May 21, 2011
OQA, Afghanistan—”Are you excited about the wedding, Ozyr Khul?” “Do you like your bride, Ozyr Khul?” “Ozyr Khul! Ozyr Khul is getting married!”
Embarrassed, Ozyr Khul blushes and runs off. He runs from questions about his wedding, from the pestering adults and from the taunting children. Mostly, he runs because that’s what boys do in his tiny, arid village: They run, alone and in flocks, dashing about like hosts of sparrows, dirty heels flashing over the hard-packed soil, slingshots in hand.
Ozyr Khul’s exact age is a matter of some dispute in Oqa, a waterless hamlet prostrate in the middle of the desert of northern Balkh province, without a single tree or field, as though accidentally placed here by some absent-minded cartographer. He doesn’t know how old he is; one of his friends says he might be 13; another suggests 15. His parents swear he is 16, the legal marrying age in Afghanistan.
“I know he looks small, but I know he’s old enough because he goes to the desert every day to collect firewood,” an uncle says. But in Oqa, all boys older than 10 go to the desert every day to collect tumbleweed they sell as kindling in larger villages.
Ozyr Khul is slight; not even 5 feet tall in his plastic flip-flops and his turquoise and fuchsia skullcap. His best friends are ages 12, 11, and 8. His favorite pastime is to fire his slingshot: at speckled desert birds, at distant rocks, at the immense blue sky. He recently got into a wrestling match with a 9-year-old girl. (He won.)
Child marriage in Afghanistan is pandemic. “In the villages people believe very strongly that the earlier you marry the better: This way your children are old enough to help you with work while you are still young,” says Farid Mutaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e-Sharif. The U.N. agency that monitors the rights of children worldwide, UNICEF, reports that 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age limit. Afghan and international nonprofits consider the problem of child brides to be one of the foremost threats to women’s rights here.
What is addressed less often, and studied less thoroughly, is that many of the child newlyweds are boys.
Most marriages in Afghanistan are arranged by the parents and are a form of a calculated financial exchange between families that focuses on the merger of two estates rather than the union of two people. Such marriages rarely take into consideration the wishes of the bride or the groom.
On top of being arranged, as all marriages in Oqa ever have been, Ozyr Khul’s marriage is a badaal, or bridal swap — a common practice in poor Afghan villages where families cannot afford a bride price that can be as high as $9,000. In a badaal marriage, two men, usually cousins, marry each other’s sisters. This lowers the bride price significantly, though some money usually still is exchanged, thus ensuring that the inheritance of both women — or girls — remains within the family.
The union of Ozyr Khul and Anamingli, who is 16 years old, parallels the marriage of Anamingli’s brother, Naim, to Ozyr Khul’s sister, Mastura. Naim is 40 years old. He was betrothed to Mastura three years ago, when Mastura was 14, and has already paid her family more than $1,000 for the bride. This month, Mastura’s parents finally agreed that it was time to consummate the marriage…
May 21, 2011
Donald Trump’s announcement that he will not run in the Republican presidential primaries after all is great news for the Republican Party and for the country. The only thing more frightening than Trump’s running for president would be Trump’s getting elected president. From a party perspective, while losing an election is bad, winning one with the wrong candidate for the party and for the country is worse. I know something about this: I come from Italy, a country that has elected as prime minister the Trumplike Silvio Berlusconi.
Trump and Berlusconi are remarkably alike. They are both billionaire businessmen who claim that the government should be run like a business. They are both gifted salesmen, able to appeal to the emotions of their fellow citizens. They are both obsessed with their looks, with their hair (or what remains of it), and with sexy women. Their gross manners make them popular, perhaps because people think that if theseguys could become billionaires, anyone could. Most important is that both Trump and Berlusconi made their initial fortunes in real estate, an industry where connections and corruption often matter as much as, or more than, talent and hard work. Indeed, while both pretend to stand for free markets, what they really believe in is what most of us would label crony capitalism.
Berlusconi’s policies have been devastating to Italy. He has been prime minister for eight of the last ten years, during which time the Italian per-capita GDP has dropped 4 percent, the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 109 percent to 120 percent, and taxes have increased from 41.2 percent to 43.4 percent. Italy’s score in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has dropped from 63 to 60.3, and in the World Economic Forum Index of Competitiveness from 4.9 to 4.37. Berlusconi’s tenure has also been devastating for free-market ideas, which now are identified with corruption.
How can such a pro-business prime minister wreak havoc on the economy and on the idea of free markets? Because “pro-business” doesn’t necessarily mean “pro-market.” While the two agendas sometimes coincide—as in the case of protecting property rights—they’re often at odds. Market competition threatens established firms, which often use their political muscle to restrict new entries into their industry, strengthening their positions but putting customers at a disadvantage. A pro-market strategy, by contrast, aims to encourage the best business conditions for everyone. That’s in fact the opposite of what a real-estate tycoon wants: to keep competitors out and enhance the value of his own properties. By capturing (or more precisely, purchasing) the free-market flag in the same way one might acquire a business brand, Berlusconi likely has destroyed the appeal of the free-market ideal in Italy for a generation.
How, then, did Berlusconi…?
May 21, 2011
He played some of the most sublime chess ever seen. Then, as a new book and film illustrate, he disappeared from view. What made such a brilliant mind go into freefall?
In 1999, I spent three days sitting in a variety of thermal baths dotted around Budapest. As grand and attractive as the Hungarian capital’s spas are, I wasn’t stewing myself for therapeutic or leisure purposes. Instead, I was waiting for someone I’d been told frequented the baths, someone who was said to be a genius and a paranoid obsessive, the greatest chess player who ever lived and an obnoxious crackpot. I was looking for Bobby Fischer.
For the last four decades of his life, that’s what people did with Fischer – they looked for him. Fans, journalists, biographers, friends, they all tried to find this mythical creature, either in person or in that fabulous abstract realm that he continued to haunt: chess. He had ventured deep into the alternate world of this most intellectually demanding of games, a daunting contest of infinite possibilities, and succeeded in becoming world champion. Like some chequerboard version of Conrad’s Kurtz, the experience seemed to leave him in a state of dread. Then he vanished.
As with those other great disappearing acts, JD Salinger, Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes, Fischer was almost as well known for his withdrawal from public life as he was for the achievements that brought him fame in the first place. There was even a feature film made called Searching for Bobby Fischer. It wasn’t actually about Fischer, but based on the life of another chess prodigy, Joshua Waitzkin. Fischer’s name was employed as a metaphor for his total commitment, what Garry Kasparov, Fischer’s only rival for the title of best-ever player, has described as “pathological determination”. Fischer was apoplectic when he heard about the film, which he called a “monumental swindle” and even angrier when he discovered that he had no legal grounds on which to sue the film-makers.
Had I run into him, I wasn’t expecting him to be any happier. My intentions weren’t metaphorical. I’d been prompted to seek him out after he’d made one of his rare public statements. In a live interview on Hungarian radio, he said: “As Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, the Jews are not the victims, they are the victimisers!”, before launching into a Holocaust-denying rant. Over half-a-million Hungarian Jews are estimated to have been killed during the Holocaust. Fischer was born a Jew, and if Hitler had had anything to do with the matter, he would have died a Jew, too. I wanted to discover how or why Fischer’s obsessive character had taken such a self-destructive turn. The word was that he remained a peerless analyst of chess games. Would it not be possible to appeal to his rational side?
In the event, the bath-house stake-out was a failure. None of the bearded strangers I spent my time staring at through the saturated air turned out to be Fischer. He didn’t show up at any of the baths. I left Budapest with Fischer seeming even more elusive than before I arrived. With the exception of a former girlfriend, most of the people who knew him refused to speak to me. He was fiercely protective of his privacy, which was the reason the story of his progress from prodigy to pariah remained the subject of so much speculation and rumour.
Among the many perceived betrayals for which his friends and intimates were permanently expunged from his life, the gravest was speaking to the press or biographers. Only with Fischer’s death in 2008 did the atmosphere of omerta that surrounded the legend begin to dissipate and a more accurate testimony emerge. The fruits of this candour are a new biography, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady, and the soon-to-be-released HBO film, Bobby Fischer Against the World. Brady knew Fischer in the 60s and is the author ofBobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, perhaps the only other worthwhile biography on the subject. He is also credited as consultant for the documentary. Together, the film and the book give shape to a more complete picture of Fischer: brash, complex, troubled, bold, vulnerable, lonely, occasionally loving, but fundamentally enigmatic.
The tortured genius and the celebrity recluse are two archetypes by which the popular imagination appears incurably enthralled. They occupy extreme but ambiguous positions in the social firmament, simultaneously familiar and unknowable, often winning our sympathy even as they fail our understanding. Working as Mephistophelean morality tales, they reassuringly remind us that exceptional talent can be an affliction as well as a gift and that sometimes the price of success is one that we – the average, the normal, the unchosen – would not wish to pay. No one in recent times has combined these two roles with more tragedy or pathos than Fischer.
His descent into wild and irrational behaviour is far from a unique narrative, particularly in chess. The history of the game contains many similar trajectories. As GK Chesterton noted in arguing that reason bred insanity: “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.” Akiba Rubinstein, the early 20th-century Polish grandmaster, would hide in the corner of the competition hall between moves, owing to his anthropophobia (fear of people), retiring from the game when schizophrenia got the better of him. William Steinitz, the Austrian who was the world’s first undisputed chess champion, died in an asylum. Then there was Paul Morphy, the American who was said to be the 19th-century’s finest player and to whom Fischer has frequently been compared: he quit the game, having beaten all his rivals, and began a decline into paranoid delusion. Aged 47, he was found dead in his bath, surrounded by women’s shoes…
May 21, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.