Monday, April 19, 2010

Arab Conspiracy Theories

I love conspiracy theories. One of my favorite parts about working at Abel's last summer was trading crazy theories with Bob, who worked as a prep cook. I gave him a book called Rule By Secrecy that covered pretty much everything conspiracy-related--the Kennedy assassination, the Bilderbergers, numerology, aliens, etc. I learned a ton just talking with Bob when we were killing time in the kitchen.

Anyway, the reason I'm talking about this is because I met my first Arab conspiracy theorist at the gym last night. His name is Ayman, and we spent 45 minutes talking in the sauna at my gym. Each time one of us said something everyone else in the sauna would laugh at the ridiculousness of the conversation. Here are some highlights:

Me: I study history, politics....
Ayman: American history?
N: Yes.
A: Who do you like in American history?
N: Well, I think Lincoln was pretty good, and Roosevelt.
A: Do you like Bush?
N: Not the son, but the first Bush was OK. [George H.W. is kind of polarizing in the Arab world because of the whole Gulf War thing, but I think he was a pretty decent president]
A: Why do you like the first Bush?
N: Uh... he did good things when the Cold War ended.
A: No, he is shit, he is a huge troublemaker. And he fathered Bush the second, and he started to destroy the economies, then his son continued.
N: Yeah, I mean I don't like Bush the second either...
A: And now the whole world is suffering, and their family is rich. All of their friends are working in banks and taking the houses from Americans...
N: Bush's friends work in oil companies, not banks.
A: Yes, that too. They are all rich, and making us poor.

[later on]
N: Do you like Obama?
A: Obama, he is good person. Maybe his morals are better than Bush. But his politics, same thing. I like Clinton.
N: Why?
A: He wanted the peace. Israel, they no like Clinton.
N: Really?
A: Yes, the Israelis, they set a trap to hurt Clinton. When he make sex with his secretary, that was an Israeli trap.
N: His secretary... Monica Lewinsky... was Israeli?
A: No, but she worked for them. They want to distract Clinton, you see.
N: If the Israelis wanted to do that, wouldn't they find a more beautiful girl? His secretary was not very pretty.
A: No, but she was available. They don't say this on the news, you know.
N: I know. But why does it matter if she is available?
A: Because Clinton's wife is beautiful, but she is old. He want a younger girl.
N: Oh, I see. This is a very good idea you have, I like it.
A: Thank you. You can't always listen to the news. The news, they say things and you just believe them. Politics, it is a fucker.
N: Yes, it is a pervert. [This curse is worse in Arabic because of the haram thing].

I can only hope that our next conversation is as awesome as that one.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The video that will ruin my future political career...

I've been meaning to link to this for a while, but this is the video that Luke and I made for our final Arabic project. It's called Tis3a Nisa2, which means "nine women," and like I said earlier it's basically an Arabic version of the Gym Class Heroes song "Makeout Club". There are subtitles in English and Arabic, but it's kind of hard to read so here's a rough translation:

...this music is approved by King Abdullah.
My name is Fire, his name is Dirty Louie
Let's go, guys...

I have nine girls who love to love me,
I have nine girls who want to marry me,
Nine girls who love to love me
Nine girls who want marriage

From all the girls, I have these nine and just like a hookah
I'm gonna smoke them all up in all of their beauty during this song
I'll inhale and exhale into the atmosphere
Nine times, let's go quickly, the room's getting smoky
All these girls, they want my heart but they don't know how
To get it, because I'm sharp like a sword
....I have three Bedouin girls and three city girls
and three girls who are students in college
Yeah, I love my girls, all of them are tall
I see them in Cairo, they are Egyptian
and I only like very beautiful girls
and the best ones in the world, they're all Arabs


My first love, I met her at the market
I said, "What's up girl, your face is like sugar"
But I'm going crazy from her touch
So I'm saying, "Goodbye baby I won't see you tomorrow"

The second girl makes my world and like a waterfall
She starts up high but then she falls down
She is hot and just like the sea
Her waves crash into me and push me away

I swear, I still dream about the third girl
My name's not Abdullah but with her I'm the king
And after I sweet-talk her, she's my Rania
For sure, the most famous of all of my loves


With the fourth girl, I had a war, every day we were fighting
We broke up and our hearts were a little bit petrified
Me and the fifth girl, we were a great thing
Every time she leaves me I have to beg her to come back
And for the sixth one, I wrote her poetry
"More beautiful than dawn," that's what I wrote to her
But she wanted to marry me and the same thing with the seventh girl
All of my women are the same and I want something different


The eighth girl has a lot to offer me
She makes me laugh and she makes me smile
But she's not my rhythm and she's not my time
Sorry, number eight, you're just not in the cards

All my girls are in the past but the ninth one is different
Because I feel something new when we join as a team
I want to get lost in each other and love forever
I'm Romeo, you're Juliet, and our love began in Amman


Fall Plans

In the interest of informing my readers (hi, Mom!) about what I’m up to this fall, I just found out that I’m going to be living with in Clark V with Liam. We have what is objectively the best suite on campus. It has two big singles and a private bathroom/hallway, awesome neighbors, a private courtyard with a white tree like the one in Gondor, no RAs in the immediate vicinity, and possibly a fireplace, which would just be icing on the proverbial cake.

The view from my suite.

Also, if I get what I want I should be taking the following classes. Note that I never have more than one class a day and no class starts before 1:15 PM, just the way God intended.

Monday: Islam vs. Islam, 2:45-5:30. My first class at Pitzer is an overview of the historical arguments in Islamic thought. The professor is Iraqi and seems pretty cool, so this should be fun.
Tuesday: Game Theory, 1:15-2:30. I’m a nerd, so this is my econ elective.
Wednesday: Modern Arab Culture and Thought, 7-10 PM. Bassam’s seminar, entirely in Arabic. I think there’s a good chance that our class sessions will turn into parties with Arab food.
Thursday: Game Theory again.
Friday: IR thesis seminar, 1:15-4. I don’t think this is supposed to be an actual class, but just a designated time for meeting and getting feedback on thesis proposals. If it’s really a three-hour class on how to write a research paper, I’ll be pretty disappointed (although it is with Clement, who’s a total baller and tends to cancel class anyway). The way I look at it, I basically have a three-day weekend, which is good but not as good as the four-day weekend I managed to get last semester by taking all of my classes except Arabic on Monday and Wednesday.

I also have big plans for Meat & Greet, the grilling club Liam and I started last semester. I don’t want to promise anything yet, but since I’ll have my car on campus we’re going to be able to do a lot more to throw big events and institutionalize the club (it also doesn’t hurt that we know pretty much everyone who runs stuff on campus now).

I know there’s a lot between me and fall semester right now, but I’m still super excited.

The Politics of Command and Conquer

Let me preface all of this by saying that I love Command and Conquer. I was a total nerd growing up and I took the existential struggle with the Soviets in Red Alert as seriously as anyone. When Yuri started doing mind-control stuff in Red Alert 2, I fought valiantly for the future of the free world. Out of all of the computer games I played as a kid, Red Alert 2 consistently ranks in the top 3 (along with Age of Empires II/The Conquerors and a little-known knockoff of Civilization called Alpha Centauri). So when I was tooling around on Muhammad and Waleed’s computer yesterday morning and I saw a bootlegged copy of C&C: Generals, I naturally got a little excited. I had to search for a good half-hour, but I eventually found everything I needed to make the game work. I sat Muhammad and Waleed down and started to explain how to build vehicles, move soldiers, shoot at things, and all of that good stuff (the whole game is in English and the only relevant words I know are “jaysh” [army] and “adroob” [hit, meaning “attack” in this case], so this process took a while).

Every videogame should be like this.

At first I was proud—mainly of the fact that I actually taught them how to play—but after watching them play a little I got this really weird, uncomfortable feeling. See, the whole plot of Generals is set in Iraq (the game was released in 2003) and as a player your job is to defeat a rebel army and secure the country. The rebel army has chemical weapons and usually sets up camp in the middle of cities, so there are always a ton of civilian casualties (it doesn’t help that Muhammad and Waleed like to destroy everything on the map when they play, including random houses, trees, and occasionally their own base and air support). The point is that Generals was just a little too close to reality for comfort. C&C usually has ridiculous, James Bond-esque plots involving sci-fi stuff like time travel, teleportation, mind control, roving packs of attack squids and dolphins, soldiers with nuclear reactors in their backpacks, etc. The characters are cartoonish stereotypes like a rogue Russian commander named Yuri or an obese, cigar-chomping American general with a thick Southern accent (and let’s not forget Tanya, the Lara Croft look-alike commando whose missions always seemed to require low-cut tank tops). I think David Koechner (aka Champ from Anchorman) played the U.S. president in one of the games, which should give you a good idea of how ridiculous the C&C universe usually is.

The problem is that when you put these cartoon characters into a semi-realistic situation, the stereotypes become offensive. It’s fine to be jingoistic when you’re sending a squad of rocketeers (little soldiers with jet packs) into battle against a Soviet Zeppelin bomber with a giant shark face painted on the side. But it’s kind of a messed-up situation when Waleed is laying waste to Baghdad with Apache helicopters, Humvees, and tanks and the American soldiers are shouting things like “Bring the rain!” (especially because Waleed doesn’t really understand what’s going on and he’s stoked about everything).

Anyway, I decided that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for Muhammad and Waleed to be playing Generals, so I disabled the game. They complained basically all day, so I asked Sawsan if it was OK for them to play. Of course, she said “yes” even after I explained that it was about war—in a country where eight-year olds regularly watch Steven Seagal movies, nobody really tries to prevent their kids from seeing violent stuff. So I set it back up for them, but this time started them on the Chinese campaign. When I came back into the room a few minutes later, Muhammad was driving around Beijing with a bunch of tanks whose main guns were giant flamethrowers, and I smiled. Sure, the game still has some bad stereotypes (every time Muhammad gave orders to the tanks, the soldiers inside responded with thick Engrish accents like the City Wok guy from South Park: “Helro, welcome to shitty Wok, home of shitty beef, shitty chicken”) but when they look back on Generals in ten years, hopefully Muhammad and Waleed won’t think about the political angle and regret playing.

[Edit: I guess it also looks pretty bad to march tanks through Beijing and run civilians over (in C&C, the tanks don’t stop like they did for that guy in Tiananmen Square). But I doubt that political angle is as potent, just because Muhammad and Waleed will probably identify more with innocent Iraqis being killed by the American military than with Chinese rebels being repressed by the People’s Army. At any rate, I think my host brothers are too young to enjoy C&C properly right now anyway (after the first few levels, you can't just destroy everything, you have to actually use a little strategy) so this whole post might just have been me looking for an excuse to write about C&C.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Waleed's World

My host brother Waleed is a total baller. Picture a chubby eight-year old Arab kid with nappy red hair and a moon face. This is pretty funny to begin with—fat people and gingers are staples of comedy across the globe—but it gets better. You know how there are some people that you can enjoy watching or hanging out with no matter what they’re doing? For example, take Christopher Walken. I would pay full price to see a feature-length film of just him doing everyday things like driving in traffic, picking up dry cleaning, eating a cheeseburger, or doing whatever it is that Christopher Walken does on a daily basis. He’s just a guy who has a uniquely funny way of saying things and doing things. Well, Waleed is the same way. His whole life is wrestling, soccer, videogames (Pro Evolution Soccer and WWE Smackdown), TV (WWE Raw), and eating. He loves it this way and his main goal when he wakes up every day is to do as many of these things for as long as possible. This is Waleed’s World, and most everything that occurs in it is hilarious. Let me give you a few examples:

When I wake up on the weekends and walk into the living room, there is a good chance that first thing I hear will be Waleed saying, “Nick, play Ninja Turtles?” Ninja Turtles is a game that we started in about the third week of my homestay where Waleed and Muhammad do their best to tackle, kick, punch, smack, or pin me, and I occasionally pick them up and throw them onto their bed. Needless to say, they love this and Waleed constantly tries to get me to play with him—sometimes, he skips the formalities of asking the question and just punches me in the stomach or jumps on me, hoping that I will pick him up and escalate things to the point where a full-on game of Ninja Turtles can break out (this strategy usually works because not reacting to a sucker punch and/or a chubby eight-year old dangling from your neck requires a kind of Gandhi-like patience which I just don’t have). Lately, Ninja Turtles has evolved into WWE, which is basically the same thing only we spend a lot of time making speeches and talking trash before we actually wrestle. Waleed doesn’t even know colors in English, but he can name the entire WWE lineup from memory and does this all the time when we play. So picture the absurdity of most of my Fridays and Saturdays: before I go out at night, the only English I hear is, “Nick, play WWE?” and some variant of, “Nick, man anta? [Who are you?] John Cena, Shawn Michaels, Seamus, Big Show, The Miz, Mr. McMahon, Batista, The Undertaker, Kofi Kingston...” But the best part is when Waleed talks smack in English. During the course of a “match” he’ll slip in gems like (if I’m lying on the ground) “Come on, baby, stand up!”

Waleed’s other favorite activity (besides beating me up) is going to Gamebox, which is kind of like an internet cafĂ© only with PS3s where you pay JD1/hr to play either PES 2010 or WWE Smackdown (I’m 90% certain those are the only two games people ever play; also, in PES almost everyone plays as Barcelona or Real Madrid, so it’s not uncommon to see 4-5 games of Barca-Real being played simultaneously). And as long as I’m dropping statistics, I would say that roughly half of Waleed’s requests to his mother are for money to go to Gamebox, while the other half are for money to go to the supermarket and buy ice cream. Now that I think about it, Waleed is kind of like Garfield in that he always wants food and is totally predictable (the difference is that Waleed is funny). Anyway, when we went to Gamebox a few weeks back he just started singing in English, in a room full of people playing as either Barcelona or Real Madrid, “Barca, Barca, Barcelona, Real Madrid are donkey and monkey, Real Madrid are donkey and monkey, Barcelona, Barcelona!” I think he sang more, but I didn’t catch it because at that point everyone in Gamebox was cracking up.

On the way back from Gamebox, we saw a stray dog on the sidewalk. Waleed was eating a candy bar at the time (Waleed has the energy for all of these activities because he’s constantly sugar-high. It’s kind of like how Lil’ Wayne is perpetually blazed so he can come up with ridiculous metaphors—for Waleed, sugar-high is the normal state of being), but he stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “Nick! Kelb! [Dog!]” He grabbed me by the sleeve and started to walk toward it because he wanted to feed it the candy bar. Let me repeat that: I had to stop Waleed from feeding a candy bar to a stray dog. Only in Waleed’s World.

Finally, last weekend I decided to cook my family some French toast because they didn’t have anything to eat with the maple syrup I had given them as a gift. I invited Zack over to hang out while I did a poor man’s impersonation of Iron Chef. When I finally served everything on a big platter, Waleed sat down to eat. He took a piece of French toast (I used pita bread because that’s all we had) and set it down on his plate. He then proceeded to pour out half of the bottle maple syrup onto his plate—the French toast was literally floating in a lake of syrup. After eating the pita-French toast with his hands, burrito-style, he stood up and announced (with both hands drenched in syrup) “Khalas! [I’m done!]” When I asked him if he liked it, he said that he did, but he was full because he ate ice cream before dinner. He went into the courtyard and almost immediately came back to the dinner table with a soccer ball in hand.

“Zack, play qur’a al-qadm? [soccer]”
“Waleed, ana akul [I’m eating].”
“Oh, OK.”

Waleed waited two seconds and then turned to me.

“Nick, play qur’a al-qadm?”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Visiting Petra: Or, Another Reason Why Transformers 2 Is Inaccurate

Transformers 2 was not a very good movie. In fact, to be brutally honest, it was the kind of film only Helen Keller could enjoy. After I got home from seeing it last summer, I wrote a laundry list of reasons why Revenge of the Fallen sucked. It was full of rants like this one:

"You wouldn’t think that a movie about 40-foot tall robots would try to sneak in any political messages under the radar. But Michael Bay created a character to do just that. For lack of a better title, I’m going to call him “Obama-weenie,” since that’s pretty much how he is portrayed. Obama-weenie is the new National Security Advisor who wants to send the good-guy Autobots home and shut down the only military unit that is keeping the world safe. Half of the time, it sounds more like he’s talking about withdrawing troops from Iraq instead of removing aliens from the battlefield. Of course, this is pure madness since only a strong military-robotic complex can keep the Decepticons at bay. Obama-weenie also wants to try to negotiate with the Decepticons, who are pure evil and will stop at nothing to destroy the earth and its inhabitants. Subtlety has never been Bay's strong suit, but in creating Obama-weenie he has elevated jingoism to an art form. Basically, this guy is a meddling bureaucrat who prevents soldiers from doing their jobs (in contrast to his Bush-era predecessor in the first Transformers, who actually fought the Decepticons himself with an antiquated shotgun in the Hoover Dam scene). And as if that symbolism didn’t hit you over the head with a sledgehammer, then when Obama-weenie keeps yelling “BAILOUT!” in reference to jumping out of a C-130 cargo plane, you’ll appreciate Bay’s clever social commentary so much that you’ll want to waterboard him yourself." --Nick Hubbard, excerpted from "10 Things That Can Make Transformers 3 Less Shitty"

After visiting Petra last week and the Pyramids during my Egypt trip, I can add another item to my list: most of the locations RoTF were completely fake. I don't know why Bay even bothered to film in Jordan and Egypt, because he wound up using CGI to completely change the entire landscape around the Pyramids and Petra. The Petra monastery is actually located up in the mountains, not next to an ancient desert town like it is in the movie. You have to climb up 1000 steps in order to get to the place where Skids and Mudflap (the two horribly stereotypical black Transformers) have a wrestling match and where the climactic battle scene takes place. In reality, the "ancient village" next to Petra that gets destroyed is a series of sheer cliffs, meaning that the US ground support that saves Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox would be nearly impossible. And in Egypt, the Giza Pyramids are surrounded by a bunch of tourist shops hawking useless crap, not by a mining complex where that big Transformer could magically appear from. And as far as the larger geography of the movie goes, at some point Optimus Prime would have had to fly over Israeli airspace to get to the Giza pyramids, and it's hard to imagine the Israelis ignoring or not noticing what is essentially a missile the size of a tractor-trailer.

This scene should never have happened, for many reasons.

Anyway, I think I've thought about Transformers 2 more than anyone should have to, so I'm going to stop right now and actually talk about our trip to southern Jordan. School is basically done now so the trip was a great way to relax and celebrate by enjoying a whole lot of ancient history, nature, geology, and duty-free alcohol (the entire city of Aqaba is a special economic zone without taxes or tariffs). Speaking of alcohol, in Aqaba I had a glass Petra Beer, which I expected to taste slightly better than turpentine and slightly worse than King Cobra malt liquor. In reality, it ranked up there with Coors Light ("The Cadillac of College Beer"), which was a pleasant surprise. If the image of Petra on the can had turned blue when the beer was cold, I think that would have been the highlight of the trip. But since that didn't happen, let me go in order: on the first day, we went to Karak and then to the city right next to Petra where we stayed in a hotel. We woke up really early the next morning to go to see the ancient city before it got mobbed by tour groups and before the temperature cracked 100˚F at midday. After Egypt, I was expecting to get mobbed by vendors as soon as I stepped off the bus, but Petra actually turned out to be the most reasonable of all the places we went to in terms of unwanted solicitations (though things seemed to be getting worse as more tour buses pulled up during the middle of the day). We were free to walk around the ruins, which was incredible. One thing that doesn't hit you until you're there is the true size of Petra--it used to be a city of 100,000 people, so it's pretty spread-out and you have to do a lot of walking to get from one site to another. Still, it was a gorgeous day and everyone was really happy to spend 5 hours outside.

After Petra, we headed out to Wadi Rum to camp in a "Bedouin tent" which was basically a hotel room with a cloth roof. We did a lot of touristy stuff--desert jeep tours, riding camels, dafka dancing, etc.--but the best part was climbing on rocks and exploring the desert at night. I've always been a big fan of camping, but sometimes it's easy to forget why and Wadi Rum was a great reminder of just how awesome nature can be. Unfortunately, we only spent one night there but I'll probably head back again now that school's done. The next morning we packed up and went to Aqaba, where we spent the afternoon snorkeling in the Red Sea. I've snorkeled before, but only in an indoor pool in order to play underwater hockey. Anyway, snorkeling is a whole lot better when you're looking at coral and fish and other beautiful things as opposed to wrestling underwater with an obese, hairy man over the "puck," and I enjoyed swimming a ton. We spent that night in a seaside bar called F.R.I.E.N.D.S. whose main attractions were JD2.50 beer and digital neon strobe lights.

For the last night, we went to the Dana Nature Preserve, which was straight-up gorgeous. It's in a wadi (valley) so everything is very green, but there are still stunning desert rocks and cliffs. Check out the pictures to see what I mean. I would say that words can't describe it, but they definitely can--I'm just too lazy to write anymore right now. Even though I slept on almost every bus ride, this trip still took a lot out of me. I slept for about ten hours last night and I'll probably do the same thing tonight. Anyway, I need to go get dinner now so stay classy until next time, guys.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New Pics...

...from Wadi Mujib, Petra, Aqaba, and the Dana Nature Reserve are up here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Eff-You Summer

So I've finally sussed out all of my summer plans, and I just thought I'd list them here so that a) Everybody can know what I'm up to, and b) I can brag. Because this summer is going to be awesome beyond belief. Here's why:

1) I get back from Jordan in mid-May, just in time to see Lucas graduate and start work on my summer research. I'm getting paid $3200 from Pomona this year to help one of my favorite professors research the constitutionality of the filibuster. It may be nerdy, but I do actually enjoy this stuff and I get to work from home so it's really great.

2) After two and a half weeks of research/relaxing, I'm going to Europe for three weeks during the World Cup with Zack Mirman, Dan Holleb, and Sam Littleton. We're going to London, Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Spain, and we've scheduled it so we'll see at least one game in each of those countries. Needless to say, I'm more excited for this than I am to come back to the US and see Kick-Ass in theaters.

3) When I get back from Europe, I've got more research to do but also my old job waiting tables at Abel's Lobster Pound, home of $35 lobster and some of the best people around. I'll be making bank and enjoying Bar Harbor in the summertime.

4) During the last two weeks of summer, I'm planning a cross-country road trip so I can have my car in Claremont for senior year. Don't know where we'll be stopping yet besides Chicago and Vegas, but I'm open to ideas.

Anyway, I still have a lot of time in Jordan, but now that everything's pretty concrete I figured I should put it on paper just to convince myself that I'm really going to do all of this. Tomorrow we're headed off to southern Jordan (Aqaba, Petra, and Wadi Rum) so I should have some good pictures and stories from that trip to tell sooner or later.