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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My City is My Country

Concrete Blocks, Beirut Central District (BCD)

There is a name for it, this meandering existence: these blocks of concrete that line the sidewalks; those checkpoints that shield our suicide bombers’ favorite spots; the embassies impregnating themselves in the middle of bustling neighborhoods; the security barriers that usher you in and out of no-go zones wringing the houses of every other big chief.

There is a name for it, this city center that shutters every time parliamentarians convene under democracy’s dome to discuss nothing. Every time the families of kidnapped soldiers set up tent to plead for answers from a government that has none.

There is a name for a city donning the ornaments of its dread. 

Families of Kidnapped Soldiers Demonstrating
in BCD
Not so long ago, Lebanon could boast alone this architecture of siege, a battered mother of grand old metropolises that had become unruly hubs of fear. Not anymore. In Sanaa, Tripoli and Benghazi; in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus; in Basra, Karbala and Baghdad, is our frightened future in pastiche. To each city, its own style and pace of degradation, it goes without saying, but from all, we can be sure this is the saddest of farewells to yesterday’s semblances of peace.  

And still, I’d like to pretend—really, I would—that this meandering existence brings an absurd quality to my Beiruti life, but the absurd has long settled into run-of-the-mill. Should a Jihadi explode in the Southern Suburbs, I pray for it as if another country. Should Bab al Tebbeneh and Jabal Muhsin do battle across Syria Street up north in Tripoli, I mourn it as if another continent. Should an assassin’s target shatter around, for example, Solidere’s STARCO, I fret. Shit! This is right up my alley.

Some dilemmas refuse to die in this locale: which districts to shun, which cantons to avoid, which roads to skip, cafes to hang out in—and not. When to stay down and put and when to ignore the gunshots. For spooks and fly-by-night lovers this is such fun. For the rest of us, this late in the game, the silly hype is all but moot.

This is the way we are. The way we live. Checkered days in checkered cities in a checkered country. Neither at war nor in repose. Or as the Daily Star put it in a fleeting moment of eloquence, “Neither in emergency nor in development mode.”

But as makeshift and haphazard as they might appear, the architectural eyesores mark the surface of this withering state, much like they would a brigand’s face. These blights and scars tell tales about lineal bad behavior and full-blown system failure. In fact, they’re of a piece with the tattered politics we have come to wear so well.

Sunni-Alawite collisions in Tripoli, terrorists hanging about freely in Sidon’s Ain al Helweh, Hezbollah and Jihadis fighting it out in “peripheral” Qalamoun and Arsal, the president’s empty chair even when he’s there…: these are just a few of the particulars of a “Lebanon” in total disarray.

A Main Entrance to the City Center

And, of course, with the roadblocks and barricades come battalions of steel and glass skyscrapers laying waste to our historical memory; greenery strewn for the populace, the way scrooges would breadcrumbs to the hungry; traffic choking the arteries of a capital housing literally half of this warring family; exorbitant electricity that lights up only for the finest of Beirut…

Like this, and forever, I can go on.

And so we meander, at times furious, at others oblivious, going about our chores as best we can, marveling at how well we are doing—considering. Art, we have. Plenty! Entrepreneurship too. Promising startups spawning great products. Corruption is nearly everywhere, true. But the book fairs dot the year and the music festivals turn the summer into one happy sing along.


Nada Sehnaoui's Haven't  15 years of Hiding in
Toilets Been Enough

They say we are the incubator for the rest of the Arab world. I fear we could be, with replicas outdoing the worst of our instincts. In 17 years of civil war, we sent 135,000 to their grave. Twelve and four years into their hell, Iraq and Syria, respectively, are putting our body count to shame. Let’s see in what other ways they will mimic us when they grow tired of all out slaughter and opt for violence of the low-grade range.

In preparation for what awaits me in this metastasizing Levant, I haven’t really been doing much, except watching the old order unraveling. No, not Sykes-Picot and its boundaries, but the insides of postcolonial regimes that, once upon a time, were all embracing and all mighty.

I think it was around 1992, barely a year after I had unpacked my bags in Ain al Mreisseh, when I came to understand that—for all intents and purposes, and bureaucratic formalities aside--my city is my country. Even those who still rise when national anthems play and armies parade know that this mishmash of an enclave has relinquished its monopolies on practically all levers of authority, sacrificing with it any exclusive claim on loyalty.

You could say this is the Lebanese version of the Arab city-state rising, divvied up, cleansed, shambolic and all but sovereign. Other collapsing realms in this region, no doubt, have theirs.

This is contagion in a nutshell--a sieving of a sort, as communities en masse escape into safety among their kind. In its specifics, the future for far too many innocent souls may be impossible to imagine, the experts warn, but already much of what we are witnessing today is surely unimaginable.

Dubai, you ask? Well, that’s the one, I suppose, against which we will forever be juxtaposed when they cite outliers or conflicting regional trends. Dubai is one hell of a story, I’ll admit. But every time I visit, I always find it very balancing to remember the many in the dungeon when enjoying my time in the sun.


And, by the way, if you are in search of material about what in the world is wrong with the world, I recommend the latest book by Columbia University’s Saskia Sassen, appropriately enough titled Expulsions.



  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

IS and BS


Give it up! From this Arab neck of the woods or not, how clueless do you feel?

I’ll be honest with you. We’re running around like plucked chickens over here. We’d like to know more, a hell of a lot more, in fact, the better to pace ourselves. And we certainly should know better, we’ve been at it for so long. But fear, I am afraid, is a contagion, and if there is an easy descriptor for the current disposition, it’s panic mode. Kind of like the feeling so many of us Lebanese have when midway to the bathroom at 2 am, lights out.

Man of the year Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has kindly offered us the latest proof that innovation can come as naturally to Jihadis as it does to the feistiest business entrepreneur: from the ashes of Iraq in 2007 to the killing fields of Syria post 2011; from financial dependence on donors to a wheeling and dealing outfit racking up cash from oil, ransoms, smuggling, extortion rackets; from a few thousand fighters to anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000; from an Iraqi magnet for mostly Arab recruits to a global outreach agency. From the fringes, as International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling aptly puts it, to the heart of the action.

Hard for the International Community of Brotherhood now, like once upon a time, to surreptitiously snigger while stamping Middle East only on these harvests. Not so long ago, the West spectated as if behind tight-shut gates. In this age of globalization, technology for all and multiculturalism partly born out of decades of postcolonial westbound migrations, it’s become a little too cozy for comfort, although if you count the dead, it does seem like our side is by far way ahead.

But no matter, I am not one to quibble over numbers. This is a certifiable situation in our collective nervous lap, and the time is now for, I don’t know, something or other.

First on the to-do list, the profiling exercises to help the Western masses understand the nature of the wretched beast. Even the New Scientist has given its two cents on what could possibly motivate Western Jihadis. In this earnest effort it joins every other news outlet and think tank.

You might want to consider peer pressure, the magazine suggests, as “in young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission.” And don’t be surprised if the fellows are nursing some kind of a grudge against whomever or whatever. For The Economist’s Sarah Birke, you also should never underestimate the knock-on effect of ennui and a muddled identity. To The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey, if you want to put your finger on at least a good chunk of it, you would need to fully internalize the influence of idiocy in a thug with an inflated ego. And, yes, an inflated ego in an idiotic thug works just as well. Which flirts with Gautam Malkani’s admonition in The Financial Times--the closest to the mark, in my opinion--that, “We really need to talk about lunacy.”

All necessary speculation, no doubt, but by the fourth or fifth take you begin to get the sneaking feeling that the profilers are not having an easy time with this one. And so, the reasons queue up as if in tryouts for the lead in an unfolding tragedy. Sure, much of the chatter is dramatic. But I don’t mind that so much. It’s the least observers owe this cast of Jihadi tourists marauding across a backdrop of collapsing states and dissolving borders, of black flags fluttering over conquered cities and oil wells, severed heads held up for photo ops, caliphs brandishing $25,000 Rolex watches while preaching the plague from mosques.  Of all the narratives competing to fill in the blanks in the Middle East’s many voids, this one, precisely because it is so fantastical and yet so close to home, dominates the news, not to mention the policy rooms.  

Fair enough. We get that. The very intrepid journalist Hazem Ameen, who’s been on the trail of Jihadism for many years, captures, in two recent pieces in Al Hayat Newspaper, the Hollywood that Jihadi terrains have become for unhinged foreign fantasists. These Book of Eli deserts are where the imagined, however bizarre or hideous, can turn undeniably real. What more riveting reads by Western reporters than these? And if by such obsessiveness they inadvertently dress up weirdness as mainstream, it won’t be the first time that perspective and nuance have been sacrificed thus in the Middle East.

Not to be outdone, some of our own commentators have also taken to painting with the broadest brushstrokes, none more sweeping than that of Al Arabiya’s Hesham Melhem, who laments, “Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?”
 
Just like that, hundreds of millions of Arabs, whose cities and daily routines and interests and culture and dreams and hopes and ambitions and values don’t quite tally with this macabre theater, are deemed beside the point that is ISIS and its sisters and cousins. Not that I would ever want to put down a man brooding about the sorry state of Arabhood, but if you want to write off an entire people, a good majority of them barely past 18, surely the least you could do is tell them which way is the fastest to oblivion.

And if this is, indeed, total civilizational collapse we are experiencing, what’s the use of bringing the widest lens in the shop to take in the whole wreck of a place if it demonstrably lives in ever increasing fragments? Who knows, maybe the discordant pieces offer vistas infinitely more intriguing than dust balls scampering through a haunted Dodge City? To insist that the only reality that counts is the so-called Islamic State without acknowledging (and then convincingly dismissing) the shifting realities and trends that suffuse the huge expanse around and within it is not a serious diagnosis but a howling of a sort.

You would think that, in history this fast-paced, those who scratch their chin for a living would be wise enough not to press stop for a snapshot. Where’s the fun, for heaven’s sake, in freezing Clint Eastwood in the middle of a pistol-whipping?

It tells you something, though, doesn’t it, that most gurus sobbing their way today through the page barely two years ago were applauding the Arabs for finally “rising up and joining history.”

Speaking of the underrated beauty of perspective and the accidental benefits of slow thinking, Harling, unmistakably the most astute Middle East analyst, rightly argues that ISIS is but one of the progenies of a colossal century-long failure of practically every ism in the house, including Islamism, matched only by the bankruptcy of practically every single regime this side of the Mediterranean, including those which are still standing.

In other words, the omnipresent postcolonial Arab State has just about dropped dead, the times are fluid and the vacuums are many. To Sunnis, bereft of all the old ideologies and their promise, the sense of loss, in a jarringly sectarian climate, is profound: “More and more Sunnis…experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution.” The community is “a majority with a minority complex--a powerful though confused feeling of marginalisation dispossession and humiliation.”

Iraq is gone; Syria, whole, cannot be won; even the tiny Yazidi minority, when besieged, wins American attention, while Sunnis in Syria continue to sustain huge losses on the hands of—it has to be said--Alawite Bashar Assad and his Shiite Iranian allies.

It’s reached a point where the staunch secularist Sadeq Jalal Al Azm, Syria’s preeminent intellectual, resolutely declares, “What is trampled underfoot in Syria right now is the majority and its rights, about which no one seems to speak outside of Syria.” A longstanding vociferous critic of Western interference, Azm goes on to demand that the West own up and step forward: “The West does have a role to play. Instead of letting Syria bleed, the West needs to help end Assad’s grip on the country and its future and negotiate political accommodation for Alawis within a democratic framework that will necessarily favor the Sunni majority” (my emphasis).

Provocative thoughts from Azm, which brings me to the second chore on the to-do list: How to reconcile this genuinely felt Sunni injury with the selfies with cutoff heads and burying human beings alive as a rite of passage? More specifically, where do we exactly place this testimony by a repentant Turkish Jihadi in the current discourse on the region’s geopolitics? “When you fight over there, it’s like being in a trance…Everyone shouts, ‘God is the greatest,’ which gives you divine strength to kill the enemy without being fazed by blood or splattered guts.”

It isn’t only foreigners who are stumped by the very short distance between injury and gruesome murder for the slightest sin or offense. Even those who are sympathetic to ISIS’s calling can’t quite figure out what to make of those heads rolling. So, what kind of redress might work best for this specific expression of Sunni marginalization and dispossession? Because--and I could be wrong, of course—it does all seem a bit over the top. And if it isn’t, then what label dare we slap on it to bring it into the family of run-of-the mill human obscenity?

For more perspective, let me ask the question in blunter and simpler terms: Why are we all so unnerved by ISIS and its particular brand of ire? Every corner of this earth claims victims—and victors, for that matter--whose method of choice is violence. The world over humanity brags cruelties and injustices, many committed with unfathomable nonchalance, most with a self-justified purpose. What’s so special, really, about Baghdadi et al? How are they different from those manning Assad’s torture houses or dropping his chlorine bombs? Or Samir Geagea and his countless killing sprees? Or the Hutus who slaughtered their way through 800,000 Tutsis over the course of three months? Or Israeli soldiers who, with purposeful malice, force pregnant Palestinian women to wait endlessly at the West Bank’s profuse checkpoints? Or the four men who, in 2012, gang raped to death a young woman on a New Delhi bus…?

I am picking them at random here, because context is forever king and evil is so damn facile. Obviously, we can rewind a little to everybody’s favorites: Saddam, Bokssa, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin… And don’t tell me you that your eyes will roll if some contrarians in our midst might at this stage mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What is it, then, about Baghdadi and his men that makes them just too mad for our sensibilities? What makes this type of evil versus all others too freaky? And when Bill Maher utters verdicts like “The Muslim world… has too much in common with ISIS,” what is it about this deviancy that renders it, for this poster boy of liberalism, so emblematic of his batty world of Muslims? To no avail, I’ve been wracking my brains for days trying to remember the last time I heard a liberal Arab harrumphing about the “Christian world.” What makes Islam so tricky that it trips up even the usually more discerning among us?

More fundamentally, if you will pardon the pun, what should we make of ordinary Sunnis—educated and not, well off and not, intelligent and not, perfectly respectable and not, religious and not—finding in a blatantly rapacious ISIS and other such like movements an acceptable channel for grievance?

But then, how many times have we found ourselves asking the same question about other moments, other reigns, other terrors, that lit up places not even remotely related to Islam?

So for the last task on this week’s to-do list, on a whim, I propose that you skip all conversations profiling Western Jihadis, because, very quickly, they turn very silly. A friend said the other evening that profilers have to go micro. Well, how micro, I asked? Micro, micro, she answered. But then where’s the macro, I shot back.

See what I mean!

Once you’ve skipped this exercise, go ahead and humor Ramzi Mardini of The Atlantic Council and declare him right, when he argues that the “Islamic State Threat Is Overstated;” that every strength ISIS boasts feeds on the wrong politics surrounding it. And while you’re at it, be bold and give Ameen and Harling the thumbs up, when they point out that the military solution, even if well executed, is at best partial because the problem is, alas, only partially military. Upsetting as these two glaringly obvious facts are, you should embrace them because they will help ease the pain of policy failures about to unravel right before your very eyes.

Since at this stage you would be on a roll, resist whichever way you can the temptation to lump together 1.6 billion Muslims or wave away 375 million Arabs by way of an answer just because you don’t have one. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Palestine, The Myth Slayer


Palestine, we all know, is a heartbreaker. The homes wrecked, the lives spent, the hate fixed between neighbors, families and friends--and still she devours a century on.  

Through decades of bloodshed in her name, there have been a few---fools mainly—who have wondered what the fuss is all about. Juxtapose her, they keep insisting, against World War I and II and the hell they unleashed across continents, the millions they killed, the wholesale population transfers they provoked. What for, then, all this surely manufactured mayhem?

Others--fools, really—till this very day believe that if only the Palestinians had been nice, Palestine would have been saved a paradise for all her children, newcomers and millennium old alike. Here’s Woody Allen’s eye-popping recent thoughts on the subject:

But I feel that the Arabs were not very nice in the beginning, and that was a big problem. The Jews had just come out of a terrible war where they were exterminated by the millions and persecuted all over Europe, and they were given this tiny, tiny piece of land in the desert. If the Arabs had just said, “Look, we know what you guys have been through, take this little piece of land and we’ll all be friends and help you,” and the Jews came in peace, but they didn’t. They were not nice about it, and it led to problems…

And still Palestine confounds. Because she doesn’t just break hearts, she cuts down heroes, infects dreams, turning them into nightmares and—most consequential of all—she slays myths and mocks those who think they can, as masters would their slaves, possess her.

For the longest time, as Israel looked contentedly on, it seemed that only Arabs and Palestinians would fall at her altar. After all, we’re the fantasists who, through innocence or idiocy, could not keep her. But, of course, arrogance is its own kind of buffoonery. And would that it were just the government of Netanyahu’s, then Israel’s supporters might be forgiven for entertaining the faint possibility that her once magnificently woven script is still salvageable. But it isn’t, and the implications for Israelis are nothing short of earth shattering.

I refer here not to the clear breakdown in the European consensus on Israel, although that matters. Nor do I have in my sight American public opinion’s gradually less subtle questioning of Israel, although that matters even more. Nor am I focused on the progressively louder soul searching within the American Jewish community, although, eventually, that could well prove vital. I am not even hinting at the thorny debate occupying wider circles in the West—some earnest, others not--on how well Israel has done in finally laying the Jewish Question to rest.

I actually have in mind the disintegration of the extraordinary dichotomies that Israel, at conception, had so painstakingly constructed in order to impregnate herself against the damage wrought by her own actions. I speak of the notion that Israel, Western bastion that she is supposed to be, belongs in the Middle East but not to it; that in system and culture she stands apart from—blatantly superior to--the Arab Other; and with all the exceptionalism these extend her, that she could proceed to lay absolute claim to Palestine and crush the Palestinians.

It is understandable for Israeli leaders to have thought that they could get away with it, because they did up until 1967. It took such a unique turn of events, a story so finely tuned, to make 1948 and the “resurrection of a nation” so impervious to the catastrophe inflicted on another. Had a victorious Israel ceded the lands conquered in the six-day war, the narrative is almost sure to have held. But she didn’t, succumbing instead to her insatiable appetites--and, over 40 years, the tearing at, first and foremost, the very fabrics that knit Israel into such perfect shape for all her lovers.

You want it in photos? Then put Avigdor Lieberman against the legendary Abba Eban. You want it in the currency of hate? Try and argue the difference between “death to the Arabs” and “death to Israel.” Bloodshed? Then yours is the face of a dead child in Gaza right next to his twin in Aleppo. You prefer zealous beards and their gibberish uttered in the name of God? By all means, stop by the settled hilltops of the West Bank on your way to Zarqa in Amman.

Of all the divides that Israel had erected to convey an acute sense of her glorious, enlightened self, none stood grander than the one between her and us barbarians pressing against her ever expanding borders. More significantly, none, Israel believed, could be more effective in shielding her on the inside from the fallout of her misdeeds on the outside. But ironically, it is precisely this racist license that Israel had devised for herself (in the European colonial tradition, as it were) that tricked her into thinking that she could proceed, blessed and unshackled, to occupy, thieve and oppress without so much as a trace on her body politic, her culture, her character, her future.

Of this existential dilemma, the late Tony Judt wrote in 2003:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world: but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

You might be feeling the urge to widen the lens onto Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, for example, to provide kinder context for the Jewish state’s case. And I would, in turn, thank you. The mere fact that you feel compelled to draw attention to the bigotries of the neighborhood to dilute Israel’s makes exactly my point.
  
In the end, only fairytales withstand the ravages of time. And Israel is not one of them.

What now? Nothing--and everything. Beyond the immediate spectacle of balloons deflating all around the Middle East, the coming years are extremely hard to predict. Ours today is a wasteland of epic tales. There is something cathartic about the experience, and something devastating as well. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bashar Assad's Presidential Elections


The Shenanigan in the Shenanigan

Looking for an angle in the recent Syrian presidential elections? You could marvel at Hassan Nassrallah’s pleadings (always in the style of I know everything and you’re an idiot) to fully appreciate, grasp, buy, and then eat up the full significance of a shenanigan.  

If that doesn’t work and you’re still desperate for some insight that you are sure is hidden deep inside this silly story, then to you p√®re Assad.

Pick a day between 20 and 25, February 1985. A late afternoon chat in Amman. I was sitting mute (ok, and just a tad bit giddy) between a seasoned Lebanese journalist, who worked then for a French outlet, and a wily Jordanian politician. Across the border, Hafez Assad had just been reelected President of Syria with 99.4% of the vote in a referendum for which an impeccable 100% of voters turned out. Of course, it escaped no one that this routine constitutional exercise came on the blood soaked heels of the Hama Cleansing and years of civil rumblings encouraged by internal failures and external nemeses.

The journalist, obviously oscillating between amusement and bemusement, asked, “It’s bizarre this charade, no? How does Assad expect us to take these ridiculous results seriously?” To which the good politician answered with a wry smile, “ Ah, but that is precisely Assad’s point: that he could pull off something this ridiculous--and with such ease so soon after all the bloodshed.”

To one and all, the man was saying: I am in control.

I am paraphrasing, it goes without saying. And so is Bashar now. It has been 29 years since that plebiscite. In the throes of an existential challenge that has broken the son’s grip and the country’s back, presidential elections proceeded, as commentators, oscillating between amusement and bemusement, cried foul.

For Bashar this is nothing short of applause. He has just demonstrated that, even under extreme duress, he can pull off an absolute farce; to boot, that he can pull it off in an old, favorite fiefdom, rousing tens of thousands of “expats” to throng the Syrian embassy in Lebanon to do their duty for Bashar w bass—Only Bashar.  

But the mob scene in Beirut still needed a prop to deliver the full force of the stunt. In an arrangement that is signature House of Assad, the embassy lined up three boxes, one for each candidate in curtain free space, as if Bashar was giggling to one and all: I am still in control.

But the undeniable fact is that he isn’t. If Hafez’s referendum in 1985 was designed to show off his strength in a Syria united behind him, Bashar’s elections were meant to camouflage weakness in a Syria divided all around him.  

You’re about to say he’s done well—considering. And you would be right—kind of. Syria is gone, the man is but a fraction of his original size, but there is a growing sense that his will be a voice in any future settlement. Increasingly, you come across even the most anti-Assad die-hards who have quit because of the horrors of the chaos, because of the unbearable sight of a nation dying, the forbidding promise of Islamist extremism. And perhaps because they finally caught up with the long established consensus between enough of Assad’s friends and foes that the regime shall remain intact.

Alas, for all these “blessings,” Bashar owes a huge debt to a long list of others. Sitting alone in his office, he could blow kisses every which way the wind will take them. But no favor has been more consequential for him and Syria than that extended by Hezbollah and Iran, not only because it is the very one that saved his neck, but because it is the very one with the most intriguing implications for the geopolitics of the region.

How these implications will play out is, of course, an important question for which a number of intertwining, booby trapped files lie in wait, only one of which is titled The Arab Uprisings and the Dust They’ve Kicked Up From Sanaa’ to Benghazi. Others you should keep in mind? Let’s see, first the big regional folders: America Does Iran; Is This A Shiite Crescent I Behold Or An Ignis Fatuus?; (click on the link if this is the first time you come across this beauty); Regional Models Are For The Birds, with the very helpful subheading of Let’s Not Talk Turkey & Only The Southern Suburbs Want to Speak Farsi.   

As for the local dossiers, they all, regrettably if inevitably, end in a question mark: Please, Might Turkey Dump Erdogan? Who Will Keel Over First, Second And Third In The Saudi Kingdom? Will Iran’s Theocracy Die In Order To Live? Is Netanyahu The Gift That Keeps On Giving Or What?

Bashar, being Bashar, would have a mother of a file all his own, but I am not altogether sure it is of any comfort for this former leader of the former “pulse of Arabhood”: The Trials and Travails of A Master Turned Pawn.

While working your way through any of these recipes, here’s a piece of advice recently given to me by one of the sharpest cooks in this mess of a kitchen: think a whole lot of improvisation with only sprinkles of strategy.