Saturday, May 28, 2011

Old World New Mind

In 1989, two renowned American academics, psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich, wrote a book called “New World New Mind: Moving Towards Conscious Evolution”. Their thesis, in essence, was fairly straightforward: humans had created a new world for themselves, but were still using an “old mind” to ineffectively deal with its consequences.

This mismatch meant that primitive fear and anger could potentially launch nuclear weapons, and that a mind wired for drama and stark contrasts simply could not detect and react to “slow change” - such as what we are seeing in climate change and the slow but sure consumption of the planet’s resources. By the time Chinese and Indians consume like Westerners, it may simply too late.

Ornstein and Ehrlich put forward an answer: humans can develop a “new mind” to deal with the challenges of a new world through a process they call “conscious evolution”. For this to happen we need to slow down our fast reflexes, widen our mental filters, see more “grays” in the world and approach the complexities facing us through holistic methods. Through a campaign of awareness and new forms of education that are focused on developing those parts of the mind currently slumbering, they believe we can make this transformation, thereby effectively saving ourselves from the spiraling dangers of our new world.

Above all, the shift will hinge on humans first becoming aware that they even have a problem, and realizing that their minds are operating according to methods devised to save us from saber-tooth tigers - and not from the environmental impact of carbon-based resources. Only when we become “conscious” of these limits, can we proceed to a new evolution.

In our other blog, entitled The Missing Piece, we have attempted to demonstrate how the specific problems of the Middle East, especially the ongoing ethnic conflicts and their fall-out, can be approached in new ways based on novel understandings of our psychology and culture. We have looked at matters ranging from cult thinking, to conditioning, to the basic sources of extremism. We have also placed a heavy emphasis on the Human Givens approach of psychological understanding that describes the innate needs and capacities that all humans have, and that, if satisfied, eliminate mental illness.

In our view, meeting these needs will also diminish and even resolve conflict in the Middle East, and serve as the basis for the proper planning and development of societies there and in other regions.

The approaches presented in “The Missing Piece” are another way of understanding and developing “The New Mind” that Ornstein and Ehrlich propose.

Recently, we have seen the Arab countries go through unexpected revolutions that have succeeded in casting aside leaders and systems in place for decades. In the first few months of 2011, this "old world”, which is in a sense the oldest world, has leapt from a culture frozen since ancient times to a situation where positive evolution is at least possible.

The road ahead for the Arab world is difficult and unpredictable. The old mind may triumph. But the Arab revolutions carry with them a spirit of individual empowerment and functionalism that are largely anti-cult, anti-ideology and anti-authority, and which may yet carry the day even if the process is decades long.

The Arab people have risen up en masse because their needs - especially for legitimacy and dignity - were not sufficiently met by their rulers and governments. Today, they have the space to attempt to wrest control over their lives and build a future where their needs, their “Human Givens”, are indeed met and the problems ahead faced more constructively.

Ornstein and Ehrlich wrote their tome the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Little did anyone know that twenty-one years later another set of earth-shaking revolutions would occur, and that radical changes would begin in a most unexpected place. There are no assurances of success for this endeavor in the Middle East, nor anywhere in the globe for that matter. However, we believe that the dissemination of these ideas is crucial today to the solution of our problems and for the future of human development. As Ornstein and Ehrlich say to end their book:

“If this book stimulates some more people to think about the roots of the human predicament, and how we might begin to adapt to our society, then we will have accomplished our purpose. With luck, we will have started to change your mind.”

With luck, the Arab revolutions may also lead, against all odds, to an “Old World New Mind”.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jibril Rajoub

They say that birds are descended from dinosaurs. It may be that some humans have also undergone such transformations. Jibril Rajoub, once supreme tough guy and the head of security in the West Bank under Yasser Arafat, is today the head of the Palestinian Football Federation and the Palestine Olympic Committee.

“Abu Rami”, as he is better known, has successfully managed the shift from confronter of Hamas, to leader of youth and sports activities in Palestine. Indeed, as Palestinians increasingly aim for the symbols and realities of statehood this year, Jibril’s efforts to bring international football teams to play in Palestine, and to give coherence to his national football league, can only be seen as part of this living current: the slow and belated search for statehood for the Palestinian people.

Abu Rami was not always so benign. He was arrested at the tender age of 17 for having thrown a grenade at an Israeli bus in an act of resistance against the occupation. The explosive did not go off, but the attempt was enough to land him 17 years in jail. There, he learned Hebrew and formed his character, firming up his toughness and acumen enough to become a leader - a skill that has served him well as a member of the Fatah Party.

Jibril has known the full spectrum of knocks in life. He was exiled from the West Bank in the late 1980s and unceremoniously dumped in southern Lebanon by the Israeli government for his troublesome activities. From there, he made his way to Tunis and the offices of Yasser Arafat and the PLO, before returning to the West Bank with the Palestinian leader during the Oslo accords. From there he rose to the highest positions of national security of the Palestinian Authority.

All those efforts wasted away in a few deadly months in 2000 as Israel crushed the Palestinian Intifada that followed the Camp David negotiations, and, along with it, all of Abu Rami’s security institutions in the West Bank.

Since that time, Abu Rami moved slowly but surely away from pure politics. But he retains an important position on the Fatah Central Committee, and has since made the best of his positions as leader of athletics in his burgeoning nation.

A trip to a football match with Abu Rami is a thrill ride. A fight between players caused President Rajoub to leap from his imperial balcony (where he presides over the game) and rush the field to split up the players and create the calm needed for the game to go on. Undoubtedly, this is an intervention he had practiced in jail, and later in the West Bank, before applying it on the grass of the stadium at Al-Ram.

But these are just the professional depictions of the man. Those who know him well describe him as generous and buoyant personality, with a deep, gravelly voice, fitting of a member of "The Sopranos". He possesses an intimidating presence that makes everyone from young women to ministers cower near him. Indeed, there are some who have very difficult memories of his time as head of security in the West Bank and the abuses that came with that.

Still, an invitation to Abu Rami's diwan (with daggers and scimitars hanging from the walls) for a meal of every fowl and fish available in Ramallah, is an opportunity to know the power of traditional Arab and Bedouin generosity. It's also a chance to know the large heart of a man who, after all his travels, will always be from the village of Doura, near Hebron.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Restaurant Varouj

The most interesting Middle East Institutions are often those that fly far below the radar of the masses. A purely word-of-mouth establishment, Restaurant Varouj is one such place.

This Lebanese cookery, located in the tiny labyrinthine streets of Beirut’s Armenian enclave of Burj Hammoud, requires of its customers not just a monster appetite, but also a serious wherewithal for exploration.

There are no maps, street names or workable directions to find the place – just a general location from which to enter that Borgesian maze of laundry-draped alleyways that make up the Middle East’s most densely populated neighbourhood. Only by asking directions from a series of bleary-eyed elders and teenagers playing soccer in flip-flops will one find their way, point-by-point, to Varouj’s doorstep.

Here a father-and-son team presides over all four tables situated beneath shelves decked with Middle Eastern bric-a-brac. The mercurial, cigar-smoking elder, playing the combined role of owner, waiter, and maitre d’ is a character of the old school variety, who’s known to verbally manhandle his customers in the slightly tarnished Arabic of the Burj Hammoudi Armenians. His mild-mannered son whips up culinary storms at his command from a cooking station just a few feet behind him.

The usual Lebanese fare is on offer here – and all of it is extremely good. The prize dishes are the sujouk (spicy Armenian sausages), chicken livers, makanek (Lebanese sausages), b’tata harra (spicy homefries), and the raw kibbeh. To wash the whole thing down, order a bottle of locally made Arak (diluted with water in a pitcher and served in small glasses with ice cubes).

The novelty of the Varouj experience is amplified by the absence of printed menus or listed prices of any kind. Food is ordered ad hoc depending on what the master of ceremonies has available that day - and what he thinks you should eat!

At the end of the smorgasbord the host haphazardly tallies the meal price in an indecipherable chicken-scratch and throws it on the table. But it’s invariably less costly than what you'd expect to pay for such a meal fit for a king.

We’d add a few lines about how to find the place, but getting there through one’s own efforts is half the reward.