Review: On China

“On China” is a curious mixture of history, geopolitical analysis and self-serving memoir (concentrating mostly on the last two elements). Kissinger reviews some of the highlights of Chinese history; ancient and medieval China is covered quickly and superficially and the material is pretty much standard issue, but the level of detail increases after greatly from the opium war onwards and the book becomes much more interesting at that point. Kissinger makes the case that the Qing bureaucrats, in dire straits thanks to internal revolts, financial crisis and administrative decay, were not completely clueless or apathetic. Faced with determined, ruthless and far more technologically advanced European powers who had already overcome or overawed other great non-Western empires, Qing diplomats did their best to play European powers against one another and try to use (very limited) breathing space to try some fitful reforms, but the court was too far gone and the situation could not be salvaged, which led to 100 years of defeat, disorder, revolutions, famines and other disasters. Continue reading “Review: On China”


How the Other Half Dies..

An old video that somebody just sent me. I don’t think the situation of the Hazaras has improved much since then. About the rest of Pakistan, well, terrorism is down, crime is up and down, some things are better.. what do you think?

Hazara boy shares his thoughts about Pakistan..



Review: The Holocaust, A New History

Historian Laurence Rees has spent a lifetime studying the Holocaust, and it shows in this book. This is a very readable (and horrifying) retelling that begins in post-WWI Germany and details all the steps in the somewhat haphazard but ultimately effective process that led to the most horrifying mass murder in history.

The holocaust was not the largest genocide in history in terms of death toll (estimates and definitions vary, so it hard to say with certainty) but Rees makes the case (and I think it is a very reasonable case) that many aspects of this particular genocide are uniquely evil and terrifying and these aspects justify its unique position in the history of human mass murder (and this includes comparison with such immense and horrendous crimes as the Arab and European trade in African slaves).  Anyhow, readers can (and surely, will) make up their own mind about the relative horror of this particular crime, but if they read this book, they will at least learn the full extent of it.

Rees starts with the currents of antisemitism that circulated in 1920 Germany (many of these were pan-European, some were even of Anglo-American origin) and the process by which Hitler rose to power. The book makes it clear that while anti-semitism was commonplace in Christendom, most Germans were not thinking of systematic genocide; but some violent, sociopathic and evil people were dreaming of it, and they gradually coalesced around Hitler and got the chance to put their demonic ideas into practice, using all the terrifying resources of a powerful modern state. Continue reading “Review: The Holocaust, A New History”


Review: Rail Ki Seeti (an elegy for partition)

Mohammed Hasan Miraj is a Pakistani writer who served in the army, was stationed at Siachen glacier and then worked in ISPR (Interservices Public Relations) where he made at least one movie and then retired as a major and went to the London School of Economics to earn a degree in communications. While working for ISPR, he wrote several very nice articles in Dawn newspaper, almost all of them little travel pieces about various places in Pakistan; these articles are rich with history and folklore and display an erudite, liberal, tolerant and sagely tragic spirit; they are also obsessed with the romance of train travel.
This apparently lifelong fascination with travel, history and trains has now been poured into his first Urdu book, a small gem called “Rail ki Seeti” (the train whistle). Continue reading “Review: Rail Ki Seeti (an elegy for partition)”


Book Review: Last Hope Island

The history of the Second World War continues to offer up new and fascinating details as archives are opened and dying old men occasionally decide to tell the truth before they die (the latter opportunity is now almost gone, the first is still a work in progress). Lynne Olson does a good job here of bringing to light an aspect of that titanic struggle that deserves its own book length treatment: the European exiles who found shelter in Great Britain (the “Last Hope Island” of the title) and the role they played in the war.

These exiles did not always come to England because England had stood by them; The Czechs had been sold out; the Poles, while unlikely to survive in any case, received little or no real help against the Nazis; the Norwegian campaign and Britain’s blunders and betrayals in that saga are already relatively well known (Churchill, responsible for some of the biggest blunders, was lucky to survive them and become PM; that he did survive them also proved fortunate for those who opposed Nazism, since blunders and all, he was still crucial to the survival of Britain and even the eventual liberation of Western Europe). Benelux and the French fell mostly to their own weaknesses, but Britain’s interventions were not without their share of blunders, minor betrayals and other embarrassments. This book reveals all these details, and shows how much of what did survive owed to individual initiatives, chance, and the vicissitudes of fate, and not to the brilliant performance of the British establishment. Though to be fair, the lesson here is not that Britain had a bumbling establishment, but rather how much stupidity and muddle-headedness attends any great war, especially before the kinks are worked out.
The role of the Poles in particular is worth highlighting (and tragic, now that we know what happened to that much-abused nation in the years that followed); it is already relatively well known that Polish pilots played an outsize role in the crucial Battle of Britain, but I did not realize how much resistance they faced before being allowed to play that role; what is less well appreciated, even today, is how critical their role was in the decoding of Enigma, far and away the greatest intelligence coup of the war. The role of the French in Enigma is also highlighted, as is the absolutely critical role they played in jump-starting the Western nuclear program. Continue reading “Book Review: Last Hope Island”


New low in civil-military relations in Pakistan

From Dr Hamid Hussain

A brief summary of my response to many questions from non-Pakistanis (but keen observers of the scene) not familiar with background about recent friction in Pakistan. Pakistanis are much more informed about the issue.

“Neither to laugh; nor cry
Just to understand”. Spinoza

Past is Prologue – New Ebb in Civil-Military Relations of Pakistan
Hamid Hussain

“It is difficult to envisage some thirty or forty generals and a smaller number of admirals and air force commanders appointed solely by Providence to be the sole judges of what the nation needs”. The Times, April 6, 1961

In 2017, Pakistan is going through another cycle of severely strained civil-military relations. A certain level of friction in civil military relations is norm in many countries. This is especially true in the case of countries where military has maintained its dominance in national decision-making process. Opinions are so polarized that making a rational argument has become an arduous task. Anyone pointing to deficiencies of civilian leadership and improvement of governance is labelled as sweeping the floor for the military while anyone cautioning military leadership to pause and reflect is labeled as lackey of corrupt politicians and unpatriotic. Continue reading “New low in civil-military relations in Pakistan”


Review: Hell! No Saints in Paradise

AK Asif’s debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is no longer called Pakistan (there being no P in Arabic), it is now called Al-Bakistan, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

Continue reading “Review: Hell! No Saints in Paradise”


The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan in 1952 (and a SOAS report on the Rohingyas)

Rohingya, Burma  Myanmar, jihad Rohingya, Burma  Myanmar, jihad

The following is a report prepared by the British Foreign office about the “Mujahid Revolt” in Arakan around the time of Burmese independence. It provides good background on the Rohingya issue and is worth a read..

Below that is a report prepared by a researcher at SOAS in 2005, which gives some more background..

“This document is a transcript of an original British Foreign Office document held at the National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey under File Reference FO 371/101002 – FB 1015/63”

FB 1015/63
The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan


1. The Akyab district of Arakan, the northern parts of which are now the scene of a Muslim rebellion, is even less well provided with communications than are most parts of Burma, and its inaccessibility and its remoteness from the centre of government are principal factors in making the rising possible. The district is separated from Burma proper by the hills of the Arakan Yoma, and west of this range a series of rivers, running roughly from north to south and divided from one another by parallel ranges of higher ground, split the district into several parts between which, as between the district as a whole and the rest of Burma, communication is difficult. On the west, the Naf river flows south to the sea, and in its lower reaches forms the frontier between Burma and East Pakistan.
2. The northern part of the Akyab district comprises two administrative areas, known as townships, namely, the Buthidaung township consisting of the upper part of the Mayu river valley and the adjacent hills, and the Maungdaw township consisting of the lower Naf valley with the coastal strip running south from its estuary. The two townships, now the scene of so much disorder, are separated by hills known as the Mayu range. Though most of the Buthidaung township consists of hills, the Maungdaw townships contains the flat, intensively cultivated land along the lower Naf, and this is one of the most fertile and densely populated parts of Burma. In both townships, the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and apart from minor village handicrafts, there is no industry.
3. Owing to the nature of the country, the easiest means of communication both within it and between it and other parts of Arakan is water-transport, either by coastal craft plying to the Naf estuary or by inland-water transport along the Naf and Mayu rivers. Roads are few and poor; railways do not exist. Formerly a light railway ran from the town of Maungdaw on the Naf to the town of Buthidaung on the Mayu, passing through two tunnels on the way; it was constructed by the Arakan Flotilla Company to link their services on the Naf with those on the Mayu and to provide an inland route by which the rice of Maungdaw might reach the rice-mills at Akyab, but it was later abandoned and developed into a metalled roadway. In general, land movement in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships must be effected by bullock-cart track or by jungle-path. Thus the north of the Akyab district is essentially isolated.
Continue reading “The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan in 1952 (and a SOAS report on the Rohingyas)”


Review: Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik



Dr Pattanaik (a medical doctor who became a pharmaceutical executive and then a writer on mythology and an amateur Indologist) has written ”Jaya”, a modern (and highly condensed) “retelling” of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata.  The Mahabharata, in its canonical Sanskrit version (which was likely finalized sometimes in the first 500 years CE) consists of 18 parts of varying length, and is by far the longest epic poem in the world (a 100,000 verses, ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined). The poem itself states that this is an expanded version of an earlier, much shorter epic, so there is no question about the fact that it has multiple authors who have added and subtracted (mostly added) material over hundreds or even thousands of years to what was probably a much more compact original. A complete English translation (complete as far as possible at that time) was carried out by Krishan Mohan Ganguly and published in 1896 and is available online at Sacred Texts.  It is, of course, extremely long and is written in somewhat archaic and ornate English (for example the word “puissant” is used every time one of the characters is described as powerful; which, as you can imagine, happens a lot in an epic about powerful people), but it has a certain old-fashioned charm and I can attest that dipping into it to look up a particular episode, or just at random, can be an addictive exercise. Scholars, meanwhile, have continued to refine the canonical text,  and new, presumably more authoritative, collections and translations continue to be published. Not being a scholar of either Indic literature or the Mahabharata, I will say no more on that topic, so on to Jaya. Continue reading “Review: Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik”


Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces


From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain

“A tree won’t fall with a single blow”. Turkish proverb

A failed coup attempt by some members of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in July 2016 made international headlines for few days. The news quickly faded away and firm clamp down and a purge inside Turkey prevented any detailed information about the dramatic changes in Turkish Armed Forces in the last two decades.

Events of July 2016 were the final phase of the demise of the first republic established by the country’s founder Kamal Ataturk and emergence of second republic. Turkish Armed Forces assigned themselves the role of guardian of the republic and were a dominant force for almost a century. TAF directly intervened several times while at other times removed civilian governments by orchestrating events behind the scene if they perceived any deviation from the Kamalist secular vision. Turkish Armed Forces have finally met their tragic end and moved out of the power center. Continue reading “Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces”