Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Big Fat Iraqi Wedding

I have been superbusy getting everything ready for the YES Academy, and have literally been holed up all hours either at the Hotel Hakar or at the Institute for Fine Arts trying to get everything in order.  John and I moved hotels to the place that the university was sponsoring for us (The Hallal Hotel! and I am the only thing kosher here).

 Last night the American faculty for the YES Academy Iraq arrived.  A very interesting bunch of teachers and professors of music, theater and dance.  After we finished printing out all of the name tags, the staff and I met them at Haci Baba, a Turkish sweet shop.  I had some muhallebi, kind-of a Turkish rice pudding with pine nuts inside and a light dusting of crushed pistachios and white chocolate on top.

After, the jetlagged teachers went to bed, and I went with Aram, Akram, a fellow named Herish and Marc- AV's Director of Education over to the Duhok Dam to drink a few beers.  Amazingly, in Kurdistan you are allowed to drink in the car so long as you are not the driver.  I was shocked.  We drove through the twisty canyons until we got out above the dammed lake.  From high above, we could see the city lights peeking out from between the mountains in the valley below.  From the dam, an array of yellow, blue and white lights reflected beams into the water.  We sat out drinking beers and listening to the booming Kurdish music from the car next door.  Our neighbors on the mountain even came over and gave us delicious fresh grilled chicken wings- hot off the coals.  When they found out we Marc and I were Americans, they gave us warm welcomes.

We returned to the hotel and I accidentally stumbled my way into an Iraqi wedding.  The wedding party was going on in the lobby, and the guests invited me over to dance.  Marc smiled and quickly fled.  I ended up dancing in the middle of the party.  It was great.  The Iraqis were from Baghdad and Basra, up for the wedding.  A couple had worked with the American when they were in Iraq, and showed me pictures of them posing in front of the American flag.  Meanwhile, I kept dancing. There was lili-shrieking involved. It was phenomenal, cultural diplomacy at its finest.

The thing I couldn't get out of my head was the fact that the last wedding I attended was my uncle's orthodox Jewish wedding, with no men and women dancing together.  Yet interestingly, this Muslim wedding with all the women in headscarves, still had some mixed dancing.  The juxtaposition sat in my head all night.

The Roberts court

I haven't been a huge fan of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts up until this point, but I must say that the man earned my respect for his gutsy vote on Obamacare.  I can't even image how hard it was to buck your partisan ranks and deliver the contrary vote.  Perhaps the loneliest man in redlandia at the moment.  But he showed vision for something bigger than partisan divide, and made the Roberts court have the chance to be something more than a mirror of our divisions.  The man earned my respect with his vote, and set an example for America that we have been long missing in the halls of power, that of compromise.  Charles Lane has a great piece on Roberts, Compromise and Daniel Webster.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


I was driving around Duhok the other night when I saw something that caught my eye: a giant neon cross in the night's sky.  The following day, I was driving around with my friend Akram- a rolypoly Christian Kurd, so I asked him a few questions about the Christian Kurdish community.

Akram said that Jews and Christians  had a long history in Duhok.  Today, there aren't any Jews left (except for me, the Chief Rabbi of Kurdistan!), and the Christian community is about 5 percent of the city.  The Christian community of Duhok is dwindling these days, it has been leaving in waves for many years now, from the 1970s onward because of various periods of instability.  The departures took an uptick after the Second Gulf War, when ransom kidnappings of minorities in Iraq skyrocketed.  His sister had moved to Australia and he was considering doing the same.

Akram is part of the Chaldean Catholic Church, and  noted that the Christian community of Duhok worshiped in Chaldean and Assyrian.  That kinda blew my mind.  He said that there is tolerance in Kurdistan for Christians, and that the departure is more to do with the instabilities overall in Iraq than the situation on the ground in K-stan.

The thing that I find fascinating about the Christian community in the Middle East is that they are the keys to swill.  In America, we often think of devout Christians as being teetotalers but here in the Middle East, they are who you go to for hooch.


Thank you Supreme Court! I was worried I would have to start eyeing real estate here in Kurdistan.

Bombing Iraq...with Breakdance

Ah, the media.  I have been in-touch with many a news outlet about American Voices YES Academy in Iraq, so it wasn't like the media doesn't know such business is taking place.  Some have been receptive, and I should get some good coverage yet the vast majority I got nothing from.  It seems the only news the media like to report from Iraq is this kind: bombings.  Maybe I should have made my press releases titled: "American Voices Bombs Iraq with Breakdance" and I would have had more traction. 

To the contacts I had been in-touch with from various stations who didn't respond, I sent them their links of their coverage of the recent bombings asking "wouldn't it be nice to get a different kind of story coming out of Iraq?"  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Damn, ran out of bottled water.  Had to brush my teeth with arak.  Mmm...minty fresh.

Kurdish Homecooking

In Egypt, they say "a man without a belly is like a house without furniture."  I have a feeling I am turning into a Kurdish Ikea.  Ari- the YES Academy project manager, and his brother Aram, who was an American Voices scholarship student in St. Louis, invited my boss John and me over for lunch at their family's home. It was a feast.

We had heaping plates of homemade Kurdish cuisine prepared by his mother and sister.  There was a giant plate of Kurdish biryani- saffron-hued rice spiced with cinnamon with roasted pistachios, raisins, potatoes and chicken on top.  We had heaping platefuls of the rice dish alongside a giant plateful of dolmas, various vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and onion stuffed with ground beef and rice as well as the usual grape leaf variety.  On the side were fresh cut cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley.  Given Middle Eastern hospitality there was no way to be done before my belly was beyond full.

Thankfully, a Kurdish siesta is part of the culture here.  Usually, every one gorges for lunch and then everything shuts down.  Basically, between two and five pm is dead time while everyone sleeps off their lunch-induced torpor.  And I am just a Roman.  It reminds me of my student days in Morocco, when we had a three-hour lunch break that consisted of gorging for an hour, watching Mexican soap operas dubbed into Arabic for an hour (Oh, Fernando Jose, shukran habibi) and then sleeping for an hour.  I am amazed I ever made it back to class.

Being back to carnivorous habits, I am finding digestion much slower than my veggie days.  I usually don't eat dinner after the hulking lunch.  I am enjoying the food here immensely, and think I made the right decision that if I wanted to appreciate Kurdish culture I had to eat meat, but I also look forward to my return to veggiedom.  

I dream of rain...

It's raining here in Iraq!  Something that is rarer than finding a nice Jewish boy in Mesopotamia.  Such biz calls for celebration, lilishrieking and Sting's Desert Rose

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Composing Cultural Diplomacy

Patch, the hyper local news source, has a nice article on American Voices faculty Patrick Clark.  Patrick is coming to Iraq to teach music composition to Iraqi music students.  He will be helping young composers get a better understanding of how to compose both Western and Kurdish/Arabic music.

On inner peace

Funny how life is.  In a land as chaotic as India, I found such inner peace.  Such peace I lost while in my last American sojourn.  Now, in Iraq, a country that is writ shorthand for war, I am finding that peace again.


I am in a land with nary a McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC or Starbucks.  Some might call this a war zone; I call it gastrodiplomacy hallowed ground!

Such thoughts made all the finer as I am dining on shwarma from the famous Nawrouz shop in Duhok, which has a shwarma chicken spit taller than moi.  At least six feet of rounded chicken shwarma roasting as it rotates.

The Orientalist's Bizarro World

Well, it took me less than a week to fall in love with Kurdistan.  It has all the familiar Orientalist trappings that I love so much.  Yet, it feels a bit like Bizarro World.  In comics, the planet "Htrae" was in effect a world gone backwards.  Kurdistan feels familiar to the numerous other Middle Eastern locales I have passed through (the shisha, the food, the culture, the music, all the stuff I love.), yet there are some strange and subtle differences that make Luap scratch his head.  

For one, I expect to hear Arabic, but instead this bouncy unrecognizable Kurdish comes out.  It sounds more Persian than Turkish or Arabic.  I have learned about ten words, and I can count to ten because it is similar to Hindi numerals. Also the people dress a bit differently.  The younger folks are all couture, but the older men wear these baggy green khaki-ish pants and shirts with a large fabric belt looped through the center.  And they wear their keffiyahs wrapped up in a circle to make a tight cap.  

More importantly, everyone loves Americans.  Traveling through the Middle East, my public diplomacy is usually in overdrive.  No need here.  I have had so many people say to me: "welcome, so nice to have an American here; Americans are our brothers."  It's nice not to feel like I have to be so guarded.  Meanwhile, while people are religious here, it is much more low key and tolerance seems pretty across the board.  It's like all the fun of my Orientalist dreams without the animosity, religiosity and angst.

I could really see myself doing more work here.  As per every other place in the Middle East, everyone tells me I look Morrocan, Turkish, Jordanian Kurdish.  I would probably end up living in some villa in the mountains, being jabba-the-hut fat, lying around on cushions while eating olives and smoking shisha.  Anyway, the Kurds need more friends than the mountains, and this Bogart loves an underdog and a challenge.  Kurdish PD, here I come.


As I try to digest yet another incredible meal of Kurdish cuisine, consisting of succulent beef kebabs- the ground beef variety cooked around skewers, onions covered in sumac, shredded cucumber, tomatoes and cabbage salad covered in lemon and olive oil, curried pickles and fluffy pita naan, I am reminded by two stories that the history of the world is a history of hungry people, and food can drive politics:

-The Iranian civil disobedience protests over rising food prices that have led to mass boycotts of milk and bread.  The sage Bob Marley once sang, a hungry man is an angry mob.

-The geopolitics of fish in the South China Seas, and the possibility of conflict between China, the Philippines and Viet Nam over such maritime rights.

Monday, June 25, 2012

7 Pillars of PD

Screw Lawrence of Arabia, I am becoming Don Pablo of Kurdistan.  Because what did good ol' Lawrence do if not PD for Arabia; I would be happy to do the same for Kurdlandia.



Speakeasying arak in Iraq, in the hotel lobby. As I have always found, the Middle East is far from dry.

Answers and Questions

I love a place not for the answers it gives, but the questions it asks.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Kurdish State

I went out tonight with my friend Aram.  Aram was an American Voices scholarship student, studying over the last year in St. Louis.  He just returned from his year exchange to his home in Duhok.  He took me out, and over to see the Duhok dam and a nice nighttime area where people come to eat, smoke nargila and watch the football match.  The spot was up in the mountains, just a bit out of town and was much cooler than the temperature in the city.  The air was breezier and there were waterfalls around to give the wind a lil wet coolness.

We were sitting up waiting for our food, when one of the server came to give us plates of salads.  Aram said something to him, but couldn't understand his response.  He mentioned that the fellow was likely a Turkish Kurd.  I asked if there were a lot of Kurds from Turkey and other areas.  He replied that Iraqi Kurdistan had become a hub for Kurds in the region.  He mentioned that Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani had spoke of an open-door policy for Kurds of the region, and that many had flocked here for work and to live in freedom.  Just as my friend Kani Xulam had said about Iraqi Kurdistan being a beacon of light and hope for all the Kurds in the region.  Iraqi Kurdistan as haven and home.

Immediately, the Zionist in me framed it in the paradigms of the Jewish State.  Having a land to call your own changes you-- it has a special effect on the way your culture percolates, and on the way you view the world.

We sat eating plates of salads of shredded red and white cabbages, turshu pickles and olives and tomato and some kind of  sour lettuce that I couldn't place, and I was bubbling with public diplomacy questions about Kurdish PD.  How does the KRG conduct public diplomacy to Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran?  How does it conduct public diplomacy with the Kurdish diaspora?  These are questions that I can't answer at present, but will hope to find some answers for during my stint here, or perhaps for future research endeavors.

Dinner came, with heaps of juicy beef kabobs, onion shred covered in purple sumac and fluffy pita-naan.  We stuffed the succulent kabobs in fold of naan, and chatted about what Kurdistan was like then and now.  I asked Aram about what he remembered from the Second Gulf War.  He would have been about 13 then.  He said that he remembered everyone clearing out of the cities.  Whole cities emptied and went to the villages in the countryside for safety.  He stayed for a month in his mother's village.  He spoke of the joy and openness that came during the first two years, before the terrorism kicked up and the suicide bombings started.  He said that people felt free to travel to Baghdad and Mosul; today people rarely venture out of Kurdistan.

He spoke of what Kurdistan was like.  Before the war, Kurdistan was basically free from Sadam, but had no suzerainty.  Kurds didn't have passports, and life was spartan.  He said after the fall of the Saddam regime, all sorts of goods came pouring like mobile phones, new cars and all sorts of new companies coming to do business.  He also said that education improved greatly, both for the quality and access to education.  There is still work to be done in Kurdistan, but it has come a long way and is a real success story.

We sat smoking double apple shisha, pulling plumes of perfumed smoke as the Euro cup blared.  Aram mentioned that he had never been to Mosul, just 2 hours from Duhok, and had no desire to go.  He said that he didn't even especially want to visit Kirkuk.  It was a reminder to me that Kurdistan's situation is still somewhat precarious.

The Kurds need more friends in the world, and that comes through better public diplomacy.  If it were up to me, I would conduct robust Kurdistan nation-branding/cultural diplomacy campaigns centered on introducing the pesh merga into popular culture. The valiant Kurdish warriors would translate nicely in graphic novels and comics, and is an oblique way of introducing Kurdistan into popular culture.  Pesh merga anime uploaded to YouTube would be an inexpensive way to push virality of Kurdish imagery.

And of course, I would push Kurdish gastrodiplomacy.  More on that to come, I am sure.

I would also work to link Kurdistan to other groups that have had to battle so fiercely for their communal independence.  A Kurdish-Sikh-Druze connection, if you will.  Or a Taiwanese tête-à-tête.

I have mentioned to any Kurdish diplomat I had had tea with that they need to do better public diplomacy to Middle America.  Their story would resonate mightily in Middle America.  I know that some get it in some fashion, including a certain diplomat who has a "Don't Mess with Texas. Don't Mess with the Kurds" banner in his office.  The Kurds (and the Taiwanese) need to take a page from Israeli public diplomacy and understand that support in America comes from the heartland.

Enough for now, I need to get some rest.  The road does me well, and the Kurdish Question has me thinking again.

Deja vu

Sitting high above the sprawl of the city of Duhok in Kurdistan, with highways and byways passing below, I had the strangest feeling of deja vu for the view my office at the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest.

Recognize this flag?

Yeah, neither did the Iraqis.  This was the proposed redesigned Iraq flag, as proposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (the provisional government during the first stage of the American occupation).  The two blue stripes were meant to represent the two rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  The yellow stripe in the center was to represent the Kurds.

Iraqis took one look at it and thought the design and motif were way too similar to the Israeli flag and wanted nothing to do with it.  Another Neocon instance of no foresight, listening or attention to details on the ground.   

Poland, Taiwan and Kurdistan

For many years, Kurdistan had been the Poland of the Middle East, a people left partitioned and divided among bigger regional players (Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria).  But being in this portion of Kurdistan, I have a feeling that these days, at least in terms of Iraqi Kurdistan it is more akin to Taiwan- a self-governing state that is independent in almost everything but name.

Kurdistan seemingly exists in quite an independent fashion, with many of its own laws, rules and customs.  While I feel like I am in a Middle Eastern country, the fact that my Arabic only gets me so far makes it feel different.   Kurdistan has its own President (Masoud Barzani) and its own (semi-)diplomatic representation abroad.  It has even conducted its own PD campaign "The Other Iraq," which I will write about more at length later.  Meanwhile, I was able to receive a 15 day visa on arrival at the airport, but if I had tried to go straight to Iraq I would need a more serious visa.

To be sure, Taiwan still has more trappings of authority (its own currency, passports, independent recognition) but the Kurdistan Miracle is in full effect.  There is a real boom going on here.  Everywhere you look there is construction taking place.  New cars lining the newly paved roads- new Toyotas, Audis and the like.  And Duhok is a little more backwater in terms of Kurdistan, so I can only imagine what is going on in the bigger cities. 

For states with have issues of diplomatic recognition, I have always respected pragmatic functionality.  Celebrate what you have, and do so quietly.  Build and build all the trappings, and make it a long-term question.  Facts on the ground, if you will.  I will be revisiting the issue of Kurdistan and its trappings of sovereignty throughout the trip.

Call me...Hans Blix

I have found the WMDs of Iraq.  Saddam boiled them all down, and turned them into perfume and cologne that everyone wears in overabundance.  My poor nose and eyes are being terrorized by these chemical weapons.

Friday, June 22, 2012


I know I have posted this before, but it was echoing in my head at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, and is always worth a re-post:

"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away"
-Percy Bysshe Shelley.

A Storm of Swords, A Storm of Sand

I left Turkey in a quiet and semi-orderly fashion. I hopped the tram which would take me to the metro to the airport. I was going during rush hour so I made a point of getting on at an earlier stop so I could stow my bags underneath the seat. My plan worked fine, and I rolled along.

I was zoning off, listening to my head phones when I heard an announcement on the tram at Yusufpas(h)a that this station was the transfer to the airport. It caught me by surprise, and I quickly grabbed my stuff and waddled out of the packed train amid “pardons.” Only once I got off did I realize I was far too early. Yes, I could transfer to the airport, but it was not the stop I really wanted. Now, I would have to climb on to the packed car and wade my way in with my luggage. I was fine on time, but it made an easy trip that much harder. I got on the next sardine train and managed to awkwardly carve out enough room for both me and my stuff.

But it ended up okay, because I made friends with a fellow commuter, a Turkish language teacher  named Leo who had lived in New York and Japan.  We chatted about linguistics and Istanbul's crushing commute.  I arrived to the airport just on time, got myself through ticketing and security and talked my way into the priority lounge to meet my boss John who was there waiting.  The flight to Iraq was fine, but unfortunately I had a Game of Thrones publishing fail.  I was pouring through A Storm of Swords (the third book), about 750 pages in and things had just got crazy. Then I turned the page and found myself back at page 350. Publishing fail! It continued on for 60 pages then went back to page 817. Guessing I am not going to find a book store carrying such titles in Iraq. Aargh.

Anywho, we touched down around 1am, and no sooner did we land that half the plane was up in the rows, ala India and Taiwan.  We made our way through customs, and I got a big smile and welcome to Kurdistan from the passport guard.  The Erbil Airport is brand new, and it shows.  The place is big and open, and relatively nice.  But they have a real problem getting passengers from the airport to the parking lot.  The airport is a ways away from the parking area, and passengers need to take buses.  Fine, and work in most places but not here.  There are really only two buses ferrying passengers back and forth.  As you can imagine, a rugby scrum ensued of passengers piling their way on and off, and moving massive luggage.  A flight of umrah pilgrams coming back from Mecca had passenger lugging giant jerrycans of zam-zam water.  I just smiled and laughed at the chaos and got myself on the bus with my stuff.  The bus drove to the parking lot, but was mobbed by family members before it could turn around.  Finally, it was able to do its required 3-point turn, and passengers were allowed off.  The currents passed children and luggage to families, and we met some YES Academy students who were taking us from the airport to the hotel.  I finally got to bed around 3pm, and had to get up just three short hours later to take a taxi to Duhok.

I watched the taxi speed off past sandy hills and some interspersed greenness.  I slept most of the way, and awoke to find a very different mountainous landscape.  The saying goes, the Kurds have no friends but the mountains, and with such majesty I can see why.  John and I dropped our stuff at the hotel, grabbed some breakfast of cheeses, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and hardboiled eggs, then we were met by Ari- a project manager for YES Academy Iraq and the director of the University of Duhok's music school.  He took us over to the university, and the art complex which was pretty nice.  The art complex had sculptures and murals done by students, and seemed like a nice environ.

We spent the morning listening to auditions for strings, piano, rock, jazz and broadway classes.  There was a talented breakdance crew from Duhok that could really move well.  I think the highlight for the morning for me was a fellow who auditioned for the Broadway program by delivering a monologue from Hamlet in Kurdish.  There were some talented kids, and some who will benefit from the lessons they will get from the YES Academy.  This is grass-roots cultural diplomacy at its finest.

Speaking of Kurdish, there are actually a few different Kurdish dialects.  In Duhok, the main dialect is Badini Kurdish, while in other parts like Suleimaniya it is Sorani.  In Turkey, it is mostly another dialect called Kurmanji.  As it figures, those who speak opposing dialects have a hard time communicating because the dialects are so vastly different.

After a morning of auditions, we regrouped for lunch and were joined by Aram, an American Voices scholarship student who just finished his studies in St. Louis and just returned this week.  We had lunch at a famous local restaurant called Safeen, and I got my first real taste of Kurdish cuisine.  It was amazing.  Under the watchful eye of Mustafa Barzani on the wall, the waiters filled the tables with a variety of dishes, and soon you couldn't see the table.

Bowls of cucumber, tomato and red cabbage salad with half lemons squeezed on top; plates of jajik- dill potatoes; a dish called Russian Salad that was a slightly curried eggplant, tomato and onion dish; thick tehina sesame paste; pickled cucumber that had a curry tang; plates of hot, round fluffy bread.  I had koosey,  a giant roasted lamb shank over fluffy rice. The lamb was accompanied with bania- an okra, tomato stew and fasooli- a bean stew, both of which got dumped on the heaping rice.  I picked at the succulent lamb and salads with pieces of the bread, and ate until in a meat coma,  When the dust had settled and the plates had cleared, all I could do was sip tea and long for a nap.  So begins my Kurdish gastrodiplomacy quest.

A nice nap ensued, and then i was back to work on being a public diplomacy travel agent for an upcoming American Music Abroad tour. As the afternoon wore on, a dust storm turned the sky a phosphorescent greyish white, and now the air burns the eyes and throat and tastes like chalk.  Welcome to Iraq, quite a good first day.

Pardon me, do you know where I can find some WMDs?

I have invaded Iraq. #yellowcakegastrodiplomacy

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Continental Cruising; Archaeological Drifting

I went continental cruising as I hopped the ferry from Eminonu on the European side of Istanbul to Uskadur on the Asian side of Istanbul.  I sipped sweet black Turkish coffee as the ferry crossed continents. I wandered along the quay for a bit before sitting out in a cafe over the water.  The muezzin's call echoed across the water as I spied Europe from afar.  I pulled sweet apple-perfumed nargila smoke and stared out at the Dolmabahçe Palace across the straits.  I visited that crystal palace last time I was in Istanbul, and I considered the time that had past.

"I've seen a lot of people who look just like you, most of them are men."
-Marc Thayer

I also considered the fact that everyone seems to think I am Turkish.  I take that as a compliment for two reasons.  First, because the Turks are pretty good looking.  Second, because when people seek to claim you as their own, I take that as an honor. It means that you could be one of us, one of our tribe.

Anywho, I caught the ferry back to Europe and headed over to the incredible Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The museum had a stunning collection, broken into three parts.  The first part, the Museum of the Ancient Orient had some amazing relics from Egypt, but more importantly from the Hittites and from Mesopotamia.  I was taken by the Kadesh Treaty, the oldest known diplomatic treaty of peace.  Concluded around 1259 BC, the treaty ended enmity between the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite King Hattusili.  While the reign of Ramses II began with belligerence towards the Hittites, he ended up inking a deal to cool hostilities and create an alliance between both sides, who were dealing with the invasion of sea people (Philistines, perhaps?).  The treaty was written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the day.  It also included an MoU for cultural diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy exchange (at least that was how I read the cuneiform).

In any case, I was taken by the Sumerian texts from 2000 BC, when the world was a bit younger.  Also, there was an amazing terra cotta piece of the Hammurabi Code from 1750 BC.  I loved the giant Assyrian marble slabs bearing the King and his long beaded beard.  There were other fascinating pieces from Ashur and marble slabs of the priest-kings of Ur.

The main archaeology museum was equally impressive, such as the Tombs of Sidon- an impressive Alexandrian sarcophagus.  There were also plenty of impressive antiquities from Greece and Rome.  There was a third part of the museum that featured beautiful tiles and bowls from Iznik and other places.  All and all, quite impressive.

I made my way back to the hostel and was sitting at the Galata Tower, reading over an Efes Dark.  A fellow sat next to me, and started chatting with me in Turkish.  When I replied in English, he switched.  Taha was his name, and he had recently graduated from Berkeley.  We ended up having a lot to chat about, and he was up to some interesting work.  He was Turkish, but with both Armenian and Kurdish roots.  He spoke a number of languages and was on his way to Kabul to do translation work for the UN.  We ended up hanging out the night and chatting over beers and sunflower seeds and nuts.

Today is my last day in Istanbul before I head out tonight to Kurdistan.  After the usual delicious breakfast of hardboiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, sheep cheese and olives, I made my way over to Sultanahmet to see the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.  Unfortunately it was closed for renovation, but perhaps for the best because I am a little toured out at the moment and glad to save it for another occasion.  Rather, I went wandering through the market mazes of the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar.  Quite a nice last day in Istanbul, a city I hold with real affection.  I look forward to my return to Istanbul and to see more of Turkey at a later date.  Until then...Journey On.

What the World Costs-Turkey

.5 lira (27cents): 330 ml bottle of water
1 lira (56cents): cup of fresh squeezed oj
1.5 lira (83 cents): cup of fresh pressed carrot juice; cup of ayran (yogurt milk); piece of chocolate baklava
2.50 lira ($1.39): pair of boxers
3 lira ($1.67): cup of nescafe; 20 min ferry from Eminonunu to Uskudar (from Europe to Asia)
3.85 lira ($2.14): 500ml can of Efes from a corner store
4 lira ($2.22): cup of Turkish coffee
5 lira ($2.78): fish sandwich on the quay; 4 piece variety of baklava
5.5 lira ($3.06): french fry and cheese sandwich
6 lira ($3.33): homemade lunch of sauteed tomato stringbeans, rice, bread and yogurt soup at hostel
7 lira: ($3.89) potato kumpir (baked potato with all the trimmings)
8 lira ($4.44): student ticket to Istanbul Modern
10 lira ($5.56): entrance to the Byzantine Cistern; entrance to Istanbul Archaeological Museum
11 lira: ($6.12) efes dark at Aenoman Galata terrace restaurant
12 lira ($6.68): lamb and tomato kebabs at terrace restaurant
15 lira ($7.24): full mezze; melon nargile; leather wallet
34 lira ($18.89): 1 night at the World House Hostel for an 8-person dorm, breakfast included
60 lira ($33.33): hamam with massage
158 lira ($87.78): 1 night for a suite at St. Sofia hotel, breakfast and airport transport included
2,340 lira ($1,300): compensation for being involuntarily bumped

New pics up from Istanbul

From Istanbul Days

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Istanbul's Artistic Modern; Turkey's Islamics Artistic Past

"Nothing in the world can be as beautiful as the first moment that you see this Muslim capital city from miles away.  What you see as you approach Istanbul is beautiful beyond your wildest dreams.  Only when you see this view, you can understand the thrill offered by Eastern Cities."
-La Baronne Durand de Fontmagne, 1854

I happened out the other night for what was supposed to be an early evening.  I grabbed an interesting french fry and cheese sandwich, grilled together as toast and filled with ketchup, mayo, pickles and tomatoes- it was actually not bad, as if the whole was more than the sum of its parts.  I had planned on going to bed early, and went out to the Galata square to have a single beer with an Aussie lass in my dorm room.  The Galata square has a nightly carnival atmosphere with people sitting out drinking and music being played.  There was a bit of dancing going on, when a little scufle broke out and sent everyone scrambling.  It ruined the vibe (this is why we can't have nice things) but calmed back down.  I was talked into a hookah bar by another Aussie and a group of frenchmen.  We smoked melon nargila, and I chatted with a group of Free Syrians in town for a post-conf.  A beautiful Syrian girl welcomed me to Free Damascus (inshallah).

I slept late to clear out the jetlag.  I missed breakfast, but awoke at a point to grab lunch from the hostel.  The kitchen serves cheap meals throughout the neighborhood, and I dined on tomato-sauteed stringbeans with rice and a side of yogurt soup.  From there, I descended to the Istanbul Modern, the lovely new modern art museum on the banks of the Bosphurus in Karakoy.

The museum was fascinating, taking a survey of the lanscape of modern art in Turkey.  It delved into the cultural exchange that took place to bring impressionist art to Ottoman Turkey, both with sending Turkish artists abroad to Paris and bringing foreign artists to paint the Sublime Porte.  There was a group called the "1914 Generation," who were supported by the Ottoman Empire in their studies in Paris.  They returned and worked to combine the light, nature and colors of Ottomania in the impressionist style.  Impressionist art always makes me miss my grandmother.

The survey continued and dealt with Republican Turkey's experiments with modernism and cubism.  The museum discussed an arts society that was formed in 1929 called the Association of Independent Painters and Sculptors, who took their name from a similar french society.  In recognition of Turkey's new European focus, the society encouraged its members to introduce the arts currents swirling around Europe to Turkey, including a synthesis of German Expressionism, Cubism, Naturalism and Constructivism as they depicted a developing Turkey.

The exhibit continued with the "D Group" who rejected the academicism, naturalism and impressionism of the Association for a more cubist approach.  Cubism became the language of expressing Turkey's progress.  A later movement called the "Newcomers Group" rejected the the D Group and their "mindless" importation of Western arts, and argued for a focus on social issues and social contact.

There was an interesting passage on the relationship between the State, the Artist and Society:
"In an effort to build a modern nation, Republican Turkey began to reconstruct society at every level.  It launched projects that aimed to reorganize everything from agriculture  to law, economy to culture and language to civic responsibility.  Ataturk, together with a small number of bureaucrats, undertook to support the arts.  Both privately-owned banks and government agencies were encouraged to develop institutional collections.  The Republic was the sole decision maker in society; arts were no exception.  Republican Turkey tried to build a close relationship between the state, arts and society.
They did this by sponsoring the Galatasaray Exhibition in Ankara to try to bring new cultural life in the new capital in 1926.  In 1933, they supported the exhibition "Pictures of a Revolution" to showcase the effects of the Republican revolution on Turkish society.  Meanwhile from 1938-1943, the state supported "Homeland Tours" to send Turkish artists to different parts of the country.

As one who loves examining identity, I found it fascinating to see the role of the state in regard to the arts and using arts to foster identity.  Such a different conception from the Ottoman patrons of art, and such an interesting role in using the arts to cement the secular revolution.  Turkey's secular vs. religious identity still is being wrestled with today.

The exhibit meandered on through the decades, from the 1960s and 1970s, with the different focus on self-realism and abstract, up until the 1980s where artists began really rejecting the "mission civiltrice" of their role in regard to the Turkish state.  My question was whether this was borne out of the coups that had transpired.    The 1990s offered more interdisciplinary focus on arts in Turkey, and broke down the high culture focus and elite art to a general, more mass appeal.  To be honest, I actually found the descriptions of the era more interesting than the art itself.  I am not a lover of modern art, although done right I can appreciate it.  My tastes have always been a bit more classical.

I briefly napped in the park, then headed over to Sultanahmet to see the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.  I swear that the air of Istanbul is perpetually perfumed with the smell of nargila smoke.  The museum itself was wonderful, much more my taste as I wandered through calligraphic flourishes and tiled masterpieces.  One thing I found quite cool was an Ummayad road marker:
"The slave of God, the Emir of the faithful, Abdul Malik, may God's mercy be upon him, erected this stone.  From Damascus to here is 109 miles."
Now that is an awesome roadmarker.  If only the governor of Mary Land put up such illustrious road signs...

Something that I knew but was reminded, at its height, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents.  The exhibits included Seljuk and Ottoman beauties, engraved Qurans and lavish carpets, as well as an interesting ethnographic exhibit on life in Anatolia.

After I headed over to Haggia Sophia to meet Marc Thayer, the Education Director for American Voices.  He had a few hour sojourn in Istanbul before heading to Kurdistan, so I gave him a whirlwind tour.  I took him to the quay for fish sandwiches, before heading over for Efes Dark at the Hotel Anemon with its resplendent views. Some Iskender Kebap, and he was on his way to Erbil.

Later I met up with my friend Caro from the PD program, who was here in Istanbul with a fellowship of sorts.  Caro and I had been playing tag for the better part of a year.  When I was in LA, we couldn't quite connect; when she was in DC, I was away. I met her at her hotel, and it was kind-of funny.  She had been mentioning to her fellow fellows that she was meeting her friend (me), but then actually pointed out that we technically had never met.  So goes the social network connections and online-offline friends, of which I have a few.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Tiny Toon Take on Constantinople

With props to Yelena of Ermenistan.

Istanbul (No Constantinople)

It had to be done...

Where is?

I was staring a Turkish map on the wall.  Where is:


Answers in the comment section.


A rather timely article in the NYTimes about the Ottoman architect Sinan, whose buildings I have been wandering around.  Teshekur Mel

Turkish beatings

I usually find the best way to kill jetlag is through a warm bath. To fight the vlugvoos (Afrikaans: to be made spongy or rotten by jetlag), I have turned to the Japanese onsen and to the thermal bathes of Beitou in the northern city of Taipei. As such, I am turning first thing to the marble bathes of Istanbul to soak away the stresses in a warm white marble hall.

So this morning, I went to the hammam, the lovely Turkish marble bath for a scrub and Turkish massage (ie beating) to chase away the jetlag.  I got a recommendation from the hostel for a place off Galatasaray that gave a discount for guests from the hostel.  I made my way through the alleys until I found the underground bath.  I came in and gave the attendant the hostel card for the discount.  The place was actually closed today, but because the hostel sent me, he let me in.

I wrapped up in a shawl-towel and entered the white marble domed bath.  I was the only one inside, it was great.  I filled up marble basins with hot water and sat on the warmed marble and scooped the water out of the basins in silver bowls and dumped it on my head.  After washing myself in various marble nooks, I laid out on the giant warmed marble slab as the circular rays of light peered in through circular windows in the dome. I meditated to the sound of drops of water dripping into the marble basins, and basked on the warmed marble slab.

After a while, the attendant came to give me my beating massage.  He dumped water on me then had me lay on the marble slab.  He proceeded to wash me with a giant soap bubble, then twist my body in knots and crack various bones and joints.  Turkish massages are gruff to say the least, but it was great.  My body felt wonderful if slightly bruised.  He left and I basked a little longer before I had enough pruning.  I dried off, gave the attendant a tip baksheesh and marveled at the way baths melt the jetlag.

New pics up! Sultanahmet & Galata

A Levantine finds his way home to the Levant

I awoke yesterday late with jet lag. Mel and I packed up our stuff and left the hotel.  The hotel was kind enough to make my shuttle from the airport complimentary.  I decided that rather than stay in the tourist and tout filled Sultanahmet district, where i had previously stayed, I would opt to stay in Beyoğlu across the Golden Horn.

For breakfast, we grabbed some round rolls covered with sesame seeds with a quarter of lavache querie-esque cheese that was far tastier.  We hopped the tram over to the end of the line at Karbataş, then rode the fancy funicular up to Taksim Square.  We meandered down through the wide boulevard and grabbed some fresh-squeezed grape fruit juice.  The pedestrian street was filled with glitterati enjoying the sunday morn stroll and shop.

We ducked into a lovely coffee shop called Çiçek Pasaji, which had a huge open air ceiling and lovely florid walls.  We had some strong sweet black Turkish coffee, and then continued our walk down.  We passed a number of old embassies of Russia, Sweden and Holland.  We meandered down towards Galata and the streets turned cobbled.  I spied the World House Hostel which I had considered staying in.  It was cool enough, so I dropped my stuff and continued on with Mel.

We continued on, across the Galata Bridge and I picked up a cheap pair of sunglasses on the way.  At this point, it was mid-afternoon and we were famished.  We passed the fish boats and found a kebab restaurant with a terrace.  We kept climbing layer by layer until we reached the top of the restaurant.  The restaurant had the most immaculate view from the terrace.  It opened up with a view across the shimmering straits of the Golden Horn and the Galata Tower raised high above just across the waterway.  In the distance, tankers crossed the sea and Asia shimmered afar.  To the right sat a giant domed mosque. We sat high above as the wind whipped the smell of sea salt and frying fish, and with the bustle below.  I had the most mouth-watering lamb and tomato kebabs, with onions and parsley and bulgur, which I wrapped in fluffy Turkish bread.  I wrapped the grilled tomatoes and the succulent lamb in the bread and spilled a little salt on the juice kebab.  Wow, I guess I did kinda miss meat.  So goes my vacation from being a veg.  We washed it down with sour cherry juice, and admired the vista and cool salty breeze.

Afterwards, we wandered into the market so I could buy some boxers and socks.  I have not been so excited in a while for socks and boxers, but having worn the same smallclothes for nearly 3 days, I was in dire need.  We made our way back through the spice market, nibbling on Turkish delight as Mel bought some Turkish craisins.  

We hopped the tram back towards Taksim.  We bade goodbye as she caught the funicular to catch her bus back to Ankara.  I meandered along the banks of quay as fishermen cast rods and the seas lapped against the stone walls.  I sat for a cup of sweet black Turkish coffee and spied Asia in the distance as I read Game of Thrones.  

I wandered back through the maze of alleys and back through the bustle of Beyoğlu.  I stopped in my hostel and called the airline to see about my luggage.  Mahshallah, it had arrived and was being delivered that night. I made my way down to Galata Tower and sat in the bustling park as the day's dying light caught the stone Byzantine tower.  I sipped an Efes dark, and read.  I listened to the bubbly Turkish babble bounce off the stone walls and walkways.  People sat out and chatted, while a group sang folk songs over a violin. The air was filled with the smell of old-fashioned pop corn as a man popped pop corn over an open flame.  I closed my eyes and dreamed of Ottoman days.  

I have to say that I love people watching here.  The Turks are absolutely gorgeous.  Oriental swarth, wrapped in florid veils. Sharp features and doe eyes of bosphurus blue, emerald green and mahogany brown.

I made my way to a cafe to have a kumpir potato, a baked potato slathered in butter and cheese, and filled with all sorts of mezze.  Delicious.  I spent the evening sitting on the stoop of the hostel, chatting with a fellow from Lebanon and a girl from Portugal.  I love hostels.  The jetlag got the better of me, and I turned in early.  

I awoke with the dawn and wandered through the empty streets of Beyoğlu with nary a sound save for the gulls calls bouncing off the stone walls of the narrow alleys as the city slept.  I stopped in a small bakery and got a flaky potato borek (boureka) that was still hot from the oven.  I ate my borek and sipped coffee as I wandered through Sinan's mosque masterpieces.  I meandered over the Galata Bridge to watch the fishermen make their early morning catches as the morning sun lit the sky as I admired the mosque vista.  I returned to the hostel for a proper Turkish breakfast of soft (feta) cheese, hardboiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives with fluffy baguette pieces.  A proper Levantine breakfast.  Now off to the hamam for a proper scrub and beating.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


"Planes change.
Values don't.
Your priorities will always be ours."

Haha! Really?  My priorities did not include getting involuntarily bumped and having my luggage lost.  Thanks.

The Sublime Porte

After dealing with the balagan that was my lack of luggage, I remained serene and sanguine and made my way out of the baggage.  Thankfully, there was a sign with my name on it in the lobby.  The hotel offered free transfers from the airport, and I got a ride into the city.

The driver chatted on his mobile in Turkish baby talk, as we sped into the city.  The radio blared eastern violins and rhythms as singers crooned in vibretto Turkish melodies.  Red Turkish flags flapped in the breeze blowing off the Marmara and I was reminded of my night drive in Delhi as I returned to Bharat.

I arrived to the St. Sophia Hotel- once an Ottoman mansion, and checked in sans luggage.  Unfortunately, my airport transfer was not free as advertised, but rather 30 euros, so I am negotiating with the management on it.  I was meeting my friend Mel in Istanbul, because she is working in Ankara at the Embassy there.  We were going to get a hostel, but since I hit the IDB lotto, I sprung for a hotel for the night she is here.  Turns out the hotel upgraded Mel and me to a suite, but rather than give the 2 beds as requested, we got a big queen.  When I remarked to the bell hop, he laughed and put a pillow in the middle of the bed.  So it goes, Mel was out, and when she returned I promptly called big spoon.  But meanwhile, the suite opens up a terrace overlooking Hagia Sophia, and is lovely.

We wandered out to the old Byzantine Basilica Cistern, the old cistern built by Emperor Justinian some 1500 years prior.  We walked through the dark columned depths, as carp swam in the water below.  The columns were lit up in an eerie glow.  The piece de resistance of the cistern were two statues of medusa's head, one sideways and the other upside down.  The

We walked on down Sultanahmet, as I bounced with excitement and began swimming through memories.  Shops with Turkish delights and baklavas stacked high caught my eye.  We waded through the Grand Bazaar, and past the shop selling all sorts of wares and barking hawkers.  I was full of smiles as I admired the life of the bazaar and the beauty of the Turks.  The women were gorgeous with their light skin and light eyes, and floral veils.  Turkey seems more veiled than when I was last here, but the veils here are done with a florid flourish that feels more fashion than formidable.  Meanwhile, I feel back in my element

We made our way down past Yeni Camii Mosque with bowl domes, and down to the Golden Horn.  We went down to the quay, where shops on boats sold fried fish sandwiches for 5 lira.

Editor's note: I have suspended my vegetarianism while on the road because it seemed that it would be tricky for my travels in Kurdistan, so I have been slowly reintroducing meat into my diet.  It has been a little strange.  I find that dining on flesh is not my favorite, and I don't love living on living things.  But I also like trying new tastes when I am traveling, and think that hospitality trumps my ideology in some regards.
Anyway, Mel and I stopped at the buoying boats with gilded trim, where men flipped fish fillets and stuffed them in baguettes with onions and parsley. We sat on small tables, and poured lemon juice and salt onto the sandwiches.  The  taste of the fish was a bit of a shock at first, but it was pretty tasty.  Admittedly, I did miss fish the most when I was full veg.  We sat by the water, watching the men fish off the Galata bridge and split a cup of turshu- a cup of pink briny pickled cucumbers and cabbage.   We walked across the Galata bridge, across the Golden Horn as men cast lines into the sea.  I had taken a picture of the same site years prior.  We made our way over to the Galata Tower, where people were sitting below having beers ala Europa.  We had just missed the closing time for the Galata Tower, but her guide book mentioned a hotel next door that had a great view without the touristy kitch.

We went to the terrace of the Aenemon Galata Hotel, and found the most immaculate view across the Golden Horn as the golden sun was setting.  We ordered sundowners, and I sipped a Efes dark- a Turkish dark kinda like a porter Sam Adams but lighter.  I bounced back and forth from our view across Asia to the view of the sun setting across the Horn.

The resplendent view of sun setting over the sublime porte in its golden effulgence over minarets and domes had me ebullient, and alive with joy.  I climbed my way out of the restaurant and down a spiral staircase to get some incredible shots of the sun setting over the Istanbul vista of mosques and minarets as the sun cast its golden glow on the evening.

We hopped the tram back and walked through the Blue Mosque complex- lit it up the night's glow.  We made our way past the dining hard sell and grabbed a dinner of mezze.  We dipped piping hot Turkish bread with black seeds on top into a variety of yogurt and lentil mezze.  I had a delicious red lentil soup to go with it. We split a pide- a Turkish pizza boat filled with olives, tomatoes and onions.  We made our way back to the hotel to watch the end of the Greece-Russia match at the hotel and have a Efes pilsen.

Thus ends my first day back on the road, and I feel like me again.  I love the road and all its adventures, and I missed it while I was still.  I was not meant to be still.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Turkey and me

The last time I was crossing the Hellspont and descending on the capital of Byzantium, I had just concluded  my drang nach osten- the drive eastward.

I was spending the semester studying in Prague, and I had begun my week in Krakow with my roommate Brother Shane, Jose and his friend Tracy.  We had come to Krakow for the weekend, and Shane and I had gone to see Auschwitz.  I can remember feeling so hollow and empty as I walked through the camp, and yet shocked that I found the symmetry of the wires and towers amid the autumn to be sadly so beautiful.  I can still remember the smell of Birkeneau, and the feeling of knowing this place in a nightmare.

But I digress.  My compatriots were heading back to Prague for class, but I realized I had the day off Monday and decided I would take Tuesday off as well and head to Warsaw.  Ah, but it was Thanksgiving that week, and we had vacation from Thursday on.  So I decided I might as well take the rest of the week off and wander around Central Europe.  Shane mentioned he and some of the Prague classmates were heading to Turkey for Thanksgiving break, so I decided that I would meet them.  Since we were heading towards the Middle East, I told Shane to bring me some swim shorts and we would go swimming in the Black Sea.  And thus began my drive eastward. 

I went on to Warsaw, and from Warsaw to Budapest.  From Budapest to all sorts of Transylvanian adventures (I got thrown off a train, but that is a story for another blog).  From Bucharest to Sofia, and on a midnight express to Istanbul.

I arrived in the wee hours of the morn to a Turkish bus station, which was akin to a Turkish prison.  I couldn’t figure my way out or find an exit.  Finally, I found a security guard, but he didn’t speak a lick of English.  I threw out the word “exit” in every language I could muster, but he was at a loss.  Finally, he just motioned for me to come with him.

He took me to an office, where all the other security guards were having their pre-dawn Ramadan meal.  Ramazan in Turkey.  The security guards who spoke English began chatting with me about what I was doing there.  I explained I was lost, had no money on me and needed to get to a hostel.  They smiled, and small guard with a small mustache told me to have a seat and a meal with them, and they would get me on my way. 

The security guards proceeded to feed me the most delicious meal of Turkish lentil soup with rivers of cream and some indescribable flaky savory pastry in a soup-sauce gravy.  Sweet baklava and sweet coffee for dessert.

Then they escorted me through the bus station, with the sleeping vagrants in the alleyways.  They took me down to an atm where vagrants were sleeping inside.  The small guard with the small mustache held up one finger to me to hold on a sec, then some of the security guards went into the ATMs and forcefully dragged the vagrants out.  After they were removed, with palms up he beckoned me to enter.  I took out millions of lira, and was on my way.  They took me to the roof, to find a taxi.  They told the taxi where to take me, and told him the price.  He started to argue with them, and they silenced him.  “Please enter, my friend,” said the small guard with the small mustache.  I bade them thanks and they bade me safe travels and I sped into the night to the hostel.  I got my bed and slept well.

The postscript was that the next morning I went to the hostel lobby to ask where I could find the internet.  “I need to check my email so I can find my friends,” I told the fellow at the lobby.  “You have already found them, they are here,” he replied.  I laughed and told him I was looking for half a dozen Americans.  He smiled, and said they were on the second floor.  Sure enough, I went up to check and by chance found them all there.  Merhaba to Turkey.

Luggage travails

Allah and United did not will my luggage to arrive. Might be time to get some new Turkish threads.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Don Pablo Quijote rides again

After a long spell kept him trapped in La Mancha, our favorite hero is off tilting at windmills again and facing down dragons.  He survived this last stint, but just barely.  Seemingly chained to La Mancha as if under some evil spell, Don Pablo Quijote rides again, first to the Sublime Porte that sits at the axis of worlds.  To Constantine's capitol.  Don Pablo Quijote is sailing to Byzantium on a silver bird, as he lays tired in the reins.

As he left, the weight of anxiety lifted from our hero's weary shoulders.  His saudades and ghorba- untranslatable longings and sorrows from Portuguese peregrines and Maghrebian missings- tricked him to return to La Mancha and he found himself cast under a spell of solitary and restless anxiety.  Finally, he was able to break free from his chains and depart to Anatolia.  To the land where Trojans once roamed.  Then on to a land of a people who have no friends but the mountains.  In his quixotic dreams of scimitars and spices awaits a guard of pesh merga to greet Don Pablo Quijote.  

I am feeling awake and alive in ways that I haven't since leaving the subcontinent, since Formosa.  How fickle my heart and how woozy my mind (Awake my Soul).  Being exiled in America is rough on my peripatetic psyche.  I have felt a shaking off of chains that had this PD Knight Errant feeling shackled. A Levantine to the Levant. First orders of business: find a Turkish bath then a Turkish concubine. Journey on.

The Margins of Time; Public Diplomacy, Two Straws

So as things went down last night, and  it became apparent I wasn't getting on a flight I had every business being on, I immediately tried to start making travel lemonade from United lemons.  People were screaming and yelling, rightfully so, but I just remained calm.  While the gate staff were in over their heads, and with angry passengers about, the manager came over and actually handled things well.  She calmed the situation down, and managed to get a crying adolescent on to an overfull flight.  I remained calm and compensated.  I hit the lira lotto, and spent an unexpected day at home.

Time is the most valuable commodity you can spend, as I once found out from the Time Bank.  I like spending my time on the margins.  The margins of time exist as unaccountable time space borne out of situations that should not be.  I can count a number of my most memorable days as days on the margin that shouldn't have existed.  The margins of time is always time well spent.  I spent my time at Tastee Diner, having breakfast with my brother.

We spent our time a quarter at a time at the jukebox.  Four songs; four quarters: deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans.  Oh, Johnny b Goode.  I got stuck in Folsom prison as time keeps passin' bye.  Harry went down to Georgia, while I was rollin' down the river of time that shouldn't exist.

As the jukebox blared I dreamed of diner diplomacy. Perhaps the hallmark of American gastronomy and gastrodiplomacy is the diner.  Nothing gives a more iconic and tangible taste of Americana than the diner.  I would turn American Corners into a diplomatic Sock Hop. Greasy spoon gastrodiplomacy. A cultural diplomacy diner with the jukebox on, while the ambassador is slinging hashbrowns, the PAO flipping pancakes and the CAO making milkshakes.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sailing to Byzantium on the Titanic

I got hit with an IDB (Involuntary denied boarding) IED. But don't cry for me Constantinople, I have been rewarded with a stack of Turkish lira.

Sailing to Byzantium

And I am off.  Sailing to Byzantium.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
-W.B. Yeats

A towel

"A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value - you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."
-Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

I have a towel.  A big Brazilian flag that kept me comfy on the beach of Copacabana in Rio.  I am ready to go.

Time for Turkish Power

As I return to Pax Ottomania, I can't help but think about the situation in the Levant.  I found it interesting that I was on my way to the Sea of Marmara, the Mavi Marmara issue would resurface.  The Israeli State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss criticized Bibi for his handling of the Mavi Marmara, and I agree.  He is perhaps one of the better independent voices of leadership in Israel.  I do have my criticisms of Turkey as well.  Of both sides, for their Middle Eastern stubbornness and priggishness.

My bigger issue with Turkey is this: they have deigns and designs of being a regional power. Actually, they already are.  Once the sick man of Europe, today Turkey is strong.  Turkey is doing well, and is in a robust position. I think the EU needs Turkey these days more than Turkey needs it.  I bet the EU wishes it could swap Greece for Turkey these days.

 It is a regional power who could go global with a bit more exercise of power, soft and otherwise.  Turkish leadership is in high demand these days.  It is taking the lead in Somalia, and played a rising power role in Libya.

It could use to show a little more leadership close to home, and I don't mean with Israel and Palestine.  There are enough negotiators involved in that one, and Turkey hasn't been one to help the situation but rather inflame it.  But Turkish leadership in regard to Syria would be more welcome.  If Turkey wants to be a power, it can't allow slaughter in its backyard.  I agree with Larry Haas, who writes we will be haunted by the slaughter in Syria.  But their is a role for Turkey to play in a rising power capacity.  Good conflict resolution, as shown by Qatar, makes for good pd (as others have noted as well). A bit of Pax Ottomania might be the right ticket for Turkish public diplomacy.

On Freedom

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."

"And liberty she pirouettes,
When I think that I am free."
-Peter Gabriel

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


So this Muppet is sure curious what transpired in Pakistan as to cause the canceling of Sesame Street.  Alleged corruption in Pakistan, apparently.  I would like some more details than that.  Simply pulling the plug on a $20 million Sesame Street project with just a third spent, we should have some serious additional details.  Frankly, I can't imagine the details concern me though.  Unless it was seriously egregious, this simply causes more ill will; unless it was seriously egregious, frankly I would have let it go.  This goes from good PD to bad PD real quick.

Things Found

Found in the fiction section of Barnes and Noble: Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species"

Taiwan, pd and me

My PD work from Taiwan was blogged about by some AU PD students on the A Hard Look at Soft Power blog.  Such is my soft power.  Prof. Rockower gives you an A for your work!

For the love of hip hop (and cultural diplomacy)

The New Straits Times reports on the American Voices YES Academy Kota Kinabalu hip hop program:

A hip hop lover from Sarawak took a 12-hour bus ride from Miri to attend Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy Hip Hop Kota Kinabalu programme, here.Sim Yian Haw, 24, was among 35 chosen to participate in America's foremost training programme in hip hop held at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) from June 1-5.
The insurance agent had earlier submitted his dance routine for an online audition as he could not afford the expensive air tickets.
"I knew about the programme from a friend who encouraged me to go for it. So instead of flying over to Kota Kinabalu and Labuan for my audition, I did an online audition.
"They liked my hip hop dance skill video and I was accepted," said Sim, who has learnt hip hop since he was 15.
The programme, sponsored by US Embassy Kuala Lumpur and American Voices Association were recruiting Sabah and Sarawak's best young dancers and hip-hop talents to further expose them to the hip hop artistic subcluture.
During the one-week intensive programme, the students aged between 14 and 31 had the opportunity to learn hip hop skills and history from HaviKoro Crew, one of United State's most well known Hip Hop teams.
For Sim, the programme was a platform for hip hop lovers to gather and share similar interest, apart from educating themselves.
Established since 2008, American Voices Association executive director John Ferguson said the programme aimed to expose talents across the globe to a wide variety of dance, music and community leadership.
"Similar programmes have been conducted in Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Venezuela, Lebanon and Kuwait, among other countries," said Ferguson.
"In Sabah, hip hop is a growing trend and we want them to be able to understand hip hop context and how they can use their talent to achieve something of benefit.
"So, for this programme we have focussed on small cities like here and in Penang because we believe these states have so many unexposed talents."
Apart from dancing, YES Academy Hip Hop Kinabalu students also learnt graphic design and how to be disc jockeys from experts.
Ferguson said YES Hip Hop and Broadway Penang would be held in George Town from June 7 -- 17 and those interested should visit
He said students would be chosen for the YES Academy programme based on talent, motivation and a commitment to leadership through teaching and via community outreach.
HaviKoro's choreographer Mario Jaramillo believes Malaysians have much potential in bringing their talents to the next level.
"Hip hop is not just about the skill, it's about loving what you are doing.
"Malaysian's are good but what they need is support and a platform for them to showcase their talent.
"Creating public awareness is also important because not many understand the history of hip hop besides the dancing skills."
Upon completing their intensive programme, all 35 young talents will showcase their hip hop performances to the public at the UMS Recital Hall here today.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


After spending a weekend at my uncle's Hasidic orthodox wedding, I hardly know where to start.

I am amazed at the insular nature of the orthodox community, and how it has constructed its own shtetls and still cowers at the cossacks of the day.  I am always amazed at how different the orthodox services are.  A sea of mumblers, rocking in worship.  My grandfather said that the rocking worshipers reminded him of a friend...who had parkinson's.  

The orthodox and I have a fundamental disagreement of what is more important, the spirit or the letter.  I laugh at their desire to hone so deeply into rules and laws, only then to figures out how those laws can be circumvented.  I hate rules that strike me as lacking common sense, and a strand of worship that so casually accepts rules dictated by rabbis is not a place for me.

But my uncle has found peace in their community.  He has found community in their community.  And I am happy for him.  He has always been a searcher (in a different fashion than me), and I am glad he found his way into one that we generally recognize.  I am saddened that he has taken on and internalized their parochial, narrow view on the world.  A view in which the world is always against the Jews; a world that strikes me as disdainful of the goyim;  a view in my opinion that is revisionist and sadly shallow.  

It is amazing that the Jewish community is still fighting battles over the haskalah, the period of Enlightenment, in which the Jews were tenuously welcomed into modernity and began leaving the ghetto.  It finally dawned on me why the Hasidic dress as they do: they are returning to a dress that was prevalent in an age right before the Jews stepped foot into the modern world.

But I digress.  As long as I didn't talk religion or politics, I found my hosts to be lovely, warm and engaging.  What really matters is that my uncle is happy with his new bride, I have lots of new ortho cousins, and plenty of people who want to set me up with a place to stay for shabbas and help me find my nice Jewish wifey.  

Gastrodiplomacy for Iraq

Apparently, Iraq has grown hungry for western cuisine.  A few comments in the comment section alluded to invading Iraq with deep dish pizza, and yellow cake for dessert. Shukran JB.  

Thursday, June 07, 2012

yogic space

"Rule your mind or your mind will rule you."

But perhaps to rule your mind, you must first rule your body.  I find that yoga helps with both.

I marvel at how it can get the blood flowing, sweat dripping, endorphins rushing, stress dissipating and mind clearing while never leaving my little corner of the earth.  Tolstoy wrote a great story on how much land does a man need; perhaps I need nothing more than the dimensions of a yoga mat. 

American Gastronomy

A map of American gastronomy and the basis of American gastrodiplomacy.  Thanks Melon, great find.

The Edward R. Murrow of Roadies

Somehow I have become a PD roadie.  

This snafu brought to you by the letter "s"

Stephen Walt has a great piece on the public diplomacy fail found in the canceling of the Sesame Street program that USAID was sponsoring in Pakistan.

The Brothers Grimm go Minimalist

A fun set of posters of fairy tales turned minimalist. Nice find KDH.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What hath God wrought?

Apparently the first words dotted off by one Mr. Morse in his famous code in the first message that traveled from Baltimore to DC, said Abba.  This came up while a certain Nats left fielder was up. And thus heralded the age of social media.  It wasn't 140 characters that ushered in the age, but rather dots and dashes.   Manic said it was better than "testing, testing." 

Patel Motels

An interesting story on an interesting book about Patel motels, ie all the motels across America owned by the Patels of Gujarat (not all related).  Daneyvad, Abba.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Tales of a wandering yogi

Somewhere in between a vinayasa, the instructor Jayanti said something that made a light bulb turn on: yoga is meditation in motion.  While I was in India, I found such peace amid all the chaos.  There is no chaos here, yet I have found it hard to find peace.  The one place where I can usually count on to deliver a lil serenity is when I am practicing yoga.  Truly meditation on the mat.

Notes from Absurdistan

A nice piece called A Conspiracy in a Teapot.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Dominique Wilkins

I am not much of a fashion watcher, but I have noticed a trend of "the fade" returning to the scene.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Game of NattyBo

Last night, I found Theon Greyjoy at a bar aptly named "The Raven."

Friday, June 01, 2012


I have spent the last two days supremely frustrated as I try to come up with a travel schedule for a 5-girl bluegrass band through Central Asia.  It's Boratastic.  Websites that start in English but only offer destinations in Russian.  Flights from Ashgabat to Tashkent (2hrs apart) by way of Istanbul or Urumqi, China.  Travel schedules only offered in a pdf of 2 month increments.  Why would anyone book beyond that?

"Uzbekistan Airways presents new travel technologies. We offer new passenger service - electronic ticket or e-ticket. We provide high quality services to our clients. You can book a ticket by phone. The booking on-line will be possible in nearest future. " 

Right, cause I want to call Tashkent to book a flight.  Oh, Uzbek-beki-beki-stan-stan.

Ah, but then I wised-up, and realized there was probably a local office. Dah, in New York.  With a lovely person who gave me the lowdown.  While tech might not go far in Absurdistan, people-to-people connections still carry the day.

To name is to own

So now the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act gets pilloried as a freedom of propaganda bill.  I can only imagine if the narrative language had been about censorship and freedom not propaganda.  If only the blogosphere was clamoring for its modernization as the freedom to hear domestically what is said abroad, and anything short would be censorship and this was a Freedom of Information act.  Distorted way out of context, the modernization bill seems ominous, but simply put, allowing Americans to hear Voice of America should not be a big deal.  But to name is to own, and the debate got named and shaped out of context.

Mountainrunner Matt has a good piece about having an honest debate about Smith-Mundt, not one colored by  inaccuracies.

Forgive me