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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2005

Back Shortly...

Been out of town and busy. Back shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:31 PM

September 8, 2005

Hitchens on Katrina

Christopher Hitchens pretty much says it all about politics and Hurricane Katrina. His piece cannot be excerpted and I can't think of much else to add, so go read it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:03 PM

September 7, 2005

More on the Idiots at FEMA

I’m sorry. I was going to stop posting about politics and Hurricane Katrina at the same time, but I can’t resist at least one more. Is this or is this not self-evidently idiotic? (Somehow I missed it the last time around.)

Not long after some 1,000 firefighters sat down for eight hours of training, the whispering began: “What are we doing here?”

As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta… .

The firefighters, several of whom are from Utah, were told to bring backpacks, sleeping bags, first-aid kits and Meals Ready to Eat. They were told to prepare for “austere conditions.” Many of them came with awkward fire gear and expected to wade in floodwaters, sift through rubble and save lives.

“They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,” said a Texas firefighter. “We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet.”
(Hat tip: Instapundit)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:08 PM

September 6, 2005

Fire Michael Brown Now

Like I said before, I don’t want to get too bent out of shape by the slow government response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It was, quite possibly, the worst natural disaster in our country’s history.

While a slow response may be forgivable, obstructionism is not. That’s exactly what FEMA did. FEMA obstructed relief. FEMA obstructed relief over and over again.

There are calls across the country and across the political spectrum for FEMA’s head Michael Brown to be fired. Add my voice to the growing chorus of many. Michael Brown needs to be fired, and he needs to be fired right now. I had never even heard of him until a couple of days ago, and I don’t ever want to hear about him again.

I hardly even know where to begin, so I’ll begin, more or less at random, with Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard speaking to Tim Russert:
We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA—we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, “Come get the fuel right away.” When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. “FEMA says don't give you the fuel.” Yesterday—yesterday—FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, “No one is getting near these lines.” Sheriff Harry Lee said that if America—American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis.
Matt Welch found an article in the Salt-Lake City Tribune about Utah firefighters sent to the Gulf Coast not to fight fires but to do PR work for FEMA instead.
Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.

Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.

On Monday, some firefighters stuck in the staging area at the Sheraton peeled off their FEMA-issued shirts and stuffed them in backpacks, saying they refuse to represent the federal agency.
Here is what FEMA spokesperson Mary Hudnak had to say about that:
”I would go back and ask the firefighter to revisit his commitment to FEMA, to firefighting and to the citizens of this country.”
Even Trent Lott, who doesn’t exactly suffer from Bush Derangement Syndrome, has had it with FEMA.
Lott said he has been trying to get FEMA to send 20,000 trailers “sitting in Atlanta” to the Mississippi coast, and he urged President Bush during a meeting Monday to intervene. He said FEMA has refused to ship the trailers until contracts are secured. “FEMA and MEMA need to be saying, ‘Yes’ to Mississippi’s needs, not, ‘No.,” the former majority leader said in a written statement.
There's a lot more here. It just goes on and on and on and on and on. I’ve only barely scratched the surface. My own list isn’t by any means exhaustive. It’s just a mere tiny sample. If you find yourself unpersuaded or defensive on FEMA's behalf, follow the link and take it all in. The length of the list of FEMA’s obstructionist actions is staggering. Isolated events can be chalked up as all-too-human mistakes. A pattern that consists of dozens of instances is something else.

People were ready and willing to help while FEMA repeatedly, chronically, habitually, said no. Taken as a whole these failures read like something out of the Soviet Union, where fishing crews – for example – were forced to let entire catches spoil and rot because they didn't have specific orders from Moscow to send the fish to places where hungry people could eat them.

It wasn’t enough that FEMA repeatedly obstructed aid coming into the city. Michael Brown also went onto the air and blatantly lied about what he did and didn’t do.

The editorial board at the New Orleans Times-Picayune busted him:
In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn't known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, “We've provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day.” Lies don't get more bald-faced than that…
Lousiana voters can decide if the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of their state did a good enough job to deserve re-election or if they ought to be fired. Only Congress can fire George W. Bush, but he isn't eligible for re-election anyway.

But Michael Brown was never elected. He never will face an election. He can only be fired by the president. He needs to be fired. Now. He had no prior experience running an operation like FEMA, but he got the job anyway. Hey, he might have done a great job. His inexperience might not have been a problem at all. There was always a chance he would rise to the occasion. But he did not. Now that we know how he performs on the job, it’s time for him to go. One man’s ego and job security is not more important than disaster relief during emergencies. There will be more emergencies. There always are.

If the president looks hard to find the very best man or woman for the job, the odds that Michael Brown will end up being the one are at - if not somehow below - absolute zero.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:22 PM

September 5, 2005

The Politics of the Last Five Minutes

While New Orleans sinks, conservatives are busy blaming the Democratic mayor of New Orleans and the Democratic governor of Louisiana for incompetence. Meanwhile, liberals are busy blaming FEMA, the White House, and the federal government generally. Both sides are landing quite a few punches, and it looks to me like a government failure from the ground up (or from the top down). There are no leadership heroes in this story - at least none that we’ve been made aware of. The heroes are grunt-level individuals most of us have never even heard of and probably never will.

I could cite plenty of leadership failures all around, but I don’t think I have anything new to add that you probably haven’t seen elsewhere. And now that the worst of the humanitarian crisis has passed, I find myself a lot less angry than I recently was. And I’m glad I was too busy over the weekend to lodge too many complaints in public.

I find myself at least partly persuaded by both Roger L. Simon and Dean Esmay. Heck, I stole my title from Roger L. Simon. The Politics of the Last Five Minutes pretty much speaks for itself.

And here is Dean Esmay from a couple of days ago.
I'm going to go back to what I said before: the recriminations about the Federal response are more about a) politics, and b) the 24 hour news cycle. When this is all over, mostly we'll look back and see that the response was fast and timely and effective, and that if there's blame there's plenty to go around for everybody, but for the most part there'll be the simple truth: a disaster we knew for decades could happen came to pass, and efforts to blame one party, or to jump all over first responders for not responding fast enough to the biggest American disaster in a century just look dumb. It's not holding people accountable, it's just backseat driver nonsense.

[…]

Even those horrible schoolbus photos don't make me mad anymore. All I'll say is that anybody who refuses to blame all who had a hand in this—including, ultimately, the voters—is a hypocrite.
I have my doubts that we’ll really look back on this and think the response was fast and timely. It wasn’t. There were all sorts of very real problems. George W. Bush himself said the response was not acceptable – and he wasn’t talking about the mayor of New Orleans when he said that.

But it does seem less slow in hindsight. Perhaps that’s partly because the last five minutes look better now than they did when thousands were still trapped in Terror Dome. So maybe I’m still doing what Roger L. Simon is warning me not to do. Maybe I’m still stuck in the now. If so, so be it. That’s where I am. The local and federal authorities do seem to have their act more or less together now, albeit belatedly. It was easy to get mad, but it’s harder to stay mad.

UPDATE: Lee Harris says rage has its place. While it isn't always a good thing, sometimes it is. He's right.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:13 PM

September 3, 2005

Required Viewing

You absolutely must watch this Fox News video of Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera describing how the refugees at the New Orleans superdome were locked in – locked in by the government – when they could easily have walked out on their own and received food, water, medicine, and proper shelter in Jefferson Parish. Unbelievable.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:45 PM

September 2, 2005

Hurricane Idiotarianism

I was going to write a post bemoaning people who view the worst natural disaster in American history through a narrow partisan lens. But what’s the point, really? Boys will be boys – or hacks will be hacks as the case may be. And besides, this wouldn’t be America if we didn’t grouse about our least favorite politicians on a regular basis. So…whatever. Most of us aren’t going to “go there,” so to speak, but if it makes ya happy then carry on.

I have infinitely more patience for partisan hacks than for the idiotarians. You remember the idiotarians, right? The ones who said we deserved the September 11th attacks for their own pet reasons?

Well, they're back. I knew it would happen, too, almost immediately after I heard the storm was headed straight for New Orleans. It was as predictable as sunshine in the morning.

Jeff Jarvis quotes Franklin Graham on Fox News.
This happens when we take God out of our schools and God out of our society.
Actually, this happens when storms form over large bodies of warm water in summer and then smash into populated areas near that warm water. Hurricanes are older than Christianity. They are older than human beings.

Franklin Graham, I think it’s safe to say, is pro-God. He’s not, you know, anti-God. You could say, I suppose, that he’s an apologist for God if you felt like looking at it that way. I wouldn’t normally use that kind of language to describe a person of faith, but today I think it’s appropriate - at least in this one individual case. Graham’s God just murdered thousands of people and destroyed one of our finest cities, not to mention several smaller cities nearby. Unless Graham is going to tell God to get stuffed – an unlikely occurrence, I think – then apologist is in order.

If I were inclined to look at natural cataclysms through a theological lens, I would say the devil is in New Orleans today. At the very least the street predators rampaging in the city don’t resemble tools of the Lord as I remember them from Sunday School. But that’s just me. No one pays me to opine on the supernatural, and I spend precious little time dwelling on these sorts of questions. I prefer to think about these events from a scientific perspective and dismiss Franklin Graham as a religious version of Noam Chomsky.

I would like to know, though, why someone who blames the victims of horrific destruction is considered a respectable member of our society.

UPDATE: Paul Brinkley in the comments notes that someone in Jeff Jarvis' comments said Graham's quote was taken out of context, that he was referring to the thugs in the city and not the hurricane. I don't know about that. I can't find a transcript anywhere and I do trust Jeff to quote things properly. He's a pro. And he's a Christian. He has no anti-God or anti-Christian axe to grind.

In any case, I'm not religious and I would not become a predator if my city were hit by a disaster. If Christians want to be respected by non-religious people, they may want to stop talking about us as though we're monsters or that it's our fault other people become monsters. Graham is in my “jerk” column no matter what the context of his remarks.

SECOND UPDATE: The jury is out on whether or not Franklin Graham is an idiotarian. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now and say that he is not. But we all know the religious idiotarian school of thought is out there. It’s the whole “Sodom and Gomorrah” view of the world.

SoCalJustice points out Rev. Bill Shanks in the comments.
Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, also sees God's mercy in the aftermath of Katrina — but in a different way. Shanks says the hurricane has wiped out much of the rampant sin common to the city.

The pastor explains that for years he has warned people that unless Christians in New Orleans took a strong stand against such things as local abortion clinics, the yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, and the annual event known as “Southern Decadence” — an annual six-day “gay pride” event scheduled to be hosted by the city this week — God's judgment would be felt.

“New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion — it's free of all of those things now,” Shanks says. “God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there — and now we're going to start over again.”
Someone please tell the reverend that Meteorology 101 courses are widely available at community colleges everywhere.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:40 PM

Storm Surge Video

Storm chasers with video cameras actually chased down Katrina. They filmed the storm surge from a hotel on the coast as it crashed into Mississippi. Follow this link and click the Launch button on the right. (Requires Internet Explorer.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:38 AM

September 1, 2005

Note to Portland Locals

I don’t know about you, but I need a break from the horror show on CNN. And if, like me, you can’t wait to see Joss Whedon’s new Firefly movie Serenity, you can see it tonight at the Lloyd Center Cinema (1510 NE Multnomah Street) press screening at 7:00. I got my free pass already, but several haven’t been claimed yet. If you show up between 5:00 and 6:30 you can probably get one whether you’re a press person or not.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:52 PM

My Own Hurricane Essay

As you can surely tell from what has appeared on this blog all week, I’ve been overdosing on disaster coverage and I can’t quite seem to stop. I gathered my own thoughts and put them into an essay over at Donklephant. In hindsight it may seem excessively morbid, but it’s how I feel right now so…this is what I have.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:46 AM