The Shisha Haze

Thoughts and semi-coherent ramblings about life and events in Arabia, the Levant, and Arab North Africa.

04 April 2011

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Don Amboyer
(646) 512-1445

03 November 2005


King Abdullah and his brother Ali
 Posted by Picasa

A Royal Consultation

The leaders of the Emirates welcome King Abdullah of Jordan
 Posted by Picasa

11 June 2005

U.S. steps up attack on Syria over 'hit list'

White House accuses Damascus of creating climate of fear during Lebanon's parliamentary elections
BEIRUT: President George W. Bush stepped up his attacks on Syria last night, after a U.S. official said Damascus had compiled an "assassination hit list" targeting Lebanese political leaders. The accusation comes a week after the assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir which has fueled speculation that Syrian intelligence units are still operating in Lebanon."
Bush said: "Our message to Syria - and it's not just the message of the United States, the United Nations has said the same thing - is that in order for Lebanon to be free, Syria needs to not only remove its military, but to remove intelligence officers as well."
Commenting on the assassination list, Bush said: "Obviously we're going to follow up on these troubling reports, and we expect the Syrian government to follow up on these troubling reports
The anonymous U.S. official said the information came from "a variety of credible Lebanese sources."
In the latest escalation of tensions between Damascus and Washington, the White House accused Syria of creating a climate of fear during Lebanon's parliamentary elections in what will be seen as a scarcely veiled allusion to the murder of Kassir.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We are deeply concerned about Syria's interference and intimidation inside Lebanon."
He added: "We are concerned intelligence operatives are interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs. We have all called on the UN to send the verification teams back to Lebanon."
Washington's attack follows earlier comments from UN chief Kofi Annan who said on Thursday night that he was considering sending a second verification team to Lebanon because of reports that Syrian intelligence is still operating in the country.
Damascus has strenuously denied any involvement in the Kassir murder, and insists it has fully complied with UN Resolution 1559 which ordered Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence agencies from its smaller neighbor.
The new accusations against Syria came as Lebanon prepares to hold its third phase of four-stage parliamentary elections on Sunday, in Mount Lebanon, and the Bekaa districts.
Jumblatt accused the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Rustom Ghazaleh, of meddling in the election through his agents.

10 June 2005

So, I was sitting...

...on a mountain in Yemen chewing some qat. I went on a day trip from Sana'a to two villages about an hour away with a Yemeni army captain. We ended up climbing a mountain with a village on top that overlooks the village we started from. The air was really thin and it was quite the adventure. Here are my favorite photos. I'll be back in the States on the 22nd.

Don Amboyer

06 June 2005

News from Sana'a

Hi everyone,

I flew into Sana'a, Yemen on Monday 31 May. My plan is to spend three weeks here studying Arabic with a private tutor at the Sana'a Institute for Arabic Language. My Arabic abilities are still not great and Yemen is a good place to practice because, unlike other places in the Middle East, most people don't speak English. Yemen is also cheap. It's costing just a few hundred dollars to study privately and live in a traditional Yemeni house. The student housing is on the edge of the Old City in central Sana'a. The walk to Bab al Yemen is only about a kilometer.

Sana'a is an amazing place. In many ways it's like stepping back into history. The traditional souks and street markets thrive and are the main supply of food and goods for the people. Poverty is rampant here; most people live on less than $2 per day. However, things are comparatively less expensive than the States or other countries in the region. My first three days in Sana'a I lived on less than $5 per day while eating at decent restaurants. My diet has consisted mainly of bread, foul and some chicken. The foul is much better than the Sudanese variety but I still have an aversion to it.

The Institute is a pretty cool place. It's a decent sized building about 300 meters from the student housing. There are probably about 25 people studying there. Most all have private tutors and schedule their time in 3 or 4 hour blocks throughout the day. I've had sessions inside and outside and really like the relaxed atmosphere. My instructor and I agreed to work primarily on conversational items but also to work on a subset of politically specific language. Each day I bring the day's newspaper and we review articles that cover politics in the Middle East. This should really help to expand my vocabulary when speaking about current issues.

One of the first people I met here was a Canadian guy who came for a month to get a quick introduction to Arabic. He and I were talking and discovered we both shared a passion for diving. He had planned a weekend away at Kamaran Island in the Red Sea off the western coast of Yemen. I agreed to join him and we would set off on Friday and return on Sunday. Friday and Sunday would be travel days and we would dive on Saturday. Thursday evening we stayed up late with some students and it made a rough start for Friday morning. Our bus left from Bab al Yemen at 6:15 AM and I was feeling a little sickly. The bus trip took six hours and ended in Houdida, a city near the port of Asslif. I continued to get worse during the trip, but I hoped it would go away after a few hours off the bus.

The bus trips here a bit of an adventure. Arabic music and/or movies blare from overhead speakers throughout the trip. It's a challenge at first to follow along but after about three hours it just gets obnoxious. There are also several stops during a six hour trip. On average every hour and half the bus stops in a village to offload passengers for twenty minutes to buy food and drink and also the all important qat. Qat is the national pastime of Yemen. Most men and women chew the leaf and it acts as a stimulant. I don't Yemenis could survive a bus trip without qat. The other charming part of my bus trips seems to be my ability to choose a seat next to the on-board toilets. Not nice.

Houdida and the surrounding area was a bit Wild West meets Sudan. The coastal populations of Yemen have mixed African and Arab ancestry; most of the north is dominated by Arabs. The temperature in Houdida mixed with humidity was stifling, 42°C with 85-90% humidity. There was almost no breeze which made standing outside nearly unbearable. Our hotel hosts arrived quickly to collect us and let us sit in an air conditioned room for about an hour before we went to lunch. The hour in A/C was the second best part of the entire trip.

For lunch our group of ten headed to a local mendi restaurant. Mendi is a style of food popular in Yemen and the greater Gulf region. It consists of a base of rice topped with meat (mutton, chicken, or fish) served on a communal plate. Its eaten with your hands, but you mix yogurt and sauce with the rice and meat to solidify a mound that you scoop into your mouth. It may sound terrible but it actually is great once you get the hang of it. The meat is perfectly seasoned and cooked underground and the flavor really comes out with the yogurt and sauce.

After lunch ended we left via the hotels delivery trucks. We had to make a quick stop at the qat market to pick up a supply of qat for the workers. It was an eye opening experience to wander around market and witness the shouting, haggling and general chaos of the qat scene. The drive to the port of Asslif took about an hour through a desolate arid/desert peninsula. I was expecting the ferry to the island to be a drive-on heavy duty type. Er, wrong. Workers unpacked the bus and put our things into a 15 foot rowboat with a motor. It was starting to get interesting.

The ride across the strait to Kamaran took about twenty five minutes. The "hotel" didn't come into view until we almost reached the shore. It consists of a main lodge type area with dining tables and six separate huts for guest quarters. The owner doesn't believe in air conditioning so it was a bit hot. No, really; it was hot. The hotel is separated from Kamaran village by at least fifteen kilometers. The total island size is 80 square kilometers inhabited by less than three thousand people. The terrain is basically a mixture of rock and desert. Wide white sandy beaches are not in abundance.

We had dinner, played dominos and I settled in for the night. It was defiantley one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life. Air couldn't circulate in the hut and the humidity was intense. I eventually passed out. The next morning came early thanks to the rather rude rooster who began crowing at 5:30 am. We had breakfast and got ready to dive. Jason, the Canadian, and I suited up and took our equipment to the boat with Ahmad the divemaster. We were joined by two locals who work for the hotel; they are fishermen and provide security for us.

The first dive spot was about twenty minutes from the hotel dock. It was an amazing dive. It was fairly shallow at on 10 meters but we stayed under water for more than an hour. I saw all kinds of amazing fish, lobster, and even a few stingrays among the coral. Awesome dive. The second dive wasn't as interesting. We dove to about 30 meters but couldn't stay down long because of the diminished oxygen supply due to depth. There was a lot of silt kicked up on the bottom and the current was strong. All in all not a great dive. The good part was that I gained confidence in my diving abilities. I used less air than usual and controlled bouncy better. I think it had a lot to do with being in salt water instead of fresh.

I had hoped for more diving later in the afternoon but it wasn't to be. This wasn't too bad because sunburn was starting to set in. That afternoon I sat around and finished a good book. I was still feeling sick and I think I became dehydrated. I lay down and only got up briefly for a dinner I didn't eat. Sunday morning came early again and I was still feeling sick. We saw some dolphins that morning in the bay near the hotel. That was cool and reminded me of a few summers ago in South Carolina. We said our goodbyes around 9:30 and boarded the boat for the return trip to Asslif.

Jason and I had decided to skip the bus ride and instead travel back to Sana'a with Sultan in his Landcrusier. Did I mention I love Landcruisers? I do. He has an 80s model FJ62 and the thing is a tank. We couldn't wait to get out the flat costal area and into the mountains where the temperature drops. Along the way we were stopped at every police checkpoint. The police are not used to Westerners traveling in the area and made sure to take all of our details before releasing us. At one checkpoint near the mountains it was decided that this wasn't enough. The army manned the checkpoint and insisted on giving us an armed escort through the region. An army Landcruiser bushanab loaded with six men and a mounted fifty caliber machine gun stuck close to us for about half an hour before pulling off. Rural Yemenis are notorious for capturing Westerners and holding them for ransom to force the government to build infrastructure in their villages. The government figures it cheaper to prevent abductions than to continue building roads and powerlines to the middle of nowhere.

The ride back through the mountains took about six hours. I was still sick and dehydrated. I was starting to feel a bit delirious. We only stopped once so that Jason and Sultan could take lunch. I began feeling better once the climate cooled. The mountains are beautiful. The houses are built into the sides and tops of cliffs. It is the exact same style of building and decoration that I saw in the mountains between Dibba and al Fujariah at the southern end of Musandam. I have no doubt that the occupants of those mountains were orginially Yemenis who migrated to the far eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. We had one small traffic incident on the way back but no big ordeals. It was an interesting trip that I would rather have taken about three months back. I am hoping that the sick leaves me soon so that I can get back to full strength.

Talk to you ya'll soon.

Don Amboyer

26 May 2005

Hizb Allah chief: We will keep our arms

The interesting bit is that Jumblatt has sided with Hizballah against the political pressure being exerted by Aoun and the Christians. Jumblatt has taken an anti-Syria position. Hizballah has recieved substantial financial and military support from Syria. Hizballah has been on the retreat since the Syrian withdrawl. This alliance seems to based on the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" principle. From Al Jazeera.

"Any hand that reaches out to our weapons is an Israeli hand that will be cut off," Hizb Allah chief Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah told tens of thousands of supporters on Wednesday - the fifth anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

"We do not want to attack anyone and will not allow anyone to attack Lebanon, but if anyone, anyone, thinks of disarming the resistance, we will fight them like the martyrs of Karbala," he said, referring to a battle in Islamic history pivotal to Shias.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also spoke at the rally, defending Hizb Allah's right to keep arms. The prominent opposition leader told the thousands of Hizb Allah supporters that "We must not allow international interference to undermine Lebanon's principles".

Jumblatt recently forged an alliance with Hizb Allah in Mount Lebanon for the crucial parliamentary elections, due to kick off this Sunday.

Jumblatt, one of the most vocal critics of Syria's interference in Lebanese politics, said that Hizb Allah had to be protected "out of loyalty to slain premier Rafik al-Hariri".

Notes from Usama bin Laden's November 04 speech

Some of you may never have read the actual unedited versions of bin Laden's speeches. The news reports don't do justice to the full weight of his words. Much like our government has a National Security Strategy so does Al Qai'da and it is largely laid out in this speech. I've copied a few excerpts but the full translation is at Al Jazeera.

No, we fight because we are free men who don't sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation. So shall we lay waste to yours.

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure. Whereas thinking people, when disaster strikes, make it their priority to look for its causes, in order to prevent it happening again.

I say to you, Allah knows that it had never occurred to us to strike the towers. But after it became unbearable and we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the American/Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, it came to my mind.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that. This bombardment began and many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced.

I couldn't forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy.

The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn't include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn't respond.

And that day, it was confirmed to me that oppression and the intentional killing of innocent women and children is a deliberate American policy. Destruction is freedom and democracy, while resistance is terrorism and intolerance.

Is defending oneself and punishing the aggressor in kind, objectionable terrorism? If it is such, then it is unavoidable for us.

You can observe it practically, if you wish, in Kenya and Tanzania and in Aden. And you can read it in my interview with Abdul Bari Atwan, as well as my interviews with Robert Fisk.

The latter is one of your compatriots and co-religionists and I consider him to be neutral. So are the pretenders of freedom at the White House and the channels controlled by them able to run an interview with him? So that he may relay to the American people what he has understood from us to be the reasons for our fight against you?

It's slightly disconcerting to see that I agree with bin Laden that Fisk is unbiased.

All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.

So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

24 May 2005

Sudan forces surround southerners

Massive trouble. I've been through this area and the camps that the government wants to move these people to along the Kosti highway. From the BBC.

Several thousand armed Sudanese security forces have surrounded an illegal shanty town full of southerners displaced by two decades of civil war.

Machine guns mounted on pick-up vehicles are pointing at the ramshackle houses in Soba Aradi which is in a suburb of the capital, Khartoum.

Several lorry loads of men and women have been arrested, beaten with sticks and taken to a local police station.

Last week, 14 policemen died during an attempt to resettle residents.

At least three other people also died in the violence, which officials say happened as crowds surrounded a police station and burnt it down.

A spokesman for the residents said no-one was being allowed out of Soba Aradi.

"They have cordoned off all areas and have taken tough measures to stop people leaving," Mohamed Ahmed Abdel Gader Arbab told Reuters news agency.


Some 50 people were arrested in connection with the police killings and 200 held on lesser charges, the BBC's Jonah Fisher reports from Khartoum.

He says 6,400 police officers and military were involved in the operation.

Some two million southerners squat illegally around Khartoum.

It's All Newsweek's Fault

Hot damn! Op-ed from the Times.

IN the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Fareed Zakaria wrote a 6,791-word cover story for Newsweek titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" Think how much effort he could have saved if he'd waited a few years. As we learned last week, the question of why they hate us can now be answered in just one word: Newsweek.

"Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care," said the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, as he eagerly made the magazine the scapegoat for lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan. Indeed, Mr. McClellan was so fixated on destroying Newsweek - and on mouthing his own phony P.C. pieties about the Koran - that by omission he whitewashed the rioters themselves, Islamic extremists who routinely misuse that holy book as a pretext for murder.

That's how absurdly over-the-top the assault on Newsweek has been. The administration has been so successful at bullying the news media in order to cover up its own fictions and failings in Iraq that it now believes it can get away with pinning some 17 deaths on an errant single sentence in a 10-sentence Periscope item that few noticed until days after its publication. Coming just as the latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq is "worth fighting" and only 42 percent think it's going well, this smells like desperation. In its war on the press, this hubristic administration may finally have crossed a bridge too far.

Let's stipulate flatly that Newsweek made a serious error. For the sake of argument, let's even posit that the many other similar accounts of Koran desecration (with and without toilets) by American interrogators over the past two years are fantasy - even though they've been given credence by the International Committee of the Red Cross and have turned up repeatedly in legal depositions by torture victims and in newspapers as various as The Denver Post and The Financial Times. Let's also ignore the May 1 New York Times report that a former American interrogator at Guantánamo has corroborated a detainee's account of guards tossing Korans into a pile and stepping on them, thereby prompting a hunger strike. Why don't we just go all the way and erase those photographs of female guards sexually humiliating Muslims (among other heinous crimes) at Abu Ghraib?

Even with all that evidence off the table, there is still an overwhelming record, much of it in government documents, that American interrogators have abused Muslim detainees with methods specifically chosen to hit their religious hot buttons. A Defense Department memo of October 2002 (published in full in Mark Danner's book "Torture and Truth") authorized such Muslim-baiting practices as depriving prisoners of "published religious items or materials" and forcing the removal of beards and clothing. A cable signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez called for interrogators to "exploit Arab fear of dogs." (Muslims view them as unclean.) Even a weak-kneed government investigation of prison abuses (and deaths) in Iraq and Afghanistan issued in March by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy authenticated two cases in which female interrogators "touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees' religious beliefs."

About the Newsweek matter Donald Rumsfeld had a moral to bequeath the land. "People need to be careful what they say," he said, channeling Ari Fleischer, and added, "just as people need to be careful what they do." How true. If one of his right-hand men, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, hadn't been barnstorming American churches making internationally publicized pronouncements that his own Christian God is "a real god" and Islam's god is "an idol," maybe anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, at record highs even before the Newsweek incident, would have been a shade less lethal. If higher-ups had been called to account for the abuses of Abu Ghraib, maybe Newsweek might have had as little traction in the Arab world as The Onion.

Then again, even the administration's touchy-feely proactive outreach to Muslims in the Middle East is baloney: Karen Hughes, appointed with great fanfare by the president in March as our latest under secretary of state for public diplomacy (the third since 9/11), runs a shop with no Muslims at the top - or would, if she were there. As The Washington Post reported, she doesn't intend to assume her duties until the fall and the paperwork for her confirmation has yet to be sent to the Senate. Why rush? It's not as if there's a war on.

Given this context, the administration's attempt to pass the entire buck to Newsweek for our ill odor among Muslims, including those Muslims who abhor jihadists committing murder, is laughable. Yet there's something weirdly self-incriminating about the language it uses to do it. Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman whose previous boss, Colin Powell, delivered a fictional recitation of Saddam Hussein's weapon capabilities before the United Nations Security Council, said it's "shocking" that Newsweek used "facts that have not been substantiated." Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, attacked Newsweek for hiding "behind anonymous sources," yet it was an anonymous source, an Iraqi defector known as Curveball, who fed the fictions that Mr. Powell spouted to gin up America for war. Psychological displacement of this magnitude might give even Freud pause.

The only thing more ridiculous is the spectacle of the White House's various knee-jerk flacks on cable news shoutfests and in the blogosphere characterizing Newsweek as representative of a supposedly anti-American, military-hating "mainstream media." It wasn't long ago that the magazine and the co-author of the Periscope item, Michael Isikoff, were being cheered by the same crowd for their pursuit of Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey.

As for the supposed antimilitary agenda of the so-called mainstream media, the right should look first at itself. In its eagerness to parrot the administration line, it's as ready to sell out the military as any clichéd leftist. For starters, it thought nothing of dismissing the judgment of Gen. Carl Eichenberry, our top commander in Afghanistan, who, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the riots were "not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

The right's rage at Newsweek is all too reminiscent of the contempt it heaped on Specialist Thomas Wilson, the soldier who dared to ask Mr. Rumsfeld at a town hall meeting in Kuwait in December about the shortage of armored vehicles. Mr. Wilson was guilty of "near-insubordination," said Rush Limbaugh; the embedded reporter who helped him frame his question was reviled by bloggers as a traitor. Yet Mr. Wilson's question was legitimate, and Mr. Rumsfeld's answer (that the shortage was only "a matter of production and capability") was a lie. As USA Today reported in March, the Pentagon has known for nearly two years that it didn't have enough armored Humvees but let the problem fester until that insubordinate questioner gave the defense secretary no choice but to act.

It's also because of incompetent Pentagon planning that other troops may now be victims of weapons looted from Saddam's munitions depots after the fall of Baghdad. Yet when The New York Times reported one such looting incident, in Al Qaqaa, before the election, the administration and many in the blogosphere reflexively branded the story fraudulent. But the story was true. It was later corroborated not only by United States Army reservists and national guardsmen who spoke to The Los Angeles Times but also by Iraq's own deputy minister of industry, who told The New York Times two months ago that Al Qaqaa was only one of many such weapon caches hijacked on America's undermanned post-invasion watch.

IT is terrible that Newsweek was wrong, though it's worth noting, as John Donvan of ABC News did, that the Defense Department's claim that its story was "demonstrably" false is also an overreach. Almost nothing that happens in the sealed prison at Guantánamo is as demonstrable as, say, Saddam's underwear. But if something good can come out of something bad, the administration's overkill of Newsweek may focus greater public attention on just how much it is using press-bashing to deflect attention from the fictions spun by its own propaganda machine.

Just since the election, we've witnessed the unmasking of Armstrong Williams and Jeff Gannon. We've learned - thanks to Newsweek's parent publication, The Washington Post - that the Pentagon went so far as to deliberately hide the circumstances of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death from his own family for weeks, lest the truth mar the P.R. advantages to be reaped from his memorial service. Even as Scott McClellan instructs Newsweek on just what stories it should write to atone for its sins, a professional propagandist sits as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: Kenneth Tomlinson, who also runs the board supervising Voice of America and other government-run media outlets. He's been hard at work meddling in the journalism on NPR and PBS.

This steady drip of subterfuge and news manipulation increasingly tells a more compelling story than the old news that Newsweek so egregiously botched.