Why You Should Listen To Stupid Ideas


There is a man that haunted, crippled and talked me down for years and his name is Earl Keith Miller. He is a successful cognitive neuroscientist who studied at Princeton University and taught at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). As a scientist, his work comprises of a lot of research. As a scientist, he serves humanity in the most honorable way: he collects information, analyses it and tells us what to do, not to do and what is wrong and right in a lot of cases.

In 2009, four years ago, I was in my first undergraduate semester – a freshman eager to do everything right from the beginning until the very end. 2009 was also the year when I read an article on the Ethiopian Review about him and his new, important findings.

This is where the drama begins.

Successes are more informative than failures”, Earl said, meaning: If you fail at something you probably know why. You got fired because you showed up late most of the time. Your spouse left because you showed up too many times at the wrong place, with the wrong person. You already know the reason you failed.

But “if you succeed, everything has gone right, so there’s a lot more information in successes than failures,” Miller continued, meaning: We learn more from success, not failure.

And this is where the climax begins.

Naturally I assumed I should study the successful if I wished to be successful. And I did. For years and years, and even until now, I read biographies of people who are held to be successful members of our society, in their own way, in their own niche – not telling me that most of them rarely talk about failures in their lives. Having founded a startup magazine myself, I regularly read about the successful startups that the Fortune magazine displays so heroically – not telling me that most startups don’t actually start up. And I studied night after night wanting to become like the average A – students – not knowing that there are a lot more reasons why I had not as many As as them than just my IQ. In short, because failure became invisible, the difference between failure and success became invisible, too.

In 2009, I firmly believed that there is an infinite number of ways to fail and only a few ways to succeed and in 2013, I must correct myself: there is an infinite number of ways to fail and an infinite number of ways to succeed.

But herein lies the difficulty: the hard part is pinning down the cause of success.

Most people just point at highly visible things, and make claims like

 “StartupX is successful because the founders worked extremely hard, the office culture was well-developed, and there were lots of team building activities.”


StudentX gets a lot of A grades because he studies a lot.”

The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups and eager students that did all those same things, but failed. Perhaps it turns out that StartupX really succeeded because they had a sales guy with lots of good connections and et cetera. Or StudentX really had better grades because he studied with the right people, had the right routines and et cetera.

Causation is not relation, everybody knows that. But it is damn hard to figure out what and often the people themselves are biased and don’t really know why they have become successful. I would say a big percentage of tips you get are less useful than you might think, perhaps even harmful, but to figure out which one of them depends on your judgment.

In the words of one of my favorite journalists, David McRaney on his blog youarenotsosmart.com:

If you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete. As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing, but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.

Sites like Admitting Failure and events like FailFaireDC 2012 which have recently attempted to bring together stories of projects gone wrong, addressed the need to discuss failures. I will try to do that, too.


An Apology To Barbie


While a Barbie-themed restaurant opening was hailed with general delight and fanfare in Taipei earlier this year, the opening of the blonde doll’s new crib in Berlin revives a discussion that is long obsolete.

Left-wing feminists are protesting the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience – a 27,000-square-foot lifesized pink estate – opening in Berlin tomorrow on May 16.

For decades, the world’s new women have taken Barbie for granted. The consensus is: Barbie is evil. She is too sexy, they say. She is too thin, they claim. And above all, she reduces women to a domestic, sexual slave of today’s patriarchy. I mean, even Mattel, Inc., Barbie’s producer, sued the band Aqua for their song ‘Barbie Girl’, saying they violated the Barbie trademark and turned Barbie into a sex object, referring to her as a “Blonde Bimbo“.
On trial, judge Kozinski however dismissed the case by concluding: “The parties are advised to chill.

And I agree. I dare to go further: women owe Barbie an apology.

Plastic doll little Barbara is the epitome of early feminism. She was women’s first alternative to being a mother.

Let’s all remember the old standard dolls back in the days: that one toy girls were taught to take care of, change its diapers, feed and pay extra attention to. And then came the 60ies, and our long-lost best friend Barbie arrived.

Girls dressed Barbie because she has fun with fashion, not because she is helpless. Barbie bakes cakes because she invites girlfriends over, not because she has to feed her baby. The first women-self-help sit-ins were at her place. There is a Ken in each Barbie’s life but Ken is not her boss: he is an accessoire who has (way too much) fun wearing fashionable clothes and having tea parties with the other girls.

Barbie is everything an emancipated woman wants to be: grown up, emotionally independent, confident, financially and sexually free.

So, yes, you all need to chill.

The German Fear Of Opinion


I live in Germany and I speak German. Yet, I blog in English. There are several reasons for that.

The Internet is a big, big equalizer, at least anywhere but Germany. Youngsters and professors alike have one voice. In Germany, we make fun of you. Here, we’re obsessed with status and hierarchy.

Here, we are busy climbing up the education ladder for years and years. We collect diplomas, certificates and evaluation reports, so that the whole world believes us when we say we are smart. In Germany, we don’t think anyone can have an opinion. And when we read blogs, we go to their ‘About page’, see if the blog’s author is qualified enough to write about what he writes about. We don’t care if his arguments are original, smart or edgy. He has to have studied it for at least 15 years.

This is not a country with a chief advisor called Larry Summers. We know he reads blogs from big and small names. He likes to listen to the people. I’m sorry but there is no bloggers’ voice to take into account here, Larry.

If we do manage to have one, ooh he better not err often, most preferably never. We fear public embarrassment so much that we don’t write much – if anything at all. If we do write about something we are – on paper – experts on, we fear to overlook an important aspect. If we write about something we are not experts on, oh, nevermind, we don’t do that.

We have methods, strategies and statistics. You bloggers love to jump to conclusions as if it is fun to discuss. Listen to us, listen to us very carefully: it takes years to write a perfect post. You cannot have an actual opinion in a couple of days. And what good does blogging do you anyway? It doesn’t make you famous. We love being famous. You guys just want to turn into those critical minds outside the system. We have no time for well articulated criticism. We’d do that for money though.

The Paris Of The Middle East


In the period after World War II a number of artists emerged in Beirut, a fulcrum between oriental and occidental, most famously Fairuz, Sabah, Wadih El Safi, Majida El Roumi, Nasi Shemseddine, Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalifa.

Since then, Lebanese music has established itself as a symbol and leader of Arabic music. Today’s stars such as Najwa Karam, Diana Haddad, Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, Wael Kfoury, Assi El Helani, Fadhel Shaker and Elissa have become household names in many countries around the world.

But when exploring a country’s music, attention must not only be paid to its singers but also to its instruments. Lebanon’s traditional music incorporates the deep and mellow sounds of the Oud, the beautifully decorated Derbakki (a kind of drum also known as the Tabla) and the Deff (also known as the Riqq, corresponding to the English tambourine).

But if you really want to know all about Lebanese music, you will need to dance. Dabke is the national dance and the Lebanese people take particular pride in their skills in dabke dancing. Comparable to the Irish step dance or the Greek Hassapiko, songs such as Nasri Shemseddine’s ‘Ala Ali El Dar’ have the perfect beat.

Wadih El-Safi’s and Sabah’s songs had distinct nationalist tones, reflecting the fact that many Lebanese were among the first Arab nationalists, particularly within the field of music. Mohammed Falafel, a servant of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, composed songs that became the anthems of many Arabic nations. From the very beginning, nationalism and music have been intertwined in Lebanon – the Rahbani Brothers and Fairuz are two other acts that should be mentioned here.

Fairuz is one of the most famous Lebanese singers.

After World War I, Lebanon was occupied by France until 1946. Following independence, many Lebanese artists emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, carrying on a tradition that was born under the French mandate. Mixing Western and Oriental music styles and instruments, the Rahbani Brothers popularized local folk music and made Lebanese music a highly distinguishable and unique genre.

In the early 1970s, Fairuz also performed more Western songs, with lyrics that were closer to European traditions such as ‘Habaytak Bi-Sayf‘ (which means ‘I loved you in Summer’), which catapulted her to fame in the West. Another favourite is Samira Tawfik’s ‘Balla Tsoubou Hal Kahwa‘, which is literally about drinking coffee and adding more cardamom to it. The 70s not only produced these gems but also singers, if you will, like the Bandaly Family with their infamous ‘Do you love me?‘. Bear in mind that this was shortly before the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 began.

Mashrou’ Leila make Arabic alternative music.

In the landscape of post-civil war Beirut, there was a vacuum that needed to be filled, and around 1993, peace began to feel like a possibility for the first generation of post-war youth who were eager for change. Lebanon is surely not stuck in its past and it is thus one of the few Arabic countries which has an actual alternative genre to its rich traditional music, with artists such as the rappers Ashekman or Rayess Bek and alternative bands like Mashrou’ Leila or Youmna Saba. Seminal electro-Arabic fusion bands such as Soap Kills are considered to be the voice of an entire generation. Sounds derived from the production influences of Massive Attack and Portishead, Beirutian music has always been interpreted anew.

But Beirut is a complicated place. On July 12th 2006, Israel launched an offensive attack. After 33 days of heavy bombardment, Beirut’s alternative scene suffered greatly. Its political instability however is not characteristic of its population. Not only did Lebanese music never cease to exist, but it was always subject to experimentation and innovation. Unlike in many countries of the West, where there always has been a clear line between music and politics, when in Beirut, one finds the two intertwined. Maybe this is the only place where musicologists also have to be good historians too.

This article has originally been written for Your Middle East. Here is the link to the original article.

Why I Love Studying Political Science


My job and interest require me to read a lot on Iraq. As the 10th anniversary of the war came and went, concluding, apologetic and criticising articles, essays, opinions and let’s-take-a-look-at-what-we’ve-done-heres dominated the internet press. I read so many of them, I’d dare to say that I read them all.

Like Jennifer Rubin, I was surprised by the lack of effort on the part of those who backed the Iraq War to defend it, but I was probably more baffled by the amount of confidence with which the authors answered the most interesting question of the last decade: “Was it worth it?”

A general view of Firdous Square at the site of an Associated Press photograph taken by Jerome Delay. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

4 400 Americans died while the Iraq Body Count documented Iraqi Civilian deaths up to 122 326 until now. But does this answer the question? It would have maybe, if the world didn’t wage wars in the first place. We did and that means, we expect death. Anti-war protestors are rarely represented in a government that is prone to waging wars. They are more likely to be thought of as endlessly bickering about petty and trivial questions such as “Do we really need violence?”

But if our conscience doesn’t have an answer, what can possibly tell us if we’ve done right or wrong? How do we measure its worth – the success of a war?

We measure success by our own motives, more concretely: we compare the current outcome to goals which we’ve set at the very starting point and then we take a look at how similar they are. A lot of people waged the Iraq War and they had many motives, too. Some were known, others not so much. But that is collateral, in this post. To fully grasp the responses to the 10th anniversary, I took the liberty to divide them into two motives groups: (1) Bush administration and defenders and (2) Bush administration critics.

Group (1), as Rubin already stated, was surprisingly silent. You might ask, what could they possibly say?

Saddam Is Here, Jamal Penjweny 2010, http://www.jamalpenjweny.com

Group (2) would probably argue, group (1) had a lot to say back then and no time to answer to accusations of mendacity. Bush administration critics love to criticise not only the entire government and most of its officials. The entire society is to be blamed here, too. Because, yes, back then, willingness to resist the stampede for war was dire and the public debate was practically non-existent. There is a lot to be criticised, indeed. Iraq was a strategic disaster, it was a financial disaster, and for far too many it was a human and humanitarian disaster.  Yes, yes, yes, the intelligence was faulty, the pundit class failed, Judith Miller was wrong, and the New York Times screwed up.  In short, a lot of  “I supported the Iraq war, and I’m sorry.”  and “Look at that mess”.  (Even though not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, “War with Iraq is Not in America’s National Interest.” (You can read the original ad here. Walt and Mearsheimer also put out a Foreign Policy piece against the war in January 2003.)

Critics certainly outweigh the defenders, that means, the war must have been wrong, right?

I don’t know. I was born in Iraq, I grew up there until I was ten, and I still have family left in the northern autonomous region, Kurdistan. I can’t tell you if it was worth it, unnecessary or – especially because I’m Kurdish – an act of liberation or not. Maybe I’m speechless because I don’t think wars are ever worth it, necessary or liberating, because I had no authority, power or enough information to wage this war, on any side of the equation, and unlike authors of all the articles I gave you to read, I didn’t have a motive. In my four years of studying Political Science, I found it troubling that so many people can have such big opinions, regardless of their expertise. But this is exactly why I loved studying it so meticulously: reading the news is like reading the psychology of politics.

Explaining Kurdish Songs: Omer Dizeyî’s ”Xewn le Xewda”


Hêja is 28 years old and is based in Sweden. He listens to Kurdish songs and agreed to translate and analyze his current favorite song for me and for you. This is particularly interesting as he has a very symbolical mind and I believe you will enjoy reading music from the lens of a political scientist as much as I did.


The first song he chose, “Xewn Le Xewda“, is sung by Omer Dizeyî, an eminent Kurdish singer.

Dwênê shew bînîm le xewê
leser cêy ber mange shewê
xom xizande leser cêy fênik
nemhêsht ber henasem bikewê

Kijî xawî, be lêdawî alozawî
car car daydeposht le chawî
xwaye gîyan chendîm xosh dawê

Zor be aspayî û be nermî
demim bird bo lêwî germî
chawï helhênaw pêy gutim
xawnîm adît eto hawsarmî

Nêyhêsht hestim, girtî destim
lêwi gastim bo chirkêkî xoshî daygirt
sertapay hena û hestim

Wêk rata mella bang dananê
têk aran û dest le millanê
le nakaw dengî mella hat
daybirîm le bejnî cûwanê

Be ser samî, be nakamî bêaramî
bêcêmhêsht beheshtî xewnim
chawim pir bû le giryanê

Kurdish music has a special place in my heart. Ever since I was a small boy, I have colorful memories of melodies and voices, like memories of certain smells they are closely linked to how I remember my childhood. In recent years I have also started to listen to what’s actually said in the songs that I grew up with. Within Kurdish music, there are two categories of lyrics that are by far over represented. The lyrics are either about the misfortunes of the Kurdish people or all energy is put into celebrating the female anatomy.

I have chosen to write about a song that has a special place in my heart, a song that describes the sensual relationship between a man and woman whose tenderness and love is disturbed abruptly by the megaphone of religion. As I wrote above, there is a well-stocked library of poetry where men are celebrating the female physic by similes and metaphors to describe the beauty, often by referring to the Kurdish nature and also fruits over every kind. Traditional Kurdish music rarely describes the sensual relationships between the two sexes in an equal way. Rarely one can enjoy sexuality and sensuality being formulated from a woman’s perspective.

The song that I have chosen to write about is by Omer Dizeyî, a controversial singer among Kurds due to his lustful texts where nothing is saved to describe intimate descriptions. This song is no exception when it comes to being filled with lust, but it offers two dimensions that are rarely heard within Kurdish music. The song is both gender equal in its description of the sensual relationship being displayed as well as offering a razor-sharp critic towards religion.

The song starts with the male character in the song crawling into bed and laying down next to the woman of his life. The man sees his love whose body is illuminated by the infiltration of moonlight, he sees her hair hiding her face and his heart gets filled with love. The song continues with the man moving his lips towards her warm lips. Just before their lips met the woman makes her first entrance as an active character in the song, she opens her eyes and says that she was with the man in her dreams a moment ago. The woman suddenly takes yet another initiative; she grabs hold of his hand and bites his lip. The song has by now suddenly included a very interesting feature, a feature where the woman is described as the initiator and the dominant part of the intimacy. The song abruptly changes character after that. We are told that the play between the two characters is a scene from the man’s dream. A dream he is brought out of by the loud voice of a muezzin from the mosque. The muezzin’s voice awakens the man from his dream and sets him apart from the intimacy that only a few moments ago filled his heart with joy. The song ends with the man being filled with sadness, his eyes get filled with tears, once again the muezzin’s voice penetrated into the most private parts of life, right into the bed chamber.

In order to find the song interesting and special, one has to get an insight into the actual context that the song is a part of. I cannot give a complete and full description of the Kurdish community in a few lines, but I can try to briefly give some insight into the skewed gender power structure that affects the relationship between the two sexes. Kurdistan and the Kurdish culture are heavily influenced by a profound gender inequality, an inequality that is based on a vision that the honor of the man is linked to the female womb. Women’s sexuality is taboo, it is not owned by the woman herself but is supposed to be protected by the man. This relationship is wreaking a tremendous mess, every year thousands of women are killed by related men trying to obtain some sort of family honor. The patriarchal culture is maintained by the religious institutions by using the words of God to entitle the prevailing gender power relations.

Although the description above is flawed and leaves much unsaid, it is however, a description of reality no liberal eyes can ignore. Within the context described above, the formulation of a fierce criticism of religious intrusion into human beings most sacred moments as well as describing women as sexual initiators is nothing less than a social critique that should be applauded.

The Kurdish nation is understandably very busy freeing themselves from oppression. The political and the cultural offerings have been strongly marked by the eagerness of national liberation. The nationalist songs that sounds in every Kurdish home fires up a nationalistic flame that Kurds eagerly give oxygen to, however, what we often forget in all the nationalistic frenzy is that the desire for an independent and liberated Kurdistan should be beneficial to all Kurds, men and women. One of my fears is that only half of the Kurdish population will benefit liberation, where half the population is forgotten and actually oppressed by the other half. Songs like the one above gives us a reminder that it is equally important that we also free the other half from both religion and patriarchal oppression.

For me, Kurdish songs like this have a very special place in my heart.


The featured image shows a painting by Kurdish artist Bayad Abdullah.

Did you find this interesing? Hêja explained another Kurdish song: Naser Rezazi’s “Newroz”.

Karam: Patriotism


Karam, 21, based in the UK, writes poems on his own website. He writes poems for beautiful absurdity, too. Last month’s topic was: patriotism.

This is his poem:

At noon,

A voice;

A superior voice,

Boomed to the crowds below,

‘See, see how her shoulders are mausoleums of our sorrow where dandelion’s bloom so martyrs are able to peer up and smile, mimicking the Sun’s gaze,

And the air, the air of her curvy valleys which gently tickle the capillaries of our lungs as we gulp the clear elixir from her many streams,

Or open your ears and be accompanied by the wind’s bouncy duets with her pet birds in spring,

As we milk her cows and our bond is written in our bones as well as our blood,

We are all atoms of her glory, standing heart to heart palpitating with bravery,

So she can be tangible throughout the ages.

Sacrifice! sacrifice! until the end sacrifice!’


With so much zeal you’d think they were punishing their palms, and chants,

Chants so eager to escape it was as if the words were being abused in the brain, until…

‘Not I’ an anomaly arrogantly appeared in this throng of clogged thought.

‘I see quite clearly her shoulders are clumsy, brutish and foolishly carved- The mountains have long been dungeons of dull grey rock,

Nothing more,

I’ve also stared intensely at those dandelions wilt petal by petal; dying lame and regretful.

The milk always tasted sour to me,

Whilst I would wash my feet in her streams- for I never trusted it’s casual nonchalance,

And although I’ve no experience of any other, I’m sure this air is a tad bitter,

The sounds of springs seem to sing a requiem for winter, which is why I whistle whenever it is blown my way.

I’ve even seen her naked, and she is not a woman to me!’

Lenses of flesh examined the body from which the voice had vomited, some late from lingering on his last words.

‘Although there is one thing I must commend her for;

I admire how one land

can cast a million moving shadows.’

Jaws dangled,

Their eyes averted towards the superior man,

The one from a higher height,

With so much power and certainty in his voice ready to command the land to tremble the dirt beneath them,

For certain he would show this heretic how to love…

So they stood there in the blaze of the Sun,

Jaws dangling,

Awaiting to be told how to feel.

Poems on War



Natural Phenomena 

In the beginning,

It was sticks and stones breaking bones but soon enough we grew smarter,

Like sultry whores we taught the bow to ejaculate the arrow,

Discarding it as soon as the prints on our fingers learnt to tread artfully, doing the danse macabre back and forth, along the worn metal trigger

All for the dirt beneath the fingernails,

The moon grimaces and the stars blink uncontrollably looking at the state of nature in nation states from trebuchets to torture,

Hearing the bugle and drums outplay each other in unison, the beat muting hearts,

The dead buried on top of the dead leaving debris and dust to be stored upon forgotten men of forgotten ages with forgotten names from forgotten battles,

Did it really matter?

Was it really worth it?

Does THAT even matter?

As the gas erodes the organs and the mouth froths crying its ghastly tears horrified at the pungent taste of extermination,

The broth of war boiling in passions of rage burning the base of humanity’s melting pot, spurts of blood and whisky, dripping out of the exit wound leaving mother Earth to guzzle it down as we do the wine,

Disease intruding on the ligaments of the Land slowly shredding our bonds and creating disability where once moved unity,

As the heart surrenders and the brain makes it final defiant stand,

The spears of thought stabbing at our soul,

All that could of been,

Never to be,

Because of old men and new desires.


The brain’s vile streak surrounded by white marble pillars erected in its honour,

Is this is what it means to be living?

The sea goes only as far as the shore and I’m sure if it had the chance it would drown the lakes that separated from its idea of unity,

I see beauty in the world only as an absence of evil…

Ask yourself what if right at the start our sin wasn’t forgiven?

That the sadistic demon of fire sought not to banish the existence of our two curious ancestors and torture two spirits endlessly but an eternity of souls for eternity

That we bred, and with it burnt bread, birthing brutality and bloodshed as Beezlebubs backyard bloated,

The pendulum of life thwacking upon you like the swing set would, with all the force and urgency of the vitality of youth bringing us

To our knees,

As it first splits the skin,

the fresh blood oozing gently onto the scraped surroundings of starved white pores and the physique trembles uncontrollably welcoming our first experience of misery,

With stumbling uncertainty we back onto the merry-go-round of life tortured & terrorised in a trail of routine,

vomiting whatever we can sacrifice to present our presence,

so we are remembered,

Dizzy, we wander aimlessly with Few flinging themselves onto the climbing frame  imprinting their fingerprints as hard as they can, gripping onto trivialities forgetting Life beneath them,

Then they fall,

Body on concrete,

Bones crunching and joints popping,

They fall,

All being privy to the irony of the slide as we climb time only to regress lower  and lower,

What if this was already hell?

and because it’s not pitiful pits of lava where pins pierce the eyes and the charred tongue becomes a blind palate in the toothless mouth leaving only the ears to be serenaded by an orchestra of wails and shrieks,

Is because Lucifer’s most coveted virtue is sloth and all other traits are pygmies in comparison to the magnificence of this one,

As he warms up singing holes in the ozone layer in what to him is foreplay,

An intricate game pulling the strings of his most rotten toys,

Wetting our lips with the brandy so we  slowly sink softly deeper into the lullaby of the last rites

Soon to be students in his class of Scholomance,

What if,

This has always been,

And will always be,

The Devil’s Playground.

Why memoirs are no autobiographies


Studying politics ruins reading books for you because just about anything has to be interpreted in the light of the social and political circumstances of the surroundings.

One of the deficits of research on interwar Iraq, for example, is that most studies rely on records in Western, mainly British and American, and also a few German and Italian archives. Why? Not because Iraqis didn’t know or didn’t have the time to write, it is because Middle Eastern memoir literature is doubted to have the same interpretative character as autobiographies in the West. (Thanks to Edward Said for this ugly orientalism.)

It is self-evident that the information from personal memories cannot be taken at face value, which holds true for both Western and Middle Eastern memories. Literary studies teach readers to distinguish clearly between the author, the narrator, and the subject of narration. The author and the reader enter a pact, a ‘let’s pretend’, in order to provide the illusion of confidence in the information given. Hence, autobiographies and, less obviously, memoirs remain a construct.

They are essentially narratives with no direct claim to “truth”. Every statement by an autobiographer is made in a framework of contemporary discourse and has to be interpreted, as I said, in the light of the social and political circumstances of the surroundings. Many factors such as age, new experiences, and the confrontation with new socio-political demands make the individual filter, reassemble, and adapt remembered images according to “modern” requirements. Memoirs serve to explain the course of events up to the “now”-time, in an apologetic and affirmative manner. Shared memories create identities, and vice versa, adopted identities shape, if not even create, memories. As far as individual memories of incidents are concerned, they tell more about the quality of experience rather than about facts. The emphasis on specific topics, the narrative structure, as well as the occurrence of allusions and associations give hints at the perceived importance of the impression left by a certain experience at a certain time. Memoirs are written in the light of what happened afterward rather than of what happened before. Hence, the single account mirrors the whole. Furthermore, autobiographers can follow a didactical intention which is implicit in the process of singling out one’s own life to be worthwhile for public inspection: to set any sort of example. In the light of these assessments, it is hard to classify which of the texts treated in any kind of study on a subject, or even for yourself, would be a memoir and which would be a full-fledged autobiography with a high self-reflective value.

This classification is extremely important as it sometimes decides on a nation’s image to people not reading its own national literature but rely on international authors and reporters to give them a full view on things and positions.

There have been some grave decisions made on nation’s images throughout human history. Because there are not enough English books written by different perspectives. I call that ‘bad marketing’ for each nation. Let’s continue with our example:

Iraq has forever been linked with totalitarianism throughout the Nazi period in Germany. And this grave, very very bad image was very hard to rebut since ‘all’ research alluded to its truth. With Western media to draw conclusions only from Western authors, it is particularly difficult for anyone interested to find out about the ‘truth’, or the other sides of the story, as I call it.

What is fact though, is that Arabs, here: Iraqis were pro-fascist. In the Iraqi debate, images of leadership, references to a mythical past and subordination of the individual sounded quite fascist to British and US beholders in the wider framework of suspicions about a spread of fascism. For instance, the US Ambassador Knabenshue back then described a youth rally in January 1939 and reported home that the new Minister of Education, Salih Jabr, had given a speech ‘from a platform surrounded by microphones and with ‘other trappings familar to similar meetings in Germany and Italy.'” This quote in itself has no information value about Jabr’s intentions in the use of these signs or about the meaning that the audience attributed to the scenery. The quote only indicates that the event reminded Knabenshue of fascist practices. Nevertheless, quotes like this were used to prove that Iraqi Arab nationalism of the time was close to Nazism – when in fact, Germany was only one point of reference among many, many others in the nationalists’ discourse.

Also, what was their nationalist discourse for? They were pro-fascist to gain anti-imperialist support from their enemy'(Britain had occupied Iraq in that time)’s enemy (Germany & Italy). For them, being pro-fascist was a fashion, and their ideological commitment was superficial. But you don’t hear about these things, usually. Not if you don’t dig deep enough, that is.

If you study politics, history, sociology, it is imperative to take a look at the second narrative, always. The way knowledge is ordered and put into a hierarchy is ridiculous business, and I shall write about that in my next post.

But know this:

There is always another side to everything.

Pity The Beautiful Nation



Half a year ago, I arrived in Beirut at a lovely family-led hostel, situated in the Eastern part of the metropolis very near to the historical Charles Helou Avenue, the motorway to Byblos along the coastline. Together with three friends of mine – all too different from one another – we had decided to come here for an Arabic language course at the Saifi Institute for Arabic language in Gemmayzeh, one of Beirut’s hip parts.

One week before departure, I had bought Robert Fisk’s “Pity the Nation – Lebanon at War” from 2004. The book is an excellent and detaillistic account of what atrocities had been committed here, by Israeli vengers as well as by religiously motivated militia beginning in the 1970s. Lebanon has been and is a platform of politics. This is why nearly everyone you talk to in Beirut – whether it is the taxi driver, bartender, tour guide, local students, entrepreneurs or film directors and artists – has a political opinion and is generally well acquainted with what has been happening in the Middle East. Everyone holds their own solution to the ‘problem’ and their own conspiracy theories – one quickly has the image of a very conscious and integrated civil society. There is absolutely no where you can’t discuss politics at – from complaints about human rights violations committed by the government to an honorary lecture about Nasrallah, the infamous head of Hizbollah while enjoying one of Lebanon’s finer wines.

Right outside our hostel, the jumble of history was everywhere. And inside it as well as our favorite café, right inside our hostel, ‘Em Nazih’ refused to play modern music and instead introduced us to classical Lebanese music that generally discusses topics such as nationalism, war, migration and gender.

Lebanese artists are the most stylistically diverse among the Arab world and their music has had an influence on the Arabic music scene of today and of the past that is worthy of mentioning. Drawn heavily on local musical traditions such as ‘Dabke’ – a form of line dance spread out in Greater Syria and Lebanon, comparable to Irish step dance maybe, Nasri Shemseddine’s  على عالي الدار is a perfect example. We would hear this every weekend at parties not just at Lebanese cafés but also in more seemingly Western restaurants. Wadih El-Safi’s and Sabah’s songs have distinctly nationalist tones, and in fact, one might not know this but many Lebanese people were among the first Arab nationalists back then, most particularly within the field of music: Mohammed Falafel, a servant of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, composed songs that became the national anthems of many Arabic nations. From the very beginning, nationalism and music have been intertwined in Lebanon – the Rahbani Brothers alongside Fairuz are to mention here. After World War I, Lebanon was occupied by France until 1946. Following independence, many Lebanese artists emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, carrying on a tradition that was born under the French mandate. Mixing Western and Oriental music styles and instruments, the Rahbani Brothers popularized local folk music and made Lebanese music a highly distinguishable and uniform genre. In the early 1970s, Fairuz also performed more Western songs with lyrics closer to European styles, such as ‘Habaytak Bi-Sayf‘, translated it means ‘I loved you in Summer’ and thus became better known in the West than any other Lebanese artist. A favorite of mine is sung by Samira Tawfik, ‘Balla Tsoubou Hal Kahwa‘, literally about drinking coffee and adding more cardamon to it. The 70s not only produced these goldmines but also singers, if you will, like the Bandaly Family with their infamous ‘Do you love me?‘. Noted, this is shortly before the Lebanese Civil War began. The ‘Civil War’ being the conflict lasting from 1975 up until the 1990ies, involved Lebanon, Israeli spill-over and Syria.

Together with Fisk’s account of Lebanese history and suffering, and with these beautiful, beautiful songs that I woke up to every morning, my Beirut trip could not have been any more perfect.