Cody Blackbird Band plays Atascadero's Last Stage West for "water protectors"

Artists perform “Alter-Native” rock ‘n blues fusion in support of Sioux Nation

Caleb Blackbird, Tanner Scott, Cody Blackbird and Taino Torres at Last Stage West (photo Jordan Elgrably).

Caleb Blackbird, Tanner Scott, Cody Blackbird and Taino Torres at Last Stage West (photo Jordan Elgrably).

Nov. 11, 2016, A-Town Daily News

Native American flutist and band leader Cody Blackbird (Eastern Band Cherokee, Lakota) is not alone in his support of the protestors in North Dakota, who are concerned over the adverse environmental affects of the $3.78 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (#NODAPL). In fact, he’s part of a groundswell of international support for the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock, and will donate proceeds from a benefit concert this Sunday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m. (tix $60/$70 door, include buffet dinner and three bands from 5 p.m.) at Last Stage West, 15050 Morro Road, Atascadero CA 93422. If you haven’t been there, Last Stage West, halfway between Atascadero and Morro Bay off Highway 41, is a music venue, barbecue emporium and all-around honky tonk.

As it happens, November is Native American Heritage Month, and everyone is welcome to the concert.

The Cody Blackbird Band has been touring the United States and internationally in Japan, Australia and elsewhere with their new recording, “All In,” which has received kudos from an array of music stars, among them Beyoncé’s lead guitarist, Bibi McGill, who says, “Not only is Cody Blackbird an incredible Native flute player, but I love how he blends the Native sound with blues and classic rock.” Kenny Lee Lewis, a Steve Miller Band member for years, describes “All In” as a mixture of “jam-bandy acoustic, campfire ignition mixed with guttural, honest vocalizations and prose peppered with traditional Native American flute melodies.”

Blackbird began playing the Native American flute at the age of eight. His father, American Indian cowboy poet and musician Thomas Blackbird, worked for the government with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, so the family was often on the road. Blackbird says now, “As a kid I was really hyperactive (I was diagnosed with ADHD), and the only thing that would get me to sleep at night was traditional ceremonial songs and flute music. Those were what calmed me. Eventually I grew to love the instrument and wanted to play… I spent my teen years falling love with it and playing constantly. When I was younger, my dad would take it away from me because I wouldn’t do my homework.”

The Native American flute has a history going back some 2,500 years, but it became something of a lost art. Notes R. Carlos Nakai, “In the years of official suppression of native culture, the use of the flute was lost by many tribes and continued as a small part of the tribal cultures in which it remained.”

Cody Blackbird is among a younger generation of indigenous Americans who are reviving the instrument. He says, “It was lost for a time and then brought back by people like Hawk Littlejohn, a very well-known maker of Native American flutes who re-popularized them. He was also a friend of my father’s. For me it’s very much about carrying on the tradition and keeping it fresh, so that maybe people who aren’t persuaded by their own traditional music might see it in a new light.”

Blackbird describes his music as “Alter-Native” fusion. He is the Cody Blackbird Band’s lead vocalist and winner of three Native American Music Awards for his work on the flute. In addition to original compositions he’s written, Blackbird performs covers, including songs by Richie Valens, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Blackbird says that there is a comfortable milieu of crossover performing and sharing between American singer-songwriters and Native American musicians. “It’s totally shared, which is really cool. A lot of people don’t see that sometimes behind the scenes you have Caucasian non-Native artists who are in the mainstream who have been doing it for a long time. Many have been up to Standing Rock, lending their support and doing cross-cultural projects. I’m working right now in connecting the Flandreau Indian School with Paul Winter, who’s a seven-time Grammy Award-winning saxophone player and for a long time has been lending his support to Native causes specifically. Another example is Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; we did the Black Hills Unity Concert together, which has been part of his vision and other tribal leaders and musicians alike who envisioned this concert of unity in the Black Hills of South Dakota and shared the bill there with Arlo Guthrie, Buffy St. Marie—that itself has been a catalyst of indigenous and non-indigenous artists coming together, big name national and smaller regional acts.”

Native American and international protesters at the Sacred Stones Camp in North Dakota (photo courtesy of Sacred Stone Camp).

Native American and international protesters at the Sacred Stones Camp in North Dakota (photo courtesy of Sacred Stone Camp).

In fact, many Americans want to connect with First Nation cultures, as evidenced by the sales of novels by popular writers like Sherman Alexie, Louis Erdrich and others, and by the solidarity that Native American causes routinely receive in non-Native communities—not that we necessarily know that much about Native Americans. In his book Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, author Paul Chaat Smith writes “although we are imagined as primitive and simple, we’re actually anything but.” A curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, Chaat Smith quotes 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt as saying “the Indian experience is an ocean of terrifying complexity” and adds, “the Indian experience, imagined to be largely in the past and in any case at the margins, is in fact central to world history.”

Activists from around the world, including Palestine, are expressing solidarity with the water protectors (photo courtesy Mondoweiss.net).

Activists from around the world, including Palestine, are expressing solidarity with the water protectors (photo courtesy Mondoweiss.net).

We can see that now, with people arriving from around the world to camp out in solidarity with the Sioux Nation protesters at Standing Rock. Writing the other day in Salon, NPR producer Sandy Tolan noted that Standing Rock protesters, who call themselves the “water protectors,” have come from “Indian lands across the Dakotas; from 300 North American tribal nations; from Jamaica, Central America, Norway, the United Kingdom, France and Japan.” The water protectors have also received support from Palestinian solidarity activists at Standing Rock.

The Cody Blackbird Band will perform a one-hour set on Sunday, including songs from “All In” as well as a new song they’ve been working on since they were last at Standing Rock, titled “Where Were You?”

From Atascadero the band will eventually head north to Portland where on Nov. 27th they’ll perform a Stand With Standing Rock concert on the same day that their friends Jackson Browne and Dave Matthews perform concerts in North Dakota and Washington, DC respectively.

“I’ve always pledged to dedicate as much time as humanly possible to environmental issues and clean water,” Blackbird says, “issues that affect all humankind.”

Cody Blackbird Band at Last Stage West, 15050 Morro Road, Atascadero CA 93422. Call (805) 461-1393.

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature?

For the first time ever a singer/songwriter wins Nobel Prize for his lyrics, but is it “literature”?

Bob Dylan today.

Bob Dylan today.

Oct. 17, 2016, Paso Robles Daily News

For the first time in the history of the Swedish Academy, a singer-songwriter has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of the 113 recipients of the prize, 33 poets have been recognized, among them William Butler Yeats, Rabindragath Tagore, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Joseph Brodsky. But never before has a popular figure in the field of music won for his lyrics.

On Thursday, Professor Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced Bob Dylan, 75, as the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, and said he had been chosen “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Reached for comment Iranian American poet Sholeh Wolpé, who sometimes performs her poetry with live musicians, said, “I was pleasantly surprised, because I thought to myself ‘yes, of course—in every culture, poetry began as song.'”

San Luis Obispo’s Poet Laureate, Marguerite Costigan, was pleased. “You know,” she said, “I once heard someone opine that in the future, because of all our technological advances, all that would be left of modern literature would be Bob Dylan, and I agreed with that. It doesn’t surprise me that they gave the prize to a lyricist.”

Said Kevin Patrick Sullivan, cofounder of the 33-year-old San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, held every November, “I thought Dylan getting the Nobel was extremely cool. His songs are like poems and he has a massive body of work—and all his work is good. For me, the lyrics are what’s important in a Bob Dylan song. I’m intrigued by the language and what he’s saying.”

Not everyone is elated at this surprising news. Commenting in The Telegraph of London, historian Tim Stanley suggests that “a world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.” Stanley wrote, “If the Nobel Committees can give a peace prize to Henry Kissinger then it can give a literature prize to a man who hasn’t written any literature.”

Ben Shaletz, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, suggests that Bob Dylan’s genius isn’t so much his writing as his musicianship. And Arab-British journalist Khaled Diab noted, “Now that Bob Dylan has won a Nobel in literature, it’s high time for Philip Roth to be awarded a Grammy.”

Slate’s critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf agrees that Dylan is a musician, not a poet.

Bob Dylan is a genius, and for his genius, he’s been rewarded in every way; with fame, money, acclaim. He deserves all of it, but he doesn’t deserve the Nobel. It may be that Dylan’s claim to posterity will be larger than Murakami’s or Roth’s (or Wilbur’s or Didion’s), but that isn’t what is at issue in awarding the highest prize in literature to a pop musician. The objection here hinges in the definition of the word literature. You wouldn’t give the literary prize to an economist or a political saint. You shouldn’t give it to Bob Dylan.

While Bob Dylan is the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison won for fiction, in 1993, he may not be the last lyricist in our digital age to receive the honor. After all, the times they are a-changin.

Are Muslims the New Blacks? “Native Believer” Rips Open the Post-9/11 World

THERE WAS A TIME when to be Muslim in the United States was a curiosity, something of intrigue. One would ask amiable questions about the religion, just as you might inquire about the belief system of, say, Buddhism or Taoism. I remember as a college freshman meeting an Egyptian American named Amr whose loudmouth political statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rubbed me the wrong way. He was an Arab and a Muslim and therefore, I thought, utterly exotic, but certainly not someone to fear — one did not fear Muslims in those days.

After we got over our months-long objections to one another, with our particular narratives and cultural differences (I was French-Moroccan and Jewish and thus, exotic to him), Amr invited me over to his house to meet his family, his mother, father, and younger sister, where we sat down to a typical Egyptian meal. They were warmhearted, funny, and friendly. Their home was decorated in the Arab-Islamic style, with elaborate calligraphy on paintings and book covers, Egyptian Ottoman poufs, an Egyptian couch with cylinder armrests, mashrabiya and mother-of-pearl side tables, and antique Damascene inlaid brass platters. It was a beautiful home, and I felt completely welcome.

This was long before 9/11, after which prototypical terrorists replaced the old Soviet bogeyman as public enemy number one. Suddenly, to be Muslim in the United States was to have your loyalty questioned by association — as if overnight, Arabs/Muslims were the US’s fifth column.

Ali Eteraz

Ali Eteraz

In his debut novel Native Believer, Ali Eteraz explores the post-9/11 landscape in an elegant narrative set in today’s Philadelphia, where we are introduced to a “mixed” couple: a born-in-the-USA husband we know only as M. (Mohammed? Moustafa?) and a well-to-do Southern belle named Marie-Anne. The stakes in this relationship are raised early on as we learn that the tall, buxom Marie-Anne is officially estranged from her beautiful mother for having married “out” — though her father seems not to mind M. and in fact has taken a liking to him. M.’s parents, meanwhile, are liberal, secular Muslims who don’t so much as object to Marie-Anne’s breeding as fear that “it was a risky thing for a non-white to marry a white.” But we are left to wonder throughout the novel just how “non-white” M. is, and how analogous his identity might be to that of African Americans, who cannot hide their ethnicity, any more than M. can pass.

M., who tells this story in the first person, positions himself as not-quite-all-American culturally, and yet he claims to know nothing else — he is of this land and never says whether he’s of Arab, Western, or South Asian heritage. His library contains German classics by Nietzsche and Goethe, as well as a small, portable Qur’an given to him by his mother, which he has never read. M. and Marie-Anne’s life together is challenged when M. is summarily laid off, without much of an explanation, apparently because his boss, realizing he was of Muslim heritage, felt he didn’t fit in. “I have a different vision for the kind of culture I want to incubate here,” he says. The remote boss, who will be a character in the wings throughout the novel, uses words like “democratic” and “advocate” as if to suggest that M. cannot quite embody the right American values in the firm. And that is the crux of this novel — can a Muslim be an American like any other citizen? Of course, you say as the reader, why not? The United States is a kaleidoscope of cultures, a glittering mosaic of identities. To be American is not simply to be a Euro-American Christian. And Eteraz’s writing sparkles with so much wit and invention that we immediately and completely embrace his characters as if they were neighbors, without reserve.

Yet something dark roils under the surface of Native Believer, an injustice certainly in the loss of his job — one harbors little doubt that his dismissal is caused by anti-Muslim sentiment — but also M.’s fragmented, troubled identity as an American whose parents are Muslim but who also has no cultural memories that bind him to their past. You are free to reinvent the definition of what it means to be American and Muslim, the reader thinks while appreciating M.’s valued friendship with a Jewish-American attorney, who wants him to take his former boss to court. Indeed, I found myself rooting for M. throughout most of the narrative, thinking, This is someone I could talk to, an educated, reflective person.

“When the towers fell,” M. reflects,

I simply attested to myself that I wasn’t a Muslim — There’s no known god, nor is there an unknown god, and if there must be a god, then all are god — and moved on from any feeling of complicity or guilt or involvement. I decided that I was nothing but a millennial […]

But let’s face it: to be Muslim in the United States after 9/11 means that you’re not just like everyone else, you’re not just another millennial. You’re suspect. You’re randomly searched at airports. You’re kicked off airplanes for speaking Arabic. You’re thrown out of restaurants for wearing a hijab. You’re likely the victim of government surveillance.

¤

As Moustafa Bayoumi framed it in the title of his 2008 book, based on interviews with young Arab Muslims, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? He noted that profiling of Arabs/Muslims went well beyond law enforcement. “Arab and Muslim Americans are now routinely profiled in their places of employment, in housing, for public-opinion polls, and in the media.”

Not that discrimination is anything new to this country. The United States has been proficient at making “others” the problem, going back to the slaughter of Native Americans and the treatment of African Americans under slavery, followed by the Jim Crow laws, and now the “new Jim Crow” reality (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) in which almost every week you hear about another black male killed by the police — but almost never hear that the shooting constituted murder and the officer got a prison sentence.

Americans found no shortage of “others” to hate during the first half of the 20th century, from the Japanese Americans we put into concentration camps at Manzanar to shutting out the Irish and the Mexicans. Not so long ago, signs in Texas read “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans” [sic] while signs on the beach in Miami as late as the 1950s read “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.”

As I write this, we’re marking not only the 15th anniversary of 9/11 but also the 45th anniversary of the prison uprising at Attica, which Dr. Heather Ann Thompson uncovers in her groundbreaking new book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Her research and interviews explore how the prison uprising and subsequent state-sponsored massacre by troopers and correctional officers on September 13, 1971 underpin today’s oppressive prison industry, because the State of New York managed to portray Attica’s prisoners, many of whom were members of the Nation of Islam or were other prisoners of color, as violent animals who had to be put down. For decades now, prison authorities have based decisions on the lie that mostly African-American prisoners had killed Attica hostages, when in fact the 39 deaths that day were directly attributable to the actions of the officers ordered to shoot to kill by New York’s then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. The memory of Attica has perpetuated the myth among law enforcement officers that Blacks are likely to be violent and should therefore be feared.

Muslims are not quite the new Blacks in terms of how they are treated by law enforcement — they are not being shot dead at the same rate — but there is little doubt that hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims have shot up astronomically after 9/11. Each time there is a major news story about extremism in the Middle East or Europe, or a crazed shooter in the United States turns out to be Muslim, average American Muslims suffer the backlash.

Eteraz is but one of many young American writers exploring this troubled territory. Others include the playwrights Yussef El Guindi, Ayad Akhtar, Nathalie Handal, Betty Shamieh, Mona Mansour, and Lameece Issaq; novelists Rabih Alameddine, Mohja Kahf, Randa Jarrar, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Naomi Shihab Nye; and creative nonfiction writers Mir Tamim Ansary, Evelyn Alsultany, Reza Aslan, and Moustafa Bayoumi.

Bayoumi has continued to explore the condition of being Muslim and American in his latest book, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, which just won a 2016 Arab American Book Award. The essays in the book don’t pull any punches and make for a companion volume to Native Believer. The war on terror runs on a murderous prophylactic logic: kill them not for what they have done or what they are doing, but for what they might do, if we don’t get to them first.

This may sound like a line from Minority Report — the Philip K. Dick–inspired film from Steven Spielberg in which ordinary people are targeted for extinction based on their thoughts or criminal fantasies. But these words could be spoken by Obama Administration officials in the CIA, State Department, and White House to justify American drone assassination policies of the last seven years, in which we’ve bombed military-aged males (MAMs) suspected of nefarious activity in seven Muslim countries. Some of the dead were American citizens. This is in part what Moustafa Bayoumi refers to as “this Muslim American life”:

This idea that you are seen not as a complex human being but only as a purveyor of possible future violence illustrates the extraordinary predicament of the heart of contemporary Muslim American life. To be a Muslim American today is to be full of potential, and not in the sweet way that grandmothers and elementary school teachers use the word.

Native Believer makes you believe in this potential because M. is well-read and articulate, yet at the same time, he comes to the realization that, “as long as you had a Muslim name you were presumed to be a believer. Your name was your blood and your blood was your faith.” Your name was your fate.

Ask yourself how you would feel being inextricably identified with the religion of your parents or grandparents, with say evangelical Christians, Bible-thumping Baptists, or Orthodox Jews? Or even just mild Unitarians? And even then you can’t imagine what M. or Bayoumi are talking about, because to be Muslim isn’t just to be a practicing or unaffiliated member of a religion. As Marie-Anne says to her freshly laid-off husband, “You can’t even be yourself.”

Eteraz is suggesting that if you happen to be Muslim, it isn’t possible to be comfortable in your own skin. “Trying to hide who we are doesn’t work,” he writes, “because nowadays everything is about identity, and we have been identified.”

Native Believer explores a range of Muslim identities, particularly when the unemployed and aimless M.’s life goes adrift. He meets a thirtysomething pornographer named Ali Ansari, who introduces him to an unfamiliar world of hip young Muslims, bicultural Americans who are into new music and contemporary culture but who remain attached to Islamic ritual and tradition (they pray, they drink, they have sex, but they don’t eat pork). By way of reference, you might want to sit down and watch the film version of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores, which explores a fictitious Islamic punk rock scene. It reminds one of the new generation of young Muslim Americans — Pakistani, Indian, Arab, North African — who are now gravitating to the spoken word–writing movement organized by a New York–based group called the Muslim Writers Collective, who have begun publishing books themselves in what is the beginning of a growing American Muslim literary movement.

While 15 years have passed since 9/11, and Ali Eteraz has plenty to say that doesn’t concern what happened in Manhattan that day, its infamy is never far from the Muslim-American mind. M.’s compeer Ali talks about it at length in a nearly unforgettable soliloquy:

Those towers went down and suddenly everyone starting pinning their gripes on a thing called a Muslim. The word became synonymous with devil. With every goddam evil thing America has fought. I’m surprised they didn’t compare Muslim to imaginary villains. Never mind, they did that too, like when they made the hordes of Mordor look like Muslims, or when that bastard Frank Miller made the pre-Islamic Persians look like Muslims. And the rest of the world fell in line with this new game. If you’re Indian, pissed off about Pakistan complaining about your occupation of Kashmir? Hey, just call them Muslims and get them declared a terrorist state. If you’re Israeli and you don’t want to release an inch of the West Bank to the Palestinians? Hey, just call them Muslims and you don’t have to move your tanks. If you’re Russian, struggling with a bunch of Chechens telling you to stop raping their women? Hey, just call them Muslim and blow them to bits. If you’re Chinese and struggling with a bunch of poor Uighur demanding some respect from the Han? Hey, just call them Muslim and jail all their leaders. If you’re European and you’ve got millions of illiterate Turks and Moroccans and Algerians and Libyans who you didn’t allow to become citizens for decades? Hey, just call them Muslim and declare them Fascist or lazy or criminal or all of the above. And if you’re American and you want to fly around the world and bomb the boogers out of countries that object to you taking their oil and resources? Hey, just call them Muslim and go to town.

At the end of the day, you wonder if being Muslim in the United States today is akin to being an African American during the 1960s, or a Jew in Europe during the 1930s when, as Sartre suggested in his landmark work Anti-Semite and Jew, with oppression comes the need to belong to one’s hated group.

The more they hate you, the more Muslim you become?

I always objected to Sartre’s thinking that as a Jew your very existence was determined by those who despised you. But isn’t it another form of the yin-and-yang equation — two qualities which are after all complementary and which cannot exist without each other?

Native Believer is a page-turning contemporary fiction that addresses burning issues about the very essence of identity, and without question Ali Eteraz is a writer’s writer, one whose ear for the English language is just as acute as fellow naturalized Americans Vladimir Nabokov (born in Russia) or Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam). But this Pakistani-born American novelist concludes his tale with a climactic piece of drama that I felt was out of character for M. — as if to suggest that being Muslim somehow commits you to inexplicable acts. Almost as if to say that being American commits us to the inexorable sins of empire.

¤

Jordan Elgrably’s previous review for LARB discussed Aris Janigian’s novel Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont.

This Is Not a Democracy

How the Sanders-Clinton Contest in California Failed Voters


Truthdig  By Jordan Elgrably

Bernie Sanders inspired millions of Americans this year and became stiff competition for Hillary Clinton’s bid to become our next president. He was the only candidate who seriously addressed the growing income inequality in this country, referring to the Wall Street bailouts and the incredible tax breaks and loop holes enjoyed by the very wealthy and large corporations, who either fail to pay their fare share of taxes, or pay no taxes at all. (Indeed, a March 2016 USA Today report found that 27 “giant profitable companies,” among them General Motors, paid zero taxes in 2015.)

Hillary and Bill Clinton regularly vacation with the Kissingers, and she has awarded "herself the Kissinger seal of approval" as Secretary of State "to bolster her standing as a competent diplomat and government official." (photo by Gero Breloer/AP in Mother Jones)

Hillary and Bill Clinton regularly vacation with the Kissingers, and she has awarded "herself the Kissinger seal of approval" as Secretary of State "to bolster her standing as a competent diplomat and government official." (photo by Gero Breloer/AP in Mother Jones)

It is probable that a Sanders win in California would have made a difference in the national contest. Yet while millions of voters turned out for Senator Sanders across the nation, millions of our votes in California were never counted. In case you thought voter suppression went out in the year 2000 when we had “hanging chads” in Florida’s Gore-Bush contest, I have bad news for you: voter suppression is still in full swing.

First, as of Thursday, June 9, more than 2.5 million votes in California had yet to be counted, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office. A full accounting of those ballots will not be completed until the end of June at the earliest, yet Hillary Clinton has already been announced as the unchallenged winner in California’s Democratic Primary.

Second, there are a staggering 4.2 million independent, “No Party Preference” or NPP voters in California. As you can imagine, many of them would be voting for Senator Sanders, who for years represented his Vermont constituents as an independent, progressive and even socialist politician whose loyalty to his ideals for social justice came before any party loyalty. Yet according to investigative journalist Greg Palast, writing for NationofChange.org, “In some counties like Los Angeles, it’s not easy for an NPP to claim their right to vote in the Democratic primary — and in other counties, nearly impossible.”

Palast found that unless NPP voters who wanted to vote for Sanders asked for a “crossover ballot” at their polling place, their normal NPP ballot would automatically not include the presidential race. Noted poll worker Mimi Kennedy, "NPP voters who relied on vote-by-mail were sent the NPP ballot by default that had no presidential choices on it. They could avoid this only by attending to a postcard they didn't know was coming, which asked them to check off the crossover ballot they'd prefer, if any."

According to Election Justice USA, in some counties poll workers were instructed—apparently by rogue or ignorant trainers rather than official county process—to give NPP voters who requested a “crossover ballot” a provisional ballot. Notes Palast, who has tracked elections in the U. S. for years and is the author of two books on election fraud, “Provisional ballots are generally discarded.”

As poll worker Mimi Kennedy pointed out to me, based on her experience, "L.A. County, the nation's third largest voting jurisdiction, has a meticulous process, but it's subject to California's 'surrender rule' which creates blizzards of provisional votes. Vote-by-mail voters must surrender their unvoted mail ballot to vote regularly at the polls. Otherwise, they must vote provisionally. Many voters are just unaware of being registered permanent absentee." Says Kennedy, "It's difficult to change that status. Many mailed ballots—almost half, according to the California Voter Foundation—never 'connect' with their intended recipients. Other voters got the ballot, but didn't know about the surrender rule. This year, there are more than a million provisional votes across California counties, each with a different process of counting or rejection."

Voting is a privilege and an obligation in a democracy, and as a voter in a state as big as California, I feel that my vote as John Q. Citizen actually makes a difference. Imagine the frustration, then, of millions of other Californians who were either unable to vote in this presidential primary or whose vote wasn’t even taken into consideration when Hillary Clinton was announced the winner of the contest.

The choice American voters now face is two presidential nominees who are both under investigation for fraud and corruption. Donald Trump is the subject of multiple lawsuits for alleged swindles by Trump University, and is being pursued by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman for defrauding thousands of students. Hillary Clinton is the subject of an FBI criminal investigation into her use of a private email server that may have damaged national security. Also, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the myriad questionable business dealings of the Clinton Foundation, including potential influence peddling while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, in particular involving her approval of the sale of shares in a uranium mining ranch in Utah. My other concern about Hillary is that she is an admitted protégé of war criminal Henry Kissinger, and has shown herself to be a hawk when it comes to foreign military adventures.

Millions of Americans who might have voted for Bernie Sanders, a peace candidate if ever there was one—Sanders was one of the few people in Washington who voted against the Iraq War in 2003 that has proven devastating to the entire region—have been hoodwinked into thinking our election process is fair and impartial.

This is not a democracy when each and every vote isn’t counted.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Elizabeth Warren becomes Hillary's running mate and vice president, because she might be able to dissuade HRC from making some of those inevitable bellicose decisions. In fact, the best outcome would be that both Warren and Bernie Sanders become an essential aspect of the coming four years.


 

Jordan Elgrably is a writer near Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, Fresno and the Misanthrope, LA Review of Books

On Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont by Aris Janigian

Los Angeles, Fresno, and the Misanthrope

February 18th, 2016

AT FIRST GLANCE Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont appears to be another dark and disturbing Hollywood satire, with a hint of the absurd in the title reminiscent of Beckett’s classic play about waiting for a man or god who never arrives. But Aris Janigian’s nameless narrator is more than a hapless bum looking for a break — he’s a literary snob who longs to be loved for his superior screenwriting (and remembered for his past successes), a Jew who views other cultures with enmity and suspicion, and an Angeleno whose love-hate relationship with the city has pushed him to the brink of self-exile. He is, in other words, a bipolar misanthrope fueled by multiple contradictions. 

Read the rest of the review.

Father of The Bribe

Greed swamps a simple, moral Moroccan man in 'Corruption'

[Corruption by Tahar Ben Jelloun; The New Press 1995]
in the San Jose Metro Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995

In Tahar Ben Jelloun's new novel, Corruption, the underlying question is: What makes a man? He who maintains his integrity in the face of widespread corruption; or he who is willing to conform in order to provide for his family?

What the question really begs is, how do you deal with being well-adjusted in a society that is morally bankrupt? Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco's most prolific dissident writers, argues that the Third World is rife with corruption's cancer, yet his short novel may also be read as a metaphor for the dirty practices of business and politics in our own society, where bribes, payoffs and the nefarious influence of Washington lobbyists have perverted the political process. Being well-adjusted to this sordid reality means that most of us remain silent, rejecting activism and protest for complacency.

Corruption is the latest in The New Press' distinguished series of international fiction, which includes translations of the best contemporary novelists writing in France. Ben Jelloun, who was born in Fez and emigrated to France in 1961, has chosen to write in French rather than Arabic, though he returns to Morocco frequently. His novel Sacred Night won France's coveted Prix Goncourt in 1987, and since that time he has spoken out against the religious fanaticism rampant in North Africa, particularly in Algeria, where the Algiers-based Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has claimed responsibility for a series of bombing attacks in Paris.

The bureaucrat protagonist in Ben Jelloun's story is struggling against the silence of the moral majority in Morocco, which accepts corruption as an inevitable fact of life. Mourad works in the Ministry of Development, headquartered in Casablanca, where he is responsible for approving or rejecting construction permits. Although the job comes with a grandiloquent title (Deputy Director of Planning, Prospects and Progress), Mourad's meager salary barely supports a family of four. He survives on credit, just making ends meet.

The novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun

The novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun

The penury of their circumstances causes Mourad's wife, Hlima, to constantly upbraid him in a loud, obnoxious voice: "You're not a man!" Hlima's three sisters are all married to wealthy men who know how to work within the Moroccan system, which encourages graft. Hlima wonders why she married Mr. Integrity in the first place.

Mourad wonders, too. They met at university; Hlima was certain that Mourad's degrees in economics and engineering would lead to golden opportunities. But to land a job in a private firm, you have to be willing to network; you need the kind of connections that Mourad never possessed.

In the beginning, there was love and lots of sex. Hlima produced a copy of Sheikh Nafzaoui's manual of Muslim erotology, with its 29 positions, which the couple went through quickly. Then, when Hlima had her menses and asked Mourad to perform sodomy, he refused, resulting in his wife's first attack on his manhood: "You're not a man!" Before long, Mourad narrates, his life would be turned into a living hell.

After years of pressure both at home and in the office, where Mourad's underling Haj Hamid is obviously successful, something has to give. Although there has never been a crack in Mourad's resistance, he now struggles with opposing inner voices. "So, change the world!" the good voice cries. "No, change your life," cries the bad one.

Mourad has always felt that Haj Hamid, who has enriched himself with countless payoffs, "is more Moroccan than I am. He knows how to talk, he knows the art of enveloping things in poetic and sometimes religious formulas that make those he's talking to giddy. ... As they say in Arabic, 'His tongue is a blade.' "

It is unsettling that Mourad feels less Moroccan than his co-worker, that because he is so unlike most of the men around him he questions even his national-cultural identity. Mourad believes that money worship turns everything to rot; often his condemnation of corruption comes off as a fair description of ordinary business practices, in which deceit and nepotism make a success of the man willing to play the game, while the man with fortitude falls behind. But Mourad knows the system is stronger than he is; either he adjusts to it or ...

In Morocco, as in many developing countries, government salaries are so low that functionaries are forced to take a second job or accept bribes. Ben Jelloun's narrative implies that if there were ever a government crackdown on this "parallel economy," the country would grind to a halt. Mourad's decision to take a bribe is a turning point that will effectively end his marriage, jeopardize his relationships with a few honest friends, and even bring on a strange, psychosomatic skin disorder, which his doctor diagnoses as a reaction to stress and feelings of guilt.

When Mourad accepts his first bribe, he hides the envelope in his copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, as if that book contained all the existential philosophy to explain his course of action and its consequences. Because of the novel's simplicity and its focus on the choices a man must make between his inner beliefs and the demands of society, Corruption is being touted by its publisher as a morality tale reminiscent of Albert Camus' The Stranger.

Although there is a world of indifference between Meursault's apathy in The Stranger--his refusal to take control of his own destiny--and Mourad's more educated decisions, the comparison between the two novels is not without foundation. Ben Jelloun's political fable ultimately puts man's conscience on trial.

    Anti-Macho Man: Spanish Iconoclast Pedro Almodóvar

    Director Pedro Almodovar Once Performed in an Underground Drag Band and Wrote a Pornographic Comic Strip. In His Acclaimed Movies, He Continues to Relentlessly Skewer Traditional Spanish Values

    Los Angeles Times Magazine Jan. 19, 1992. pg. 18

    By Jordan Elgrably

    DON'T ASK PEDRO ALMODÓVAR HOW HE MADE THE QUANTUM LEAP from rebel of Spain's counterculture to mainstream symbol of commercial respectability. While he hates to admit he's no longer on the edge, he also challenges the bad-boy reputation that has followed him everywhere. 

    "Hombre," the director says, a corona of cigarette smoke framing his cherub's face as he takes a break on the set of his new movie, High Heels, "my success surprises me because, I tell you, success is a miracle." Almodóvar's voice is dreamy but emphatic: "I'm not an enfant terrible. This is a label the mass media has stuck on me since I began, but when I look at myself, from the beginning, I don't see an enfant terrible."

    Victoria Abril, Miguel Bose and Marisa Paredes in Tacones Lejanos (High Heels).

    Victoria Abril, Miguel Bose and Marisa Paredes in Tacones Lejanos (High Heels).

    What he does see is a storyteller. In talking about the trip from cult figure to his present position as a superstar on the international film circuit, the 40-year-old director recalls that "ever since I was a kid, I've always told stories to others. At the root of it was the desire to make things up, to fabular," he says.

    Risky pictures—stories that persistently challenge every conventional attitude in a Spanish society once teeming with fascists, religious fanatics and sexist, homophobic males-are this fabulist's ticket, and in just a decade of filmmaking his movies have gone from a bottom-line budget of $5,000 to $5 million. Whether the screenwriter-director's uninhibited portraits of bisexuals, homosexuals, transsexuals and female impersonators form an autobiography or a subjectively surreal urban anthropology, he won't exactly say, but
    Almodóvar does acknowledge that his work "is autobiographical on the level of my sensibilities. I am represented in my movies."

    So, apparently, is an enormous cross-section of contemporary Spain. The director's previous eight features have made him, in company with the president and the king, the most talked-about Spaniard at home as well as his country's cultural commissar abroad. In the United States, he's one of the few bankable foreign directors these days. At home, in a register of expressions from wicked to resigned, Almodóvar's portrait dominates Spanish magazine covers, and midnight shows of his early films, all raised to cult status, are invariably sold out. He is a tireless self-promoter, more for the life of his movies than his own fame, which was assured in 1988 with the international triumph of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almodóvar is also the eponym of the effervescent culture that kicked off la movida, the popular movement set off by Francisco Franco's death in 1975. Spain is in its post-movida period now, growing richer and more complacent, but Almodóvarismo—a word for hyperbole and radical passion-shows few signs of letting up.

    The original poster for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

    The original poster for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

    "What I think most people find in his movies is a great sense of freedom," says Angel Fernandez Santos, a film critic at El País, Spain's largest daily newspaper. "He is, for me," says Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, from his exile in London, "very much in the vein of those Spanish creators like Garcia Lorca, very distinctive and daring for his time." Says artist and photographer Javier Vallhonrat — whose own images of women and fashion are another reason why Spain is in the vanguard of European art — "Almodóvar is incredibly close to a part of Spanish human beings that is very, very vulnerable and fragile. He has a vision that shares irony and tenderness in very beautiful proportions. Also, he's a rebel."

    Almodóvar began his cinematic rebellion in 1980, while he was still a functionary at Telefonica, Spain's national phone company. His first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap, was a chaotic romp through Madrid described by one critic on its release as "overturning with true daring the most respected taboos of our ridiculous society." Almodovar then shocked the devout with his depiction of lesbian nuns and an unconventional convent in Dark Habits, in which Mother Superior is strung out on smack, Sister Rat writes porno novels and Sister Lost—played by Almodovar's longtime muse, Carmen Maura—dotes on a wild tiger she calls her "son." But it was Almodóvar's rawest picture to date, the homoerotic Law of Desire, that made him a cause célèbre in Europe. Law broke 1986 box-office records in Spain while proving the viability of El Deseo, the thriving independent production company Almodóvar formed that year with his brother Agustín.

    Almodóvar on set directing co-stars Victoria Abril and Marisa Paredes in High Heels.

    Almodóvar on set directing co-stars Victoria Abril and Marisa Paredes in High Heels.

    For the generation that came of age in Franco's twilight years, everything seemed ripe for change, and Almodóvar, who migrated to Madrid from a small town in the rural province of La Mancha, found himself hoisting the banner of sexual liberation and individualism along with other youths whose lust for personal freedom brought about a social renaissance. It's no Almodóvarismo to suggest that the country was literally reborn in the late '70s: In their belated rush to catch up with other Western hedonists, Spaniards indulged in sex, drugs and fiestas as never before, and Almodóvar's crowd flaunted its new, unfettered naughtiness. For his part, Almodovar, while working for the phone company by day, vamped it up at rock clubs by night, wearing fishnet stockings and miniskirts and belting out salacious punk songs in tandem with "Fanny" McNamara.

    Even the political agenda reflected the youth culture; in the space of seven short years, from the generalissimo's burial to the inauguration of President Felipe Gonzalez in 1982, Spain held its first free elections since 1936, drafted a new constitution and welcomed the Socialist Party to power. Censorship officially ended in 1977, with the release of Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, which had been banned following its premiere in Cannes in 1961.

    In the years following la movida, Almodóvar's movies also may have contributed to his compatriots' changing sexual attitudes. "With all due modesty," he says, "I believe (my films) have helped. Fortunately, you know, a lot of the stereotypes have vanished in the last 15 years. I mean, the Spaniard no longer wants to be confused with the Latin lover, who now seems like an almost grotesque figure, and man feels less doubt in showing his vulnerabilities and weaknesses and limits and imperfections.

    "Spanish society has changed enormously in respect to the independence of women and in respect for homosexuality," Almódovar says. After a healthy pause, he declares: "This means that you never have to set out to prove yourself the way you might in the United States, where you're often expected to say, 'I'm bisexual, I'm heterosexual, I'm homosexual,' almost as if you're presenting your business card."

    ONE TORRID SUMMER AFTERNOON, Almodóvar is filming Tacones Lejanos (High Heels) at a redbrick university hospital on the periphery of Madrid. (The film opened in Los Angeles last month.) With stars Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril and Miguel Bose, the director is trying to wrap up the deathbed scenes in his story about passionate relationships among a mother, daughter and their shared lover. High Heels, Almodóvar says, explores "women in revolt, women who kill their men." With pop-icon protagonist Becky del Paramo, he hopes to create his first truly wicked woman, whose shame is her failure as a mother: She abandons her only child in Spain so she can pursue film and concert deals in Mexico and South America, and before she knows it, 15 years go by. When she comes home, daughter Rebecca is scarred by a love-hate obsession for her famous mom.

    Oblivious to the buzz in the hospital corridor and the patients and doctors who watch as he maneuvers between cast and crew, Almodóvar occasionally passes a hand across his prominent eyebrows to wipe away the sweat. He is stout, six feet tall, with a thick bush of black hair and large black eyes that in conversation express docility rather than the wild passion of his movies; in baggy pants and billowy shirt, the director would make a tempting subject for any caricaturist. Contrary to his flamboyant persona, though, there's nothing frivolous about him, and as he moves around the hospital like a chief surgeon reviewing his staff, there is a sense that all the Madrilenos present hold Almodóvar in the highest regard.

    For the last 10 weeks, Almodóvar has spent morning hours going over his shooting script (rewritten seven times), watching rushes and preparing for the day's shoot, which begins at 3 in the afternoon and has been known to last as late as 7 a.m. He reserves his weekends for rehearsals. Conferring with cinematographer Alfredo Mayo, Almodóvar ignores the no-smoking signs, eyeing the actors who wander about in character, theatrically muttering under their breath.

    "Vamos!" he calls out, anxious to get things under way. Meanwhile, first assistant director Yousaf Bokhari Bustamente talks about Almodóvar's reputation as an actor's director. "Pedro doesn't always know the technical parameters of setting up a shot," says Bustamente, "but he always knows the end result he's looking for." That nothing misses this former performer's attention is underscored when the art director appears to get Almodóvar's approval on the color scheme to be used in a later sequence. "He dominates everything," says Pierre-Louis Thevenet, who won an Oscar in 1971 for his work on "Patton." Seeming not to mind Almodóvar's control over the most minute details, Thevenet reports that "Pedro chooses the furniture, the curtains; he goes off to Paris to buy materials. He's very passionate when it comes to working."

    At 5 o'clock, at last, the camera begins to roll. Almodóvar sighs audibly as the drama unfolds: Becky del Paramo suffered a stroke on stage last night, during a comeback performance before thousands of fans. Rebecca has just heard the news and is rushing down the hospital corridor in a hot-pink, body-hugging Chanel dress, accompanied by a judge who wishes to question the stricken star while there's still time. As it happens, both mother and daughter are prime suspects in a murder investigation: the victim—here's an Almodóvarismo—was at once Becky's lover and Rebecca's husband.

    As the judge waits outside with the chaplain, Becky — played by Paredes with the intensity of a great movie star, recalling two of Almodóvar's American favorites, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis — is lying on her deathbed, expended, ghostlike. She demands the truth from her weeping daughter; Mayo's camera zooms in for a close-up, and Rebecca (Victoria Abril) confesses in a whisper: Yes, it was she who shot Manuel, the adulterous s.o.b. Then there is another of many breaks as Almodóvar sits, smoking, and reviews the footage on a video monitor, his fleshy face screwed in concentration, while Alfredo Mayo has the camera moved; the effect of the afternoon heat is allayed somewhat by a technician who dutifully fans the director with a hand-painted abanico of red silk.

    Finally, Mayo is ready for what Almodóvar insists is the diva's Last Great Performance, and he calls the actors to their places. Miguel Bose, a rock star with a large following in Europe and Latin America and with several screen roles to his credit, makes a peculiar judge, but this is part of Almodóvar's central intrigue. Crouched at the foot of the bed, Almodóvar speaks in soft, urgent tones, coaxing the actors as if they were his children. "Drink Becky's words," he instructs them. "Remember, this is the triumph of the matriarchy!"

    When a mother confesses to a murder she did not commit to clear her daughter, there is nothing the judge can do. Later, during the dinner break, Almodóvar explains that "there's a completely natural alliance between these women. When their love is thrust up against the law of men, which is represented by the judge," he says, "they will always be stronger. I told Miguel to walk away rejected and angry, because this was the triumph of the matriarchy, and he knew that he couldn't fight it."


    WITH WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, an utterly anti-romantic comedy about lonely women and the war of the sexes, Almodóvar marshaled the kinds of performances from women that prompted critics to call him a women's director. Made with the Spaniard's iconoclastic blend of social satire, aesthetic kitsch, high-pitched melodrama and a cast of fun-house characters, Women brought Almodóvar an Oscar nomination for best foreign picture. Though this proved to be his breakthrough picture, bringing him fame in Hollywood, Spanish critics considered Women tame in comparison to the director's earlier shockers, and in 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! he returned with a more provocative encore.

    "A raunchy peep show for highbrows," as one columnist called it, Tie Me Up! brought Almodóvar notoriety when the Motion Picture Assn. of America gave his "perverse" love story of kidnapping, bondage, drug abuse and radical passion an X rating. Outraged, he declared the rating an act of censorship and, with his U.S. distributor, Miramax Films, sued the MPAA on the grounds that the association had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously." There was also, says a Miramax spokesperson, some speculation that the contested rating reflected a bias in favor of studio films and against independents.

    As evidence, Miramax screened the controversial sex scene between Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril for a New York judge, along with a selection of erotic scenes from such R-rated films as 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction, suggesting that Tie Me Up! was no more likely than those films to encourage depravity. In the end, the judge refused to overturn the X rating, and Tie Me Up! was released unrated.

    With Women, Almodóvar had become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and so began a mutual courtship, with the Hollywood majors vying for the remake rights to Women, which were eventually secured by Tri-Star for Jane Fonda. Madonna invited him to the set of Dick Tracy, where she said she'd love to work with him, and Billy Wilder, Almodóvar's American idol, invited him to lunch. But the subsequent experience with Tie Me Up! may have soured the director on the idea of making a film here. It certainly put him in mind of Wilder's word to the wise: Avoid Hollywood "at all costs." In a long outcry published in El País, Almodóvar described the MPAA's policies as Machiavellian.

    "It seemed to me an enormous act of aggression against an author,"
    Almodóvar says now of the X rating. "It wounded me. I still would really like to make a movie in English, but I have to be very careful about any such endeavor." Asked how he believes the R-rated erotic scene in High Heels, in which Miguel Bose fairly devours Victoria Abril, will go over in America, the director insists he's remained faithful to his original vision. "My movies are like prostitutes for strait-laced people," he says, smiling impishly. "It's that sensation of the prohibited, of sin, that makes them even more attractive in a country of conservatives like the United States."

    While the director's themes may appear risque elsewhere, in Spain they earn consistent accolades. A recent special issue of the arts magazine El Europeo, for instance, commemorated
    Almodóvar as one of three artists whose work had most marked the decade of the '80s—the others were illustrator Mariscal, whose line drawings have sparked interest at Disney Studios, and Miguel Barcelo, a painter whose neo-abstract tableaux are fetching six-figure prices in trendy American galleries. What these three had most in common, El Europeo noted, was "the aesthetic of irony and parody."

    Almodóvar agrees. "For about the last 10 years, the culture, and especially those in the vanguard—painters, singers, writers and so on—discovered that all the stereotypes were a stupendous material with which to work. And so now, as a matter of fact, the new generation of artists, most especially painters and musicians, use the entire range of stereotypical Spanish culture with enormous humor."

    In High Heels, irony appears in Becky's melodramatic love songs, or boleros, which she sings with exaggerated pathos, and in a female impersonator, reminiscent of Almodóvar's early days as a punk rocker who dressed in drag-fishnet stockings and high heels de rigueur. Almodóvar may be kinky, but he is above all irreverent. His gifts for comedy, caricature and sheer grotesquerie have made his films a must for anyone interested in understanding how Spain has progressed from the machista society it was in Franco's day.

    Says Carmen Corredor, chief news editor of the national affairs desk at Television Espanola, "Almodóvar is a genius, because he broke with all the strictures. He captured very well the Spanish moment, the whole transition period and the changeover to democracy. He also captured the progressive mindset, in particular what more marginal people were like." Says Diego Muñoz, film reviewer at El País: "Almodóvar uses images from the streets, not the official culture. He's a chronicler of modern times."

    After What Did I Do to Deserve This? became his first hit in Spain in 1985, the Ministry of Culture offered to underwrite 50% of his subsequent adventure, Matador, a film that promised a fresh interpretation of Spain's national blood sport. In fact, Almodóvar delivered a travesty of the Spanish Eros-Thanatos obsession, lampooning the bullfight while offering a dark ode to passion. His comic spirit was cloaked in the criminal lawyer who stabs her lovers with a hatpin upon climax and in a retired matador who is also a homicidal maniac. In the end, the two lovers come together for one last tryst, killing each other simultaneously—another instance of an Almodóvarismo.

    Matador was more successful elsewhere in Europe than in Spain, where the bullfighter remains an unassailable hero for many. But the sensitive portraits of men in that film prefigured the Fellini-esque Law of Desire, in which Pablo (a variation on the name Pedro), a director of popular homoerotic features, is plagued by a possessive lover (Antonio Banderas) while actually pining for another man who prefers friendship. In another of his improvisations on gender, Almodóvar has a woman play Pablo's brother, a transsexual named Tina (a variation on Agustín).

    To get this straight, how is it that a gay director from the underground whose earlier work is regularly compared to art films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Waters and Andy Warhol, makes low-budget features essentially feminist in nature and—in Spain of all places—triumphs at the box office? In fact, Almodóvar had to succeed in foreign countries before Spain took full notice of him. When his third film, Dark Habits, drew raves at the 1983 Venice Film Festival, Spanish critics and intellectuals started to take an interest. Then, when former New Yorker critic Pauline Kael heaped praise on Law of Desire, El País reported it as front-page news.

    As Almodóvar's fame increased abroad, his stature grew at home. In Spain, where American films and television programming have a lion's share of the entertainment market — 80% in 1990 — Almodóvar is considered an international heavyweight. According to figures compiled by the Ministry of Culture, four of his films are among the 20 highest-grossing movies made in Spain since 1966, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the country's highest-grossing film ever, behind E.T.Indiana Jones and the Last CrusadePretty Woman and Batman.

    Says Roberto Blatt, a philosopher and cultural analyst based in Madrid: "Almodóvar's success here is more the result of his acceptance abroad. He represents the new exoticism which Spaniards themselves are enamored of."

    By portraying Spaniards who are at least as progressive as their counterparts in Paris or London and by holding up Madrid as a rival to cosmopolitan New York, Almodóvar makes his compatriots feel they've been put on the postmodern map. And as Almodóvar's films become increasingly streamlined, with higher production values, an international crew and greater emphasis on innovative fashion and design, the director's private evolution parallels the direction in which Spain itself is heading-away from a recent past as one of Europe's poorest countries to a capitalist economy flooded with commodities and a strong peseta. No wonder each new Almodóvar movie is a national event, drawing both popular audiences and highbrows.

    The novelist Javier Marías, one of Spain's leading young intellectuals, says he goes to all of Almodóvar's films. "Everyone does, I suppose, even if it's only out of curiosity. I mean, if there's a new film by Almodóvar, you must see it, because otherwise you won't have anything to say in conversations for some months."

    LIKE MANY A YOUNG MAN NEWLY ARRIVED from the provinces, Almodóvar was struck with wonder for Madrid—to him, a Labyrinth of Passions, the title of his second film—a city that he has explored as restlessly as the complex relationships that are the basis of his stories. A small-town dreamer educated by Franciscan priests, Almodóvar was 17 when he finished high school and moved to the capital in 1967, a time when Madrid night life was just catching up with the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. His initial experience as a performer came in the theater troupe Los Goliardos, and later the Almodóvar-McNamara duo appeared at the now-legendary clubs Rockola and Elijame, singing songs with lyrics such as "Suck It to Me." He also authored adult comics for alternative newspapers and shot the foto-novelas—similar to comic books, using black-and-white photos to tell a story—that primed him for his first Super-8 shorts. "I did a short called Sex Comes, Sex Goes," he remembers, "in which a boy falls in love with a lesbian and changes his sex in order to conquer her heart. But then he gets interested in men, and the lesbian feels totally offended because his very reason for having become a woman in the first place no longer applies."

    Almodóvar's skill as a director was born entirely of the trial-and-error method with which he made a dozen of these amateur shorts. "I'm a popular person in the best sense," Almodóvar says. "My origins are humble and everybody knows it."

    From 1979 to 1985, Almodóvar wrote a regular column in La Luna in the guise of a beautiful international porn star named Patty Diphusa. This earlier facet of Almodóvar's androgynous personality has been revived in a collected volume titled Patty Diphusa and Other Writings. A bestseller in Spain, Patty will be published this spring in the United States. Patty Diphusa's passions are "fashion, taxis, department stores, Madrid, radio, TV, all magazines and newspapers, and cafes," declares the director's alter ego, echoing the enthusiasm of a provincial who's made it in the big city.

    When critic Francisco Umbral dedicates an entire chapter of his latest book to Almodóvar and calls him "a resolute postmodern," he describes not only the director's passion for Madrid—a city that was virtually created by the '60s economic boom—he also identifies the dislocation that is the common denominator between Almodóvar and millions of Madrilenos who also migrated from the country.

    Under the influence of his avowed "holy trinity"— directors Buñuel, Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock — Almodóvar gorges himself on Spain's sitcoms, soap operas and even commercials and especially delights in permutations of the counterculture such as transvestite cabaret and S&M rock. He culls ideas from the weekly tabloids that write up the lifestyles of those he calls "the fauna of Madrid." Recently the director—who still lives in a central Madrid apartment—was spotted doing a little research on a Sunday afternoon downtown. "He was standing in line at the 7-Eleven," says my informant, "reading through a copy of Hola!"—a cross between the National Enquirer and People magazine.

    "More than describing Madrid's serious reality," Blatt says, "Almodóvar is giving free rein to a personal fantasy of cosmopolitan life, which is a 'light' view from the vantage point of a popular character newly arrived from the countryside. His 'normal' people are always eccentric. He uses them to give an impression of realism, but they are made interesting by the fantasies of their author."

    Whether Pedro Almodóvar is imitating contemporary Spanish life or reinventing it, his production company is booming. Today, when the Spanish film industry is in crisis, producing an average of only 40 features a year—down from 100 in the first half of the '80s—El Deseo has three projects already slated for 1992. The Almodóvars are producing two young Basque directors, who approached them with a a sci-fi thriller; an adaptation of Ruth Rendell's novel Live Flesh, based on a screenplay by American Don Ferguson, and Almodóvar's next feature, as yet untitled, which the director has half written. El Deseo has also bought the rights to the Paul Bowles story "The Time of Friendship" and is negotiating the rights to Jane Bowles' novel Two Serious Ladies.

    IN THE PENULTIMATE week of production, High Heels has moved to a sound studio. This evening the director is shooting the scene that divulges the final surprise of High Heels: a female impersonator who plays Becky del Paramo reveals his other identity to Rebecca, confesses his love, proposes marriage and discloses a surprising truth.

    When neither Victoria Abril nor Miguel Bose have quite grasped the twisted emotional tenor of the moment, Almodóvar acts out both parts. He seems equally at ease as man and woman, working the lines till his actors are ready to take over. Four hours later, the crew, actors and Almodóvar break into applause when at last they get the scene right.

    "I'm very proud of the fact that throughout my career I've elicited marvelous performances from women," Almodóvar says later. "I've also elicited strong performances from men, but they've almost always been those of Antonio Banderas. So, I could cite five strong female performances in a movie and one masculine. So women win."

    Perhaps because Almodóvar has always surrounded himself with women, or men dressing up as women, or impersonated one himself in the character of Patty Diphusa; perhaps because his best friend is actress and TV host Bibi Anderson — a man who became a woman — his films are considered signposts along the highway of sexual liberation as well as a celebration of women's independence. Yet you can't help but wonder just how much Almodóvar's personal fantasies, particularly of women, have to do with contemporary Spain.

    "Neither the decors nor the characters nor the situations," he says of his movies, "are realistic. Nevertheless, my challenge is to make them seem totally probable." But at the same time, he insists, "a movie must be artificial. For me, a movie is the representation of something, and in such representation there is always distance and artifice."

    Pilar Miro, one of Spain's rare women directors, says that although Almodóvar's women sometimes seem like caricatures, "I could recognize myself, my mother, my sister-in-law" in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And, talking about Carmen Maura's role as a man who becomes a woman in Law of Desire, critic Santos says Almodóvar just may be portraying the "fantasies of the good Spanish housewife. He exaggerates, but, well, I think one should exaggerate a little, don't you?"

    Almodóvar's women may be eccentric creatures, but they are invariably imbued with heroic qualities. "My women have this vitality," the director says, "where vitality is always stronger than the pain they may be suffering." He calls Carmen Maura's character in What Did I Do to Deserve This? his "Don Quixote of the Housewife" and says that Becky del Paramo's sacrifice for her daughter shows that "mother love will always win out." Such passion for women reflects Almodóvar's dual nature as an artist who desires men personally yet finds them less challenging in his art. "There's something in the male character that bores me," he says with a playful look.

    In fact, it is an ongoing relationship with a lover he's had for years (and whose identity he chooses not to make public), Almodóvar says, that has been the basis for his exploration into the life of the couple. His close relationship to his mother, who has played cameos in several of his films, also contributes to his interest in "the triumph of the matriarchy." Does his High Heels quest for women's luz vital make him a committed feminist? "My films are absolutely in favor of woman's autonomy in every sense. However, I probably don't talk about it in purely feministic, militant terms, but rather as women living their own social hierarchy."

    Almodóvar's obsession with women seems so persistent, I inquire whether, like Bibi Anderson, he has ever considered a sex change himself. "No, no," Almodóvar says emphatically. "Nonetheless, I tell you, women fascinate me as a dramatic subject, as protagonists, and I'm equally fascinated by imitations of women. Bibi is one of my best friends, but for me she's always been a woman. How can I say it? I always respect and admire these kinds of people who create not only their own personality but their own body, their own identity. I think it gives them enormous superiority. As a director, I create stories and characters, and I think that a person who changes sex is like the director of his or her own life."

    And when he talks about matriarchy, is he thinking of life in Spain? "And in America! What do you have to say about Reagan's wife? Or Betty Ford? Woman is very strong, much stronger than man, and that's all over the world." 

     

    Jordan Elgrably lived in Granada and Madrid and wrote for such publications as El País, El Europeo and Vogue España, before relocating to Los Angeles, where he became the West Coast editor for the Barcelona-based magazine, Woman. This is one of several long features he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in the '90s.












     

     

    Jews Must Speak Out For Arab-Jewish Unity and Against Racism in Israel

    In the wake of the tragic deaths of Israeli and Palestinian youths, Israeli political leaders must stop inciting violence against Arabs.

    AlterNet  |  By Jordan Elgrably  |  July 9, 2014<

    The appalling racism and act of vengeance inherent in the kidnapping and murder of young Mohammed Abu Khdeir is not an aberration in Israel. It is a trend and the direct result of decades of state indoctrination, and deep-rooted racism in the Jewish community—a racism I have personally experienced in my own family. That is, Jews are taught to believe not only that Arabs are the enemy, but also that we are intellectually and morally superior to them.

    A man holds up his hand as Israeli security and Palestinian stone-throwers clash in the Shuafat neighborhood of Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem, on July 2, 2014, after a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed in an apparent act of revenge.

    A man holds up his hand as Israeli security and Palestinian stone-throwers clash in the Shuafat neighborhood of Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem, on July 2, 2014, after a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed in an apparent act of revenge.

    As an Arab Jew and a human being first and foremost, I completely reject this exceptionalist claptrap. Ironically, my Moroccan Jewish family on my father’s side was saved from certain death in concentration camps, when during a routine train stop in Occupied France, in 1941, SS officers mistook the Elgrably clan for Moroccan Arabs—that is to say, Muslims. There can never be any doubt that we are all human beings first and foremost, and that we share much more than we differ.

    As Jews we must shout from the rooftops against all forms of racism against Arabs and all others. Just as Jews were pro-active during the Civil Rights movement in this country, we must now reject Israeli calls for vengeance with respect to the tragic deaths of the three Israeli teens. We should be in the front lines of protest against the abusive response by Israel’s armed forces and police, who while ostensibly searching for the Israeli teens' murderers last month, arrested hundreds of Palestinians, many of whom remain in administrative detention, without charge. And now the IDF has unleashed an aggressive military assault on Gaza in response to Hamas rockets, which in turn are in response to Israel’s bombing in select Gaza neighborhoods. The IDF is pounding Gaza with excess force, exacting collective punishment upon innocent Palestinians.

    Peace is not merely a buzzword or a slogan, and it is not a word to be taken lightly. Indeed, real peace requires equality, freedom and above all, justice. Arabs in Israel and in the occupied territories must be treated with the same respect and under the same laws as Jews. All human beings deserve dignified treatment under the law, and that requires Israel to halt its practice of administrative detention of Palestinians, who are often arrested without charge and held for months, sometimes in solitary confinement. As well, Israeli law enforcement and military should be accountable for their behavior under the law in cases where Palestinians are abused, tortured or killed. Israeli political leaders must stop inciting violence against Arabs, and speak up for restraint.

    A new conflagration is taking place between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and people speak of an impending Third Intifada. To stop the potential deaths of hundreds, even thousands of innocent victims, the United States should intervene now, decisively, demanding that Israel show restraint and do everything in its power to restore calm.

    Peace—and justice—depend upon it.

    'American Sniper' Not Only Inflames Anti-Muslim Behavior, But Is a Botched Film

    Is it too much to ask that a movie set during the Second Gulf War teach us something meaningful about Iraq?

    By Jordan Elgrably / AlterNet

    February 16, 2015

    A week before the Oscars—on Valentine's Day in fact—I finally forced myself to go out and watch the new hit movie from Clint Eastwood. I had no choice. After two months of anti-Arab venom and a week of Islamophobic attacks across America, including murder, aggravated assault, hit-and-runs and arson, I wanted to see for myself if American Sniper could potentially incite anti-Arab violence.

    My fear was that it might throw oil on the fire that is already burning fiercely after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the brutal killings by ISIS of Americans and other foreigners. And I was intrigued by the fact that Eastwood thought he had made an “anti-war” picture, when violence and all-American exceptionalism have always been at the core of the Eastwood canon, whether as an actor or director. As Eastwood told the Hollywood Reporter, "The biggest antiwar statement any film" can make is to show "the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”  I suppose Eastwood’s idea is that American Sniper is anti-war because it shows a few of the injured Iraq War veterans, and attempts to reveal its protagonist’s inner struggles.

    If you are looking for a great war picture, however, you may be disappointed. American Sniper is turgid—slow, boring and utterly oversold and over-rated by the Academy (it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, which is insulting to the other films in that category). Why do I say this is a botched film? Because unlike a comparable war drama, Saving Private Ryan, it utterly lacks character development, there is little narrative tension, and—worst of all—one never gets to know very much about and thus never cares for its protagonist: Chris Kyle the sniper is virtually impenetrable.

    And would it be too much to ask that a movie set during the Second Gulf War teach us something meaningful about Iraq?

    The viewer does not glean any understanding whatsoever for why American troops fought and died in that country. If this is the anti-war film Eastwood thought he was making, what does that say about Eastwood, or Hollywood for that matter? American Sniper relied on the cooperation of, and glorifies, the military. The film unquestionably presents Chris Kyle as a hero and American culture as superior to Arab culture. Actually, what culture? We never learn anything about Iraq as a country—its history, literature, music and ethno-religious diversity is conspicuously absent.

    In truth, every Arab in American Sniper is automatically a suspect—including small children. This film seems unaware of the fact that American troops were—in theory anyway—sent to Iraq to liberate ordinary Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's despotic regime. That some Americans went to Iraq to try to help the people there has been left out of this film entirely.

    Arabs are portrayed from the very first scene as ciphers, when a traditionally dressed Iraqi mother seems to send her ten-year-old son to his death. What mother, in which culture, would ever do that? Are we to believe that the Iraqis would because, as the film’s American military personnel say multiple times, they are "savages"? How is it that sniper Chris Kyle isn't the real savage? After all, he rarely speaks in complete sentences, fails to articulate any deep thoughts, holds up the State of Texas as if it were paradise on earth, and insists that, "America is the greatest country in the world."

    What’s more, American Sniper is poorly wrought. Good storytelling fleshes out the antagonist as much as the hero. A convincing, formidable villain is a three-dimensional portrait of man at his worst. None of the Arab characters in the film, other than the Arab American military translator, speaks any English. Very little of the Arabic is translated, making every Arab, therefore, seem unintelligible and ominous. (The same technique was employed in the movie Argo, where most of the Iranians speaking in their own language were not subtitled, and where there was only one sympathetic Iranian character, the maid in the Canadian embassy.)

    The film works in broad, simplistic strokes. The most evil of the film's “savages,” for example, is an insurgent by the name of “The Butcher,” who is second in command to al-Zarqawi (Al Qaeda’s man in Fallujah). This character (Mido Hamada) likes to kill his victims by putting a metal drill to their temples. Then there is the American sniper’s evil Doppleganger—the Arab sniper known as “Mustafa” (Sammy Sheik) who we learn excelled at the Olympics, but is from Syria, not Iraq. Even the one potentially sympathetic Iraqi, a father (Ayman Samman) who invites soldiers to sit down at his dinner table after they have invaded his home in a house-to-house search, turns out to be a liar who picks up a rifle against American troops.

    In this movie, it seems that the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi—including poor Shaikh Al-Obodi (Navid Nagahban) who, although murdered by The Butcher, is depicted as a traitor to his own people.

    As you watch sniper against sniper, Kyle vs. Mustafa, going against each other across dusty rooftops, you wonder why we as viewers are expected to root for the American, when he clearly does not belong in this environment. He is a member of the occupation forces, and there is no explanation offered for why U.S. troops are in Iraq in the first place, other than to hunt terrorists so they don’t show up “in San Diego or New York.”

    One leaves this film without any understanding of America’s involvement in the Iraq war, or the shambles in which the nation of Iraq was left. Which is not to say that all American military personnel are as unconscious about their actions. In a Salon interview, former sniper Garett Reppenhagen, who also served in Iraq, had remorse for what he did over there. “My recovery hinged on the fact that I felt guilt and shame over committing atrocities against an occupied country,” he said. “We went over there and brutalized and oppressed, and that is part of my psychological and moral injuries.”

    To judge from Clint Eastwood’s film and what one can glean from the book American Sniper, Chris Kyle lacked that human dimension. Perhaps that is because, as Oscar Wilde famously said, "America is the only nation that went from barbarism to decadence without a civilization in between."

    Jordan Elgrably is the director of The Markaz, formerly the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

    Documentary Depicts a Morocco That Calls for the Return of Its Diaspora Jews

    Review of director Kathy Wazana's They Were Promised the Sea

    By Jordan Elgrably

    Among many Jews, the desire to be a contrarian supersedes loyalty to the Jewish people or to Israel.

    That is abundantly evident in the film They Were Promised the Sea by writer/director Kathy Wazana, screened recently in the Arab Film Festival. To be fair, Wazana—a Jewish Moroccan raised in Canada—describes herself as a member of the Palestinian solidarity movement, and at times her documentary on Moroccan Jews takes a political turn, when she quotes Simon Levy—a leader in the Casablanca Jewish community—who criticizes Israel's "colonial" policies toward the Palestinians. Wazana told the film-going audience after the screening that she has experienced pushback in this regard, as a number of people have suggested she remove "the politics" from her film and just stick to the Moroccan Jewish narrative.

    The fact that Wazana equates what happened to the Moroccan Jews as analogous to the fate of many Palestinians gives her film a backbone.

    They Were Promised the Sea documents the forced exodus of Jews from their native Moroccan towns and cities in the early 1960s, when the Jewish Agency plied the Moroccan government with various and sundry incentives. The film quotes Moroccan Israeli scholar Sami Shalom Chetrit on David Ben Gurion, saying Israel's founding prime minister "did the math" and figured that to strengthen Israel, he needed to expel three-quarters of a million Palestinians, and import three-quarters of a million Jews from Arab/Muslim lands. And indeed, to build the state, between 1948 and 1967 Israel largely succeeded in depopulating the historic Jewish communities of Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Yemen, importing some 800,000 Jews.

    It was a dual tragedy when you consider the loss of some 400 Palestinian towns and villages, and the uprooting of hundreds of years of an interfaith narrative, for Palestine was home to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, before, during and after the Ottoman Empire.

    However, there is today a lachrymose, and largely erroneous narrative in the Jewish community, that Jews of Arab/Muslim lands were expelled en masse. The State of Israel prefers to equate this narrative to the Palestinian exodus, as if to say two wrongs make a right.

    The truth is more complex. In some cases, as in Egypt, Jews were expelled by state decree, when they were viewed as a fifth column. But in other cases, particularly in Morocco and Yemen, Israel actively pursued deals with government officials and Jewish community leaders that caused the departure of whole Jewish communities, leaving behind bereft Muslim friends, as well as Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and cemeteries.

    That is carefully documented in They Were Promised the Sea. Wazana interviews a number of Moroccans, from prominent leaders to men and women in the street, who fondly remember their Jewish friends and neighbors, and decry their departure. The local Jewish community leader of Tetouan remembers the day in 1963 when several buses came to pick up that city’s Jews leaving for Israel. Their Moroccan Muslim compatriots came running after them, bringing gifts, weeping as they climbed into the buses.

    Many of the Moroccan Muslims interviewed in Wazana’s film appeal to Moroccan Jews to return to their homeland. Wazana herself says that even though she’s been a Canadian for the past 40-plus years, she still calls herself a Moroccan. My grandparents left Morocco for France years before my birth, and I still consider myself a French and Moroccan American. Roots are strong and deep, and cannot easily be severed. Little wonder that Palestinians who left or were expelled more than 60 years ago, or their children or children’s children, remain attached to their homeland.

    They Were Promised the Sea is a compelling oral history of a little-known diaspora community, the Jews of Morocco. Although many have become citizens of Israel, few have lost the connection to their country’s language, music, food and customs. Today, many consider themselves Arab Jews. While to some, this may sound like a contrarian identity, it is no different from being an Arab Muslim or an Arab Christian, and there is no contradiction.

    You can be a Jewish Arab without fear that you are somehow being disloyal to Judaism, although you will upset the ethnocentric equation that is the backbone of Zionism.

    At L.A. cultural center, Middle East translates to coexistence, not conflict

    By Anthony Weiss

    LOS ANGELES (JTA) – It’s Friday night, and patrons are sitting and chatting over plates of tajine and hummus waiting for the evening’s main event, a stand-up comedy show.

    It could be any nightspot in this city. But a closer look reveals a bolder agenda than just good food and entertainment.

    The comedy show, part of a long-running series called “The Sultans of Satire,” features Muslim and Jewish comedians with roots in Iran, Afghanistan and Morocco. The room’s walls, meanwhile, display an art exhibition about the struggles of Native Americans, the Irish and Palestinians.

    Jordan Elgrably is the executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)

    Jordan Elgrably is the executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Anthony Weiss/JTA)

    Welcome to the Levantine Cultural Center, a nonprofit arts and culture hub whose modest home in a corner storefront on Pico Boulevard belies its grand ambition to bridge the fault lines of the contemporary Middle East.

    Launched in 2001, the center aims to foster cultural understanding through concerts, language classes and discussion panels, serving quite literally as a space for common ground.

    Read full story

    Memorial Day: Remember the Victims of American Bombs When You Remember the Soldiers Who Died for Our Empire

    By Jordan Elgrably

    Every year, right before the Memorial Day weekend, I find myself in a quandary: Am I supposed to remember only the American fallen—the soldiers and officers killed in battle around the world? What of the millions of foreign civilians and soldiers our bombs and other munitions have killed since 1945? My thinking here begins with 1945 because that was the year that saw the end of World War II, the deadliest war in history, and the year that the United Nations was founded to secure world peace, yet 1945 proved to be the dawn of the American empire.

    Is it right, on Memorial Day, to remember only our own?

    Let's go back to the 1950-1953 war between South and North Korea. That was a conflict that cost the lives of over a million Koreans, with the U.S. sustaining 33,686 battle deaths.

    In our war with Vietnam, 1955-1975, the Vietnamese government has estimated that some three million civilians and soldiers died. We dropped almost 8 million tons of munitions across Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia—more bombs than we dropped on Germany and Japan in WW II combined.

    According to an article published last year in The World Post, "an estimated 800,000 tons failed to detonate, contaminating around 20 percent of [Vietnam's] land. More than 100,000 people have been killed or injured since 1975, the government says." 

    So even though the Vietnam war is over, it is still killing thousands of Vietnamese every year.

    The World Health Organization estimates that more than 150,000 Iraqis died violent deaths as a result of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2006.

    While the total American death toll from wars between 1945 and today falls below 100,000 troops, the number of people killed in this same period in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq alone (not to mention many other smaller conflicts around the globe) numbers almost five million.

    Can you imagine how angry and vengeful we would feel had foreign forces bombed us, murdering nearly five million of our citizens, here on our soil? And yet you can travel to Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and the people will greet you, as an American, with open arms. They will be warm and hospitable, and will tell you that they distinguish between the good American people and the U.S. government.

    For me, Memorial Day is a reminder of our empire and its sordid history. Not only do I think of the millions of innocent civilian victims of our aggression, but I also remember our dead, who gave their lives—for what? Which multinational corporations profited while our boys died abroad? Honeywell, GenCorp, Halliburton, GM, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon? Did we really need to send thousands of Americans overseas to fight? Were any of our foreign wars worth the death of a son, a husband, a father or some other family member to those individual families who suffered the loss?

    We are raised in this country in a culture of war, cogs in a war economy that is virtually invisible yet inexorable—war never stops, and we maintain over 500 military bases around the world, not to mention the hundreds of bases here at home, each of which costs the taxpayers a half billion dollars per year or more to operate.

    Memorial Day is about much more than fallen soldiers. It's about who are we as a nation, and the legacy we leave for our children, and other peoples' children around the world.

    This is a day to call for world peace.

    • • •

    Visit: Veterans for PeaceIraq Veterans Against the WarVietnam Veterans Against the War

    Check out a map about the United States and the Middle East

    Jordan Elgrably is the director of the Levantine Cultural Center. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or official policies of the Levantine Cultural Center.

    Two Los Angeles rallies held criticizing Israeli response in Gaza

    By Ryan Torok | Jewish Journal

    Yossi Khen, an Israeli based in West Hills, served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) decades ago during the Israel-Egypt War of Attrition, but he doesn’t believe the current conflict in Gaza can be solved with military action.

    "A viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only option for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. As long as it won’t happen, as long as Israel doesn’t accept this, [we will see] this cycle of violence again and again and again,” he said.

     Estee Chandler of Jewish Voice for Peace addresses a crowd in front of the Israeli consulate. Photo by Ryan Torok.

     Estee Chandler of Jewish Voice for Peace addresses a crowd in front of the Israeli consulate. Photo by Ryan Torok.

    One of more than 80 people who attended an L.A. Jews for Peace rally on July 25, Khen ran down a list of all of Israel’s wars, from the 1948 War of Independence to the Six-Day War in 1967 to the 1982 Lebanon War. He expressed exasperation at the redundancy of it all.

    “Look at how many wars — people are tired, I’m telling you,” he said.

    The rally, which took place outside the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, called for the end of Israel’s current military offensive in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, and for Israel to terminate its blockade of the Hamas-run region.

    “I can’t divorce myself from what is happening over there,” said L.A. Jews for Peace member Jordan Elgrably in a phone interview prior to the rally.

    Jordan Elgrably protesting in front of the Israeli consulate. Photo by Elana Golden.

    Jordan Elgrably protesting in front of the Israeli consulate. Photo by Elana Golden.

    Elgrably, a co-founder of the Levantine Cultural Center and an Arab Jew, said he does not believe Israel is interested in peace and that the current entanglement in Gaza — which has taken the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians and more than 50 Israeli soldiers — is evidence of that.

    “I feel gypped by the so-called peace process,” he said.

    A second, larger rally took place July 25 outside the Wilshire Federal Building, attracting about 300 people. Many participants were Muslim, but Jews like Estee Chandler were in the crowd as well.

    Chandler, the organizer of Jewish Voice for Peace Los Angeles — a group that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — said approximately 40,000 people had “signed onto” Jewish Voice for Peace in the “last few weeks.” She said this shows that the “Jewish community isn’t monolithic, they don’t all support AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the FIDF [Friends of Israel Defense Forces].”

    Dorien Grunbaum, a retired professor at L.A. Trade Technical College who attended the L.A. Jews for Peace rally, expressed dismay with the manner in which the Netanyahu administration handled the kidnapping-murder of the three Israeli teenagers that, in part, led to the current Israel operation in Gaza.

    “From what I’ve read in various sources, now I understand that Netanyahu knew that the three teens had died and kept it a secret, did not the let that out, so he could enrage the Israeli public [updated on Aug. 2] and justify what he is doing against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

    Grunbaum’s son, Michael Omer-Man, is the managing director of progressive Israeli-Palestinian publication, +972 Magazine.

    Her partner, Tony Litwinko, is a member of Friends of Sabeel’s Los Angeles chapter, which describes itself as a “movement for Palestinian Christians working for justice and reconciliation.” Chwinko said a recent trip to Tel Aviv reinforced his impression that many in Israel feel indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians who are under occupation.

    “The separation wall that incorporates the Israeli settlements, that wall keeps Israelis from looking in[wards] as well as keeping Palestinians out,” he said.

    He held up a sign reading, “End U.S. Support for Israel’s War and Blockade of Gaza.”

    Others carried more provocative signs. At the rally outside the Federal Building, one demonstrator brought a flag depicting a Star of David and a Nazi swastika separated by an equal sign. Language like “war crimes” and “genocide” was used by attendees as well.

    The scene at the Federal Building was markedly different than one at the same venue several weeks ago, on July 13. That day, more than 2,000 community members, many of them Jewish, turned out for a pro-Israel rally where blue and white and the rhythms of upbeat Israeli music dominated the scene. The scene was upset by a fight between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

    This time around, the black, red, green and white colors of the Palestinian flag were everywhere; in a grassy area on the east side of the Federal Building, several groups of praying Muslims knelt down on rugs, while a Council of American-Islamic Relations representative distributed informational fliers to nearby demonstrators. No disturbances were reported.

    Khen, at least, criticized analogies drawn between Israel and the Nazis, an increasingly common sentiment expressed at anti-Israel gatherings.

    “I don’t [subscribe] to this,” he said. “I hate bringing the Nazis into anything describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. …[It leads to] very destructive conversations.”

    The Holocaust references have come up in other ways, too. On July 26, one day after the rally, Elgrably received a voicemail from an anonymous caller who, apparently pro-Israel, said the members of L.A. Jews for Peace were “Jew traitors, filthy Jew traitors, bastard Jew traitors” who deserved to die by the hand of Hitler.

    In a phone interview on July 28, Elgrably responded by saying: “The whole thing is so distasteful, because I don’t appreciate the references to the Holocaust and Hitler. My aunt was killed in the Holocaust. To me, it’s not a joke.”

    Anti-Defamation League regional director Amanda Susskind said the voicemail left for L.A. Jews for Peace, which she was made aware of by the Journal, is inexcusable.

    “We can agree we are all entitled to different opinions, but we draw the line when people cross into hate speech and extremism,” Susskind said during a phone interview. “There really is no place for that kind of behavior in a civil society.”

    Some Jewish dissidents take a more moderate position than the others.

    Jeff Warner, the action coordinator for L.A. Jews for Peace who attended both rallies, said he felt most of the people in the latter crowd were, in his own words, “nuts” in their extremism against Israel.

    So why attend?

    “Because they are against the occupation,” Warner said, who held a sign that day saying, “This Jew Opposes U.S. Support for Israel’s War on Gaza.”

    “You’ve got to stand on one side or the other,” Warner said. “I choose to stand on this side, even though a lot of people here are extremists who are hurting the [possibility of a] two-state solution.

    The CIA and the Middle East

    Here is a June 20, 2017 update on the C.I.A. and its relationship with Iran, from Foreign Policy

    64 Years Later, CIA Finally Releases Details of Iranian Coup

    America’s Great Game: The C.I.A. and U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy

    This is a review of a public forum presented by the Levantine Cultural Center on the evening of Thursday, March 6, 2014, at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Los Angeles. The participants were intelligence historian Hugh Wilford, former CIA case manager Robert Baer, and moderator Robert Scheer, a longtime journalist and commentator on KCRW's Left, Right and Center. I curated the program, with support from KPFK 90.7 FM and LA Jews for Peace. For a list of upcoming Levantine programs, click here.

    Hugh Wilford, Robert Scheer, Robert Baer (photos by Erick Almalina)

    Hugh Wilford, Robert Scheer, Robert Baer (photos by Erick Almalina)

    By Jordan Elgrably

    THE CIA HAS ENTERED OUR POPULAR IMAGINATION as a mysterious agency operating out of Langley, Virginia that does the work of the American empire, foiling our perceived enemies abroad and accomplishing the tasks that suit particular big business interests, whether in the Middle East, Asia, South America or Europe, where for decades America's greatest adversary was the Soviet Union (at one time the CIA devoted 60% of its budget to combatting the Soviets).

    Just this past year, as journalist and Truthdig editor-in-chief Robert Scheer pointed out, 60 years after the MI6-CIA engineered coup of Iran's democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the CIA released documents that admitted its responsibility for meddling in Iran's internal affairs. The CIA noted: "[T]he military coup that overthrew Mossadegh and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy." It was made clear that U.S. motivations were almost entirely economic.

    But who are the American recruits who do our government's bidding, and what do they care about? Why is the CIA so feared and hated throughout the Middle East and North Africa?

    Robert Baer

    Robert Baer

    Author and former CIA case manager Robert Baer is an Arabic- and Persian speaking American who spent 21 years as a CIA employee, mostly in the Middle East. A Los Angeles native, he graduated from Georgetown University and did graduate work at UC Berkeley, where he applied to the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Baer's books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil were the basis for the 2005 Academy Award-winning motion picture Syriana. The film's character Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is loosely based on Baer. Baer's most recent books are The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower and The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story.

    He also published a novel, Blow the House Down. At one point during the evening, Baer quipped, "All novels are about good intentions."

    I WAS INITIALLY INSPIRED TO CURATE THIS PROGRAM after learning of a new book by Cal State Long Beach professor Hugh Wilford, a British intelligence historian who researched the early years of the CIA, when Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, was an operative, and the agency was overrun with zealots who were, Wilford found, well-trained and sympathetic Arabists

    Wilford's book is America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East.

      Books by Wilford, Baer and Scheer (available at the Levantine Cultural Center bookstore, call 310.657.5511).

      Books by Wilford, Baer and Scheer (available at the Levantine Cultural Center bookstore, call 310.657.5511).

    Considering that Israel has seemed to be America's best friend in the Middle East for decades, it would not have ever occurred to me that the CIA once had high-level operatives who were pro-Arab. Yet Wilford found in his research that indeed, American agents like Roosevelt and Miles Copeland (father of the former Police drummer Stuart Copeland) were fascinated with the British empire and the exotic Middle East; they were orientalists who read Rudyard Kipling and T.E. Lawrence and wanted to chase adventure as spies doing good work for their country. They learned Arabic and created a group called American Friends of the Middle East—a name far more benevolent than the activities of that group suggest (if you want to know the details, read Wilford's book).

    But after Wilford painted a somewhat rosy picture of a band of American elite recruits making mischief in places where, as Robert Baer suggested, we perhaps had no business, moderator Robert Scheer asked repeatedly why it seemed that CIA actions and predictions had so often been wrong, as if the agents were "stupid" despite appearing to be quite educated. Robert Baer insisted that frequently the raw intel produced by agents on the ground was good—that the people with expertise had good sources, were knowledgeable and were telling it like it is, but up the chain of command their superiors didn't want to hear it, just didn't want to know the truth.

    Anyone remember the case of WMDs in Iraq, when the White House clearly had an agenda and seemed to be ignoring CIA reports? This disinformation had two components: weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi plans for terrorism against the US with sleeper cells.  The first has been debunked and the second has been ignored, even though the US went through massive quantities of Iraqi government and Baath party documents, without any evidence of Iraqi plans or preparations to attack the United States.

    As Baer insisted more than once during the forum, often it was a matter of bureaucrats at the CIA getting paid every two weeks who want to keep their jobs and get promotions. They don't want to rock the boat. From whom then are they taking their orders?

    The State Department and the White House, said Baer.*

    In the case of Iraq, it would appear that CIA agents functioned as minions of George W. Bush White House foreign policy.

    So much for the CIA being a rogue agency. In fact, Baer made it sound as if Langley runs a practically bumbling operation half the time, which completely belies the facts when you look where CIA covert actions have been effective (coups engineered in Iran, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere). But Baer disparaged covert operations, saying that they were generally a path downhill in your career, that the good agents do not want to go out on covert ops.

    (While Baer said many in the CIA disdained the failed Bay of Pigs operation under Kennedy, he placed the blame on the Kennedy Administration, despite the fact that the CIA cooked up the plan during the previous administration, under Eisenhower.)

    So how did the early CIA go from empathizing with the Arab people to becoming so hated for its obvious meddling? After all, Kim Roosevelt et al were friendly with and supported Egypt's beloved Gamal Abdel Nasser.

    In reality CIA Arabists were sympathetic to Arab elites, most of whom were corrupt autocrats.  And while they may have seemed supportive of the pan-Arab nationalism that Nasser championed, the CIA also backed the Muslim Brotherhood to foil Nasser.

    The consensus, emphasized by Baer, was that American agents and case managers were far more likely to have relationships with those at the top, while ignoring the needs of the masses.

    Robert Scheer

    Robert Scheer

    Robert Scheer had interviewed Kermit Roosevelt about his years in the CIA in 1978, when the latter was aging and bedridden. He described Roosevelt as a man of good cheer who thought the CIA worked with the best intentions in mind. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What happens when our intel is wrong, when the CIA bungles the job? You have the debacle that Iraq became; you have an agency that completely failed to protect the country from the events of 9/11—and one that did not predict the Arab Spring. As Robert Baer frankly admitted, "I didn't understand [what was really going on in] Iraq, I still don't."

    Regarding the events of 9/11, Baer and Scheer concurred that we still don't know the truth. The latter belittled the 9/11 Commission Report, saying it was as flawed as the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Baer wondered how on earth the 15 Saudis got into the U.S. in the first place. He suggested that they were "handled" by operatives but did not explain further.

    A vigorous question and answer session ensued after Wilford, Baer and Scheer talked amongst themselves on stage, at the Westwood Hills church. People seemed to want to like Robert Baer; I was surprised he did not face more hostility, as many of those who spoke out were clearly critical of the CIA.

    Said Dick Platkin, an activist with LA Jews for Peace, "I enjoyed the forum but I was bothered by the undertone that we need smart CIA agents instead of stupid ones who are limited by Washington politicians. I think smart ones could be far worse in extending the reach and effectiveness of the US empire."

    My one question concerned Israel's attack on the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship stationed off the coast of Israel in 1967 that took fire from both the Israeli Air Force and Israeli Navy. During prolonged bombing and strafing, more than 30 American servicemen were killed. Clearly this was an act of war, yet Israel issued an apology, insisting they had mistaken the ship for an Egyptian vessel—this despite the fact that the Liberty was flying the American flag.

    While Baer was critical of Israel's actions and lamented the deaths of our personnel, he was not able to explain the policy decisions that led to the Johnson Administration accepting Israel's apology. Johnson would brush the incident under the rug, and the U.S. has hardly protested any of Israel's military actions in the Middle East since that time.

    If you want to understand the CIA, it will certainly help to read the works of Wilford and Baer, but you will not find all the answers to the U.S.-MiddleEast conundrum. And as Baer admitted to me privately at the end of the night, "I don't have any answers." More likely, his former employers will not permit him to speak freely, except to share the most innocuous or entertaining information. Unless and until we demand to know more, we shall continue to be enthralled at the movies by the CIA's mysterious operatives, but will not learn what they do in our name.

    # # #

    * More likely the tail is wagging the dog—the CIA does the dirty work for U.S. big business interests, and therefore the State Department and the White House are in the CIA's thrall.

    Jordan Elgrably, a writer in Los Angeles, is the director of the Levantine Cultural Center. Link

    Policing the Middle East: Pledge for Peace or Patrol for Power?

    This is a panel I particiated in on Nov. 20, 2013, The Art of Resistance, with LMU political science professor Feryal Cherif and Fadia Alhallak, a Syrian international student at Loyola Marymount University. 

    Art-of-Resistance-Flyer-2013sm.jpg

    The subject of this "Art of Resistance" event had an interesting premise—looking at the U.S. role in the region with a critical eye, and having Arabs/Middle Easterners at the heart of the discussion. While I am of Moroccan heritage, I'm also an American citizen, and feel it's my responsibility to be keenly aware and critical of our foreign policy.

    Since World War II the United States has been a war economy. Our Middle East foreign policy has been constructed around that. And while the C.I.A.'s early history was replete with Arabists—with analysts who were favorable toward the Muslim world—that has been replaced by obedience to the belief that Israel is America's best friend in the region.

    The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Art of Cultural Diplomacy

    This is an extended talk I gave on Nov. 15, 2013 to Contacts, Women Leaders of Orange County.

    I discuss how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and my own identity as an Arab Jew has led me to become an activist and advocate for cultural diplomacy. This talk is available to your group. Contact my assistant, 310.657.5511.

    Arab America, the Syrian Civil War and the Gaza-Israel Conflict

    We can't allow the dogs of war to run our lives

    19 Nov., 2013 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably

    When you're the chief advocate of a Middle Eastern cultural center—the only one of its kind in Southern California—you're inevitably in the hot seat. Sure enough, just as I was preparing to head off to a national conference of Arab American leaders representing cultural and social organizations around the country, yet another "war" began between Hamas in Gaza and Israel (I insert "war" in quotes because the Palestinians do not have an army, air power or any military force that would technically qualify them to be even a distant match for the Israel Defense Force).

    Just as this new battle is heating up, the civil war in Syria, lest we forget, rages on, with its daily toll of victims, mostly civilian, and more than 30,000 dead already. (Our current art exhibition "I Rise" by Syrian painter Fadia Afashe brings that discomfiting reality up close and personal.)

    At the conference of National Network for Arab American Communities, in Philadelphia, we all worked on our reasons for getting together in the first place—networking amongst ourselves to share resources, learning more about how to fund raise, and strengthening our work in our respective communities, where we provide social services, arts programs, educational services and in general promote positive messages about Arab culture and Arab Americans (regardless of religion). Almost none of us wanted to openly talk about Gaza-Israel or Syria.

    These conflicts tend to polarize whole communities. They are among many reasons I have argued at length why the United States in general and the Los Angeles region in particular (entertainment and media capital of the world) desperately needs community hubs like the Levantine Cultural Center. They underscore why a cultural arts center that builds relationships and civic engagement among disparate populations can be so compelling.

    MODERATES, NOT EXTREMISTS, MUST CONTROL THE DISCOURSE

    This, after all, is about building consensus among moderates. Our vision is that most of us are anything but fanatical about politics, religion, nationality or identity. We are rather people who know that talking to each other works. We have personally observed the power of cultural diplomacy. In our circles, whether you are Syrian, Palestinian, Turkish, Jewish or run-of-the-mill American, you absolutely reject the use of force, terrorism or military violence as a means to resolve political conflict, or to exact a price for a perceived wrong.

    It's always wrong to kill women and children; it's always wrong to target civilians, period. None of us will argue that point. We are fervent believers in the principles set down in the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    We also believe that the Levantine Cultural Center (and organizations like ours), in the public programs we present, allows for diverse viewpoints to be shared. We create a safe space for everyone to dialogue about conflicting narratives.

    I would really like to be writing in detail about the wonderful camaraderie I experienced among a coterie of Arab American advocates, whose daily work consists of improving the lives of their constituents through arts, education and social work. However, that has been overshadowed by new conflicts and by the manner in which they are presented by the mainstream media. Once again, Arabs seem to be the dastardly aggressors, while the other side is merely defending itself. My problem is with the way the Arab side is routinely depicted in American television, radio and print news media.

    Here is what one of my young colleagues (who requested anonymity) has to say about the current Gaza-Israel conflagration:

    It has been incredibly disheartening to watch as the media's coverage of the conflict in Gaza continues to skew reality. Israel is framed as the victim driven to self-defense while Palestinians are named the aggressors, meanwhile all context of the conditions that gave rise to the violence are ignored. Massive violence has been inflicted upon Gaza and Palestinians, yet massive amounts of air time and web space is disproportionately placed on the violence inflicted upon Israel and Israelis. The inherent bias can be seen in one western media report where Israelis are reported "killed" while Palestinians are reported to have "died." When it comes to this conflict, it seems as though shaping public opinion to align with American foreign policy interests has been widely accepted as priority over accountability and fair and ethical reporting.

    We really don't want to take sides, and we must refuse to be drawn into these us-and-them battles. In reality I don't believe there is "us and them"—there is only us. We are all responsible for the fate of our children. We owe it to them—whether they are Arab/Muslim, Christian or Jewish, whatever they are, wherever they are—to safeguard the peace and promote a more pacific world.


    The Brutal Art of Bullfighting

    Three Writers’ Take on Tauromachy

    Richard Ford, Barry Gifford, Jordan Elgrably back in the day.

    Richard Ford, Barry Gifford, Jordan Elgrably back in the day.

    Best of Writers at Work | By Jordan Elgrably

    Richard Ford is the author of many novels, including The Sportswriter, Independence Day (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize) and the short story collection Women With Men. Barry Gifford’s books include Port Tropique, Back in America, Brando Rides Alone and The Phantom Father, and his credits as screenwriter include Lost Highway, Perdita Durango and City of Ghosts. Jordan Elgrably is a former expatriate journalist who was based in Paris and Madrid. His forthcoming novel is The Book of Love and Exile.

    Richard Ford and Barry Gifford were in Spain on book business when they decided they’d go to the bullfights. For the authors of Wildlife and Wild at Heart, respectively—two novels with a subtext of violence—it seemed like the right thing to do. Though Richard and his wife Kristina had lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for nearly a year (the setting for Ford’s second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, he’d never been to a corrida, while Gifford had last seen violence in the ring in Mexico at the age of eleven and claimed to remember it vividly. With true afición he talked Ford into going.

    Now that the moment of truth was at hand, however, Ford had a worried look on his face—from these first row seats the gore was palpable. Gifford watched with intense concentration, his hands steepled up against his nose, as the matador raised the weapon of death and sighted along the blade. Ford glanced away. “Oh, God,” he grumbled. Did he really want to see this

    Morenito de Maracay, a dark-skinned little man, plunged the sword into the bull’s shoulders, at the base of the spine. The curved, razor-sharp estoque went in only half-way before the mulatto matador—a Venezuelan and one of the rare foreign bullfighters to make a living in Spain—withdrew it, simultaneously drawing hoots and shouts from the Sunday crowd. Morenito had gone in at the wrong angle, it seems, missing the aorta; the bull, whose name was Indolente (I kid you not), staggered like a punch-drunk fighter. A hundred feet away a heckler yelled down into the ring in a basso profundo, his face red with booze, “Anda, kill him, kill him! He won’t even notice!”

    Las Ventas, Madrid

    Las Ventas, Madrid

    It was a taunt the diminutive Morenito could not ignore. He had just exceeded the fifteen minutes allotted him for the killing and was in a hurry to please the Presidencia. As the bullfighter flew through the air again, affecting the choreographic movement called volapié—fleet feet—Indolente lowered his horns to receive him. This time the estoque, agleam with Goyesque blood, penetrated to the hilt. All 1,100 pounds of bull thudded into the sand. But Indolente did not die on the spot. I could see his head move, shoulders slumped and eyes bulging through my zoom lens like some Picasso aberration. The second thrust had also failed to sever the great artery. Jeers and insults echoed across the arena while three trumpets—ta-ta-ta-taaaaa—sounded the trill of death. Morenito contemplated his opponent for an instant, then seized the sword by the handle with both hands and gave the two-and-a-half-foot blade a jolt in its taurine sheath. Indolente convulsed.

    “The coup de grace,” said Gifford.

    It certainly looked that way, yet the man to actually slay the beast is not the matador but the puntillero. Like all messengers of death, this character arrives discreetly and performs his handiwork. I saw him—a small person who looked more like a pickpocket than a corrida official—reach down with the puntilla (dagger) and repeatedly stab the bull at the base of the skull. After nearly twenty minutes of battle, then, Indolente’s soul left his bloody carcass and floated away over our heads to wherever butchered bull souls go. “Por fin!” the drunken heckler cried, his arms a semaphore in the air, “Por fin, joder!”

    The roar of the crowd was a boo-hooray reaction to the bravucón (a bluff of a bull, antonym of bravo) and to a clumsy kill. Nobody tossed anything into the arena to show their disgust, nor did they wave their handkerchiefs at the Presidente. Morenito de Maracay, who that season had already slaughtered 86 bulls and slashed 38 ears—at the behest of the bullfight authorities—would not be awarded a single ear.

    Ford looked into his hands with veiled emotion. In truth, he really hadn’t wanted to attend and had threatened to leave if he didn’t like it. “This,” he said, “is not my culture.” Gifford’s jaws flexed, a grim expression of acceptance; he glanced over at me to see if I was having a good time. As they dragged Indolente’s rigid remains from the Plaza de Toros, I shrugged. It was not my culture either, unless you considered that my Sephardic ancestors had lived in Granada under the Moors, long before tauromachy had taken a hold over native Spaniards and the national imagination.

    It was on Saturday evening, as we were preparing to rendezvous with a few Madrileño friends at Sobrino de Botín, a restaurant on the Calle de los Cuchilleros (Street of the Knife Sharpeners), that Gifford enthusiastically invited everyone to the fights the next day. It was shortly after Easter, the season was just starting and good seats would not be hard to come by. “When in Spain...” he said. Richard and Kristina Ford, who greet virtually every suggestion with alacrity, thought it over a moment and decided yes, they’d like to go, though Kristina seemed to have second thoughts.

    The authentic Sobrino de Botín in Madrid.

    The authentic Sobrino de Botín in Madrid.

    Calle de los Cuchilleros, one of the oldest streets in Madrid, is dense with famed if touristy flamenco restaurants, tapa bars and bodegas; to get to it you cross through the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, then take the cobblestone steps to Cuchilleros, where you first come upon El Cuchi, the newest establishment on the street and a restaurant of undistinguished cuisine whose sole merit, brightly announced on a green and white marquee, is HEMINGWAY NEVER ATE HERE. Pointing out the marquee, I mirthfully told everyone this was where we had our reservations, at which Richard Ford laughed and said with irony, “Oh good!” A private joke, considering Ford had once told me he felt his stories had suffered facile comparison to those of Mr. Hemingway.

    At Sobrino de Botín we were led to a table on the second floor; the rustic decor included an aging waiter and baroque-looking menus that read casa fundada en 1725. We ordered, each in his special brand of Spanish, but when the entremeses arrived, Kristina turned to me and confided that she really didn’t want to see a corrida. “I just don’t think I want to watch the suffering,” she said. “It‘ll give me nightmares.” In fact, I had very little compulsion to go either, but Gifford’s excitement at being in Spain for the first time in many years had infected us all. “I hit the coast off Barcelona in ‘66,” Barry had told us, “on a drug run to Morocco. Nasty experience, and I never got to Madrid.” This trip was going to be different. You could not come to Spain, he seemed to be saying, without witnessing at least one live corrida, any more than you could visit France without gorging yourself on the finest wines and cheeses.

    While we were working on our appetizers I remembered a tertulia I’d once had with two young Spaniards who’d gone to bullfighting school and still loved the sport, though they’d given up any hopes of entering the ring. (A tertulia, another national pastime, is a gathering or discussion, often of a literary nature; ours had been about the bull’s suffering.) “They say that if the bull is bravo,” I told Kristina, reiterating their argument, “he’s so powerful that the picador’s pike pole and the banderillas only enrage him more. He feels little or no pain. They say that only about two out of a hundred bulls put up that kind of fight, though.”

    Kristina nodded politely, she picked at her appetizer while I talked on: Wasn’t it a question of human grace and courage versus brute strength and adrenaline? Weren’t the fights more about bravery than the sadistic torture of animals? “The corrida may be a bloodletting in which thousands gleefully participate,” I said, playing devil’s advocate, “but after all, it is the art and heart of Spanish culture.”

    “You know, really,” she said, cutting me off with a pleasant smile, “when I go game hunting with Richard, I try to make it a fast kill, I really do. I feel bad if I just wing the bird.”

    I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death...Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.

    Or so Hemingway figured. Writers are constantly contemplating the meaning of death, as we all do, which is probably why Ford felt compelled to go, and why Gifford couldn’t stay away. Although I was not much for Spanish mysticism, I felt it explained, in part, the national culture of the corrida, the melancholy of flamenco, and the fact that entire families were able to cut each others’ throats during the Civil War, a cataclysm which appears to have been all but buried in the years following Franco’s death in 1975. The dark side of the Spanish soul, however, tends to evaporate in the Iberian sun, and it’s nowhere to be found in the alegría of Madrilenos who haunt the city’s bars until all hours of the night.

    At five in the afternoon Sunday—it was exactly five in the afternoon—I walked the short distance across the sundial plaza of the Puerto del Sol and up the Calle del Carmen to the Hotel Liabeny, where the Fords and Barry Gifford were staying. I found them waiting in the lobby. Kristina smiled affably and said, no surprise to me, “You go on and try to have a good time. I’ll just stay here and read.” But Gifford seemed disappointed. “You really should come,” he said. “You’ll be missing something.” With a wild gleam in his eye, the Southern-raised Richard Ford—writer and game hunter—raised his voice from its usual soft register and said, “If Kristina doesn’t want to go, I don’t want her to go.”

    Normally inseparable, there was no use arguing: Kristina would stay behind.

    We boarded the Metropolitan and took the train to Ventas, the last station on the red subway line. Ford voiced his misgivings throughout the ride, but Gifford’s enthusiasm would not be muted. “It’s like mink coats,” he said. “Nobody’d be killing minks if women weren’t wearing them. I mean, all this is fixed beforehand.” The bulls-are-born-to-be-killed argument, while true, would probably not make it any easier to watch their slaughter.

    It is worthwhile to consider how each author handles violence in his fiction. Barry Gifford never shrinks from it; he accepts its inevitability and reports in graphic detail, conjuring the kind of imagery which director David Lynch filmed in Wild at Heart, the film based on Gifford’s novel of the same title, and which Gifford continues to explore in his Sailor and Lula novels and their spin-offs—Night People, Perdita Durango (also a movie starring Javier Bardem and Rosie Perez). Richard Ford, on the other hand, writes of violence with quiet, almost oneiric resolve, a dreamlike quality especially evident in books like A Piece of My Heart, Rock Springs and Wildlife, where the reader is confronted with the violence latent in himself. Clearly, that novel points out, our intelligence is hardly a guarantee of humanity; something else can overtake us—nature, or wildlife—which carries us away, forcefully, from what we are or would like to be, at times when the intellect is needed most.

    And yet, Ford’s reluctance to see a corrida took me by surprise. He was a famed outdoors man, after all, who enjoyed hunting and fishing as much as any of the characters in A Piece of My Heart or his Rock Springs stories; I knew that he had no particular affinity for the machismo of Hemingway, but I couldn’t see why somebody who grew up killing animals for sport in North America would object to the extravagant equivalent in Spain. I suspected it wasn’t out of any animal-loving sentimentality but a decided aversion to touristic kitsch that Ford nearly let Gifford and I go on alone.

    Gifford’s desire to attend a corrida did not come as a surprise. Several years ago I discovered his first novel, Port Tropique, a fascinating story of drugs, thugs and Central American revolution in which Gifford imitates the feverishness of Conrad, the staccato rhythms of Hemingway, and mocks both legendary novelists. Enchanted by Tropiqu’s tough-guy character of Franz Hall, I suspected Hall might be a parody of the author himself. When we later met in Paris, my impression of the tough guy-cum-author was confirmed. While he writes poetry with the sensitivity of haiku

    Startled by a bird
    I clutch my heart
    As if you’d flown
    Out from it

    Gifford has the biceps of a merchant seaman and truck driver—two of the professions he exercised before he began to make a living from his writing. And although he started out as a poet, going on to write short novels like Port Tropique, Wild At Heart, and Night People Gifford has also written books on baseball and the horse track.

    We got there a few minutes early and wandered around in front of the arena, a structure of Moorish design built in 1929 with Nasrid arches and a mudéjar ceiling at the entrance (after the Plaza de Toros in Mexico City, Ventas is the world’s second-largest arena, seating 23,000). A scalper flashed some front-row tickets at Ford while Gifford bought a tee-shirt for his teenage son. Stopping to gaze at bullfight posters on which the tourist can have his name printed as the main attraction, Ford pointed to a poster that read YOUR NAME HERE and said, “That’s the one for me.” Entering the Plaza de Toros, we did not dilly-dally on the patio de caballos or wander through the other dependencies, but walked straight into the plaza and were directed to the first row of concrete tendidos behind the wood barrera, where Ford extracted a hundred pesetas for the steward. A hundred pesetas was the price of a good seat in the era of Death in the Afternoon, circa 1932; now it might buy you a cafe con leche, a copy of the Madrid daily El País or a cheap cigar.<

    Bull and matador at Las Ventas, Madrid.

    Bull and matador at Las Ventas, Madrid.

    The corrida is six three-act sketches of five minutes per act, or tercio, in which each of the six bulls of the day are faced by two picadors, three banderilleros and a matador. In the first tercio de varas, the bull is released from the toril, or enclosure and four men on foot draw the bull’s attention with hot pink-colored capes, ducking in and out of the burladeros, those little shelters behind which all the toreros stand at the start of the fight and behind which they retreat on fleet feet when the bull singles them out for especially mean treatment. (The brightly colored capes, by the way, are more spectacle for man than bull, who is born colorblind and will never care whether you wave a red flag or a yellow swizzle stick at him.) Then the picador appears on his padded horse and is invariably attacked by the bull, who tries, usually in vain, to throw the horse while the picador jabs his pic into the hump of shoulder muscles, thereby draining the bull of much of his strength. A second picador is stationed on the opposite side of the ring should the bull turn away from his attackers. During the second tercio de banderillas, the banderilleros run at the weakened bull and plant their staves around the wounds administered by the picador. In the third tercio de muerte, the matador brings out the estoque and a cerise-colored cape and performs the final rites. After we’d watched the second of the six bulls bite the dirt, Ford stood up, knotted the waistband of his trench coat, and adjusted the beret he’d been wearing. “I told you if I didn’t like it I’d leave,” he said. “I just can’t see the sense of this.” But Gifford was enjoying the camaraderie. He flagged a refreshment vendor. “Have something to drink? You’ve lasted this long,” he said persuasively. “Why not stick it out?”

    After a moment of hesitation, Ford sat back down on the uncomfortable concrete bleachers, and we wordlessly waited for the third bull to appear. When the grotesquerie began again, with the bull rushing the picador on his padded, blindered horse and the picador stabbing him with impunity, Ford frowned. “I don’t so much mind the killing and the dying,” he said. “What I don’t like is how they reduce the bull so as he can hardly resist those little bastards.” He was referring, of course, to the bandilleros and matador, who would be incapable of approaching an un-piced bull. Sitting this close, we could hear the bull bellow with pain when the banderillero jabbed his barbs into the bull’s withers. His name was name Traicionero (“traitorous one”), and he was not, our Castillan neighbors assured us as they pointed to his grey, drooping tongue, bravo.

    matador and toro

    matador and toro

    Fighting bulls are raised semi-wild by men on horseback and never see a man on the ground. Once they’ve been in the arena they learn from the experience and must be killed. Indeed, the most exhilarating moment of the corrida is when the bull first emerges from the toril, spots his enemies, and charges after them. At this stage he’s still a wild animal that puts the fear of God into you, but as soon as he goes for the picador the greatest danger has passed. “Are they intelligent?” Ford wondered, speaking to a tiny, withered old Spaniard sitting near us. “Oh no,” the old man said, “but they remember. They can remember a man ten years later,” he added. “If they’re not put to death, of course.”

    Boredom is one aspect of the fight you don’t count on. Compassion for the bulls, excitement, even terror—but not aburrimiento. In effect, after you’ve seen one or two bulls dispatched from the ring you begin to feel like you’re watching television; there is this overwhelming sensation that you are not actually participating in the spectacle, sitting there in the crowd engaged with your feelings, but that you’re seeing everything as if from outside. And—if you find your reaction to the bullfight is not fascination—you want to get the hell out of there. Impatience sets in, you’ve given your first yawn, you more or less forget the fight itself and watch those watching it, which is perhaps the most fun of all.

    A lot of Spaniards come just to heckle. The professional hecklers are admired and prompted by the people around them. Our rubescent drunkard carried on a monologue with the bullfighters throughout the afternoon. When the bull wasn’t offering much resistance, he’d bellow, “Save your department-store discounts, we don’t want them!” And if the bull refused to leave his querencia, an area of the arena he establishes as his territory and from which the matador must draw him out for the kill, he’d cry “Que se vaya!" or “Afuera, afuera!” Meaning the matador should either hurry up and get it over with or go the hell home.

    While Gifford took the corrida rather seriously, remaining silent during all the crucial moments, Ford often shook his head and poked fun at the toreros in their traje de luces, those body-hugging, sequined suits; when one banderillero scratched his genitals in full public view, Ford chortled, “I’d be doing that too if I was wearing those ridiculous pants.” Later, however, after an especially powerful-looking bull lunged at his festooned enemy and an aficionado leaned over to tell us that all toreros are gored sooner or later—superficially, seriously or fatally—Ford winced. “Listen, if one of these guys got the horn,” I asked him, “would you be unhappy?” “Yeah,” he said, “I would.” And yet, you had to wonder: if the element of human tragedy were to be eliminated, if there were no risk of a goring, would any of us have come?

    A great killer must love to kill.

    A certain degree of skill, grace and courage are indispensable for any man who hopes to survive in the ring, but the science, or art, of tauromachy makes a distinction between toreros who do great work with the muleta (the heart-shaped serge or flannel cape folded over a wooden stick), and the hot-blooded matadors who are more convincing in their use of the sword. It is a dichotomy of style: theartiste who dazzles you with cape and footwork is closer to a flamenco dancer than a killer; he does not enjoy the kill and often declares his distaste for it to the bullfight journalists. The proficient swordsman, on the other hand, may not have feet of velvet but he revels in the moment of truth, when he must make the kill. Spaniards with a sense of humor snidely call the latter a Mata Toros, a butcher of bulls. But whether the torero is a dancer or a killer, he knows the meaning of fear: beginning the day before the fight, he sweats profusely, his beard grows faster and he experiences the kind of stomach pains for which women take Midol.

    It is the decadence of the modern bull that has made modern bullfighting possible. It is a decadent art in every way and like most decadent things it reaches its fullest flower at its rottenest point, which is the present.

    You couldn’t convince Richard Ford that bulls know anything about art or decadence. In any case, the current argument in Spain against the corrida is not so much with the bred-down, semi-savage bull, the overpaid or incompetent matador, or even cruelty to animals, but that it is tercermundista—of the Third World. Bullfighting is tercermundista because it is a poor man’s sport, is bad art, is kitsch, or so the reasoning goes. Having been effectively removed from the European community by almost forty years of dictatorship under Franco, many Spaniards have come to be proud of the country’s highlighted role in the European Community; to them the bullfight is an embarrassment, an outmoded tradition which they liken to cockfights in Manila or dogfights in Mexico. Aficionados, however, claim the corrida offers some resistance to the encroaching universalization of life in the West—what some social critics have decried as the Americanization of Spain. Though commercialized and exploited for the purposes of tourism, bullfighting resists outside pressures to change, they say, unlike most other aspects of Spanish life, including popular music and the cinema. (Ever since his “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was nominated for an Oscar, moviemaker Pedro Almodóvar has been accused of falling victim to the pernicious influence of Hollywood.) Conservative Spaniards insist that inculcating their children with the art and history of the corrida will give them a sense of tradition they otherwise would not have, and so you see these miniature adults, the ten-year-old girls in their frilled sevillana dresses, the boys wearing toy swords, shouting “ole!” with as much afición as their parents.

    When the Socialists were swept into power in 1982, many Spaniards feared the corrida would be outlawed from existence. There was a new liberalism in the air, a desire for change, which prompted the cultural revolution, or movida in Madrid and Barcelona, and bullfighting was considered passé. Pedro Almodovar’s 1984 parody, “Matador,” showed the conflict between the corrida and the movida’s renewed values; often hilarious, the film follows a retired matador and a kinky journalist both obsessed with death and sex; in the end, with flamenco blaring in the background, they kill each other as they climax simultaneously. Aficionados needn’t have worried, though: bull-slaughter may be bad for the Spanish spirit but according to ticket sales it is more popular now than at any other time in the last 100 years. Indeed, the bull is a cash cow for the economy. In an average year nearly 25,000 bulls are killed before an estimated 30 million spectators, an industry which supports 150,000 employees and toreros, and brings in billions of dollars. Each of the five daily papers in Madrid has a Toros column, usually just after the pages of Cultura and before the sports section, and some of Spain’s best journalists are experts on tauromachy. Bullfights appear on the small screen as often as soccer or basketball. And, if you need further evidence that bullfighting hasn’t passed from fashion in Post-Movida Spain, a new nightclub recently opened in the heart of Madrid, called, honorifically, “Torero.”

    The sun was a blood orange by the time the last bull was dragged from the ring. We slowly filed out of the Plaza de Toros and into the Metropolitano amidst Spaniards who joked and jostled one another in their usual noisy way; none of us had much to say, and if we did it wasn’t about what we had just seen, but about the dinner and drinks we were looking forward to. Each of us confessed to a healthy appetite.

    That evening, after walking the Fords and Gifford to their hotel, I began to realize just what effect the afternoon had had on me. Far from having been instilled with afición for the corrida, I was convinced that this was to be my unique experience. Afición is a word for any sort of enthusiasm or love; in the bullring it is a passion for the fight and the element of risk to the man below; it is not a passion for the bull, who in his bluntness, in his stupidity, is a metaphor for the nothingness beyond death. At <i>the moment of truth </i>you see not only an animal about to be slain but the bullfighter’s fear of nothingness, which he conceals as best he can behind his mask of courage.

    That very fear is what Hannah Arendt was referring to when she wrote, “Homo faber, the creator of human artifice, has always been a destroyer of nature.” The corrida can also be seen as a theatrical representation of Ende-Sein, philosopher Martin Heidegger’s term for the human condition of “existing-towards-death” or “being-for-death”; it is the brutal art of nada as expressed in paintings by Goya, glorified by Hemingway and exhausted in much of heroic world literature.

    The question is, is a brutal art still art?

    Quotes in bold italics from Death in the Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway.