Thursday, February 24, 2011

Flying with the Portuguese Air Force

Yesterday was a rare treat.  I got to get out of the office and into the one of the P-3 Orions of the Portuguese Air Force, as it flew a NATO maritime patrol over the Med.
The visibility was great as we approached the Strait of Gibraltar.  Here you can see Europe on the left, and North Africa on the right.

Returning to Beja Airfield in Portugal's Alentejo region, where cork and olive trees and vineyards make for abstract landscapes.
It was a long day (We left Oeiras for the drive to Beja at 0430 and got back about 12 hours later.) but I had a great time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Press Endangered Lives of US Hostages?

CNN is reporting that Somali pirates have killed the four Americans aboard the yacht "Quest." 

When news outlets began reporting that one of the couples aboard was sailing around the world to distribute Bibles, I was very concerned that their lives were in greater jeopardy than those of most hostages of Somali pirates.  You may recall that I mentioned in a recent post that pirates had begun, in some cases, executing hostages for the crime of not being Muslim.

We'll probably never know whether that was why their captors killed them, if indeed, the reports of their deaths are true, but I couldn't help wondering when the press started carrying the story, if it wouldn't have been wise to delay discussing that aspect of their trip.  What would it have hurt? 

And don't tell me about the duty of the press to publish every detail, come what may.  In recent posts I've shown how western media go out of their way to avoid addressing the possibility of Islamic motivations to certain crimes.  If they're willing to exercise such discretion, it seems they could have done so in this case, and maybe bought some time for these unfortunate people.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Latest Painting

Here's the painting I've been working on most recently.  It's the lighthouse on Berlenga Island.  You may recognize the building in the foreground from my previous painting. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Latest Project with Zoe

A few weeks ago, I noticed some old lockers that were being thrown away, and I asked if I could have one.  I took it home and Zoe and I decided to fix it up for her room.  Here's a shot of Zoe, all dressed up in one of my old T-shirts, getting ready to give it a good scrub.
She cleaned the inside and I wet-sanded the exterior so it would take a fresh coat of paint.
We took off the brass door latch and the name plate before we gave it several good coats of white spray paint.  Zoe wanted to decorate it further with flowers that match the colors of her room.  We gave a lot of thought to different methods of stenciling the flowers, but I didn't want to use masking tape on the new paint, so we came to a standstill for a while.

Yesterday I was in the grocery store and happened to find rolls of rubbery non-skid material that were the exact colors of Zoe's room.  I thought instead of painting the flowers, we could glue them on.  Here's Zoe cutting the material.

 I was going to just stick the tops of the flowers on the locker, but Zoe wanted them attached to stems.  I was a little skeptical, but it's her locker, so we went with her idea. 

I'm glad we did.  I think it worked out very nicely.

Oh, we made a name tag too.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Press Whitewashes Egyptian Cabdriver's Jihad in San Diego

My friend in the blogosphere Eric Dondero published this report about an Egyptian cab driver living in San Diego who drove his cab into a crowd outside a nightclub on 12 Feb.  Reports say 30-some people were injured, two-thirds of them seriously.  One woman may have had a leg amputated as a result.

As Eric points out, journalists are largely failing to mention that the driver in question, who some are calling "Sam Daley," but who is actually named Osama Hassan El-Darandaly, is a devout Muslim.  After his cab stopped, he tried to continue his attack with a pair of scissors. 

The press are also inferring that his attack may be linked in some way to financial woes, as it appears his house is being foreclosed upon. 

More likely, as far as I'm concerned, is that El-Darandaly (Sam Daley?  Really?) was affected by this, Al Qaeda's "Inspire" magazine, edition 2, which details how to select the best spot for mowing people down with your vehicle.  Helpful hints include,
Pick your location and timing carefully. Go for the most crowed locations. Narrower spots are also better because it gives less chance for the people to run away. Avoid locations where other vehicles may intercept you.
You can call me paranoid if you like, but I have to wonder about a press that anglicizes the perpetrator's name, completely fails to mention that he may have an Islamic motivation for his attack, and publishes benign-sounding statements about an attempted mass-murderer like, "Cabbie out of hospital after crash that hurt 35."

So glad you're out of the hospital, Sam.  Now maybe we can get you into prison where you belong.

Update Jihad Watch was way ahead of me on this one.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jimmy Carter - Still Clueless

It's good to know that in a changing world, there are still some things that remain constant.  We may not be able to rely on the value of the dollar and our republic may be sliding into chaos, but as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Jimmy Carter will have a new book to flog, and he'll have no idea what he's talking about. 

At a University of Texas lecture yesterday, former President Carter, whose primary career success was to have fended off an attack by a killer rabbit, expressed his faith that everything in Egypt will turn out just fine.  "The demonstrators will not accept anything less than honest, fair and open elections," he said, and then shamelessly added that the Carter Center, which has grown infamous for rubber-stamping rigged elections, would be as "involved as possible" in that process.  That's all Egypt needs.

Despite the immense weight of history and human nature to the contrary, Carter seems to think it likely that the Egyptian military will relinquish control when the time is right.   "My guess is the (Egyptian) military leaders don't want to give up their political influence or power," Carter said. "But the military has seen what the demonstrators have done and will most likely submit to their demands."  "My guess," indeed.  What he doesn't mention is that it's thanks to his misguided policies that we're all guessing these days.  It was, after all, Carter who gutted our international intelligence capabilities, and we've been hopelessly behind ever since. 

Nor does the former president find anything to be concerned about if it's the Muslim Brotherhood to whom the military hands the reins.  "I think the Muslim Brotherhood is not anything to be afraid of in the upcoming (Egyptian) political situation and the evolution I see as most likely," Carter said. "They will be subsumed in the overwhelming demonstration of desire for freedom and true democracy." 

The Muslim Brotherhood has not been subsumed by anything since it was founded in 1928.  It has endured brutal crackdowns by authoritarian regimes and increased its followership at the same time.  Its backbone in Egypt has been its establishment of civil institutions that have consistently done better than the government at providing jobs, finding homes, and caring for its members.  If true democracy is ever unleashed in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood stands more to gain than anyone, because it has been quietly at work in peoples' daily lives for more than 80 years.  For all that time, it has been shaping the landscape that is most likely to emerge if or when the military turns over control.

What is most amazing about Carter's ignorance is that he seems totally unaware of the grave danger the Muslim Brotherhood poses to his only other career success, the Camp David Accords.  Brotherhood leaders have made it unmistakably clear to everyone but the former president, that an Egypt under the influence of the Brotherhood will find cause to "renegotiate" the agreement that has done more to stabilize international relationships in the Middle East than any other.

For all his fecklessness, Carter has shown a surprising ability to keep rehabilitating his image over the years, which implies at least an animal cunning as far as self-preservation is concerned.  With his naive statement about the organization that poses the single greatest threat to his legacy, he seems to have lost even that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WSJ Misses the Point Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood

Today's Wall Street Journal features an article about the Muslim Brotherhood that tries so hard to be evenhanded that it ignores facts central to the question of what the Muslim Brotherhood represents. 

Author Charles Levinson paints of a picture of a Brotherhood that is deeply divided between secularlists and Islamists, but he makes the fatal mistake of knowing too little about his topic to be able to discuss it intelligently.  He and Josh Stacher, a political science professor at Kent State University whom he quotes at length, make the all-too-common error of taking things for face value, as a result failing to understand what's really going on.

Take this reference to the Brotherhood, for example:

They also stood up for the independence of the judiciary and pushed for press freedoms, and didn't work to ban books or impose Islamic dress on women—moves many critics had feared.
The fact that the Brotherhood made no overt attempts to ban books or impose Islamic dress is immaterial, since through its well-developed civic institutions, it has cultivated a society that makes those demands for it.  That Egypt has become more conservative over the last decade is unquestionable.  Laws notwithstanding, women are pressured to cover themselves, and behavior that does not conform to strict Islamic standards meets with increasing opposition, even hostility on the street.  When Mr. Levinson refers to members of the Brotherhood who, "who eschew politics in favor of proselytizing Islam," he misses the fact completely that in eschewing politics, those members have not given up the Brotherhood's goal of an Islamic state; they are simply working toward their goal through extra-political means.

And this:

...Casting further doubts on the organization's commitment to the separation of church and state...
There are no doubts.  The concept of separation of church and state is totally foreign to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Any doubts regarding that are fantasies cultivated in the western press. 

Mr. Levinson goes on to say:
On Wednesday, when it was still unclear whether Mr. Mubarak would step down, Essam el-Eryan, one of the only reformists currently on the group's 12-member ruling Guidance Council, said in a statement that the group didn't seek the establishment of an Islamic state; believed in full equality for women and Christians; and wouldn't attempt to abrogate the Camp David peace treaty with Israel—all tenets espoused by Brotherhood leaders over the decades. Mr. el-Eryan said those Brothers who had suggested otherwise in their writings and public comments in recent days and years had been misunderstood or weren't speaking for the organization.

But does nothing to address the patent falsehoods in this statement.  First of all, there is no misunderstanding here.  The Muslim Brotherhood has maintained its existence on the notion of installing an Islamic state and on the destruction of Israel.  Its founding statements and the bulk of its internal documents confirm this.  Furthermore, while statements about the equality of women and Christians in Islamic countries are common, they are always made in the context of the Islamic state, which places such limitations on that "equality" as to make it nonexistent. 

What Mr. Levinson fails to address is the fact that any debate between factions of the Brotherhood take place within an Islamic context and Islam has definite things to say about the concepts being discussed.  This is not a western debate.  So while a "reformist" faction of the Brotherhood may state that it's for equality of the sexes and tolerance of Christians, equality and tolerance must and will be defined, not as Americans define those terms, but as the Koran defines them, and there is a world of difference in those definitions.  This world goes unexplored by Mr. Levinson, and this leaves his readers at a considerable disadvantage.

400-pound Shoplifter Subdued With Taser

30 year old Jerrie Perkins was caught trying to steal $600 worth of electronics equipment at a department store yesterday.  She might have gotten away with it, but her electrical getaway scooter got stuck in the doorway, foiling her escape.

Perkins assaulted a loss-prevention officer, and when ordered by police to submit to arrest, assumed a fighting stance.  An officer used a Taser to subdue her.

Seeing as Perkins is 5 feet, 2 inches, and 400 pounds, I think I would have gone with a harpoon, but I admire the sportsman who can take down big game with a smaller caliber.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I see your Lady Gaga, and I raise you Caro Emerald.



Game Over.

EU to Somali Pirates - We Give Up.

BBC News published this report on the failure of EU's catch-and-release tactics to stem the rising tide of Somali piracy. 

The position of NAVFOR, the EU naval task force assigned to - well, I don't really know what they're assigned to do, since it doesn't seem to be stopping piracy - their position, regardless of their mission, seems to be that it's better to do nothing than take the chance that someone might get hurt.  This in spite of the fact that pirates are ranging farther, using more complicated tactics and weaponry, and holding more ships and hostages than ever (30 ships and 700 hostages, according to the article.) "When you use the military, people get hurt, that's a fact," says the task force spokesman, Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy.  To which I would reply, "Yes.  That's the whole point.  Hurt the pirates badly enough, and piracy becomes, once again, the sole domain of Johnny Depp."

But the Wing Commander was referring to captain of the Samho Jewellry, the hijacked South Korean merchant vessel that was recently freed by South Korean commandos.  During the rescue, in which eight pirates were killed and five captured, the captain was shot in the stomach.  This is, of course, lamentable, even in view of the lopsided score at game's end, but to say simply that - using the military endangers hostages' lives - is to give a skewed view of the board.  First of all, it's not as if doing nothing ensures hostages' safety; two hostages were executed recently for the capital crime of failing to be Muslim, and others have died of malnutrition during their long captivity.  (Hostages are generally held from 6 to 9 months, during which they sometimes peform the dual role of ballast and human shields, rotting in the holds of their own vessels, which the pirates use as mother ships. 

But saying all this is to set up a false dilema.  The truth of the matter is that we could effectively stop piracy in a fortnight if anyone had the guts, and it wouldn't have to endanger any hostages.  The locations on the coast of Somalia that serve as jumping-off points for pirates are well known.  They are small camps on desert beaches, where pirates maintain, fuel, and arm their skiffs in preparation for their sorties.  These camps are free of obfuscating foliage and separate from civilian settlements.  They are a targeteer's dream. 

Any number of platforms suggest themselves for the pirate eradication mission I have in mind, but my personal favorite is the venerable AC-130 Gunship.  Orbit a Spectre (That's the gunship's nickname, mind you, not Arlen Specter, although I'd be happy to send him to Somalia if anyone thought it would help.)  off the coast on a few clear balmy Somali nights, and let it dispense a little old-school Counter Piracy.  I have a feeling that would sort things out in a hurry.

Of course, there are endless lines of lawyers waiting to tell us that firing on the Somali Coast is an act of war.  I have no problem with that.  As a matter of fact, that would just be putting a legitmate title on what they've been doing to us all along.  Besides, attacking the pirate bases is exactly what Thomas Jefferson did over two hundred years ago, and I think it's no coincidence that they haven't been much of a problem until recent times.

Oh, and a note to Wing Commander O'Kennedy - If I'm ever held by pirates, you have my permission to shoot me in the stomach if it saves me dying of scurvy or being executed for being a Christian.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lighthouse Keeper's Shack, Berlenga Island

I'm pleased with the way this painting turned out.  I changed the format from the photo, which appears a post or two below. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stupid

Asked about the uncertainty ahead, especially with respect to the role of the [Egyptian] military, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think we have to fear democracy."
How ignorant can one man be?  It's hard to measure with any precision, but can there be any doubt that Gibbs must be close to the maximum?  How can one finish a career in the White House and have no idea of the Founders' fear of democracy?  I imagine that living and working in DC, one would see the monuments every day that were erected to commemorate men who gave us a republic, to defend the rights of the individual, because they knew that democracies always defend the desires of the mob.  How does that not sink in? 

Democracy is the means by which the unproductive majority cloaks itself in legality while stealing from a productive minority.  Zimbabwe, former bread basket of Africa, now an economic basket-case, is a prime example.  Democracy, otherwise known as mob rule, is to be greatly feared. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Five Hundredth Post

Actually, this is my 506th post on this blog.  Somehow, the landmark 500th came and went without my noticing. 

Berlenga Island

Berlenga Grande is the largest of the Berlengas Islands, which isn't really saying much.  With a tail wind, a thrower with a good arm could just about lob a rock from one end of the island to the other.

The island appears in this photo to be surrounded by a placid sea, but on the 20 minute boat ride last year, nearly everyone got sick.  I managed somehow not to succumb, so I was able to witness the spectacle of people scrambling for the small plastic bags handed out by the captain and his crew. 
Atop the island is a very paintable lighthouse.  In early days, the only buildings were associated with a monastery, but the monks got tired of frequent raids by pirates and headed elsewhere.

I'm looking forward to painting this building, which is part of the lighthouse complex.

Below the lighthouse is this fortress, which didn't do the monks much good apparently, and which, instead of protecting the mainland from marauding Spaniards, eventually was captured by them, and became a base from which they operated.  The waters around the island are restricted from fishing, and in the deep clear lagoons on either side of this fort, you can see large schools of fish. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Off-Season

I especially like the sunny days this time of year, when there are few tourists and the streets are relatively quiet. 

Friday, February 04, 2011

What You Need to Know About The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al Bana. Its goal was to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. By that, it was intended that Shariah law would govern every aspect of human interaction in that state, from matters of personal hygiene to banking regulations. At a time when colonialism was still the distinguishing characteristic in the land, the Muslim Brotherhood ingratiated itself with the Egyptian people through charitable and beneficent institutions, which continue to this day, and which have earned a better reputation than the government for providing jobs, homes, and food.

With the help of deserters and escaped former German officers of WWII, it trained men and armed them to kill Jews in 1948. (If you can find a copy, read the book Bedouin Doctor.)

The Brotherhood helped the Free Officers of the Egyptian Army overthrow the monarchy, but when it became clear that Gamal Abdul Nasser would not institute a Shariah state in Egypt, the Brotherhood set itself in opposition to him too. They tried to assassinate him in 1954, and instead made him more popular than ever. Five hundred of the Brothers found themselves in prison, and many more fled to other countries as a result. Saudi Arabia, which was badly in need of teachers and doctors at that time, became a new home for many of them. It is believed that some of Bin Laden’s teachers were Muslim Brothers.

Still other members found their way to America, where the Muslim Brotherhood has adapted itself amazingly well to our legal and political system, and has established a large number of lobbying and advocacy groups that are doing their best to bring Shariah law to the United States. Among these, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is the most prominent. The Brotherhood even has several members serving as Congressional staffers. Through their work, avowed terrorists have lead Muslim prayer services in our own capital building. (Read Muslim Mafia.)

Sayyid Qutb, an author and literary critic, was one of those members who found himself in prison in Egypt. While in the care of the state, he wrote his manifesto, Milestones, which would earn him a permanent place in the pantheon of militant Islamists, and would provide justification for a generation of misfits seeking to work out their issues violently.

Because al Bana and Qutb considered that, in a true Islamic state, differences between Sunni and Shia would become inconsequential (a view that was shared by Ayatollah Khomeini) The Muslim Brotherhood, although its members are Sunni, has never had a problem working with the Shia. This is how the Brotherhood manages to be the bridge between Sunni militantism and Iranian-backed anti-Israel groups like Hizballah. Their common desire for the wholesale slaughter of Jews helps cement that bond.

After long imprisonment of many of its most influential members, the Muslim Brotherhood renounced its calls for the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government, but it has never given up its goal of instituting Shariah law in Egypt. Just as it is doing in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere, the Brotherhood is still marching toward that goal in Egypt, but through mainly political means.

Since their party is banned in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood candidates run as Independents. Everyone, including the government, knows who they are. It is an open secret.

The Brothers don’t really try to conceal their identity anyway. They are often identifiable by their beards and short hair. They often cultivate a bruise in the center of their forehead as well, as an indicator of their devotion to prayer.

An important thing to remember is that whether Shariah law is brought about by politics or violent revolution makes little difference to those who find themselves enslaved by it. In order to understand the nature of this enslavement, one must realize that Islam is a legal system that includes laws about religion. It is not, as is commonly represented in the West, a religion that includes laws about other things. That view is 180 degrees out of phase with reality. There is a reason that the Arabic word “DIN,” we translate into the English word “religion” carries with it a host of meanings related to indebtedness and legal obligation. Islam is very much about submitting oneself to a system of laws, and incurring a legal indebtedness. It is not at all about a personal relationship with one’s God that is a matter of conscience.

Why don’t we know this? Islam is understood to have been revealed to Mohammed in stages. New revelations were not made available until the people were ready for them. Thus, early Quranic injunctions against killing Jews, Christians, and other “People of the Book” were abrogated by later instructions to make war on them wherever they could be found. If Allah revealed himself to Mohammed in stages, why would the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other Muslim, for that matter, not follow the same pattern, revealing only those components of Islam considered most palatable? To do otherwise would be to fail to emulate their own prophet. For this reason, most Westerners’ understanding of Islam is constricted to a very limited amount, most of which is designed to make Islam seem familiar and comfortable.

When it comes to Islam, the western press has failed to fulfill its role as a skeptic. In most cases when dealing with Islamic organizations or regimes in Muslim countries, the press has allowed those organizations or regimes to supply the narrative. You may recall how CNN buried stories of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity in order to keep their Baghdad office open and it is known, but never reported that in Yemen, Reuters’ bureau chief doubles as President Ali Saleh’s translator. Meanwhile, in the United States, organizations like CAIR have succeeded in dictating terms to the Society of Professional Journalists, dissuading them from using accurate, descriptive terms when reporting on Islamic terrorism.

So recent praise for the Brotherhood should be viewed with suspicion. The assurances that it can participate in a democratic system are based on incomplete understanding of, not only the Brotherhood, but of Shariah law as well. The are given to us by people who, as is pointed out here by professor Barry Rubin, have never read the Brotherhood's agenda, nor listened to its speeches.  The bottom line is that to an organization whose raison d’etre is to institute a complete, comprehensive legal system based on what they consider the word of God, democratic institutions are a temporary aberration.  It is blasphemy, after all, under Islamic law to consider that man (democratic institutions) can be a source of law, since Allah is the only legitmate law-giver.  At best, democratic institutions are, to the Muslim Brotherhood, a disposable tool.  They will never consider them ends to be desired in and of themselves.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Brief Flirtation with the Big-Time

Visitor "Civil Truth" left a comment below my post, "Note From Tunisia" letting me know that the post, which also appeared at RedState.com had made it to the Recommended List at that site. 

I've been posting at RedState for a couple of years now, and this is the first time anything I've written has received that kind of response.  It's a complete surprise, and one I don't expect to reoccur any time soon, but I'll keep working on it.

Meanwhile, the big question is, how do I translate this into more sales of my paintings?  (Which can be seen here.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Note From Tunisia

I spent a month in Tunisia in 2000, brushing up on my Arabic.  Since that country is so much in the news these days, I thought I'd dig up the notes I wrote about my visit.

Mohamed, my Arabic instructor, was 61 and a devout Muslim. When I met him he was eagerly anticipating his next marriage - to a 28 year old woman. Understandably, this impending marriage was one of his favorite topics of conversation. He was almost as fond of reminding me that, when he lived in Libya, he had been Qaddafi’s best translator.

Professor Mohamed was convinced that the crowning achievement of his life would be to convert me to Islam. The evidence of this inevitability was the revelation that my son’s name is Zachariah. I tried several times to tell him that it’s Zachary, but he corrected me every time. Mohamed was a nice guy who taught enthusiastically, which was his greatest deficiency. When he got excited he either quoted long passages of the Koran (which he compelled me to write down) or he lapsed into French. I’m not sure which was worse.

One day Mohamed and I were exploring how to make a statement negative in Arabic. There are several ways of doing this, depending on verb tense and other factors. I’d grown accustomed to professor Mohamed veering off in strange directions and he had just done so to discuss his impending marriage again. I was well accustomed to this topic of conversation, but this time he varied the theme by including a disturbingly graphic description of the steps he’s taking to ensure that he’ll be physically capable of meeting the renewed demands of married life. Directly after this lengthy exploration of the upcoming nuptials he steered us abruptly back on task with the segue, “So, let us discuss for negation.”

If you try saying “fornegation” aloud in a heavy Arabic accent, you’ll understand what a shock I sustained.

Of course, linguistic differences aren’t the greatest challenge you meet when you travel. They’re just one of the easiest to talk about in polite company. When it comes to visiting foreign places, what everyone secretly wonders about but hardly ever mentions is the question of where one goes to the bathroom.

To be fair, I should emphasize that Tunisia is way ahead of the rest of the Dark Continent when it comes to porcelain technology. I was confronted with very few bombardier toilets, those awkward contrivances where you simply squat over a hole in the floor. They say these are better for you than sit-on toilets; that squatting strengthens the “pelvic floor” (whatever that is) and is less likely to cause hemorrhoids. I can’t say one way or the other. All I know is that it’s an awkward way to conduct business, and it’s no place to enjoy a good book. Thankfully, much of Tunisia seems to have evolved beyond that stage.

But Tunisians still have some work to do before they make it into the first world, or even the second world for that matter. This is plain when you visit even the most elegant toilets in the country. Whether they are in the finest homes or restaurants, they almost always lack that hallmark of the civilized society we call toilet paper.

In the bathrooms I’m talking about, there is not even a place to hang the paper. Instead, you find protruding from a spigot next to the toilet a flexible length of tubing with a spray head. I’ll not explain how this apparatus is used. I will say only that the water is always cold, and even when clean, you are still wet when all is said and done.

I devised three ways to solve this problem. First, I tried never to use the bathroom when away from home.

My second approach was to use only the bathroom in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere. The Belvedere is a magical place. People there smiled at me with hope shining in their eyes. A cynic would say it’s because they were potential émigrés to Canada and they mistook me for an interviewer on break. I, however, put it down to the fact that the red-uniformed minions of the hotel regularly clean the bathrooms in the lobby and stock them with good old-fashioned two-ply American ingenuity. If I owned the hotel, I would trumpet this in my advertising. I would erect billboards and hire spots in European travel magazines saying, “The Hotel Belvedere, Tunis, is the place to go.”

But as I ranged farther from the hotel, I needed to make other arrangements. I resolved to always carry an emergency supply of paper. (I actually found some for sale at the “Super Marché,” which is strange, because I can’t imagine who’s buying it.) Of course, one’s noblest goals are not always guaranteed success, and I discovered one day while deep in a labyrinthine bazaar that I had seriously under-stocked. The timing was unfortunate, as I was in a facility that had been built during the Ottoman Empire and did not seem to have been cleaned since.

Once I learned how much toilet paper to carry my attention shifted to a different level in the hierarchy of needs. Transportation became the issue.

Traffic in Tunisia is hellish. Friends at the embassy insisted that I should not even consider driving. If they could have been any more emphatic, they would have been so regarding driving at night. This is when people with an underdeveloped sense of distance, mass, and impact are further impaired by the lack of streetlights, bright clothing, and sense of self preservation. Dark-clothed Tunisians lurk in the shadows and launch themselves in front of cars like jackrabbits. And that’s just the pedestrians. Drivers are bound by no laws of courtesy or reason. I think the national motto is “make your own lane.”

In the capital, Tunis, a street with two lanes is an invitation to drive 5 abreast, and there is no restraint when it comes to passing. It is a national law that you must pass everyone ahead of you at all costs. Failure to pass is probably the only behavior for which you can receive a ticket.

Despite their wild driving, no self-respecting Tunisian would ever wear a seatbelt. I astounded all my friends by digging the belts out of the recesses of their car seats and buckling myself in. My friend Khalil made a gesture of solidarity once by draping his lap belt across his arm, but his heart was not in it and he soon gave up. This is to be expected from a man who has developed an extensive list of better places for his hands to be than the steering wheel of the car.

Among the better uses for his hands are brushing nonexistent crumbs from his lap, rubbing his eyes, (That’s the one that scares me the most.) stretching, scratching, and adjusting the radio. (Yes, it can be done with both hands.) Sometimes Anisa, his wife, points out that he should touch the wheel occasionally (not to steer the car, but just as a ritual to placate the gods of traffic) to which he responds by gripping it with his knees.

The taxis here are built by the French. Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots fill the streets and this makes perfect sense. Who else could design and build a vehicle to be driven in a completely irrational manner and that is likely to be driven just as fast in reverse as forward?

I believe Tunisian cabbies are bus drivers who have fallen from grace. Whereas bus drivers rule the road and, by virtue of the size of their vehicles and the number of souls contained therein, can intimidate any driver of any vehicle, Tunisian cabbies only think they can. They beetle along at frightening speed (having created their own lane) in search of a vehicular obstruction, such as the bumper of a car that is waiting for the light to turn green. They blaze up to the halted car with no apparent intention of stopping, flashing their high beams and honking their horn as if it were the Chinese New Year. If a bus does this, things happen. The irresistible force dislodges the immovable object and the driver at the red light launches himself into heavy traffic rather than being crushed by tons of bus and sweaty commuters. This hardly ever works for taxi drivers though, and they resent it. They fume behind the car in front of them and gesticulate wildly. They abandon their lane and create a new one, sometimes in oncoming traffic.

One cabby seemed an exception to this rule. He was pleasant and easy going. He seemed at peace with the traffic around us, and he kept our speed subsonic. Everything was relaxed for the first few moments of our trip, but all this changed when I remembered to put on my seatbelt. In Tunisia I always did this with an apologetic explanation. “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would explain. Or, “It’s just a bad habit of mine. I have complete faith in you and all Tunisian drivers.” If none of those worked I would say, “I wear this seatbelt because I am a weak person,” with a doleful expression and hands outspread, begging for understanding. That usually soothed even the most ruffled cabby egos, but not this one. My driver became visibly upset. His swarthy complexion became mottled with rage, and he flogged the accelerator to demonstrate his displeasure. Our flimsy Peugeot rocketed down the street slewing violently from side to side and passing traffic like it was going backwards. I have a vivid memory of a face on a billboard – a Tunisian Natasha Kinski look-alike selling feminine hygiene products – stretched into that of a leering monster by the astronomical speed. The cabby’s voice cracked with rage and despair as he shouted and grappled with me for the buckle of the seatbelt. I contemplated hurling myself from the speeding car into a pile of newspaper and rotting vegetables, but by the time the idea had suggested itself, I was several light years beyond my intended landing spot. I had no choice. I allowed him to release the buckle. The seatbelt slowly retracted into where it had rested since the car left the factory, taking with it most of my driver’s agitation. What was left, he dealt with admirably by humming and occasionally pounding his fist on the outside of his door.

Buses weren’t much better. I felt more endangered in cabs, but often took the risk to avoid being pressed into the malodorous masses of compacted commuters sweltering on every bus. Besides, taxis seemed to run on a more predictable schedule. I discovered this when meeting my Arabic tutor in downtown Tunis one morning. I wanted to get there early, so I climbed aboard a bus a half-hour earlier than I would have normally. The bus idled at the stop for thirty minutes while the driver and conductor talked, smoked, and cast dark glances at passing schoolgirls.

And had I driven myself, even assuming I could avoid a fiery crash, things would not have been much better. My tutor, a very nice lady who sweats profusely and looks like a Muslim version of Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea, was commonly forty minutes late for our sessions because she could never find a place to park. On one occasion I stood on the corner and watched as she drove around the block again and again. I shouted encouragement to her in Arabic, but it wasn’t much of a tutoring session. When she finally found a spot (And she wasn’t driving a Lincoln Town Car, you know; it was one of those tiny Euro cars that she could’ve tucked under her arm and carried through the double doors of the Hotel Belvedere.) When she finally found a spot (on the sidewalk) I told her that she must sell her car and invest in a good donkey. Gas is very expensive and cars are hard to park, but she could tie the donkey right in front of the Cuban embassy and it could eat the bougainvillea that hangs over the wall. She listened very politely, but I could tell she wasn’t taking me seriously. It’s the downside of being a foreigner here, I guess.

Now that I’m home it occurs to me that I should have just jumped into the car as she went by. That way she could have tutored me while she drove. It’s not like she was hanging onto the steering wheel anyway.

While in every country there are certain sights that no traveler should miss (the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, and the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, for instance) I’m usually not very interested in tourist draws. I’d much rather spend time with people and see what their lives are like. Professor Mohamed would have none of this. In addition to his other talents, he was also a certified tour guide, fully accredited by the government of Tunisia. In view of this, he insisted on taking up as much of my free time as possible with tours of the officially recognized touristic sites, of which there are too many to recount here. I will say only that these places, the Bardo, and National Museums among them, are stuffed floor to ceiling with wonderful and ancient artifacts. They positively bulge with displays of mosaics, pottery shards, and statuary predating Hannibal, and each, without exception, left me with the same feeling of disorientation I experience in Walmart. The rows seem to close in on me and everything on the shelves begins to look the same. Within minutes I can’t tell whether I’m seeing something for the first time or have been wandering in circles for hours.

So I was relieved when, after only a half day in the ruins of Carthage, the professor begged my forgiveness and headed off to an appointment. I immediately left the tourist site and headed down a shaded lane. Taxis honked and flashed their lights, hoping I was a fare, but having just escaped tourism vertigo I was in no hurry to risk my life in traffic. Tall trees overhung the widening street as it led me out of town. Sheep and goats grazed on nearby hills. Across the street from me a stone and metal wall enclosed an area I imagined to be an estate, but when I reached the gate I saw a sign that read, “North African American Cemetery And Memorial.”

I’d heard there was an American WWII cemetery near Carthage, but I hadn’t planned on visiting. Seeing as I was already there though, I thought I’d take a look. I was completely unprepared for what I found. Stepping through the gate was like entering another world. Gone was dusty, hectic, slapdash North Africa; replaced by 27 acres of ordered peace and tranquility. A flight of stone steps led down to a flawless carpet of grass - the kind of grass that would be envied by the keeper of a golf course, except for the 2,840 white marble crosses and stars of David that rise from it in perfect rank and file.

The sea of white markers draws you down those stairs and the perfect order of the rows compels you to wander the walkways between them. And while you wander, you can’t help but read the names.

It was the names that got me. The crosses and the stars, the perfect order – the hush, through which penetrated only the sound of the luffing flag, these all combined to form an atmosphere of reverence, but the names broke my heart. Figures of stone remain just that, no matter how beautifully wrought, but names brought flesh to the bones beneath the grass. Italian, Polish, Danish, Irish – names of every origin, but all American, and every one of them a story interrupted. Each a father, son, brother, husband, or lover who would never again be held by those who loved them, never tell the story of the battle in which they died.

And when I tired of walking the rows (and to be truthful, it was less a question of fatigue than of my eyes being too full of tears to read more names) I found a wall covered with even more. On this wall were carved the 3,724 names of the missing from battles since the Second World War until the first Gulf War, those for whom not even a cross or star marks the location of their remains, those whose story while also interrupted, even so, (more cruelly) continues. For perhaps the only thing worse than knowing your loved one lies in a far-off grave is not knowing where they lie.

Some people will travel halfway round the world, and spend their whole time there seeking out people from their own country. I’ve never understood that, always preferring to lose myself on the hillsides or alleys where I’m more likely to meet a local shepherd or mechanic than another American. That has always, to my mind, made for more memorable trips. Tunisia, though, will remain the exception to that rule. The memories of my visit there and the friendships that I formed are forever eclipsed by the afternoon I spent in the company of more than two thousand of my countrymen.

Yemen's Day of Anger

The sign, superimposed over a Yemeni flag, says "Thursday, 3 February, The Day of Anger."

What have Yemenis to be angry about?  For starters, a president who has remained in power for over thirty years, and who has presided over a precipitous decline in just about every standard by which a nation can be judged.  Education, utilities, wages, employment - all place Yemen firmly on the bottom rung of nations. 

A fair amount of this can be blamed on factors other than the President Saleh's leadership.  Qat addiction, for instance, is a debilitating influence nationwide, with 70% of men over the age of 15 addicted to chewing the narcotic leaf, and 90% of available water devoted to irrigating it.  (This in a nation where fresh water per capita availability is well under 10% of that of developed nations.)

As if that weren't enough, Yemen's enduring divisions along old North/South lines, its tribal issues, and its dwindling oil reserves further complicate matters, as do the thousands of Somali refugees who cross the Red Sea monthly seeking shelter in institutions that are already stretched to the breaking point.

Even for a president who wasn't a kleptocrat, this would be a difficult nation to guide through these difficult times.  For President Ali Saleh, however, guidance seems to take a back seat to power maintenance, which is accomplished largely by awarding family members, informants, and accomplices with government positions, the greatest benefit of which comes from the inferred authority to abuse the appointment by extorting bribes and payoffs from Yemeni citizens.  From the Coast Guard to the Border Patrol, it seems there is not a single agency of the Yemeni government that does not convert public assets to private use.  Coast Guard vessels, many of which have recently been provided by western governments like the United States, can be hired, along with crews to escort whatever trade you might like to conduct in Yemeni waters.  Prices begin at $30,000 and go up from there, depending on the options you select.  If you intend to land your cargo on Yemeni shores, you'd better pay off the Border Patrol as well, and as you move inland, you will no doubt meet an endless parade of strongmen, bureaucrats, and thugs, all of whom will require tribute.  This is President Saleh's Yemen.

But that's only part of it.  There is also the persistent persecution of what was formerly South Yemen, through which Yemen's remaining oil flows on its way to market, but which receives little or none of the benefits of its income.  Villages in the South are frequently placed under seige and bombarded by the artillery of the Yemeni Army.  In this, Saleh tries to show the west that he is "serious" about denying refuge to al-Qaeda, even as he relies on that terrorist organization to attack and inform on the Shia Houthi rebels who are causing problems on his northwestern border with Saudi Arabia. 

Saleh has twice promised not to seek reelection, only to run and, not surprisingly, win by "overwhelming" numbers of votes.  His latest reelection keeps him in office until his son reaches 40 years of age, the constitutional mandate for the age of a president. 

Not that the constitution is anything that would bind the hands of Ali Saleh.  He seems to think he can amend it at will, deciding recently to push for a change that would allow him to rule for life.

Yemenis have plenty to be angry about.  They are hemmed in on every side by a government that, far from ameliorating the odds already stacked against them, does everything it can to increase their already staggering burden while enriching itself in every way.  Their government is a network of lies, broken promises, and dishonorable alliances that has demonstrated time and time again that it has no regard whatsoever for their well-being.  In this social contract, all the responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the citizens; none of it on the government.

So Thursday, the Day of Anger, is not lacking in legitimacy.  Under the right circumstances, it could well be a turning point in the relationship between the citizens and their government.  It is doubtful though, that the circumstances are right.  Squabbling among the opposition leaders, Qat-induced lethargy, and a familiarity with submission take their toll of righteous anger, and if Saleh's government makes the right noises, mangages to restrain itself from shooting demonstrators, and adopts a convincingly conciliatory tone, it is likely that life, such as it is, in Yemen, will go on much as it has before.