Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Slingshot Hip-hop, and the power of digital Palestine

Monday night, Rachel and I went to our local movie theatre to watch “Slingshot Hip-Hop“, a documentary on Palestinian hiphop by Palestinian/Syrian/American filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum. It’s the sort of film where 83 minutes of cinema can lead towards several hours of intense (and perhaps heated) conversation. The film’s stars are a set of Palestinian hiphop crews, including DAM (Da’ Arabian MCs) who are based in Lod, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and PR (The Palestinian Rapperz) who are based in Gaza. The film traces the lifecycle of each crew, the inspirations behind their music, their struggles to be heard and accepted, and their quest to play a show together.

Trailer for “Slingshot Hip-hop” by Jackie Reem Salloum

This aspiration – a DAM/PR joint concert – provides the dramatic structure for the film. It’s extremely difficult for “’48 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within Israel – and “’67 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within the West Bank or Gaza – to travel and visit one another. The struggles the two crews go through are a powerful illustration of the circumscribed lifestyle Gazans in particular are living, confined to a small, crowded, tightly controlled territory, and the difficulties of creating a coherent national identity in a “Palestine” that’s split between two disconnected territories and a diaspora.

“Born Here” by DAM

Rachel offers a helpful review of the film, as well as reflections on what is and isn’t covered in the narrative presented. As someone deeply committed to Israeli/Palestinian dialog, she’s a little disappointed that the film didn’t look at spaces – like Hip Hop Sulha – where the Israeli and Palestinian rap communities have been able to come together, connecting on stage.

As someone obsessed with the idea of “connection”, what I found most interesting about the film was the ways in which the kids in these two marginal neighborhoods found ways to connect with each other and with broader hiphop culture. An early scene shows DAM in the bedroom of one of the members in Lod. A set of exterior shots makes it clear that Lod can feel more like a developing nation than a suburb of Israel’s glossiest city. But the DAM boys have an excellent CD collection, featuring the hits of political hiphop, from Public Enemy to Talib Kweli, by way of Tupac. Their early rhymes, showed in enthusiastic but embarrasing footage, are highly derivative gansta rap… ten years later, they’re sharp political statements, which one member of the crew describes as 30% Public Enemy, 30% Palestinian authors like Edward Said and 40% the streets of Lod. The DAM boys are tightly connected to parallel communities – Palestinian intellectuals, and American political hiphop – even though they’re physically distant from many of the conversations.

(A side note: It’s interesting to rethink some of the rhetoric of late 1980s hiphop in regards to these Palestinian rappers. Public Enemy’s lyrics made it clear that Chuck D saw America as a war zone with black Americans targeted by the white majority. I heard those lyrics as poetic, not literal, part of the same atmosphere produced by the air raid sirens that punctuated live PE shows – songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype” seemed to caution against taking PE’s lyrics too literally. But the same phrases in the mouths of Palestinian rappers, especially those in Gaza, have a very different resonance. Parts of New York City may have felt like a war zone when PE was spitting tracks, but the same lyrics sound very different in a literal war zone.)

The internet is a major reason why these connections are possible. In discussing DAM’s first hit, the filmmaker doesn’t talk about record sales, but about “over a million downloads”. In interviews in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, all the kids talk about discovering Arabic rap online and downloading as much as they could. Every shot of a rapper’s bedroom features a computer, usually a beat-up tower lying on its side, case off, innards cooled by a room fan. The computers are where rappers make or find beats, record tracks, and send their music out to the masses.

Despite my obsession with digital connection, it took my breath away when the filmmakers made it possible for PR and DAM to connect for the first time… via mobile phone. Salloum and her crew filmed PR’s first public show at the Red Crescent Society in Gaza, and brought the footage to show Palestinian rappers in Israel. We see the members of DAM call the PR crew on their mobile phones and congratulate them on a great first show. Abeer, a Palestinian rapper and R&B singer, gives one of the PR guys her IM handle, and we watch him blush beet red on the other end of the phone in Gaza.

I’ve written a bit about the ways in which the Internet can create a virtual nation that maps only partially onto a physical nation. When Kenya exploded in violent protest after the 2007 elections, a virtual Kenya, including Kenyans in South Africa, the UK and America, as well as those in the physical nation, sprang into action, building efforts to counter the violence.

From Birmingham, Alabama David Kobie decided to disable the increasingly tense Mashada forum and put up I Have No Tribe in its place, urging Kenyans to confirm that their national identity was more important that tribal tensions. Kenyans used services like Mama Mike’s to send phone minutes, petrol and food aid home – and bloggers like Juliana Rotich rode shotgun on the resulting aid convoys, documenting the distribution of food aid to those who needed it. Shuttling between the US and Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina penned “No Country for Old Hatreds“, a plea in the New York Times to understand the Kenyan conflict as a political, not ethnic one. And a team of Kenyans in Eldoret, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Alabama and Florida came together to build Ushahidi, a platform to document Kenyan violence, which has gone on to be a popular platform for distributed reporting now in use around the world.

Digital Kenya is bigger than physical Kenya – it includes expatriate Kenyans and people who love the nation, even if they’re not Kenyan. So I wasn’t surprised by the existence of a digital Palestine… but I was blown away by the realization that digital Palestine exists in part because it’s impossible to exist in physical Palestine. The guys from DAM dismiss the idea of travelling to Gaza to give a concert as being roughly as fanciful as planning a concert on Venus – the difficulty PR has in leading Gaza to travel to the West Bank appears to confirm their skepticism. This virtual, digital Palestine beats no common ground at all, as far as the rappers are concerned – it lets them follow each other’s work and cheer each other’s successes – but the longing on both sides to connect in person feels almost Shakesperian. My guess is that Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have been content IM’ing each other, and the separation between DAM and PR becomes yet another factor fueling the anger and passion that infuses much of the men’s work.

I wish there were some way to make “Slingshot Hip-Hop” required watching for aspiring MCs around the world. There’s a lot of guys out there who’ve got a lot of style but not much to say. You may find what DAM, PR and the others have to say uncomfortable or inspiring, but you can’t say that they’re talking a lot and saying nothing.

I wrote an earlier post on this film as it was still in production, before the storyline about DAM and PR emerged. It generated a very productive comment thread, including some pointers to collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian youth around hiphop.

Hip-hop and electoral politics: Democracy in Dakar

Apologies for lighter than usual blogging the past couple of weeks. I’ve been wrestling with recurring eye problems, and since the TED conference I’ve had to cut back on reading as my left eye is partly occluded. (For those following the details – I had surgery on my right eye last year. This is the same problem that led to surgery, just the other eye. Hoping to put surgery off on this eye for a couple more years, but another month like this and I may have to change those plans.)

My eye doctor’s advice during episodes like this is to read less, sleep more and watch lots of TV. That last bit of advice isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds – focusing on a television across a room keeps your eyes still, and stillness helps the blood that’s occluding my vision settle. And so that’s how I found myself watching DVDs at 3pm on a work day, not my usual modus operandus.

Fortunately, my friends at Nomadic Wax just sent me their brilliant new documentary, Democracy in Dakar. I’m a huge admirer of the compilations of African hiphop the label’s been putting out – African Underground: Hip-Hop Senegal has been in heavy rotation on my iPod since it came out – but I had no idea how talented these guys were as filmmakers.

Democracy in Dakar is mindblowingly good. It’s not just a portrait of a country’s vibrant music scene – it’s the complicated story of how hiphop emerged as a political force in Senegal, and how that force has been both empowered and thwarted in recent elections.

Ben Herson, the founder of Nomadic Wax and the director of the film, tells the complex story of the emergence of Senegalese hiphop and its political weight almost entirely through interviews, carefully edited into a tight narrative. He – through the voices of dozens of legendary Senegalese MCs – make the case that Senegal adopted some of the most political strains of American hiphop, translating Public Enemy lyrics into French and Wolof and building rhymes around political topics from early on. Some of the more unfortunate aspects of hiphop culture – misogyny and celebration of gangsta culture – have largely failed to take root in Senegalese soil, in part due to a strong set of Islamic values shared by most Dakar rappers.

Listening to the crews featured in the documentary is a bit like a trip back in time for me, when positive, conscious hiphop seemed like it might be able to go toe to toe with odes to thug life. Watching an MC like Didier Awadi of Positive Black Soul toss off a freestyle rap about the limitations of the International Criminal Court is like waking up in an alternate reality where Dead Pres and Slum Village outsell Diddy and Kanye. It’s not clear whether all the MCs in the country are as deeply political as the ones Herson features in the film, but it’s very, very clear that there’s a thriving music scene in Dakar where the politics are as important as the beats.

This scene became deeply important in local politics in 2000 when Aboulaye Wade challenged Abdou Diouf, who ruled Senegal for twenty years in a socialist government that provided few benefits to the average citizen. Wade was a long-time opposition leader, who’d been jailed by Diouf years earlier, and many young Senegalese – including most of the hiphop scene – put their hopes in the old dissident. A great deal of music in 1999 and 2000 focused on urging the youth to vote, and to celebrating the possibility that Senegal could change and move forward.

Democracy in Dakar is set seven years later, in the days leading up to the 2007 presidential elections. Seven years of Wade’s rule hasn’t done much for Senegal’s economy, at least in the eyes of the local rappers. Their rhymes talk about frustrated young men who board pirogues and try to set sail for the Canary Islands or the French coast, often drowning in the process. Herson shows us pro-Wade graffiti that’s been crossed out, and electoral posters with the President’s face painted out.

But Wade won re-election in 2007 without even the need for a run-off. (Many African democracies have two-round elections: if no candidate has a majority in the first round, the top two run off in the second round.) While there’s widespread frustration with Wade, at least from the MCs we see, none of the 14 opposition figures emerge as a clear leader, and Wade was able to win what most observers believe was a free and fair election.

While international observers may have signed off on the election, the MCs interviewed in the film see something more sinister going on. They’ve all been recruited to perform at pro-Wade concerts, and those who’ve refused find that they have trouble getting played on the radio, or that they’ve been threatened with arrest. Some have left the country, either out of fear or for economic reasons. And those who remain are offering rhymes that are the diametric opposite of those seven years earlier – they dismiss all politicians as corrupt and ineffectual and wonder who’ll emerge to lead the country forward.

(It’s interesting for me to see parallels and differences between Senegal and Ghana, two of the more stable countries in West Africa. In both, politics continues to be dominated by politicians who were active in the struggle against colonialism. Most of these folks are pretty old, and they need to win votes in countries that are very, very young, with large portions of the population under 25 years old. But Ghana’s much more politically open, with freer media institutions and a wider space for debate… but a much less political music scene. Perhaps there’s a negative correlation between political freedom and the quality of local hiphop?)

The question left unanswered at the end of Democracy in Dakar is whether these brilliant MCs can emerge as a political force, or whether they’re going to end up marginalized and frustrated. That’s not the filmmaker’s fault – that’s a question Senegal is still answering. In the meantime, Herson and crew have turned their focus north, documenting hiphop and politics in the banlieus of Paris in “Democracy in Paris“. I’m hoping a future piece might focus on the relationship between hiphop and politics in Tanzania, where my friends tell me you’d never dream of mounting a political campaign without an MC on your campaign team.

Beautiful, provocative stuff, and something very much worth watching – if you’re half as interested in this field as I am, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.

Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.

Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.

“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.

From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.

While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.

For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.

Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression

Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.

Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.

I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.

I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)

So – Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.

Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.

Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.

Happy distractions: sumo, South African music, and Islamic hackerfic

This year is the first in decades where I’ve been beneficiary and victim of the academic schedule. While I spent almost a decade at the Berkman Center, research at that institution continues year-round, and there’s not much of a summer lull. The Media Lab is closer to the traditional academic cycle, as many students head out of the lab for internships and many of the professors hole up to complete research and writing.

I’m trying to follow their lead and am revising the book I’ve been working on for the past two years, towards a spring publication date. And that, in turn, has given me a good chance to think about distraction.

Like many people, I’m highly distractible. I do my best work in public places – coffee shops, libraries, airplanes – because they eliminate some of my favorite ways of wasting time: cutting weeds in my back yard, investigating the contents of my refrigerator, roaming the lab to see if there’s anyone interesting around to talk to. But when you’re writing a book on the Internet, it’s very hard to eliminate online distractions without cutting yourself off from your research subject. (And, if you’re sufficiently skilled at distractibility, you’ll find ways to convince yourself that the website you’re frenetically clicking through is somehow related to your core research topics.)

So, here’s what’s most distracting me today:

We’re nearing the end of the Nagoya basho, sumo’s summer tournament. Two of my favorites, Yokozuna Hakuho and Ozeki Harumafuji are both undefeated at 11-0, and everyone who follows the sport is hoping to a showdown of the two on the final day.

Highlights from day 10 of the Nagoya Basho.

Sumo’s getting much easier to watch thanks to the efforts of “Kintamayama“, whose YouTube profile identifies himself as a 58 year old dude from Tel Aviv. He posts daily summaries of the basho, evidently edited from the match livestreams. I’m not able to watch the livestream, which airs in the early morning my time, so I generally rely on torrents of NHK’s English language coverage. Those take hours to find and download, and they’re three hours long, featuring all the pre-bout ritual theatrics that accompany sumo. Kintamayama cuts to the chase – his ten minute videos feature the key high-level bouts and occasional highlights from the lower ranks, with English language information on who won and with what throw. As a bonus, his snarky subtitles during judges deliberations are always worth a watch.

While my favorite Mongolians are dominating this basho, much as they’re kicking ass in the global economy, it’s wonderful to see a veritable United Nations competing at the high ranks of sumo. The Japanese are back in force at the Ozeki rank, with Kisenosato and Kotoshugiko. Baruto weighs in from Estonia (he’s 200kg, so that’s a pun, people) and Kotooshu from Bulgaria ensure that eastern Europe is well represented at the top ranks of the sport. I’ve been having a lot of fun this basho watching Kaisei, a powerful Brazilian rikishi who’s been having a great tournament.

If you’re interested in following the next four days of the bout, try:
Kintamayama’s YouTube channel
Asahi Shimbun’s excellent English-language sumo coverage
Sumo Forum

Sumo’s great for wasting at least half an hour a day, watching the matches and reading up on the most impressive competitors, but to truly lose hours of productive time, there’s no pastime like tracking down obscure records from the 1970s and 80s. Eric Kleptone, the legendary remixer and prankster behind projects like “Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots”, has recently turned his attentions towards one of the great musicological mysteries of our time: the identity of the album that inspired Paul Simon to travel to South Africa and record his “Graceland” album. (I’ve written at length about Paul Simon, “Graceland” and the controversies over the album.)

Simon legendarily received a cassette tape from a friend, titled “Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2″ that inspired him to discover South African mbaqanga music. But, as numerous frustrated African music fans have discovered, no album by that title exists. Kleptone discusses the possible provenance of the album in the notes for his mix, Paths to Graceland, which is an attempt to catalog possible influences that might have led Simon to South Africa. It’s a gorgeous, lively and beautiful mix, filled with music that’s new to my ears, but so clearly kin to the music Simon featured that it seems like I must have heard it decades ago.

The rabbit hole Kleptone opens is through providing a thorough track listing, which leads me to discover that Tau Ea Lesotho is responsible for the accordion and high-octave bass guitar that causes me to engage in spontaneous, uncontrollable chair dancing. And that, in turn, leads me onto blogs like Afro Slabs, which work to track down and digitize these amazing albums. It’s probably possible to track down all the albums Kleptone references and build your own collection of early 80s South African and Lesotho music – I appear to be doing so without really trying to.

Of course, if you truly want to ensure no progress is made on a massive project like a book revision, you’ll need to get lost in a book. I’m currently ensnared by G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen“. My wife is a huge Wilson fan, and has reviewed her graphic novel Cairo, and her memoir about conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque, but Alif is the first book of hers she’s pressed on me. I understand why – Salon describes the book as “hacker meets djinn“, and the novel is an amazing tale of an alpha geek who works to protect online speech in the Arab world and a world of sinister, dark magical realism.

It’s a badass scifi yarn, with lots of provocative ideas about Islam, freedom, submission, will, gender, culture and independence. And as someone who works with dissidents around the world, including the Persian Gulf, it raises challenging and uncomfortable questions about the power and limits of speech to create change. I’m enjoying the adventure of the story, but suspect I’ll be savoring the larger questions for weeks to come.

My hope is that, like singing an earworm aloud to banish it, honoring these worthy distractions will give me a few hours of focus. Or, perhaps they’ll simply pull you down to my level of happy unproductivity.

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