Saturday, December 30, 2006

Remembering Saddam

Friday ended as a grim and depressing day. Not that I doubt Saddam guilt's for one second. He was clearly guilty of the crimes he was convicted of and for much, much more. By all accounts, he was a crude, sadistic and brutal megalomaniac rivaling some of the worst dictators the world has ever seen. He was responsible for the deaths in Dujail but also for the thousands of deaths and disappearances among Iraqis of all ethnicities and sects. He is also guilty of the starting the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait. What made yesterday grim and depressing is the was the way Saddam's execution was handled and its timing.

It was not supposed to happen this way. His prosecution, trial and conviction should have been an open and transparent process. It should have set a precedent for the region and for the world that such tyranny and brutality is unacceptable. Saddam needs to be remembered for all his misdeeds and held accountable for all of them. All Iraqis needed to see what happened during his reign. For those brutalized by his regime, it would be a cathartic process, a legitimization of their grief, a sense that justice is prevailing and the start of the healing process. For those Iraqis still under his spell, it would have been a rude and necessary awakening.

Instead, Saddam's trial was at times farcical and at times tragic and according to independent organizations, one that was not fair and transparent. Many questions are left unanswered. Why were the crimes committed at Dujail the first ones for which he was put on trial and not the more significant crimes against the Kurds? Why the rush to carry out his sentence? There are several possible explanations all of them having to do with politics rather than the pursuit of justice. The Shia dominated government set the tone and course of Saddam's trial to cater to the will of their Shia constituency. Perhaps the government thought that by getting rid of Saddam as a symbol, parts of the insurgency may become easier to control. Or could it be that exposing Saddam's misdeeds from the 1980's may raise uncomfortable questions about what role the U.S. government played in propping up his regime -recall the image of the friendly Rumsfeld Saddam handshake.

What is also disturbing about this whole episode is that the utter American failure in the conduct of the war in Iraq and its aftermath, the thousands of civilian deaths and the descent into civil war threaten to overshadow in many Iraqi minds memories of Saddam's brutality for they are dealing with the grim reality of today. So Saddam will be quickly forgotten by many, and lionized by a few. The bigger question is whether the people of Iraq and the Middle East will have learned a lesson from his reign of terror or whether we are condemned of have history repeat itself.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Levantine Dreamhouse is One Year Old

Yes, yet another one year blog anniversary. Indulge me... It helps to step back and take stock of one's work.

I wrote my first blog post in mid December of last year, saved it, but did not publish it until early January of 2006 because I was uncertain if I wanted get into blogging. I did not know if I had the desire, the commitment or the stamina to do it. Would there be enough to write about? Would anybody read it or would anybody care? After all, there are numerous examples of abandoned blogs floating in the ether of world wide web.

I started because I wanted to add my voice to a discussion that I followed with interest, one that was developing among bloggers from within and outside Syria. It was a discussion about change, evolution and advancement of a country that was in a state of near arrested development for over forty years. It was also a chance to “talk” about subjects that I felt passionate about, a chance I rarely got here in apolitical middle America, where politics is rarely the subject of polite conversation. Telling someone that you are from Syria usually invoked a blank unknowing stare and you move on to talk about the weather or sports.

The key to sustainable blogging is finding your balance. This balance is achieved by defining what your expectations are of the blog, and how much time you can devote to it. In the end, it has to reflect who you are, if not it feels and sounds contrived. I set out to write about politics, culture and religion in Syria and the region, subjects that are closely intertwined and of crucial importance to the future of the region. Not having professional training in any of the three disciplines, I could never pretend to have inside information or insights that no one else had. Whatever I write reflects my own –hopefully educated- opinions based on personal experience and what I read; I cannot pretend otherwise. Blogging has been an intellectual outlet for me regardless of how few or how many people read what I write. The exercise of trying to put one’s thoughts in writing forces you to organize your thoughts so that they are logical and reasoned. This is especially true in discussions of politics. Shrill postings full of clever put downs may bring you cheers of approval from those who share you opinion and indignant rebuttals from those don’t but it will never generate thoughtful consideration of what is being said. The same rule applies to comments left in response to a post. Comments ought to be measured and reasonable or they will unavoidably degenerate into shouting matches. Being civil will cost you traffic on your blog as the general blogging public prefers virtual fistfights to civil discourse. Don’t get me wrong, I too enjoy an occasional verbal fistfight, but I prefer to watch it on someone else’s blog.

What surprised me about blogging is how intimately acquainted with other bloggers one can become. Personalities are revealed in great detail by the content and the tenor of what is written. One particular
post from an inimitable Tartousi was particularly revealing to me. This post, about tolerance and respect of other faiths should be required reading for all in the region from Lebanon to Iraq. Another surprise is how in this infinitely vast blogosphere, old acquaintances can connect by pure chance. Fate had it that the Syrian Brit and I launched our blogs within days of each other last January. As we read each other’s posts, it became clear that we had much in common and it then became clear that our paths did indeed cross some twenty four years ago.

Having found my balance I can continue to blog with little effort (Um Kareem may disagree on that last point). More importantly, I will continue to blog because of the positive feedback and encouragement I get from other bloggers for whom I have deep respect. If the Syrian blogs I have frequented are in a any way representative of the Syrian people as a whole, then I am very optimistic about our future. I am proud of the company I keep.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Why I Like Obama for President

Barack Obama is perhaps the most intriguing of the "undeclared" candidates for the 2008 US presidential race. He was first propelled into the national spotlight after his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. It was by far the best speech at that convention. It was smart, it was genuine and showed a sense of balance that was lacking in Kerry's contrived speech. It was certainly better than the idiotic bluster coming from the sitting president of the United States.

I, like many others who listened to his speech took an instant liking to the man. I loved the whole speech but what I loved most is a single sentence: "If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties." Here is a man with principles, I thought, unwilling to fall victim to the post 9/11 Arabophobic and Islamophobic hysteria. This was a sincere statement; he was not pandering to a particular constituency.

What is not to like about Obama? He is a self-made man, eloquent, sincere, compassionate and reasoned; in other words not your average politician. His father was Kenyan and his mother, white American. His father returned to Kenya when Barack was very young and he was raised mostly by his mother in the United States and later, when she remarried, in Indonesia. He was raised as a Christian by his mother though his father was Muslim. He attended Columbia University and then Harvard Law School. He worked as a community activist in Chicago before eventually entering politics and being elected Senator from Illinois. His first book, Dreams from my Father, is a very revealing account of his life and his journey to Kenya in search of his father and his identity. You cannot but develop an affinity for the man by the end of the book.

He is quintessentially American but is also someone who, because of his background, will have much broader perspectives on issues of national and international interest. What a change that would be to the parochial tunnel vision of GW Bush.

Because of the American public's thirst for change, Obama has aroused the interest of disgrunteled democratic voters. His primary rival is Hillary Clinton who is seen by many as a political opportunist who changes her position according to the prevailing winds. That became first evident to me with her about face about the Palestinian issue when it came time to run for the Senate in New York. She was also a hawk on Iraq when it suited her and is now changing her tune. Obama's charisma and appeal seems to cross over conventional political boundaries as his speech to an evangelical church last week demonstrated. That worries some conservative pundits, who in typical form, are in process of unleashing their xenophobic dirty tricks. One commentator called him Barack Osama before correcting himself. This was at best a Freudian slip and at worst a deliberate act of subliminal subversion. More recently, some commentators have pointed out that his middle name is Hussein. Never mind that he was raised Christian, the fact that he was born Muslim somehow taints him for life; as if he has some incurable disease or an unshakable genetic defect. Such drivel will not phase most reasonable people; unfortunately in the post 9/11 paranoia many will still buy into such nonsense.

But despite all the current interest in Obama, does he stand a chance in 2008? Frankly, no. And it has nothing with his political inexperience. He can easily make up for that with his intelligence and his insight. But I think what it will come down to is color and name. Americans in 2008 may be willing to consider a mocha-colored candidate with a name like Colin Powell for the presidency, but a black man named Barack Hussein Obama? I doubt it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lebanon: How to Pull Back From the Brink

Most people on either side of the fault line tend to simplify the current impasse in Lebanon to suite their preconcieved notions and political biases. The truth is that it is a multilayered and complex problem that defies simple-minded classification. Broadly, there is the external factor: Syria-Iran vs the US, but there are also the multiple internal fault lines: rich vs poor (Muslim & Christian), Christian-Sunni-Druze vs Shia, city vs countryside, pan-Arabists vs Lebanon first, secular vs religious to name a few.

The current impasse has made me reconsider my attitudes. I still have major misgivings about Hizbullah's ultimate aims, it Iran connection and the fact that it has an army at its disposal which is independent from the standing government. But I also realize that the Hizbollah-FPM alliance represents a large percentage of Lebanese who feel that they do not get proper representation and that they have missed out on the economic development of the post war years. Their rights as citizens and their vision of what Lebanon is and should be cannot be ignored.

I have long believed that much of Lebanon's current problem is the result of unresolved conflicts and issues dating back to the civil war. Many of these issues were shoved out of site instead of being resolved in a frank and open manner at the end of the war. Yes, the meddling of Syria, Iran and the US are important factors but it is basically a Lebanese problem that has to be resolved by Lebanese.

The New York Time Op-Ed piece (below) about Lebanon is one of the most insightful and on the mark that I have seen in a long time. This all the more surprising coming from a former CIA director of counterintelligence. He certainly was not at the helm when the United States played cheerleader to Israel during last summer's war.

If You Love Lebanon, Set It Free

Published: December 17, 2006

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits “Syrian- and Iranian-backed” Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the “Western-backed” Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions — citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification — illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the “Western backers” — primarily the United States and France — would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

Let’s dial back half a year, to the start of this latest crisis. The immediate reaction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah on Israeli troops was his most honest. This was not, he said, an act of terrorism — it was an act of war. And, issues of proportionality aside, it was quite justifiable to hold the Lebanese government to account.

The honesty of that initial reaction, however, was quickly replaced by the old formula to which Israel has resorted since 1978. Israel did not intend to attack Lebanon, its spokesmen insisted, but was just trying to help the Lebanese by attacking Iran-controlled Hezbollah. This was a polite way of saying to Mr. Siniora: We’re going to rid ourselves — and you — of Hezbollah, for which you should be grateful, and you’d better make sure they don’t rise again.

Now let’s try to view this from the perspective of a Lebanese nationalist. To acquiesce to the American-Israeli formula for Lebanon would be to accept that one’s nation should be entirely supine before a neighbor; that any time the Israelis decided to react to a limited provocation or threat, the only defense one could mount would be the tearful pleas of a powerless prime minister.

Thus it should not be surprising that many Lebanese, including Mr. Siniora, at least temporarily put aside their factional mistrust and embraced Hezbollah as the sole available means of national resistance. This, along with Hezbollah’s surprisingly successful resistance, has permanently changed the political calculus of the nation.

For one thing, it is harder today to suggest to Lebanese nationalists that Hezbollah is simply a mindless proxy for the Iranians. Throughout the Middle East, religious extremism and Arab nationalism are becoming identical, with the former becoming the only effective means of pursuing the latter. This is true of the Sunni extremists in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, as well as of the Shiite extremists of Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose resistance to the Israelis, clearly motivated at least in part by a desire to support the Sunni Palestinians, has paradoxically made them a hero of the Sunni Arab street.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s support of the Syrian presence in Lebanon — which should be anathema to any Lebanese nationalist — should be seen less as obeisance to a neighbor than as the cynical price the group must pay to ensure its logistical link with Iran.

As Hezbollah becomes more enmeshed in Lebanese politics, however, domestic political considerations will become increasingly influential in its calculations — a tendency that should be encouraged. Indeed, the closing stages of last summer’s war provided a fleeting opportunity for the Beirut government to gain a greater measure of state control over Hezbollah. (Continued Here)

Friday, December 15, 2006

“Why do you go to Syria?”

A good friend recently visited Syria with her brother. When she told me that she was going, I was extremely envious as I too wanted to go badly. I had to settle instead for her impressions and the lovely photographs she brought back. Here, she writes about why she went in the first place and about her impressions.

"Why do you go to Syria?"

"Let He who tries to distance himself from a country where life has become impossible: Pray to one day live in Aleppo, for there you shall find Bab el Faraj, the gateway to freedom ".

As I was planning my trip to Syria this fall, I was encountering the blank stare of many educated people asking me: "Why do you go to Syria?"

I go to places to get away from the boredom of living in a comfortable, clean, rich place such as the USA. I go to places to see things from a different point of view, to remind myself of the bigger picture, to let go of the day by day preoccupations with unimportant things. I have been fortunate to grow up with an older brother with a passion for archeology since he was a young child and a cardiologist father who loved traveling more than his career. Memories of driving in an old Citroen in Turkey to see impossible ruins stayed in my heart as one of the loveliest memory of my father, having lunch at the house of our guide on the Bosphorus, playing with his children who were my age, my father letting me drink Raki (Arak)...

Traveling is essential to my happiness. The farther the place, the better I feel. We were planning to go to Niger but something happened there. I always wanted to be in Damascus, may be out of my romantic infatuation with Lawrence of Arabia or may be because of the poetry of Qabbani. Syria seems an “easier” destination with more archeological sites for my brother, may be less exotic than Niger for me with my passion for the desert, but with the enormous attraction of having the oldest inhabited city in the world, “the rival of heaven”. Even for an Italian acquainted with the middle- east, Syria turned out to be a spectacular jewel, a well-kept secret, a really magical place.

I love places with no tourists. We found no tourists in Syria; a blessing for us, but a bit sad for the people there. “Even the French do not come anymore since the Hariri assassination” people told us. Spanish and Italian are the most common tourists there.

People were very friendly: friendly in a genuine way, no hidden agenda. They seem a bit resigned to the fact that we were not there to shop (like most Italians do) but to visit. They still liked to talk and find out what we thought about Syria:” So, did you like Damascus best or Aleppo?”

The family of a Syrian friend in the USA took us out one night in Damascus- wife and three children- and drove us to the Kassioun mountain to see the spectacular view of Damascus at night. This was during rush hour with crazy traffic, and in the middle of the week with the kids having to wake up early next morning for school. They were just so happy and proud of taking us around Damascus. The warmest smiles, jam-packed in a small car, speaking no common language: all this for perfect strangers.

We stayed at the Zenobia Hotel right in the middle of Palmyra’s archeological sites, a now rundown place once visited by archeologists from all over the world; Aghata Christie and Lindberg stayed there. A man working there told us about his imminent wedding, about how much money he needed to save in order to provide for his widow mother and to get married. He was dreaming one day of moving to Greece where people in the hotel industry get paid better. He needed to get enough money in an account in Syria, so that the government would let him get out of Syria without being too suspicious. He asked me if I have kids. We wished each other good luck.

A guide at the temple of Bell told us about the time when he took Catherine Deneuve around Palmyra, got two kisses on his cheek from her, but unfortunately she declined to kiss him on his lips! People seem happy even in these hard times of poor economy and no tourism.
It felt like a very isolated place, isolated from tourists: a man in the Aleppo souk told us they have never seen American tourists, but even Europeans are less common now. Italian and Spanish are still coming. He offered me a Gauloise. We had a smoke together after I bought a beautiful Syrian (“not Egyptian” he insisted) backgammon tawla. The rain was pouring down, the traffic in the old streets was unreal, and we paused in front of the illuminated citadel, admiring it: what an amazing place!

Pictures of Bashar Al-Assad, frequently together with his father and Nasrallah, were everywhere: on every car, bus, wall and building. This was particularly spooky in the center of Hama. We called the young Bashar “Signor Rossi”. He was a constant presence.
How can places like Apamea, Crack de Chevaliers or Sergiopolis be completely empty in October? Syria’s treasures could easily make the tourism industry one of the main economic resources. What is wrong in this picture?

The big Cham Palace Hotel in Palmyra was surreal: we went there for a drink one night. The power going off every 15 minutes; one group of Japanese tourist, that’s it: a big empty place.
My brother was in Syria in the eighties. He drove from Turkey. He remembers the Aleppo citadel been closed to tourists as it was a military zone then. But he was almost in tears seeing the conditions of places such as the Archeological Museum in Aleppo (no lights, electrical cables hanging in dust over unprotected statues from Ebla) or the small museum in Apamea with mosaics out of this world laying in the dark, covered in dust and without any light for us to see. I have seen better kept Museums in Khartoum.

He could not believe the poor conditions of these incredible treasures: “This is much worse than what I remember in the eighties”. We could tell that tourism was once prosperous here. What happened? Is this thanks to Signor Rossi and his gang?

Why did I go to Syria?

To see the moon reflected in the Euphrates, to drink fresh pomegranate juice in the streets of Damascus, to hear the doves flying in the court of the Ommayadd Mosque, to smell the jasmine flowers while the darwishes dance, to eat the sweetest figs in Ma’lula, and to sit in silence in the desert of Palmyra looking at the sun rising.

Tell me: how do you explain this to someone who has never been there and thinks Syria is a dangerous place?

(Photograph by E.C.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Cooking for Love and the Love of Cooking

To some cooking is a mundane but necessary chore, to others it is a skill to be honed and perfected. To my wife, however, cooking is a selfless and seemingly effortless act of love.

These acts started early in our relationship as she plied me with her delicious tarte aux fraises (excuse my French, but she is Lebanese after all!). You may say that getting to a man’s heart through his stomach is the oldest trick in the book, but as much as my taste buds were seduced by the tartes, it is the love that went into making them that got to me. After all, Beirut is full of excellent patisseries and she could have just as easily bought me something. That our relationship dates back to 1982 is testimony that it was more than about strawberry pie. That is not to say that, in our Syrian-Lebanese marriage, we have not had our differences ... about food. Some of those differences were substantive, like whether the Lebanese or Syrian way of preparing mloukieh was better, but most have been semantic. She calls stuffed grapes leaves warak enab and I call it warak dawali; watermelon was battiskh ahmar for her and jabass for me.

Few people are as particular about their food as are Levantines, but no one I know beats my mother-in-law's fussiness with food. The rice has to have that perfect sheen, the tart crust has to crunch just so and only home-made roub rummane (pomegranate concentrate) will do. It is because of this finicky lineage that our house overflows with some thirty cookbooks in different languages, several notebooks of handwritten recipes and twelve years' worth of cooking magazines. Medical journals in our house are discarded a couple of days after they are received but I dare not suggest that we discard a single copy of her old cooking magazines.

So my wife can cook with the best of them from the most intricate nouvelle cuisine to the humblest Middle Eastern dishes. It is the latter though, that give her the most satisfaction. These are the dishes that trigger the deepest of memories, extracting from the brain's limbic system not only smells and tastes of home but also remembrances of particular times and places. With these memories come feelings of warmth, of nostalgia; for a few moments, she is again in the protective embrace of childhood. These emotions are all the more acute because of the distance that separates her from family and homeland. When she cooks for our children, it is not only a labor of love, but also of building memories. She is not only passing on a personal heritage but also a cultural heritage to children born far from the land of our birth. The recipes of traditional Middle Eastern dishes are the product of the collective memory of a people and its ingredients a reflection of the land.

Friends and new acquaintances are also recipients of her culinary generosity. Some of it is just ingrained Arab hospitality, but it is also more than that. The more she likes you, the more she’ll cook for you. When our close friends adopted a one year old girl, my wife went into overdrive. Horrified at the prospect that this infant may be eating bland commercial baby food, she cooked up several batches of tasty homemade baby food for her. To this day, she will drop everything to spend some time with this girl, now three, and cook for her.

One may get the impression from all of what I said that my wife is a frumpy, plump, "tante" tinkering around the kitchen all day long. Far from it, she is a hard-working physician, a very good one at that, but she is never happier than when, after preparing a meal of mujaddarah and fattoush our kids tell her how delicious it was.
(Photo: borrowed picture, photoshop enhanced by AK)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Circumventing Web Censorship

Authoritarian regimes around the globe -Including Syria- periodically censor access to the web. The given reasons include protection of national security or protection of public morality. The real reason is to stifle dissent by limiting free access to information other than that sanctioned by the government. Below is an article about the cat and mouse game between government censors and activists seeking to circumvent web censorship.

There are several methods to evade censorship as outlined below including this recently released free software, Psiphon. The aim of this software as stated by its developers is as follows: psiphon is a human rights software project developed by the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies that allows citizens in uncensored countries to provide unfettered access to the Net through their home computers to friends and family members who live behind firewalls of states that censor.

Techniques to evade censorship of internet traffic are improving, to the chagrin of authoritarian regimes Economist December 2-8,2006

FOR a website lashed together in a week by a college student, is not to be sniffed at. Alexander Pircher, a computer-science student in Darmstadt, Germany, created the site in 1997. Users simply type a web address into a box on the Anonymouse home page and click a button, and the Anonymouse server (rather than the user's own computer) fetches the page and displays it. To many people this might seem pointless: rerouting data through another server makes for slower surfing, fonts and graphics are sometimes slightly skewed and video may not work properly.
But for many others the manoeuvre is anything but pointless, for this redirection allows them to surf the web anonymously. It enables people living under repressive regimes to visit censored websites because, technically speaking, they are only visiting More than 3m people access the web through every day and Mr Pircher, who now upgrades his software with help from friends, says he receives plenty of thank-you messages from censorship-dodgers in countries like Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. “We're bringing people the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he says, referring to Article 19 of the United Nations document, which says freedom of information is a fundamental right. is not alone. It is part of a large and growing constellation of similar computer servers, known as proxies, put online for the most part by activists living in free countries. These proxy servers play a central role in the global struggle to outsmart censors working to protect undemocratic regimes from political and social dissent. Mokhtar Yahyaoui, a lawyer in Tunisia, says that in his country proxies “are pretty much the only way to get information that's not official government information”.
But censors have an effective countermeasure. Once they identify a proxy, they can block access to it, just as they block access to other sites. The difficult part is finding the proxies, but the software used by censors, called censorware, is getting better at it. China's censors are leading the way. The estimated 30,000 government censors behind the world's most elaborate censorship programme—known as the Great Firewall of China by detractors, and as the Golden Shield by the Communist Party—work hard to hunt down proxies and prevent them from relaying data into the country.
The anti-censorship community is developing new ways to evade censors in response. For example, when China blocks a proxy ('s fate in that country), internet users can find a replacement by consulting a growing number of websites that compile and post lists of working proxies. E-mailed newsletters that provide links to proxy servers are also available. Some anti-censorship organisations spread the word via instant-messaging services: people looking for a proxy simply send an instant message to one of these groups and immediately receive an automated reply with a recently updated list of proxies.
These methods work because it usually takes censors a little while to identify and block new proxies. China's censors are probably the fastest to react, but even then some proxies survive for a week or more, in part because the firewall is maintained by a complex network of private and state-controlled telecommunications operators, and national, provincial and municipal government agencies that don't always act in concert. Lesser-known proxies handling small amounts of traffic generally go undetected the longest, sometimes for months. “It's a game called cat and rat,” says Mao Xianghui, a partner in an investment firm in Shanghai. His blog provided advice on using proxies to sidestep censorship, until authorities shut it down last year.
An American non-profit group called Tor operates one of the most robust anti-censorship systems. Using money provided by America's Naval Research Laboratory and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free-speech advocacy group, Tor developed free software that can be downloaded from many websites. The software works in conjunction with a web browser (the developers recommend Firefox) to encrypt traffic and route it through three proxy servers chosen at random from a network of around 1,000 proxies run by Tor volunteers worldwide. This makes it difficult for censors to determine what information is being sent, where it came from, and who received it. A Tor spokeswoman says many human-rights groups advise their activists in authoritarian countries to use the software to avoid government snooping.
This is not the only tool available to activists. In June of last year Huang Qi, an outspoken human-rights activist from Chengdu, China, was released after serving five years in prison on charges of subversion. He promptly downloaded a free “circumvention” programme that had been developed during his detention. Now, when Mr Huang opens his browser, the software, called Wujie, automatically searches the internet until it locates a functioning proxy server through which to connect. “It opens the doors to the world,” he says.
Censorship firewalls rely heavily on keyword-blocking software, which can catch and block e-mails and instant messages containing words and phrases deemed dangerous. Bill Xia, a Chinese dissident living in North Carolina, employs a number of tricks to sneak words past censors. He is the founder of Dynamic Internet Technology, a company paid by the American government's International Broadcasting Bureau to e-mail more than 2m pro-democracy Voice of America and Radio Free Asia newsletters into China and Vietnam every day. To foil keyword filters, Mr Xia replaces sensitive words such as “freedom” and “elections” with uncommon or approximate synonyms, or descriptive phrases. He inserts random characters, such as asterisks, between Vietnamese letters or the ideograms that make up Chinese words. Other techniques include writing words in a mixture of several fonts, replacing parts of words with syllables that sound similar, and replacing words with pictures of those words.
Employing such ruses makes for tedious writing and choppy reading. And having to bother with proxy servers to surf the web can be a hassle. But for those who are victims of censorship, the increasingly elaborate efforts required to outmanoeuvre censors are liberating, empowering and well worth the effort.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Where to, Lebanon?

The peaceful and measured way the Hizbullah-FPM-Amal axis demonstrations have gone for the past several days have confirmed the optimism I expressed in my previous post. While the sectarian factions in Iraq are heading recklessly into the precipice, some in Lebanon are taking a step back. Could it be? could it really be possible that leaders from our Middle East have learned the lessons of the past. It is not that the political high-stakes game has abated, it is just that civil strife is no longer a looming danger (never say never).

The large, one million (give or take), demonstration on Friday has clearly shown that the opposition is a popular force to reckon with. It makes the shrill mantra of the March 14 alliance that Hizbullah is nothing but a tool of Iran and Syrian interest seem more than a little silly. The oppisition alliance has to be reckoned with politically as they represent a significant percentage of the population (at least 25% judging form the size of the demonstration). Hizbullah has played its hand very shrewdly in this confrontation and giving the March 14 people a taste of its own medicine. Yet, I don't know that a solution of this political crisis is any closer unless backroom deals are being struck at this very moment.

Stay tuned!