'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

A tale of two Arabian cities

Yemenis sit in the old city of Sanaa as the mi...

The old city of Sana'a is like a fairy tale -- unless you start knocking on doors. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

It’s March 2010 and the clang of metal rings out down a dusty street in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Soldiers in blue camouflage hold oiled assault rifles, standing among a gathering crowd. One of the city’s dispensaries for cooking gas has just received a shipment. There’s a shortage of fuel all around the city, which is groaning under the twin strains of governmental dysfunction and an influx of refugees from the north. A jet streaks high above us, presumably en route to the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni military is targeting anti-government Houthi rebels and alleged cells of al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some in the West have begun to call Yemen a failed state, but at least they’re calling it something.

I have come to Sana’a with my wife – who is on assignment for American public radio – from our base in Riyadh, a historical friend to its southern neighbor. People say that Yemenis built Saudi Arabia – and it’s true that big companies of Yemeni origin, such as the massive Bin Laden Group, were responsible for a lot of the early contracts to build roads and infrastructure in the Kingdom.

But warm relations between the two countries soured in 1990 and 1991, when Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978 and at that point presiding over a united north and south Yemen, joined Cuba in voting against a United Nations resolution authorizing force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was outraged by the decision and began deporting Yemeni guest workers. Nearly a million were eventually removed. The absence of dollar infusions from Saudi’s booming oil economy – and the loss of millions in US and European support, likewise rescinded in response to that UN vote – didn’t help things for Yemen, which faced dwindling petroleum revenues that are expected to slow to a stop soon.

Coming from the comparative wealth and restrictions of Riyadh, I am eager to see Sana’a, which I’ve read is poorer in cash and resources, but richer in less quantifiable terms. Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: Al Qaeda, Israel, Oil, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, War, World, Yemen, , , , , , ,

You are not alone; we are all alone

Northwestern Afghanistan

Northwestern Afghanistan is both real and more real than you can imagine. (Image via Wikipedia)

Another dream. I’m at a crowded airline terminal, and all the other waiting passengers are American high schoolers: Rowdy, urban, multi-cultural, coiled with teen-aged energy.

Under the fluorescent lights, against the soft hush of the industrial carpet, a hefty boy with tanned skin, dark hair, and pimples stands to give a Heil Hilter salute.

He’s rooted there there, tall — is he Mexican, from Latin America? he’s a citizen, though — ramrod and with a blank face, giving this awful salute.

Catcalls ensue. “No he didn’t!” “Oooooh.” “Damn, that boy crazy!”

But he just stands there, rigid, unmoving, this real boy doing something real. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Afghanistan, U.S. Military, War, World, Writing, , , , ,

Obama's Middle East opportunities

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (R)...

Obama meets this fall with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Over and over, the smartest people in the room seem to be the good men and women of the International Crisis Group. Consider their crystal clear take on President Obama and the Middle East, from the final paragraph of an op-ed in today’s Washington Post:

The longer the United States remains encumbered by rigid mental habits, the longer it denies itself the means to influence events. Already, Washington has accepted bystander status regarding moves by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Worse, it can do little to prevent more ominous and increasingly likely developments — a confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, or between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem– all of which carry serious risks of spillover. President Obama is seldom better — and never more himself — than when he escapes the deceptive comfort of inherited certainties. His administration must start by discarding a reading of the region in which “moderates” fight “militants,” and “moderates” prevail. That vision has no local credibility or local resonance. It has no chance.

via Robert Malley and Peter Harling – Shifting allegiances in Middle East mean opportunities for President Obama – washingtonpost.com.

If you live in a country where booze is legal, spill some on the ground for Chas Freeman and his failed nomination. When you’re done, read the whole piece by Malley and Harling. Then wait for it all to come true: Among other things, the U.S. just named a new ambassador to Syria — filling that post for the first time since 2005. Warning: Don’t hold your breath.

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Filed under: Barack Obama, Islam, Middle East, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , , , , ,

In defense of Dubai's migrant labor system

Emirate of Dubai

There's money here. (Image via Wikipedia)

You’ve read the horror stories from Dubai. Beyond all that glitz and glamor lies a dark underbelly: The wretched lives of the mostly Indian and Pakistani men who actually build the place, clean it, and make sure everything works.

It’s all too typical to read media reports describing these men as being transported like cattle onto scorched earth building sites, where they work all day. At night, the story goes, they are corralled into substandard bunkhouses, where they eat bad food and drink worse water. Much of this is not in dispute.

What is important to consider is the idea that migrant workers in the Gulf are paid badly, or unfairly. Foreigners who come to work in oil-rich Gulf countries can make as little as $125 a month. Some analysts call this income tantamount to slavery. Others go further, calling that level of pay a systematic outrage that makes the world a worse place.

But what if precisely the opposite is true? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Economy, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., , , , , ,

I dream of war

John McCain waits to deliver speech in Denver,...

Image via Wikipedia

Woke up early this morning with John McCain slapping me on the back. I was in fatigues, standing among fellow soldiers for some sort of honor guard ceremony. I leaned uninjured against crutches, trying to fake my way out of fighting. McCain, his big scarred face a plastic mask of fellowship, slapped me on my back again and nearly knocked me over. Then a towering, super-buff Latino General — of higher rank somehow than McCain — came over and laid his crushing, buff arm over my head. This Latino General regarded the field of soldiers, the gleaming guns, the spectators in the stands. How was I lucky/unlucky enough to have the two important guys on either side of me? Then I realized the Latino General thought McCain was a bullshit pussy, and I — with my glasses and touch-typing fingers — was someone just as bad.

“Nerds better be giving up on robots,” the Latino General said, crushing my head and making my fake crutches crumble. He looked at McCain and sneered. “This war is among men.”


Surrounded by war these days: Saudi with Yemen, America in Afghanistan, and maybe soon, Israel versus Lebanon, and my oldest friend heads to an Iraq FOB this summer. Feels like there’s no refuge, especially late at night.

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Filed under: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Military, War, World, Yemen, , , , , ,

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, , , , , ,

Health debate simplified: Do you value life or money?

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 18:   Political commentat...

Mr. Brooks: A straight-shooter, even if he'd let your neighbor go without care if it'd mean a "vital" marketplace. (Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife)

The most clear-eyed distillation of the health care debate to date is in today’s column by David Brooks. The sides are ultimately drawn along what you value, he writes. Do you prize health for all, or vitality for all?

Reform would make us a more decent society, but also a less vibrant one. It would ease the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth. It would heal a wound in the social fabric while piling another expensive and untouchable promise on top of the many such promises we’ve already made. America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one.

We all have to decide what we want at this moment in history, vitality or security. We can debate this or that provision, but where we come down will depend on that moral preference. Don’t get stupefied by technical details. This debate is about values.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Values Question – NYTimes.com.

As I’ve written before, I think the health of our individual citizens is the most important thing. I would never want a government program guaranteeing a flat-screen TV for all, or laundered shirts for all. But to me access to doctors for all is just as essential as roads, police, schools, and military. I don’t care how much a public plan costs — for me it is a fundamental public service. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Death, Economy, Health, Healthcare reform, New York Times, , , , ,

For U.S. journalists, two good reasons to stop complaining

iran protest

Taking photos of the Iran protests landed countless journalists in jail. (Image by buridan via Flickr)

It’s a sad, woe-is-me kind of time for journalists. Newspapers shuttered! Internet ruining everything! No jobs! Ads disappearing! But two excellent stories in my favorite paper of record give a little perspective.

The first, from Iran, is the gut punch: Journalists there are not only losing their jobs at a record clip — 2,000 in recent months, by some reports — but they are being jailed, tortured, and exiled. The New York Times gets the story of one riveting escape, a photographer who made it to the comparative safety of northern Iraq:

For two months Ehsan Maleki traveled around Iran with a backpack containing his cameras, a few pieces of clothing and his laptop computer, taking pictures of the reformist candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi during the presidential campaign. He did not know that his backpack and his cameras would soon become his only possessions, or that he would be forced to crawl out of the country hiding in a herd of sheep.

The second, from a small town in New Mexico, is maybe equally inspiring. In it, we learn about the new life of the ex-D.C. correspondent for a now-shuttered western paper. Moving to tiny Guadalupe, M. E. Sprengelmeyer could either afford to buy a house… or one of the town’s two weekly newspapers. He chose newsprint over stucco:

Eight months ago, Mr. Sprengelmeyer, 42, worked as the sole Washington correspondent for The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper that went out of business in February, but his job these days is a far cry from the Senate press gallery.

In August, he embarked on a new life in this isolated little town as owner, publisher, editor, primary writer and sometime ad salesman, photographer and deliverer of the weekly Guadalupe County Communicator, circulation about 2,000.

Sprengelmeyer is actually making pretty good money, he says, and he’s even considering bringing his new paper out twice a week. “I couldn’t do this if I had a family,” he tells the Times. “But it feels like it matters, and I’m having fun.”

So as we mourn the apparently bygone days of Conde excess, Time Inc grandeur, Hearst munificence, and Times Co glory, don’t underestimate the scrappy reality on the ground.

For every laid-off Senior Editor in Manhattan there are 500 wildcats roaming foreign lands with pen and paper, braving FSB intimidation or Basij batons. And for every jettisoned Staff Photographer in L.A. there’s a wily entrepreneur doing it her own way in small-town USA.

Buck up! Others actually do die — or at least move to New Mexico — trying.

Extra credit: Check out Sprengelmeyer’s bitchin’, unapologetic story about owning two of Jack Abramoff’s old suits.

via Reporter Resurrects Career – Buys His Own Paper – NYTimes.com.

via Iranian Journalists Flee, Fearing Retribution for Covering Protests – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Don't be lazy, Economy, Jobs, Journalism, New York Times, , , , ,

Homesick again: Envying a rollicking, piano-banging gravestone benefit in NY

Duke Ellington during concert break at Jahrhun...

Duke Ellington woulda been jealous, too. (Image via Wikipedia)

If yesterday’s news that a Denver newspaper was hiring a pot critic made me homesick for America, this story describing a crowded New York nightclub made me desperately miss the Big City.

A definition of righteousness: about 75 people, crammed into the West Village club Smalls, watching a series of pianists play James P. Johnson on a grand piano in a benefit concert to buy a headstone for his grave.

I don’t know much about Johnson, but the set — which featured 12 different pianists slapping keys for five hours — sounds like it would’ve been an excellent introduction. Here’s critic Ben Ratliff’s description of the turn at the ivory taken by Ethan Iverson, of the excellent if sometimes overly nerdy Bad Plus, the band responsible for that jazzy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

[Iverson] played “Carolina Shout” with sensitivity and clarity, keeping the stride rhythm steady in the left hand. Then he went off into his own updated, posteverything style, full of explicit dissonance, repetition and strange dynamics.

“The Charleston” was his killer: it started with deliberately messy tone rows, his two hands playing at cross-purposes, the left staccato and slow, the right flowing and medium-tempo. Inevitably, and with humor, he finished in the song’s proper style.

Johnson died in 1955 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Maspeth, Queens. When the concert promoters finally erect his stone, hopefully we’ll read about it and I can schedule some rainy afternoon to make a visit. I’ll bring my friend Tim, who’ll appreciate the trek, and I’ll tell him — as I’m telling you know — about the time in 1921 that Johnson and Duke Ellington stayed out hollering until 10 a.m.

Duke reportedly said a night with Johnson was worth more than a semester at a conservatory. Here’s to you, Mr. Johnson; may you teach us all.

via Music Review – James P. Johnson – Raising the Roof (and a Headstone) for a Giant of His Era – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Don't be lazy, Homesick, Journalism, New York Times, , , , ,

Night of the sandstorm: Seeing Saudi through American eyes


The calamitous scene at the US embassy in Riyadh. (Courtesy of the Pine Leaf Boys/pineleafboys.com)

I’m back in Riyadh for the first time in 45 days. Along the highways, Saudi flags – that fearsome green banner with the ornate script and the crossed swords – flap in the hot desert air. Ramadan is over; Islam’s annual, month-long ritual of day-time fasting and night-time feasting has at last come to a close. The capitol hasn’t recovered yet.

For the first time – taking a familiar drive into the heart of town, cresting the western ridge of the city’s wide river plateau – I see how beautifully Riyadh sparkles at night.

Time away is good. It gives you perspective, letting you appreciate things anew. But it also helps you sharpen your instincts, re-remember what once made you pause. (As I’m thinking this, the flashing lights of a police checkpoint come into view.)

I tap the steering wheel and realize this: In the coming weeks and months, I’ll let this column be a kind of record of that tension between fear and awe.

For now, as awe takes the lion’s share, I’ll share another piece originally published in The Review, a weekly supplement to The National.

In the piece, we encounter a band of American musicians – most of whom had never left America, let alone North America. Because of their wide-eyed enthusiasm, what could have been a disaster becomes a kind of catharsis.

Assembled in a plush anteroom at Quincy House, the US Ambassador’s formal residence here in Riyadh, the Pine Leaf Boys were a crew of guileless, fresh-faced Louisianans in their mid-20s. The bassist, a handsome bearded man named Thomas David, had never left the US before. The drummer, Drew Simon, compact and slouching, said he postponed his wedding to attend. The wispy-thin fiddler, Courtney Granger, said he was so nervous about coming to the Middle East that he’d spent the previous two days vomiting. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Uncategorized, , , , ,