Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Up to my ankles in life

I'm up to my ankles in life.
    That might not sound like much of a commitment. But, then, I'm hanging by my feet.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Saint Ayaan

To my admiring mind, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a contemporary heroine, a person who, were she a Catholic (and passed on to her reward), might very well be nominated for canonization.
    In hushed silence this afternoon, I finished reading her 2007 memoir, Infidel. Reading it was a gut-wrenching experience. On the basis of reading only my several excerpts from the book, an old friend allowed that "I'm not sure my stomach is strong enough to read further." That's modest for a man who spends a few weeks most years sharing the wilds of North America, unarmed, with grizzly bears and other creatures that might dispute their relative position on the food chain.
    Nevertheless, I offer the concluding paragraphs of this moving book:
In March 2005, Time magazine informed me that I would be named one of its one hundred "most influential people in the world today." I went straight out to buy a copy of the magazine, of course, but I was weeks early; that issue wouldn't come out until mid-April. So the magazine I bought wasn't about me, it was about poverty in Africa. The woman on the cover was young and thin, with three small children. She was wrapped in the same kind of cloth my grandmother used to wear, and the look in her eyes was hopeless.
    It threw me back to Somalia, to Kenya, to poverty and disease and fear. I thought about the woman in that photograph, and about the millions of women who must live as she does. Time had just named me to their category, "Leaders and Revolutionaries." What do you do with a responsibility like that?
    Sister Aziza used to warn us of the decadence of the West: the corrupt, licentious, perverted, idolatrous, money-grubbing, soulless countries of Europe. But to me, there is far worse moral corruption in Islamic countries. In those societies, cruelty is implacable and inequality is the law of the land. Dissidents are tortured. Women are policed both by the state and by their families to whom the state gives the power to rule their lives.
    In the past fifty years the Muslim world has been catapulted into modernity. From my grandmother to me is a journey of just two generations, but the reality of that voyage is millennial. Even today you can take a truck across the border into Somalia and find you have gone back thousands of years in time.
    People adapt. People who never sat on chairs before can learn to drive cars and operate complex machinery; they master these skills very quickly. Similarly, Muslims don't have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights.
    When I approached Theo [the Dutch film-maker who was murdered for his involvement in the production of the short film exposing the treatment of Muslim women] to help me make Submission, I had three messages to get across. First, men, and even women, may look up and speak to Allah: it is possible for believers to have a dialogue with God and look closely at Him. Second, the rigid interpretation of the Quran in Islam today causes intolerable misery for women. Through globalization, more and more people who hold these ideas have traveled to Europe with the women they own and brutalize, and it is no longer possible for Europeans and other Westerners to pretend that severe violations of human rights occur only far away. The third message is the film's final phrase: "I may no longer submit." It is possible to free oneself—to adapt one's faith, to examine it critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.
    I am told that Submission is too aggressive a film. Its criticism of Islam is apparently too painful for Muslims to bear. Tell me, how much more painful is it to be these women, trapped in that cage? [pp. 349-350]
And I, not nearly so strong as this valiant young woman (about my daughter's age), feel that I need to read something light (maybe a John D. MacDonald "Travis McGee") for a respite before I read her sequel, this year's Nomad, which we are warned by one reviewer might read less "as a coming-to-America emotional journey" than "as an anti-Islamic screed."
    I assume the reviewer means "screed" is the sense of a diatribe, "a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism." Well, Saint Ayaan seems to have had abundant experience to justify an attack on Islam, however bitter, sharp, and abusive a critique it might be.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cultural quandary

Yesterday a former Secret Service agent of my acquaintance recounted a conversation he had with some aged Japanese at a United Nations event that would be attended by the Emperor of Japan. The aged Japanese had grown up during a time when it was expressly forbidden to look at the Emperor. If the Emperor's train was passing you must kneel and keep your head down. If you raised it to get a glimpse, you could be beaten.
    "These men were having some difficulty putting their minds around the fact that they would soon be shaking their new Emperor's hand."

Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali is opening my own eyes to the difficulty that people from authoritarian cultures can have seeing beyond those cultures. Ms. Ali has fled to Holland to evade an arranged marriage. In Chapter 11 of Infidel ("A Trial by the Elders"), she recounts a conversation with a couple of Dutch friends:
Ellen and I started talking about love, courtship, and virginity. To me, as a Somali, being a virgin meant being excised, physically sewn shut. I had already figured out that Dutch people didn't do that [!], so I asked, "How will your husband find out whether you're a virgin or not? Isn't there a test?"
    Ellen replied, "Of course not. He'll know I'm a virgin because I say I am." My question seemed weird to her, so she asked, "You have a test?" I told her: we are cut, and sewn shut, so the skin is closed, and when a man penetrates you there is blood. There can be no pretending.
    Ellen and Hanneke were disgusted, appalled. They asked, "And this happened to you?" Yasmin and I both said yes, and Yasmin, who was a snob, added, "If you're not cut, you're not pure, are you?" Very innocently, with her big blue eyes wide, Ellen asked, "Pure from what?"
    Pure from what. Pure from what, exactly? I thought about it for a long time, and realized I had no answer. It wasn't completely because of Islam that we were cut: not all Muslim women are excised. But in Somalia and the other Muslim countries, it was clear that the Islamic culture of virginity encouraged it. I knew of no fatwa denouncing female genital mutilation; on the contrary, suppressing the sexuality of women was a big theme with imams. Boqol Sawm and the other ma'alims [Qur'an teachers] had always preached endlessly about how women should become aware of their sexual powers; they must cover themselves and stay indoors. They went into minute detail about this, yet somehow they never got around to saying that it is wrong to cut girls and sew them up.
    What were we being kept pure from? Somebody owned us. What was between my legs was not mine to give. I was branded.
    I found I had no answer for Ellen. I just gaped at her and said, "It's our tradition." And because Ellen truly was a believer [a Christian], she said, "But you believe God created you, don't you?" I said yes, of course. Ellen said, "So the way God made us is the way God wants us to be. Why shouldn't we stay like that? Why does your culture feel we should improve on God's work? Isn't that blasphemy?" I stared at her. There really seemed to be something to what Ellen was saying.
    Ellen said Dutch women were never circumcised, and neither were Dutch men. Yasmin curled up her face in disgust at that. The minute we left, Yasmin started rubbing her skin; when she got home she washed for hours. "I sat in their house and ate off their plates, and they are not purified!" Yasmin said. "She is filthy. This whole community is filthy."
    I thought about it. Ellen wasn't filthy, and neither was Holland. In fact, it was a lot cleaner than Somalia or anywhere else I had lived. I couldn't understand how Yasmin could perceive Holland as evil, even though all around us were Dutch people treating us with kindness and hospitality. I was beginning to see that the Dutch value system was more consistent, more honest, and gave people more happiness than the one with which we had been brought up. Unfortunately, many of these Dutch ideas seemed not to be congruent with Islam.
    I replied, "Yasmin, you know what? You'd better get used to it. Because your teacher in school is not circumcised, the person cooking your lunch is not circumcised. If you want to remain completely pure here you will have to lock yourself away and never have any contact with a white person."
    But Yasmin said, "There is a difference, and that is why the Quran tells us never to make unbelievers our friends." [pp. 216-217]
The retired Secret Service agent and I wondered together whether America's own secular, democratic culture makes it difficult for Americans not to be foolishly optimistic that we can walk into places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and do anything constructive, even in the short run. He opined that, five years from now, it would be about the same in Afghanistan as it is today.
    Tragic that a single day more should go by on which young American service people are sacrificed in Afghanistan (or in any other tribal, patriarchal society) to our own cultural assumption that those societies can be successfully wooed to our wondrous Western ways, even if we don't collaterally kill or mindfully murder their people.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sudoku koan

Today's word from dictionary.com is:
koan \KOH-ahn\, noun:
A nonsensical or paradoxical question to a student for which an answer is demanded, the stress of meditation on the question often being illuminating.
Koan is Japanese, ko "public" and -an, "matter for thought." It enters English through Zen Buddhism before achieving a more general sense.
Maybe the only way I'm going to essay my announced analogy between Sudoku and religion is to exploit the stress of just throwing caution to the wind and publicly meditate the question. It'll either be illuminating, or not.
    What would a Sudoku koan be, though? Maybe the following question is nonsensical enough:
What is puzzling about the analogy between Sudoku puzzling and puzzling over religion?
At any rate, after my announcement eight days ago, the idea of an "elaborate analogy" between Sudoku and religion has at times seemed elusive. (Maybe that's why I've been procrastinating.)

The heady feeling that comes from the numbers quickly snapping into place on a Sudoku board resembles the confident, in-control feeling that accompanies one's sense that one has seen to the bottom of religion and there's nothing there.
    But that's just the dessert. The main course of the analogy is that Sukoku puzzling and religion puzzling both involve combinations of strategies of elimination that lead to forced moves.

In Sudoku, the simplest forced move is the gimmes that are usually offered in the easier puzzles. For example, you look across the middle array of three 9-cell squares and see:
   5  |     9|   1
 7   6|      | 9   8
   9  | 8 5  |   2
[Let's stipulate that each of the nine 9-cell squares is a quadrant, in its general sense of "major part," even when there are not four major parts.] Without looking at any other part of the board, you can see that the middle cell in the third quadrant must contain a 5, because each of the three quadrants must contain a 5, but each row can have only one, and there's nowhere else for the 5 to go but in the middle row of the third quadrant:
   5  |     9|   1
 7   6|      | 9 5 8
   9  | 8 5  |   2
    Ticking off the "gimmes" in a puzzle is like being able to immediately dismiss religious statements that are obviously wishful and without substance. "I prayed that we'd land safely." Praying or not praying will have no effect on the landing. "Everything happens according to God's plan." There is no such plan.

But in the case of the 8 in the array:
      |     3|   9
      |   2  | 8
 6 8  |      | 3
Either of two cells (x) could host it:
      | x x 3|   9
      |   2  | 8
 6 8  |      | 3
...until we look at the quadrant immediately below it:
 - - -|     9| - - -
 - - -|      | - - -
 - - -| 8 5  | - - -
The 8 in the first column of that quadrant forces the 8 in the quadrant above into the second column:
      |   8 3|   9
      |   2  | 8
 6 8  |      | 3
    Sudoku strategy must widen itself in that way to account for constraints at all levels.

My "Sudoku breakthrough" reminded me that I had been able to see to the bottom of religion in much the same way I had become able to solve more difficult Sudoku puzzles: by looking at various levels of the religion question in combination:
    Lack of evidence for it. I've seen no objective confirmation that any miracle has occurred. No one has demonstrated that a prayer was answered. Etc.
    Its absurdity. The most absurd belief of religion is probably the one that "sinners" will be subjected to unspeakable torments that will last forever and ever.
    Its irrelevance to morality. Religious people come in all varieties of good and bad, the same as atheists.
    Its logical contradictions. Each of the three Abrahamic religions consider adherents of the other two to be unbelievers, or infidels.
    Naturalistic explanations for it. The belief in a Day of Judgment satisfies the wish that good people will be rewarded and bad people punished. For example. Evolutionary investigations into the roots of religion are fascinating, and I've only begun to familiarize myself with them.
    I may be forgetting a level that I considered at some point over the past years, but the result in any case was that my conclusion about religion was a forced move. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland applies even more accurately to religion: There's no there there. In a state of religion, people inhabit a vast vacuity of their own (or, more often, someone else's) imagining.

In the scheme of things, though, Sudoku puzzling is like puzzling over religion in that both are really just trivial pastimes, diversions. There are other, productive ways to spend one's time, as I realized the other day, when Sudoku puzzling had made me stale and I reminded myself to get back to reading a good book.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jawahir's wedding night

Aayaan Hirsi Ali had been circumcised at age about five. (See the first excerpt from her 2007 book, Infidel.)
    When she was eighteen (and living in Kenya in exile from her native Somalia), she had her
first contact with Somali girls from Somalia. One of these girls was Jawahir, who was quick, pretty, rather excitable. She was about twenty-five and had come to Nairobi to marry one of Farah Gouré's truck drivers. She was waiting at Farah Gouré's place for her husband-to-be to return to Nairobi from a five-month trip through southern Africa. Ali was a dependable employee, and Fadumo [Farah Gouré's wife] needed Jawahir to feel happy in Nairobi; if Jawahir were miserable she might persuade Ali to return to Somalia with her. So Fadumo asked me to show Jawahir around town and keep her company.
    ...Jawahir didn't read books—she was illiterate—but she was really amusing.
    A whole group of us met for long, giggly girls' conversations in the afternoons, while the older people napped with the children. The talk centered on Jawahir's impending marriage and the various prospects for other people's marriages. And of course we talked about circumcision. All these girls knew they would be married soon; it was inevitable that we talk about our excisions. This was what we had been sewn up for. [emphasis mine]
    The talk was mostly boasting. All the girls said how tightly closed they were; this made them even more pure, doubly virginal. Jawahir was particularly proud of her circumcision. She used to say, "See the palm of your hand? I am like that. Flat. Closed."
    One afternoon, gossiping about another girl, Jawahir said, "If you're walking past the toilet when she's in there, you can hear that she isn't a virgin. She doesn't drip. She pees loudly, like a man."
    We discussed our periods, too, the essence of what made us filthy and unworthy of prayer. When we were menstruating, we weren't allowed even to pray or to touch the Quran. All the girls felt guilty for bleeding every month. It was proof that we were less worthy than men.
    We never actually talked about sex itself, the act that would take place on the marriage night, the reason why we had been sewn.
    ...On other afternoons Jawahir used to ask me to read to her out loud from the books I carried everywhere...all of them had sex scenes. I would read them to her, and she would sniff and say, "It's not like that for Muslims. We are pure."
Jawahir's wedding took place at Farah Gouré's house....
    ...For a week after the wedding Ma wouldn't let me go to see Jawahir: she said it wouldn't be proper. So it wasn't until the next weekend that I visited her. Jawahir sat on the sofa, gingerly shifting her weight from one side of her bottom to the other. Finally I asked her what it had been like, having sex.
    She evaded the question. I was holding one of Halwa's Harlequin paperbacks and she grabbed it and asked, "What is this filthy book you're reading?" I said, "Come on, you know all about it now, tell me what it's like." Jawahir said, "Not until you read this book to me."
    It was a mild enough book, about a man, a woman, a doomed romance, one or two sexy bits. But when the man and woman kissed, he put his hand on the woman's breast, and he then put his mouth to her nipple. Jawahir was horrified. "These Christians are filthy!" she squeaked. "This is forbidden! For Muslims it's not like that at all!"
    Now Jawahir really had to tell me what sex was like. She said it was awful. After the wedding ceremony, they went into the bedroom of the flat that Ali had rented for them. Ali turned off the lights. Jawahir lay down on the bed, fully dressed. He groped under her dress, opened her legs, took off her underpants, and tried to push his penis inside her. He didn't cut her with a knife, just with his penis. It took a long time, and hurt. This resembled the stories that Sahra had told me. [Sahra had had to be taken to a hospital to be prepared for her own husband, who had been unable to rend her scar tissue.]
    Every night it was almost as painful, and always the same: Ali would push inside, move up and down inside her, and then ejaculate. That was it. Then he would stand up and take a shower to purify himself; she would get up and shower, also to purify herself, and apply Dettol to the parts that were bleeding. That was Jawahir's sex life.
    I already knew what Sister Aziza [Ayaan's Qur'an teacher] would say about sex and marriage. She counseled many young married couples. Women often told her how horrible it was for them to have sex. Sister Aziza used to respond that they were complaining only because they had read licentious, un-Islamic descriptions of sexual experiences in Western books. We Muslim women were not to copy the behavior of unbelievers. We shouldn't dress like them, or make love like them, or behave like them in any way. We should not read their books, for they would lead us off the straight, true path of Allah.
    A woman couldn't break a marriage because it was awful or boring: that was utterly forbidden, and the way of Satan. "If your husband hurts you," Sister Aziza would tell these women, "you must tell him that, and ask him to do it differently. If you cooperate it will always be less painful. And if he's not hurting you, then count yourself among the lucky ones." [pp. 111-113]

Friday, August 6, 2010


Today, Tuesday's brave words about a "Sudoku breakthrough" feel hollow. It's as though the skills I thought I'd learned on those long flights have deserted me. I'm currently stymied at an early point in two Sudokus, and I'm getting none of that glad reinforcement anymore that comes with the numbers' quickly clicking into place.
    I trust that I still actually have my Sudoku skills, but am just too tired today to access them. I've been spending too much time on puzzles lately, time that would be better spent reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's passionate, informative book.
    Maybe the Reading God is punishing me? <wink>

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sam Harris's critique of Islam pales

Beside Ayaan Hirsi Ali's view of Islam from the inside (I'm reading her 2007 memoir, Infidel), Sam Harris's 2004 attack on Islam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, was a mild affair. His frontal attack was scholarly, researched; Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn't so much attack Islam as open the closet door to show it plainly in its primitive ignorance and superstitious brutality. Excerpts from Infidel:
  • The man, who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan, picked up a pair of scissors. With the other hand, he caught hold of the place between my legs and started tweaking it, like Grandma milking a goat. "There it is, the kintir," one of the women said. Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia, my loud and anguished protests, Grandma's words of comfort and encouragement. "It's just this once in your life, Ayaan. Be brave, it's almost finished." When the sewing was finished, he cut the thread off with his teeth.
  • This was Saudi Arabia, where Islam originated, governed strictly according to the scriptures and example of the Prophet Muhammad. And by law, all women in Saudi Arabia must be in the care of a man. My mother argued loudly with the Saudi immigration official, but he merely repeated in an ever louder voice that she could not leave the airport without a man in charge.
  • We had already learned part of the Quran by heart in Mogadishu, although of course we had never understood more than a word or two of it, because it was in Arabic. But the teacher in Mecca said we recited it disrespectfully: we raced it, to show off. So now we had to learn it all by heart again, but this time with reverent pauses. We still didn't understand more than the bare gist of it. Apparently, understanding wasn't the point.
  • In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap stopped running, the Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it. The children next door were taught to pray for the health of their parents and the destruction of the Jews. Later, when we went to school, our teachers lamented at length all the evil things Jews had done and planned to do against Muslims. When they were gossiping, the women next door used to say, "She's ugly, she's disobedient, she's a whore—she's sleeping with a Jew." Jews were like djinns, I decided. I had never met a Jew. (Neither had these Saudis.)
I found these excerpts on the web and quote them for convenience. I've read passages far more revealing (especially of Arab Muslims, and Saudi Arabians in particular). (Look at a map to see how close her native Somalia is to Saudia Arabia.)

The opening of a review of Infidel:
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969 [the same year as my daughter], Ayaan Hirsi Ali gained international recognition as the controversial member of Dutch Parliament who wrote a short film attacking Islam, called Submission Part 1 (can be seen on YouTube).
In the film, images of bare women’s limbs are scrawled with verses of the Qu'ran which—Ali has said—denigrate and subordinate women. As a result of the film, its director, Theo van Gogh was killed in cold blood on the streets of Amsterdam, a note jabbed into his chest threatening Ms. Ali (and the United States to boot) with a fate like van Gogh’s. Van Gogh’s last words were, “Can’t we talk about this?” After the incident, Ms. Ali spent several months virtually kidnapped by her security team.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Tiki J arrives

July 19. The Tiki J arrived at the Kaneohe Yacht Club before 5:30 a.m. the day after we arrived on Oahu.
Do you think they look as though they've been on a boat for almost thirteen days without a shower?
Their official stats (from the 2010 Pacific Cup website):
Name (Rating): Tiki J (590.0)
Type: J/42
Skipper: Scott Dickinson
Finished: 19 Jul 2010 05:16:08 HST
Elapsed Time: 12d 20:01:08
Behind Div First: 1d 02:39:32
Div Rank: 4
Fleet Rank: 32
For a travelogue recorded during the sail, see Pineapple Girl's Tiki J blog, especially her post-race entry with a link to her documentary photographs.
    Against both prevailing winds and tides, Tiki J is slowly on its way back (about half-way) to the Coyote Point Yacht Club, in San Mateo, CA, under the command of a hired "return skipper."

Here's a photo of some of the boats from the helicopter we flew around the island on. The Tiki J is the first boat to the left of the ramp, alongside the much shorter boat (which competed with a crew of two):
And just so you'll know, I guess maybe we really were in a sort of paradise, over there in Hawaii. Here is part of the view from our apartment's living room, located about half a mile down the road from the yacht club:
And my wife treated herself and me and our daughter and son-in-law to a massage at Turtle Bay Resort, on the north shore of Oahu. Talk about paradise. I could have stayed on Turtle Bay for a few more weeks.
    I'll add a photo taken there, but I can't at the moment.

August 25. Ah, I almost forgot; here's a view from one of the "porches" at Turtle Bay Resort (taken July 23):

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Welcomed home

Soon after we returned home from celebrating the 2010 Pacific Cup Sailboat Race in Hawaii, my wife noticed that a lovely green-headed, wide-mouthed creature had taken up residence in our fountain pool. I got my first look at him this evening (click on the photo to see him much enlarged), and the look was enough to smile me out of my doldrums, back to Moristotle. I feel welcomed home.
    Hey, you have to start somewhere. I've been ruminating an elaborate analogy between doing Sudoku puzzles and puzzling over religion, but I have a few more "pencils to sharpen" and walks around the block to take before I'll be ready to essay it.
    Suffice it for now that I had a Sudoku breakthrough on the flight over to Honolulu on July 18. You know, the typical flight magazine has a puzzles page....Anyway, I solved the two Sudokus I found there, then later found a fresh copy of the magazine and solved them again. I even took a third fresh copy off the plane at HNL and solved them again sometime during the week. (And I think I may have solved them yet again at the beginning of the late July 25 flight home— before I fell asleep for a six-hour nap before arriving in Atlanta the next day.)
    I know, they were becoming easier and easier—but not only because I had become familiar with these particular puzzles, but also because I was practicing my technique. Somehow, I was acquiring the power to take in more combinations than just the horizontal and vertical sweeps across or down each set of three nine-square cells to pick off the gimmes. I found myself working combinations of the nine numbers in a cell with the nine numbers in selected rows or columns running through the cell. Oh, glory, how heady was the feeling! My wife was no longer the only proficient Sudoku solver in the house.

And addictive. Not unlike my continuing to rake the dead coals of the fire to which I consigned religion.
    Let that be my preamble. [I wrote up the analogy on August 11.]

Smile, frog! Open that musing mouth. Sing!