Archive for March, 2011
In this issue:
• Yemen’s Recently Defected General Ali Muhsin by Michael Horton
• Yemen’s Shayhk Zindani by Andrew McGregor
• 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
Alexandria- Had an exhausting, thrilling day covering the constitutional/presidential referendum here in Egypt today. It was a bit exhausting as I used the old heel-toe express to get around. It was amazing to see so many people genuinely psyched to vote for the first time in their lives and be so happy about it. Unlike every other vote I’ve covered in the past few years, this was not really amidst violence or war (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan). I took a headlong dive into Egyptian NDP/MB/everybody else clamoring for a voice-politics.
I used my Libyan rebel press pass issued in Benghazi to talk my way into 3 out of the 4 polling centers I walked to around the city, and got very different reactions at each one. Their is still a strong tendency by the authorities here to try to control situations in a knee jerk fashion but today was a day for the people. At the first polling place, which a tiny, elderly southern Italian woman brought me to (long story!), the commanding police officer out front said, “have at it!” My receptions were slightly icier at the other 3 places but still, it was amazing to walk around, shoot photos, and interview people to my heart’s content without fearing for my life.
In other news, I did an interview about the Security Council’s Libya resolution via Skype last night with my Jamestown colleague Erica Marat for Voice of America’s Russian service. Here in the link.
Alexandria- Well, where to begin. In the big picture, the Western powers and Amr Moussa’s Arab League are finally getting things into gear and the Qaddaf’s keep playing the international community like a fiddle with ploys like this ceasefire announcement in reaction to the vote ratifying UN resolution 1973. Obama has reacted very late in the game by saying that “the entire region could be destabilised.” Sorry for the news flash Mr. President, but this region has already been entirely unstable for weeks now. In fact much of, if we’re to talk about Libya’s southern neighbours, was never stable to begin with, Niger, Chad etc. It’s all one long clever bid to keep NATO and the EU divided and off balance to perpetuate the survival of a doomed, maniacal regime that is using all of this as cover to simply kill more Libyans.
A colleague in Marsa Matrouh, about 4 hours west of here, told me there was one hell of a scene at the Al Nouran hotel the other night with journos voting with their feet, clamoring to get out of there, no doubt after more fear about the fate of the NYTimes crew swirled about. As I figured, they were apparently captured by the Qaddaf’s in or near Ajdabiya and according to Seif are going to be released any moment now. But at least they are accounted for and I assume in good health. I was sitting across from Anthony Shadid and was talking to a young NYT wunderkind photographer next to me that I felt it was really time to leave. Things along the front were shifting faster than we journos could really keep up with.
Here in Alexandria, it’s still revolutionary fever running up and down the corniche. There’s an explosion of patriotism here and a genuinely palpable sense of people desiring to create a new Egypt. The old Egypt, however, will not go away so easily. I’ve been hanging out at an ancient dive here called the Spitfire Bar and was talking politics with locals the last couple of nights. We discussed the dismantlement of the dreaded State Security Investigations Service but as I told them an anecdote from crossing the border the other week into Libya were a plainclothes’d agent, when I asked him to show me some identification as he asked to inspect my passport, said: “You see this gun? This is all the identification I need.” Old habits will die hard for many here I’m afraid.
Alexandria- Relaxing away a few days here in this crusty, dusty Mediterranean port city. The curfew here imposed by the Egyptian army from midnight till 6am has everyone a little on edge. Needless to say this is a hard place to get a beer on St. Patrick’s Day but I’m going to put out some Irish effort anyhow. There’s an old British WWII flick were a group of stranded soldiers make their way from Tobruk to Alexandria and dream of a cold beer along the way for inspiration during their arduous desert ordeal encountering Rommel’s Afrika Korps. It’s tougher to get an Ice Cold [beer] in Alex these days… but worth a shot. Egypt go bragh!
Ajdabiya & Alexandria- I did one last trip toward the front on Sunday and it was a near disaster. I joined up with an Englishman working for AFP and an Andaluciana from El Periodico and we tried to make our way to Brega. We were met with a lot of hostility at Ajdabiya’s western gate by rebels who not only said they could not guarantee our safety but implied they might shoot us if we defied them, I suppose as a way of showing just how seriously unwelcome we were. I didn’t even pop the lens caps of my cameras and didn’t even feel comfortable busting out my notebook. I told my colleagues du jour that we needed to cut and run back to Ajdabiya proper lest we attract more unwanted attention. I wanted to shoot a few final portraits of fighters for the photo series I have been working on but it was not worth the trouble. We had the idea to head to the city’s small hospital and speak with the administrator and look into the casualty situation. It was a grim scene to say the obvious least. As rebels from the front were being sped up to the entrance by comrades-in-arms, Abdullah, the incredibly kind Afro-Libyan man in charge of the facility, led me into the morgue where the war’s earliest unclaimed dead lay silently in massive rectangular refrigeration units. Standing in the frighteningly silent space, prayers were uttered and anxious men milled about cursing Qaddafi to hell and I looked at them and said that Qaddafi was shaitan, Arabic for Satan, and they nodded vigorously in agreement.
The smell of slow, cold decomposition mixed with that of harsh cleaning solvents and visuals of very violent deaths these men suffered in the rebellion’s earliest days before the first foreign journos arrived leads me to question the vast disconnect with the stagnation of bureaucrats back home and in the EU vs. the brutal reality on the ground and the courage of the Libyan people. A kind-hearted Libyan man explained to me in British-accented English how he and his friend were not fighters but were running supplies to the front, bottled water and snacks mainly, essential to the war effort, and that the world must know of the men in the morgue. I tried to delicately explain that no newspaper that I knew of would run these types of photos but that I would post them on my blog so the world cannot say that it did not know. I type this sitting in an art-deco style cafe in downtown Alexandria, amazed to have had not one but two hot, filling meals in the same day and be on wifi that does not need a satellite link in order to connect with the rest of the world. Coming into town last night, I had no idea this place was under strict military curfew and the van I was riding in from Benghazi with its Libyan license plates and gigantic Sanussi flag sticker on the rear windshield stuck out like a sore thumb as we were in a grid-locked checkpoint at 3am.
I finally jumped out of the vehicle out of immense frustration and a couple of Egyptian soldiers commandeered a local man to drive me the short way to my hotel. I threw him a 10-pound note and was relieved to doze off in a place where I was not worried about waking up in a pile of burning rubble from a Sukhoi or a Qaddafist provacateur. I am so glad to be here, even if this place is under martial law-lite. And yet somehow, I miss the amazing warmth of the Libyans amidst the raucous hustle of Egypt. Walking into the cafe just now, this kid came up to me claiming to want to “practice my english.” Revolution or no, this place has barely changed. BTW, the title of this post, like many of these blogs ramblings, in an homage to a book, this one by Anthony Loyd. It feels so strange to cross a political border and suddenly be in a place of relative normalcy. I was eating at an old greasy spoon here today and a groups of American and Canadian kids came strolling in for lunch, presumably AUC students on the loose, and then it hit me that although I’m still speaking Arabic, I’m no longer in a war zone. It’s an odd feeling.
To everyone who helped me in any way or made me feel welcome in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Brega, or Ras Lanuf, I will never forget the kindness you have shown to me. One day, you shall be on the receiving end of justice. Until then, hold fast. You are a gallant people cut off from the world by a mad man, do not give up. My war gone by, I miss it so.