Tuesday, December 30

Thanks

A writer could not ask for a better year than 2014.

The year began by concluding the sequel to Fear of Beauty - and Allure of Deceit underwent three big revisions. Writing a suitable follow-up to Fear of Beauty seemed an impossible task, but I am pleased with the result. Fear of Beauty is Sofi's story, and Allure of Deceit is the story of her husband, Parsaa. The characters from Afghanistan are strong, good, and uncomplaining as their daily routines and tiny remote village are buffeted by the forces of globalization. The fictional village of Laashekoh is in northern Helmand. For Parsaa and Sofi, their knowledge of the world is limited, but in their way, they are good citizens, extending hospitality and kindness to travelers and strangers regardless of beliefs or country of origin.

Throughout the year, Fear of Beauty surprised with a number of awards:

- Nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America.
- Finalist for suspense, Love is Murder Conference.
- 1st place, at-large regional best book for adult readers, National Federation of Press Women, and then 2nd place in the national contest.
- Gold star award for mystery/suspense, Military Writers Society of America.
- Youth Literature Award from the Middle East Outreach Council. 

And as the year ends, I am embarking on the third in the series about Laashekoh.

It was a very good year, and I owe so much thanks to so many groups, reviewers, and readers who take the time to visit and explore the tiny village of Laashekoh. Thank you and a very happy 2015!

Tuesday, December 23

Vulnerable

YaleGlobal describes dangerous trends in the Middle East and how extremists compound the desperation.

The Islamic State adds to record numbers of refugees and dangers for aid groups.

The United Nations relies on faith-based charities.

The lead host countries for refugees include Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where Islamist charities are on the front lines.

Meanwhile, governments want to prohibit any funds headed to the extremists and charities being used to launder their money. Wide bans on aid groups is adding to the challenges and desperation.

Vulnerable refugees are easy marks for extremist recruiters. "The protracted plight of these refugees has become an international security issue as terrorist groups have recruited from refugee camps," notes Jill Goldenziel of Harvard University.

The YaleGlobal article concludes, "The UN anticipates 27 percent more funding is needed for humanitarian aid in its 2015 budget over 2014, with the bulk of that to be spent in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Reduced aid could transform humanitarian emergencies into security crises."

Photo of Syrian family collecting bread and other aid, courtesy of H. Murdock, Voice of America and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, December 16

Dangling hope

Some older folks, the insecure ones, like to think they can control the young.  Fear of change can lead to bitterness, religious extremism, and opposition to education and innovation, as indicated by today's Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. More than 135 million, most children, were killed by six attackers, reports the BBC News.

"This brutal attack may well be a watershed for a country long accused by the world of treating terrorists as strategic assets," writes Aamer Ahmed Khan for  BBC News. "Pakistan's policy-makers struggling to come to grips with various shades of militants have often cited a 'lack of consensus' and 'large pockets of sympathy' for religious militants as a major stumbling-block."

A handful of bullying extremists, especially those with weapons, can wield excessive influence over routines or policies, especially those of a small community. The stunning observation that Taliban only numbered 75,000 or so in Afghanistan - a country of more than 30 million people - prompted the story behind Fear of Beauty.

Bullying is easier when a huge segment of society lacks power. The median age of Afghanistan is 18, so half the nation's people are under that age. Half the population is women. That leaves 25 percent adult men in control, and the literacy rate for them is but 43 percent.  For women, it is much lower.

The graph offers a glimpse into the median age of other countries, ranging from 17 in Chad and South Sudan to 32 in Qatar.

Governments with large, young populations should avoid dangling hope while not providing the resources for achieving their dreams, suggests Yara al-Wazir, writing for Al Arabiya News. She refers to young Arabs but the sound advice applies to all in pointing to a dangerous trend: "I’m talking about the wave of lectures and talks about entrepreneurship, leadership, and motivation with little to no follow up or support on actually achieving the messages these lectures call for. Young Arabs don’t need talks to inspire them; they need a job and an opportunity to inspire everyone else."

She concludes by urging readers to give the young a chance to inspire. As we have noted on these pages before, be wary of any who discourage curiosity or education. A country's future is threatened if attending school is dangerous.

Photo of schoolchildren in Paktya Province, Afghanistan, courtesy of  Capt John Severns, US Air Force, and Wikimedia Commons. He notes: "The school has no building; classes are held outdoors in the shade of an orchard." Population data on graph, courtesy of Worldometers; median age, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, December 9

Organic

Concerns are plentiful about food shortages amid a changing climate, society’s focus on eating healthy, food status as necessity versus art. A number of trends - not to mention that organic foods offer undeniably wonderful taste - combine to make organic farming a popular hobby and career aspiration on college campuses. Students have driven the grassroots effort on organic farming.

Since 2003, the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University has managed an organic farm on the urban campus, selling its produce and collaborating with the campus dining halls on sustainability. “By creating opportunities for students to experience food, agriculture, and sustainability as integral parts of their education and everyday life, the Sustainable Food Project ensures that Yale graduates have the capacity to effect meaningful change as individuals and as leaders in their communities, their homes, and their life’s work,” notes the project’s Facebook page.

Since 2007 students at Wellesley College have developed a productive farm, while working to raise awareness of food justice issues. Dartmouth has an organic farm, too.

 The roots of Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm began in 1999, a result of students wanting to practice methods learned in classrooms: "From the beginning, the aim of the farm was to provide a place where students could come and volunteer, work, visit, and have input on the development of land and farm." With solar-run greenhouses, it was the nation’s first year-round community-supported agriculture model farm.

Many agriculture industry specialists may have thought of organic food as a passing fad. Some even suggest organic farming raises food costs and adds to global poverty But MSU, the nation’s other land-grant agriculture schools, and Ivy League schools have made organic farming part of the curriculum. The University of Georgia offers a certificate program in organic agriculture.

The US Department of Agriculture and corporations are funding research on sustainability. USDA has awarded $52 million in grants for organic growing and local food economies including farmers markets and development of standards, just a tiny fraction of the 2014 Agricultural Act.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Services offers information on hundreds of internships and apprenticeships - including the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Pennsylvania. "Internships are based around hands-on and 'direct work with researchers on short- and long-term trials and experiments covering everything from soil quality indicators to regenerative farming's impact on global warming,'" notes Rodale. "Positions are available in research, farm operations/ demonstration and communications."

Organic farming offers promise for small farmers in the developing world. Only a systematized and certifiable approach is required, suggests IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an agency of the United Nations. IFAD conducted evaluations, part of its efforts to reduce poverty in many agricultural nations, and determined "In almost all of the countries where the evaluations were carried out, small farmers needed only marginal improvements to their technologies to make the shift to organic production." IFAD likewise offers internships. 

Similar studies on organic farming have been conducted in Afghanistan: "The organic farming and food business in Afghanistan can only become viable and competitive (especially in the mid and long-term) if a wider enabling environment is put in place, too: accompanying organic policies, research and education, extension and inspection and a certification system," suggest Martien Lankester and Darko Znaor for USAID. USAID also has internships for students interested in agriculture.

The mystery novels Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit are set in rural Afghanistan - and focus on the diverse aid work underway. Among the many conflicts are age-old dilemmas for farmers - who must decide whether and how to adopt new methods suggested by aid workers, some of whom attended the programs on sustainability described in this post and others who have disdain for such programs.

Photo of the Clapboard and Stone Bakeoven at the Rodale Institute Organic Experimental Farm is courtesy of Final4one and Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, December 8

Uncertainty

The UN secretary-general urges that physicians not refuse to do abortions on women who report being raped in the camps serving refugees from Iraq and Syria. 

""The Secretary-general’s comments are part of an ongoing dispute between nations and the UN bureaucracy on how best to end rape and sexual violence in conflict," reports Susan Yoshihara for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and LifeNews.com. "Like the work of the [UN Security] Council, major political initiatives in the last few years have emphasized ending impunity for perpetrators and making reparations to survivors of violence.... UN staff, however, have promoted a feminist agenda which views deconstructing traditional social relationships and abortion rights as necessary steps to ending discrimination and violence."

The secretary-general suggests that his recommendation is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2122, adopted in 2013. The resolution does not specify abortion, but does recognize "the importance of Member States and United Nations entities seeking to ensure humanitarian aid and funding includes provision for the full range of medical, legal, psychosocial and livelihood services to women affected by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination...."  

The resolution also points out that women are especially vulnerable in armed conflict with "forced displacement," "unequal citizen rights," "gender-biased application of asylum laws," and "increased risk of violence." It also urges participation of women and consideration of gender-related issues. 

Syria and Iraq are "red" countries on the World Abortion Laws map from the Center for Reproductive Rights: In Syria, abortion is explicitly permitted to save a woman's life, but spousal authorization and parental notification are required. In Iraq, the law is not explicit on exceptions on saving a woman's life. 

Permanent members of the UN Security Council - United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom - are "green" countries, where abortion is generally permitted for most women without restriction on reason. Non-permanent members are a mixed bag: Chile and Nigeria are red which allow for saving a woman's life or are prohibited; Argentina (allows for cases of rape), Chad (allows for fetal impairment), Jordan, Republic of Korea (allowed for incest and rape; spousal authorization required) and Rwanda (allowed for incest and rape) are orange, allowed for various health puproses; Australia, Lithuania, Luxembourg are green. 



"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria," reports the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, also noting that "the influx of refugees has been an enormous challenge for Syria’s neighbours, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region." 

As of July, 22 countries, most in Europe, have agreed to help resettle more than 34,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to a second country. The United States, Kuwait, European Commission, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan lead in pledging funds to support UN appeals to assist Syrian refugees, reported the UN Tribune. 

The camps are bleak places offering little in the way of education for children or work for parents. More than 30 million children worldwide cannot attend school because of violent conflicts, reports UNICEF. 

Allure of Deceit, to be released in February 2015, is a mystery novel about post-war Afghanistan and the small village of Laashekoh. The novel explores how charitable giving can come with a hidden agenda and upend incentives. Children run away to an orphanage. A caregiver accepts donor funds for women's health care, but lacks patients. A Michigan foundation director pursues programs for the purpose of solving the murder of her wealthy son. Lying is a means of self-defense. 

Contact the publisher for review copies. 

July 2013 photo of Za'atri camp for Syrian refugees is from the US State Department and Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, December 3

Refugees

"Stunning" - that is the consensus on the cover for Allure of Deceit, the sequel to Fear of Beauty set in the remote and fictional Afghan village in northern reaches of Helmand province, due to be published in February.

Most then wonder about the identity of the little girl in the cover photo. Many have asked how they can help her and her family.

Her identity is unknown and the image comes from Corbis, a company that supplies stock images. The AP photo was taken by photographer Emilio Morenatti in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Emilio has years of experience in war zones, working for AP in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestinian Territories," notes his bio. "While on assignment in Afghanistan on 11 August 2009, Emilio was injured in a bomb blast. He is now back in action and based in Barcelona as the AP chief photographer for Spain and Portugal."

The Corbis site offers a simple caption about the child: "A Pakistani child looks on as women covered with burqas from the tribal region of Bajur and Mohmand agency wait to be registered at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Bajur and Mohmand agency to camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The young girl with visible bruises is probably a teenager by now and could have moved on anywhere in the region. We hope the bruises have healed. As briefly touched upon in Fear of Beauty, it's not unusual for communities and families to be displaced by fighting and violence time and time again. 

Conflict has driven millions of Afghans to flee to crowded refugee camps. Pakistan hosts 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, "the largest protracted refugee situation globally, reports the UN Refugee Agency. The agency has helped return of 3.8 million Afghan refugees, or more than 10 percent of the Afghan population. With support from the Pakistan government, refugee children have access to public schools and there health clinics for families, the agency reports. Returns are voluntary with agency and NGO assistance.

More than 40 NGO partners assist the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees. "Within the 2014 budget, USD 58.1 million is allocated for the refugee programme, USD 28.6 million for the protection and assistance of conflict-related IDPs and USD 60.8 million for development projects aimed at the peaceful coexistence of refugees and host communities."


The UN agency has identified more than 10 million refugees of concern worldwide. A special area of concern is Syria, where brutal conflict has driven more than 2 million people to flee the country and displaced 4 million more internally.

Funding is tight for refugee services. The World Food Programme has announced it is ending food vouchers for Syrian refugees: "the United Nations said it simply doesn't have the funds to continue providing the vouchers, explaining it needs 51 million euros to support the refugees just until the end of December," reports Ruth Michaelson for RFI.  

The United States may grant refugee status or asylum to those persecuted or fearing persecution over race, religion, nationality or over social groups and political opinions. Hunger, joblessness, a lack of classrooms and education in refugee camps, supposed to be temporary, present a humanitarian and global security crisis.

Photo of Afghan boy in a Kabul refugee camp, 2011, courtesy of  SrA Christopher Hatch and Wikimedia Commons. Much thanks to photographer Emilio Morenatti and designer Jacqueline Nasso Cooke for the cover of Allure of Deceit. 

Tuesday, December 2

Top givers

The Global Journal  assesses hundreds of NGOs and then ranks them in terms of impact, innovation and sustainability. The top five with their headquarters and goals: 

BRAC, Bangladesh, micro-finance and programs for agriculture and food security; education, climate change reduction, health and poverty reduction; started as a limited relief operation in 1972 and turned into the largest development organization in the world. 

The Wikimedia Foundation, United States, free and open access internet source for mutlilingual and educational articles, images and reference materials. Founded in 2003 to promote free internet content and reference materials.

Acumen Fund, United States, loan, venture capital and investment programs to reduce global poverty; raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders and ideas to change how the world tackles poverty; incorporated in 2001 with seed capital from foundations and philanthropists.

Danish Refugee Council, Denmark, aims to protect refugees and offer durable solutions for ending conflicts; Founded in 1956, the group assists with housing, food security, job creation and more.

Partners in Health, United States, strives to reduce poverty that exacerbates infectious diseases. Founded in 1987 to deliver care in Haiti, the NGO has expanded its mission to establish long-term relationships in impoverished areas and maintains that health is a human right.  

Allure of Deceit is a mystery novel about a woman who runs a new and massive NGO that operates in developing nations, and how she uses that foundation to solve the murder of her wealthy son just days after his wedding.

Photograph of community health volunteer in Dhaka who goes door to door providing guidance for pregnant women and offers referrals on medical care - courtesy of UK Department for International Development and Wikimedia Commons. 




Saturday, November 22

Talking back

Talking is a foundation of relationships. Yet words can betray us, too, especially if we don't completely understand the meanings and how they're received.

Besides parrots, a few songbirds can mimic human speech - including the Hill mynas, common mynas, some crows, European starlings, the Northern mockingbird. Among the top 10 talking birds, the Hill Myna is the only non-parrot.

The birds that speak are typically young, and the words are limited. Researchers may debate over just how much the birds understand, but the mynas seem to have minds of their own. They can pick up the odd phrase and surprise and reject phrases despite repeat recitations and pleas. Kaleo is a talking myna who goes through a repertoire of insisting he is a "turkey talker," a duck and a chicken - and it's hard to believe the bird does not understand some of what is saying.

The Hill myna, Gracula religiosa, is a native of south Asia - including Afghanistan and India, reports Encyclopedia.com. "Hill Mynahs are sought, in the west, as pets, because of their endearing mimicking of the human voice. Ironically they are rarely encountered in pet shops as demand hugely outstrips supply," notes GarrettPhelan.com.

Common mynas are less prone to taking and have been introduced to other countries, including Australia and South Africa, to eat insects, but now are regarded as pests themselves when they attack fruit crops. But the bird is adaptable. "The common mynah is one of the very few species that have greatly benefited from the sorts of ecological changes that humans are causing on Earth," Encyclopedia.com.

Mynas are believed to mate for life. The average lifespan is 12 to 25 years.

Animals can serve as  mirrors for their human caretakers, reflecting nature, moods and basic needs all very much in the present rather than past or future.

Talking about the future too much can disappoint or mislead. So-called goal-setting exercises may not be a good idea and dreamers should be especially wary when talking about big goals "Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen," said  Derek Sivers in a TED Talk. He explains how talking about a goal can trick the brain into a feeling of accomplishment - long before the work is completed - and that diminishes motivation. "Ideally, you would not be satisfied until you had actually done the work. But when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that it's called a 'social reality.'"

Conversation should serve both parties - and the talking mynas abide by most elements of a good conversation: relying on words familiar to the listener, keeping an even tone that is respectful, sticking to the point. Cocking their heads, they definitely sound and look as if they are interested in what others have to say. But the myna can't resist being the center of attention and they do not understand open-ended questions. They also tend to change the subject, repeat a lot, and ask too much.

Talking may not be doing, but it is about connecting.

I first saw a myna bird many years ago at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. This tropical bird was kept in a display case that was two meters in height, width and depth - with a microphone. The walls were white and the Hill myna was alert, waiting on its roost for passersby. Sometimes the bird spoke and sometimes it did not. Sometimes the myna would speak only once the visitor started to walk away. Other times, the myna was on a roll, repeating words while cocking its head to listen.

I was only six years old at the time. but I felt sorry for the bird alone in its case. I visited the National Aviary earlier this year and asked about the myna but the staff members did not remember a creature who was once the popular star of the place. This is the myna I remembered for the scenes in Allure of Deceit.

Photo of Hill myna courtesy of  Spencer Wright and Wikimedia Commonsphoto of parrot and open indoor space, courtesy of the National Aviary and D. Olsen. 

Tuesday, November 18

Heartbreaking

In Allure of Deceit, an antagonist incites murder of a rival by finding extremists and suggesting the woman destroyed a copy of the Koran.

Farfetched? Not really.

"Six-hundred people were charged today for the gruesome murder of a Pakistani Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran in Punjab province," reports the Economic Times in India. The man and his pregnant wife, in their 30s and parents of four, were beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln where they worked after announcements in "two mosques of the village that Shahzad and his wife had committed blasphemy by burning pages of the holy Quran."

Entire families take on debt to work in such kilns. "According to the U.N., 21 percent of the population of  Pakistan lives below the poverty line and some are left with no choice but to take out loans in exchange for labor," reports the Borgen Project, which urges global leaders to make endign poverty a priority. "These loans can have very high interest rates, creating a cycle of bonded labor. Workers labor in the hot sun to pay off their debt and, many times, their family’s debt, which can be passed down through the generations."

Lies can be a form of self-defense or a motive for murder.

Photo courtesy of the Borgen Project.


Tuesday, November 11

Life imitates art

Authorities arrested 13 people in a Greater Manchester trafficking ring run by a gang, reports the BBC News. A 20-year-old woman from Slovakia was tricked into thinking she was traveling to visit a sister:

"She was met by a man who claimed to be her sister's friend and was taken to an address in Failsworth, Oldham before being sold to another man. In July, she was married under Sharia law in Rochdale. The woman was later taken to hospital for an appointment by a woman who acted as an interpreter and told staff she wanted an abortion."

An interpreter at the hospital uncovered the plot. Some gangs suggest that a pregnant wife is useful for securing immigration status in the UK.

Imagine the vulnerability of young women in a country where the CIA World Factbook reports the overall literacy rate is 28 percent,  12.6 percent for women; where the child labor rate is 25 percent; where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 24; the unemployment rate is estimated as high as 35 percent; and one third of the population lives below the poverty line.  Imagine a land where there is one physician for every 5000 people, one nurse or midwife for every 10,000 and one hospital bed for every 2000 people, as reported by the World Bank, with rates much lower for rural areas. The rates for Afghanistan are but a fraction of what's available in the developed nations like the United Kingdom.

Allure of Deceit is set in Afghanistan. No one should suggest that the tale of a sham abortion that haunts one caregiver, ruining the lives of many, is unrealistic.

Photo by Todd Huffman and from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license. He writes: "A woman in conservative parts of the country without male support can do nothing but beg to survive."

Monday, November 3

Vote

US voters head to the polls on Tuesday, and their decisions have influence over daily routines for Americans and sometimes for the rest of the world - from climate change to global security:

"As globalization’s forces buffet the world..., the internal politics of any state can permanently alter course for other nations."

On the ballots is every seat for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. But turnout is low for the mid-terms when the presidency is not being decided: 37 percent of registered voters turned out for the 2010 congressional race compared with 54 percent for the 2012 presidential election, reports the Pew Research Center.

Compare that to Afghanistan turnout, despite threats of Taliban violence: 50 percent in the 2014 presidential race, 29 percent in the 2010 parliamentary race and 67 percent in the 2004 presidential race.

The percentage of women voting was 35 percent in the first round and 38 percent for the second.

Voting is not compulsory in either country.



Wednesday, April 23

Intervention


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair questions the role of religion in politics, specifically Islam, and laments the lack of western support for military intervention against Islamic extremism.

The speech is less than convincing because of at least three contradictions that make foreign policy in the Middle East so challenging. 

First, he asserts the Middle East "remains of central importance" and "cannot be relegated to the second order." The first reason is global dependence on energy and a fourth is, "It is in the Middle East that the future of Islam will be decided. By this I mean the future of its relationship with politics." Saudi Arabia has the second largest reserves of oil in the world, the largest in the Middle East, and the country is governed by monarchy, enshrining inequality, funding extremist schools and exporting extremist theology to other Muslin nations: "For the last 40/50 years, there has been a steady stream of funding, proselytising, organising and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow minded and  dangerous. Unfortunately we seem blind to the enormous global impact such teaching has had and is having."

Even so, the United States and Britain continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia, despite grave human rights concerns and little assurance that those weapons won't land in the hands of extremists and be used against any sent to intervene. Education and trade cannot flourish without adequate security, true enough, but can leaders like Blair assure taxpayers in the west that such weapons won't be turned against political opponents, citizens or peacekeepers?
The US provides more military than economic aid to Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and Egypt.


Second, in regard to the stream of funding and proselytizing coming out of the Middle East, made possible with oil profits, Blair mentions a time period - "40/50 years."  The influence from such extremist education was not overnight. Changing hearts and attitudes does not come fast. Fortunately or unfortunately, education and trade and cultural exchanges as simple as conversations can have more lasting positive influence on societies than unnecessary military intervention.

The nonmilitary interventions do take time - along the line of about 40 or 50 years.

Third, Blair urges modernization and democracy early in the speech: "Democracy cannot function except as a way of thinking as well as voting. You put your view; you may lose; you try to win next time; or you win but you accept that you may lose next time." And yet he criticizes the ideology emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt, formed a political party shortly after the Arab spring protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak - a dictator long supported and funded by the west - and won the the nation's first democratic election. Yes, bad governance followed, but much came at the behest of a democratic election. Blair points to "a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity.... This is what makes intervention so fraught but non-intervention equally so."


Democracy and modernization do not go hand in hand, and votes throughout the Middle East would show that many indeed would oppose Mr. Blair's definitions of modernization. 

Mr. Blair is right on several points: Many people in Muslim countries, including the devout, oppose the desperate, bullying extremism. Chaos in one place spreads instability and extremism throughout the region. Also, as he says, "We have to stop treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time."

He maintains that "the world of politics is uncomfortable talking abut religion" and that some say the problem is more political than religious. He adds that the terminology is inadequate, which an lead to misinterpretation, "so that you can appear to elide those who support the Islamist ideology with all Muslims." He claims to be fascinated by analysts' efforts to view the issues in the Middle East as "disparate rather than united by common elements," not really about Islam, not really about religion.

In one part of the speech, Blair suggests the problem is not Islam, but religion that fails to tolerate other beliefs with no social harm: "There is a wish to eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful." He notes that a strict Islamist agenda may not advocate for violence, but the "overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root" and a few sentences later, he concludes that the days for such extreme interpretations of Christianity have been eradicated from politics.


Blair suggests that many "look at the issue of intervention or not and seem baffled." Yet those who take the time to examine more than just recent history, combined with the role of their own countries in the region and the fast, frightening pace of globalization, are less baffled.  More baffling is whether it's possible to engage in political conversation about religion and resolve anything of substance among citizens of different faiths. Should multiple and competing religions intervene in politics and how so? 

Blair concludes: "Engagement does not always mean military involvement. Commitment does not mean going it alone. But it does mean stirring ourselves. It does mean seeing the struggle for what it is. It does mean taking a side and sticking with it."


It's uncertain if the the citizens of the west could agree on a "side" and Blair's speech is not clear on exactly what that side should be, although he does offer recommendations on conflict in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and the Middle East peace process - much of which is more of the same methods of intervention.

Blair probably would not agree, but consistent foreign policies coming from the west, cutting off aid, trade, support when recipients violate agreements or human rights, could be helpful. Otherwise, we return full circle to what he earlier claims to oppose: "treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time."

Photo of Jordanian with MI-19 40 mm grenade launcher during Exercise Bright Star 2009, a bilateral weapons exchange in Egypt, courtesy of US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons.  Data on foreign aid from USAID. 

Wednesday, March 19

Favoritism

No, it's not your imagination, but a central and age-old facet of human and organizational behavior in business, government, academia:

A group shares a task. and often one member of the group is the manager or coordinator. Sometimes, these managers hoard information, applying it to their specific assignments, withholding details and benefits from others. That manager also may cherry-pick assignments, avoiding challenges and judging assess in advance. The manager is calculating about when to help an in-group and when to work with an out-group. The manager's efforts to look smart and successful often undermine the organization as a whole. Some members of the out-group will try to join the in-group, but others will drop out of the charade, no longer offering necessary support and critical ideas as they set out on their own, while seeking alternative pay-offs.


"The Evolution of In-Group Favoritism" is a fascinating study of such calculating ways that analyzes such group dynamics with game theory:

Across a variety of scenarios, people tend to be more helpful to members of their own group rather than to those of other groups1, 2, 3, 4, 5. In-group favoritism has been shown to occur based on real-world salient groupings, such as ethnicity6, religiosity7 and political affiliation4, 8, and has also been artificially manufactured in the laboratory using trivial groupings1 ....

In-group bias is common, yet the implementation of that bias is dynamic and flexible8, 25, 26. Thus culture and cultural evolution27 must play an important role in the evolution of bias. The dynamic nature of bias results from complex social network interactions which play a central role in human societies28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, with genetic as well as social components affecting network formation37, 38, 39. Such network dynamics can turn yesterday's allies into today's competitors, and drive former enemies together in the face of a common threat.

Many endeavors allow only one set of winners.

But other endeavors might prevent an array of categories with the perception of "winning." The leader may focus keenly on one aspect for the in-group, say sales, while neglecting other categories, such as long-term reputation or acclaim. Focus on the in-group can inspire members of the out-group to tackle new categories of winning neglected by the calculating leader. And they may also appeal to outside arbiters.

Dynamics of groups can shift as in transforms to out and out transforms to in. In the end, all the favoritism, unfair processes and corruption can be dangerous, simply serving to motivate members of the out-group and strengthen their resolve.

So many scientific studies offer intriguing topics for mystery novels, and this is one of those studies. 

Image of Joseph from the Old Testament, being thrown into a pit by 12 brothers who resented their father's favoritism, by David Colyn in 1644, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 7

Independence

An 1851 entry from the diary of Linka Preus of Norway, the night before her wedding: "A human being is a free and independent creature, and I would recommend that every woman consider this, and I insist that every maiden owes it to herself to do so . . . Rarely will it be to her disadvantage if she combines it with determination and self-confidence."

Another entry in the diary - about assisting a farmer girl who was alone, taking her on as a maid - inspired Preus's  great-great granddaughter, Margi Preus, to write West of the Moon, the story of Astri who runs away after being sold to a cruel goatman.  Preus describes her inspirations and ponders the influence of Norwegian folktales on children's character for Write All the Words! for International Women's Week.

The events that unfold from determination and self-confidence, escape and rescue, observation, assessment and transformation - are the building blocks to plots. Strength of character comes in many forms across cultures - and words like independence, agency, empowerment may not suit all women. We must test our assumptions, because "more often than not, it’s much easier to see and question the traps and obstacles awaiting women of another culture rather than our own," as suggested by another post in the same blog For some protagonists, the risk comes in testing accepted assumptions and new awareness, because as Honor McKitrick Wallace suggests: “Recognition and articulation of one’s desire can be a quest in and of itself."

And the discoveries that come from reading and writing are one of the ways to challenge our assumptions and routines.

By the way, the etymology of the word "assumption" is intriguing in relation to this topic. 

Image of the Assumption of Mary, oil on canvas, 1558, by Paolo Veronese, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Read all the posts for International Women's Week in E. Kristin Anderson's blog, Write All the Words!

Saturday, February 15

Tough road

Afghanistan does not have many roadways but the few it has are treacherous -  a result of both roadside attacks and poor maintenance.

"Since 2012, the United States has refused to fund the Afghan government’s road maintenance projects because it has no faith in the country’s ability to perform even simple tasks, such as dispatching a contractor to fill in a pothole or repaving a stretch of highway," reports Kevin Seiff for The Washington Post. He adds that the US continues to build new roads to assist the economy. "The new, U.S.-built highways seemed to be a godsend for this impoverished nation. But the projects became notorious for their exorbitant costs and poorly implemented contracts."

Taliban fighters target the roads, knowing that they are security priority. Military vehicles patrol the road and regularly clear them of IEDs. Highway 1 is the "lifeline," suggests a member of the US Army’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry in a report from Alexa Pena for Stars & Stripes. As US troops prepare to leave this year, responsibility for patrols and checkpoints is being handed over to Afghan troops.

More than two thirds of Afghans live within 30 miles of Highway 1. The highway, also known as A01 is 2,200 kilometers, circling the country, connecting major cities. In the sequel to Fear of Beauty, two characters travel Highway 1 from east of Lashkar Gah in Helmand to Kandahar, and only one returns to the small fictional village of Laashekoh.

Photo of Highway 1 reconstruction in 2003,  courtesy of USAID and Wikimedia Commons. Screenshot of the 137-kilometer stretch of Highway 1 between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, courtesy of Google Maps.

Thursday, February 13

Search results

Search engines are a tool, and the makers not only try to please users but earn revenue and gain market share.

"On Tuesday, campaigners at FreeWeibo, a tool that allows uncensored search of Chinese blogs, revealed that Bing returns radically different results in the US for English and simplified Chinese language searches on a series of controversial terms,” reports Dominic Rushe for The Guardian.. Microsoft called it a system error.

Readers commented, one pointing out that searches for specific religions like "Catholic" or "Methodist" on Google produce maps showing the location of the nearest church. But a search for "Islam" or "Judaism" produced no similar map - even though an Islamic center is less than 2 miles south from the search location and the nearest synagogue is 1 mile north. A quick search on Bing and Google confirmed the commenter's observation. Christians and others also complain about negative search results. 

Alert users quickly detect the online discrepancies.  

Such exercises are a good reminder that search engine users should be vigilant - and that search results are only as good as the user. Search engine firms tweak algorithms, varying the results produced. Emphasis is placed on a users's own recent searchers. Discrepancies are to be expected. Vary search terms - for example, Rushe describes how Chinese users use "June 4" to get around blocks on "Tiananmen Square." Users should check multiple sources, and results should be double-checked and confirmed.

As Paul Gil notes, legitimate research requires more than a 10-second search on Google or Bing. Rushed results can lead to rush to judgment - both easy to avoid with a few more clicks.

Screenshots of Google searches for "Catholic" and "Islam."

Friday, January 31

Honored

Fear of Beauty has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America and a Lovey for Best Suspense Novel by the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago.

Illiteracy is a natural topic for suspense. And what an honor that the judges from Mystery Writers of America determined Fear of Beauty's protagonist, a woman in rural Afghanistan who is desperate to learn how to read, meets the MHC Award qualifications: an independent young woman whose life is disrupted and she must solve her problems with independence and courage.
Mary Higgins Clark is the best-selling author of 42 books, a legend whose work and life story have inspired many readers to try their hands at writing. Stories like Where Are the Children? and A Stranger Is Watching terrify yet steadfastly resist violence. 

"Here are some things you'll never find in a Mary Higgins Clark novel: an unmarried couple living together, a curse word, a body hacked to pieces. By today's standards, Ms. Clark's thrillers are quaint throwbacks, more in the Agatha Christie mold than the blood-curdling, titillating fare." So goes the lead to a profile of Mary Higgins Clark, "The Case of the Best-Selling Author," by Alexandra Alter for the Wall Street Journal. "Yet Ms. Clark—who at 83 still churns out at least one book a year—remains as lucrative a brand as ever." 

To be mentioned on the same page with such a writer is a huge honor.

And much thanks to Diana Belchase for her interview "Afghanistan, Women, Illiteracy, and Murder." She writes: "Susan’s books are full of current issues and vibrant people whose struggles and passion for life and justice keep you turning pages.  Her background as a journalist mixes with her literary talent to bring factual stories that both break your heart and exemplify the ability of people to endure and succeed in the most dire circumstances."

Photo of Diana Belchase and Susan Froetschel, courtesy of Diana; photo of Mary Higgins Clark in 2012, courtesy of Alvintrusty and Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, January 27

Corruption

The future of Afghanistan is in jeopardy, because of poor governance and basic hunger.  UN data suggest that 55 percent of the country's children have stunted growth because of hunger. 

"The statistic is a damning one for western powers that have poured billions into Afghanistan to fund development and reconstruction. The US alone has spent $90bn (£54bn)," reports Emma Graham-Harrison for the Guardian. "Such funding aimed to modernise Afghanistan, but return on the spending seems to have been low."

Not so much damning, but frustrating and challenging. Such funding from afar will slow if the Afghan government can't reduce waste and corruption. The funding will vanish if Taliban extremists resume control.

Surveys suggest that Afghans view corruption along with insecurity and unemployment as an even more pressing challenge than poverty, suggests the United Nations. Yet corruption is embedded in the culture, suggests the UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

While corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country, it seems to be increasingly embedded in social practices, with patronage and bribery being an acceptable part of day-to-day life. For example, 68 per cent of citizens interviewed in 2012 considered it acceptable for a civil servant to top up a low salary by accepting small
bribes from service users (as opposed to 42 per cent in 2009). Similarly, 67 per cent of citizens considered it sometimes acceptable for a civil servant to be recruited on the basis of family ties and friendship networks (up from 42 per cent in 2009).


Corruption erodes community trust, and yet tolerance for corruption remains high in Afghanistan and contributes to poverty and misdirection of resources. Hunger is the most basic problem, one that hampers student learning and worker productivity. The CIA World Factbook lists other statistics that point to a weak, yet dangerous place: The country's literacy rate hovers around 40 percent.  Unemployment stands at about 35 percent. Half the population is under the age of 18. The average number of children among women is five. The country produces 90 percent of the world's opium and more than 5 percent of the population may be addicted.

The harsh truth is that only a fraction of any funds directed at Afghanistan will achieve their intended purpose, and donors must decide how to proceed. Weak governance and high levels of corruption ensure uncertainty in future foreign aid for Afghanistan.

Photo of member of US Army medical unit treating a malnourished child, 18 months old, in Afghanistan, courtesy of Capt. John Severns and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 10

Cultural divide

My maternal grandmother was meticulous at ironing. Once I showed up at her home in a favorite pleated skirt, worn despite having fallen crumpled to the closet floor. She ordered me to change, then arranged the skirt on the ironing board. Pinching more than thirty pleats in turn and restoring the sharp lines, she made my skirt look brand new again.

More than once my grandmother shook her head about my reliance on a dryer to remove wrinkles. But she was also proud that neither she nor her grandchildren had to iron or cook or clean for a living.

Grandma had learned ironing from her mother, who had traveled to the United States from Ireland to work in a wealthy Pittsburgh household. For my great-grandmother, perfection in ironing and other household tasks was a survival skill that she passed along to her children. Many in the United States are children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. We've heard the stories of our ancestors and respect the skills and the workers. We take pride in our homes and DIY, doing the work for ourselves, whether our role model is Erma Bombeck or Martha Stewart or Heloise Bowles Cruse. Sharing household tasks brings families closer together.

And so it comes as no surprise for many Americans that the Indian diplomat who underpaid a maid was quickly indicted and then allowed to return to India. India's outrage over the arrest of a diplomat in New York City has done more to highlight the plight of domestic workers than an international treaty that went into force last September or detailed reports. Before travel abroad, students and diplomats alike should review advice about social customs. As I wrote for the Asia Sentinel: 

"Many in India have argued that low wages for Indian diplomats justify low wages for domestic help and the United States could have handled the matter with more sensitivity. Critics in the developed world counter that the diplomat who cannot afford basic fair wages for a live-in domestic help should do without.... in a highly interconnected world through travel and communications, a single high-profile arrest unleashed globalization’s force to expose troubling cultural differences, ensuring that cross-border work arrangements and visas will receive more scrutiny – at least for a while."

From left in photo: Great-grandma Mary, Grandma Sarah and mother Jeanne in Pittsburgh, circa 1952. 

Thursday, January 2

Rigid

As an editor, working to display others' voices in print, I try to avoid the traps of rigid rules. I ask questions and propose alternatives and present my reasons, and nineteen times out of twenty, the writers tend to agree. And as a writer, I deeply appreciate editors, following most of their advice and offering reasons and my thought process for the few points on which we may not agree. 

Such is the writing-revision-editing process.

But some readers and writers try to impose restrictions on the choice of story or basic elements like setting, protesting themes or methods or research before the words even hit the paper. And this I resist, and I'll continue to rebel against such rigid attitudes fiercely. 

Virginia Pye writes about one category of writer-reader for the New York Times: "When I tell people that I have recently published a novel set in China, one of the first questions they ask is whether I’ve been there. My response seems to be a letdown. The expectant look on their faces shifts as they wonder why I chose to write about a place I’ve never visited. Sometimes I sense incredulity. What makes me think I can write about China?"

And Pye goes on to describe the beautiful and good reasons why China as a topic tugged at her, much how I described being drawn to write about Afghanistan despite having never traveled to the country. Readers don't have to read books written by those who have never traveled to those settings, but shrill demands that we stop writing about certain topics can only be described as censorship. 

I commented on Pye's article: 

"A story about a woman desperate to learn how to read cried out to be told, and a trip of a few weeks or months could not have compensated for imagination and my own life experiences with literacy. More essential for a tale is a writer's observations of ambition, relationships and affairs of the heart.

"As I wrote for a blog in 2013, 'I had so many strong ideas in 2009 about religion, extremism, women's rights, literacy, parenting, our troops -- how could I not set a book in Afghanistan? And as a writer, I realized that I didn’t need that many details other than the gut feeling that the parallels and connections between my country and Afghanistan are many.'

"Alas, for writers who think they must travel to write: Your readers will still conduct their purity tests. My first book was set in Alaska where I had lived and worked for five years, and readers still pepper the traveler-writers with questions on how long you stayed and where, and censor themselves accordingly."


And there was one response from Lucy of Becket, MA:

"I strongly disagree.... My forthcoming novel is set in the States and in the Pashtun area of Pakistan. I thought I knew what I was about after reading a dozen books on Pakistan and Pashtun culture. But I had no idea - none - about the true similarities and differences between my culture and theirs until I spent serious time in that dangerous, difficult, head-spinning place and got to know its people."

My experiences may not include travels to Afghanistan, and a village like Laashekoh may not exist. It may not matter to some readers that I grew up during early years in one household where dreams of travel or cultural exchanges were unthinkable, that I have read and researched and written and edited articles about globalization for the past eight years, or met with refugees and worked as a literacy tutor with adults who cannot read. I make no apologies for my lack of travel or life experiences. The story probably has errors - particularly on the military side - but the story about a quest for literacy and family relationships is not automatically inauthentic, as suggested by Lucy in her comment.

No worthy, caring teacher would discourage students against exploring by writing about a setting, a time period, a career, a condition that they have not personally experienced.  

The intention behind Fear of Beauty may not be a story about Laashekoh or Afghanistan but rather a warning for women of my own country about how the powerful use religion and fear and rules to restrict basic curiosity. Never, never let anyone restrict where you choose to direct your literary curiosity.

A happy new year, one that is full of exploring and curiosity. Photo of an Afghan National Civil Order Policeman in Wishtan, courtesy of Lance Cpl. Timothy J. Lenzo and Wikimedia Commons.