Saturday, November 12, 2005

In 1958, a German Biblical scholar named Gerhard von Rad wrote a slim little book called Holy War in Ancient Israel, which has been the touchstone for scholarly work on that subject even since.

Surely you've wondered how the modern Christians, Jews and Muslims can even claim, with a straight face, to practice a peace-loving religion when the early followers of the god they worship were -- with more than a little active encouragement from their deity -- genocidal jihadists.

I didn't have time to read the whole book, but I’ll try to give you my best shot at a synopsis of Von Rad's theory. First, Von Rad put forward the unsurprising thesis that the holy wars of the conquest of Canaan didn't quite happen the way the Bible says they did, with Yahweh often doing most of the ass-kicking and the Isrealites sometimes just sitting back and watching the bloody mayhem (other times, with God actually stopping the clock so the Isrealites could finish the killing of innocents in time for dinner). Rather, this aspect of the story -- a story that saw the nation of Israel enjoying a surprising amount of political unity without a king, as well as "increased psychic strength" and "a great magical network of powers" due to their submission to God -- was a post-Exile invention of certain prophets striving to maintain the unity of the faith (and with it, the political unity of the nation) after the monarchy had fallen and the Isrealites dragged off to the rivers of Babylon in 586 B.C. In fact, even during the period of the monarchy, the priests and prophets of Israel had preserved an "alternative tradition" to the routinized bureaucratic monarchy put in place by King David and his son, Solomon. This mystical, theocratic tradition came back with a vengeance following the Babylonian Captivity and the subsequent return. That's certainly not all the book says, and it may not even be quite right, but that's how I remember it.

I mention this not because it's relevant to anything in particular. I just wanted to point out how nice it is to have access to a big university library where you can find obsure stuff like this. I came across this book in September, during my month in Dublin, at the Trinity College library where I'd snuck in posing as a graduate student.

It's almost enough to make one consider a life in the academy. Almost, but not quite.


On a vaguely related note, I was lucky enough to spend some time recently with a Dutch philologist (and a fluent reader of Assyrian cuneiform script) at a remote 13th-centuty B.C. archaeological site in northern Syria. (I know, I know, Dutch Assyrian philologist is not the same as a German Old Testament scholar, but I said vaguely related.)

According to eyewitness reports, this wild, wooly, white-haired Dutch philologist talked in his sleep. Didn't just talk, but yelled. Strange things. What things?

OK, one day, for instance, in English, he screamed out in his sleep, "THE GATES OF HELL!" He was just that kind of fellow.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Ah yes, Izzy al-Douri, dead at last. I remember him.
The Sudanese regional government commander, Sadiek Abdel Nabi, shouts at Condoleezza Rice's right hand man, in front of a big crowd of journalists: "'I am el-Bashir here!'"

He was referring Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall for the next conversation between Nabi and Bashir.


I had a pleasant chat today with three nice Sudanese fellows who are one of about 4,000 refugees (the number they gave; I didn't count) camped out on a square in my neighborhood, the Mohandiseen district of Cairo, opposite the Egyptian headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

It's a bit like a little shantytown without shanties. They've been living on blankets for 44 days now, protesting their treatment by UNHCR, claiming they've not been granted their proper rights as refugees by the Egyptians running the local office of UNHCR.

My quick read is that it's a pretty tough sell: Convincing the wider world that the UN isn't offering enough help to war refugees. I guess you tend to think refugees should take whatever help they can get and not complain about it. The anti-UN crowd isn't usually too concerned about the plight of refugees, so they're unlikely to take up the case; and the pro-UN crowd doesn't want to play into the anti-UN crowd's hands by making the UN look like the corrupt organization that it is. I've heard vaguely similar stories about UNHCR's treatment of Romany refugees in Kosovo.

Yet word on the ground here is that the protestors have a legitimate grievance. I've met one person who works at UNHCR who admitted that openly, and I know at least one more person who claims to have talked to others within UNHCR who echoed the sentiment.

I do get the idea protestors could improve the vocabulary they deploy in discussing their plight. I don't mean their spoken English, which is often excellent. I mean slogans like, "We refuse local integration," which sounds like they're protesting the fact that they've been asked to assimilate to Egyptian society.

In fact, once you talk to them, you learn they're simply asking to be given basic things like normal Egyptian education for their children.

Perhaps they're just too acquainted with UN bureaucratese: Phrases like "We refuse local integration" and "No to forced voluntary repatriation" (huh?) are not exactly soundbites that are going to make the nightly news around the world.

The real point is that UNHCR, like many other UN agencies, seems like it's an almost criminally inefficient organization.

Related stories:
5,000 Sudanese Refugees Participate in Cairo Protest (Angola Press)
Free of Sudan, but trapped in Egypt (Minneapolis Star-Tribune
More: Escape From Sudan (Village Voice)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Well, well, well, look who's come to town: "A delegation of European parliamentarians who observed voting uninvited said there was some improvement but Egypt could do better. 'Palestine operated a model election under occupation and I think possibly the Egyptians could have done a bit better,' delegation head Edward McMillan-Scott told Reuters."

Years and years ago, I recall Erik D'Amato saying I had to invent an excuse to call this guy, so I could say, "Hello, is this Mr. McMillan-Scott? This is Mr. Scott MacMillan!"
In case you're interested, here's why I'm going to barf if I hear one more person say "multiculturalism" has contributed to the riots in France.
Back Seat Drivers has a handy map (free commentary included) of what Dublin's public transportation system will look like when I'm over 40. Not too shabby, indeed.

Previous post: I'd just like to take the time to point out that Dublin's public transportation system sucks ass.
Of course I'm always pleased when any oddball news item pops up that touches on my multiple spheres of influence (the Prague-Dublin-Cairo axis) but man oh man, this story doesn't make a lick of sense.

Apparently some dangerous Czech gangsters have escaped the Czech Republic and have sought refuge in gangland Ireland.

According to the Irish shadow justice minister, Joe Costello, there are some legal loopholes that allow the gangsters to hang around Ireland for pretty much as long as they want.

Czech News Agency quotes Czech daily Lidove Noviny quoting the Irish Times quoting Irish shadow justice minister Joe Costello criticizing Czech legislation, because it "enables the most wanted criminals from the Czech Republic to live on Irish territory."

Something's been lost in translation here. Czech law allows these gangsters to stay in Ireland? It's the Czechs who are demanding they be sent back to face trial! Why are they quoting the opposition justice minister -- and just what the hell is saying?

Ah, look -- I just found the story as reported by the Irish Times last week. Look, I'm generally a huge fan of legal loopholes, but just seems a bit daft, even by Czech-Irish standards.

The Berdych gang is suspected of murders, abductions, robberies and extortion of rich businessmen in 1996-2002. They even got some crooked Czech cops in on the action during their madcap spree. So I guess over in Ireland, they'll fit right in.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I posted two things about France on Fistful of Euros, even though I don't know anything about France, simply because I found it embarassing that nobody was saying anything about France. If you go out drinking with a French person, please ask if Sarkozy gets a thumbs up or thumbs down.
This is a few days old, but there's a page of reading on SyriaComment.com, including two full-length articles by the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid, that you should read in its entirety if you're interested in what's going on in Syria now.

The key figure to watch -- if he could be watched -- is Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law:

One of the most dynamic figures in the circle is Shawkat, a tall, husky general with black hair and a mustache. Since February, he has run Syrian military intelligence, the institution that keeps the closest eye on threats to the government. He is a natty dresser, known for expensive tastes. A diplomat recalled that at one function for Assad's father, he was the lone person not wearing a military uniform. He chose instead an expensive Italian suit, the diplomat said. Those who have met him describe him as confident, businesslike and security-conscious, imbued with street smarts that came from his rise through the intelligence ranks.
The mountainous Alawite areas mentioned by Shadid are in the area of Qardaha, the village I visited last week where the elder Assad is buried (see below).