New York- Three years ago today a bloody revolution kicked off in earnest in Benghazi, Libya which ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, longest dictatorial regime in post-colonial Africa surpassing even that of Omar Bongo in Gabon who ruled that country for 41.5 years. The locals referred to the happening as the “February 17th revolution.” I’ll never forget the fortitude of the Libyan people in the face of immense, violent repression.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
Addis Ababa- Crashed the African Union HQ here in Addis yesterday to do research on my next Jamestown article. Absolutely fascinating, rather quiet place. I just showed up at the front gate, which took me a bit to locate, handed them my California driver’s license which got me a visitor badge, and walked in and wandered around. I was looking for information on a certain volatile political situation in the region and stumbled into the AU’s Situation Room, a fascinating office with a large flatscreen monitor with live news feeds from all over the continent (and these days that’s a lot of information). But what was most notable was the glittering, massive new AU complex being constructed by the Chinese government in the neighboring lot. It was as if the Jamestown Foundation’s China in Africa conference had suddenly sprung to life.
After working on my story at the AU-and an AU representative telling me the Chinese were unrelenting in their pursuit of primacy in not only Ethiopia but in all of Africa-it became blatantly obvious that anywhere where the political space allowed them, the Chinese were ready to move in overnight. I snooped around a sprawling construction site that cast wide shadows over corrugated aluminum shanties. It felt like I was breathing in some globalization cliché but it was all too visceral. It looked to be a hideously cheap structure that was being built at a breakneck pace. Progress at any cost looks to be the Chinese model here in the Horn of Africa. Click here for a bit of Chinese propaganda on the whole operation.
In other TWD news, my last three destinations have not cooled off in the slightest. The Bahraini government grabbed another human rights activist in a night raid. Back in Cairo, the Egyptian army showed it is not as benevolent as many had thought as they raged during renewed protests calling for Mubarak and family to be tried. And in Libya, a group of journos, including a gal from Harvard I had socialized with on a few occasions, were captured by Qaddafist forces outside of Brega. Hope to god they are ok. Damn dangerous there. The fuse continues to burn. I’m off to Lalibela to explore the 12th century rock churches and expect to hassled by an army of touts. Should be fun. Been wanting to go there for about a decade.
Cairo- I had one of those accidentally fantastic days in Cairo today. Spent most of the day lazing around Zamalek, shot a few phot’s of some killer post-revolutionary street murals, and all I ate were two heaping bowls of mega tasty kushari- Egypt’s national veg dish. One thing I have to say about Egypt is it is so easy to eat vegetarian here, especially when compared to Libya’s obsession with chicken. I’m a bit psyched that my Khalifa Haftar story which went out yesterday seems to have gotten some legs. Reuters did a story on my article today-Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe–think-tank as did The Telegraph-Libya: rebels send trained forces to the front, telling youth to stay back-(which I’m guessing picked up on the Reuters story) and I just concluded an interview with CNN down in Atlanta.
I did a funky trip out to Giza tonight and the local fellaheen were a bit freaked out my my unorthodox ways. I ended up tramping around this slum in the dark, pitch black, muddy, horse crap littered warrens full of the classic “hello mister” routine. The Egyptian government or maybe antiquities authority has built this gigantic separation wall cutting the slum off from the pyramids which I definitely do not remember on my last trip to Cairo in 1998. I felt like I was walking through the West Bank without the bifurcated olive groves and hundreds of cats crawling through mountains of rubbish instead. After a while I finally made it to the gate just in time to catch the French version of the sound & light show with a group of aged French couples. It was incredible. I expected some 1970s time warp laser show experience, and while there were vestiges of that, the whole deal was really well put together. One of those long, tiring days to where I wish I was not leaving tomorrow. But off to little Bahrain I go en route to Addis Ababa. More adventures before heading home and doing the Massachusetts Avenue shuffle in a few weeks. I’m starting to really like Cairo. Just wish the hotels were a bit better.
• Three Top Shia Militia Leaders/Political Operatives in Southern Iraq by Rafid Fadhil Ali
• The New-From Way Back-Military Commander of Libya’s Rebels, Khalifa Haftar by myself.
In other TWD news, I rode the train from Alexandria to Cairo today with a photojournalist from the EU that I’d met in Libya a few weeks back who has spent loads of time in Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus since the 1990s. I asked him what on earth ever happened to the Renny Harlin film I saw being shot in Gori in October 2009 (“Hollywood Comes to Gori”) while we were trading stories about Saakashvilli-stan. He told me that film, initially titled simply Georgia was now completed and was going to come out as Five Days of August. He described how he ended up playing himself in the film and gave me the lowdown on getting an Abkhaz ‘visa‘ and informed me that it’s possible to cross from Zugdidi to Sukhumi, something I was unaware of following the 2008 war-I thought it was probably now only possible from Sochi. He gave me some insight into director Renny Harlin’s motivation to make the film which sounded like it had something to do with growing up in Finland as a Cold War frontline state and the bitter legacy of the 1939-1940 ‘Winter War‘ between the Soviet Union and Finland. Good times. Here is the trailer:
In other utterly random Hollywood TWD crossover news, a cool Dutchman who I was hanging out with at the weird al-Wahat journo hotel in Benghazi named Harald Doorbos had a movie made about his adventures in the Balkans back in the day chasing the ghost of Radovan Karadzic called The Hunting Party that starred Richard Gere and Terrence Howard. Here is the trailer for that:
Alexandria- Nothing too, too much to report here from Alex. Just quietly working away on the next issue of Militant Leadership Monitor which is looking to be my best issue yet. Got a serious trick up my sleeve on this one, partly thanks to my own creative ingenuity and partly thanks to a Jamestown colleague who had someone very diligently dig through al-Hayat archives in Beirut-the London-based, pan-Arab newspaper sold around the world- for a sizzler of a story. I’ve hired a lovely, older man here in Alex to do the translation of the 20 year-old masterpieces which I intend to use as unique, pre-internet sources. As the DJs say, digging deep in the crates on this one, should pay off. There is so bloody much going on in these parts, I dare anyone to keep up on it all.
The most beefy development has been the shaking of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite/military/Ba’athist regime in Syria which has really kept my attention despite everything else I’m working on. I’ve visited Syria twice over the years, once on a flopped attempt to meet up with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in 2002 before the Iraq war was to inevitably commence and then again in 2006 going to and fro the Lebanon war. Both times, I found the Syrian people incredibly friendly and warm (and makers of the best street food in the region I reckon) while their retrograde government seemed stuck in a time warp, unwilling or unable to evolve. As with Egypt, American commentators, which I don’t really have time to read much of while here, are undoubtedly myopically worried about how all of this will affect their precious (perceived) Israeli interests in the region rather than focus on the actual aspirations of the Syrian people. What these types do not understand is that “stability” as they have known it ie severe repression by militaristic regimes tagged with decades of fruitless carrot-and-stick diplomacy is simply over. There will be no more Rose Garden handshake photo ops as we have known them. The world has changed and for the better. People are dying in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa for a reason. It is time for change. Today. And this kind of change cannot wait any longer.
Syria’s economy has been in free fall for some time and the country acts as a byzantine bulwark against progress of any kind in the Levant. Here is a remarkable video of protestors bashing a giant Hafez al-Assad statue:
I’m still toying with the idea of heading back to Libya for the battle of Sirte, which now actually seems imminent (unlike before) following days of Allied air strikes against Qaddafist units on the ground and the early trashing of Q’s air force and anti-aircraft installations.
Cairo- I’ve been enjoying myself wandering around Cairo’s slightly Islamabad-esque (but way more lively) Zamalek island the last couple of days. Zamalek, the city’s diplomatic enclave, is a breezy oasis squeezed in the middle of the Arab world’s Mumbai. I’m working away on the March issue of Militant Leadership Monitor and planning on doing some mandatory sightseeing once I get enough accomplished on the wifi tether. In other news, I did another interview (русский) with Voice of America’s Russian service and found via google that I was written about two weeks ago on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about the whole Lukasheka-Qaddafi connection. There are a million things going on here in Cairo to where I can’t keep up with them all. Robert Gates made a surprise visit here yesterday, the Interior Ministry was on fire when I arrived the other night, Ban-ki Moon almost got jacked when he came to visit the Arab League HQ and on and on. I’ve noticed that a good number of journos have returned to eastern Libya, which I’ve been debating doing, but that aside from Allied bombing, the story does not otherwise seem significantly different. The rebels are still unable to organize themselves and the Qaddafist still have way superior firepower. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing in this case.
I saw this Daily Show video, which is almost funnier to watch from here. The key to the whole bit is the final, rapid fire discalimer at the end of the segment.
Cairo- Took a very leisurely journey from the relative calm of Alexandria’s Midan Saad Zaghloul and a week of regrouping after the previous two in the Libyan insurrection, to Cairo’s posh Zalalek island, a leafy, diplomatic enclave in the center of the Nile. It still astounds me how cheap Egypt is (except for this rather expensive hotel where I’m staying the night). A first class ticket from Alex’s Misr train station to Ramses station here was 50 Egyptian pounds, which at $1 USD to 5,91 £E, makes the under three hour journey well less than $10. I then took the Metro from Ramses station to Gezira, which avoided a lot of traffic and put me on the island, for 1 £E, or about 17¢.
I cannot recommend highly enough the restaurant called Mohammed Ahmed est. 1957 on a hill just off Midan Zaghloul in Alex where I ate everyday (sometimes twice a day if I include their take away counter). I don’t know of too many places in India, or even Pakistan, where you can eat that cheaply. A huge lunch for under 1 USD? There are major cities in South Asia where that price would be tough to beat. Ahmed’s is a great people watching joint as well. Catching a taxi the 10 minutes from Gezira up to Zamalek, it hit me how almost provincial Alex is to Cairo, the quintessential megacity.
All this non seriousness aside, the Arab states will not stop revolting and in some cases, exploding. Besides the Allied bombing of Libya since I left, which has not changed the game on the ground significantly for the rebels just yet, in Ba’athist Syria, an uprising has apparently begun in the southwestern town of Daraa near the Jordanian border and tensions in Yemen and Bahrain show no immediate signs of deescalating. The only true oasis of ‘stability’ is of course the United Arab Emirates where the Emiratis, an underwhelming minority in their own nation off set by millions of South Asian, Egyptian, and Filipina guest workers who can never be granted citizenship, means that for Emiratis with no urban underclass to speak of, the status quo suits them just fine for now. Here in North Africa, it is all thawra, all the time. (Link) View more John Rhys Davies Quotes and Sound Clips and Raiders Of The Lost Ark Quotes and Sound Clips