The Mudville Gazette
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Wednesday, May 14, 2003


It's been 15 years since I've been to Cairo so things may have changed. One thing I noticed while there, however, was that very little had changed over the past several thousand years. Sure, taxis, buses, Mercedes, and Toyotas mingle with donkey carts in the shadow of the Citadel of Salah ad-Din, and certainly a different God is worshipped from the group that inspired the pyramids. (Different Gods to note the presence of Christians and other religions that are "tolerated" there. And for the cynical, the universal gods of money, power, etc. worshipped worldwide have their well-kept temples there too.)

With regard to crowded streets, "teeming" is the right word. 6.8 million. When the surrounding metropolitan area is included, Cairo has a population of 14.5 million, staking a claim to 9th largest city in the world. Exact numbers are meaningless, of questionable validity but obvious issues. Tear through town as a passenger in a minibus, go from 60 to 0 in one second as someone steps off the curb in front of you without a glance in either direction, narrowly avoiding a population reduction of one. "If Allah wills it they will live to cross the street," the driver explains, "what purpose in looking first?" Learn quickly why non-locals' driving is discouraged. Learn quickly that this place runs on the will of Allah.

Mountains of refuse? Will be gone when Allah wills. Collapsed building? Removed when Allah wills. Shelter then, in the meantime, for someone for whom Allah wills it. A degree of planning and administration appears to be lacking, and rather then demand accountability from city officials, understand that this is what Allah wills. The logic is not arguable. If Allah did not will it, it would not be.

Tanks roll. Throngs along the street raise fists in rage and celebration. What will America bring? According to the New York Times ( a paper with recent credibility issues) one answer from a local is "Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy!" The phrase catches on with many. It becomes a slogan on t-shirts, bumper stickers and Blogs across America. Songs are written, recorded, and made available via internet download overnight. Hooray! With only a few deaths we've brought Democracywhiskeysexy to Iraq.

The celebration continues into the streets of downtown Baghdad as toppling statues of Saddam provide photo ops for journalists shocked that "the Big Story" is ending so soon. Absolute, total, and stunning victory leaves them starving for some angle they can use to paint a picture of desperation for their readers "back home." The quagmire of their dreams has failed to materialize, and no one wins Pulitzers for happy news. No one covers this story accurately or well. The pre-written news of dismal failures must now remain in the drawer of their minds forever. Pale attempts otherwise (coverage of riots and museum looting) will later be proved overblown and under researched. Public interest wanes.

Now return to the scene of the falling statue. Ignore the flag on the face thing, no one really cares. It's a distraction. Note instead the "crowd" of hundreds in a city of millions. I've never seen a public square so empty in daylight hours. It's likely that the vast majority were afraid as yet to face the Americans. It's certainly possible that many were not convinced that the next day would mark their departure and the return of Saddam. These people had experiences in their own lifetimes with America withdrawing hope at the last tantalizing minute. Pardon them then their lack of faith in the conquerors' good intentions. Still a thought haunts me: That given recent history, if in some way the U.S. could be invaded and conquered in like manner, the crowd of Democrats toppling statues and looting the Smithsonian would far exceed the numbers of Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad that glorious day...

NEAR CAIRO, the late '80s
The desert is hot in August, but the dry atmosphere actually leads to extremes. Your body adjusts remarkably to the heat of the day, then when temperatures plunge into the 70's at night you shiver with cold. The dry air also provides a spectacular night time view of the Perseid Meteors, arcing through the sky in an uninterrupted display of indescribable and awesome beauty. The vastness of the cosmos is above you, and you are small.

Small, but connected through those stars to people who looked at them thousands of years ago, people who were writing the Bible, the Torah, the Koran. People building pyramids. People living in large groups in cities for the first time, all long after the light from most of those stars above began to travel to here, to be seen twinkling for eternity.

Are we all then the sons and daughters of those ancient star gazers? Surely we are. And that makes the guards at the gate of this remote little airfield our distant cousins. Surely then they would not have pulled the trigger when we approached the gate and the guard stepped into the path of our vehicle, locked and loaded on the driver as he stopped for an ID check? Of course not. A show of force and military professionalism, I'm sure. No doubt they want to inspire our confidence in their abilities. Demonstrate how capable they are, they are serious! They mean business! They have our attention, but we are not impressed. If they hoped to distract us from the mismatched, ill fitting uniforms, the bare feet, or the slack attitude and lack of discipline they failed to accomplish that. It is glaring and obvious to the small group in the van with our Egyptian driver. We are first in to this installation, eight of us to be the first to spend the night at this base camp for Joint Spec Ops.

Our cousins let us wait while they run our ID's into a nearby shack. After a few minutes a small contingent marches out, escorts and a high ranking individual who must personally approve our presence. There is much discussion. Perhaps as a vanguard we are a little early and were not expected? Perhaps this is a show? Who knows. Eventually the mufti is satisfied, we are cleared and proceed across the desert to our temporary home. Eight American GIs alone in tent city in a remote corner of an airfield holding several thousand Egyptian regulars, as much our ally as they are the Russians', at the tag end of the Cold War...


The ramps are empty. This base is all about transport. The planes that should be filling this acreage wingtip to wingtip are now involved in one of the most massive efforts in the history of civilization; Desert Shield is full up and operational. Real war may be a reality. The cold war hardly over, the thaw of the collapse of the Soviet Union barely felt, and all hell is now officially set to break loose.

But across a relatively small sea from here is the Korean Peninsula, where the cold war has never ended. Each report heard of Saddam's military comes with a ring of familiarity to those in this theater. The same numbers, the same tanks, the same aircraft, the same guns, are all just north of the 38th parallel. Yokota is temporary, I'm inbound to Seoul this time. Returning from a brief "business trip" to Japan. And all these missing planes mean one thing to an American toeing that little finish line for the free world: there is no quick back up coming. You are on your own.

Egypt, however, is with us in the Gulf. For a mere 7 Billion in debt relief, our cousins will join us in the desert again...