musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, September 17, 2010

A More "Democratic" Turkey?

The Turkish electorate just resoundingly (58% of those who voted) passed a referendum that could very well end Turkey's definition of democracy. Turkish democracy is not like other versions of democracy; well, maybe not until now.

'Hurray!' you say?

Read on and, when you're done, let me know if you still think this is a positive development for Turkey or whether you think, as I do, that this is the most troubling development in Turkish politics in recent memory.

The Man. The Vision.

Modern Turkey (born out of the progressive vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I) bears little resemblance to other nations formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. This could be because it was the center of the Ottoman Empire and change came quicker to the seat of power; or (more likely) it could be due to the revolutionary visions of Ataturk.

As Stephen Kinzer points out in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future (a book I highly recommend reading if you're interested in the subject; for the record I don't agree with all of Mr. Kinzer's conclusions but, as he has a habit of doing, he has framed the context in a way that is easily understood and exceedingly rational), Iran and Turkey went through almost simultaneous revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century. Reza Shah (Iran's revolutionary leader) imposed modernism and western principles upon his people without asking, much as Ataturk did in Turkey. The difference is that Ataturk was able to institutionalize his vision of a more representative 'democracy' of sorts that would transition over time once people got used to the idea, while Reza Shah had trouble letting go to the power he had obtained.  Ultimately this led to a political crisis in Iran, one which led to the political rise of previously underground religious fundamentalists. The rest is history.

In the last few years of his life Ataturk was not extremely involved in politics, choosing instead to trust in the institutions and people he had put in place while he enjoyed, how shall I say, his more indulgent personality traits. Knowing that Turkish culture was deeply rooted in a political Islam that was not always (and might never be) compatible with the western ideas for which he fought so fiercely, he put in place several checks and balances that would ensure the continuity of his vision of Turkey's future, including an independent judiciary and military that would not succumb to the pressures of communism, Islamism, etc.

Right about now you might be telling yourself (if you've made it this far) that my description of Ataturk makes him seem a bit megalomaniacal (yes, I enjoy making up words), touting his vision of the future as the only way forward despite fierce objection from almost everyone in the country at the time save a few close military and civilian advisors. Alas, you would be right. Ataturk did what he thought was right for the long-term future of Turkey and his beloved fellow Turks after spending much of his life hobnobbing with intellectual elite in Paris, London, Istanbul, Beirut, etc. He knew that his ideas were revolutionary and, as humans, we are naturally against change, especially in the short term. So he just did it largely without consultation, using the military as the steadying force behind his ideas.

The difference between Ataturk and Reza Shah, Ernesto 'Che' Guevarra, Hitler, and other revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, is that Ataturk was right and has led Turkey to be what it is today. His ideas, and the techniques he used to institutionalize them, were exactly what Turkey needed coming out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Travel to Turkey (there are many reasons most foreigners fall in love with Turkey, most of which come back for repeated visits and some of which never left; politics, alas, is probably not one of them) and you see the fruits of his 'vision' everywhere: in the Starbucks, in the youth showing off the latest fashions, on Istanbul's bustling Istiklal Caddesi, in the street protests, and in the hearts of those Turks (like me) who yearn for the continuation of our society of western openness to compliment Turkey's own rich cultural heritage. You see it in the eyes of Turks young and old, male and female, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, walking the streets of our cities with confidence and without the fear of reprisal.

It took at least a generation after Ataturk's death for people to truly embrace this modern, western way of life; but there is a reason why Turks are so vehemently nationalistic, so protective of their secularism, so proud of being a unique social, cultural, and political entity on the world stage. Most Turks (including most likely much of the 58%) enjoy the freedoms their modern state affords them and would not welcome a Saudi- or Iran-like limited existence. I guarantee that even those that voted for the referendum would not want to go down the path of these theocracies that regularly limit human rights. Not after having lived in the Turkey I know and love.

That's why the results of this referendum (and indeed the fact that it was conceived by the AK Party in the first place) are so troubling.

The Underlying Problem and the Repercussions of the Referendum.

58% of voters chose 'yes' on the referendum that, among other things, limits the political power of the military and places the judiciary square in the palm of the ruling Islamist AK Party. Most people don't realize what they have until it's been taken away from them; a fatalistic, yet not all that impossible possibility after this referendum.

Let me explain.

Western electorates are not like the Turkish one. In the west, the fundamentals of Jeffersonian democracy hold strong because the hedge against a manipulative, weak, unpopular, corrupt, etc. government is the ever-present promise of elections. In the U.S., this fear of elections (more specifically a fear of getting voted out of office) has led to the 24 hour-a-day, 365 day-a-year election cycle that is arguably not healthy. This is the exact opposite problem that Turkey faces today.

Well-organized, grassroots campaigning in rural and poor areas of Turkey has solidified a solid, religious base for the AK Party. Previously not very interested in politics, these Turks have been drawn into the electoral process by the promise (and, in most cases, delivery) of services for the poor, cleaner cities, and functioning bureaucracies. To their credit, the AK Party has delivered these things and there is a reason why they continue to be popular amongst a section of this largely religiously conservative population. This group is much more concerned about, quite legitimately so, their continued ability to get government services than the threat of fundamental Islam creeping into politics, thus allying Turkey closer to Crown Prince Abdullah than PM David Cameron (who, for the record and despite his open support for Turkish PM Erdogan, seems to realize that Turkey's continued look to the west is crucial; I agree with him that the west can not afford to lose Turkey).

The problem is that, unlike in most western democracies, a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not seem to exist. Given their chance to shine in the '90s after the untimely death of one of Turkey's great modern secular leaders, Turgut Özal (a pious man of meager, rural origins who himself kept the military out of politics not by constitutional referendums but by moving the country progressively more towards westernization and modernization), the secular parties drowned in their own corruption and ineptitude, turning off many people to politics and, more importantly, opening the necessary political space for a well-organized group led by savvy politicians (like current PM Erdogan) to thrive. The secular parties (ideologically representing around 60%+ of Turks in my non-scientific opinion) are themselves divided, much as are many western democracies, into groups representing all sections of the political spectrum (left, center left, center right, etc.). The difference is that in Turkey they are divided into many more parties (easily over 20), with the "full of talk, not of action" Cumhuriyet Halk Party (CHP) bumbling in the lead, filling the 'best of the worst' opposition role with about as much gusto as Al Gore at a dinner party.

So if a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not exist, i.e. a check and balance played by most opposition parties in western democracies, who will ensure that the government truly maintains the path towards modernization, fulfilling the dream not only of Ataturk but of millions of Turks who enjoy the many freedoms largely not afforded to citizens during the Ottoman days of yesteryear? Who is the check? Who ensures the balance?

Simply put, thanks to fragmented and futile secular politicians who have repeatedly failed to capitalize on rising unease against the increasing Islamization of the AK Party, there remain few options. Without the military and judiciary, the last bastions of Kemalism in public Turkish life that have controversially (and to their discredit not always fairly) maintained the course of Turkey towards the west, those options become basically non-existent, opening the floodgates for the AK Party to do almost anything they please.

Among other things, this referendum takes these powers, the only watchdog elements left in modern Turkish politics, away from the military and the judiciary. Among other things, this referendum allows them to place fundamental Muslims loyal to the AK Party on judiciary benches across the country and systematically take the power of the military away from the secular generals and put it into the civilian hands of nepotistic AK party cronies.

Accepted by 58% of Turks, hailed by President Obama as a evidence of the "vibrancy of Turkey's democracy," and much to the excitement of a no-named NY Times editorialist, the referendum essentially kills Turkey's unique style of democracy that has consistently ensured the continuation of secularism by maintaining the separation between mosque and state. Who says such Jeffersonian ideas are well-suited for a complicated geo-political place like Turkey? Perhaps, given the aforementioned complexities in Turkish political life today, democracy a la turca is the best version for Turkey.

Almost as an afterthought, the NY Times editorial says that "to work, [the changes brought on by the referendum] will also require Turkey’s political leaders to exercise restraint." And if they don't exercise restraint? What then? Who will stop them from moving Turkey down the path of theocracy? A European Union that has repeatedly distanced itself from Turkey? An America that desperately needs to appease one of its last allies in a region that today remains overtly hostile to any US involvement?

What about a Saudi Arabia, a Libya or an Iran that has everything to gain from the increased involvement of Islam in Turkish politics? Will they encourage Turkey's Islamist leaders to exercise restraint?

I don't think so.

In conclusion, thank you 58% of Turkish voters, President Obama, and no-named NY Times editorialist for failing to see the larger picture and, most importantly, opening the floodgates to Erdogan and his cronies to institutionalize their brand of Islamic 'democracy' under the cloak of western 'democracy.' This referendum could lead to increased radicalization of opposing political and religious elements in Turkey. In a worst case scenario, without the military and judiciary watchdogs and depending on how the AK Party deals with their new-found total domination without opposition, it could lead to open revolt in the streets led by secularists who do not see any other way to protect their way of life.

I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Floridian Radicalism... Seriously?!

"Church plans Quran-burning event" reads the relatively obscure link on CNN's website. You can't be serious...

In what has largely just been a blogosphere outrage so far (although I would imagine this juicy of a story will go mainstream rather quickly), the "Dove World Outreach Center" has taken upon itself to launch a worldly, dove-like message of hate against Muslims. If you thought the Danish Muhammad cartoon incident was bad, brace yourself. This might just be worse.

Why? Because it's in America... as if radical Muslims needed another reason to hate America. Well, they got one anyways.

I'm not even going to touch on the idiocy of the event planned by "Pastor" Terry Jones from Hatesville, FL. That should be obvious if you have any sort of brain whatsoever. Feel free to cut and paste:

Dear Dove World Outreach Center:
Go [insert your favorite expletive here] yourself.
The Rest of Us Christians

But the issue did inspire me to write about radicalism, a practice that anyone who knows me will know I abhor. I don't really like radicalism about anything, but for the benefit of our Floridian nincompoops (I'm happy to see that that word actually passed Firefox's spell checker), I'll focus on religion.

Radicals don't really need much goading; most of them have probably made up their minds one way or another and not much you or I could say will change that. Radicals of the "Islamic" persuasion probably just see Qu'ran burning as an opportunity to recruit those "on the bubble" to their cause. Thanks Terry.

Radicals of the "Christian" variety (I put Islamic and Christian in quotes because I don't think radicals properly represent either religion) think that it's a good idea to burn the Muslim holy book. Thanks again Terry.

While we're on the subject of thanking Terry for things - muchas gracias in advance for the backlash that American soldiers, aid workers, etc. living in the Muslim world will receive as a result of your actions.

As with most things, I try and think of solutions when presented with a problem; in this case radicalism. But before I do that let's talk about what won't work when trying to get either side's radicals to grow a brain.

Let's assume that Christian radicals and Islamic radicals (I'm going to leave Jews out of this one entirely) have a common goal: either eradicate or convert the opposite side. Admittedly, the Islamists of today have been known to use some pretty violent acts to perpetuate their cause, while modern Christianists (I just made up a new word) burn holy books. But we shouldn't forget that Christianity was (and still has the potential to be) used as an excuse for brutality in the past and some of the rhetoric coming from the great State of Florida today is just as appalling as that coming from the other side.

So if the goal is to eradicate or convert, the method by which this is accomplished is hate. Whether claiming jihad against the heathens or calling Islam the religion of the devil, the tool is hate. And it's a very sharp tool indeed. However, if one looks rationally at a largely irrational situation, one can see fairly quickly that neither side will be eradicated or converted by hate from the other side. Radicalism will not end when one side "wins the war" against the other.

Which brings me to the solution, albeit one that will take time and will not be easy. Put simply, Christians must solve the problem of radical Christianity. And Muslims must solve the problem of radical Islam.

As a predominately Christian nation, there is nothing that America (or arguably non-Muslim Americans) can say or do that will dissuade Islamists from radicalism. I would even assume that quite often this has the opposite effect. It is up to Muslims - the moderate, peace loving, intelligent ones like my Turkish family, Pakistani colleague, and countless Iraqi friends - to unite against radicalism. You don't have to agree on which lineage is the true Islamic lineage from the Prophet or whether you pray five times a day or three; but you do have to agree that the Taliban, al Qaeda and other radical groups that promote violence and degrade women don't properly represent you and the deep traditions on which your faith is built.

Similarly, as a nation gripped by Islamophobia, there is not much even a moderate Muslim can say to a American Christian radical to change his/her mind. That has to come from us: the Christians of the world who strive for peace and reconciliation amongst all people of all races, nationalities, and faiths. We are the ones that must stand up against the hate represented by Pastor Jones and his bigoted parishioners. The National Association of Evangelicals is on the right track by calling for the cancellation of the bonfire, but the outrage also has to come from the people (see carefully-worded letter in italics above).
 Christianity, like Islam, at its core preaches love and moderation, giving followers a blueprint for how to lead better lives serving others. Yes, there are the occasional epic battles in the holy books, but I'm pretty sure some of those were just added later so that it would make a better movie.

To make a long story even longer... Love thy neighbor. Reject radicalism. Educate yourself about those things that you fear the most.

And by all means root against the University of Florida at any chance you get.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Tea is Bad for You

Some days when I get really bored (usually on Fridays and Saturdays when the office is closed) I stare blankly at the TV screen as I flip in between Fox News and MSNBC. This masochistic exercise has shown me a number of things, namely that there are crazies on both extreme sides of the aisle. But that's the key: they are on the extreme sides of the aisle.

Why? Because that's what America is buying today and let's face it, money talks.

Contrary to most of my fellow insignificant armchair pundits, I actually think the current 'dialogue' can be a good thing. For one, it shows that people are interested in where their tax dollars are going thus holding elected officials more accountable for their actions. For two, it's darn good television entertainment; I have no idea where Glen Beck and Keith Olbermann come up with some of their quips, but I can only guess that after the writer's strike of a few years back many of the once-funny SNL writers jumped off either the right or the left side of the ship straight into the arms of Fox and MSNBC.

The problem is when people start to take these two extremes too seriously, convincing themselves that attacking the other side is more productive than having substantive and reasonable debates on the issues. Worse is when these entertainers entice physical and non-physical violence (with no accountability/culpability for what they've said) against people who don't agree with them. Even worse, some seem to have convinced themselves that such extremism is mainstream, which leads me to the central point of this rant:

The Tea Party is bad for America.

I am a firm believer in a strong multi-party system and am the first to express fear over super majorities that limit debate. However, the strong push from the extreme right to not only say 'no' to, but also to ridicule, everything coming out of the White House and Democratic chambers of Capitol Hill is unhealthy. The American people deserve action, they deserve results, and they deserve to have their elected officials spend their time coming up with solutions as opposed to setting up one roadblock after another. Smart, conservative Congressmen/women should not have to fear for their reelection (or radical outbursts from the Tea Party) if they agree with a majority of a piece of legislation that includes two sentences regarded by Glenn Beck as unacceptable.

I'm not completely naive; I know that politics is a game of sorts, but there comes a point when 8 hours of Monopoly is enough and it's time to pass Go and collect $200. The unfortunate and ironic thing for a Republican Party that is still recovering from years of misguided leadership in the 2000s is that, by consolidating and reinforcing a base that will vote to the right no matter what, they are isolating the very independents to whom they must appeal to win.

The Tea Party represents a fractured group of frustrated (predominately white) people who unite under the simple idea that everything President Obama (the Socialist/Marxist/Nazi/Communist/Fascist/Maoist man blamed for miraculously being the extreme of both sides of the political spectrum at the same time) does is an effort on his part to destroy the United States of America as they see it. Born out of a disastrously long, complicated and thank-God-its-over health care debate, these group of angry Americans have lost all sense of reason and civility, something that will come back to bite them sooner rather than later.

Intelligent, compassionate, fiscally conservative and sensible Republicans running for office are being dragged to extremes by this extremely vocal minority of people who have garnered a lot of support... at least in the press where rallies of thousands of adoring fans are shown hanging on to every word scribbled onto a blackboard by Beck. Media manipulation is a two-way street, and the extreme right has become very adept at getting the attention of an ever growing group of people.

Tea Partiers point to the election of Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's seat as their crowning achievement, indicative of the power of their tactical persuasion. However, I'm not totally convinced that they made much difference in a place where the people of Massachusetts had voted for a man (Kennedy), not a party, for so long and at a time when health care (more specifically the lack of any progress of health care reform and the resulting attentive inaction of the Obama Administration increasingly threatening to push through health care reform at all costs) was dominating everyone's attention everywhere. I'm willing to bet a majority of people of Massachusetts voted against a super majority in the Senate that would make it easier for Democrats to push through health care reform without debate; not for the Tea Party.

Now that the health care mess is largely behind us (don't fool yourselves, 'Repeal Baby, Repeal' is not a viable option and they all know it), the Tea Partiers are grasping at straws in an attempt to keep themselves relevant. And, not surprisingly, at the head of the pack is our favorite beautiful woman-cum-governor-cum-ex governor-cum-celeb 'politician:' Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin is not stupid. Much like Glenn Beck, she has built for herself a devoted following and, in the process, crowned herself queen of a burgeoning right wing media empire. That is shrewd business, not stupid. She has catapulted herself from unknown Alaska hockey mom to making millions of dollars despite having lost a national election. That's impressive, not stupid. However, like the Tea Partiers, Palin knows that her time in the limelight is finite and has chosen to say 'no' even louder instead of listening and providing fodder for meaningful cross-party debate.

Now that the 14-month health care debate that stalled every other inch of progress on anything is behind us, Obama can move on to other things on his agenda. Unfortunately for Palin and her Tea friends, he has done this with a vengeance. For better or for worse, Obama has tackled student loan reform, foreign energy dependence ('yeah, but he isn't doing enough off-shore drilling' is a pathetically weak comeback - I should know, I'm the king of pathetically weak comebacks), and nuclear non-proliferation (among other things - like a weekend visit to Afghanistan and not backing down in the face of Bibi Netanyahu's not-so-subtle slaps in the face) in such a way that no one who pays any attention can rationally say that he hasn't accomplished anything in his 15 month presidency. He may have accomplished things with which you're not happy, but he still accomplished them. This is an unfortunate situation for Republicans who bet their money on Obama's inability to perform and, for the sake of the party and for the good of the country, they need to shun the Tea Party and play the part of the compassionate, intelligent opposition they have the potential to be.

Fortunately, Palin and the rest have started to show the kinks in their once shiny armor. By comparing Obama's nuclear non-proliferation efforts to a schoolyard fight, she not only over-simplified a complex international issue, she also invited comparisons to her own competencies as a foreign policy expert. What did years as a community organizer teach Obama about nuclear politics? Probably not much. What did 15 months of regular briefs from America's brightest military and political minds (some of which, including the SecDef, served under W) teach the man with a law degree and higher than average intellect? A lot more than you, Sarah.

Even Newt Gingrich has tossed himself into the ring over the nuclear non-proliferation issues of today (and dare I say, the 2012 presidential race) when he appeared on the Hannity Show right after the caption "Obama Drastically Curtails U.S. Nuclear Defense Options" and between objective analysis from the fair and balanced Fox 'Newsman' about how Obama is the worst president in the history of mankind. Unfortunately for Newt, he was wrong in almost everything he said (as the 1-2 readers of this blog know I much prefer commenting on facts/issues others present rather than proving new ideas right or wrong, which takes way too much time... but in this case it was too easy - thank you Daily Show). For example, the Newt-Hannity love fest said that the U.S. would not retaliate whatsoever should it be attacked with chemical or biological weapons.

Let's think about that for a minute... does it make any sense to you? Do you really think the brightest military experts on the planet would endorse such a policy, much less any policy that willingly endangers the United States of America? Just in case you are now flagellating yourself over the use of your common sense, seek comfort in the fact that none of the policy initiatives championed by the Obama Administration say these things. So from where did these seemingly factual (cue Hannity checking an official looking document on his desk and saying "that's what he said!") statements come? My guess is that he's a victim of the Tea Party-inspired radicalization of the right, but as usual your guess is as good as mine.

Fortunately for Newt, Fox News viewers are unlikely to fact-check his statements by reading the New START Treaty and Protocol with Russia or the DoD's Nuclear Posture Review. Unfortunately for the rest of America, Fox News viewers are unlikely to fact-check his statements.

Here's my prediction: if Republicans continue to move to the right at the behest of a loud minority of extreme right-handers, they will lose even more ground and, as a consequence, become more and more radicalized. It may not be seen in 2010 since saying 'no' 4,593 times and calling the President of the United States rude (yet never anti-patriotic) names may resonate just long enough to garner a few votes by this November, but by 2012 the right must chart a more pragmatic path. This is especially true if the economy continues to recover despite what many Republicans have been calling 'dangerous' economic policies. Presidents and their parties don't get re-elected during economic downturns; unfortunately for Republicans (and regardless of whether the Democrats had anything to do with it or not) the economy is on the way up.

The bottom line is this: Tea Party 'conservatives' are the extreme, even if we choose to disregard the 'patriots' among them who yell obscenities at Congressmen and devote themselves to cleaning their militia-issued shotguns each night. Their ideas are emotionally burdened, destructive, disorganized, and bad for America. They should of course be allowed their voice - it is a free country after all. It's ultimately up to voters to decide whether the Tea Party is right or wrong.

I think they're wrong and that the writing is on the wall for an extremely divisive political movement. I just hope America can read.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What's it to Ya?

**This message was just sent to the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs**

Chairman Berman & Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:

Like most people originally hailing from the land of my father, I was saddened and disappointed to see your committee approve, albeit narrowly, H. Res. 252 calling for events of nearly a century ago in what is today southeastern Turkey to be considered a genocide. I urge you and your colleagues to reconsider your position and, more importantly, not to bring the resolution to a vote on the House floor.

Having recalled its Ambassador to Ankara for consultations, Turkey has made clear its feelings on the matter. The coming days will no doubt see further denouncements and a steady decline in relations. Turkey and the US are thus at a crucial crossroads because of your vote and Turkey, a stalwart democratic ally in the Muslim world and longtime friend, is considering going down the road less traveled.

Yes, the stakes are that high.

Let us, for a moment, consider the fact that the events of 1915 happened during a time when the world was at war and that the purported perpetrator was an Ottoman Empire that is but a distant memory to most. Today more than ever the 'goods and bads' of the Ottoman years are discussed more openly in Turkey as matters of historical significance and it is my firm belief that Armenian and Turkish academics, politicians and historians will continue the ongoing dialogue and together eventually resolve this issue of history once and for all.

Let us, for another moment, consider the domestic political undertones of a resolution with potentially severe international repercussions. Many of you who voted for 252 in your committee face undeniably tough reelection races later this year and, at a time when 'doing things the Washington way' is more unpopular than ever, have seemingly put your reelection to the House of Representatives - for some an impossible feat without support from large Armenian diaspora communities in the US - ahead of the diplomatic, military, and economic relationships with a NATO ally.

In Turkey, anti-Americanism has decreased in the last few years after startling highs during the latest Iraq War. It was so bad at one point that I, after hearing a taxi cab tirade on the subject one balmy afternoon in Istanbul, painfully claimed to be Canadian for fear of my safety. Even so, most Turks idolize the US for its cultural influence on the worlds of music, fashion, sport, etc., not to mention its ability and propensity to resolve global conflicts. Like most in the non-Christian world, Turks sat glued to their televisions as President Obama reached out a hand to Muslims everywhere last year. Unfortunately, H. Res. 252 has taken us all a step in the wrong direction.

Since World War I modern Turkey, as fathered by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has stood by the US in most major challenges of the last century. If you have any doubts about this, please note the nearly 2,000 Turkish troops in Afghanistan and ask any Korean War veteran about what it really means to 'fight like a Turk.'

In one sense I should thank you. Nothing unites nationalist sentiments among Turks - secularists and Islamists, right and left - like an outside entity attempting to slap it on its proverbial wrists for something allegedly done by the contemporaries of my father's, father's, father's father. This at a time when Turks are grappling internally with issues of rising Islamic fundamentalism and corresponding anti-Islamic fundamentalism, the imprisonment of revered military officers on charges of attempted coup, and a financial and jobs crisis gradually exploding in the face of Turks regardless of political or religious affiliations.

If history means so much to our future as insinuated by Chairman Berman in his opening remarks at the markup yesterday, I ask each one of you to study the historical significance of our relationship with Turkey and decide if the political gains of passing such a resolution are worth losing such a friend.


Al Hillah, Iraq

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Just Another (Exciting) Day in Paradise

Normally if I told you I had an exciting day, you should immediately worry. Excitement is not something that is valued heavily in Iraq. Nonetheless, I am surprised to say that I had an exciting (and dare I say fun) day.

After sludging through a two-day soaking rain that left behind mountains of mud on our street, this morning began with a flawlessly clear sky and a brisk breeze that reminded me that summer, thankfully, has not arrived yet. I promptly turned around and retrieved my jacket.

Upon arriving in the office, I was happy to see my full staff waiting for me after we had been a skeleton crew all last week. In case you didn't know (which, to be fair, why would you?), Friday marked the end of an annual 40-day festival/pilgrimage whereby the entire Shia population of Iraq and its neighbors think that it is a good idea to march, on foot, from wherever they are to the holy city of Kerbala. Friday was also a big day for the rest of us because it marked the end of the nightly 3 hour sermons blaring from the mosque next door through speakers provided by the CPA (thanks Bremer - much appreciated).

As you can imagine, hundreds of thousands of people walking down highways, over bridges, and through towns like Hillah can cause quite a logistical nightmare for those of us heathens who don't observe the tradition and still try to work *gasp* during this time. It also seemed to be an opportune time for one group of Muslims to plant bombs in large crowds of other Muslims, killing innocent women and children. Needless to say, many of our staff - including the entire Kerbala office - were unable to go to work last week.

My database specialist just happens to live in between Hillah and Kerbala, so before piling on the mountains of work I have for him, I asked about his week 'working' from home.

"No sir, I was working."

Ok, right, sure you were working...

"No really, I was working. I was caring for the pilgrims!"

Well, at least he's honest. Turns out that this middle-aged pious man, his wife and their three children, played host to wave after wave of strangers arriving from all over to commemorate Ashura, the day of the death of Imam Hussein at the Battle of Kerbala. Hussein is the most revered (at least to the Shia) of the Prophet Mohammad's fabled 12 imams and, not-so-coincidentally, his grandson. Opening his home and feeding up to 25 people a night, my database manager had indeed shown his Muslim brethren incredibly gracious hospitality, even giving up his own bed one night to a weary family of travelers.

I have a newfound respect for this man who sometimes annoys me with his seemingly selfish behavior at work (he is constantly asking for a promotion, a raise, etc.). His relentless ambition (or pestering, I haven't decided which) aside, he and his family represent all that is good in Islam; an innate kindness to others so natural to them, so pure.

After lunch, I set out on my next adventure: trying to renew my US Government badge. This is not an easy task for those of us that don't live on a military base with regular access to the badging office, so I hopped on an existing 'mission' (that's what our heavily armed taxi cab rides are called) to the nearest base. Unfortunately for me, I forgot that today is Sunday and, despite the fact that I work on the Iraqi schedule, those living in the American bubbl... I mean base, don't work on Sundays. It's apparently the day of rest. Or something.

No worries, I brought a good book to read and if that doesn't work I have become very adept at counting clouds.

"Yo! Can you get the ball for us?"

Hmmm, do I help out the soldiers and touch their nasty, mud-caked volleyball in my nice Nautica cable crew sweater protecting my nicer J. Crew button down?

Sure, I heard myself say, but only if you let me play!

Thus commenced the worst game of beach volleyball I've ever been a part of. Forget bump, set, spike, we were still working on the whole hand eye coordination thing. And, to make it even more interesting, I was on the team with the foul mouthed Latino G.I. Joe and his buddy the five foot tall triangle with a flat top. We didn't stand a chance.

Funnily enough though, after rolling up my sleeves and simplifying my vernacular (I know, I'm a condescending, pompous jerk... sue me), I started to really have fun. These Joes were just kids having a good time - the only thing missing was some beer in a nearby cooler, any form of female and... well, I guess a lot of things were missing. But for a moment there I got lost in this place, carefree and just one of the boys. They asked what I was doing here and, after a bit of explanation, one of the Joes said that he had almost gone to the Peace Corps but the Army paid better, so he understood what I did kinda.

Yeah... Peace Corps... yeah something like that. Kinda.

I've been known to be hard on the US and its foreign policies in Iraq, not to mention critical of the not so uncommon teenage American soldier in an airport wearing a "Iraq, F&$* Yeah!" t-shirt, but these guys were, consistent profanity aside, pleasant and undeniably friendly. Don't tell them I said that though, they might lose some 'man points' if their commanding officer finds out...

For the second time today, I regained a bit of faith in something I had begun to doubt.

Arriving back at the compound I noticed a game of ping pong happening between some of our Iraqi staff and, naturally, I couldn't walk by without partaking. I don't know what was so funny about the entire group of halfway decent English speaking Iraqis and one horrible Arabic speaking whitey playing ping pong in the twilight, but we didn't stop laughing the entire way to 21.

Speaking of twilight, do not see that horrible movie "Twilight: New Moon." Trust me, I barely missed the TV screen when the remote just shot out of my hand towards it during yet another painfully painful, heart-wrenchingly heart-wrenching, utterly stupid scene of a girl who wants to be a vampire - or was it a werewolf? Who cares. Don't watch it.

Now if only I have the will power (read: stupidity) to wake up in the middle of the night to watch two American football teams square off over some crystal bowl.

Doubtful. I'm not sure how much excitement I can take in one day...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ready and Abel

Just in case you've been living under a rock for the past couple of months, I'd like to inform you that my intrepid girlfriend, Lauren, has moved to sunny Juba in South Sudan where the Tusker is cold and the Nile is wide.

For much more interesting stories than the ones found here about her escapades in a place some have endearingly called the armpit of the developing world (stay tuned to Ready and Abel for her assessment), click here.