pledge our allegiance to the Arabian Gulf as the heart of the Arabic origin and heritage. Announcing this new name is a letter of love from the UAE to the Gulf; we name our League after the Arabian Gulf as a gesture to show our appreciation for the bounteous resources and opportunities it has afforded us."
Not surprisingly, the Iranians were not amused. Fars quotes Houshang Nasirzadeh, the head of the legal committee for the country's football federation, as saying the organization "will object to the fake naming in the next two days. It will send a letter to the FIFA ethics committee. It regards the UAE's behavior as politically-tainted and racist."
While his anger may seem extreme, disputes over the Gulf's nomenclature have much deeper and more political roots than the controversies over Google Maps and airline designations might suggest. According to some sources, the rivalry began in the 1960s with the rise of Arab nationalism. (A fun fact for all you geography nerds: Back in the days of Ptolemy, maps did depict an Arabian Gulf, though the name referred to the Red Sea.)
According to Al Jazeera correspondent Teymoor Nabil, who wrote an article on the dispute after the U.S. Navy faced criticism for using the term Arabian Gulf on its Facebook page in 2010, "ironically, among the major drivers of the movement for change were Arab perceptions that Iran, driven by Washington, had supported Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973."
Fars is quick to point out that the United Nations has officially weighed in on Iran's side:
The UN sent a circular to all 186 countries of the world in 1995, stressing that they must use the term "Persian Gulf" when referring to the waterway....
However, some regional and hostile western countries continue to distort historical facts by misnaming the "Persian Gulf", in an organized attempt to steal the true identity of the Persian Gulf, but to no avail.
The debate may not be going away anytime soon, but look on the bright side: At least the name "Britain Sea," which was used for the Gulf in London's Times Journal in 1840, never caught on.
Glee, the hit U.S. TV show, has won fans the world over for its ability to tackle the hard issues of adolescence -- homosexuality, bullying, teen pregnancy -- through the ever-accessible music of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. And it seems Pakistani television producers have taken note. As AFP reports today, the country will release its own version of the show, Taan, this fall. The news agency has more on the 26-episode series, which will include music from artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (the photo above shows a rehearsal for the program):
'Taan' follows the lives and loves of a group of young people who regularly burst into song. But this time they attend a music academy in Lahore, instead of an American high school.
Taan - which is a musical note in Urdu - tackles subjects considered off limits in Pakistan's deeply conservative Muslim society.
For example, a love affair "between a Taliban extremist and a beautiful Christian girl" promises to give Rachel and Finn's tortured romance a run for its money. And even more controversial is a planned storyline depicting a gay relationship.
The show's creators have come up with creative ways to avoid angering authorities. Take the aforementioned plotline of two male lovers. "Let's say in a certain scene, there are two boys talking to each other, they are not allowed to show their physical attachment to each other," explains director Samar Raza, particularly since homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan. "So I bring a third character who says: 'God designed Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.'" This third conservative character will theoretically enable Raza to discuss homosexuality while evading censorship.
Concern about censors isn't the only factor distinguishing Pakistan's version of Glee from its U.S. inspiration. As the Telegraph points out, Taan will include a dark side that isn't exactly applicable to the lives of U.S. tweens:
One of the characters, Annie Masih is described as losing all her family in the 2009 attack on a Christian enclave in the town on Gojra, a real episode in which seven people were burned alive.
Another storyline involves Fariduddin, a member of the Pakistan Taliban intent on blowing up the academy before he is eventually seduced by music.
Then again, Glee hasn't shied away from the dark side of life either.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
What do Texas and Turkey have in common? Aside from sharing the same first letter, probably not too much. But starting today, they will be able to add something else to the list: similar alcohol policies.
On Friday, after a marathon debate lasting well past midnight, Turkey's parliament adopted a proposal restricting the sale of alcohol in the country.
The move has been a source of tension in the week leading up to the vote. On Tuesday, members of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) mocked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's suggestion that ayran -- a salty non-alcoholic yogurt drink -- is enough to satisfy the Turkish people by passing out the beverage while exchanging barbs with members of the ruling party. As Hurriyet, Turkey's leading English-language daily, reported, things quickly got heated:
However, tension soon rose during the session, despite the fact that it started with witty japes. The row between Tanal and Bilgiç grew following a break in the session, when the two had to be separated by other deputies after reportedly coming close to exchanging blows.
Critics have suggested that the legislation is an infringement on individual liberty and an attempt by Erdogan's party to impose an Islamic agenda on the country. "No one can be forced to drink or not to drink. This is a religious and ideological imposition," stated Musa Cam, of the CHP. "This is not a struggle against the ills of alcohol but an attempt to re-design the society according to [the ruling party's] beliefs and lifestyle." Turkish columnist Mehves Evin even went so far as to accuse the government of "alcohol McCarthyism."
And while Americans might bristle at the comparison, it's worth noting that Turkey's alcohol restrictions bear some similarities to restrictions in several U.S. states. Take Texas.
Turkey's law shrinks the window during which it is legal to purchase alcoholic beverages from retailers to the hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In Texas, there's a slightly longer window: 7 a.m. to midnight on weekdays for stores selling beer and wine, and a shorter timeframe for liquor stores. On Sunday, limits are even greater, with no liquor stores open across the state. The state also boasts 19 dry counties where the sale of alcohol is forbidden.
True, the Turkish bill includes some other rules that are less comparable to laws in the United States -- including strict prohibitions on advertising alcohol and selling alcohol near mosques. But when it comes to one of the law's odder provisions -- banning the sale of alcohol in vending machines -- Texas did it first. In 1998, the Lone Star State's attorney general ordered the removal of vending machines that dispensed adult beverages.
Members of Erdogan's party have been quick to point out that the new law is simply in keeping with Western norms. "In Sweden, [the retail sale of alcohol] is forbidden after 7 p.m. on weekdays, 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 24 hours on Sundays," Lutfu Elvan, the head of Turkey's Planning and Budget Commission noted. "There are similar restrictions in all Scandinavian countries." As far as we can tell, he did not go on to mention Texas.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
John Kerry may have met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process on Thursday, but what's really gotten commentators worked up is the contents of the shwarma he consumed during an impromptu snack in Ramallah. Reputable sources such as the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times have reported that the secretary of state's sandwich was stuffed with turkey. But for many with ties to or interest in the region (including myself), the news made absolutely no sense. It would be one thing if Kerry had gobbled down chicken or lamb. But whoever heard of turkey shwarma?
Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran expressed this very sentiment in his response to the bewilderment of FP's own David Kenner:
@davidkenner there is no such thing as turkey shawarma. Like the peace process, it is probably an illusion.— Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed) May 24, 2013
Others were downright outraged at the very notion of turkey in shwarma:
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg floated one theory about the confusion:
Meanwhile The Angry Arab implored the world to get to the bottom of the nagging mystery:
Turkey Shawarma? Is that true? Can somebody verify it was turkey and not lamb or beef or chicken? nblo.gs/LwEbX— The Angry Arab (@AngryArabNews) May 24, 2013
FP was happy to oblige. In the interest of putting the speculation to rest once and for all -- so that we can all move on to more pressing matters -- we called Samer restaurant, where Kerry ate his shwarma, to find out just what was in the secretary's sandwich.
"Chicken," said Samer, the proprietor, who seemed rather amused about the whole situation.
Excited to have stumbled upon this piece of intel, I pressed Samer to confirm that the shwarma was not in fact turkey. "Oh, yes. It was turkey," he amended. "Not chicken?" I asked. "No, turkey. We have lamb and we have turkey. He ate the turkey and really enjoyed it."
According to Samer, turkey shwarma is not uncommon in the West Bank -- though Palestinians often refer to it as chicken, which explains the confusion during our conversation. "There are people who use chicken and people who use turkey," he told me. "But people like turkey more."
John Kerry, it seems, agrees.
On Tuesday, Iran's Guardian Council confirmed the list of approved candidates for Iran's June 14 presidential elections -- and with it the suspicions of many that this will be a less-than-exciting election season. In whittling down 686 presidential hopefuls to just eight finalists, the Council arguably left off the two most interesting contenders: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hand-picked successor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
So who are the 1 percent of aspirants deemed fit to rule Iran? These eight may all be symbols of the status quo and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's considerable influence in the political realm. But between them they have some pretty colorful qualifications for the job.
Iran's current nuclear negotiator, Jalili is also considered the race's frontrunner -- not to mention Khamenei's choice for president. A former member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, he lost his right leg in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.
In 2007, when Jalili was chosen as nuclear negotiator by Khamenei, many thought he was too inexperienced for the job. Since then, he has developed a reputation for being uncompromising. And if a recent interview with the Financial Times is any indication, it appears that trait will carry over into his presidency. "My understanding is that the more we rely on our religious and internal principles," he told FT, "the more we can resist [the demands of the international community]."
But you have to give Jalili credit for his optimistic lemons-into-lemonade attitude. "At least over the past few years when I have been carefully following the effects of sanctions, I see that they can be easily bypassed and turned into opportunities," he added. Jalili did not elaborate as to how.
Gholam Ali Haddad Adel
One of the country's self-styled conservative "principlists," Adel, along with Ali Akbar Velayati and Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, positions himself in direct opposition to the reformists who attracted many Iranians during Iran's contentious presidential election in 2009. He's also a favorite of Khamenei's as both an advisor and a relative (his daughter is married to Khamenei's son).
A lesser known fact about the prominent politician: Adel penned an influential work of Islamic "feminist" thought, The Culture of Nakedness and the Nakedness of Culture, in the 1980s. According to Pamela Karimi, a professor of art history at UMass Dartmouth, he advocates "the concealment of women’s bodies as a way to protect the larger society from the manipulation of capitalism and imperialism." He strove to "catch up with modernity and yet indigenize it through Islam."
Ali Akbar Velayati
Iran's longest-serving foreign minister (from 1980 to 1996), he is currently Khamenei's senior advisor on international affairs. Velayati is credited with helping shape Iran's tough stance toward the West, but he might be more willing to engage than it seems. In 2009, as Velayati contemplated a bid for president, an aide reached out to U.S. diplomats expressing interest in cooperating with the West and asking that some sanctions be lifted in order to help raise funds for Velayati's campaign, according to leaked cables. A doctor by training, Velayati studied pediatrics at Johns Hopkins before the 1979 revolution.
Velayati has also been implicated in authorizing the Mykonos operation in 1992, during which three Iranian Kurdish political figures and a supporter were murdered while dining in a private room of the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.
A past presidential contender who came in third in 2009, Rezaei has said he's "in it to win it" this time around. In addition to being the former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Rezaei is also the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, which advises Khameini. In 2009, he memorably stated that he would include women in his cabinet if elected.
Not-so-fun fact: Rezaei has the distinction of being on Interpol's wanted list for his alleged complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 85 people, in the deadliest attack in the country's history. Rezaei, for his part, vigorously denies involvement in the incident (Velayati, above, is also a suspect in the attack).
Rowhani is the closest of the remaining candidates to a reformist. In April, Roberto Toscano -- a former Italian ambassador to Iran -- told Al-Monitor that "if the reformists do not run their own candidate or one who is insignificant, Rowhani could get a lot of votes." He went on to note Rowhani's "impeccable CV" -- if you're really interested you can see it here -- which includes over 100 publications.
Rowhani's candidacy brings the nuclear issue to the forefront, as he was Iran's most cooperative -- if short-lived -- nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. But although he is close to Rafsanjani, don't expect too much of a departure from Khamenei. Rowhani has also been an advisor to the supreme leader since 1989 and has close ties to the political establishment.
Mohammad Reza Aref
Aref was Iran's vice president during President Mohammad Khatami's second term (2001 to 2005). Though he is a bit more on the reformist side than many of the other candidates, as a current member of the Expediency Council he remains an advisor to Khamenei.
Though you might not expect it from his long political career, Aref's educational background is actually in statistics. He received a Ph.D. from Stanford. If you're interested in seeing an example of the potential future president's academic work (or if you want to learn about a "mathematical model for a general single-source single-sing communication network"), check out his thesis here.
Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf
Qalibaf succeeded Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran in 2005, after losing to him in that year's presidential election. And what a mayor he has been. In 2008, he came in eighth place in the World Mayor Awards (a bienniel award aiming "to raise the profile of mayors worldwide and honour those who have served their communities well"). According to the organization, he beat out other global mayoral heavy weights "for his modernisation of the capital’s infrastructure and public services." The foundation also described him as "a keen student of other metro areas around the world, actively investing in monitoring innovation in traffic management and public transport." Is there a better recommendation for president than that?
On the flip side, Qalibaf recently took heat for acknowledging his role in vigorous government crackdowns on political protests in 1999, 2003, and 2009.
The Guardian Council's inclusion of this former minister of petroleum and parliamentarian has left many scratching their heads. Unlike his fellow nominees, Gharazi has been out of the political spotlight for over a decade and faded into relative obscurity.
One website, Iran's View, says it all with an article entitled "Everything About Mohammad Gharazi, Unknown Qualified Presidential Candidate." Word count: 240.
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