June 29, 2006

Featured in Reason Magazine

I have a long feature article with photos in the next issue of Reason magazine about the slow breaking away of Northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

Reason Cover.jpg

Reason Spread.jpg

Reason doesn’t publish articles online until after the print version is off the shelves. So if you aren’t a subscriber, look for the August/September issue in bookstores. A lot of the material in The Kurds Go Their Own Way did not appear on this blog.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:31 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 28, 2006

Israeli Warplanes Say Hello to Assad

Syria's Bashar Assad was home when Israel sonic boomed his house in Latakiyya. He only continues to breathe because Israel feels like letting him continue to breathe. It must be nice to have morally superior enemies.

UPDATE: Speaking of morally superior enemies, Israel has arrested 60 Hamas members, including ministers in the Palestinian government. The French foreign minister condemned the arrests, but he's just posturing. When you murder civilians this is what happens to you if you're lucky. France wouldn't treat an anti-French terrorist organization so lightly, and neither would any other country. France deports imams for far lesser offenses. Russia is gearing up for a "hunt and destroy" mission in Iraq.

The al-Aksa Martyr's Brigades says they fired a chemical weapon at Israel, which Israel denies. Israelis could, if they felt like it, use that as a pretext for a brutal response. But they aren't.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:52 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 27, 2006

51 Facts About Me

(And now for something completely different. I need to mix it up every once in a while. We will return to our regular programming shortly.)

When I was ten years old my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said "English teacher."

When I was a kid I never went through a "girls have germs" phase. I always liked girls and had simultaneous crushes on two of them in kindergarten.

I have been a news junkie since I was 12 years old and had a paper route.

I had another paper route in college so I could buy beer and cds.

I lived with two girlfriends before I got married.

My wife and I bought a house a year and a half before we were married and six months after we met.

I got terrible grades in high school, including in English class, and "they" put me into the advanced English class anyway. I thought "they" were crazy. I no longer do.

I got excellent grades in college.

I have contempt for stupid people.

I don't think there is anything wrong with smoking marijuana (in moderation) and I think it should be legalized immediately. Although I almost never smoke it myself and I don't intend to smoke it if it does become legal. (And no, I am not lying about the last part.)

My wife and I saw a live sex show in Amsterdam, but we have never watched pornography together.

I love spicy food. The only food too spicy for me is a habanero pepper all by itself.

I love to argue for sport and don't take arguments personally as long as my opponent isn't an asshole.

I almost always vote Democrat, but I am not a "liberal" and I am not afraid to vote for Republicans or members of the weird parties. (Nader yes, Perot no.)

I was baptized Catholic and raised Protestant.

My father is a life-long atheist.

I am not religious.

My mother is a squishy liberal.

My father is a Republican In Name Only.

My brother has been to all seven continents, including Antarctica - the bastard. I made it to South America and the Middle East first, though.

I would like to be a libertarian, but too many of them are crazy and the party itself is an even bigger joke than our two major parties.

My favorite move is Blade Runner.

My favorite author is William Shakespeare.

My favorite American cities are New York and Chicago.

I hate onions. I mean, I really hate them and I can't understand why on earth anyone eats them.

I can't stand it when people pretend to like bad art just to be nice. If it's bad and the artist is talentless you look like a bufoon if you say you think otherwise.

I am not, and will never become, a vegetarian.

I think the NRA is kooky, but I have no problem with firearms.

I hate sharing the road with SUVs. I can't see around, over, or through them.

I like loud music and my wife and I constantly struggle over control of the car stereo volume.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the best TV show ever.

I generally do not like TV.

I prefer beer and (red) wine to hard alcohol. I can't tell you what is in any mixed drink.

Contrary to most Americans, I would rather visit Latin America or the Middle East than Europe. The people - especially Arabs and Kurds - are more pleasant to be around.

I am morbidly fascinated by totalitarian regimes.

I want to visit North Korea. My wife wants to visit North Korea even more badly than I do.

I never intend to visit Cancun unless somebody else pays my way.

I have been to every state in the West except New Mexico. New Mexico has not been skipped for any particular reason.

I have never visited a single southern state, again for no particular reason.

My favorite country to visit is Lebanon. My second favorite country is Chile.

I speak Spanish badly.

I can kinda sorta slightly read French, but I have no idea how to pronounce it and I don't understand it when it is spoken.

I can say some things in Arabic, and I can understand some spoken Arabic, but I cannot construct sentences from scratch.

I like goth music, but I was never even close to being a "goth" when I was young.

My favorite musician is Lisa Gerrard. She has no peer.

If your computer is broken and anyone can fix it, I can fix it.

I can fall asleep instantly except one night every couple of months when I can't sleep at all.

It takes me 45 minutes to wake up in the morning. Waking up is a process, not an event.

I love road trips, but I don't think I can ever top my spontaneous road trip to Iraq with Sean. So now it's all downhill from here.

I can play the piano.

When I was 17 years old I faced a decision: I will become a writer or I will become a musician. You know which one I chose.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:38 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 26, 2006

Interview with Islamists on the Way

I'm still busy, sorry. Soon, though, I'll publish an interview from Northern Iraq with one of the leaders of an Islamist political party called the Kurdistan Islamic Union. This is another story that fell through the cracks and still needs to get out into the world. The interview will, I think, surprise a lot of people. It sure surprised me, so watch for it here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:35 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 24, 2006

Yes, It’s Fun, Really

Lots of people I know have a hard time believing me when I say Beirut is a good time, that it's a terrific destination for tourists, that I haven't turned myself into one of those morbid "war tourism" types who goes to disaster zones for cheap thrills.

I'm far from the only one. Here's an excerpt from a Daily Star article on Beirut's rave scene:

John Askew - who is returning to Lebanon for a gig with Van Dyk on July 8 - started it all when he headlined the Monot Music Festival in June 2002. It remains one of his favorite nights.

"Beirut was nuts," he says. "There were all these really dressed-up, sexy, affluent-looking clubbers going crazy and yet in every direction you looked there were buildings riddled with bullet holes. [I was] a little apprehensive, but it's an amazing place. Mental. Wicked party scene."

Beirut has been fun longer than I've been alive. It's even fun when it's (almost) at it's worst.

Lebanon.Profile recently filed this on a visit to the U.S.

The driver picked me up from the airport.

He asked, "Where you coming from?"

I said, "Lebanon."

He said, "Tell me. Is the St. George Hotel still there?"

Stunned, I said, "Yes, but it's not been repaired or renovated since the war. Are you Lebanese?"

He said, "No, no. I served in the US Navy and was sent to Lebanon in 1958. The whole 6th fleet was there. From the beach, it was battleships, boats, and aircraft carriers as far as the eye could see. We boarded the beach and there were all these women in bikinis all over and guys selling stuff. We didn't see any war going on. All we saw were people enjoying themselves. We couldn't tell who the enemy was. From our view, it didn't seem like there were any.

"I got one of those checkered things in a shopping district near the St. George."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 23, 2006

Busy Again, Alas

I’m swamped all of a sudden with unexpected non-writing related work I need to stay on top of. Blogging may be slow. I’ll be back with more as soon as possible.

Feel free to sound off about whatever in the comments. Just remember to be nice to your fellow humans.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:06 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 21, 2006

Lebanon Hurts Those Who Love Her

My wife and I honeymooned in Spain. It is our favorite country in Europe. We stayed in the Hotel Murillo in old Sevilla and I read to her passages from Jan Morris's breathtakingly beautiful book Spain. Morris wrote of an España that no longer is, when it was an enchanting yet troubled country desperately clawing its way out of the Franoist hole dug by the Falange.

I'll never forget one of the Spaniards she quoted. "Spain hurts me," he said. "It hurts me."

I knew what this Spaniard meant, though I couldn't feel it. Shelly and I fell in love with Spain almost on contact. But it never hurt us. It's a modern prosperous European democracy now. The Spain of Jan Morris was the same place, but it was also a different place. Just as beautiful, just as romantic, and even more still exotic. But also dark and despondent with a tortured past and a precarious future. I almost wished I could have seen the old Spain and knew what it felt like to fall for such a place.

Now I know what it feels like.

When I first arrived in Beirut more than a year ago I thought, amazed, how dramatically different the city is from the one depicted in Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem:

Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea - an idea that meant something not only to the Lebanese but to the entire Arab world. While today just the word “Beirut” evokes images of hell on earth, for years Beirut represented - maybe dishonestly - something quite different, something almost gentle; the idea of coexistence and the spirit of tolerance, the idea that diverse religious communities - Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze - could live together, and even thrive, in one city and one country without having to abandon altogether their individual identities.


Many Lebanese were either too young to remember or too poor to have ever tasted the cosmopolitan life of the Beirut city center, so they never mourned its passing. But for those members of the Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie who really exploited the beautiful side of Beirut, life will never be quite the same again without it. True, they had never paid much attention to the Shiite, Palestinian, and even Christian underclasses upon whose backs Beirut’s joie de vivre rested, and they believed in the fantasy of Lebanese democracy much more than they ever should have, but they were my friends and I happened to be a witness when their world was murdered.

Long after the civil war began, many of these true Beirutis kept the addresses of their offices in the ravaged city center on their stationary as symbols of solidarity with the past and hope for the future. As the years went by, some of them emigrated, unable to tolerate a Beirut in which Christians and Muslims were being forced to live in separate, isolated ghettos. But many of them stayed, and today they form a whole new class of Beirut refugees. They are existential refugees, homeless souls, internal exiles. They are still sitting in their old apartments with bucolic paintings of the Lebanese countryside decorating the walls, in their favorite chairs with their favorite slippers - but they are no longer at home and never will be again.

The longer I stayed, the more I realized the city in some ways has hardly changed at all. Friedman is often accused of trafficking in cliches. And it's true, he often does. That's partly because he managed to distil the place down to its basics.

There's no war in Beirut any more. But Beirut is what it is, and refugees are its biggest export.

If you read the Lebanese bloggers in the diaspora you'll come across the same painful cry of the Spaniard who told Jan Morris that his country hurts him. You might have noticed the same sort of sentiment expressed in my own writing, although never so anguished or pointed, where - at least while I lived there - my dispatches were sometimes swooning, other times frustrated, and still other times filled with despair. Lebanon is like that. I have never been anywhere in the world as fun and exciting and as endlessly, bottomlessly, fascinating as Beirut. And yet it's a damaged place that could, if the locals are to be believed, fly into pieces at any moment. I have more faith in their country than they do, but they know it better than I. Is my own judgement more objective or more naive? I ask myself that question a lot, and I don't know the answer. Perhaps I am a bit of both.

One of the best Lebanese bloggers is Abu Kais. He left his country and now lives in Washington. I nearly choked up when I read one of the recent posts on his blog From Beirut to the Beltway. He captures the dysfunctional relationship perfectly:

It used to be I saw an article in a Lebanese newspaper, or watched something on television that got my juices flowing, prompting a post or two. Alas, last Tuesday, after hearing [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah’s red lines speech, in which he declared himself and his followers an independent island within the sectarian archipelago that is Lebanon, what flowed were not my words, but my tears. I am ashamed to say that Hassan Nasrallah’s red lines, and Michel Aoun’s burning solutions made me cry.


Am I living a false promise by believing that Lebanon will one day succeed? When I decided that I could no longer live in my country, it was out of fear of self-destruction, much like Amal did in the video. I was too old to keep battling the thorns of Lebanese society, and not live my life to the fullest where I can. But look at me now. I may have left Lebanon physically, but I am still there in spirit. On Tuesday, the thorns managed to hurt again and caused my heart to bleed, despite the distance. For there was a person on television speaking on my behalf, setting limits I did not believe in, and reinforcing a reality that I chose to leave to him to shape. Do I even have the right to complain, let alone cry over a country I left behind? It makes no difference, for my actions then and now are the same, and the feeling cannot be helped, whether I am here or there. Lebanon is etched in my heart and my mind. My dreams are still set in my old Beirut apartment, where I grew up amid a bloody war. Every night, I go back to my old school that overlooked a Syrian missile launcher. And I sit in class listening to my favorite teachers as the explosions rock my classroom, and then I wait outside for my father to take me to shelter. And then I forget myself in my comic books, amid superheroes and infallible beings. And when reality beckons, I dive into biographies of great ones.

In 34 years, I have turned myself into an idealist from an evil, self-destructive world that haunts him no matter how much he tries to get away.

That is my predicament, and this is my blog.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:14 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

June 18, 2006

“The Israelis Live Over There, So I Don’t Have to Forgive Them!”

Mount Lebanon Region.JPG

I intended to publish this essay last year, but it got bumped and put into cold storage. Here it is after a too-long delay. – MJT

MOUNT LEBANON - Photojournalist Dan and I hitchhiked from the broiling and humid Mediterranean shore to the cool heights of the Mount Lebanon region where we could walk, breathe, and hang out in the sun without feeling like we had been dipped in a hot tub with our clothes on.

Dan wanted to go sight-seeing in comfort. I had other reasons for going. It would have been extraordinarily irresponsible to spend six months in Lebanon and get all my information from more or less like-minded people in the cosmopolitan core of Beirut. So I talked to random individuals on the street, in bars, and in cafes. I met with Hezbollah and attended one of their events. I spoke to people in the mountains and villages to get a read on the provinces.

It only takes one or two minutes to flag down a ride in Lebanon’s mountains, even if you’re an obvious foreigner. So Dan and I stuck out our thumbs (our open hands, actually) and hailed down two young mountain men in their convertible Jeep.

Roman Bridge Lebanon.jpg

Roman bridge over the Dog River

“Get in the back, guys,” the driver said.

Dan and I hopped in the back and sat on a pile of guns.

“I’m Firas,” said the driver with the Che Guevara style beard.

“I’m Joe,” said his buddy in the passenger seat. (Joe? His name was Joe?) Both spoke English with Arabic accents.

Firas hit the gas and spun around hair-raising mountain turns as though he were playing bumper cars at an amusement park. I tried in vain to get comfortable while sitting on five or six rifles, and tried in vain to pretend Firas knew how to drive like an adult.

“No Taliban here,” Firas said. “Only Hezbollah, ha ha. Too bad for you…we’re going to kill you now.”

Dan and I laughed out loud and introduced ourselves.

“Okay,” Firas said. “We promise not to kill you.”

“We can’t, man,” Joe said. “They’re sitting on the guns.”

"Oh shit," Firas said.

I pulled the notebook out of my pocket and did my best to write down the dialogue while Firas damn near careened us over cliffs and into the river.

Lebanese River.jpg

His driving was ferociously bad even for Lebanon. I suspected he was trying to impress me and Dan. Like most Lebanese, he had ripped the seatbelts out of his car.

“Where are you from?” Firas said.

“We’re Americans,” Dan said.

“I’ve met lots of Americans,” Firas said. “I recently got back from Iraq.”

“You were in Iraq?” I said. “Doing what? Killing the infidel?"

“Ha ha, no," he said. "Working in the Green Zone. I made a lot of money. A lot of money. But I’m glad to be back in Lebanon. It is beautiful here, yes? This is the Valley of Pain. Adonis was killed here and his blood made the river.”

I foolishly had forgotten my camera. Dan had his professional camera with him, but he rarely takes pictures of scenery. The pictures shown here were taken on similar roads on other trips.

“Show them the picture of the fish, dude,” Firas said.

Joe fished the digital camera out of his pocket and browsed through the photos. “Here it is,” he said and passed the camera to me and Dan in the back. Firas was shown holding a fish in his mouth by its head.

“You took this picture today?” I said.

“Yesterday,” Firas said. “We went camping. We’re on our way home now."

Lebanon Forest.jpg

“Man, I haven’t had a cigarette for two days!” Joe said.

“Do you go camping a lot?” Dan said.

“We do,” Joe said. “I want to meet an Americans woman who wants to go with me into the mountains to hunt. But American women never want to come with me. They think it is silly.”

“Nature is my religion,” Firas said. “I make love with the wolf and the sky.”


One of the real pleasures of traveling in the Middle East is the almost embarrassingly generous offers of friendship and hospitality from total strangers, especially in the small towns and villages.

Dan and I had spent most of the afternoon lolling around with a random family in the town of Yachouch. We had been trying to make our way to Aqfa, but we ended up on the wrong road and went far astray. A nice man dropped us off in Yachouch on his way home, and the instant we stepped out of the car a family having lunch in their front yard invited us to join them. We accepted, of course.

Christian Village Mount Lebanon.JPG

A Christian village, Metn region, Mount Lebanon

The oldest daughter, a Christian, had a Muslim boyfriend. She told us that every boyfriend she ever had was a Muslim and that her parents didn’t mind as long as she found a Christian to marry.

Her mother was addicted to politics, as most people in Lebanon are. She had her very own conspiracy theory revolving around American neoconservatives that would make an International ANSWER activist blush. As Dan and I left to head back to Beirut, she told me in no uncertain terms that I must bring my wife back to their house to celebrate Christmas.

So by the time Firas and Joe pulled the jeep into their village, the sun was going down and the air was getting cold.

"Time for beer!" Firas said and screeched the jeep to a halt in front of a grocery shack set back from the road. He opened the doors and gestured at a plastic table and four plastic chairs under a grand tree that was older than the republic. "Have a seat."

Dan and I settled in two plastic chairs. What a relief to get off the guns.

Firas and Joe went into the store and rummaged through the refrigerator. They came back with four green bottles of locally brewed Almaza beer with the caps already popped.

"Cheers!" Firas said and we clinked our bottles and began to drink.

"Tell me something, guys," Joe said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate Hezbollah!”

I tried to explain that most Americans don't know much about Lebanon, just as most Lebanese don't know much about the U.S. Some Americans who do go to Lebanon can’t quite believe that Sunni Muslims and Druze have as hard a time with Hezbollah as the Christians. It just doesn't compute.

"Do you guys want peace with Israel then?" I said.

"So the embassy sent you!" Joe only half-jokingly said.

“Making peace between states is not the same as making peace between people," Firas said. "We may be sitting here as friends at this moment, but I am thinking of the time in the future when I will kill you.” Then he checked himself. “I am not talking about us, this is just a general example of what sometimes happens.”

“Why do we have to be at war with Israel all the time?” Joe said to Firas.

"Don't say it, dude," Firas said.

“I know people from the south who did very well under the Israeli occupation," Joe said. "They made money, they were safe, and they were happy. Under Hezbollah it is hell.”

“Those are just personal stories,” Firas said.

“Don’t believe everything you read, dude,” Joe said.

Firas took off his shirt, walked over to the jeep, and pulled out a rifle.

“Shoot this gun,” he said and tried to hand it over to Dan.

“I don’t want to,” Dan said. “It’s dark and I can’t see.”

It was pretty dark now. And we were inside a village. It really wasn’t the best time and place to fire a rifle.

“He is afraid,” Joe said.

“Just shoot at the mountain, dude,” Firas said to Dan. “You won’t hit anybody.”

Dan is a nice liberal from the American Midwest with a low opinion of weapons. I’m from ideologically ambiguous Oregon, where Republicans smoke pot and liberals shoot guns.

“I’ll shoot it,” I said to Firas, “if you shoot it first.”

“I want Dan to shoot it,” Firas said.

They went round and round for several minutes.

"Come on!" Firas said. "Just point the rifle up and shoot at the mountain!"

"It's night," Dan said, getting annoyed. "And we're in a town."

Urban Village Mount Lebanon.jpg

Most Lebanese “villages” are actually small semi-vertical towns

Firas finally just pointed the thing at the night sky and BANG fired a round into the dark side the mountain.

"Hey!" someone yelled from a house down the street.

Firas wordlessly put his gun back in the jeep. Dan was off the hook, and I did not get to shoot it.

"There sure are a lot of guns in this country," I said.

Firas, still shirtless, returned to his plastic chair. "We all have guns," he said. “Lebanese women are tough, too. My mother can shoot any weapon at all with one hand.”

Joe and Firas invited me and Dan to go camping with them next weekend.

“If you come with us I’ll bring my M-16,” Joe said.

“You have an M-16?” I said.

“Yes,” Joe said. “It is normal.”

I asked him now normal it is for Christians and Muslims to date and to marry. I was slightly surprised a young Christian woman from higher up on the mountain had only dated young Muslim men.

“My girlfriend is Muslim,” Joe said. “We have no future. I don’t care about her religion. She doesn’t care about my religion. Only our parents care.”

“Have you met her parents?” I said.

Joe laughed. “What am I supposed to say? Hi I’m Joe and wait for her dad to get his gun?”

Inter-religious marriages are becoming slightly more common, mostly among the urban elite and middle class. But civil marriage doesn’t exist in Lebanon yet. If a Muslim wants to marry a Christian they have to go to Cyprus where secular marriage is legal – a real irony considering Muslim-Christian relations (actually Turkish-Greek relations) are far worse on Cyprus right now than they are in Lebanon.

“Why doesn’t Lebanon have civil marriage yet?” I said.

“It’s Lebanon, man,” Firas said. “We will have another war soon. Every 15 or 20 years we have to have a war.”

“Do you want a war?” I said.

“Lebanese people are always ready for anything,” Firas said. “If you lead us to peace, we are ready for peace. If you lead us to war, we are ready for war.”

Joe was more certain that he wanted peace. Many of his family members had been brutally massacred by Palestinian gunmen in Damour south of Beirut. Every Christian house in that town was destroyed on January 20, 1976. The inhabitants were murdered, mutilated, and raped.

Damour Massacre.JPG

Damour at the time of the massacre

Both Joe and Firas forgive their old Palestinian enemies as well as their old enemies the Druze in the Chouf mountains. Some of the worst rounds of fighting during the entire war were between Christians and Druze for control of the mountains.

“Why did you forgive the Druze but not the Israelis?” I said to Firas.

Chouf War Damage.jpg

Leftover destruction from the war of the Chouf.

The Druze were the fiercest fighters of any nationality or sect during the war. They believe in reincarnation, and they believe they will be reborn as Druze. Druze don’t even think of surrender. No group of warriors terrified other Lebanese militias quite like the Druze. “Eat with the Druze, but sleep with the Christians,” is a Lebanese saying that persists to this day, based on the (not reasonable) fear that a Druze might cut your throat in your sleep.

Beirut 1982.JPG

West Beirut during the Israeli invasion in 1982

“I forgive the Druze because I don’t have any choice,” Firas said as he hardened the muscles in his jaw line. “Because…they live here.” His voice sounded anguished now as though he were remembering horrors I can only imagine, horrors that he tried not to think about but could never ever forget. “The Israelis don’t live here. The Israelis live over there so I don’t have to forgive them!

Post-script: I’m trying to put together enough money for trips to Iran (if the mullahs let me in), Afghanistan, and Algeria – the most under-reported post-Islamist place in the world. Please hit the tip jar and make this all possible. And thanks so much for your help so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:58 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Nineteen Eighty Four

Yafawi in the comments section linked to a photo gallery of North Korea. Many of the pictures are illegal.

Here are two of them.

North Korea Streets.jpg

Crossing the street is illegal because you just might get hit by a car.

North Korea Beach.jpg

That's an electrified barbed wire fence on the beach to prevent North Koreans from swimming away in the ocean.

Here are the rest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:16 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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