May 21, 2008

Writing While Traveling

by Michael J. Totten

I find it difficult to write the long dispatches you're accustomed to reading while traveling. It takes the better part of a week for me to transcribe the interviews on my voice recorder and the observations and quotes in my notebooks, organize and upload photographs, and write a well-written and thoughtful feature-length article. It doesn't make much sense to spend so much time doing all that while I'm paying for a hotel room and need to be out doing field work. None of my material from Kosovo and the surrounding area is time-sensitive anyway.

In a few days I will be home and can sit down and do some serious writing. I'll try to have another short piece or two for you to read in the meantime. Thanks for being patient while I'm abroad, and thanks again to Tony Badran and Lee Smith for helping out when they can.

The Balkans is a bottomlessly fascinating region where everything I've learned in the Middle East is turned upside down. It's like an alternate history novel here, and it's too bad the region fell off the media map after September 11, 2001. (The Kosovo War, if you recall, occurred only two years before.) If the Kurds of Iraq are instructive foils for Arabs – and they are – they've got nothing on the Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania proper.

PS – Considering the latest developments in Lebanon, I most likely will return to Beirut again sooner than I expected.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 21, 2008 4:56 AM

Man the lebanese government like totally won last week. Seriously check it out. Hizzy-to-the-shizzy get to keep their Com. network, and they get veto power over the government. Sweeeeeet.

Posted by: JohnDakota Author Profile Page at May 21, 2008 8:37 AM

I am really concerned with the "agreement" that gives Hezbollah 11 seats in the cabinet. I am not familiar enough with Lebanese civics to know exactly what this means but on the surface it would appear that Hezbollah gained a major victory. I'm sad. The thugs appear to have won again.

Posted by: crosspatch Author Profile Page at May 21, 2008 10:56 PM

Yeah, it's bad. Hezbollah tried to accomplish this for more than a year without violence and failed. They won with violence in a week. That will, of course, only encourage them to use violence more often if needed. There probably wasn't any other outcome than this one in the cards for right now.

So Lebanon will remain "peaceful" until Hezbollah starts another war with Israel, or until some faction or other decides it's time to do something about it. God only knows what exactly will happen and when, but more violence of some kind with somebody is inevitable with this setup.

Just wait and see what will happen next time Shia refugees from an Israel war show up in Beirut and want hospitality like they did last time. It won't be pretty. Hezbollah won't get nearly as much slack from other Lebanese next time the IDF shows up in a bad mood.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at May 22, 2008 2:54 AM

i don't know how readily you have access to a phone or voip service, but consider a free service like that might help you get these things done more expediently. i also wonder if you could find a partner to help you with the transcribing so you can be more free to be out in the field. (i'd volunteer, but i'm swamped. :))

Posted by: altoidboy Author Profile Page at May 22, 2008 6:35 AM

The agreement would cause me much less angst had it included disarmament in exchange for the 11 cabinet seats. In exchange for the dominant voice in the government, they would agree to become a purely political entity. Sadly, no such deal is apparent.

But I am with you, I think the Shiites have burned a lot of goodwill with their neighbors. The proof will come in the next iteration of mayhem.

Posted by: crosspatch Author Profile Page at May 22, 2008 8:41 AM

Please consider writing much shorter pieces, but more of them!

What about appeasement? And Iran?

Or the Olympics, and a possible boycott of the opening ceremony? (I favor that).

What about more from Kosovo, and especially similarities and differences between Kosovo and Beirut?

While I love your long stuff, I think your short instapundit style stuff is great, too; I'd much rather read two quick paragraphs than another apology promise of your next gem -- where I get the feeling you're apologizing to yourself.

On the other hand, if more short stuff reduced the number of your longer pieces by 10% or more, that would be too high a price -- you're right that it's your long stuff that is truly irreplaceable.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at May 25, 2008 5:05 PM

"....onsider a free service like that might help you get these things done more expediently....."

Jott only works in the US and Canada. Might try

Posted by: Yehudit Author Profile Page at May 26, 2008 8:54 AM

TG, hmmm. Like the idea.

I do look forward to MJT's perception/comments on events. Short postings during the interim of longer posts would be nice. OTHO, I do not do the work, only enjoy the fruits of his labor :).

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at May 26, 2008 10:38 AM

Dear Limbic - I am Michael's travel companion from this trip, Sean LaFreniere. Please be aware that the title of this post is borrowed from myself. A Dark Corner of Europe is taken from my report to him of my time in Cyprus two years ago.

A few years back I was the guest of the rebel government in Northern Cyprus on the anniversary of Turkey's invasion. I shared my time on the island with several Serb journalists (among over 80 nationalities of journalists represented, but no other Americans).

While Michael and I went through our college years with a vague worry of being drafted to go to the Balkans to stop televised, UN overseen murder... I spent part of my grad school years with Serbs who "adopted me" and helped train me in photography and journalism.

At the end of that trip I was to meet Michael in Lebanon... however, the IDF blew up the Beirut runway and I was then informed by Turkish Airlines that I would be rerouted to either Pristina or Tunis. I asked my Serb friends what to do and they replied that Kosovo was "a dark part of Europe". They suggested that I chase the sunlight and relax in beautiful Tunis (about which Michael had also spoken well). So I went "soft" that summer and chose Tunis... and I always wondered if I should have seen Kosovo.

In part, our recent trip to the Balkans by Michael and myself was to redress my oversight, fill in the missing part of the world from our college years, and answer a burning question that I had ever since Cyprus... If the Serbs I met were so kind and educated, so utterly decent, how did the wars of the the 1990's even happen?

After a few days in Belgrade Michael and I had definitely seen "Silicone Valley". We ate dinner at the cafe "Dorian Gray" and then wandered down the lane to find the Hooka Bar, the Karaoke Bar, and a strip of Lebanese-worthy night spots.

In fact, we knew in advance about Belgrade's night life and the "party barges", Lonely Planet has covered the "scene" quite well, so great night life was not noteworthy per se. However, everywhere we went the waiters were very polite and friendly, even after hearing that were Yankees, and even after our embassy was burned. Many happening nightspots let us sit down, sip brandy, and speak English loudly (over the music and conversation) and even oggle the ladies. Never, not once, were we made to feel unwelcome, as Americans, in Belgrade.

However, after several good nights out we were still left perplexed by the question of how such utterly decent people could have engaged in the wars that we knew were just completely awful.

The writer we met, Fllip David, offered one explanation... "When we Serbs are good, we are very good, when we are bad, we are very bad."

And so it seemed, an honest waiter who saved my smokes and lighter was balanced by a taxi driver who robbed us blind, the same waiter who glossed over public opinion of Americans was balanced by a cabbie who advised us to say we were from Holland.

BTW, Michael's portrayal oft the Taxi driver at the airport was dead on... his first words really were "You bombed my country..." It happened just as Michael said. And there really was no other choice of cabbie at midnight at the Belgrade airport (quite small and lonely).

Honestly, we later decided that this fellow had grossly over-reacted, we did not need to be from Holland. On the other hand, we DID have many experiences of the "Balkan stare", people scrutinizing our license plates, and being shaken down for bribes and pay offs. The Balkans may be safe overall, and Belgrade felt extremely safe from pick pockets, but it also felt right on the knife's edge of safety (as much from police as from criminals), which was very similar to my visit to Russia.

As for the military hardware... I was also partly responsible for Michael commenting on the display of guns at the Belgrade citadel... I had previously recounted the Russian war memorial in Moscow, (very Klingon-esque) where I climbed a tank with some children and "invaded Moscow". This park seemed typical of a nation that once (and now again) paraded tanks and nuclear hardware through the streets of the capital (by the way, so did Turkish Cyprus in 2006).

Yes, the US has a few memorials and war museums... the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona and the old aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid, in NY City. However, those ships represented the efforts of the United States to liberate the world during WWII and the Cold War. Those ships suffered numerous attacks by Japanese Kamikazes and the deaths of many thousands of US sailors. Those memorials serve to remind Americans of the high cost of freedom and the terrible loss of lives that war brings.

The memorials in Moscow and Belgrade might well be just as cautionary as those in Hawaii and NY. On the other hand... the American memorials are very formal, children are hushed and vets walk through with tears in their eyes, meanwhile the tanks and howitzers in Moscow and Belgrade were crawling with kids (and myself).

The emphasis in Moscow and Belgrade was on the greatness and power of old regimes, not on the 'horrors of war' (as far as we could tell). Perhaps the dark side of war is presumed in Russia and Serbia... but what we saw were weapons used as playthings in an open air park that was the focal point of the daily social promenade - the mood was quite different.

Michael also noted that Arab countries, such as Iraq, also treat their old military hardware as a source of pride and of daily amusement, not as self-critical, naval-gazing such as in America. While Americans today are afraid of their own shadow and the opinion of the vanquished, nations such as China and Russia have no such conflict with their own use of force (and money) to influence the world.

I realize that it can be quite frustrating to have one's adoped home city "reviewed" by a foreign journalist. When a dark side is exposed we want to point out all the good times that we had there ourselves. But Michael is not a travel adviser or an academic researcher... his task is rather unusual and difficult... he is trying to help other Americans, who cannot or would not travel to the "dark corners" of the world, to understand the more subtle and broad nature of these places and their history.

BTW, Michael and I are both well known for NOT having prejudices about people or places. If no one is on hand to defend a point of view either of us will argue on the other side of an issue to make sure that we are coming to an accurate conclusion. Please do not hesitate to engage us if you are truly interested in dialog.

Sincerely, Sean LaFreniere

Posted by: sean Author Profile Page at June 3, 2008 12:55 AM
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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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