Archive for February, 2011
Alexandria-Had a very long day getting to Alexandria yesterday. Flying from Queens to Cairo on no sleep wasn’t so hot but then getting in a cramped microbus from Cairo to Alexandria did it. Then walking and haggling with taxis all over Alex to look for a hotel. So goes a day in my life of backpack journalism/middle eastern tramping. Heading to Sallum in the morning-the last town 12 kms before the border- and then crossing the Libyan border into parts unknown (in that Libya will be a new country for me). Judging by the combination of the Egypt and Libya Lonely Planets, it looks like it will be at least 10 hours to Tobruk, the famous site of the WWII battle between the Australian troops and Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the context of Germany’s North Africa campaign in 1941. I suspect that by the time I reach a hotel in Tobruk there won’t be a single journalist left because they’ve long since moved onto Benghazi and apparently some have made it into Tripoli.
New York- Off to Libya tomorrow evening via Cairo and Alexandria. Can’t stop, won’t stop. My colleague at Jamestown, Andrew McGregor appeared on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer discussing the possible military strengths and weakness of Libya’s opposing forces.
New York- An NBC News reporter is somehow texting (though he says there’s no cell service?) from the port city of Tobruk where an editor in London is posting the texts on Twitter. The border between Egypt’s Western desert and far eastern Libya is reportedly open and it is possible to drive to Tobruk, an ancient deep harbor port 150 kilometres from the Egyptian border that has existed since the Greco-Roman classical era. According to a Malian BBC journalist, fighters from Niger, Chad, and Mali, (al-Qaddafi’s ‘Islamic Legions???’) are fighting on behalf of al-Qaddafi against Libyan agitators. This scenario seems to happens to every permanently ‘revolutionary’ regime: it becomes the victim of another revolution, a demographic and economic one that the ‘revolutionary’ old man never saw coming. Al-Qaddafi evoked an image of Michael Jackson at a Santa Barbara courthouse rocking an umbrella for no apparent reason and in the dark of night no less. He gave a speech in a fully thrashed government building making him more mad than the gipper could have ever dreamed. The indigenously-led Arab revolutions are the true “cemetery of neocon dreams.” The rapid defection of the Libyan diplomatic corps is par for the course.
New York- I’m zipping through a book I borrowed from the shelves at the Jamestown Foundation by Zbigniew Brzezinski called Second Chance the other week which I’ve been reading to pass the time on various train trips. The book was written during the second term of George W. Bush and analyzes his, Clinton’s and his father George H.W.’s opportunities that they had as the only leaders of a post-Soviet unipolar world. I came across an especially interesting passage today about the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and the death of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (who was executed with his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989) in the Sino view of things.
On page 56 of Second Chance:
“…shortly after Ceasescu’s death, the supreme Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, asked the visiting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to convey a message to [George H.W.] Bush: “Do not get too excited about what happened in Eastern Europe, and do not treat China in the same manner.”
Substitute Eastern Europe in 1989-90 with the Arab convulsions today in this statement and try and extrapolate just how the Communist Party of China in Beijing views the deposement of their autocratic allies as this anecdote from well over 20 years so clearly illustrates. And the China of the present, as everyone knows is one with which the US has much less leverage than it would have in 1989 when the Tiananmen uprising and the tank man image posed the gravest threat to Communist rule there since Mao’s bloody founding of the PRC in 1949 following the resumption of the Chinese civil war after the conclusion of WWII.
All sorts of people have been wondering if the idea of democracy promotion is dead in light of how much of America’s debt, China, an authoritarian, single-party state, owns and the political and ideological ripple effects that has, along with the closer economic integration of East Asia and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the Arab dictatorships of North Africa etc.
What is dead is the neoconservative idea of democracy at the point of a gun and silly nonsensical things like a “Clean Break.” But where the White House stands unsure is what to do when “moderate” allies that are grotesque police states who we outsource torture and other nasty things to collapse under their own demographic and repressive weight. While the ascendancy of China (mostly just China’s glittering skylines along its eastern seaboard) is heralded as some sort of new ‘new world order’ where democracy is no longer entirely relevant by trendy globalists, China’s rise is not yet assured as massive amounts of largely undocumented unrest carry on in the countryside.
New York- The sustained uprising in the tiny Gulf Sheikhdom of Bahrain this week is very interesting to me for two reasons: the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the unrest unfolding in Yemen have been against stale autocracies, not monarchies (an uprising against the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan is untenable for demographic reasons I won’t get into here) and the troubles in Bahrain are the first of which to affect one of the Arab states that rely almost entirely imported South Asian laborers who cannot protest. Since every revolution in the last decade must be given a title, I’m taking the liberty to call the drama in Manama “the Pearl Revolution” because, well, it’s taking place in a part of Manama called the Pearl Roundabout and the main industry before the advent of the oil industry in that region was the pearl trade which hardly exists there today.
I went to Bahrain several years ago en route to Ireland from Pakistan and thought it would make an interesting stop over, or at least I could say I’d been to one more country. Bahrain is connected to mainland Saudi Arabia by a long causeway and acts as a testosterone release valve for Saudi and Kuwaiti men who travel there on the weekends to drink booze, watch Philippine women sing cabaret tunes, carouse with hookers from Africa and Asia, and be extremely rude to Indian hotel workers without fear of consequences. Bahrain is often cited as one of the world’s rare Shia majority nation-states who like Hussein-ruled Iraq, are oppressed by a Sunni leader, king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The White House will be watching Bahrain very carefully, much more so than say Tunisia, because Bahrain acts as a giant American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and I have no doubt the monarchy there is telling their American allies that any kind of opening in the political system there will lead the expansion of Iranian influence in the Gulf. For many Sunni Arab regimes (and Salafi militants) Shia always = Iranian.
New York- When I woke up this morning, as per usual, I scan the Google News headlines on my Blackberry to see what’s going on, or in the case of the Middle East and South Asia considerate of time zone discrepancies, what has already taken place by the time I get up in New York. I was a bit surprised to see that today’s top story under the Entertainment section was the very public falling out Rolling Stone journalist and author Nir Rosen had with New York University’s Karen Greenberg over some rather tasteless Twitter posts he had made regarding the attack on CBS 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan last Friday following the dethronement of Hosni Mubarak. Logan was reportedly brutally attacked after losing touch with her crew and I presume personal security detail (though the nasty details of the incident have not been completely disclosed).
Firstly I was quasi-shocked to see Rosen listed in the Entertainment section rather than hard news but that is the least important detail. Reading through Rosen’s Twitter posts, he incorrectly describes Logan as a “major war monger.” I highly doubt, though having only encountered her once in the field, that she is a war monger, a traditionally strong term. War monger may describe implacable political actors like John Yoo, Douglas Feith, and Dick Cheney, people who actually create and implement twisted policies to serve their own ends. In my judgement, Logan may at best be termed a pro-war journalist or a war booster for her consistent laudatory coverage of the Afghan war purely through the filter of the American military but that is not in the same category as a war monger whatsoever. Without the Bush wars, the part no one mentions is that many journalists who have exploited them to come up would not have the careers they have today. Logan might well being doing local news in South Africa if it weren’t for violent neoconservative interventions in the Muslim realm, and Rosen might still be bouncing at the club were he first met Bergen. Why Rosen, who one would think a highly intelligent character, would think he could say something so crass on a enormously popular social networking site and think that it would not have immediate repercussions is beyond me.
Following Rosen’s canning over at NYU’s Center on Law and Security, the Washington Post reported that he then lost a consulting gig at an unnamed NGO as an added consequence. Rosen referred to Twitter in an interview as “silly social media” which is a little ironic because he had been commenting prior the Logan incident on the veracity of North Africa’s social media-engineered revolutions in earlier Twitter posts.
The gossipy specifics of all of this aside, what the manufactured controversy leaves out, because it is not being written about by people that know, is that not only the old cliche of journalists in war zones being very competitive and under cutting ones not closely allied to them should the opportunity arise is as true as it ever was, but the macabre, often raunchy gallows humor that many journos engage in in the field which is never meant to filter back to ‘civilized’ society back home. This is a business where guys occasionally lose legs stepping on a land mine after all.
Of course I make a point of not being on either Facebook or Twitter for the sake of a modicum of privacy. The question must be asked though: is it right for someone to be fired from a job for making an unprofessional sounding statement in their private life? Though Twitter is like attaching a megaphone to people’s internal mechanisms, Rosen seems to have thought that only like-minded friends in his industry were reading his comments. But he took it to another level because Logan is a very high profile, public figure unlike himself. Whether the DC policy doyens at New America, where he is also a fellow, will also give him a swift boot out the door remains to be seen.
Another likely angle of Rosen’s anger is that someone of Ms. Logan’s fame and attractiveness (or Anderson Cooper’s for those that swing that way) suffering will immediately surpass the largely unsung brutality that many Egyptian protestors and Arab journalists went through in the last few weeks, much of which was barely reported on in the American media. I suppose there is some travesty in that and I would love to maintain a level of righteous distress about such imbalances in world affairs but it is what it is as they say. Nir Rosen has not been in the game nearly as long as me but long ago surpassed me in terms of fame, recognition and probably pay I would guess in part due to his friendship with Peter Bergen. In light of something like this, I’m happy to be toiling away in the journo underground where no one gives a damn really what I say which is almost quaint these days.
New York- So the Lotus revolution has come and gone (sort of ) and the story has moved on to the more mundane and TWD has to comment on more important matters, namely the new cover model of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Irina Shayk is described to the American reader in a typically dumbed down fashion as ‘Russian’ but having what appeared to be an Arabic-to-Russian-to-English transliterated last name I doubted very much she was ‘Russian’ in the way ethnic nationalities are defined in Russia. In the Soviet era and in post-Soviet successor states today like, say, Kyrgyzstan, your ‘nationality’ (what Americans term ethnicity) is written in your passport and is ascribed to you by the state. Cultural diversity in post-Stalinist in Eurasia is not a concept dreamed up by left-leaning American university professors in the early 1990s blindly promoting multiculturalism but part of an oppressive system aimed at repressing the populace.
I assume her name was shortened by a modeling agency or talent scout early on in her career to enhance her marketability. Likewise, it probably wouldn’t be prudent to promote her Muslim background in light of what happened when certain pundits got ahold of the fact that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, was, gasp, an Arab and a Muslim.
Upon a quick gander of Irina’s Wikipedia page, as I suspected, her actual last name is Shaykhlislamova which is a Russified-version of the Arabic ‘Sheikh al-Islam’ (‘Scholar of Islam’), nothing vaguely non-Islamic about that last name. She says that her father is a Tatar (though she grew up in the Chelyabinsk Oblast on the border of Kazakhstan, to the east of Tatarstan) which is a Turkic Muslim ethno-religious group that inhabits the present day Tatarstan inside the Russian Federation in the Volga region. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was transforming into what would become today’s Russian Federation, it sent out a Federation treaty in the spring on 1992 to be signed and ratified by its 89 internal republics and regions: two republics refused; Chechnya and Tatarstan. While Chechnya spiraled into a violent rebellion that destroyed most of the nation and continues to this day, Tatarstan fell into line a couple of years later and flourishes today with its capital of Kazan having become one of Russia’s best destinations for investment thanks in part to its oil reserves.
So there you have it, Sports Illustrated has its first (nominally) Muslim cover girl. Hooray for progress!!! It’s time to throw the clash of civilization into the ash heap of history and move forward with over-simplified bikini diplomacy! The Kremlin currently demonizes Muslim women in the Russian Federation as so-called ‘Black Widows’ but a bombshell named Irina can help explode that myth. Wishful thinking on my part…
New York- There was an under reported suicide attack at the entrance of the Kabul City Centre/Safi Landmark Hotel today where the attacker detonated at the semi-secure entrance killing himself and two guards. I used to frequent this mall complex mainly to use the ATM to pay for my room at the Park Palace guesthouse a few blocks down. I once spent one fairly pricey night (for Afghanistan anyway) at the Safi in 2008 when I missed my PIA flight back to Islamabad and decided to splurge for one night/was too embarrassed to check back into the Park Palace because I had already said my goodbyes to all the staff and would’ve felt silly going back there. I occasionally used to hit up the overpriced lunch buffet on the top floor of this place to take a break from eating street food once in a while during my Kabul 2009 era.
It appears the Afghan Taleban are making a concerted effort, considered the bombing of the Wazir Akbar Khan Finest supermarket the other week, to smash places where well-to-do Afghans and Westerners go to use ATMs and buy/eat non-street food. You can see the inside of this mall in my friend’s film, Silencing the Song, mentioned in a previous post, now airing on HBO when the film’s central character Setara goes to shop there. To anyone who has never been nor certainly now will ever go to Afghanistan, one more suicide bombing there, and a barely reported one at that, is just more noise in an overly crowded, un-distilled media-verse. The lives of a couple of as-yet nameless Afghan security guards may seem meaningless in a war who’s costs are talked about in the billions and about the larger-than-life personalities of American generals etc.
Pessimists may view the advent of the Herati Safi brothers business empire in the heart of Kabul as a blight in the quaint rustic ruins of a formerly destroyed city and their undoubtedly questionable business practices as proof of Afghanistan’s supposed propensity toward failure. But for many people, myself included, who do not want to see Kabul continue to resemble a James Nachtwey photo circa 1996, this place represented a certain level of hope. Afghanistan is place filled with so much unhappiness that sometimes a little glitz is needed. Naysayers will undoubtedly accuse me of naivete.