Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda
party has sent mixed
messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,
President Moncef Marzouki's government
has made an extraordinary effort this year
to promote the Hiloula,
an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that
commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the
Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security
reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but
it remains "the
barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.
"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."
The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:
"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."
The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.
Last week, China's culture ministry added 100 songs to an internet blacklist, including hits by Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and the Backstreet Boys. Chinese music websites have until Sept. 15 to remove the offending songs, unless record labels submit the songs for official approval. The ministry hopes to regulate the "order" of the Internet music scene, noting that songs that "harm the security of state culture must be cleaned up and regulated under the law."
Two years ago, in an attempt to crackdown on China's widespread illegal downloading, the culture ministry also declared its intentions to keep "poor taste and vulgur content" off Chinese internet airwaves.
Most of the newly-banned songs are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. Lady Gaga leads the American pack with six banned songs off her new album, Born This Way (although curiously, the LGBT-friendly title track was not included on the list).
Of course, one can hardly blame the Chinese government for looking to keep these subversive songs far away from Chinese ears. Let's take a look at what's so particularly offensive about these newest banned tunes.
Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (TGIF)"
While ostensibly, the culture ministry might have wanted to keep Chinese youth away from Perry's flippant attitude regarding "ménage a trois" and "blacked out blur[s]", the truly offensive lyric is a celebration of American fiscal irresponsibility:
Last Friday night/ Yeah we maxed our credit cards
China, the single largest holder of American public debt, has some qualms about the voracious American appetite for debt. It makes sense that the government would want to discourage such behavior at home. China's strategy of intensive exports, with minimal domestic consumption, has been a boon to its burgeoning economy and it's not about to let an American pop singer threaten 30 years of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Deng Xiaoping trumps Smurfette.
Lady Gaga's "Hair"
Whenever I'm dressed cool my parents put up a fight / And if I'm hot shot, mom will cut my hair at night / And in the morning I'm short of my identity / I scream, "Mom and dad, why can't I be who I wanna be, to be?
Gaga doesn't do much here to show respect for her elders. Famed Chinese philosopher Confucius once described old age as a "good and pleasant thing" which caused one to be "gently shouldered off the stage, but given a comfortable front stall as spectator." With the advent of the one-child policy, Chinese parents, who could traditionally expect that their children would take care of them through old age, now find themselves at the whim of their little emperors. For all the good Gaga does for one's self-esteem, this song clearly refutes centuries of ancestor worship.
Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)"
My persuasion can build a nation/Endless power, with our love we can devour/ You'll do anything for me ...Who are we?/What we run? The world (who run this motha, yeah)
At the start of the 21st century, China's leaders articulated a policy known as the peaceful rise, an attempt to alleviate global fears about China's growing economic and political power. In 2004, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said China's rise "will not come at the cost of any other country, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country." Beyonce's aggressive attitude toward world domination is not what Wen had in mind.
Backstreet Boys "I Want it That Way"
I want it that way
Maybe "That way" = democracy? Who cares if the song is 12 years old?
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
Viewers around the world have flocked to theaters to watch the final movie of the Harry Potter epic, which raked in a record-breaking 476 million dollars on its opening weekend. But for some fans of the boy wizard, the end hasn't come quite yet. Realities of the muggle world -- ranging from taxes to politics -- have prevented Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 from reaching a large segment of the world's population.
For starters, don't even think about trying to see it in Saudi Arabia where the entire Harry Potter series is banned by authorities concerned that the story will promote witchcraft.
The film's opening in both Jordan and Indonesia has been delayed by tax disputes between the respective governments and international movie distributors. In Indonesia, the royalty issue developed when the government proposed movie importers be taxed on a film's expected revenue rather than its length, as is currently done. The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents many of Hollywood's largest studios including Warner Brothers, the producer of the Harry Potter films, balked at the expense, and in February ceased distributing films in Indonesia altogether. The parameters of the debate in Jordan are similar, with the Customs Department seeking to levy taxes based on the "intellectual property content" of films instead of their physical weight.
Many Indonesian fans are outraged by their inability to see the Potter film (as well as many other recent blockbusters), and some have even considered traveling to Malaysia or Singapore to view the movie. Hope, however, is in sight. On July 21st, Muklis Paimi, head of the Indonesian Film Censorship Board, told the Jakarta Globe that despite the unresolved royalty dispute, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Kung Fu Panda 2 should be in theaters by the end of the month.
Harry Potter is also absent from a much, much larger market: China. And, as in Indonesia and Jordan, it's not the only movie that's missing. According to Time Magazine, Gao Jun, the deputy general manager of Beijing's New Film Association, announced that Beginning of the Great Revival, a Chinese-made film on the rise of the Communist Party, must earn 124 million dollars, before foreign films will be shown in the country. Unfortunately that movie, despite its famous cast, expensive sets, and government support, has not been particularly popular.
China's market for films is growing rapidly with more than 6,200 theaters in the country and ticket sales in 2010 totaling $1.57 billion. Currently, however, the government only allows 20 foreign films to be shown in these theaters annually, and even those films are often censored. Harry Potter is scheduled to open for Chinese audiences on August 4th. Any fans hoping to see the movie before then will have to take a page out of a Hogwarts spell-book and try a little magic -- or they can find one of the many hawkers selling a pirated version on the street.
David Livingston/Getty Images
The annual Bayreuth music festival in Germany -- which celebrates the works of German composer Richard Wagner -- kicked off today and for the first time will feature a group of musicians from Israel. Wagner, an avowed anti-Semite and an inspiration for Adolph Hitler, is rarely heard in Israel, where there is an unwritten ban on performing his music. Tomorrow, the Israel Chamber Orchestra will perform Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" for an audience at the festival. The group rehearsed for the first time yesterday after landing in Germany (they said they declined to practice the piece while in Israel).
The Wagner family has run the festival for the past 100 years -- including during the Nazi era. But the current co-director of the festival, Katharina Wagner, the 32-year-old great-granddaughter of the composer, said she has been trying to reach out to Jewish groups. The festival plans to introduce a Jewish cultural center and Wagner has said she would open the family archives, allowing historians to see the extent of her family's relationship with the Nazis.
The Israeli group's conductor, Roberto Paternostro, explained the decision to play the music. "Wagner's ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but he was a great composer," he told Reuters. "The aim in 2011 is to distinguish between the man and his art."
Tehran, July 20, IRNA -- Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on Wednesday urged the cultural institutes to spare no efforts to promote culture of reading books and encourage the youth to make optimum use of libraries....
The Supreme Leader said that reading is the best means to propagate modern ideas and enlighten the society and nothing else than replace the merits of books, a reference to the prevalence of audio-visual media posing threat to the role of books as the major means of communication in the society.
The Teheran [sic] radio quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as asking ''all the Muslims to execute them,'' referring to Mr. [Salman] Rushdie [author of The Satanic Verses], who lives in London, and the publishers of the book, Viking Penguin, ''wherever they find them.'' He said that anyone killed carrying out his order would be considered a martyr.
In 2007, Iran's ultra-conservative daily Kayhan called Harry Potter "a billion-dollar Zionist project" and a "destructive bomb" for children's minds. It alleged that the author J.K. Rowling had links to Zionists and that was how she became so well known.
But hey, anything that gets kids to read.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
China's latest film exports will not be on display at the 23rd annual Tokyo film festival thanks to a spat over Taiwan sovereignty:
The head of the Chinese delegation, Jiang Ping, told festival organizers that the Taiwanese delegation must not attend the festival under the name Taiwan, but as "Chinese Taipei," which Taiwan used while participating in the Olympic Games, shortly before celebrities began to walk down a green carpet to mark the start of the festival.
Jiang, also deputy director-general of the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT), told reporters, "We protested against the organizers introducing the two delegations as 'China and Taiwan.' And our request to introduce Taiwan as "Chinese Taipei or China's Taiwan" was rejected by the organizers."
Of course, this will be seen as part of a larger issue than what Ang Lee's homeland gets to call itself. Anti-Japanese protests broke out in half a dozen Chinese cities over the weekend and the Japanese government has formally protested the presence of Chinese military patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The Philippine Congress voted unanimously yesterday in favor of a law that forbids deviating from the tune of the country's national anthem or displaying the flag in an unpatriotic manner:
The proposal has been put forward as the MPs felt that Filipino artists had been changing the anthem's military march melody and beat, and the flag was being made into clothing articles. The change in the anthem's tune was noted when it was sung at the boxing matches of Manny Pacquiao, the seven-time Filipino world champion.
If this new law is passed, Filipino singers deviating from the anthem tune could be handed a jail sentence as well as a $2,000 fine.
As a newly elected congressman, Pacquiao presumably voted for the measure himself.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and style icon Yulia Tymoshenko is not happy about the new dress restrictions put in place by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych:
"The Queen of England and (Libya's leader Muammar) Gaddafi, for instance, for sure would not have been allowed in the Cabinet," Tymoshenko, who is now a top opposition leader, quipped at a news conference Wednesday.
The code adopted this week calls on men working at the Cabinet of Ministers to wear mostly gray and dark blue suits and not wear the same suit to work two days in a row. Women are asked to stick to business suits and low-heeled shoes, and refrain from excessive makeup and jewelry.
Tymoshenko's stylish outfits and traditional Ukrainian braid have earned her a reputation as a glamour and fashion icon, but also angered some Ukrainians as too luxurious at a time when the country is battered by a severe economic crisis.
Some observers noted that a new dress code was overdue for government offices and other institutions in Ukraine, where women often wear tight, low-cut dresses to work while men are often seen in the same outfit for days in a row.
The Rada sure seems like an interesting place.
On a related note, Colum Lynch takes a look at some of the more interesting sartorial choices made by leaders at the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Makers of the video game Medal of Honor announced today that they were removing the option of being a Taliban soldier in online multiplayer. Electronic Arts had come under fire for the insensitivity of creating a virtual world in which gamers could act as virtual Taliban and shoot virtual U.S. troops.
Of course, EA isn't actually removing the option of playing as Taliban, they've merely renamed them to "Opposing Force." Wow, a game set in Afghanistan, an opposing force -- hey, EA's letting you play as al Qaeda, too!
It also should be noted that gamers have long had options of playing as terrorists long before Medal of Honor came around. The issue was ignored because ultimately there were a lot more pressing problems.
The South African pop group Freshleyground, which collaborated with Shakira on the 2010 World Cup anthem, has been banned from performing in Zimbabwe over their Mugabe-mocking song Chicken to Change, as well as the above video, which shows the president literally transforming into a chicken. Puppet versions of some South African political figures, including Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also make cameo appearances.
Hat tip: Boing Boing
Is Nicolas Sarkozy's so-called burqa ban, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf writes, an expression of rising intolerance in France? Perhaps. Coupled with his expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma, it sure looks like le président is trying to use a cultural wedge to shore up his flagging popularity.
Still, I think the "burqa" issue (or, alternatively, the jilbab + niqab, or abaya issue) is more complicated than David allows. For one thing, France has a long and well-known convention of laïcité -- a far stricter notion of secularism, enforced by the state, than the American variety. Banning burqas falls well within that tradition.
Second, one has to admit that critics of full veiling have a point. From 2005 to 2006, I spent about a year and a half in Cairo, Egypt, where full veiling is relatively rare but hijabs -- headscarves -- are increasingly common. That was one thing, but I've just moved to Doha, Qatar, which is more culturally conservative and currently filled with women cloaked in black and covering their faces (many of them likely Saudis visiting for the summer or the holidays).
Although many women here personalize their abayas with elegant embroidery (and it seems that most Qatari women do not wear the full face veil), I find it disconcerting and dehumanizing not to be able to read people's emotions, to tell if they are frowning or smiling, or even know what they look like. Some Muslim women may find the anonymity liberating or believe that their religion commands it, but full veiling is one cultural practice that I would be more than happy to see killed by globalization.
(I find it particularly absurd when I see a man dressed in, say, an Armani Exchange T-shirt and Diesel jeans walking along with a fully veiled woman and several kids in tow. If you're going to make your wife wear a shroud, at least man up and throw on a thobe and ghutra.)
Having said all that, I don't like the notion of French gendarmes arresting or fining people on the street for what they wear. If the French government wants to prohibit state employees from veiling, or require people to uncover their faces when they drive or enter government buildings, fine. Private businesses, like banks, should be allowed to do the same. But we shouldn't pretend there are easy answers.
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
A history teacher has been suspended in France for spending "too much" class time on teaching the Holocaust.
Here's a classic example of where France goes wrong. A July report condemned Catherine Pederzoli for "lacking distance, neutrality and secularism" and that by spending so much time on the Holocaust she was "brainwashing" her students.
For the past fifteen years, Pederzoli has organized annual trips for students to death camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. The number of students she was allowed to take had been cut in half, prompting her students to hold a protest when French Minister of Education Luc Chatel visited the school. Pederzoli was accused of inciting the protests.
Here's how ridiculous the report was:
The ministry's report cites that in meeting with investigators, the teacher used the word "Holocaust" 14 times while using the more neutral term "massacre" only twice.
Seriously? She's brainwashing her students because she used an internationally recognized term for the heinous crimes committed against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other "undesirables" by Nazi Germany? It's hard to imagine a more preposterous condemnation.
France's republican tradition means that it doesn't officially recognize differences between demographic groups, and that secularism is the overriding state virtue. But that deliberate non-recognition --"I can't see you!" -- itself leads directly to policies that are often used, intentionally or not, in an anti-Semitic or Islamophobic manner.
This week's list collects the best recent nonfiction about one of the most complex and misunderstood countries in the world, from Fatima Bhutto, niece of Benazir Bhutto and author of the forthcoming Songs of Blood and Sword.
Mubashir Hasan, Mirage of Power
Dr. Hasan is a national treasure -- a founding member of the Pakistan People's Party (in its original, leftist socialist form), former finance minister, founding member of the Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy, and a committed social activist. This book offers a rare insight into the power of the Pakistani civil and military establishment during its first democratically elected government, and takes apart the International Monetary Fund and its debt dealings with Pakistan, among many other hobgoblins.
This Pakistani newspaper takes no prisoners, most of the time. The News took out full page ads against the Pervez Musharraf dictatorship, prints front page salvos every time the current Asif Ali Zardari government attacks the media and comes out with a new censorship initiative, has the best reporting from the northern fronts of the country in the form of brave and thorough journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, and doesn't let political politeness or friendships get in the way of their work. When the News is good, and allowed to operate freely, it's really, really good.
Tariq Ali, The Duel
Pakistan and America's dirty relationship archived by Pakistan's foremost historian and political commentator. You don't get much better than Ali when it comes to the murky waters of Pakistani politics.
Granta Magazine issue 112
The respected journal does a Pakistan issue, out in September. Fresh essays from Pakistani novelists, poets, and journalists with a few honorary Pakistanis in the mix. Daniyal Mueenudin, Kamila Shamsie, and more. Should be hard to find the words "most dangerous country on earth" -- hopefully.
Basharat Peer, Curfewed Night
Understanding Kashmir is central to understanding Pakistan, the horrors of Partition, and the country's relationship with India today. Peer, himself Kashmiri, chronicles life under the most militarized zone in the world. His writing is courageous, his style part memoir part reportage, and his politics passionate and critically argued -- a must-read for anyone interested in South Asia.
Do you have a whole list of killer Dilma Rousseff jokes you just can't wait to try out on Brazilian television audiences? You're out of luck:
With the first wave of on-air political ads starting Tuesday, Brazil's comedians and satirists are planning to fight for their right to ridicule with protests in Rio de Janeiro and other cities Sunday.
They call the political anti-joking law - which prohibits ridiculing candidates in the three months before elections - a draconian relic of Brazil's dictatorship era that threatens free speech and is a blight on the reputation of Latin America's largest nation.... Making fun of candidates on air ahead of elections is punishable by fines up to $112,000 and a broadcast-license suspension.
Only a few fines have ever been handed out. But Tas and others say that has been sufficient to cause TV and radio stations to self-censor their material during elections. The law holds that TV and radio programs cannot "use trickery, montages or other features of audio or video in any way to degrade or ridicule a candidate, party or coalition."
Let me get this straight. In Brazil it's legal for candidates to run under names like DJ Saddam, Chico bin Laden, Kung Fu Fatty, and Second King of the Prawns, but not legal for comedians to make fun of them? Interesting.
Anyone know any good Brazilian politics jokes? Leave them in the comments.
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
For controversial Georgian/Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli (shown left with another of his creations), who even the Associated Press feels comfortable describing as "widely disliked" and who was featured prominently on our world's ugliest statues list, his massive sculpture of Christopher Columbus -- twice the height of the Statue of Liberty -- is the one that got away:
It was given to Puerto Rico as a gift after New York, Miami, Baltimore and other cities refused to accept, for reasons ranging from cost to appearance. The Baltimore Sun called it "From Russia with Ugh."
The statue has been sitting unassembled in a warehouse in Mayaguez since 1991, but is now on the move after a town finally agreed to accept it:
The chosen spot is near the coastal town of Arecibo, Jose Gonzalez, administrator of Holland Group Ports Investments, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"It already was inspected by the artist and approved by him," Gonzalez said. He declined to identify the specific location.
Tsereteli projects have a way of falling through at the last minute, but if built, it will be the tallest structure on what was, until now, a very beautiful island.
Russians have long since thought of ways to cope with the frigid cold (think over-buttered bread and over-flowing shot glasses), but weathering the blistering heat is a newer challenge. Record temperatures across the country -- in the low nineties! -- might make Washingtonians trapped inside the beltway scoff, but for those more accustomed to donning fur coats than string bikinis, the high heat has brought out unusual (and not altogether admirable) behavior this summer.
Perhaps most alarming is the spike in drowning among summer sufferers desperate to escape the heat wave. In one July week alone, over two hundred Russians reportedly drowned -- deaths that are being chalked up to ill-advised drinking before diving. The summer-long toll would make any suburban lifeguard fall off his chair: 1,244 deaths in June, and 400 so far in July. (Moral of the story? One clear liquid at a time is best: sips of vodka or splashes of water, but never both.)
These numbers are troubling, but may not be all so surprising -- Russia typically reports five times the number of drowning deaths than the United States, regardless of thermometer readings. The real jaw-dropper of the summer made headlines last week, when a money-making project in southern Russia quickly went from cool to cruel to criminal. The story is another case of near-drowning, but this time the victim is one you wouldn't expect to find along the beachfront: a parasailing donkey. What's now being condemned as a flagrant case of animal cruelty began as an advertizing ploy. Several businessmen launched the donkey into the air in hopes that the unusual sight would lure prospective sunbathers to their private beach. The stunt instantly attracted attention -- just not the kind the beach-owners had in mind. The donkey, not surprisingly, didn't take to his new elevation, and instantly raised complaints (what some spectators described as "screaming"). Alarmed children below added their cries to the ruckus, and concerned swimmers (or at least those with un-clouded senses) did their best to rescue the tortured animal upon its landing.
Though "no one had the brains to call police" right away, the backlash in the days that followed has been unequivocal. The story was broadcast on Russian national TV, and investigations, a precursor to criminal charges, have been launched against the offending entrepreneurs.
Some say the stunt is merely another example of widespread Russian insensitivity toward animals. Even so, the verdict is out on these misguided businessmen: just a couple of real asses.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Want to have a lighter complexion in your Facebook profile picture? Now, there's an app for that, too! Vaseline India has recently launched a new Facebook application which allows users to digitally lighten their "online" skin. Recent reports have stated that the app is only available in India -- but anyone with a Facebook account can use it! Score.
And, the Vaseline Men Facebook page also offers helpful advice like this:
"Style Tip: Don't shave for a day or two and let the stubble grow in rakishly. Combine this with sunglasses to look utterly mysterious, rakish and thoroughly attractive."
Jokes aside, skin-lightening -- an unfortunate vestige of colonialism -- is a worldwide trend. The industry for whitening creams and lotions is booming in Kenya, Nigeria, the Caribbean, and particularly in India where the market expands nearly 18 percent a year and the politics of skin color are especially troubling.
A spokesman for Vaseline in India claimed the app is a "culturally relevant and engaging way for Indian men to interact with this product." Ethics, anyone?
As foreign moles in suburban America, the "Murphy's" of Montclair -- two of the recently exposed Russian "illegals" (read: spies with boring long-term assignments) -- were charged with the difficult task of acting less Russian. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, migrant workers have been forced to take on precisely the opposite challenge: acting more Russian.
Ire toward foreign arrivals in Moscow is nothing new (double-digit murders of foreigners are standard each year in the capital city), but the recent proposal of a "Muscovite Code," a set of measures designed to encourage cultural assimilation, highlights just how intense the pressure to conform truly is. The rules, to be developed by city officials with input from local residents, would outline the "dos and don'ts" of traditional Russian culture; everything from speaking Russian-only in public (a do) to turnstile-hopping "like goats" (a don't). Supporters of the new measure note that these rules would not be mandatory, but would instead serve as a helpful resource for foreigners unfamiliar with the city's unspoken code of conduct. As Mikhail Solomentsev, head of the Moscow city government's Department for Inter-Regional Communications and Regional Policies explained:
"At the moment, there are unwritten rules that residents of our city have to adhere to... For instance, people shouldn't slaughter sheep in a courtyard, make shashlyk on their balcony or walk around the city in their national dress - and they should speak Russian."
Many, however, don't consider the proposal quite so benign. The new rules, they say, are simply one more way to reinforce Moscow's already entrenched culture of xenophobia. Of course, after Monday's revelations, Moscow officials might be wise to consider another (unintended) use of the Code: a how-to guide for "illegals" doing their best to blend in...
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images
In a too-good-to-check item, the Daily Mirror reports that rapper Snoop Dogg recently attempted to rent the entire nation of Liechtenstein for a music video:
The request surprised authorities in the state of Liechtenstein - population 35,000 with an area of 61.7 square miles between Switzerland and Austria.
Local property lease agent Karl Schwaerzler said: "We've had requests for palaces and villages but never one to hire the whole country before."
He admitted: "It would have been possible." But the deal fell through because Snoop's management "did not give us enough time".
So take note music video producers, filmmakers, and wedding/bar mitzvah planners, it apparently is possible to rent a sovereign principality in Western Europe as long as you give them enough notice.
Hat tip: New York Magazine
Ian Gavan/Getty Images
The latest reality TV sensation in Malaysia may strike Western viewers as an unlikely candidate to join the ranks of Ryan Seacrest and Heidi Klum: Hasan Mahmood, who wears a turban during each episode of his recently launched television series, "Young Imam," is the former grand mufti of Malaysia's national mosque.
At first glance, "Young Imam" looks fairly similar to its Western counterparts (it is often described as a relative of "American Idol"): each week, Mahmood winnows down a pool of young Malaysians competing for a glitzy prize package. But the similarities stop there. Instead of vying for premium record deals or glossy magazine spreads, the eager contestants on this show are competing for a shot at becoming the country's next leading religious leader. The winner will walk away with a scholarship to al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, a job at a Kuala Lumpur mosque, and a fully-paid Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. They are judged on everything from their musical chops (when reciting the Koran) to their academic credentials (when interpreting the Koran).
In a country where extremist strains of Islam appear to be gaining traction (the government has recently issued warnings over the presence of al-Qaeda recruiters, and controversies over Shariah law are attracting increasing attention), the show's religious theme might be interpreted as another sign of the radicalization of Islam in Malaysia. "Young Imam," however, appears to project an intentionally moderate version of the religion. The content of the show was coordinated jointly by religious authorities and media producers and has gained a widespread following of Muslim viewers. One young fan credits the show with promoting a new and positive image of Islam:
These young imams are modern, and we need that. Muslims these days are very progressive... After 9/11, it's good for us to show the true picture of Islam.
But for many viewers, the appeal of "Young Imam" seems to have very little to do with theology. Among the show's most devoted fans are older Malaysian mothers, who are thrilled to have finally found the jackpot of eligible bachelors: the marriage proposals -- sent on behalf of their daughters -- are already flooding in.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
The Parisians who flooded the streets of France's capital city this morning -- part of a countrywide push-back against President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed austerity plan (which includes, among other simply intolerable measures, a new retirement age of 62) -- are grabbing headlines this week, but their attempts at mobilization pale in comparison to the budding subversion of another, surprising set of malcontents: unhappy -- and, as it turns out, unlawful -- commuters.
Recently, turnstile hoppers (hardly a new breed of traveler in the Parisian subway system) have ratcheted up their disdain for transit regulations, coming together in so-called mutuelles des fraudeurs to protect themselves against fare-dodging fines -- and, while they're at it, to stick it to the man. The mutuelles resemble a hybrid insurance agency and support group: Members pay monthly dues of about $8.50 and, in return, are guaranteed full reimbursement for any fines they receive for "forgoing" the proper subway fee. (Typical fares are $2; typical fines are $60.) There are a few technicalities, of course: For example, members are strongly urged to pay their fines to officials upfront and are only assured compensation by the mutuelle if they show up in person at weekly meetings (usually held in avant-garde coffee shops).
Fare-dodging may look like a straightforward variation on petty theft -- a money-saving technique that regrettably comes at the expense of the law -- but the "fradeurs" insist they're not just pinching pennies: They're taking a stand. "Gildas" (a mutuelle leader who, in the true style of a subversive, declines to give his last because "we don't like this type of questions") has a surprisingly well-thought-out -- if ill-reasoned -- explanation for his behavior.
"There are things in France which are supposed to be free - schools, health. So why not transportation? It's not a question of money.... It's a political question."
He fashions himself as a historic revolutionary, not an everyday criminal: "It's a way to resist together," he says. "We can make solidarity."
Lest any American commuters (or communists) start getting ideas, be warned: At least in Virginia, Metro miscreants pay for their mistakes with a visit to court.
LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
The first African World Cup was always going to be a unique event, and the first four days of the tournament have been full of the good, the bad, and the Green. Particularly noteworthy (and relished by this observer) was France's dismal performance in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay last Friday.
Because it's the French national team, headed by universally-hated Raymond Domenech, Le Blues were not lacking of excuses. Captain Patrice Evra blamed his team's lack of performance on communication problems, and more specifically, the deafening noise of thousands of vuvuzelas:
We can't sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas. People start playing them from 6 a.m. We can't hear one another out on the pitch because of them.
Somehow, Uruguay wasn't similarly fazed because they apparently possess superhuman hearing. (Credit to the South Americans, they executed their gameplan perfectly and nearly came away with all three points had Diego Forlan's strike in the 73rd minute been on frame.)
Evra's complaint was one of a string from participants about the ubuqiutous South African trumpet/kazoo/noisemaker of death. Even the best player in the world, Argentina's Lionel Messi, expressed disapproval of the instrument, saying "It's impossible to communicate, it's like being deaf."
I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?
Indeed, it would be stupid to ban the quintessentially South African element of the competition because of player complaints. If FIFA had wanted a dull tournament, they'd have mandated every team play in the Italian, anti-football style. Vuvuzelas don't provide either team with an advantage, and add distinctive flair -- or, better put, a distinctive buzz. (Perhaps worringly for spectators, South African shops are now reporting running dry of "vuvu-stoppers:" plugs to protect fans' ears from the noisemakers.)
Thankfully, not all have highlighted the vuvuzelas as the biggest problem of the tournament so far.
*Tuesday update: ESPN has just announced that they've added filters to their broadcast to lower the vuvuzela noise. We'll see whether viewers appreciate the change, or whether they feel they've lost some of the World Cup buzz. (It does seem like the sound of the vuvuzelas has been slightly dulled.)
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
In the much-discussed cover story of this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg profiles M.I.A., née Maya Arulpragasam, the British-by-way-of-Sri-Lanka musician whose third album comes out later this summer. It's an interesting piece (even if its subject doesn't think so), not least because it's the first celebrity profile I've read that begins with a thorough parsing of Sri Lankan dissident politics. The subject comes up because a frequent touchstone in M.I.A.'s music is her father's resume: He was as a founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a militant group with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization that helped lay the groundwork for the modern Tamil statehood movement before being superseded by the more violent Tamil Tigers.
Although her father never actually had anything to do with the Tigers, M.I.A. championed the organization's cause (albeit sort of vaguely) throughout its guerrilla war with government forces in northern Sri Lanka, a war with few good guys. (By happenstance, M.I.A.'s own ascent to popularity over the course of her first two records happened mostly between the breakdown of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in 2006 and the rebels' defeat in 2009.) Her support is a matter of considerable annoyance to activists concerned with bringing about some sort of lasting peace on the island. "It's very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict," Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum tells Hirschberg. "The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn't seem to know the complexity of what these groups do."
Hirschberg mines this vein unsparingly -- you know the knives are out when a writer pulls the old take-a-radical-artist-to-a-fancy-restaurant trick:
Unity holds no allure for Maya - she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. "I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."
A whole genre of art is, by association, coming in for a drubbing here: the venerable agitprop tradition in which M.I.A. has positioned herself. In music, the legacy runs back through Public Enemy, who championed Louis Farrakhan, and the Clash, who called their classic 1980 album Sandinista!; elsewhere, you've got Warhol's Mao paintings, of course, and pretty much everything Jean Luc Godard has ever said. It's different from the standard political peregrinations of artists and celebrities in that the art is inextricable from the politics, and from their audaciousness -- the Clash record would have sold somewhat worse if it had been called Social Democrat!
This is the line in the sand between the postmodern chilliness of M.I.A.'s radical politics and, say, the heartfelt socialism of Woody Guthrie -- the aesthetic of conflict, rather than any particular policy ambition, is the point. To Hirschberg, it suggests an unflattering comparison:
Like a trained politician, [M.I.A.] stays on message. It's hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
I think this is a more damning indictment of politics than it is of M.I.A. -- whose music is, all things considered, pretty great, if not quite up to the precedents of London Calling or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Stitching an aesthetic out of politics is at the end of the day pretty harmless; assembling a politics out of aesthetics, not so much.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The Bollywood royalty who show up to Colombo, Sri Lanka for the 11th annual Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards on June 3 should expect more than just shiny hardware -- they should brace themselves for boycotts from their showbiz colleagues, too.
In order to promote Indian cinema throughout the world, the IIFA selects a different country to host the old awards ceremony each year. Past venues included Singapore, South Africa, and England. The selection of Sri Lanka as this year's venue was deliberately intended to give the South Asian nation a ‘coming out' opportunity after twenty-five years of violent civil war. And ‘come out' Sri Lanka will, as it gears up for its moment in the spotlight with reconstruction, remodeling, and landscaping to boot.
But the decision to hold the awards in Colombo is also deeply controversial. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay recently called for investigations into war crimes that may have transpired in the recent decades, and allegations of continued discrimination against ethnic Tamils abound; meanwhile, Sri Lankan officials reportedly began the creation of an internal Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission earlier this month, dismissing any international interference as a hindrance to their own pursuit of justice.
The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce used the award show to make a resounding political statement: "Boycott IIFA Awards in Colombo or face the music down south," seemingly warning that any attending actors would face a backlash in heavily Tamil Southern India.
The chamber has followed through on the threat, refusing to screen films of stars who attend the awards and advocating for a venue change, even with the awards only days away. Furthermore, the Indian public reinforces their message: several famous Bollywood stars known to be likely attending the awards have woken up to angry moviegoers -- including Tamil groups in India- - picketing outside their homes.
The debacle raises the question of how much political clout major players in the entertainment industry hold on the international stage. Could a successfully boycotted major event in Sri Lanka open the floodgates for international criticism and precipitate a U.N.-sponsored war crimes tribunal? Of (almost) equal concern: will the diplomatic drama overshadow even the theatrics of Bollywood at this year's IIFA awards?
Elton John's slated to perform today in Morocco, and conservative Muslims aren't thrilled with the prospect:
"This singer is famous for his homosexual behavior and for advocating it," said Mustapha Ramid, a leader and spokesman for the PJD, the biggest opposition party with 40 lawmakers in parliament.
Despite the brouhaha, Moroccan gay rights leaders claim that the country is one of the most forward-thinking in the Muslim world:
A sign of Morocco's evolution, Taia said, is the creation of a new local word to describe homosexuality in Arabic: "Mithly," replacing the pejorative usual phrase of "an act against nature."
I fail to see how anyone could object to the harmonious, existential lessons of "Circle of Life." Encouragingly, Moroccan officials have told John to go ahead and claim, "I'm Still Standing."
Claire Greenway/Getty Images
Zurab Tsereteli, 76, a controversial sculptor known for his grandiose work, was to receive the Legion of Honor from French ambassador Jean de Gliniasty at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow on Tuesday evening, news agencies reported.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the award honored Tsereteli's “services to our country and the devotion to France that he exhibited,” as well as his contribution to strengthening ties between France and Russia.
Yep, the homeland of Auguste Rodin just conferred its highest honor on the designer of the above 9/11 memorial, a structure so ugly that Jersey City officials changed their mind and rejected it after actually seeing the thing.
At least from this Wikipedia article, it does seem like France has been going a little overboard with conferring the legion on foreigners during the Sarkozy years.
Britain's gone mad for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg over the past week, elevating the onetime longshot to frontrunner status in Britain's election. As it turns out, like David Bowie and U2 before him, Clegg had help from a good producer.
Pioneering glam rocker, ambient composer and pop producer Brian Eno signed on with Clegg as an advisor in 2007. Somewhat bizzarely, the 59-year-old was brought on to advise the Liberal Democrats about youth issues, but once again, it seems like Eno spotted a trend before it got big.
Taking a page from the Taliban, Somalia's Shabaab militants have effectively banned music from the radio in Somalia:
The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu says the order to stop
playing music and jingles was issued 10 days ago. All but two of the
city's 15 radio stations used to broadcast music. Residents can now only hear music from the government-controlled
radio station and another Kenya-based UN-funded radio station, which
has a FM transmitter in Mogadishu, he says.
"We are using other
sounds such as gunfire, the noise of the vehicles and birds to link up
our programmes and news," said Abdulahi Yasin Jama, Tusmo radio's head
of the programmes.
The above photo shows a member of the Somali pop group Waayah Cusub recording a track at a studio in Nairobi.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
After the United States and Britain, which country buys the most fine art?
a) France b) China c) Belgium
Answer after the jump ...
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Huge news for foreign policy and international affairs junkies: a new version of Scrabble to be released in the U.K. this July allows the playing of proper nouns (among other rule changes).
Many are outraged, but I couldn't be more excited. Finally my dream of using "Reykjavik" (30 base points), "Kyrgyzstan" (30 base points), and countless others (readers, feel free to chime in your favorites) has finally been realized. (Anticipate long arguments over the spelling of "Qaddafi.")
Purists take heart, the classic version will still be available -- but I won't be playing with you.
(Note: there is only one "Z" available for play, but using a blank tile would still give a base score of 24 points for former-President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor.)
**Update: It appears the new version will not be sold in North America, where Hasbro owns the rights to the game (Mattel owns the rights to Scrabble elsewhere in the world.) Perhaps someone should just make my dream come true, and create a (solely) international relations Scrabble edition?
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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