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The Real Iraqi Resistance

Meet the new Iraqi fascism. Same as the old Iraqi fascism.

70 civilians who were going about their day were torn to pieces on the streets of Baghdad today by Michael Moore’s heroes of the so-called Iraqi “resistance.”

He described them this way:

The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow—and they will win.

I know very well what Moore means when he writes the word REVOLUTION. It’s not, you know, a bad thing, especially since he explicitly compares the jihad to the American Revolution. “Minutemen,” my foot. I think Mr. Mike is actually more revolting to me than even Ann Coulter — an impressive feat if that’s what you’re aiming for.

Those bastards running around the country cutting off foreigners’ heads have so far killed a lot more locals than they’ve killed anyone else. Heck, they killed more today than all the foreigners combined since the “resistance” got started. Most of the governments of the West shrug at all this. They’ll change their entire foreign policy regarding that country just to save one of their kidnapped civilians. I understand and respect the impulse. Really, I do. If I were kidnapped I would want my government to do something to save me. But I must say this: if in the process of saving me another country was left to the mercy of murderous totalitarians, the survivor’s guilt wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t want someone else’s country getting enslaved on my account.

Because that’s what these jihadists want to do – clear out the foreigners so they can stomp their boots on the locals. Shouldn’t that be obvious by now? They have already turned their knives, guns, and bombs onto the local population. The taped beheadings are more sensational, but less instructive.

There is no “resistance” in Iraq except that of the brave Iraqis who pick up rifles and face the jihadists.

UPDATE: Iraqi blogger Omar at Iraq the Model has a lot more to say on this subject. Hang in there, Omar. We’re still pulling for you over here.

What if Kerry Wins?

Dean Esmay has an important question for conservatives to think long and hard about.

Left Schism

One benefit of a John Kerry victory over George W. Bush is that liberals and radical leftists will no longer have a common “enemy.” They will stop pretending for tactical reasons they have anything meaningful in common.

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I’m still waiting for the liberals to kick these jerks in the ass. But it’s not going to happen with George W. in power. That by itself isn’t reason enough to vote for John Kerry, but it is one variable in the equation.

Hat tip: Centerfield.

Great Convention Blogging

I said I was going to tune out the Democratic Convention, mostly for my own good, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done so far. But, see, my friend Matt Welch is blogging it for Reason magazine, and I read Matt’s stuff because he’s good and because I like him. So I ended up getting stuck following the convention anyway. And that’s okay because Matt’s stuff is great. It transcends its convention-ness.

Oh, and Tim Blair is helping him out. He’s wicked funny as usual.

Go read.

Kerry: Stop Genocide in Sudan

So far, the supposedly anti-war candidate John Kerry has articulated the most forceful position yet against genocide in Sudan.

I believe in the value of American leadership in the world. Today, a massive humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, where 300,000 people or more may die in the coming months. This administration must stop equivocating. These government sponsored atrocities should be called by their rightful name — genocide.

The government of Sudan and the people of Darfur must understand that America stands prepared to act, in concert with our allies and the UN, to prevent the further loss of innocent lives. The United States must lead the UN Security Council in sanctioning the planners and perpetrators of genocide and authorizing an international humanitarian intervention.

It’s probably a bit much to assume the United Nations would sanction a humanitarian intervention anywhere at any time. The UN did nothing to prevent Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims from being massacred by the hundreds of thousands at the hands of Slobo’s regime in Belgrade. The Clinton Administration, after several years of dithering, finally had to tell the UN to stuff itself and intervene “unilaterally” without even trying to get Security Council authorization to intervene. I expect Kerry would have to do something similar if he wins and gets serious about stopping genocide in Sudan or in any other place (Syria and Iran anybody?) ruled by tyrants who deserve some rough justice.

That would be all to the good. Human rights are incalcuably more important than the sovereignty of a genocidal regime. Besides, an intervention against the Sudanese government would fit rather nicely within the contexts of the Terror War. Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden, after all. Sudan’s absence in the Axis of Evil is either an oversight or a mistake to be corrected. But hey, there’s an opening now that Saddam is in a cage, and if Saudi Arabia isn’t going to fill the void Sudan might as well.

The Arab regime in Khartoum has killed millions of people for the “crime” of being Christian and black, and it continues to do so today, using the janjaweed death squads as spear points. The fact that this regime climbed into bed with the world’s most famous Saudi Arabian Islamofascist should shock no one.

Any government that treats its “own” people this way is at least a potential threat to nearly everyone else. If the examples of Hitler and Stalin are a little too aged, look no farther back than the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Kudos to John Kerry for taking a stand while most of the world shrugs.

Hat tip: Harry’s Place

UPDATE: I’ve been corrected in the comments. Most of the people killed by the Sudanese regime have been Christian or animist, but the black Sudanese in the Darfur region are actually Muslim. I’ve read quite a bit about what went on in the south, and assumed a similar story was taking place elsewhere. Sorry for goofing it.

It’s genocide in any case, and as far as I’m concerned the particular ethnic faultline is irrelevant. The fact that genocide occurs against anyone for any reason is all that matters.

Readjusting to Reality

Is it okay for a guy who writes about politics to completely ignore the Democratic Convention?

I have no opinions today since I’ve been out of the news loop for almost a month. It’s a nice change, and it won’t last long. Oh no. Give me a day or two and I’ll have plenty. By that time the convention should be blessedly almost over. Should I really spend my time getting caught up on a bunch of nonsense? I’d rather catch up on the important things I’ve missed if that’s okay with everybody.

All I’ve really figured out so far is that some guy named Sandy Berger got in trouble for something that has to do with his pants. I’ve no idea. Please don’t explain it to me in the comments. This, I think, is one of those things that ought to go straight to the memory hole before even passing into the brain.

So anyway, the convention. Who cares? It has nothing to do with anything. It’s a bunch of b.s., just like the upcoming Republican Convention – which I also intend to ignore. No real news will emerge. That is by design. Ever since the right-wing put on that freakshow double-headed by the two Pats in Houston back in 1992 conventions are scripted to be boring on purpose. This is probably wise. That turkey in Houston scared me off the Republicans for a decade. No one in either party wants something like that to happen again.

Thank God I’m not a reporter stuck covering these things. I’d rather head down to Rachel, Nevada and write about UFO goofballs in the desert. That might actually be entertaining. My left-wing friend Marc Cooper is covering the Democrats and says (in my comments section) he feels he’s being “held prisoner” by the DNC. I’ll bet. He liked my Tunisia photos, said they were a nice break. I understand. The real thing was even better. I think Marc would rather be fishing the waters of Baja. So would I. So would most other people.

I don’t know who I’m going to vote for in November. In the next few weeks and months I’m going to be thinking long and hard about this. I’m going to build two separate cases: The liberal case for Bush and the hawkish case for Kerry. Both strike me as dubious, and will strike most other people as dubious too. But I don’t have anything else to work with here. The liberal case for Kerry is obvious. The conservative case for Bush is equally so. You don’t need me to explain either one and, besides, neither speak to my concerns at this time.

In the meantime, I’m saving most of my Tunisia material for paid work. If you’re still interested in reading about the country, I’ll provide links to those pieces as always. I’ll also post a travel narrative that won’t make it into a column just as soon as I’m finished writing it. So stay tuned for that.

It’s nice to be home. I have a brand-new home office that I finished remodeling just before I left the country. I can eat bacon and eggs for breakfast again. I can log onto the Internet whenever I want. I can talk to anyone I please without worrying about the language difference. I can get a cup of coffee that’s more than an inch deep, and I can sleep in my queen-sized bed where my feet don’t stick out the bottom all night. I can kiss my wife in public without being offensive. And I can pet my cats.

We came home and found baby fish in our pond. Life is good.

UPDATE: By the way, my traffic is down by half. If you have your own blog and you feel like letting the world know I’m back from vacation, I promise not to get mad.

A Photo Tour of Tunisia

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Here is the North African coastline along the Gulf of Tunis as seen from the cliffside seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. In the days of Carthage the pagan God Baal was worshipped in a sanctuary atop the larger mountain Djebel Bou Kornein – the “two-horned hill” in Arabic.

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I have never been to Greece, but I felt like I was there in Sidi Bou Said. This was the most pleasant place we visited in Tunisia. A riot of vegetation tumbled down the cliff toward the shimmering Mediterranean. The streets are finely cobbled, the restaurants elegant, and the walls perfectly whitewashed. Here you’ll see as many women as men. You’ll also see couples holding hands. It’s a long way from the deeply conservative, seemingly all-male, offensively hot south of the country.

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The most intoxicating place is the haunting and labrynthine old medina of Tunis. You can avoid getting lost if you stay on the main paths. But what fun are ancient twisting streets if you don’t get lost in them? Pick a side street and start walking. You won’t truly feel like you’ve travelled far from home until you think you’ve tresspassed in someone else’s neighborhood and you don’t know how to get out.

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This is the view across the street from our hotel in Tunis. The name of that tower, the Hotel Africa, seems wrong somehow. Is Africa really this prosperous? Well, yes, at least one part of it is.

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Here is my wife Shelly at breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Carlton where we stayed for three nights. The street below is the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after Tunisia’s own Kemal Ataturk. The ancient medina is only a few blocks away.

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150 miles down the coast is the smaller city of Sousse. Like Tunis, it is a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan place. A lot of tourists from Europe visit Sousse. Most go to the beach. I preferred the medina, which is what you see in this picture from above.

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And here is a photo of the inside of the medina. The medieval wall you see on the left was built when the Arabs conquered Tunisia.

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I was tempted to use up an entire memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures only of doors. Even the poorest Tunisians have a nicer door than the one on our house. We really do need to upgrade.

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Here is a picture of me on the medieval wall at the top of the Sousse medina. The Mediterranean keeps this place cool, at least when compared to the Sahara.

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This ribat is inside the medina. It, too, is medieval as you can see by the look of it. Its purpose was purely military. Ribats like this one were closely spaced along the North Africa coast and were built to watch out for Crusaders. When ships were spotted a signal fire was lighted at the top of the tower. This set off a chain of signal fires along the coast from one ribat to the next. Tolkien geeks will remember seeing something a lot like this, only on mountain tops instead of along the sea, in The Return of the King.

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Here is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Tunisia. The beach is pleasant enough, if rather ordinary. The beach looks and feels more like Miami than the Middle East. Even so, the Pacific in our Oregon is far too cold for swimming, so we couldn’t resist spending one day in the sea. No regrets.

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You don’t have to venture very far inland before Tunisia changes dramatically. 50 miles from the sea and it no longer looks like Mediterranean civilization. For one thing, mosques are made of mud instead of marble.

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You know you’re far from home when you see buildings that look like this one. I don’t know how to “read” this, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I travel.

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Exotic as the interior is, you can still find places that look familiar and “Western.” The temperature was more than 100 degrees when I took this courtyard photo, but somehow the architecture made me feel cooler. I suspect it may have been designed for that purpose.

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Before I went to Tunisia I didn’t know how to tell a Berber from an Arab. I knew the Berbers were in North Africa first and that they have their own traditions. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell on sight what was Berber and what was Arab. So let me help you out and give you an example of the difference in style. This is a picture of an Arab bar. (Yes, this is a real bar. They do drink booze in Tunisia.)

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And this is a picture of a Berber bar in the same town of Matmata. This place was tunneled into the ground. The Berbers went underground more than a 1000 years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn’t have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to. Trust me. It’s f-ing hot there in July. But these “troglodyte” houses are a cool 75 degrees at midday.

The Arab bar is more formally “nice,” but the Berber place was a lot more fun to hang out in.

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Here is where we slept in Matmata, at the Hotel Sidi Driss. This place won an award for the world’s “loopiest hotel.” This was also where part of Star Wars was filmed. This was where George Lucas filmed Luke Skywalker’s homeworld of Tatooine.

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This is what it looks like when you drive into the Sahara. The sky is as white as the background of my Web site in this picture, even though it was a perfectly clear day.

The desert isn’t all a sea of sand. (If it were there would be no roads.) Most of it is scrub and gravel plain bisected by mountain ranges and rock. All of it is hotter than Hell. I just can’t say it enough. That place is hot, the hottest place on the Earth during the summer.

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Some of the Sahara looks like this. This is the Chott el Jerrid. Don’t try walking across it. It’s a dried-out ancient sea bed, cracked by heat and encrusted with salt. If you do walk out there you had better cover your face. A hat isn’t good enough. Sunlight bounces off the surface and will burn you from below.

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I took this photo after a ten minute walk from our hotel in Douz. The dunes there are low and white. They manage to be pretty without being spectacular.

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The dunes around Ksar Ghilane are spectacular. We paid a guy a handsome sum to drive us deep into the desert and hook us up with another guy who took us into the dunes on camels. It was a physically brutal experience in the blistering heat of July, but we got to sleep outside that night and Shelly thanked me for dragging her out there. How could anyone take a look at this view and wish they were anywhere else?

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…

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