Monday, July 12, 2010

Kyrgyzstan in Murals

Above: military insignia left by past visitors and a series of newly-painted murals adorn a dining facility at yet another undisclosed location in northern Kyrgyzstan. RBM and other Peace Corps volunteers spent time here after being evacuated from the city of Osh in June. (Note: some photos have been blurred.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast

An essay by RBM about whether American groceries and garden supplies should contain human hair appears in the spring issue of The Normal School. The story won third prize among research and reporting-based essays at the 2009 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, Texas. It also appears in the 2010 volume of Ten Spurs, the conference's journal. Here's an excerpt from "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast":
"DOUGH CONDITIONERS" reads the fine print on a bright blue box of Texas Garlic Toast. It’s made by Great Value, or GV ("When Quality Counts"). Wal-Mart, the product's distributor, describes GV as the country’s largest food brand in both sales and volume, and in March, 2009 announced an expansion. "At a time when families need to make every penny count," explained a company press release, new GV product lines, including thin-crust pizza, would provide Americans "with affordable, high-quality grocery and household consumable options comparable to national brands." (The Hartman Group, a marketing research firm, has called GV a "likely to purchase" label that outperforms other generic brands marketed by Wal-Mart as well as Kroger, Target, Albertsons, and Safeway.)

One night ... my roommate grabbed GV's Texas Garlic Toast from the scores of vertical freezers that line Wal-Mart SuperCenter no. 2729. Minutes ago I heated a few slices in the microwave near my desk and began to eat lunch. And just now, the moist, salted crust has reminded me, with a twinge, that this is exactly the kind of bread long sought by commercial bakers. Peering closely at the ingredients listed under dough conditioners, just before sugar but after yeast, I spot a familiar term: "L-CYSTEINE." Later, in the Encyclopedia of Food and Color Additives (1997), I find an American manufacturing association’s designation for L-Cysteine, based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines: "status GRAS," or, generally recognized as safe.
To read free essays from the new issue by David Shields and Bob Shacochis, or (what else?) subscribe, visit the magazine's blog. For another excerpt from RBM's essay, check out this post.

Update (June 10, 2011) -- Journalist Scott Carney has just authored a 272-page investigation of the global human tissue trade, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. Here's an excerpt from NPR's write-up:
In his book, Carney also delves into the marketplace for human hair, known as "black gold."

"It is amazingly valuable," he says. "The market is about $900 million around the world, and about 40 percent of [that] hair is sold for human extensions."

Many of those transactions take place at the Sri Tirumala Temple in southern India, where people give their hair to the god Vishnu as an act of humility.

"I went there about two years ago and had my head shaved with probably about 1,000 other people," Carney says. "These women came, swept up the hair and threw it into these giant steel vats. [The hair] eventually gets combed and sorted and sold at an auction, and shipped out to the international market."

Hair collected in a single cut from a person's head, known as "remy," is used all over the world for hair extensions. But the shorter hair, often shorn from men, serves a very different purpose.

"Most of the hair that gets shorn is from men," Carney says. "That gets sold to chemical companies and gets reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine, which is used as a leavening agent in baking goods."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

War, Literature, and the Arts

"What Happened Yesterday in Baghdad," an essay by RBM about understanding the Iraq War through voice-overs and conversations with Iraqi students, will appear in a forthcoming issue of War, Literature, and the Arts. More about WLA, a journal of the U.S. Air Force Academy:
From time immemorial, war and art have reflected one another, and it is this intersection of war and art that WLA seeks to illuminate. If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first. We live in a culture that values the individual. Our works of art about war mirror this welcome bias.
Update -- The 2010 WLA Conference runs September 16-18 in Colorado Springs and will feature a reading by RBM of "What Happened." From the conference's online schedule:
Thursday, 16 September

Session 2: 0950-1045

WAR COMMENTARY PANEL: Greg Dandeles (“The War in Peace: The Armed Forces of Liberia Loses a Soldier”), Leila Levinson ("Cracking Open the Silence: What War Bequeaths to our Children"), Raul Moreno (“What Happened”)

Moderator: Byron Calhoun

Lecture Room 3
Other conference presentations include Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), Benjamin Busch (The Wire, Generation Kill), Dexter Filkins (The Forever War), and Brian Turner (Here, Bullet). To attend, e-mail RBM or visit the conference's registration page by August 15.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Relief for Osh

Slideshow: Relief for Osh

Above: U.S. Peace Corps workers, tourists, journalists, security guards, and other volunteers at Manas International Airport load a Russian cargo plane with relief supplies bound for Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on June 19. In the hold, thanks to local and international donations: flour, rice, potatoes, sugar, cooking oil, and dishware.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Analysis Roundup (Updated)

From Foreign Policy, on June 14, "Trouble Down South: Why did Kyrgyzstan suddenly erupt into violence?" An excerpt:
The Uzbek minority is largely excluded from Kyrgyzstan's political system, though they dominate the country's merchant class. Disputes over water and land use between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are common in the south. The Soviet Union spent decades trying unsuccessfully to suppress ethnic nationalism in the area and in 1990, when the Soviet military was unable to put a stop to a three-month-long inter-ethnic battle between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh that resulted in hundreds of deaths, it was taken as a sign of Moscow's diminished power over its regions.
From the Telegraph, on June 17, "Kyrgyzstan: Death, dictators and the Soviet legacy." An excerpt:
It would be wrong to characterise the violence in Kyrgyzstan as politically motivated. Ancient ethnic tensions and stereotypes have come to the fore, and poverty is the root cause. But at the same time it is broadly true that the Uzbeks of the south generally support Otunbayeva, while their southern Kyrgyz attackers do not. Bakiyev supporters have played some role in stirring up the violence.
From the Times, on June 18, "Diplomatic Memo: Value to Big Powers May Not Save Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
Now, Kyrgyzstan needs help building a stable government that knits together the north and the south. Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that NATO should be working with the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to develop a mechanism for collective action. The next time a Central Asian country is wobbling at the edge of a precipice, he said, someone must be prepared to accept responsibility.
From the Post, on June 21, "Both sides in Kyrgyzstan fault government for failing to prevent violence." An excerpt:
At the front of the crowd was Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a prominent Uzbek politician, businessman and university chief who argued that Bakiyev's ouster meant Uzbeks would finally get the political rights they deserved. After recapturing the building, the throng marched to the Bakiyev family compound in Jalal-Abad and burned it down.

Witnesses said Kyrgyz and Uzbeks stood side by side in the crowd. But Bakiyev's supporters framed the conflict in ethnic terms and painted Batyrov as a radical Uzbek nationalist, tapping into fears among local Kyrgyz that Uzbeks might gain too much power and attempt to secede.
From The Economist, on June 24, "Kyrgyzstan's humanitarian crisis: Sad homecoming." An excerpt:
[Ethnic-Uzbek] women are now trickling back to their husbands, fathers, and brothers, who stayed behind to protect their homes—or what is left of them. Many houses were burned down, sometimes with their residents still in them. Now they have to go back and attempt to pick up their lives again, side-by-side with their ethnic-Kyrgyz persecutors.
From The Nation, on June 25, "Kyrgyzstan on the Brink." An excerpt:
Unaddressed stereotypes have allowed tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to fester ever since the only previously reported conflict between the two groups, in 1990. These typecasts were a breeding ground for the surge of rumors—spread by Internet chat rooms, text messages and word of mouth—that helped provoke the attacks: “Uzbek men raped a group of Kyrgyz girls”; “young men brawled over a restaurant bill”; “Uzbeks, in their efforts to declare autonomy, had armed themselves.”

But frictions between the two groups aren’t the result of some ancient ethnic hatred. They have waxed and waned for only a generation, as local elites, manipulating economic grievances, vie for control of resources. In recent times, that has meant Afghan heroin. In place of a functioning state, southern Kyrgyzstan has become a network of trafficking routes controlled by narco-barons and their extended families.
From the Times, on June 26, "After Kyrgyz Unrest, a Question Lingers: Why?" An excerpt:
Last week the head of the country’s national security agency issued a statement saying that the younger son of Mr. Bakiyev, Maksim Bakiyev, had hired Islamic radicals from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with ties to the Taliban, to infiltrate Uzbek neighborhoods and stoke conflict. The statement said the Islamic radicals fired rifles at civilians and then hid, only to reappear in other areas.

Reinforcing the message of external instigation, on Thursday an airplane flew over Bishkek dropping leaflets warning that “provocateurs” could foment ethnic violence in the capital, too, though the streets remained calm.
From RFE/RL, on June 30, "How Strong Is Kyrgyzstan's New Constitution?" An excerpt:
The challenge for Kyrgyzstan now will be to go far beyond simply writing a new constitution to developing the whole body of institutions and public expectations which assure a constitution is upheld and guides a society.

As Kyrgyzstan took its first step this week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave it a dubious send-off. He told reporters at the G20 summit in Toronto that he did "not really understand how a parliamentary republic would look and work in Kyrgyzstan."

Medvedev asked, "Will this not lead to a chain of eternal problems -- to reshuffles in parliament, to the rise to power of this or that political group, to authority being passed constantly from one hand to another, and, finally will this not help those with extremist views to power?"

Put another way, the same question would be: Are not parliamentary systems, though a proven success in democratic countries, doomed to failure in the post-Soviet space?

Update (July 7, 2010) -- From the Times, on July 2, "Uzbeks Accused of Inciting Violence in Kyrgyzstan." Two excerpts:
The arrests are based on a section of the Kyrgyz criminal code that bans inciting ethnic hatred, after the ethnic Uzbek leaders accused the police and army of instigating and in some cases participating in the original violence ... Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek and the director of a human rights group in the town of Bazar-Kurgan, was arrested on this charge, according to his lawyer, Nurbek Toktokunov, who said Mr. Askarov had bruises on his back suggesting he had been tortured in custody.
From RFE/RL, on July 2, "Kyrgyzstan: Anatomy Of A Conflict." An excerpt:
The latest round of fighting in Osh began in the predawn hours of June 10-11, when two youth gangs -- one Kyrgyz and one Uzbek -- were gambling in a local casino. Each accused the other of cheating and a scuffle broke out. The fighting spilled out onto the street as reinforcements on both sides -- alerted by text messages -- joined the brawl. Rumors quickly spread -- which were later debunked in a Human Rights Watch report -- that an Uzbek mob raped as many as 12 Kyrgyz girls and killed three at a nearby dormitory. The false reports stoked Kyrgyz anger as mobs took to the streets to exact revenge.
From NPR, on July 4, "Trust, And Answers, Elusive In Post-Riot Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
As a journalist covering a conflict, I'm supposed to offer more than stories of suffering. I'm supposed to get answers, and the truth. In Kyrgyzstan so far, that's been painfully impossible.
From EurasiaNet, on July 6, "In Osh, Easier to Dig Up Corpses Than Truth." Two excerpts:
Armed young men guarded that Cheremushki street corner, stopping and searching cars. They were a jumpy mix of military conscripts and police ... My colleague and I pleaded with them to give us access: “Officials [i.e. you] keep telling us [Western journalists] to report both sides of the story. Here is an opportunity. Please let us past.” Each recklessly gripped his Kalashnikov – “please stop pointing that at my belly” – and dithered, scared of his seniors, uncertain of his own place in the hazy chain of command.

Eventually, we flagged down a senior officer. He explained that Kyrgyz police had died in the conflict, too, and let us through.
And from RFE/RL, on July 7, "Rising Nationalism Threatens Kyrgyzstan." An excerpt:
Almazbek Atambaev doesn't want people to talk about that. In his sprawling office in parliament, the interim government's dapper deputy prime minister -- a top candidate to lead the country as a possible future prime minister -- criticizes Western journalists for reporting about the overwhelming number of Uzbek deaths.

"We won't allow divisions in our society," he replies when asked to clarify the figures.