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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.

Into the Neoconservative Lair

Roger L. Simon risked life, limb, and reputation to descend into the neocon lair in Washington where he caught Dr. Michael Ledeen — on camera! — translating The Communist Manifesto from its original Straussian into corporate jargon for the purpose of duping yuppies at malls. Spooky.

Ralph Nader Jumps the Shark

I enjoy reading Marc Cooper’s blog. I never know if I’ll go over there to argue or applaud, and I like that. Unpredictable is good and besides, he’s one of the most pleasant people to disagree with you’ll find. (Well, unless you’re far right, in which case you probably won’t enjoy it so much.) Anyway, today I’m not arguing.

We both liked Ralph Nader the last time around. I liked him because he was honest and because he reminded me of the old school Democrats, the kind they don’t make any more. After 9/11 he doesn’t make me think of FDR so much as a kookier and more rumpled George McGovern. That’s really not what I’m looking for at the moment.

Nader is up to his armpits in all sorts of other problems I wasn’t aware of until now, and Cooper’s on it.

Good Riddance to the Intifada

Shortly after Ariel Sharon was elected in Israel he cynically demanded a full week of quiet before he would agree to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. I say “cynically” because most people, not least himself, knew a week of quiet was not going to happen. Hamas and Islamic Jihad were murderously opposed to negotiations. Yasser Arafat was in their pocket. (Or were they in his pocket? Does it make any difference?) So Sharon could come across as a reasonable man willing to talk when we all knew full well he had no intention or desire to talk about the intifada. What was there to talk about? It wasn’t going to stop until it was crushed or Jews fled Israel in boats.

Well, goodbye to all that. Charles Krauthammer notes in The Washington Post:

At the height of the intifada, there were nine suicide attacks in Israel killing 85 Israelis in just one month (March 2002). In the past three months there have been none.

It’s a good idea to teach children that violence does not solve problems. It almost always is true. It certainly hasn’t done much for the Palestinians.

The sad fact of the matter, though, is that violence does sometimes solve problems. It worked for Israelis. Smashing terrorist nests, assasinating terrorist leaders, and implementing the Israeli left’s (non-violent) demand for a separation fence paid off handsomely.

Now it’s time to talk peace. Now it’s time for a “road map” that might actually work.

It’s theoretically possible that Yasser Arafat is tired of living in his bombed out compound in Ramallah (he’s been trapped there by tanks for over two years) and would like to sign a treaty. He can’t be a cheerleader for an intifada that no longer exists.

But I don’t see much point in including the man in any talks. Most likely he’ll drag out the process as long as he’s sucking oxygen. If he does decide to cut a deal and stick to it, the Palestinians will have to suffer with him as their dictatorial overlord until he finally keels over or someone speeds up the process and feeds him a bullet.

Better, I think, to keep Arafat marginalized. Start a new “road map.” Have an election in the West Bank and Gaza where Palestinians elect someone to negotiate on their behalf. If they choose a new leader wisely, Israelis will send Ariel Sharon back to his farm and give them their state.

If they prefer to drag this out for several more years, it’s their choice and their loss.

The Latest

Here are photos of what Al Qaeda did yesterday in Saudi Arabia. If CNN will air photos of abuse in Abu Ghraib they need to publish these.

I’m tired of issuing warnings along with my links to graphic photos. Most of us do need to see this. I’ll be in the Middle East myself in two weeks, and unless you’re my mother this is no time for a whitewash.

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