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Disparity tourism in Sweden

By Nathalie RothschildContributor / 02.24.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

 In Sweden, a group of disaffected young people is challenging the country’s image as an egalitarian, equal-opportunity society. How? By organizing “upper-class safaris,” which load class-conscious participants onto buses that take them from the center of Stockholm, the Swedish capital, to two of its eastern suburbs: Fisksätra, a working-class neighborhood, and Solsidan, a wealthy one.

The journey between the two suburbs takes five minutes, but, says tour organizer Martin Fredriksson, they are “worlds apart.”

The unconventional sightseeing trip is organized by Allt åt Alla (Everything for Everyone), an association that abides by the Marxist credo “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

At the end of 2011, reports from Statistics Sweden and the Swedish Center for Business and Policy Studies highlighted widening economic disparities and showed that the correlation between family background and income has become more pronounced.

Allt åt Alla insists that such disparities must be understood as a class issue and that the safari tours could spark a serious discussion through a fun initiative.

But well-to-do residents of Solsidan may not be willing. They have objected to the invasion of their privacy and to being likened to animals.

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New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin (17) dribbles the ball as Miami Heat's Norris Cole defends during their NBA basketball game in Miami, Florida, Thursday. (Andrew Innerarity/Reuters)

Jeremy Lin: China and Taiwan compete for claims to NBA star

By Correspondent / 02.24.12

Everyone wants a piece of the New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin. He’s almost as hot a topic as an island in the South China Sea. And though there will be no Navy called on over this battle, China and Taiwan are staking their claims to Mr. Lin's success story.

As the Knicks’ only Asian player suddenly lifted his team to seven straight wins this month after years of struggle on the court, people throughout Taiwan found a sudden passion for the NBA and lauded Lin as one of their own.

Taiwanese enthusiastically point out that Lin’s parents lived on their island before moving to the US where he was born.

But just as Taiwan is claiming him based on his parent’s birthplace, China has also been swept up in the 'Linsanity' and found reason to claim him too: One of Mr. Lin’s grandmothers was born in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, trivia hardly overlooked in China’s official media. Like most in Taiwan, the Lin family ancestry traces back to China, just some 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.

In fact, waves of citizens from China are so excited about Lin, they’re urging the 23-year-old 6 foot 3 point guard to play for the Chinese Olympic team, because after all, he’s Chinese, they say.

No matter that he was born in California, that he reportedly struggles to speak Mandarin, or that he has made only a handful of visits back “home.”

At the end of the claim game, however, Asia is positioned to win over the player who has averaged more than 20 points per game this month, his first major effort for the Knicks. If the fans in Asia don’t woo Lin, the sports marketers sizing him up right now just might.

“If he carries on the way he is, he’s going to be a marketing sensation not only in the United States but pan-Asia,” says Mark Thomas, managing director of the S2M Group, a sports management firm in Shanghai. His “huge” value is still being calculated, Mr. Thomas says. But according to the China Daily, Forbes magazine placed his  worth around 100 million yuan ($15.9 million), and has already been registered as a trademark by a Chinese businesswoman.

Taiwanese, overshadowed for decades by China – the island’s giant political rival in sport as well as diplomacy – are notoriously quick to spot and claim Taiwan-influenced over-achievers.

“Even though he grew up overseas … he’s a Taiwanese, that’s right,” says Monica Wang, an interior decorator and basketball player from Taipei. “We think it’s a source of pride for us.”

Chinese officials meanwhile see ethnic Chinese abroad as part of a united race ultimately tethered to today’s China. The achievements of foreign nationals of Chinese heritage, such as US Ambassador Gary Locke, stir patriotism and confidence in the communist leadership.

Beijing, incidentally, also claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, so by extension all Taiwanese and Lin along with them are Chinese, so their argument goes.

Still, amid the back and forth of sports media and fans across the Taiwan Strait, China's Communist government, mindful of its international image, has stayed out of the Jeremy Lin identity debate.

“Imposing China's NBA dream on him and even calling on Lin to give up his US citizenship to play for China in the coming Olympics, as some in the media have suggested, goes too far,” the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said. “There is no need to overly interpret Jeremy Lin's identity.”

Editor in chief at Esquire Taiwan magazine isn’t so sure. Basketball fans from Thailand and even the Philippines will celebrate Lin, says Chen Sheng-hong. They see themselves in him. Until now, the Asian sports stars ­– like Yao Ming – have been taller, stronger players that are hard to identify with.

As “Linsanity” draws Chinese and Taiwanese alike to the TV to root for the New York Knicks, advertising companies no doubt see Jeremy Lin as a man to identify with.

On Sina, the China’s version of Twitter, Lin went from 190,000 followers on Feb. 2 to more than 1 million followers as of Feb. 16.

As for Lin? Mr. Thomas of the sports management group says, “Jeremy Lin needs to surround himself with intelligent people who can tell him how to build his brand long term.”

IN PICTURES: What does 'Lin-sanity' look like?

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Fergus Drennan (l.) teaches students about safe foraging. (Ian Evans)

Balmy English winter a boon to forest foragers

By Ian EvansContributor / 02.24.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

An unusually mild winter in parts of England has meant an extended season for the country’s growing number of professional foragers.

Instead of shivering under frost and snow for long periods, some edible weeds, plants, berries, and mushrooms have continued to grow, allowing foragers like Fergus Drennan to gather produce for the table.

He has been foraging for nearly 20 years, and says the warmer temperatures had been a fillip compared with last year’s freezing weather, which was the worst in a generation.

“I can’t remember it being so mild, but I’m not complaining,” he says.

According to the national weather service, temperatures in central England averaged 43 degrees F. from Dec. 1 to mid-January, putting it on course to be one of the 10 mildest winters since records began 353 years ago.

There are no official figures on how many foragers are operating across England, but foraged food has become more popular among restaurant chefs. Mr. Drennan himself supplies restaurants and also holds courses on what to pick and what not to pick.

“Never eat anything unless you’re 100 percent sure [it is safe], otherwise you can get ill,” he says.

Drennan is careful not to overpick in an area and to gain permission from landowners if necessary.

“There are so many things to eat which we just ignore because we’re too used to supermarkets and modern living,” he says. “This is nature’s larder.”

IN PICTURES – From Field to Fork: The foreign and domestic food chain

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In this October 2006 file photo, actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who played the character Borat, arrives for the US premiere of 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan' at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Cohen, who portrays General Aladeen in the upcoming film 'Dictator,' has been asked by the Academy not to dress as 'General Aladeen' at the Oscars on Sunday. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

Sacha Baron Cohen banned? No, but 'General Aladeen' is. Woe be unto Dictators.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 02.23.12

It’s hard to imagine how 2012 could be any worse for the world’s hapless and beleaguered dictators and warlords after that (ahem) horrible Arab Spring craze last year – with people-power movements toppling despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Consider the arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, issued by the International Criminal Court at the Hague, the anticipated human rights investigation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the looming trials of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré and former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, the pending verdict on former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and the ongoing manhunt for Joseph Kony, warlord and founder of the genocidal Lord’s Resistance Army in the dense borderlands of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As if that list of indignities wasn’t long enough, we can add another dictator to the list of the banned: General Aladeen.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has banned a certain General Aladeen from attending the 84th annual Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 26.

IN PICTURES – Dictator homes 

Technically, General Aladeen isn’t a real person – he’s a character portrayed by the satirist Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of “Borat” and “The Ali G Show,” as well as the voice of King Julian in “Madagascar.” A movie portraying the general, entitled "Dictator," is due to open later this year. 

It should also be mentioned that General Aladeen’s country, the Republic of Wadiya, doesn’t exist on any maps and no country profiles have been found on Wikipedia. (Note: this may have changed. We checked last at 10:23 a.m. on Thursday).

But for the academy, General Aladeen – if not an actual real person – is a real problem. The academy doesn’t want Mr. Cohen, the actor who portrays Aladeen, to show up to the awards ceremony as Aladeen. They think that it would be inappropriate to “hijack” the ceremony with a publicity stunt. Like that would ever happen in Hollywood.

 “Unless they’re assured that nothing entertaining is going to happen on the Red Carpet, the Academy is not admitting Sacha Baron Cohen to the show,” a spokesman for Paramount Pictures told movie blog “Deadline.”

That satirical characters might intrude where they aren’t wanted and don’t belong has been evident for quite some time now. Just ask Newt Gingrich, the former US House Speaker and current presidential candidate, who was … how to say this? … duped into giving an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen in one of his other comedic personas, the British hip-hop talk show host Ali G. Watch this, o political press secretary, and embrace the modern miracle of Google Search.

But for this column, the matter of greater concern is the fact that dictators have now become the butt of jokes and the subject for a satirical Hollywood movie shows.

How far hath dictators fallen. Just a few years ago, Hollywood could be depended upon to portray dictators as fearsome, wily, or at the very least, edgy. Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in the 2006 film, “The Last King of Scotland” was a high-water mark of Attila-the-Hun-like gravitas. There were exceptions to this rule, of course (Naked Gun?). And who can forget Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator?” But in general, Hollywood saw dictators as they preferred to be seen: in fear.

Human rights observers would assert that there are still plenty of dictators out there, and that there are even a few democratically elected leaders – in Senegal and, of course, in Zimbabwe – who have begun to experiment with their inner despotic tendencies by staying in power longer than originally planned.

But where’s the joy of staying in power, if the world openly, cinematically mocks you?

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Vogue for the veiled in Turkey

By Alexander Christie-MillerContributor / 02.23.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
In Turkey, where Islamic and Western social values collide, what women cover up is often more controversial than what they flaunt.

So when the new monthly lifestyle magazine Âlâ launched last year to cater specially to the tastes of pious Muslim women, it prompted conservatives and secularists alike to ask whether fashion can coexist with Islam.

 In Photos: Islamic fashion

With glossy pages filled with demurely smiling, stylishly head-scarved young women, Âlâ has been dubbed the “Vogue of the Veiled” by one Turkish liberal newspaper. After six issues, its circulation has increased to 30,000, with some 5,000 subscriptions sent abroad.

While some secularists believe the magazine is evidence of the creeping Islamization of Turkish society, conservative Muslims have claimed it is violating Islamic notions of female modesty by encouraging covered women to beautify themselves.

Although Turkey has been governed by an Islamist-rooted party since 2002, it is still technically illegal for women to wear head scarves at Turkish universities, and they are also banned in a range of public-sector jobs: a legacy of the state-imposed secularism that dominated the country for much of the 20th century.

Âlâ’s editor in chief, Seyma Yol Kara, is less interested in the magazine’s critics than in the millions of head-scarved women who she says have long been “second-class citizens.”

With clothing advice, interviews with successful Muslim women, articles on mental health, and photos of readers, Âlâ is aiming to give them a voice, says Ms. Yol Kara, who herself wears a head scarf.

“We are trying to bring new products and new options to women who wear head scarves and women in whose lives Islam plays an important role,” she says. “I’m happy to be helping women who think like me.”

In Photos: Islamic fashion

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An Afghan parliamentarian takes an oath on the holy Quran during the opening of the new parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan, last month. The burning of the Quran has angered Afghans in the past, if discarding a Quran is necessary, what is the respectful way to dispose of Islam's holy book? (S. Sabawoon/Reuters)

Quran burning: What is the respectful way to dispose of Islam's holy book?

By Staff writer / 02.21.12

Thousands of protesters rallied outside the Bagram military base in Afghanistan today after NATO and US officials reportedly burned Qurans, the Muslim holy text. The Qurans, along with other books, were removed from a library at a nearby detention center reportedly due to extremist messages penned inside the books and exchanged among detainees, reports the Associated Press. US and NATO representatives apologized and promised an investigation into the event.

The burning of the Quran has angered Afghans in the past, sparking deadly protests in 2010 and 2011. But if discarding a Quran is necessary, there are respectful and acceptable ways to do so, scholars say.

It is important to give a Quran a proper burial, says Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina and author of “Memories of Muhammad.” Any text containing  the name of God is sacred in Islam. God is revealed through scripture, and anything associated with writing it has a religious significance, Mr. Safi says.

One could literally bury the Quran, ideally in a place with little foot traffic. Another option is to put the book in a flowing body of water, either letting it sink or be carried away. Regardless of the method, treating the book’s destruction with respect is paramount. Safi likens it to a poor man’s funeral, where the book might be wrapped in a shroud before being placed in the ground and mourned.

Burning the Quran, however, is also an accepted practice.

“People often ask, ‘if it’s OK for Muslims to burn the Quran, then why isn’t it OK for the US military to do it?’” Safi says. “That’s where the question of symbolism is important.”

Some say erasing the names of God and his messengers prior to burning the Quran makes it acceptable, but Safi says it’s even simpler than that. It comes down to context: Burning the text in a dumpster with trash on a US military base feels less respectful than treating the disposal with reverence in a burial or sacred burning. 

Safi finds one analogy particularly helpful: The Quran is to Islam as Jesus is to Christianity. “In an Islamic universe ... the word becomes not a person, but a book,” he says. “For a Muslim to see the Quran burnt not as a way of burial, it would look and feel like someone burning Jesus, or a crucifix.”

But contextualizing today’s protests goes beyond simple reverence for the Quran, Safi says. “Bagram airbase is one of the central places of US military presence in Afghanistan ... [and] between 600 and 700 Afghans have been detained or are being detained there for years and years.”  

Safi says this isn’t so much a theological debate on how to dispose of the Quran properly, but a charged conversation around a military force “that’s being looked at as an occupying force ... [A]n unlawful, violent force.”

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Afghan men gather as some of them throw rocks towards the US military base during a protest in Bagram, north of Kabul Tuesday, Feb. 21. More than 1,000 Afghans protested outside the main US military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday over a report that NATO troops had improperly disposed of some Qurans. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

NATO's 'improper disposal' of Qurans inflames Afghan protesters (+video)

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / 02.21.12

America's hopes of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people have suffered yet another blow.

Plans by NATO personnel to burn Qurans at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul have set off violent protests, with at least 1,000 demonstrators throwing stones and calling for US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan.

That burning Qurans might anger Afghans has been made pretty clear before: In 2010 a US evangelical pastor, Rev. Terry Jones, threatened to burn Qurans outside his Florida church, and a year later, when followers of that US pastor actually carried out the threat. Eleven United Nations personnel were massacred in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in April 2011, after protestors broke into their compound, apparently seeking revenge for the Reverend Jones’s actions. A separate protest in the southern city of Kandahar at the time left nine people dead and dozens injured.

On Tuesday, the NATO commander, Gen. John R. Allen, released a statement apologizing for the planned burning, saying it was not intentional according to The New York Times:

“ISAF personnel at Bagram Air Base improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans,”  the statement said.

“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities.”

The incident comes at a delicate time in Afghanistan, as the US begins a long three-year process of drawing down its combat forces, and as negotiations between the US government and the Taliban’s senior leadership seems almost certain to begin.

America’s presence in Afghanistan – initially welcomed by Afghans because of expectations that America would rebuild the country – has now begun to grate many Afghans. While American allies have indeed rebuilt roads, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure, government corruption and rising insecurity have grown much worse in recent years. Relations between the US government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, too, have also become strained.

In Dec. 2010, a public opinion poll commissioned by Washington Post, ABC, the BBC, and Germany’s ARD news agency, found that only 36 percent of Afghans had a “somewhat favorable” view of American troops, and a full 55 percent wanted US troops to pull out. While only 9 percent of respondents at the time would have liked to see the Taliban form part of the Afghan government, more than 73 percent said they thought it was time to negotiate with the insurgents and let the country get on with its future.

In an indication of how seriously NATO commanders take any perceived disrespect to the Islamic holy book, General Allen’s apology was swift and appeared contrite. News of the incident initially emerged from Bagram Air Base itself, after several Afghan employees at the base say they saw Qurans being offloaded at the base’s incineration pit and raised their concerns.

It's not clear why NATO had possession of Qurans in the first place, but it is common practice among Western diplomats and military personnel in Afghanistan to give Qurans to Afghan village elders or to local religious authorities as a sign of respect. 

Any hint that Western forces are showing the holy book of Islam disrespect could deepen resentment over their presence in Afghanistan.

IN PICTURES Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan?

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Anthony Shadid (left) and the author. (Courtesy of Naseer Mehdawi)

At work in Iraq with Anthony Shadid

By Naseer MehdawiContributor / 02.20.12

Reporters are cantankerous, competitive and frequently catty. Yet Anthony Shadid's sad and untimely death has brought forth nothing but praise and admiration from every corner. An old friend reminded me yesterday of a conversation in 2006 in which I told her that "Shadid, hands down, is the best reporter working in Iraq." I suspect all of us who covered the war there said that at one time or another. Like all of us, of course, he had help, particularly from Naseer Mehdawi, the Iraqi colleague who worked with him on the stories that landed Anthony the 2004 Pulitzer.

 One of the reasons that Anthony inspired such love was his generosity of spirit and appreciation of others. He knew he wasn't out there alone. He wrote the following to Naseer in his copy of Anthony's 2006 book on Iraq, "Night Draws Near": "There is no better friend in this world, no colleague more loyal, no man who I admire more. This book should have your name on the cover! You are like my brother and always will be." Naseer has kindly shared his thoughts on Anthony and their collaboration below. - Dan Murphy

I remember the first time I met Anthony Shadid in February 2003. I had been working for The Washington Post in Baghdad with Rajiv Chandrasekaran and the photographer Michael Robinson Chavez. Anthony had joined Rajiv and me and Chavez. Rajiv introduced Anthony to me and told me that he was a great journalist. He had been working with another paper, but the Post hired him because he is the best. Then orders came from Phil Bennett, who was the Post’s assistant managing editor for foreign news at the time, that all the journalists of the Post should leave Iraq because the troops were gathering in the Gulf and the war would happen. But Anthony refused. He stayed and asked me if I would like to stay with him. I was very interested in journalism and looking at what might happen. Rajiv left with Chavez to wait in Kuwait. (They later returned after the war started.) It was only me and Anthony. Our driver was Karim Sadon. After that we were pretty much Anthony’s team, me and Karim. Everyone at the Post knew that we were Anthony’s guys.

I started my journey with Anthony looking for people expressing their feeling about what would happen. I had an instinct that the regime would collapse. I made up my mind to help him and support him. I took Anthony to Kadhamiya, a large Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. All the people there hated Saddam because he was targeting them and killed many of their families during the uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. When I told Anthony about this, he was happy about the tip, and he started to get closer to me, to count on me. I had begun to think like Anthony, to know the kinds of stories he wanted, the people he wanted to meet. Anthony liked talking to people on the streets, the real people who were affected by Saddam and affected by the war. His confidence in me became stronger.

I remember that Saddam’s Information Ministry gave us an order to go to specific places. We refused. We went to forbidden places that no one dared to go except me and Anthony. At restaurants we’d talk about where to go next, all the places Saddam did not want us to see. We set out on daily trips with our brave driver, Karim, going to various parts of the country, meeting people, discussing issues, and making friends. We met workers at factories, farmers in the fields, government employees who were fed up with the restrictions of the regime, university students aspiring for an opportunity to be free and express their woes and dreams, clerics secluded inside their small mosques, and just simple, down-to-earth people. We listened to stories of women who had lost their husbands and sons in the many wars waged by the regime.

Out of this journey, I caught the journalism bug from Anthony. Before the war, I had been a foreign relations manager at the Ministry of Culture. When war broke out on March 20, 2003, I found myself feeling responsible for the safety of my family and my colleague, Anthony, who was in the midst of all the chaos. I did not want him to venture around without my advice and protection. I was worried, of course, about my own safety as well. I had a wife and children, who were toddlers when I met Anthony. During these events and after the war began, our relationship became stronger and stronger, and the trust between us became bigger and bigger. We treated each others like brothers. We were brothers. After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, the Washington Post started building a bureau in Baghdad, headed by Rajiv. I remember meeting the photographer Andrea Bruce and the others. Anthony and I continued on our journey, but this time out of Baghdad and out of the bureau. We went to Najaf together, to Fallujah, Ramadi, Basra, Kirkuk, Nasiriya, Tikrit, Haditha. We were spending so much time together, more time than I was spending with my family. We were the first people who met Moqtada Sadr in Najaf and wrote a story about him. We were the first people who found an informant in Duluiya. We were the first people who met insurgents fighting the Americans in Khaldiya.

Anthony was very aggressive in his work, and he was telling me that I was aggressive, too. We were a very good team. The stories were on the front page all the time. He was stylish in his writing. He was never afraid of going into danger. We had been through a lot terrible and dangerous places. When he was nominated for a Pulitzer for the best coverage in Iraq Anthony promised that he would share it, and he did. He shared the prize money with me after he won. He was very humble and kind. He appreciated the people who worked with him to help he tell his stories. He knew my secrets, I knew his. I introduced him to my family and my children, Yousi and Ahmed. He knew the dates of their birthday and sent greetings every year.

I left Iraq in 2004 because the insurgents sent me a threatening letter, condemning me for working with an Americans paper and for helping them. The letter said I deserved to be killed. Then they bombed my house on March 2, 2004. The Post, with Rajiv and Anthony, helped move my family to Amman, Jordan. Anthony escorted us there and helped us find a place. Anthony was on a break then to finish his book, "Night Draws Near." A few months later, we met again in Amman and decided to go back to work in Baghdad. I left my family in Amman in November 2004 and went back to Iraq to work with Anthony. I’ve since immigrated to Sweden with my family.

I am so devastated right now. I cannot believe that he is gone. I lost a dear and real brother first and a colleague second. He was a phenomenon in journalism, and I think no one can replace him. It is a very great loss to the journalism world. He was so brave, fearless, persistent, never gave up to find the truth and show it to the world. I am very proud and honored that I worked with him for more than four years, sharing with him the sadness and happiness that was Iraq. It is a great loss for me and my family, for journalism, and for his family and his two lovely children. God rest him in peace. He will be always remembered.

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An app to match your appetite in Cambodia

By Julie MasisCorrespondent / 02.18.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

One of Asia’s poorest nations has one of the latest high-tech spins: A cafe here recently introduced electronic menus.

The e-menus at Coffee Room, a small shop that opened in January in Phnom Penh, allows customers to place their orders, call a server to their table, and ask for the bill by simply touching the tablet computers that are available at every table. Diners can also type in how they want their drinks prepared (such as “no ice” or “no sugar”), read ingredients, and use the “menus” to access Facebook, Skype, or Twitter.

Irina Afonina, a businesswoman from Kazakhstan who has lived in Cambodia for five years, says she developed the electronic menu to simplify the restaurant-going experience for expatriates who don’t speak the local language.

“In countries like Cambodia and Kazakhstan, it’s hard for customers to order,” she says. “Sometimes you ask what is inside the dish and they can’t explain – because they don’t understand your English pronunciation or they don’t know what’s inside.”

Ms. Afonina, who is also the chief executive officer of Cambodia-based IT company Cresittel, says her e-menus will soon allow people to select their native language – and to chat with customers seated at different tables of the restaurant.“We’re not providing only coffee and snacks; it’s also entertainment,” she says.

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‘Elbphilharmonie,’ a 26-story concert hall, is slated to open in 2015. (Isabelle de Pommereau)

What eurocrisis? Hamburg to build $500 million concert hall

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / 02.17.12

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

 Christian Becker calls the project “insane” at a time when libraries are cutting hours and kindergarten prices are up. But Hans Christian Riekhof sees it as “an investment in the future” that will draw tourists and boost the local economy.

What’s dividing the two Hamburg residents – and this city on the Elbe River – is a controversial cultural behemoth. Plans for the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, or “Elbphilharmonie,” envision a concert hall built on top of a former warehouse on the harbor that could seat 2,150 people in “acoustically one of the best concert halls in the world,” according to acoustic designer Yasuhisa Toyota, who refurbished the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

City officials see it as a new world landmark that could make Hamburg almost as famous as Paris and New York City. When finished, the 667,000 square-foot glass structure will rise 360 feet above the Elbe River, its 26 floors curling into a series of waves reflecting the sky, water, and city.

“There is something playful, almost crazy about what we are doing,” said Karl Olaf Petters, a spokesman for the project. “It is not necessary, but by the same token, neither was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Part of an ambitious revitalization of the Hamburg Harbor, the concert hall was to be paid for through mostly private money. Now, huge delays and cost overruns have dampened the city’s dreams of grandeur. The hall, it turns out, will cost up to five times its original estimate of $100 million, and the city’s share of the cost has more than quadrupled. The concert hall was slated to open in 2012; now it won’t open until 2015 at the earliest.

“If we were in Paris or in New York that would be fine, but not in such a small town as Hamburg,” complained Mr. Becker, soaking up the sun on the piers of the Elbe River with the half-constructed Elbe Philharmonic Hall shimmering in the distance.

Even so, every Sunday, visitors wearing yellow construction hats are touring the construction site.

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