Quantcast

Home

We’re back and it’s hot. I could hardly wait to escape the world’s largest heat trap and return to the soothing Pacific Northwest. But noooooo. Instead we come home to a two-day record heat wave. Sheesh. Can whoever is in charge please lower the thermostat at least below 95? I’ll settle for 96. Thanks.

Will post pictures and blather soon.

The North is a Garden

The fine old Tunis medina is an ancient maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, hanging baskets, gypsum lamps, scavenging cats, and secret paths. Western rap music battles it out with crooning exotic Arabic melodies. Middle aged men suck the hookah pipe while younger men stike metal with hammers and wood with chisels making the crafts sold in souk stalls. If you take a walk at just the right time you’ll hear the haunting muezzin’s call to Muslim prayer from the stunning, towering, arching Great Mosque in the center. This is the East in its glory.

Leave the medina through the arch to the east and you’ll find yourself in the Cité Nouvelle. In the space of 100 feet you can walk from the Middle East to France, and you can do it without leaving Africa.

The French were here to stay. Block after block after block was lifted straight from metropolitan France and dropped wholesale just south of the ruins of Carthage. The windows of fancy apartments open onto streets above sidewalk cafes, patisseries, chic clothing stores, and brasseries. The building stock is unmistakably French, and it’s in better condition than much of Marseilles and Paris. Some former French colonies are Third World disasters, but Tunisia is rich. If it lags behind Europe, you’ll hardly know it. Tunisia doesn’t have much oil, but what it does have is worldliness, sophistication, smarts, and an acute business acumen.

You will see some women with a hijab on their heads, but they are distinctly in the minority. Unlike in the Sahara you’ll see women in the cafes, sometimes with husbands and at times on first dates, often with girlfriends and sometimes alone. These are partly, if not mostly, liberated women, and you’ll feel a lot more at ease here because of it. The streets full of men in the south have an edge.

Walk to the end of the Cité Nouvelle at the edge of Lake Tunis. Catch the light rail line at the Tunis Marine station and in just 20 minutes you’ll be whisked to the ruins of Carthage, now a bedroom community for wealthy Tunisians who built an enourmous marble mosque that will stop your breath.

Keep going past the “Carthage Hannibal” station and get off at the cliff-top seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. The streets are finely cobbled, the walls washed in white, the doors and window trim painted with blue from the sky. Now you’ll think you’re in Greece and will be forgiven if you forget that you haven’t left Africa. Every Mediterranean civilization has landed here in Tunisia adding to the stonework, the psyche, and the bloodlines.

Find yourself a cafe. Feel the cool wind off the sea to the north. It will massage the fury of the Sahara out of your muscles and back. Gaze across the shimmering torquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis to the twin-horned mountain that was the ancient home of Hannibal’s pagan god Baal. Put some jasmine behind your ear. Go on. You can buy it from one of the boys in the streets for a dinar. The Carthaganians did the same thing right here 1,000 years before the rise of Islam, before the Romans sacked Carthage, before the Arabs built Tunis, before the French came and built the cafe you’re now sitting in before they went home to nurse the wounds of their loss back in Europe.

Women don’t cover their hair here. They dye it, at least some of the younger ones do. They might even pierce their nose and offer you a cigarette. They wear fashionable Western clothes and hang on the arms of their boyfriends. You would think them Europeans if you were led to this place with a blindfold, if you could not hear the Middle East on their tongues.

Tunis is surrounded by fields of green. To my Sahara-scorched eyes and skin it looks like a jungle and feels like Canada. What it’s actually like is the South of France with its rolling green hills watered with rain, its trim farmhouses shaded by trees, and more vineyards than you would ever expect in a Muslim country. Most Tunisians live here in this garden landscape with its climate fit for human beings and other living things. The connection to Europe is obviouss, the connection to the arid conservative south a lot less so.

As an insult to Spain, some in France used to say Africa begins at the Pyrennes, that craggy chain of mountains amputating Spain from the rest of Europe. This is a lie. Africa does not begin at the Pyrennes. Nor does it begin at the Barbary Coast, at least it does not in Tunisia. Africa begins at the Sahara, a day’s drive south of here. The narrow shelf of green between the small sea of water and the great sea of sand is a place all its own. Civilization both ancient and modern burrows deep into the soil and the souls of those lucky to live here.

Interlude

Thanks for checking in with the blog while posting is slow. Stay tuned for another travel piece about the relatively liberal and relatively green north of Tunisia.

Oh, and please do not feed the trolls in the comments section. I’ve deleted the troll posts in the past couple of threads. I will not have my comments section become a platform for neo-Nazi Euro-trash, which is unfortunately what had happened while I was conveniently off the map. If you do respond the troll posts, be aware that your comments will later look strange when they are stripped of their context after the troll posts are deleted in the future.

In the meantime, keep an eye on America for me. And have a great weekend.

The South is a Desert

DOUZ, Tunisia – The sand gets in your teeth.

This is not the sand you know. Not the rim of pulverized granules of silicon and rock that ring the beaches of the world, nor the finely ground dirt of the Great Basin, the Mojave, or even the Chilean Atacama. This is liquefied earth. It swallows your feet. When the wind blows, your footprints last almost as long in shallow water. It forms into great rolling sand seas – ergs in Arabic – some that are bigger than France and where nothing lives.

The sand particles themselves are not like grains of sugar, but are the size and weight of dusty flour. That sand is everywhere. Between your molars and your toes. In your ears, your nose, in your bed, your shower, and your clothes. It pools in the corners of stairwells. Great tsunamis of it bury towns and villages whole until the wind turns fickle and uncovers them a hundred years later for tourists to marvel at on camel treks. You can climb a small dune and see shadows cast on sharply cut waves of orange toward the horizon, uninterrupted by house, tree, or rock. And to think: it goes on like that for hundreds of miles into Algeria. I don’t believe it, not really, not while looking at it. The mind reels. I need maps to see the truth of this place.

The heat in July is infernal – 120 degrees in morning shade. If you don’t wear a turban, a hijab, or a hat the sun will cook your brain. If you have no water the sun can kill in 12 hours. The desert is also a road killer, breaking the pavement to pieces and burying it in sheets of blowing sand. The ergs are separated by other kinds of seas, flat featureless plains of grit, gravel, and sometimes scrub, rippling with heat and yellow haze. Somehow wild camels manage to live.

Humans live in oases, impossible-seeming places where the subterranean water approaches the surface. Date palms survive and produce fruit here without irrigation. Their roots are unknowingly deep and thrive on water ten times too salty for people to drink. The swimming pool at our hotel is rimmed with a ring of crusted brown salt.

The oasis is infested with wind scorpions – or camel spiders – nasty things the size of my hand that urinate crystals and murder children. The government pays these same children to capture the scorpions with tongs and turn them in to the local hospital for destruction. I have not seen one alive, though I did hear a sound in my room at 3:00 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep again for almost an hour.

The contrast with the cities of the liberal Tunisian north is as stark as the contrast between the east and west. There are almost no women down here at all. Or, rather, they are veiled by the walls of their husband’s houses. The few who do venture out are swathed head to ankle in more layers of clothing than I wear when I ski on Mt. Hood in the winter. Some even cover their hands with gloves.

My wife Shelly says she feels like a zoo animal when we venture into town. There are many kinds of deserts.

The town of Douz is scorched, austere, and very Islamic. It’s the most conservative place I have ever been. Our hotel, inhabited as it is by Westerners, is a tiny liberal oasis where Muslim women let their hair out and Western women wear bikinis and sip from glasses of wine.

This is also the most multilingual place I’ve been. Every single person speaks fluent Arabic and French, and most seem to speak a third, if not a seveneth or eighth, language of their choice. English is on the menu, of course, though not everyone speaks it. A third of those I’ve met who don’t speak English do speak Spanish so I am still able to communicate. Their Spanish is always better than mine.

Breaking through the cultural barrier is easier than you might think. As provincial, conservative, and backward as this town is, the people of Douz somehow manage to have a cosmopolitan streak in them. They are remarkably open to, knowledgeable of, and curious about outsiders. No one has tried to convert me to Islam, but I have had to turn down invitations to dinner in private houses because – really – Shelly and I are booked solid. We have been more socially active here in the south of Tunisia than we are in our own city. The locals simply insist on it. Once friendships are made Shelly is no longer a zoo animal. She becomes “sister.”

If you fear Islam, if you feel threatened by the Middle East, you must come to Tunisia. The people here are our friends. They will tell you so the instant you leave the airport. Don’t be shy. Tell them you’re an American if that’s what you are. They put their hands on their hearts when they say “welcome.” In some ways, the south is no kind of desert at all.

On the Edge of the Sahara

I am writing on an alien keyboard so I will have to keep this brief. Half the letters are in the wrong place and typing is hard. I may be able to write more easily in a few days when I get back to a large city. Also, you see all these hyperlinks in the text? This computer added those. I did not, and I cannot get rid of them.

I am slightly amazed I can blog at all from where I am. My hotel is 100 feet from the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the two great sand seas of the Sahara. Out my hotel window are camels and dunes to the horizon. Ohmygod is it HOT here, so hot you have no idea. Of course I knew North Africa would be toasty in July, but this place feels like the blast furnace planet Crematoria in The Chronicles of Riddick.

I have not seen any American tourists, but there are quite a few Europeans who came down here as I did from the capital of Tunis in the north. The difference between the social behavior of Europeans and the social behavior of Arabs is absolutely incredible. Tunisians are without a doubt the kindest, sweetest, most hospitable people I have ever met. It is overwhelming. I can hardly move without being invited to sit down for tea. I have been invited out to dinner, to a Bedouin wedding, and also into the home of an English teacher to watch soccer and practice speaking Arabic. The Europeans, who seem to be mostly French, come down here and turn up the sneer volume to eleven. I am sharing a hotel with them and they refuse even to look at me. I am a ghost to them, I do not exist. They do not know I am American, and it clearly is not personal. They are treating each other this way, too. But it takes great effort to be so antisocial. I do not understand how these people can be in such a warm and friendly place and go for days in a row without looking their fellow human beings in the eye. I watch them in the souk. They are not a fraction as nice to the shopkeepers as I am. One of the merchants actually complained to me about how rude his previous French customers were. I wonder if they ever get invited to sit down for tea.

I feel far more welcome here in the Middle East of Africa than I ever did in Europe. And truth be told, my dear fellow Americans, they are a lot nicer to us when we visit their country than we are to them when they visit ours.

(Oh, and obviously I am not referring to Mr. Mohammad Atta here, but instead to the way the average American treats the averge visiting Arab, and vice versa.)

To the Sahara

We’re off.

We leave for Rome in a few hours. Tonight will be the third night in five where I spend the night on an airplane. The day after we get to Rome we fly to Tunisia. Thank God that’s a short one. By the time we get there I will have spent almost 50 percent of a week having my every move micromanaged in part by a state and in part by a corporation. But hey, within the space of six days I’m seeing three foreign capitals on three continents for the first time, so it’s worth it.

When Libya was on the itinerary I was not planning to blog from there. But Tunisia is run by a relatively enlightened benign dictatorship, a bit like Jordan or Morocco with a president instead of a king. So stay tuned! I’m not afraid to blog from there, so I will when I can.

Here’s a piece in The Atlantic Monthly called Roman Africa by Robert D. Kaplan that triggered my interest in visiting Tunisia in the first place. If you don’t know much about Tunisia, you might be surprised by what it’s like. It’s the Costa Rica of Arab North Africa, profoundly influenced to this day by the civilizing influence of the Roman Empire. Tunisians are bilingual (speaking both Arabic and French), their culture is fairly liberal, and they get a proper education. Radical Islam is pretty thin on that ground. Should be good times.

Don’t be strangers. This blog is still live.

No Visa

We did not get our visas for Libya.

My contact at the Libyan embassy told me as much over the phone Friday. They needed a few more weeks. So the fact that they didn’t pull it together in the last minute was expected.

That was about all I expected. I had never been inside an embassy before, let alone the embassy for an erstwhile enemy police state. I would have been surprised if goats were hanging from the ceiling, but not by much else.

The Libyan embassy is in Suite 1000 of a modern glass office tower. So I found the right building, went inside the elevator, and pushed 10. The doors opened up to a darkened hallway and a small waiting area next to a well-lit room shielded with bullet-proof glass and a little window for passing documents through. On the wall in big flaming back-lit letters, first in English, then in Arabic: People’s Bureau of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahariya. This must be the place.

Two women worked behind the desk. The older one wore a blue head covering, and a younger 30-something woman did not.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Michael Totten. My wife and I applied for tourist visas and I need to pick up our passports.” The woman with the head covering recognized my name. She was Rena, my phone contact.

She knew why I was there and what I needed, to my relief. I had a whole backup contingency plan in case, for whatever crazy reason, the embassy wouldn’t hand over our passports. (Trust me. You would worry about this, too, if you spent the past four months submerged in Libyan bureaucracy.)

She sat me down in the little waiting room. Another woman with a thick Arabic accent (and, a bit to my surprise, blue eyes and red hair) served me coffee in a little cup on a dainty china saucer. She insisted on putting the cream in my coffee for me, then she insisted on stirring the coffee for me, too. After the cream turned the coffee color to caramel she asked “Is that good enough for you?” She seemed to me one of the world’s sweetest people. Over her left shoulder was a framed photo of a fist-pumping Moammar Ghaddafi.

While I waited, a 50-something man in a power suit strutted out of the elevator and barged through the security door like he owned the place. He must be the boss, I thought. Then another man did the same thing, followed by several others. None of them smiled at me, but one did say “Good morning.” One was a dead-ringer for Saddam Hussein, moustache and all.

A young black man about my age stepped out of the elevator and walked up to the reception window. He spoke in Arabic and — hey — I even understood some of it.

“As-salaam ahlaykum. Ureed blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, lau samaht.” Which means (translation obviously mine): “Peace be upon you. I’d like blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, please.”

So, okay. My knowledge of Arabic isn’t comprehensive just yet. I have no idea what the man wanted. But a month ago I wouldn’t have understood even that much. All of it would have been blah blah blah. When I’m just starting to learn a new language, it’s satisfying when I can understand even a fragment. It gives me confidence I can eventually pick up the rest of it.

Rena came out and handed me our two passports. There were no visas stamped inside, but there was 160 dollars in cash — our application fees. They could have kept the money and I would not have complained.

I don’t blame the folks in the embasssy for not getting this finished on time. They can’t issue visas without a green light from Tripoli. They did what they could within the confines of the leviathan.

I can’t say I got a good vibe from the Libyan men in the embassy. I was furniture to them, and so were the women. But the Libyan women were wonderful and they left me with a good feeling. We’re determined to reapply for visas the minute we get back from Tunisia. We’ll get them next time, Inshallah.

In Ottawa

I’m in Ottawa, Canada, mildly jet-lagged and severely sleep-deprived. I was going to post some photos and commentary, but tonight it ain’t happening.

First thing tomorrow (Monday) morning I go to the Libyan embassy to pick up my passport. I had to send it to them along with my visa application. Word has it I won’t get the visa right now because all of a sudden they need several more weeks to process the paperwork. Sigh. But who knows? They’ve told me contradictory things on the phone before. I guess I’ll find out for sure soon enough. Either way, I’m going to Libya. I’ll go later this week if I’m lucky, or else I’ll go in the Fall.

In any case, Shelly and I leave for Italy on Wednesday, and then we’re off to Tunisia and the mighty Sahara on Friday. (Should be nice and warm this time of year.) I can’t (or won’t) blog from Libya, but I can and will from Tunisia.

Too tired for now. More soon…

Are We Out of Gas?

It looks to me like the Bush Administration, its namesake doctrine, and America’s race to pre-empt terrorism of mass destruction has run out of gas.

Jim Hoagland says in The Washington Post he thinks there will be no more Iraqs.

The threshold for preventive war, for example, will be raised significantly for the immediate future. Intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and the intentions of dictators or terrorist gangs that seem to possess them are unlikely to be sufficiently clear to meet the standards for action demanded by the post-facto doubts and recriminations on Iraq. Intelligence analysis will become even more cautious and ambiguously stated to policymakers. Vulnerability to surprise attack could grow again.

Widespread disillusionment will also seriously undercut idealistic rationales for deploying U.S. forces overseas. The growing acceptance of humanitarian intervention that gave rise to the slogan “No more Rwandas” is marginalized today by the drumbeat of “No more Iraqs.” The mishandling and abuses of the Iraq occupation have negated much of the idealism of the liberation in one long, bloody year.

I hope he’s wrong but I don’t think he is.

Look at what’s happening in Iran right now.

Iran made good on recent threats yesterday and announced that it will resume building equipment essential for a nuclear weapons program, despite its agreement with three major European powers.

On the one hand, that’s a counterpoint to what Hoagland said. There should be no doubt whatever that Iran wants nukes. It hardly matters if our intelligence is weak and often wrong. Unlike Saddam, the ayatollahs brazenly announce their intentions.

But it also underscores Hoagland’s point. Iran is getting away with it.

Were we supposed to feel better because Europe was “handling” this problem? Of course the ayatollahs violated their agreement with Britain, France, and Germany. That’s what rogue dictatorships do. Only fools trust murderous psychopaths who killed their way into power and kill to hold onto power to obey the instructions on a piece of paper waved in their faces by appeasement-minded EU diplomats.

Where’s Bush? He just blew away the regime next door for less than this.

We have more than two options here. It’s not a choice between entrusting the safety of the world to Jacques Chirac on the one hand and ramping up for a full-bore invasion and occupation on the other.

We have hard power, and we have a lot of it. A little sabre-rattling would go a long way with Iran if we’d try. Tell them to knock if off or they’re next. If they call our bluff we don’t have to bomb the capital or change the regime. Just a few pinprick strikes on military targets at night would let them know we’re serious. Don’t think for a minute that wouldn’t scare the pants off ’em.

I used to think I would vote for Bush because he wouldn’t let Iran go nuclear and Kerry just might. Well, now it looks like neither one of them, or anyone else for that matter, intend to do much about it. Kofi Annan certainly isn’t going to pick up the slack.

The Democrats aren’t much interested in stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They seem to have forgotten everything they ever knew about nuclear proliferation as they harrumphed themselves into a corner over Saddam. I’m not hearing much from the right about this either, and my guess is because they trust Bush will handle it. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m just not seeing it. Bush might as well be off on a bender in the Bahamas right now.

One advantage to a Kerry presidency is this: Terror War hawks won’t sit idly by and assume a problem like this will be taken care of. They’ll scream and demand action. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get it. Hardly anyone is demanding Bush do something about Iran. If this keeps up, the mullahs get nukes.

The Neo-Centrist Alliance

This passage from Christopher Hitchens’ new Vanity Fair piece about the intra-Republican civil war really stuck with me. (No link, not online.)

It’s not the only attack from the old right that describes the neocons as Johnny-come-latelies: chancers who had changed their party allegiance just in time to catch the Reagan tide, but who remained liberals and cosmopolitans under the skin. Indeed, William Kristol has proved Buchanan’s point, by telling The New York Times that, if pushed, by which he clearly meant “in any case,” he would prefer an alliance with liberal hawks to one with anti-war Republicans.

Sometimes I wish the neos could form their own party: the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives against the Democrats and the Republicans. Not gonna happen, I know. But that is the “party” I feel like I belong to these days.

Quote of the Day

It is quite remarkable that the American state, with its unelected president, venal Supreme Court, silent Congress, gutted Bill of Rights and compliant media represents the crushing of internal dissent in order to propagate the resurgence of White Supremacist ideologies. It appears that the appropriation of Arab resources leads our attention to this calamity brought to us by a horrific onslaught, known as Shock and Awe. So far, the 15-minute speech delivered Monday night by President Bush brings about the police state which has come to pass. Nevertheless, the apparent demise of “anti-Americanism” as a respectable means of stifling recognition of American imperialism represents the repudiation of international law in order to bring about an oil war masquerading as an endless crusade against “terrorism.”

- Mark Nugent’s automated Leftist Cant Generator, aka the original Chomskybot.

If anyone knows of an automated Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, or Rush bot let me know.

(Hat tip: Roger L. Simon’s comments section.)

The Case for Kerry

Anne Cunningham makes the best case for John Kerry I’ve yet seen in the space of three consecutive posts.

One. Two. Three.

If you’re an anti-war liberal you probably won’t think much of Anne’s case. She isn’t speaking to your concerns. This is the case for liberal hawks and disgruntled neocons to consider. Whether she’s ultimately right or not, I don’t know. But she makes a host of great points that need to be taken seriously.

It’s probably best to read all three posts before commenting, either on my site or hers. They complement each other.

Our Indecent Senate

So. The Senate decided it wants to fine every single person, and that could include you and me, 275,000 dollars just for saying one naughty word (that is, whatever the FCC unilaterally decides is a naughty word) on the radio or the TV. One senator — one senator! — voted against this thing. So here’s a tip of the hat to Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and a big FUCK YOU to the rest of ‘em.

My house is worth less than 275,000 dollars and it will take me 30 years to pay it off. Hey, senators. Ever hear of the word “proportion?”

Since when did our entire senate, including almost all the Democratic Party, become a prissy uptight puritanical right-wing freakshow anyway? I expect this kind of authoritarian crap from people like Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott, but what on earth is the matter with Ted Kennedy and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton? Oh, and John Kerry too. He voted for this garbage as well.

They’re afraid to take the fight to religious nutjobs who want to kill us, and they’re afraid to stand down the local nutjobs who want to control us. Cowards. Wash my mouth out with soap if you must, but you can stick your 275,000 dollar fine in your ass.

A Neat Trick

It’s late and I’m too tired to have an opinion. It happens.

In the meantime, check this out. Dean Esmay pointed me to this neat little automated mind-reading trick. I know the secret and will reveal it later in the comments. See if you can figure it out how it works.

Your regularly scheduled opinionated blather will resume shortly.

Hitch on Moore

Wow. I sure hope Christopher Hitchens never guns for me in print. I’ll need an icepack and a vacation if it happens.

Today in Slate he gives Michael Moore one hell of a thrashing for his new “documentary” Fahrenheit 911.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog