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Living Poetry: An Interview with Akbar Ahmed

By Human Yusuf
Dawn.com

April 10, 2011

Akbar Ahmed talks about his latest publication, a collection of poetry that he penned over the decades, across Pakistan and the West, which seamlessly weaves together the personal and the political.

Futterman describes you as a man suspended between homelands, friendships, and faiths. Does this theme of exile inform your poetry?

The fact that my parents and I arrived in Pakistan in August 1947 by definition placed me between several cultures, countries, and religious identities. Since then, I’ve had to repeatedly renegotiate new identities. I grew up in the Frontier province, which is a different world within Pakistan. As a civil servant, I have lived in Balochistan and other parts of the country, but also travelled abroad as a student. Each time it was the discovery and negotiation of a new culture. Throughout, poetry was a personal response to events and people and developments around me—as such I have been living my poetry.

You have written non-fiction books, plays, academic essays, film scripts, and diplomatic cables. What does poetry offer that other genres do not?

My poetry is intensely personal. It’s an immediate response to personal emotions, that part of me that has not gone public until now. For example, one of my longer poems, “I Sarrison,” was written when I was twenty-one years old. I was having a hot bath at university, and I suddenly felt the need to find some paper, and the poem poured out of me. Some of the ideas expressed are so personal that they may not make sense to anyone except the poet. That explains why I have not edited or altered the older poems in the collection—the Akbar Ahmed of today and from the 1960s are different entities, with different ideas.

Which poem in the collection was the hardest to write?

“You, my father,” the poem I dedicated to my father. I loved him intensely, and was always acutely aware of the pressures in his life. He worked for the British Raj but was always passionately invested in his Islamic identity. He was a committed Muslim who wore a suit but said his prayers. When I wrote my poem, I was using him as a symbol of a past generation that had lived under the British and had faced different dilemmas than my own generation. Theirs was a different world; they knew where the lines between the two cultures were drawn.

But my generation did not have the same security and confidence—for us, identity was a charged issue.

The poem was a complex, subtle tribute to my father, but I think he would have preferred something direct and simple. My mother later told me he didn’t like it too much. It’s disappointing to me that I couldn’t convey how much I loved him through that poem.

Why have you chosen to publish this collection now?


I have been writing an autobiographical play recently, and so have been confronting my past. Also, through conversations with old friends, and in response to horrible news from Pakistan every day about attacks and violence, I’ve been thinking a lot about a different Pakistan. The Pakistan I knew before it all fell apart, the one that inspired confidence and optimism in me and made me feel sorry for the Indians who were so far behind us at the time.

But now I see people attacking mosques and women and children, and I wonder what happened. And I see that young Pakistanis have no sense of the country that I used to know, nor do they know why it came into being or what their history or identity is. Those who do not understand their identity face grave challenges. For that reason, I felt that I had to leave something behind of that Pakistan, the one I grew up with. I felt a duty to put it on the record: this is how one Pakistani felt at different points in the nation’s history.

The poems span a lifetime of writing and responding—how did you decide which ones to include in the collection?

It was a difficult choice. Some poems are political, some are about Islamic identity. My rule of thumb was to choose the ones that would make sense to the reader, and weed out the ones that were too obscure.

Who are your poetic influences?


My mother was passionately in love with Iqbal and Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, and I too was intoxicated by their work. But coming from a boarding school culture, I was also taught the poems of Keats and Shelley. I think I have all these great poets within me. Dr Moazzam Siddiqui is currently translating my collection into Urdu, and he has said that there’s a Sufi stance in the verse as well.

What role do you think poetry can play in stemming Islamophobia in the US?

The challenge these days is to convey the sophistication and traditions and the history of Muslim culture. The goal is to show that Muslims have produced some of the most amazing poetry and philosophy through the ages, and to equate this civilization with mindless terrorism is ridiculous. Through poetry, you cut out the controversies and stereotypes and get straight to the heart of the issue.

Whenever I am asked an antagonistic question about Islam, I respond by reciting my poem about my mother. That way, I transfer the image of a violent Muslim into one of an ordinary human being who has the same problems, the same pain, the same love as any other person. That’s the appeal of poetry—it helps us understand our own life, and that of others, better. The reaction to my poetry in America has been very positive.

Will anyone be angered by this collection?

Some people may feel I’m too secular, others will say I’m too Islamic, a fundamentalist. Poetry is an insight into a person’s life, not an analytic thesis. So I expect the poems will create reactions and people won’t agree with all the opinions I express.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Akbar Ahmed's Author Page




Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power: a review


By Travis Fristoe
Maximumrocknroll #330
November 2010

Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power sounds like nonfiction, a primer. Don’t be put off by the title. What we have here instead is an adventure story about getting back at the cops, the government & the military: “I’m going to get everyone together and we’re going to kick their ass.”

The backstory is important. The author, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, is a prolific Mexico City novelist, most famous for his mystery stories. Taibo was part of the 1968 student uprising that was violently quelled. The protestors had 123 days of “hope for future fulfillment” before the defeat, forcing them to “take refuge inside ourselves and in a bleak militancy.” Further, Taibo explains: “Under these deplorable conditions, this shortest of novels was created. Brewed in the midst of a premature divorce following a premature marriage, of a political crisis, of an era of hunger and unemployment, the novel became a pretext, a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.”

Taibo then shrewdly waited and re-wrote the novel three times over the intervening twelve years. The ghost of what could have been haunts us still. But a compelling backstory is not always enough to make a worthwhile book. Taibo’s patience here is the reader’s gain, and the symbols he uses resonate even in translation. A young journalist is stabbed while on the trail of a prostitute killer in Mexico City. His memory is hazy about the incident and he writes his friends to ask what happened.

The crime and brutality might sound slightly like the murders of women evoked in Roberto Bolano’s 2666 but the tone is very different. This book’s structure is a chorus of voices, the construct being letters and memories back to the author about just what happened between January 14 and 26, 1970. Our narrator then gets the idea to appeal in letters to all the valorous heroes of his youth. His list is global, all male and a mix of different time periods—the Mau Maus, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Holliday, the Tigers of Malaysia, the Four Musketeers, Yanez de Gomera and the Light Brigade. Plus a few others that you may find exhilarating or absurd.

Were these heroes willing to come to Mexico’s aid? “‘They were ready and waiting.’ There couldn’t be so much disillusionment, so much defeat. If it could be understood, it could be explained . . .” They do come. You can imagine the incandescent fantasy of what happens next: A dead pig thrown at the foot of the United States Embassy and an insurrection relived, successfully this time. A young man’s fever dream while prostate in a hospital bed. Given the list of heroes, you might ask if it’s like the Rancid song “Sidekick,” where Lint runs through the streets with Wolverine from the X-Men. Yes, it’s like that. In the good ways.

What I found more haunting though were the responses from the friends, particularly those lacerating Paco Ignacio: “I don’t know about you but I was a sad guy of twenty who wrote fotonovelas for a living (which sometimes paid nothing), roamed a city that had been ours and we had lost, rented a room in the Condesa district, had a record player, read Faulkner, Rodolfo Walsh, Italo Calvino, and Dos Passos, and watched it rain.”

This book isn’t an alternate history the way that Philip Dick’s Man in the High Castle retold World War II. This is a retelling by a crushed participant who spent the subsequent years wrestling with the rubble: “Everyone is gone but no one has finished going. Everyone has guilt but no way of explaining it. Something will have to happen.” As you may have already surmised, there’s an acute lack of female voices, and the characters are full of “ragged sarcasm.” I trust you as a reader to know if that’s something that the rousing plot overcomes. Who wouldn’t like to revisit the past armed with a cinematic army and tempered by the critiques of our friends?

The novel is part of PM Press’s Found in Translation series. And John Yates is to be again commended for the design of the book cover.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to author homepage




ISN Interview with Gabriel Kuhn


By International Soccer Network
April 5th, 2011

ISN had the privilege of interviewing Gabriel Kuhn, author of Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics. Kuhn is one of soccer’s most compelling and challenging figures.  

Soccer vs. the State has garnered rave reviews from critics worldwide and rightfully so.  It is a must-read for those who love football and see the game as an instrument of social justice.  It offers content and commentary that you will not find anywhere else. 

Kuhn took on questions from a variety of topics, including his own personal experiences with the beautiful game, corruption, and the power of international football.

Check out the podcast here


Buy Book Now
| Download e-Book now | Back to Gabriel Kuhn's Author Page




Sasha Lilley & Noam Chomsky at Book launch event in Boston

Sasha Lilley and Noam Chomsky

News > Additional Stories

Sasha Lilley & Noam Chomsky at Book launch event in Boston

Photo by Martin Voelker

A fantastic turnout joined Capital and Its Discontents author Sasha Lilley and contributor, world leading intellectual, father of modern linguistics and outspoken media and foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky at Raven Used Books in Boston this week. They both spoke and took questions for an hour and all had a great time.

Capital and Its Discontents
cuts through the gristle to get to the heart of the matter about the nature of capitalism and imperialism, capitalism’s vulnerabilities at this conjuncture—and what can we do to hasten its demise.
 
Through a series of incisive conversations with some of the most eminent thinkers and political economists on the Left—including David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Mike Davis, Leo Panitch, Tariq Ali, and Noam ChomskyCapital and Its Discontents illuminates the dynamic contradictions undergirding capitalism and the potential for its dethroning.
Read more




Cointelpro 101 on Tour

COINTELPRO 101 exposes illegal surveillance, disruption, and outright murder committed by the U.S. government in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. “COINTELPRO” refers to the official FBI COunter INTELligence PROgram carried out to surveil, imprison, and eliminate leaders of social justice movements and to disrupt, divide, and destroy the movements as well. Many of the government's crimes are still unknown. Through interviews with activists who experienced these abuses first-hand and with rare historical footage, the film provides an educational introduction to a period of intense repression and draws relevant lessons for present and future movements.



Currently the Freedom Archives are bringing showings of Cointelpro 101 to a town near you.

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Lucy Parsons Center, Boston, MA

When: Wednesday, April 06 2011 @ 07:00 PM - - 09:00PM
   
Where: Lucy Parsons Center
549 Columbus Ave
Boston, MA

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Reed College, Portland, OR

When: Friday, April 08 2011 @ 05:00 PM - - 07:00PM

 
Where: Reed College
Vollum Lounge
Portland, OR

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Mix96 Community Space, Olympia, WA

When: Sunday, April 10 2011 @ 08:00 PM - - 10:00PM

 
Where: Mix96 Community Space
119 Washington St NE
Olympia, WA


COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Evergreen College, Olympia, WA

When: Monday, April 11 2011 @ 05:00 PM - - 07:00PM

 
Where: Evergreen College
Olympia, WA

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ S Puget Sound Community College, Olympia, WA

When: Tuesday, April 12 2011 @ 03:00 PM - - 05:00PM

 
Where: South Puget Sound Community College
Olympia, WA

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR

When: Wednesday, April 13 2011 @ 07:00 PM - - 09:00PM

 
Where: Lewis and Clark College
Portland, OR

COINTELPRO 101 screening, panel discussion, Newark, NJ

When: Saturday, April 16 2011 @ 04:00 PM - - 07:00PM

 
Where: I.Y.O (International Youth Organization)
703 South 12th Street
Newark, NJ
Description: The Freedom Archive is pleased to present two New Jersey screenings of COINTELPRO 101. The film is 56 minutes and is followed by a panel discussion featuring Bob Boyle, Bonnie Kerness, Ashanti Alston, and T.J. Whitaker.


COINTELPRO 101 screening (Law and Disorder Conference) @ 5th Ave Cinema, Portland

When: Saturday, April 16 2011 @ 08:30 PM - - 10:00PM

 
Where: 5th Avenue Cinema
510 Southwest Hall St
Portland, OR
   

COINTELPRO 101 screening @ Zeitgeist, New Orleans, LA

When: Sunday, April 17 2011 @ 12:00 PM - - 02:00PM

 
Where: Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center
1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd
New Orleans, LA

 
Interviews in the video include:

  • Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford), Founder of Revolutionary Action Movement, author of We Will Return In The Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960–1975.
  • Bob Boyle, Attorney representing many activists and political prisoners targeted by COINTELPRO.
  • Kathleen Cleaver, former leader of the Black Panther Party, now Professor of Law at Emory and Yale Universities, and co-editor of Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy.
  • Ward Churchill, co-author of The COINTELPRO Papers and Agents of Repression.
  • Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Native American activist and author of Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years 1960–1975.
  • Priscilla Falcon, Mexicana activist and professor whose husband was assassinated for his leadership in the Chicano struggle.
  • Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt, former leader of the Black Panther Party who was falsely imprisoned for 27 years in a COINTELPRO case.
  • Jose Lopez, Director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and long-time advocate of Puerto Rican independence.
  • Francisco "Kiko" Martinez, Chicano/Mexicano activist and attorney.
  • Lucy Rodriguez, Puerto Rican Independentista and former Political Prisoner
  • Ricardo Romero, Chicano/Mexicano activist and Grand Jury resister
  • Akinyele Umoja, African American History scholar at Georgia State University.
  • Laura Whitehorn, radical activist and former political prisoner who was targeted by the federal government.

 

More PM Author events | Buy DVD now 




Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism: A Review


By Travis Tomchuk 

Left History Journal 15, nr. 1 p.218
Queen’s University

Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism is a well-researched and in-depth study of the history of anarchist thought and practice, written not only to demonstrate the existence of a “profound anarchist tradition” but also to show that this political philosophy “offers many ideas and values that are relevant to contemporary problems and issues”(xiii).  The breadth of the book is impressive. Marshall begins with the Taoists of ancient China and ends with contemporary forms of anarchism such as the green anarchists of the late twentieth century. In Demanding the Impossible, Marshall outlines the key tenets of anarchist philosophy, traces the history of European and American libertarian thought, and discusses the theorists who tend to populate the anarchist canon such as Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and a few others—Reclus, Malatesta, and Goldman—who usually do not make the cut. Marshall then proceeds to explore the anarchist movements in Europe, the United States, Asia, and Latin America, and explores the continual development of anarchist thought in the second half of the twentieth century from Paul Goodman to John Zerzan.


Marshall identifies himself as an anarchist and his enthusiasm for the material is more than apparent. However, there are some serious flaws with Demanding the Impossible. The first stems from Marshall’s very broad definition of anarchism. According to the author an anarchist is “... one who rejects all forms of external government and the State and believes that society and individuals would function well without them”, which reads more like a definition of libertarianism than anarchism (xiii).  As a result of such a sweeping definition, some very strange individuals fall under the anarchist umbrella—for example, the so-called “anarcho-capitalists” who believe the state is a hindrance to free market capitalism and that all public services and spaces should be privatised (559). Given Marshall’s own conviction that such a society would be no less exploitative than our present day world, and one’s own sense that capitalist societies are going in this direction without in any way embodying the other ideals of anarchism, the reader is left to wonder about the coherence and usability of his underlying conceptualisation of his subject.


Yet another odd inclusion in the book, and there are many, is Albert Camus. Camus’s link to anarchism is so tenuous as to be almost non-existent. He may have left the French Communist Party and trumpeted rebellion and syndicalism in The Rebel but so what?  Camus was a French nationalist and an apologist for French colonialism in Algeria by any means necessary, hardly an anarchist position, a fact that Marshall openly admits. Nor did Camus proclaim himself an anarchist.


So why include him?


Marshall would have been better served to define anarchism more clearly at the outset of Demanding the Impossible. Had he defined the term more closely -as a leftwing political philosophy that is not only against the state and government, but for the freedom of individuals who in turn respect the freedom of others; not only against hierarchy and capitalism, but for a society of free producers- there would have been no need to include such questionable figures and tendencies. It might have made more sense for Marshall to write two books — one on anarchism proper, and another on libertarianism, in all its left- and right-wing permutations and combinations. 



A second problem with Demanding the Impossible, and this is a problem of most general histories of anarchism, is its focus on Europe and the United States. In a book of over 700 pages of text, there are roughly thirty pages dedicated to regions outside of Europe and America, those being Latin America and Asia. Part of this problem is due to a lack of English-language sources on the anarchists and their movements in China, Korea, Argentina, and Brazil. In light of the ever increasing number of studies on anarchism and its importance in these typically ignored regions, Marshall could have struck a better balance between Europe and the United States on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other.


As a history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible is, in many ways, a great improvement over previous works by James Joll and George Woodcock because it treats anarchism as much more than an old millenarian movement that died in Spain in 1939. However, Marshall’s broad definition of anarchism, which leads to the inclusion of many individuals who were not anarchists, and his narrow focus on Europe and the United States, will leave many readers scratching their heads—and waiting a far more coherent and international history of the movement. 

Buy book now | Back to Peter Marshall's Author Page




Poetry, faith, and the Muslim soul

By Frankie Martin
The Washington Post
February 21, 2011

For Americans, Islam brings to mind many things, but poetry is rarely among them. Yet the Muslim world has produced some of the greatest poets the world has seen, like Rumi, currently the most popular poet of the United States. In this environment of suspicion and questions about who Muslims are and what they believe, poetry can be useful in understanding the religion and those who practice it.

Suspended Somewhere Between, a new collection of poetry by Akbar Ahmed, the world-renowned Islamic scholar and chair of Islamic studies at American University, provides these insights, giving an authentic and new perspective on a religion and a part of the world that is so constantly on our minds. The poems provide a window into Islam today, with its problems as well as its possibilities.

I have worked with Ahmed for the better part of a decade after taking his class in school, inspired by his message of improving relations between the Muslim world and the west. Yet I was unaware he was also a poet. These talents were concealed over a long career in the Pakistani civil service beginning in the 1960s, although some poems were published years ago, for which he won international awards, and were set to music by top Pakistani pop stars.

With this new book, Ahmed makes his American poetry debut in a collection combining older poems with new ones, providing glimpses of a life which has taken him from London to the mountains of Waziristan and now the halls of power in Washington, D.C. The poems range from the introspective and reflective to historical, political, and religious.

The title of the book, Suspended Somewhere Between, reflects Ahmed's own life--he physically moved between cultures and continents--but also modern dilemmas in an age of globalization where our identities are often in flux.

The poetry reflects this suspension, and is influenced by poets from both European and Muslim traditions from Coleridge and Keats to Hafiz and Rumi. There is also a strong influence from the great poets of Muslim South Asia, Ghalib and Iqbal.

Where the structure and meter of the poetry sometimes evoke the great English poets, Ahmed also uses classic Islamic poetic techniques to great effect. The scholar Roger Boase, who wrote on the poetry of Muslim Spain, characterized the Muslim poet of that era as a "jeweler with words, seeking the means of verbal images to fix and thereby eternalize a fleeting experience of joy or sadness or aesthetic delight."

I would describe Ahmed's poetry, which bursts with sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, in much the same way. Ahmed the jeweler often strings together linearly disconnected words, many of which are symbols like references to Xerxes, Samarkand, or an "iced Himaylan dream." When read together they effectively convey a mood or atmosphere. In "diaspora" there is a rapid-fire succession of images which give the impression of being lost in another culture: "Bulbous domes in mist/shrouded confuse me...the noon-heat edacity/of the seraglio lifts/ the veil and I see the/squalor of pavement-domesticity...the harlot/ of ethnic hungers/ sucks me in."

Islam is a constant thread running through the poems, and references to Muslim architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal or early caliphs like Umar are just as likely to appear in a love poem as one that is religious or historical in focus. Ahmed is uniquely placed, as a young man coming of age in the 1960s to comment on Islam's interaction with the modern world and the challenges it would face in the 21st century.

The most striking poem on this subject is "I, Saracen," in which a supremely assured twenty-one-year-old Ahmed assumes the voice of Islam itself: "Out of the shimmering sands I rode/suddenly Colossus-like the world I strode." Yet colonial and post-colonial realities had thrown the once confident Muslims into a crisis. What, then was the way forward? Even then Ahmed was clear. His Islam is one of "computers and the minaret," open to other belief systems but firmly rooted the tradition of a faith which prizes scholarship over violence. He exclaims: "The task so immense, its breadth its length/ so great, I sip of history for strength/ then scimitars cast aside, quills unsheathed/ Muslim true never surrendered while he breathed."

Many of the poems convey a philosophy that lacks a western category, a kind of religious existentialism. That is, Ahmed is guided and inspired by God and the Islamic tradition, but is fully aware existence often seems senseless and empty, especially when witnessing profound suffering. Isolation brings on these feelings, and Ahmed is often isolated, whether he feels he is the only human being amidst bloodshed, feels love which is unrequited or hopeless, is caught between cultures, or finds himself alone in nature.
In "high on these slopes," Ahmed's everyday life assumes that of a mountaineer in the "Himayalays of solitude," gazing at the "ants" living life's "sad and ancient patterns." He concludes: "under the illusions of conviviality/there is only white and cold bone/and/every man must stand alone." Although Sartre is referenced, the clear influence is Ghalib, the nineteenth century South Asian Muslim poet.

Many of the poems pulse with an energy and optimism for Pakistan, a new country founded as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, but Ahmed fears an uncertain and volatile future. In "you, my father," Ahmed notes that while his father used to have to stand whenever an Englishman entered the room, he looks on his father's life with "envy" because he was secure in his identity in an established colonial structure. With independence and the partition of Pakistan from India, the certainty disappears and things fall apart.

Many of the poems capture Ahmed's struggles to promote the compassion and justice of Islam in this new world. The suffering of ordinary people, seen in titles like "the small boy by the road" clearly weighed heavily on Ahmed, and he witnessed horrors he puts down in words. In "they are taking them away" about the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ahmed asked "what compulsions drive such men/what fear makes them such savages/while reason, so thin on the breast/deserts so quickly." The violence got so abhorrent, Ahmed writes, that "rape was relief/death a desire/and killing a kindness."
The state bureaucrats and civil servants, who are supposed to uphold the law, are failing miserably, and in "Votive Peregrination" Ahmed the jeweler strings some not so flattering words together to describe them. The bureaucrats are "coleopteral...with bated breath/wheezing... toothless sycophants/chanted in glabrous halitosis/in the unison born of/discalced despair."

Things look no better in the hills of the Pakistani tribal areas. In "Pukhtun landscape: a mood," Ahmed knows a violent storm is coming: "the fever stalks this land/from peak to glen and clan to clan...it withers youth, dries the blood in the veins of man... the old order is sick in bed/and our tomorrows hint at being red." And standing at the Khyber pass, looking towards Afghanistan, Ahmed marvels that so many foreign empires have tried to invade and hold the territory: "Like wind they came, like water they left/ the thousands of soldiers, the thousands of years/passages long gone, long forgotten/in this catacomb of desire and history."

Through all the pain and uncertainty, however, Ahmed clings to his humanity. This comes through in the flashes of humor sprinkled throughout the often intense and serious poems, as in the existential "'the world is too much...'" in which the poet, after conveying his fears of life and love, concludes that his greatest is to "fear flab anywhere." His description in "a little while" of an unattainable love as a "marshmallow...never toasted" cannot help but bring a smile to the reader.

Ahmed's humanity is also his Islam, the strand that holds everything together and gives him, and the reader, hope for the future. In these moments, Ahmed firmly channels the great poets of the mystic Muslim tradition. In "What is it that I seek?" Ahmed observes the same thing in Rumi, Mandela, Jesus, and Gandhi: "It is God's greatest gift/It raises us high above/It is the bridge over the rift/It is love, love, love." He encourages us to "Give it in generous measure."

As an American reading Suspended Somewhere Between, I found myself transported to a different world, which I feel I understand much better on its own terms. It has its predicaments, yes, but also its promise.
Both are on display in the ongoing Arab revolutions, which have exposed many of the internal Muslim societal problems Ahmed writes about, from corruption to violence and hopelessness. But like Ahmed in "I, Saracen," the Arab protesters have put away the scimitar in their desire for a modern society, using their religion and tradition to guide them. They have hope, energy, and optimism for the future.

As Dan Futterman, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Capote) who portrayed Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart, writes in the book's forward, Suspended Somewhere Between is a "treasured gift" for showing the "soulful depths of this remarkable man." Through him, we also glimpse the soul of Islam as he experienced and understood it. In a time of such turmoil in the Muslim world and questions in America about Islam, this is an invaluable insight to have.


Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Akbar Ahmed's Author Page




Teaching for Change Interview with Derrick Weston Brown

By Don Allen
April 5, 2011

Teaching for Change staff member Derrick Weston Brown has just released his first book of poetry, Wisdom Teeth (published by the Busboys and Poets imprint of PM Press). Derrick started at Teaching for Change as a bookseller nearly six years ago and was integral to the launch of Teaching for Change’s Busboys and Poets Bookstore. At that time he became Busboys and Poets’ first Poet-in-Residence. Derrick’s hometown is Charlotte, N.C., but he currently resides in the Washington, D.C. metro region, specifically Mount Ranier, MD. He teaches creative writing at Emerson Preparatory School in northwest and at Hart Middle School in southeast. 


Teaching for Change: How does your hometown Charlotte influence you? 

Derrick Weston Brown: Charlotte has and will always be home to me, although I haven't lived there for close to ten years. I had a great childhood and I developed a love of books and writing through my family. Both of my grandmothers were elementary school teachers. Both of my aunts were librarians, and everyone in my family loved to read. As an only child, I had an active imagination and my family encouraged it as well as helped me focus my imagination toward the performing arts

 

 

Ferdinand

TFC: What was your favorite book when you were a kid?  What is your favorite children’s book right now? 

DWB: That's an easy one, The Story of Ferdinand. Favorite kids book right now; Those Shoes and Hip and Hop, Don't Stop.

TFC: What are you reading right now?

DWB: John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie and an autobiography about a Liberian peace activist called And Still No Peace Came.

TFC: What is the book that you are most likely to tell people that they MUST read? 

DWB: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

TFC: Who are the biggest influences as a writer?  

DWB: As a writer: Sonia Sanchez, Paul Beatty, Sherman Alexie, Lucille Clifton, Shel Silverstein. As a person: Mom.

 

Derrick introducing Sonia Sanchez at TFC fundraiser

TFC: What book (or books) changed your life in some way? 

DWB: Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and a little known book called The Stray by Jamie Wyeth. These books changed my life as a writer because I really saw from Beatty's work that all the elements and literary devices of great creative writing could be used in poetry AND fiction. Jamie Wyeth's The Stray was the first book to make me cry, because of the unexpected tragedy at the end of it. I was not ready and Wyeth didn't foreshadow anything. Like life, death comes without warning. I was so mad at the end of the book. I was twelve or thirteen and I felt betrayed. I was so invested in the characters, that when the tragedy came, I was ill-prepared. That's when I knew, that was good writing.

TFC: Can you share your favorite haiku (written by you)? 

DWB:

Paul D's Haiku to Sethe
I always loved trees
long slim limbs swaying brown boughs
Sethe be my Oak

(This is from "The Sweet Home Men Series – For Toni Morrison" in Wisdom Teeth – ed.)

TFC: Why is your book called Wisdom Teeth?

DWB: Wisdom Teeth is about growth and pain and inevitable readjustment. I've always had a hard time with change. This book reflects the journey and continuance of that struggle, discomfort and eventual understanding that change is the one constant in this world. 

TFC: How does D.C. influence your poetry?

DWB: D.C. is important because it is a great city for writers. Before I moved to D.C. I had an email conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller. He told me that D.C. was fertile ground for writers. D.C. also influenced my growth from a young man into a "grown" man. I learned how to hustle in this city. I got my heart broken in this city.  I found love, lost love, found love in this city. I also found a strong and nurturing writing community in this city. I learned what it is to really "craft" a poem in this city

TFC: How does Hip Hop influence your poetry?

DWB: I think I'll quote Mos Def to answer this question:

 

My restlessness is my nemesis
It's hard to really chill and sit still
Committed to page, I write rhymes
Sometimes won't finish for days
Scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature
I mathematically add-minister
Subtract the wack
Selector, wheel it back, I'm feeling that
From the core to the perimeter black,
You know the motto
Stay fluid even in staccato

 

Derrick Weston Brown's Biography

Information about Nine on the Ninth, the poetry series hosted by Derrick Weston Brown

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Capitalism's Global Slump

By Ashley Smith
The Socialist Worker
March 7, 2011

A new book provides a framework for understanding the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression--and the opportunities for revolutionaries, writes Ashley Smith.

IN LATE 2008, our rulers panicked. With the spectacular crash of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, they were seized with the fear of the possible collapse of the global financial system. As George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson confessed, "I'm worried about the world falling apart."

But today, the bankers and capitalists seem to have recovered their gravity-defying hubris. Wall Street firms handed out record bonuses at the start of the year--and big business cheerleader-in-chief Barak Obama boasted in his State of the Union Address, "We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever know, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."

Don't believe the hype. The crisis has not ended, but mutated. The governments of the world spent trillions of dollars to bail out banks and corporations, essentially transferring their bad debts and losses onto government ledgers. In some countries, this caused a sovereign debt crisis that could lead to defaulting on their debt.

To get themselves out of this trap and balance their budgets, governments everywhere have launched massive austerity programs. They are slashing public workers' wages and benefits, gutting social programs, raising the retirement age to lower the cost of social security, and scapegoating the oppressed to divide and conquer any opposition. The only success story among the world's major economies, China, is plagued with overcapacity, speculative bubbles on the stock market, and rampant inflation.

Review: Books


David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. PM Press, 2011, 230 pages, $17.

Canadian socialist David McNally's new book Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance, brilliantly explains the roots and nature of this new epoch of crisis, capitalist austerity and working-class resistance.

In an accessible and witty style, he uses Karl Marx's theory of crisis to explain the arc of world capitalism from the long boom after the Second World War to today's slump. He also develops a perspective that can guide the revolutionary socialist left to build forces in the thick of emerging struggles for reform and eventual revolution.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
McNALLY ARGUES that booms and crises are rooted in the dynamics of competitive exploitation at the heart of the system. Capitalists, in order to out-compete their rivals, invest in plant, machinery and technology to increase productivity so workers make more products that can be sold at a cheaper price. This generates a boom for a period of time, but soon, rivals catch up. Worse, since they are investing more in technology than in living labor, which is the source of profit, their rate of profit goes down.
Crises then break out. Corporations have built too many factories, producing too many products that they can't be sold at a high enough rate of return. Such crises of overproduction and declining profit rates can only be overcome when capital can rid itself of some of the overaccumulation--by cheapening the cost of plant and machinery and driving down the cost of living labor. When that's accomplished, the cycle repeats again.

In ageing capitalism, however, crises take on a different character. To restore growth, the actions taken during crises must be more destructive to clear out space for renewed expansion. For example, it took the Second World War to restore growth after the Great Depression.

But fearful of the gravity of such deep crises, national states now step in to protect companies from failing, thus preventing the destruction of overaccumulated capital. "The result," McNally argues, "is a stretching out of the crisis--by making it longer, if less severe. In short, by inhibiting the destruction of capital, recessions are made less brutal--but also less effective."

Based on this theory, McNally explains how the postwar boom turned into crisis in the 1970s. The Second World War had laid waste to Germany and Japan, as well as large parts of Europe. Therefore, capitalism was able to sustain a prolonged boom from the end of the war up to the early 1970s. By then, the rise of Japan and Germany as economic rivals to the U.S. triggered another crisis of overproduction and declining rates of profit.

All the governments responded with policies known as Keynesian that typically revolve around increased government spending to stimulate demand and investment. Keynesians, according to McNally, wrongly think that crises are rooted in capitalist's psychological fear of inadequate returns. If state investment is substituted for them, then it can trigger another expansion in the economy.

The Keynesians are wrong theoretically--crises are rooted in the system itself, not in the bosses' mindset. The proof was in what happened in the 1970s--state spending merely triggered an inflationary spiral and poor growth rates, described at the time as "stagflation."

To get out of a massive global crisis, the ruling classes, especially in the U.S., turned to quite different policies, which came to be known by the term "neoliberalism." This meant letting the free market rip, by implementing deregulation and privatization, and shredding social welfare system. The face of neoliberalism on a world scale was globalization, where more powerful countries battered their way into markets in the less developed world.

McNally argues that ruling classes used three strategies to cheapen capital and labor in this era. First, they shut down factories and turned to lean production techniques that lowered the cost of plant and machinery. Second, they smashed unions in the advanced capitalist world. Third, carrying out what Marx called "primitive accumulation," they dispossessed peasants in the developing world, driving them into the cities as cheap labor.

As a result of these measures, McNally argues, the capitalist class was able to overcome the crisis of the 1970s and trigger a period of expansion from the early 1980s until 2007 in the advanced capitalist world and sections of developing world, especially around China in Northeast Asia. The neoliberal boom tripled the size of the world economy.

McNally's argument is an important correction to Robert Brenner, Alex Callinicos and the late Chris Harman, who have claimed that the world economy has suffered a long downturn since the 1970s. These authors argue that capitalism in the neoliberal period pales in comparison to the robustness of the postwar boom.

But as McNally shows, the postwar expansion was exceptional in the history of capitalism, and when you instead compare the neoliberal period to other periods of capitalist expansion, it matches their rates of growth and profitability.

McNally also counters other radicals who suggest that the neoliberal expansion was merely the product of speculative bubbles or the casino economy on Wall Street created by what economics call financialization.

He also rejects Marxists like Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy, who believe that finance capital effectively carried out a coup to take control of the state and thus deregulate the free market in its interests.

The problem with such conceptions is that they can lead their supporters to tail Keynesianism, with its case that there is no systemic cause of capitalist crisis, and that financial regulation can solve the current crisis.

Instead, McNally shows how financialization is rooted in the problems of the system itself. It was an unintended consequence of the 1970s crisis, it enabled the neoliberal expansion and it then exacerbated the crisis.

How? From 1946 to 1971, countries backed their currencies with gold. But as the U.S. increasingly imported products from abroad, its competitors built up enormous dollar reserves that the U.S. could no longer back with its own gold. Nixon therefore abandoned the gold standard, allowing currencies to change in value, or "float," against one another. From this point on, finance capital found ways to speculate on currency movements. Deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s and '90s was a matter of government policy catching up to reality, rather than policy causing the speculation.

As a result, finance capital became the predominant section of American capital, garnering 41 percent of U.S. profits in 2007. By then, these profits were no longer underpinned by growth in the real economy.

THE NEOLIBERAL boom came with enormous social costs. The capitalist class impoverished workers in the advanced capitalist world. "In the U.S.," McNally writes, "real wages were 15 percent lower by 1993 than they had been in 1978."

McNally pays particular attention to racist dynamics of this class war on workers. In the U.S., he tracks how, as the U.S. cut social programs, it turned to prisons to jail its racialized "surplus" population.

Finance capital turned to what he calls "predatory inclusion" by pushing credit cards not only on workers as a whole, but particularly on impoverished people of color. Banks abandoned racist practices of redlining and entrapped people of color in sub-prime loans.

In the Global South, the predatory nature of the neoliberal boom has been even more dramatic. McNally shows how the U.S., through the IMF, imposed structural adjustment policies on indebted countries, privatizing state industry, gutting the welfare state and opening them up to multinational capital.

Neoliberal agricultural policies opened countries to imperialist agribusiness, whose subsidized products undercut local agriculture, driving peasants off the land to become a source of cheap labor in their own countries, or abroad as migrant workers, where they suffer from xenophobia and racial oppression.

The neoliberal boom fell prey to the classic contradictions of capitalism and turned into a bust in 2007. By the mid-1990s, the boom had produced overcapacity and an orgy of speculation centered in one of the new areas of growth--Asia. The crisis in Asia starting in 1997 was a sign that the neoliberal boom was coming to an end.

Since then, McNally argues, the advanced capitalist world engaged in increased financial speculation, first in high-tech and then real estate. Growth in the real economy was restricted to China, Northeast Asia and countries like Brazil, which mainly supplied commodities to the Asian boom.

But financial speculation could only delay the day of reckoning until 2007, when the combination of overproduction and declining rates of profits popped the mortgage bubble and threatened to bring down the world banking system.

While national states have been able to bail out the financial system and prevent collapse, they have not been able to restore growth. Instead, because they saved the "too-big-to-fail" corporations and banks, they have been unable to clear out the overaccumulated capital and restore the rate of profit.

The world economy is thus mired in what McNally calls a slump. "Rather than describing a single crisis," he writes, "the term is meant to capture a whole period of interconnected crises--the bursting of a real estate bubble; a wave of bank collapses; a series of sovereign debt crises; relapses into recession--that goes on for years without a sustained economic recovery."

Until capital is able rid itself of the overaccumulation, cheapen the cost of capital goods again, and drive down the cost of labor even further, it won't be able to generate another boom.

McNally argues that capital and their states are determined to find a way out of the slump through austerity. "Our rulers," he writes, "hope to soften us up for 'a decade of pain'--a period of high unemployment, falling incomes and huge cuts to health care, education and social welfare programs."

What little recovery we have now is a result of this class war. As McNally reformulates a quip by Lawrence Summers, "We have statistical recovery because we have a human recession."

AT THE same time, however, the crisis is producing the hope of resistance. McNally recounts some of the highlights of class fightback, from the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation in Chicago, to the U.S. immigrant rights movement, to the heroic struggles in Bolivia, to the teachers' revolt in Oaxaca, Mexico, the victorious general strike in Guadeloupe and Martinique, and the wave of strikes in Europe.
To this, we can now add the revolutions that have erupted in North Africa and the Middle East against U.S.-backed tyrants and their neoliberal policies that have impoverished the working class and dispossessed the peasantry. And now, in the U.S. itself, the uprising against union-busting and austerity in Wisconsin, and its echoes in protests around the country.

McNally calls for socialists to throw themselves into these struggles. He emphasizes how neoliberalism has undermined, in a term adopted from Canadian socialist Alan Sears, "organized structures of dissent." The ruling class has smashed up unions and broken apart mass organizations of the oppressed, while benefiting from the NGO-ization of much of the left.

The task of socialists therefore is to help build struggles for reform, forge new organizations to sustain resistance and--in the middle of that process--organize new revolutionary socialist parties that fight for a whole new society that ends the reign of capital and establishes workers' democracy.

One significant missing element in this otherwise brilliant book is the question of the relation of the economy to world imperialism--the competition between capitalist states for the division and redivision of the world system. This absence weakens McNally's explanation of the postwar boom. He argues that the great boom was largely the result of the destruction wrought by the Second World War. That of course was a factor, but is insufficient to explain the persistence and length of the boom.

A host of Marxists, including British socialists Tony Cliff, Michael Kidron and Chris Harman, developed an explanation--the permanent arms economy--that showed how military competition between the U.S. and state capitalist Russia was at the root of the boom.

During the Cold War, both states diverted surplus into arms production that would have otherwise been ploughed back into investment in plant and machinery for producing capital and consumer goods. As a result, the world system averted the problem of overaccumulation and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall up until the early 1970s. By then, states like Germany and Japan, which were under the umbrella of the U.S. and did not spend much on military production, had caught up with the U.S. by investing in plant and machinery, generating a classic crisis of overaccumulation and declining profit rates.

McNally also doesn't take the impact of the slump on the dynamics of imperialism in the current period. He does refer to increased competition between countries as they attempt to export their way out of the crisis, but never develops the point. Other Marxists like Alex Callinicos and Joel Geier have pointed out that the crisis is likely to sharpen the antagonisms between the world's capitalist states--most obviously, the U.S. and its main rising competitor China.

Some authors like Dilip Hiro contend we are witnessing an emerging multipolar world order. We have already seen the failure of the main capitalist states to coordinate economic policy as they have turned to beggar-thy-neighbor policies to protect their own capital. Add to this increasing competition over resources, especially oil, and we can see the prospects of increased inter-imperial conflict in the system.
Besides this missing discussion of imperialism, McNally has written an invaluable book for a new generation of radicals and Marxists looking to understand the system, why it doesn't work and how we can transform it. Everyone should buy, read, and discuss this book as part of rebuilding a fighting socialist left around the world today.

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Michael Moorcock's Modem Times 2.0 is a good introduction to the literary legend

By Joe Gross
The Statesman
April 3, 2011

It's fitting that Michael Moorcock's house seems to exist in four dimensions and is weirdly tough to get to.

First, GoogleMaps completely blows the directions to Bastrop, failing to mention an overpass.

Then, the entrance to Moorcock's house bears a perpendicular relationship to the street address, the result of an L-shaped lot that dates to when the legendary English writer bought the house in 1994 with his American wife, Linda Steele.

Partially because it's confusing and partially because I'm an idiot, I practically circle the place before I find the door. The cat does not look too impressed.

It's fitting because Moorcock, 71, is one of the preeminent fantasists of his age, having given the world everything from the iconic anti-hero Elric to the immortal/immoral anarcho-terrorist Jerry Cornelius, to the wretched and completely unreliable Col. Pyat.

As the editor of the English literary magazine New Worlds, Moorcock midwifed science fiction's transition between the Golden Age and the new wave, making a home for such avant-garde writers as J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and Norman Spinrad.

It's impossible to imagine generations of writers without Moorcock, from Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman to China Mieville. (Heck, it's impossible to imagine something like Dungeons and Dragons without Moorcock's Eternal Champion books.)

He made records with Hawkwind and won acclaim for such mainstream novels as Mother London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. A 2010 anthology of his nonfiction, Into the Media Web, spans fifty years, 300,000 words and 720 pages, and weighs 4.5 pounds.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and, well, at least be a bit intimidated at his productivity and his imagination. It really is something else.

But if you have no idea who the man is, his most recent book is not a bad introduction.

Modem Times 2.0 is an entry in PM Press' "Outspoken Authors" series and comprises an appropriately baffling and non-linear Jerry Cornelius short story (slightly revised from a story published in 2008); the essay "My Londons," a clear-eyed reflection on Moorcock's life in that most iconic of cities; and an interview with Moorcock conducted by series editor Terry Bisson. (You might know Bisson from his excellent alternate-history novel Fire on the Mountain; if you don't, you should.) PM Press also is slated to reissue Moorcock's Pyat Quartet starting in March 2012.

Cornelius isn't Moorcock's most famous character, but perhaps he is the most flexible, which is saying something for a writer famous for leaving himself an awful lot of room for multiple meanings (or no meaning at all).

The blurring of high and low art, and a mix of science fiction, fantasy and avant-garde literature, has been a through-line in Moorcock's singular career.

"The Cornelius stuff wasn't published as sci-fi in England," Moorcock says. "One of the frustrating things about America for me is the tendency to isolate anything that has any pretensions to address a grown-up audience and start slotting it into a special category, like calling an English TV version of ‘I, Claudius,' ‘Masterpiece Theatre.' There's a division between, let's call them, intellectuals and the public in this country that is so much greater than it is in Europe. It's much harder to find an ordinary, common cultural level."

Is Cornelius a hipper-than-thou secret agent, indulging in every vice? Is he an adolescent fantasy? All of this and more. Cornelius is where Moorcock's head goes when events warrant.

"If things in the world get too painful, I start to automatically default into Jerry Cornelius," Moorcock says. "For example, I'm writing a Cornelius story right now that has to do with the various uprisings in the Middle East, but it's not set there, which is pretty typical for that character. I try to find angles of attack that aren't the normal angles. He's less a character than a literary device."

Well, that's certainly true. The Cornelius books are less sci-fi than experimental fiction—more in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon or William S. Burroughs than, say, Isaac Asimov. Often made up of seemingly disconnected paragraphs, they work as much by juxtaposition as anything else.

"I don't like to deal with the event head-on," Moorcock says. "If you don't, it perhaps broadens the subject. Sometimes it doesn't work—this is an on-going experiment—but when it works, a Cornelius story should be able to give a few different angles on world events."

Right now, Moorcock is enmeshed in The Whispering Swarm, the first book in the planned "Sanctuary of the White Friar" trilogy.

"I'm not sure if I really should be working on trilogies at my age," Moorcock laughs, "but this one is essentially an autobiographical novel with a very heavy fantasy element."

Whispering Swarm
is about London, but a London with a key difference. "There was a part of London called Alsatia that was a sanctuary for those who had broken the law," Moorcock says. Located between the River Thames and Fleet Street, and including the Whitefriars monastery, Alsatia held the sanctuary privilege (and a certain measure of lawlessness) for centuries before being dissolved by Parliament in 1697.

It's an extremely attractive idea, and Moorcock imagines it has continued to the present. But he adds that the book is autobiography, mostly. "I'm trying to look at the ways I used escapism at crucial moments in my life, my two previous marriages, for example," he said. "Whether I used escape routes and how I used them."

There isn't a publication date yet — "It isn't scheduled because I'm only a third of the way through the bastard" — but may he live to finish it and a dozen more, on this Earth and others.

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