middle east

CENTCOM’s Facebook Page – in Arabic

القيادة المركزية الامريكيةI’m way fascinated by CENTCOM’s Facebook (Arabic) page. As far as I can tell, they mostly just post interesting pictures of military stuff to engage with a mostly Arabic speaking audience. For Arabic students, it’s great, easy practice.

What a strange job to have though, huh? Manager of CENTCOM’s Facebook page in Arabic.

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middle east

So you wanna know about the Middle East?

Battle of Karbala

A friend recently sent me an email asking for book recommendations to get up to date on the Middle East. I didn’t have any good recommendations for her, but what I did share was the list of news sources and blogs that I read daily that helps keeps me up to date.

Shortly after firing off that email, I realized that it was a pretty good list and would make a good post.

Below are the sources in my feedly list that I have collected over the years.

If you know of any good ones that aren’t listed here, please let me know in the comments.

News:
Al Jazeera English (Middle East): News outlet with a focus on the Middle East.
Baghdad Bureau (New York Times): This is the ‘At War’ Blog at the New York Times. It often runs essays by military/veteran personalities and others usually in regards to wars in the Middle East.
Middle East Channel (Foreign Affairs): Short excerpts from Foreign Affairs on the Middle East.
NYT>Islam: News from the New York Time’s Islam section.
NYT>Middle East: News from the New York Time’s Middle East section.
The Independent – Middle East: News from The Independent’s (UK) Middle East section.
Robert Fisk: Controversial and outspoken journalist that covers the Middle East.
WP: Middle East: News from the Washington Post’s Middle East section.
BBC News – Middle East: Middle East section of the BBC.

Blogs:
hawgblawg - Ted Swedenburg, ME anthropologist. Mostly blogs about the kufiya and Arab pop music.
Informed Comment- Juan Cole. ME Studies Professor. Liberal bent. Very good ME stuff.
Jihadology - a source for translated statements from muslim extremist groups.
MEI Blog - Blog of the Middle East Institute. Sporadic historical posts.
al-bab - Blog of Brian Whitaker, Middle East journalist.
Letters from the Underground (was ‘Frustrated Arab) – blog by an anti-imperialist activist.
gary’s choices – Tumblr blog by Gary Sick, former National Security Council Advisor. Iran-hand.
intelwire - Blog of J.M. Berger, Middle East analyst focusing on extremism, especially in social media.
Jadaliyya – Ezine on Middle East. Mostly political stuff. English/Arabic.
Jihadology – Mostly translated Islamic extremist releases/messages.
jihadica - more jihad stuff.
jillian c. york - prominent blogger on ME issues and social media.
Marc Lynch - Formerly ‘abu aardvark,’ blog on ME stuff hosted at Foreign Policy.
Musings on Iraq - Iraq centric blog by Joel Wing.
Mondoweiss - Blog focusing mainly on Israel/Palestine issues.
Sandbox - blog by Middle East Scholar Martin Kramer.
Saudiwoman’s Weblog – Blog focusing mostly on Women’s Issues in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabist - blog about Arab politics and culture.
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer- Arab politics through football.
Views from the Occident - Blog by PhD student in Islamic Studies. Focused mostly on extremist groups and imagery.

middle east

Nothing Is Over

My letters home, arranged by month

My letters home, arranged by month

Here’s another post that’s been sitting on my hard drive that was supposed to get published somewhere else.

Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.

Violence in Iraq has steadily spiraled out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”

But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.

There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’

If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.

That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.

Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and lay out all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.

That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences – bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.

My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.

The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.

I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.

The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.

Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.

Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgot. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who were now young adults. I wondered if they remembered me, or if they were even still alive.

Back in August, I grew disgusted with the whole thing. Iraq was getting worse and no one seemed to care. I thought about stopping the project. I was exhausted and angry.

I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.

And now I’m done. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year long project is over. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.

It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag – a symbolic gesture – to wrestle the attention of a media saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.

I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.

middle east

The New Iranian Drone – Fotros “a redeemed, fallen angel”

iran_fotros_drone_620x350-1

I read this morning in multiple places that Iran has unveiled their new drone, “Fotros,” which boasts a 2,000 km range.

I’ve always been interested in the naming conventions of military equipment, especially in Iran and the Arab states. While names can easily be dismissed as just dressing, sometimes the name of a device can tell more of the story, or how the equipment is intended to be used.

I did some quick Googling and found this about Fotros: “A fallen angel in Shia mythology which was redeemed by Husayn ibn Ali.”

I also found this description of the story of “fitrus” from a blog:

On the day Imam Hussain (a.s.) was born, it was said that Allah (swt) commanded Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) to descend upon the heavens and congratulate Prophet Mohammed (saas). While descending, Hadrat Jibraeel passed an island where an angel named Fitrus had been banished due to his delay in performing a command made by Allah (swt). He had his wings taken away from him and remained in that island for several years, just praying and asking for God’s forgiveness. When Fitrus saw Hadrat Jibraeel, he asked where he was going, and Hadrat Jibraeel said that he was going to congratulate the house of Imam Ali (a.s.) on the birth of Imam Hussain (a.s.). Fitrus begged him to carry him to the Prophet (saas) and see what he can do for this case. When they arrived, Hadrat Jibraeel (a.s.) gave the message Allah (swt) commanded him to deliver and then talked about Fitrus’ situation. The Holy Prophet (saas) looked at Fitrus, and told him to touch the newborn (Imam Hussain) and return to his place in Heaven and obey the commands of Allah (swt).  Fitrus touched the body of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and instantly got his wings back and was able to descend back to Heaven. Before Fitrus ascended back, he promised to Imam Hussain ”O Husain, from this day onwards, whenever anyone sends their Salaams to you, I will always deliver it to you.”

An interesting name, given the reports that this drone was at least partially reverse-engineered from the Predator drone that was captured in late 2011. A redeemed, fallen angel.

I don’t know much (anything) about the mythology of Fotros other than what I found this morning. If anyone knows more and cares to share, please do so in the comments.

middle east

PAUSEX: Iraq. Nothing is over.

Baghdad Monument

I’m a Howard Stern fan. I was listening to an old broadcast of the show from October, 2006, and when Robin was reading the news, she matter-of-factly stated that the number of US service members who had died in Iraq that month had just reached 100. Howard acknowledged it with a barely audible grunt, there was an awkwardly long pause, and then Robin moved on to the next news story.

If you are a follower of this blog, then you know I’ve been recounting my year in Iraq during OIF I in a series of posts (Iraq: Ten Years Later). It’s been a sometimes enjoyable and sometimes painful experience and I can’t possibly get down everything I want.

I’m very aware, however, that I am fortunate to have the luxury of ruminating over that experience. One, because I made it home safely and two, because my basic needs are met. I’m able to delve into the airy “what it all means” discourse. Many of my veteran peers do not have that luxury. And based on my thesis research, veterans who served in the Iraqi military are for the most part, uninterested.

While I’m waxing nostalgic over my year in Iraq, others Iraq veterans are bummed out about the country’s slide to civil war, concerned now that if this unraveling is the end result, their service and sacrifice might have been squandered. Others still, are writing about how Iraq Was America’s Best Run War (Foreign Policy). A rage-inspiring self-congratulatory title designed to get you to read it, I’m sure.

There is no shortage of interesting and important things happening in the Middle East right now. Egypt is still struggling to find itself out of its most recent upheaval. Syria continues to implode. Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have just resumed.

But over in Iraq, things are getting really nasty.

July 22, Reuters: Al Qaeda militants flee Iraq jail in violent mass break-out - Over 500 militants busted out in brazen raid on Abu Ghraib prison
July 29, The Independent: Iraq car bombs: At least 60 dead as rush-hour attacks hit Baghdad and nearby cities
August 2, AP: Iraq sees highest monthly death toll in 5 years – over 1,000 killed in July

I think, as a result to the daily barrage of bad news stories that came out of Iraq while we were there, we have become completely desensitized – and uninterested – in anything that happens there, no matter how spectacular or significant. Syria and Egypt are interesting because they’re new. But Iraq, well, we’ve been watching death and destruction there since we were children.

It’s unfortunate, because what’s going in Iraq is significant and important. And the lives and souls of millions of Americans are forever tied to that ground – for better or for worse. It is worth paying attention.

middle east

French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali

Lots of action going on in Mali. Here’s the story behind the jump.

The ‘combat jump device‘ is one of the rarest awards in the US military. Right place, right time. I almost got one (not really).

I’m not sure if there is an equivalent award for the French. If anyone knows if they get any special recognition for participating in a combat jump, I’d love to know about it.

middle east

Women in the infantry: Assad’s Lionesses

Terrifying.

Terrifying.

This, from The Independent:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recruited a brigade of women to man checkpoints and carry out security  operations as he attempts to free up soldiers in his beleaguered army to fight the rebels.

Dressed in fatigues and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, the female recruits – the “Lionesses for National Defence” – are part of a new paramilitary force. They have already been deployed in Homs, where they have been spotted guarding areas where residents still largely support the regime. Videos from both opposition and pro-government sites purport to show members of the all-female unit in action.

A spokesperson from the Syrian opposition claims that placing weapons in the hands of women is simply a way to get the Free Syrian Army to kill women, which would then enflame opinions against the rebel cause.

middle east

Radical Islamists or football hooligans looking for a fight?

“You won’t understand the Middle East until you get lost in Cairo.”

That’s a piece of advice I received from a former American ambassador who spent a great deal of time living and working in the Middle East. What he meant is that understanding the Middle East is difficult and things are not always what they seem. To grasp what is going on, sometimes you have to go a lot deeper than what feels comfortable.

With images of violence streaming in from Egypt and across the Middle East, it is understandable that some would respond with anger – anger over the senseless death of one of our ambassadors, members of his team, and the Libyan guards who died trying to protect them. While the events in Benghazi appear to be a departure from the norm (the norm being violent protest at US embassies, but not resulting in the deaths of American personnel), it is hard to understand how anyone can protest on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to do so after the violent attack in Benghazi. I get the sense that there are many who don’t want to “understand,” but rather want to “do something.” To react.

For those who simply want to react, there’s probably not much I can write here that will convince them otherwise. If a person get punched in the face, it is completely appropriate to punch the person back. But nations are not people. Nations have responsibilities that go far beyond the immediacy of emotion and reflex. It would be too easy to declare a simple cause, like “they” hate us or this is “their” religion. It’s easy to reach for that because it requires no extra thought or work. It’s the reaction of ignorance and laziness. It’s a way to cast things in stark contrast to one another. Right and wrong. Good versus evil. If only things were that simple.

So the rest of this post is intended for those who understand and agree that the world is a complex place.

There are a number of things at play when trying to discern why there is violence against our embassies. Without question, the inflammatory video the “Innocence of Muslims” served as the catalyst for the inexcusable violence. But underlying this is a history of deep mistrust of the US because of foreign policy decisions and interventions of the past, anger over US support for Israel and our inability to mediate an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the constant stoking of emotions by leaders in these countries to push blame for almost anything on foreigners and meddling. This does not excuse the violence, but rather lays out that there is no single motivation for the behavior of a violent protestor.

In the case of Egypt, and probably other nations as well, domestic politics are influencing these events to a greater degree than is given credit. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a “protest culture” has emerged which has proven that massing people for a common cause can effect real change. In Egypt, much of the violence between police and the population is accredited to the “Ultras” who are essentially what we would call football hooligans. Originally I wanted to write this entire post about the ultras, but I’ve found a couple of good sources that do a better job (The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and “Egyptian Ultras Emerge as Powerful Political Force“). And like in London last year, I suspect there are a lot of people that simply come out and do it for the lulz.

Among these protestors, there are radical Islamists. These are most likely the ones who are carrying the flag of al-Qaeda and pushing the violence to more extreme levels.

All of these actors come together with their different grievances and mass them against something they don’t like; in this case, the US (for whatever reason). Someone who protests at the embassy isn’t by default a radical Islamist. She could be an Egyptian college student who is angered by the United State’s refusal to take legal action against the producer of the inflammatory film (the notion of Freedom of Speech protecting even inflammatory speech is not always understood or respected). It can also be a member of a football club who showed up for a good fight. Or it can be a radical Islamist, who seeks to take advantage of a dangerous situation to advance his own agenda.

The point of this post is to hopefully encourage anyone interested in what is happening across the Middle East to dig deeper than the headlines and try to understand what is going on, instead of simply lumping millions of people together into a mush of anti-American radical Islamists.