Redheaded Ramblings: Sheila A-stray  

"This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am." -- James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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I will bear witness, 1942 - 1945 The Diaries of Victor Klemperer


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War with Armenia, 1991
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Turkmen cultural identity

Turkmenistan is a place of collisions. Modern man colliding with ancient nomads, Turks colliding with Turks, Russians colliding with Turks, clashes with Persia, the constant struggle for survival in a terrifying desert, "democracy" butting up against ethnic rivalries and clan loyalties. Alexander the Great (HIM AGAIN) marched across the Kara Kum desert in 329 B.C. and left behind him traces of Macedonia and Greece. The ancient ruins of Turkmenistan reveal a culture filled with a fusion of different influences. Islamic, Persian, Hellenistic, Parthian ... all sometimes showing up in the same damn building.

Now think about this mish-mash and beautiful cultural past, something actually to be proud of and embrace, and imagine Mr. Turkmanbashi insisting that, ACTUALLY, in the past, it was all about "Turkmenness", and there was a homogenous Turkomen society back then when you could be proud of being a Turkomen, and Oh, if we could only go back to the good old days when it was JUST US TURKOMENS here...All fabrications.

There is no homogenous Turkomen identity. It doesn't exist. In actuality, it's something much more interesting, but it is too dangerous for Turkmanbashi to allow people to embrace it. He is counting on people to keep the flares of ethnic suspicion and hatred alive.

I will close with an anecdote, which kind of describes what I'm talking about here. Turkmenistan is NOT what you would think. It is a hot dry oil-filled Islamic country, but it is NOT Saudi Arabia. This anecdote is from Colin Thubron's awesome book The Lost Heart of Asia. This encounter takes place in the ancient Turkomen city of Merv:

I saw an old man touching an elfin hammer to a little anvil. In front of him lay a miniature lathe and a box of gouging and chipping tools -- all as intricate and fragile-looking as he -- and with these he was creating miniature jewellry and the unearthly, silvery music whenever his hammer struck.

He lived here, I discovered ... As I came in, he asked me to sit by him. Tentatively I enquired after the saints buried here, and wondered if he was their guardian.

His voice came thin and musical: 'They were soldiers, martyrs. When? I don't know, but in the century of the great sultans. Their history is written in Arabic and Persian. You can't find it in Russian.' He added in faint reproof: 'People should learn the holy languages. You can learn one in a few months if your will is strong enough, and if your heart is right.' He massaged his heart with a tiny fist. 'Look.' He rummaged among his tools and from a carefully beribboned cloth picked out a Koran in Arabic. 'People should read this!'

Yet his own eyes twinkled over it unseeing; he could no more read it than I could. It was a talisman only. In the Stalin years a whole generation of educated Turcomens, the Arabic speakers, had been despatched into oblivion.

I took it from him and turned the sacred pages. 'Where did you get it?'

'From Iran. Sometimes they come here, those people, and from Afghanistan.'

'You favor that system, that ...' -- the word whispered like a secret -- 'fundamentalism?'

For a moment he went on chipping at the ivory in his hands. Suddenly I realized how I hung on his reply. Here, if anywhere, among the poor and pious, must be the breeding-ground for an Islamic resurgence.

But he answered simply, finally: 'No. We don't need that here.' He jerked his chin to the south. 'That's for people over there.'

It was strange, I thought. Superficially the soil for fundamentalism was perfect here: the deepening poverty and sense of historical wrong, the damaged pride. But in fact the old man's response was typical of his people. The idea of religion as a doctrinaire moulder of society seemed shallow-rooted among them, and their faith to thrive somewhere different, somewhere more sensory and pagan.

'All those laws and customs ...' The old man resettled his grimy skull-cap. 'They don't matter. What matters is underneath this!' -- he plucked at his jacket -- 'What matters is the heart!' ... He said, 'Our country's had enough of other people's interference.' "

Pretty wonderful, no?

Next country: Macedonia

  contact Sheila Link: 11/09/2002 08:57:00 AM

Saturday, November 09, 2002  

"Geniuses are of two kinds: the ones who are just like all of us, but very much more so, and the ones who, apparently, have an extra human spark. We can all run, and some of us can run the mile in less than four minutes; but there is nothing that most of us can do that compares with the creation of the Great G-minor Fugue."

--Paul Halmos, mathematician

  contact Sheila Link: 11/09/2002 08:25:00 AM


Victor Davis Hanson's columns have been a staple of my diet since shortly after September 11, 2001. Earlier in this blog, I spoke of reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and getting the sense that I was reading about current events, even down to the place names: Babylon, Persia, etc. Victor Davis Hanson, a Classics scholar, used this as his focus for his post-September 11 articles. He spoke of the current situation, of course, but he also telescoped back into antiquity. For an essential historical perspective.

I am now reading his Carnage and Culture because ... well, because it's good, but also because I need a shot of Hanson every day! So read his latest: The End of an Era.

"No blood for oil" implies that the United States is attacking Iraq to ensure a low price for petroleum — a plot purportedly to allow SUV-driving soccer moms to buzz around at the world's expense. But such a platitude is full of logistical inconsistencies rarely discussed. The argument instead can be made that a fascistic Iraq currently pumps far less than its natural capacity or its national interests would otherwise demand — perhaps as much as a million-barrel shortfall. And such an artificially created dearth helps the price-gouging Russians and the Gulf States by reducing world supplies at the expense of billions well outside the borders of the United States.

A consensual government in Iraq would not distort the market, but would restore its output to be in line with what the people of Iraq would desire. If anything, other oil producers prefer the present contrived and induced shortages. And liberation would allow oil revenue to be shared by the people, not diverted to the palaces, anthrax labs, or Swiss bank accounts of a tribal elite. So a more apt protest slogan should be "No fascism for rigged oil prices" or "Oil for the people who really own it."

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 02:54:00 PM

Friday, November 08, 2002  

HELP (2)

Ya see? Ya see what I'm talkin' about??

Here's the quote I love:
I'm a fan of Eminem's precisely because I can't explain him easily: My inability to get him fully -- as opposed to my approval or disapproval of any of his perceived "messages" -- is what keeps me coming back. He's like a master novelist who writes characters I can neither love nor turn away from: the madman drunk with his own Rolling Stone-conferred power in "Kill You"; the cuckolded husband in "Kim" who turns his pain into a reign of terror. We like to think of art as our friend, but art -- as Shakespeare or Goya or Bacon would have told you -- isn't always kind.

A bit "assholic", as my friend Barbara likes to say, but it captures my feelings perfectly.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 02:03:00 PM

We are now living in a world where it is ALL EMINEM ALL THE TIME. If I hated him or scorned him, I would be intensely annoyed by the Eminem saturation at every turn. Since I love the guy, I am in second heaven. Or maybe it's first heaven. The movie comes out tomorrow. I don't know what to do with myself. (Oh, Sheila, calm down. You do too know what to do with yourself. You'll go to the movie, buy some popcorn, chow it down, and soak up the scene. Chill.)

I listened to The Eminem Show last night three times, all the way through. Song to song to song. With each listening, I was deeper into his world. Amazed by his command of rhythm, and language. Amazed, too, by his voice. His voice is a call to arms. No wonder why he is seen as dangerous or reactionary. He means business.

Also, and this is really where his genius lies: the BEATS. You MUST dance to his music. If you don't start moving to such songs as "Till I Collapse", then....well, quite frankly, there's no hope for you.

From Hitchens to Eminem. It's been a good morning.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 10:51:00 AM


Hitchens, after severing his ties with The Nation, has been getting better and better. I read an interview with him, I think it was in Salon, and the interviewer asked: "So how does it feel to not be party-affiliated anymore?" And he said, "Liberating." This liberation/emancipation shows in his writing.

Fantastic piece in Slate today by Hitchens, called "Machiavelli in Mesopotamia: The case against the case against 'regime change' in Iraq." I have always sensed that there are deep inconsistencies and hypocrisies within the anti-war stance. It seems hard for people to actually explain themselves. To state what, exactly, it is they are opposed to. Unless you're Noam Chomsky or Toni Morrison ("Bomb them with love." Uh. Okay, Toni. WHAT?? Tell me HOW and I will do that.), not too many people are saying, "Well, we hate America's strength. We want to see America fail and be humiliated." Even though this may be, deep down, how they feel. But how it comes out is just sort of a vague resistance to the idea of war. Also, by pointing fingers at the pro-invasion folks and saying, "We helped create this situation!!" (as though trying to catch the pro-invasion people in some devastating inconsistency), the confusion and desperation of the opposition becomes blindingly evident. YES. We DID help create this situation. We have helped to create a complete MESS. So isn't it part of our duty to lead the clean-up operation?

Anyway: Hitchens says it all better than I could.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 10:34:00 AM



Desert nomads

I'm going to talk about "Turkestan" again today, the larger area of Central Asia, divided up by Stalin, of which Turkmenistan is a big part. The whole nomad existence is something I would like to know more about. I can get glimpses here and there, but, after all, I've never met an actual nomad. If I did, I would be able to ask him questions about his life, what it's like, what goes on in his mind, how his experience may differ from mine. In one of the many books I've read on the topic, I came across a description which I loved. It gave me a chill. I would cite the source, but unfortunately, I have no idea where it came from. It's coming directly off my "Turkestan" index card, pulled from the pile. Anyway, the quote is: "Nomads mastered the art of conquering space." I love that.

Nomads created the first global system of mass communication. Long before anyone even knew what exactly was "out there", and what the "globe" may have looked like. Centuries ago, it was the nomads who helped cities like Bukhara and Tashkent rise up and be famous and prosperous and cosmopolitan. They helped spread information around the world. Incredible.

I read one essay about "The Death of the Uzboj", which was a river in the Kara Kum Desert. The Uzboj dried up and disappeared over 400 years ago, and the writer of the essay surmised that this was the beginning of the end for the Turkomens. Fascinating. Here is the theory. And it sort of fits in with the whole "what the hell is a nomad and what is his life like?" thing I was talking about a moment ago.

The Kara Kum Desert is friggin' huge. It is 800 miles long. The temperatures regularly reach levels like 172 degrees Farenheit. The Turkmens lived here in scattered huts. The desert is endless. A complete wasteland. The Kara Kum is the largest desert not just in Turkmenistan but in all of Central Asia, a region of deserts. Of course, Turkestan was receptive to Islam, when it arrived. Islam seems to be the religion of desert people, of people who live in hot unforgiving climates. I wonder about that sometimes and if some theologian could explain why that might be, or even if I'm way off the mark here. The descriptions in the Koran of paradise are all about: running water, green fields, moist lush lands (not to mention 72 virgins...or was that 72 raisins? Well, either way...72 yummy somethings-or-other). Stuff in direct contrast to the harsh bleakness of the desert landscapes.

The Uzboj was a river which flowed through the Kara Kum monotony. Needless to say, oases sprang up along its banks. This is how civilization grows. This is how people survive. WATER. As long as the Uzboj flowed, things remained in equilibrium. Life flowed on beside the river, unchanging, fine, in balance.

400 years ago, the Uzboj dried up and disappeared. And took the equilibrium of the Turkmens with it. Tribes were sent into exile, people had to find other places to live, so people were sent on the move. An oasis is a very fragile entity. It can only hold so many people before things get out of whack. It sprouts up because it is near a source of water. But if too many people try to crowd their way in to this oasis, there isn't enough water for everybody. So this is what happened to the Turkomens. Wandering desperate people tried to squeeze their way in to other oases, and were turned away. Sometimes violently.

And this is how the fratricidal wars of the Turkomens began. Over water. They never knew unity, as a people. Their first contacts with one another, with the Turkomens outside their own oasis, were violent. This is life and death stuff: fighting over water in a deadly desert. This is not a silly reason or a trivial reason to go to war. LET ME IN to this oasis...I have a wife (or maybe 2 or 3), and 15 children, and we are DYING. There is NO WATER. We live in a DESERT, remember?? Let me IN.

When the Russians arrived two and a half centuries later, it was a piece of cake to subdue the Turkomens. It is easy to conquer a divided people. (Now, I know you all know that I did not make that concept up myself!) It is one of the oldest rules of warfare in the book. Divide and conquer. Well, the Russians didn't even need to worry about the first part. They came across this desert, and found a divided scattered people. No big deal to completely conquer them.

For those of you with the time, who want to read on, here's a passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski's book Imperium. I'm going to quote specifically from his passage on The Death of the Uzboj. Anyone who has been reading this blog will probably think that I only read one book. And that is Kapuscinski's Imperium. I understand how I might give that impression. To me, that book holds it all. It was also the beginning of it all, for me. I read that book, on a whim, years ago, because I was fascinated by the COVER of all things. It opened up my world, my mind...I had no idea what the hell the man was talking about but I knew I wanted to know more. Now I look at my book shelves and I have more books on Central Asia than I do poetry, or fiction. A strange transformation.

Anyway, here is a bit more on the Death of the Uzboj:

Everyone tried to live as close to the Uzboj as possible. The river carried water; it carried life. Along its banks ran the trails of caravans. In the currents of the Uzboj the army of Genghis Khan watered its horses. To its shores journeyed the merchants of Samarkand and the Yomud -- slave traders.

The river's agony, said Rashyd, began four hundred years ago. Having appeared suddenly on the desert, the river now just as suddenly began to vanish. The Uzboj had created a civilization in the very heart of the desert, had sustained three tribes, linked the west with the east; on the banks of the Uzboj stood dozens of cities and settlements, which Yusupov would excavate. Now the sands were swallowing up the river. Its energy began to weaken, its current to wane. It is not known who first noticed this. The Ali-Ali, Chyzr, and Tivedzij gathered on the banks to watch the river, the source of life, departing; they sat and they watched, because people like to observe their own misfortune. The water level fell from one day to the next; an abyss was yawning before them ... People ran to the mullahs, ran to the ishans ... Nothing helped. The fields were drying up and the trees withering. For a skin of water one would buy a Karakul sheep. Caravans, which before stopped here and there, now passed by in a hurry, as if an epidemic had befallen this land. The bazaars grew deserted; merchants closed their shops.

Yusupov, who excavated the former oases of the Uzboj, claims that there is a great disorder among the objects found there. People just abandoned everything they had. Children abandoned their toys; women abandoned their pots. They must have been seized with panic, hysteria, fear. No doubt the most fantastic rumors circulated. Perhaps prophets and fortune-tellers appeared. People felt the band of the desert tightening around them; the sand was whistling at their door.

God. Fantastic imagery. Makes me feel like I might have been there.

Next: Turkmen cultural identity

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 07:28:00 AM


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Jesus, Willie, can't you write ANY BETTER??

  contact Sheila Link: 11/08/2002 07:22:00 AM


Well, the shock waves continue to come on down. From all sides. I came across the following piece on The Daily Dish and must highly recommend it. In my opinion, it is even more valuable for being posted on The Nation. You can read The Wall Street Journal, or The Weekly Standard, and hear the same comments, the same critiques of the Democrats this campaign season, but it is incredible coming from the Democratic side. Everybody can do with a little self-criticism, and this piece is incredible for that. Don't miss it.

Choice quotes:

Message matters. Bush had one: support me, the war, and tax cuts. That was pretty straightforward. The Democrats offered, we're not Bush and vote for us if you're anxious about the economy even though we don't have a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Not much of a bumper sticker there. Besides, we're-not-Bush is not a great plan when the President is scoring approval ratings in the mid-60s. "Ultimately," Senator Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (who joined McAuliffe at the press conference), observed, "we could not compete with the bully pulpit and a wartime president." Now she tells us.


While we're on the subject of change at the top, Gore does not look swell the day after. Where was the Election 2000 anger that was supposed to be an asset for Democrats? Jeb Bush stomped the Democrats in Florida... if Democratic outrage is no longer a force, [Gore's] prospects diminish.

Terrific piece. Read on.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/07/2002 10:21:00 AM

Thursday, November 07, 2002  




I skipped a day yesterday. I was too exhausted, and too obsessed with the amazing election results, to delve into Mr. Turkmenbashi's madness. But here goes.

Saparmurat Niyazov is the president of Turkmenistan. One of his primary goals (well, besides creating a ridiculous personality cult around himself) was to invent a glorious national past for Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, throughout the millennia, was not a unified place. It still is not. 55 nationalities alone live in the capital city. It is a place of nomads, and wanderers. Desert people. But Niyazov wanted to inflame in the Turkomens a sense of ethnicity and unification. He set out to re-invent the past.

The truth of the matter, the FACTS of the past, did not suit his purposes, so he made stuff up, to make the Turkomens feel better about themselves. The local scholars, the intelligent people in the country, know the truth: that the Turkomens are not the source of everything wonderful and innovative on the planet, the Turkomens did not discover America, the Turkomens did not invent such-and-such...but they must parrot the regime's version of the truth.

Niyazov's father was killed in World War I, and his mother died in the 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat which basically swallowed up the entire city. 110,000 people died. The entire old medieval city disappeared off the face of the earth. Niyazov was then raised in an orphanage. Some scholars surmise that being abandoned (twice) like this in his childhood is the primary source of his personality cult. He has turned himself into the golden child of the country. He has put himself on all the currency. He has named months after himself. Ashgabad is clogged with golden statues of himself. Also, Times-Square-size billboards of his face fill the entire country. I read one travelogue where the writer describes riding through the devastatingly bleak Kara Kum Desert which makes up most of Turkmenistan, and seeing Niyazov billboards looming up out of the empty distance. Even in the middle of nowhere, Niyazov wants to make sure his presence is omniscent.

Niyazov was a member of the Communist Party since 1962. He rose through the ranks to the highest level. In 1990 (just before all hell broke loose across the Soviet Union...or, actually, during the hellfire) he became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, which is the top dog. Then the Soviet Union crumbled and crashed and shattered, leaving chaos, ethnic warfare breaking out, economic collapse...utter confusion, especially in these nomadic Central Asian Islamic republics...republics with no prior history of centralized government or democracy. In 1991, Turkmenistan declared itself independent. A new constitution was drawn up, a democratic constitution, which set in motion a presidential election. The first in Turkmenistan's history. And hey, whaddya know, Niyazov was elected president.

There is a ludicrous fun-house aspect to his regime, which actually is rather dangerous. I say that because it seems rather easy for us to make fun of it all, how stupid it is, how ridiculous it is, how clearly it could never happen here. Niyazov has come out with a line of cologne. Turkomen cologne. He has published his own poetry which is always #1 on Turkmenistan's best-seller list. He also, a la Qaddafi, has published books of his own philosophical (psychotic) musings. Musings on "Turkmenness", and ethnicity, and how to create a government, etc. etc. The reason I say "dangerous" is that I have read articles which treat this regime humorously. The tone of the articles is: Ho ho, look at this crazy man!! Ha ha, isn't it funny...blah blah blah. When, actually, what he has created is a society with no freedom of speech. Not only is there no freedom of speech, but there is no freedom of thought. Niyazov has hijacked the entire country. The people are trapped by their own leader. (Again, this sounds rather familiar, no?)

Every building built is built to glorify Niyazov and humble the population. This was Stalin's tactic. Stalin would build inhumanly sized massive buildings, and streets which were impossibly wide, impossible to cross. The urban landscape was built specifically to make people feel miniscule and helpless. Niyazov does the same. He is a complete and utter megalomaniac who never ever ever hears someone say "No", or "You know what, Saparmurat? I don't think that is such a good idea." Or "Well, we have a lot of problems in this country...unemployment, anger, poverty...maybe focusing on a line of cologne is not the best use of your energy??"

Nomads, historically, are very suspicious people. Suspicious of outsiders. It is not hard to imagine why. Typically, an outsider who shows up in the nomad world, is a thief, a Genghis Khan-type murderer, a raider, a pillager. Your life, and your trust, is placed with your CLAN. The outside world is not to be trusted. Only the clan matters. Two generations ago, Turkmenistan was a nation of nomads. This suspicion of outsiders, in their nomadic blood, has now been transferred into their government.

Niyazov's regime is xenophobic. Suspicious. Defensive. The populace finds tremendous obstacles in their way if they want to travel. A vast bureaucracy has been created to make Visa applications nearly impossible. Niyazov wants no outside influence, he doesn't want the citizenry to get any funny ideas. However he has NO problem with "hiring out". Turkmenistan is a land with vast oil wealth. The Turkomans have no idea how to capitalize on this wealth. They don't know about technology, they don't have any experts in the country. So Niyazov hires vast amounts of experts from other countries (many of them Israelis) to come and build the infrastructure of the country FOR him.

Niyazov has a massive secret police force. Which he learned how to utilize during his days in the Communist Party. Journalists who come to the country to find out what is going on will often be followed, trailed, watched like a hawk. They will be assigned a "guide" who is really a government spy. All typical despotic tyrannical stuff.

Who knows how it all will end. I believe it cannot go on like this indefinitely. This nation of people have had no chance to figure out their own way. They are crushed under an iron fist, once again. From Communism to Niyazov-ism.

Niyazov is definitely one of those evil leaders out there. Someone we should definitely keep an eye on. The regime is "stable", but only because no dissent is allowed. Political parties are outlawed. Nobody can make a move. The entire country is paralyzed. Something's gotta give, and Niyazov will not give up easily. He's a psychological case study, which is kind of terrifying to have in a tyrant. Someone who is working out his childhood abandonment issues ON the country he is leading. A terrible mix.

It is a disaster waiting to happen.

Next: Desert nomads

  contact Sheila Link: 11/07/2002 08:33:00 AM


The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted
to learn of the crow.

-- William Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"

  contact Sheila Link: 11/07/2002 08:29:00 AM


At the moment, there's not much I can add to what is being said about the election. Not because I have nothing to say, but because I have spent the morning reading newspapers and blogs obsessively, and feel complete at the moment that everybody else has covered everything. Kind of a cop-out, I know. But I also only had 2 hours of sleep last night. I am not thinking straight.

Before I go, the following piece, by Bala Ambati, a liberal, is phenomenal. He talks about how liberals MUST address the FACTS about terrorism. They are losing ground, losing support, they are increasingly out of touch. I read it, and wanted every liberal everywhere to read it. A nice cold clear breeze. To me, the quote to remember in the editorial is: It takes true courage to be a dove, but no honor accrues to being an ostrich. Yeah!!

  contact Sheila Link: 11/06/2002 12:48:00 PM

Wednesday, November 06, 2002  


Read Mark Steyn's latest. His columns on the sniper terror were amazing, and how I first became acquainted with his writing.

Here's his column, written yesterday, noticing the trends of this election. It's an interesting article, regardless, but I just like how the man puts a sentence together.

Some examples:

In regards to the lack of campaign coverage in the past couple months:

This has been the strangest election campaign. For one thing, round about the beginning of October, it dropped off the national radar screen entirely: You'd turn on one of the A-list Sunday talkfests and, instead of the shifty Congressman and the pompous Senator, there'd be some guy droning on about how it's clear we're dealing with a psychotic personality who underneath his apparent arrogance and sense of superiority is consumed by a deep sense of inadequacy perhaps stemming from his childhood ...

On the election in Minnesota:

In Minnesota, as in New Jersey, the Democrats rummaged through the cryogenics vault and decided to defrost Walter Mondale, who is apparently an "icon" in Minnesota, though an icon of what is not precisely clear.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/05/2002 02:13:00 PM

Tuesday, November 05, 2002  


Okay, so I'm thrilled. I took the "Which founding father are you?" quiz (very a propos on this day of all days) and came up as George Washington. I will take this as a very good sign.
"You are the most reliable creature on the face of the planet. You're not the most creative, but inspire great loyalty because you are physically incapable of not keeping your word. People set their watch by you. You are often the one friend in common between two blood enemies."

Not creative?? WHAT?

Thanks to Michele, at a small victory, for this link.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/05/2002 12:42:00 PM

I love the smell of a ballot booth in the morning ...

I did my civic duty (for yes, I see it as my duty) and voted this morning at 6 am. I was aided in the whole "pull the lever, flip the switch, push the button, pop the cork, shake your ass, bite your chad" procedure by the geriatric set in my neighborhood. The sweet little old ladies and men who man the ballot booths every election. I was done by 6:15 am, got some coffee, came home, and had a lovely long morning, filled with the glow of well-being. I VOTED. I am PARTICIPATING. So now, no matter what happens, whoever wins, I have the right to criticize, or gloat, or bitch and moan, or dance a friggin' jig. If you do not vote, then I do not want to hear a word of complaint (or praise) from you about what is going on in this country. You have abdicated your right to speak up. Vote or bestill your tongue.

Hilarious piece by "Isn't a Pundit" about his voting experience today. It gets weirder and weirder as you read it.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/05/2002 10:40:00 AM



Ancient history

The 5 former Soviet republics in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan) are what make up the area known as Turkestan, and if you go even farther east, over the Tien Shan mountains into China, you come to the "wild west" of China, the Xinjiang Province which is also called "Chinese Turkestan". Turkestan comprises (historically) parts of Pakistan and India as well.

All of these "stans" were not known as nations during their heyday in the middle ages. People were identified with the oasis they lived in: Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, whatever. The area was inhabited by Turkic people (which comprises many many sub-divisions: Turkomans, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uighurs), and Persian people, and Caucasian tribes and Tibetans and mongoloid races, and other forgotten subgroupings. We are talking about a mecca of multiculturalism. They were always at war with one another, basically. Turkestan was a very complicated collision zone of identities and races.

The famous medieval "Silk Road" traveled through Turkestan, making the cities along the way internationally known, in an age before mass media. As a matter of fact, for centuries, Turkestan was essential. Over this vast steppe and desert-land, the caravans would come, bringing goods, and information, and technology from China. If Turkestan had been made up of Himalayan-tall mountain ranges, the Silk Road could not have evolved. It is impossible to over-estimate the impact the Silk Road had on the human race. Turkestan's string of city-states was one of the reasons why this occurred.

If I had a time machine, one of the places/times I would KILL to visit would be an oases along the Silk Road. Samarkand, Tashkent. They were Islamic cities, when Islam was at its height. Islam, at that time, was an incredibly assimilative religion. The Islamic warriors would conquer a land, and immediately begin to assimilate all the best from that conquered culture: literature, scientific discoveries, inventions, philosophies. People came from all over Turkestan and beyond to study in the theological centers set up here. Turkic and Persian cultures fused together, which still is reflected in the architecture in these cities today. (Wherever the Russians didn't destroy the buildings.)

Then came 1498.

And an incredible discovery was made. Wonderful for the human race in a "macro" sense, but a disaster for Turkestan. The sea route to India was discovered. And basically, with that discovery, Turkestan slipped out of history and disappeared completely. The famous city-states fell into decay, nobody came anymore. The Silk Road withered up and died. And Turkestan lost its reason for being.

Four centuries later, the Russians "discovered" Turkestan. These Turkomans, who had been completely left in history's dustbin suddenly, once again, were sitting on the most valuable piece of land on earth. Russia and Great Britain began their "Great Game": the struggle for control of Central Asia. The two superpowers of the 19th century battled it out with one another on the deserts and steppes.

I am just so curious what that must have been like. For the Turkomans who, for centuries, had lived in their desert oases, ignored by the rest of the world, ignoring the rest of the world, completely self-contained, silent, unknown. And then ... boom. Here come two massive superpowers wielding weaponry such as they have never seen, fighting wars over the land.

These ancient people of pretty much unknown origins: the Turkomans...who, through their oral history and epics, know that long long long ago, their land was talked about in books, was revered, mythologized, dreamt of. And they know that they, once upon a time, were the greatest warriors on the planet. They just were not cut out to be a modern people. Their glory days occurred seven centuries ago.

I am very curious about people with such long memories. What could they tell us? Who knows, maybe I'm romanticizing. I probably am.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Niyazov, the "president" of Turkmenistan. Actually, he has renamed himself Turkmanbashi, which means "Chief of the Turkmens". The guy is nuts.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/05/2002 07:27:00 AM



"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." -- Albert Einstein

  contact Sheila Link: 11/05/2002 07:15:00 AM


All right now, this is eerie. Michael Ledeen reports on the deaths of two high-level Iranian parliamentarians in a sudden car accident. Ledeen says that not one of his Iranian sources think that this was an actual "accident". Read the article, and then ask yourself the question: WHY is nobody reporting this? I read Ledeen's piece and then did my own little search of the major newspapers and found absolutely nothing. What is going on?? Even if it IS "just" an accident, why is there no mention of it anywhere? If two members of the House of Lords were killed in car accidents, you can bet that the New York Times or the Washington Post would at least MENTION it.

I'm starting to get angry.

And this is interesting: In my post about "silence" the other day, the silence of certain regimes and how you cannot read their newspapers and find out what is going on AT ALL, I compared this situation to the media in the United States. Yes, our newspapers are not perfect. They sensationalize, they politicize, blah blah blah. But if something OCCURS in the world, then at least you know you can get the bare bones of the event in your newspaper of choice. If a school collapses in an earthquake in Italy, our papers report it. When Pim Fortyn was assassinated, our newspapers devoted much coverage to this. Different papers put a different spin on this assassination, but we could at least tell that it had HAPPENED when we looked at our newspapers.

Well now, as I looked in paper after paper for even the briefest notice that these two men died and found nothing, I started to hear that booming silence in my ears. Getting louder and louder and louder. What the hell is going on? These men criticized the regime, and now suddenly, conveniently, they are dead, and nobody anywhere seems to be talking about it. Except Ledeen.


Meanwhile, the killing continues relentlessly, with public hangings and stonings the order of the day. And the silence of the West continues apace. Fascinating, isn't it, that the human-rights establishment goes ballistic over the scheduled stoning of one Nigerian woman, but says hardly a word about the three recent stonings in Iran, with more in the works? And it's equally fascinating that neither the Department of State nor the staff of the National Security Council denounces the wave of repression under way in Iran. What can explain the apparent indifference of Colin Powell and Richard Armitage in Foggy Bottom, and Elliott Abrams at the NSC? Do they find Iranians less deserving of human rights than Nigerians? And what can explain the interminable silence of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, as well as the major news networks, to the butchery of the Islamic Republic? At the time of the Khomeini Revolution, journalists such as Robin Wright and Elaine Sciolino decried the shah's sins. Why do they now blunt their pens?

  contact Sheila Link: 11/04/2002 04:56:00 PM

Monday, November 04, 2002  

Subliminal messaging ...
see if you can pick up on it ...


  contact Sheila Link: 11/04/2002 12:45:00 PM




Okay, so I will now leave Azerbaijan behind. I will float across the Caspian Sea, directly across, and land on the shores of Turkmenistan.

Turkemenistan, through the ages, has been known by many different names. The Persians, in the 3rd century, called it Turkestan. This name is still used in some of the books I have read. To describe the entire area. The Elizabethans called it "Tartary". Which also is still used, on occasion. The notion of Turkmenistan, as a modern nation, is very very recent (say, 1991-recent).

Turkmenistan is 90% desert with vast quantities of oil beneath.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Turkmens (or's spelled differently in every book I read) started to migrate here from Mongolia. Nobody is sure why. Not even the Turkmens of today know why. These ancient people were nomadic raider types of the Genghis Khan variety. Very good raiders. Not so good nation-builders. Also, the landscape of Turkmenistan does not at all lend itself to any kind of centralized government. It's just one big huge desert, with most of the population living in 5 oases, spread out, and disconnected.

In the mid 1700s, the Persians subdued the Turkmens (who had been continuously raiding Persia for centuries). In the early 1800s, the Russians arrived. A portentous event. They started erecting forts throughout the desert. The Russians wanted to break Persia's hold on Central Asia, and they did just that. The Russians began warring with the Turkmens who, understandably, wanted them to pack up their damn forts and trot on back to Moscow.

In 1916 a Turkmen leader came along, the first one to unite this land, which was little more than a massive desert, scattered with tribes and clans who had nothing to do with each other. But along comes Mohammed Qurban Junaid Khan, who instilled in the Turkmens a sense of nationhood, a sense of pride...and they ejected the czarist forces and began a war with the Red Army. Quite a ballsy move, and doomed to failure. The Turkmens were nomadic farmers and wanderers. They were no match for the Russians.

The Soviets won, naturally. They immediately changed the Turkmen alphabet from Arabic to Cyrillic. They sealed the borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Stalin came along, and there were tons of purges and executions. The Russians began to "resettle" in Turkmenistan. The Soviet leadership needed there to be more Russians in these wild backwards Central Asian places, so tons of Russians were sent to Turkmenistan to settle in. The few educated Turkmen that existed were completely annihilated.

Turkmenistan became independent in 1991. But this basically happened against their will. They were forced to become a nation. Turkmenistan was the LEAST prepared of all the Central Asian republics to become a state. Statehood has always been an indistinct and abstract concept in this area. So the Turkmen people inherited a complete void. Which is a perfect situation for a power-crazed dictator to rush in and take over. This is exactly what has happened. A madman is now in charge of Turkmenistan, but that's a story for another day.

Next: Ancient history

  contact Sheila Link: 11/04/2002 07:48:00 AM



The following quote is from The Dream Palace of the Arabs, a wonderful and sad book I just read about the one generation of Arab intellectuals (in the 1950s and 60s) who tried to renew their culture, through their beliefs in modernity and secularism. As we all know now, this generation was sorely disappointed, their dreams and hopes shattered. Now the lunatics are running the asylum. I have a couple of thoughts about the message in this book, as I see it, which maybe I will share later. So here's the quote:

An Arab of Buland Haidari's age [an Iraqi poet, born in 1926, died in 1996] and awareness would have been through great political and cultural ruptures. He would have seen the coming of a cultural and political tide in the 1950s -- growing literacy, the political confidence of mass nationalism, the greater emancipation of women, a new literature and poetry that remade a popular and revered art form -- and its ebb. They would have lived through the Suez War in 1956 -- the peak of Arab nationalist delirium -- and the shattering of that confidence a decade later in the Six Day War of 1967. By the mid-1980s, the men and women of Haidari's generation no longer recognized themselves in the young men and women of the Arab world. In the simplified interpretation we have of that civilization, the young had taken to theocratic politics; they had broken with the secular politics of their elders.

They had done that, but there was more at stake in that great cultural and political drama. Home and memory, the ways of an inheritance, the confidence in unexamined political and social truths had been lost. Consider this simple passage written in the mid-1980s by a man of the Arab elite, of Buland Haidair's time and certainties. Palestinian-Jordanian diplomat and author Hazem Nusseibah was speaking of the Arab nationalists of his time: "They believed in the blending of what was best in the newly discovered Arab heritage and in contemporary Western civilization and culture, and they foresaw no serious problem which might impair the process of amalgamation." No Arab in the 1990s could speak in such terms.

The border between things and people Arab and the civilization of the West had become permeable -- today I can pick up a paper my father used to read in the early 1950s in Beirut a block or two from my apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City -- but the encounter has become one of great unease, rage, and violence. A great unsettling of things had been unleashed on Arab lands, and they had not been ready for it. What Arabs had said about themselves, the history they had written, and the truths they had transmitted to their progeny had led down a blind alley.

--Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs

  contact Sheila Link: 11/04/2002 07:34:00 AM


My dear friend from college and beyond, Liz, ran the New York Marathon today. It is her first marathon. And she said to us afterwards, collapsing in her husband's arms, wrapped in silver mylar, "NEVER AGAIN." So I suppose I should say that this may also be her LAST marathon.

But she DID it. She has always wanted to do it, and she DID it. A couple of years ago, on my birthday, she and I wrote out To Do Lists. These were not To Do lists along the lines of: "I have to start exercising, I have to get my car fixed..." We focused on a more cosmic level. Things that we feel we HAVE to do before we die. Things that HAVE to happen. And "running a marathon" was on Liz's list. I'm thrilled for her. I'm also glad that it's over. I'm glad it's over for her sake, but I'm also glad it's over because I need to just sit the HELL DOWN. I have been on my feet for 9 hours straight.

A terrific day. A day where I was proud to be a New Yorker. A day where I was in love with everybody. I looked around, and all I saw was everybody's goodness.

Tomorrow will come, and that clarity and piercing poignancy will fade, but that was what I felt today. A piercing sense of love for everybody.

Congratulations, Liz...YOU DID IT.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/03/2002 08:16:00 PM

Sunday, November 03, 2002  


"Knock it off". A great (and disturbing) report from the city of Berlin ending with this moving paragraph:

With a nod to J.F.K., my motto today is simple: "Ich bin ein New Yorker." We are all New Yorkers now. Wherever you live, if you believe in the open society, if you cherish a world of freedom, you are now in World War III — a war against the new totalitarians, who strike at our businesses, discos, airports and theaters in an attempt to get us to shut ourselves in and our societies down. Either we fight this war together, or we lose it together. To those who forgot what it takes to defend the open society, let them come to Berlin — let them walk the winding path where the Wall once stood and recall the collective effort that brought it down.

I love Friedman when he gets indignant and filled with certainty. It's really rousing stuff.

  contact Sheila Link: 11/03/2002 10:17:00 AM

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