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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Nov '10

A Suicide Attack in Istanbul

On October 31, 2010, a suicide blast ripped through a police post in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Here, unidentifiable men carry a victim to a civilian car, which subsequently sped off in the direction of a hospital.

The morning of Sunday, October 31 was a fairly typical late fall day in Istanbul. As the sun came up, the city slowly stirred to life as Turks shook off hangovers and city workers cleared the refuse and streamers leftover from Republic Day celebrations. On the Istiklal Caddesi, a major pedestrian thoroughfare interspersed with dozens of boutiques and cafés, tourists bundled in jackets to keep off the cold as they walked from shop to shop, searching for deals or biding time on a weekend morning.

I had just left a Mass service and had plans to visit a Turkish bath with a local named Ugur that I had met at a dinner party the evening prior. To pass time until our meeting, I sat on the second floor of bookstore on the Istiklal and looked down on the hundreds of people streaming down the shopping corridor. It reminded me of a busy shopping district in London or Paris, quite a departure from the Middle East environs that had been my home for the past two months.

Suddenly, a loud bang jolted me from my daydream. People down below stopped in their tracks and turned in the direction of the noise, which rang out from the direction of Taksim Square, a hub for tourist travel and shopping located just blocks away. After a few seconds of dazed confusion, most resumed walking with shopping bags and strollers in hand, not quite certain about what had happened up the street.

In the aftermath of the attack, women run down Istiklal Caddesi from Taksim Square. Police officers in the background work to secure the area.

Within thirty seconds, a police car screams down the pedestrian thoroughfare towards, its horn urging the throngs of people out of the way. A few seconds later, I see the first wave of pedestrians running from the direction in which the noise had come. Realizing that an attack, shooting, or crash must have occurred up the street, I hurriedly pack my things and sprint out of the coffee shop.

While maybe foolish, I move in the direction of the event to document the scene unfolding there. After ten days in Iraq, I felt fairly confident in my ability to sense danger and stay out of harm’s way. Probably too confident.

Adrenaline fuels my effort to weave past fleeing pedestrians and shouting police officers. I duck into doorways, feign confusion at Turkish cops, and push past scores of shocked people as I made my way to the Square.

I arrive to a chaotic scene. Journalists run past with cameras mounted on their shoulders. Police officers scream at each other and the hordes of media to clear the area. People carry the injured towards private cars, which quickly speed away. Paramedics crouch above prostrate bodies lying in all directions around a damaged police van on the far side of Taksim Square. It’s like a scene from a movie.

Like most present, I have a hard time piecing together what had happened. I realize that some sort of bomb had detonated, as the remnants of storefront windows shattered by shockwaves crunch beneath my feet as I move along the sidewalks. But as I ask people around me to explain what is unfolding, most shrug. All are as confused as I.

In the square, journalists begin shoving each other and yelling in Turkish. I stand a safe distance away, behind police tape, looking for a Western journalist to help me make sense of the scene before me. As the pushing and shoving moves from the square into the street, and finally, over to my sidewalk, I find my guy.

After the bomb's shockwaves shattered windows around Taksim Square, glass covered the sidewalks in all directions, making an eiree cracking sound as people walked past.

He stands above the crowd, a tall, intrepid-looking man with a professional camera and a neatly trimmed beard. I first notice him as a police officer shoves him back while yelling, “my friend, he is dead.”

The shouting turns out to be an overstatement—17 police officers and 15 civilians were wounded by the attack, but only the attacker perished—but the journalist’s composed response to the police officer impresses me. And his American accent leads me to jump at the opportunity to ask about the scene.

“A little after 10:30am, a bomb went off here in the square,” he says in response to my request for clarification. “I live close by and heard the explosion and came running here.”

I ask him about the number of casualties. “I’ve seen at least 5 ambulances,” he responds. “I don’t know if they were wounded or dead, or who was carried away. There could well have been more than that. [The police] are there almost all of the time. So it was likely almost exclusively police.”

While I do not get this journalist’s name, his insights prove uncannily accurate. I can tell that he has been in this type of situation before, given his coolness and attention to detail in the midst of so much chaos.

You might imagine my surprise when, a few days later, this same guy comes striding up to a coffee shop a few blocks away to meet me for an interview. A friend had introduced me to Scott Peterson, the Istanbul Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor, over email. But in our email exchanges, I had not realized that he was the same journalist I had turned to for help on this tumultuous morning.

Mr. Peterson offers a number of insights with me during our hour together, which takes place at a coffee shop just blocks away from the scene of the attack. As a career journalist and war correspondent in Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Iran, among other hot spots, Peterson has no shortage of anecdotes to share. He is a joy to meet (Peterson’s account of the Oct. 31 attacks can be found here).

Police officers shout at journalists while attempting to clear the area around Taksim Square. In the background, dozens of Turkish flags mark the Republic Day celebration, which occurred just two days before the attack.

But none of his perspective can shake the uneasiness I feel in the aftermath of the Taksim bombing. Authorities claim that the man responsible, a 24 year-old named Vedat Acar, acted as a member of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, an offshoot rebel group that trains dissidents northern Iraq.

Less than a week earlier, I had been wrapping my time in Iraqi-Kurdistan, where I developed deep and abiding friendships with a number of Kurds and learned much about injustices they accuse the ruling Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi governments of enacting against them. I had developed a view of the Kurds as a vulnerable minority group. And I scoffed at the paranoia of Turkish military officers who shouted me down for saying the word “Kurdistan”.

But then there I found myself, four blocks away from the scene of a terror attack, carried out by a Kurdish rebel against civilians and police officers in Turkey’s largest city. Although the vast majority of Kurds condemned the violence—even the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a rebel group hardly known for its pacifist stances, immediately denied involvement and reiterated its commitment to a ceasefire with Turkey—a member of the ethnic group deliberately carried out this bloody attack. And it wasn’t somewhere removed; the blast was close enough for me to hear!

This will be one of the final posts I write on the “Middle East” leg of my traveling fellowship experience. In some ways, it’s positive to close on this topic, as it allows for me to come full circle on describing my experiences with the difficult realities that persist here.

In Egypt, I witnessed Mubarak’s government restricting liberty and human rights through authoritarian policies aimed at stifling true debate. From there, I wrote about the gripping complexities in Israel and the West Bank, where each side defines reality in starkly different terms. In Iraq, I developed relationships with the Kurds and grew sympathetic to their tragic story. But then in Turkey—in arguably the most Westernized Muslim majority city in the world—the threat of violence that looms over the region every day became more real to me than I had ever anticipated…and at the hands of a Kurd.

The restrictive policies I had analyzed critically only weeks earlier appeared in a new light. Even though no one close to me was physically hurt, I felt shaken by my proximity to the bombing. Had I been affected by the tragedy more directly—like many young people in Sderot, Ramallah, or Baghdad—then perhaps I would view all these policies with even more nuance. Perhaps I would even be making the case for them.

Thankfully, no one apart from the suicide bomber himself perished on this Halloween morning in Istanbul. But I will not soon forget the sight of bodies sprawled on the ground or people running with fear in their eyes in the aftermath of a terror attack. This was an experience that will last me far beyond this fellowship.

Nov '10

Leaving Iraq: 17 Hours, 1 Smuggler, and Multiple Encounters with the Police

The Zahko border crossing from Iraq to Turkey lies in this mountain pass. Hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars in trade move across this border annually.

With my ten-day Iraqi visa drawing to an end, I made plans to being a northeastern trek towards Turkey on October 27th, with Istanbul as my ultimate destination. Eager to see the Iraqi countryside and famed Zahko border crossing, a dispute over which triggered the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s, I decided to take this trip overland.

My long African bus rides had left me with an affinity for the adventure of such trips—a burning attraction for the personalities and unexpected turns of events that characterize long distance bus or taxi rides across the developing world. The overland trip to Turkey would prove just as memorable.

The journey begins with a three hour shared cab ride from Erbil to the Turkish border, located over 150 miles to the northeast of the Kurdish capital. Around 9am, friend at the Kotri Salam Hotel directs me to the ticket office and I negotiate with the owner for a 20,000 Iraqi dinar ($18) ticket out of the country.

The cab is a small, ragged Nissan packed with Kurdish men. With me in the backseat are two guys in their late-twenties, both from Kirkuk and both heading for work at an oil rig outside Dohuk, near the border. In the front seat sits the only English speaker, a 60 year-old Erbil native named Dleir. He translates a conversation for me with the cab for the first few minutes and shares that his son spent time in San Diego. “A beautiful place,” Dleir says. “I visited him there many times.”

The driver is a severe looking man from Erbil, who speaks no English and communicates with me fully through Dleir. He doesn’t have much to say, other than to chastise me for so much as looking at my camera as we near military checkpoints.

“He doesn’t want you to take any pictures,” says Dleir. “It attracts negative attention from the guards.”

Mobile petrol stations like this one outside Mosul are common around Iraq, which has dealt with a number of commodity shortages over the past seven years.

Understanding fully, I put away the camera as we navigate through the military barricades that populate the outer reaches of Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that, unlike neighboring municipalities within the safe confines of Kurdistan, remains plagued by bombings and instability. I have no desire to attract more attention to myself than necessary, so I do my best to blend with the quiet Kurds in the backseat beside me.

For awhile, I thumb through a copy of Bernard Lewis’ The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, trying to make sense of the highly complex and competing views on religion, culture, and language relating to citizenship identity I’m encountering in my jaunt through the region. Before long, my eyelids succumb to the heat of the midday sun and I fall asleep.

When I wake, we are dropping my seatmates off at an oil rig and winding into the mountain range that leads from Ira q into Turkey. A small town has sprung up around the border crossing, offering northbound travelers the chance to stock up on cigarettes, alcohol, and other relatively duty-free products before they advance into more heavily taxed territory on the Turkish side of the border.

At this point, I am still on the fence about busing or flying across Turkey to Istanbul. On the one hand, my budget and desire to see the Turkish countryside leads me towards busing from Slopi, a border city in southeastern Turkey. On the other, an inexpensively priced domestic airline service and an eagerness to spend as much time in Istanbul as possible before flying out to Nashville the following week advantages a cheap flight from Diyarbakir, a city some 200 miles further north.

Dleir makes the decision for me. “Come on, let’s go together to Diyarbakir. I could use the company and we will get to Istanbul by nightfall.” And with that encouragement, I hitch my fortunes to the leadership of the aging Kurdish businessman.

Our taxi driver Mohammed (right) proved to be quite the hustler, stuffing cartons of cigarettes into our bags and under our seats in his effort to smuggle them duty-free across the Turkish border.

As we arrive at the Iraqi passport check to leave the country, our driver drops us out beside a horde of Turkish taxi hustlers, all angling to be hired for the trip across the bridge leading into Turkey, and then onward to one of three or four destinations.

After haggling with the drivers destined for Diyarbakir, Dleir and I arrive upon a deal with a shady character named Mohammed. He is a young Turkish man with a light complexion and a hurried nature, as if revealing his fear of losing money by the second.

Within twenty minutes after agreeing to hire him for the ride into Turkey, he asks if he can put a few cartons of cigarettes in my bags to avoid paying duties upon entering his country. Partly out of the peer pressure of the five other drivers staring intently at me for a response, partly out of an attempt to gain leverage in negotiating the price lower, I agree to smuggle cigarettes into Turkey.

As our driver begins convincing other passengers to join as accomplices in his smuggling operation, I take the opportunity to get to know the burly, 250-pound Turkish gentleman squeezed tightly to my right in the backseat of Mohammed’s compact car. Through pantomiming and guttural exchanges, I make out that his name is Abdullah, his friend (also lodged tightly in the backseat) is Ramazan, and they both are from Turkey. Unable to communicate any further in English, he asks: “You speak French?”

For reasons unbeknownst to me, I decide in that moment that my two years of high school French qualify me to answer in the affirmative.

Oui, je parle francais,” I respond, despite the fact that the phrase “yes, I speak French” comprises nearly 50 percent of my vocabulary (my other standbys: “tre bein” (very good), “du rein” (you are welcome), and “Je suis Americain” (I am American, as if it wasn’t already obvious enough)). Needless to say, I was not verbally prepared for the subsequent eight hours of French questioning I received from a massive Turkish man lodged tightly beside me in the backseat of a Ford Focus.

At the Turkish border, our intrepid group was forced to wait for five hours as customs agents scoured each entering car for contraband.

Meanwhile, Mohammed manipulates all angles in getting across the border as fast as possible. He cuts every line, wheeling our car to the front and jumping out with Dleir in tow, claiming each time: “This is a very important man who needs to get through to catch his flight.”

The ruse gets us past the Iraqi border control like a breeze, but fails after Mohammed guns past two hundred cars patiently waiting in line for the Turkey passport check. The other patrons—not to mention the Turkish border guards—are unsympathetic to his pleas.

We are stymied in our attempt to cut the 500-yard line of cars around 3pm. After a meek return to the back of this procession, we are relegated to five hours of waiting in a line slowed by a process in which every bag in every vehicle is scanned through one of two security lines. The soldiers guarding the border are determined to root out anyone who might be sneaking weapons across the border to aid PKK rebels, a transnational group of Kurdish fighters constantly at odds with the Turkish government.

Eager to repay the generosity shown to me in Kurdistan by treating Dleir to dinner, I venture off to find the traditional fare of goat meat, rice, and nan for our evening meal. We have been detained at the border beyond the unexpected amount of time we need to make it to Diyarbakir for the flight to Istanbul, so it looks like we will both be searching out a hotel that evening.

I return with food to find our car creeping closer to the customs checkpoint. We still are thirty yards away, so I estimate we must have an hour left. Dleir and I begin eating on the hood of the car, then move to a power station on the sidewalk once the young hoodlum waves us off.

As our time in customs purgatory draws to a close and our car nears passport control, I realize that Abdullah is growing violently ill. He slumps against the window of the car, sweat pouring down his face and soaking his shirt.

Ramazan (left) and Abdullah made for two memorable travel companions into Turkey. Neither are looking particularly healthy at this point. The food poisioning was really getting to them.

“Food poisoning,” says Ramazan. I gulp. We all ate at the same food from the same restaurant.

On the other side of the border, we blitz through the cool night air towards Diyarbakir. Abdullah’s condition worsens by the minute. By our second pit stop, he has urinated on himself (luckily for me, on the opposite side of the back seat). And by 11:30pm, Abdullah decides he needs to go to the hospital, moaning “l’hopital” to impress upon us his need for medical attention.

Just before his plea for an emergency room, our car approaches a roadblock of Turkish military officers. It’s the third roadblock we have encountered in Turkey, but by far the most intensive.

“Out of the car!” shouts the biggest of the four, as he shines a flashlight in my face. The gruff officer doesn’t ask for passports, but instead orders us to unload our bags and begins tearing through mine. By the time I make it out and to the rear of the vehicle, half my things are laying on the ground. Including those cigarettes I smuggled into the country.

Seemingly oblivious to the cigarettes, the officer looks sharply at me. “You are American,” he says, more of a statement than a question. “Where have you been on this trip?”

I begin rattling off the countries I have visited on the traveling fellowship, starting with South Africa and weaving through the Sub-Saharan nations of the continent, before ending with Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, and Iraqi-Kurdistan.

The officer’s face grows pale. “There’s no such place as Kurdistan,” he retorts, obviously sensitive to the ethnic unrest in eastern Turkey, where many Kurds still harbor dreams of a unified Kurdish nation.

Dleir, my friend the 60 year old Kurdish businessman, shepherded our travel across Iraq and Turkey. He was seeking soft drink manufacturing materials in Istanbul for his business back in Erbil.

At this point in the night, I am tired, hungry, and frustrated. Without thinking, I blurt out, “Of course there is. It’s a beautiful place. Nice people. Much safer to visit than the rest of Iraq.”

You would think that I had insulted Attaturk himself. The officer narrowed his eyes and stormed over to his superior, a thinner man with a tall stature and a similar blue vest. The supervising officer, who had been talking with Dleir, brusquely pushed him aside and turned to me.

“You listen,” he says, “there is no such place as Kurdistan. You were in Iraq. Do you understand?”

Behind him, Dleir and my other traveling companions shift nervously. “Of course. I understand. I was in Iraq. My mistake.”

The supervising officer’s face relaxes. “That’s better,” he says, before ordering us all back into the car.

We reenter and drive away, breathing a sigh of relief. Tucked into the backseat, Dleir slaps me on the leg. “Well done, back there, my boy,” he says. The aging Kurd is proud of me for voicing support for his Kurdish Regional Government. “I just told them in Turkish that I didn’t speak Kurdish and they left me alone. But you made a stand!”

I hadn’t intended to voice such nationalism, but Dleir so appreciated my intransigence that he paid for a hotel room for me that night in Diyarbakir. “My treat, my treat,” he said over breakfast, toasting me in celebration of our travels.

The two of us rose early and boarded an Onur Air regional flight in one of the Diyarbakir airport’s two gates. After a few hours of flying, some lessons in Turkish words, and a shuttle bus ride from the airport to downtown Istanbul, the two of us parted ways.

But before leaving, Dleir turned to me and winked. “Keep out of trouble, son.” I laughed, shouldered my bags, and walked away, leaving the man standing under an overhang as rain pelted down. Another eventful journey in the books.

Nov '10

Profiling a Kurdish Leader in Iraq

As a military strategist, political leader, and historian, Nawshirwan Mustafa remains one of the most influential Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq. A steady stream of businessmen, parliamentarians, and cultural leaders moved in and out of his house constantly during my visit in late October.

Behind every independence movement, there stand men and women who dedicate their lives for the betterment of their countries. Although many read about these leaders, few ever have the opportunity to meet them. Even though the region isn’t fully sovereign, I’m fortunate to have experienced such an encounter with a military and political leader in Kurdistan.

From 1978 to 1991, Nawshirwan Mustafa led the Kurdish resistance effort in the hills of northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Guard, who labeled the Kurds as a sub-human race and targeted them with acts of genocide. When the dictator released chemical weapons on the Kurds, Mustafa and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) brethren helped coordinate the evacuation of refugees to Turkey and Iran. When nearly a hundred thousand Kurds were massacred in Saddam’s Anfal military campaigns of 1988, Mustafa and his men helped bury the bodies. And when he was nearly killed by an artillery strike on his command center, he and his troops picked up and soldiered on.

The U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Kurdistan in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War allowed for an end to the fighting and the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Mustafa retired from fighting and moved his young wife and two sons to Britain, where he intended to write a book about Kurdish history, but the peace was short lived.

A major dispute erupted between Mustafa’s PUK party and its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) party, over the distribution of lucrative tax revenues on the region’s northeastern border with Turkey. The outcome of the 1994 presidential election was disputed and civil war broke out between the two factions, leading Mustafa to return to his homeland and the war amidst its people.

For seven bloody years, neighbor killed neighbor in the Kurdish region of Iraq. As the commander of a large fighting force within the PUK, Mustafa allegedly ordered military actions that caused the deaths of thousands of his countrymen in battle. His victories helped stem the balance of power in the region from shifting to the PDK, who had seized the capital of Erbil in 1996 after appealing to Saddam’s Baath Party for military support.

Men in traditional Pershmerga outfits line the streets of Suleimania, going about their daily errands. Suleimania is the largest city in eastern Kurdish-Iraq and the base for Mustafa's Gorran Party.

With the intervention of the Clinton administration in 2000, the two sides agreed on terms for a peaceful ceasefire, and Mustafa took a role in the PUK-led government. His service in the party was not to last long, however, as he began decrying what he perceived as a culture of corruption, nepotism, and secrecy took within the KRG.

As a result, Mustafa broke away from his PUK, a party he had helped found, and formed the Gorran (Change) Party from his base in the eastern Kurdish city of Suleimania. After establishing an independent media conglomerate called Wusha in 2007 and launching operations from a party complex near the center of town, Mustafa led a slate of candidates to challenge the PDK and PUK parties for office in 2009. Despite allegations of voter intimidation and election rigging by the major parties, Gorran succeeded in gaining 25 seats in the 111-member Kurdish parliament and continues pressing forward a series of demands for reform.

I’m introduced to Mustafa through his sons, one of who went to school in the U.S. with a friend in my business school program. The older of the two sons, Nma, and I develop a close friendship during my time in Kurdistan after he invites me to spend a weekend experiencing life in his mountainous Kurdish town of Suleimania.

I meet the aging party leader on the afternoon of my second day in the city, after a morning of touring the Goran Party complex. As Nma and I arrive at his understated, two-story concrete house, we walk into the building by passing a team of security forces and drivers who guard it around the clock, mindful of an assassination attempt on the Gorran Party leader.

Nma leads me inside and into the sitting room, where we find Mustafa conversing with two other notable Kurds, one a history professor at American University-Suleimania and the other a locally famous singer. He sits to the right of the doorway with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette and gazing sideways at me, as if sizing up my credentials by my body language.

On my last night in Suleimania, Nma (center) and Rorsh (left) lent me a traditional Pershmerga outfit for a meal in the mountains overlooking the city.

After completing introductions, I begin explaining my traveling fellowship and its focus on exploring aspects of democracy and citizenship around the world.

Mustafa cuts me off. “Tell me, what books have you read about Kurdistan? Or the Kurdish people?”

Caught off guard, I stammer that I have not read any books about Kurdish history specifically, but that I had taken a course in Middle East politics that covered the history of Iraq, including the Kurdish narrative.

His eyes narrow. “By what author?”

Try as I might, I’m unable to pull the author. “I’m unable to recall,” I admit. “But I can find it for you if you would like. I believe that the researcher’s name might be Ibrahim?”

He waves his hand dismissively at my feeble reply. Realizing that I need to speak more carefully during my time in his home, I shift to a more passive tone as we move across the room to a simple table for the lunch meal of chicken and rice.

As Mustafa’s visitors and his son chat animatedly in Kurdish for the duration of lunch, I sit quietly across the table from the party leader. He seems to carry the weight of the struggle on his shoulders. It’s evident in his tired eyes, slightly stooped back, and gruff personality.

For the next three days, I move carefully around Mustafa. I find him intimidating in a way, as if his awareness of my deficit in knowledge about the Kurdish experience leads him to question my suitability for his time. Each of my questions, when I ask them, yields a quick response. But for the most part, I stick to thanking him for his generosity after meals, then heading off with Nma to drive around the city or sit outside and ask questions of the armed staff guarding the complex.

A chef in Suleimania's bazaar district stands outside his single-room restaurant, where he has grilled meat for the past 50 years. My hosts fed me a sampling of different meats here, including...goat testicles.

I’m sitting with Nma and these guys on my last day in Suleimania, biding time as we wait for nightfall to go into the mountains and enjoy the views of the city. As I walk back to inside the house to check email before leaving, I find Mustafa sitting on the top steps of his porch, smoking a cigarette and staring blankly at the fence surrounding his understated home. After four days of dodging his smoldering glances, I decide against walking past him silently another time.

“Kaka Mustafa, thank you so much for welcoming me to your home. It’s been an honor to be your guest.”

He smiles at me. “The pleasure is all mine.”

Seizing this opening, I make my move for an impromptu, unrecorded interview. He has already made it known that he considers 10 days far too short of a time for any visiting “fellow” to try and understand a country, much less one with as much complexity and history as Kurdish Iraq. But that’s the limitation of a ten-day travel visa.

I ask him about his views on leadership. As the leader of the Gorran political reform movement in Kurdistan, Mustafa finds himself under the microscopic lenses of supporters and opponents alike. Any wrongdoing on his part undermines the integrity of the movement itself.

“There are challenges,” he says. “The old guard is comfortable with the gains we have made. But new leaders are emerging who demand something more.”

Meat is a staple of every meal in Kurdish-Iraq, and people like this butcher in Suleimania stay busy providing slabs for the population.

Despite being a member of that proverbial old guard, Mustafa demands many reforms himself, including the establishment of an independent electoral commission and the dissolution of ties between Pershmerga military forces and the mainstream political parties. I ask if he ever grows impatient with his “change” movement’s slow progress towards these goals.

“Yes,” he says, searching for words as he takes a long drag from his cigarette. “Of course we grow impatient. But this is a democracy, and change comes slow. This is not a military coup, where the change would come in one night. It’s a democratic process, and we must make change over the course of years.”

I ask him about the difficulty in balancing personal life with his ambitions for his country. He left a comfortable life in Britain in the early 1990s and returned to Kurdistan to resolve the civil war rending the region apart in two. Not an easy decision to make with two young boys and a wife to consider.

Mustafa stares intently at me, then, says simply, “We do the best we can.”

Coming from a man who lives his life in the leadership spotlight, there may not be a more fitting lesson to be shared.

Nov '10

Learning Kurdish at the Kotri Salaam Hotel

The Citadel rests on 32 meters of elevation, looming above the ancient city of Erbil. As this Kurdish city begins developing to capitalize on its petro-wealth, its leaders hope that the Citadel will be a cornerstone for recruiting tourism and business (Photo Credit: Time Magazine).

After spending my first night in Iraq in the lobby of the Erbil International Airport, I was eager to find a more permanent base of operations for my time in the Kurdish capital city. I took a taxi to the center of town and the ancient Citadel, a 7000 year-old fortress that once guarded the city from invading Mongols and now serves as Iraqi-Kurdistan’s strongest claim to World Heritage Site status.

After stowing my bags with a friendly guy at a hotel that had no vacancies, I walked around and haggled with seven or eight other hotel owners, looking for the best price possible for my constrained student budget. I set a rather low bar for my accommodation, only nixing places whose toilets consisted solely of holes in the floor from contention in this free-market experiment.

The Kotri Salam Hotel offers me the best value. After negotiating for twenty minutes, then refusing to leave the building until securing a room at some sort of a discount, we reach a deal. For 50,000 Iraqi dinar ($40) a night, I secure a clean room with a queen size bed, breakfast, and wireless Internet. The hotel abuts a main road artery winding past tea salesmen, shoe shiners, and barber stands throughout the bazaar area of the city center. Quite the authentic Kurdish experience.

Eight men ranging from their early twenties to late thirties staff the Kotri Salam, carrying out functions like mopping, sweeping, sheet washing, and serving breakfast. There’s not a woman in sight, and it’s not immediately apparent if they all are family members, or just close friends.

Either way, they operate with high coordination, switching roles with each other throughout the day so that one can go to class, one can catch a few hours of sleep, or another can pick up a second job. I try to learn more about their backgrounds, but we have a difficult time communicating with each other: only two speak English, my Arabic vocabulary has about four words, and Kurdish is new to me.

To get by, we mostly speak through hand gestures, pantomiming words like “food” and “batteries” (my voice recorder’s Energizers hit their limit in Jordan). It takes longer to get the point across on some items than others.

The view from my window on the third floor of the Kotri Salaam hotel provides evidence of Erbil's bustle. This city of 1 million people in northern Iraq has been growing at a rapid rate since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Each develops strong affection for me, despite the language barrier. They call me “mister” and offer me gifts of tea, orange juice, or food whenever I am in the lobby. I have a difficult time keeping track of their names, as three of the men closely resemble each other, but always offer a smile and a “ spas” (thank you) for the hospitality.

“Hey, mister!” rings out from the chorus whenever I descend the stairs from my room to spend time with them at night. “You want food?” If I answer in the affirmative, one scampers off into the dark, only to return once he has secured a roasted chicken wrapped in layers of nan, a type of corn-based bread that looks like a tortilla but tastes like a loaf of something far more delicious. They add in a plate of diced tomatoes, raw onions, and lettuce and I have a full Kurdish meal.

It’s over these meals that they begin teaching me Kurdish phrases like channi bashi, the term for “hello, how are you?” They laugh whenever I repeat the phrase, then offer to go fetch more roasted chicken. I have to assure them that one is enough.

The staff at the Kotri Salaam Hotel developed a close friendship with me during my time in Erbil, Iraq—even as we had a difficult time communicating verbally, they fully understood me when I showed them pictures from my travels. The picture of me on a camel in Cairo at the Great Pyramids happened to be a crowd favorite.

While I don’t expect that I will find myself back in Erbil anytime soon, I would fully recommend the staff at the Kotri Salaam for anyone passing through northern Iraq. If nothing else, at least for the Kurdish lessons.

Nov '10

Youth Perspectives on Citizenship: A Day at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler

After receiving an invitation to meet with Prof. Urstine Markus at University of Kurdistan-Hawler, a leading university in Iraqi-Kurdistan, I sat down with a group of ambitious young students to learn their views on citizenship and security in their country.

College students provide valuable gateways to understanding political and demographic issues in new countries. In my travels, my conversations with university students from Dar Es Salaam, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Amman have been some of the most enlightening. There are few bureaucratic fears about sharing honest perspectives, and the barriers to entry on college campuses are no greater than finding a table in a cafeteria to sit around.

Continuing with this method in Iraq, I visited the campus of the University of Kurdistan-Hawler (Kurdish term for Erbil) during my time in the capital city. Known for enrolling the children of the more privileged in the Kurdish region of Iraq, UK-Hawler provided an easy point of entry for me to spend time with knowledgeable young people, all of whom are conversant in English.

At the University, I sit in on a review for Oil Economics exam led by Professor Urstine Markus, an American expatriate with wide-ranging expertise, from post-Soviet counter-terrorism operations to the politics of oil production and distribution across the world. I am introduced to her by an executive at HKN Energy, a Dallas-based energy company operating in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Following the review session, Dr. Markus allows me to introduce myself and my traveling fellowship project to the class, after which four young men around my age volunteer to speak with me about their views on citizenship and identity in Kurdistan.

The four share wide-ranging insights about the factors behind Kurdistan’s relative peaceful state. “The mountains benefit our safety,” says 23 year old Nunez from Kirkuk, referencing the steep topography that hems the Kurdish region of Iraq on three sides. “And the Pershmerga (Kurdish paramilitary group) work with the Americans to protect our borders with central Iraq,” explaining how the one non-mountainous, yet heavily militarized border to the south limits those who would propagate violence from entering the region.

I push them further. “There seems to be an attack every other day in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. How have the Kurds been able to successfully avoid the same kind of instability since 2007, when the last car bombing occurred in a major Kurdish city?”

“There are policemen everywhere here,” says Bakhtayr, a business student at the college. “People keep their eyes open.” They tell me about citizens reporting Arab cars on the street to the national intelligence or men in stores reporting suspicious behavior of passersby. It’s as if the country functions as one massive neighborhood watch program.

In the wake of Baghdad's fall to American troops in 2003, the Kurdish people have thrived in the northern reaches of the Iraqi state. A strong sense of ethnic unity, hyper-awareness of potential threats to public safety, and a strong police presence may explain Iraqi-Kurdistan's relative stability in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

I learn that checkpoints guard the entrances to all major cities in Kurdish Iraq, including every road leading into the capital of Erbil. A moat surrounds the city as well, making it impossible to drive a vehicle past the perimeter without moving through one of the designated checkpoints.

I ask the four about Kurdistan’s relationship with surrounding countries. Kurdish people populate areas in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, so I am curious if there is a greater sense of Kurdish nationalism that they believe should be realized in a larger state. They tell me that all Kurds share a sense of unity, but such togetherness comes with limitations designed to preserve their security self-interests.

“We have problems,” Bakhtayr says. “Every two years, the Turkish military attacks my village with bombardment (for giving sanctuary to the PKK, a Kurdish rebel group in southern Turkey). People are afraid to go in there.”

The Kurdistan Regional Government is unwilling to counter the attacks, they tell me, out of concern for maintaining relations with the Turkish government and the potential of negatively impacting economic development. “90 percent of businesses in Kurdistan are Turkish,” says Anis, a Caldean student from central Iraq. “So we don’t want to disrupt the relationship.”

And perhaps such reservations represent smart bets. It seems that the KRG’s efforts to attract international investment—while not damaging currrent investment streams—are yielding great success. All across the capital city, contractors are paving roads and construction agents are building developments.

Beyond my questions about development, however, each of the young men has harrowing stories about growing up amidst war and destruction. Although the fighting in southern and central Iraq has not led to great suffering here, the seven year Kurdish civil war between Talabani and Barzani tribes, which broke out in the vacuum of influence created by the enforcement of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq following 1991 Persian Gulf War, certainly left deep scars in their young lives.

Anis shares a personal account about an invasion in his home. “I remember our neighbors were Iraqi opposition (after the first Gulf War),” he says. “We got news that the Revolutionary Guard was coming to attack them because of a deal with the PDK (People for a Democratic Kurdistan, the militant organization of the Barzani tribe). The Revolutionary Guard entered our homes, looking for young men. They destroyed our furniture.”

Nunez adds an even more disturbing series of experiences. “My uncle and cousin were killed in the civil war. Other uncles were beaten, insulted by the PDK. We lived in a refugee camp for seven years (from age seven to fourteen). We suffered.”

Former American president George W. Bush poses with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Talabani tribe and head of the People's Union of Kurdistan (PUK). No one in Iraq has benefitted more from the American invasion of Iraq than the Kurdish people.

Former president George W. Bush poses with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and leader of the Talabani tribe in northern Iraq. No one benefitted more from the American outser of Saddam Hussein than the Kurdish people (Picture credit: White House Archives).

Rabeen, another business student at the college, shares a more uplifting memory as he recalls the Clinton administration’s influence in brokering peace in the region. “I remember my mother crying as Barzani and Talabani (the two leaders of the respective tribes) shook hands with each other and Madeline Albright on the television,” he says, smiling. “Never will forget her joy.”

“American military intervention in Iraq was a miracle,” Nunez adds. “Was like a dream. 58 members of my family were killed by Saddam. We lived in a destructive situation in the camp for seven years. I know American forces did not come for us. But we appreciate them.”

“Everybody was happy that the Baathist regime was defeated,” echoed Bakhtayr. “Everybody was free. Until the destruction of the Baath regime, we lived in fear. My grandmother was crying the day Saddam was captured.”

For many young Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, the 2003 American invasion represented the dawn of freedom. After suffering for two generations under the evil hand of a dictatorial tyrant, the Kurdish people deserve the opportunity for self-determination in their homeland. Hopefully Bahktayr, Nunez, and Rabeen will help lead Iraqi-Kurdistan towards more prosperous future and ensure that the sacrifices made to oust Saddam Hussein for a secular, progressive democracy will not have been made in vain.

But we must not take the perspectives of these three Kurdish men to be representative of the broader feelings towards Americans in Iraq. Anis, the only non-Kurd in the group, added a dissenting note to their perspectives: “For us Iraqis, we weren’t happy about a foreign power invading our country. We were happy that the dictatorship ended. But the thing is, we knew that our country would be destroyed by terrorism and other country’s influence in our land. The situation was not promising.”

And unfortunately for Anis and other Iraqis, the situation only seems to grow worse by the day. Seven years after the “liberation” of Iraq, the country continues to suffer from instability, sectarian violence, and feckless leadership. The Kurds have a new lease on opportunity in the north. But the rest of Iraq still has challenges ahead on the road to establishing a free, open, and secure democractic society. America’s combat role in the country may have ended, but we as a country shouldn’t forget about Iraq as its citizens continue down that difficult road.

Nov '10

Quagmire with a Chance of Hope: The Iraq that Remains After Us

Iraqis mourn the loss of dozens of people in a series of coordinated attacks by insurgents on Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad on October 31, 2010 (Photo credit: stdemiana.org).

More than seven years after American soldiers toppled Saddam Hussein from power in the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq, an unpromising situation continues to linger in the troubled country. Deep sectarian divisions between the majority Shia population and the minority Sunni groups, once dominant under Saddam but now are locked out of leadership positions, continue to frustrate efforts for peace.

Conditions are so distrustful that neither national candidate for prime minister, Iraq’s top political post, has been able to broker the concessions necessary to form a government since national elections took place eight months ago. This lack of resolution generates a set of conditions conducive to terror activity and casts a pall over international efforts to stabilize the country, as Iraq’s burgeoning democracy stagnates in uncertainty.

Last March, opposition candidate Ayad Allawi’s National Alliance party narrowly defeated incumbent prime minster Nouri al-Maliki’s party in national parliamentary elections, 91 seats to 89 seats. Alawi’s opponents pounced on his narrow victory, calling him an unfit Shiite who is too cozy with the American political leadership. Unable to stave off these criticisms, Alawi floundered for months without securing a coalition government among Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.

In the meantime, Maliki began a campaign to stay in office, meeting with influential clerics and representatives of the Iranian government to shore up his Shiite leadership credentials. After much of indirect pressure from Iran, at least one of the recalcitrant political parties within Iraq, led by former Iraqi Revolutionary Guard leader Mohammed al-Sadr, has pledged its support for the incumbent prime minister. He now looks like the favorite to stay in power, if he can only swing support from the Kurdish leadership to solidify his base.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (left) meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last month in an effort to shore up support among Shia hardliners in his reelection bid (Photo credit: payvand.co).

Iraq is not faring well as its political leadership bickers about who should be in charge. Across the country, many of the formerly oppressed Shia are out for revenge. Many members of Sunni Awakening Councils, who fought alongside Coalition soldiers to stamp out al-Qaeda influence across the country in the famous “troop surge” of 2007, find themselves out of work and hungry, unable to find work in business and political communities dominated by their old enemies. Companies are hesitant to invest in such an unstable situation, so the employer of choice becomes…you guessed it, al-Qaeda again.

A few days after I arrived in Iraq, a series of targeted explosions ripped through ten Shia neighborhoods in the capital of Baghdad, killing 76 people in the space of a few hours. Authorities blamed Sunni insurgents for the attacks, citing the sophistication of the Shia targets as evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement in the bombings. The weekend prior, 58 Christian worshippers were killed in an attack on Catholic church in Baghdad, marking yet another tragic episode limiting progress towards stabilization and prosperity in Iraq.

In the midst of all this tortured volatility, however, some hopeful signs of progress can be found in Iraq. Perhaps no one has benefited more from Saddam’s ouster than the Kurdish ethnic groups in the northern reaches of the country, who boast arguably the most rapidly-developing infrastructure and economic capacity in the Middle East. Protected from the types of genocidal attacks that characterized the 1980s under Saddam since the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1990, the Kurds developed a semi-autonomous government 20 years ago and are now beginning to add economic muscle to their long-standing dreams of an independent state.

A drive around the Iraqi-Kurdistan capital city of Erbil reveals massive real estate developments, hotels in construction, and first-world quality shopping malls and fast food restaturants. While bombings regularly rip through southern Iraqi cities, no Kurdish city has seen violence since 2007, when a truck bomb killed 19 in a rare attack on Kurdish Regional Government ministry in Erbil. Kurdish tourist directives and economic development councils proudly tout American soldiers suffered zero casualties in the Kurdish-controlled north through the duration of the American combat presence in Iraq.

During my time in Kurdish-Iraq, therefore, I concentrated my interview questions on the uniqueness of the Kurdish project, which acts as one of the few semi-autonomous governmental bodies in world. The challenges of the Kurdish people’s past and the prospects of their future in a fledgling democratic region serve as fascinating studies in citizenship and governance. There would be much to discover.

Nov '10

Surviving a Dice Roll: Arriving in Iraq Without a Visa

After a nervous arrival, I experienced ten memorable days in the Kurdish region of Iraq, including a weekend in the beautiful mountains and lakes around Suleimani.

When traveling around the world for a year, at a young age and on a tight budget, one occasionally takes risks that might be avoided in different circumstances. Boarding a flight to Iraq without a visa is one such risk.

It’s not as if I hadn’t given thought to the decision. My decision to take this chance came after a long string of emails and an invitation from an oil company based in the region. But initially, I hadn’t intended on traveling to Iraq at all, until an off-handed remark from a senior officer on General David Petraeus’s staff during his visit to Vanderbilt last March had planted a seed in my mind that wouldn’t go away.

“You should absolutely visit Iraq,” Major Daniel Mouton had told me over lunch at the Chancellor’s residence in Nashville. “There’s not a more interesting laboratory of citizenship and democracy anywhere in the world.”

Fueled by his suggestion and a series of email exchanges with a former professor of mine at Vanderbilt who spent a year embedded with American troops in Iraq, I made the decision to include the fledging democracy in my swing through the Middle East.

“Kurdistan is a relatively safe place,” I assured my mother, referencing the northern region of the country I planned to visit. “Not a single U.S. solider was killed north of the Green Line (the Kurdish region) during the entire war.” To her credit, she didn’t protest at the decision, although I am sure it has worried her ever since I first indicated the possibility of its inclusion into my trip.

And so the Kurdish region of Iraq made my official itinerary. The visa application process proved too cumbersome to complete before my departure, however, so I decided that I would have to take my chances with a travel visa at the border in order to experience Iraq for myself.

This wasn’t a sufficient plan for the ticket agents in Amman, unfortunately, who denied me a boarding pass upon my arrival at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman. To board a Royal Jordanian flight to Iraq without a visa, they told me, I needed to upgrade to a round trip ticket. Even though I had no intention of returning to Jordan, they needed reassurance that I could afford return to the Hashemite Kingdom on the off chance that the Kurdish Regional Government decided against letting me into their country.

The Erbil International Airport was a stunningly bright, towering edifice welcoming me to Iraq. Unsure of what my time in the country would look like, this first-rate airport facility left me agape.

After shelling out $420 for a return flight—which the sales agent assured me Royal Jordanian would refund, for a small fee, should I not need it—I am allowed through security and out of Jordan. For the duration of the flight to Erbil, which I spend devouring the pages of Khaled Hosseni’s The Kite Runner, thoughts of denial to entry in Iraq and a frustrating return to Amman run through my mind. It will be an expensive misstep—nearly $1000 all together—if my dice roll of flying visa-less into Iraq backfires.

Reading makes the flight pass quickly. After two hours in the air, our plane lands smoothly on Iraqi soil and taxies at a fast pace across the tarmac at the Erbil International Airport. As we come to a halt, I turn on my phone and receive a text from the Jordanian cellular company: “Welcome to Iraq, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

I step out of the plane and suck in a deep breath of cool night air. The night stretches out in front of me, pure blackness above flat tarmac as far as I can see. As I descend the steps to the asphalt, my heartbeat quickens and I stride hurriedly to the first of two airport shuttles, each idling quietly in the darkness beside our airliner.

After thirty or so passengers are on board, the shuttle begins towards the terminal. I stand near the back, my bags in a pile around my feet. I overhear two voices with American accents—likely contractors—murmuring quietly about the modernity of the Erbil Airport.

“Doesn’t this place look nice,” the older one remarks, before wondering aloud who is supposed to pick them up from the gate. He is male, middle-aged, and clearly from the U.S. given his beige print shirt and blue jeans. His companion, a slightly younger female carrying a large black backpack, shifts her weight to readjust the bag and mutters something to the effect of: “We’re not in Baghdad anymore.” Indeed.

Posing with one of the attendants in the Erbil International Airport, a Filipino named Mariam, who served me enough cups of Nescafe to last through the night.

Like the contractors, I am dazzled by my initial impression of Iraq. It matches nothing of the war-torn quagmire I have read about for the past seven years. The airport is expansive and clean. The terminal looms tall, with light streaming from a row of massive glass windows running the length of its side. I feel like I could be in Munich.

But this isn’t Europe. It’s Kurdistan. Less than fifty miles from the Iranian border. Even closer to Mosul, where suicide bombers ripped through a market just over a month ago, on the day President Obama announced that U.S. soldiers were officially coming home. To say that it feels surreal would be an understatement.

I walk past smiling attendants in blue shirts, enter the terminal through automatic sliding glass doors, and take the escalator leading to passport control. As I enter the sparkling terminal, I realize that the sense of wonder I have is based not so much on what I see, but on what I don’t see.

There are no soldiers prowling the gates of the airport, fingering their automatic weapons with suspicion like the men who greeted me just beyond the gates in Dubai and Cairo. No bomb sniffing dogs, pressing against leashes with all their might like those who strained against the Kevlar-vested police officers at the Israeli border. No weapon-toting officials at all, unlike arrivals in South Africa, Zimbabwe, or Kenya. Just smiling security attendants, carrying nothing more threatening than radios.

I reach the top of the escalator and walk into sterile airport terminal. White columns fan outwards from white tiled floors, holding up a white arched ceiling framed by white-beamed walls. It’s feels like less of an airport than an operating room.

I hesitate for a moment, staring at the rows of seven passport control agents and contemplating which is least likely to refuse me entry on account of not having a visa. I choose the line in front of a pale-faced woman wearing a shawl and cross my fingers that she won’t instruct me to turn around and re-board the plane for Amman.

As my turn arrives, my palms grow sweaty and I manage a smile that belies my nervousness. “Salaam alakum,” I intone. “Peace be upon you,” the traditional Arabic greeting. She stares back blankly, unresponsively extending her hand for my passport. I have forgotten that I am now in a Kurdish-speaking region. Not that I know the Kurdish greeting, anyway, but I still wince at the mistake.

After arriving in Iraq at 3am, a deficit in funds for a hotel room and a desire to catch up on emails led me to spend the night in the terminal.

She stares momentarily at me, then lowers her gaze to my passport. My flight ticket stub flutters from between its pages onto her desk as she opens to my picture. She flips through the visa pages and immediately sees that I lack an Iraqi visa. Flips through a second time, as if to confirm. Looks up at me. My heart’s beating fast, but I am still smiling.

She motions to the small camera mounted on the passport control desks. I take a step back and she adjusts the lens upwards to account for my height. The light blinks, indicating the capture of my image. Then, wordlessly, she stamps my passport twice and returns it across the counter.

Shokrun,” I say, the Arabic word for “thank you,” before grabbing my duffel and hurrying into the baggage claim area. As if I must move out of her sight before she can change her mind. Only once I am standing at the rotating conveyer belt do I steal a furtive glance at my visa pages. “Kurdistan Iraq,” it reads. “You have to Visit Directorate of Residence within 10 days.” Travel visa secure.

While waiting for my checked backpack, I ask the Americans from the shuttle bus, almost rhetorically, if they are from the U.S. The two, one male and one female, answer in the affirmative and introduce themselves as consultants from a company based in Greenville, South Carolina.

They kindly offer me a ride to my hotel, but I demur. I’ve decided to spend the night in the airport, catching up on my writing and waiting out the sunrise with the fuel of instant coffee from the terminal cafe.

After an exchange of contact info and best wishes from the two, they depart and I am on my own again. This time, I am in the youngest democracy on the planet with an opportunity to learn about citizenship issues from the Kurds, one of the longest-suffering ethnic groups in the world.

Nov '10

A Focus Group on Citizenship Issues in Jordan

In the streets of Amman, Jordan, the minarets of the King Hussein Mosque marking the center of downtown loom in the distance.

Jordan is a linchpin of diplomatic ties within the Middle East. With Israel and Iraq on either side and Syria and Saudi Arabia from top to bottom, Jordan serves a strategic broker for the peace process, arms deals, and Western presence in the region. For years, King Hussein acted as the arbiter of that power. His son, King Abdullah II, continues admirably in that role.

It’s easy to look at my time in Jordan as a go-between from Israel to Iraq, as it lacks the types of red-hot conflicts that define its neighboring countries. But even as they may not battle in a sea of controversy, Jordanians offers rich perspective for anyone interested in understanding the Middle East.

In Amman, an American student named Adam Smith offers to host me and introduce me to Jordanian life. As a Fulbright award recipient, Adam teaches at the University of Jordan and brings an impressive perspective to bear on Middle Eastern issues.

Adam lives down from the famed 7th Circle area of Jordan, at an apartment near Awaha Circle. American fast food restaurants with upscale dining furnishings populate the streets around his neighborhood, and one can find everything from a cell phone battery to a haircut to a glass of lemonade just steps from his door.

Adam and I pose in front of an expansive view of Amman during a tour of Rainbow Street, a famous avenue in the Jordanian capital. Adam served as a kind, generous host in Amman.

Because of Adam’s teaching role at the University of Jordan, I was able to visit the campus’s language center and speak with students through a program it calls “American Corner”. The program offers Arab students resources for English language training and learning about U.S. history and political perspectives.

Each Wednesday and Thursday, an American-born professor coordinates a program called “Conversation Club,” where students from a range of language capacities meet and discuss topics their views on stereotypes, culture, food, and religion.It’s sold as an opportunity to sharpen English language skills and meet new people.

On the day that I am invited to participate in Conversation Club, nearly forty students volunteer to participate in the round table discussions. The group subdivides into smaller cohorts of twelve to allow for everyone to participate in a meaningful way.

It feels a lot like the mandatory Vanderbilt Visions meetings we had back in my undergraduate days, a program to help freshmen transition to college and discuss larger issues like ethics and morality. Except all of these students were here on their own volition, each quite eager to practice English.

This focus group of students at the University of Jordan provided me with fascinating insights into their perspectives on citizenship, religion, media, and Arab views on the West.

In my group, four emerge as the most comfortable, opinionated voices: a Palestinian man named Omar, a Jordanian woman named Sheiman, a Jordanian man named Osama, and an Jordanian man named Ahmed (actually my old friend from Egypt, who I invited along to participate in the discussion after learning that he was in Jordan). In interviewing the twelve students, three points stuck out to me as interesting insights into teenage Arab’s thought processes and views on citizenship.

First, there exists deep distrust of media sources of information among Arab youth. I asked the question: “Which would you give you a better understanding of a bombing in a nearby town, reading about the attack in a newspaper article or calling a friend who lives in the city in which the attack took place?” Twelve out of twelve agreed that the friend would be a more accurate source of information.

There was also universal agreement that Western media outlets were not dependable sources of unbiased information. The only outlet considered “mostly accurate” was Al Jazeera, but even the Arab-owned media titan was seen as subjective in its coverage of the news.

Secondly, there were deep misgivings about the safety of America. “I would not visit America,” one said, “because I know that someone could do harm to me there.” Initially, I assumed that misgivings about Islamaphobia colored their trepidation about visiting the United States. But after a few contributions, it became clear that their actual fear was based on the belief that America was a genuinely unsafe place to visit, regardless of one’s ethnicity or religion.

Standing in front of the Treasury at Petra, a magnificent ancient city carved into rock faces in southern Jordan.

“There are many robberies and crimes in America,” one insisted. “My mother has told me that I can visit anywhere in the world, except the United States, because I would not feel safe.” Their interpretation of the country is shaped by Schwarzenegger and Stallone films, leaving them with the misconception that armed bank heists are a part of daily life in the U.S.. Little wonder that it seemed more likely in their minds for a car jacking —not detainment due to racial profiling—to derail their potential American vacation.

Finally, I find an interesting dichotomy in the group’s views on self-identity. First, a vocal minority of the group insisted that religion is most important component of their identity as Arabs. “What is an Arab? He is a Muslim,” said Osama. “I feel a greater connection to my Muslim brothers in America than to another Jordanian who is Christian.”

The majority of the group disagreed with this notion of identity, preferring to align themselves primarily along pan-nationalist dimensions. “We are Arabs” was the overwhelming consensus, much more so than “I am a Jordanian” or “I am a Saudi.” Palestinians were exception to this rule, as each emphasized, “I am Palestinian,” despite having lived entire lives in Jordan.

The nationalistic notion outpaced religious identity, cultural identity, or language identity for each of the Palestinians in the group. Since many in this part of the world joke that six out of ten Jordanians are actually Palestinian, you can imagine that Palestinian nationalism became a major theme in our discussion once the Conversation Club drifted that way.

Notions of citizenship in the Middle East remain the most deeply interesting and complex questions I have tackled in my fellowship travels. With Iraq ahead, perspectives on these issues only continued to broaden and grow more complicated in subsequent days and weeks.

Nov '10

The Dangers of Turning Inward: A View from Abroad on the Midterm Elections

Editorial note: At least two more posts on Israel, as well as posts on my experiences in Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, are forthcoming. But given the spirit of Election Day in the U.S., I have broken my self-imposed rule of writing in chronological order to offer these reflections on the importance of America’s role in the world and the disturbing lack of debate on foreign policy issues that characterized this campaign cycle.

While moving through Africa and the Middle East over the past four months on a traveling fellowship from Vanderbilt, I have spent a good bit of time observing this wacky election season play out back home. Some of the reports have been pretty comical. But others, unfortunately, have led to a more ominous reality: In an election year defined by Tea Partying, the American public—liberal and conservative, old and young, “socialist” and “patriot” alike—appears to be turning inward and away from our responsibility as a leader in the world.

Lingering economic worries certainly justify some of the shift. As the Dow inches back to a semblance of its former self, jobs continue to recover at painfully slow rate, and unemployment remains a staggering 9.6 percent, it’s more than reasonable for voters to weigh the economy as most important in deciding their leaders. We should hardly expect the average American to be conversant on Turkey’s bid for EU membership when he’s worried about how to pay the mortgage or afford college tuition for his kids.

But pressing economic concerns are little excuse for the complete absence of debate on foreign policy issues that marked this campaign cycle. Today, American policy dictates the drawing down of one foreign war and a surge in another, a complex set of international trade relationships, global counter-terror networks, and billions of dollars in aid to developing countries. Yet, in this election year, we saw the role of the United States in the world take a backseat to rhetorical grandstanding on a mosque in New York, the evils of socialized medicine, and Christine O’Donnell’s record of dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager. And quite regrettably, for all their talk of “defending the Constitution,” Tea Party candidates proved woefully ignorant about the challenges facing those actually defending it in Helmand Province, the Khyber Pass, and other hellishly dangerous areas of Afghanistan.

But the vapidity of this year’s midterm election cycle doesn’t rest solely with the Tea Party. Mainstream media outlets and the educated American elite, for their part, proved disturbingly inaccurate in demonizing the Tea Party movement as nothing more than a racist, fear-mongering pack of demagogues, bent on enacting a xenophobic set of policies under loud cries of “Obamacare!” and “Constitution!”

I found this misconstruction to be particularly true of U.S. expatriates living abroad. Largely a left-of-center group, many globetrotting Americans lament the Tea Party’s rise as evidence of growing fascism back home. The Ground Zero mosque controversy, in particular, riled many of the Americans I met in my travels, most memorably those in Cairo, who worried aloud that puffery of Glenn Beck and company “must have been what Nazism sounded like” in its earliest days.

It proved impossible for me to convince them that the movement grew organically, as everyday Americans with strong ethical bases and natural suspicions of those who live beyond their means began opposing the expansion of government in fits of activism across the country. As much as I talked about the principled, value-driven people I knew in Alabama who supported the movement, most expats had a hard time believing that anyone attending a Tea Party rally could actually care as much as he or she professed about taxes.

Sure, the cable news networks didn’t do much to raise the bar of intellectual discourse surrounding the movement. But, as some of the signs indicated at Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington, DC last weekend, “There’s only one Hitler.” Just as he’s not in the White House, he’s not on Fox News, either.

Unfortunately, all of this year’s rhetoric missed the real threat we face in the wake of this election: A vacuum of American leadership in the world, unprecedented since World War II, will bear stark consequences for the security of the United States if the Congress turns to an isolationist governing style.

Congressional leaders must not expend energy on Quixotic efforts to repeal health care law and subpoena directors of the EPA, rather than focusing globally on the expansion of school construction in Pakistan and Afghanistan and funding the integration of intelligence sharing networks across the globe (not unlike those that caught the would-be printer cartridge bombs bound to Chicago from Yemen this week).

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of domestic priorities—education reform, immigration policy, border security, and hard choices about our massive entitlement spending time bomb are also critical—but if the Congress takes an inward (or worse, obstructionist) approach to governing, American domestic security and political reformers across the world will suffer from its gross acquiescence of international leadership.

History teaches us that cesspools of extremism grow from cesspools of poverty. If the United States is not robust in his efforts to combat extremist threats around the globe—not just with military drone strikes, but also with substantial foreign aid for supporting infrastructure, education, and economic growth in the developing world—then we will significantly expose ourselves to the enemies of peace, prosperity, and freedom that lurk outside of our borders.

The public anger that drove so many incumbents from office this cycle must be matched by a public resolve to not only maintain, but to strengthen American leadership in the world. Once the polls are behind us, it’s imperative that Americans resist any effort to shrink our country’s role in the international community, as the consequences of such a shift inward are in direct conflict with our national interests and security.

As one political observer mused to me in Jerusalem: “Maybe some Americans only got that after September 11th. And maybe they’ve already forgotten.”

Oct '10

Holy Land Part Five: Seizing the Chance for Peace

In Tel Aviv, kite surfers sail across the breaking waves as the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea.

October 12th marked the end of my time in Israel. After more than two weeks in the country and the Palestinian territories, I left with more questions and fewer answers than I could possibly anticipated upon arrival.

My seventeen days in the Holy Land were exhilarating and exhausting. They challenged me mentally, as I grappled with the intractability of the conflict and the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides. They tested me physically, as I shuttled back and forth between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem no less than six times, trying to make every appointment with a policy maker, or follow-up on every invitation to experience culture and travel.

But more than anything, the experiences tried me emotionally. I will never forget witnessing a Friday night Shabbat celebration at the Western Wall, thousands of Jews swaying, chanting, dancing, and rocking back and forth in prayer. Or the chills running down my back during a sunrise Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem, as I received Holy Communion less than twenty feet from the rocks of Golgotha, where Christ suffered crucifixion and death.

Most of emotional of all, however, was visiting the West Bank and grappling with the harsh realities of the everyday life in the Palestinian territories. As a strong supporter of Israel and the U.S. Israel relationship, I had difficulty listening to the personal accounts of people, each of whom asked me not reveal their names when recounting their stories.

Both Palestinian and Israeli children need to be taught the importance of mutual respect, understanding, and reconciliation. More generations must not experience pain and suffering at the hands of conflict.

There was a native Palestinian and former student at a top twenty American university, who had me feel the compression sleeve he wears to facilitate walking since an Israeli soldier shot him in the left knee six years ago.

There was a friendly hotel entrepreneur, who told me about losing nerve endings in his face after being hit with the butt of a rifle during an Israeli Defense Force night raid of his home in the Second Intifada.

And there was the vision for nonviolent resistance shared a student activist in Nablus, as she encouraged me to see the conflict from her perspective as an unjust occupation from an illegitimate government.

I empathize with their stories and share sorrow for the burdens that they live with in their homeland. I realized that their pain and anger is deeply rooted in life experience. I don’t mean to suggest that the Israeli military lacks principle—I saw no justification for the types of genocidal accusations lobbed against Israel by many of its detractors—but the chilling reality of occupation lies in its dehumanizing elements.

The sun sets outside Yad VaShem, the emotionally powerful Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

But as much as I empathize with the hardships of Palestinians, I cannot argue against Israel’s right to defend its sovereignty and its people. At the risk of offending with an insensitive comment, I told my friends in the West Bank that there was little sympathy to be engendered for an “armed resistance” campaign that coordinates suicide attacks, launches rockets from the safety of hospitals or schools, and targets civilian deaths in order to make political statements. A sustained campaign of non-violent protest for political equality, in the mold of Mohatma Ghandi or Nelson Mandela, would prove successful in a way that senseless killing never will.

I did my best to uncomfortably explain my conflict in worldview. No matter how much they admonished my government for hypocrisy and abuse of superpower status, I did not back down from defending America’s support of Israel’s security, safety, and right to self-determination. Nor did I listen to the recitations of Zionist conspiracies or exaggerations of Israeli-led genocide without strongly expressing my disagreement with the factual basis for such claims.

It doesn’t mean that I blindly support all of Israel’s policies—there are elements that seem in conflict with Israel’s interests and ultimate sustainability as a democracy—but it does mean that I believe in their legitimacy as a sovereign, free state.

A woman walks through the narrow streets of Nablus in the West Bank. Will Arab leaders emerge with denunciations of those who use terror to advance the Palestinian cause?

I believe that suffering exists on their side, as well. A visit to the Yad VaShem museum in Jerusalem, which conveys the horrors enacted against the Jewish people in the Holocaust and across history, leaves an indelible impact about the importance of Jewish self-determination in the Holy Land.

The story of the shaken woman in Jerusalem who sent her children to school on separate buses during the Second Intifada in order to avoid losing them both in the event of a suicide attack moved me deeply.

And driving past dozens of bus stops that double as bomb shelters in the streets of Sderot, threatened by thousands of rockets fired by Gaza insurgents throughout the past decade, leaves no doubt that the existential challenges facing Israel are as real today as they were 60 years ago.

Still, learning firsthand about the Palestinian experience prevents me from demonizing their position. It strikes me that they have some quite legitimate grievances and my eyes open to many shades of gray within the debate.

To maintain its political, economic, and moral strength, Israel should exhaust every possible avenue for empowering the Palestinian Authority and withdrawing from the West Bank. For as long as Israeli soldiers are forced to make morally hazardous decisions about detainment, detention, and disruption of people’s lives, so too will Israel be culpable for the inevitable failures that plague such situations.

Emotional exhaustion does not lead me to surrender to the inevitability of the conflict. But for peace to come in this divide, it will require the leadership of honest, courageous people who empathize and understand the life perspectives of their “opponents” on the other side.

And I find hope in the stories of those who are working to close the gap between perspectives on the competing sides of this conflict. Stories like those of Eran Tzidkiyahu, a former IDF soldier who leads groups of Israelis into the West Bank to meet with ordinary Palestinians and foster shared understanding of each other’s humanity.

Or the narrative of filmmaker Harvey Stein in his documentary “Truth to Power,” which highlights the efforts of Palestinian activist Khaled Mahameed to confront Palestinians with truth about the Holocaust and Israelis with truth about the occupation.

These individuals, on both sides of the conflict, have the courage to press for mutual understanding, education, and reconciliation in a region bereft of all three. We should encourage more to take on the mantle of peace and make efforts to understand and empathize with those who they may oppose in this debate. What hopes are there for peace if the only Israelis in the Palestinian territories wear military uniforms and brandish automatic weapons? Or if the only Palestinians recognized in Tel Aviv are those documented by newspapers burning Israeli flags and plotting civilian deaths?

An interfaith center in Haifa, Israel, dedicated to bridging the gaps between Jewish and Arab communities in the Holy Land.

Arguments for continued violence and armed resistance only prove futile in the pursuit of resolving the dispute. Just as the Israeli government must take steps to grant real sovereignty to the Palestinian people in the form of a duly elected government, equipped with control over police jurisdiction, water, electricity, and movement of citizens, so too must Palestinians firmly oppose and pursue those in their communities who use violence and civilian death as a tool for advancing their political cause

This week, former American president Bill Clinton released an op-ed in the New York Times urging the world to follow the example of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in pursuing a peace agreement. In the piece, entitled “Finish Rabin’s Work,” Clinton praises Rabin for boldly speaking “like a prophet of old” on the steps of the White House lawn during a cold day in 1993.

He said: “Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred toward you. We, like you, are people — people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you, enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say, ‘Farewell to the arms.’”

News broke yesterday that the Palestinians are willing to give the current U.S.-sponsored round of peace talks another chance. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to be adopting a stance in the mold of Rabin in setting aside the demands of the Arab League and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to walk away from negotiations with the Israelis. With this partner for peace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the opportunity to make the similarly courageous decision to buck his coalition and make a lasting peace agreement.

For the sake of so many innocent, disaffected people caught up in this conflict, we should all pray for that this push for peace proves successful where so many others have fallen short.

Fifteen years after Rabin’s death, it’s time for all sides to adopt his enlightened outlook and adopt his one-word ethos. Enough.