Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Iraqi Constitution

fromThe Best American NonRequired Reading

Reading a constitution, any country's constitution, is informative and beneficial to our understanding of the world and the way other countries view governance, law, and citizenship. In the world we live in today, that understanding is becoming more and more vital to our everyday lives. Reading a constitution, any country's constitution I would imagine, is also much like reading a contract. Given that that's what it is - a contract - it's not surprising that it reads like one. By the same token, much in the same way that I find reading a new software contract too long, dry, and unworthy of my time despite how informative and beneficial to my life and understanding it may be, I also find myself wishing to run through the dry, contractual language of the Iraqi constitution so I can simply skip the bottom of the page where I click "Accept."

That's not to say that all of it was uninteresting reading. The Preamble was telling and, in parts, in it's own way, poetic. It also included one the longest run-on sentences I've ever seen in my life. This sentence was composed of nineteen lines of approximately fourteen words to each line. I'm too lazy to do the math - you do it - but I know enough to know that's a lot of words for one sentence and if anyone is supposed to get any since of that it certainly isn't I.

I also thought it interesting that the second line of the constitution reads, "We have honored the sons of Adam." Yeah, yeah I know that it's supposed to be a democratic Islamic state but what about Eve? I thought it took two to make a son and as far as I know Adam didn't reproduce asexually. And what about the daughters of Adam - and Eve - ? Article 14 reads: "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status." Yet, Article 2 reads: No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." I don't much about the Islamic religion but I know enough about the treatment of women in Islamic countries to hope that the two articles don’t already contend with each other.

The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie

by Alain De Botton
from The Best American Travel Writing 2006

In "The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie" De Botton is attempting to argue that boring is beautiful. "[F]ew places in the Western World have been quite as deeply unfashionable as the city of Zurich," De Botton writes. Why is this? Because Zurich is just plain old ordinary. The streets are clean, the neighborhoods are safe, and the people are unfailingly polite. Why should the anti-social, the dangerous, the consciously different and the purposefully exotic have the market on interesting? Why isn't ordinary just as beautiful, just as worthy of interest?

I don't know, I think they both have their merits. I understand how the mind can tire of monotony and routine. I also understand how monotony and routine could make our lives easier and longer. And I also think, that if we dig deep enough, if we look closely and honestly, there is something worthy of review and interest in any walk of life, even the happy suburban kind. I have always disagreed with Tolstoy's proposition that all happy families are the same and therefore unworthy of a writer's critical mind and time. No one person's happiness is the same, just as no one person is the same. To assume so, is to ignore half of life and half of the people who live it, if not more. I don't have statistics to back me up but I believe that there are just as many happy people in the world as there are unhappy.

Perhaps this is just me standing up for my people. Yes, I am a generally happy person and proud of it. Why shouldn't the story of my life and the city in which people like me would choose to live like Zurich deserve a story or interest beyond boredom? After all, we happy people will live longer than the curmudgeons and I have the statistics to prove it.

After the Fall

by Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis
from The Best American Travel Writing

There were some amazing lines in this piece. Morgan: "The night that lay upon this massive, malfunctioning, astonishing city was vast, starless, as warm and secret as an embryo." Tom: "We walked through a near-noon heat so overwhelming it had a sort of oceanic weight." The city these two vivid sentences are describing is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and our two adventurers are there to observe the 30th anniversary of the day South Vietnam formally surrendered to the North Vietnamese army.

Besides being educational and my learning that the communist Republic of Vietnam is just as crazy as that of North Korea, "After the Fall" was also, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, surprisingly funny. Why some the funniest moments in TBATW should involve bowel movements I don't know. I'm not sure it that says something about the editors of TBATW or about me. What I do know is that I found Bissell's description of his debilitating diarrhea laugh out loud hilarious. "My stomach burbled out some many-syllabled sound that was loud enough for Morgan to hear, my eyes filled with stunned tears, and I began walking toward the bathroom around the mausoleum's corner...'Is it your stomach?' 'Right now it's my whole body.'"

And of course, as Bissell and Meis somewhat haplessly interview government dissidents, they are promptly followed and watched by government agents - a development that they don't find at all discouraging and, in fact, take some pleasure - and Meis, along with their photographer, are eventually taken in for questioning, then kicked out of the country on the grounds that they didn't enter on journalist visas. Meanwhile, Bissell experiences shock-induced recovery from his fever and wanders the streets of Vietnam alone. Well, not technically alone since he's being followed. "I...decided that if I indeed I had a tail, then this tail of mine was going to get a fucking workout. He would walk around Hanoi's Lake of the Returned Sword again and again and again." Eventually tiring of the game, the tail approaches Bissell and wishes him a quick and safe journey out of the country.

I admit that though it was obvious that Bissell and Meis were both alive and well enough to write this piece, I was scared for them much of the time. I have no idea how seasoned, well-traveled writers such as these two managed to seem so clueless and lost but they did. But then that was the charm of "After the Fall." As for Vietnam and the impression it left on me, I'll quote Bissell and say that it is either "beautiful or insane." Of course, what country isn't, if isn't both at the same time?