'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Reporting Live From the Saudi-Yemen Border

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nasser bin Abdul Azi...

A prince surveys the front, where more than 100 Saudi soldiers have died. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Straight from the field:

Dying camel in road. Sprawling tent city. Shops closed. There actually was a war here. Victory march likely.

Kelly McEvers is on a Saudi military C130 right now, headed for the country’s southern border with Yemen, where fighting has raged off and on for several months. En route to a base near the Saudi city of Jizan, she’s traveling with an undisclosed number of other journalists, who have all been invited by Saudi officials to get an on-the-ground update on the military situation. This is in the wake, yesterday, of a reported peace deal on offer from Houthi rebel leader Abdul Malik. More than 100 Saudi soldiers have reportedly died in fighting so far.

She’ll be text messaging me all day, and I’ll be posting live updates here, and on her Twitter feed @kellymcevers.

UPDATES, from newest to oldest:

Junket over. At least we can finally write about this war.

Correction: Oasis of cars belongs to soldiers, not refugees

Khaled bin Sultan: #Saudi will only agree to cease fire if Houthis stop sending snipers over the border and return 6 Saudi prisoners

Prince to review troops, spread good news.

‘They did not withdraw. We destroyed them.’ Then why are we hearing shells and gunfire?

Journo in heels just fainted. It’s hot up here. And still not clear if the war is over.

Gunner nests dug in side of mountain. Flag at summit suggests happy speech imminent.

Jackknifing up mountain on newly cut road in heart of combat zone.

Dying camel in road. Sprawling tent city. Oasis of cars that once belonged to refugees. Shops closed. There actually was a war here. Victory march likely.

Now in convoy of sand-covered Nissans on way to #Saudi southern command HQ

– Landed in Jizan, herded into carpeted splendor. War zone? Maybe.

– Today should yield #Saudi response to #Houthi truce offer

– On a fancy C130. Apparently “five star” means “tricked out in the 80s.” Heading to #Saudi-#Yemen border.

UDPATE: And here‘s the story she filed for NPR.


Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Journalism, Kelly McEvers, Media, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, Sunnis, War, Yemen, , , , ,

Saudi FAIL: Not dead, I was nonetheless hit by a car today

Riyadh - Mecca Highway

Zoom zoom along the Riyadh-Mecca highway. (Image by Bakar_88 via Flickr)

The sun glinted off oil-smeared asphalt. Winter’s already over, and the heat was building in the last morning minutes before the call to prayer would ring out across this city of several million.

I stood at one of Riyadh’s busiest intersections, half-way across Olaya Street. With cars blasting by to my rear, I checked the light ruling the traffic I’d need to cross. Sweat began to bead. I felt like a bug: All flesh and limbs and fluid, ready to pop against the unforgiving weight of a metal cleat.

No one walks here. Sidewalks are built beyond human scale, with foot-high drop offs at the curb. Driving isn’t much better: Women are banished from the wheel, so their 12-year-old sons take up the slack, with predictably dire results. With not much else to do, these boys drag race and hot rod and have perfected the dark art of drifting. For so many locals, disposable income is high enough that one can actually imagine — after an accident — abandoned BMWs, Mercedes, and even Rolls Royces, of which I’ve seen three gathering dust. New cars are easier than fixing old. The accident fatality rate is reported to be the highest in the world.

Thinking all this, surrounded by the sonic and visual whirr of traffic blasting by, I readied myself for the light to change. That flash of red would stop oncoming traffic — in theory. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Death, Homesick, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Traffic, World, ,

Down in the floods, something in Saudi Arabia may have changed


Saudi monarch King Abdullah at the inauguration of KAUST, the nation's new flagship university -- which was inundated by the late November floods. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

On the first day of Hajj, rain blanketed Saudi Arabia’s vast western coast. As my wife assembled her radio gear in preparation for the next day’s news brief about the storm’s effect on the pilgrimage, I quickly scanned the news online: it was already the heaviest rain Jeddah had seen in a quarter-century, and the city of four million was flooding; four were already reported dead. By the time we woke up the next morning, the death toll had risen to 77.

Blame for Jeddah’s flood disaster can easily be traced. Nearly 30 years ago, the city was issued funds to build a new sewer and drainage system, but according to a story by Lawrence Wright published in The New Yorker, the government official in charge of the project diverted some of the money to personal projects, including a mansion in San Francisco and a palace in Jeddah equipped with a bowling alley. When the misspending was discovered, the Saudi government gave the official a jail sentence and a fine, but he ended up being pardoned — because, a local journalist told Wright, his brother was a private secretary to the king.

So often the news that makes it out of Saudi is ghastly. Earlier this year, a man was beheaded for murder, then had his head sewn back onto his corpse, and was then crucified and hung in public for several hours. These nightmarish headlines top news sites for an hour or two, after which the stories — and the country’s vexing, more fundamental problems — remain ignored or overlooked.

For people who actually live here, this sort of terror is a distant menace, but real enough — especially when combined with all the suffocating moral codes — to result in a grinding everyday unpleasantness. Because this is all set against the pacific lure of malls, good supermarkets and cheap flights to nearby capitals, life here is defined by a kind of uneasy complacency. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Food, Hajj, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , ,

Why it matters that Saudis and Iranians can't make nice

Vue satellite du Golfe Persique

Image via Wikipedia

The ongoing rift is heating up between the biggest Arab player in the Gulf and the mighty Persian neighbor across the waters. What’s at stake is hard to describe — and parsing out what is bluster and what is real is always difficult — but the latest fires actually concern water.

According to news reports, the second annual Islamic Solidarity Games — scheduled for April in Tehran — are being called off after commemorative medals prepared by Iran for the games referred to the “Persian Gulf,” which Saudis and other Gulf Arabs strenuously insist is the “Arabian Gulf.” Seriously.
A more intense issue is the alleged mistreatment last year of Shiite pilgrims while at Saudi holy sites. The AFP reports that in response to what it calls systematic harassment, Tehran has suspended travel for Iranians headed to Mecca, Medina, and other Saudi points. Iranian officials told the AFP this move isn’t political, it is religious.

But around here, that’s not necessarily a good thing. (After all, whether you’re Sunni or not is a lot more important than how much you do or do not love whatever ruling regime you call home. Episcopalian Democrats versus Baptist Republicans this is not.) Look for the issue of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi to surface again, and again — especially as next year’s hajj and Shiite holy days approach.

So what does all this really mean? What seems like trifling name games over the Persian/Arab gulf is actually connected to moves on the larger regional chessboard. One prevailing theory suggests that the mighty Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are feeling vulnerable, seen by the Islamic world to be too close to Israel (and the U.S.) to continue proudly bearing the Muslim banner. This weakening, as the thinking goes, is opening up the chance for Iran to take the lead. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Hajj, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, Sunnis, , , , , , ,

Cruise ships still docking with merrymakers at Haiti beaches

Labadee Haiti

The gorgeous beach of Labadee, Haiti, heavily guarded for your vacation enjoyment. (Image by Randy Lemoine via Flickr)

I’ve never had high esteem for cruises, which seem to reward laziness, fear, and are built on the idea that it’s actually okay to dump human shit straight into the ocean. But this story from the Guardian seems to defy all standards of human decency:

Sixty miles from Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The 4,370-berth Independence of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, disembarked at the heavily guarded resort of Labadee on the north coast on Friday; a second cruise ship, the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas is due to dock.

The Florida cruise company leases a picturesque wooded peninsula and its five pristine beaches from the government for passengers to “cut loose” with watersports, barbecues, and shopping for trinkets at a craft market before returning on board before dusk. Safety is guaranteed by armed guards at the gate.

via Cruise ships still find a Haitian berth | World news | The Guardian.

Some passengers are reportedly “sickened” by the situation. One guys talks about how inappropriate it is to eat a cheeseburger when people are piled up dead in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

It’s easy to be outraged. Then again, what did you have for lunch, on dry land?

(It should be said: The ships do carry considerable loads of aid, according to cruise officials.)

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Filed under: Haiti, World, , , , ,

When teenaged Saudi girls attack!

Saudi women cheer and wave national flags as t...

Saudi women in traditional dress at a beach in Jeddah, on the western coast of Saudi Arabia. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

I knew it would happen eventually. I’ve jogged just about every night the year-and-a-half we’ve lived in Riyadh. First was in town, when we rented a hotel room for the first month. Back then, I dodged Crown Victorias and made my way round and round the parking lot behind Kindgom Tower, one of two skyscrapers here. It wasn’t pretty; choking on exhaust, I was always on the lookout for religious police, who had every reason to bust a geeky white dude pounding pavement in shorts.

Since then, we’ve mostly lived in the Diplomatic Quarter, home since the late 1980s to most of the foreign embassies. Off the western edge of town, the DQ — as it is widely known, causing ice cream franchise confusion — was conceived as a kind of model living unit for a future Saudi Arabia. Built at a cost estimated to be $2 billion, the 2,500-acre community sits amongst sculpted parks, canyons, fountains, a men’s and women’s gymnasium, several schools, two small commercial squares, and an equestrian club.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Middle East, Religion, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , ,

The best Haiti reporting yet


On the streets in Port-au-Prince. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

As I wrote earlier this week, beware the first reports from a disaster scene. Often it’s in these hectic first days that some of the wildly inaccurate work gets slammed down. We’re at day six now. And Jon Lee Anderson just arrived.

For those who don’t know his work, Anderson is one of The New Yorker‘s most impressive staff writers. All his stories are must reads: His reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq was surprising, tender, and never typical and a recent piece from Brazil just as the Olympics were announced there was almost enough of a national black eye to start some kind of riot. And Che, the definitive biography Anderson spent ten years writing, is a masterpiece.

Some time in the last hours Anderson passed through the unmanned gates of the DR/Haiti border and is sending text messages to his editor Amy Davidson.

Check out the whole dispatch. No surprise: He’s already coined one of what will likely be the most succinct distillations of the situation: “Haiti has been out of sight and of of mind for far too long; it is like a Lower Ninth Ward of almost 10 million people.”

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Filed under: Haiti, Journalism, Media, The New Yorker, World, , , ,

A word of caution: Finding truth in Haiti disaster news


Survivors at a clinic in Port au Prince, January 12. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

New York Times media genius David Carr wrote an excellent column in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that should be reread today. In the dizzying swirl of terrible rumor that posed as news that late summer and fall, Carr took a hard look at news creators such as Tucker Carlson and Greta Van Sustern, who had repeated unsubstantiated but compelling reports of rape, murder, and widespread looting — none of which was ultimately proven to have  occurred, at least on the lurid scale so bitingly promised.

The column begins:

DISASTER has a way of bringing out the best and the worst instincts in the news media. It is a grand thing that during the most terrible days of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters found their gag reflex and stopped swallowing pat excuses from public officials. But the media's willingness to report thinly attributed rumors may also have contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that will not clean up easily.

via More Horrible Than Truth: News Reports – New York Times.

Carr adds his own perspective from the day the Twin Towers fall. Victims still covered from ash told him that they’d seen men fighting on ledges, women tossing babies out windows, and other ultimately unsubstantiated stories. In the relative calm of the next few days, the real story began to emerge: People trapped were far too high to be seen in any detail. The ultimate record of 9/11 was no less horrifying, but far more true.

Haiti is undeniably suffering mightily now. And there are powerful stories being written that will indeed go down as the first draft of history. But before people begin to draw broad conclusions, beware the perils of reporting on the first days of disaster. Read, watch, and donate — by all means — but history and reporters like Carr remind us to reserve final judgment. Victims deserve both immediate attention and then, when time permits, a more thoughtful referendum, and hopefully one that helps prevent future disaster. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Haiti, Media, New York Times, World, , , , ,

BREAKING: Harper's Index now searchable

“Fruit Basket”, oil on wood

The Index is like an old painting. (Image via Wikipedia)

Now we can carve at that fabulous archive with search terms that will lead to filling mental meals and surprising fruit you should have already tried.

A sampling for Manhattan:

5/85: Percentage increase in members of Manhattan’s West Side Rifle and Pistol Range since the Goetz shootings: 30

5/97: Ratio of the number of telephone lines in sub-Saharan Africa to the number in Manhattan: 2:3

7/00: Rank of Manhattan among New York State counties using the largest amount of pesticide in 1997: 1

2/08: Ratio of the total square footage of the world’s Wal-Marts to that of Manhattan: 9:7

What if nothing happened if it’s un-Indexed?

Filed under: Journalism, Media, ,

In Mexico, drug lords turn enemies into food

White pozole (one of the variations of pozole)...

Pozole is delicious. Drug lords are vicious. (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m still in travel limbo, making it difficult to publish rich posts. But this Times story — memorably headlined “Mexican Known for Stewing Victims Arrested” — caught my eye, gut, etc.

The piece is by the consistently solid Marc Lacey. Dag:

When it comes to gore, Mexico’s drug traffickers seem to compete among themselves for the title of most depraved. One will chop off the heads of victims. Another will string dead rivals from bridges or torch their genitals. Recently, hit men removed the face from a dead man and sewed it onto a soccer ball.

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities announced the capture of one of those who they said had been particularly active in this game of one upsmanship, Teodoro Eduardo Garcia Simental, described as a ruthless drug lord based just south of the American border in Tijuana. Mr. Garcia’s trademark, the authorities said, was boiling his victims in barrels of lye in what has become known as Pozole, or Mexican stew.

via Mexican Known for Stewing Victims Arrested – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Journalism, New York Times, World, , , , , ,