What I learned during lunch

People's Mujahedin of Iran protest During my lunch break yesterday, I decided to take a walk about in Lafayette Park, next to the White House, to get away from my computer screen. As usual, there was a demonstration; same old, same old. However, this time the demonstration was organized by the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) and it was about Camp Ashraf. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Camp Ashraf so when I saw the demonstrators I was intrigued. I stood with them and listened to their protest.

It turns out that Camp Ashraf is a famous political prisoner camp from the time of the Shah. According to Wikipedia, Camp Ashraf is currently an Iranian refugee camp in Iraq guarded by the United States military. Here is a bit more:

Ashraf is the seat of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) or People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), PMOI members in Iraq. It was in 1986 that the PMOI came to Iraq. The camp houses members of the PMOI who are regarded by coalition forces as protected people under the Geneva Conventions. This recognition was due to the neutrality and co-operation of the residents of Ashraf, before, during and after the war. The US General and commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Ray Odierno, referred specifically to this positive cooperation from the residents of Camp Ashraf.

PMOI Lafayette Park protestPutting my interest in the demonstration aside, the demonstrators were noisy, I have to admit. They had speakers, drums, and played loud Iranian music. After I had learned enough about their story I decided to walk back to the office. On my way back, I saw other Washingtonians on their lunch breaks. Some were eating sandwiches, others reading magazines, and some played chess in the park. Life in the park seemed normal as could be despite the intensity of the demonstration just steps away. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life continues in Washington as normally as can be, despite the intense politics that keeps this city ticking.

Freecycle: The American art of giving

My very good friend Jessica (a.k.a. "the yoga master") started a neat blog entitled Responsible Frugality. The concept of this blog is to document Jessica’s attempts at living a frugal yet sustainable and responsible lifestyle. She uses a bike as her only form of transportation and buys products from local farms. She also makes her own meals and lives green.

When she first told me about her blog, the first thought that came to my mind was Freecycle. "Do you use Freecycle?" I asked her. "I should," she answered

The Freecycle slogan is simple: "Changing the world one gift at a time." It is a concept that revolves around what I like to call the ‘American art of giving.’ Freecycle is a place where people simply give stuff away for free. Most of them are trying to "de-clutter" their lives by putting stuff they accumulated over the years to good use.

When I first heard the idea, I thought "Really, who wants to give stuff away for free?" Well, it turns out that the are many of those givers out there. All you have to do is go to the site, find a local group where you live, and then join their listserve and enjoy.

So far we’ve accumulated a very nice ping-pong table, a wheelbarrow, and a nearly new bike pump — and yes, all for free. This is how it works: You see the item listed, then you send the owner an email to see if they will give you the green light to go pick it up. Many owners leave their giveaways in their front or backyards so you just stop by and grab it; no muss, no fuss, easy and simple.

I’m not really sure if this idea exists in other parts of the world, but it somehow struck me as very American. Giving to charity and donating is something that is very deep-rooted here. Charity work and giving donations are things that many of my friends here are involved in — whether donating to political campaigns, religious institutions or animal shelters. When I hear about this art of giving I get this warm feeling, a feeling that reassures me that there is still hope in this nasty, nasty world we are living in.

Now, enough of the chatter, go check out Freecyle.

Musicians attacked in Amman: The sister is ‘okay’

The news about the shooting of musicians in downtown Amman (in Arabic) was disturbing to me on so many levels, but mostly because it hit close to home. My sister was one of the musicians who took part in the concert last night. Luckily she did not witness the carnage as she decided not to take the bus home, but instead she left the concert with her friends “to get something to eat”. Her colleagues on the other hand took the bus designated to take the musicians back home and saw an enraged man shoot four Lebanese musicians who were playing alongside the musicians of the orchestra of the National Music Conservatory (NMC).

I read about the news online while I was in my office in Washington, DC a bit after 6:00 PM. My heart sank when I read that the attack targeted the NMC musicians and I called my parents immediately. My sister picked up the phone saying “I’m okay.” She explained that not only she took part in the event but that my parents were among the audience.

What a shameful act, really. Why would anyone attack musicians of all people?

According to Reuters:

A third security source said he thought the attacker had suspected the Lebanese musicians were Israelis. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has traditionally angered some in Jordan, where anti-Israeli feelings run high.

What a shame and how idiotic? As if killing innocent civilians can ever be justified!  Pathetic!  I’m really tired of this constant mayhem. My heart goes to those who were affected by this horrendous act and I pray for a speedy recovery for the injured. 

Salman Rushdie, up close and personal

Salman Rushdie
During my teenage years in Amman in the late 80’s the name Salman Rushdie was the talk of the town. Shortly after the release of his book, Satanic Verses, Rushdie was portrayed in the local media as the devil incarnate and his book was banned in Jordan (and the rest of the Arab world if I’m not mistaken). Since then I have always been intrigued by Rushdie. What prompted him to write this very controversial book, I wondered. How can he lead a normal life after Khomeini issued a fatwa that legitimized his murder? Since then, I’ve followed his news with great interest. I read about the various awards he’s won, his knighthood by the Queen of England and his brief marriage to a supermodel.

So, when I read the news about his appearance in DC I quickly snapped up tickets to see him read from his latest book, The Enchantress of Florence, at an event organized by Politics and Prose. I expected to see a bitter, cantankerous man with nothing to offer but hate speech. I was mistaken. What I saw was a happy, highly likable man with a marvelous sense of humor. He was extremely down to earth and even made jokes that were self-deprecating. I made a quick comment when my turn came for him to sign my book. "You must be tired by now," I said pointing at the crowd of people waiting for his signature. He said no, he was not tired, then pointing to his pen he explained it was an "Olympic pen" that can sign in a very speedy manner.

I was also surprised by the lack of security guards around such a controversial figure. Somehow I thought he would be surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards. I was mistaken.I really did not notice any security personnel. Maybe they were undercover. Who knows!

Jhumpa Lahiri
I have to admit, though, I have never read any of his books. I started reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet and thought it was the best writing I had ever read. Unfortunately, I could not finish it because I had to return the book to my friend before I headed to London to pursue a post-graduate degree. Now, after attending his reading I feel I need to get this book soon.

Another reason I expected Rushdie to be aloof and stone-faced was a book reading (Unaccustomed Earth) by Jhumpa Lahiri that I attended last month. I was surprised by how distant and detached Lahiri seemed during her reading. It must be a writer thing, I thought to myself. Rushdie proved me wrong.

I have to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable about writing about Rushdie on this blog because I know some readers will be very quick to attack me and accuse me of endorsing his controversial views. However, attending this reading left such an impression on me that I believe it deserves a whole post regardless of the consequences.

Thoughts on the Stimulus Check

Last night after attending a book reading by Salman Rushdie, we got back home to find a nice surprise in the mail: A stimulus check from the US Government for $1200. For those that have been living under a rock for the past six months, the stimulus check was approved by Congress earlier this year in response to the sub-prime mortgage debacle. It is being paid to U.S. taxpayers in 2008 to stimulate "purchasing", and thus improve the economy that is heading towards recession. Here is what Wikipedia says about it:

Most taxpayers below the income limit will receive a rebate of at least $300 per person ($600 for married couples filing jointly). Eligible taxpayers will receive, along with their individual payment, $300 per dependent child under the age of 17. The payment will be equal to the payer’s net income tax liability, but will not exceed $600 (for a single person) or $1200 (married couple filing jointly).

We have been waiting for this check for months and it is finally here. Part of me did not want to believe it. The idea of a government paying you that much money in exchange for nothing seemed, well, too good to be true. This was definitely a first for me and I loved it. So, what are we going to do with the money now? Spend it wisely!