Friday, September 27, 2013

Bombing in Damascus

*The title of this blog post is a pun on the name of this song*

So then, March 2011 in the Middle Eastern country of Syria, a Civil War has erupted between the government and rebels. We’ve come to the 2 ¾ year mark, and instead of conventional warfare continuing to be carried out, thermobaric bombs have been deployed in Aleppo and Qusayr, and neurotoxin sarin gas has been employed and launched in suburbs near Damascus, where the war between the Bashar Al-Assad government and the Free Syrian Army rages, with tons of civilian families stuck in the middle. As a result, numerous photos of hospitals being filled to the brim with wrapped corpses of all ages and genders being barely alive have flooded the internet.

Reading about what’s going on, I’ve come across articles about Bashar Al-Assad, a noted dictator and tyrant, saying that it was the rebels who launched the chemical attacks and the rebels saying that it was the government who is responsible for the new level of chemical warfare in Syria. I’ve read articles about United Nations inspectors examining the scenes of chemical attack in Damascus and numerous journalists being abducted and killed in Syria. I’ve read articles about France, Britain and Israel and the U.S. agreeing with the rebels, while Iran, Russia and, I think, China agree with the government of Syria. I’ve come across numerous articles about Obama being pissed off at Bashar and being ready to launch a small amount of Tomahawk Cruise missiles from some destroyers parked over in the Mediterranean Sea at Syria. I’ve come across thousands of comments on YouTube concerning Miley Cyrus’ sparkling new career as a useless douchebag, which has nothing to do with Syria. Unsurprisingly, what I don’t come across are too many articles about the state of affairs amongst the people.
Amongst the people of Syria. Sorry.

Instead of looking at “twerk” videos (I'm not linking that) or paying attention to someone who used to call himself “Tity Boy”, we could now be paying attention to the people in this region of the Levant before they perish in the power struggle. Sunni Muslims have been in the media spotlight going back way before the first Iraq War lead by George Bush Sr., but there are also the Kurds, the small Christian communities, the Jewish Communities, the Alawite Muslims, the Lebanese Syrians, the Greek Syrians, the Druze, and other various people whose history of civilization is one of the oldest in the world. Unfortunately, a good chunk of that history involved being suppressed and oppressed by one dictatorship or another, and instead of being free of this by now, this country could be at the brink of complete destruction.

Syrian history is quite extensive, but a few examples worth mentioning start far back as the 1920’s, when the French took over Syria and Lebanon after World War 1 as part of the League of Nations mandate, the Syrians were fighting and dying for integrity and a voice in the state of political affairs. The Druze, a mountainous monotheistic religious community spread around the Levant but mostly populated in Syria, revolted against the slave labor camps and wrongful imprisonment the French had subjected them to. In return, the French Imperialist government would catch Druze members and lynch them in public squares so that they’d be on full display as a warning to other members of the revolt. Syria did not gain independence from France until after World War 2.

In response to the experience with France, the Syrians eventually formed the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in the 1960’s, which was the sum of smaller political groups before it. The Party’s purpose (which had no connection to what the rest of the world knew as socialism) was to unite the various Arab groups of Syria to stand against foreign invasion/influence, control their own culture and economy and put Arab nationalism before anything. Of course, that was eventually taken over by Hafez Al-Assad, a military officer and Alawite Muslim, and the Ba’ath Party was turned into an authoritarian government that forced the people to live by his rules or die by his bullets. The Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative, religious group formed in the 1940’s whose own beliefs have been reported to pervert justice and fair treatment of citizens in Arab countries, were (and are) the Ba’ath Party’s biggest enemies. This situation culminated in events like The Hama Massacre in the early 1980’s, which led to the deaths of between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrians citizens trying to live their lives in the wrong place at the wrong time in history. The Syrian Military, commanded by Hafez Al-Assad and his younger brother Rifaat, marched into Hama, a town North of Damascus, saying that the Brotherhood attacked some officers first and sought to establish justice. They did not define particular Muslim Brotherhood members and look for them. They simply targeted anyone who was Muslim and considered them an enemy.

In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad, Hafez’s son and an Ophthalmologist student schooling in England who had very little reported interest in politics, inherited the Presidential seat after his brother died in a car accident, and promised the Syrian public that things would be better. They weren’t.
He continued to push a free market economic system, which pushed a gap between the rich and the poor since the only people who were able to make a decent living in Syria were industrialists and those who had connections with Assad’s government.
Al-Assad maintained tight control over the media: people’s comments in forums and post on sites and blogs were being watched and censored. The Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-Al-Assad government team of internet hackers, hacked and reported sites that spoke against the government to the authorities.
Syrian individuals did not have the freedom to associate with whichever groups they pleased or assemble publicly. There are hundreds of political activists, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members and leftists, arrested for being alongside others who speak against the government and disagree. They are jailed with no defined prison terms or are tortured and killed.
Republicans like to say “if you don’t like it, leave the country”. Not an option there. People were not allowed near foreign embassies, and in any case they had to get exit visas from the government.
The people got tired of this (again) and decided to peacefully protest. Of course, such a mass organization of the right to free speech and the freedom to express yourself would not be tolerated under Al-Assad’s tyrannical regime, so in March of 2011, he sent the military to unload bullets on the protesters.

Protest became revolt, as Syrian demonstrators, alongside disillusioned military and police personnel not willing to fire on unarmed citizens, have formed the Free Syrian Army, with the sole purpose of fighting back against the military with arms and bringing down Bashar Al-Assad’s government.

I remember Barack Obama first wanting to support the F.S.A. by just sending them supplies. However, he started to reconsider when the rebels started getting weapons from Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Not necessarily pledging loyalty to their beliefs, but just getting help where they can. Since then, extreme religious groups of various types joined the fray and now nobody knows which group is which. News outlets have taken it upon themselves to characterize the entire Rebel alliance as an extremist group, and despite the fact that most of the discontent towards the government rose in conservative Sunni Muslims residing in rural areas and students who’ve had to drop out of college to support their families with 2 or 3 low-paying jobs (reportedly), I still don’t think this is an accurate characterization.

One American journalist who went over there to document war conditions was taken hostage by a rebel group because they suspected him of being an American spy. They tortured him, hacked his bank accounts, spent his money, went into his social media accounts and told his family that he was alright and needed to stay longer than he thought. He eventually escaped and was helped by another rebel group who got him to the nearest border and foreign embassy. The group that kidnapped him turned out to be Al-Nusra.

At any rate, new reports popped up of thermobaric bombs being used in cities and villages. After that, sarin gas attacks started to make themselves evident. Al-Assad is saying the Free Syrian Army did it, and the rebels are saying Bashir Al-Assad is responsible. Meanwhile, hundreds of bodies of people not involved in the war are overloading hospital capacities. Obama stated a little while back that he is putting a Red Line down on the use of chemical weapons by the government, and if it is crossed, he will act. Now, here he is, debating with the House and Congress on whether he should send Tomahawk missiles to Al-Assad’s weapons armories, and while England decided not to pursue this route, France is ready to join.

Some people believe we should strike because Obama established his “red line” (chemical weapons are indeed against international law) and now will look like a coward if he doesn’t back what he said. I believe Al-Assad should be brought down, but the logic still stands that using destruction and violence to stop destruction and violence adds up to destruction and violence.
The people of Syria already have to go to sleep amongst the sounds of assault rifle, missile strikes and explosions that rock their homes. This will just make things worse.

The overwhelming majority of people, conservative and liberal, do not believe the missiles should be sent for multiple reasons.
It’ll start World War 3. Syria already said that they will attack Israel, and Israel said it would respond with a vengeance for getting them involved. Then Iran will jump in and the U.S. will attack them and Russia won’t like that, so they’ll respond, but France and England are on our side.
Others are saying that Bashir Al-Assad is a “legitimate” government, and if we dispose of them, then extremist Muslims will take over. I find this to be asinine. I believe Al-Assad sent those chemical weapons, but for all we know, it could’ve been one of the extremist groups who did it in order to send the entire country into dust.
Additionally, Obama, who has just taken heavy criticism for sending Drone Strikes into Pakistan in his “War on Terror”, killing suspected terrorists and innocents alike, now wants to send a small amount of airstrikes over to Syria to attack the Syrian government. More people will die than just his targets, even with more precise war weapons.
Of course, at the end of all this, we are just leaving Syrian families and civilians in the crossfire so they can continue to stockpile the hospitals as poisoned or shot corpses.

At least, there are some families that have been able to escape. Syrian civilians have been able to make their way through Islamic extremist-controlled areas, areas where there’s infighting in between various rebel groups or the Arabs and Kurds, and bribe government officials into letting them go across borders into Lebanon, southwest of Syria. Most or all of the families there are homeless and are thriving on the small food portions given to them by various local and international humanitarian aid organizations, but at least bullets are not whizzing by their faces or explosions aren’t tearing down the neighborhood around them (never thought I’d voice that sentiment). Chemical or industrial weapon, it doesn’t matter to them, both will mean losing their lives instantly. And with that said, they fear the missiles strikes by Obama, as it will only add to the carnage.

As far as what various nations are paying attention to in the media about Middle East, apparently the methods by which people are dying is the most important thing.
In Egypt, the military has taken over after pushing out Mohammed Morsi, and have begun a war against the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was the first democratically elected president, and since his oust, there have been protests against the military’s take over. The new Egyptian Military Government responded in the same way Al-Assad did, by joining with the police and firing on peaceful protesters. Looking to kill off the Muslim Brotherhood, the Interior Minister has the military and police or arrest or kill anyone who even has Muslim association. And to keep military members aligned and loyal, ironically, the military government has hired Islamic scholars to preach to them that they are doing Allah’s work by attacking and destroying those who come against the military.
In the first week of September, there was an attempt on the Interior Minister’s life: a bomb blew up 10 feet away from the general’s car and blew out 3 stories of building windows, killed one police officer and wounded 10 – 60 people. The counts of the dead or wounded are always disputed amongst different sources, but both can agree that in the aftermath, the street was littered with severed arms, legs and toes. Things are just as crazy over there, but since red lines and chemical weapons aren’t involved, the Egyptians are pretty much secondary in media attention.

There’s no limit to things that Syria could be adding to this world. The Christian churches of their culture that could give us a new perspective on the character of Christ. The innovations in technology or the sciences that come from their cultural and historic perspective. Great novelists or musicians that can take the imagination to new levels and point us to new ways to look at history or the future and the state of human affairs. Or even Syria as a place to visit for vacation and be a part of, with new landmarks and designs in architecture to see, foods to try and mountain views to look down from (their tourism is mostly Arab businessmen from neighboring countries looking for new ventures).
Instead, the country is bogged down in sarin gas attacks and unlawful arrests by a tyrannical Ophthalmologist. History is chock full of these kinds of events and repeatedly shows that democracy is the only place where true human progress can come from. Authoritarian governments forcing archaic, rigid dogma on the population only produces barbarism and violence all around. Hopefully a good portion of the Syrian population will survive this so that they will be able to personally tell their story later.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Almost there.....

A new blog post is coming. New blog posts are coming. I know I've said this about a million times, but I am dealing with some struggles and do not have as much time or energy to write as I used to. Also, I've decided to end the Japan series. My heart was not really in it and there are much more interesting things to dive into.

I shall return soon.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Samurai grounds in the Land of the Rising Sun

Hello, there. Tis’ the Samurai.

I thought I’d jot down my recent vacation experience here, for memory and record-keeping purposes mostly. I had to break it up into three parts, as the content ended up being way, WAY too long for one post. So here we go.....

French Novelist Gustave Flaubert says "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." I’ve taken it to mean violent and original in your personal work, things you are actually passionate about, and I agree.

I've obtained a monotonous day job so that I can devote myself to creative projects on the side. However, spending tons of day job hours trying to put some structure in a completely chaotic and immature office environment for 2 years begins to take its toll. In addition to having to fight these things in the small ways that I`m allowed to, lack of better technology makes it so that a theoretically 5-minute task ends up taking the average length of an episode of "Law and Order". A break from all of this begins to scream for request. I've been at this place long enough to get a week`s vacation, and I've finally saved up enough money to go somewhere. It`s usually at this junction of resources that someone prepares a trip to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Miami, California or something of the sort involving beachside bars, water that isn’t actually just raw sewage, and people that speak, at least, the average popular rapper’s grade level of English. A place that offers maximum comfort and relaxation, which is fine. It was my turn to choose.

So I went with Japan.

Prep time.

I had been talking with about tour packages to go on. The moderately priced ones were only 3 and 4 days long, taking me to three different countries or some shit. I didn’t take one of those, but they did end up helping me find a good hotel. Of course, the trip planner I was working with was constantly trying to get me to buy the more expensive hotel rooms and flights, but overall she was kind and helpful.

My friend Amanda helped me find what I like to call the "Magic Ticket" online back in February. The average round trip airfare from New York to Japan, especially Tokyo, costs about $1,400 - $1,500, so I chose Osaka for landing in and would just go to Tokyo later. I found round-trip tickets, both direct with 13 and 14 hour flights, for $1189 ($1,144.00 after I showed the Best Price Guarantee program on Priceline that someone else was charging a competitive price for the same open ticket they had). The flight was in May.

Research online showed me that people in Japan relied on the 3G service of their cellphone for most to all of their technological actions. There are occasional laptop users here and there, but not enough for companies to supply a bevy of free Wi-Fi spots. So, I found a company that would rent you a portable Wi-Fi device to carry around with you (which, as it turned out, I needed more than I thought I did), and would send it to the airport or your hotel for pickup.

Non-driving Japanese citizens train or bike it everywhere, like New Yorkers. However, the train structure and pricing is somewhat different than here, and continually taking the train from place to place can get expensive, especially if you’re traveling from one part of the country to the next (I’ll explain later). So I picked up an Exchange Pass in New York, which is only for foreigners, and packed it to take to Japan where you exchange it for a Japan Rail Pass at a JR Train Station. Also went to a small kiosk on Avenue of the Americas and 53rd street and 6th Avenue to exchange U.S. dollars into yen, which I found to be cheaper than at the airports both in New York and Japan.

In between February and May, I should’ve (re-)studied the language a bit before departing. I was told that there was enough of an English speaking portion of society for me to be just fine. There wasn’t, but I’ll explain later. Anyway, time went by and May came.

My flight took off from JFK International Airport in Queens. Now, understand, I haven’t been on a plane since traveling to Las Vegas about 80 billion years ago. My last memory of the plane experience was an empty red eye flight with a movie screen at the center of the fuselage, and plugging a pair of supplied headphones into your armrest to listen to whatever movie the crew decides to show you. Not anymore.

The seats on China Airlines have small touch screen monitors in front of you with a media system that allows you to view films from a moderately large and modern selection, see the path the plane is taking from Point A to Point B, play video games (which were terrible in quality), show you videos about the place you’re flying to, and a few television shows.

There were remotes in the arm rests with buttons to call the stewardesses and control the media while doubling as a video game controller.

And the back of the chairs had USB ports and a place to plug in your laptop was beneath you. Before, best thing about flights was the view out of the window and free alcohol, but now every seat can be your personal office. Too bad each seat was also the size of a pack of cigarettes.

On the departing flight, I watched “Warm Bodies”, “Chronicle”, “Django Unchained”, and half of “Oz: The Great and Powerful”, I tried tackling “The Life of Pi”, the novel, but it took way too long to get to the actual story. Anyway, the anticipation of stepping foot in Asia slowed time down, and 14 hours felt a little like an entire day. The views out of the window were still beautiful, even when they were pictures of nothing. But we landed in Osaka:

At the customs desk, people were wearing white face masks and I immediately asked myself what the hell I got into and why the airports let me into this country without some sort of forewarning of a viral outbreak. Actually, many citizens just wear this to regulate or stop the transfer of germs all over the place. I think. In Kansai International Airport, I spent a bit of time trying to locate the kiosk to pick up my portable Wi-Fi at by asking some people. Simple things like "where is this place?" Don't translate amongst employees who have to talk to travelers all the time for some reason, but we worked through it. Additionally, this was my fault because the e-mail confirmation I printed out at home clearly said to pick up the portable Wi-Fi device at the “JAL, 4th Floor desk” and I went to the 1st and 2nd floors to find it. Also, for some reason, these were posted on all of the elevators:

That done, I went to the JR Train Station to switch my Exchange Pass for a Japan Rail Pass, and I boarded the JR Haruka train to Kyoto.

Now, it is worthy of noting: on the way to the Kyoto train station, the JR Haruka arrived at a stop in Shin-Osaka. There, I spotted a tall black guy, walking in panicky circles and talking to someone on the phone. For no reason other than idiocy and fun times in my head, I decided to keep a black person count for the duration of my Japan trip. They will be noted in the rest of the Japan series.

Before boarding and after I got the Japan Rail Pass, I asked about the JR Haruka to Kyoto, and the train station worker gave me a specific time and train, which I thought was the ONLY one I could take to Kyoto. When I got downstairs, I was just told to board a random train going there. Riding in the night, looking at how close the residences were to the train, occasionally crossing through the streets and seeing bright neon signs of Kanji off in the distance, is really the part that pushed the reality that I was in a new land....and also that I probably should’ve somehow schedule this train trip in the day time because it startled me a little when coupled with the fact that I didn’t have internet access at the time and had no real sense of where I was going. The train stop was Kyoto. The New York state of mind is thinking that the train was just going to drop me off in some other part of Kyoto nowhere near my hotel. Luckily, there is just one train station for each town on the Haruka trains.

Arriving at my stop, I got out into the massive Kyoto Train Station,

and arrived to the sight of a large, flowing crowd, people driving on the left side of the road, and sound of electronic bird chirps. Extremely tired, eager to get to a toilet and needing a shower, I walked out the station still amazed that I’ve made it to another country, and of course walked about 5 blocks in the opposite direction of the hotel. Standing in middle of a busy block like an idiot with a suitcase and messenger bag for 4 minutes, I finally found some youthful fellows with internet connection to look up where I was supposed to go on Google Maps.

Hotel Kyoto Vista.

(That's a day time pic but this part of my trip was still at night) My room was excellent. A single bed with the light switchboard for the entire room, a television with a moderate amount of cable I loved my room, a shower with some sort of strong mist spray mode that made it like taking a shower in the heavens themselves. My T.V. brought me silly Japanese commercials, detective shows and a large amount of Sumo Wrestling competition coverage. However, it sucked that there was no smoking allowed. Also, the entire room was approximately the size of the average American bathroom, but eventually that became part of it`s charm. I considered venturing out into town that very night, but was way too tired. So then, the next day was the start of The Samurai’s travels in his spiritual homeland, and I will cover it in 2 more posts......

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Return of the Samurai

New blog posts are coming within the next two weeks.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Coming Attractions

Working on a few new posts, and this year I will try to focus more on social matters rather than political.
Stuff is a-comin', my friends.......