Saturday, January 26, 2008

In honor of Burns Night, Jonmikel and I celebrated in the traditional faux-intellectual manner practiced during numberous holidays 'round the world: we went to a lecture. Instead of pouring into a pub, eating innards stewed in sheep’s stomach (also known to wary tourists as haggis), and drowning our haggis sorrows in pints of ale, we poured into a brand-new (and Britishly low-tech and cramped) lecture hall to see a man who, according to various sources within the department of Middle Eastern Studies here at Edinburgh, is as entertaining as Barnum and Bailey and as intellectually stimulating as a MENSA IQ test. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we opted to enjoy a national Scottish holiday by seeing Dr. Norman Finkelstein, one of the foremost experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the proponents of the Palestinian cause. It also must be noted that he agrees with me on my stance that the Holocaust is exploited by Israel for petty political gains and was sacked from DePaul for saying so, hence the traveling lecturer bit.

In retrospect, it would have been vastly more entertaining to watch the silly college kids get Scottishly drunk, and I may have even learned something in the process.

I guess that is my way of saying that I was immensely disappointed with Dr. Finkelstein’s lecture. He was, regrettably and understandably under the weather that night, and so his charisma was underplayed (read: completely non-existent) and his voice and mannerisms were entirely un-engaging. Content aside, there was much paper-rustling, yawning and general fidgeting in the hall. But on the subject of his content, what he gave was, in effect, a 2 ½ hour-long Political Science 101 lecture on current politics of Israel. He pulled some right-wing and fairly obscure media quotes from the US, which I found interesting (in the sense that he presented them as main stream when, in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth), but other than that, everything he said could be found in a freshman-year textbook.

Dr. Finkelstein is an expert in oversimplifying the situation in Israel by relying solely on the vague notion of international law to stamp out any opposing viewpoints. He used international law as if it were a concrete and enforceable idea set into motion by a complacent and law-abiding world system. He used international law as if, in reality, countries gave a damn. Most US political scientists have come to the realization that the UN is essentially ineffectual and that international law is more like a vague set of possible guidelines that a country might want to follow someday. Instead, they have a more practical focus: how to get the world to do what you want without the United Nations, the World Court, and all those simply theoretical international organizations. Europeans, on the other hand, have slowly begun to realize that colonization has ended abruptly, and that no European power even comes close to ruling the world or being a super-power; to compensate for their extreme helplessness in the world system, Europeans have an interesting dependence on the idea of international cooperation and cling wildly but (admirably) steadfast in their hope that one day the UN Charter won’t just be a list of sanguine suggestions. Until then, instead of focusing on applicable solutions to international problems, they approach crises as if the UN had real power, which, because it currently does not, lets said crises stagnant, escalate, or go away on their own after brutal and bloody civil wars or genocides. Effective, huh?

Let me interject here to say that I am not anti-UN. In fact, I supremely wish that the UN would have the kind of power it needs to control the world’s vicious conflicts; I will 100% support that kind of international organization. However, I am also a realist in the sense that I know it does not have that power and will not have that power in a very long time; at least until the US and China lose their permanent positions on the UN Security Council, if not even long after that. We have to face reality sometime, especially when it comes to politics. But I digress.

Dr. Finkelstein’s reliance on UN declarations and World Court rulings notwithstanding, I agree with all of his summations concerning the illegality of Israel’s actions regarding the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In my case, “illegality” is moot; instead, I rely on grounds of immorality and it being just plain wrong, and I am even more incensed at the US administration’s unconditional support for a country that practices apartheid. Unfortunately, the situation in Israel and Palestine is not simple one of what’s right or wrong. Instead, you have 400,000 Israelis living in the Occupied Territories, some for generations now, and to just say that Israel’s occupation of this land is wrong and they need to withdraw is as immoral as kicking the Palestinians out in the first place. Those 400,000 plus Israeli settlers are victims of this war, also, in the sense that their own government is using them, regardless of whatever consequences there may be for them, to piss off the Palestinians and the Arabs at large and to lay claim over land that is not theirs. So what do you do with them? What does Dr. Finkelstein’s precious World Court have to say about them? On that point, the good doctor was (not)surprisingly silent. Because liberal intellectuals of his disposition do not like to think about the chinks their logic. Herein lies my extreme disappointment. I was promised fireworks and mind-numbing displays of vast human intelligence and lateral thinking; I was promised conflict and drama and scandals of global proportions; I was promised stumblingly innovative cutting-edge assessments. I was given, instead, the bare-bones, mainstream, European-textbook account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Can you understand my despondency? I had heard nothing I hadn’t heard before.

Some advice to Dr. Finkelstein: you’ve recently written some very racy books on the “Holocaust industry.” When you’re in a room full of students who are already fairly well educated on the topics of the Middle East, talk about those findings. That way, when people stand up in applause at the end of the lecture, they won’t be standing just because they are a group of arrogant faux-intellectuals who think it makes them look smart and introspective. Though, probably, you’ll always have that at Uni.

Islam and Science

I must admit, one thing I genuinely love about Islam is its embrace of science. Even when you look at the early fundamentalists, Sayyid Qutb and Pakistan’s Mawdudi, for example, you see their positive views of scientific undertakings. Muslim discourse, by and large, sees no disconnect between evolution and faith, a disjuncture that seems to derail many Christians in the United States. Muslims have the same story of Adam and Eve as the basis of their religious history, and yet, when it comes to Creationism, Muslims are rarely the ones waving the banners and throwing rocks at science teachers (there are a few isolated examples, but then, there are always exceptions). For many Muslims whose works I have read, the theory of evolution is just one of a million examples applied by science that only supports the existence of god. For them, the intricacies of evolution, the very means by which a proto-ape became a human being, the very means by which a single-celled organism became a salamander, the very means by which each of our organs and every minute process within our biological selves work together so precisely as a result of a very long and involved evolutionary process… these are all just additional teleological reasons bolstering the existence of a god more powerful and wonderful than anything known in the Universe. Islam embraces science as a means to understand the greatness of Allah. Science flows directly and smoothly into religion, as if saying, “OF COURSE god exists and is wonderful; just look at how amazing evolution is!” Muslims, as well as many Jews (and others, I am sure, but this is addressing specifically those of a certain public disposition within the US), encourage the study of science and the world, indeed hold such studies as essential for the social and religious well-being of all adherents; how can you truly know god without understanding all of the miraculous things he’s done?

Where is the disconnect in that line of thinking? Where is the controversy the religious right in America is so fond of touting? Why does “intelligent design” automatically lead to Adam and Eve? Could not the intelligence behind the design have merely put his plan into motion billions of years ago, and allowed the universe to evolve accordingly? Charles Darwin was a devout Christian, and he saw no disconnect between evolution and Christianity. The Vatican has accepted evolution as a testament of God’s greatness. The Jewish faith has embraced science as a path of devotion to God. So, too, have the Muslims, even the “fundamentalists” so feared by Americans. Teleologically speaking, what could be a greater proof of the existence of god than the fact that we humans exist at all after billions of years of evolution? Life started out as a single-celled organism and evolved into us; all the chemicals that make up the planet are in almost complete harmony with one another, despite the fact that, for example, sodium and water will explode when mixed and yet the planet is covered in salt (sodium chloride) water. Everything fits perfectly together in such complex ways. I find it amazing that a religion that is considered so “backward” and “violent” by so many in America can recognize the beauty in the world as such and will continue to perpetuate the importance and awesomeness of science in the name of pure, unadulterated faith.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

One thing I very much appreciate about Europeans is their appreciation of green spaces. At least in contemporary times. 20 years ago, the green spaces in big cities such as Edinburgh, Berlin, Paris would have been the glowing fallout from years of pollution. But recently, Europe has turned over a new green thumb, putting the kibosh on a whole slew of environmentally detrimental activities, including dumping waste, diverting rivers for corporate bolstering, and the very 80s Soviet trend of creating deserts of concrete and wastelands of construction in any area that may even remotely be able to sustain a naturally growing strip of (non-glowing) green. Germany has taken amazing steps, even agreeing to re-divert the Rhine to its original course and cleaning it up so that, once again, it can freeze during the winter (during the infancy of post-WWII industrialization, freezing was deemed a disadvantage to companies that used the river for transportation; therefore, the river was purposefully polluted to the point where its freezing temperature was no long 32 degree F, but in fact, much, much lower). Here in the United Kingdom, this also meant cleaning up rivers, in Edinburgh’s case, enough so that in the past 6 months there have been a small handful of sightings of river otters in the Water of Leith.

And it was to this Water that Jonmikel and I found ourselves traveling on an idle Wednesday (Wednesdays are always idle here in the UK, because it is an unofficial day of rest/sport, where the pubs are packed full of students who, having the day off from classes, have taken the opportunity to drink, be merry, and watch a lot of football/rugby). The Water of Leith runs for about 28 miles from the southwest of the city to the Firth of Forth in, surprise, the neighborhood of Leith in the north. The Walkway runs for about 12 miles along it, and is part of a government maintained bicycle trail, which, if I ever felt so inclined to make a fool of myself again on a bicycle (ask me about Key West), would be a lovely weekend excursion. We took the bus out a ways, and walked about 6 miles of the Walkway up to the Firth of Forth. We maintained a leisurely pace, and spent a couple of hours meandering through previously unknown parts of town. Some of the walk was distinctly ugly and industrial (I even caught glimpses of several sewer pipes emptying into the river), other parts charming and lightly wooded, still other parts historically romantic. Of the latter category, and my favorite part of our sojourn, was Dean Village, a now-residential part of town that used to be an industrial complex of mills. The site dates back to the mid 12th century, and the current buildings date from the mid-1600s up until the late 1800s. In the current fashion of modern cities, these historic buildings have been turned into very attractive (with a price tag to match) flats and townhomes, the owners of which have seem to have taken an active interest in maintaining the river and a sense of isolation from the commoners of Edinburgh. My kind of neighborhood. We took sometime to meander through the town, picking out an ivy-covered building here and a stone flat there as future living arrangements.

We also ran into a small shantytown, charmingly (ahem) of the type of shantytown I would expect to (and, in fact, did) find in oh…. South Africa, India. Small, tin-roofed and plank-walled shacks, each with its own plot of mottled garden items and evidence of bouncing babies and rowdy children. A small, but surprisingly well-taken-care-of, mutt here and there for added authenticity. I was fascinated, in an anthropology and OK, I’ll admit it, Orientalist way. Edinburgh boasts an unemployment rate of something like 2%, and yet within its city limits are villages of the type seen in Chennai, Arusha, or the townships of Cape Town. I wonder if it is a city-sanctioned area, or an area that is idly ignored for political correctness. Or if it was a place that next week will be packed up and pushed to a further margin of British society, modern-day Scottish gypsies. The buildings looked fairly well established, but it is amazing how quickly people who are used to moving constantly can create that “lived-in” aura in a new habitation.

We hit Leith in the later afternoon sun (which actually arrives in early afternoon, being so far north). The old dock area of town, it is currently undergoing a revitalization as an up-and-coming yuppie neighborhood. Old warehouses have been converted to stylish tenements, some with artistic views of the massive cargo ships that still haul to the harbor there. The industrial piscine smells, the oil, the fish, the dirty metal and the inescapable wet scents that inevitably enveloped the area at the early stages of last century, have been replaced by the smells of ocean-side yuppie: fine wine, clean stone, fresh seafood and deliciously salty breezes. The wide streets that encompass rivers and saltwater coves look more like canal-side Amsterdam than broadsword-wielding Scotland. The entire neighborhood has a sexy industrial (at the risk of over-using that term) flavor to it, and it is easy to imagine why successful 30-somethings flock to the modern suburb in search of abstract (in a contemporary-art kind of way) lifestyle inspiration. There is definitely something sensual, something free and alluring and exciting, about commercial docks, and Leith certainly embraces each of those emotions and bottles them up, advertises them, and sells the farrago in the form of expensive flats and faux-traditional fishermen’s pubs. Delightful.

But we didn’t see any otters.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Little Big Feet

Clack, clack, clack. Poundskid, poundskid, poundskid. That's the soundtrack of the hallway in my tenement. A door closes (a sound loud enough for someone working on a thesis), and then, inevitably, Clack, clack, clack; poundskid, poundskid, poundskid.

The Scottish, I feel, love the sound of their own feet. I'll own up here; I am not the quietest person in the world when I wear my nice knee-high, high-heeled boots. I, too, make a loud clack, clack, clack as I make my way from the top of one stairway to the bottom of the next, or when traveling in the reverse direction. But I also make an effort to minimize the sound pollution. I walk soft. The Scottish have to such reservations when it comes to the pitter-patter of little feet. All day long, I can chart who comes in and out, if it's a man or a woman (because, believe it or not, their little feet make different pitter-patters), and into which flat they enter. Sometimes, it provides an invited distraction against the onslaught of Mess O' Potamian disasters. Other times, it makes me wonder how in the world people can be so loud. I've seen a guy in sneakers make as much noise as a Rocky Mountain avalanche (no small feet, I can assure you; and I didn't even recognize the pun until I went back to edit this) plod his way up two flights of stairs. It looked like quite an effort, to make quiet, soft-soled shoes make so much ruckus, and he looked very self-satisfied at the result. And I see this everywhere; our tenement, school buildings, shopping malls (in the latter, only amongst the very minute group of people who actually force themselves to use something as primitive as a staircase). All I can think of is, what the heck would possess someone to put so much effort into making such obscene amounts of noise?

I can always tell when my neighbor has had a party because, beginning at about 8 the next morning, I can trace the trickle of high-heeled women as they do the walk-of-shame-ish procession out the door. It's amazing how well you canb keep track of your neighbors without even meeting them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Disease, Illness, Sickness

I finally feel I can say I'm recovering from my New Year's flu or pneumonia or death or whatever you want to call it. For over a week I've been coughing and sneezing and achy and.... miserable. I'm only grateful that it wasn't this nasty stomach virus that has been going around. My stomach is almost always the one thing one me that doesn't hurt when I get sick. Even when I have food poisoning, I always manage to throw up, feel better, and immediately begin thinking about food. But this stomach bug has been serious business here. Over a million suspected cases this winter, and it's not even half over yet. I'm planning on staying away from computer labs and hospitals, which is apparently where it likes to spread.

My sickness, on the other hand, allowed me plenty of time to contemplate what it means to actually be sick. This stems back to a medical anthropology class I took as an undergraduate. Interesting class, but not nearly as interesting as it should have been. But I did learn some interesting concepts, notably those of disease, illness, and sickness. From an anthropological standpoint, these things are all very different (in American culture, we use all three interchangeably, more or less, to refer to the state of being not-well). I hate for this to turn into an academic lesson in anthropological terminology, but here-goes. Disease, from this particular scientific standpoint, refers to an actual virus or bacteria or cancer or anything along those lines that causes malfunctions in the body. Illness, then, is the cultural recognition of either a disease or a malfunction of the body, which may or may not be caused by a disease. Sickness is the role someone with an illness plays within the constructs of a culture, what is expected of someone who is ill.

Confused? Well, let's use an example. In the US, someone who has cancer has a disease. It is recognized as such by everybody, and there are certain medical terms which we apply to people who have cancer. That recognition of cancer as a problem is the illness. Now, there are also certain protocols to be followed when one has cancer; notably, friends and family are supportive and sympathetic, and the ill person is expected to A) undergo a series of unpleasant treatments in order to rid themselves of the disease, or B) squander all their money on all the adventures they have always wanted to do in a very Hollywood plot line. Those choices, A and B, become the sickness, how that person is supposed to act in the event of an illness, this particular one caused by an actual disease (cancer).

Illnesses, however, can also be recognized without there being a disease to cause it. For example, in some early Puritan communities, red hair was considered a sign of possession or witchcraft. There is no disease associated with red hair, medically speaking, but there is an illness in the Puritan culture: being in league with the Devil. All very dramatic, I know, but there ARE the Puritans we're talking about. The sickness, the proscribed was a person with the illness of red hair was supposed to act, usually followed a path of persecution (often, both for the mother and child), repentance and/or execution. A person with such an affliction was expected to say and do certain things in order to either give up his or her pact with the Devil or be subject to various inhuman tortures upon denying the connection.

In addition, just to make things a bit more confusing, there can also be a disease present that has no illness or sickness associated with it. The Masai in eastern Africa, for example, are often afflicted with a certain kind of bladder infection that most often only affects males (this is actually due to the gender-differences in work and play expectations which takes boys into a different sphere than girls, and within that sphere is where these particular bacteria live, hence the reason that women most often do not contract this type of bladder infection). The disease is present, as evidenced by the blood in the urine of most boys beginning at around puberty. However, within the Masai, the sign of blood in the urine as a result of this infection is not seen as an illness; on the contrary, this symptom is a sign that the boy has reached puberty and is ready to be inducted into the realm of men. Therefore, there is no sickness, no proscribed was for one with an illness to be acting because there is no illness. In their rituals, there is nothing negative about blood in the urine.

Quite fascinating, really. And it is interesting what you can learn about a culture while observing their diseases, illnesses, and sicknesses. In my case, I have some kind of disease (like I said, the flu, pneumonia, death, whatever). It is recognized that I have some sort of illness, but here, probably due to the crappy weather, it is an illness far less urgent and serious that it would be in States. Here, my coughing is drowned out by the coughs of a dozen people near me, the snuffles and nose blowing of half the students in my classrooms. When I inform people that I am sick, they do not shy away from me as many would do in the States; they simply nod knowingly and say, "Yes, 'tis the season. And so for a sickness, it is not expected that I change my routine at all, but instead find a selection of non-drowsy (which here means they add all kinds of caffeine to keep you up, which is really quite miserable) cough syrups and decongestants and push through until spring, when, I have been informed, it will finally go away after months of plaguing my mental well-being. I feel that this attitude helps to explain why there are a million cases of that stomach virus in the UK.

Thursday, January 3, 2008



Sorry for all the enthusiasm, but its snowing! Finally!

We did get a light dusting while the family was here; enough to be able to write messages to people on their car windows. But it wasn't the kind of snow you could actually SEE falling. That time it was like freezing rain that sort of just collected. if you squinted through a beem of light from a street lamp, you could almost tell that those were flakes and not drops.

But this is real stuff! It's been going since I woke up, and it's finally starting to stick. It's been fairly warm here, so it took a while for any accumulation. These flakes are the massive, thick, wet ones that sort of float down to the ground with a mush and saturate everything. The pretty kind. The kind that is now starting to cover the rooftops and our small backyard and the trees and cars. I bet this would be a perfect day to go up Arthur's Seat and watch the snow begin to hide the entire city.

Unfortunately, I'm sick as a dog. I somehow managed to pick up the flu somewhere, and now every gland I have in my entire body is swollen and painful. I can barely move, so I have to be content today with just watching it snow from our futon. But really, who would have thought? I know globl warming is supossed to be making the UK colder (something about the halting of the Gulf Stream which is waht keeps this area so mild with all its warm water), but thus far global warming has proven dissapointing. 45 and rainy is a miserable winter, the kind of winter that makes me wish for summer (god forbid!). Montana, on the other hand, is covered in MY snow, and so I spend a lot of time longing for the mountains...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

50,000 people. That is the number of people officials estimated would attend Edinburgh’s Hogmanay this year. That is the number of people organizers were prepared to handle. Imagine walking down the street with 50,000 of your closest buddies. You're already shoulder-to-shoulder, but its manageable. Now, squish closer to your neighbor to make room for 50,000 more people on that same street. And now you will arrive at the estimate for the number of people who ACTUALLY attended Edinburgh’s Hogmanay street party on Princes Street.

Having gone to Ohio University and attended the infamous Halloween event, which attracts an estimated 20,000 people annually, I am no stranger to big crowds of rowdy holiday revelers. And Hogmanay started out as such, only with way more clothes involved; for those who have ever been to an OU Halloween, it’s well known for its scantily-clad clientele of all sexes, genders and orientations, even in sub-freezing temperatures. Obviously, Edinburgh is on a larger scale than Athens, but the experience was the same. We stopped first to see a funky Punjabi-rock band that was actually pretty good. A nice way to get the blood pumping. Very electronica and Indian, with plenty of “AhhhhAHahhhhhs” to satisfy any hippy inclinations. After the band did their mini-encore, we headed out to find another beer. And that’s the story of the rest of the night.

We spent the next two hours stuck in a mass of people that sometimes moved forward but more often than not moved backward. All we had wanted was a beer and a bathroom, and it turned into an Odyssey in true Greek hero fashion. It didn’t help that while in line for the bathrooms, the guys in front of me were duped by a silly, fake-blonde and crying girl and they just let her walk to the front of a line full of very angry and yelling revelers who didn’t give a hoot if she had “women problems.” As a woman, I was totally unimpressed and found myself giving in to the fervor of unfair queuing and yelled angrily right along with everyone. I am beginning to take my queue experience as seriously as the Brits.

The upside of the whole debacle was that when it hit midnight, we had somehow managed to crawl forward to the perfect viewing spot for the fireworks, which lit the castle up in true New Year’s fashion. Good thing it was a pleasant location, too, because there was really nowhere else for us to go, and we were stuck right in the same spot for about half an hour. We could have been stuck behind the museum buildings with a great view of… the back of the building. I have no idea how the city managed to accommodate 300,000 in 1997. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.

After midnight, when the crowd began to head for the exits (beer service stopped at 12:30, so there was a mass exodus to everyone’s favorite bar for the afterparty), we made a beeline for the Grassmarket Bar, always a good local choice because its never packed but filled with locals. So we relaxed there for our last drinks of the night, watching a stumbling, totally gone dude try to hit on one of the bartenders in vain. She was way out of his class.

The next day turned out to be cool and rainy: the weather that had been expected last night but had been so kind as to hold off until the next day, which I’m sure was good for Hogmanay attendance but bad for me. The rain didn’t keep us from heading over to Holyrood Park in the early afternoon for Dogmanay, a fun little family event featuring dog racing. In theory, they pull sleds, but seeing as it doesn’t snow here (ugh!), there were huskies, malamutes, Samoyeds, and Eskimos dogs pulling wheeled carts and scooters across a festively muddy field. The grass on that part of the park is now totally destroyed. The cool part, though, was that anybody with some kind of snowdog could bring the pet and run these races. Huskies from all over the city came out from the cracks to at least watch the races. There were some professional breeders and racers there, all with their little tents are caravans set up in the back, showing off their fancy stock. We ended up standing next to a woman with a big male Sib. with the same coloring as a younger Koani: a rich reddish brown. It really made me miss my dog, one of the few things that can make me homesick. But I digress…. It was obvious that some of the dogs had some training, but others were just here to have fun and were all over the place, just like walking Koani. One little girl got distracted by food that someone had dropped on the other side of the fence and stopped mid-race to try to dig under the fence to get the morsels. Other dogs got distracted by every other dog standing around watching. But the mood was jovial, and nobody was taking things too seriously. And the entire park was filled with the echoes of the announcer and the yodels of acres of huskies all hanging out in the same place.

After watching the races for a bit, we headed out to find some cheese to top tonight’s dinner: Skyline Chili direct from Cincinnati and courtesy of my good friend Laura Settle for Christmas (along with One Hundred Years of Solitude for our bookclub, but we won’t talk about that). Nothing warms a Cincinnatian like good, old fashioned, Greek-style Cincinnati Chili.