Category Archives: Personal Stuff

Rule of experts

Your money is safe here.

With the Qadhafi regime dissolving in Tripoli and the revolutionary forces ready to take over the country, I keep thinking about a conversation I had in Istanbul six months ago that I think exemplifies the problem of Middle East “experts” these days.

I was just back from the uprising in Cairo and high on revolutionary fervor, but I was planning on staying in Turkey indefinitely and needed a way to make money besides flailing around trying to do freelance journalism about a country I don’t know very well at a time when everyone’s attention was focused elsewhere.

I swallowed my pride and applied for a position as a “researcher” at a company that writes reports on countries in the Global South to help capitalists in the Global North decide where to invest. (There are, for some reason, a number of firms that do this kind of research in Istanbul and I won’t name which I applied to.) With my experience in Egypt, I was going to work on their North Africa desk.

I went in for an interview with the head of their Africa division. I told him my thoughts on Egypt and Tunisia (whatever my thoughts were at that point…) and then the conversation turned to Libya. I believe that this was on February 19, two days after the protests started in Benghazi. Protests were also heating up in Bahrain and Yemen. I told this person interviewing me that I didn’t know much about Libya, but I questioned the Qadhafi regime’s stability and I thought that the revolutions were spread.

“No,” the Africa expert said. “Benghazi flares up like this every once in a while and then it gets quieted down. People’s investments in Libya are safe.”

Six months later, crazy Qadhafi is almost gone, added to the (I hope growing) list of Arab dictators whose time has finally come in 2011. Many people in the business of making predictions, the “experts” on whom so many businesspeople and journalists and politicians rely, are, or at least should be, kicking themselves for their inability to see the fundamental instability of the Arab dictatorship model.

I hope that the same guy is now telling people how safe their money is in Syria.


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Filed under Mistakes, Personal Stuff

The first from Istanbul

After months of (sort of) planning and anticipating, Helen and I have finally arrived and begun settling ourselves in Istanbul. We’ve got a small but pleasant apartment in a hip and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, not unlike so many of our friends living in New York. The difference is that we have a balcony from which we can watch tankers and ferries glide along the Bosphorus. We’re still getting our bearings in Istanbul, learning how to get around, picking up basic phrases getting familiar with the sights and sounds and smells of Turkey’s largest city.

This seems like an appropriate time to resume my blogging endeavors and to, yet again, attempt to make the upkeep of this blog a regular habit. I’ll start by trying to explain why I’m here. Over the past few months as people asked me why Helen and I were moving to Istanbul of all places, I would often just reply with “Why not?” But there are actual reasons we decided to come to a totally new place where neither of us speak the language (yet) or have any experience.

I’ll admit off the bat that part of why we chose Istanbul is because the city seems fabulous. The weather and the food appeal to us. There is an endless supply of nice restaurants and pleasant bars and places to sit and look at the water. And there’s nothing wrong with moving to a place because it seems like a nice place to live.

There are, of course, more substantial reasons why we chose Istanbul. For Helen, an artist, the city has a large and growing arts community that is innovative and important. The neighborhood where we are now living is teeming with galleries and we’re about a quarter mile from a world-class modern art museum.

But why did I want to move here? As a journalist, I think that Turkey is an important place to be, in many ways much more important than Egypt, where I was living and working last year. This is actually the real point I wanted to make with this blog post, though I’ve kind of buried the lead now.

As the U.S. declines and other countries rise, the world is becoming ever more multipolar. This isn’t a secret and it’s not some kind of out there theory, it’s just what’s happening. For better or worse (I think for better), the United States can no longer be the sole important country in the world and other capitals will have to pick up the slack. Turkey, because of its size, its economy, its geography, is picking up a lot of this slack. I think it will be interesting to see the reconfiguring international order from this vantage point.

So there you have it. A re-inaugural blog post outlining what we’re doing here. I hope you’ll be able to follow along as I blog about my and Helen’s life together on the shores of the Bosphorus and Turkish politics, along with plenty of other stuff about food and Egypt and folk music and everything else.


Photo from my flickr account.


Filed under Life Abroad, Personal Stuff, Turkey, Welcomes

For dinner? World domination

For some reason I find it really heartwarming that Bill and Hillary Clinton have exactly the same inane convesrations as Helen and I.

Politico runs the transcript from an interview Secretary Clinton did with some talk show hosts in Australia:

QUESTION: It all requires excellent patience, great negotiation skills. Your husband also possesses those qualities. When you two can’t agree on what to get for takeaway dinner, who wins out in that type of negotiation?

SECRETARY CLINTON: We practice different models of negotiation around important issues like that.


SECRETARY CLINTON: Because if I were to say to him, as I have on many occasions, “What shall we have for dinner tonight?” If he says to me, “Oh, I don’t care; you choose,” I know that’s a really bad answer, because then I’m stuck with the responsibility.


SECRETARY CLINTON: So I will come back and I’ll say, “All right. Well, so how do you feel about Chinese — ”

QUESTION: Oh, good.

SECRETARY CLINTON: “ — or Mexican or Italian?” And if he says a second time, “I really, really don’t care,” then I will go choose. Now, contrarily, if he says to me, “What do you want for dinner tonight,” I will say, “What do you want?” Then he’ll go, “Well, I was thinking of maybe picking up some Thai.” And if I’m in a good humor, I’ll say, “That’s fine.” But if I am feeling not enthusiastic about Thai, I’ll say, “Well, maybe we should consider something else.” And he’ll say, “Well, then you choose.” (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you ever eat before midnight? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: We are very late eaters. Yes, we do. I mean, this could go on — this goes on for some time.

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Filed under American Politics, Personal Stuff

This year in Egypt

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Last night marked the beginning of Passover, the holiday where Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. I am, of course, in Egypt.

I’m not really celebrating this year. In fact, I’m not celebrating at all. Last night I tried to go to a seder at one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to enter. (I suspect that at least part of the reason I was turned away was because I told security outside that I’m a journalist. I won’t prove them right by writing on the Internet about the seder or the synagogue.)

I understand that security is an important issue for the small (and shrinking) Jewish community here. It was just a few weeks ago that some crazy threw a homemade bomb at the main synagogue downtown. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to celebrate one of my favorite holidays—particularly one in which observers open their doors to symbolize inviting guests to the table.

Then again, I’m not sure I how I could celebrate Passover in Egypt. An important part of the seder service is, basically, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Egyptians. At its most grisly, this involves commemorating the ten plagues that God cast upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the first-born. The killing of civilians is something I always object to.

Of course we’re dealing with Biblical times here, when things were bloody and there was a lot of smiting going on. But there’s still something uncomfortable about glorifying the punishment that befell the Egyptian masses, especially when you’re in Egypt, surrounded by the Egyptian masses. Yeah, my boss can be a slave driver, but does that mean I want his first born dead? (As an interesting and relevant side note: “Pharoah” is the word sometimes employed by hardline Islamists to describe the Mubarak regime and other ‘secular’ dictatorships in the Middle East.)

And then there is Israel, which has been an ever-present issue in my mind for every Passover in the last few years. Passover is not just about the escape from Egypt, it is about its end point: the promised land of Israel. This doesn’t mean that observing seder is an endorsement of Zionism, but it gives context to notions of Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The seder ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a concept I’ve always found problematic but fascinating (hence the name of this blog).

Jerusalem is the holy city for Jews. Does this justify house demolitions and land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on movement? Of course not. But it helps, again, to give a context to the Israeli attachment to the city, an attachment so strong that the Israelis will take their policies to the heights of belligerence. This year, we’re having this discussion even more than usual. For a more a more religious and sentimental take on the situation than I usually have, check out Bradley Burston (a Zionist, but a bleeding heart) on how to think about Jerusalem at your seder this year.

Despite its problematic contemporary subtexts, I love the holiday. I appreciate its message about freedom and oppression and liberation. These are the values I find most important in my religion. And it’s a good opportunity to be with family and friends, drink wine, eat brisket and the gefilte fish (like a fish hotdog), and discuss the finer points of oppression. I’ll miss that this year.

I also like to keep kosher for Passover, something I have done with mostly success for the past ten years. I’m going to try to do it this year, though it will be especially difficult in a country that is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of bread. (Macaroni sandwiches, while not exactly common, are more readily available in Cairo than they are anywhere back home.) Not to mention the difficulty of getting a decent macaroon anywhere in this city.

But so it goes. I am a stranger in the land of Egypt and I guess I’ll have to adjust to the peculiarity of my situation. Next year in.


Filed under Egypt, Holidays, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Life Abroad, Personal Stuff

I also went…

In other news, very much related to my last post, Helen and I took a really nice, very short trip to Port Said. You can read about it in Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition here. (Did you know that I work for a newspaper, dear readers?)

The Suez Canal at Port Said. Photo by Helen.


Filed under Egypt, Life Abroad, Links, Personal Stuff

With a pickle chaser

Alexander Nazaryan schools you in how to drink vodka in today’s Op-Extra.  Luckily for me, this is a lesson I already learned from my girlfriend Helen who studied in Moscow last year.  Nazaryan writes about drinking in Brighton Beach:

Here we eat only as Politburo fat-cats could have back in the day, while the rest of the country stood in line for meager provisions: meat-stuffed cabbage leaves swimming in tomato sauce; steaming Ukrainian borscht with dollops of sour cream; veal dumplings, also covered in sour cream; and, of course, pumpernickel bread stacked with pickled herring and onion slivers, chased with a shot of vodka.

Ah, yes.  We had just such a feast ourselves a few weeks back (though without the veal dumplings).

You can’t see the piroshki, or the borscht, or the kebabs in this picture, but you get the idea.  And to accompany this abundance, you drink shots of vodka, always preceded by a hearty toast.

Nazaryan explains why so few Westerners understand the Russian culture of food and drink:

No less than the Italians or French, Russians treat drinking as part of a complete gastronomic experience, and divorcing the two would be unthinkable for anyone with a modicum of taste. But perhaps because our foods are less sensuous or readily appealing than Mediterranean cuisine ― sour cream is not so sexy, it turns out ― only the bottle lingers in the imagination.

All photos by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

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Filed under Food, Personal Stuff

Another victory for the anti-fun brigade

Two cans of pure fun

Two cans of pure fun

Just came across this article a few minutes ago (thanks to MDH) that says that MillerCoors lost a lawsuit and will be required to take the caffeine, ginseng, and taurine out of Sparks, the boozy energy drink.  Sparks without caffeine is just a weird orange beer.  Needless to say, I am pissed.

The AP story says, “Groups say these drinks target young drinkers, even those underage, because those consumers are already drawn to highly caffeinated drinks like Red Bull.”  But what does that even mean?  I am 22 years old and, like many people I know, a devoted (if infrequent)  Sparks fan.  True, I’m young, but so what?  

What happens in five years when all of the fifteen year olds to whom Sparks is supposedly marketing itself are old enough to drink?  They can’t have it.  Because a bunch of health advocates and attorneys general think that energy drinks are for people of a younger generation.

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Filed under Personal Stuff, Postmodernism