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No Peace Without Syria

“No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” — Henry Kissinger

Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, “flew to Damascus this weekend”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1111091.html to cajole Syria into re-entering peace talks with Israel. He’s going to go home disappointed, if not now then later, just as every other Western diplomat before him has failed to put an end to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Bashar Assad couldn’t sign a peace treaty with Israel even if he wanted to — and he doesn’t want to.

Assad and his late father and former president Hafez Assad have justified the dictatorial “emergency rule,” on the books since 1963, by pointing to the never-ending war with the state of Israel. Many Syrians have grown weary of this excuse after more than four decades of crisis, but Assad would nevertheless face more pressure to loosen up his Soviet-style system without it.

An official state of war costs Assad very little. His army does not have to fight. His father learned the hard way in 1967 that Israel could beat three Arab armies, including Syria’s own, in six days. Assad can only fight Israel through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that suits him just fine. Gaza and Lebanon absorb Israel’s incoming fire when the fighting heats up.

Assad gains a lot, though, by buying himself some legitimacy with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria’s fundamentalist Sunnis have long detested his Baath party regime, not only because it’s secular and oppressive but also because its leaders are considered heretics. The Assads and most of the Baathist elites belong to the Alawite religious minority, descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and most Syrians find it both bizarre and offensive that the Alawites are in charge of the country instead of the majority Sunnis.

In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against the regime in the city of Hama. The elder Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that 38,000 people were killed in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as Assad’s. There is no better way for a detested Alawite regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world as a whole than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/82001.

In the Land of the Brother Leader

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(Note: I wrote the following account of my trip to Libya years ago for the LA Weekly, but the staff recently revamped the Web site and took my story offline. It’s one of my best, I think, and I want to republish it now because it’s no longer available anywhere else. If you missed it when it came out, I hope you enjoy it today. — MJT.)

When you visit another country, it’s hard to get a feel for what it’s actually like until you leave your hotel room, go for a walk, take a look around, and hang out while soaking it in. Not so in Libya. All you have to do there is show up. It will impose itself on you at once.

My Air Afriquiya flight touched down on the runway next to a junkyard of filthy, gutted and broken-down aircraft in an airport otherwise empty of planes. When I stepped out of the hatch into the jetway, I came face to face with three uniformed military goons who scrutinized me and everyone else from behind reflective oversize sunglasses.

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, mastermind of the 1969 Al-Fateh Revolution (a euphemism for his military coup), Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, greeted arrivals in the passport-control room from a menacing, almost snarling, gold-gilded portrait. A translated overhead sign (rare in Libya) said “Partners Not Wage Earners.” In other words: Don’t expect to be paid.

A bored official glanced at my visa, rubbed his face, stamped my passport and pointed me toward my first Libyan checkpoint. A man in an untucked button-up shirt, with a cigarette jutting out the side of his mouth, waved me toward a metal detector. He hadn’t shaved in two days. I walked through. The alarm screamed and I braced for a pat-down. He just stood there, took a long drag on his cigarette and stared bleary-eyed into space over my shoulder. I guessed that meant I could go. So I did.

There were no other planes coming or going, so it was easy to find my ride. His name was Abdul. He wore a snazzy black-leather jacket and a Western-style goatee.

“Welcome to Libya!” he said as he led me into a parking lot the size of an Applebee’s.

“We’re really busy right now. This is Libya’s high season.” They must shut down the airport entirely during the low season.

The capital city of Tripoli was an asteroid belt of monolithic apartment towers. The streets were mostly empty of cars, the sidewalks empty of people. I saw no restaurants, no cafés, no clubs, no bars and no malls. Nor did I see anywhere else to hang out. Libya, so far, looked depopulated.

We drove past a shattered former government compound surrounded by a lagoon of pulverized concrete that once was a parking lot. It was obvious when that thing was built. The 1970s were the 1970s everywhere, even in Libya.

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Only as we approached the center of Tripoli did traffic pick up. Hardly anyone walked around, and it was no wonder: A mile-long pit on the side of the road appeared to be the place to give juice bottles, plastic wrappers, garbage bags and worn-out tires the heave-ho.

I saw no corporate advertising: no Pepsi signs, no movie posters and no cute girls flashing milk-mustache smiles for the dairy industry. I did, however, see one hysterical propaganda billboard after another. They were socialist-realist cartoons from the Soviet era, the same kinds of living museum pieces still on display in North Korea and other wonderful places where starving proles live in glorious jackbooted paradise.

The Happy Worker theme was a common one; smiling construction workers wore hardhats, and Bedouins-turned-widget-makers basked in the glory of assembly-line work. One poster showed two hands chained together at the wrist below an image of Qaddafi’s sinister Green Book descending from heaven.

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My hotel, Tripoli

At the hotel I ran into my second Libyan checkpoint. A metal detector was set up at the entrance. A young security agent sat at a metal desk and showed off his open copy of the Green Book. He propped it at such an angle that I could read the cover, but he couldn’t possibly read what was inside.

I stepped through. The alarm screamed, detecting (perhaps) my dental fillings or zipper. He looked up, gave me a nodding “what’s up, dude” smile, and went back to pretending to read.

I poked around the lobby while Abdul checked me in at the desk.

The gift shop offered a wide range of totalitarian propaganda books and pamphlets in multiple languages. A fantastic selection of Qaddafi watches ranged in price from $25 to $600. I bought one for $25. Qaddafi is shown wearing his military uniform, officer’s hat and sunglasses like a swaggering Latin American generalissimo. It was busted right out of the box, the hour hand stuck forever at 9 o’clock.

The lobby was plastered all over with portraits of the boss in various poses. He wore shades in most of them, but in some pictures from his early days, he wore a buffoonish 1970s haircut instead.

I had to suck down my giggles. God, was this guy for real? His unexportable Third Universal Theory was internationalist insofar as it obliterated any sense that Tripoli was Middle Eastern or African — at least from the point of view of the back seat of the car. I could have been in any former Soviet republic, or even in some parts of the Bronx. But look at those portraits! Now there was something exotic.

Most of the other men in the lobby (I hadn’t seen any women since I landed) looked like Arab businessmen who bought their suits from Turkish remainder bins. The only expensively dressed man sat at a shiny wooden desk, the kind you’d expect to see at a law firm. He had no work in front of him, not even papers to shuffle. His job was to stare holes through everyone who stepped in and out of the elevator.

There were no towels in my room. The bathroom was, however, generously stocked with products, all of them packaged in green — the color of Islam and Qaddafi’s so-called revolution. The hotel gave me green shampoo, green soap, green bath gel, green toothpaste and even a green shoehorn and comb. All were clearly (and, I must say, unnecessarily) marked “Made in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” There was no booze (it’s banned), no soda, no water, no juice in the mini-bar. A burn the size and shape of a deflated basketball was seared into the carpet.

I switched on the TV: nothing but hysterical state-run propaganda. I couldn’t lower the volume (the knob was broken), but at least I could change the channel and choose whether I wanted to be droned at or screeched at in Arabic.

My window overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and, closer in, a drained and stained swimming pool. There was a forlorn rocky beach down there, cut off from the hotel and everything else by a blank gray slab of a wall. The cold wind whistling into the room from the patio sounded like moaning ghosts trapped in a well.

*

Until the middle of 2004, Americans were banned from Libya, not by Qaddafi but by our own government. The travel ban has been lifted, but tourists are still required to book their trip through a Libyan agency. The regime won’t tolerate tourists running around loose on their own. You can make your own trip — you don’t have to be a part of a tour group — but you’ll still be baby-sat by a guide.

I didn’t go to Libya to see the sights — such as they are. I wanted to see a once-forbidden country as it really was. So I set out on foot on my own while I had a brief chance.

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It was a jarring experience.

The main drag along the sea into the city was one straw short of a freeway. There were no houses, businesses, restaurants or shops along the way — only clusters of vertical human-storage units surrounded by empty lots the size of a Wal-Mart.

Trash was smeared on the sidewalks. It clogged all the street gutters. Almost every available blank space (and, oh, were there plenty of those) was a dumpsite.

I got agoraphobia walking around. The streets were too wide, the buildings too far apart, the landscape barren.

The traffic was too fast, too close and too hectic. I was pinned on a thin ribbon of sidewalk between the Mediterranean and the freeway.

There was no way I could cross that river of mayhem and steel unless I found a traffic light and a crosswalk — an unlikely event from the look of the place. There wasn’t much worth seeing on the other side anyway. Those towers and the empty lots strewn with soda cans, candy-bar wrappers and billowing plastic bags didn’t get any prettier as they got closer.

The sea was all but boarded up behind blank white walls and a decayed postindustrial concrete catastrophe of a “waterfront.” In the few places I could get a glimpse of the shoreline, it didn’t have the look and feel of the familiar Mediterranean, but rather an inland sea in a Central Asian republic. The city felt harsh and jagged, and the close but unreachable sea could not take the edge off.

Three young boys crouched next to the dry side of the seawall. They ran up when they saw me and asked for cigarettes. Those kids could not have been older than 10. I had two choices — corrupt Libya’s youth or be a stuffy, uptight naysaying American. I chose to corrupt the children. When I handed over the smokes, each slapped his fist on his heart and cried, “Allahu Akbar!”

The freeway continued as far as I could see without any way for me to cross it. Traffic was relentless, and I didn’t dare wade into it without knowing the rules. I could have just bolted in front of the cars and they would have stopped. But I hadn’t been in the country for even two hours. I didn’t know how anything worked yet. So I went back to the hotel and ordered some dinner.

I’d say that was my mistake, but I did have to eat.

At the restaurant, there was no sign that said “Please Wait To Be Seated.” Should I seat myself? Who knew? I felt ridiculous just standing there at the entrance. So I found a table.

A waiter finally came over.

“Are you a tourist?” he said.

“Yes,” I lied. Libya is a total-surveillance police state. One person in six works for the secret police. Best, I thought, to keep my journalistic intentions to myself.

“For tourists we have fish,” he said. He did not give me a menu. I didn’t see a single menu anywhere in the country. In Libyan restaurants, you sit down and eat whatever they give you.

“What kind of fish?”

“Eh,” he said, taken aback by the question. “Fish. Fish. You know, fish.”

“Great,” I said. “I’ll have the fish.”

He brought me two small fish the size of my hand, each fried in a pan. Heads, fins and eyeballs were still attached. Bones and guts were inside. They tasted bad and smelled worse. The businessmen at the tables around me drank nonalcoholic Becks “beer.” But all I got was a bottle of water.

Abdul picked me up again in the morning. His job was to show me Tripoli’s sights. There weren’t many: Green Square, the museum, and an old city smaller than downtown Boise. That’s it. That’s all there is.

We started with the museum. Phoenician and Roman artifacts were on the first floor. Upstairs was the “Islamic period.” The top floor was entirely dedicated to the glorification of Qaddafi.

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Qaddafi dedicated an entire floor to himself at the national museum

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Qaddafi thinks he’s the sun of Africa

One room displayed gifts to the colonel from foreign officials and heads of state — swords, jeweled boxes, a crystal map of “Palestine” that included Tel Aviv. A living-room set upholstered with a tacky floral print was roped off in a corner. “That’s where Qaddafi sits with foreign guests he wants to impress,” Abdul said.

Right outside the museum was Qaddafi’s Green Square — which isn’t green, by the way. It’s famous, but it shouldn’t be. This is no Italian piazza we’re talking about. It’s an asphalt parking lot ringed by a six-lane urban speedway.

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Green Square, Tripoli

The nice thing about Green Square is that it’s central. The Italian quarter, built by Italy during its fascist period, is on one side. The old city is on the other.

The old city was the only neighborhood that looked Middle Eastern. Too bad much of it also looked like the back-street slums of Havana. Not all of it, though. A few buildings — like the old mosques, a soaring clock tower and the Arch of Marcus Aurelius — were stunning.

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Clock tower, old city, Tripoli

It was a pleasant place, actually. Ancient buildings with handcrafted details on them are dignified even in squalor. Rotting grandeur is still grand, after all.

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Old city, Tripoli

The streets were too narrow for cars. Not one of the shopkeepers harangued me when I walked by as they did constantly in Tunisia when I visited there a few months ago. There were hardly any cheap tourist gimcracks on sale. I could walk the old city in peace.

Almost everything was solely for local consumption: clothes, fabrics, jewelry, shoes, batteries and so on. One of the narrower streets was lined with almost medieval metal forges where copper pots and crescent moons for the tops of minarets were banged into shape with hammers and tongs over fires.

I didn’t see theaters, clubs or any other places of diversion or entertainment. “Until two years ago,” Abdul said, “there was nothing to do in Libya but sleep. Things are better now.”

Things weren’t much better, though. Libya’s economy was still mostly socialist. There will be no fun without capitalism. Sorry. The state just isn’t gonna provide it, especially not a state that can’t even pick up the garbage.

“So, Abdul,” I said as we walked through the souk. “How many Libyans wear a Qaddafi watch?”

“Um,” he said, and laughed grimly. “Not very many. There are, you know, enough pictures around.” He leaned in and whispered, “I don’t like him much, to be honest.”

I had imagined not.

“Look over there,” he said, and pointed with his eyes. “You see those two?”

I saw a couple in their mid-20s chatting next to one of the gates to the old city. He wore a black-leather jacket, she a long brown overcoat and a hijab over her hair. They stood close together but didn’t touch. They looked soft, comfortable and content together as if they were married.

“Five, ten years ago I never saw anything like that. It was absolutely forbidden.”

He told me to take off my shoes as he led me into a mosque. Seeing the handmade carpets, high ceilings, marbled walls, Roman columns, intricate tile work and soft lighting was like slipping into a warm bath for the soul. The heart-stopping beauty and serenity of the mosque in this harsh urban parking garage of a landscape was a strong incentive for piety, I suspected. I’m not religious, but I could see why some sought refuge from the modern in God. Modernity in this oppressive dystopian city was a spectacular galactic-size failure.

He dropped me off at my hotel before dark. Now that I knew the layout of the city, I decided to return to Green Square alone. I wanted to know what the real Tripoli, the not-touristed Tripoli, looked like.

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It was worse on foot than by car, and exactly what I expected: all right angles and concrete. Almost everyone in this part of town lived in a low barrackslike compound or a Stalinist tower. Landscaping didn’t exist. There were no smooth edges, no soft sights, nothing to sigh at. Tripoli’s aesthetic brutality hurt me.

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Tripoli, Libya

I walked parts of the city hardly any foreigners ever bothered to see. It looked post-apocalyptic, as if it had been evacuated in war or hit with a neutron bomb. The sound of machine-gun fire off in the distance wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

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Tripoli, Libya

Less than one percent of the people I saw were women. All those who did go outside wore a hijab over their hair. So much for Qaddafi being a “feminist,” as he claims. Tripoli had as many women out and about as a dust-blown village in the boondocks of Afghanistan.

The few men I did see walked or huddled together. They looked sullen, heavy, severe. I felt raw and exposed, wondering what on earth they must have thought when they saw an obvious foreigner wandering around the desolate streets.

So I did what I could to find out. I smiled at everyone who walked past. You can learn a lot about a people and a place by trying this out. In New York, people ignore you. In Guatemala City, people will stare. In Libya, they all smiled back, every last one of them, no matter how grumpy or self-absorbed they looked two seconds before.

I never detected even a whiff of hostility, not from one single person. Libyans seemed a decent, gentle, welcoming people with terrible luck. It wasn’t their fault the neighborhood stank of oppression.

Most apartment buildings were more or less equally dreary, but one did stand out. Architecturally it was just another modernist horror. But a 6-by-8-foot portrait of Qaddafi was bolted to the façade three stories up. It partially blocked the view from two of the balconies. The bastard couldn’t even leave people alone when they were home.

The posters weren’t funny anymore. There were too damn many of them, for one thing. And, besides, Qaddafi is ugly. He may earn a few charisma points for traveling to Brussels and pitching his Bedouin tent on the Parliament lawn, but he’s no Che Guevara in the guapo department.

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I felt ashamed that I first found his portraits even slightly amusing. The novelty wore off in less than a day, and he’s been in power longer than I’ve been alive.

He was an abstraction when I first got there. But after walking around his outdoor laboratory and everywhere seeing his beady eyes and that arrogant jut of his mouth, it suddenly hit me. He isn’t merely Libya’s tyrant. He is a man who would be god.

His Mukhabarat, the secret police, are omniscient. His visage is omnipresent. His power is omnipotent.

And he is deranged. He says he’s the sun of Africa. He threatens to ban money and schools. He vanquished beauty and art. He liquidates those who oppose him. He says he can’t help it if the people of Libya love him so much they plaster his portrait up everywhere. Fuck him. I wanted to rip his face from the walls.

*

If you go to Libya, you simply must visit Ghadames. Known by travelers as the “jewel of the Sahara,” it’s worth all the money and all the hassle you have to put up with to get there.

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The entrance to Ghadames

In the early 1980s, Qaddafi’s regime emptied the ancient Berber Saharan city by decree. Everyone was shepherded into the modern concrete “new town,” which begins right outside the mysterious tomblike adobe gates of the old.

The old city doesn’t look like a city when you’re inside. It looks like a vast underground system of tunnels and caves lit by skylights. It’s not underground; it was built with a roof over the top to keep the infernal summer heat out and the meager winter warmth in. Some of the streets (which really are more like passages) are pitch-black even at noon. There was no need for light. The inhabitants had memorized the walls.

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A covered street in Ghadames

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A Skylit street in Ghadames

It is not a small town. It’s an enormous weatherproofed adobe mini-metropolis. There are seven quarters and seven gates, one for each resident tribe. Everything you expect in a city is there — streets, homes, offices, markets, public squares and mosques, all made of painted mud and sparkling gypsum. The only thing missing from the old city is people.

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An exterior street in Ghadames

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Ghadames wall art

If Libya were a normal country, and if Ghadames were a normal city, the old city would be packed with hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, Internet cafés and desert-adventure tour offices. But Libya is not a normal country, and Ghadames is an unwilling ghost town.

My travel agency replaced Abdul with a second guide for the trip to Ghadames and into the desert. “Yasir,” I said to him. “Why were the people of Ghadames forced out of their homes?”

I knew the answer already. It was part of Qaddafi’s plot to Arabize the Berbers and to construct the New Man. (Berbers are also forbidden to write anything publicly in their own language.) But I wanted to see if a local was permitted to say it. He couldn’t — at least didn’t — answer my question. He only shook his head and laughed nervously. There were others around who could hear.

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Ghadames from above

The old city was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. A few engineers were inside shoring up the foundations of an old mosque.

“It’s astonishing,” one of them said when I chatted him up. He was an Arab who had studied engineering at a Western university and spoke masterful English in fully formed paragraphs. “The sophistication and aesthetic perfection in the old city contrasts markedly with the failures in the new.”

No kidding. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Neither have you. Because there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And there never will be.

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Inside a traditional Berber house in Ghadames that was preserved for tourists to look at

“We’re here to make this place livable again because someday, you know . . .” He trailed off, but I knew what he wished he could say. Someday Qaddafi will die. When his bones are pushing up date palms, the people of Ghadames can abandon their compounds of concrete and move back into the city that’s rightfully theirs.

I returned to the old city at night by myself and saw a single square of light in an upstairs room of an ancient house. The owners are forbidden to stay there at night. But it’s nice to know that some of them still leave the lights on.

*

When you visit another country, it’s inevitable: You are going to meet other travelers. And you’ll almost certainly talk about other places you’ve been. Go to Costa Rica, and conversations will turn to Guatemala and Bolivia. If you hang out in Cancún, you’ll meet people who like the Virgin Islands and Hawaii. In Paris, you’ll hear talk of London, Prague and Vienna.

So what happens when you bump into others in Libya? In Tripoli, I met a photographer who spends every summer in Darfur. Out in the dunes, I met a longhaired, goofy, bespectacled English guy named Felix. This was the first time he had ever set eyes on a desert. (He really went for it.) He had a thing for totalitarian countries. “I like to visit places based on ideas,” he said. Then he checked himself. “That doesn’t mean I like the ideas.”

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Sahara Desert near Ghadames

“Where to next, Felix?” I said.

“North Korea, if I can get in.”

“I’d like to see North Korea,” I said. “But after that, what’s left?”

“Only the moon,” he said, and laughed. “This is great, meeting you here. It’s nice to know someone else who’s open to nuttiness.”

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The road toward the Grand Erg Oriental from Ghadames

You’ll find nuttiness in Libya even out in the boonies. On the treacherous so-called road from Ghadames into the dunes, someone used an enormous piece of ordnance that looked like a mini—Scud missile to mark a 3-foot chassis-busting hole in the ground.

Yasir couldn’t take me on that road in his van. So we hired Bashir to come with us. He was a burly man with a turban and beard who taught philosophy in school. We didn’t hire him, though, for his brain. We wanted his Land Rover.

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Bashir driving me to sand dunes outside Ghadames

The three of us left Ghadames and headed straight toward the Algerian gate only a couple of miles away.

Just beyond it, a 300-foot-tall mountain of sand was piled in layers.

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Saharan dunes near Ghadames

“You see that sand,” Bashir said, and pointed. I could hardly take my eyes off it. “Two weeks ago, I drove some Japanese tourists out here. The old guy asked me who built it.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I told him, well, my grandfather worked for a while on that project, but now he’s dead.”

“We can’t go there,” Yasir said. “We must visit Libyan sand. Last month some German tourists were kidnapped right on the other side of the border.”

More than 100,000 people were killed in Algeria over the past several years in a civil war between the secular police state and Islamist fanatics.

“Have you ever been to Algeria?” I asked.

“No one here goes to Algeria,” he said.

We drove over a hill and were surrounded on three sides by dizzying, towering, impossibly sized dunes. We slogged our way to the top, gasping, with calves and thighs burning, not daring to look down, to watch the sun set.

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The top was unreal. The desert floor was another world far below ours. If birds were in flight, I could have looked down on them. On the western horizon was the Grand Erg Oriental, a sea of dunes bigger than France that looked from the side like a distant Andes of sand. Bashir made bread and sticky mint tea.

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The skyline of the Grand Erg Oriental

I watched the sun go down and the sky go out.

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View from the top of the dunes near Ghadames

By Libyan standards, this was radical freedom. Life goes on even in countries like this one. No government, no matter how oppressive, can control all the people all of the time — especially not in the vast, empty Sahara.

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We ran down the sand and climbed back into the Land Rover. Bashir hit the gas. He zigged us and zagged us, up, down and across 300-foot-tall dunes along the border with Algeria. At one point — and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious — he said we had actually crossed into Algeria.

The stars came out. A full moon rose, turning the sand into silver. We laughed like boys as we rode the dunes in the moonlight.

*

I didn’t go back to Tripoli to hang out in Tripoli. Tourists use the city as a base to visit the spectacular nearby Roman ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna. I’m not exactly a ruins buff, but trips to these places came with the package. So I went. And I saw. And I was nearly alone. I shared Leptis Magna with only my guide and some goats. Sabratha would have been empty if the vice president of the Philippines hadn’t dropped by at the same time.

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Roman ruins at Leptis Magna

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The fabulous Roman theater at Sabratha

But I was glad to be back in Tripoli. This time my hotel was in the Italian quarter, just two blocks from Green Square. Not again would I have to walk through a swath of Stalinist blocks to get to a proper neighborhood.

My new hotel was more upscale than the first. The management (or was it the state?) pretended to have tighter security. The metal detector just inside the entrance wasn’t being watched by a college kid. It was staffed by the military.

Okay, I thought. Now they’re gonna be serious. I stepped through and the metal detector screamed. The soldiers ignored me, joked with each other and never looked up. The same thing happened every single time I walked through it.

Libya is a totalitarian police state. But it’s an awfully lethargic totalitarian police state. It’s been a while, I thought, since anyone there drank the Kool-Aid.

The heater in my room sounded like a chopper over the jungles of ‘Nam. It was broken and stuck forever on “cold,” but the maid left it on anyway. So while it was 60 degrees and cloudy outside, it was a teeth-chattering 50 degrees in my room. I opened the window, and the cold wind off the Mediterranean actually warmed the place up.

A bath could have made me feel better, but the hot-water knob came off in my hand. The hotel had the outward appearance of spiffiness, so I’m sure there was hot water somewhere in the building behind the hole where the knob in my hand had come off. I just couldn’t get to any of it.

The elite were downstairs in the lobby. Slick men in suits, mostly from Arab countries, all but ignored the French delegation that was in town while Jacques Chirac cut new oil deals with Qaddafi. There were no Americans, no tourists and no women. I felt underdressed and out of place in my khakis and sandals, but what could I do? I was in a hard-line, oily-sheened Arab police state. I couldn’t have blended in if I tried — except, perhaps, in one little corner of the Italian quarter.

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Italian quarter, Tripoli

If you were dropped from the sky onto the main street that ran through that district, you could be forgiven if you thought you were somewhere in the West. It was strung from one end to the other with hip, cutting-edge perfume and clothing stores. These places had bright lights, colored walls and fancy displays. They piped in Western music through sophisticated sound systems. The salespeople wore snappy, stylish clothes. The customers were young and cool. There were, amazingly, hardly any portraits of Qaddafi in this part of town. (Perhaps the warehouse was out of stock and the new stores had them on back order.)

There was far less commerce in Libya than in most countries, but this little micro-corner was bustling. I found French cheese (but not prohibited wine), Japanese DVD players, Belgian chocolate and Swiss instant coffee.

At first I thought the only coffee shops in the city could be found along a single block on one of the back streets. Old men sat out front in cheap plastic chairs and grumpily smoked hookahs. That didn’t look like very much fun.

But then I found an Italian-style café fronting Green Square. I ordered a double machiato and a cheese pastry, and actually found a nice dainty table. I looked around and thought, heck, this could be Italy or even Los Angeles if it weren’t for the total lack of women around. Globalization penetrates even Arab socialist rogue states these days. And what a relief, really. You’d never know you were in the beating heart of a brutal dictatorship while sitting in that little place.

Both of my guides, Abdul and Yasir, took me to dinner. We could have eaten in the Italian quarter. But no. They had to take me out to the Parking Garage quarter, which is to say, anywhere else but the old city.

I groaned silently to myself. I liked these guys — if not their taste in dining establishments — but I hated being schlepped around all the time and never being asked when or where I wanted to eat.

The only time I truly needed a guide was on the road between Tripoli and Ghadames.

Roadside Propaganda Libyan Desert.jpg

Roadside propaganda in the Libyan desert

I couldn’t read the Arabic road signs. Armed soldiers demanded papers at checkpoints. I was grateful my guides had the stacks of papers prepared. But in the city, I was perfectly capable of finding a place to eat on my own. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done with effort and patience.

I appreciated the hospitality, even though it was bought and paid for. Abdul and Yasir seemed to enjoy “buying” my dinner, but I felt micromanaged and baby-sat. Come here, look at that, sit there, eat this. They were great guys. But I lusted for solitude. If I said so, they would have been offended.

They took me to a restaurant in a neighborhood that was downright North Korean, it was so chock-full of concrete.

“We really hope you like this place,” Yasir said.

It wasn’t quite as bad as a parking garage, but it was a near miss. The main floor was reserved for a wedding, so we were shepherded upstairs to a huge, dimly lit room mostly empty of tables. The wedding party hadn’t arrived yet. There was no one else in the building.

I didn’t know what to say in this gloomy warehouse of a restaurant. I felt like we were the only people out for dinner that night in all of Libya. Abdul and Yasir hoped I would like this place? Oh, the poor dears. I was embarrassed for them and wondered what tourist in his right mind would come to Libya when he could go to Tunisia, Morocco or Turkey instead.

*

Worlds can’t meet worlds. But people can meet people. I forget who said that, but I like it, and I thought about it as I walked around inside Libya, hanging out, and talking to regular folks.

In a nation where so many report to the secret police, where a sideways word can get you imprisoned or killed, walking around blue-eyed and palefaced with an American accent has its advantages. I met one shopkeeper who opened right up when he and I found ourselves alone in his store.

“Do Americans know much about Libya?” he said.

“No,” I said. “Not really.”

He wanted to teach me something about his country, but he didn’t know where to start. So he recited encyclopedia factoids.

He listed the principal resources while counting his fingers. I stifled a smirk when he named the border states. (I had looked at a map.) When he told me Arabic was the official language, I wondered if he thought I was stupid or deaf.

“And Qaddafi is our president,” he said. “About him, no comment.” He laughed, but I don’t think he thought it was funny.

Al Fateh Forever Libya.jpg

Propaganda carved into the side of a mountain says “Al Fateh Forever,” referring to Qaddafi’s one-man “revolution”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Comment away. I don’t live here.”

He thought about that. For a long drawn-out moment, he calculated the odds and weighed the consequences. Then the dam burst.

“We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him. Nothing. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.

“Qaddafi steals,” he told me. “He steals from us.” He spoke rapidly now, twice as fast as before, as though he had been holding back all his life. He wiped sweat off his forehead with trembling hands. “The oil money goes to his friends. Tunisians next door are richer and they don’t even have any oil.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“We get three or four hundred dinars each month to live on. Our families are huge, we have five or six children. It is a really big problem. We don’t make enough to take care of them. I want to live in Lebanon. Beirut is the second Paris. It is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon.”

*

Almost everybody I know thought I was crazy to travel to Libya. The unspoken fear was that someone might kill me.

Well, no. Nobody killed me. Nobody even looked at me funny. I knew that’s how it would be before I set out. Still, it’s nice to have the old adage “people are people” proven through experience.

Libyans are fed a steady diet of anti-Americanism, but it comes from a man who has kicked them in the stomach and stomped on their face for more than a third of a century. If they bought it, they sure didn’t act like it.

I crossed paths with a middle-aged Englishman in the hallway.

“Is this a good hotel?” he asked.

It sure beat my last place in town. At least I wasn’t stranded out by the towers.

“It’s a good hotel,” I said, not really believing it but grateful for what I had.

“I think it’s bloody awful,” he said.

I laughed. “Well, yes,” I said. “I was just trying to be nice. You should see the place where I stayed when I first got here.”

I heard footsteps behind me, turned around, and faced two Arab men wearing coats and ties and carrying briefcases. One wore glasses. The other was bald.

“It has been a long time since I heard that accent,” said the man with the glasses.

I smiled. “It’s been a long time since this accent was here,” I said. Until just a few months ago, any American standing on Libyan soil was committing a felony.

“We went to college together,” he said, and jerked his thumb toward his friend. “In Lawrence, Kansas, during the ’70s.”

“Yes,” his friend said as he rubbed the bald spot on his head. The two were all smiles now as they remembered. “We took a long road trip up to Seattle.”

“We stayed there for two weeks!” said the first. He sighed like a man recalling his first long-lost love. I watched both their faces soften as they recalled the memories of their youth and adventures abroad in America.

“What a wonderful time we had there,” said the second.

They invited me out to dinner, but I was getting ready to leave. I didn’t want to say no. They looked like they wanted to hug me.

We shook hands as we departed. And as I stepped into the elevator, the first man put his hand on his heart. “Give two big kisses to Americans when you get home,” he said. “From two people in Libya who miss you so much.”

-

The LA Weekly paid me for this article, but the costs of the trip exceeded my paycheck. Almost all freelancers go through a phase where they lose money while proving themselves, and I was just barely breaking into journalism when I wrote this. If you missed the story when it came out, and if you enjoyed reading it now, please don’t hesitate to hit the tip jar.

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Qaddafi Can Celebrate His Filthy Regime Without Us

The British government has been roundly criticized for freeing Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan national convicted of murdering 270 people when he blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The Libyan government, meanwhile, has been roundly criticized by even the British for hailing him as a hero when he returned to his homeland. Britain has no leg to stand on, however—not because the government released a convicted terrorist out of “mercy” last week but because it is still considering “its plan to dispatch the Duke of York to Libya next week”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/world/africa/23lockerbie.html?_r=2&scp=9&sq=libya&st=cse for Moammar Qaddafi’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of his seizure of power.

Qaddafi was Megrahi’s boss when that plane exploded over Lockerbie. The only reason he isn’t in jail is that it’s as hard to arrest him as it is to arrest Sudan’s genocidal Omar Bashir, even after an international warrant has been issued against him. (Bashir, by the way, “will be attending Qaddafi’s party”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article6809944.ece without fear of capture.)

Britain is “reconsidering” its decision to send a member of its royal family to toast a Stalinist and a terrorist. That’s something. But “as Gene put it”:http://www.hurryupharry.org/2009/08/24/duke-of-york-scheduled-to-attend-40th-anniversay-celebration-of-qaddafi-coup/ at the British blog Harry’s Place, “What’s disturbing is not that the plans are being reconsidered, but rather that there were plans in the first place.”

The Duke of York’s scheduled appearance at Qaddafi’s gala is unseemly, but that’s “diplomacy” for you. Plenty of diplomats from democratic countries attend events hosted by dictators.

Qaddafi’s one-man rule, however, is almost uniquely grotesque. He closely studied Nicolae Ceauşescu’s vicious regime in Romania and imposed the same system on Libyans after he overthrew King Idris in 1969. His government is so repressive that the Islamic Republic of Iran looks libertarian by comparison. Unlike in Iran and even in Burma, there are no protests against government power in Libya ever. State control over the people is absolute.

“Freedom House gives Libya scores of 7″:http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&country=7002 in political rights and civil liberties—the lowest possible scores in each category, with a score of 1 being the highest. Iran, by contrast, scores 6 in each category. Saudi Arabia is slightly less free than Iran, as is Syria, but both are freer than Libya. Only seven countries in the entire world are as miserably oppressive according to Freedom House: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, Burma, Sudan, and North Korea.

I’m one of the very few Americans who has visited Libya since Qaddafi seized power. (Setting foot there was illegal until recently.) And I can attest that it is, indeed, one of the most thoroughly totalitarian countries on the face of the earth.

The place stinks of oppression. You can’t escape the state without leaving the country or going off-road and into the desert. Informers and secret police are omnipresent and all but omniscient. Hotel rooms are bugged. No one can travel from one city to another without a thick stack of permits and papers. I saw propaganda posters and billboards literally everywhere, even alongside roads in the wilderness where nobody lived. State propaganda is even carved into the sides of the mountains. Pictures of Qaddafi hang inside every building, and an entire floor of the museum in the capital is dedicated to glorifying him personally. Libya even looks like a communist country, with its Stalinist tower blocks outside Tripoli’s old city center and its socialist-realist paintings depicting happy proletarians in their Workers’ Paradise.

No one I met would talk about politics if there was the slightest chance anyone might overhear us. Those who did open up when we were safely in private were unanimous in their hatred, fear, and loathing of the regime. And they made sure to tell me that their entire families would be thrown in prison if I repeated what they said to anyone.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/78602.

Europe Isn’t Actually a Utopian Theme Park

I enjoy visiting Europe when I can and when I can afford it — which is not very often. Occasionally, though, I get to spend small amounts of time there for very little money while en route somewhere else.

At the end of last year I was stranded in Rome for a couple of days on my way home from the Middle East thanks to a baggage handler’s strike by Alitalia employees that threw Italy’s air transportation system into chaos. I wasn’t supposed to be in Rome for more than two hours while waiting for a connecting flight from Beirut to Chicago, but I was stuck in a hotel in Rome’s suburbs, miles away from the city center, while waiting for Alitalia to get its act together.

Most Americans who visit Europe, including me, spend most of our time in places where relatively few Europeans can afford to live. We visit the continental equivalents of Manhattan and skip the equivalents of Peoria and Long Island. If we didn’t, I think the average American’s opinion of Europe would be rather different than it is.

After spending far more time than I ever wanted in modern Rome’s outer darkness, “I have to agree with Tyler Cowen”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/08/is-it-america-or-europe-which-is-overrated.html:

My…view is that Americans rate European life so highly (in part) because the buildings from previous eras are so striking and attractive. If all of the U.S. looked like U.S. postwar construction, the country would still impress more or less as it does. If all of Europe looked like its postwar construction, Americans would be less likely to admire European policies and political institutions. Yes I know about “Lille”:http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&source=hp&q=lille%20architecture&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wi, and contemporary Spanish architecture, but in reality most Americans would think of Europe as some kind of dump.

If it’s any consolation to my European readers, I really do think most of your fantastically expensive old city centers are nicer than most of ours.

Back to Work

I spent most of the last week writing a couple of pieces that will be published elsewhere (I have to make a living, after all), but will be linked here when they’re available online.

I’m also working on my book again, and I should be able to finish it by the end of the year. It’s about 40 percent finished now. I could probably finish it within two months if I could drop everything and work on it exclusively, but I don’t want to “go dark” for that long. I’ll tell you more about the book later, when I have something more that I can announce other than the fact that I’m spending about 25 hours a week on it.

In the meantime, stand by and I’ll have some fresh material for you here shortly.

Oh, and by the way — Go see Inglourious Basterds.

Yale University Press Censors Itself

“Christopher Hitchens is disgusted”:http://www.slate.com/id/2225504/?wpisrc=eDialog at the fact that the Danish cartoon scare isn’t over.

The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn’t even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism—particularly Muslim religious extremism—that is spreading across our culture. A book called The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Danish-born Jytte Klausen, who is a professor of politics at Brandeis University, tells the story of the lurid and preplanned campaign of “protest” and boycott that was orchestrated in late 2005 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a competition for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. (The competition was itself a response to the sudden refusal of a Danish publisher to release a book for children about the life of Mohammed, lest it, too, give offense.) By the time the hysteria had been called off by those who incited it, perhaps as many as 200 people around the world had been pointlessly killed.

Yale University Press announced last week that it would go ahead with the publication of the book, but it would remove from it the 12 caricatures that originated the controversy. Not content with this, it is also removing other historic illustrations of the likeness of the Prophet, including one by Gustave Doré of the passage in Dante’s Inferno that shows Mohammed being disemboweled in hell. (These same Dantean stanzas have also been depicted by William Blake, Sandro Botticelli, Salvador Dal“, and Auguste Rodin, so there’s a lot of artistic censorship in our future if this sort of thing is allowed to set a precedent.)

I can relate to Yale University Press and its concern about what might happen to its staff or to others if the cartoons are (re)published. I lived in Beirut when a rent-a-mob was bussed into the city to torch the Danish Embassy after a similarly “spontaneous” riot broke out in (of all places) Damascus. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to publish the cartoons myself at the time since I lived literally within walking distance of the crime scene.

Now, though? Who cares? The offending cartoons have been reproduced all over the place in the meantime, and there haven’t been any “grassroots” explosions of anger about them for years.

Martin Kramer “explains why”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/fear_mongering_at_yale.htm:

Extremists are always looking for something to exploit, but it has to be a new, unprecedented (perceived) offense against Islam. Dante’s Inferno, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons — these are all old perceived offenses, too familiar to fire up a sense of indignation. No doubt there will be another round at some point — and no doubt, its ostensible “cause” will surprise us all. (That’s because it won’t really be the cause, but a “pretext”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/danish_cartoons_a_proposal.htm — like the Danish cartoons.)

Everybody at Yale ought to take this to heart and relax.

From Munich to Gaza

For a long time now I’ve thought Human Rights Watch produced more reliable reports than Amnesty International, though after reading “this”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/76201 I may need to re-evaluate my opinion.

UPDATE: I posted the link above when I was short on time. For those of you who don’t feel like clicking on it, the gist is that the author of a recent Human Rights Watch report about Israeli soldiers in Gaza supported the infamous massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by terrorists in the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And that’s just for starters.

David T at the leftist British blog Harry’s Place “is aghast”:http://www.hurryupharry.org/2009/08/17/human-rights-watch-and-the-veteran-extremist/ at Human Rights Watch, an organization that perhaps should change its name.

Assuming that this is all correct, hiring a very extreme Communist, with simply horrendous views about Israel/Palestine to produce a report of this sort is akin hiring a man who was formerly active in the KKK to write about black people and crime. Fundraising for this sort of work in Saudi Arabia is like taking cash for this enterprise from the old Apartheid South Africa.

[...]

There is a value in impartial and properly researched criticism of the conduct of combatants in armed conflicts. However, by hiring a man whose ideological background is vicious, at least in the case of Israel, they have utterly disqualified themselves from performing this important task.

UPDATE: David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy has published “a limited defense of Joe Stork”:http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2009_08_16-2009_08_22.shtml#1250601131.

Don’t Tell Me How This Ends

There’s a lot of talk right now among opinion writers and policy analysts about how Iraq may be slouching toward civil war again. It’s understandable. Suicide- and car-bomb attacks make headlines every week. After a recent devastating assault on a Shia village, a woman standing amid rubble looked into a television camera and yelled at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: “Look Prime Minister,” she shouted, “look Minister of Interior, where’s the security you’re talking about?”

Iraq is still a violent, dysfunctional mess. It probably will be for a long time. But Iraqis aren’t necessarily doomed to suffer another round of internal bloodletting like they did during the middle years of this decade.

In the dangerous security vacuum that followed the demolition of Saddam’s regime, Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) ignited a civil war by unleashing ferocious terror attacks against the country’s Shia community. Now that American soldiers have withdrawn from urban areas and created another partial security vacuum, the shattered remnants of AQI are trying to ramp up that effort again. It won’t be as easy for AQI now as it was last time.

Iraqis suffered terribly at the hands of militias and death squads before General David Petraeus radically transformed American counterinsurgency with his “surge” strategy. Petraeus succeeded, at least temporarily, thanks to overwhelming cooperation and support from traumatized Iraqis who had a bellyful of politics by bullet and car bomb.

Initially, many Iraqi Sunnis welcomed and sheltered al-Qaeda because of its promise to expel American soldiers and protect the Sunni minority from the Shia majority. In the meantime, three legs of al-Qaeda’s support have been sawed off. American soldiers aren’t a daily irritant anymore. Maliki’s Shia-dominated government smashed the Shia militias. And al-Qaeda proved itself the enemy of even the Sunnis with its barbaric head-chopping behavior.

Terrorist attacks against Shias by AQI won’t likely reignite a full-blown sectarian war as long as the Sunnis continue to hold fast against the psychotics in their own community and Maliki’s government provides at least basic security on the streets.

Iraq’s Sunnis have as much incentive as its Shias to fight the AQI killers among them. They suffered terribly at AQI’s hands, after all. Out in Anbar Province, they violently turned against “their own” terrorist army even before the Shias turned against “theirs.” And Tariq Alhomayed points out in the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat that Maliki faces the same pressure to provide security on the streets, especially for his own Shia community, that any Western leader would face under similar circumstances — “he wants to be re-elected”:http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=2&id=17742.

The uptick in violence following America’s partial withdrawal shouldn’t shock anyone. If you scale back security on the streets, more violence and crime are inevitable. The same thing would happen in the United States if local police departments purged the better half of their officers. That does not mean, however, that Iraq is doomed to revert to war.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/76131.

Where the Middle East Fights Its Wars

Dahiyeh Rubble 2x.JPG

The Middle East is riven with fault lines. Conflicts between Israelis and Arabs, Persians and Israelis, Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shias, Islamists and liberals, and democrats and Khomeinists are all stuck in a holding pattern that isn’t sustainable. The region is in a deadlock and will likely remain so until something big and probably violent unjams it.

Because of its extraordinary diversity, almost every major political current in the Middle East echoes in Lebanon. In the past, Arab Nationalism and Palestinian “resistance” blew through the place and left swaths of wreckage before passions cooled. Thanks to Hezbollah, the country is still a front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict — and that’s because the Iranian-backed militia is the tip of the spear in the Persian-Israeli conflict. Lebanon is also where mutually antagonistic Sunnis and Shias are more or less numerically matched and where the Syrian-Iranian axis directly confronts its resilient political opposites. Beirut, like Tehran, is where some of the Middle East’s most liberal modernizers face off against committed radicals in thrall to Ayatollah Khomeini’s totalitarian vision of Velayat-e Faqih.

A divided country with a weak central government can’t indefinitely withstand this kind of pressure any more than geological faults can forever keep still while continental plates slowly but relentlessly collide with each other. And so Lebanon is a place where the Middle East fights itself. It is also where the East meets the West and, at times, where the East fights the West. Everyone with a dog in a Middle East fight has a dog in Lebanon’s fights.

Beirut may be the best place of all to observe that part of the world. It has its own local problems, of course, but its most serious local problems are regional problems. The Syrians are there, the Iranians are there, and the Saudis are there. France and the United States sent soldiers there more than once. United Nations peacekeepers have been there since the 1970s. The Israelis barge in and out. Yasser Arafat and the PLO used the country as a terrorist base and set up their own parallel state after their violent eviction from Jordan. When Ariel Sharon drove Arafat and his gang to Tunisia, Hezbollah set up an Iranian-sponsored parallel state in the PLO’s place.

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Gemmayze, East Beirut

I visited Lebanon after wrapping up my last trip to Iraq, and was pleasantly surprised all over again by how much nicer Beirut is than Baghdad despite all its troubles. It’s still a mess, of course, but that’s because the region it reflects is a mess.

Salim al-Sayegh, the Kataeb (Phalangist) Party’s vice president, agreed to sit down with me and discuss Lebanon’s — and therefore the region’s — endlessly dysfunctional and occasionally explosive political problems. Like most parties in Lebanon, the Kataeb has a dark past, had a militia that “behaved terribly”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabra_and_Shatila_massacre during the long civil war, and has since mellowed and turned mainstream. It’s a part of the anti-Syrian “March 14″ coalition, and one of its members of parliament — “Pierre Gemayel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Amine_Gemayel, son of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel — was assassinated by gunmen in 2006. Tens of thousands of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze attended his funeral in downtown Beirut.

Pierre Gemayel.jpg

Pierre Gemayel, assassinated Kataeb Party Member of Parliament and son of former President Amin Gemayel

The party’s vice president and I spoke before the election this summer when “March 14″ beat Hezbollah. He started off by telling me just how important he thought that election was, not just for Lebanon, but for the whole Middle East.

-

MJT: Tell me about the upcoming election.

Salim al-Sayegh: We are fighting to preserve human rights in this country and the state of freedom despite all the terror that has been organized against us. The project of “March 14″ is very simple. It is the building up of a modern democratic humanistic society in this country. An attack against “March 14″ is not an attack from a loyal opposition. The state has to be sovereign, has to be independent. On the other side we have the negation of the state.

Of course we did not achieve all our objectives even though we still have a majority in parliament. Despite this majority, with the use of weapons of terror, and of the ideological opposition to the West and to Israel, Hezbollah is impeding the majority from exerting its strength. But still we are here. We are not letting Hezbollah impose its will on the country. We have succeeded in putting the international tribunal [to indict the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] where it is. Sooner or later, it will come to a conclusion and justice will be made.

If we do not win the elections, it is not a collapse of a party. It is the collapse of a sovereign, free, independent Lebanon. This is the problem. And this is why I consider these elections essential. The international community, the United Nations, have so far tried everything possible to preserve Lebanon. If the majority fails, it means Hezbollah will be in power in Lebanon. It would mean another Gaza.

Salim al-Salegh.jpg

Kataeb Vice President Salim al-Sayegh

We have pluralism in Lebanon. The Christians will still be here, but the Christians have no weapons, no funding, no backing. The only party with foreign backing, Syria’s backing, is Hezbollah. Hezbollah has Iranian and Syrian backing. It’s the strongest force within the country. The build-up in this country for the last 20 years has enabled Hezbollah to take over the state. To take over the state.

This is an ideological party. For Hezbollah, anti-Americanism is ideological. Anti-Westernism is ideological. But our identity in Lebanon is a complex identity. We all speak foreign languages. We are all inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world. We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition. All of this mixes in Lebanon. And therefore we will never accept an identity change. We do not accept any community that is saying it’s anti-Western, that it’s against Western values, that it’s against the Western way of life. For them, democracy is relative. Human rights are something that is a Western concept, an imported concept.

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Shia mosque, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley

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Roman Empire city of Baalbek, Bekaa Valley

So all of this will be threatened in Lebanon regardless of the constitution. These guys do not respect the constitution. They do not respect the institutions.

For all your readers who think democracy is only letting the population vote, that it means majority rule: Democracy is voting, but it’s something else, as well. It’s a respect of human rights. Let’s not forget that Hitler came to power after elections. Fascism rose at the same time in Italy. Hamas took over Palestine after elections, okay, but what about respect for human rights? Those people do not have any track record of respecting human rights. They bluntly and publicly reject human rights values. They think there are other values they want to promote, and this is something I’m not going to accept here.

Le Rouge 1 Beirut.jpg

Le Rouge, Gemmayze, East Beirut

If we rule, if we reach power, we’ll be preserving these values, not imposing them. Preserving them. Because these are constitutional. If the others reach power, there will be nobody guaranteeing the respect of these values.

Lebanon provides a real chance for dialogue between civilizations and cultures. If there is a collapse of “March 14″ in the next elections, this collapse will inevitably lead to a clash of cultures in Lebanon. This will not be between Islam and Christians. It will be between communities.

It means — and this is a threat — not only the collapse of our formula for co-existence, which should be preserved for the sake of humanity. It will mean a threat to stability and security in the whole Middle East. Again. And this will be the last time we will ever dare speak about democracy and human rights in the Middle East. It will be finished. It will mean the American model, the Western model — which has become a universal model now which people aspire to all over the world — all of this will be pushed aside for another model, which was exported by the Ayatollahs in Iran.

Hezbollah rejects all of this. They say “no, we know our limitations in Lebanon, that there is diversity in Lebanon, and we cannot go beyond that diversity.” This is what they say. The practice is something different. When they faced powerful political forces, “they used their weapons”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/lebanon-s-future-11376. They are programmed for resistance, to impose their will over others.

This means civil war. Do we want to go back to that? The solution is the disarmament of Hezbollah. For Hezbollah, no defense strategy can be discussed if, as an end result, Hezbollah is asked to hand in its weapons.

Hariri Comforts Gemayel.jpg

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (left) and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri (right) comfort former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel at his son Pierre’s funeral

MJT: Do you think it will ever be possible to convince Hezbollah to give up its weapons? I don’t see any way of talking them into it.

Salim al-Sayegh: The problem of Hezbollah is the same as the problem of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is the same impossible question. You’re asking Lebanese: “How are you going to handle the Palestinian refugees?” Palestinians are about ten percent of

Back in a Few Days

I’m hosting a friend from out of town at my house and will be back in a few days with lots of material that is almost ready to go. My email response time is also a bit slow at the moment.

Hamas Pretends Resistance is Futile

Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told the Wall Street Journal that he’s finally willing to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We along with other Palestinian factions in consensus agreed upon accepting a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines,” he said. “This is our program. This is a position we stand by and respect.”

Meshal needs to do a lot more than make the right kind of noises to the Wall Street Journal before any of us begin to take what he said seriously.

Yasser Arafat was famous for saying one thing to Westerners in English and something else entirely to Palestinians in Arabic. He spoke so convincingly like a peacemaker to Israelis, Americans, and Europeans that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Yet while smiling for the cameras during sham negotiations with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, his own newspapers and schools incited the Palestinian people to murder and war. Not until hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed by suicide bombers during the Second Intifada did most in Israel and the United States understand what Arafat was up to.

It won’t be so easy for Hamas to pull off a similar stunt, and not only because Americans and Israelis — especially Israelis — have heard this rhetoric before and are accordingly skeptical. We also have outfits like the “Middle East Media Research Institute”:http://www.memri.org/ (MEMRI) providing us with translations of what is written and said every day in the Arabic media. If MEMRI were as well known among journalists and policymakers in the 1990s as it is now, the violent collapse of the Oslo peace process might have come as less of a shock — and might therefore have been less deadly.

Even if Meshal were serious, accepting a Palestinian state along 1967 borders is a start, but it’s only half of what’s necessary. Hamas must also accept an Israeli state on the other side of the Green Line. And Hamas must accept that the Israeli state have a Jewish majority. Israel will no more transform itself into an Arab country by allowing every Palestinian in the Diaspora to settle there than Hamas will allow all the Jews in the world to relocate to the West Bank and Gaza.

In any case, if you want to know what Middle Eastern political leaders really think, pay more attention to what they do than to what they say. Even what they say in Arabic means less than what they actually do. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for instance, flattered the Iranian government with all sorts of friendly gestures and promises while sending Iraqi soldiers into battle alongside Americans to crush Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Sadr City and Basra. It’s theoretically possible (though highly improbable) that Hamas might at some point continue paying lip service to the cause of “resistance” when speaking to a regional audience while working to convince Palestinians that the perpetual war has been a disaster.

The rockets out of Gaza have stopped, at least for now. That’s something. It’s not as significant as Maliki’s fighting Iranian-backed militias alongside Americans, but it’s something.

Assuming Meshal doesn’t instantly and publicly reverse himself, what Hamas-run schools, newspapers, and television programs say should settle any lingering doubts. Will Palestinian children still be told they will one day “liberate” Tel Aviv, Haifa, and all Jerusalem? Or will the cause be properly narrowed to the West Bank and Gaza? If the Palestinian public — and especially Palestinian children — doesn’t get the message that Hamas is finally willing to accept a two-state solution, what Meshal just said to a Wall Street Journal reporter doesn’t mean anything.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/75101.

Good Grief

Lebanon’s “Naharnet”:http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&04B916C9B66B8686C2257606003E7CA4 and Israel’s “Ynet”:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3755510,00.html picked up a report from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that says the recent plane crash in Iran that killed 168 people was caused by an explosion of ordnance that was on its way to Hezbollah.

Slow Writing This Week

My hometown of Portland, Oregon, temporarily has the climate of Baghdad because cool marine air stopped blowing in from over the ocean. It has been well over 100 degrees all week, and it’s almost 90 degrees in my house. My kitchen was 95 degrees at midnight last night. Most of us who live in the Pacific Northwest have feeble air conditioning because it’s rarely this hot for so long. I’m exhausted, and it’s hard to concentrate and write. Please bear with me while our weather slowly becomes a bit more civilized.

Culture War Replaces Missile War

In early 2006, shortly before the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, an Israeli intelligence officer predicted the future. “Missile war will replace terrorist war,” he told me when I spoke with him at the Ministry of Defense.

He was right. Just a few months later, Hizballah launched thousands of Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee south toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. South Lebanon was punished much more thoroughly than Northern Israel, but the Palestinians in Gaza nevertheless took Hizballah’s Baghdad Bob—style boasts of “divine victory” seriously. Hamas ramped up its own rocket war until fed-up Israelis gave Gaza the South Lebanon treatment this past December and January.

Hamas is a bit slower to learn than was Hizballah, but seven long months after the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, the rockets out of Gaza “have finally stopped”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/world/middleeast/24gaza.html?_r=2. Israelis will no longer put up with indiscriminate attacks on their houses and schools. Many Palestinians in Gaza have likewise had their fill of Hamas’s self-destructive campaign of “resistance.”

The New York Times “reports”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/world/middleeast/24gaza.html?_r=2 that Hamas has decided to wage a “culture war” instead of a rocket war because, as one leader put it, “the fighters needed a break and the people needed a break.”

Movies, plays, art exhibitions, and poems are Hamas’s new weapons. Hamas supporters, though, aren’t the only Palestinians in Gaza using art as a weapon. Said al-Bettar skewers Hamas every night at Gaza City’s Shawa cultural center in his popular play The Women of Gaza and the Patience of Job. “We were the victims of a big lie,” he says about the doctrine of armed “resistance.”

The Israeli intelligence official I spoke to deserves some credit for predicting the replacement of terrorist war with missile war. Hamas and Islamic Jihad had already fired rockets at Israel, but they hadn’t fired many, and neither the recent Gaza war nor the Second Lebanon War had yet started.

Since then a pattern has emerged that should be obvious to anybody with eyes to see, whether they’re an intelligence official or not. After Israeli soldiers withdraw from occupied territory, Israeli civilians are shot at with rockets from inside that territory. Another pattern has just been made clear. After Israelis shoot back, the rockets stop flying.

It has been years since Hizballah has dared to fire rockets at Israel or start anything else on the border. Hamas no longer dares to fire rockets at Israel either.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/74571.

What the West Bank Actually Looks Like

Last week, the New York Times published an article about “signs of hope” in the West Bank (and in the city of Nablus in particular) that “refreshingly breaks with the standard narrative”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/world/middleeast/17westbank.html?_r=2&hp of Palestinian desperation and misery. The Israeli military recently closed down its checkpoint into the city, along with other checkpoints elsewhere in the territories. The economy is growing instead of contracting. Downtown is full of shoppers. Islamist scolds have backed off. Police make sure passengers have fastened their seat belts.

It sounds like Nablus has more or less become a normal Middle East city.

Earlier this year in Jerusalem, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told me how much the West Bank surprises visitors now. “The other day,” he said, “someone came for the first time ever to this part of the world, and he called me and asked me to take him to Ramallah. So I drove him to downtown Ramallah, and we stopped there. The man was shocked. He said, ‘Where are the refugee camps? Where are the mud houses? Where’s the poverty?’ I said, ‘Why are you asking me these questions?’ He said, ‘I’m shocked. Look how nice it is.’ ”

I laughed out loud because I had a similar experience myself three years ago before the recent improvements. I didn’t expect to see “mud houses.” As far as I know, no one has ever reported the existence of “mud houses” in Ramallah. The usual Palestinian narrative, though, seems to encourage some people’s vivid imaginations.

But I was still startled by what Ramallah actually looked like. I expected to see, and to write about, squalid living conditions. I had already seen the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and the awfulness of those places is hard to describe.

I figured Ramallah wouldn’t be that bad, but I didn’t expect it to look so much better than lots of cities, and not just refugee camps, that I’ve seen in the region.

It was in early 2006, shortly after Hamas won the election, when I took a taxi from the Qalandia checkpoint outside Jerusalem to Ramallah with a Palestinian man named Sufian. “Here, in part, is what I wrote at the time”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/05/the-other-side-of-the-green-li.php:

I stepped out into a surprisingly pleasant urban environment.

“No offense, Sufian, but this city is a lot nicer than I expected,” I said.

“Ramallah is beautiful,” he said with pride.

I didn’t think it was beautiful, exactly, but it did not look even remotely like the Third World war zone it’s reputed to be. I noticed no visible poverty once we left the squalor around the checkpoint. I was, however, warned by Israelis that Ramallah and Bethlehem are much nicer than the rest of the West Bank and need to be judged accordingly.

[...]

Ramallah is also in much better physical condition than the parts of Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah, even though Ramallah has experienced war a lot more recently. In fact, Ramallah is in better condition than any Shia region of Lebanon whether it’s ruled by Hezbollah or not. The only Sunni part of Lebanon that looks nicer than Ramallah is West Beirut.

Ramallah didn’t have the glitz of Beirut or the French-Arab Mediterranean charm of a city like Tunis. But it beat the pants off Cairo, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the whole Arab world. It looked a lot like Amman — an Arab city with a pretty good reputation. It was so much nicer than Baghdad, it’s pointless to even make the comparison.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/73851.

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