Monday, April 8, 2013

Morning Reading -- April 8

For reasons I can't decide Mondays seem flush with more interesting reading than later in the week. Maybe I feel fresher at the start of a new week, but that can't account for all of this. I just started and look at this...


Book review - Unpleasant Design
Book Description: The "Unpleasant Design" book is a collection of different research approaches to a phenomenon experienced by all of us. Unpleasant design is a global fashion with many examples to be found across cities worldwide, manifested in the form of "silent agents" that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities. Photographs, essays and case studies of unpleasant urban spaces, urban furniture and communication strategies reveal this pervasive phenomenon. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey and many others, the book is in an attempt to recognise this nascent discipline within contemporary design taxonomies.

Unpleasant Design landed on my doorsteps a few days ago. I opened the envelope, grabbed the book and uttered a loud "Who's the idiot who designed this?!?" because the sleeve around the cover was made of sandpaper. Sandpaper! 
I then read the title of the book and had to admit that it was a very clever idea. 
Each of us has met examples of unpleasant design as we go through the city. The bench that is uncomfortable to sit on for more than 10 minutes, the trash can specially designed so that you can't sit on it nor stuff big bag of garbage inside, the anti-sticker coating on lamp posts, etc. I guess most of us don't really pay attention but they do coerce us to use the city in a prescribed, restricted way. And then there's unpleasant design for the unhappy few: benches with armrests in the middle so that the homeless can't lay down and sleep on it, blue lights in bathrooms and tunnels preventing drug users to spot their veins, an aluminium bar with spikes on it found in corners of buildings and alleys that is angled so that pee would end on your feet (a popular design in The Netherlands apparently), structures to remind pigeons that they are not welcome in town, or CCTV cameras that target specific race and age groups. And of course, there's that notorious mosquito device. 
Unpleasant Design dresses the portraits of bullying urban furniture, looks at the specific strategies behind its design, comments on the use and control of public and semi-public spaces. After having had the book in your sandpapered hands, you won't look at your city with the same eyes, i'm sure. 
The book documents and casts a critical eye on design motivated by policies of exclusion but, and that's what makes the book such an inspiring lecture, it also looks at how individuals, artists, activists are responding to urban unpleasantness. 
Authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic have spent over a year researching forms of social unpleasantness, taking photos wherever they went, writing down ideas and talking with people who are also denouncing and resisting unpleasant design. The resulting essays and interviews are enclosed in the book. Among my favourite are: Survival Group's photos and comments about Anti-Sites (the spaces designed to prevent homeless people or simply weary passersby to sit down and have a rest), Vladan Jeremic's look at the hidden politics of garbage removal in Belgrade, an interview with the insightful and witty urban hacktivist Florian Rivière, a discussion with 'neo-nomad' Yasmine Abbas, another one with Dan Lockton of Design with Intent, the interview with Gilles Paté, the 'fakir' of urban spaces, etc. Add to that, plenty of case studies, examples of artistic devices and ideas that create and fight unpleasant design but also the outcome of a competition about unpleasant design.

Hamas cracks down on 'inappropriate' hairstyles
Joseph Dana, my man in that part of the world, Tweeted this link about the trouble Hamas is having with a sub-set of the younger generation. I'm less interested in the hair styles than the fact that a group of tough people who call themselves running a governement imagines all they need to do to keep order and make society operate smoothly is crack down on anyone who gets out of line. Needless to say they probably have laws, customs or religious backing for this kind of authoritarian behavior, but real legitimacy does not come from those sources. Real legitimacy is what happens when respect for authority is earned, not coerced. Authorities upset about hair styles remind me of some American officials who get upset with people who fail to wear flag pens in their lapels, recipients of public assistance who use dope, teens who want access to a morning-after pill after getting laid the night before and citizens who object to religious messages paid for by their tax money. In short, they remind me of Republicans. 
Hamas security forces in Gaza have been rounding up young men and forcing them to get haircuts on grounds of inappropriate hairstyles, a rights group has charged. Some of the youths have even been beaten for styling their hair in a way deemed unacceptable to Gaza's ruling Islamist movement, or wearing low-hung trousers, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said on Sunday. 
"Palestinian police have stopped several young men walking in different areas in the Gaza Strip in the last three days and taken them into custody saying their hair styles are inappropriate," said the PCHR. 
"Those young men were forced to get haircuts in a humiliating way and several of them were beaten. They were also forced to sign statements saying they will never grow their hair or have strange hairstyles or even wear low-waist trousers." The PCHR urged the attorney general to immediately open an investigation into the attacks and the beatings, saying they "undermine personal freedom" 
"We severely condemn the detention of several young men in the past few days by the Palestinian police," said the PCHR. 
Police spokesman Ayman al-Batinji confirmed some young people had been compelled to get their hair cut, in a move he said was related to inappropriate behaviour on the streets.
"We received several complaints from headmasters saying a number of boys are hanging around on the streets and harassing girls," he said in a statement, adding police had begun the crackdown following "complaints" last week. 
But he denied claims of police brutality, saying their treatment of the youngsters was "not as harsh as it appears," without giving further detail.
Later report...
The AP report is more detailed. 
These guys are serious and getting tough. Here's a photo. Longer story at the link.


Ayman al-Sayed, 19, right, with his hair cut, and his friend Mohammed Hanouna, 18, left, pose for photo during an interview in Gaza City, Sunday, April 7, 2013. Al-Sayed used to have shoulder-length hair but says he was grabbed by Hamas police in a sweep along with other young men with long or gel-styled spiky hair last week, and that police shaved everyone's head. Hanouna still wears the hair-style that can now get young men in trouble in Gaza, during the Islamic militants latest attempt to impose their hardline version of Islam on Gaza. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)


Speaking of officials having trouble with constituencies, not a week passes that the Muslim Brothers in Egypt confronts yet another challenge to how best to run a country. Decades of leading the opposition (the autodratic Sadat and Mubarak years) have left them ill-prepared to steward the economy, balance international diplomatic challenges, insure domestic tranquility (I love that phrase), encourage tourism and take out the garbage. Too many links to go into detail but here are a few links to get started. My browser has kindly translated a few so I am including those paragrphs as well. 

Politically charged Coptic funeral ends in violence, one death

Egypt on edge after deadly sectarian clashes

Report: Bullets from automatic weapons killed Copts in Khosous

Video- Fitna "particular" ignite anger in front of the cathedral

Books - Mustafa detector spotted "gate-Ahram" details the start of the clashes that erupted between Copts and unknown, and the security forces in front of the cathedral of St. Mark Abbassiya, while out the bodies of victims of sedition particular. resulted in clashes killed one person and about 29 injured people, including a reporter in the newspaper sunrise, and the Security forces imposed a security cordon around the cathedral, in anticipation of renewed clashes and more deaths and injuries.


Then there's this from Yemen...

Okay, then.
Readers may recall my breezy link last week to Karl Sharro
This morning he links to a serious commentary he wrote for The National, one of the most respected English language papers in the Middle East. 
Little by little he comes to the reluctant conclusion that the deneouement of the many conflicts in that part of the world will resemble Lebanon writ large. 
Most Americans (in fact, most of the world) have no clue how Lebanon works. (My impression is that many in Lebanon may not know either, but that's not surprising considering how disconnected from political realities most of the people around me here in Amurka appear to be.) I'm no expert, but I have done enough homework to know that the word consociational is not a typogrphical error. When I first came across it several years ago I thought it was a typing mistake, but when I looked closer I discovered it is descriptive of a hybrid form of representative government -- still in the laboratory stage, historically speaking -- but most prominently illustrated in Lebanon. 
This link (and others) to my old blog provides a little background to consociational form in general and Lebanon in particular. 
(Unfortunately the "Head Heeb" to whom I linked is no longer extant but when he was blogging Jonathan Edelstein was one of the smartest analysts on the scene. I have no idea what became of him. I can't find any trace of him on the Web. I can only hope he's okay and will one day return.)
Another background to Lebanon link. 
And yet another... 
[I am so glad I took as many notes as I did. The number of inactive links after just a few years is frustrating. The links I left to my own blog remain active, thank goodness. But who knows how long Google and the Web will really remain. Meantime, these are some of the reasons I am so long-winded this second time around.]

The rise of sectarian conflicts will not fragment the Levant
Karl Sharro
Apr 6, 2013

There's an old conspiracy theory in Lebanon that emerged during the civil war and never went away. It suggests that there is a secret plan to divide the entire Middle East into ethnic and sectarian states, legitimising in the process the nature of Israel as a Jewish state among Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite and Kurdish states. 
This theory originated with the late Lebanese politician Raymond Eddé, who accused Henry Kissinger of hatching a plan to divide Lebanon along such lines. Since then, it has re-emerged frequently as a way to explain sectarian conflict in the region. 
Were Eddé, who died in 2000, still alive, he would find quite an audience for his theory. Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Sunni-Shiite rivalry, which had hitherto been muted, has emerged as a major dividing line within the country. Lebanon has veered from one crisis to the next ever since, as the dream of a sovereign and independent state has all but disappeared. 
In Iraq, the vicious sectarian conflict that followed the 2003 invasion has not been universally recognised as a civil war, but it's hard to think of it in other terms. In Syria, the uprising against the Assad regime turned into a civil war in which sectarian divisions are becoming increasingly evident. 
The fragmentation of Syria would mean that the "fertile crescent" stretching from Iraq to Lebanon would become an area of sectarian and ethnic divisions and conflicts. So is this "sectarian crescent" now becoming an unavoidable reality? 
There is no doubt that the region is at a crucial and dangerous juncture in its history. To pretend otherwise and downplay the effect of the sectarian and ethnic divisions would be extremely naive. Yet the political fragmentation of the Levant remains unlikely. There are very good reasons to believe that this is more likely to be a transitional phase rather than an unchecked spiral towards ever-increasing fragmentation. 
There are three factors to consider. The first is that there are no movements for "sectarian" secession. Aside from the Kurdish quest for independence, which long preceded the current sectarian turmoil, there are no demands for secession in any of the three countries. There are no parties arguing for a Sunni or Shiite state in Iraq, for example. Unlike the Kurdish drive for autonomy, which has legitimate underpinnings, it is inconceivable that today any such idea could even be a starter. 
The link between the rise of sectarianism and political fragmentation is a tenuous extrapolation based more on apprehension than real indications. In fact, whenever such scenarios are discussed, they appear to be more of a projection of their authors' assumptions about the fragility of Levantine countries than a result of serious analysis. 
For example, there has been much talk recently of a potential Alawite state in Syria. The case for this scenario is flimsy, but that didn't prevent it gaining credence in some quarters. Those arguing for such a scenario blatantly ignored important factual considerations, such as the absence of any tangible steps that the Syrian regime took to prepare for an Alawite state. That would seem like an important oversight if an Alawite state was on the cards. 
All this doesn't rule out de facto divisions as a result of military stalemates, but there's little chance that such entities might turn into permanent political units. Aside from the Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq, where federal autonomy is justified and workable, there are no viable "sectarian entities" that could have viable geographies. 
The second point to note is that sectarian conflicts actually represent internal power struggles. In broad terms, competing sectarian agendas in the three Levant countries represent power struggles within national boundaries and not, as I hope I illustrated, demands for secession. While sectarianism puts immense stress on social cohesion, its political manifestations don't represent a threat to national entities. In fact, the opposite is true in certain instances, where sectarian politics is concerned simultaneously with extracting concessions from the state but retaining it as an entity. 
This doesn't alter the bloody nature of the sectarian conflicts in the region, but it denotes that their resolution will ultimately depend on concessions, not political fragmentation. Civil wars unfortunately take a long time to be resolved politically, but it's far from certain that the disintegration of the Levant countries is a serious prospect. 
There's no denying that national identities in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are going through serious crises, but we should bear in mind that the contests over those identities aren't being fought exclusively along sectarian lines. Both in Lebanon and Iraq, cross-sectarian alliances indicate a more complex picture in which politics mixes with communalist considerations. Crucially, blatant sectarian rhetoric remains confined to the margins and most leaders have to couch their positions in the language of national interest. 
This is not merely a form of hypocrisy, but nor is it principled - it is primarily a pragmatic position. In the absence of secessionist impulses, the nation state represents an expedient order through which communalist demands could be expressed in a political from. Lebanon is at one extreme in formalising this confessional model of politics, and it is now plausible that both Syria and Iraq will move in that direction. 
While this model of politics has serious shortcomings, it appears to be the logical alternative to open sectarian warfare. The future of the Levant is headed towards this confessional model rather than political disintegration, as becomes apparent when we consider the third and last factor, confessional politics as an alternative to sectarian warfare. 
What we are witnessing in the Levant now is the crystallisation of sectarian identities into a political form. Tendencies that were always present within society are now becoming more apparent, partially because of the collapse of unifying ideas such as pan-Arabism and the turmoil of the past decade or so. In Syria and Iraq those identities were repressed for a long time under Ba'ath rule and denied expression, but they were always present in one form or another 
The extreme manifestations that we are seeing are a product of the abrupt collapse of the repressive mechanisms. This unfortunately is leading to many acts of revenge and bloodshed, but as hard as it is to imagine today, they are symptoms of this transitional period rather than constant features. Sectarian conflicts are ultimately unwinnable, and in time this contestation will be transported to the political arena. 
The experience of Lebanon, as dysfunctional as its political system appears to be, gives an indication of the type of political relationships that will emerge. Lebanon's confessional system was reconfigured after the end of the civil war to distribute power more equally among its different sects, and one of the outcomes of this process was that everyone had an interest in preserving the state because they had more to gain from it. The relationship may be parasitical sometimes, but in a curious way it has made the Lebanese nation-state more durable. 
The paradox of sectarian-political identities is that they require a suitable political platform in which they can find their expression. The confessional system provides this as a means to negotiate communalist demands and aspirations. 
Nobody knows for certain what the future holds for Syria and Iraq, but there are strong indications to suggest that their politics will grow to resemble that of Lebanon. In the transition away from single-party rule, confessionalism will represent a form of political pluralism that blends the national and communalist identities together. 
Unfortunately, sectarian identities will be on the rise for a while in the Levant, but the assumption that this will lead to political fragmentation doesn't seem to stand up to scrutiny. The challenge for secularists will be to create alternatives to confessional politics that cut across sects and ethnic groups and create a more open sense of national identity.

Karl Sharro is an architect and Middle East commentator based in London. He blogs at


And this from Issandr El Amrani. If the Arabist sez it then it's prolly factual.

In other news, via Facebook...

Modern technology has brought us many benefits, including mosquito traps that cost hundreds of dollars, but sometimes we overlook simple solutions to difficultchallenges such as mosquito control. When it comes to controlling pests, research tends to focus on chemicals or concepts that can be patented. Unless someone can make a profit from an idea, the public may never become aware of it.


Items needed:

200 ml water
50 grams of brown sugar
1 gram of yeast
2-liter plastic bottle

Or US conversion:
1 cup of water
1/4 cup of brown sugar

1. Cut the plastic bottle in half.
2. Mix brown sugar with hot water. Let cool. When cold, pour in the bottom half of the bottle.
3. Add the yeast. No need to mix. It creates carbon dioxide, which attracts mosquitoes.
4. Place the funnel part, upside down, into the other half of the bottle, taping them together if desired.
5. Wrap the bottle with something black, leaving the top uncovered, and place it outside in an area away from your normal gathering area. (Mosquitoes are also drawn to the color black.)

Change the solution every 2 weeks for continuous control.

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