(My Middle East)

77 days with a journalist, Lebanon, and a list of non sequiturs

Archive for July 2009

Visit to the National Museum of Beirut

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I took a trip to the National Museum of Beirut yesterday with a friend from the newspaper. It was a great experience and I would recommend a visit for anyone who’s in Beirut.

It was incredible to see history that goes back continuously for thousands of years. The complexity of the sculptures, mosaics and tools is really humbling. It’s a history that any Lebanese can be proud of.

The museum struck me in particular because after living here for a while I could associate names to places. After I traveling to Byblos a number of times and then going to the museum and seeing a Bronze Age (3200 B.C- 1200 B.C.) artifact from that city, it gave me a sense of the incredible depth of history that is in this area. It also helps put things like the Civil War and local politics into a much broader context that was eye opening for me.

For that reason (for all the would-be travelers out there) I would recommend the national history museum as one of your last stops on your visit, it helps tie a lot of things together.

Theres also fascinating history of how the National Museum survived the Civil War during which time the “green line” dividing east and west Beirut ran right through the museum. The documentary at the museum about preserving the art work hardly does the topic justice (but is worth seeing for cool shots of breaking statues out of their protective layers of concrete). Heres an excerpt from the museum’s website that is much more informative than what they provide in the documentary:

…The first protection measures inside the Museum were taken while fire-shells and moments of truce alternated. Small finds, the most vulnerable objects of the collection, were removed from the showcases and hidden in storerooms in the basement. The latter was walled up banning any access to the lower floors.

On the ground floor, mosaics, which had been fitted in the pavement, were covered with a layer of concrete. Other large and heavy objects, such as statues and sarcophagi, were protected by sandbags. When the situation reached its worst in 1982, the sandbags were replaced by concrete cases built around a wooden structure surrounding the monument… [the rest]

As usual check out Fisk’s “Pity the Nation” and Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” for more stories about the National Museum.

ion route between both parts of Beirut during the war.

Written by stephenddockery

July 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Summer reading Vol. 4 | Engaging the Muslim World

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The fourth edition of the summer reading series is Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole. I hadn’t read a whole lot of Cole’s work before this, maybe just his recent Iran stuff, so this a nice change of authors from Friedman last week.

When I read academic books I usually keep a small page of paper with me to jot things down that I want to remember. For this book, I kept a lot of notes. Which isn’t to say that the book was particularly good or bad, but that Cole went after dozens of topics, anything from Energy Independence to Wahhabis, and Syrian Baathists.

The book  didn’t quite read like one continuous work rather a series of essays on different topics. It was a little bit disconcerting because even inside each chapter Cole would use ‘breaks’ to jump around to different decades and subtopics inside that chapter.

Because the books includes so many topics, its clearly wasn’t academically exhaustive. Cole sometimes glosses over details to help make his point. A particular reach was his insistence that VP Dick Cheney wanted war with Iraq to secure accesses to Iraqi Oil by American companies. But the books is instructive in pointing out the hypocrisies and incongruity in American foreign policy. Cole points to the lack of logic behind American claims that most Saudi Arabian Wahhabis are radical or the irony when the Ford administration authorized a plutonium reprocessing plant in Iran in the 70’s (Cole is insistent that Iran is not attempting to get a nuclear weapon, a claim that David Sanger in The Inheritance, my next book, strongly disagrees with)

In the end Engaging the Muslim World is a series of reminders about the very western, Americanized way that most people in the U.S. view the world. If you’ve spent your life watching American TV and reading the New York Times, its a great reminder that there are other perspectives out there and American policy isn’t nearly as clear cut as its made out to be.

That being said, Cole uses the end of every chapter to make sweeping recommendations about policy changes and leaves little room for nuance on complex issues, he always seems to have an excuse for what America is doing wrong that makes one ideology not match up with another. But the book is a great jumping off point for a start of a much more through analysis into all the topics Cole covers.

Heres some of the key points that Cole brings up (his ideas not mine):

  • U.S. has acted to protect its energy interest in the world, installing and backing up oil regimes (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq). Neomercantalism is dying/dead
  • Oil dependency doesnt work, most alternative fuels wont work either
  • Solar is the way forward
  • U.S. needs better relationship with “Islamic oil”.
  • U.S. backed the militant Islamic fighters in the 90’s who are not fought as terrorists
  • Muslim world and Western world are equally religious. Secular politics in America is disconected from grass roots America
  • Saudi 9/11 connection not plausible. Bin Laden hated Saudi royal family
  • King Saud was the counter weight to Nasser
  • Wahabis not killing people (very sympathetic to Saudi Arabia)
  • Abdullah acts in ways better for Saudi and America than Fahd did
  • U.S. surge in Iraq achieved dubious results partially by more ethnic cleansing
  • Hypocrcy of not granting Iraqis Assaylum in any reasonable numbers even those who helped Americans
  • U.S. ignores leftist insurgents because it doesnt fit the message
  • Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan outside of the law, no local administrator. Pashtuns have system of equality
  • Pakistan military/intelligence funds the Taliban
  • Iraq invasion increased Iran power
  • Ahmedinijad not global threat. Khameini holds the cards
  • Iran won’t attack Israel
  • US nuke approval in Iran in 76
  • Great Game (pre-WWI) to partition Iran between British and Russians made Iran deeply suspicious
  • Democratically elected Mossadegh deposed in CIA coup bad for relations
  • Hezbollah = Small paramilitary
  • In the conclusion: Stop being bigots, no more Islamiphobia or American/Islam anxiety, West needs to translate enlightenment ideas and books that aren’t available in the Middle East, engagement is the key, international frustration over Palestinian issue is building, energy demand will become a crisis

Final Rating (out of 5): 3.5

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole: 3.5

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

July 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

What did you say?

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It can be wildly frustrating to learn Arabic. I’ve studied the language part time, for about 2 years now and situations like this can play out on a regular basis:

I’ve got 20 minutes to get to someplace in Beirut for a story, but I’ve rehearsed the phrase I need for a week, I’ve been practicing the “hah’ the “gha” and the “kha” and this is my chance to use it. I walk up to a taxi and ask him my question…and it ends up having the same effect as speaking in gibberish, he has no idea what I’m saying. Sometimes I get angry and I just want to yell “I”M SPEAKING ARABIC.” But its obvious its not his fault, it’s mine.

It gets discouraging when that situation repeats itself again and again over the course of weeks or months, you can feel like you will never learn enough to speak to anyone in a meaningful way. Thats why run ins with people like Joesph, can be so special.

I was on my way back from work after 3 hours of Arabic class, a trip to a press conference at the Indonesian embassy and writing 2 stories. I was doing my Arabic flash cards, but didn’t feel much like talking to anyone. Thats when I got into a cab with an older taxi driver named Joesph.

After the initial how are yous, Joesph was incredibly excited to learn I spoke Arabic. We talked about where I study Arabic, what I did here and about Beirut. He talked about living abroad for 20 years, moving back two years ago and being an Aounee (supporting Michel Aoun). He spoke slowly and clearly and corrected my pronunciation, when I didn’t understand words he explained them to me by using other Arabic phrases, not speaking English, The whole conversation probably didn’t last more than 10 minutes but it was probably the most encouraging conversation in Arabic I’ve had in a year. In the end I decided to pay him for the cab ride and the Arabic lesson.

My Arabic has slowly gotten better over time, but without people like Joesph learning this language would be so much more impossible than it is already.

Written by stephenddockery

July 21, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Day in my life

2 Stories: Lebanon Drug Addiction | Foreign Influence

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I had a story in The Daily Star today about an NGO, Skoun, that helps treat drug addicts and lobbies the government for more treatment and less jail time for addicts. NGOs really fill a huge gap in civil society. I’ve covered events by about a dozen so far and its really interesting to see how prevalent they are. One one hand its a good thing to provide all these services, but on the other it makes people dependent on other countries organizations and individual donors besides the state.
My story in the paper yesterday was on a UNDP report with a section on foreign influence in Lebanon. It was some of the harshest language that I’ve read about the foreign patronage, and especially suprising coming from the UN. Unfortunately it didn’t have a newspeg, but hey you gata fill the paper I guess.

The foreign influence really gets understated, particularly by people with an agenda. You hear people talk about the “Western backed” March 14 coalition (like in my story, not my choice) but really that should read something like “Saudi backed” because of the  hundreds of millions of dollars the Saudis possibly used to leverage the campaign. But as usual the truth can’t be summed up into one or two words. Parties that joined either March 8 and 14 had diverse reasons for doing so that reflect local, national, regional and global pressures that are difficult to encapsulate in a phrase.

Written by stephenddockery

July 18, 2009 at 6:18 pm

How long is the long war?

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Patrick Lang over at Sic Semper Tyrannis has an interesting post on the cost of an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency is a buzz word in military/political circles, and its approach has in part (I think) improved the situation in Iraq. But what Lang brings up, is it could take a decades to wage a worthwhile counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

“This is a big job, especially in a country like Afghanistan where much of what has to be done has not been done before.  “Education” alone, “education” in the Western sense will be a massive long term project.  IMO, the whole counterinsurgency thing, if applied successfully in Afghanistan will require a commitment of a century of effort by dedicated civilian and military personnel and many, many billions of dollars”

This goes along with what I have been reading recently in David Sanger’s The Inheritance. Sanger quotes Douglas Lute the war czar for Iraq and Afghanistan:

“The Truth is that you have to think about this problem in thirty-year terms,”… One night in early summer 2008, I asked Lute whether he was sticking to that estimate. No, he said he had rethought the numbers. “I’ve revised it to closer to fifty years.”

I’m a big fan of the type of unconventional thinking that counterinsurgency campaigns inspire, but does the military, the government and the public have the stomach to sit through the decades it  may take for a counterinsurgency campaign? And would leaving before a counterinsurgency “battle” is finished do anything besides create a feeling of abandonment in that country and maybe inspire a harsh backlash, negating all the gains? We may get a taste of what a post-partially completed COIN  environment looks like in Iraq (where I think few would say COIN is complete) but that can hardly be a indicator for the same situation in Afghanistan which is so much more behind in terms of its “nation building”

Some more COIN reading

Written by stephenddockery

July 12, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Beirut Art Center in Jisr El Wati

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The center piece of the exhibit by Abdel Hamid Baalbaki

The center piece of the exhibit by Abdel Hamid Baalbaki

I took a trip to Jist El Wati yesterday to go to the Beirut Art Center. The location is a bit of a drive fromwhere I live in West Beirut, but it’s worth it. The exhibit was called The Road to Peace: Paintings in Times of War, 1975-1991 and featured only art work that had been produced between those years, the time of the Lebanese Civil War.

There was a real sense of sadness and despair in all of the works, really powerful stuff. Even the abstract art, which is something I usually only mildly enjoy, spoke to me because of the context it was presented in.

Check out the NYT write up of the exhibit. This exhibit ends Tuesday, the next BAC exhibits are called “Earth of Endless Secrets Writing for a Posterior Time” and “Prisoner of War.” They open on July 23.

Also, across the street from the art center is a huge souk (market). Maybe a half mile long of booths packed together selling anything from olives and spices to knock off watches and shoes all of it ridiculously cheap (in both senses of the word).

I scored a nice shirt for $2.66, key chains with the likenesses of Nasrallah, Hariri, Geagea and Aoun on them for $1.66 and some presents for the family. Oh and I had some orange juice for .66 cents with a used glass and used straw, thrifty indeed.

Written by stephenddockery

July 12, 2009 at 3:54 pm

To be an Italian MP you have to have a really deep voice

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I figured out that I don’t speak Italian yesterday. I covered a press conference from the Italian foreign affairs delegation to Lebanon Thursday The press conference was in Italian and Arabic so I had to pretend like I was writing things down and then take the recording back to be translated.

Highlights of the press conference:

All 3 (out of 4) of the Italian MPs who spoke had incredibly deep voices. Like wildly deep. Octaves bellow what I was expecting, even the woman MP. Maybe its a requirement before running for political office in Italy.

Opposition MP, Leoluca Orlando, handing out an entire two sided personal biography instead of a business card.

Wondering if my name would have been Stefano Stefani if I had been born in Italy.

Written by stephenddockery

July 10, 2009 at 5:26 pm