Friday, July 07, 2006

Producing (TV) and Consuming (Cinnabon)


The power of reality TV in the Middle East continues to surprise. Take Wife Swap, an Israeli version of a British show whose Big Idea is just as little as you’d think. An Israeli secretary trades places with her Arab Israeli counterpart, each going to live with the other’s husband for a short while; hijinks ensue in “Take My Wife (and Her Culture and Religion), Please”:

TEL AVIV, July 4 — Ayelet Movsowitz, a Jewish Israeli, peers out the car window as her ride veers off the highway and follows the signs to an Arab village.

"Are you crazy?" she asks in an opening scene of an episode of Israel's version of the television reality show "Wife Swap." "Don't tell me I am going to have to cook all day, kabobs and what not. Oy. I'm in an Arab village. I just hope it's not a hostile village."

Meanwhile, Amal Ahmed Abdullah, 28, her Arab Israeli counterpart, slowly walks past a large Jacuzzi in Mrs. Movsowitz's house about 90 miles north, in the Galilee region of Israel.

Her mood dampens when she examines the contents of the refrigerator. "There is nothing spicy here," she says, pronouncing this a typical European Jewish home. "A real Ashkenazi fridge. They don't know how to cook."

Long story short, there are ugly moments—in the print version of this story, Mr. Movsowitz is captioned as telling his temporary wife, “She’s trying to show she’s the boss, as the woman, and also the boss over a Jew” and implies that Mrs. Abdullah can’t be trusted with his children—and touching ones as well, as when Mr. Abdullah goes enormously out of his way at the last minute to buy wine for Mrs. Movsowitz’s observance of the Sabbath.

The story is worth reading, if only to get you thinking about what conflicted area Wife Swap will land in next—Belfast? Grozny? Kuala Lumpur?

Personally, I’m waiting for Husband Swap. Maybe next century.

Meanwhile, in Syria: For decades, the Assad regimes have been notorious for turning dissent on and off like water from a spigot—the same way they turn social change, entrepreneurship and even Hezbollah on and off. Today, faced with increasing religiosity in Syria, it appears that Damascus is urging TV producers to think religiously moderate thoughts.

Production of this year’s Ramadan TV specials is in full swing. One of this year’s month-long extravaganzas will be Renegade, and Michael Slackman describes how Syria’s leadership may be using it to send messages of religious moderation and tolerance:

Yassin al-Bach never returned home after bomb blasts tore through London's Underground. Since he was a religious Muslim, with a beard and a small white skullcap, he was immediately presumed by the public and the authorities to be a terrorist.

A scene from the series, which opposes religious extremism and is to be broadcast this fall during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Mr. Anzour said that making the series was "a joy, my pleasure," adding, "but it is also to defend our country."

But Mr. Bach was a victim — albeit a fictional one. His demise is the twist in the plot of a coming television series as obvious as the message of the show. "Those terrorists are killing Muslims, too," his mother, Mona, sobbed on camera. "How come in the name of Islam they are killing Muslims? I am calling all faiths, all religions, to join together and defeat terrorism."


Mr. Bach is a character in a series called "Renegades," which is part of a growing trend in Arab countries, where leaders are eager to address social taboos and religious extremism but are reluctant to confront them more directly.

"This is an attempt to promote a discussion of these problems, to bring them out of secrecy," said Hatem Ali, one of Syria's top directors. "But the solutions are not in the hands of artists like us. We are contributing to a discussion which has begun in Syria."

That discussion is not exactly out in the open, but television dramas provide the useful service of distancing the leadership from controversial messages. It has allowed those in power to continue to promote their religious credentials, a necessity as people here steadily become more religious, while also working to tame religious movements.

Renegades producer Najdat Anzour denies anyone is pushing him to send a message of tolerance, but considering how thoroughly the Assad government infiltrates every facet of Syrian society, it’s difficult to take Mr. Anzour at face value. I only hope he is not fighting a rearguard action against an inevitable tide of fundamentalism, which could further destabilize the eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, I’m reading Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace, a history and frequently a defense of U.S. small wars and interventions going back to the Barbary Pirates crisis during the Jefferson administration. Boot, the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, is not someone I’d normally count on for an entertaining read, but his book is highly readable. Also, check out his op-ed in yesterday’s L.A. Times, irresistibly titled, “Our Enemies Aren’t Drinking Lattes.” In it, Boot documents the enormous logistical tail that follows our relatively small number of actual warriors around, creating huge slices of Middle America throughout Centcom’s jurisdiction:

Some front-line units continue to operate out of spartan outposts where a hot meal is a luxury and flush toilets unknown. But growing numbers of troops live on giant installations complete with Wal-Mart-style post exchanges, movie theaters, swimming pools, gyms, fast-food eateries (Subway, Burger King, Cinnabon) and vast chow halls offering fresh-baked pies and multiple flavors of ice cream. Troops increasingly live in dorm-style quarters (called "chews," for "containerized housing units") complete with TVs, mini-refrigerators, air conditioning/heating units and other luxuries unimaginable to previous generations of GIs.

No one would begrudge a few conveniences to those who have volunteered to defend us. But the military's logistics feats come with a high price tag that goes far beyond the $7.7 billion we spend every month on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. troops in those countries consume 882,000 liters of water and 2.4 million gallons of fuel every day, plus tons of other supplies that have to be transported across dangerous war zones. Centcom has more than 3,000 trucks delivering supplies and another 2,400 moving fuel — each one a target that has to be protected.

And a large tail needs its own tail: Boot notes that 100,000 of the people in Centcom’s jurisdiction are either logistical support troops (20,000) or private contractors (80,000). There are only 150,000 troops total in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Boot’s best quote comes when he encounters one of Robert Kaplan’s imperial grunts:

Most of our resources aren't going to fight terrorists but to maintain a smattering of mini-Americas in the Middle East. As one Special Forces officer pungently put it to me: "The only function that thousands of people are performing out here is to turn food into [excrement]."

Contrast this with Boot’s description in Savage Wars of legendary marine “Chesty” Puller’s patrols to put down a rebellion in Nicaragua during the 1920s or early 1930s:

Puller understood the secret of effective counterinsurgency: “you’ve got to keep moving”—patrolling nonstop, often at night, to keep the guerrillas on the run. Company M averaged 30 miles a day on foot over winding mountain trails. They kept slogging right through the rainy season, spending 20 days of every month in the field, even as the trails turned to mud and their uniforms disintegrated into rags. Puller and his men carried only a handful of supplies on sturdy native mules, and for the most part subsisted on a diet of rice, bans, coffee, and some occasional wild game or beef.

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