May 07, 2002 | permalink
Are placebos more powerful than drugs? Today’s Washington Post looks into the medication of America:
“After thousands of studies, hundreds of millions of prescriptions and tens of billions of dollars in sales, two things are certain about pills that treat depression: antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft work. And so do sugar pills. A new analysis has found that in the majority of trials conducted by drug companies in recent decades, sugar pills have done as well as—or better than—antidepressants…The new research may shed light on findings such as those from a trial last month that compared the herbal remedy St. John’s wort against Zoloft. St. John’s wort fully cured 24 percent of the depressed people who received it, and Zoloft cured 25 percent—but the placebo fully cured 32 percent.”
Two years ago, The New York Times Magazine examined, in fascinating detail, the ways and means of the placebo effect.
May 05, 2002 | permalink
On the flight back to New York from Karachi, I continued reading Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” and I continue to be awed by it. Franzen can write and think, treating you to style wrapped around ideas. Reading his book is akin to watching Dirk Nowitzki play basketball—a big man who can dribble and shoot. An example—
And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight—isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly. And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life, this is all anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about.
As for Nowitzki, he’s on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated.
May 03, 2002 | permalink
For a dose of sensory overload, Karachi style, a visit to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi is highly recommended. I stopped by it the other night and felt pity for the photographer who was with me; there was no way a picture could absorb and express its beauty and chaos. (I also realized that words couldn’t do it justice, either.) The Sufi tomb, on a hilltop overlooking the Arabian Sea, consists of a green and white dome with flags fluttering in the breeze and waves of incense leavening the air. Barefoot pilgrims ascend a long and steep staircase: beggars, peasants, bricklayers, drivers, addicts, office workers, etc. Some sing, some pray. Surrounding the shrine is a marketplace that counts, among its attractions, fortune tellers and traditional musicians whose listeners pass, from hand to hand, the joints they have made from tobacco and hashish. The joints are unnecessary; the shrine is hallucinogenic.
May 01, 2002 | permalink
I am travelling with my digital camera, a Leica, but I tend to leave it in my hotel room on most outings; I’m not in Karachi to take pictures, and the presence of a camera can get in the way of things. But I shouldn’t have neglected it last night, when I finished an interview in the center of town and had an hour before meeting someone else. I drove to the McDonald’s in Clifton, a trendy neighborhood by the Arabian Sea; my primary interest wasn’t a McChicken, though I consumed one, but the scene, which did not disappoint. You walk into the restaurant and to your left is a bench, upon which sits a smiling, life-size model of Ronald McDonald, painted in brilliant shades of red and yellow, with his right arm extended along the back; you cannot sit on the bench without appearing to be embraced by RM. Snuggled next to him, and giggling, though I couldn’t tell for sure, was a woman wearing a hijab, which is a black gown and veil that revealed only her eyes, which were full of mirth.
April 29, 2002 | permalink
What do you do if the crowd at your rally is hoisting placards that bear the likeness of a political leader other than yourself? If you are General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, you ignore the pictures of Altaf Hussain, an exiled politician, and wave at the crowd as though it belongs to you. You start your speech even though riot policemen are whacking the unruly with wood batons. And you continue speaking even though a considerable number of rally-goers are heading for the exits long before the completion of your address.
In other words, I had an enjoyable time at Musharraf’s rally in Karachi, even though the temperature was in the hundreds and due to security concerns you couldn’t purchase refreshments (glass or plastic bottles might have been thrown at the podium). It was the general’s last outing before a referendum on Tuesday that will extend his rule by five years; the outcome is certain because opposition gatherings have been banned and the opposition has told its supporters to boycott the show. The referendum may not be democratic, but at least it’s entertaining. I will miss the stories in local papers about the government impounding buses to transport its supporters to the general’s rallies.
April 26, 2002 | permalink
Things you see on the streets of Karachi: a motorcycle with five people on board (a father driving, a child in his lap, a child behind him, wife behind the child, riding side-saddle, holding a baby); donkey pulling a cart laden with 30-foot steel girders; motorized rickshaw with six or seven schoolkids crammed onto a seat that fits, typically, two adults; a camel; colorfully decrepit buses with passengers on the roof, spilling out the open doors, hanging on for dear life during their daily commute; blind beggars led by young boys; hawkers selling newspapers, roses, bracelets, coconut slices; traffic cops in white uniforms; para-military troops, known as Rangers, on patrol in pickups, with machine-guns; late-model Hondas and Toyotas, the vehicles of choice for Karachi’s middle class. You feel the heat, hear the noise, inhale the dust. Exhilarating, exhausting.
April 23, 2002 | permalink
Last night I attended a fashion show, and a few nights earlier I attended a fashion show. That’s two more fashion shows than I’ve attended in America, or anywhere. The shows took place by an outdoor pool at a luxury hotel in the center of Karachi, and they seemed the real thing (Fashion TV, which I’ve not been able to ignore, is my guide on this). The shows, featuring Pakistani-designed garments, included strobe lights, throbbing music, scowling models (why don’t models smile?) and clothing that revealed enough flesh to give Mullah Omar a heart attack, though not as much as you’d see on a New York catwalk. I hadn’t been invited but happened to pass by and became curious—fashion shows in Pakistan? Because I am Caucasian I was waved inside by security guards who were otherwise making sure that Pakistani guests possessed invitations; reverse racism has its benefits, at least for its beneficiaries.
April 21, 2002 | permalink
The News is a leading Pakistani daily, in English, and today it had a scoop—an exclusive interview with President General (that’s his title) Pervez Musharraf. The story, under a headline that stretched across seven columns, included the following passage: “In a 90-minute wide-ranging talk in which he received volley of tough questions on all ticklish issues with a smiling face, the president said if the forces opposing him start ‘get him’ activities in the parliament that would be ‘most unfortunate’ but if they strengthen reforms and restructuring and turning around the economy he would provide strength to them. Looking ahead a prosperous, viable, dynamic, politically and democratically stable Pakistan, he brushed aside the notion that Pakistan was a lost nation. ‘We are not at all a lost nation.’”
April 20, 2002 | permalink
You are caught in a traffic jam in Karachi and a beggar raps on your window. He displays a withered limb or (take your pick) a twitching stump, a bleeding abscess, an arm bent like a question mark, hands with no fingers, a goutish tumor, a cleft lip, a scorched face. The look in his yellowed eyes says, “You are not going to ignore this, are you?” The window is rolled up, the air-conditioning is on, the doors are locked and neither the traffic nor the beggar moves. After an interval, he raps again. In the evenings, as the diseased and afflicted limp out of the darkness, evoking a macabre scene from “Night of the Living Dead,” the situation fluctuates between grotesque and absurd, repulsive and fascinating. Your car is an existential bubble on wheels; you don’t want this, nobody would want this, but it is worthwhile. The rapping on the window—how should America respond?
April 18, 2002 | permalink
The following titles are in the display window at London Books, a store in The Point, Karachi’s trendiest shopping mall:
“War of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Trial of Henry Kissinger” by Christopher Hitchens
“Buddha” by Karen Armstrong
“The Summons” by John Grisham
“Dreamcatcher” by Stephen King
“Mao” by Jonathan Spence
“Jack” by Jack Welch
“The Infinite Plan” by Isabel Allende
“Self Matters” by Phillip C. McGraw
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling (Urdu version)
I purchased “A Wet Afternoon” by Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest Urdu writers. It’s an English translation of his best short stories.
April 17, 2002 | permalink
Just had my first encounter with brain masala. Not a joke. Quite popular in Karachi, and not at all bad; soft in texture and gentle in taste, much like tofu, though high in cholesterol, I’m told.
April 16, 2002 | permalink
Most technological breakthroughs are not breakthroughs in all ways; there’s often a drawback of one sort or another. As has been noted widely, PDAs are great but they don’t have the permanence of datebooks. A few years ago I leafed through my grandfather’s datebook from the 1950s; it was fascinating, in a time-travelling way. I don’t imagine the data in my Pilot (not to mention the Pilot itself) will be around in fifty years (or ten).
But there’s no drawback, for a journalist on a road trip, to a digital recorder. I recently purchased an Olympus DM-1, for which Mac software is available (essential for my iBook), and my current trip to Pakistan is its first test. I’m in love with it. My backpack is not filling up with a dozen or two dozen tapes that are a pain to carry around; more than 20 hours of interviews fit on a 128 MG chip, and the DM-1 is half as large as the tape recorder it replaced. Just as important, no longer do I worry about losing my precious tapes through theft or negligence or bad luck; I download everything at the end of the day, so I’ve got a backup on my laptop, and for extra peace of mind I can email crucial interviews to a server that stores them until I return to New York to write my story.
It’s bliss. Thank you, John von Neumann.
April 12, 2002 | permalink
I walked into a drugstore in Islamabad yesterday and noticed, in a proud stack by the cash register, a dozen cans of Slim-Fast. A few yards away, on the street, was a montage of Pakistani misery—street kids, homeless men, hunger. This might be an economic indicator in the era of globalization, though I’m not sure what it indicates. When a country as destitute as Pakistan begins importing a weight-loss drink, does it mean income distribution and the lifestyles of the rich and poor are dangerously out of whack? Or does the arrival of strawberry-flavored Slim-Fast mean Pakistan is inching up the ladder of prosperity? Or both?
April 10, 2002 | permalink
The headline over an opinion piece in The New York Times asks a good question: “Is America Abandoning Afghanistan?” Several thousand U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan but the country is slipping into chaos and needs more security assistance than it is likely to receive. The New Republic comes to a similar conclusion in a piece about Pakistan, criticizing the Bush Administration for failing to provide the free-trade benefits that Pakistan deserves, such as the lifting of quotas on textile imports. It’s not a moral issue of helping countries in need; if Pakistan becomes more destitute, and if Afghanistan returns to pre-Taliban anarchy, America’s next nightmare in Central Asia will have begun.
April 10, 2002 | permalink
I arrived in Islamabad two days ago, and the 16-hour journey from New York gave me the time to begin reading Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” which is a treat. An early passage involves a conversation between Chip Lambert, a troubled slacker from the Midwest, and Gitanas Milsevicius, a troubled dissident from Lithuania. Milsevicius has rolled up his sleeve to reveal scars from cigarette burns administered by Soviet prison guards; Chip may have similar wounds. The passage, which loses a bit of its stone-faced humor when quoted on its own, offers a wry perspective on American identity:
“So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?” Gitanas said.
Chip showed his palm. “It’s nothing.”
“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison,” Chip said.
April 07, 2002 | permalink
A new book is revising the conventional wisdom about U.S. intervention in Angola during the Cold War. The book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, quotes a former CIA station chief in Angola as saying the 1975 advent of a leftist regime, soon shored up by Cuban troops, was not responsible for destroying the country. “The opposite proved true,” said Robert Hultslander. “It was our policies which caused the destabilization.’’ Documents published in the book have been noticed by The New York Times:
Historians and former diplomats who have studied the documents say they show conclusively that the United States intervened in Angola weeks before the arrival of any Cubans, not afterward as Washington claimed. Moreover, though a connection between Washington and South Africa, which was then ruled by a white government under the apartheid policy, was strongly denied at the time, the documents appear to demonstrate their broad collaboration.
“When the United States decided to launch the covert intervention, in June and July, not only were there no Cubans in Angola, but the U.S. government and the C.I.A. were not even thinking about any Cuban presence in Angola,” said Piero Gleijeses, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, who used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the documents.
Despite huge oil reserves—in many ways, because of those reserves—Angola has suffered more than a quarter century of warfare fueled by outside powers, including the United States, which backed the rebel movement led by Jonas Savimbi, one of the most notorious warlords in contemporary African history. Savimbi was killed by government troops in February, and his rebel forces have agreed to a truce. But Angola remains in horrible shape, and this Washington Post editorial notes that U.S. oil companies continue to support the Angolan government’s policy of not disclosing its oil revenues, which allows corrupt officials to steal or misuse billions of dollars.
“Conflicting Missions” is a political book; for a beautiful and chilling description of Angola as independence (and disaster) dawned in 1975, read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life. It’s one of his least-known books, but one of his best.
April 05, 2002 | permalink
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting is an obligatory stop for the Balkan news crowd; its reports are more detailed than anything else on the Web and written by journalists from the region. IWPR is the only place, online or offline, where you can read, in English, the genius rants of Petar Lukovic, who is the Christopher Hitchens of Serbia. And IWPR has just extended its franchise, starting an Afghan news service. Not to be missed.
April 04, 2002 | permalink
Tobias Wolff has written a book review that is crafted as thoughtfully as one of his short stories; it reaches for the soul. Not only does Wolff’s review make you want to read the new collection of Andre Dubus stories (the movie “In the Bedroom” was based on Dubus’ “Killings”), it makes you want to read, or re-read, everything by Wolff.
April 04, 2002 | permalink
It’s not easy being female in Pashtun society but it’s not much easier being male. Men and women are strictly segregated—burqas predated the Taliban by centuries—which means the only females a male is supposed to see in his lifetime are his mother, sisters (if he has any) and wife (if he has one). The result is noteworthy—deprived of contact with women, a large number of Pashtun men have sex with each other.
This open secret was obvious to the foreign journalists who reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11, but none of us got around to writing about it; there was a war to cover. Now, however, Maura Reynolds of The Los Angeles Times has written the first serious story on the subject, and it’s intriguing. Excerpts from her piece—
It might seem odd to a Westerner that such a sexually repressive society is marked by heightened homosexual activity. But Justin Richardson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says such thinking is backward—it is precisely the extreme restrictions on sexual relations with women that lead to greater prevalence of the behavior.
“In some Muslim societies where the prohibition against premarital heterosexual intercourse is extremely high—higher than that against sex between men—you will find men having sex with other males not because they find them most attractive of all but because they find them most attractive of the limited options available to them,” Richardson says.
Richardson…says it would be wrong to call Afghan men homosexual, since their decision to have sex with men is not a reflection of what Westerners call gender identity. Instead, he compares them to prison inmates: They have sex with men primarily because they find themselves in a situation where men are more available as sex partners than are women. “It is something they do,” he notes, “not something they are.”
April 03, 2002 | permalink
The Washington Post has an excellent story about the secret war waged in Afghanistan by the CIA and the Special Forces. It began on October 19, when a dozen Special Forces soldiers, known as Team 555, choppered into the Panjshir Valley under the cover of darkness and landed at the wrong place. As a group of strangers approached, the Special Forces prepared to shoot. Emerging from the darkness, one of the strangers extended his hand and said, “Hi! I’m Hal! Damn glad to meet you!” As the Post explains, “Thus did the Central Intelligence Agency welcome the U.S. Special Forces into Afghanistan.”