Friday, March 31, 2006

Iranian Earthquakes

Salaam/Hello/Peace Everyone,

We are fine and weren't at all affected in Qom by the earthquakes in Western Iran. The quakes seem to have caused significant damage and loss of life, though not as bad as other quakes in the region. Like in Pakistan, basics are in short supply--so please donate to any relief agencies that are able to provide help.

(photos and text from CNN)

Iran quakes: Death toll rising

Dozens dead, hundreds injured from series of temblors

(CNN) -- A series of earthquakes struck western Iran early Friday, killing dozens and flattening entire villages.

At least 66 people were killed and 988 injured, a medical official in Lurestan province told the official IRNA news agency.

The state-run news service put the magnitude of the quake at 6.0, and the U.S. Geological Survey pegged the temblor at 5.7.

The quakes were centered near Boroujerd and Doroud, two industrial cities about 210 miles southwest of Tehran, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Provincial official Ali Barani said about 200 villages were damaged, some flattened, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- speaking during a visit to England -- said the United States was prepared to send humanitarian assistance if it was required.
The quake was sandwiched between two less-intense quakes measuring 4.7 in magnitude. All three quakes hit the region during a nine-hour period, with the first one hitting western Iran Thursday about 7:45 p.m. (1645 GMT)

Barani told IRNA rescue teams had been sent to the region. He said survivors were in urgent need of blankets, tents and food.

Television showed survivors standing next to their destroyed houses in villages north of Doroud. The television also showed dozens of sheep and goats killed by the quake.

Barani said hospitals in Doroud and Boroujerd were full to their capacity.

Officials called on doctors and nurses on leave to get back to work, AP reported. Iranians are celebrating Nowruz, or new year, and most government offices are closed and their staff on holiday.

"We are afraid to get back home. I spent the night with my family and guests in open space last night," Doroud resident Mahmoud Chaharmiri told AP by telephone.
But Chaharmiri said there were no scenes of destruction in Doroud such as those after previous quakes.

In February 2005, a 6.4-magnitude quake rocked the town of Zarand in southern Iran, killing 612 people and injuring more than 1,400.

A magnitude-6.6 quake flattened the historic southeastern city of Bam in the same region in December 2003, killing 26,000 people.

Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes. It experiences at least one slight earthquake everyday on average, AP reported.

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved

Friday, March 24, 2006

How to be a Muslim Reformer

Hello, Peace, Salaam Everybody,

This post is a sort of part-two on the last one about the US government's ham-fisted approach to "reform" in the Muslim world. I'm posting a pithy blog from elsewhere that pokes fun at those so-called "Muslim reformists" that so many in the US seem to think are going to be the great saviors of the Muslim masses. What they miss is that these folks are deficient in their grounding and understanding of Islam and Islamic sources and seem more intent on puffing up their egos instead of doing something real and profound for Muslims and the rest of humanity.

Who are the good folks? Just Google the following names for a range of Muslim scholars who know what they're talking about: Abou El Fadl, Sachedina, Soroush, Kadivar, Al Naim, Omid Safi, Ebrahim Moosa, Algar, and that's just for starters. While we might not agree with all of them or all of what they say, it is among such scholars that Western governments and intellectuals ought to be looking, not the dry deserts of Manji, Sultan, Ibn Warraq, et al.


March 13, 2006

How to be a Muslim reformer

After reading an article on Wafa Sultan (the up-and-coming Muslim reformer) in the New York Times today, it occured to me that I should get on this reformer bandwagon before the market gets saturated. I'm articulate, telegenic, exotic (yet oh so fluffy and Westernized), not to mention female (oppressed by rigid Islamic paternalism, naturally). Too bad I've got so many other little schemes on the go and can't spare the time for this one. However, I've written a handy little guide for aspiring refuseniks, male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim. Hopefully it will inspire readers to lead the charge in enlightening the benighted Islamic world.

1. Keep it simple. First and foremost, don't bother actually studying the religion or recent MENA history. Take a page from Pundita's book: no need for research when you're painting with a really big brush. If you absolutely must research, this site is a treasure trove of convenient black and white stereotyping.

2. Have an angle. Find or manufacture a useful "turning point" in your life that made you realize Islam was a bigoted and/or violent religion. In Irshad Manji's case, it was being kicked out of her madrasa for demanding proof of a Jewish conspiracy. For Wafa Sultan, it was watching the Muslim Brotherhood kill a professor at her university in Aleppo. Of course, it's helpful not to mention Hafez Assad's response. I recall Irshad was all for Emergency Law in Egypt because Naguib Mahfouz was roughed up by some Islamist thugs: "Excuse me, but if that's a reason to maim (and possibly kill), it's equally a reason for security forces to crack down on the thugs. Bring on the Emergency Law" (128).

Ahem, moving on...

3. Write a book. Start holding interviews just prior to (or immediately after) publishing a book that claims to spearhead a reform movement and/or turn the Islamic world on its head. Tell the NYT that the working title is The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster, because The Trouble with Islam Today is simply too namby-pamby.

4. Become a Western media darling. Be extremely provocative. Make rude statements about Islam and those who follow it. Make sure to have an itemized list of every horrible act commited by Muslims, rulers of Muslim-majority countries, Caliphs, etc. Make fun of Arabs and how childish and barbaric they are compared to Jews and Christians (or in Irshad's case, go one step further and blame everything on the "Arabization" of Islam. Don't bother to mention any similar acts carried out in the name of other Abrahamic religions or even atheist ideologies, such as Communism. This is supposed to be an indictment against Islam, not the vile predictability of human nature and perverse incentives.

5. Remind people that you are constantly under siege. Make sure the media is fully aware of every single death threat you receive as a result of the aforementioned provocative statements. If you're lucky, some wacko will release a fatwa that demands you be stoned, beheaded or strung up in some elaborate medieval way.

6. Rake in the cash. Watch as speaking invitations roll in from hardline right-wing Israeli and US organizations. No, it's not a Jewish conspiracy, but for some odd reason they are in full agreement with your views on Islamic reform. You're definitely on the way to winning Muslim hearts and minds if they're supporting you!

7. Remember your audience. Don't bother engaging Muslims in a respectful yet frank discussion on how to remain faithful to the Prophet's message in our modern, globalized, polarized, terrorized world. You don't even need to talk to Muslims, unless it's to get the extremists frothing at the mouth. Being a true visionary is hard work and requires far too much study, which leaves you hardly any time for gala dinners with pretentious, xenophobic ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative (really, does it matter?) activists who will praise you as a model Muslim making a real difference in the Islamic world.

Of course this list is by no means exhaustive. Readers are free to offer their own advice, sarcastic comments, etc.

[Thanks to Eva Luna for bringing the original NYT article to my attention]

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why Doesn't the US Government Read this Blog?

Hello/Salaam All,

From looking at the tracking data, it seems that our visitors are mostly friends and family. I was a bit disappointed not to see any governmental-looking hits. I suppose I figured at least somebody in one of the various diplomatic, intelligence, and/or military branches would have found the site and found something useful on it.

But alas, Bush just announced his newest plan to "spread democracy" to Iran. When I first heard of it a few weeks back I had to scratch my head and try to figure out how anybody thought that it was a good idea. This new plan just set the US ten years back on any improvements they'd have hoped to make. The Washington Post article pretty much exposes the flaws of W's newest Crusade, so please read on.

Honestly, in some entries in our blog and some of fellow blogger Brian Anthony in Syria's blogs, we've already given a better (and free) guide to how the US ought to engage with Iran (among others) than anything any government organ seems to have come up with. Actually, there are probably some good folks in the government who understand, but it appears none of them have the ears of those in charge...whoever is making decisions there has absolutlely no grasp on the lives, culture, religion, and dreams of the people of this part of the world.

And that's not good for anybody.

Irfan Ali/Robert
U.S. Push for Democracy Could Backfire Inside Iran

By Karl Vick and David FinkelWashington Post Foreign ServiceTuesday, March 14, 2006; A01

TEHRAN -- Prominent activists inside Iran say President Bush's plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote democracy here is the kind of help they don't need, warning that mere announcement of the U.S. program endangers human rights advocates by tainting them as American agents.

In a case that advocates fear is directly linked to Bush's announcement, the government has jailed two Iranians who traveled outside the country to attend what was billed as a series of workshops on human rights. Two others who attended were interrogated for three days.

The workshops, conducted by groups based in the United States, were held last April, but Iranian investigators did not summon the participants until last month, about the time the Bush administration announced plans to spend $85 million "to support the cause of freedom in Iran this year."

"We are under pressure here both from hard-liners in the judiciary and that stupid George Bush," human rights activist Emad Baghi said as he waited anxiously for his wife and daughter to emerge from interrogation last week. "When he says he wants to promote democracy in Iran, he gives money to these outside groups and we're in here suffering."

The fallout illustrates the steep challenge facing the Bush administration as it seeks to play a role in a country where American influence is called unwelcome even by many who share the goal of increasing democratic freedoms.
"Unfortunately, I've got to say it has a negative effect, not a positive one," said Abdolfattah Soltani, a human rights lawyer recently released from seven months in prison. After writing in a newspaper that his clients were beaten while in jail, Soltani was charged with offenses that included spying for the United States.

"This is something we all know, that a way of dealing with human rights activists is to claim they have secret relations with foreign powers," said Soltani, who co-founded a human rights defense group with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. "This very much limits our actions. It is very dangerous to our society."

Activists here said the Bush initiative demonstrates the chasm that often separates those working inside Iran for greater freedoms -- carefully calibrating their actions to nudge incremental changes in a hostile system -- and the more strident approach of many Iranian exiles who often have the ear of Washington policymakers.

"Our society is very complicated," said Vahid Pourostad, editor of National Trust, a new newspaper aligned with Iran's struggling reform movement. "Generally speaking, it is impossible to impose something from outside. Whatever happens will happen from inside.

"It seems to me the United States is not studying the history of Iran very carefully," Pourostad said. "Whenever they came and supported an idea publicly, the public has done the opposite."

Advocates and ordinary Iranians say the U.S. project also may suffer from poor timing. Just four years ago, the Iranian public's appetite for greater freedom was vibrant here, with a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, returned to office in a landslide and his allies in control of parliament.

But public disillusionment grew steadily as the reformists failed to wrest crucial powers from the appointed clerics who control much of the power in Iran's theocratic system of government. The clerics cemented their grip by excluding dissenters from subsequent elections.

At the same time, hard-liners in the government maintained relentless pressure against independent institutions, closing more than 100 newspapers and jailing students by the hundreds. Many had ventured into the streets at the encouragement of satellite TV stations run by exile groups that breathlessly announced a new revolution in the offing.

"They said I would be joined by millions," said one student, who endured a beating by paramilitary militiamen unleashed against the demonstrators. "I just got beat up."

Today, Pourostad said, the capacity for civil society is so depleted that homeowners cannot be bothered to protest the cutting of trees in an eastern Tehran park to make way for a freeway extension.

"If such a thing had happened four or five years ago, the newspapers could have mounted a social movement," he said. "Now, we can put it in the paper, but we can't create a social wave. A disaster happens, but we can't do anything about it."

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $75 million in emergency funding to promote democracy in Iran, in addition to $10 million already budgeted. Most of the money, $50 million, would be spent to build a satellite television station. The plan also calls for $5 million each for scholarships and public diplomacy that includes fostering independent media inside Iran.
The final $15 million would go toward nongovernmental organizations and civic education on the lines of what the federally chartered National Endowment for Democracy carries out in a wide variety of countries.

"It's going to be hard for them to spend it here," said a diplomat at a European embassy in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The diplomat refused to be identified because the embassy has had some success with a program aimed at fostering reform in one Iranian ministry and publicity could make it a target of hard-liners.

"There is a downside," the diplomat said. "There always is. And they'll have to be clever about how they spend it."

Iran on Monday lodged a formal complaint against the Bush plan through the U.S. Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy here. At the same time, Iran's parliament allocated the equivalent of $15 million to "probe and defuse" U.S. conspiracies and interventions in the country, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The experience of Baghi's group is cast as a cautionary tale for all concerned, including a prosecutor notorious for using arrests and detention to make examples.

Baghi, 44, has been prominent in Iran's reform movement for a decade. Once a theology student, he worked in sociology and came to prominence as an investigative journalist. After writing articles that exposed the role of Iran's Intelligence Ministry in the murders of dissidents in the 1990s, he served three years in prison.

After his release he started a newspaper, Jumhuriyat. Prosecutors closed it after 13 issues. He then founded the Society for Protecting Prisoners' Rights, a group that provides free attorneys for inmates and lobbies Iran's judiciary for due process and humane treatment.

Baghi said a friend in Europe approached him 16 months ago with a proposal to send members of the group to Dubai for a "human rights workshop." The friend gave the impression the United Nations was involved, Baghi said.
Unable to attend because authorities continue to withhold his passport, Baghi sent three other members of the rights group: his wife, Fatehmeh Kamali; their adult daughter, Maryam Baghi; and Ali Afsahi, a cleric turned film critic. Kamali's nephew, Ehsan, a law student who lived with them, went along for the ride, Baghi said.

By all accounts, the workshops did not go well. "They were very angry about this trip," Baghi wrote his friend in an e-mail. "They felt offended and insulted."
Quoting his wife, who was not available to be interviewed because of her interrogation, Baghi said the workshops offered only rudimentary training in human rights. Other sessions highlighted popular revolts in Serbia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The three Iranians were the only participants and were moved from one hotel to another by the organizers, who conjured an air of cloak and dagger, Baghi said.

"You know what a vulnerable situation we have here in Iran," Baghi wrote. "It was not a good thing to invite us to such a workshop."

Peter Ackerman, who chairs the Washington group that ran a portion of the workshops, took issue with Baghi's description. Ackerman said the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict promotes the potential of nonviolent change by highlighting experiences in formerly oppressive countries, as depicted in the film "A Force More Powerful," which was screened in Dubai.
Baghi's group left Dubai early, saying the workshops were not what they had expected. Back in Iran, their attendance brought no immediate repercussions, even though it apparently was known to government security services. Baghi said the intelligence office of the Higher Education Ministry asked his daughter about the trip while vetting her for a graduate degree four months ago.
Then on Feb. 12, with reports emerging in Washington of the Bush initiative, Afsahi was taken into custody. Ehsan Kamali, the law student, was detained at a filling station four days later. Both remain in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in the north of Tehran, their condition unknown.

Baghi's wife and daughter were summoned to a prosecutor's office last Tuesday, when a Washington Post reporter arriving for a previously scheduled appointment found Baghi cursing Bush. The women were questioned into the night for three days by deputies of the Tehran prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, the government's most widely feared enforcer.

Diplomats said pressure on individuals has increased since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and the showdown over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"The people who did this workshop don't realize what kind of world we live in here," Baghi said. "Here, we've got Mortazavi and the system behind him. The other side has got the U.S. and its money. The pressure is on people who are trying to promote human rights inside the country.

"I feel Ahmadinejad and President Bush are like two blades of a scissor."

Ackerman took a different view.
"The question is: Why are they going to jail?" he said. "What kind of people are sending these people to jail? What's going on here is wrong. It's despicable."

Finkel reported from Washington.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tehran, Lonely Planet Style

Peace and Hello All,

We got back a few days ago from five days in the big city--Tehran. Millions of people, 10 football (soccer) teams, and the very boundary of religiously acceptable clothing.

We had two purposes: 1. For me to attend a symposium on third party gamete and embryo donation according to medicine, ethics, religion, law, etc.; and 2. To celebrate Sara's birthday with a nice little trip.

Of course, Sara caught some virus so was laid up and ill for most of the time. So not too many pictures of fun being had, sights being seen, and so forth. But what we can provide is some insight for fellow travelers to Tehran, particularly those using the Lonely Planet guidebook.

I started using LP about ten years ago and found it better than the other guidebooks I used in my post-military/pre-college Europe trip. Since then I've used LP for trips to Egypt, Syria and Jordan, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, France, and Europe. Now I'm putting them to use here in Iran.

First things first--lodging. We decided to stay at LP Iran's editor's pick for Tehran, the (in)famous Hotel Naderi. Though some have complained recently that the staff there was none too friendly, we found quite the opposite. All were very helpful, kind, and welcoming.

(Hotel Naderi's funky lobby)

However, other critiques of the Naderi's new room rates ($30/night for a double) were correct. Perhaps Naderi was a good value at $20 as listed in LP, but now the value is only so-so (especially without including breakfast). While some of the LP's editor's romantacism about Hotel Naderi's 40's decor was correct, it didn't quite live up to its billing, particularly with regard to the room itself. The room was servicable, but the carpet was filthy. Not a bad view outside of the window from our "garden room" though. The TV didn't work, nor did it get fixed.

(Next time we're thinking of Firouzeh Hotel--which is NOT listed in the LP but which is mentioned on their discussion board. It's about half the price and the owners were very helpful to us over email, but the big downfall is no in-room bathroom. Firouzeh is definitely worth checking out if that's not an issue for you.

The attached Naderi Cafe wasn't too bad. Hailed as the place where certain Iranian intellectuals sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes, we found it to have an intellectual or two, though it was hard to tell through all the smoke. It seems today the patrons are largely bored Tehrani youth in the latest fashions, flirting, smoking, and then smoking some more. Sara's French coffee was weak, but my Turkish coffee wasn't bad at all. Certainly worth a visit, but more for a sociological understanding of Tehran's youth rather than for any semblance of a cafe in Paris. The old "granddad" waiters were nice enough and have probably been there since the Shah's time...

Another cafe, "French Pastry" or something on Enqelab avenue, by Tehran University wasn't bad. Like Naderi Cafe it had a great scent of coffee, which I sorely miss in coffeeless Qom (except for a daily dose of Nescafe...). Decent pasteries and ice creams--we had "Chocolate Gilass" which was chocolate milk with scoops of chocolate ice cream. Not bad, but Iranians do their traditional ice cream flavors better than the chocolates and vanillas.

("French Pastry" down the street from Tehran University)

Though we had planned to eat our way through Tehran, seeing as how eating out in Qom means eating Persian food (or the occassional falafel), that didn't materialize either. Craving Pakistani/Indian food we headed over to the restaurant at the Atlas Hotel, noted in LP for it's "Desi" food. The atmosphere was nice, the service very good, but the rather limited Indo-Pak menu left a lot to be desired. The stuffed paratha was excellent and the sauces for the Mughali chicken and butter chicken we ordered were good. However, the chicken itself was too "Iranian" in the sense that it didn't have all of the smell spiced out of it as with proper Desi food. Not bad, but didn't quite hit the spot for us.

(No, that's not real beer--Iran has a huge market in non-alcoholic beer. This Eres wasn't bad, but I did find the major brand Delster now does "Delster Black" which is pretty darn close to a nice Guinness Stout.)

On Sara's birthday we ventured out down the 20km stretch of Vali Asr avenue into Northern Tehran to try the chic and hightly rated Monsoon. The notion of yellow curries and other Asian treats kept us going despite having to trudge long distances up and down steep hills, on uneven pavement (where Sara twisted/popped her ankle, but somehow mysteriously recovered very quickly--must've been the curry calling). However, once we finally found the dang place they said they couldn't seat us as they were booked up!! The kind owner followed us out the door and apologized in nearly flawless American English, trying to interest us in their new California cuisine restaurant. But Sara was right, we don't care about California cuisine in America, why would we want it in Iran (mind you, she didn't say that to the lady!)? Sadly, Lonely Planet didn't mention that you'd need reservations at this place. Knowing that would have saved us a lot of grief.

By now it was late, dark and we were hungry and in despair. We made one last brave effort and trundled off to Seryna, another LP pick for asian food and sushi. We finally made it and weren't disappointed. The decor was great, wonderful service, and with prices to match. That means we paid in Iran what we'd pay for a similar meal in America, which means it was about 10x more expensive than a meal out is normally in Iran. Aside from Sara's spicy tuna which used a local tuna instead of what she's normally used to, the food was outstanding.

Other food highlights included two meals at Tomato, just a few blocks down from our hotel and also listed in LP. Despite the highly common and annoying Iranian restaurant trend of having a bunch of stuff on the menu that they don't actually ever have to serve in real life, the food was great. Onion rings very nicely done and excellent pizza, especially the margarita pizza. Of course, like all pizza in Iran, there's no tomato sauce, which means you must succumb and put ketchup on your pizza like the locals. We also tried a steak sandwhich which was quite good.

Aside from that, the fast food kababi a few blocks east of Hotel Naderi did excellent sandwiches and chips/fries (the open restaurant with juice bar at the opening of one of the passages) and the traditional restaurant on Si Tir street (walk away from Hotel Naderi towards Si Tir and hang a left, restaurant is on the right side of the street) did a chelo morg chicken just the way Sara likes it.

What? You thought you'd get something more than restaurant reviews?!?!