September 21, 2005

From Syria to America

Tomorrow my Syrian friend Ali will become an American.

I call him Ali (which is not his real name) because he does not want me to quote him or even mention his real name in passing in my public writing. He’s still afraid – deathly afraid – of Assad’s all-seeing mukhabarat, the secret police. He worries that if they catch him saying or even implying anything bad about the Syrian regime they will do something terrible to his family. He lives in Portland. They still live in Syria.

I think he's way too paranoid about this, but I don't hold it against him. His personality was shaped inside a fascist state. No one who grows up in a place like that escapes without mental and emotional baggage.

Some years ago I read about a man who fled to the United States from the Soviet Union. Even after he was free in America he stayed up all night every night. He couldn't sleep until he saw the sun rise. It was the only way he could be sure they would not come to get him that night.

When Ali was a teenager he went to visit his cousin’s house in his home village near Aleppo. His cousin worked, and probably still works, for the mukhabarat. When Ali got to the house he heard screams from around back.

“What is that?” he said. “A cow?”

“That is no cow,” his cousin said and flashed a sadistic and conspiratorial grin. “It is a person.”

“Who?!” Ali said. “What’s going on?!”

“That is none of your business,” his cousin said. “We are taking care of it.”

Ali never saw that cousin again. He refused to see him again. He refused, as best he could, to live in Syria at all.

So he went to Lebanon.

When I told him I was going to Lebanon myself he said “Oh, you’re Mister Lucky Man.” He loves and misses Beirut. “It really opened my eyes and my mind,” he told me. “It was a free country, the first free country I ever saw. I could do and think whatever I wanted.”

He was there in the 1980s, mind you, while Lebanon was still busy chewing off its own leg. He willingly went into a war zone. And he loved it! It was a mind-blowing improvement over what he was used to back home in Syria.

A lot of people who lived there during the civil war will tell you that, horrible as it all was, Beirut was a still a good time even then. Rockin’ parties were thrown just down the block from street fighting and even mortar fire and shelling. Thomas Friedman summed it up perfectly in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem when he quoted a hostess asking her dinner party guests if they would like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire.

Life goes on even in war time. And life in Beirut is nothing if it isn’t fun. That was, amazingly, true even when Beirut was blood-spattered and burning. It’s not at all surprising that the street along the formerly pulverized Green Line is where you’ll find the best nightclubs in the entire Middle East. The Lebanese wouldn’t have it another way.

Ali eventually had to go back to Syria. After experiencing even bloody chaotic war-time “freedom” he found his own country under Baathist rule unlivable. So he left. He walked out of Syria and smuggled himself into Greece. Later he made his way to Portland, Oregon, where he met me. And tomorrow he will become my fellow American.

I had lunch with him yesterday and gave him my congratulations. He’s so happy to be free forever from Syria. At the same time he is finally free to go back. His American passport will keep him from being conscripted into the army. (That, and a hefty baksheesh which he can now afford.) It has been so many long years since he has seen his family. Now he can finally see them again.

He will also revisit Lebanon while he’s in the neighborhood. The country was on fire when he reluctantly left. He has yet to see it rebuilt and at peace.

“I’ll see you in Beirut at Christmas,” he said. I’ll see him in Syria, too.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:55 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 19, 2005

Bush Takes a Left Turn After Katrina

Just as I'm getting ready to leave the country and take a long break from hyper-partisan and hyper-annoying domestic politics, something totally refreshing and completely unexpected happens: liberals actually admit to liking one of George W. Bush’s policies while conservatives find something they don't like about him after all.

If you thought Hurricane Katrina’s political aftermath was hopelessly partisan…bzzt, thank you for playing.

The spending plan has not been well received by conservative voters--just 43% favor the huge federal commitment…while 37% are opposed. This is especially striking given how supportive the President's base has remained throughout his Administration.

The President's reconstruction plan is favored by 66% of liberal voters.

[…]

Fifty-seven percent (57%) of black voters support the federal reconstruction spending while just 17% are opposed. Among white voters, 49% favor the spending and 29% are opposed. This is the first Bush Administration proposal hat has attracted more support from black Americans than from white Americans.

I guess you can count me in with the liberals and the black Americans on this one. Complaints about “big government conservatism” don’t resonate with me at all after our worst natural disaster in history. If we don’t have enough money to rebuild the Gulf Coast, roll back the tax cuts or gut something useless.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 18, 2005

“We Don’t Have Camels Here”

Night Shot1.jpg

The romance of Araby is famously, powerfully, intoxicating. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) is the most well-known Westerner who fell under the spell of the Arabs, and there are a host of others: Gertrude Bell, Alfred Thesiger, and Freya Stark to name just a few. I’ve spent just barely enough time in the Middle East and North Africa that I get it. Partly it’s the siren call of the exotic. Partly it’s the Arabs’ code of hospitality that makes them, truly, the most pleasant people in the world to travel amongst. Most of all, for me anyway, it’s a great big undefinable X Factor that simply must be experienced to be understood. It will either wash over you or it won’t, and if it won’t then that’s that.

Even so, I do not intend to “go native” when I move to Beirut. I recently read Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists which is, I think, a pretty good inoculation against that sort of thing. Many of our Middle East diplomats end up being more like, say, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States than the United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

I am an American, and I will remain an American in both identity and outlook. However, I’ve spent enough time in Arab countries to know they deserve something of a defense in the West. I didn’t realize quite how true that really is until I started telling everyone I’m moving to Beirut.

First of all, let me say this. I know exactly what Beirut means in the popular American imagination and I fully understand why. Watching the 1975-1990 civil war on the news made a powerful impression on me when I was growing up. In some parts of my mind Beirut is permanently wired together with images of blood and fire. It doesn’t help that car bombs still occasionally explode in that city today.

I was there for a month in April. Whenever I returned to the city from a tour of the countryside and I saw road signs that said “Beirut,” my stomach twisted up into knots. I was based in Beirut and I knew it wasn’t anything like a scene of constant carnage. No bombs exploded while I stayed in the city. Beirut feels (almost) perfectly safe when you’re in it. From a distance it looks far darker and more dangerous than it actually is.

More people were murdered in Portland this year than were killed in Beirut. Yet I don’t fear for my safety at all in this city. I don’t worry that I might be shot when I go downtown. No one who lives here does. I certainly wouldn’t leave Portland to get away from our murder rate. Ours, low as it is, is still higher than Beirut’s.

The war in Lebanon has been over for fifteen years. The Syrians are out, and it is more or less a free country. Hezbollah is still there, but they only control small pieces of it. Beirut is a good time now. Monot Street, along the formerly war-shattered Green Line dividing the east side from the west, is now the hottest and most fun nightlife street in the entire Middle East.

Back in the day Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East, and it’s being called that once again. Actually it’s more like the Amsterdam of the Middle East. It’s the one place in the region where damn near everything is legal and hardly anything is taboo. If you’re looking for booze, gambling, and hookers on your next holiday, you can do a lot worse than go to Beirut, believe me.

Anyway, here’s the thing. When I tell people I’m moving there almost everyone I know is shocked and appalled. Some don’t believe me and I have to repeat myself. “Yes, I really am moving to Beirut.” Their idea of the place is frozen in 1982. “Paris of the Middle East” is not what comes to their minds.

Around one-third of those I’ve talked to ask me if women wear burkhas in Lebanon. No, they do not wear burkhas. No one ever wears a burkha in Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of women, Christian and Muslim alike, wear modern clothes without a veil or a hijab. I did not see a single veiled woman in a month, not even in the conservative Muslim villages. Only half the women in even the ultra-conservative Hezbollah-controlled areas bother with the scarf over their hair. The rest look and dress like Italians.

One guy I know actually asked me if they have electricity in Beirut. He figured they probably have it, but he wasn’t sure. I hardly knew how to tell him that Beirut is vastly more modern, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated than his hometown of Boise, Idaho.

Most people are shocked that it’s possible to get a drink in Beirut, and they flat-out don’t believe me when I tell them the nightclubs and bars are better than most of ours in the United States.

Here’s a conversation I had over and over again with different people in Lebanon:

Local Person: Welcome to Lebanon! Are you enjoying your stay?

Me: Yes, thank you, Lebanon is a wonderful.

Local Person: You know we don’t have camels here, right?

Me: (Laughs.) Yes, I know. No camels in Lebanon.

Local Person: Everyone thinks we have camels. This is a modern country.

I’m going to write a great deal about the bad things in the Middle East, including the bad things in Lebanon: Hezbollah, squalid Palestinian refugee camps, Baathists, Islamists, “honor” killings, terrorism, secret police, knee-jerk conspiracy theorists, and all the rest of it. But I’m going to write about the good things, as well, the things that make the Middle East a pleasant place to visit and even (in some places) to live. I want to write about all of it, at least as close to all of it as one person can manage. I feel I owe it to the people whom I’ll be living and traveling amongst. They deserve fair and honest representation, and they certainly won’t get it from AP and Reuters reporters who write about little except bombs and explosions. But I owe it to myself as well. If, in the future, fewer people over-react to my travel plans as though I have a crazed death wish, that would be nice.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:03 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 16, 2005

The Bastards Did It Again

Now that I have decided to move to Beirut, I take a look at each day’s news with a growing sense of dread. This keeps happening.

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb exploded in a mainly Christian residential neighborhood of Beirut late on Friday, killing one person and wounding at least 23, Red Cross and security sources said.

The bomb exploded near a branch of Lebanon's Byblos Bank in the area of Achrafieh and was heard throughout the capital. A senior security source said it consisted of 10 kg (22 lb) of TNT.

"What we lived this night was like hell," Eva Nashleklian told Reuters as she wiped blood off her arm.

The blast shattered windows and set two cars ablaze. Ambulances ferried the wounded to nearby hospitals. One was in a serious condition, a Red Cross source said.

Lebanese security forces sealed off streets leading to the blast site and investigators began collecting evidence.

"We were asleep and woke up horrified by the blast," said 40-year old Hanna Botrous.

"We saw smoke billowing and were scared in the beginning, but we were expecting something like this to happen," he said.

Far more people have been murdered by terrorists lately in the supposedly safe Western cities of New York, London, and Madrid. But this constant drip-drip-drip of low-level violent attacks is somehow more frightening even as it is less deadly. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will almost certainly hear, if not actually see or (God forbid) feel, explosions while I'm living there in that city.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:16 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 15, 2005

The Swamp Thing

Browning Porter explains in the comments why a debate between George Galloway and Christopher Hitchens needed to happen.

Some of our dovish comrades are having trouble understanding the value of last nights debate. So let me explain.

There is a large element of the antiwar Left that is willing to overlook Galloway's shortcomings as a Leftist and as a human being and to make common cause with him. Don't tell me there isn't. I heard with my own ears, and read with my own eyes, all the chattering admiration for him after his congressional testimony. It's comes from the same impulse that is willing to give the demegoguery of Michael Moore every benefit of every doubt. Galloway is currently on a book tour through the US, organized by the antiwar Left, to capitalize on his "success" before congress. He is also, without apology, whipping up support for jihad in Iraq. Someone needs to expose him, especially to the Left, as the fascist-fellating fraud that he is. And that exposure has to come, to some extent, from the Left. It means nothing if Limbaugh or O'Reilley have a go at him.

Hitchens is the perfect man for the job. He's intelligent, witty, and he is not intimidated by the likes of Galloway. In every debate on the Iraq war I've heard him in, it has seemed in the show-of-hands straw polls that more people have left agreeing with him than came in.

Those of you who abhor an apostate have much to hate in Hitchens. And we can count on you to fling all manner of feces at him. (I'm taking odds back channel on how long before someone accuses him of holocaust denial, or ratting out his buddy, Sidney.) But those who can be persuaded at all by a reasonable argument may just barely be reachable by Hitchens.

For example, where Galloway has been visiting with Tariq Aziz, Hitchens has been visiting with the Kurdish resistance, and that is a hard fact for someone with any moral center at all to overlook. Hitchens has also been very critical of the Right and the Bush administration on all the right issues. You can't simply smear him, as Galloway tried to do last night, with something Marie Antoinettish that Barbara Bush apparently said about the Superdome. It won't stick.

All true. But it’s not good enough for someone like Hitchens to publicly spank George Galloway. Left-liberals who oppose the war in Iraq need to step up and take a few cracks at him, too.

Marc Cooper is the man for that job, and he does a fine job indeed working over the Swamp Thing from Scotland. Go read it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:37 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 14, 2005

Gruesome George in His Own Words

Mary Madigan and Judith Weiss are attending the Hitchens/Galloway debate and handing out leaflets made by Gene over at Harry’s Place.

Here’s what the leaflets say.

George Galloway: No Hero for the Democratic Left

“If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.”

--George Galloway (The Guardian, 9/16/02)

"In poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians. Pakistan is always on the brink of breaking apart into its widely disparate components. Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together... Democracy is a means, not an end in itself."

--George Galloway on General Musharraf’s coup against the elected government in Pakistan (The Mail on Sunday, 10/17/99)

"I'm no friend of the Syrian regime, but Syrian troops in Lebanon maintain stability and protect the country from Israel. Lebanon is an Arab country with a border with the Zionist state and that is a very dangerous place."

--George Galloway, defending Syria’s occupation of Lebanon less than five months before it ended (The Lebanon Daily Star, 12/7/04)

"Syria is exposed to foreign pressure because she represents the last castle of the Arab dignity and the Arab rights."

--George Galloway on the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad (Arabicnews.com, 7/25/05)

“Actually, the Iraqi resistance does not target its own civilians. But the people that are being fought by the resistance in Iraq are the people that are working for the occupation.”

--George Galloway (BBC Newsnight, 1/18/05). Three days later a suicide car bomber killed 14 Shiite worshippers as they left a Baghdad mosque (The Scotsman, 1/22/05)

“I thought the President would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the war, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam…Sir, I salute your courage, your strength your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory until Jerusalem."

--George Galloway, flattering the mass murderer Saddam Hussein in person (The Times of London, 1/20/94)

"Mr. Tariq Aziz and thousands of political prisoners are still held illegally as hostages by the occupation authorities…He is viewed with high esteem worldwide by... international figures who have valued his counsel, met him, discussed and negotiated with him."

--George Galloway (The Evening Standard, 4/18/05).

The UK human rights group Indict provides testimony from witnesses who saw Tariq Aziz shoot people at close range, and who report Aziz had advance knowledge of the 1988 gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja (www.indict.org.uk). Galloway has written of being on "the crowded dance floor of a North African nightclub... dancing with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq." (The New Republic Online, 4/22/05)

"A civil war with massive violence on both sides."

--George Galloway describing Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults on Kurds, democrats and Marsh Arabs in 1991 (“I’m Not the Only One,” Penguin Books Ltd, 2005)

"Just as Stalin industrialized the Soviet Union, so on a different scale Saddam plotted Iraq’s own Great Leap Forward. He managed to keep his country together until 1991. Indeed, he is likely to have been the leader in history who came closest to creating a truly Iraqi national identity, and he developed Iraq and the living, health, social and education standards of his own people."

--George Galloway (“I’m Not the Only One,” 2005)

“The courts killed this woman and I don’t think there can be any justification for it.”

--George Galloway on the death of Terri Schiavo (BBC Question Time, 3/31/05)

"A party trick."

--George Galloway on Iraqi trade unionists’ tearful recollections of torture at the hands of Ba'athists (The Independent, 1/7/05)

“A very, very profound connection.”

--George Galloway, describing his admiration for the Confederate Civil War general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who fought to preserve slavery, which he considered ordained by God (The Sunday Herald of Scotland, 8/7/05)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:07 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

The Hitch Vs. Gruesome George

Christopher Hitchens is debating George Galloway in New York tonight, and oh how I wish I could be there. The brawl will be aired live, though, right here according to Hitchens. What might we expect from this affair? Something like this:

My old friend and frequent critic Geoffrey Wheatcroft once tried to define a moment of perfect contentment and came up with the idea of opening a vintage wine while settling down to read an undiscovered work by P.G. Wodehouse. Another comrade identified bliss with writing or reading very hard in the afternoon, knowing that someone really, really nice was coming to dinner. I, too, have a taste for the simpler pleasures. Can I convey the deep sense of delight that stole over me when I learned that George Galloway and Jane Fonda were to go on an "anti-war" tour together and that the idea of this perfect partnership had come from Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues?

The pure silliness and risibility of the thing would have been quite beyond one's power of invention. And, oh, just to be present when they finally meet. Jane can shyly tell George, who yells daily about the rape of Jerusalem by Zionism, of the brave days in 1982 when she and Tom Hayden went to entertain Gen. Sharon's invading troops in Lebanon. He can huskily and modestly discuss (he says he's a great admirer of her role in Barefoot in the Park) his long record as one of Britain's leading pro-life politicians, and his more recent outrage at the judicial "murder" of Terri Schiavo.

Jane Fonda, who the last I heard was in the throes of a post-orgasmic spiritual transfiguration, was a byword for ditziness even on the left when I was young, and she now issues apologies for her past politics almost as rapidly as Barbarella changed positions. Galloway, however, is nothing if not grimly consistent.

Here, just for an example, is what he said as recently as July, after speaking at the Al-Assad Library in the Syrian capital of Damascus, about the host after whose foul dynasty that library is named:

We covered the whole world in 60 minutes. I was very impressed by his knowledge, by his sharpness, by his flexible mind. I was very, very impressed. … Syria is lucky to have Bashar al-Assad as her President.
[…]

Thus, and thanks in part to Eve and Jane, the "anti-war" movement has as its new star a man who is openly pro-war, but openly on the other side. A man who supported the previous oppressors of the region—the Soviet army in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq—who supports its current oppressors—Bashar Assad and his Lebanese proxies—and who still has time to endorse its potential future tyrants in the shape of the jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere. Galloway began his political life as a fifth-rate apologist for the Soviet Union, but he has now diversified into being an apologist for Stalinism, for fascism, and for jihadism all at once! All this, and Jane, too. One's cup runs over.

The debate is tonight at 7:00 EST.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:40 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 12, 2005

From Portland to Beirut – and Beyond

At the end of September I’m moving from Portland, Oregon to Beirut, Lebanon for six months. I’ll rent an apartment and use the city as a base to visit the rest of the region, starting with Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Jordan.

I need a break from domestic politics. So I’m setting out to write about The World instead. The first places I’m going to visit after I secure my apartment are the very places the State Department tells me not to go anywhere near: Hezbollah’s militarized state-within-a-state in Beirut’s southern suburbs, and the wretched Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Then I’m going to Damascus so I can experience a real live Baath Party police state up close and in person.

I am not an unbiased observer, and I have no intention to write bloodlessly neutral “he said, she said” AP-style wire pieces. But I will try with all my heart to get it right and be fair.

Tech Central Station will publish my work four times per month instead of only twice. I intend to write for other publications as well, and I already have some tentative work lined up with a handful of newspapers, magazines, and online new media.

There is still room, though, for some more assignments. If you’re an editor interested in Middle Eastern political reporting, travel writing, and “muddy boots” analysis, please send me an email at michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com.

The blog will still be up and running the whole time. I do not intend to abandon it. Hardly anyone I know of has blogged from so many different countries, and I’m not going to pass up the opportunity.

If you feel so inclined, now would be a good time to hit my tip jar. I’ve never asked for money from readers before, and I sure could use it now. My income is modest, to put it mildly, and filing stories from the Middle East is no way to get rich.

Aside from packing my bags, I’m ready to go. I’ve had enough of opinionated bloviating for a while and I’m looking forward to adding to the world’s knowledge, even if ever so slightly, rather than merely adding to the world’s noise. Starting two weeks from now, everything I publish should be more worth writing and – I hope you’ll agree – more worth reading, as well.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:53 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

September 11, 2005

Back Shortly…

Been out of town and busy. Back shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:31 PM | 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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