Lazy Afternoons

So far today:

  • Woke up, lay in bed texting friends in NY/SF.
  • Took indulgently long shower, came downstairs.
  • Had coffee, sat with folks and chatted about life the universe and everything.
  • Ate brunch of Israeli salad and seared tuna.
  • Sat on porch with this view, doing Arabic homework.

FullSizeRenderDespite not really “doing” Thanksgiving, and not growing up with it as a tradition, I’ve been trying to adopt the habits of my adopted country. As far as being thankful goes, I’m trying to pinpoint the non-obvious things, like the good health of people I love, since we too often take these things for granted until we no longer have them. Along these lines, this post is a welcome change from “Hi I’m so busy here are the million things I’m doing” stream that usually characterizes this blog.

Fiction, Nonfiction

One of the things I’m doing over Thanksgiving is catching up on reading that’s not specifically for college. Right now, that’s “Cards on the Table” by Agatha Christie and Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

I started to read murder mystery novels last semester as an antithesis of sorts for all the Middle Eastern politics and journalism stuff I’m reading for class or for research. It’s got me thinking about reading fiction and how worthwhile doing so actually is. It’s something I grapple with every few months — in the spring of 2014, I decided to experiment with my literature diet and read only nonfiction until the end of the year. I think I broke that resolution a couple times, but I enjoyed it overall. Right now, I probably have a 10:1 nonfiction-to-fiction ratio.

Nonfiction books are directly related to my areas of interest — politics, censorship, press freedom, the Middle East. “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz is an excellent book, but reading a story set in Cairo after the war doesn’t convey that much information about the city, or the political milieu of Egypt 1917-19. If I want bang for my buck, I go across the bookstore to the nonfiction aisle. Fiction gives you the color, but nonfiction lays the foundation for learning about a subject.

That said, any list of emotionally impactful books I make will be almost entirely fiction. These are the books that spoke to me, that influence the choices I make, and how I see the world. (Off the top of my head, Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would probably be the top three of that list. Maybe I’ll actually write it up some day.) If I could only read fiction books that changed my world view and which I made a point to reread once every year or two, I would, but selecting these books is quite difficult. Only one of the three named above, for example, won a Pulitzer or award of equal distinctino, which you’d imagine would be the bar set for life-changing fiction, since high accolades are how you tell good nonfiction from bad.

One interesting spanner is the works of this thought process is the positive social aspects of reading fiction. I think everyone had long suspected that people who read fiction are more worldly and empathetic. Turns out there’s science to back this up — reading Harry Potter and rooting for the good guys (i.e. not being camp Voldemort) “improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees).” Then, the question for me becomes centered on trying to limit my consumption of to only the best fiction stories, but I have no good answer for how to do this. The life-changing fiction books are diamonds in the rough, not especially obvious.

Bret Victor on climate change

Hurtling along at a ground speed of 464 mph, I decided to take some time to read Bret Victor’s excellent essay on climate change. It’s good. It’s really good.

It serves as both a good call to arms but also as a good primer — an answer to “I know I should care about this, but what are the basics? What should I be thinking about? What questions should I be asking?”

Take a half hour and pour over it — read it, play with the graphics, let his ideas sit with you. You’ll be better off after it. 


In my politics lecture today, we spent some time talking about Anthony Shadid, an exceptional journalist whose journalis. We read Restoring Names to War’s Unknown Casualties, one of my favorite pieces of his, on confirming the identities of the dead in Iraq. It’s the sort of piece that should be taught in every journalism school in the country.

I don’t know if it was his way with words or his penchant for motorcycles — he smuggled himself into Syria to avoid pro-Assad forces on multiple occasions, once on the back of a bike — but he reminds me of Oliver Sacks, if the latter had gone into journalism rather than medicine.

As a journalist fluent in Arabic reporting on Middle East events for a U.S. audience, he was also a formative influence on me. In an email to NY Times staff after he died, executive editor Jill Abramson wrote that “Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces.”

Still Alive!

I made it out the other end of the essay week, which is a positive development. I wrote the bulk of both essays over the weekend, and touched them up today. I submitted one earlier this evening and will sign off on the other one tomorrow at 3:30pm. After that, I’m a free man.

Flying out Wednesday morning, will hopefully have a chance to disconnect. Last year, I used Thanksgiving as a chance to read and catch up on sleep. I’m hoping I get to do some of that done this time around, but I’ll probably have to use a chunk of it to get ready for the last 2.5 weeks of class. Off the top of my head, two essays, a politics final I have to ace, and whatever constitutes an Arabic final these days are all that’s standing between me and 6 weeks off once I make it to December 17.

Californian friends, I’ll see you over winter break. Let’s get Samovar.

Database Searches

From now on, when people ask me what I’m up to, I’m just going to share my three most recent ProQuest searches. Currently:

Iran “nuclear deal” (US OR USA OR America) “foreign policy”

(“united states” OR “us” OR “usa” OR “america”) AND ti(iran) AND “foreign policy”

(“united states” OR “us” OR “usa” OR “america”) (“China” OR “PRC” OR “People’s Republic of China”) AND ti(“cyberwar” OR “cyberwarfare” OR “computer virus” OR “computer viruses”)

Parents — talk to your kids about boolean operators before someone working at the NYU library does.

WSN Editorial Board: Paris underscores importance of opening arms to refugees

An editorial board piece we wrote for Washington Square News. I wrote the last line of the piece, which I’m fairly proud of. 

President Barack Obama has said that the United States is poised to take in five times as many refugees in 2015 than it has in the last four years combined, much to the chagrin of xenophobes like presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz told reporters on Nov. 15 that “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror” before going on to say allowing Muslim refugees into the United States would be “lunacy” and that there is no way of telling if a Muslim is a member of ISIS. Not to be outdone on the lunacy front, Jeb Bush openly called for Christian refugees to be given preferential treatment. But in light of recent acts of violence, both domestic and international, this kind of brash nonsense is not only socially irresponsible, but also morally bankrupt. 

The politicians against accepting refugees incorrectly believe that these refugees represent a large terrorism threat to the United States. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the equal — if not higher — likelihood of a terror threat from anti-government white Americans. Furthermore, German authorities have repeatedly stated that the number of suspected ISIS members found among refugees is negligible. The recent choice to demonize refugees and Muslims over other equally threatening groups only serves to perpetuate the contentious divide between East and West. This division is what ISIS thrives on. In their efforts to fight terrorism, Republican politicians end up playing into the ideology they are fighting against. 

It’s easy to dismiss politicians’ remarks as cheap soundbites. It is election season, and this emotional moment is a prime time to rally the Republican base with some appropriately jingoistic, anti-immigrant boilerplate. But these cheap political jabs have consequences, and we have seen these consequences manifest already. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, French president Francois Hollande boldly declared “France is at war,” and launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria as if to prove it. But these knee-jerk reactions are not what we need in this sensitive time. When geopolitics are horrendously complicated and when hatred and fear are what motivate our enemies, we need humanity now more than ever — toward our citizens and toward refugees.

 The news that the Republican Party is straying from these essential values is cause for concern, but also is no surprise in an election cycle that has already seen candidates spew sexist, racist and Islamophobic bombast over the airwaves. A sonnet by Emma Lazarus is engraved on the lower pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” This country was founded on multiculturalism and the idea that anyone, even immigrants, can make their mark on this country. If Donald Trump wants to make America great again, he need only look at the inscription on that gift from France in New York harbor.