September 30, 2005

Arrival

Lebanon makes the same mistake almost every country and major city in the entire world makes: the international airport is in the worst possible place. It isn’t only in the worst part of Beirut. It’s arguably in the worst part of the country.

This is a nation of apartment towers. Even villages up in the mountains are small clusters of towers. A lot of them – and I mean a lot of them – were built in the seventies. They’re basically slabs of concrete embedded with cavernous skull-socket-like balconies. Those in the south of Beirut around the airport – the first neighborhoods you will ever see in this country unless you cross a land border from Syria - somehow manage to be the ugliest. The curtains are dirtier. Laundry is strung more haphazardly on the balcony ropes. The storefronts at street level are dingy. These neighborhoods are not where you want to spend your next holiday. Throw a rock to the east and you’ll hit Hezbollahland.

Keep going north a few minutes, though, and all of a sudden, bam. You’re in the Emerald City. Well-lit towers reflect other well-lit towers on their shiny glass sides. Beautifully sculpted steeples and minarets ascend toward the stars. Reconstructed low-rise Ottoman and French-mandate architecture in the downtown core is so perfect it looks like a stage set. Or, perhaps, a Middle Eastern Disneyland. It almost looks fake. But it isn’t. It looks fake because it’s brand new. Some of it is still under construction.

(Here are some pictures I took at 6:30 this morning while most people slept.)

Solideire1.jpg

Solideire 2.jpg

Solideire Building.jpg

Downtown Beirut was destroyed during the war. For years it was a shattered post-apocalyptic ghost town overgrown with weeds and infested with rats. It was perhaps darkly appropriate that this area suffered the most. It was the one urban mixmaster place where all the Lebanese met in their lush variety: Sunni, Maronite, Palestinian, Orthodox, Shia, and Druze. Lebanon exploded when the center couldn’t hold. And the center became a black hole.

The center is mostly rebuilt now, and it looks more or less like it did back in its heyday. The brand new buildings are the same as the old buildings, minus the wear and the aging. Fifty years from now downtown will look like it did fifty years ago. Many of the buildings in the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown – Ras Beirut, Hamra, Gemayzeh, and Achrafieh – look a hundred years old because they are.

From downtown near the waterfront you can see halfway up the coast to the Syrian border, even at night. That’s because the shore of the Mediterranean is almost entirely urban. On the map it looks like there are empty spaces between coastal cities and towns. There aren’t. Mountain-shaped clusters of lights glisten like stars to the horizon. Beirut is only one piece of the coastal megalopolis. My American friend who foolishly asked if Lebanon has electricity would be embarrassed if he could see what I’m seeing right now.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:37 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 28, 2005

Leaving

Today I leave for Beirut. I’ve been looking forward to this for months. But now that the day has arrived I feel the ache of homesickness -- and I haven't even left yet. It’s something I'll have to get used to and learn how to manage. My wife lived abroad for a year and a half before we met. If she can do that, I can do this.

If it isn’t already obvious from the new banner at the top of the site, I will continue to blog in the Middle East. I signed a better-than-expected contract with Pajamas Media. The blog will make money. So the blog will stay active.

To everyone who clicks over to read what I have to say: thank you. If I had no audience I would not be going anywhere.

To all my friends and family: I will miss you all, and at times I will miss you terribly.

To those of you who will fly all the way out there and visit me: thank you. I’ll need it. And I promise you won’t regret it.

I’ll be back in early Spring. But now it's time to go. My next post will be from Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:55 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 27, 2005

Don’t Mess With This Guy

Here is a picture of a Lebanese cop. (The people behind him appear to be under arrest and don't want their pictures taken.)

lebanese cop.jpg

(Via Raja at Lebanese Bloggers.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:57 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

New to the Blogroll

I’ve added a new category for Lebanese Blogs on the list to the left. Some of these have been linked in the past. Others are new to me. All are worth reading.

Across the Bay

Beirut Spring

Chercheuse d’or

From Beirut to the Beltway

Lebanese Bloggers

Lebanese Political Journal

Ms. Levantine

Pulse of Freedom

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:40 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 26, 2005

New Site Banner

Thanks to Charles Johnson for designing a new site banner for me just in time for my six month trip to the Middle East. (If the old one still appears click Refresh in your browser.)

The picture on the left was taken of me by my wife Shelly overlooking the old city and harbor in Sousse, Tunisia, two summers ago. On the right is a national-unity necklace I picked up in downtown Beirut as Syrian troops were leaving Lebanon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:08 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 25, 2005

A Hazardous Profession

Lebanon, nearly alone in the Arab world, has a free press. The country is no longer ruled by an unelected foreign dictatorship. Its parliament is national, democratic, and sovereign.

But loose agents of the ancien régime are still active, and they’re doing their damnest to violently intimidate journalists into submission.

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A prominent anti-Syrian news anchor was seriously wounded when her car exploded in Lebanon on Sunday, fuelling fears of a slide into violence as the U.N. wraps up a probe into the murder of an ex-prime minister.

May Chidiac, 43, a Christian journalist, is a familiar face to Lebanese. She had hosted a talk show earlier in the day to discuss public fears of more violence ahead of the U.N. investigators presenting their report, expected next month.

A security source said the bomb weighed around 500 grams (one pound) and was planted beneath Chidiac's white four-wheel-drive. It exploded as she was getting in, wrecking the car.

Doctors said her left leg beneath the knee was blown off in the blast, which also set hair and clothes ablaze. They also operated to try to save her left hand. She was in a stable condition in hospital on Sunday night.

Earlier reports said she had an arm and a leg amputated, which turned out not to be true. It looks like she’s still in bad shape, but at least she’s alive and has more than two limbs.

I met dozens of Lebanese in April during the Cedar Revolution. They are tough, brave, and war-hardened -- not at all the sort to cringe or back down from a fight.

The campaign to silence their journalists is not very effective. If it were effective the culprits could dryly smack their hands together, say that’s that, and find someone else to pick on for a change. The fact that they still feel threatened by journalists is a good indication that the Lebanese media is doing excellent work.

I take personal selfish comfort in the fact that so far all the targeted journalists write and broadcast in Arabic. Beirut’s English-language newspaper The Daily Star published article after article sharply critical of the Syrian regime even throughout the occupation. As far as I know, no one on its staff has been harmed, nor have any foreign journalists ever been harmed.

UPDATE: Anonymous blogger "Lebanon.Profile" over at the Lebanese Political Journal wonders if some dark force is trying to engineer the perfect storm.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:23 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 23, 2005

Small is Beautiful

Whenever I come home from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles I feel like I live in a hopelessly small cow town. Compared with our world-class cities, Portland is pokey. Objectively speaking, Portland isn’t really that small. Roughly two million people live in the metro area. It’s no megalopolis, surely, but nor is it Chitlin Switch, Kansas.

Last time I went to down to Los Angeles I asked Matt Welch and Cathy Seipp how much it would cost to buy a house in the bohemian Silverlake neighborhood. Matt said I could pick up a stucco piece-of-crap box for a half million dollars. Gads. My three-bedroom Victorian cost less than half that, and I’m not exactly stranded out in the boondocks. I can see the skyline right down the street from my front yard. That was just one of a series of reality checks I have run into whenever I get restless and start thinking I’m outgrowing this place.

My father moved to Los Angeles when I was seventeen years old. He and my mother had just divorced and he wanted a fresh start somewhere else. Two years later, he came home and bought another house in the Willamette Valley south of Portland. I asked him what it was like living in Southern California. He told me there were so many problems down there that don’t exist in the Pacific Northwest that it just isn’t worth it. That was a reality check of a kind.

Nancy Rommelmann moved up here from Los Angeles a little over a year ago and she told me this is the smallest city she has ever lived in. She did not mean that as a compliment. When I heard her say that, once again I felt the stirrings of restlessness. But she and her husband are starting to think they were right to move up here after all. L.A. is…well, you know. It’s L.A. It is what it is. Spectacular and wonderful in many ways, and utterly exasperating in others. Things are different up north, and I hope I’m not being obnoxious by saying so. (Unlike many Oregonians, I’m happy when outsiders decide to move to my state.) If you want to know how life is different around here from the perspepctive of someone who was not born and raised in this place, read Nancy’s dead-accurate essay The Beauty of Kindness.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:20 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Another Monster

Hurricane_Rita.jpg

Looks like a lot of people, for a while anyway, figured Rita was just another hurricane. What are the odds that a monster category 4/5 storm in the Gulf is immediately followed up with yet another monster category 4/5 storm in the Gulf? This is unprecedented. Rita fooled me, and I apologize for being flip about it earlier.

UPDATE: Laurence Simon is staying in Houston to blog Rita.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 22, 2005

“We Must Go to the East”

“We must go to the East” – Napoleon.
I leave for the Middle East in six days and I’ll be gone for six months. The fact that I’m still here is a mere technicality. I’m not really here anymore. I’m in a weird sort of limbo state now: my mind is in Beirut and my body is stuck in Portland.

The Judge Roberts nomination, the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita, George Bush’s plummeting polls numbers…none of these things are interesting anymore. I can’t bring myself to read a newspaper and care about what it says. I can only read books. And I can only read books about where I’m going.

Mostly what I’m reading is “homework.” But I’m also re-reading parts of Tony Horwitz’s terrific Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia. It’s a collection of Middle Eastern travel essays, and there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather read while gearing up to go there myself.

Because I am only reading books right now instead of mixing up my usual book-reading with news junky fare, you get book-blogging instead of news-blogging. Hope you can handle it.

Here is how Baghdad Without a Map opens. See if you can tell me you don't want to go East after you read this. And if you like the introduction, buy the book and read the whole thing.

I was driving alone, on a moonless night, along the rim of the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. The road was black and narrow, the occasional sign written in Arabic script I couldn’t yet decipher. I turned and turned again and felt the back wheels spin in drifting desert sand.

Retracing my route, I stopped at a small oasis of palm trees and whitewashed villas. Arab houses, particularly those in the Persian Gulf states, reveal little to the outside world. Knocking on a plain metal door set in a high wall of stucco, I wondered if the home inside was a palace or a hovel.

The door creaked open a few inches and a woman peered out, her face concealed by a black canvas mask. It formed a beak around her nose, with narrow eye slits, like medieval armor. I asked in simple Arabic if she could direct me back to the town I had left to watch the sunset, three hours before.

She paused, glancing over her shoulder. There was a rustle of garments and the whisper of female voices. Then she invited me in and slipped behind another door to find someone who could help.

Five women sat on a carpet in the courtyard, sipping tea from tiny glasses. They wore masks like the woman at the door, and billowy black shrouds that fell to their toes, concealing hair and skin.

I smiled and offered the ubiquitous Arab greeting: “Salaam aleikum.” Peace be upon you. Ten eyes stared back through their peepholes. It was difficult to tell if anyone returned my smile. Then one of the women stood up and offered me a glass of tea. She spoke in hesitant English, and her voice was muffled by the veil. “I love you,” she said.

I looked down, embarrassed, and studied the red henna dye painted in swirls across the tops of her toes. Somehow, saying “I love you, too” to a Muslim woman in a face mask didn’t seem appropriate. So I smiled and thanked her. We stood there, blue eyes to black eyes, until a man appeared at the edge of the courtyard. He wore a starched white robe and a white kerchief folded like a fortune cookie atop his head. “I love you always,” the woman said, retreating toward the black-robed huddle on the carpet.

The man explained in a mix of English, Arabic and pantomime that I should follow the oil wells, vast laceworks of steel strung out along the highway. At night, wreathed in blinking lights, they looked like dot-to-dot drawings without the lines sketched in. Before Mohammad brought Islam to the Arabian peninsula, the Bedouin worshipped stars and used them as guides in the night. These days, nomads navigate by a constellation of oil.

The drive was long and dull, and I passed the time by replaying the courtyard scene in my head. I’d noticed a satellite disk perched atop the villa; perhaps the women had been watching television. Wasn’t “I love you” what men and women often said to each other in the West? I let my imagination drift across the sand. Perhaps the women dreamed of strangers in the night – though probably not blond men in khakis and sneakers, sputtering bad Arabic. Perhaps the women were concubines, held captive in a desert harem. It was the sort of thing that often happened in movies about Arabia.

Most likely the meeting was meaningless, a linguistic impasse common to rookie correspondents. “My first few months here, I felt like Helen Keller,” a fellow journalist had confided a few weeks before, welcoming me to the Middle East. “Blind, deaf, and also dumb – particularly dumb.”

So I shrugged off the strange encounter. Surely, as my Arabic and my understanding of Arabic subtleties improved, I’d be able to make sense of such scenes, even use them as anecdotes in my future stories.

But strange things kept happening. And in the two years that followed, I often found myself in dimly lit hotel rooms or dusty airport lobbies, trying to fathom notes I had scribbled just hours before. What was I to make of the teenager in Gaza, his face wrapped in a black-checkered keffiya, who guided me through streets smudged with burning tires, then paused to ask, “Mr. Tony, there is something I must know. Are you Portuguese?”

Did he know somehow I was Jewish? What did this have to do with the Portuguese?

Months later, I arrived by boat in Beirut, amid heavy artillery fire. A lone sentry patrolled the dock, and I assumed he would ask for my papers. “Visa? Who said anything about visa?” he said with a shrug. Gesturing toward the shell-pocked shore, he slung his weapon onto his shoulder and melted back into the gloom.

Was this an invitation or a warning?

On a later reporting trip, to cover the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, I found myself stuck in Tehran traffic beside a taxi driver who kept grabbing my thigh and shrieking: “America! Donkey! Torch!” He refused to accept a single riyal for the hour-long ride.

After a time, I contented myself with scribbling in my notebooks and filling the margins with question marks. Islamic society, like the homes I had passed that first night in the desert, didn’t open easily to Westerners. To pretend that I understood all that I saw and heard was folly.

But the mystery kept tugging, even after I left the Middle East. The margins were still filled with question marks. And some nights, when the rain raps hard against my window, I wander south to the Empty Quarter, to black masks and black eyes and red-henna toes, and wonder why it was she loved me.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:30 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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