The Nation – Terrorist TV?

In this week’s issue of The Nation, I have a short piece on an absurd and misplaced bit of legislation that will hopefully soon die in the Senate, despite its overwhelming passage in the House. The full link is here, but it is behind a subscriber firewall — more reason to subscribe?

TERRORIST TV? In December the House passed a bill to sanction and label as terrorists Arab satellite providers that air “anti-American incitement to violence in the Middle East.” Though the bill targets the channels of Hamas, Hezbollah and other designated terrorist organizations, its broad language has been criticized as an attack on media expression in the Arab world.

Barely reported in the American press, the proposed legislation has simmered in Arabic newspapers and talk shows. In late January Arab information ministers met in Cairo, where they summarily denounced the bill, although the Arab League has been mulling over its own plans for increased satellite censorship.

HR 2278 defines anti-American incitement to violence as “the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States.” The bill directs the president to submit an annual report to Congress with “a country-by-country list and description of media outlets that engage in anti-American incitement to violence” as well as a list of the satellite providers that carry such broadcasts.

But it is the provision to tag as terrorists “satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists” that rattles observers. “Take something like Khaled Meshal, who’s the political leader of Hamas,” Marc Lynch, an Arab media specialist at George Washington University, told WNYC. “No self-respecting Arab TV station can afford to not interview him. So if they’re going to define any contact with Khaled Meshal as incitement to anti-American violence, then pretty much every TV station would have something to fear.”

Reporters Without Borders condemned the resolution as “discriminatory” and lacking “clarity.” The bill “contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage,” the organization said in a statement.

The bill passed by a wide margin of 395-3 in the House. The “nays” were two Texans, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Ron Paul, and Democrat Mike Honda of California. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is reviewing the measure.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History

From Historical Travel on The Faster Times.

First Obama named the first ambassador to Damascus in five years. Then the State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria – though not the 30-year State Sponsor of Terrorism tag. In a week of overdue warming, some observers might look to business next, even if Obama renewed economic sanctions last year.

Syria’s economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy.” Tourism is a quickly developed and expanding market already, even if it’s Middle Eastern and European investments pouring in and not American dollars.

Almost monthly for the past year or so, a travel section somewhere chalks up Damascus as the next Marrakesh, promotes Aleppo as a historic crossroads once again welcoming Westerners, or sings about Palmyra, Zenobia’s desert city on the silk road near Iraq. Americans visit, though in far fewer numbers than the French or Belgian, though the end of the State Department travel warning for Syria might change things. Or not… mind the reasoning of State:

“The current series of travel warnings were enacted in September 2006 following an attack against the Embassy, and were not based upon Syria being designated as a State Sponsor of Terror. Being a State Sponsor of Terrorism is not a basis for a travel warning.”

Syria has other designations, though, like history, something I wrote about at length in the Faster Times back in December. Travel dispatches from there can reference so many things, though they almost always hinge on the same: anecdotes of the old and exotic East, quite Orientalist pictures of ancient markets and mosques.

Syria has those, sure. It has a lot of other things, outside the cities, beyond the Crusader castles that represent more than a “reminder that conflict between Islam and the West stretches back centuries.”

A somewhat shorter historical view – the 19th century – presents a more immediate bit of Syrian travel and history in light of the news that an American envoy will return to a state for decades at odds with the US. The Embassy has been without its head since 2005, when the US withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb death of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

It’s a story about a Christian notable from Lebanon who became America’s first consul in Damascus in 1859. He witnessed a massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860, a sordid event in the city’s long history.

Read the rest at Historical Travel on the Faster Times.

Image via Wikipedia Commons: “Anonymous Venetian Orientalist painting, ‘The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus,’ 1511, the Louvre.”

Obama names Ford

Finally, after leaked names and anonymous diplomatic sources and wide spread reporting (including some of my own for The Nation), Obama has formally nominated Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years.

More news to come, I hope, to support this bit of optimism. Let’s hope he is confirmed and the Senate doesn’t grandstand too much on the overdue diplomatic thaw between Syria and the US.

1859 Photo of the American Vice Consul to Damascus, Mikhayil Mishaqa, via MidEastImage.

Historical Travel and Molasses

I’ve just launched a new beat at The Faster Times, for their Faster Travel section, called Historical Travel. The working tag-line is “far-flung destination chronicles and the Delphic past.” Historical narratives will be posted, along with original stories and columns by me on a range of travel subjects, all from the angle of history, ideally the strange and less-known cultural or social variety. I ought to say outright that the wonderful Atlas Obscura has already set a foundation for web coverage of what they dub “A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica.” Historical Travel will not aspire to that, but be more grounded in history while keeping an eye on the marvelous, revealing, ambiguous, Delphic past as a way to cover travel and travel writing. Please visit!

My inaugural post is on the 1919 Molasses Disaster (or Flood, or Explosion) that rocked my home town of Boston. It begins:

A wave of molasses, bursting from an exploded steel tank at thirty-five miles per hour, smothered two city blocks in Boston’s North End on a warm January in 1919. The strange disaster killed twenty-one and injured 150; an elevated train track buckled, a train derailed, buildings collapsed and a truck flew into Boston Harbor.

Molasses, the sweetener of the day and a prime ingredient for rum and industrial alcohol, was stored in a massive but shoddily made tank on the waterfront of one of the Boston’s most crowded and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Built by the Purity Distilling Company, it apparently leaked so much that its owners painted it brown to mask the drip of molasses, which local residents collected and used in their tenements.

More here.

Back to Damascus?

With the long overdue news that the US is sending an ambassador back to Syria, I wrote a short piece for this week’s issue of The Nation. It’s behind a subscriber firewall online, so eschewing the idea for paid online content, I’m pasting the story below. Although you should probably just go out and buy the magazine if you can. Mostly to read Lawrence Lessig’s cover story.

BACK TO DAMASCUS? Washington has nominated Robert Ford, a career Foreign Service officer, as its ambassador to Syria, a post that has been vacant since the United States withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Syria denied any involvement.)

Ford, currently deputy ambassador to Iraq, was ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. He ran a Coalition Provisional Authority office in Najaf in 2003, and from 2004 to 2006 he was a political officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he helped draft Iraq’s new Constitution, establish the transitional government and oversee elections in 2005.

The appointment of a career officer who speaks Arabic represents a shift for Obama, who has often chosen well-heeled friends and contributors for ambassadorial posts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of November twenty-four nominees were high-profile campaign “bundlers” who corralled more than $10 million for Obama. About half of all ninety-nine nominees either donated to Obama, other Democratic candidates or the Democratic Party.

Sending Ford to Damascus is part of the administration’s effort to back up Obama’s fleeting Cairo oratory. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted an unnamed American official saying, “Washington wants to help in launching direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel in the next few months.” But Joshua Landis, a regional expert who runs the popular Syria Comment blog, is not so sure. “The Syrians I have spoken to are skeptical that [negotiations] can lead to anything but frustration,” he said. “Netanyahu is not giving any ground to the Palestinians and there’s no reason to expect him to give ground to the Syrians.”

Reopening the ambassador’s residence is a step, not a solution. After all, last year Obama renewed harsh economic sanctions on Syria that were imposed by George W. Bush. And Syria holds the dubious distinction of being Washington’s oldest designated state sponsor of terrorism–since 1979.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

From The Nation.

Avi Shlaim, Abraham Burg and Ian Black on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English’s talk programs are so much better than CNN, among others. Too bad it’s barely available here in the United States. Here in this program of Empire, Shlaim, Burg and Black discuss whether Israel is involved in a colonial war, how quickly Obama has failed to live up to his Cairo speech vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and settlements, and other such topics that the US media would never touch. Have to say, the moderator Marwan Bishara still has to fill the void of semi-annoying host.

Mrs. Clinton’s statement was intended to clarify her remarks in Jerusalem, which had left some of her aides nonplused because she had not voiced the administration’s official position that settlements are illegitimate.

Though not a core subject in peace negotiations, Jewish settlements are a charged issue for Israelis and Palestinians because they involve building in areas that both claim as their ancestral lands.

How not to start the day: read bits like this in the Old Gray Lady, wonder why they go to pains to misinform. The words occupation, occupied land, international law, violation of international law, land seized in war, illegal annexation and the like were axed, because the Times doesn’t want you to think of the conflict like that. It’s about ancestral land claims and, in fact, colonies housing a half million Jews on the occupied West Bank (very much including East Jerusalem) are not a core subject in this nebulous thing called the peace process. No, they’re not.

Instead read this interview with Rashid Khalidi on He says very clearly what many others have on the need to negotiate confront the settlements:

The point is, though,that settlements were designed expressly to make a negotiated resolution of this conflict impossible. We have to accept this. They’re not just there because they happened to grow like mushrooms on hilltops. They were scientifically planned so as to cut Jerusalem off from its hinterland. They were scientifically planned to cut the West Bank into pieces. They were scientifically planned to prevent movement from point A to point B. As long as these objectives are achieved, there’s not a West Bank state. There is not sovereignty, there is not contiguity, there is not economic viability.These huge settlements have to either be removed or enormously shrunk or subjected to some other arrangement whereby the objectives for which they were established are defeated. I’m sure it would be hard for an Israeli government but otherwise you won’t have a deal, or you’ll have a deal that collapses immediately and then everybody will go back and say “well we told you so.” I’m telling you now, if you don’t deal with the root issues caused by the settlements you won’t have a viable deal.”