Experts Continue Debate Over Iran’s Disputed Nuclear Program

My latest in-depth feature for Arizona Public Media, “Experts Continue Debate Over Iran’s Disputed Nuclear Program.” I got to interview Dr. Hamid Dabashi for this piece, which was pretty amazing, I must say.


Delivering Aid

Check out the article I wrote for the Tucson Weekly: Delivering Aid.

UA Student Visits Libya, His Father’s Homeland

My first in-depth feature story for radio at Arizona Public Media.

Book Review: Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege by Amira Hass, 1996.

In Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Israeli journalist Amira Hass paints a nuanced and humane portrait of the hardships of life and politics unique to Gaza, from the first Palestinian Intifada through 1996. She connects this to the larger issue of the Palestinian pursuit of self-determination vis-à-vis the Oslo Accords and traces Israeli policies of de-development that have inevitably led to Palestinian dependence. According to Hass’s account, this process was vastly accelerated during the Oslo era, the primary backdrop of the book.

The main conclusions reached by Hass provide critical background information necessary to understand the continued statelessness of the Palestinians and the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza today, and the role that Oslo played in shaping both. In fact, according to Hass’s meticulously documented reporting, the siege of Gaza did not begin in 2007. It is a process that was set in motion in 1991 during the first US-led Gulf war. Hass further demonstrates how the Oslo process and the limited self-rule introduced to Gaza and Jericho served to separate Palestinians, destroy the already debilitated Palestinian economy, and shifted responsibility from enforcing the occupation from the Israeli military to the Palestinian Authority security forces, which created further Palestinian divisions. Palestinians began to direct their anger not at the occupation, but at each other.

However, Hass’s other conclusions are more damning. She traces the separation and fragmentation of Palestinian land and society through Israeli policies of closure and calls into question the Israeli assertion that these policies were implemented strictly in the interest of Israeli security. Hass asserts that these policies were in fact intended to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Perhaps before any one else, Hass likened the fragmentation and separation of Palestinian society during the Oslo era to apartheid. She also noted that the Israeli settlements and the bypass roads that connect them to Israel, which were built during the Oslo era, were “in effect the nail in the coffin of a contiguous Palestinian state.”[1]

Hass joined the staff of Israeli daily Haaretz in 1989 and became the paper’s correspondent for the occupied territories in 1993. She lived in Gaza for three years while writing Drinking the Sea at Gaza, and has lived in Ramallah since 1997. With 18 years of experience living in the occupied Palestinian territories, Hass is more than qualified to write about Palestine; she can speak with authority about what she saw happening on the ground in Gaza as a result of the Oslo Accords because she was actually there. Additionally, because Hass is Israeli, she is uniquely positioned to interject insights into Israeli culture and how Israelis understand Palestine, which adds tremendous depth to the book. Moreover, that Hass writes about Gaza “through the eyes of its people, not through the windshield of an army jeep or in the interrogation rooms of the Shabak,” makes her account essential for humanizing a place and a people that have been so misunderstood and demonized.[2]

Hass was able to accomplish this by combining personal experience and testimonies from all sectors of Palestinian society – union leaders, Fatah members, Hamas members, Islamic Jihad members, PFLP members, former prisoners, housewives and taxi drivers, with in-depth research and data compiled by international organizations. Through the stories she collected and thorough investigative reporting, she carefully chronicles the implementation of and the interaction between closure and the permit system. She highlighted the effects of both on the quality of medical care in Gaza, the ability of Gazans to leave Gaza for medical care, and its impact on Gaza’s economy, primarily ever increasing restrictions on the ability of Gazans to work in Israel. Thus she provides a thorough picture of life in Gaza and the ways in which Israel’s policies and the Oslo Accords impacted Gazans. The overall picture she paints, however, is one of waning hope and inhumane hardship.

Overall, Hass’s book is a compelling and powerful account of Gaza’s humanity and suffering, and even a forewarning of a dark future ahead, which in reading the book 15 years after it was written has proven true. If her purpose was to translate awareness of the suffering in Gaza into action to address that suffering, she failed miserably. If her purpose was to document meticulously what was happening on the ground in Gaza during Oslo, she unequivocally succeeded. The strength of the book is that Hass does not shy away from dealing with some of the contradictions in Gaza’s politics and Palestinian society, nor does she shy away from balancing her criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians with criticism of the Palestinian Authority and its authoritarian tendencies, which nearly got her kicked out of Gaza. However, her book may not be an appropriate starting point for those unfamiliar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is extraordinary in its scope of detail and knowledge of Palestinian politics but might overwhelm the novice.


[1] p. 346

[2] p. 5

Western Intervention in Libya and the Responsibility to Protect

On September 30 2011, Dr. David Gibbs, Professor of History and Government at the University of Arizona, gave an important talk as part of the Fall Colloquium Series sponsored by the School of Middle East and North African Studies at UA. His talk, entitled “Western Intervention in Libya and the Responsibility to Protect” focused on international interventions based on humanitarian grounds. Using the intervention in Libya as a case study, he focused on the idea of R2P – the responsibility to protect. Gibbs asserted that it’s easy to argue in favor of intervention, but there is very little room for accountability if things go wrong, and a bad situation is made worse. He also suggested that those who call for such interventions are making an argument for war not peace. He said this needs to be more explicitly recognized because war has an enormous capacity to destroy. Often, intervention can intensify conflicts, particularly ethnic conflicts. This was perhaps the most salient point he made during his talk, that we need to be more honest about the motivations behind humanitarian interventions, but more importantly about the potential consequences and the possibility that human lives will be devastated and destroyed to a worse degree with intervention.

Gibbs used the appropriate examples of Iraq and Afghanistan to highlight the problematic nature of the humanitarian arguments used to justify both invasions. Obviously, things didn’t go so well in either place, and we are still dealing with the sour fruits of both interventions. Thus Gibbs posed the question, “What do you say when you contribute to supporting interventions that lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people who wouldn’t have died otherwise without the intervention?” Are expressions of remorse enough? He reiterated, again, that the issue of accountability needs to be taken very seriously when choosing to intervene. However, he also acknowledged the counter argument: what if you argue against intervention and genocide occurs?

Such was the case in Rwanda. Yet there is a stark difference between Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand, and Rwanda on the other. Rwanda was a clear case of genocide where intervention could have made a difference. Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of choice, and the humanitarian arguments for both invasions were bogus, even if there were legitimate humanitarian issues to be concerned with. Thus, the arguments for intervention are ripe with hypocrisy. When Saddam Hussein was slaughtering Iraqi’s, the U.S. hung those he was slaughtering out to dry. There was no intervention based on humanitarian grounds then. Thus interventions should be seen for what they usually are, the pursuit of a state’s own interests when it suits them, and not a minute before it suits them.

In terms of Libya, Gibbs said it’s unclear what the outcome will be, but there is very little in Libya’s history to suggest a democratic outcome in the short-term. He also said there doesn’t seem to be high probability for even a stable situation to emerge, nor for unity due to the historical divisions between Benghazi and Tripoli, and clan divisions. He argued that a somewhat benign regime could emerge like the Maliki government in Iraq. However, he said the most likely outcome will be some form of instability and civil war, and he drew parallels to Iraq under Hussein and Afghanistan under Taliban. In other words, you take out a country’s leader and it descends into civil war. He also drew a parallel to Somalia, which he said is the closest parallel. In Somalia you have a clan-based society that was ruled by a dictator, who was overthrown in 1991. What Somalia ended up with as a result is a civil war that lasts until today. Gibbs seemed to be arguing that we should pay attention to and learn from these historical examples, and not get caught up in the fleeting moment of moral uplift that the idea of intervention can bring. We need to remain grounded in reality.

Gibbs also argued that there are a combination of factors at play behind the arguments for intervention in Libya, and intervention in general. One of the primary motivations he mentioned was weapon sales. He said both France and Britain have fighter planes they are trying to showcase and sell. Additionally, the British economy has suffered enormous budget cuts, including military spending. Apparently, Britain now has no naval aircraft. Gibbs said there was widespread talk in the British press that such budget cuts were a mistake. Thus, he argued that perhaps showcasing new British weaponry is seen as a way to ameliorate this situation. This fits with the theory that states intervene in pursuit of their own interests, not for truly humanitarian purposes.

Gibbs also asserted that there was a strong incentive to intervene in the international business community. Moreover, the Arab Spring brought to light the dreaded possibility of instability in the Gulf. Thus, the West felt a need to demonstrate that it is not impotent and is not going to lose control; it can still exert military force as it could in the old days. Not ironically, the intervention in Libya is being led by the old and current colonial powers. And of course, there is the oil factor.

His conclusions focused on the setbacks for international law and the idea of sovereignty. He also mentioned the fact that Obama did not get Congressional approval for this intervention, but that if it is successful he will use it in 2012 to get reelected, as will Nicolas Sarkozy. This will set a precedent that intervention is a good thing, and it will be portrayed as a good thing until we see the Iraq-like effects. He also warned that we should not think of the intervention in Libya as a short-term engagement; it could be long term, possibly with ground forces.

Please see a recent article in Counterpunch by Gibbs entitle, “Power Politics, NATO, and the Libyan Intervention.”

One Man’s Dead Body is Another Man’s Treasure. Or Teaching Tool.

The smell of formaldehyde overwhelmed the tiny, sterile room with two stainless steel tables. His body lay lifeless and naked, except for a tiny towel covering his groin, upon the table closest to the door. A pair of scissors stuck into his neck all the way up to the finger holes, strategically placed to help the fluids drain from his stiff body. A small but steady stream of reddish-brown fluid drained out of his mouth, down the side of his face, and onto the table underneath his neck.

A moment later a stream of the same fluid spurted into the air in a small arch from his mouth. Jared Alvarado, who runs the morgue at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, threw a clean, white towel over his face to stop the squirting. In a few short moments, reddish-brown stains appeared all over it. A slow gurgling noise emerged from his mouth as the fluid drained. It will take a day or two for all of the fluid to leave his body, then it will be wrapped in thick, clear plastic and stored in the morgue’s cooler, which can hold up to 60 bodies, for about a month while it cures.

After that, the body will become an educational resource at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Since 1967, the College of Medicine has run the Willed Body Program, where people can voluntarily donate their bodies for educational purposes to the College. Bodies are used for educational purposes for anywhere from 1 to 24 months before the cremated remains are returned to the families. However, if a body is permanently donated, parts of it may be transformed into semi-permanent teaching tools at the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s Plastination Science Laboratory.

Plastination was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens. According to his website, Bodyworlds, “Plastination makes it possible to preserve individual tissues and organs that have been removed from the body of the deceased as well as the entire body itself.” The process essentially sucks water and fats out of the tissue, replacing them with polymers. The result is a durable, non-toxic and perfectly safe specimen suitable for use in classroom environments.

Joshua Lopez, who runs the Plastination Lab, has a background in biology and mortuary science, and says the Willed Body Program at the University of Arizona receives about 130 donated bodies annually. The permanent donations are dissected, and various body parts and organs are then turned into plasticized specimens . Lopez says the primary benefit of working with plastinates is that they last much longer than wet cadavers, up to 10 years.

He then grabs two plasticized stomachs from a shelf in his office. One is flat, cream-colored, and split down the side, revealing the thick wrinkles of the inner lining of the stomach. The other is fully intact and inflated, reddish-pink in color. When squeezed, air poofs out from the top, sort of like a dog toy.

“It’s trial and error,” Lopez says, helping to explain the difference between the flat and inflated stomachs. But that’s what makes it fun, he suggests.

“There’s a lot of room to sort of play because there is no how-to course,” he says.”There is a lot of freedom just to explore, to be creative, to learn new things,” he adds. Lopez says there is no formal training program for plastination.

Indeed, Lopez experiments a lot in his lab, and seems to enjoy it. Yet he doesn’t seem totally content with the lab space, which he shares a part of with medical students.

“The lab is a disaster,” he says. He’s mostly referring to the fact that the lab has no sprinkler system, a seeming hazard given that the plastination process requires copious amounts of acetone, which is stored in three bright yellow cabinets marked “flammable.” Should anything happen, Lopez says it would take about $200,000 to replace the equipment in the modest and unassuming lab.

Consisting of only three rooms, the lab is littered with beakers, refrigerators, coolers, strange machines with tubes, and buckets of human organs. One might be surprised to learn that the lab is capable of plasticizing half a body.

Tucked away in a far corner of the lab on a gray cart wrapped in a white plastic cloth, Lopez exposes a torso in the final phase of the plastination process. The man’s head is split down the middle and the eyes and brain have been removed, but interestingly his graying nose hair and eyebrows remain intact, the last lingering evidence of the life that once inhabited his body.

Lopez then displays a tray full of plasticized kidneys and a brain, along with the interior of a human lung, which looks more like part of a coral reef than part of a human body. It is quite stunning, even awe-inspiring.

Lopez says one of his favorite aspects of his job is the “wow moment” that people experience when the product is finished and in their hands.

The process of plastination makes human anatomy much more accessible, not only to medical students, but also to the general public. Though controversy swirls around the origin of some of its specimens, the “Bodies: the Exhibition” show has helped bring anatomy to life for millions of people worldwide through its exhibit of plastinated organs, body parts, and entire bodies.  Lopez hopes the Plastination Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona will expand in the future.

“The hope of the department is to be able to do full body specimens,” he said.

The Troubles With Writing and How Fes Changed Me

I identify myself as a writer, only there’s one slight problem. Actually, there may be more than one slight problem. Like many writers, I sometimes get overwhelmed with the task itself. I’m realizing, thanks to a book I’m reading entitled “A Writer’s Coach: the Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work” by Jack Hart, that I don’t necessarily have a writing process. The other problem I’ve recently encountered is that I feel as though I’ve lost the ability to write with passion, that my voice has been stifled by academia. Fortunately, I’ve been given permission this semester to write with my heart, and rediscover my own unique writing voice. I have also been given permission to find human stories – stories that matter and stories that people might care about. I am extremely grateful for this, and consider myself a very blessed woman because of it.

As I read through Hart’s book this morning, I encountered a number of different strategies and ideas to help with the writing process. The gist of the book, from what I can tell so far, is that the best way to write and generate ideas is to write. Yup. No kidding. Who knew? As it turns out, I have a wonderful outlet to help me write regularly – this blog. And wouldn’t you know, something I read just about 30 minutes or so ago inspired me to write. Hart wrote, “Travel brochures slather glossy paper with empty adjectives but never tell potential travelers how a visit to a new place might affect their emotions or change the way they see the world.” I realized as I read this that I have a lot to say about how my two-month stay in Fes, Morocco this summer changed the way I see the world. Let me explain.

I have spent significant time in Muslim countries before. Yet my time in Fes this summer brought me closer than I’ve ever been to Islam. Perhaps that’s because I lived with a Muslim family, and the majority of my teachers and tutors were Muslim. I’ve long held an interest in Islam, piqued initially by an Islamic philosophy class I took as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. My imagination was captivated then by the works of Islamic philosophers Ibn Bajja, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufayl, particularly the latter’s work, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, whose main character undergoes a mystical process of self-discovery and soul-awakening. We also examined many examples of Islamic art and architecture from Andalusia; the cosmic beauty  I discovered then came to life for me in 3D this summer in Fes.

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I almost can’t adequately describe the beauty of the architecture in Morocco. The intricate patterns and designs found in the interiors and exteriors of most buildings in the tile and woodwork stir the soul. To experience Islamic art and architecture is indeed to have an awakening of sorts, for it seems that it must be divinely inspired. During my trip this summer, I began to open myself to understanding the beauty of Islam. This happened as a result of the magnificence of Moroccan art and architecture, but largely through the beautiful people I met. The pinnacle of this experience occurred during Ramadan.

While in Morocco, I spoke with many Moroccans about Ramadan, and of course we devoted much time covering this topic in my Arabic classes. What I discovered as a result of hearing from Moroccans themselves is that many of them love Ramadan, and cherish it as their favorite time of year. How could this be, I wondered. Isn’t it extremely difficult and painful to fast? I have known about the spiritual aspects of Ramadan for quite some time, that it is a time to open your heart, develop greater compassion and get closer to God. Yet it is one thing to learn about Ramadan in a classroom. It is quite another to experience it in a Muslim country, and to take part in it yourself. I will admit, I only fasted for one day while in Fes. But the experience forever changed me.

I thought about what it actually means to have greater compassion and why it might be necessary to take action to stimulate that process. How else can we develop greater compassion for those who suffer without access to adequate food and water unless we ourselves experience that feeling directly? To go without food and water during daylight hours gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who go hungry and thirsty on a daily basis. How, I wondered, might our own society be changed if we engaged in activities that build compassion rather than desensitize us to the plight of those suffering throughout the world, regardless of their ethnic or religious background?

Muslims are required to give alms (zakat) as one of the five pillars of Islam, and it certainly seems to me that the spirit of Ramadan encourages a greater giving of alms. One could argue that compassion and caring for others is built into the very structure of the religion itself. Again I wondered, how might our own society be changed if we were compelled to care for those without the privilege of having the same access to basic human needs that we enjoy? This is a timely question, particularly as we face a Republican party increasingly obsessed with the cutting of social services.

I also marveled at the ways in which life slowed down in Fes during Ramadan, a stark contrast to the non-stop hustle and bustle of life in the United States, which tends to come to halt only two days per year – Christmas and Thanksgiving. From this I considered what it means to take the time to devote to spiritual matters, to detach ourselves from material pursuits and put much of our energy toward developing our characters and nourishing our souls. It seems to me that American society as a whole could benefit from such pursuits.

Like all religions, there’s plenty to critique about Islam. There are also undoubtedly many aspects of Ramadan and the way its practiced, including its commercialization, to critique. Yet I’ve come to believe that we give value to our lives largely through the way we perceive things and what we choose to focus on. I could have focused on the negative things while in Fes, and to be sure there were times I did, to my own detriment and perhaps to the detriment of others. But in the end, I chose to overcome the temptation to indulge in negativity and open myself to the beauty and lessons Fes had to teach me. And as I anxiously awaited, with dry mouth and intense hunger pains, for the sound of the cannon to indicate it was time to eat that day I fasted, I felt an immense sense of gratitude for the ability to open myself to understanding, and even appreciating, the beauty of others who are different from me.