Middle East

This category contains 36 posts

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I’ve moved to Philadelphia. Or at least that’s what the Ancient Greeks used to call it.

Today it’s called Amman, Jordan.

Yes, that Jordan: where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth, where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

Where there’s some of the most scenic hiking, biking, and diving in the world, not to mention archeological exploring. If you secretly wanted to be Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan is the country for you.

Although border configurations in this part of the Middle East have changed several times in the past several decades, the Land of Milk & Honey (or Canaan) was originally Jordanian territory. Nowadays, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan exists east of the Jordan River, in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods, bordering Israel/West Bank, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

That means I’m stuck out in part of the desert where God’s Chosen People wandered for 40 years.

Believe me, you have to put a LOT of effort into wandering for 40 years in deserts this small, even with a million or two travelers on foot. It’s like saying it took you 40 years to get from Rome to Florence.

Or Seattle to Portland.

So, you have to wonder why the Israelites wanted so badly not to arrive in the Promised Land in a timely fashion that they did pretty much everything possible to avoid it!

Even after 4 decades of meandering and backtracking and stalling, they finally arrived on Mount Nebo, where God had told Moses he could view the Promised Land from afar, but would not be allowed to enter. (Read why in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, Book of Numbers, Chapter 20.)

I’ll write a post from Mount Nebo later. And from the Dead Sea. And from Petra, the ancient pink city in the south of Jordan, which isn’t lost at all, contrary to what Indiana Jones keeps telling people.

The Middle East is the happening region on the planet right now and the Arab Spring is changing the political, social, and economic landscape of the 21st century.

Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is calm and it’s no mistake that’s where people in the region run to when there’s trouble. Consequently, of Jordan’s 6 million population, 2 million are Palestinians, who can have Jordanian citizenship if they choose. In fact, Jordan’s Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family.

There are also 500,000 Iraqi refugees, self-professed short-timers awaiting stability back home, whose arrival jacked up all the real estate prices in Amman, as I discovered when I started looking for an apartment.

Then, King Abdullah recently stated in the press that Jordan is hosting 80,000 Syrian refugees so far.

Do the math and imagine for a moment what it would be like if your country, percentage-wise, hosted that many guests at once, predominantly at your expense.

Yes, you: the unemployed or underemployed taxpayer.

(Read one of the few books about the Middle East peace process that you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to relate to, an autobiography of sorts written by a reigning monarch who’s only 50 years old (unlike many of those ancient guys in the region we have no clue about, and vice-versa): King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril.)

A Tale of Five War Correspondents

One was a fixture on France 2 who I’d seen on the news many times. The other I’d never heard of before his tragic but not unexpected death by sniper fire.

One was a prize-winning reporter who’d covered Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya…the major conflicts of the past 2 decades. The other was an aluminum factory worker, a carpenter by trade, who filmed events in his home city with his red Samsung camcorder.

Both Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed spoke the truth about the Bashar al-Assad regime’s unspeakable violence against the Syrian people, and both paid for it with their lives.

The activist who broke the news of Basil’s death wrote this tribute:

“Some news is so painful we wish we didn’t have to share it with you. Sometimes we write through our own tears… Basil Al-Sayed, Homsi videographer, has died of his wounds, shot while filming firing from a checkpoint. Rest in Peace. The only thing we won’t miss is the nerves we felt for you so often, as we watched your videos, that so often needed their own health warning… God Bless You, thank you from the revolution for which you gave your life as willingly as you gave your hours.”

Basil, age 24, was a prolific videographer whose work was not for the faint of heart. He captured images from Homs that nobody else could, or would, get. He had a recognizable speaking voice, so everyone knew which videos were his, so before clicking Play on YouTube you braced yourself for a heart attack.

Basil was at a shabiha checkpoint in Baba Amr that day when he saw security forces begin shelling and firing randomly on unarmed citizens out shopping. He moved in closer so he could get definitive proof on film. The sniper on the roof, the one he didn’t see, shot Basil in the head.

Then his funeral, where his family, friends, and heartbroken mother said goodbye to him.

Only 3 weeks later, another journalist’s funeral…and activists noting how ironic it was that Gilles Jacquier (obituary in English), after facing 1000s of life-and-death situations over the years, should die on a regime-controlled field trip inside a pro-regime neighborhood, barricaded by troops.

Which no protester could possibly have entered, let alone with a weapon. The safest place you can be is with us, the regime assured, as they gave him no choice.

The French, outraged and demanding a full investigation, are asking themselves aloud: who benefits most from a Western journalist’s death, especially if it just happened to occur in the protest hotbed of Homs?

Basil Al-Sayed’s death, on the other hand, was long-dreaded and sadly predictable: he died of a sniper’s bullet he was always careful to watch for but this once never saw coming…and inadvertently filmed his last moments, as you can see his camera, just as if you were holding it yourself, fall out of his hands and onto the ground.

Showing the Assad regime for what it really is takes everyone: Arab League monitors who quit rather than become tools of the regime. Facebook and Twitter activists who literally never sleep. Escaped military and government officials who help to fill in the blanks for the UN Security Council.

Parents who refuse to lie and say their children were killed by terrorists and then give interviews to the media using their real names. Activists who refuse to give false confessions on Syrian national TV and consequently are never seen again, presumed dead, along with their entire families.

Journalists and videographers from all backgrounds, who report the unvarnished reality in print, in video, in interviews.

In their obituaries.

(Journalists Without Borders reports that 66 journalists worldwide died in the line of duty in 2011.)

Let’s also add 2 names to the Middle East journalism wall of SHAME and kudos to the heroic journalist who outed them.

Mohamad Balout, a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party in Lebanon that supports the Assad regime, was exposed by fellow journalist Khaled Semsom for betraying activists he interviewed for the BBC.

Balout’s day job was with BBC Arabic, but it turns out he moonlights as an agent of Brigadier Ghassan Khalil, head of Syrian Intelligence, to convey information and identities of democracy activists and members of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) throughout Syria.

Four days after he interviewed activists in Daraa-Bibasra in his BBC role, Balout passed along their names to the State Security branch of the Intelligence Services. When he was caught trying to do the same thing in Damascus, the BBC promptly kicked him out of Syria.

Good for them: betraying sources at all, let alone deliberately endangering their lives, goes against every journalistic ethic there is.

“This decision was taken by the prestigious BBC media organization in order to preserve its integrity and objectivity in the Arab world,” wrote an activist who might very well have been on one of Balout’s lists.

The BBC should’ve seen this coming, though, because Balout had written an article for As-Safir about the Syrian opposition meeting in France, about which the newspaper had been forced to publish an apology.

Dima Naseef, Balout’s wife, is his partner in more than marriage. She’s a reporter for the Russian TV station, herself outed as a shill for the Assad regime for reporting “misleading and provocative information” about the well-documented massacre in Kafar Ouide, Jabal Al Zawyiah, in which 110 villagers were trapped by military forces in a valley on the Turkish border and systematically killed.

Khaled Semsom must be looking over his shoulder right now, wondering when Syrian Intelligence is coming after him for exposing these dangerous people.

Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed were only 2 deaths out of over 6,000 in the past 10 months, death so sadly commonplace that most Syrian victims’ names, although recorded by the LCCs, are unknown outside the country.

But it’s fitting these 2 dead journalists, and a third still alive who shared their professional ethics, should be called out by name because they took the risk of speaking for the other 6,000 ‒ and 10s of thousands more injured, missing, and running for their lives.

Gilles Jacquier, Basil Al-Sayed, Khaled Semsom: thank you for your brave and generous service.

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sings Carols with the Philharmonic, London

My invitation must have been lost in the mail.

To Wills and Kate’s first royal Christmas party as a married couple, of course.

This mix-up is understandable, since I haven’t been home, wherever that is, in over a month. But you’d think that Kate’s American Bridesmaid ‒ read my Royal Wedding Week coverage here ‒ deserved at least a follow-up phone call from the Wales’ social secretary!

No worries. Happy Christmas and let’s meet for tea after New Year’s.

So, rather than judging best-dressed royal party guests, I’ve been invited to judge the “Best-Dressed Shop Windows” in Cambridge!

In the categories of Originality, Festivity, Visual Impact, and Coherence, from a field of 8 semi-finalists chosen by “local experts.” So I’m not the only judge with “credentials unspecified.”

Now, I don’t know much about English decorative sensibilities, but it doesn’t take a Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to guess that the top prize is going to a food-related window display.

Bellina Chocolate House has taken 1st or 2nd place every year the contest has been held. Emporium 61 goes for vintage Christmas scenery, which will get the nostalgia vote. Origin8 makes way-out-there gingerbread houses and outdid themselves a few years ago with a…

meringue iceberg?

But my money, in more ways than one, is on last year’s winner: the kitchen store, Clement Joscelyne.

However, it’s time to do some bigger-time holiday shopping and that can only mean Harrods, the London department store so huge that it employs a Chief Giver of Directions.

I did take a taxi home later, but not because I had too many shopping bags to carry. My driver, initials K. L. according to my receipt, is a career military man who went right back to work after retirement to “keep exercising the grey matter” by driving around his home city, talking to “delightful young ladies like yourself.”

Why, thank you! I know this compliment had nothing to do with the orange-praline chocolates I just gave you.

Mr. K. L. and his wife have 5 children ‒ 1 son will be absent this Christmas due to his military service in Afghanistan ‒ and many grandchildren. He’s been married longer than I’ve been alive.

I asked him if he had a secret for a lasting marriage. “No, luv, but my wife does.”

And what might that be?

“On each wedding anniversary, she says to me, ‘It seems like yesterday, but if it were tomorrow, I’d say cancel it.'”

Evening comes early this time of year and, along with London’s non-royal best-dressed, I’m in the first row of the Circle balcony at Royal Albert Hall.

For the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir annual concert of Christmas carols old and new. Serious and secular. European and American. I know for a fact that nobody here was responsible for “Jingle Bell Rock.” (We have country singer Bobby Helms to thank for that holiday gem.)

Much less, “I’ve been an angel all year, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”

Since the Middle East is never far from my mind, I read the following Facebook posts at intermission. About refugees, including children, from the Idleb province (closest to the Turkish border) of Syria, who’d been trapped in valleys, then hunted down and massacred by Assad regime forces.

“OH GOD!!!! Weeping!!!!”

(In the last few days, more than 200 men, women, and children have been killed like this, just in time for Arab League monitors to be told it was the work of “terrorists.”)

“The displaced people who have fled into the mountains from the villages of Jabal Al Zawiyeh district in the fog and rain of yesterday. The little boy laying on the ground was shot… The videographer, God bless him, sharing the danger the displaced are in from Regime forces… he asks the children, “where are your families?” they answer, “we don’t know, but we are very hungry.” Oh God, what will it take for this world to help these people?”


“In our hearts and in our prayers tonight, the displaced children of Idleb terrified of being found by the Regime soldiers who make no allowance for age or gender…and we just don’t understand how a Regime could be so cruel, and a world so cold hearted that these children have no rescue”

Then, in the first carol in Part 2 of the concert, our cast of 5,000 voices rang out: “Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care…”

As Dr. Ibrahim Othman and Hakam Al-Siba’i and Giath Mattar would tell us if they were alive, echoing the words of King Wenceslas on another cruel winter night long ago:

“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly…”

…and Syrians from neighboring districts took Wenceslas at his word.

News unfolding hour by hour on YouTube and Facebook:

How the gifts of love mounted for the people of Zawiya district as the Christian world prepares for Christmas (which we fear will be used as a time of great massacre by the murderer Assad, who well knows when the people of the west and the media aren’t looking), the people of Jobas and Idleb show us the real meaning of Christmas, giving to those in great need from full hearts, even when their own pockets are empty, and even bread and fuel not in their reach.”

“IDLIB: JOBAS: Gifts and donations from Children and adults for our people of Jabal Al Zawiyeh makes you cry, these dear hearts”

Children gathering donations for other children, knowing that the adults, maybe from their own families, who will make the precarious journey to deliver this lifesaving assistance, will risk all their lives.

Over 4600 kilometers and a world away, we sing with the London Philharmonic what the people of Jobas already know:

“Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”

Happy Christmas.

In Memoriam: Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman

Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman was a young Syrian doctor who gave up his job to care for those injured in democracy demonstrations and justifiably afraid to seek medical treatment in regime-controlled hospitals.

He was known as the “Doctor of the Revolution” and co-founder of the Physicians Coordinating Committee in Damascus.

This video shows Dr. Ibrahim ‒ he was often called by his first name ‒ preparing a field operating room, explaining to a reporter how he was able to treat some patients with so little, and how others died because he could do nothing for them, their injuries were so great.

At the very beginning of the revolution, when an activist asked him to help with the injured, he answered, “Give me an hour to say goodbye to my parents because I might not come back.”

After months in hiding as one of Assad’s Most Wanted, Dr. Othman was shot and killed on Dec 11 (according to Syrian Local Coordinating Committees, other sources report Dec 12) by regime intelligence forces as he tried to escape to Turkey.

You can read his obituary in English on CNN.com and read the Facebook page in Arabic created in his honor.

The French Ministère des Affaires étrangères released this statement:

“France strongly condemns the despicable murder of Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman by Syrian forces.

A man of peace, Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman had, through his courage and action in coordinating Damascus Doctors, achieved unanimous recognition and respect, particularly for his constant commitment to treating the injured without discrimination.

Through him, his murderers sought to prevent free access to the victims and to treatment.

At a time when this crime arouses a strong sense of indignation and deep shock in Syria, France reaffirms her determination to stand alongside the Syrian people in the face of the relentless crackdown to which they have been subjected for more than nine months.

France, more than ever, is mobilizing her efforts in all international forums in order to bring an end to the crackdown in Syria.”

Dr. Othman, of Barzeh, Damascus, was 26 years old. He was one of 19 Syrian doctors to be killed by the Assad regime during 2011.

Unedited translation of testimony given by a doctor from Mujtahed Hospital about the bombing on 6 January 2011, as reported to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. The LCCs have been collecting such eyewitness testimonies and publishing daily statistics – with full names and home towns, when known – of the dead, wounded, and disappeared since the protests began and their data is being provided to the Arab League monitors. (What the monitors do with and about this information is another post.)

“I participated in rescuing the victims of the bombing that happened in Midan today, most injuries of security agents were as a result of gunshots not fragments of explosives nor the bombing itself, nurses were able to identify injured security agents and their names.

We’ve been told that the bombing targeted 2 security buses parked near Midan police station, security forces were deployed heavily in the hospital while we were treating the injured, there was a dispute between security administrations about who is to take control.

After 2 hours injured people from demonstrations started coming to the hospital, nurses refused to take care of them or even rescue them, cleaning workers also refused to help on the grounds that they are “intruders” and “traitors”, we were also prohibited from helping them.”

Bashar Defects from the Army

Proven money-saving strategy in International Criminal Court these days: dictators who hang themselves on international TV before they even get to The Hague!

“Never interfere with your enemy when he’s in the process of destroying himself,” the saying goes, and it’s never been more true than for President Bashar al-Assad, the self-professed non-commander-in-chief of the Syrian armed forces.

Being in Turkey during yet another absurd Assad media opportunity (watch the interview in full here), then seeing the Istanbul reaction to it, deserves a pause in my Christmas travel programming.

Bashar and Barbara’s ABC network interview pre-empted a European football match in a sports bar in trendy Beyoğlu. Damning excerpts of the interview played on 2 giant screens on the Bosphorus ferry.

Two headlines dominated the news in Turkey this week: the Merkel/Sarkozy Eurozone deal and the escalating violence in Syria. And nobody’s sure which one they should be worried about more.

Just because Turks aren’t out on the street by the thousands (yet) demonstrating in support of the Syrian people doesn’t mean they’re not keenly aware of what’s going on there hour by hour. If I had a 900 kilometer border with a country on the verge of…we’re not sure yet, but it won’t be good…I’d keep very current on the news, too.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last spring that there was no question of Turkey closing its borders with Syria, yet that’s exactly what’s happened already in at least 2 cases, primarily because truck drivers going back and forth across the border are being shot at indiscriminately.

Guess not so many trucks lately, with the 30% tax on imported goods Turkey just slapped on Syria, which might hurt Assad’s pride more than his pocketbook, given the downward spiral of that friendship, gone in 9 months from warm-like-family to cold-as-ice.

Although the Turkish government long ago “ran out of patience” and came “to the end of the road” with the Assad regime, this week for the first time Erdogan stated that all options were on the table, should the Syrian conflict impact the region and, specifically, send a flood of refugees across its borders.

Then, in the middle of all this, Barbara Walters of ABC goes to Damascus…and Americans groan.

Baba Wawa, Barbara’s nickname and persona made famous by brilliant comedienne Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live. Barbara, whose latest gig is a gossipy women’s morning talk show, whose topics range from interviews with cute movie stars to cute hairstyles for summer.

And that’s exactly how she posed her soft-ball questions to Bashar: in that awe-struck, kiss-up way of hers that works for the cast of Twilight, but grossly minimizes the seriousness of Assad’s crimes against humanity continuing unhindered in Syria, thanks to ping-pong foreign policy in the United Nations and the Arab League.

Obviously Bashar wasn’t confident enough in his lies to talk to hard-hitting Anderson Cooper of CNN, who’s been “keeping ‘em honest” in the Arab Spring for months now and has made it his personal mission to out Bashar on his violent duplicity, especially his army’s crimes against children.

It’s hard to choose the most ridiculous part of that ridiculous interview, but Bashar saying he wasn’t in control of the Syrian army ranks right up there. That the armed forces weren’t his, they belonged to the country, and he wasn’t in charge of them.

Really? You’re President but not Commander-in-Chief? You’re not the one giving orders?

No orders were given, he said (conveniently in the 3rd person).

“Bashar defects from the army.” Demonstrators in Homs pounced on that revelation, and Homsis are the fastest protest sign-makers in this whole revolution.

To the real defectors, members of the Free Syrian Army ‒ 10,000 strong, according to their commander who’s giving orders from Turkey, which also hosts the fledgling Syrian National Committee ‒ it’s not news, it’s irony.

Of course, Bashar and his cronies are in charge of everything, everywhere, 24×7. That’s how dictatorships work (and why the Assad family has proven over the decades that they’ll do anything rather than give theirs up). Syria’s suffocating, humiliating government that knows nothing but brutality is exactly what prompted Syrians to leverage the Arab Spring in the first place and say, “It’s our turn! We can do it!”

That, and the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb, whose horrific and well-documented death enraged the Syrian people…and whose death Bashar claims never happened. (Somebody, please send him the YouTube link to the Arabic media interview with Hamza’s mother.)

To look at those gruesome photos of young Hamza, as he was given back to his family, and to have no visible reaction…when looking at those same photos from 6,000 miles away moves many of us to tears, even now.

I guess the new obituaries ‒ new names, photos, and bios that are posted every single day on Facebook ‒ aren’t real, either. Dozens and dozens, including 9 children in the past 24 hours.

Guess Assad hasn’t heard about Maher al-Hussein, 10 years old, who bled to death in his own home after being hit by a sniper bullet in Bab Sebaa, Homs. Or 12-year-old Mohammed Nassar, who was also killed by cross-fire.

There’s a massacre brewing in Homs that’s every bit as real as what the UN Security Council voted to prevent in Benghazi, Libya back in March…which China and Russia had no problem with. It promises to be just as devastating as Bashar’s father Hafez’s demolition of Hama in 1982, with one big difference.

The brave social media heroes of Syria, who risk their lives every time they shoot a video, make a phone call, and post or tweet, will try, through non-violent protest and spreading news around the world, to stop it. If they can’t, they’ll document it.

Either way, Bashar will pay. As Syrian democracy activists have said over and over: not one name, one family, one story will be forgotten and left out of the indictment to the International Criminal Court.

Once the Assads are gone and Syria is a democracy, the first city I’ll visit is the one I’ve written the most about on this blog: Homs. Of all the major cities in Syria, Homs is well-known among its fellow citizens for its generous spirit and sense of humor and people I know from Homs are exactly like that.

Both of these positive attitudes are contagious, and that scares hey-don’t-blame-me, it’s-not-my-army Bashar to death.

As well it should.

Syria Facebook Family Welcomes Baby Boy, Ghiath Ghiath Mattar

Life goes on in wartime and through social media activism we’ve come to share in the milestones of families in the Middle East whom we’ve never met.

Deaths (of natural causes) of elders, promises of marriage, births of children whose expectant fathers waited patiently for them, but who died before they were born.

Ghiath Mattar was one of these young men, a 25-year-old activist from Daraya. Here’s how the news unfolded this week:

Tuesday 15 Nov: Ghiath Mattar the Young man who died under torture in the Thug detention, do you remember him? his wife is in labor now… pray for her please

Wednesday 16 Nov: Urgent : Daraya “Damascus Suburbs” Ghiath never left us… he will always be in our heart. Yesterday his wife gave birth to a wonderful healthy young boy… they Called him Ghiath we promise you young Ghiath… we will not rest… until we bring who killed your father to justice

Then this morning, Thursday 17 Nov: I Could not hold my tears when i saw this photo please all welcome Ghiath Ghiath Mattar

(…because the child’s middle name is the father’s first name, regardless, for boys and girls.)

Ghiath and other little boys and girls like him, born during this the first year of protests, are the future of a free, democratic Syria, for which their loved ones ‒ approaching 4,500 citizens, no matter what the UN death toll says, stuck at 3,500 for months ‒ gave their lives.

Well-wishers posted many comments, including “precious child,” “SO beautiful mashallah,” “habibi” (my dear), a hope that he’ll grow up “dans un monde paisible, très bientôt” (in a peaceful world, soon to come), and “the most famous baby in Syria!”

Someone even nominated little Ghiath for President!

Mabrouk (congratulations), Mattar Family! Here’s Ghiath’s wife holding baby Ghiath, posted on 20 Nov.

The activist who shared this photo with us added the following note:

“My Heart breaks every time i think that this young child will never know his father …will never play with him …will never hold him…

but when i saw her Smile… i believed that the Syrian will Win this fight
and Assad will be brought to justice

Bless you Sister… bless your child… and bless your husband… may he rest in peace”

“The Precious Is Gone,” He Said

These are the words of a Syrian father, spoken to the Assad regime forces whose snipers shot and killed his young son.

Because he refused to sign a document saying his son was killed by terrorists, they took the boy’s body away, so the family couldn’t bury him. The father never saw his son again.

“Allah takes what he gives, in his time,” the father said. “To the highest heavens, dear child,” the writer added.

This week, like every week since mid-March, another sniper ended another child’s life: Karam Al Zeitoun, only 10 days old, shot through the window of his home in Homs on Nov 12.

Over the past 8 months, there have been many touching eulogies documented by eyewitnesses or written by Syrian democracy activists. Some from these very towns, writing about people they knew and sharing their tributes on social media for the whole world to read.

Here’s the original English translation of a remembrance posted today for Bhujit Karem Abu Basil, 50 years old, from Barzeh, Damascus. He was married with 4 children, 3 sons and 1 daughter. He was killed while attending Bissam Barra’s funeral on Nov 9.

“Today… you left our earth
Your blood was tears on Damascus eyes
Today… Damascus hugged you one more time
He is my son, she said
Died for my freedom
Died for me
Come back to me, she called… I will hug your body like I hold my rivers
But please let your soul fly with my birds
So I can see you every morning”

Bhujit knew it was risky, attending his friend’s funeral, but he went anyway and never came home.

I can add only this, the phrase in Arabic that people say when someone dies (and how sad it is that it was one of the first phrases I ever learned):

الله يرحمه
allah yer7amo

What’s Really at Stake With Back to School

Everybody gets extra credit this year…in politics.

In Tacoma, the 3rd-largest school district in Washington state, USA, 1,900 public school teachers are on strike and have defied a court order to return to work. They’ve delayed the start of the new academic year for 28,000 students over unresolved contract disputes including pay, class size, and seniority-based job reassignments.

The teachers union may or may not have the right to strike, said a judge today, but the public generally agrees that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. Class size is a problem nationwide, despite us continually voting to tax ourselves to fix this. (Am I the only one wondering where all that money went?)

While some parents and students support teachers to continue negotiating while school is open, teachers aren’t getting universal sympathy for an all-out strike this time around.

From reading the local press lately and knowing how prior Seattle-area teachers strikes went down, it’s much the same conflicted thinking. Some are sympathetic to teachers and feel like they’ve been pressured and ignored one too many times. Others think teachers should be thankful they have jobs in this recession and need to share the pain of state budget cuts. Some worry about classes cutting into 2012 summer vacation, disrupting family and child care plans.

Meanwhile, no learning is happening, except learning that some adults, after having the whole summer off, don’t have to go back to work in September if they don’t feel like it, and they’ll probably still get paid. Hey, I want that job!

Teachers counter that if they cave in to school district demands, their complaints will never be resolved. Could be true. But if they make the strike long enough and painful enough, they will be. Hard to say.

Some students think teachers should grow up. Teachers think the school district should grow up. Here’s a thought: maybe you both need to grow up.

Tacoma teachers, it’s worth thinking globally: are your issues are so important to you to voice publicly and demand change that you’d still be willing to go on strike if you knew it meant risking being fired on by security forces? Or attacked with tear gas? Or imprisoned and tortured?

Then imagine you’re not an adult teacher. Imagine you’re an elementary school student striking in front of your school in Ghutta, Homs, Syria, with siblings in high school doing the same thing, and your parents wholeheartedly supporting you all, striking like this.

Telling observation from a Homs activist: “We grew up repeating every morning in school the famous slogan ‘Our leader forever, the comrade Bashar al Assad’ (or his father when he was alive). Most of us used to say it automatically without even realizing what we are saying. It was a form of indoctrination. Today, the students chanted ‘Freedom’ in many schools across Syria.”

(Students in Hama are taking it one step further, as Hama is famous for doing, and burning the indoctrination books.)

Unlike democracies, where different points of view are welcome, even encouraged, dictatorships ‒ with which Americans in our generation thankfully have no personal experience ‒ rely on fear, plus a potent mixture of hero worship, humiliation, mutual suspicion, and inability to picture things any way than how they are today…until the Arab Spring comes along in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and not-quite-Yemen and you began to realize the freedoms and opportunities you’ve been missing out on all this time.

Fast-forward to Homs in September 2011 and there, as in Damascus, Hama, Idlib, and Deir ez Zor provinces, this familiar student refrain is driving Bashar al-Assad and his Dictator of Education completely crazy: from Zamalka, Damascus, “No studying and no teaching until the fall of the President!”

Now that’s what I call an intractable union demand.

Demographics drives this reality. While birth rates in Europe have dropped off precipitously and the American Baby Boomer generation is set to retire, causing Social Security and Medicare costs to soar, over 40% of the Syrian population is under 18.

That’s almost 9 million young people who certainly aren’t going to vote for anybody named Assad. So best to make sure they never get a chance to vote.

On the first day of school, September 18, schools were nominally open, but attendance across Syria was sparse, to say the least. Some teachers didn’t show up at all. Kids who weren’t protesting were being kept at home by parents as a protest against the regime, or for their safety.

No argument about class sizes here.

Instead of cracking the books, look at what Syrian school kids were doing instead: stomping on a photo of Bashar’s face, burning it, then tearing it up and throwing away the pieces!

Same sentiment in Kanaker, where students shout right into the camera, “No studying until the regime falls!” Then, without warning, the security forces fire on the school children (in Qusayr, SW of Homs).

Sigh. This is going to be a long, sad school year.

Ironically, students might end up at school another way…because their classrooms are now prisons for protesters who’ve been arrested. Children, their teachers, and their parents might end up in class together.

In Al-Kiswah, about as pastoral as it gets 13 kilometers/6 miles south of Damascus, students’ banners read: ”This is my school. Its chairs became confession chairs. My father, brother, and cousin, all of them were beaten here.

How can I go to school before we topple the regime?”

Those same fathers, brothers, and cousins ‒ 3,000 in all ‒ who’d demonstrated the day before school started.

Including one father who said, “We want freedom even if we have to keep our demonstrations going for years, not only 6 months. We have nothing to lose if we are ready to sacrifice our lives

(notice, not our salaries, our seniorities, our work environments)

…the most precious thing we have.”

Syrian Forces Kill Red Crescent Volunteer Hakam Al-Siba’i in Homs

This hits very close to home for those of us who have either been Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers, or have worked alongside them as disaster relief volunteers for other organizations, in many countries for many different disasters.

Unpreventable natural disasters are terrible enough, but we all understand that they occur periodically and skilled people do what needs to be done. Preventable human disasters by amoral dictators and their mindless followers, driven by power and greed, are unconscionable.

There is no possible justification for wounding and killing humanitarian workers, especially your own citizens, volunteering at home.

Hakam, from all of us: we know the risks you and your loved ones took when you decided to volunteer and we thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Yesterday’s social media press statement combined reports from 2 different Syrian activists:

HOMS (17/9/2011): This is the funeral of the martyr Hakam Al-Siba’i, a Red Crescent volunteer whose ambulance was attacked by security forces on 7th September. He was on his way with the ambulance crew to Bab al-Aldreb during the invasion of the neighborhood and came under fire from security and Shabiha, including snipers, wounding three ambulance crew members and even the patient himself. Hakam died of his injuries on 15th September. You can see many other Red Crescent workers and volunteers are attending the funeral in their uniforms. They are doing a brave and priceless job even in peaceful times. They are our heroes.

Update: As of 31 December, the Red Crescent has discontinued its services in Homs because of the risk of death and injury to its staff, volunteers, and patients, as well as ongoing destruction of Red Crescent property and harassment by regime forces. There now remains no humanitarian medical organization operating in the city that has borne 40% of all civilian deaths in 2011.

Moammar Orders FouFou and ZoomKoom

You know what they say about crap flowing downstream.

They must be talking about Moammar Qaddafi and his “invitation” to “relocate” to “Three Rivers”: Burkina Faso, where the Black Volta (Mouhoun), White Volta (Nakambé), and Red Volta (Nazinon) literally meet.

Honestly, I prefer the Lower Volta, on the Ghanaian coast toward Togo. Where farmers raise shrimp and shallots. Where learning the language, Ewe, is easy and fun, and comes with this finger-snapping handshake that’s like dancing: you can do it only if the other person does it at the same time. Where the same people invite you to (Christian) churches for weddings and (animist) shrines for funerals.

But enough about Ghana for today. We’re headed to the Upper Volta, getting the 411 on a country that not many people outside of the African Union have opinions about, or could even find on a map.

Now, if it were me, I’d fly to Accra and travel 250 kilometers/155 miles ‒ a mere 7 hours by bus ‒ north to Kumasi. Spend the night at a guest house on a dirt road, run by 2 widows who cook suspicious fish, questionable porridge, and untouchable tomatoes. The next morning, I’d take another bus north…until people started speaking French.

(But, Moammar, since you’re you and you’re driving, point your Mercedes caravan south-west through Niger for 4,800 kilometers/3,000 miles to Burkina Faso’s capitol city, Ouagadougou. I hope you have AC; it’ll be 35C/95F and 90% humidity. At least.)

I can tell you right now, learning French will be a major challenge. I’ve been to French school and French teachers don’t mess around. I doubt you have much of a gift for languages because when you speak on Arab TV, you’re subtitled in Arabic. (Qaddafi speaks a Libyan dialect, so even Arabs from other countries can’t really understand him.)

First up, new lodgings for you. Remember that seaside villa previously owned by your son Saif al-Islam, with the infinity pool like you see in Architectural Digest? Nothing like that.

Something modest, overlooking the savannah.

Take heart. Eventually, you’ll be looking out at the Mediterranean Sea again…through prison bars. Better yet, looking out at the North Sea from the Cour Pénale Internationale in The Hague.

Meanwhile, lose the brocade robes and get some chickens, for brochettes de poulet later. Nobody in Burkina Faso will look at you twice. If you’re living large in Ouagadougou with all that gold and cash you smuggled out of Libya over the decades, especially in a 4-star hotel that until recently had a portrait of you hanging in the lobby, you might as well wear an “Escaped Dictator” sign on your back because some average guy earning $1 a day is going to take the Libyan opposition up on its generous finder’s fee.

Since the Burkina Faso government recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council last month and Interpol has a Red Notice out on you, staying inconspicuous might mean doing some of your own cooking. I know you’ll be homesick for Sharba Libiya (because I am, too): a spicy lamb soup so easy I recommend it to helpless dictators.

Start with vegetable ghee, “samn” in Arabic. You could use oil, so why ghee? Simple food chemistry. You can fry at a much higher temperature without setting off all your smoke alarms.

Sear pieces of lamb ‒ good color outside, still raw inside. (Properly cooked lamb is PINK, people, not brown). Add parsley, onion, and tomatoes. Just enough water to cover ‒ no need for veal stock ‒ and bring to a boil. When you add the orzo, ajoute aussi un peu de persil et des feuilles de coriandre.

Season generously with cayenne pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Or hararat, this great Libyan spice mix you can make yourself, or buy at an ethnic grocery store….by the kilo.

Literally as the soup bowls leave the kitchen, and not a moment sooner, add mint ‒ crushed dry is fine, shredded fresh is best ‒ and a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

For anybody but you, Moammar, I’d make mhalbiya (rice pudding) for dessert. Libyans flavor it with ‘atr (geranium extract), but orange blossom water will do.

Then I’d make some ka’k hilu (Libyan pretzels with sesame and fennel seeds) for myself.

At Le Cordon Bleu, we learned to drink while we cooked and, compared to the fundamentals of Islam and humanity you’ve already obliterated, this sin hardly even registers. Try the Burkinabè specialty banji, palm wine (fermented palm sap), partaken liberally by the 40% non-Muslims in this secular country. Or, if you’re still on the wagon, there’s always zoomkoom, a non-alcoholic “soft drink” made with millet flour.

Think really watery pancake batter flavored with lemon, ginger, and sometimes tamarind.

You might be in Burkina Faso for awhile and, for all the wrong reasons, you’ll give thanks for every meal. Just imagine if you’d sought exile in Russia!

There’s great Burkinabè cuisine in Paris, if you know where to look, and I do.

La Goutte d’Or is a gritty neighborhood in 18ème. At the famous Marché Barbès, in daylight and with local African friends, I buy more than I can realistically carry on the Métro of colorfully exotic, embarrassingly cheap ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in Paris.

Since it’s just as risky to shop when you’re hungry, we’re at the restaurant Etoile de Burkina near Place Hébert. On August 4.

Accidentally celebrating the anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution. Learning why Burkinabè cuisine is called “l’émotion par les sens.” Sharing food with people who aren’t even at our table.

Riz gras, Burkina Faso’s national dish: rice cooked in fat with tomatoes and spices. Tô, bitter millet dough, with gombo (okra sauce) and yams on the side. Pan-fried fish, their beady eyes staring up at me from the plate.

Foufou, which in East Africa we call ugali: grits without butter or salt, formed into pasty polenta-like cakes. Brochettes upon towers of brochettes beside bowls upon bowls of delicious sauces.

Then a Burkinabè spin on a Sénégalese classic: Poulet Yassa.

Chicken stew with garlic, generous lemon, super generous onion, and any orphan vegetables you find hanging around. Mustard, if you can believe that. Red Hot Chili Peppers, which isn’t just a band.

Served with a Mòoré garnish, to celebrate: “Laafi bala!” (Peace! Health!)