Posted on August 10th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Libya.
Posted on August 4th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Libya.
Where approximately 2-300 women and children sleep (some dads too):
& how the rebel fighters get on sleeping on the rooftop of the boat:
After experiencing both, I’ll stick with the rebels. They’re actually quieter.
I had no intention of coming to Libya, more less Misrata, a place I followed in the news nearly all of April and May. I associated Misrata with vicious street battles, journalist’s deaths, and an apocalyptic downtown. But after becoming friends with so many Misratans in the hospital in Tunis I began to associate it with something else: unparalleled bravery, warmth and generosity.
One thing I heard over & over again from my friends in hospital was that they would gladly die for Misrata. They were not full of hot air or bravado. Many had already paid with their lives and limbs. One man I met with lost both legs. He kissed his fingers & pointed to the sky, “Allahu Akbar. I love Misrata.” I was shown a cell phone video of him just moments after his amputations, still under anesthesia; he moaned “Misrataaa… Misrataaaa… Allah.. Misrata…” Damn, I thought: I could care less about San Francisco. What is it about this Misrata that so many would die for? And not just anyone would die for, but these men, who i have grown to think of some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life. Growing up in America I don’t feel that sort of passion about nearly anything. I wanted to get closer to it, to understand it & inshallah maybe even experience it for a moment.
Misratans in hospital told me “Welcome anytime” over & over. I had over a dozen families who would take me in, including some of my favorite patients who had since returned to Misrata after 2 months of recovering in Tunis. Everyday a hospital I grilled Libyans with questions about Misrata. Sure it’s not 100% safe but many assured me that the city center for the most part is, minus the occasional randomly falling rocket. I wanted to hear what I wanted to hear… and, when I dug deeper, the news backed this up.
The frontline is now more than 30 kilometers outside of the city – though the city is surrounded by fronts on three sides. The fourth side is the Mediterranean Sea — the only way to reach Misrata these days is by boat. I met men who made the sea journey “all the time,” they invited me to go with them. It began appearing more and more viable and safe. I reached out to an NGO & made potential arrangements to volunteer in a field hospital to have some some semblance of purpose and safety.
It took a week rather than 24 hours to get here, but after a few taxis, planes and boats, I eventually made it…
Posted on July 27th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Libya.
Hi from Benghazi Libya… flew here from Tunis early yesterday morning after the Sfax, Tunisia – Misrata boat hit a snag. My place on last thursday’s boat was sabotaged by over-protective Libyan friends, but it was a blessing in disguise. The boat left 3 days after schedule. Many of the injured, and even a dead body, patiently waited on the boat those 3 days because they couldn’t afford hotels in the meantime.
I had been told the boat was small, sexy, fast. But friends on the boat told me otherwise. They said it was like one of the boats refugees take to Lampedusa: unsafe, too small. Once they set sail waves were reportedly 7 meters/21 feet high. Water actually began crashing into the boat. Those on the boat were survivors of war and injury, yet many said the boat ride was the scariest experience of their lives. The captain informed them that after 9 hours at sea they would need to turn around or the boat would sink.
They tried to dock in Djerba, but were refused. They could only get permission to dock in Gabes, about 3 hours from Sfax, where they began their journey. Many couldn’t afford the bus fare to Sfax, so they are still on the boat, asking that the next boat — an old, slow, giant, but secure one — stop in Gabes before Sfax. They’re waiting until Thursday with fingers crossed. The dead body was transported back to Tunis, it won’t be going to Misrata.
What can I say about Benghazi? Sadly, my first impressions are more about cost than anything (it’s blood expensive). I only know people in Misrata and Zintan, so not really gelling w/ the city so far. It wasn’t my plan to come here, but i was told I’d have much better luck catching a boat to Misrata from Benghazi. Unfortunately boats aren’t running as often as they were from Benghazi either. I may need to catch a flight to Malta to catch the boat to Misrata. Inshallah i make it to the famed city of heros (my friends), Misrata. It’s all up to the logistics Gods now…
Nearly 4 weeks ago I returned to Cairo for a visit. It was just a normal Tuesday. The biggest event happening was a Tweet-Up party with NPR’s Andy Carvin (wonderful to meet him in person, BTW… he’s a down-to-earth, thoughtful, personable guy). After the Tweet-Up my friend Ghazala & I went back to her apartment — she wanted to be in bed by midnight so she could wake rested for her AM Arabic class. But then we checked Twitter. Andy was Tweeting about tear gas, riot police and mobs of protesters. Live. It was impossible not to joke that this unexpected (& violent) clash with police may have been in Andy’s honor.
Ghazala changed her mind: there would be no Arabic class for her tomorrow. Ghazala, her roomie Iba, and I put on clothes that could be trashed, & packed our bags with scarves & coca-cola (to help those that had been tear-gassed) & left for Tahrir. It was 2AM. Iba’s friend Ahmed drove 160 km/hr on the strangely empty streets of Cairo to get us there ASAP. By the time we arrived the scene in Tahrir was what i consider to be dodgy: A nearly all-male crowd, unfriendly glares, sudden shouting, occasional confused running, & tear gas lingering in the air. Way too much testosterone for my tastes. I should’ve known better.
If I wasn’t already feeling uncomfortable enough, I accidentally walked into tear gas which made my eyes sting pretty intensely. Iba & Ahmed poured coca-cola over my eyes… It was amazing how quickly it helped. Afterwards I no longer had to be led around like a blind woman, but Ahmed insisted on driving me home if it would make me feel better. By the time he & Iba returned to Tahrir several protesters asked him if he was crazy bringing girls into the melee of men… that it was not safe. And so they also returned home.
Last time I was in Cairo I couldn’t fly out on my scheduled flight because of an all night clash between army, police, and protesters. This visit I realized, these things don’t happen because I have some sort of strange luck; Cairo is now more often like this than not.
The next days I stayed right above Tahrir. Friday was the normal weekly protest; much of it focused on 12 families that had camped out in the square all week. They were demanding that those responsible for the murder of their children/fathers/brothers in January, be held accountable. The day-time protest reached a crescendo when a few hundred marched to the Ministry of Interior. Ghazala, Iba, myself, & Tweeps including Andy Carvin all went along to observe & document. A few rocks were thrown by young protesters & the army threw them back. Luckily that was as violent as it got.
Having a bird’s eye view of Tahrir normally thrills me, but this time I was weary from my own need to constantly know what was happening in the street below. Add to it I wasn’t getting enough sleep and my mind was still in Tunis, with the guys in hospital. Finally I decided: I can’t be in Cairo & not keep up with everything happening, so if I want any rest, it’s best I go. I went to the Middle Eastern Airlines (MEA) office & bought a ticket to Erbil, Iraq, departing the next morning. (Admittedly, a strange place for R&R, but for the record, in Erbil I could hear the crickets every night, rather than the sounds of honking, shouting and glass breaking.)
After buying my ticket at MEA I grabbed my once a day Egyptian meal: a bowl of Koshary — a thick pile of pasta, chick peas, lentils, hot sauce and lemon juice — and headed home for my last nite in Tahrir. While eating Koshary & skyping with my fave Misratee in Tunis, I heard shouting over the AC. Of course I couldn’t leave Tahrir without one last scuffle down below.
Some thugs had come to the square & tried to destroy the 12 tents of the families of the martyrs; many tents were set on fire. Family members & other protesters fought back. Molotov cocktails, ceramic tiles, stones and even kitchen-ware and chairs were thrown by both sides. Some tried to put the fires out while others chased people with wooden sticks. I couldn’t tell who was with which side. I saw one older round woman in a black abaya with a giant shard of broken mirror. I recognized her from the Friday protest 2 days before: one of the family members of the martyred. She pled with a chubby blond European man with a video camera while waving her hands (& a sharp giant piece of broken mirror) in the air. The blond man slowly backed away and left. It may have been 3 weeks ago, but it could just as well be today. It seems a similar scene keeps repeating itself.
I’m back in Tunis! Just in time. There were new calls for revival of Tunisia’s revolution — similar to the calls made in Cairo (Egypt makes the news much more than Tunisia for some reason). Both kicked out their dictator’s relatively quickly, and since then, both movements are not happy that genuine change is taking so long. But unlike Egypt where protesters are able to amass in Tahrir on what seems like a nearly constant basis, in Tunis that’s a difficult and dangerous proposition (that’s not to say that amassing in Tahrir is safe &/or easy).
Kasbah 3 took place across Tunisia last Friday (July 15), even though main squares, the Kasbah, government buildings & nearly every grassy knoll where more than 2 people could convene have long been surrounded by police vans, tanks and mountains of razor wire. Still protesters braved it. At 1:30 — the time that Cairo’s Tahrir square begins to get going — protesters in Tunis’ Kasbah had to flee from rubber bullets and tear gas. It seems the police have zero tolerance of protest here.
Many protesters ran for cover in the tiny alleys of the medina (souk/bazaar). But unlike wide open Tahrir square, it’s impossible to see what is going on in medina… it was only possible to hear distant shouting & feel the effects of residual tear gas. While there I literally stumbled onto a protester from Sidi Bouzid, who couldn’t open his eyes after being tear gassed. I poured coca-cola over his eyes, just like my friends in Cairo did for me 2 weeks earlier. Afterwards, my new friend from Sidi Bouzid and I spent a better part of the afternoon smoking shisha in a cave like place in the middle of the medina, where he told me tales and showed me photos of his hometown during the beginnings of the 1st Arab revolution.
Since then I’ve been trying my best to get to Misrata, Libya. I was supposed to be on a boat from Sfax, Tunisia to Misrata Thursday morning, but my place of the boat was sabotaged by concerned over-protective Misratee friends (long story 4 another blog post soon). The consolation was being able to attend a demonstration in Tunis on Thursday (July 21). The march was called for by over 10+ of Tunisia’s 90+ new political parties that have popped up since the RCD was kicked out. Because of what happened a few days earlier (the Kasbah, as just described), I thought Thursday’s event would also turn violent. But it didn’t. The exception, not the rule.
Posted on July 17th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
I finally blogged (in brief) about my visit to Iraq, in case you are curious. Difficult to put so many intense & moving emotions, stories and experiences into words, especially a few days after the fact — but I gave it my best shot.
Getting to Lalish was not easy. Mainly because I had to avoid the nearby city of Mosul at all costs. It’s amazing how close one can be to cities that are death traps, yet just a few miles away it feels safe and peaceful. Lalish is a prime example of this. Tucked away in golden hills and farming communities, Lalish attracts thousands of pilgrims to its temple — the Spiritual center of the Yazidi — a religion that can, at times, appear to show signs of Hinduism, Paganism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism.
It is said that all Yazidi should make the pilgrimage to the temples of Lalish once in their lifetime (like the journey to Mecca for Muslims). Considering most of the estimated 500,000 Yazidi left on earth live in northern Iraq, it seems like a realistic request. Long misunderstood, the Yazidi have come under attack by extremists intolerant of their religion (as well as an honor killing that occurred within their own community after a Yazidi was rumored to have fallen in love with a Muslim). Because of these tensions there are a number of check points to get to Lalish. Once you reach the village, you must leave your car and explore not just by foot — but barefoot.
I can’t say that I have even a remotely decent understanding of the Yazidi religion after having spent the day at their temple. I can only point out qualities somewhat similar to Paganism (the Sun as the ultimate embodiment of God, for instance, & the icons of snakes and peacocks). In each shrine in the temple are a number of colorful silk scarves that visitors tie and untie in knots while making a wish. There were no other wishes on my mind other than to hope that the people of Iraq get relief from the terror and suffering taking place on their land.
The old men hunched over with long gray beards and cataract-ed eyes, vibrant colors in silks, and cone-shaped shrines peaking out of lush greenery reminded me of Hindu or Jain temples in southeast Asia. It was a relaxing, and possibly inaccurately peaceful and spiritual feeling to be in Lalish. Kind generous people, ancient misunderstood culture, gaggles of shy giggling children, and fresh country air…. a sweet ending to my Iraq travels.
Posted on July 17th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
Erbil is the shining capital of Kurdish Iraq; the place many dub the “next Dubai.” That’s a bit of a stretch, as Erbil will always be synonymous with a Sausage Factory to me. It is one of the most prosperous and safe cities in Iraq, as well as being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (at least that’s what my guidebook says). The ancient bazaar has been attracting people from all corners of the region as long as history has been recorded. Men still come from all across Iraq to sell their wares. Because of that there is an undeniable presence of men, with, at times, a complete lack of female presence. One day i sat on a corner and counted 8 female sightings in a 15 minute period, and 2 of them were prostitutes. I must have seen 8000 men in the same time frame.
Because of that there’s also a real lack of hotels that a female would find suitable. Most hotels have no concept of tourism, so when I asked for a room they would simply say: no. Many times what they meant was that they only have rooms with say, 4 beds, so they do not want to rent it to just one person. Never mind that there was no where else to sleep and I was desperate.
One night, after much looking, i found a double room (2 single Flintstone beds) for about US$40. Let’s just put it this way, there were human “remains” in the corner of the bathroom the ‘plumbing’ was just a hole which led to the bathroom floor, the sheets were stained with a kaleidoscope of colors, and the sheets smelled like dead animal. My last day I broke down, went to the new “suburban” Christian part of town & laid down US$100 for a windowless (but clean) walk in closet.
No matter how nasty the rooms in the bazaar may be, or how many inappropriate the come on lines from porn movies i heard, there’s no denying that staying in the ancient market, with the backdrop of the towering citadel, and the giant statue of historian Mubarak Ahmed Shraffaddin turning a million different shades of gold as the sun set, is a memory I will always cherish.
Posted on July 17th, 2011 by admin. Filed under Iraq.
Amna Suraka, which means Red Security in Kurdish, is Iraq’s first war crimes museum. It’s an imposing compound made of reddish concrete which was once one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious torture centers and prisons. Countless people died and disappeared here, including women and children.
The rooms of the prison are now set up to illustrate what horrific crimes happened to those in captivity. Plaster models in some of the rooms depict exact methods of torture. In some of the cells the graffiti from prisoners is still in tact. In one solitary confinement cell graffiti birds and flowers are still on the wall. In 1991 the Kurdish Pershmega army defeated Hussein’s army liberating the torture center, but for many it was too late.
In another building in the compound, the former offices of Hussein and his security forces have been turned into a Kurdish museum that displays vibrant textiles, rugs and jewelry of the very culture that Hussein tried to annihilate. Another door leads to an unexpected artistically wavy hallway decorated with 182,000 shards of mirror and over 5000 small white lights on the ceiling (video above); a shard of mirror for every person who perished during Hussein’s Anfal campaign, and a light for each village that Hussein destroyed during his rule. Beauty in a place where only misery and death had existed.
- Some photos from Misrata… stories to follow.
- The Boat to Misrata (Libya): Men’s quarters vs. Women’s quarters
- Why I had to visit Misrata (Libya).
- Greetings from Benghazi, Libya
- Just another day in Cairo…