Friday, December 28

Essential

Literacy is essential.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.” ― Kofi Annan

Thursday, December 27

Women helping women

 
"Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has a Women’s Affairs office... the front line in the Afghan government’s effort to advance women’s rights – and to fight violence against women.... For example, Human Rights Watch has heard of cases where, in provinces with no shelter for women fleeing violence (there are only 14 such shelters in all of Afghanistan) Women’s Affairs staff members have protected battered women in the staffers’ own homes, at great personal risk."
 
Maybe Sofi is reasonable to hide her teacher - and it's not a case of kidnapping after all. Afghan women can help other women, but only secretly.

Wednesday, December 26

Public prayer

Public prayer is treacherous territory for politicians, whether one offers a new sentiments or repeats a familiar verse. Prayer is laden with symbolism and emotion, and in public transforms into a message of persuasion. The audience may or may not agree, and the choice of words, tone, place can influence the prayer's reception.

For too many politicians, when difficult action is required, public prayers become a means of evading responsibility or accountability.  Private prayer can be about making demands ... or confronting personal responsibility.

And that's why a mystery author finds herself writing about prayer and religion - because disagreement over values and beliefs can lead to power struggles and lethal conflict.

John Newton, the same man who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," wrote about "Public Prayer" and warned that some prayers were too much like preaching, a common failing among politicians. "The studied addresses with which some approach the throne of grace remind us of a stranger's coming to a great man's door; he knocks and waits, sends in his name, and goes through a course of ceremony, before he gains admittance, while a child of the family uses no ceremony at all, but enters freely when he pleases, because he knows he is at home," Newton warns. "Some attention to method may be proper, for the prevention of repetitions; and plain people may be a little defective in it sometimes; but this defect will not be half so tiresome and disagreeable as a studied and artificial exactness."

It's for each to decide which is better - public prayer that's awkward, self-serving and poor in form or no prayer at all.

Photo of nomad praying in the desert, courtesy of Kazimierz Nowak and Wikimedia Commons. Nowak, a Polish correspondent and photographer, is described by Wikimedia Commons as likely the first man in the world who crossed Africa alone from North to South and from South to North on foot, bicycle and canoe.







Tuesday, December 25

Abundance

I wrote this nine years ago for The New Haven Register - before the subprime crisis hit, before the global credit crisis, before the storms and floods of 2012. Much has changed since then, but the feelings remain the same.

Gathering more property is empty abundance

If we look back on our most awe-inspiring moments, these are probably not time spent on exotic vacations or in elegant restaurants. No, they were everyday moments — snuggled next to a child and reading a book, or moments at daybreak, daily walks that transformed from the routine to special memories.

By no means do our best accomplishments result in the most money. Raising a child would be a top contender for many, as would creative pursuits. I began writing my second mystery novel a decade ago, and restructured at least a dozen revisions. And I am thrilled about a contract that pays an advance of $1,000 for what represents 10 years of work.

And our most valuable possessions are hardly the most expensive. As the fires raged in California, who could not help thinking about what they would reach for first in such an emergency — family, pets, photo albums would top most lists.

If I had the chance to save jewelry, I would snatch the small pearl earrings, an early gift from my husband. If I had to scramble through the ashes left from the fire, I’d search for pottery made by my son as a child and a rock that has the perfect fossil of a fern, found by my father and grandfather long ago as they walked by a creek in their neighborhood and since passed on to my son.

If I could save books, it would be my copies of "Marjorie Morningstar" by Herman Wouk and a cookbook, both of which arrived in the mail from a book club shortly after my mother’s death, almost like a message.

The link between all these belongings, of course, are memories. Our possessions are nothing without memories.

We live in a society that has allowed consumerism to flourish out of control, decreasing the value of almost everything we own.

This probably hurts our children more than anyone.

An introduction from an Oct. 26 article in The New York Times reads: "At age 8, Marcie Rosenthal is done with Barbies. ‘I have a whole collection that I would like to get rid of someday.’ "

Sadly, too many of our children equate the accumulation of possessions with happiness. They expect every want to be satisfied immediately. They embrace objects only to willingly dispose of them a few months later. Many grandparents admit that it’s very hard to find a gift today that truly makes a child happy.

Ironically, the solution to our angst is simple. We can be satisfied with less.

And perhaps we can change the direction in our children’s lives — encouraging contentment with what we have rather than stress over finding more, redirecting our time and energy for a purpose rather than the mere accumulation of wealth.

So what does abundance mean during a time of plenty and comfort? Accomplishments and ideas, strong friendships, smiles on another person’s face. Our pursuit of happiness does not hinge on spending more time on work, earning money, rushing to expensive activities, visiting stores, collecting more possessions. We can spend more time caring for families and friends. We can devote more time to relationships and worthy causes in our communities.

Photo courtesy of Mikimoto

Sunday, December 16

By hand

A research study has shown that children write more quickly with more quantity when they draft manuscripts by hand rather than keyboard.  "But when using a pen, the children in all three grade levels [2nd, 4th and 6th grades] produced longer essays and composed them at a faster pace," reports Joel Schwarz of the University of Washington, in Futurity. The study was headed by Virginia Berninger, University of Washington professor of educational psychology who studies normal writing development and writing disabilities.

The study tested children at three tasks, writing the alphabet both by hand on keyboard; writing a sentence based on one prompt word, both by hand and on keyboard; and writing essays on given topics in 10 minutes.

Victor Burg who taught writing at the Kennedy School of Government during late 1980s and early 1990s often recommended those with writers block to try handwritten drafts. He was advising graduate students tackling assignments on economic and public policy and supervising writing instructors who prepared mid-career students for the graduate program. At the time I was surprised but have since come to realize that it's solid advice for any writing project.

In Fear of Beauty, much of Sofi's personality and voice was developed with handwriting in a notebook, an activity this character had long yearned to try. The task becomes more urgent after the death of her son and she wants to preserve his memory. Yet even securing a pencil and notebook requires subterfuge.

Photo of statue of Isaiah holding pen at Piazza Spagna in Rome, courtesy of gnuckx and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 14

Corruption

Each year Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index releases international rankings and for 2012, Afghanistan has landed in last place along with North Korea and Somalia, reports Frank Vogl for the Huffington Post.

"There is a brutal message here for the architects of Western geo-political strategy in general and for those most responsible for the Afghan debacle in particular," Vogle writes. "Despite all the diverse experiences of decades, the harsh fact is that Western powers have a zero success rate in establishing decent governance in poor countries embroiled in conflict that have no history of democratic institutions."

Public trust and respect is minimal in such countries, Vogle explains. Human rights abuses and violence are high. This does not bode well for security - for Afghanistan, neighbors in India or Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world.

Image courtesy of Transparency International.

Thursday, December 13

Uncertainty

Six months is not long and July will be here before we know it. Pakistan has extended refugee status for 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in that country for six months.

"Pakistani officials have long expressed their frustration with the lack of progress in repatriating the world's largest refugee community - Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion and later, Taliban rule," reports Alex Rodriguez for the Los Angeles Times. "Many refugees have lived in Pakistan for more than three decades. Their presence is resented by many Pakistanis, who see the refugees as a source of escalating crime and accuse them of involvement in terror strikes across the country."

United Nations officials and others would prefer a more lasting resolution.

"The core protection challenge in Pakistan is the absence of a specific legal regime for the protection of refugees," reports the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. "Individually recognized refugees and asylum-seekers have difficulty in accessing basic facilities and essential services including education, health care and work in Pakistan. Many of them have limited income opportunities so they must survive through informal work arrangements."

Sunday, December 9

Human trafficking

Gyong-Ho is grateful for her job as a factory seamstress, one of many under the portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. The noisy machines lend a rhythm that blocks out painful memories, the glint of the needle provides the illusion of warmth, and the needs of a selfish and beautiful co-worker pass for friendship. From the start, All Woman and Springtime draws its readers in to the mind control and deceptions that are daily routines in isolated, impoverished North Korea - an entire nation fooled into thinking theirs is the the most powerful, innovative, benevolent nations of the world.

So it's stunning to realize that greater indignities can be suffered in the wealthy and democratic lands of Seoul and Seattle. Naivete and lack of education trap three young North Korean women into a horrific servitude as much as locked doors and armed guards do. So many young people strive for individuality, and the book is a reminder for parents and communities anywhere that extreme control and routines fail to prepare young adults for the unexpected crises that can emerge.

I chose this book to read because of the recommendation from Alice Walker on its cover, describing it as an important novel. I devoured it in less than two days. Walker may not know of every instance, but through her writing, she is a mentor and inspiration to many writers and teachers. Of course, Fear of Beauty is but one example, with and its themes include literacy, trafficking and abuse of power.

The tale of so much anguish is well written, and will stir activism among its readers about the horrific crime of trafficking. Perhaps because I once lived in Seattle and walked the streets described in the University District and downtown. One can't help but feel guilt in reading the sentence from Brandon W. Jones about main protagonist Gyong-ho: "As she walked, she noticed that the well dressed never looked at the wretched. It was like two parallel worlds coinciding but never intersecting."

Fiction highlights the individual pain of cruel public policies and social problems and crimes. One cannot read such a book without taking the next step, seeking out groups that aim for reform. Yes,  human trafficking is a crime that shames us all. 

Particularly encouraging is a Rapid Report & Response Program from Prevent Human Trafficking, which uses cell-phone and SMS technology. "We want to make it easy for everyday citizens to join the fight against traffickers and to report and prevent human trafficking using devices with which they are totally comfortable."

But we don't need a special app. Citizens cannot look the other way and should immediately pick up phones to contact authorities.

Friday, December 7

Prize

Colleen LaRose, otherwise known as Jihad Jane, was not the biggest catch for the FBI in their war on terror. She was not a prize convert for Islam either. So suggests the start of a four-part series and six-month investigation from  John Shiffman of Reuters, about LaRose, who set out to follow internet orders to kill a man in Sweden accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

"The court filings and press releases draw a frightening portrait of the Jihad Jane conspiracy," Shiffman writes. "But an exclusive Reuters review of confidential investigative documents and interviews in Europe and the United States - including the first with Jihad Jane herself -- reveals a less menacing and, in some ways, more preposterous undertaking than the U.S. government asserted."

Some suggest that authorities exaggerated the dangers presented by LaRose, who grew up in the Detroit area and was a victim of incest. Her education was limited to the seventh-grade and, subsequently, she abused drugs and alcohol. The plot may sound inept and outlandish. But the ignorant who are impatient about investing time in studies and self-improvement can be angry and dangerous. 

Be sure to click through the photos in Shiffman's report, and pause at the school photo of LaRose from the 1970s, when she was about 7 or 8 years old.  I have met Michigan women in their 50s who attended schools in the best districts, and now regret the labels, the free time and lack of standards for children deemed not capable of college work. Everywhere, there are teachers who label children, thereby limiting their own work and a child's opportunities, and others never give up trying to expand the future for every child. "Many teachers see a child as one way or another and they are labeled," writes Stephanie Mayberry. "Once that child in labeled, it sticks with them unless someone steps in and stops it." 

Fortunately, most of us have the chance to meet many teachers throughout our lives who challenge us, guide us, and believe we can move beyond the standards.

Wednesday, December 5

Jihad

The old argument continues about whether religion and politics belong with polite conversation. "The old adage that polite conversation should not include talk of politics or religion is understandable because both subjects are so heavily laden with emotion that discussion can quickly turn to shouting," wrote John C. Danforth, former US ambassador to the United Nations. "Blood is shed over politics, religion and the two in combination."

Dodging such topics does not achieve understanding.

Abukar Arman, Somalia special envoy to the United States, urges such discussions as "essential to coexistence, development and progress!" And he takes advantage of a public forum in YaleGlobal Online to defend jihad as "the constant motivation for gaining knowledge, to seek and create opportunities for ourselves, to cultivate good families and good communities, to spiritually develop and purify ourselves, find the sublime Creator, understand the purpose of our respective lives and find a common ground in which coexistence is possible."

He maintains that the spiritual process is about truthseeking, not violence. To understand the process, literacy and individual interpretations and expressions are required. He offers a theory as to why and how extremist groups engage in reckless violence - to secure power with an attitude that he labels "assertive ignorance." But the power and recognition built on violence, oppression or inequality do not endure.

"The world has but one religion - love, which is its life," wrote Indian poet Ulloor S.Parameswara Iyer. And I suppose we need the politics for those who don't agree.

Statue of Uloor S. Parameswara Iyer outside the State Central Library, Trivandrum, Kerala, India, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ajeeshcphilip.

Saturday, December 1

Khedmat

As US and NATO prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Afghans will be responsible for security. "To equip the Afghan police, UNESCO launched a literacy program in 2011, with support from Japan. The program trained 300 facilitators who train thousands of officers.

"To help neo-literate police officers test their reading ability with informative and relevant material, UNESCO publishes a monthly newspaper, Khedmat (which means 'service' in the Pashto and Dari languages)," notes the UNESCO education page.

Literacy could help solve more crimes than guns.

Afghan police training on the AK-47 at Kabul Military Training Center in 2010. The class also covers human rights and the Afghan constitution. Photo courtesy of NTM-A_CSTC-A in Kabul and Wikimedia Commons. 


Wednesday, November 21

Religion quiz

So how much do you know about religion? Take the quiz from the Pew Forum on Religous and Public Life - and find out!

At the end, you will see how your score compares with others and how those of various faiths, gender or educaton performed. 

The two questions that stumped most responders: Which preacher participated in the period of religous activity known as the First Great Awakening?  and According to the rulings by the US Supreme Court, is a public school teacher permitted to lead a class in prayer or not? Only 11 and 23 percent, respectively, responded to the two questions correctly.

Friday, November 16

Perspective

Many in the Washington, DC, establishment bemoan the downfall of CIA chief David Petraeus, a general who led and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some suggested the request for his resignation was too harsh.

In an interview with AFP, a Taliban official laughed, then commented on the severe punishments exacted in Afghanistan for adultery. "From a Pashtun point of view, Petraeus should be shot by relatives from his mistress's family," the Taliban official explained. "From a sharia point of view, he should be stoned to death."

Petraeus suggests that the affair began after he left the military. According to Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman for Wired:

"the Uniform Code of Military Justice expressly forbids adultery (even among retired servicemembers), assigning a maximum penalty of 'dishonorable['] discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for up to one year....The CIA, on the other hand, has no policy against infidelity. In fact, Langley explicitly says extramarital affairs are OK — as long as you tell the Agency, as long as you tell your partner, and as long as no foreigners are involved."

Coming up with tough policies is easy, enforcing them not so easy. Conservatives tend to develop these policies for others, never expecting to apply them to their own. There is no rule of law with nconsistent enforcement, only injustice. In a small world, while drafting laws and their enforcement mechanisms, governments must consider if the penalties will win support of citizens and respect or ridicule from other nations.

Thursday, November 15

Ethics

"Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has ordered the Pentagon to find out why so many generals and admirals have become embroiled in legal and ethical problems," reports Craig Whitlock for The Washington Post.

The entire US federal government operates by chain of command. The government won't improve when people at the top, the ones responsible for bureaucratic bungling, hubris, lack of clarity and many other personnel and administrative difficulties, perform exit interviews. These are the same people who refuse to listen to advice on best practices from their employees, who regard any suggestion as personal criticism. The government needs to take a close look at select offices that have high employee turnover, contributing to inefficiencies and unnecessary costs.

Such reviews are essential for departments that have interactions around the globe. The lack of accountability is unconscionable, particularly for the many who are not American citizens and must suffer from the petty insecurities and mismangement of too many US officials. And one is too many.

PS: Wish we could say the sequester would help ...

Tuesday, November 13

Soft power


Soft power requires patience but over the long term is stronger, more enduring than hard power.

"Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce. It means that others want what the United States wants, and there is less need to use carrots and sticks," wrote Joseph S. Nye, Jr., in 2003 for YaleGlobal Online. "Soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When U.S. policies appear legitimate in the eyes of others, American soft power is enhanced. Hard power will always remain crucial in a world of nation-states guarding their independence, but soft power will become increasingly important in dealing with the transnational issues that require multilateral cooperation for their solution."

Soft power can be as mundane as jeans and other clothing or a pop song. It can be as lofty, the most intense literature and films that revolutionize the way others think and view the world. Governments have little control over soft power, and shouldn't try too hard, except to encourage curiosity and creativity and free thought. Coercion only puts people off in cross-culture interactions. Soft power comes with contentment, joy, fervor, kindness, the power of quiet example.

Soft power emerges from the aspirations and dreams of ordinary people - anywhere - and can strike when we least expect it.

Photo of clouds copyrighted by Axel Rouvin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, November 12

Love and terror

Learn something new everyday, from the AP and The Washington Post ...

[General] Petraeus and Broadwell apparently used a trick, known to terrorists and
teen-agers alike, to conceal their email traffic, one of the law enforcement officials said. Rather than transmitting emails to the other’s inbox, they composed at least some messages and instead of transmitting them, left them in a draft folder or in an electronic “dropbox,” the official said. Then the other person could log onto the same account and  read the draft emails there. This avoids creating an email trail that is easier to trace.

"A January 2005 PBS special on al-Qaeda identified the tactic as one of several “terrorist tricks, alongside logging in from public Internet cafes,” reports Max Fisher in his Washington Post blog.

It's a good bet that it won't be long before Gmail and other free email services are tracking drafts - if they aren't already.

Image courtesy of Gmail.   

Saturday, November 10

Force

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Morra Aarons-Mele points out in a free market, equipped with social media, "women with opinions are a force to be reckoned with." She points out that women dominate every social-media market and "Women are influencing each other's decisions through non-stop conversations on social media."

Thursday, November 8

Symbols

The flag of Afghanistan has had more changes during the 20th century than any other nation on earth, reports the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

The line drawing in the center shows a mosque, the year the country won independence from the United Kingdom, wheat and a scroll with the country's name. The green is described as representing agriculture, prosperity and Islam.

After the Taliban were defeated and Hamid Karzi was elected in 2004, the flag was adjusted slightly - the wording on the scroll was revised from "The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" to "Afghanistan," explains Worldpics.com.au

The image of the flag, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, November 7

Warning!

Do not even try Dynamic Views from Google for your blog. It's a disaster, a travesty of messy designs for people who don't want to read.

The result is pure ugliness. Downloading the templates does not always work and I can guarantee - you will want to return to your original design.

Trust

Public service requires mutual trust. The Republican campaign slogan for 2012 was “Believe in America.” The election results should have come as no surprise. The list of Americans who have failed to win Republicans' trust is long. For the party to survive, they need to rebuild trust among diverse pockets of the electorate and the electorate as a whole.    

7 percent: Government employees can’t be blamed for the climbing deficit. Falling revenues, uncertainty, stagnation bear much of the blame. Government workers represent 7 percent of the workforce.

20 percent: Appeals to religious values fall on some death ears, with one out of five Americans reporting they are religiously unaffiliated, with more than a third holding atheist or agnostic views.

47 percent: Americans who pay no federal income taxes – including senior citizens, the working poor or veterans – have contributed to the country, are contributing to the country or will someday contribute to the country. Don’t knock them.

50.8 percent: Politicians who try to intervene between women and doctors on health care face a challenge when women make up more than 50 percent of the population. And women vote at higher rates. Denying or suppressing voting rights produces a backlash that can linger for years.   

80 percent: “Studies show that approximately 80% of all new jobs come from small businesses or new companies in their fast growth phase; those that grow the fastest hire the most,” writes Walter Cruttenden, author and investment fund founder, in comments posted on the US Securities and Exchange site. “However, because research, development and new product innovation are risky and often require multiple rounds of equity financing, short sellers often target these companies, to the detriment of America. Short sellers are essentially traders that are hoping a company will experience problems (such as product delays or the inability to raise financing) so they may profit from the setbacks.”

97 percent: The vast majority of researchers agree that climate change is a real problem,  exacerbated by humans. The US military, the insurance industry and other businesses are already making preparations and issue warnings.

100 percent: Transparency on tax returns is essential. Tax reform is needed. The share of wealth among the top 5 percent grew while wealth of middle class households declined between 2007 and 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. Americans can and should understand the complexities of the tax code.

100 percent: The polls are no place for bureaucracy. There’s no reason to deny voters early voting privileges or absentee ballots. Requiring identification, filling out and signing forms, ballots in folders, machines that can match time of voting with a select ballot, questions from poll workers add to the confusion of voting days and long lines. Long lines at the poll are unconscionable.

President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1961 farewell address: “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

The party that opposes government intervention cannot impose unreasonable controls on women’s health care, climate-change research, voting procedures and more. Trust is crucial for any successful society. Democracy requires that governments trust their people.
 
Photo of penny courtesy of US Government and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 6

Invisible women


AlJazeera.com's Afghanistan Live Blog is a wonderful resource, but then one realizes the posts, at least recent ones, largely overlook women.

So we can only imagine their experience ... and that is the source for Fear of Beauty. Imagination. 

Afghanistan is not alone. Every society has its invisible people. And they can have fascinating stories.

Screenshot courtesy of AlJazeera.com.

Friday, November 2

Islamic fiction

Demand is high for Islamic fiction in the English-speaking world.

"Storytelling is a traditional Islamic art and the novel brings this art right into the home. Muslims of all ages need the contemporary Muslim story as a vehicle for interpreting the world in an Islamic light. Non-Muslims might also appreciate an insight into the diversity and unity of the Muslim way of life that the art of storytelling can provide," writes Yafiah Katherine Randall for Islamic Fiction Books.

Well, Fear of Beauty is about a woman in rural Afghanistan who struggles to learn to read with only the help of the Koran.

So is the book Islamic fiction if the author is not Muslim herself?  You decide. It would be nice to think of the novel as one that bridges cultures as some do ... and not offend as did the opening song to Arabian Nights.

"Alf layla wa layla (known in English as A Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights) changed the world on a scale unrivalled by any other literary text," explain Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum in The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: East and West on Oxford Scholarship Online.  "Inspired by a 14th-century Syrian manuscript, the appearance of Antoine Galland's twelve-volume Mille et Une Nuits in English translation (1704-1717), closely followed by the Grub Street English edition, drew the text into European circulation. Over the following three hundred years, a widely heterogeneous series of editions, compilations, translations, and variations circled the globe to reveal the absorption of The Arabian Nights into English, continental, and global literatures, and its transformative return to modern Arabic literature, where it now enjoys a degree of prominence that it had never attained during the classical period."

Still, those banned books are good. 



And don't forget to sign up for the Goodreads Giveaway of Fear of Beauty. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and The Arabian Nights. 


Thursday, November 1

Power of literacy

UNESCO provides statistics on global literacy efforts: More than one out of six of the world's adults are illiterate, two thirds of them women. Those who are illiterate and their children are likely to encounter a bleak future with limited opportunities. Among the 122 million who are illiterate worldwide, 60 percent are women.

The statistics are stark in Afghanistan, where going to school can be a dangerous venture. So about 40 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women were literate in 2000, according to The World Factbook of the CIA. UNESCO monitors populations, but of course, there is a lack of reliable cross-national data on literacy.  And lands with high rates of illiteracy are often too dangerous to monitor.

"Literacy contributes to peace as it brings people closer to attaining individual freedoms and better understanding the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflict," explained UNESCO on Literacy Day this year. "The connection between literacy and peace can be seen by the fact that in unstable democracies or in conflict-affected countries it is harder to establish or sustain a literate environment."

Fear of Beauty is about a rural Afghan woman who always wanted to read, but becomes desperate after her son dies in a fall and she finds a paper nearby. She begins by picking out words in her family's Koran, but soon realizes the process will go much more quickly with a teacher. And yes, literacy empowers her.

Photo of Kabul book press in 2002, courtesy of US Department of State and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, October 28

Amazing GIS

GIS software is useful for any industry, allowing police, public health workers, journalists, weather forecasters, educators, researchers and planners of all types to pinpoint details on a map and show areas of need. The software can take thousands, millions of data points, rendering them instantly understandable with one glance.

The US Army Geospatial Center, US Army Corps of Engineers,  maps out terrorist incidents in Afghanistan. "The map examines civilian casualties due to acts of terrorism in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009." Unfortunately, we noticed that the beautiful map has since been removed, but its creator relied on the style of maps from the 1930s and 1940s, found in the US Library of Congress, depicting a contemporary conflict with the most modern of technology.

The uses of ArcGIS are many. For example: "The World Bank sees GIS as vital for addressing poverty and climate change," notes the website for Esri, the company that makes ArcGIS.

"The World Bank Institute's Innovation Team has geocoded and mapped more than 30,000 geographic locations for more than 2,500 bank-financed projects worldwide under its Mapping for Results initiative," writes Rachel Kyte, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. "All new World Bank projects are now georeferenced to ensure that development planners can track and deliver resources more efficiently and effectively and avoid work duplication."

GIS maps come in all colors and styles.  And just as there is a Peace Corps, there is also a GISCorps. GIS changes how we see our world, and of course it had to make an appearance in Fear of Beauty.

Partial GIS map, showing coal resources in north Afghanistan, courtesy of the US Geological Survey.




 

Thursday, October 25

Goodreads

Sign up to receive a free review copy of Fear of Beauty through the Goodreads Giveaway.

The contest ends December 1.


Power

During the US presidential debate, in addressing questions on the Middle East, President Barack Obama mentioned three times that religious minorities must be protected. Understanding the nuances in the region is essential. Sometimes minorities abuse power over majority populations, as is the case in Syria. Sometimes majorities abuse power over minority populations.

"Understanding the sects and their tensions is crucial in crafting any foreign policy for the region," I wrote for The Washington Post's On Faith blog. 

Tolerance of others' beliefs,  provides security. Extending respect for those not in power provides security. As James Madison noted, "In Republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority." He also warned that tyranny and oppression arrive in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. Good advice for any country.

The power that comes with example, culture, trade, education, diplomacy and more, can influence more than military power. Sadly, one of the great resources of the US State Department, its Background Notes and Country Profiles, are no more. What a loss ...

Examining the State Department's notes on percentages of Shia and Sunnis in the region - 35 percent Sunni and 62 percent Shia in Iraq; 9 percent Sunni and 89 percent Shia in Iran - along with a glance at a map, makes one wonder what the Bush administration was thinking when it decided to invade Iraq in March 2003. 

Map courtesy of Google.



Sunday, October 21

Divide

Can a divided US and a divided Iran come to agreement over casting transparency on Iran's nuclear program - allowing inspectors inside Iranian research facilities to determine if the program is related to weapons capability? 

The two nations agree on one point: There are no plans for post-election talks to end the stalemate.

"The United States has been working with the P5+1 to pressure Iran on its nuclear program, but with few results," reports Yeganah Torbati for Reuters. "The United States and other Western powers allege that the program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it is purely peaceful."

Expect the reports on secret plans talks to spark rancorous exchange during the third and final presidential debate in the US.  

Friday, October 19

Explore

You can explore online. Among the destinations of the British Museum's online tours is Arabic Script: Mightier than the Sword, an exhibit that explains how writing spread Islam.


Above is a page from the oldest known Koran. The British Museum explains that the text is from chapter 4 of the Koran, called "al-Nisa," or "The Women," from the end of verse 157 to the beginning of verse 161:

And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure.
Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.
And there is not one of the followers of the Book but most certainly believes in this before his death, and on the day of resurrection he (Isa) shall be a witness against them.
Wherefore for the iniquity of those who are Jews did We disallow to them the good things which had been made lawful for them and for their hindering many (people) from Allah's way.


Interesting, these are the verses the British Museum decided to post as an image, with no translation provided. The verses are on parchment in dark ink. "The format of the book is oblong, characteristic of early copies of the Qur'an, and traces of the original binding are visible to the right," the exhibit notes.

Also on display is a mosque lamp, a carved tombstone, tools, clothing, jewelry, calligraphy, an engraved brass ewer, a bowl, an etched jar, coins, a Persian tile with poetry, and other art and objects spanning many centuries and countries.

The exhibit notes, "To this day the versatile Arabic alphabet remains a source of inspiration to artists from the Islamic world."

Photo courtesy of British Museum.

Thursday, October 18

Binders

"The American people may not have a binder full of women at the moment, but we have a binder with two resumes in it," Virginia Hefferman writes for Yahoo News. "And, as we do every four years, we get to decide who gets hired."

I must admit, the comment on "binders full of women" during the presidential debate only caught my attention as hyperbole.

But subsequent analysis of the comment  - and the entire debate - has been adept, exposing corporate executives' desire for desperate and marginalized groups of employees willing to work long hours for less than a fair wage.

Government can help some, but individuals must refuse to play the game. Walk away from the binders and the labels.

Photo courtesy of The Writing Range. 

Wednesday, October 17

Acts of terror


President Barack Obama on Benghazi consulate attack, Rose Garden, September 12, 2012
"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." 

Presidential Debate, Hempstead, NY, October 16, 2012:
MITT ROMNEY: There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.
 BARACK OBAMA: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.

ROMNEY: I — I think interesting the president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That's what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.      

UPDATE, Oct 18: Some of the president's longtime critics suggest that the words "acts of terror" did not apply specifically to the Benghazi attacks. The statement's title is

 "Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya."

"Acts of terror" can only mean Libya. Those who suggest otherwise - their disrespect for the presidency, petulantly and desperately trying to remove meaning from words - are doing their candidate, Mitt Romney, a grave disservice.


Tuesday, October 16

The Koran and debate

Audiences in the US can expect to see more references to the Koran in many, many media forms, as I noted in a guest blog "The Koran upstages Bible in debate," for the Washington Post:

"Online translations and interpretations from American universities and beyond are plentiful... Because of that curiosity, along with the intense conflicts over faith in the modern world and the passion of adherents, audiences can expect to see more references to the Koran in politics and media discussions – and even as a central theme in films, novels and art."

The guest blog noted that the vice presidential debate made mention of the Koran and not the Bible. 

Moderator Martha Raddatz posed the question to Congressman Paul Ryan:  "I want to ask you about - the Romney campaign talks a lot about no apologies. He has a book called No Apologies. Should the US have apologized for Americans burning Korans in Afghanistan? Should the US apologize for US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses?"

Rayan's reply:  "Oh, gosh, yes. Urinating on Taliban corpses? What we should not apologize for..."

Raddatz:  "Burning Korans, immediately?"

Ryan: "What - what we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go. What we should not be doing is rejecting claims for - for calls for more security in our barracks, in our Marine - we need Marines in Benghazi when the commander on the ground says we need more forces for security. There were requests for extra security; those requests were not honored. Look, this was the anniversary of 9/11. It was Libya, a country we knew we had Al Qaida cells there, as we know Al Qaida and its affiliates are on the rise in Northern Africa. And we did not give our ambassador in Benghazi a Marine detachment? Of course there's an investigation, so we can make sure that this never happens again, but when it comes to speaking up for our values, we should not apologize for those. Here's the problem. Look at all the various issues out there, and it's unraveling before our eyes. The vice president talks about sanctions on Iran. They got - we've had four..."

The conversation then moved to Iran. 

Some argue that Ryan specifically dodged endorsing apologies for mistreatment of the Koran - "finessed" and "pander" in the words of Robert Dreyfuss for The Nation. I do not agree, and believe his response, "Gosh, yes" covered both examples. He simply repeated one of the two choices, certainly the act regarded as more heinous in American culture. The Koran burning by Marines was undoubtedly an honest mistake.


The debate did not mention the Bible, though certainly great attention was devoted to Catholic doctrine and the candidates' descriptions on the role their Catholic faith played in developing their separate personal views on abortion. It's my observation that Catholics tend to lean less heavily on the Bible as a source for guidance than interpretations from the Pope and their own individual consciences. 

In the end, my point was that curiosity from others is an honor and should be welcomed: "The forays into studying, discussing, dissecting the Koran will include mistakes and misunderstandings. Artists of all types will test the boundaries. But that curiosity signals the ultimate desire for empathy, respect and desire for connections."

Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

Saturday, October 13

Poverty

Data from the CIA offer one strange look into the relativity of national poverty. The definitions of poverty vary wildly among nations. Here's a select group of nations ranked for percentage of the population living below the poverty line.

Poverty is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, October 9

Moderates in our midst

"There are no moderates in Iran," morning show host Joe Scarborough said today. Less than 10 minutes later, he was smart enough to backtrack by noting, "The moderates are not in power."

His first comment rankled. Once a writing instructor, I regularly warned students against using "all," "none," "always," "never." Such words are hyperbole and immediately invite your readers to hunt for the one exception.

But such words are common in television talk shows and newspaper opinion essays. Massouda Jalal wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in December 2011, entitled "There are no moderate Taliban":  "Seeking to negotiate with an implacable enemy could be seen either as foolish or foresighted. The West obviously sees a deal with the Taliban as essential to its transition, and therefore a pragmatic step. But this faith in negotiations appears to be based on the belief that there exist 'moderate' elements of the Taliban, and that they can be coaxed toward supporting constitutional democracy."

The sentiment was not new, and many lashed out after President Barack Obama suggested during a March 2009 interview with The New York Times that he would seek out and try to work with "moderate elements" of the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.

 In March 2009,  for Forbes, Tunku Varadarajan struggled for a definition, suggesting it must be "those who'd contemplate an abandonment of their jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan in exchange for some sort of power-sharing arrangement with the government of Hamid Karzai." He continued:

"It is their willingness to do deals, in other words, that makes them moderate, not the essential make-up of their beliefs and culture. That said, if they are willing to set aside their adamantine opposition to the infidel West and its puppet, Karzai, they are clearly less purist in their pursuit of an Islamist society than those who would fight to the finish. That makes them relatively moderate, if you like. Or just plain cynical."

Yes, women and children will suffer the most if Afghanistan can't achieve peace, if the government cannot deliver law and order.

Obama's willingness and the flurry of essays that followed by Varadarajan  and others motivated me to find the exception to no moderates and write Fear of Beauty, about a village with people who want their children to attend school but who also appreciate their traditions, accept harsh penalties for violating those traditions, and do not want their lives to change. 

So what to do about diplomacy? What to say to those who scoff at diplomacy?

Diplomacy is a delicate and, too often, time-consuming process. Those who would talk through a problem must study and divide opponents, finding others who may be swayed to end the fighting and pursue peace. Opponents who are ready to think a little differently are there. Women who want to attend school. Taliban supporters who want to engage in trade. Political leaders who want legitimate regional power. Afghanistan could be a case for aid with a schedule of strict, strict, strict conditions on corruption and human rights. And similar conditions should be imposed on other allies, including Pakistan, where a 14-year-old girl was shot by Taliban for advocating education for girls.

Fighting forces opponents to entrench and harden their positions. Trade, diplomacy, education are the enemies to extremism.

The war in Afghanistan has entered its 12th year. I'm not suggesting that the moderates and their supporters can succeed in Afghanistan or Iran - that the extremism can be contained. Moderates struggle in the United States, facing vehement attacks within their own political party and communities because they are even willing to consider working with the other side.

I can only hope that the aim of hyperbolic language about opponents isn't intended to make it easier to launch an attack. Because there are - and I'll avoid saying always! - moderates in our midst.

Photo of Afghanistan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, October 7

It's the economy ...

The top concerns for most voters are jobs and the economy.  Yet too many voters tend to box issues, as though the economy is different from health care or Social Security, Afghanistan, the nation’s schools or the housing crisis. And too many politicians ignore the economic implications of these issues.

Health care: Voters cannot work if they are seriously ill. Many who are healthy today realize that might not be the case tomorrow. Nearly half of Americans – seniors, veterans, the poor and disabled – are covered by public health.  Most people can well imagine the fear of losing their insurance, after a job loss or a medical condition. Yes, the seriously ill can seek care at the local emergency room, but that is not the most efficient form of treatment and hospitals are adept at pursuing payment.
Reproductive health: Women and many men do not want to risk new regulations on birth control. Sadly, an unexpected pregnancy during an economic downturn is a nightmare and not blessing.

Wars: The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that about 15 percent of the deficit can be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Into its 12th year, Afghanistan is the longest war on record. Investments in diplomacy and non-military foreign aid can reduce wars.
Taxes: The Bush tax cuts account for about 30 percent of the deficit. The tax cuts were made without reducing programs. There’s a reason, Americans want many of those programs, especially during a time of need.  No leader can both keep the programs and reduce taxes. Income for the wealthiest rose while the income of middle-class went stagnant or decreased. Many voters support tax hikes to reduce the federal debt. The Bush tax cuts had a sunset clause – and so could any tax hikes. Businesses and households with budgets typically want to eliminate debt – and do so by rising prices before reducing service, production or quality.

Education: Children who receive a substandard education are more likely to cause social problems. Some may enter a life of crime. Others will become home health aides or serve us in fast-food restaurants and struggle to do their jobs. It’s wrong to put 30 or more children into a classroom with a math teacher who is paid a fraction of she or he could make in industry or a university – and expect high morale, good community relations or academic success. Children are the future workforce and future citizens, and their teachers need safe conditions, training, respect and appropriate wages.    

Immigration: More people produce growth – they work, buy products and fill houses languishing on the market.  Good policymaking, regulation and business could come up with an enforcement system that charges undocumented immigrants a fee.


Social Security and Medicare: The elderly depend on these programs, the centerpiece of any retirement planning in the middle class. Candidates who propose any privatization or reductions should be clear just how much people have to save to compensate for reductions. Age cut-offs won’t work among the elderly because they care fiercely about their children and economic health.  Younger workers will resist paying for a program that provides for current seniors but is slated to end.    

Climate Change: The science points to rising carbon dioxide emissions as contributing to volatile weather and rising seas. Ongoing denial will only add to future costs of food, shelter, insurance and business.

In the end, voters need to understand the economic implications of every issue. Optimism, confidence in addressing challenges and cooperation do more to boost revenues than criticism, fear and every man and women out for themselves. 

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons. US Army Spc. Tiffany Larriba teaches counting and English with the Soldier in the Classroom program at Karabti San, Djibouti.

Thursday, September 27

Clash

The posters in the New York Subway stations represent:
a. Clash of civilizations.
b. Clash in religions.
c. Clash of speech.
d. Or, all of the above.

Activist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for spray-painting over posters suggesting that Muslims are uncivilized. "Eltahawy was arrested after a supporter of Geller's initiative attempted to prevent her defacing the sign with a purple aerosol," reports Peter Beaumont for the Guardian. 

Eltahawy defended her action as "free speech," too. But then she didn't pay $6000 in advertising costs for posters in 10 subway stations. In New York City, paid advertising carries more weight than activism.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, which commissioned the posters, and Eltahawy are receiving far more publicity and attention than either paid for.

As a side note, The Color Purple is one of my favorite books about literacy.

Update, September 30: Eltahawy is on UP With Chris Hayes, and she describes the spray paint as pink - not black, so people could still read the poster. Chris asked her, why she responded to the trolls? She responded, that she felt compelled to respond to the bullies. Still like purple, not changing the art. Readers have asked who is the artist. Answer: 2-minute Paint creation.

Wednesday, September 26

Fighting for faith

My mother, Jeanne Marie Froetschel, was my role model for approaching other religions and respecting others' beliefs.

I remembered her wisdom this morning and wrote about her for On Faith blog of The Washington Post, after reading about about ads suggesting that the beliefs of 1 billion Muslims might not be civilized:

"Early in first grade, one of the nuns advised our class not to associate with children who attended other schools and believed other religions. My teacher, a younger nun, looked uncomfortable and quickly changed the topic.

"Later that day, I asked my mother about playing with friends who worshipped at other churches.

"'Playing with other friends won’t change your beliefs,' my mother said. She was beautiful, devout and confident that her children knew right from wrong at an early age."

The ads are immature. The competition is unseemly. Great religions, great thoughts, do not have to advertise or insult the beliefs of others. Religious leaders shouldn't limit what adherents read or whom they associate with. Committing violence against nonbelievers does not convince others that a set of religious beliefs is worthy. 

The guest blog concludes, "Ruthless, mean competition for adherents and power, insults and violence, give reason to Americans to distance themselves from religion and explore spirituality alone or among a diverse and comfortable group of friends."

Photo of Jeanne Marie Froetschel
 


Exclusion

Exclusion goes hand in hand with religions and fraternities.

Excellent analysis from Sophie Gould of Yale Daily News: "Though Yale’s newest fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi (BYX) has announced a policy of admitting only Christians, it will have to change its membership rules if it intends to comply with Yale’s anti-discrimination policies."

But rush week isn't first-come, first-serve. It's about discrimination. 

Photo of Harkness Tower on High Street, nestled between Saybrook and Branford residential colleges, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, September 24

Stories

Publicity doesn’t have to be a chore. Instead, authors need to turn to what they do best – tell a story, shedding light on the motivations and purpose behind their work. Every stage of publishing the book – from telling the story to attracting an agent and publisher, hiring a publicist, posing for  photos, answering questions from journalists or fans, running workshops, sending out messages on social media – should include storytelling devices. 

Stories of characters in a book probably connect with stories from the author’s life – and authors can’t help but remember moments that triggered the tale.  So, more work has probably been accomplished than the author realizes.

Every communication from an author can unleash back story:
  • Books typically have several themes, and authors should have strong opinions on those themes.  If those themes connect with current events, then draft 500 words – opinion essays, book reviews, feature articles and blog entries for newspapers or television – presenting a perspective drawing on anecdotes from real life or the novel itself. Such expertise leads to speaking engagements and opportunity to tell more stories.   
  •   For profiles or interviews, be prepared to answer the question, “How did you get the idea of this book?” Nicholas Sparks tells that story on his website. And there’s the story behind ideas and their process: Greg Breeding describes the story behind Bono’s song, “One,” in an article for Story Matters, an online magazine from design and publishing firm Journey.  “Great ideas do seem to come out of nowhere, but then again, the intentional push against mediocrity is the rich soil where excellence takes root,” he writes. “Hard work doesn’t necessarily produce greatness, but it’s hard to imagine that the really great ideas come without it.”
  • Linking articles connected to book themes on an author’s website can attract invitations to write or speak.
  • Images can relay stories and increase curiosity. Categories, captions and photos in Pinterest can reveal how an author selects details. Even a quick brief clip of a workshop, posted on YouTube, can introduce an author’s attitude.  
  • Communications – enchanting, intriguing, instructive or funny – should be concise, focused on one of the book’s theme.  Twitter posts, long conversations or stand-alones, can relay a story and raise suspense. Tweets that read like poetry or moments of weakness, blasting a critic’s review, do attract notice.
  • Take advantage of read-made social media for storytelling and control the story on LibraryThing, Goodreads or Facebook Timeline.  
  •  No author is going to be an expert at every facet of publicity. Don’t panic. Jacket Copy from The Los Angeles Times gives the best advice – make it fun.
      One huge difference between drafting story for novels versus publicity is timing. Deadlines loom for publicity. Copy must be submitted quickly. There’s less time or tolerance for a bad first draft. Writers must be spontaneous, coherent and insightful for social media and any type of interview. Practice helps.

Photo of Afghan students participate in online discussion about traditional stories, courtesy of US State Department and Wikimedia Commons. 

Harvest

Some see work. Others see sweeping waves of golden beauty ....

Moisson en Provence, or Harvest in Provence, by Vincent Van Gogh, currently housed in the Israel Museum

Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 22

Women who murder

"Forced marriages are at the root of many of the murders committed by women in Afghanistan," reports Sohaila Weda Khamosh for Inter Press Service News Agency. "The number of Afghan women being jailed for murder has been increasing every year, officials say. More than a quarter of the 700 women in prison are serving murder sentences."

Poverty, forced marriages, inequality and narcotics abuse contribute to the violence.

The women in Fear of Beauty, though, are comfortable with arranged marriages: "Our village, like others, had a tradition of sending women to other communities for marriage. The groom provided gifts, based on a daughter’s beauty and skill, in exchange for a bride, and paid for the wedding. The system worked and kept families stable. Sending us off alone, to adjust in far-off villages, increased a young woman’s dependence on her husband. The system reduced gossip about the prices paid for women, and men understood from the start that the women of their own village were out of reach."

Perhaps the mothers of sons are more comfortable with arranged marriages than the mothers of daughters.

Troop Scoop reports on US efforts to improve prisons in Afghanistan, including Zabul Prison, and establish a consistent and fair system for the rule of law: 

“'The Rule of Law project is central to a safe and secure Zabul,' said 2SCR trial prosecutor, Capt. Harrison Kennedy, about a delivery of basic supplies to Zabul Prison to equip guards and improve living conditions for prisoners. Whether it's providing blankets for inmates or forensic training for judicial prosecutors, the Rule of Law program is making great strides in helping the GoA establish a justice system that ensures the rights for the people of Afghanistan."

Photo of a security assignment outside Zabul Prison, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and US Staff Sargent Brian Ferguson.