Jul 202013
Capital Cities’ Feel Good Hit of the Summer

Sebu Simonian on his band’s breakout hit ‘Safe And Sound,’ growing up in the Middle East, and staying hopeful

Atop the rubble of the crumbling worldview of millions of young people, Capital Cities – Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant – offer a simple, welcome reprieve in the form of this summer’s biggest little hit, “Safe And Sound.” Its optimistic message has caught the ear of millions of fans worldwide. Things could be terrible, they tell us, but you’ll be OK.

“You could be my luck/Even if the sky is falling down/I know that we’ll be safe and sound,” the duo sing over a distorted bassline and pounding beat.

“Recognizing the difficulties and the tragedies around us actually helps highlight the good things around us and make us appreciate the good things around us, as well,” Simonian says between stops on the international tour for Capital Cities’ debut album, A Tidal Wave of Mystery, released by Capitol Records/Lazy Hooks on June 4th, 2013.

For Simonian, the lyrics – which he co-wrote with San Francisco native Merchant – no doubt stem from memories of his childhood in Lebanon, during the long civil war. Simonian is Armenian. Though he grew up in the United States, he was born in Syria, and moved with his family to Lebanon where he lived until the age of “five or six”. Like nearly one million other people in Lebanon, Simonian and his family left the country during the decades-long civil war. “I was surrounded by war and it was difficult,” he recalls.

Simonian – who says he doesn’t watch television – still keeps up with the news from the Middle East, particularly Syria. “It’s really sad. And it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of solutions in place right now.” Though he says he feels “kind of helpless out here,” he has participated in fundraising activities to help people – especially members of his old Armenian community in Syria – relocate safely.

It can’t have been easy to grow up with war, but it’s one of the reasons Simonian consciously seeks optimism. “It’s important to think positive so that positive change actually occurs,” he says.

His songwriting partner agrees — Capital Cities don’t just want to make you dance with joy, they want you to think about all the good things you have. Their official Twitter feed says “we make thoughtful electro/pop music”. Which may be why it’s caught on.

“Safe and Sound” is the proof of their claim. “It’s kind of an ode to humanity and harmony and a call to be more optimistic,” Simonian says. That call is echoed throughout the album. “I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo,” “Farah Fawcett Hair” (which features Outkast’s André 3000), and “Tell Me How To Live” all have that element of staying strong when things fall apart. “The grass is greener on my side,” they sing on “Tell Me How To Live” (which also features an Armenian oud player). And on “Farah Fawcett” they go through a long list of the little joys in life: “I like it when you play with my hair.”

“Life is up and down. It’s like a yin and yang,” says Simonian. “There’s the dark side and the bright side. What we try to do with our music is to delve into both, and in doing so I think the bright side ends up being more bright, to put it bluntly.”

Their growing group of fans seem to agree. The scene at their shows can quite simply be described as festive. The audience are quickly moved to their feet and Simonian and Merchant sometimes jump in and join them. It’s a party with glowing oversized sunglasses, neon yellow sports jackets and brightly colored lights.

There’s also the small matter of Simonian’s beard. It’s become something of a star in its own right, with some fans even showing up with replicas of it on their chins. “It seems like the youth is embracing facial hair as the hip fashion accessory,” he says, deadpan, sounding weirdly like an anthropologist. And though it’s a commonly found look in the Middle East, Simonian says that has nothing to do with it. “Most Armenians don’t wear beards.”

Look out for the beard and the band in the region sometime next summer – Simonian says there’s a good chance they’ll do stops in his previous home of Lebanon and his homeland Armenia, “if things go well.”

“It’s been a gradual climb from the beginning,” Simonian says. “We’re enjoying the ride.”

Watch “Safe And Sound” here:

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone Middle East on July 17, 2013. 

May 302013

amirkhanIf you came across him on a sidewalk in London, Amir Khan would seem like many other young British desis: shark fin hairstyle, fitted dark blue jeans, fresh white sneakers, and a roar in his eye that tells you he’s trouble if you’re looking for it. But come a little closer and you’ll notice the idiosyncrasies that make him the King: a discerning eye — not judgmental, per se, but aware — a hometown loyalty, and a determination to let his talents be known. 

It takes an extraordinary character to achieve what Amir “King” Khan has: an Olympic boxing champion at 17, a 4-time world boxing champion now — at 26 — and the most famous Muslim boxer since Muhammad Ali himself. 

“It’s not greed but it’s just like you wanna achieve everything that’s out there,” he tells me one fine spring day in California. Besides, “people like to watch an exciting fighter,” Khan says, “and I’m an exciting fighter.”

I met him recently at his new training camp in a place far removed from the Bolton Upon the Sea he calls home in England: in Union City, California, smack dab in the middle of American suburbia, not far from a busy strip mall and a Taco Bell. It’s a long way, culturally, from his previous training camp in Los Angeles. And even further from his home in England. Khan tells me that the luggage for his trip to the US was almost completely filled with Heinz breakfast beans and Cadbury chocolates from England — “the necessities,” he says. 

He didn’t need to tell me he’s out of place in Union City — even the big little city of nearby San Francisco wasn’t quite up to snuff for his playtime needs, it seems. But the fact that he’s made the move from his training camp in Lalaland tells me quite a lot: he will do what it takes to win and what it takes right now is his new coach Virgil Hunter who is from nearby Oakland and has set up Khan’s camp a few minutes’ drive from Union City. 

“We had to move here because like I said we have to be in a place where there’s going to be no distractions and we’re going to stay focused.” That hasn’t been a problem in Union City. 

Khan teamed up with Hunter late last year, after leaving his longtime coach Freddie Roach — Manny Pacquiao’s coach — in what was initially a tense breakup [http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2012/dec/13/freddie-roach-amir-khan-carlos-molina]. “We’re good now, Freddie said ‘hi’ to me at my last match”. Hunter is going to teach Khan to channel his offensive anger into defensive control. It’s the one thing Freddie said Khan would never be able to do because “his personality will always be in the way.”

Khan disagrees and, with Hunter’s help, is determined to prove Roach wrong again and again. He already has once: his first match with Hunter as coach was in December 2012, against Carlos Molina. Khan won. 

“It’s in my blood to be a fighter, to be an aggressive fighter. What Virgil’s teaching me now is to kind of calm down a little bit because at times I do get too excited and I do get into a fight when I don’t need to get in to a fight.”

 For Khan, anger has long been the weapon of choice alongside fierce footwork and calculated jabs. It’s what has given him the fire to compete and it’s the reason his father enrolled him in boxing lessons as a boy. But at 26, Khan, who exudes an air of wisdom about career boxing, wants to balance the defense with the offense in his game. He wants his title back and believes — as does Hunter — that pulling the punches needs to be balanced out with blocking them. The new Amir Khan wants to channel his anger into power, not let it get the best of him. “When you get angry in a fight, that’s where you make mistakes,” he tells me. With Hunter’s help and his own determination to “stay nice and calm” in the match, Khan plans to prove his fans right about their “King”, as he’s called. The December match against Molina crucially demonstrated the possibilities of a Hunter/Khan partnership. But his upcoming match against 33-year-old Julio Diaz could solidify it, even though it’s not a title match. 

Each match counts — Khan tends to fight only twice a year. What’s interesting about him is that he seems to know exactly where he’s headed and exactly where he wants to go. “I want to be in the sport probably till I’m like 29 or 30, achieve as much as I can achieve and then I’ve got businesses outside of boxing which I’ve started on.” 

His business plans are a reaction to seeing previous champions’ mistakes. He’s seen enough from his famed predecessors to know what he doesn’t want to become: champions like Ali, who he says “was in the sport a lot longer than he should have been”, and Mike Tyson who went bankrupt after he stopped fighting. 

“Tyson is a role model. I mean, in the ring he was the best. But it’s a shame how his career went. Hopefully I’ll never make them mistakes. You learn from people like him,” Khan tells me. Though he adds that “it’s easier said than done.”

Career-wise, so far he seems to have everything in place and he credits his fans and family for the support they’ve given him that other champions never had. His fans might be pleased to hear that he pays attention to what they say. Khan, who is quite active on social media, says his fans are “a big help because they tell me the rights and wrongs.” 

And his family is his rock. “They’ve been supporting me from day one. Being on my side. Being in the corner with me from day one.” His parents are from Pakistan and though he was born and raised in Bolton and has a famous penchant for his hometown, Khan values his dual nationality: Pakistan means a lot to him, too.

“My parents were born there so I think I’ve got a root there,” he tells me. “You can never forget your parents’ hometown. In a way it’s a hometown for me as well.” When we first began our conversation, Khan told me about how he’d just returned from a trip to Pakistan, where he has a house. 

“I thought it was crazy walking the streets in England and getting recognized by non-boxing fans and boxing fans but in Pakistan it was twice as crazy.” Khan visits at least once a year and says he tries to give back every time, especially by visiting schools in Pakistan and letting the kids know that part of his own success is the effort he put into getting a good education. He says he wants to “inspire them in sport” but also in education: “even though I made it as a boxer, education helped me, I still was smart in school and got good grades.”

On the personal front, he’s got plans, too, but he has found — and the world now knows — that the private lives of public figures aren’t quite as easy to plan out. The April 27 match isn’t the only spring fling on Khan’s calendar: in May he and his sweetheart, Faryal Makhdoom, are set to tie the knot at New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria. They met in 2011 during one of his stateside stays. 

“I was in New York doing a photo shoot for Prada and I bumped into her then,” he says, casually. They met at a dinner with friends and parted after “exchanging details”. Not long after, she came to London with her parents (“I think they had some work there,” Khan tells me) where they met again and “from there it just happened.”

“You know, I grew up a lot quicker than most guys my age would. I was in the limelight when I was 17, coming back from the Olympic games. I’ve done everything, now I feel like an old man so I think it’s best to settle down.”

As fast paced as his life is, Khan clearly values the moments where he can step back and reflect. He’s excited about the wedding and looking forward to opening this huge chapter in his life. “It’s so crazy how things happened because I always said I never want to marry a girl from America because it’s too far.” Too far from Bolton, that is. Khan’s feet are firmly planted in Bolton soil and one of the big conditions he set for his bride-to-be was that she had to move to Bolton after the wedding. And the fight. 

“It’s good to get this fight out of the way first and win this fight so at least I can go into the way happy,” he tells me. Win or loss, though, from what I’ve seen of Amir “King” Khan, very little can keep him down for long. 


This interview originally appeared on the Huffington Post on April 25, 2013.  




May 102013


When the mighty do not fall, they are felled, but Imran Khan is still going strong despite serious injuries this week at a campaign rally. He’s come a long way since I first interviewed him in 2011: he’s the most important person in Pakistan right now and the biggest election in his country’s history is all about him.

Unlike in the United States, campaigning in Pakistan has time limits and the brief period of campaigning ended Thursday at midnight with a massive Islamabad rally for Khan followed by a smaller rally for his main opponent: Mian Nawaz Sharif, the two-time former Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party.

Sharif, sweating under the grand lights of his stage, with a combover lightly flapping in the night’s breeze, and his microphone being held for him by a hand other than his, was — as his campaign has been — focused on Khan.

Khan, bandaged but vibrant, spoke to the millions from his hospital bed adorned with the national flag, all of the symbolism of his campaign suddenly embodied in a simple reality: my sacrifice has been for you, Pakistan.

In the sweltering heat of a Pakistan May — the hottest month of the Pakistani calendar — millions of Pakistanis are expected to trouble themselves to make their way to the polls to vote on Saturday, weeks after, for the first time in Pakistani history, a civilian government ended a full term. The election could have been scheduled for sometime in April, before the heatwave hits, before your average voter will think twice before heading out to spend time in a long line to vote in a country where electoral fraud is not a theory but a fact.

Some supporters of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) party believe that detail demonstrates yet another attempt by Khan’s adversaries to sabotage his prospects.

Whether he will truly sweep the elections as he promises, these elections have been energized by arguably the biggest celebrity in Pakistan’s history. Imran Khan, or IK as his party calls him, has electrified and captured the imagination of two critical demographics: the women and the youth, a most alarming feat for a man who would soon be eligible for Medicare if he lived in the United States.

His grassroots, people-powered campaign, the likes of which are celebrated whenever glimpses of it are observed in the United States, has collected votes area by area, individual by individual. When I met with him in November, during a fundraising trip to the United States, he was explicit on this point: he told me it is his “dream of a democratic party, unlike the family parties that exist.” Accordingly, his funds have been put in organizing more than advertising. Pakistani news channels, replete with a barrage of product and political ads (which, it should be noted, are clearly tagged as “Paid Political Content” from beginning to end) are noticeably lacking in PTI commercials.

His opponents, PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party spent the campaign season bombarding the airwaves with monotonous propaganda. PML-N ads focused on Sharif’s symbol: the powerful, fierce tiger, and interspersed it with repeated images of Khan, all of which happen to look better than Sharif’s. The PPP ads are also consistent: image after black and white image of the PPP’s glorified past leaders, Benazir Bhutto and her father, peppered with eulogies that give PPP ads the look and feel of a funeral procession. Despite themselves, the PML-N and PPP ads demonstrate the exact opposite of the popular PTI — where PML-N is focused on petty rivalries and PPP is focused on the long ago past, PTI is focused on the issues in a detailed platform for improving Pakistan and a future that intentionally climbs above Pakistan’s troubled past.

Indeed, Khan has captured the attention of his opponents and rendered their financial resources for advertizing irrelevant in comparison with his priceless human capital, making their coffers of gold accumulated over five terms of government seem less like a war chest and more like what they actually are: unaccounted for millions that belong in public funds, not in the Swiss savings accounts of an elite few.

With very little substance to attack Khan on, the rivalry has taken to attacking Khan’s character. This week the PPP painted him as an extremist Muslim, a Taliban sympathizer, at the same time that the PML-N derided his lack of religious faith, accusing him of being a playboy and a closeted kafir who sympathizes with a controversial religious sect. The claims cancel each other out, leaving Khan exactly where he wants to be: right in the middle, as an individual with a strong faith in Islam, a dating history, and an independent voice when it comes to Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Which brings us to his other big adversary: the United States. When I interviewed him this past November, he had just been through an ordeal trying enter the United States. After boarding a flight from Toronto he was pulled off by security and questioned about whether he planned to lead an anti-drones protest in front of the United Nations. Afterward, the State department issued a statement declaring that Khan was “welcome”. But actions speak louder than words.

In the US media, the noticeable lack of coverage of Pakistan’s historic election and Khan specifically is only overshadowed by blatant articles of support for Khan’s rivals, particularly the one that actually has a chance of beating him in this election cycle: Nawaz Sharif. Both the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post — amongst others — have published glowing reports of Sharif. The Monitor went out of its way to portray Sharif as a dove who, though he failed to do so both times he was Prime Minister, will now put the military in its place in favor of a powerful civilian government. The Post went above and beyond reality to characterize Sharif as a changed man, “mellowed” since his volatile days and “the best choice” for Pakistan — as usual, allowing itself to speak for a massive segment of another country’s populace.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder Khan’s opponents have gone to all lengths to prevent his party’s success on Saturday. As part of PTI’s on-the-ground campaigning, the party has focused its advertising on banners and posteres, rather than television. Volunteers from across Pakistan and even across the world have been placing the banners in strategic locations throughout the country. One PTI organizer I spoke with said that in addition to the healthy supply of dedicated and passionate local workers, his branch has had numerous Pakistanis from abroad — several of which who don’t even speak Urdu — show up at the party headquarters to volunteer their time and effort to help in any way they can. Contrast that with news that some PML-N branches have had individuals pay financially disadvantaged Pakistanis for every PTI banner or poster they show up with.

It’s the kind of difference that has already made history, before election day has even started.

The fact is, whether or not Khan’s party wins big on Saturday, it’s already won the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Pakistanis. And that alone seems to be the most threatening thing of all.

This article was originally featured on The Huffington Post on May 10, 2013. 

Mar 012013

The Rutgers Professor Who Wants to Lead Iran



Rutgers scholar Hooshang Amirahmadi wants to be Iran’s next president—even though he’s lived abroad for nearly 40 years

    As Iran gears up for elections in June, the fanfare of vetting a presidential-candidate list is once again in full swing. While the president is subordinate to the country’s real leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei (a man never up for election himself), the position nevertheless attracts many contenders. And with current officeholder Mahmoud Ahmadinejad terming out this year, one man has already thrown his hat into the ring to be the next president of the Islamic Republic: Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University—a man who hasn’t lived in Iran for nearly 40 years.

Hooshang Amirahmadi

Hooshang Amirahmadi gives a speech at New York University in January. (Cole Giordano)

Amirahmadi is a well-known player in the stateside machinations toward power of the Iranian expat community—he heads the American Iranian Council (AIC), which focuses on public policy and U.S.-Iran relations and which he credits for former secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s apology to the people of Iran for America’s role in the 1953 coup that removed democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Born in the Caspian province of Gilan, Amirahmadi moved to the United States before the revolution in 1975, to pursue a master’s degree in industrial management at the University of Dallas. He later received a Ph.D. in planning and international management from Cornell and entered American academia. At the helm of the AIC, he’s one of a number of Iranian-Americans in influential positions at think tanks, not-for-profits, and even human-rights organizations in New York and D.C. who are quietly biding their time and keeping their contact books fresh in hopes of one day returning to Iran in a position of power.

Amirahmadi just happens to be more transparent about his intentions: he’s tired of being a behind-the-scenes guy in Iranian politics—he wants the front-row spot. His campaign website is in English and Farsi—so that he can reach the 5 million to 7 million Iranians in the diaspora, he tells me. There, his electoral promises include the intention to resolve the political infighting currently plaguing Iran’s government—which he tells me can only be done by an “outsider” such as himself; improving U.S.-Iran relations; and fixing Iran’s economic crisis (brought on, in part, by American and EU sanctions).

“Chador is Islamic law,” he incorrectly tells me.

Of those policy points, Amirahmadi seems most focused on U.S.-Iran relations, in keeping with the mission of the AIC. He calls the issue “interconnected” to every domestic problem in Iran. Having been an unofficial intermediary between the two countries, he has gotten to know some of the key players in the diplomatic community and their respective needs, including people at the State Department and people in the upper ranks of Iranian government. The U.S., Amirahmadi says, is looking for “the right person” in Iran—and that person “could be left wing, moderate, conservative.” Regardless, “they want someone in Iran that will not be against their interests in Iran, in the region, and beyond,” who will help with “some openings for economic trade and political relations.”

He seems to believe the Iranian people want those things in a president too.

The professor, who says that he has met privately with Ahmadinejad, says that while the Supreme Leader has been opposed to negotiations with the U.S., Ahmadinejad was “interested in negotiation,” but “made a grave mistake going after Israel and the Holocaust”—and that the president “knows that well.”

Amirahmadi says he brought the Israel issue up with the president during their meetings—and that Ahmadinejad privately backtracked on his comments about Israel. “In the very beginning, he would say, ‘I said what I said’—but later on, he began changing his mind,” the professor says. According to Amirahmadi, the president “basically said, ‘I mean the [Israeli] regime as opposed to the country has to be wiped out, meaning a particular government, like [Benjamin] Netanyahu … I did not mean the Holocaust didn’t exist, but I said that I was questioning the number and also posing a question to the international community about why we can’t look into it and see what really happened.’”

For all his access to Iran’s president, though, Amirahmadi seemed somewhat unfamiliar or uninterested in exactly how much freedom the president actually has (or rather, does not have). Earlier this month, he spent five hours in a Reddit.com Ask Me Anything forum, answering questions from an audience that was primarily non-Iranian, judging by the comments. His answers often ascribed a level of power to the president that doesn’t exist inside Iran—such as his promise that if elected, “all citizens will have equal rights regardless of their religion,” and that “in my administration there will be no restriction on any type of media.” These are serious matters that address the fundamental identity of the Islamic Republic and would therefore only be addressed by the Supreme Leader.

Yet when I asked him what he would do about removing the mandatory hijab—the single most visible issue when it comes to the equal rights he says he supports in Iran—he told me “I don’t want to promise anybody anything wrong or false.”

“Chador is Islamic law,” he incorrectly tells me—veiling is not mandatory in the Koran itself and is not universally accepted as mandated in the Hadiths—and as someone who is “not in opposition to the regime” and who is “running within that framework, there are things that I cannot change.” It’s all something of a contradiction considering the promises he made on Reddit with regard to other issues within the Islamic Republic’s “framework.”

When I tell him that there are other Islamic countries—most in fact—where hijab is not mandatory, he says, “Everybody has to cooperate here,” and states that “unfortunately, Iran is a society of extremes.” He is critical as he mentions that under the shah, “women would go with a little short[s] in the middle of Tehran,” then laments the other end of the spectrum, where Iranian women are forced to wear hijab.

And for all his posturing that “I know Iran … I know what Iran is all about,” he doesn’t seem to know or perhaps understand Iranians in Iran—and how much they have changed in the decades since he lived there. With high levels of co-habitation among unmarried couples, the private parties that put Hollywood to shame, and the Internet’s profound connection to the rest of the world, today’s Iranian is, on average, someone considerably younger than Amirahmadi who regardless of religious beliefs is in many ways living a more “Western” lifestyle—shorts and all—than his or her parents did before the revolution.

Yet Amirahmadi doesn’t see his decades of absence from his home country as an issue in his election campaign. “People who have lived in the Islamic Republic are not even as qualified as I am,” he says. He then cites his academic expertise—he’s the former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers—and his “shuttle diplomacy” with organizations like the AIC as evidence of his ability to be a “peacemaker [and] a bridge builder.” In his view, Iranians abroad “have lived in the world” and gained a perspective that citizens isolated in the Islamic Republic do not have. “I understand Iran,” he says. “I’m one of the best Iran experts you can get.”
“I’m not like your average expatriate who stays here or goes every so often to Iran for a visit and sightseeing and then returns,” he adds. “I have been actively involved in Iran’s life throughout all this time.”

Amirahmadi cites Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, and Ayatollah Khomeini as two individuals who lived abroad before returning home to rule. Neither, however, was abroad for nearly four decades—Morsi lived in the United States for six years, studying and then briefly teaching in the California university system before moving back in 1985 to rise through the ranks of government. Khomeini was into forced exile by the shah for nearly 15 years and returned immediately upon the shah’s departure. The professor’s examples are troubling, in any case, considering the types of rule these two leaders in particular imposed upon their countries.

If elected, Amirahmadi says, his main international priority—apart from not antagonizing Israel—would be to divert Iran from nuclear technology toward what he calls “cybertechnologies.”

“In 10 years cybertechnology will be developed to the extent that you could, in the U.S., destroy the Russian bombs as they sit in Siberia, without shedding any bombs, just by cyber,” he says, before adding that he would develop the technology “for peaceful purposes.”

Amirahmadi says he would also work to “get the sanctions out” so Iran could open up to foreign investment. That’s tied to his domestic plan to “increase oil revenue and diversify foreign-exchange earnings,” particularly through agriculture and industry. He adds that he would work toward promoting small businesses, especially real estate and construction. “I will expand economic activities significantly,” he says, and promises to create 6 million jobs in the first four years of governing—“that’s my target.”

Easier said than done? Perhaps, but that’s not unlike his candidacy itself. The vetted candidates will be announced in May. Until then, expect to hear more from Amirahmadi—that’s one promise he can definitely keep.

This article originally appeared in Newsweek/The Daily Beast on February 26, 2013. 

Aug 172012

Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine

He’s been raging against the machine, the system, the way things have become, for decades now, but Tom Morello’s spirit has not been crushed. 

If anything, it’s peaking. 

“I used to think I was alone,” he told the crowd at Occupy SF recently, “but I ain’t alone no more.” He spoke only briefly to the audience before handing out over 150 free tickets to his show that night in the Bay Area, but he is a powerful public speaker, intelligent and yet grounded enough to speak to a large group of people. 

 Energized by what he saw — like many progressive activists over the years, he had dreamed of this day when the American public would join him in the streets to demand control of their country — Morello was smiling through his address, even when speaking about the “unprosecuted crimes” that he, and no doubt much of the crowd, was horrified by. 

 Not least was the issue of Guantanamo Bay. With the infinite number of issues on the Occupy platforms nationwide — Wall Street payouts, foreclosures, government corruption, the massive wealth gap, labor rights and all the rest — foreign policy has sometimes taken a back seat at these gatherings. 

Morello used the Occupy SF opportunity to reintroduce the long lost issue of Guantanamo Bay’s untried, still imprisoned victims, reminding Americans that the new President Barack Obama initially curried great favor with the progressives and rights activists who had given him their vote by riding the wave of shutting down Guantanamo within a year. 

That never happened. And but for a speck of attention around the time of the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, those prisoners have been forgotten for some time. A good part of Morello’s five or so minutes speaking to Occupy SF were a reminder of one of the first promises President Obama broke. 

“If our President, Barack Obama, does not have the courage to close Guantanamo Bay, then I have this suggestion: that perhaps he opens those animal cages up and puts in some of those Wall Street criminals for what they’ve done.”

The crowd cheered and shouts of support encouraged Morello to continue. 

 “I would go further to suggest that maybe we put them in those little orange jumpsuits, put some black hoods over their heads and crank Rage Against the Machine 24 hours a day,” he added, referencing a now well-known technique of torture used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other US-government operated wartime prisons:  instigating agitation and sleep deprivation by playing presumably unappealing music at high decibels for hours at a time. 

When I asked him about the Guantanamo comment later, he said those white collar criminals could use some orange jumpsuits for what they’ve done to the American people. 

Quick to the punch, but charismaticly approachable, Morello had made his way through the Occupy crowd, showing his support and being respectfully patient. When an older occupier, a lifelong political activist in the San Francisco Bay Area known affectionately as Diamond Dave  — “I introduced [Woody] Guthrie to [Bob] Dylan,” he mentioned to Morello, as others nodded in agreement — seemed to be monopolizing the star’s attention for several minutes, Morello posed for photographs with him and praised him for his commitment to progress. 

Your star power brings a new energy and motivation to the occupiers, I mentioned to him. “I’m supporting occupiers all over the country,” he said, “it helps that I’m travelling so much because I’m on tour.”

It also helps that he has the courage to speak up. Unlike other popular activists, he has not shied away from criticizing Obama. Perhaps he looks at the progressive road that he took — even as he made a name for himself on the national and international stage — and wonders why Obama hasn’t done the same. 

They do, after all, have quite a bit in common. Morello was born in the US just three years after Obama, also to a father who was Kenyan and a mother who was a European American. And both of their Kenyan fathers were government men back in Kenya. Morello’s father was Kenya’s first Ambassador to the United Nations and his great uncle is none other than the first President of the modern Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta — the very man who fired Barack Obama, Sr., a government economist in Kenya, due to a political conflict. 

These two sons of Kenyan fathers took wildly divergent paths in life, but neither Morello nor millions of other Americans could have imagined how typical Obama’s political values and record would actually be. 

Morello, like many other Americans, expected more from the candidate who had promised hope and change. 

“I voted for him in 2008″, Morello told me. I asked him if he would vote for Obama again in 2012. 

“He hasn’t given me any reason to,” Morello said. 

 Then who will you vote for? 

 “Are you running?,” he asked me, “you seem pretty well informed, asking all the right questions.”

Would he write me in on the ballot?, I asked. 

“You got it!, he said. And then he was off to prepare for his rock and roll gig that night. He is one of a growing sort of American artists: those who stand up while they rock out. 

Jun 172012

The saying goes that boys will be boys. The trouble is when men are still boys. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan knows about that all too well. Like a repeat of the 2007 debacle, in which he was fired by then-President Pervez Musharraf under the guise of corruption associated with his son, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is once again in the spotlight because of his son.

Except this time, it’s not the President who is making the power moves against the Chief Justice, it’s a real estate tycoon with powerful ties. 

Malik Riaz Hussain, a businessman with connections at the highest levels of Pakistani government, military, security services, and media claims that Chaudhry’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, has blackmailed him out of 3.63 million dollars over a three year period. In an interview this week from Pakistan, Iftikhar called the allegations “propaganda” and “a trap.” 

The Chief of Justice

With the tensions surrounding Hussain’s allegations reaching a head, the Chief Justice decided it was time to take a stand. Last week, he took a suo moto action — a legal term meaning the judge took an action on his own to initiate an investigation into a matter that was not yet in court proceedings — against his own son. An unprecedented move in Pakistani judicial history. 

It’s the top story in Pakistan now, not least because it is seen as an attempt to yet again use his son to damage the Chief Justice. 

But Chaudhry has proven himself exceptionally adept at surviving attacks from all sides. He is, after all, rather disliked by a select group of exorbitantly wealthy Pakistanis — Chaudhry isn’t too keen on corruption — and the government of the United States — he’s also not too keen on secrecy. 

It was Chaudhry’s 2006 suo moto action to initiate discovery of evidence about the missing persons cases in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan that confirmed his status as a thorn in the side of US operations in the country. At the time, Chaudhry famously stated that “ninety percent of the people are accusing the FC [Frontier Corps] of abductions”. The Frontier Corps is a paramilitary force that operates in that region of the country. 

Of the $7 billion in military aid which the US government gave to Pakistan from 2002-2007, most of it went to the Frontier Corps to aid in fighting what the US believed to be Islamist militants. As a result, many Pakistanis believed that the US and its agents in the country were in many ways responsible for the hundreds of missing Pakistani activists whose cases were not being brought to court for fear of reprisal. The 2011 case of Raymond Davis vindicated supporters of the missing persons’ families: after Davis shot and killed a Pakistani citizen in broad daylight in Lahore, he was discovered to be a US agent, with many active colleagues in the country. 

The Chief Justice’s 2006 suo moto action against the Pakistan Steel Mill was a big blow to corruption in the country — that action led to a halt on the privatization of the country’s national steel mill, something that had been of great concern to the mill’s workers union. 

More recently, Chaudhry has been involved in cases pertaining to the President, Prime Minister and the Interior Minister. 

In February of this year, Chaudhry confronted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and effectively President Asif Ali Zardari himself, in what is commonly referred to in Pakistan as the “Swiss Letter” scandal. The Prime Minister narrowly escaped jail time after the court granted him a lenient sentence for his contempt of court conviction based on his refusal to write a letter to the Swiss government requesting that they revive existing corruption cases against the president. 

In March, the Chief Justice headed a bench hearing a case against Prime Minister Gilani’s son, Ali Musa Gilani, who is alleged to be involved in a $77 million scam pertaining to irregularities in the import of controlled drugs, specifically Ephedrine, also known as the poor man’s cocaine. (That’s the same son that was involved in an on-air brawl this past May on a Pakistani International Airlines flight from Lahore to Karachi.) 

And just this month, Rehman Malik was suspended as Interior Minister in a decision led by Chaudhry at the Supreme Court. Malik was found to be a dual British citizen — a position that is untenable in most — if not all — nations for such a high government position. Unable to prove that he had indeed relinquished his British nationality, Malik lost his job. 

Now, at the very moment when both the Prime Minister, the President, and the (recently) former Interior Minister are no doubt seething at the Chief Justice’s cases against  them and their families, he finds himself in the midst of his own family scandal: Chaudhry’s suo moto against his own son last week was seen by many as a defensive move. 

Who is Arsalan?

Arsalan Iftikhar Chaudhry, or Arsalan Iftikhar, is the Chief Justice’s most well known son. He came to national prominence much in the same way that he finds himself in it again: amidst accusations and rumors that inevitably reflect negatively on his esteemed father. The first time around, the accusations were that the Chief Justice used his influence to get his son into medical school, despite his insufficient grades, and then got him a rapid promotion in his first government assignment.  

“He hadn’t taken money or anything,” says Faria Khan, a London-based Pakistan observer, “and it wasn’t proven on any level.” But it was the trigger that then-President Musharraf used to initiate the Chief Justice’s firing — an act that resulted in a massive people’s movement to reinstate the Chief Justice and ultimately led to Musharraf’s own downfall. 

But as Pakistani corruption allegations go, it was meager at best. “No one really believed it,” Khan says, “Musharraf tried everything he could to incriminate the Chief Justice in various scandals, there was never anything he could come up with.” 

So he went with the son. And it failed. But the battle to take down the Chief Justice was just in hibernation, it seems. 

In the years since, Iftikhar has abandoned his medical background and moved into the world of business. “I was a physician,” he told me, “but I never practiced. I never took it as a proper profession so I started my own entrepreneurial thing,” he said. He says he is now in the telecommunications business — “the operation management and maintenance of the network of the telecom side.”

Like most Pakistanis with prominent family members, Iftikhar’s rise to success was quick. “It’s just about influence,” Khan says, “you don’t even have to announce it if people know who you are. Then you’ll get that loan, you’ll get that contract, you’ll get those marks at school, and you’ll get those positions.”

So while it isn’t terribly surprising to most Pakistanis that Iftikhar would succeed in his business ventures, “there seems to be quite an amount of evidence suggesting that [Iftikhar] has lived a lifestyle that is not consistent with the wealth that he claims he earned publicly,” says Arif Rafiq, an Adjunct Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. 

As he did before, Iftikhar vehemently denies the current allegations. “Nobody ever helped me. My father is not the sort who will ever help me in anything in my businesses. I work hard and God helps me in my work,” he said.   

“Whatever I have earned, it’s all black and white. I’m an honest businessman and I pay my taxes and I will prove this insha’allah.”

The Expensive Trips

This time, however, the allegations come with what is said to be actual proof. According to Hussain, Iftikhar used him for trips and hotel stays in London and Monte Carlo. He has produced receipts, housing agreements and even passport and flight details — all of which indicate a rather expensive lifestyle:  stays at the London Hilton Park Lane and Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris, and car rentals of a top model Range Rover during his stay in London.  

“These documents have no authenticity,” Iftikhar told me. In fact, the trips to London and Monte Carlo, according to Iftikhar, were arranged not through Hussain but through a businessman named Ahmed Khalil — whom Iftikhar appears to know very little about — and his London-based cousin Zaid Rehman. Aside from the allegations of improper exchanges of money, Iftikhar has been rumored to be cavorting with Khalil’s wife, Sara Hanif, in Monte Carlo — an allegation Iftikhar takes great exception to, being a newlywed of just a few months. “That’s totally rubbish and bullshit,” he told me, “she’s like a sister.”

Judging by Iftikhar’s description of Khalil as a “friend who ended up like a Brutus,” it would appear that he was not aware of Khalil’s apparent relationship with Hussain, or at the very least trusted his ex-friend enough to not think anything of borrowing money from him, as he tells it.  

“I always paid back,” Iftikhar says. “I paid him [Rehman via Khalil] and I told him that if there are any other payments to be made from my side, please let me know. He said ‘no’.”

“My conscience is clear,” Iftikhar says, “and alhamdulillah, with a period of time, I will prove myself.” 

Khan says most Pakistanis believe that Iftikhar knew what he was doing, in a general sense. “He probably knowingly went on these trips abroad or took the money — even if it was via a third party so he can’t link it back to Malik Riaz [Hussain] — but he knew why he was receiving the money: to influence his father,” Khan says. “But he had no intention of doing that.”

Though Hussain is not saying what he got in return for the expensive vacations, some rumors are alleging that it was to get the Chief Justice to dismiss the many cases of corruption that are pending against him in the courts. 

At least one theory has already been proven: even if Hussain couldn’t get the cases thrown out, he could make certain that Chief Justice Chaudhry wouldn’t be able to sit on the bench when his cases come up. 

“So when the cases come up, he can say, ‘I don’t agree’ or ‘I refuse to appear before a court that’s obviously prejudiced against me,” Khan says. “It’s an indirect route, but in effect he’s made the Chief Justice redundant in any of the cases that involve him.” 

The Chief Justice’s Reputation

But Iftikhar finds the very idea that anyone could influence his father through him ridiculous. 

“Nobody can influence my father, the whole world knows this. If anybody thinks that being cozy with me can influence my father, they are totally wrong,” Iftikhar told me. 

The fact is, the son is right: his father’s reputation is just about impeccable in a country where less powerful men are and have been using their influence to acquire outrageous wealth and favors. “The Chief Justice, in general is known to be an upright judge,” Khan says, “in terms of his actual history in the judiciary, he is very clean.”

It was this reputation, after all, that prompted so many Pakistanis to rise up and demand Chaudhry’s reinstatement after Musharraf removed him from his position as Chief Justice in 2007. The historically-significant Lawyer’s Movement of 2007 began as an effort by his colleagues in law and the judiciary but ultimately became a people’s street movement that resulted in Chaudhry ultimately getting his job back. Not a small feat, considering he brought down US ally Musharraf with the deed. 

For his part, Iftikhar, like many Pakistanis, remains in awe of his father, even after the suo moto and the public announcement that his father has disowned him. 

“I’m very proud of my father for this — I will only go back home if I clear myself,” he told me. Iftikhar lives apart from his father with his new bride, but says he won’t even attempt to approach his father till he has cleared his name. “If I cannot clear myself, I have no right to go and meet such an honorable person, a person with such a feeling of justice,” he said. 

What’s more, he not only denies the bribery allegations, he says he has no relationship with Hussain whatsoever. “I do not know this man, Malik Riaz [Hussain], or his son-in-law, or his daughter. I never came across — never seen them in my life.”

Enter Malik Riaz Hussain

Hussain doesn’t claim to have met Iftikhar either. In fact, until this entire story went public, Hussain didn’t claim very much at all. 

“His political influence has been something that has been known but not necessarily seen,” Rafiq says. According to Rafiq, Hussain has for years now been an unofficial and usually unseen-in-public middle-man between the various factions with whom he has ties:  the military, the government, the security forces and politicians. “His political ties are pretty diverse. He’s given bribes to politicians, bureaucrats, members of the military, and at the same time he’s been used as an intermediary by political actors to negotiate deals or to lower tensions between different parties.”

It was Hussain who was given the important contract to rebuild the Red Mosque — or Lal Masjid as it is called in Urdu — after a stand-off between the military and religious groups led to the mosque’s destruction and significant tension between the two groups. And it was Hussain, in the days after Zardari became President in 2008, who is said to have brokered the coalition deal between Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party  (PPP) and leading politician Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz Party (PML-N) — a coalition that is now defunct due to Sharif and his party dropping out of the coalition amidst allegations of PPP corruption. 

Given Hussain’s high-reaching influence, many Pakistanis are baffled as to why he would risk it all just to take down the Chief Justice’s son. “There’s a huge amount of risk in what he’s doing,” Rafiq says. “Though I think the probability is pretty high that others at the very least gave their tacit approval to this.” Rafiq wonders if Hussain has “guarantees from other power brokers in Pakistan that blowback to him might be limited.”

 And that is the reason — Hussain’s undisputed connections at the highest levels of Pakistani government, security forces, bureaucracy and even media — why many Pakistanis believe Hussain’s action is not a risk at all. 

“He has his tentacles in absolutely everything,” Khan says. “Apparently, he’s got everyone on the payroll. He apparently boasted in the last election that he has control of over 80 [parliamentary] seats in Punjab.”

Aside from his influence, according to Khan, Hussain is well known for video-recording his financial transactions. “He says it’s for his own protection — he’s constantly accused of being almost like a mafia don, in effect, in Pakistan. When you have a recording of all those transactions, it’s a tool of blackmail in essence.”

A Comedy of Errors

Nonetheless, the Bahria Gate scandal, as it is now called, because of Hussain’s biggest and most well-known project, the Bahria Town developments, has already had at least one victim: the media. 

In Hussain’s highly publicized media debut, days after the Chief Justice took the suo moto action, Pakistanis burgeoning media scene took a massive blow when a leak of the footage from the live interview’s commercial breaks revealed that not only were the two interviewers being fed questions — by Hussain, by their management, and by family members of Prime Minister Gilani and top opposition leader Sharif — the entire interview appeared to be a set-up to uphold Hussain’s position, rather than query critical elements of the growing scandal. 

The two interviewers on Dunya News, a popular news channel in Pakistan, Mubasher Lucman and Meher Bukhari, were seen in the leaked footage of the commercial breaks (footage that can now easily be found on any popular video website on the Internet) not only bickering over petty logistics such as who got to ask Hussain more questions but are also seen constantly receiving phone calls. 

One call was from Prime Minister Gilani’s eldest son, Abdul Qadir Gilani — himself a rising politician — guiding the interviewers as to which questions should be asked of Hussain. Another call was from the daughter of Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader of the PML-N party who quit the Zardari-led PPP coalition government claiming PPP corruption. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam, called to tell the interviewers to make it clear that “gifts” her family were offered from Hussain had been refused. 

Lucman, who is seen repeatedly lighting up cigarettes in front of the visibly pregnant Bukhari was particularly entertaining viewing. During a rather low point in the growing dispute between the interviewers, Lucman, a man in the twilight of his career, was seen throwing a tantrum even a toddler would shy at, grumbling that Bukhari had asked more questions than him. He then walked off the set. Scrambling to resolve the situation, not knowing whether her co-interviewer would be returning in time for the end of the commercial break — the interview was being broadcast live — Bukhari ordered his chair removed from the table. Just moments into the return of the live broadcast he is seen stumbling onto the set, infuriated that his chair is missing. 

In the midst of it all, Hussain is seen doing what he does best: mediating between the feuding interviewers. Though he is clearly agitated by the effect Lucman’s abrupt departure and less than professional return — which was clearly visible during the live portion of the broadcast — might have on his media coup. 

The leaked video is seen as further evidence that Hussain is not acting alone — he clearly had an arrangement with the television channel and the interviewers, and with leading politicians. The Prime Minister’s son’s phone call validates the suspicions of many that Hussain is in league with the Prime Minister and by default, President Zardari himself. 

Only time will tell what other institution falls into the abyss. Meanwhile, it is clear that the trouble is widespread. “I see all those involved as having their hands dirty,” Rafiq says, “it indicates the pervasiveness of corruption and nepotism in Pakistani culture, a systemic problem.”

This article was picked up the Huffington Post and Newsweek International

Apr 302012

He was just a teenager when he released his first song, over 15 years later, Shehzad Roy is not only an internationally recognized pop sensation, including soundtracks for popular Bollywood films, but he is also a philanthropist, raising millions for education in Pakistan, through his organization, Zindagi Trust. He spoke with Shirin Sadeghi. 

Click Here to Listen to Shirin Sadeghi’s Interview with Shehzad Roy

Apr 162012

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

They say that human history repeats itself — the wars, the greed, the violence, the lust for power — it’s always been there and ever will it remain. But what is different in our age is the unmistakable effect of human life on a living planet that has little choice in the matters of human progress, or lack thereof.

A growing movement of environmental activists has taken it upon itself to not only raise awareness about the damaging effects of human enterprise on the very planet that we need in order to survive, but to politically charge ahead in making the necessary changes to save us all. Bill McKibben is one of the leaders of this movement. He is the founder of 350.org, an international grassroots effort to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and he joins us today to discuss the future of our planet. He spoke with Shirin Sadeghi.

© 2012 Shirin Sadeghi