Monday, June 30, 2008

Innocents Abroad: Richard Engel's new book and going off to Najaf in Iraq....

(Photos are of a famous graveyard in Najaf and Ali's holy shrine; Richard Engel, etc. at the Book Expo; and me and my son, my three daughters, two granddaughters and daughter-in-law having our four-year reunions at my housing co-op and Epicurious Gardens in north Berkeley while eating Ciao Bella gelato. My two oldest daughters are the ones who look they might have even come close to beating me in the hair-growing contest! But I won.)

Yep, I'm still writing about the 2008 Book Expo. There was so much to learn, so many authors to meet and so MANY free books being given away at the Expo that I probably will be writing about it for the rest of the summer. Word.

When I was there, I went to an authors' panel featuring Ariana Huffington, that Daily Kos guy and Richard Engel. Kos said, "Back in 2002, we thought we were all alone [in the fight against Bush corruption] so I started a blog just to get things off my chest. And now, thanks to the internet, we no longer need a gatekeeper to tell us that we need permission to write about what we want to say. The media asked me what my credentials were but the people who read me didn't care. Now we are engaging people on the cutting edge. One and a half million people per month read the Daily Kos." Well, if what Kos said is true and Bush's corruption is now hanging out there for all the world and its wife to see, then why isn't George Bush in jail?

Then Ariana Huffington spoke. "In America today, right is wrong. Something very dramatic has happened in American politics today and the media has missed it. How come when the Right is so obviously bankrupt then why are they still dominant? 'Right is Wrong' is my attempt to answer how the Right has hijacked America. Why isn't the media telling us that Iraq is the greatest policy catastrophe in American history? Along with the idea of the world being flat, [this is the most hyped-up lie ever told]. These are not issues of Right or Left. These are issues of truth or delusion."

Then Huffington talked about John McCain. "He used to be a good guy back in 2000 but that John McCain no longer exists. The hero who was tortured now VOTES for torture. He is the oldest candidate ever and Iraq is his Viagra. My advice to him? If the war lasts for over 100 years, pull out!"

Then Huffington spoke about using fear as a control mechanism. "Without the use of fear, Bush would never have been elected." Guess what, Ariana? Bush WASN'T elected! "McCain is using fear already. This is both laughable and loathsome."

Next she talked about amnesia and how Americans keep forgetting all the many times in the past they have been duped. "These guys have no credibility left," yet Americans keep forgetting about past fiascoes and/or lies fed to them by the Bushites -- and then actually start getting ready to believe the next ones.

"The Democratic leaders have not lead in the past. But all we have to do [in 2008] is tell the truth relentlessly and repeatedly because the Right isn't at war against the Democrats. The Right is at war with reality. Make the McCain voters look at the facts. We cannot afford a third term for George W. Bush."

Then Richard Engel, an NBC correspondent working out of Baghdad for the last five years, spoke about the "war" in Iraq. "I have had the opportunity to see what has unfolded in that country from the beginning. People there now are ready to move on -- with a lot of healing and reconciliation. Violence is down 70% from a year ago -- although the gunfight in Sadr City was one of the fiercest I've ever seen."

But has Bush's "war" on Iraq helped Iraqis? "I was in a home with a boy whose leg had been shot off. How has the last five years improved his life? People have been through such incredible hardships that I don't know how they survive. My translator's wife doesn't leave the house, he's terrified of every militia man on every corner and resents that he is dependent on US troops for his safety. It is an incredibly complex picture. In my new book, I have tried to show all this -- how things have developed over time."

I went up to Engel after the talk and asked him if he really thought that things in Iraq were getting better. He looked me in the eye and said yes. He was really a nice guy, open and easy to talk to. Plus I got a free copy of his book!

I had planned to write up my report on this authors' panel as soon as I got back from Los Angeles, but then Life got in the way and I spent most of June pushing a shopping cart back and forth between my old apartment and a new downstairs unit in my housing project where I moved because of my bad knees, spending time with baby Mena and being visited by my two older daughters, so I didn't even get around to reading Engel's book -- let alone writing about it -- until 3 am this morning!

My daughter Ashley had loaned me her copy of the new Janet Evanovich book, "Fearless Fourteen," and I'd been reading it all evening and laughing so hard that I thought the neighbors might end up calling the cops on me for disturbing the peace -- especially the part where Stephanie and Lula do backup in a bounty-hunter reality show and get attacked by an over-sexed monkey! But then I couldn't get to sleep because I had been laughing so much, so I pulled out Engel's book on Iraq, figuring it would be dull enough to lull me to sleep.


Engel's book was a real page-turner. Plus it put Bush's "war" into perspective too. Apparently, what happened in Iraq as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom has had very little to do with bringing democracy to that country, and everything to do with unleashing religious animosities that have existed just below the surface in Iraq since way back in the day, right after the death of Mohammed (PBUH) back in the seventh freaking century! Apparently, Bush had no clue what he was getting into there five years ago -- and, sadly, he still doesn't have any clue.

Then Engel wrote about the sacred city of Najaf and how Najaf was, aside from Mecca, the holiest city in the world to millions of Muslims. You might remember Najaf -- the city that Bush and Rumsfeld endeared themselves to in the hearts of Iraqis forever (NOT!) by bombing the heck out of it? But now the officials in Najaf are building an international airport there so that pilgrims can come from all over the world to pray at the holy shrine to Ali.

Here's an excerpt from Engel's book: "When General Cardon walked into [the governor of Najaf's] office, the governor wanted to talk about one thing: the airport. He said Najaf needed an international airport to receive pilgrims and tourists from around the Shiite world. For centuries, Najaf has lived off caravans of Shiite pilgrims who come from Iran, India, Lebanon, and the Gulf to worship and bury their dead.... 'I want to open flights from Najaf to New York,' the governor said. 'They should be direct flights.... We're expecting six or seven million visitors.'"

So. Pilgrims are now pouring into Najaf -- directly from NYC. That's good news. That's news I can use. I want to go on a pilgrimage to Najaf! At last, here it is -- a quick and easy way for me to safely go to Iraq and actually meet real Iraqis, which doesn't happen too often when you go over there as an embedded journalist. So I immediately googled for information on tours. Apparently, you can join a tour group in Britain, Dubai, Kuwait and Jordan. Tours originating in Iran were also mentioned. But I couldn't find any tours from New York. Maybe the international airport hasn't opened yet. But if a tour of Najaf is anything like a tour of Mecca, there will probably be a Hilton Hotel involved -- at the very least. Hot dog!

Now all I got to do is figure out how to pay for this tour -- I could apply for a grant, get sponsored by Fox News, win the lottery or something and I'm there! Maybe Bush will send me over on a fact-finding tour -- because its clearly obvious to me after reading Engel's book that Bush could definitely benefit from being exposed to some REAL facts about Iraq.


Here's an eight-day tour leaving for Najaf from Tehran. It sounds interesting and includes Qom and the grave of the poet Omar Khayyam:


Day 1 Tehran: Arrive at the airport meet & transfer to Hotel. PM city tour including Saad Abad Palace Museum ziarat of Emamzadeh Saleh and shopping. O/n at hotel

Day 2 Tehran: Morning H/D city tour. After lunch ziarat of Hazrat Abdul Azim. Continue towards Qom, en route visit Emam Khomeini's shrine & Jamkaran Mosque. Ziarat of Hazrat Masoomeh. O/N at hotel.

Day 3 Qom: Drive to Tehran to fly to Mashad. On arrival, meet& transfer to hotel. Excursion to Tus to visit tombs Ferdowsi, Ghazali & Harunieh. PM ziarat of Emam Reza's shrine. O/N at hotel.

Day 4 Mashad: Excursion to Neishabour, visit tombs of poets Khayyam and Attar & Qodangah. PM ziarat of Emam Reza. O/N at hotel.

Day 5 Mashad: Day at leisure for ziarat. O/N at hotel.

Day 6 Mashad: H/D city tour & ziarat. PM fly to Tehran. O/N at hotel.

Day 7 Tehran: Excursion to Qazvin City tour for ziarat of Emamzadeh Hossein (son of Emam Reza ). O/N at hotel.

Day 8 Tehran: Excursion to Bibi Shahrbanoo (Emam Hosssein's Wife). PM city tour & shopping. Late evening transfer to the airport for return flight.