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Sunday, November 30, 2008

With Jindal at GOP's Helm, the Generational Shift Would Be Complete

I found this photo in today's W Post: it shows Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana as he is touring, hands in pockets, a community damaged by flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Gov. Jindal came to Iowa to deliver a couple of speeches. His mere presence ignited talk about 2012.

Says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, as Republicans, you have a real problem now with younger voters and immigrants. If you were going to central casting for a candidate to deal with all that, who do you have? Jindal. He is young, and he looks young. . . . He's a great communicator. And his record is that he's sharp and quick with policy.

Michael Leahy has a column in today's W. Post with a lot of information about Jindal, here is some:

Jindal is his own invention, in the mold of an Obama. Born in Louisiana as Piyush Jindal to highly educated immigrants from India, he decided as a young child to nickname himself Bobby, after his favorite character on the TV show The Brady Bunch. Raised as a Hindu, he converted to Catholicism while in college and later wrote a lengthy, intimate story that provided a window on his religious evolution, in a manner that fairly calls to mind Obama's books about his own grappling with issues of self-identity. Success at Brown University and later at Oxford University during his Rhodes years led to high-profile attention in the power corridors of Louisiana and Washington.

The question is not whether he'll be president, but when he'll be president, because he will be elected someday (Steve Schmidt).

Zoon Politikon)

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Anne Applebaum in W Post: Forgotten Lessons From 9/11

Ann Applebaum in today's W Post:

As I write, the world's security experts still have no idea which organization carried out this week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I have no idea myself. The Indian government suspects Pakistani groups, but some eyewitnesses have said the gunmen spoke Hindi, which could mean that they were of Indian origin. The attacks, carried out on several targets simultaneously, reminded some of al-Qaeda, but the gunmen were not suicide bombers and they did not use standard al-Qaeda technology. A group calling itself the Deccan Mujaheddin has claimed responsibility, but no one has heard this name before. One anonymous U.S. counterterrorism official mentioned a few other groups -- Lashkar-i-Taiba, which means Army of the Pious, and Jaish-i-Muhammad, or Soldiers of Muhammad -- but even off the record he refused to be drawn further. It's still too early for hard and fast conclusions.

Other experts, both named and anonymous, used phrases such as premature and I'm pretty sure and caution. Without much to go on, analysts have been speculating about the consequences of a political rupture between India and Pakistan or the long and somewhat neglected history of domestic terrorism in India. Some think the apparent targeting of American, British and Jewish tourists is significant. Others reckon that the real target must have been the financial district of Mumbai, India's commercial capital. All in all, it is a very unsatisfactory picture.

In the coming days, more will surely be learned about the gunmen, some of whom have been captured by the Indian police. Their weapons will be traced, their motives will become clearer, their methods better understood. Their leaders will acquire names, personalities. Still, it is worth underlining, emphasizing and remembering this initial moment of total ignorance: If nothing else, it's a reminder of some things we learned on Sept. 11, 2001.

At that time, al-Qaeda was widely described as something new: Unlike terrorist groups of the past, many noted, it operated not as a single, secretive organization but more like a global franchise. Organizations and individuals with various agendas could go to al-Qaeda for weapons and training. Afterward, they could, in effect, set up their own local branches, whose goals and methods might reflect the original, Saudi-inspired al-Qaeda ideology -- or might not. Some predicted that al-Qaeda would even inspire copycat movements, much as McDonald's inspired Burger King. Groups with no connection to Osama bin Laden -- and no interest in being connected to him -- might imitate some of his methods and tactics. By definition, the members of such groups would be civilians, sometimes living ordinary lives. They would not be combatants in the ordinary sense of the word. They would not wear uniforms, follow rules or organize themselves into anything resembling a traditional army. And they could not, therefore, be fought only with traditional military methods.

Too often over the past seven years, it has been easy to forget this initial analysis. After all, most of our major military efforts since 2001 have, at least early on, involved rather more concrete enemies, whom we have fought in specific places, using traditional means. The initial assault on Afghanistan was, in fact, a proxy war, not a postmodern, post-globalization game of tricks and mirrors. The same was true in Iraq: We overthrew a dictator, toppled his statues and set up an occupation regime.

Only later, in both places, did we find ourselves contending with groups invariably described as shadowy, with enemies who melted in and out of the civilian population, with terrorist cells that might be connected to al-Qaeda, to Pakistan, to Iran -- or might not be. It took some time before we understood that our opponents in Iraq were not merely disgruntled Baathists but in fact encompassed a range of both Sunni and Shiite groups with different agendas.

Only now, for that matter, do we comprehend the degree to which the very word Taliban is misleading: Though the term implies a definite group with clear goals, American commanders in Afghanistan understand very well that what they call the Taliban is an amalgamation of insurgents, some of whom fight for tribal interests, others for money and only some for a clear-cut ideological cause.

Perhaps the Mumbai gunmen will, like some of those in the Afghan Taliban, also turn out to be members of a homegrown, locally based, ad hoc organization with its own eccentric goals and training methods. Or perhaps they will turn out to belong to a definite group with a clear ideology, which would, of course, be easier all around. Surely the point, though, is that we should be well-prepared to deal with either -- and wary of mistaking one for the other.

Zoon Politikon)


What They Hate About Mumbai

Mumbai is a golden songbird and fanatics hate the songbird, because they hate love songs. Mumbai is all about profane dreams and openness and fanatics hate the profane and they hate the openness.

In Mumbai religion is an intimate affair. Muslims and Hindu live together, among all kind of other denominations. Fanatics hate the right to have your intimate affairs and they hate the mix of denominations. In Mumbai the other poeple look at your religion as at your eccentricity that matters to you only. Fanatics hate your right to be eccentric. In 1993 people were burned alive on the streets because they were Muslims. In 2008 people were murdered because they were visitors.

What they love, these fanatics? They love seeing people murdered, mosques burned, temples bombed. They love seeing people expelled based on religious affiliations. They love seeing logic of globalization replaced by logic of holly war.

Do not confound Islam and Islamic fanatics. Do not confound any religion with its fanatics. Confounding any religion with its fanatics makes yourself a fanatic.

These words, Bombay is a golden songbird, belong to a Muslim, living in Mumbai and dreaming Mumbai dreams, and Mumbai spirit.

I found these reflections in a text by Suketu Mehta, I quoted at random and I added my own. The text was published in today's NY Times. Mr. Mehta is the author of Maximum City - Bombay Lost and Found.

Zoon Politikon)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Free Hossein Derakhshan

Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian blogger who has been a member of the PostGlobal panel. David Ignatius characterizes him as a natural choice for PostGlobal: smart, outspoken, unpredictac]ble, fearless (PostGlobal). Sometimes he was defending the Tehran regime, sometimes he was criticizing it.

He has returned to Tehran a couple of weeks ago, after living several years mostly in Canada. Last week he was arrested and accused of spying for Israel. Actually he had traveled there in 2007, speaking publicly about his experiences in his blog. His real issue is that he dared to speak about Israeli people as human beings, not demons. He was traveling there on his Canadian passport, that does not forbid visiting Israel.

Look only at his most recent post and you'll see that he's far from an Israeli agent:

Ahmadinejad's brilliant strategy of dismissing Israel and smiling to the U.S. has divided the the U.S. in all levels and that's a big achievement comparing to Khatami's weak anf failed U.S. strategy that led to Iran being part of the 'axis of evil'. Now the same Bush administration has officially opened the diplomatic line. Please get over Ahmadinejad's scruffy look, prayers, and plain language and see these achievements.

So the accusations against him make no sense. Putting him in jail by the Tehran authorities is unjust and we have to call for his freedom.



Political Driven Economy: The Risks

We have gone from a market driven economy to a political driven economy. Charles Krauthammer in today's W. Post:

In the old days -- from the Venetian Republic to, oh, the Bear Stearns rescue -- if you wanted to get rich, you did it the Warren Buffett way: You learned to read balance sheets. Today you learn to read political tea leaves. If you want to make money on Wall Street (or keep from losing your shirt), you do it not by anticipating Intel's third-quarter earnings but by guessing instead what side of the bed Henry Paulson will wake up on tomorrow.

Today's extreme stock market volatility is not just a symptom of fear -- fear cannot account for days of wild market swings upward -- but a reaction to meta-economic events: political decisions that have vast economic effects.

As economist Irwin Stelzer argues, we have gone from a market-driven economy to a politically driven economy. Consider seven days in November. On Tuesday, Nov. 18, Paulson broadly implies that he's using only half the $700 billion bailout money. Having already spent most of his $350 billion, he's going to leave the rest to his successor. The message received on Wall Street -- I'm done, I'm gone.

Facing the prospect of two months of political limbo, the market craters. Led by the banks (whose balance sheets did not change between Tuesday and Wednesday), the market sees the largest two-day drop in the S&P since 1933, not a very good year.

The next day (Friday) at 3 p.m., word leaks of Timothy Geithner's impending nomination as Treasury secretary. The mere suggestion of continuity -- and continued authoritative intervention during the interregnum by the guy who'd been working hand in glove with Paulson all along -- sends the Dow up 500 points in one hour.

Monday sees a 400-point increase, the biggest two-day (percentage) rise since 1987. Why? Three political events: Paulson's weekend Citigroup bailout; the official rollout of Barack Obama's economic team, Geithner and Larry Summers; and Paulson quietly walking back from his earlier de facto resignation by indicating that he would be ready to use the remaining $350 billion (with Team Obama input) over the next two months.

That undid the market swoon -- and dramatically demonstrated how politically driven the economy has become.

We may one day go back to a market economy. Meanwhile, we need to face the two most important implications of our newly politicized economy: the vastly increased importance of lobbying and the massive market inefficiencies that political directives will introduce.

Lobbying used to be about advantages at the margin -- a regulatory break here, a subsidy there. Now lobbying is about life and death. Your lending institution or industry gets a bailout -- or it dies.

You used to go to New York for capital. Now Wall Street, broke, is coming to Washington. With unimaginably large sums of money being given out by Washington, the Obama administration, through no fault of its own, will be subject to the most intense, most frenzied lobbying in American history.

That will introduce one kind of economic distortion. The other kind will come from the political directives issued by newly empowered politicians.

First, bank presidents are gravely warned by one senator after another about hoarding their bailout money. But hoarding is another word for recapitalizing to shore up your balance sheet to ensure solvency. Is that not the fiduciary responsibility of bank directors? And isn't pushing money out the window with too little capital precisely the lending laxity that produced this crisis in the first place? Never mind. The banks will knuckle under to the commissars of Capitol Hill. They control the purse. Prudence will yield to politics.

Even more egregious will be the directives to a nationalized Detroit. Sen. Charles Schumer, the noted automotive engineer, declared unacceptable last week a business model based on gas. Instead, We need a business model based on cars of the future, and we already know what that future is: the plug-in hybrid electric car.

The Chevy Volt, for example? It has huge remaining technological hurdles, gets 40 miles on a charge and will sell for about $40,000, necessitating a $7,500 outright government subsidy. Who but the rich and politically correct will choose that over a $12,000 gas-powered Hyundai? The new Detroit churning out Schumer-mobiles will make the steel mills of the Soviet Union look the model of efficiency.

The ruling Democrats have a choice: Rescue this economy to return it to market control. Or use this crisis to seize the commanding heights of the economy for the greater social good. Note: The latter has already been tried. The results are filed under History, ash heap of.

Zoon Politikon)

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Dileep Padgaonkar about Mumbai Carnage

India must confront terrorism regardless of their religious affiliations. Saying that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims is wrong and dangerous. This is the opinion of Dileep Padgaonkar (former editor of the Times of India, currently the head of India & Global Affairs). Here is his column from today's W. Post:

Terrorist attacks have shattered the peace in more than half a dozen Indian cities over the past year. Yet none threatened India's secular and democratic polity as much as the carnage that jolted Mumbai on Wednesday. Mumbai is India's financial and commercial capital and arguably the country's most cosmopolitan metropolis. By targeting, among other establishments, two of the city's most opulent hotels -- the Taj and the Trident -- where the rich, famous and influential congregate to advance their business and political agendas, the terrorists struck at the very symbol of a resurgent nation.

The timing of the assault is equally significant, coming on the eve of elections to five provincial assemblies. Campaign rhetoric has polarized opinion along sharply antagonistic lines, essentially pitting the ruling Congress party, which swears by secularism, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

After terrorist attacks in the past, the BJP has denounced the Congress party as being soft on terrorism in an effort to mobilize India's substantial Muslim vote in its favor. The Congress, in turn, attacks the BJP and its affiliates for bashing Muslims in order to consolidate its core Hindu vote. Indians have a peculiar word to describe this state of affairs -- communalism, meaning a determined bid to exploit religious sentiments for electoral gain.

The effect of this competitive demagoguery has been disastrous on many counts. Terrorism suspects have been picked up at random and denied legal rights. Allegations of torture by police are routine. Questions have been raised about the encounters between police and terrorism suspects. Suspects have been held for years as their court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between.

Commissions set up to investigate particularly gory incidents of religious violence have taken their time to produce reports. Few are opened for public debate. The recommendations in these reports have been routinely ignored or else implemented in a highly selective manner. Muslims convicted in some cases have been punished while Hindus have been let off lightly or not punished at all.

As a consequence, India's Muslims have begun to lose faith in the Indian state, its institutions and its instruments. This has led to the radicalization of Muslim youths. Religious extremism has pushed them onto the path of violence. Increasing evidence suggests that some have joined the ranks of the international jihadist movement with close links to terrorist groups in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here in India, these groups are widely believed to collude with those countries' intelligence agencies.

To further complicate matters, a Hindu holy woman, a Hindu holy man, a serving officer of the Indian armed forces and some Hindu extremists have been arrested for their alleged involvement in terrorist attacks. It is now the turn of the BJP and its affiliates to charge that the police, at the behest of their secular masters, are failing to observe due process. Indeed, they charge that the Hindus have been framed to appease Muslims before the provincial assembly elections.

Simply put, the Hindus, like the Muslims, have started to question the credibility of the police and, by extension, the state. Wednesday's attacks in Mumbai can only compound fears in both communities that law enforcement cannot be trusted to bring the guilty to justice. And it is precisely such fears that set the stage for bloody confrontations between the two groups.

These fears cannot be calmed unless the Indian state cracks down vigorously on terrorism, regardless of the suspects' religion. That some Muslim youths are engaged in a war against infidels can no longer be denied. That the secular parties' approach to terrorism has been pusillanimous is also patent. But the refrain of the Hindu nationalists -- all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims -- is no less wrong and dangerous.

The pan-Islamist character of the attacks in Mumbai must be stressed. At the Taj hotel, the terrorists asked for the numbers of the rooms occupied by foreign, especially American and British, guests. Another building they attacked housed Israeli guests. Overnight, Mumbai has been turned into a stage for civilizations to clash without hindrance.

Wednesday's brutal assault raises many questions: Who are these terrorists? Who are their mentors and their local accomplices? Where did they acquire their arms and their organizational skills? Why did the intelligence agencies fail to keep track of them?

The answers to those questions will be determined in the coming weeks, but some developments already offer comfort. At present, the attacks have not led to an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in other parts of India. Politicians, who are often quick to react to such incidents, have been remarkably discreet. Muslims and Hindus have condemned the attacks without indulging in a blame game.

Even more remarkable, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the opposition, L.K Advani of the BJP, have agreed to set aside their differences to visit Mumbai together to comfort those who lost relatives in the carnage. The victims include senior officers of the Mumbai police. This single gesture by Singh and Advani will go a long way toward reassuring a dazed and nervous India that the political establishment can still be trusted to rise above partisan passion.

Zoon Politikon)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Standoff Endures After Mumbai Attack

(Photo: Phil Smith / Reuters)

Standoff endures after Mumbai attack. Here is an article by Somini Sengupta and Keith Bradsher giving the update for NY Times:

Indian authorities appeared to be gaining control of the crisis in Mumbai on Friday, as commandos scoured through two charred luxury hotels, searching for survivors of the bands of gunmen who unleashed a day and a half of chaos here. A third group of gunmen, the remnants of well-organized squads of attackers, apparently remained holed up in a Jewish community center.

Amid early indications that the sieges were ending, fears were growing that the toll would rise past the 119 known dead. Late Thursday, smoke was still rising from one of the hotels, and people who escaped reported stepping around bodies. Dozens of people, perhaps many more, remained trapped in the hotels, though it was uncertain if any were being held hostage. The wounded numbered some 300.

There remained much mystery around the group behind the attack, unusual in its scale, its almost theatrical boldness and its targeting of locales frequented by wealthy Indians and foreigners.

Two men who claimed to be among the gunmen called local television stations, demanding to speak with the government. They complained about the treatment of Muslims in India and about Kashmir, the disputed territory over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.

Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? a caller who identified himself as Imran asked. Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims?

The men said they were Indian, but the attacks appeared to ratchet up tensions in an already volatile region. In a televised speech, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, blamed forces based outside this country in a thinly veiled accusation that Pakistan was involved.

The attacks could threaten recent American efforts to reduce the overall enmity between Pakistan and India, which were meant to enable Pakistan to focus more military resources against the rising threat of the Taliban in its lawless tribal areas.

Mr. Singh issued a warning that seemed clearly aimed at Pakistan, which India has often accused of allowing terrorist groups to plot anti-Indian attacks.

The group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country, he said. We will take up strongly with our neighbors that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them.

While many of the targets seemed to indicate a focus on tourists and Westerners, most of the victims were Indians, who had packed into the banquet halls and restaurants in the hotels, according to witnesses and officials; even street vendors in Mumbai’s main train station were sprayed with bullets.

The chief minister of Maharashtra State, Vilasrao Deshmukh, told CNN-IBN, a private television channel, that six foreigners had been killed and seven wounded. Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is the capital of Maharashtra.

Hisashi Tsuda, 38, a businessman and father of two from Tokyo, was killed, his company announced Thursday. Brett Taylor, 49, a timber merchant from Sydney, Australia, had been staying at one of the besieged hotels, the Oberoi, and was confirmed dead. Antonio de Lorenzo, a businessman from Livorno, Italy, was killed at the Oberoi, according to reports quoting Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini.

A German, Ralph Burkei, 51, was fatally injured when he jumped out of the other hotel under assault, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel. According to several reports citing the Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, Mr. Burkei, a co-owner of an independent television production company in Munich, called a friend from his cellphone and said: I have broken every bone in my body. If no one helps me now, I’m finished. He died on the way to the hospital.

The British authorities said one Briton had been killed and seven wounded.

The American Embassy said it was unaware of any American casualties, though at least three wounded Americans were at Bombay Hospital, one of several hospitals where the injured were being taken.

Several high-ranking law enforcement officials were reported killed, including the chief of the antiterrorism squad and a police commissioner.

Throughout Thursday, Indian soldiers and paramilitary forces fanned out across the southern tip of the city, where the attacks were focused. Normally bustling, it was deserted. Stores were shuttered. Cars sailed along the empty streets. Most offices were closed, along with the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Near Leopold Cafe, a popular restaurant that was among the first places struck Wednesday night, a bloodied shoe lay on the ground beneath a car with smashed windows.

For most of the day, smoke billowed out of the Taj hotel, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Loud explosions could be heard throughout the afternoon from inside the Oberoi hotel, also known as the Trident, which is also in South Mumbai, near the Arabian Sea. After sundown, a fire broke out on its fourth floor.

The state’s highest-ranking police official, A. N. Roy, told NDTV, a private news channel, that National Security Guards commandos, aided by the police and army and navy troops, had scoured the Taj hotel, room by room, for remaining civilians and were moving cautiously through the Oberoi because of the likelihood of hostages there. The police said 14 police officers had been killed in the city, along with seven gunmen. Nine suspects were taken into custody, they said.

We are not negotiating at all, Mr. Roy told the channel. We will get them and get them soon. We have some definite clues and leads. It was a very well-planned and very well-executed operation.

It was impossible to know precisely what was going on inside the two hotels, except that intense firefights occurred between security forces and an apparently audacious band of gunmen.

Occasionally, a curtain would part, a window would open and the figure of a guest would become visible.

Hospitals were mobbed with men and women searching for their kin, and morgues received a steady stream of bodies. Doctors said the wounded had been shot. On the shaded steps of the Regal Cinema near the main train station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, sat a handful of dazed spectators. The cinema was closed; A Quantum of Solace would not be playing Thursday.

The gunmen appear to have come ashore at the Sassoon Docks, not far from the Leopold. They moved on to the train station, the old Victoria Terminus, and then opened fire on Cama and Albless Hospital — where some of their earlier victims encountered a second round of gunfire. At one point, the gunmen hijacked a police vehicle and opened fire on journalists and spectators gathered near a famous theater, the Metro Cinema.

Witnesses and security camera video of the gunmen built a portrait of them as young men dressed in jeans and trendy T-shirts, bearing rucksacks and guns. It remained unclear who they were, what they wanted, or how many survived.

Earlier on Thursday, Indian news channels received a claim of responsibility from a group called Deccan Mujahedeen; the name may refer to the Deccan Plateau, which dominates central and southern India. But security experts said the group might not exist.

The casualties ran the gamut of Mumbai society. A street vendor was shot and killed near the main train station, where he sold a popular snack known as bhel puri. A manager at the Oberoi survived a bullet wound to his leg but was taken to the Cama and Albless Hospital, where a shootout erupted; he died after being transferred to a second hospital.

A chef at the Taj who had been hiding under a kitchen table for most of the night was discovered by four gunmen, made to stand up and shot from behind.

Escape attempts took place sporadically at the hotels. Before dawn on Thursday, several guests and workers managed to leave the Taj, but as gunmen opened fire on them, some fled back inside.

In the late afternoon, about 10 hostages left the Oberoi, waving and looking relieved, but answering no questions.

The director general of the paramilitary National Security Guards, J. K. Dutt, told CNN-IBN television that troops were trying to coax frightened people out of the Oberoi.

They are in their rooms, he told the station. They are not prepared to open their doors. As far as terrorists are concerned, we know exactly where they are.

Reuters quoted the state’s deputy chief minister, R. R. Patil, as saying 100 to 200 people could be inside the Oberoi. We cannot give you the exact figure, as many people have locked themselves inside their rooms, he said.

The Chabad-Lubavitch center, a Jewish community hall in a crowded residential area roughly between the two hotels, was also singled out for attack. The whereabouts of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, who runs the center, remained unknown, according to the organization. Puran Doshi, a local developer and a former city councilman, said the rabbi and his wife and child had been evacuated. But friends of the Holtzbergs gave a different account. They said that while the couple’s 2-year-old son, Moshe, and a cook had escaped about 12 hours into the siege — the boy’s pants soaked with blood — there was still no news about the boy’s parents.

The gunmen inside killed several locals, apparently shooting anyone they could find. Around 10 p.m. on Thursday, the lights were extinguished in and around the building, known as Nariman House. It was not clear whether, or when, security forces might advance into the building.

Shortly after 11 p.m., television showed as many as a half-dozen people, including several elderly ones, being escorted out of Nariman House by security forces. The authorities said they believed gunmen might still be holed up there.

Air France issued a statement saying that 15 of its flight crew members had been unable to get out of a hotel in Mumbai. The company spokeswoman did not name the hotel or provide any details, except to say that the Paris-bound flight they were due to work on was canceled. Many international flight crews stay at the Oberoi.

The suspicions raised by the attack seemed a blow to relations between India and Pakistan, which had been recovering from a low earlier this year after India blamed the Pakistani intelligence agency for abetting the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan. India has frequently accused Pakistan-based militant groups of fueling terrorist attacks on Indian soil, though lately it has also acknowledged the presence of homegrown Muslim and Hindu militant organizations.

Latest Update: Indian forces fire at Jewish center.

Zoon Politikon)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aaron David Miller: Start with Syria

Aaron David Miller in today's W. Post:

President-elect Barack Obama will be bombarded with recommendations about how to approach Arab-Israeli peacemaking. One piece of advice he should not take is to make Israeli-Palestinian peace his top priority. There's no deal there. But there is a real opportunity for an Israeli-Syrian agreement, and Obama should go for it.

There are, of course, strong arguments for making Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking a priority. The Palestinians deserve a state of their own, and an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not just key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace but to Israel's long-term survival as a Jewish democratic state.

A new president eager to repair America's image abroad may be tempted to try for an agreement, but he should avoid the sirens' call. No conflict-ending agreement is possible now, nor is one likely to be anytime soon, and the stakes are too high for America to harbor illusions that would almost certainly lead to yet another failure. The gaps separating the two sides on the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security) remain too wide, the current leaders are too weak to bridge them, and the environment on the ground is too complicated to allow for sustainable negotiations.

In Palestine, dysfunction and confusion reign. The Palestinian national movement is riven with geographic and political divisions between Hamas (itself divided) and Fatah (even more divided). There is little chance of creating a united Palestinian house that can take control of the guns and offer up a viable and unified negotiating position that any Israeli government could accept. Weak leadership and unstable coalition politics prevail in Israel, too. And Israeli settlement activity, which continues unabated, rounds out a nightmarish picture that ought to scare away any smart mediator.

It would be folly to go for broke, given these conditions. The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all might be an appropriate rallying cry for a college football coach; it isn't a suitable foreign policy principle for the world's greatest power. The well-intentioned old college try, which was President Bill Clinton's mantra at Camp David in July 2000, reinforced by his advisers, myself included, proved costly. And we had much better conditions in 2000 (if still not the right ones) than the new administration faces.

The more compelling argument is for a major push on another negotiation: between Israel and Syria. Here, there are two states at the table, rather than one state and a dysfunctional national movement. A quiet border, courtesy of Henry Kissinger's 1974 disengagement diplomacy, prevails. And there are fewer settlers on the Golan Heights and no megaton issues such as the status of Jerusalem to blow up the talks. Indeed, the issues are straightforward -- withdrawal, peace, security and water -- and the gaps are clear and ready to be bridged.

For a president looking for a way to buck up America's credibility, an Israeli-Syrian agreement offers a potential bonus. Such a deal would begin to realign the region's architecture in a way that serves broader U.S. interests. The White House would have to be patient. Syria won't walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually, requiring a major international effort to marshal economic and political support for Damascus. Still, an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran with tough choices and reduced options.

None of this will be easy. An Obama administration, and particularly the new president, would need to be in the middle of things. It would be excruciatingly hard, time-consuming and expensive to satisfy Israel and Syria's economic and security needs, and a final agreement would most likely involve U.S. peacekeepers. More important, the United States would need to push the two sides further than they are now willing to go, on the extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights in Israel's case, on normalization and security in Syria's. But with Israeli and Syrian leaders who are serious, and with a new administration ready to be tough, smart and fair in its diplomacy, a deal can be done.

So, Mr. President-elect, go ahead and try to buck up the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, train Palestinian security forces, pour economic aid into Gaza and the West Bank, and quietly nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But don't go for the endgame -- you won't get there. Instead, invest in an Israeli-Syrian peace, and, afterward, you might find, with a historic success under your belt and America again admired for its competence, you will be better positioned to achieve the success you want in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well.

Zoon Politikon)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Alex Ross about the Five Most Important Books for Him

Alex Ross is the musical critic for the New Yorker. His musical preoccupations cover a broad spectrum (from Mozart to Schoenberg to Bob Dylan, within a continuum, setting aside categories and classifications that impede the appreciation of works on their own terms - MacArthur Fellows). His book, The Rest is Noise, leads a whirlwind tour from the Viennese premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 to minimalist Steve Reich's downtown Manhattan apartment (Starred Review).

Here is the list of Five Most Important Books for Alex Ross, as it was published by Newsweek:

  1. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (the ultimate book about music: a beyond-dark tale of a composer in league with the Devil)
  2. The Infinite Variety of Music by Leonard Bernstein (when Ross was a kid, he wore out an LP of Bernstein talking about Beethoven's Eroica symphony)
  3. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (her evocation of Old Europe on the eve of World War I is popular history at its most potent)
  4. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by Joan Didion (an awe-inspiring nonfiction collection; Didion imposes her style on the world, yet records the world as it is)
  5. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (the pragmatist worked all his life to reconcile dogma and doubt. We need him now more than ever)

You should also consult Alex Ross' blog.

(A Life in Books)

Fareed Zakaria about US and China

Fareed ZakariaWe need China to see that its interests are aligned with America's. If not, things could get very, very ugly (Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek). Here's the whole article:

For weeks the world has eagerly awaited word from the Obama transition team about the people who will head up the next American administration—the new secretaries of state and Treasury, the attorney general. But one of the more crucial positions in the Obama administration probably isn't going to be filled for months and will likely get little attention when it is—the post of U.S. ambassador to China.

Everyone knows that China is a major power and our representation there is important. But right now, we need Beijing like never before. China is the key to America getting through the worsening economic crisis. The American ambassador in Beijing (OK, this is a metaphor for all those officials who will be managing this relationship) will need to make sure that China sees its interests as aligned with America's. Or else things could get very, very ugly.

There is a consensus forming that Washington needs to spend its way out of this recession, to ensure that it doesn't turn into a depression. Economists of both the left and right agree that a massive fiscal stimulus is needed and that for now, we shouldn't be worrying about deficits. But in order to run up these deficits—which could total somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion, or between 7 and 11 percent of GDP—someone has to buy American debt. And the only country that has the cash to do so is China.

In September, Beijing became America's largest foreign creditor, surpassing Japan, which no longer buys large amounts of American Treasury notes. In fact, though the Treasury Department does not keep records of American bondholders, it is virtually certain that, holding 10 percent of all U.S. public debt, the government of the People's Republic of China has become Washington's largest creditor, foreign or domestic. It is America's banker.

But will the Chinese continue to play this role? They certainly have the means to do so. China's foreign-exchange reserves stand at about $2 trillion (compared with America's at a relatively puny $73 billion). But the Chinese government is worried that its own economy is slowing down sharply, as Americans and Europeans stop buying Chinese exports. They hope to revive growth in China (to levels around 6 or 7 percent rather than last year's 12 percent) with a massive stimulus program of their own.

The spending initiatives that Beijing announced a few weeks ago would total almost $600 billion (some of which include existing projects), a staggering 15 percent of China's GDP. Given their focus on keeping people employed and minimizing strikes and protests, Beijing will not hesitate to add tens of billions more to that package if need be.

At the same time, Washington desperately needs Beijing to keep buying American bonds, so that the U.S. government can run up a deficit and launch its own fiscal stimulus. In effect, we're asking China to finance simultaneously the two largest fiscal expansions in human history—theirs and ours. They will probably try to accommodate us, because it's in their interest to jump-start the American economy. But naturally their priority is likely to be their own growth.

People often say that China and America are equally dependent on each other, says Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. But that's no longer true. China has two ways to keep its economy growing. One way is to finance the American consumer. But another way is to finance its own citizens, who are increasingly able to consume in large enough quantities to stimulate economic growth in China. They have options, we don't. There isn't really any other country that could finance the American deficit.

In his fascinating new book, The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson describes the birth of a new nation after the cold war. He calls it Chimerica—and it accounts for a tenth of the world's land surface, a quarter of its population and half of global economic growth in the past eight years. For a time it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, he writes. The East Chimericans did the saving, the West Chimericans did the spending. The Easterners got growth, the Westerners low inflation and low interest rates.

Like Stiglitz, Ferguson believes that China has options. They will certainly try to keep American consumption going, but if it becomes clear that it isn't working, they do have a plan B, he said to me last week. Plan B would be to focus on boosting China's own consumption through government spending and easing credit to their own people.

The big question today, Ferguson said, is whether Chimerica stays together or comes apart because of this crisis. If it stays together, you can see a path out of the woods. If it splits up, say goodbye to globalization.

In recent years the most important and difficult ambassadorial posting has unquestionably been the one to Baghdad. Over the next decade, the toughest and most crucial assignment may well be in Beijing.

See also the article of Fergusson on this subject.

Zoon Politikon)


Monday, November 24, 2008

Spring in a Small Town (China, 1948 / 2002)

no copyright infringement available

(click here to see the movie from 1948)

A Chinese movie from 1948. Banned later by Communists for being too bourgeois style, hidden in the archives of the political police of the regime, rediscovered in the eighties. Some consider it the Chinese masterpiece. Wong Kar-Wai puts Spring in a Small Town in his world top five (along with movies by Ray, Ozu, Hitchcok, Godard).

One year before the Communist victory in China, a film director who would die in the early 50's (Fei Mu) made a movie about love and loyalty, about spoiled lives and smoldering passions... he told us so much in 90 minutes...

There are just a handful of movies that differ from all other movies by their singular composition. Each of these has a unique architecture, not to be seen elsewhere. Человек с киноаппаратом is such an example: a movie that's creating itself in front of our eyes. Spring in a Small Town has also a unique architecture, making it different from all other movies.

Two parallel streams - the female lead character tells us the story, leaving her thoughts to flow freely while the images go along with her recitative (using a very modern technique for that time - each image is turning up and rising on the screen, just to dissolve itself in the next image).

It's about a failed marriage. The husband has been years ago a rich man, a landlord or something. Meanwhile the household was destroyed by war and now he indulges himself in an imaginary sickness, just to make an inferno from his own life as well as from the lives of everybody surrounding him.

The wife goes for shopping every day, and takes advantage to make always a walk along the town walls (damaged also by war). It is her own pleasure. And this scene (that appears several times in the movie) has a surreal beauty. It contains joy and nostalgia, the awareness that's the only joy, the desire to prolong it, make it contain the whole life. It says us more than thousand words, and with such poignancy!

I found in a poem written by an Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad, a string of amazing verses - it was like they were speaking about this scene from Spring in a Small Town:

Perhaps life is
A long street along which a woman
With a basket passes every day

They got married ten years ago (arranged marriage of course, as was the custom those times) - they have been living in separate rooms for eight years.

Suddenly an old friend of the husband comes to visit. They haven't seen each other for around ten years. The friend is now a medical doctor in a big city. Looking very modern, handsome and full of life. And the house gets filled with life.

There is an unexpected surprise though: the doctor and the wife had been in love long, long time ago. He had left (we can guess that in order to fight in the war against Japanese, then to follow his medical studies). She had not waited for him. The passion springs again, tempestuously. Both of them value loyalty while blood stirrers them both and nears them dangerously. When one of them is on the brink of forgetting honor, the other keeps strong.

What follows is a horrid erotic game, played perversely, with ups and downs, with ambiguities, with simulations, with regards telling a lot, advancing toward the sin, remaining there, on the brink, just to savor the mental image.

And here comes the evening when there is too much alcohol and their feelings explode.The loyalty still wins, just in the last second, making them crazy.

The husband observes now the obvious and his reaction is unexpected: as his wife looks now so happy he realizes how much he loves her. His jealousy is fighting with a sudden generosity that we wouldn't have presumed at him.

How does it end all this? As expected, without resolution, because that's life, it never gives resolutions.

Think at Chekhov's plays and stories and you'll realize the beauty of this movie. The mirage stays in the details: it is the subtle analysis that counts here, not the outcome. And each detail is loaded with poignancy, up to explode.

So, this was the movie of 1948. Tian Zhuang-Zhuang did a remake in 2002, Springtime in a Small Town.

A few words about Tian: belongs to the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (all of them lived the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution as teens, with public humiliations, work in the camps and all that; all of them were able to attend movie art studies in their late twenties only; they were then the firsts to be allowed to express freely in their artworks; or rather freely, with ups and downs from the censure; and all of them were marked by the terrible experiences they had passed through in their youth).

One of the first movies of Tian was On the Hunting Ground, in 1984: a composition on the border between documentary and fiction, shot in Inner Mongolia, the life of a small hunting community observing traditional values, surviving from archaic times. I didn't have the opportunity to see this movie: I've read about its haunting images telling the whole story by themselves and making words unnecessary (anyway the hunters were talking Mongolian, and Tian didn't feel the need to offer any translation).

On the Hunting Ground was followed by The Horse Thief, in 1985, shot in Tibet this time. I haven't seen this movie either, and I would be very interested in it: a cinematic poem about simple people living in communion with a universe where old traditions mix with an archaic sense of the surrounding nature, simple people having to fight with huge existential challenges while keeping their old beliefs and rituals. Like in his previous movie, Tian doesn't need to explain rituals; he lets them speak for themselves. A story that reminds me a masterpiece of Parajanov, Tini Zabutykh Predkiv.

For the censors these two movies about communities from remote regions living in accordance with archaic values were still graspable (though highly suspect, either), but Tian came in 1993 with The Blue Kite, and this time it was too much for the regime. Tian was so open about the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, that he was simply banned to make another movie for about ten years (and I'm thinking again at Parajanov: after Tini Zabutykh Predkiv came Sayat Nova, and the director was sent by the Soviet regime to the camp for a good couple of years).

And then, in 2002, when Tian was finally allowed to make again movies, he took the forgotten masterpiece from 1948 to give it the life it deserved: and he made Springtime in a Small Town!

It's not just a remake. It's much, much more: you feel the tender love of Tian for the original film. A film that had been a masterpiece and was virtually unknown. A masterpiece with a life cut short. Tian wanted badly to give the original film from 1948 the life it deserved - to make that old movie known to the whole world, to make everybody aware about the masterpiece of Fei Mu.

Tian knew much more about the story in the movie than the story had been aware itself: because the story from 1948 could still believe that after the long winter of the WWII, there was now spring, a renewal of life, to be developed in the burgeoning of summer. All the personages were still recovering from the traumas of war, while trying to come to terms with their own intimate traumas.

The story could not be aware then, in 1948, that spring would be followed by harsh winter: the husband and wife would be judged as class enemies, humiliated publicly, sent to the camp or shot by a firing squad. The doctor that had fought against Japanese would not escape either, as he had fought within the rangs of the Kuomintag army. Now, in 2002, Tian was able to tell not only us, for we already knew the history as it followed; to tell to the story itself its fate.

A story telling with delicacy about the tumult of family passions could not be other way than beautiful and fragile, as Chinese spring was in 1948: Tian wanted to protect this fragility against all storms that would follow in China from 1949 on.

The original movie was black and white. Tian made a color movie and associated with a great cameraman, Li Pin-Bing, to give the story the gorgeous images it deserved.

He renounced at the architecture of the original film. His movie should not have been just a colored copy. So he replaced the two streams (the recitative of the wife - the images dissolving each one in the next) with a unique flow: the plot is developing this time in great images where settings and landscape are active participants. A universe where humans and objects are pairs, each of them playing a role in her or his own right.

The camera is scanning the whole scene, gliding from left to right, or from right to left, looking without haste for the personages - meanwhile it is caressing the objects it finds on its move (be them pieces of furniture, or trees, or old narrow streets, whatever). The personages are found eventually by the filming device, and framed by objects that become significant as well - the hero is near a chair, or near an electrical lamp, or among run down walls, or near a tree, and you feel that the object is there to support the personage - it is a story told by images in a universe created by the director; a universe where objects speak their wordless language.

Tom Vick, the remarkable specialist in Asian cinema, tells us about an episode that happened during the shooting of the movie: Tian hugged once a tree that was to play a special role in one of the scenes. The universe of humans and objects and nature was his own universe, his child, and he loved it with passion!

Each scene from the original movie was reconsidered this way. The action also was changed in each scene: it is happening slightly different, but you feel that the story in each scene is not just a copy, while not something new either; it's rather a commentary, to emphasize the greatness of what was done in 1948!

Well, Springtime in a Small Town is a great movie in its own right, and it's done with a sense of profound humility for the masterpiece that had been Spring in a Small Town.

I was touched to see (in an extra from the dvd) the actress who had played in the movie from 1948, Wei Wei, invited at the premiere of the new film; now in her old ages she has kept her beauties, and the distinction of her scenic presence.

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)

(Chinese Cinema)

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Anand Giridharadas - India Calling

Anand Giridharadas was born in America but he decided to move to India, the country their parents had come from. He closed the circle.

He explains the reasons in a column that was published by Sunday's NY Times. His parents had immigrated to US sometime in the seventies, attracted by the real thing: the land of open opportunities, where you could achieve through hard work the status you deserved.

Now, the son feels that the real thing is in India and he wants to be there, to breathe the thing, to see how it is to live open tous azimuts.

Here is the article:

What are Papa and I doing here?

These words, instant-messaged by my mother in a suburb of Washington, D.C., whizzed through the deep-ocean cables and came to me in the village where I’m now living, in the country that she left.

It was five years ago that I left America to come live and work in India. Now, in our family and among our Indian-American friends, other children of immigrants are exploring motherland opportunities. As economies convulse in the West and jobs dry up, the idea is spreading virally in émigré homes.

Which raises a heart-stirring question: If our parents left India and trudged westward for us, if they manufactured from scratch a new life there for us, if they slogged, saved, sacrificed to make our lives lighter than theirs, then what does it mean when we choose to migrate to the place they forsook?

If we are here, what are they doing there?

They came of age in the 1970s, when the there seemed paved with possibility and the here seemed paved with potholes. As a young trainee, my father felt frustrated in companies that awarded roles based on age, not achievement. He looked at his bosses, 20 years ahead of him in line, and concluded that he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.

My parents married in India and then embarked to America on a lonely, thrilling adventure. They learned together to drive, shop in malls, paint a house. They decided who and how to be. They kept reinventing themselves, discarding the invention, starting anew. My father became a management consultant, an entrepreneur, a human-resources executive, then a Ph.D. candidate. My mother began as a homemaker, learned ceramics, became a ceramics teacher and then the head of the art department at one of Washington’s best schools.

It was extraordinary, and ordinary: This is what America did to people, what it always has done.

My parents brought us to India every few years as children. I relished time with relatives; but India always felt alien, impenetrable, frozen.

Perhaps it was the survivalism born of scarcity: the fierce pushing to get off the plane, the miserliness even of the rich, the obsession with doctors and engineers and the neglect of all others. Perhaps it was the bureaucracy, the need to know someone to do anything. Or the culture shock of servitude: a child’s horror at reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in an American middle school, then seeing servants slapped and degraded in India.

My firsthand impression of India seemed to confirm the rearview immigrant myth of it: a land of impossibilities. But history bends and swerves, and sometimes swivels fully around.

India, having fruitlessly pursued command economics, tried something new: It liberalized, privatized, globalized. The economy boomed, and hope began to course through towns and villages shackled by fatalism and low expectations.

America, meanwhile, floundered. In a blink of history came 9/11, outsourcing, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, rising economies, rogue nuclear nations, climate change, dwindling oil, a financial crisis.

Pessimism crept into the sunniest nation. A vast majority saw America going astray. Books heralded a Post-American World. Even in the wake of a historic presidential election, culminating in a dramatic change in direction, it remained unclear whether the United States could be delivered from its woes any time soon.

In the U.S., there’s a crisis of confidence, said Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, the Indian software giant. In India, he added, for the first time after decades or centuries, there is a sense of optimism about the future, a sense that our children’s futures can be better than ours if we try hard enough.

My love for the country of my birth has never flickered. But these new times piqued interest in my ancestral land. Many of us, the stepchildren of India, felt its change of spirit, felt the gravitational force of condensed hope. And we came.

Exact data on émigrés working in India or spending more time here are scarce. But this is one indicator: India unveiled an Overseas Citizen of India card in 2006, offering foreign citizens of Indian origin visa-free entry for life and making it easier to work in the country. By this July, more than 280,000 émigrés had signed up, according to The Economic Times, a business daily, including 120,000 from the United States.

At first we felt confused by India’s formalities and hierarchies, by British phraseology even the British had jettisoned, by the ubiquity of acronyms. We wondered what newspapers meant when they said, INSAT-4CR in orbit, DTH to get a boost. (Apparently, it meant a satellite would soon beam direct-to-home television signals.)

Working in offices, some of us were perplexed to be invited to S&M conferences, only to discover that this denoted sales and marketing. Several found to their chagrin that it is acceptable for another man to touch your inner thigh when you crack a joke in a meeting.

We learned new expressions: He is on tour (Means: He is traveling. Doesn’t mean: He has joined U2.); What is your native place? (Means: Where did your ancestors live? Doesn’t mean: What hospital delivered you?); Two minutes (Means: An hour. Doesn’t mean: Two minutes.).

We tried to reinvent ourselves, as our parents had, but in reverse. Some studied Hindi, others yoga. Some visited the Ganges to find themselves; others tried days-long meditations.

Many of us who shunned Indian clothes in youth began wearing kurtas and chappals, saris and churidars. There was a sad truth in this: We had waited for our heritage to become cool to the world before we draped its colors and textures on our own backs.

We learned how to make friends here, and that it requires befriending families. We learned to love here: Men found fondness for the elusive Indian woman; women surprised themselves in succumbing to chauvinistic, mother-spoiled men.

We forged dual-use accents. We spoke in foreign accents by default. But when it came to arguing with accountants or ordering takeout kebabs, we went sing-song Indian.

We gravitated to work specially suited to us. If there is a creative class, in Richard Florida’s phrase, there is also emerging what might be called a fusion class: people positioned to mediate among the multiple societies that claim them.

India’s second-generation returnees have built boutiques that fuse Indian fabrics with Western cuts, founded companies that train a generation to work in Western companies, become dealmakers in investment firms that speak equally to Wall Street and Dalal Street, mixed albums that combine throbbing tabla with Western melodies.

Our parents’ generation helped India from afar. They sent money, advised charities, guided hedge-fund dollars into the Bombay Stock Exchange. But most were too implicated in India to return. Our generation, unscathed by it, was freer to embrace it.

Countries like India once fretted about a brain drain. We are learning now that brain circulation, as some call it, may be more apt.

India did not export brains; it invested them. It sent millions away. In the freedom of new soil, they flowered. They seeded a new generation that, having blossomed, did what humans have always done: chase the frontier of the future.

Which just happened, for many of us, to be the frontier of our own pasts.

Anand Giridharadas is a writer and a regular contributor to International Herald Tribune.

Zoon Politikon)

Again at Principle

First I noticed this splendid portrait: the Static created by Joshua Suda. I liked the idea of suggesting the mix between photo and painting: photo and painting in dialog, or in competition maybe? Photo and painting, each one trying to capture the essential, each one trying to be one step in front of the other. Or each one supporting the other, supplying the other with missing info.

Or the beauty of the model, a special kind of beauty, would that be the reason I like this Static so much?

Joshua Suda - Static
oil on panel

Near the work of Joshua Suda, an image of a Korean city at night. I was already accustomed with the art of Tanaka, and every time when I see his cityscapes, full of night, and full of light, and full of speed, my thought go to Chungking Express, the movie of Wong Kar Wai, cinematographed by Chris Doyle.

Nobuhito Tanaka - Fast Times
oil on canvas

Jeremy Mann comes with the bizarre poetry of the big American city, the strange fascination it offers by its total indifference to us. It's full of life, it doesn't care about life it carries.

Jeremy Mann - Early Morning Downtown
oil on panel

Gregory Gandy offers another view of the city: the same San Francisco, only this time it is captured in a static elegance. The elegance that I noted also at some other Photorealist works.

Gregory Gandy - Top of Nob Hill
oil on panel

Principle Gallery)

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