October 31, 2005

Internet Hell

Call me crazy, but I figured that going from the Middle East to a European Union country would improve my Internet situation. It didn't. Cyprus is Internet hell. Internet access here consists, for the most part, of coin-operated terminals that cost twenty dollars an hour. These things aren't even real computers. They look like video poker machines from a distance. Lebanon is a high-tech Japan by comparison. At least Beirut has wi-fi, even if it isn't great. Portland, Oregon, seems like the 23rd Century from where I'm sitting right now.

I have some photos of the Atilla Line (the line of partition created by the Turkish military in 1974). I also have photos of a modern Greek urban ghost town south of Famagusta on the Turkish side. There are medium-height buildings that form a skyline on the coast, houses, stores, business districts, etc. - all of them sealed off with barbed wire and left uninhabited for the past 31 years. Almost all the windows have been blown out in the meantime, and some buildings are collapsing on unmaintained foundations. It is stranger by far than any of Beirut's physical "casualties" of war.

Taking photos is forbidden, but I took some anyway. I accidentally took a picture just as a Turkish military patrol rounded a corner. The soldiers saw me and got out of the jeep, looking in my direction as they did so. I hightailed it away from the forbidden zone as fast as I could without running. They did not come after me, so I still have the pictures.

I would like to post those photos right now. But that isn't possible. Like I said, Cyprus is Internet hell.

Soon I will post something real, something other than a complaint, probably Wednesday when I have at least half-assed access to technology when I return to Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:22 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 28, 2005

Rogue States

The Syrians have left Beirut alone since I got here. But they have been smuggling people and weapons into Lebanon for weeks. Yesterday their proxies known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine kidnapped six Lebanese soldiers in the Bekaa Valley. I assure you the so-called “popular front” is not at all popular in this country.

Just in time for me to take a forced break. I need a fresh visa stamp, so I’m going to Cyprus.

As tiny as Cyprus is, it isn’t one place. Since 1974 the island has been divided into two separate countries.

The southern Greek Cypriot half recently joined the E.U. So it’s “Europe,” even though it’s on an island off the coast of the Middle East.

The northern Turkish Cypriot half is a rogue state recognized by only one single country in the entire world. The Turks partitioned the island by force in an invasion in 1974, then ethnically and culturally “cleansed” the northern half of its Greek Cypriot citizens.

The city of Nicosia is the capital of both countries. It is the only divided capital left in the world. The Green Line (with its walls, razor wire, guard towers, and land mines) cuts right through the heart of it.

Until last year it was not possible to cross the Green Line. If you wanted to visit Cyprus you had to ask yourself which sounded more interesting: Europe, or Turkish-backed rogue state? Almost everyone chose Europe. Once you visited one side, you were banned from the other.

Fortunately, though, the Green Line is now open. You can walk and even drive right across. So I don’t have to make the choice. I’m going to both sides.

Cyprus is simultaneously European and Middle Eastern. One half is a liberal democracy. The other half is something else. Its inhabitants are “Turkish” and “Greek,” both of which are European ethnicities. But it is physically closer to the Middle East than it is to Europe. And its history makes me think of the Middle East. It was a British colony until the 70s. And its bloody tale of sectarian war and partition echo, in different ways and to a certain extent, both Lebanon and Palestine.

As I pack my bags for the 30-minute flight, I’ll leave you with this poem by Turkish Cypriot writer Mehmet Yassin called The Myth Of Our Own Cat.

When I was a small child I wondered

if she was Greek,

the cat of our Greek neighbor.

One day I asked my mother

if cats are Turkish

and dogs are Greek.

Their dogs had snarled at our kittens.

Days later

I saw

our cat

eat the very kittens that she’d given birth to.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:25 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 26, 2005

Who’s Afraid of the Pig?

When you’re safe and sound in your snug house in the West, the Middle East can look totally whacked when you pick up the newspaper. But guess what else is true? When you’re in the Middle East, the West looks absolutley bonkers sometimes as well.

Here are two examples. (Hat tip: Instapundit.)

First, pig stories are banned in some schools in Britain.

A West Yorkshire head teacher has banned books containing stories about pigs from the classroom in case they offend Muslim children. The literature has been removed from classes for under-sevens at Park Road Junior Infant and Nursery School in Batley. [Emphasis added.]
Some banks are now frightened of “piggy banks.”
The Koran forbids the eating of "the flesh of swine", and as a result, NatWest and Halifax have taken down promotional posters which feature piggy banks.
Can I make a new rule? Anyone who is in a position of power and who will make policies relating to Muslims is first required to visit Muslim countries.

Look. I’m in Lebanon. Somewhere around 35 or 40 percent of the people who live here are Christian. Except for around 60 Jews, the rest are Muslims. This is a Muslim-majority country. Muslims outnumber Christians approximately two to one. And yet pork – pork – is all over this place. I had a pizza for lunch today. My pizza had ham on it. Not fake halal “ham,” but actual pig meat. The restaurant that served me this pizza is on the Muslim side of the city.

I have sliced ham in my refridgerator. Guess where I bought it? I bought it at a regular grocery store on the Muslim side of the city.

I guess it’s possible that religious Muslims are offended that Christians, liberal Muslims, and atheist “Muslims” eat pork. Some vegetarians are offended. Some Jews probably are too. So? Onions offend me. That’s my problem, not your problem. So I don’t eat them. End of problem.

I wonder how many Muslims are actually offended by the fact that I can buy pork in restaurants and stores in the Muslim parts of Beirut. Not enough to make any difference, apparently, because pig meat is and has been readily available.

Don’t tell me “oh, that’s just Beirut.” It’s not just Beirut. I also saw plenty of pork in Tunisia. I’m not just talking about the hotels either. Tunisia is 99 percent Sunni Muslim Arab. And if you want pork in Tunisia, just go to a French restaurant. They are everywhere in that country. French food is that nation’s second cuisine. And it has pork in it. Big deal. Somehow Tunisian society manages to hold itself together without tearing itself to pieces over some imaginary “pork problem.”

If Muslims in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East can handle pig meat, I think Muslims in Britain can handle plastic piggy banks and The Three Little Pigs. If they can’t handle those things they need to learn how to handle those things. Tolerance is not only for the majority.

But I don’t think I’m wrong.

[O]ne of Britain's four Muslim MPs, Khalid Mahmoud, said: "A piggybank is just an ornament. Muslims would never be seriously offended."
Listen to that man, stop condescending to minorities, and put the piggy banks back.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:31 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 25, 2005

Things Don’t Work Right

Some things just aren’t right in this country.

If I want to make an international phone call to the United States, it costs me several dollars per minute. I don’t even want to think about how much it costs per hour. So I don’t call anyone. Ever. The two Lebanese cell phone companies, Alfa and MTC Touch, could make a lot more money from me if they came up with a price point that isn’t completely offensive. So far they've made exactly zero from me on long-distance.

The average Lebanese salary is 800 dollars per month. And yet it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call to your friend across the street. Per capita GDP here is only a fourth of what it is in the United States. Imagine if you had to pay two dollars per minute just to call to the pizza delivery place.

Supposedly you can call anyone in the world for free if you use Skype or Yahoo Messenger with Voice. But you can’t do it from Lebanon. I’ve tried calling my wife this way several times. I can hear her perfectly. But the upload speed is so slow she can’t understand a word I say.

That’s because the Internet connection in my apartment is as slow as a slug on Quaaludes. And I'm paying extra for the "high-speed" option. It’s only 60 percent reliable. And it costs twice as much as my ultra-fast cable modem connection at home. I’m paying twice as much money, and I get nothing for that extra money but frustration and headaches.

I don’t know if it’s true or if it isn’t, but I’ve been told the government here regulates the Internet and forbids high speed access because they want people to use their phones. Excuse me, but my phone is such a goddamn rip-off there isn’t a chance that’s going to happen. And I make way more money than the average Lebanese person.

This horrible extortionist Internet and telephone “service” got knocked out, along with all the electricity, by one thunderstorm last week. There wasn’t even very much lightning. There was not enough lightning for me to think cool, lightning - and I love a good thunderstorm. The infrastructure was zotted so badly one Lebanese person told me he thought we were under attack. I figured, no, it’s just Lebanon. And I was right.

If you ever come to Lebanon and need to send an international fax, let me tell you right now you can forget it.

I spent four hours yesterday and today trying to find a place that will send a fax for me. I went from one copy shop and Internet café and bookstore to another. None have this capability. Some of the clerks looked at me as though I had asked if they have any hookers in the back. Everywhere I went I asked if they can recommend a place that does send international faxes. Some had no idea. Others suggested places that I could try. Not one of the recommended places could send a fax.

I finally just went to a five-star hotel. At first I felt silly for not having thought of that sooner. Surely a five-star hotel can send a fax!

Not necessarily. I found one and went up to the desk.

“Yes, we can send international faxes,” the woman said from behind the counter. “It costs six dollars per minute.”

“Fine,” I said, even though it was a total rip-off.

I handed her my document and she went into another room. She came back three minutes later. “It isn’t working,” she said.

Big surprise. I braced for her to say “that will be eighteen dollars, please,” but she took mercy on me and didn’t charge me a thing.

I guess I’ll scan my document and email it. That should only take three hours to pull off in this country – Inshallah.

In the meantime, for the love of God, please do not ask me to send you a fax for any reason. It is not going to happen.

When I go home in March, I imagine I’ll feel like I’ve just landed in Tokyo in the year 2050.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:33 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 24, 2005

The Source of the Chaos

I have a new piece up at Tech Central Station about Syria and Lebanon after the Mehlis report: The Source of the Chaos.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:53 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

It’s Not All About the U.S.

Some people insist on viewing the conflict between Syria and Lebanon strictly through the prism of U.S. foreign policy in the region. I understand why it’s tempting to do this if you’re an American who doesn’t like U.S. policy. That goes double if you’re a Syrian Baathist.

My friend and anonymous blogger Lebanon.Profile over at the Lebanese Political Journal isn’t happy about it.

UPDATE: See also Tony Badran at Across the Bay for more on the same problem.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:48 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 22, 2005

Mehlis Day

Fear and apprehension turned to anger and relief in Beirut after the Mehlis report named Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law as the chief suspect, and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud as a possible accomplice, in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

The city didn’t explode. I didn’t think it would, but a lot of Lebanese thought it best to stay home. The army heavily deployed into the streets. It is mostly comforting, but also slightly unsettling, to see scenes like this one.

Army on Mehlis Day.jpg

The city could always explode tomorrow or even today. But, again, I’m not particularly worried that it will. Beirut felt like it was going to explode when I was here in April. The fear was that the war would start up again. It didn’t. I think Lebanon has matured more than some Lebanese realize. And Syria is not exactly feeling confident and strong at the moment.

I do sometimes wonder, though, if I am being naïve because I haven’t experienced for myself just how bad things can get here. I also wonder if this entire culture is still wracked with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is accordingly paranoid about worst case scenarios. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Other times, Lebanese people seem war-hardened and completely unflappable. The mixed signals are hard to sort out. I’m less confident than I would like to be. But for what it’s worth I feel no fear whatsoever walking these streets. Things are totally normal almost always and everywhere.

I found a group of students at the American University of Beirut sitting on the steps near the gate reading copies of the Mehlis report in English.

Mehlis Report at AUB.jpg

I walked up to them and asked where they found copies. Was someone on campus distributing them, as was rumored?

“Go to Tayyar.org,” one of them said to me.

“Okay,” I said and turned to walk away.

“Wait,” he said. “Do you want a copy?”

“Yes, please,” I said. “Do you have one?”

“I am going to make a copy right now for myself. I will come back with two.”

“Thank you,” I said and put my hand over my heart.

He came back with two copies.

“How much do I owe you?” I said.

“No, no, it’s okay,” he said as he handed me dozens of typed pages.

Automobile traffic and foot traffic picked up throughout the day. The pall of fear over the city slowly was lifted. I only managed to find one single person who was convinced more violence would follow. But I suppose those most fearful stayed home and were impossible for me to talk to.

There was a rally that night at Martyr’s Square and across the street at the grave site of Rafik Hariri.

Thousands gathered, sang patriotic songs, and shouted “Down with Assad!” and “Down with Lahoud!”

Mehlis Day Rally.jpg

A group of young Druze men took over the Martyr’s Square statue.

Druze at Martyrs Square.jpg

Dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, carried or wore signs that said Justice in Arabic.

Justice Sign on Mehlis Day.jpg

More messages were added to the wall in memory of Rafik Hariri. The young man below is writing And the truth shall set you free.

Writing on the Wall.jpg

One young woman carried a sign that said Lahoud is a big ugly fat bitch and Bachar [Assad] is fucked by our people. Emile Lahoud is still president of Lebanon. This is not your typical Middle East country.

Lahoud is a Bitch.jpg

Not everyone at the rally seemed happy or defiant. Some just looked sad, as though they were reliving the painful day of the assassination all over again.

Sadness at Rally.jpg

But for the most part the mood was jubilant. The truth was out after 250 days. U.N. special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is a hero in Lebanon.

I Love Mehlis.jpg

The Truth.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:09 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 21, 2005

Assad’s Brother-in-law Named

U.N. special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis named Ashef Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief and President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, as the chief suspect in the assassination plot against Rafik Hariri.

Lebanon this morning was quiet and subdued in the wake of the news. Automobile traffic is down. Foot traffic is down even more. Downtown Beirut is eerily silent. Military checkpoints have been beefed up substantially. Armored vehicles and heavy artillery are set up in front of potential targets. I noticed some hotels won’t allow cars to enter their parking lots without first having bomb squads check under the chassis with mirrors for bombs. But I saw that last time I was in Lebanon, in April, and I’m unsure if this is a resumed policy or if it has been in place the whole time. I will say that I haven’t noticed it on this trip until now.

I did see a number of large old white people with hats and cameras wandering around downtown. Perhaps a cruise ship just deposited them blissfully unaware into a frying pan.

But it doesn’t feel like a frying pan here, at least not to me. It’s a nice day, actually. The weather is glorious. The air is crisp and clear. The sky is so hard and so blue you could scratch your fingernails on it. For the first time since I got here I can see the peaks of Mount Lebanon unobscured by clouds or humid haze. I can see all the way up the coast, in fact, with perfect clarity. As long as everything remains as calm as it is now, today is likely the best day in months to arrive as a tourist.

I had conversations with a handful of people this morning and none were particularly worried about what is going to happen. Don’t assume, though, that that’s the general consensus just yet. I’ve only talked to a handful. And those who are scared are holed up in their houses where I cannot so easily talk to them.

For what it’s worth, I’m not worried. I’ll be out on the street all day today, talking to people, reading the temperature, and taking photos of anything interesting I happen to see. There may be a demonstration in Martyr’s Square later today, but I haven’t been able to confirm that just yet.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:43 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 20, 2005

The Eve of the Mehlis Report

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. - Eric Hoffer (Via Lebanese blogger Ramzi)

Tomorrow the U.N.’s special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis will release his long-awaited report on the results of his investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Saddam Hussein’s trial may have begun yesterday, but Lebanon is more concerned with the other Baath Party, the one that’s still in power in Syria. The question, at this point, is not whether the Syrian regime will be implicated. It will be. The question is: how high up in the regime are those Mehlis will name?

The U.S. and France are already geared up to punish Bashar Assad. They’re just waiting for Mehlis to say “go.” Assad has already lost plenty of face. When he lost Lebanon so fast and so furiously, his weakness was revealed for all the world to see. If the U.N. indicts him, or men close enough to him, whatever legitimacy his government has left in the eyes of the international community may fall to its level of legitimacy inside Lebanon.

Many Lebanese worry not so much about what the report will say. They worry about what Syria will do about what the report says. Syria could violently lash out inside Lebanon. It’s possible. But I don’t expect it will happen. Assad has had a rough year. It looks like his year is about to get worse. He will not be able to save himself by turning Lebanon into Iraq.

Few people in the world have the nerve to call for Assad’s head. They don’t want Syria to turn into another Iraq. Syria really does look like an Iraq waiting to happen. But Assad would have to be dumber than his harshest critics insist if he thinks the world would prefer the Iraqification of the region to the Iraqification of Syria. He has his reluctant defenders because he looks like the least bad option for now. He will be wise to keep it that way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:07 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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