Saturday, June 16, 2007

Middle East Tutorial

I need a refresher course on the teams and places in the Middle East. I am an average American citizen and want to be supportive of my government but I really don’t know who is who anymore. In the aftermath of September 11th, the government told me that Osama bin Laden was responsible and we “want him dead or alive.” bin Laden was supposed to have been a Saudi who trained in Sudan and the captain of Al Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks though, U.S. troops were on the ground in Afghanistan fighting people called the Taliban. I never really understood the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Who are the Taliban? Some time later the government said they almost caught bin Laden in a place called Tora Bora. Tora Bora? That sounds far away. So it was bin Laden, captain of Al Qaeda, who master minded the attacks, but it was the Taliban in Afghanistan that we went to fight. I need some remedial clarity on this already. It doesn’t help that the public education that I received in this bastion of freedom and democracy didn’t cover any of these places or people.

Some time later another guy, Saddam Hussein, was introduced and the government told me that he was connected to the attacks on September 11th. They said that Hussein was the captain of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq and that we had to change his regime. He was from a place called Tikrit but lived in Baghdad. Now, not only do I have to figure out the relationships between Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Ba’athists, I have to figure out if Hussein and bin Laden were friends. Hussein comes with some really complicated attachments to his file too. As soon as our soldiers got rid of him all these other teams popped up. They said there was factional fighting between the Shi’a and the Sunni Muslims. They also mentioned the Shi’ites, but I think the Shi’ites are the same as the Shi’a. Maybe Shi’a is plural for Shi’ite – one Shi’ite, two Shi’a? If so, there would be no need for Shi’ites plural. Need some help on that one. I also do not understand the relationship between either of those groups and the Ba’athists. Are the Ba’athists a secular team or a religious team? Or a secular team with religious leanings like the Republicans? More help needed. Then they said that the Ba’athists didn’t like the Kurds. They hanged Saddam Hussein because he killed Kurds, but we invaded Iraq because he helped destroy lower Manhattan. Who are the Kurds anyway and where did they come from? I’ve heard Kurdistan. Another place I never learned about in school. If Kurds are from Kurdistan, why were they in Iraq? Are they Kurdish-Iraqis like African-Americans? And why don’t the Shi’a, the Shi’ites, the Sunnis or the Ba’atists like them? I have also heard that there are some of them in Istanbul too - that is in Turkey, not to be confused with Turkmenistan. The Turkish Turks don’t like the Kurds either. I don’t know how the Turkmenistanian Turks feel about the Kurds. Something smells fishy about these Kurds. Need some more learning on them too. I am not even clear about all the things I need clarity on.

The government told me that part of the reason the fight in Iraq is still going on is because there are insurgents who keep bombing things all over the place and won’t graciously accept U.S. occupation of Iraq. I know the definition of the word insurgent from my SAT prep course, but I don’t really understand who these insurgents are. Even though I don’t know who the insurgents are, the government told me that the chief insurgent is Muqtada al Sadr. He is a Shi’a and is so bad that his team has his name, they call them the Sadrists. Just as I am trying to sort out if the insurgents are Shi’a, Shi’ite, Sunni, Ba’ath or Kurd they tell me that Iran is sending care packages and weapons to them. In the middle of dealing with bin Laden, Hussein and now al Sadr, they introduce another guy from another far away place. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran and lives in Tehran. I’m lucky I can write his name because for sure I can’t say it. Need some linguistics training too. Ahmadinejad is the president, but he isn’t really in charge. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in charge. What is an Ayatollah? Do people vote for an Ayatollah? Or does God just put him in charge? Need some answers there as well. Iran, they say, is a Shi’a team. So if Ahmadinejad is supporting insurgents in Iraq, maybe the insurgents are Shi’a because they’re all on the same team. But Ahmadinejad has said that he just doesn’t like George Bush, like Kanye West said that George Bush just doesn’t like black people. If that is so, them maybe Ahmadinejad is just supporting Arabs in Iraq and not worrying about which team they’re on, in which case we still don’t know who the insurgents are. More things to be clear about. Now there are bin Laden, Hussein, al Sadr, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and all their affiliated affiliations. I have questions about all of it because I don’t really understand any of it.

My government tells me that Ahmadinejad is whack. They say he doesn’t like Jews. That’s not nice. I suspect that he might not like the Jews because the Jews don’t like the Palestinians and the Palestinians are Arabs. Since Ahmadinejad is an Arab and the Palestinians are Arabs and the Jews don’t like the Palestinians, then Ahmadinejad doesn’t like the Jews. If I try really hard I can follow that logic. But I have trouble with the Palestinians. They are another people that never made it into my free and democratic history books. If Israelis are from Israel, Iranians from Iran, Iraqis from Iraq where are the Palestinians from…Gaza? And how come their name doesn’t start with an I? But now the Palestinians are fighting each other. Hamas-Palestinians versus Fatah-Palestinians. Now I feel like I need Special Ed. More teams, more people and I have to make sure to remember who bin Laden is because he is going to be on the test for sure.

They said that Hamas is fighting Fatah in Gaza. Gaza? Mahmoud Abbas is the captain of Fatah. They sometimes call Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen. Arabs are brown people and brown people like nicknames. If he were from L.A. they might have called him “L.A.” for Lil’ Ab. Anyhow, Mahmoud Abbas is lucky they didn’t call him Abu Abbas. Someone killed Abu Abbas because he was down with Hamas. But why is Hamas fighting Fatah in Gaza? The government told me that we supported the Israelis when they attacked the Palestinian National Authority. Yasser Arafat – a.k.a. Abu Ammar – was the captain of that team. I thought that Arafat was down with the P.L.O. Not sure anymore. Now we have the P.L.O. and the P.N.A. They might just be old and new versions of the same thing like Windows XP and Vista. Another point to be cleared up. I think the Palestinian National Authority used to be the Palestinian Liberation Organization and had some kind of relationship with Hamas, but was best friends with Fatah. Since the Israelis killed Arafat, Hamas and Fatah had a falling out. Apparently Fatah and Abu Mazen were trying to be nice and negotiate with the Jews. Hamas was like, F*$k That!! So now Hamas is fighting Fatah and my government and Israel are on Fatah’s team. The tricky part is that supposedly Ahmadinejad in Tehran is down with Hamas in Gaza. So my government and Israel are trying to step to Hamas in Gaza but Ahmadinejad in Tehran has Hamas’ back. So, we started just outside of Brooklyn with bin Laden and now we’re in a place called Gaza with Abu’s Ammar and Mazen, and Fatah is fighting Hamas. This is really a lot.

And then there is some more.

Not only is Hamas backed up by Tehran, there are these other people called Hezbollah who are on their team too. I know bin Laden will be on the test, but I really have no idea how all these others are connected. Hassan Nasrallah is captain of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another place somewhere over there. The other day Israel went ballistic on Lebanon and smashed the whole place. My government told me that I should support Israel against Hezbollah. “Why?” I asked. They said because Hezbollah is on Ahmadinejad’s team and Ahmadinejad is down with Hamas and Hamas is friends with al Sadr and al Sadr is down with the Shi’a and the Shi’a are insurgents and the insurgents are down with Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda is down bin Laden and it was bin Laden blowing things up just outside of Brooklyn. “Oh!” I said, “that’s why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears”; but I still don’t really understand. What about the Taliban?

I am trying to support my government and I’m smart, really I am. But I have no idea who all these people are, where they live, how they are connected and how they pose a threat to me. I think President Bush should pause for a minute and give us a little tutorial so we can know who to root for. In the meantime, I’m trying to stay focused on important domestic matters that I can truly understand.

Are Paris Hilton’s breasts fake?


Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Letter to Reverend Sharpton

Re: June 13th, 2007 show on Keepin’ it Real with Al Sharpton, “Who is an Uncle Tom? And what can we do about them?”

Dear Reverend Sharpton,

Greetings. My name is Kamau Bobb. I am a Brooklyn native and have been listening to you and admiring your defense of black people since the days of Tawanna Brawley. I have been present several times over the years when you’ve sounded the call to action. Notwithstanding that, I have a criticism of you today.

One of the topics on your radio talk show on June 13th, 2007 was, “Who is an Uncle Tom? And what can we do about them?” This type of discussion is far beneath your caliber as a black man of such credibility with such a prominent public voice. Asking people what an Uncle Tom is and who they think is one invariably leads to slanderous, counterproductive name calling. I fail to see what productive ideas or insights could come from such a discussion. That type of conversation always degenerates to a mindless witch hunt as anonymous people publicly belittle other black people who are not there to defend themselves.

Michele from Detroit, who do you think is an Uncle Tom?....

Unless the discussion is about the very specific actions of a public figure who has influence over the living conditions of black people, there is no productive answer to this question.

I do not doubt that there are people who fit your description of an Uncle Tom, but I would challenge you to identify the benefit of having people call in to name people they think – based on their own very personal and individual criteria – are Uncle Toms. Your discussion invites slander and keeps us as a community practicing the techniques of belittling each other.

Your topic is particularly distasteful in a presidential election season that includes Senator Barack Obama. You are well aware that there are considerable segments of the black community that have questioned his “blackness” for a number of reasons. Some of that set have suggested that he is an Uncle Tom simply by virtue of his high brow education. They argue in part, that he cannot possibly have the genuine interests of the black community in his heart because he went to Harvard and Columbia. The implication is that elite educational accomplishment is incompatible with allegiance to the black community. I trust you would agree that the logic of that argument is asinine. Your discussion gives voice to such backward thinking. More dangerously, it helps create an environment that constrains the definition of high achievement, questions the motives of those who do not adhere to it and ultimately undermines the spirit of collective black advancement that you have been struggling for all these years.

I trust your motives and always have. I am also keenly aware of your special skills at identifying the hidden forces that affect the black community. In light of that I would hope that you do not allow your show to descend into the abyss. There are more than enough black talk shows that rely on minstrel antics and base foolishness to whet the appetite of the thoughtless. You have always stood above the fray and I hope that you continue to.

In support,


Monday, June 4, 2007

Thank You Jesus

It has become a rite of early spring to announce the latest state of the gap between black and white students on national standardized tests. Each year right after the Dogwood Festival, we are presented with a new data point on the persistent racial achievement gap in education. These springtime statistics constantly reinforce the challenges of urban education and the relative underachievement of black students. The grim numbers never tell nice stories. They do not reveal how these students, their families and friends experience positive accomplishments – high school graduation for example.

I recently attended a high school graduation in a South Atlanta high school where I had been tutoring. It was a fantastic experience. Several students in this small academy reflected the grinding face of black Altanta poverty. One of the girls I tutored, for example, had an all too common R.I.P. + name and date tattoo on her arm. She was a 17 year old senior and the “Rest In Peace” tattoo was in memoriam of a still born child she had two years prior. Among some of the other students there were all of the problems with academic fundamentals that create the depressing springtime statistics. The circumstances of these students made their accomplishment so special.

At the graduation, the guests reflected the condition of the community. There were several very young girls that were pregnant. There were hosts of young black boys – friends and relatives of the graduates – whose top and bottom front teeth were covered in gold caps. Several of the parents had the names of friends, relatives and partners tattooed on their necks. There were whole selections of braided extensions ranging from copper color to blue. Many of the men, both young and old, donned the contentious style of wearing enormous beltless jeans while others sported oversized purple suits with hats and shoes to match.

This is the experience that lies beyond the numbers. This is the face of the black community for whom these graduates are potentially first generation college students. The significance of the graduation and the accomplishment that it represents relative to the community is extraordinary. It is in stark contrast to north county schools where accomplished parents and families gather at high school graduations and reminisce about their days before college and graduate school. In those circles high school graduation is certainly a happy occasion too, but it is an expected and unspectacular milestone in the lives of their children. Here, where high school drop out rates can move between 30% and 40% and college is a prayer not an expectation, high school graduation is extraordinarily special and the significance is reflected in the emotions of the community gathered to witness it.

There were prayers and heartfelt renditions of gospel songs which reflect not only the accomplishments of the graduates, but the obstacles they overcame to get there. The guests were painfully aware of the challenges that the students had endured. As such, the audience was there not only to congratulate the graduates, but to corroborate their story. Some of the young mothers looked at their sons and daughters on the stage and cried and seemed to mouth silent prayers of thanks that their children had survived.

As I sat in the auditorium with tears in my own eyes, it was clear that this graduation was extra special. The children of the siege had succeeded; at least in limited measure. The numbers can't tell us how special accomplishments like this are to communities that have so few. One grandmother standing close to me, wrapped herself around her grandson and with tears running down her face said, "Thank you, Jesus."