This category contains 28 posts

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Finds Holiday Wisdom at Ayasofya, Istanbul

“Your church is back that way.”

Istanbul, like San Francisco, is a city where you often can see exactly where you need to go, but can’t figure out how to get there. A city where every street is Lombard Street and road construction is epic (and traffic has its own TV station, channel 21).

I wasn’t asking for directions because I planned to attend the Blue Mosque (although I did visit it later); I just needed to know whether the road went all the way through to the palm trees and the viewing benches in the distance.

Because that’s where I needed to turn left then left then left again, then right, to get to my guest house at 6, Akbiyik Street.

It was pure coincidence that I asked this question at the same time as the afternoon call to prayer, and they knew it. Just a little welcoming joke.

“My church” they were referring to is Ayasofya (in Turkish) or Haghia Sophia (in English). An icon of the Christian faith in these parts for the past thousand and a half years, it became a museum in the 1930s under Atatürk.

(Atatürk wasn’t his given name; it means “Father of the Turks.” Mustafa Kemal Paşa led the Turkish army to victory in Gallipoli in 1915, then after World War I got rid of the sultanate and created the modern ‒ and secular ‒ Turkish state, including women’s rights and mandatory public education, and famously not including derviç magic! Nearly every important building and institution in Istanbul is named after Atatürk.)

Ayasofya is across Sultanahmet Parki from the Blue Mosque, a bit like the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial are on opposite ends of the National Mall in Washington, DC, all 4 monuments magically illuminated at night.

Having just come from the Christmas-crazy capital of majority Catholic Bavaria, suddenly seeing no immediate signs of Noël, except little leprechaun-green plastic trees at Starbucks, was oddly calming. In 16C weather, a ferry ride ‒ rather than a sleigh ride ‒ seemed in order.

(But, as in Munich, suddenly out of nowhere it’s 6C and pouring rain.)

Ayasofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, dates back to the year 360 AD. Unfortunately, the church that Roman Emperor Konstantinos lovingly built was burned down by an angry public. Emperor Theodosios II tried again in the 5th century, with the same result.

Third time’s the charm, thought Emperor Justinanus (Justinian), who in less than 5 years built one of the architectural wonders of the world, religious or not.

And there Ayasofya has stood since 537 AD, unchanged, despite countless wars, famines, natural disasters, and changes in government. Which, said Justinian, was exactly the point.

In Constantinople, as Istanbul was called back then, Christmas was a relatively new concept ‒ 150 years new. But Christians living in those precarious times made pilgrimages to Ayasofya ‒ to its Weeping Pillar, if healing was required ‒ and, in the spirit of the season, all seemed light and right after all.

Which even among the poor, who were much poorer than most people who consider themselves poor in December 2011, inspired acts of charity, rather than inspiring overwrought decorations and competitive gift exchanges that seem to have hijacked Christmas holidays in our era.

But since Ayasofya is going to be around for another thousand years anyway, no-one will mind if I duck across the street to the Pudding Shop for some aşure (Noah’s Pudding) while the line dies down.

The story goes that Noah’s wife made this pudding with all the food left over in the Ark, after the waters of the Great Flood receded and the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, located east of here (near the borders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran).

Aşure is a chef’s dream menu item: how else could you clean out the restaurant fridge, put all kinds of aging, random fruit into the same pudding, and legitimately sell it to customers for full price?

Don’t be put off by the idea, though. Noah’s Pudding tastes really good…and I bet it did to Noah’s post-Flood family, too.

Anyway, the Pudding Shop used to be a place where, if you were a hippy backpacker, you could eat cheaply but well and leave messages for friends, lovers, or fellow travelers. After 15 tram stops on the T1 from the airport, being squeezed in like…the Pudding Shops’s lamb and green hot-pepper kebaps (the Turkish spelling)…but thankful it’s December and not July, right in front of the Sultanahmet station appears that oasis of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.

And who needs TV when you can people-watch on Divanyolu Caddesi over a white bean salad? Or fries with ketçap and mayonez?

Scooters veering on and off the sidewalk, giving a whole new meaning to “texting while driving.” Tourists from the Gulf veiled head-to-toe in black walking alongside nightclub-bound locals in stiletto heels and leather boleros. Crowds of football fans in red and yellow singing boisterously on their way to the Galatasaray (“Cim Bom”) vs. Barça match.

Today I’m wearing red and green, colors of Team North Pole.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” blares Starbucks, although bowing to local preference sells carrot cake without the rooftop snow-like cream cheese frosting. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”

That’s my cue.

It’s 5:00am when urban roosters start calling us to prayer, but God waits until 5:08am. Even though “my church” lets me go back to sleep for another hour or so, I decide not to.

Watching the sunrise over the Sea of Marmara, I’m starting to see the wisdom in that.

So, after getting some great gift ideas at Oyuncak Müzesi, the Toy Museum on the Asian side of Istanbul, but being very disappointed to find out that I just missed their kids wooden toy-making and -painting class…

Hamza Hears Freedom Ring

Let them eat…steak?

The last person’s portrait I ever expected to see in Congress Hall in Philadelphia, where our Congressional leaders did the heavy lifting on the Bill of Rights, was Marie Antoinette’s.

Turns out, she was invited there!

Marie, the monarch whose blatant excesses inspired revulsion and outrage among the impoverished populace, who through revolution eventually brought about egalité, fraternité et fidélité: La République Française.

Despite all this, we apparently were so grateful for France’s help in overthrowing our own monarch, King George III of Britain, that we requested portraits of Marie and Louis XVI to round out the new capitol décor!

Little did we know ‒ but we should’ve expected no less from larger-than-life characters like that ‒ their portraits would be 7 feet tall.

So, as our Congressional representatives debated and negotiated for months on end the finer points of our democracy, including admitting new states to the Union and creating our own Navy, they did so under the watchful eye of France’s infamous “Cake Lady.”

You already know how much I dislike cake, and sweets period (which I realize causes my friends and fans from the Middle East to look on me with deep suspicion), so it’s a good thing Philly is steak country. Unfortunately, I don’t mean Porterhouse or filet mignon.

I mean cheese steak. (Philly cheese steak is redundant, I’m corrected before I say a word.)

Lucky or not, depending on your cholesterol count, Sonny’s Famous is just down the way on 3rd & Market. Right side of the street facing Penn’s Landing, across from the church cemetery, where many of Sonny’s former customers rest in peace.

Because the “classic” cheese steak is rib-eye with Cheese Whiz and fried onions. “That’s what Sonny eats,” proclaims the sign by the cash register, right next to “Cash only.” Anything you leave in the tip jar, we’ll use to send Sonny flowers c/o the Mercy Philadelphia Hospital cardiac ward.

Cheese Whiz is one of those American inventions most of us have never eaten, but we still want to pretend we’ve never heard of: an orange-like, plastic-like cheese impersonation that you spray out of an aerosol can.

Kind of like orange shaving cream. Yum.

But research is research and sometimes you just have to grin…and share it. A typical cheese steak can feed 2 or 3 people. Maybe more on a beastly hot day like today, when all that really sounds good is an ice water with an ice water chaser.

But since I have no takers, probably because I’d chosen the least of the fatal condiments on Sonny’s menu (marinara), my cheese steak and I go picnicking all by ourselves, in the shade across the lawn from the Liberty Bell.

Two weeks ago today, Hamza Al-Khateeb ‒ the 13-year-old hero from Dara’a, who was tortured to death by the Assad regime in April and has become the face of the peaceful Syrian revolution ‒ was in Washington, DC, leading the first-of-how-many-ever-it-takes national demonstrations for freedom and democracy in Syria.

From the White House, he traveled north ‒ and backwards in time ‒ to the birthplace of the United States of America.

It’s no wonder Syrians are loving the ever-quotable Patrick Henry because he, like them, just would not let up. In 1765, his opinion was, “If this be treason, make the most of it,” the colonial-era version of “Bring it on.” Ten years later, his unpopularity with the British monarchy was as high as ever: ”Give me liberty or give me death.”

Or, “Until the last drop of blood,” say the Syrians, fearless.

For anyone who thinks freedom came easy for our 13 colonies, think again. Between the Sugar Act opposition in 1764 and the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 were some terrible, bloody years, as you’d expect from a civilian uprising against a professional army.

We’re talking about farmers, teachers, laborers. Physicians, attorneys, shopkeepers. Five thousand slaves, whose own freedom and equality was not guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.

Women and children at Valley Forge, who put their lives on the line to support the troops, on the battlefield and off.

This ragtag group, under the leadership of General George Washington, defeated the most powerful army in the 1700s world. Because, at the end of the day, you have to want freedom more than the people who don’t want you to have it.

And the colonists did.

It was in Independence Hall, next door to Congress Hall, that our Declaration of Independence from Britain was drafted by President of Congress John Hancock and adopted on July 4, 1776 by him and 55 of his colleagues…after one tiny little last-minute edit at the request of George Washington, who was entitled.

Mr. Hancock had a 500£ bounty on his head anyway, so he signed the document first: with flourish, in 48-point font. George III won’t need his glasses to read this, he commented.

The last phrase: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

History tells us that 5 of those 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British army and tortured to death as traitors. Nine others served as soldiers themselves and either died on the battlefield or from their wounds afterward. The sons of 4 more served in the Revolutionary army and were either killed or captured.

Two more men’s wives died in prison, or were left to die, when they refused to divulge the whereabouts of their husbands.

At least 12 signers lost every possession they owned, under the British “scorched earth” policy. Properous men before the Revolution, most died in poverty, alone.

Liberty took these men at their word, but they’d heard freedom ring and decided it was worth it.

Although it’s the Centennial Bell that rings in Independence Hall today, the original Liberty Bell remains on display and lives on in our national psyche. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago this month: “When we allow freedom (to) ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day…”

Syria will have its own Liberty Bell. It probably won’t be a bell, but it’ll be some iconic image that future generations of today’s martyrs will point to and say, “Our children, parents, siblings, colleagues, and friends died for this.”

Philadelphia was the host city for Democracy version 1.0, which like all version 1.0s was incomplete and imperfect. To prevent representatives from the southern states from walking out of the negotiations, the issue of slavery was tabled and not abolished for 100 more years. Women weren’t created equal, either, and didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.

(Even then, the bill passed in Congress by only 1 vote, and only because the mother of the Congressman in question wrote him a letter saying he’d better be a “good boy” and do the right thing!)

It’s impossible to miss the unflattering comparison between our Founding Fathers ‒ and Founding Mothers ‒ and the recent 3-ring circus on Capitol Hill over the debt ceiling. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a quality children’s theatre performance like that. Put on by grownups.

Grownups whose ridiculously generous salaries, benefits, and travel I pay for.

Regardless of your political viewpoint, I think it’s clear the majority of our elected officials are so busy pandering to their faithful fans back home that they forget their job is not to be re-elected.

Their job is to govern.

And this country was built on sacrifice. Not “everybody-except-me” sacrifice. Not “only-if-I-feel-like-it” sacrifice. My sacrifice and your sacrifice and our sacrifice.

Really, after 235 years of democracy, we’re showing other countries how NOT to do it?

Meanwhile, no thanks to us, somebody’s making progress. “#FreeSyria will be born while #Bashar days are numbered,” tweets someone about the night protest in Homs. “Victory is near,” writes a Facebook admin on Ramadan Friday, “and a #FreeSyria will emerge! The brave souls of #Midan stand up once again.”

And lest you think Syrians are at all discouraged: “#Assad shelling #Hama every 10 seconds…

…but we only hear #Freedom.”

The Hizb of the Devil

Rami Makhlouf, never again do we want to hear your name and the word “humanitarian” in the same sentence. “Generosity,” either.

Rami, Syrian dictator Bashar’s al-Assad’s cousin, owns 40% of Syriatel, the largest mobile phone network in Syria, among numerous other business interests. On June 16, he surprised the world by declaring he was done with making money.

“I will not engage in any new projects that can generate personal gain and I will devote myself to charity and humanitarian work,” said his press release.

We feel your pain: once you get into the billions, all those zeros are really hard to keep track of. (FYI, the expatriate Syrian financiers and attorneys who read this blog cannot wait to audit you.)

I hear you’re putting up your 40% stake for an IPO. Let’s see: I have a choice between your IPO and Facebook’s?

Anyway, there’s a big difference between giving away and giving back. This money is not yours to give, Rami…because you STOLE it from the Syrian people.

The only charitable act we’re interested in from you, Banker of Assad, is surrendering yourself to the ICC for immediate trial for conspiracy to commit crimes against humanity.

Rami has lots of free time for his new charitable endeavors because, same as with a few dozen other regime associates, the EU slapped him with sanctions and a travel ban. The USA sanctioned him back in 2008, for judicial tampering and “improperly benefiting from and aiding the public corruption of Syrian regime officials.”

Since it was impossible to figure out where Syria’s governmental finances ended and Rami’s began.

Obviously I’m the target of unfair sanctions, says he, because it’s my bad luck to be related to the President.

Poor you.

With the octopus called Makhlouf, its tentacles have tentacles because Rami’s brother Hafiz heads up the General Intelligence Directorate.

To put this in perspective for Americans, let’s imagine a scenario in which General David Petraeus, incoming Director of the CIA, and Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary (who let’s say had kept his day job as CEO of Citibank and held majority stakes in Verizon, Exxon-Mobil, Amgen, and Delta Airlines), were brothers, appointed to these unmerited lifetime jobs by their unelected cousin President Barack Obama, all without Congressional approval.

“Reviled,” “hated,” “feared,” “despised,” “symbol of corruption,” “thief,” “opportunist”… There’s just no end of adjectives and adverbs used to describe Rami…and that’s just in the English and French press!

No surprise, then, that one of the first things protesters did in Dara’a was to burn down his offices. Rami has come to symbolize everything that’s wrong with the Assad regime, with letting one family run a country that benefits only them and their inner circle.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Association for Human Rights: “It (Rami’s vow of poverty) is a step designed for media consumption only.”

Causing serious foreign policy journalists worldwide to collapse in hysterical laughter.

What a turnaround from early May, when Rami told the New York Times, while promising to blame Syria’s pro-democracy protesters for destabilizing Israel: “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer (speaking of the Assad regime), don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”

Then he added, ominously, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Reckless statements that forced your cousin to throw you under the bus, even though he not-so-secretly agreed with them.

“God forbid anything happens to this regime,” says Rami. God forbid they stay in power, says everybody else.

“Hizb” in Arabic means party, as in political party, but I’d interpret the title of this post as “The Devil’s Party Faithful,” Assad loyalists who ‒ out of die-hard fidelity and blatant self-interest ‒ carry out the regime’s directives while the President keeps his hands clean.

Sort of. Until Bashar started avoiding UN chief Bam Ki-moon’s phone calls.

“Stop killing people,” was Secretary General Ki-moon’s softball request. Or I promise I’ll write you a nasty letter.

Reem Haddad, media shill extraordinaire, was fired a few weeks ago. But here she’s back, like the proverbial bad penny, on the Syrian evening news. I guess Bashar couldn’t find anyone else willing to claim, with a straight face, that all those Syrian “guests” were merely visiting their mothers on the Turkish side of the border and will be returning any day now…to their looted homes, dead farm animals, and torn up olive groves.

I don’t know the perfect word for this in Arabic, but in English we don’t have one, so we borrow from Hebrew: “chutzpah.”

Among other implications, utterly shameless.

Speaking of shameless, even as Bashar’s brother Maher places military forces with 500 meters of the Turkish border, causing refugees to run across to the other side in the middle of the night, or risk being shot, the regime is pleading for people to return to their homes in the border towns. The armed gangs that have been terrorizing you are now gone, they say.

Wisely, people refused.

Because some who already tried that quickly returned to Turkey to warn their neighbors: if you go home, the Army will be there to “welcome” you. By arresting you.

And it appears the Hizb of the Devil might have some foreign players, too.

Latakia local news, June 12.

The Latakia port manager was reportedly fired from his job…all because he wanted to know exactly what was in those shipping containers being lowered from an Iranian ship with no flag.

Ship #323, color gray.

This, after rumors went around the Turkish refugee camps that Iranian soldiers were already in Syria. We kept seeing these strange guys traveling around with the military, but wearing civilian clothes. They didn’t speak Arabic and had beards, which aren’t allowed in the Syrian army.

Whoever they are, they must be contract hires of the joyfully brutal Maher al-Assad, who heads the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard. This psychopath poses for photographs with people he just killed.

Maher is what organized crime calls “the muscle.” He’s the guy who takes people for walks from which they never return. His nickname in the UK press is “Thug-in-Chief” and Turkey is pressing Bashar to fire him.

Problem is, you can’t fire your brother, although some people reading this post would really like that option.

Assad had a father, who had a brother, who had his own network of followers, the first hizb of the first devil, whose favorite pastimes included bombing schools, playgrounds, and hospitals in Lebanon, targeting almost exclusively Christian children.

I know some of these Lebanese children, who luckily survived uninjured to adulthood. But there’s just no fixing the injury of memory − of childhood friends and family members who weren’t so lucky − and there’s just no relaxing, even today, knowing that “they who do the devil’s handiwork” continue to act with impunity outside the borders of Syria, on orders from Assad headquarters in Damascus.

Ask expatriate Syrians in London who’ve been demonstrating against the regime. The Syrian Ambassador to Great Britain, nefarious subject of a prior post, is in deep trouble with the Foreign Office for having his staff take photos of demonstrators: to intimidate them, and their families in Syria.

Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, 8 Belgrave Square, London: people who’ve already withstood being humiliated, beaten, shot at, tear gassed, and maybe arrested are not that easy to intimidate.

Meanwhile, it’s another Friday morning in Syria and Bashar the Eternal Liar is lying about the weather! He warns the Syrian public that the forecast is high 30s Celsius today (38 degrees Celsius = 101 degrees Fahrenheit), to discourage them from protesting after Friday prayers.

It’s far too hot, and probably unsafe (hint), to be out there marching in the direct sun. Go home and drink some tea. You’ll feel better (and so will I).

Long-term, probably not. “Finally,” tweeted someone, “they kindle the fire in hell for Assad.”

Bashar the Benevolent and the “Slippers” Speech

And here I thought throwing things at the TV happened only during the Super Bowl.

But this is exactly what happened to Bashar al-Assad yesterday during his Syrian State of the Union address, derided worldwide as a 70-minute waste of everybody’s time and prompting this slipper-throwing response from a family who lives in one of the very cities in which Bashar claims “armed gangs” reside and that he and his thugs tried to “liberate.”

When he knows perfectly well that the only person with armed gangs at his disposal is him and these brutal killers, called the Shabiha, are even more feared than the police, security, or military forces, organizations that under the Assad regime kind of run together, given that they operate with the same goal:

Crush the opposition using any means necessary or unnecessary. There’s no such thing as going too far.

This speech of Bashar’s is known in the Syrian social media community as the laugh-out-loud “Slippers” Speech − the name perhaps an unintentional nod to Nixon’s “Checkers” Speech − and since in the Middle East putting the soles of your feet in front of someone is extremely rude and dismissive, all kinds of people posted all kinds of videos of themselves on YouTube, abusing Bashar’s televised face with all kinds of footwear.

Even one little boy slapping his sandal on the screen of his living room TV, shouting, “Out! Out! Out!”

We couldn’t agree more.

Besides accusing the usual suspects − Islamists, Jews, Americans, other foreign saboteurs, miscellaneous terrorists, and the ubiquitous armed gangs − for making Syria look bad all over the world, Bashar leveled an unexpected and hilarious accusation: the pro-democracy protesters have next-generation mobile phones with 5-pixel cameras!

Uh, Bashar, you do remember that your cousin Rami Makhlouf owns Syriatel?

Thus, since Rami has recently devoted himself to charity work, a shocking development that requires its very own forthcoming post, your regime is currently being funded by these very mobile phone customers.

I suppose you could always call Apple Customer Service and tell them enough already with those iPhone feature upgrades.

But Bashar’s real concern is with the high quality − and copious volume − of videos of arrests, abuse, and torture committed by the Assad regime’s agents of crime. Right, the ones getting millions of downloads every day worldwide. The YouTube workaround to the regime’s media blackout is working better and better and even though mainstream news sources still always caveat these videos with “unable to verify because Bashar won’t approve our journalist visas,” it’s become more and more accepted that these amateur videos represent what’s really going on in Syria.

Certainly more so than official Syrian TV, whose audience, ordinary Syrians say, is limited to Assad apologists, since they provide the stories anyway and like to hear themselves talk.

But one word in Bashar’s speech really scared me: he called the Syrian people “germs.” Does that make anyone else but me hearken back to exactly this time of year (April-July) in 1994 and the “cockroaches” in Rwanda?

And we all know how that story ended: in genocide. And we also know why Western governments never used that term at the time: because calling something a genocide made them legally and morally obligated to do something about it.

Best to call it a “conflict.”

In just over 3 months, upwards of 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered and countless more injured, displaced, or “disappeared.” It took until 2008 for Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, the monstrous leader of the paramilitary group Interahamwe with its 600,000 machetes, who orchestrated that ethnic cleansing, to be convicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

(The Interahamwe simply moved its operations to the Congo and nowadays is just a “terrorist organization.”)

Early on, if you’re a dictator running scared and have little else to work with because starting to distribute machetes would be way too obvious, the path of least resistance is to become a conspiracy theorist. Or, as one activist described it, attribute “plots and plots” to “a few” (hundred thousand, in cities, towns, and villages all over the country, in case you haven’t noticed) troublemakers who are sick and tired of your brutality and lies.

The plot to embarrass me in front of my friends in Moscow and Tehran. The plot to reduce my nest egg to, oh, £20 billion. The plot to make me miss the Cannes Film Festival.

The plot to force my oldest son Hafez, named after his notorious grandfather, to get a real job when he grows up.

Speaking of YouTube, Bashar, you should take a look at the videos posted during ‒ immediately after, at the very latest ‒ your speech. Big demonstrations. Everywhere. On a weekday!

We’d be happy to run down the list for you, but we don’t have time. We’ve got even more protests to go to tonight…to protest your absurd new amnesty offer.

While the mass arrests continue − at Aleppo University, the head of the department of Mechanical Engineering was reportedly turning his students in to authorities, which might be good motivation to change majors − as do imprisonments, torture, and threats to the families of the so-called “criminals,” the pro-democracy demonstrators have more than proven their point to Bashar, whose rambling 3rd speech to the nation since mid-March sounded to more than just Syrians an awful lot like Mubarak’s swan song before he resigned as Egypt’s President.

The Syrian public has no intention of letting Bashar off the hook. He’s done, and he knows it.

It’s only a matter of time, and how much more death and destruction he causes on his way out the door to join Asma − Bashar’s glamorous wife, about whom I wrote an unflattering 4-part series this month − in exile.

Bashar’s own father once said: history shows us that no power, no occupation can last forever, that − as summarized in a translation from Arabic − “resistance and revolution expel it out of service.”

Somehow he thought that notion applied to every regime except the House of Assad.

Here’s a message from the brave Syrian activists of every age, ethnicity, religion, and social status, who are out on the streets protesting every night and every weekend, putting their lives on the line to expose to the world the real Bashar, not the fake reformer Bashar the West tried to make themselves believe in for far too long.

You heard it online first: “Our next reply to this criminal is falling him down and suing him.”

Syria’s Mother-in-Chief and Homs, of Your Ancestors

Chère Madame Asma al-Assad, First Lady of Syria:

Meet Hajar Al-Khateeb, age 10, from Homs, where, had life turned out differently, you might’ve grown up. Actually, you’ll never meet her now…

because your husband Bashar al-Assad had her killed.

On May 29, Hajar and 12 other children ‒ including her brothers, sisters, and cousins ‒ were riding the school bus on their way to Al-Wafd school when their bus was attacked out of nowhere by Syrian security forces. Hajar died and 5 other children were injured.

The authorities then tried to force Hajar’s father Tayseer and brother Nayef to say she was killed by “terrorists.”

What possible justification could there be for this, except to terrorize these children’s families into submission? …or to foretell the current military escalation in Homs, which locals suspect will “justify” a bloodbath after Friday prayers?

But last time Bashar attempted to intimidate Homs, his plan backfired. Completely.

Witness the turnout at last Friday’s peaceful protests, both mourning and honoring Hajar, Hamza Al-Khateeb (no relation) from Dara’a, and the over 70 children who have died so far in Syria’s quest for freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Here’s a pretty mild example of how Assad’s thugs are torturing and humiliating random citizens of Baba Amr, Homs.

“Why does freedom bother them so much?” is the $1 million rhetorical question. Freedom for us means accountability for them, so they’ll do whatever it takes to stop it.

That ship sailed back in March and isn’t coming home, ever.

By now you’ve read the first 3 posts in my series about you, Syria’s Mother-in-Chief, and you’re probably frustrated at how bad I’m making you look.

You, who were a blatant no-show at Wednesday’s 1 minute of silence for Hamza and the other Syrian children who loved freedom.

But anyone who’s gone on and on in public as much as you have about how we’re really all the same and we all want the same things for our children blah blah blah deserves to be called to account for your hypocrisy.

Unlike Vogue, I’m not in the pandering business.

Since your parents emigrated from Homs to the United Kingdom in the 1950s, they missed out on 60 years of ugly political and military history in Syria. You have little context at all, growing up in London and moving to Syria for the first time as the President’s wife.

For readers who’d never heard of Homs until they started looking up Google maps of Syrian pro-democracy demonstrations (and subsequent massacres), let’s get a quick sense of Asma’s ancestral city, حمص‎ in Arabic, and imagine what it could be like, peaceful and free.

Homs the 3rd largest city in Syria, with a population of 1.5 million. Originally, Homs was called “Emesa,” its Greek name derived from an ancient sun god. Besides being conveniently located halfway between Damascus to the south and Aleppo to the north, Homs is strategic for another reason: it’s situated right on the Orontes River, which leads to the Mediterranean Sea.

Poor Homs. It’s difficult being a city that’s so desirable, everybody’s always fighting over you. For centuries on end. After being raked over by the Bedouins more than once, Homs might’ve initially felt relieved be folded into the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

For 2,000 years now, Homs has been a major agricultural center. Which means food. Which gets my attention fast.

Taking a welcome summer break from la cuisine française, lately I’ve been making those stuffed vegetables so popular in the Middle East: filfel (peppers), betinjan (eggplant), kabocha (a type of squash), and malfouf (cabbage).

Even batata mahshi (new potatoes stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts, and a dash of pomegranate molasses), which apparently Homs claims as its native dish…but, remember what I wrote in The National Cookie of Iraq: it’s a risky move, saying you invented one of everybody’s favorite foods. I expect indignant emails from all over the region about why I’m enabling Homs in this pointless endeavor.

Regardless, it always helps to know the Arabic verb “to stuff,” ya7shu (7 stands for ح “ha”). So, fellow Le Cordon Bleu alums, “ma7shi” in Arabic means “farci” in French.

The right kitchen utensil to hollow out vegetables before you stuff them is called a مقورة (maqwara). No, an ice cream scoop will not yield the desired effect!

Switching gears from culinary to historical, Homs is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage site Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval military castle I’ve always wanted to visit.

Like that’s ever going to happen, the way I’ve been blogging about Syria lately.

Anyway, Asma, you must’ve heard about Homs from your parents. Maybe even visited with your family a time or two on holidays.

But that’s not the same thing as being too afraid to go out of your house to Homs’ famous produce markets because there’s a sniper posted on top of the government building across the street, aiming right at your front door.

For those of us who do volunteer work in international human rights and children’s health and education, our problem with you is not with your wealth, your beauty, your academic achievements, or your success in the business world. On all those things we heartily congratulate you.

Just understand that we have colleagues like you worldwide, people of achievement and privilege…who act nothing like you do.

Because they realize that with great privilege comes great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

You seem to think, Asma, that with great privilege comes great power to run away as far and as fast as possible from situations in which you have a moral obligation as First Lady of Syria to speak out for what’s right, and for people who are doing what’s right.

When in doubt, follow the children marching ‒ young, fearless, by the hundreds ‒ in Knaker, north-east of Damascus, yesterday.

Calling out, “We Are All Hamza.” Because they are, and we are.

If you don’t believe the urgency of this, go to We Are All Hamza Al-Khateeb and find out what horrific things your husband’s and brother-in-law Maher’s killers are up to in Homs today.

Need I keep repeating myself, Asma? STEP UP. Because of your silence, you have too much blood of Syrian innocents on your hands already.

Although I know there’s no love lost between you and your mother-in-law, who stood by her man Hafez throughout his reign of terror, you and Bashar were ‒ as we were so often reminded back in the day, meaning up until 3 months ago ‒ part of the new generation of young, modern leaders in the Middle East.

(Just like your fellow Vogue “Rose in the Desert” Queen Rania of Jordan, for whom your experience should be a cautionary tale.)

Should you suddenly develop a conscience, you could get time on BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera with 5 minutes’ notice. I’m begging you: take advantage of this.

Lives hang in the balance.

Yesterday, we learned about another tortured and murdered child, Thamer Mohamad Al-Sahri, a 15-year-old friend of Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was arrested in Dara’a on the same day…and suffered much the same cruel-beyond-belief fate. (WARNING: this video is VERY GRAPHIC.)

Before his death, Syrian security forces pulled out his teeth, burned his body with cigarettes, and shot him several times in the hands and knee. Then they broke his neck and pulled his eyes out of their sockets.

Thamer and Hamza were with a group of friends, some still missing. In our hearts, we know what happened to all of them. It’s just a matter of time before their bodies ‒ what’s left of them ‒ are unceremoniously returned to their families, too.

Thamer’s mother recognized him only because of a scar from a previous injury.

The biggest irony, Asma: you’re a Sunni Muslim, part of the very majority sect in Syria ‒ in addition to Alawites, other Shi’as, Christians, and Druze ‒ making up the civilian population, which your Alawite husband is trying to crush! Had you been born into an average Syrian Sunni family, rather than an elite expatriate family friendly with the Assads, you might well have been part of those very Friday demonstrations and been the target of those very bullets.

You could’ve been Hajar, or Thamer, or Hamza…

…and they could’ve been you.

Hillary Clinton, the ministers of France and Britain, and some UN members (but unfortunately not make-or-break Russia) agree: your husband’s legitimacy as President of Syria has “nearly run out.” As a diplomat, the best Hillary can do on Al Arabiya TV is to say that Syria “has been a source of problems” while Bashar has been in power.

If she wasn’t a diplomat, she might say, “Not being President anymore is the least of Bashar’s worries because his next stop is The Hague, if we have anything to say about it, which we don’t.”

It’s early Friday morning Syria time and the seiges of Duma and Harasta continue unabated. Military tanks and troops are quietly moving into position around Homs, as well as around Jisr al-Shughour, Dara’a, and Deir Ez Zur, in preparation for post-prayer demonstrations. (Check this map for latest status by city.)

For you, there remains the tiniest window of opportunity, perhaps mere hours, to break with the Assad family terror campaign and demand an immediate halt to the violence against Syrian civilians, defenseless Syrian children in particular.

Lest you go down with your husband and his murderous regime, on the wrong side of history.

What a tragic waste that would be: a President’s wife, a gifted communicator, a Syrian mother.

Who could’ve made a difference.

Syria’s Mother-in-Chief and the Hama Redux

Chère Madame Asma al-Assad, First Lady of Syria:

There’s Hama, and then there’s Hama, Assad Family Edition.

On Friday, Asma, while you were out of town, your husband Bashar al-Assad “opened a dialog” with the people of Hama…by killing at least 73 of them, injuring at least 350 more, and arresting we’ve lost count.

A partial list of 36 names, confirmed dead by Hourani hospital and posted on Facebook, includes 3 children. It’s important to me that you know the names of these children: Mahmoud Al-Jammal, age 13; Ahmed Mazloum, age 13; Ahmad Al-Nabhan, age 15.

It confirms our worst suspicions: your husband’s unfolding 2011 Hama Massacre might ultimately be just as brutal, if not more so, as your father-in-law’s 1982 Hama Massacre.

We’re still waiting to hear, almost 3 months later: what part do YOU, the Syrian President’s wife, plan to play in all this?

So far, you remain hidden away somewhere in the UK ‒ come on, like we really believe anything the Syrian Ambassador to Great Britain says, about your whereabouts or anything else ‒ pretending Hama isn’t your problem.

Here’s what I wrote to a friend the night before Friday June 3, the Day of Hamza, the Day of Freedom Children in Syria: I wonder what kinds of family conversations are going on in Syria tonight, families who know that some loved ones ‒ maybe even the littlest ones ‒ will go out for prayers tomorrow, join peaceful protests afterwards, and never come home.

Sure enough, multiple eyewitness reports of a group of young people in Hama indiscriminately shot and left lying on the street in their own blood, with sharp-shooters aiming at people who tried to carry away their bodies for funerals.

Even some Syrian adults might back off at the sight of that. Apparently not Syrian kids.

Watch this video of a little girl in Hama, who’s younger than your youngest child. Front and center, with a megaphone as big as she is, calling out to a crowd, “Bashar is the biggest thief and the biggest liar.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

This is why your husband is killing innocent children, Asma. Because, unlike you, they’re onto him.

Since in 1982 you were still in elementary school in faraway London, let me recap for you the back story of what’s going through the minds of people in Hama these days every time your husband’s snipers start shooting at them from rooftops.

It all started with the Muslim Brotherhood, or at least that was the excuse.

Even among countries that hate each other with a passion, there’s little disagreement about the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re a terrorist organization that in recent years has mostly renounced violence ‒ notably regarding 9/11 ‒ but dearly loves a power vacuum, which at this moment they’re trying to exploit in Egypt.

Otherwise known as MB, or Al-Ikhwan in the Arabic press, the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto is “Islam is the solution”: for all Muslims, their families, cities, countries, and futures.

The Koran as the “sole reference point” for all aspects of life as a Muslim is another MB catch phrase that doesn’t exactly resonate with the majority of young educated Arabs, particularly young educated Arab women, for obvious reasons.

No way no how, says the Egyptian “street.”

Look here, we’ve been down this road with you once before in 1952 and we haven’t changed our minds about you since then. We didn’t go to all that trouble to oust Mubarak only to have you turn Egypt into a Shari’a state!

It’s fine if you win some legislative seats in the September elections, just like every other political party, but don’t get any national aspirations.

(However, Egyptian electorate, secular democracies take hard work, and vigilance, and there are other groups besides MB that would rather it not happen for you, either.)

Back in the day, Suez 1928, MB tried to pass itself off as a labor union. By 1937, they had a Syrian subsidiary. By the time the state of Israel was created in 1948, MB had 2 million members worldwide.

To this day, they’re unapologetically anti-Israel, but vacillate between wanting to cancel the Egypt-Israel peace treaty entirely or to keep honoring it…providing Israel makes legitimate progress with regard to the creation of a Palestinian state.

We all know that as long as “Bibi” Netanyahu is Prime Minister, progress will vacillate between none and backwards and are you kidding.

Every so often, throughout their history, when MB gathers too much influence, gets radical, or goes the violent route, somebody does a round-up of them. (For all the years your husband has been in power, MB membership has meant the death penalty.) Things came to a head in Syria in 1982 because the aggravation between the Alawite (Shia) Assads and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood escalated into an “armed struggle.”

MB started it.

Here’s the thing: even if there were 30,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in 1982, they didn’t all live in Hama. Quick Economical Assad Blitz Method: bomb everybody in the general vicinity and let Allah sort them out later.

Then flatten the city into a moonscape to make sure nobody wants to live in Hama anymore, ever.

Imagine you’re the unlucky family living next door to a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Who hasn’t at one time or another had a troublesome neighbor with repulsive viewpoints?

But growing up in West Acton, Asma, you wouldn’t know much about that. Looking back in light of recent events, though, you might’ve wished you’d stayed on at J. P. Morgan.

Although I’m sure Syrian school kids post-1982 have been taught some historically “polished” version of the Hama massacre, since the Assads have editorial control and some of those demonstrating weren’t yet born, people who call Hama home know what really happened (and so do the Syrian human rights activists, who the Assad family periodically imprisons). No doubt many Hama families lost loved ones, friends, homes, businesses ‒ even mosques, if you can believe that ‒ in the brutal crackdown.

Those tragedies stay with you forever, no matter what your history textbook says.

Asma, whatever you’ve heard, or believe, your husband underestimates the resolve of the people of Hama. Even though there was a massacre last Friday and probably will be again next Friday, too, don’t count on them backing down, even though they realize that he is ‒ in all the worst ways ‒ his father’s son.

(Tell Bashar that if he plans to stop by Hama for more “dialogue” before then, they’re on strike ‘til Tuesday.)

Please don’t be the one Syrian mother who has to explain to her children someday that another generation of children in Hama were killed, injured, arrested, tortured, and put on trial for “damaging the national unity,” all for no reason.

Except that you were a coward.

History isn’t going to remember you as the hero of Syria, Asma. They’re going to remember children like Hamza Al-Khateeb, age 13, who was randomly arrested in Dara’a, then brutally tortured and killed by the animals on your husband’s police force.

I know what the people of Hama would say to all that. They, who despite an overwhelming security presence, held one of the largest demonstrations in all of Syria on Friday ‒ 50,000 strong ‒ and carried banners with photos of Hamza, a child they’d most likely never met.

Facebook: “I am proud of you, Hamza Al-Khateeb, and I rejoice in your life. Thank you for your bravery and your sacrifice. Rest now, young one…

…we’ve got it from here.”

Kate’s American Bridesmaid Critiques the Wedding Catering

Waiter? I’ll take the Royal Wedding Falafel and pass on the Royal Wedding Fruitcake.

It’s Royal Wedding Everything Week here in London, where the countdown is currently Wales Wedding Day Minus 3.

Fruitcake is a tradition 100s of years old ‒ now, we’re talking about the recipe, not the cake, although we understand why you might make that mistake ‒ of English bridal couples, not just royals.

In a fine display of the fine art of compromise with the in-laws, William & Kate are serving fruitcake as their primary wedding cake, but William also has his own cake. Made of cookies.

A “chocolate biscuit cake” from McVitie’s, a snack food company!

Sounds suspiciously like an American idea, as does that tacky wedding buffet they’re putting on after the service ‒ simply awful, darling. Which is why, Jeanette, we were firmly against your involvement in this enterprise from Day 1, whenever that was.

Because this thing has been going on forever.

Although I despise fruitcake on principle, because I’m in a genial, wedding-going, love-conquers-all kind of mood, I’ll share with you the commercial fruitcake secret.

You know when you make fruitcake at home, all those little “bits ‘n pieces” ‒ of nuts, dried fruits, and bizarrely-colored candied stuff that got that way by being soaked in rat poison and battery acid ‒ sink to the bottom of your loaf pan, rather than distributing nicely throughout the cake?

Do what the pros do: defy gravity by simply rolling your little “bits ‘n pieces” very lightly in white flour before adding them to your batter. This will “suspend” them in the batter and create that nice slicing effect you’re looking for.

Sorry, there’s nothing I can do about that dreadful icing. Extra rum will help you forget about it.

For the Royal Family, there’s no such solution to that dreadful buffet.

Nobody knows for sure what this buffet will entail, either ‒ it’s just as big a secret as Kate’s dress ‒ but speculation is rife among people who have historical experience with royal “wedding breakfasts,” which are in fact held after lunch.

Here’s what we do know: Chef Mark Flanagan is in charge. He’s also said he’s preparing an all-British menu.

Normally, I’d find that a frightening prospect.

However, if Chef Flanagan is really serious about using produce and wild game from the royal estates…now, that could be fairly interesting.

Here, try the boar à la truffe. (Truffle the mushroom, not truffle the chocolate.)

Chef Flanagan and his army have had a full decade to learn the culinary idiosyncrasies of the royal family…which compared to their other idiosyncrasies are probably fairly benign.

Here’s the deal-breaker: Brits are accustomed to a sit-down wedding breakfast and there are some things you can eat sitting down that you just can’t eat standing up.

Anything more than bite-sized. Or drippy. Or both.

(Goes without saying: anything that requires cutlery.)

The American founders of 101 Tacky Buffets would pay serious money to be flies on the wall of the palace dining room when that first trout pâté with carrot curls goes sliding down the front of that first noblewoman’s burgundy silk sheath.

Commoners 1, Royals 0.

For Americans, all this is fun in the same way Disneyland is fun. We don’t mind royalty, and actually find them kind of entertaining, as long as they stay way over there.

Wills seems like a stand-up guy, but we went to lot of trouble to fire George III, the arch-nemesis of the original Tea Partiers. Ever since then, we’ve had a permanent hiring freeze on royals.

I’m quite sure the feeling is mutual.

However, the former colonies know a little something about red carpets and we’ll roll out the best for you when you visit, William & Catherine aka Her Royal Highness the Princess William of Wales. We’re feeling a bit slighted that you’ll be visiting Canada in June without even stopping by to say hello.

Meantime, there’s simply no way we’re going to miss toasting the happy couple at Friday’s worldwide virtual tailgate party, celebrating what’s arguably the first genuinely happy royal match of a future British monarch since William’s great-grandparents in 1923.

That bride, a certain Miss Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, reportedly refused no fewer than 3 marriage proposals from her husband “Bertie” (later King George VI), convinced that in becoming Queen she would lose Elizabeth.

Of course, she was partly right.

But she was Queen until the early death of her beloved husband in 1952 and “Queen Mum” past age 100. All the while with twinkles in her eyes, confirms my cabbie Edward Ward, who says I can use his name in my blog as long as I don’t make any jokes about it.

Who am I to make jokes about people’s funny names?

“When I was a boy, quite young,” says Mr. Ward, his family went to an event the Queen Mum was attending. He gave her a bouquet of flowers.

All these years later, he remembers her like it was yesterday: so warm, so kind, so approachable.

Hold that thought, Kate.

Although many of the great British rock bands are past their prime ‒ looked in the mirror lately, Mick? might want to stick to radio ‒ I can’t help but get nostalgic hearing Queen playing “God Save the Queen” over the intercom.

Thinking that one day a woman we can actually relate to ‒ someone who fell in love with her college sweetheart and stayed the course, despite breakups and baggage ‒ will one day sit on the throne of England.

Torn between the William & Kate snow globe and the William & Kate tea towels, I hear a Royal Wedding Curry calling.

Fridays, Protests, Martyrs

I told you we should’ve outlawed Fridays when we had the chance.

Tunisia’s dictatorship fell on a Friday. Mubarak was run out of town on a Friday, too. Now every time Friday rolls around, we lose sleep wondering what’s going to happen next…and are happy to budget overtime for our snipers to put peaceful protesters in their sights.

You’re listening in on the North Africa and Middle East Dictators Lunch Meeting, where the first line in the minutes always reads, “Status of this week’s problem demonstrations.”

Dictator attendance is dwindling, but not as fast as demonstrators would like.

Silent enablers provide all those shawarma box lunches. World leaders who don’t want to be seen lunching with dictators, but are willing to put up with ugly repression scenarios vs. ugly alternative governments.

Wonder why all the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in Arab countries happen on Fridays? Easy: it’s the weekend!

Friday is to Muslims what Saturday is to Jews and Sunday is to Christians, with roughly the same timing. You go to the mosque and finish prayers around noon. Normally, you’d go home and have lunch with your family.

Nowadays, it’s directly to city center ‒ thanks to Egypt, there are Tahrir (“victory”) Squares popping up all over the region ‒ to demonstrate, bravely and unarmed, against your oppressive regime.

You’re invited to “Day of Dignity” March 25 and Fridays thereafter. Please join us in Dara’a, or one of a dozen other Syrian cities. But be prepared not to go home for lunch again, ever.

With all the attention on Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain lately, here comes Syria out of nowhere, having taken a page directly from the Egyptian independence social media playbook and playing it pretty well, too.

(“For years Syrians learned how to beat internet restrictions. We have not forgotten after 1 month.”)

Western governments are immediately suspicious: is this Syrian pro-democracy movement a sectarian revolt in disguise, giving Iran a silver-platter excuse to intervene?

Syrians on Facebook address that concern head-on:

“We are a group of Syrians who are not members of any political group. We are not part of the Syrian Opposition. We love our country and believe in a Syria with freedom, democracy and human rights. We want to see a Syria where all Syrians are equal regardless of race, religion or gender.”

The vast majority of demonstrators echo this. It’s the handful shouting “Send troops to liberate the Golan” that makes people nervous. (Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.)

Online consensus: “No distraction from basic human rights in Syria! Golan is political issue for politicians later.”

I think Syrian Facebook activists are a little frustrated with the rest of us, though. “We welcome you all, but we think maybe some of you don’t know much about our country.”

You’re right, but not because we don’t want to. It’s because we haven’t really been welcome to.

We’ve been to Egypt on business and holidays. We’ve got Egyptian friends and colleagues. We could help because we could relate, and network.

I’ve never visited Syria. I have 1 Syrian friend in the whole world. Doesn’t give me much to go on.

Unlike in Libya, where violence against demonstrators escalated so quickly that the UN Security Council, NATO, and the Arab League had to step in to prevent a Rwanda-like slaughter, Syrian demonstrators are sticking firmly with the Egyptian approach of non-violent protest, even as they’re already the targets of live fire, too.

It’s a huge risk. Syrian history hasn’t been kind to dissenters and with the scores of indiscriminate deaths and injuries today of peaceful protesters in Sanamein, Dara’a, and elsewhere…

Like father, like son.

In 1982, the current dictator Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez sent paramilitary troops into the city of Hama and, in the process of rooting out Islamic militants, they said, killed 10,000-25,000 Syrian civilians, including children, according to Amnesty International.

Syrian human rights activists say it was more like 40,000.

Hafez’s brother Rifaat was in charge of the Hama massacre. By all reports, he enjoyed it thoroughly (and bragged about it later). He leveled most of the old city, leaving 100,000 survivors homeless.

Syria was dispatching a decades-old fundamentalist pain in the neck, the Muslim Brotherhood, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered who it was. The real threat was to the Assad family’s absolute power.

The world stood by, mouths open in alarm, then horror…and did absolutely nothing. The UN called it, in the understatement of the year, “excessive force” and urged “restraint.”

Today, 19 years and 1 dictator later, throngs of peaceful protesters in Hama are taking that risk and shouting, “Freedom is ringing out!”

Let’s not sugar-coat it: both Qaddafi and Assad are brutal killers. The only difference is that Assad is an English-speaking, Armani-wearing, London-educated ophthalmologist. Ironically, one of the “helping professions.” Both men, if allowed, will commit genocide rather than give up power.

One protest sign from today: “Your turn has come, Doctor.”

However, when it comes right down to it, Assad is a pragmatist.

That’s why in 2005 he heeded stern warnings ‒ from the USA certainly, but even from ally Russia ‒ to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and not to attack peaceful Cedar Revolution protesters in Lebanon…and ultimately was forced to withdraw Syrian troops, after nearly 30 years of suffocating occupation.

Let’s hope the world community comes down on him hard enough, before we let the Assad family again crush tens of thousands of innocent people who just want to work, vote, travel, and live without fear of the incestuously intertwined Syrian government, military, and secret police.

I hope the trio of tragedies in Japan and the unwieldy conflict in Libya aren’t a boon for the Syrian dictatorship. What good fortune that the news cycle is so full lately! Amazing how many “terrorists” we can “disappear” when the pressure is off.

Although we’d all dearly love to see Assad “go back to medical school, out of state,” don’t count on it.

Meanwhile, his administration goes on national TV and announces lame concessions, apparently not reading the memo from his dictator lunch companions about what always happens when they try that.

“The demands of the people are being studied night and day,” says Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban.

In any other situation, that’d be hilarious.

You anti-Friday people should know by now that just makes the demonstrators madder…

…and sadder.

From the Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Centre on Facebook: “Last night and yesterday were very hard for us. Many people were martyred and arrested. Especially tell us your favourite things about Syria. We need something positive as we enter the new day.”

Members obliged, and then some.

Favorite music. Favorite haunts. Favorite foods.

Mine: jibbneh mashallale! (It’s a twisted string cheese made of cheese curd. Wisconsin meets Damascus.)

People posted their travel photos of Syria, “from more peaceful days,” although everyone reading that knows the answer to “peaceful for whom?”

As Egyptians pore over their secret police’s document stash, it’s become clear that Egyptian authorities made it their business over 3 decades to perpetuate ‒ even invent ‒all manner of rivalries and retributions, to keep its citizens suspicious, divided, and WEAK.

Democracy activists throughout the region now realize: we fell for that, too. Never again.

We know there are thugs in the streets and snipers on the rooftops, waiting for us. We’ll be out there beside our families and friends, protesting anyway.

How many more Fridays is it going to take to prove it to you?

The Pharaonic Lost & Found

“Marhaba. Abdul here. Look, I have this hot merchandise…”

Antiquities are big business. Big tourism business. Big spoils-of-war business.

Scenario #1: After I crush you ‒ or “save” you, depending on my perspective ‒ I plan to rifle through your best museums and take whatever looks expensive and desirable. (Fortunately, some of the most priceless artifacts in any museum don’t look like much, unless you know what you’re looking at.)

Scenario #2: Since the Cairo police will be occupied elsewhere for awhile and the power is out all over town, which means museum security systems are down and museum guards are probably out demonstrating at Tahrir Square anyway, what could I casually carry away in a backpack that there might be a market for elsewhere?

Later. And I’m not talking about an auction at Christie’s.

My friend Hanan in Baghdad, whose specialty is Iraqi antiquities tourism, knows all too well that maybe a few people do steal antiquities and have a change of heart, or steal on a consignment that doesn’t work out, but often antiquities that are found later were probably stolen on impulse and had to be left behind when the thieves “left town in a hurry,” or were arrested or killed.

So, after the dust settles ‒ in one case, after a family moved back into their own home after it had been hijacked by bad guys for over a year ‒ did they discover, hey, the squatters left a bunch of their stuff! This thing looks like it should be…in a museum?

We’re not art historians and we don’t recall studying this specific artifact in school, but it must be important or somebody wouldn’t have bothered to steal it. Let’s call over to the National Museum and see if they’re missing anything.

Thus, over time, priceless stolen artifacts return for study by serious people, archeologists and academics, and for enjoyment ‒ no, thrill ‒ by Indiana Jones wannabes like myself.

(Some antiquities are gone forever, we know. Into the hands of selfish private collectors, some of whom, ironically, reside in the very same region from which the artifacts are stolen in the first place.)

I remember when the Tutankhamun exhibit first came to Los Angeles when I was a kid. My Grandma Bel, from whom I got my love of cooking and history, took me to see it.

I was mesmerized.

Go ahead, ask me anything about King Tut and his crazy family. Or about the myth of Isis and Osiris. Or about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most famous woman Pharaoh.

Ramesses III is worth talking about again lately, too, given that he seems to be the first ruler in recorded history ever to experience a labor strike…over meager food supplies, which as is turned out was partially his fault, since he fed all his favorite people first, and partially the fault of a far-distant volcanic eruption.

We’re talking around 1200 BC. Not counting artifacts from Native American tribes ‒ I like the Canadian term, First Nations ‒ the best we can do in the USA is about 400 years old.

To Egyptians, that’s last week.

Newness works for us, though, and is one of the attitudes we’ve successfully ‒ and are sometimes proud to have ‒ exported. New ideas that everybody else thinks are ‒ and we’re being nice here ‒ weird (and sometimes they’re right, right up until one of them make a billion dollars), new technological and sociological trends, new ways of working around old problems.

Egyptian Freedom By Facebook, for example.

2011 AD technology might’ve won Egyptians independence, but it’s 2011 BC artifacts and Pharaonic sites that will drive tourism in the new Egyptian market economy.

As we’re observing these new democracies emerge, the best way we can help ‒ aside from keeping a lookout in VIP airport lounges for those missing museum pieces, an effort that just screams for its own podcast, “Artifacts Most Wanted” ‒ is to visit these countries ourselves.

See natural wonders you’ve seen only on the Discovery Channel. Meet the brave people who are changing the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East. Visit in their rightful places the antiquities of those ancient civilizations, because one way to gain valuable insight into a society is by learning about what it considers precious, and why.

Egyptians on Facebook, who’ve take lately to signing off, “From Egypt With Love,” remind us daily that tourism in Egypt is a surprisingly good value right now. 50% off the sale price!

For inexperienced travelers, maybe wait a few months and see how things shake out with the secret police, but for those of us with a few more stamps in our passports, there’s just no excuse for not stopping by.

This week. Come on, it’s Spring Break!

Dr. Zahi Awass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, is the man on the mission to make Egyptian antiquities tourism worth your while.

According to him, on the first official day of demonstrations (January 25), 8 items were stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. 4 of them have since been recovered.

Probably the most recognizable of these: the limestone statue of King Akhenaten, the father of King Tut. This statue dates from the Amarna Period, which, if you’ve been out of school awhile, was in the mid 1300s BC.

One day at the demonstration, a teenage protestor in Tahrir Square found the statue of King Akhenaten and brought it home with him. His family immediately recognized it and organized its safe return.

Somebody give that kid a medal. And a scholarship in archeology.

O Captain My Captain

Finland, my geologist friend is telling me, is actually growing by the minute…by 7 square kilometers a year, to be exact…due to a phenomenon known as “post-glacial rebound.”

Any chance he’s talking about my 401K?

So, a land mass that’s growing like crazy where unfortunately almost no-one in the world lives, nor wants to live. Except maybe Lutherans.

The religious “other” category in Finland is only 2%, mostly Catholics whose favorite Protestant hymn, inexplicably, seems to be Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

Musically, I get that. I do. But, you know: it being the Battle Hymn of the Reformation and all, doesn’t it follow that the “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him” is probably the Pope and “our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe” is most likely the Catholic Church?

Maybe this is Finland’s subliminal payback for the Crusades.

Having been invaded and re-invaded, occupied and over-occupied for a thousand and a half years, Finland finally caught a break in 1995 when it joined the EU. Meanwhile, though, it had been credited with some of the more interesting names of wars in Europe. The Russians occupied Finland twice during the 1700s, in periods known as the “Greater Wrath” and the “Lesser Wrath” ‒ exactly how they sounded.

Other Finnish wars I guarantee you’ve never heard of (but seem fairly self-explanatory): the Winter War, the Continuation War, the February Revolution.

Even those literate in geography think of Finland as “somewhere way, way over there where it’s really, really cold,” except fellow Scandinavians, who think of those funny Finns as our backward cousins living in our backyard, about whom we have 100s of cruel jokes.

Which in turn the Finns have just as many about the Laplanders.

Particularly prone to this thinking are the Swedes, villains of Finland’s “Swedish Period,” which for some people on both sides has never really ended.

As much as the Swedes enjoy picking on the Finns, haven’t we just loved over the centuries claiming your plentiful natural resources ‒ fresh water, minerals, food crops, timber, you name it ‒ not to mention your pristinely empty territory whenever it was convenient for us?!

You probably know a Finnish person, if you think about it. His or her name likely contains an “ii,” “aa,” “uu,” or “kk” in there somewhere. Examples: brilliant former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who’s in his 40s now, but still gets carded everywhere he goes. (His current whereabouts: the Philharmonia Orchestra, London.)

So, I’m in Stockholm, trying to stay one step ahead of the shameless ice cream hustlers and thinking I really wouldn’t mind seeing Maestro Salonen’s homeland again in a musical context.

Destination: the Savonlinna Opera Festival, held for a full month every year at the spectacular Olavinlinna (St. Olaf’s) Castle. July 2011, if you’re in the neighborhood.

(Olavinlinna Castle was built in the 15th century to “discourage” Swedish and Russian invaders from either side. Now that those countries have their own problems and Finland is low on their priority list, the castle has become a multi-purpose event venue. Besides hosting this prestigious opera festival, it also hosts an event in which iPhone customers stuck with AT&T may wish to compete: the Mobile Phone-Throwing World Championships!)

But you have to get to that neighborhood first and it’s on the beaten path to nowhere. I’d rather fly, but I’m about to get filibustered.

Come on, you know how much I hate cruise ships, those floating maximum-security prisons with garish 24-hour buffets. Here you are, in a crush of people you’d never choose to travel with in the first place, spending hours in sweaty deck chairs inviting melanoma.

On second thought, traveling by cruise ship just overnight purely as transportation might be entertaining, particularly if you think there’s a chance it might evolve into a chess tournament over reindeer stew.

Once we’re on the 1-hour flight from Helsinki to Savonlinna (which, Brits and Scots, means “Newcastle”), a town about which the term “charming” for once truly applies, I can relax.

I wrote in Ныне отпущаеши (Nyne otpushchayeshi) about my mind-seared images of Russian winter. An opposite universe in the same hemisphere, it’s always summer for me in Scandinavia.

Thus, we’re standing on the ship’s bow in our shirt sleeves in near 24-hour sunlight, leaning over the railing to capture our best photo renditions of the endless string of solitary islands and taking the tiniest sips of Akavit ‒ think caraway-flavored vodka ‒ with Finnish and Swedish acquaintances we’d made just then, who seemed to get along just fine…and a couple of them had even gone over to the dark side and fallen in love.

I’ve given up trying to figure out how people know people, but one guy said: I know the captain of this ship. Do you want to meet him?

Tietenkin! (”Of course!”)

Just as soon as we arrived, though, our captain started talking about leaving.

Meaning, retiring. Already? At your youthful age? (No flattery required.)

The captain planned to hang up his cap soon, permanently, Finland being one of the last bona fide welfare states. I learned yet another new term: “benevolent intervention.” We can’t really trust you to take care of yourself, so we’re going to take care of you for you, but please don’t complain about we go about doing that.

We told him we were on our way to the opera festival, which turned out had been going on within 30 kilometers of his home village for the past 30 years, but he’d never attended. Filled with pity, we gave him a few badly executed but absolutely free samples of the music he’d been missing.

Probably still shouldn’t expect him at Will Call.

I know just enough about opera to be dangerous, having learned Italian along the way and sung a few choruses in a few choruses, university onward. My sister married an opera aficionado and since when you’re dating someone you pretend to like every ridiculous thing they like, I’d given her Opera for Dummies as a gift…but read it myself first, just in case.

Meanwhile, at the festival, familiar operatic greats populate the program: Wagner, Puccini, Mozart. Some Béla Bartok. The heart-stopping young musician competitions that propel bright opera stars into their rightful galaxies.

Please don’t tell Finland that the rest of the world charges 10 times as much for opera tickets to performances of this quality, with some of the very same performers. Good luck getting us to pay rack rate at Royal Albert Hall, or the Met, ever again!

Giddy with opera and ice cream, the ice cream vendors having followed us from Stockholm and caught us in a weak moment, we boarded the ship back to Sweden.

Awhile later, back up on the festival-goers deck, snapping mostly silly photos this time, one of the more serious photographers ran back to her stateroom to get a forgotten camera lens.

I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please, everyone, wait for me before going to dinner.

She never made it. She was accosted in a hallway by two men ‒ strangers ‒ and assaulted.

Somebody, quick, go find the captain! (Unfortunately, he wasn’t working on our return trip.)

Despite diligent efforts by all concerned, the perpetrators were never caught. They’d apparently disembarked, passed security without a second look, and lost themselves in the crowd of taxis heading toward downtown.

The creepiest feeling of all: knowing they’d probably watched us, walking down the gang plank close around their weeping victim…laughing at her, knowing they’d probably gotten away with it.

After which we didn’t feel much like singing.

O Captain My Captain is a poem written in 1865 by Walt Whitman.