Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

books_feature-18968While traveling to Africa a few weeks ago, I read Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Theroux is probably America’s most famous travel writer yet I had not read any of his books until now. Dark Star Safari was excellent and I recommend it for anyone taking a trip to the giant continent. It’s the travelogue of his overland journey — car, bus, animal — from the northern tip of Africa to the bottom.

He does it on the cheap: he reports from wretched-smelling train cars, rat infested hotel rooms, and dusty, poor villages where clean water is nowhere to be found. I read portions of the book in comfortable hotels or cars in Tanzania, often whizzing by the abject poverty. Theroux doesn’t make you feel great about that, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Theroux lived in Malawi back in the day and he doesn’t mince words when he returns and finds the poverty just as bad, the aid programs just as ineffective. Foreign aid diehards should be prepared for tough medicine from Theroux who at one point says that the only people who can fix Africa’s problems are Africans themselves.

The writing is lovely. His descriptions vivid. Below are my Kindle highlights. (And here is my post from 2009 about Theroux road trip in America and my own road trip impressions.)


Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history. The guide says “papyrus” or “hieroglyphic” or “Tutankhamen” or “one of the Ptolemys,” and you say “Yup.”

One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.

Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.

The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesalike mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away.

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease. Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure. Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic. Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use cell phones, send faxes, log onto the Internet, buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

That was my Malawi epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion.

No objects I had seen in any African museum (Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Harare) could compare with the African objects in the museums in Berlin, Paris, or London. Of course, much of that stuff had been looted or snatched from browbeaten chiefs

Live Chat on Product Hunt Tomorrow

Erik Torenberg is a long time blog reader who’s become a friend.

After he graduated from college a few years ago, it’s been fun seeing him break into the Valley and make a name for himself. As part of the founding team at Product Hunt, he’s been rallying product makers of all sorts into one of the most active online communities in tech.

They just launched Product Hunt Live, a chat feature for authors and makers to connect with readers. I’m participating tomorrow — Wednesday Aug 19th at 11 AM PT. Join me there to ask me anything for an hour!

Visiting the Balkan Ghosts

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone's death year around 1995.

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone’s death year around 1995.

In his book Balkan Ghosts, a travel log and mini-history of the Balkan countries, Robert Kaplan writes: “The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.” It captured perfectly my reaction after reading the book and learning about the histories of Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, and various other neighbors. So much fighting over territorial, ethnic, or religious differences that appear to be so inconsequential relative to the bloodshed.

Much of the fighting has to do with perceived historical grievances. Kaplan writes:

Macedonia defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion.

I read the book because I was visiting Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia. I recently got back from the trip. Seeing the places in person, as usual, made me engage with history that I probably ought to have known but hadn’t prioritized knowing till now. Travel makes you do that. It also makes you keep up with a place in the news after you leave. 80% of The Economist used to be uninteresting to me; now, when I flip through and see one of the random articles about, say, Indonesia, I’ll read it, because I’ve been there.

Sarajevo was haunting. It’s a small and pretty city, especially the old town. And quite cheap. But to be in Sarajevo is mainly to see grave yards all around and to visit museums dedicated to a genocide that happened only 20 years ago. Normally, when you think of the horrors of history, you think of grainy black and white photos. The slaughter of Bosnian Muslims (by Orthodox Christian Serbs) happened in the era of color video and color photos. It was so recent that there are people alive right now in Sarajevo who are missing all the men in their extended family.

The Srebrenica massacre museum really emphasized Western negligence during the ordeal. The cowardice/incompetence of the U.N. peacekeepers was a surprisingly recurrent theme. After the U.N. declared Srebrenica a “safe city,” thousands of Muslim men gathered there, thinking they were safe. In fact, they made themselves a convenient target for the Serbian army who overpowered the hapless peacekeepers and executed 8,000 men and boys in 48 hours. The photo embedded to the right hangs on the wall as you exit the museum. You can’t help but reflect on the costs and benefits of humanitarian interventions.

After Sarajevo, I went to Belgrade. The Belgrade tour guide referred to the 90’s as a “terrible, sad time” where people on all sides made mistakes. He expressed remorse for the 1,000 Serbian civilians killed during the NATO air strikes. No mention of Muslims.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo maintain blockbuster tourist attractions. Sarajevo is prettier; Belgrade maintains a Soviet aesthetic. The Bosnians and Serbians I met were all hospitable and intelligent. In both places I think you visit for a history trip: to learn about Tito and communism, to learn about the Balkan wars, to try to keep up with who hates who for which ethnic or religious reasons, to try to figure out the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Here are Tyler Cowen’s impressions of Belgrade. We were there together at a conference. I, too, am very glad I made it to Serbia. And I hope there can be lasting peace in the region.

Full highlights of the Kaplan book below the fold. It’s a good book to read before a visit.

Continue reading

Poem of the Day by Billy Collins

Litany by Billy Collins. Oh, the power of metaphor…

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

Impressions from an African Safari

CLF1a7KUYAAXGen

I recently completed a six night safari in Tanzania (in addition to three nights at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro hiking around). I enjoyed the trip very much, in part because it was unlike any other travel experience I’ve had. Cities can blur together: I’ve been in a million churches, gone on a million city tours. Traversing the African Savannah is something else entirely.

At the most macro level, being in the wild among the animals brought to mind one phrase: state of nature. Every wild animal is simply trying to survive. Well, that, and trying to breed healthy offspring. To achieve these two goals, they’ll attack, ally, retreat, advance, betray, and coordinate. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to be on safari and not think of how similar we humans are to the animals in the wild. How so many of our base instincts are exactly the same as the cheetahs and vultures and elephants: we’re just trying to survive. And we like to have sex.

In the wild, it’s a brutal, Darwinian life. There’s always a chance the wrong predator comes upon them at the wrong time and it’ll be over in a poof. In such an environment, you have to always be on guard. We saw lions trying to sleep but every 10-15 seconds the would pop their heads up and look around carefully. We saw zebras standing in a special group formation with their heads turned in a certain way so that, between the four of them, every angle was covered in case an enemy attacked.

One of the best ways to survive in state of nature is to coordinate with your allies. Indeed, complex social hierarchies exist within every species in the bush to facilitate how they move across the plains, how they split up food, how they defend against an attack, and more. Seeing broad-scale coordination made for the most interesting moments on safari. One day, in Serengeti National Park, we witnessed extraordinary acts of coordination among lions and among buffalo. We were driving along and came upon a rocky hill upon which a pride of twelve lions were lying, about 50 yards from where our car stopped. Meanwhile, a little to the east, more than 300 buffalo were migrating across the low-cut grassy fields, presumably in search of water. The buffalo were walking together, two abreast, in a long line that stretched as far as the eye could see. They walked in a large troupe to make themselves more formidable to their enemies. Unfortunately for them, their route was taking them right next to the rocks the lions were perched upon. As the buffalo approached they smelled the lions and stopped. Lions are the strongest and most feared animals in the wild; it felt like every time we asked our guide about a given animal’s enemies, he answered: “…and Lions.” A lion beats everything. That said, even a large pride of lions can’t handle hundreds of horned, ~800lbs buffalo at once. So the lions didn’t attack. Similarly, while 300 buffalo could easily scare off a single lion a large pride was too much — they’d suffer too much loss — so they were scared as well. Both sides had teamed up and it led to a multi-hour standoff: they just sat there, staring at each other in a ready-to-fight position.

One of the lions slipped off the backside of the rock and departed the face-off. About 20 minutes later, about 150 yards away, there were loud animal screams that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had left earlier killed a zebra. Upon hearing the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the killed zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. When the lions arrived at the scene of the dead zebra, they began roaring and gently fighting with each other like all siblings do at the dinner table, eager for the bigger portion. Meanwhile, the buffalo formation near the rock formation ultimately turned around began to retreat. Well, most of them anyway. It had been a couple hours and we needed to drive on, but our guide predicted that one or two of the buffalo would be slow to leave the scene, or would simply ignore their leader’s advice to retreat. The lions would snatch that last, lonesome buffalo when his family/friends had gone too far ahead.

#

The state of nature is brutal. But it’s also a thing of beauty. Of course there’s the surface level beauty of bearing witness to a giraffe munching the green leaves of a tall tree or watching a zebra rolling around in the dirt to mark its territory or spotting an elephant nuzzling with a newborn baby elephant. More than that though, there’s simply taking in the fact that gazelles and giraffes and crocodiles and salamanders and leopards and a thousand bird species are all living together in one complex, interdependent ecosystem. We learned how every living organism in the African savannah eats a particular grass or animal, gets eaten in turn by some other animal, relies upon various flies or birds for cleaning, and so on. Pretty amazing.

Cecil the Lion is in the news. It’s upsetting in part because of this ecosystem interdependency. As described here, when poachers kill the most grand lions or the biggest-tusked elephants, they’re not just killing a single animal. When you kill a male lion, infighting in the pride will lead to the killing of other cubs. When the lion population declines, the population of wildebeests and zebras grows larger than normal. When there are too many wildebeests, there’s too much grazing of grass. This means less vegetation for the birds to eat, and so on and so forth. Millions of years of evolution has refined the food chain. You can’t mess with one part of it without messing with all of it. Here’s my previous post on what happened when wolves were taken out of Yellowstone.

#

The vastness of the parks of East Africa, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the decentralized coordination and allying among the animals, and of course the physical beauty of the animals and the landscape: all were sources of awe for me on the safari. Awe is a good thing and any trip that inspires it is a trip worth taking.

Examining the U.S.-Germany Relationship

Last week I participated in the Young Leaders Conference in Berlin, sponsored by the American Council on Germany. The conference brings together about 20 young leaders from the U.S. and 20 young leaders from Germany for a week of meetings in Berlin with the goal of deepening the ties between the two countries and ultimately building a relationship between the next generation of trans-Atlantic leaders. I was honored to be a delegate.

We had the opportunity to meet with several high ranking officials in the German government, including the Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, minister of interior Thomas de Maiziere (equivalent to the United States’ secretary of Homeland Security), national security advisor Christoph Heusgen, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and other officials. Our conversations were off the record, but here are some of my lessons and insights from the week:

  • Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “When I want to call Europe, who do I call?” Today, the answer appears to be clear: Germany. Germany has the most dynamic economy in Europe; Germany is the country that’s increasingly leading foreign policy in the region, especially around issues like Russia/Ukraine. During the Greek crisis, it was Germany dictating the terms.
  • “The biggest threat to European unity is nationalism,” said one senior German official. The recent economic stress in the E.U. has highlighted perceived cultural differences between the countries. Some Germans see the Greeks as just lazy — work ethic is a culturally charged issue in Germany. The Finnish can’t understand why people/countries wouldn’t pay their debt on time — debt is culturally charged issue in Finland. Etc. One senior official said, “I always tell Europeans who think they are very different from each other — say, Italians and Germans — to travel to Japan. Then tell me how different they are from other Europeans.”
    • Nationalism is on the rise within Europe but not as strongly in Germany because of its “complicated history.” Germany’s “complicated history” came up at several points in our conversations.
  • If Europe can’t stay together as a union, its influence as a region on the global stage will decline. The individual states are not powerful or important enough on their own. But what does it mean to stay together as a “union”? Can it have a common currency without fiscal union? One official we met argued that Europe needs nothing less than a strong federal government chartered with taxing and spending authority over all the states. See: the US of A. Problem is, in Europe there are many languages, many distinct cultures, and a long, long history. I’m not holding my breath.
  • The German people’s view of America runs along generational lines. Older Germans remember U.S. involvement in WWII, “tear down that wall,” and the re-building of the country post-war. Younger Germans know 9/11, George Bush, Iraq, etc. One senior official put it well: “The  modern U.S.-Germany relationship cannot be based only on memories.”
  • NSA spying on German officials, including Merkel’s cell phone, came up over and over again. All of the Americans on the trip were surprised at how upsetting the spying scandal was to the German government and German people. Although I don’t know what the Americans gained through the spying operation, it seems incredibly unlikely that the benefits outweighed the costs. The damage to the trust and cooperation between the two countries appears to be immense. “Are we friends or just partners?” This is a question Germans asked over and over. There’s a difference in their minds. Friends cooperate in all sorts of ways that partners would not; friends do not spy on each other.
  • I entered the conference a bit skeptical of the relative importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship versus the bilateral relationship America has with China, Mexico, and others. Is Europe as a whole as important a foreign policy priority for the U.S. as Asia? No. I walked away from the conference still of the view that the primary U.S. foreign policy focus, as Barack Obama suggested in a “pivot to Asia” speech in 2011, ought to be China and Southeast Asia. And that Latin America, for economic, security, and cultural reasons, is also a more logical higher priority than Europe. But my time in Germany did persuade me that the shared values of the U.S. and Europe make the two places ideal partners to take on common challenges in Asia and elsewhere in the world. If Europe stays united — a big if — then as a trade partner, Europe would be America’s largest market. If Europe stays united, and we can pool the combined resources on both sides of the Atlantic, the rest of the world’s challenges in the middle east, Africa, and Asia look manageable. The U.S. and Europe are all democratic, capitalistic, rich, and maintain common “western values.” They will have an easier time working together. It’d be foolish not to proactively invest in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
  • “Co-opetition” is a phrase you hear a lot in Silicon Valley. For example, Netflix and Amazon compete on certain product offerings (like movie streaming) and yet cooperate around many products at the same time (AWS hosting Netflix movies). In an interconnected world, companies at scale often have to maintain these sorts of complicated relationships. For countries, it’s the same. America is often positioned as a “competitor” to China. But that’s misleading. The U.S. and China governments cooperate on a million fronts in ways that lead to co-dependency. More importantly, companies in each country do a tremendous amount of business with each other and are utterly committed to peace and stability for this reason. All this to say: “Competition” is a funny word to use in isolation when discussing global trade and politics.
  • If you want to understand geopolitics today, who are the actors that matter? Historically, nation-states ruled. Then came international governance organizations and large multi-national companies. Today, the internet has empowered the masses. And social networks like Facebook have “populations” of more than a billion people. Does a Facebook engineer who makes it easier to turn your profile picture into a gay flag (as happened after the Supreme Court ruling) possess more power in shaping social/political issues than a high ranking elected official who gives a speech on the same topic? The levers of power are changing.
  • A lot of the elites in Germany seem dismayed that “the people” hold irrational or unwise views. For example, most German elites support TTIP, the free trade agreement that’s being worked on between U.S. and EU. But many German people are opposed. How do you reach them and better market the ideas around trade and globalization? I didn’t hear a single German government official ever mention social media… (Of course, there’s a similar dynamic in the U.S.)
  • Speaking of TTIP, it was striking just how often that topic came up in our discussions in Germany. And yet, there’s very little coverage of TTIP in the U.S. We’ll see if that changes once the trans-pacific trade agreement is buttoned up.
  • The labor market in Germany, while more flexible than France’s, is still inflexible when compared to the U.S. It’s hard to fire people. The German Work Councils were referenced with pride by a couple senior officials. I need to learn more about them.
  • Exercising leadership means making decisions that some will disagree with. Thanks to its actions on the Greece deal, Germany is now receiving the sort of criticism the U.S. is accustomed to. Germans say they’re ready to lead and the officials we met with said, “Yes, and we’re ready to take the criticism.”
  • Our understanding of modern politics depends so heavily on public opinion surveys. In the U.S. and Germany you routinely hear people cite stats like “40% of Americans think Germany is doing the right thing in the EU.” I need to learn more about public opinion surveys, survey statistics and methodologies, and how reliable they really are at capturing mass sentiment.

Finally, geopolitical musings aside, I really like traveling to Germany as a tourist. The people are friendly and helpful and there’s so much to see, do, and eat. Many thanks to all the Germans who made our visit to their country so fun and so enlightening.

(Photo credit: Patrick Cooper)

Returning to Zurich

At the age of 17, I ventured out of the U.S. for the first time to participate in an exchange program with a Zurich school. I was lucky to be placed with an excellent family in an excellent city. My first impression of “the rest of the world” sparkled with Swiss cleanliness and punctuality, Swiss mountain views, Swiss helpfulness and friendliness, Swiss wealth. It wouldn’t take long, in the years after, for me to discover that Switzerland has few peers. Most of the world maintains no self-obsessed standard of excellence; indeed, much of the world is far poorer.

I’m glad I started in Switzerland: it’s an especially forgiving place to be introduced to foreign travel. On that first trip, I lost my passport (!), got disoriented repeatedly, and didn’t know the meaning of basic German words like Danke. I remember hearing some punk teenagers rapping in German on the train and thinking, “Whoa, it’s possible to rap in other languages?!” My naiveté was for all to see. But being naive means there are opportunities to learn, and the opportunity to learn led me to catching the travel bug. The following year I spent 13 weeks traveling in Europe and Asia, and the rest is history.

Over the years, I’ve returned to Zurich five or six times. Members of the family I stayed with in Zurich have spent time San Francisco and we’ve become good friends.

Last week, I spent a few days in Zurich and re-connected with the place and people. Over the course of a long term relationship, you see how people change. How they date, how they seek meaning, how they approach their careers, how they change their mind, and how elements of their core stay the same. It’s rewarding.

Cities don’t seem to change as much. Zurich as a city seemed more or less unchanged. I’m sure locals notice all the subtle changes; I didn’t. The train stops are the same, the trams look the same, the stores are familiar, the streets are their usual clean, efficient selves. It’s a fact of the developed world, I suppose.

As someone who’s a generalist in many respects, I love having a depth of understanding of certain things, including both people and places. Zurich and its people are in that category for me. It’s a wonderful oasis in Europe.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

hardlanding1. Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged Airlines Into Chaos. A rigorously researched account of the airline industry in the U.S., especially the aftermath of deregulation. Probably more detail than the casual reader will care to know, but any airline nuts will appreciate the blow-by-blow about United, Continental, Delta, Southwest, the extraordinary impact of computer scheduling technology, safety regulations, code sharing, car rental companies, and many other storylines. One sample nugget:

The self-destruction of Continental Airlines vividly revealed a principle as old as passenger flight itself: people will tolerate many sacrifices to fly, but they will not tolerate surprise. They may sit with their knees to their chest for a low fare, but they will not stand for a lost bag. They may spend all night in the boarding area waiting to clear a standby list, but they will display no patience for a 30-minute rain delay.

2. Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter. Various pop psych experiments, with interesting nuggets on the power of names, colors, and culture. Entertaining throughout.

3. The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing by Michael J. Mauboussin. Super important premise. I stopped reading halfway through — just lost interest.

4. Red Sparrow: A Novel by Jason Matthews. A totally addictive CIA thriller. The usual setup here for this genre, but with especially engrossing storylines, detail, and writing.

Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

aaI recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but a friend of mine who is let me sit in as a guest. It was a fascinating experience.

The meeting was held in a church basement in a room dedicated to AA. A large AA banner hung on the wall next to a list of the famous 12 steps that guide the program’s philosophy. As people filed into the room, I was immediately struck by the diversity of participants. There were people who looked legitimately homeless alongside people dressed in nice button downs who could have fit right in at any law office. Black, white, hispanic, Asian. Fresh faces out of college next to people who seemed to be pushing 80. About an even male-female split. Truly, all walks of life.

After opening remarks from the volunteer coordinator, one participant got up and delivered a brief speech about his life. He was to be the main speaker for the day; everyone else who spoke at the meeting did so in reaction to the main speaker’s comments. The main speaker shared his story, abiding to what I gather is the suggested format: what it was like before, what happened, what it’s like now. Or: what life was like as an alcoholic, what catalyzed you to change, and what life’s like now. What it was like for him before was pretty brutal: constant drinking, constant fighting, constant arrests. What happened was that he hit rock bottom, one or two arrests away from heading to the slammer for good. What it’s like now is that he’s a successful business owner, property owner, and faithful husband.

He finished his remarks by saying: “Thank you for helping me stay sober today.” Today was a common theme. Day by day. To not drink for the rest of your life feels overwhelming; to not drink for the rest of the day feels within reach. Focus on today.

As people spoke in reaction, they introduced themselves with the famous utterance, “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” Everyone else said, “Hi Joe.” Joe then proceeded with his comment.

One person who spoke in response had been sober for just two days. He was struggling. Another had been sober for 11 years, and yet still attending daily meetings. Another had been sober for six months, and yet was nervous he was going to fall off the wagon. His doctor had prescribed pain killers after a surgical procedure and he felt tempted. (Prescribed pain killers by doctors came up three times in this meeting.)

At the end, everyone held hands and repeated the Serenity Prayer aloud.

As I walked out, I envied the community and fellowship to which I had just been witness. A lot of people seemed emotionally close to others in the room who they’ve seen multiple times a week for years. One person said they had met their spouse at AA. I imagine for some AA is as much about a social network that functions in everyday life as it is a place where one focuses on sobriety. I could feel social connection in the room.

As the most popular addiction treatment philosophy by far, AA ought to be subject to scrutiny. And there are many critiques of AA. One is that it was designed to help the most severe alcoholics — those truly powerless over alcohol — but it’s routinely adopted by a broad section of the population. Indeed, an estimated 12% of people at AA meetings are there by court order after a DUI or such. It’s not clear that getting a DUI means that you’re powerless over alcohol and cannot ever take another sip — and that you must attend a meeting every day. Another critique is that the 12 step program should not be expected to work for everyone and yet many people in addiction-recovery believe just that. Those evangelists believe that if you fail in AA — as countless people have, the exact numbers being hard to measure given the decentralized nature of the org — it’s your fault, not the fault of AA’s unique approach. In fact, AA is just one of many, many approaches to dealing with addiction. Finally, there’s a view that says that if alcoholism is truly an illness it ought to be treated with real medicine, not treated with therapy as practiced by volunteers and peers.

What I do know from my one in-person experience at a meeting and from my friends who attend daily is that some number of people are being greatly helped in AA; that the social bonding and social accountability is real and critical to the recovery process; that the words shared in the room, at least in the one I attended, are wise and eloquent and useful. Those who find success in AA find it to be a real blessing.

Update: I edited the second to last paragraph to clarify that the official organization doesn’t blame people who do not succeed with AA’s approach–it’s rather a stance that critics attribute to AA evangelists. Also, see this comment in the comments section of this post for a response by one person who attends AA.

Book Short: From Beirut to Jerusalem

I finally got around to the book many have recommended over the years: Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

This is the book that put Tom Friedman on the map. At the time of publication, 1989, he wasn’t super well known. This book, which won the National Book Award, really raised his profile and justifiably so. It’s wonderfully written. He integrates extensive on the ground reporting over years of living in the region with historical vignettes and research. For those who primarily know Friedman today as a D.C.-based commentator/columnist, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a throwback to him as journalist not pundit.

As a novice to the complex issue of Israel-Palestinian relations, I learned a ton. It’s fantastic background for those looking to understand some of the core issues at work in the Middle East. Sadly, not much has changed since 1989 at a macro level, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Among other lessons and insights, I was amazed to learn about how arbitrary many of the national boundaries are in the Middle East. E.g., Britain carving out land and calling it Jordan, France (effectively) creating Lebanon. And how, historically, men did not identify themselves with countries so much as with religious affiliation or with tribe, clan, village. “Many of the states today — Egypt being the most notable exception — were not willed into existence by their own people or developed organically out of a common historical memory or ethnic or linguistic bond; they also did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled. Rather, their shapes and structure were imposed from above by the imperial powers…boundaries were drawn almost entirely on the basis of foreign policy, communications, and oil needs of the Western colonial powers…”

Many other lessons that I’ll type up in the months ahead.