April 13, 2004

Tripoli and Fallujah

In three months my wife and I are going to Italy to visit some friends in Milan. While we’re in the neighborhood we figure we’ll hop on over the Mediterranean and bum around Tunisia for a week. (Why Tunisia? Read this.)

It will be my first trip to an Arab country. But it won’t be my wife’s. She went to Morocco with her parents when she was a teenager. My brother got mugged there a few years ago, but she loved the place. A man offered her father a dozen camels for permission to marry her. He was probably joking, but who knows?

Look at an atlas. Tunisia is right next to Libya. Tripoli isn’t all that far from Tunisia’s capital Tunis. A person could probably get from one city to the other in a long cab ride. Since Gaddafi recently decided to be a nice little dictator, the US lifted the travel ban.

So we’ve decided to go to Libya, too. I’ve never been to a country run by a lunatic. Neither has Shelly. Posters of the leader are all over town. Supposedly the hotel rooms are bugged. Plainclothes police follow tourists around. Should be an interesting experience. (If, that is, we can get visas. I haven’t yet figured out how we’re supposed to do that. The State Department’s consular sheet is not helpful. If anyone has any advice, please advise.)

My mother thinks we’re crazy. Some of our friends think we’re brave. But you know what? It isn’t brave to visit Libya. It won’t be comfortable, but it isn’t dangerous. Libya has friendly people, low crime, no terrorism, and a nutjob boss.

You want brave? Mark Steyn is brave. He went to Fallujah. By himself.

Eleven months ago I was in Fallujah. What a dump -- no disrespect to any Fallujans reading this. I had a late lunch in a seedy cafe full of Sunni men. Not a gal in the joint. And no Westerners except me. As in the movies, everyone stopped talking when I walked through the door, and every pair of eyes followed me as I made my way to a table.

I strongly dislike that veteran-foreign-correspondent look where you wander around like you've been sleeping round the back of the souk for a week. So I was wearing the same suit I'd wear in Washington or New York, from the Western Imperialist Aggressor line at Brooks Brothers. I had a sharp necktie I'd bought in London the week before. My cuff links were the most stylish in the room, and also the only ones in the room. I'm not a Sunni Triangulator, so there's no point pretending to be one. If you're an infidel and agent of colonialist decadence, you might as well dress the part.

I ordered the mixed grill, which turned out to be not that mixed. Just a tough old, stringy chicken. My tie would have been easier to chew. The locals watched me -- a few obviously surly and resentful, the rest wary and suspicious. But I've had worse welcomes in Berkeley, so I chewed on, and, washed down with a pitcher of coliform bacteria, it wasn't bad.

Why didn't they kill me? Because, as Osama gloated after 9/11, when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they go with the strong horse. And in May 2003, four weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the coalition forces were indisputably the strong horse. And so, even when a dainty little trotting gelding of a newspaper columnist comes in through the door, they figure he's with the strong horse crowd and act accordingly.

Would they have liked to kill me? Well, I'll bet one or two would have enjoyed giving it a go. And, if they had, I'll bet three or four more would have beaten my corpse with their shoes. And five or six would have had no particular feelings about me one way or the other but would have been generally supportive of the decision to kill me after the fact. And the rest might have had a few qualms but they would have kept quiet.

The man is no chicken. There’s a part of me, maybe 30 percent or so, that would love to visit Fallujah. But the other 70 percent says no effing way.

There’s actually a point to Steyn’s article. It isn’t just a travel essay. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Read the rest and find out what he’s getting at.

And wish me luck with my visa. I think I’m going to need it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 13, 2004 12:06 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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