Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book review: They say we are infidels, by Mindy Belz

I've rarely read a book that made me feel so bad for not paying too much attention to a lot of small phenomenon taking place in the Middle East. Of course, I am reading daily about the latest political and geopolitical positions about the war in Syria but in a sea of information I am rather tempted to look at the big picture. In this big picture the plight of Christians and the tremendous efforts to survive and challenges to escape are rarely featured.
Mindy Belz, editor of the Christian-oriented publication World Magazine, traveled often to Iraq, Jordan and Syria and got in touch with leaders of the faith or simply believers telling their stories and trying to escape. Not many are successful, among them many community leaders, brutally killed, kidnapped as a way to terrorize entire communities. 'Wherever there are Christians, they come and chase them', is one of her many observations from the intensive ground reporting work. The sense of the everyday life is completely distorted, and simple facts and gestures are read differently, based on the current terror threats. For instance, after explosives were often hidden in packages of spices, 'Residents grew to fear the smell of cinnamon' in the Mosul area. There are many more examples which offer a different view on the everyday life in this part of the world, that doesn't often appear in the big media. 
Personally, I've found extremely worrisome the huge number of lives took away during this what seems to be a neverending conflict. Just think about how many people are affected when one person dies. What happens then when thousand of people are killed just in a couple of hours? Terrible.
When it comes to the political decision makers, the author is outlining also the failures of the current and past American policies, that although pledged in favour of a non-involvement, ignored the human aspects and created a vacuum of power where nothing was put after the intervention to put an end of the Saddam Hussein regime. 
It is a book well documented and written, with many details and facts. To be read because we are humans that should not be indifferent by the fate of other humans.
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The past, present and future of News Media

What is the future of the news in the era of instant communications? What is the future of journalists in general? Too much available information does not mean an informed public and highly professional journalists and books about media and its news industry are always welcomed, for their efforts to go beyond the daily informational shots.
Through a historical investigation into the domain, done by authors with journalistic experience themselves, The News Media - to be released this September - aims at offering a view into the future. With the fast forward development of communications in general, the curiosity is legitimate and especially for the journalists themselves, it requires at least some minimal forecasts. 
With an almost exclusive focus on the US media history - although other countries are incidentally mentioned - it presents the struggle of the media to get recognition and access to information from the etablished authorities and a fair overview of the current state-of-arts of the digital information era, this book is a reliable source of information for political science and journalism students. It can interest as well anyone curious to get a short update about the history of journalism. the chapters are structured based on short snapshots of information, which make the lecture easy and focused. 
When it comes to the future, the predictions, as expected, are careful. An interesting remark though: 'It is hard to be totally certain about anything related to the future of news. But if there's one thing we can say with same degree of confidence, it is that national (and even international) news organizations and brands will probably be more economically successful than local or regional media outlets'. However, I think that in fact media are getting more localized and focused on micro- rather than on global events, and the audiences tend to be more fragmented and thus setting their own local agendas.
 The domain is vast and the selection is always problematic. This book gives interesting insights into the field, but fails elegantly to open too many perspectives.
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via

Sunday, May 15, 2016

UK tutorial: What you need to know about the EU referendum

As a knowledgeable EU citizen, with a big love for the city of London and the British culture in general, what is happening now on the other side of the European pond, especially the perspectives that the UK will leave the European institutional framework is of high interest for me. As a journalists that covered often EU affairs, especially EU Councils and bigger than nights discussions on the budget, I reckon that there are many problems within the Union, especially when it comes to coordination of policies and efficiency of the vast bureaucracy. However, the freedom of movement and the working rights as well as the children benefits and food prices are strong incentives for the need of Europe, although a reformed one.
On 23 June this year, British voters are expected to decide if to 'leave' or 'remain' part of the EU, a referendum decided after many intensive discussions for criticism against the Union. Besides the political discourses and rhetorics, it is the right of the voters to know what each of the choices does involve. A Guide for Voters, by David Torrance is aimed to offer exactly this missing milestone from the public debate: a balanced, documented perspective about the EU institutions, the relationship between EU and UK and all the big policy issues at stake, such as sovereignity, education, employment, environment, migration and trade. It also explains what are the EU institutions and how they work, covering even the most 'exotic' institutions for the large public, such as the European Court of Auditors or European Data Protection Supervision.
In a neutral, journalistic style, it approaches one by one, the main points of debate about 'Brexit' - abbreviation for Britain and Exit - such as: 'How much does the EU costs?', the real costs of migration, the advantages of the free trade agreement and the ways in which British citizens rights living abroad will be affected.
It also overviews the points of view among the voters from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the beneficiaries of many structural and regional EU funds.
There are several possible scenarios if the UK will finally decide to 'leave': either a Norway model, or a Swiss solution, becoming part of the European Free Trade Agreement, entering the EU customs union, an increased role in the WTO, or looking forward to being as strong as the BRIC countries.
The 'remaining' solution will mean anyway a renegotiation of some EU agreements, as decided this February in Brussels.
As for now, the opinion polls are unclear about any of the options. Around 20% of the voters are undecided. Three big TV debates are scheduled, the first one on BBC, this Thursday, in Glasgow aimed at the young voters.
I will carefully keep in eye on everything because either decision will have a dramatical influence on the EU future.
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book review: The Killing of Osama bin Laden

Seymour M. Hersh is a careful investigative journalist that, among others, created the debate about Abu Ghraib prisons. His investigations are based on high-level sources and very often he brings out to life truths the establishment want it hidden. This is part of the check-and-balances game, that should be fully functional in order to have a healthy democracy. Even if the journalists may make mistakes and can be biased in their evaluations, or even manipulated by their sources, the democratic institutions should do their work and give an answer to the issues raised by the media. 
A collection of articles covering the killing of Osama bin Laden and some aspects of the US involvement in Syria, this book echoes Hersh disappointment with Obama's incapacity to really offer a different perspective on US politics after Bush administration. Disappointment is a feeling, but sometimes it does not offer the right tool of evaluation of politics. While wathing the promises made by Obama during the first presidential campaign I wondered often how someone can really think - belief is a different side of the story - that one can, just overnight, stop many of the politics started by the Bush administration, the result of planning and involving budgets and various layers of the administration. But it seems that enthusiasm is over too. 
Hersh is particularly unhappy with the maintenance of the politics of relying on special operations, especially in the case of Osama's killing, as well as on the persistence of the Cold War rhetorics regarding Russia and China, especially in the case of the war in Syria. If in the first case, there may be some omissions and confusions  and inaccuracies regarding the public stories delivered - such as the impossible to believe that in fact Pakistan did not have any involvement in the success of the operation - in the second case, the reality may be a bit complex. In the last 8 years, America is lacking a coherent foreign policy - in terms of politics not symbolic gestures - offering willingly the floor to global stakeholders who were waiting for a long time to outline their presence. Woke up from his mediatic beauty sleep, Obama is using the old Cold War language because he does not have any other perpective on his own to use.
If you ignore the very frequent name dropping, Hersh offers a lot of snipets of information about the behind the curtain connections during the Syrian war, to be taken as such or compared with other official and even media reports - an approach strongly recommended in the case of the sarin gas debate, with more than one report contradicting Hersh assumptions. After all, journalists can be also the victims of their own informants, not only presidents. 
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via in exchange of an honest review.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Quo Vadis, Poland?

Source: Wikipedia
The Polish Parliament
Poland, the biggest EU state in Central and Eastern Europe, is going through a strong nationalist revival in the last two years, rising many questions and worries about the future of the country within the Union. Poland is the second, after Hungary, to join the new wave of nation-centered politics from the former communist block, but by far the most important from the point of view of the decision making processes within the Union. 
The dramatic changes took place after May 2015 presidential elections, when  Lech Kaczynski won the elections and the Party for Right and Justice (PiS) gained control over the both chambers of the Parliament. Lech's twin brother, Jaroslaw, former prime minister, died in a controversial airplane accident in 2010, together with more than half of the Polish politicaleadership at the time. 
PiS is the first party to govern the country alone since the end of communism, a situation which gives considerable leverage in the internadecision making process. This rule of the unique party comes after the disappointment brought by many of the post-communist coalitions. 

Policy of thought

With 4 out of 10 people living in the countryside and over 90% of the population of Catholic faith, Polish politicians started an aggressive campaign, both on the home and foreign front aimed to reinstate a different leadership. Many observers assume that such a return to identity politics is the consequence of a total and non-critical adhesion to the Western values after the fall of communism.
Kaczynski - and not only - are often building their discourses by blaming the German influence into their media and politics. Cultural happenings that do not comply with the overall directions confirmed through the religious channels are welcomed with protests and threats of outlaw. The public TV and broadcast were purged by bringing people close to the establishment. The Polish leaders categorically refused to accept any refugees. This February, Patrik Jaki, deputy minister for Justice proposed baning the sentence 'Polish death camps' under the threat of a 3-year sentence. And the examples can continue...

Where to?

Poland joined the EU in 2004, and since then the country's economic situation improved permanently. The unemployment was reduced, the highway network extended from 76.5 to 3000 km. The current government made more economic promises too, one of them being to increase the child subsidy to around 129$, an encouragement for extended families too. From the same family register, the authorities seek to completely outlaw abortions and birth control, a decision that rose protests in the country.
The Venice Commission, a legal body in charge with overviewing the constitutional changes within the EU, warned the country that many of the previsioned constitutional changes are contrary to human rights.
As the EU's sixth largest country, Poland is important from a strategical point of view too, for its border with Russia and for its voted and influence on the climate change policy of the Union, as the biggest coal producer in the EU.  
This July, NATO is supposed to have its regular summit in Poland and the current situation worries both sides of the Atlantic.
Within the EU, Poland can be subject to the rule of law mechanism adopted in 2014, leading to the suspension of the voting rights, following successive breaches of the EU Treaty. Kaczynski is trying to play hard the Hungarian card, whose far-right leader Orban he met recently. 
He wants to keep Poland in the EU, but without the euro, dreaming to be, maybe, the UK of the East. Meanwhile, it risks to be more isolated within the democratic partners. On the other side of the border, the man from Kremlin may be just a little bit happier.  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hollande in Lebanon, what to expect

When things are not going on as expected on the home affairs front, the foreign policy can help. At least when it comes to such a special relationship as the one between France and Lebanon.
French president, Francois Hollande is expected in Beirut the 16th of April for a working visit, part of a tour in the region between 16-18 April which includes also Egypt - state visit -and Jordan - meeting with King Abdullah II regarding the regional partnership and the fight against terrorism.

The current situation in Lebanon

Since the end of the mandate of the previous president Michel Suleiman in September 2014, the presidency of Lebanon is vacant. Compared to other situations when the various factions haven't reach an agreement for the next presidential candidate that lead to open conflicts, this time things seem to be less explosive. Hollande is supposed to express during his visit the support for coexistence and proper functioning of the local institutions, including the presidency.
The country was also affected by the Syrian civil war, with refugee camps in the country. France kept a very low profile in the issue of refugees, compared to the German EU partner and the French president is interested in helping the country with intelligence and financial support for diminishing the war repercurssions.
In most situations to be addressed, the French president is expected to offer commitment towards stability without offering concrete solutions. Another surprising fact is that during the war in Syria, the country remained stable.
In the post-war Syria, France would prefer a minimal influence of both hungry for more regional power actors Iran and Turkey, a trend which on long term can positively influence the internal situation in Lebanon too.
However, under the curtains, France keeps a permanent contact with Iran, an important player in the country with high interests through the support for the terrorist organization Hezbollah. The influence of France in this case is however limited, a major influencer being rather Russia, with good relations on both sides. In an interview with Al Mayadeen TV on March 21, the secretary general of the terrorist organisation, Hassan Nassrallah, noticed the 'common goals' between Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. It is the usual terrorist propaganda for the consumption of the Arab public, as an experienced diplomat as Lavrov sees much further than this. As for now, Russia can help the settlemet of an agreement for the election of a new president. For example.
Another important aspect of the French-Lebanese agenda is the delivery of French weapons, part of a $3 billion grant by Saudi Arabia, the highest ever given to the military sector. France also encourages Saudi Arabia's influence in the country, as a counter-balance to the Iranians. 

French-Lebanese strong connections

Out of the many others former French colonies, Lebanon always remains a special partner. Besides the interest of so many wealthy countries to get involved in the local affairs, not only for a good cause, France remains the main source of foreign direct investment. Thanks to France, Lebanon is one of the main Mediterranean beneficiaries of financial and technical assistance from the EU. Again, the friends for benefits from the region do not hurry up to support the economy, only the croonies from Hezbollah.
In addition, thousands of French-Lebanese citizens live and work in Lebanon, and around 250,000 people of Lebanese origin live in France. 
France continues to be influential but not the predominant power in the region. The effects of this visit, scheduled for last year but delayed for security reasons, are not to be seen immediately, but France keeps playing hard games in the Middle East and given the comptitors, it is preferably to many, if not most of them. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Relics of the Cold War at the History Museum Berlin

Although it is a modern city that grows up every day and sooner or later the traces of the past will be nicely covered by white new buildings for rent, Berlin remains a relic of the Cold War. And I am not talking only about the physical presence of the Wall that can be still admired and photographed in its friendly colourful form in the Eastern side of the city. I am talking about mentality differences and architectural traces that ca be noticed especially if you walk at length the streets over and over again.
Traces of the recent history are present everywhere in Germany, but especially in the Brandenburg area, a department surronding Berlin that used to be part of the Eastern Germany. Very often during my travels I stumble o monumental statues in the honour of the Soviet Army and cemeteries of the Soviet soldiers who died during their stay or fight in Germany. Not mentioning the many abandoned barracks and the famous Teufelsberg CIA listening station in Berlin. 
This year, Berlin is hosting three important events about this important historical epoch. One is hosted at the German History Museum: exhibition of photographies taken by the Dutch photographer Martin Roemers between 1998 and 2009 from both East and West parts of Europe, featuring relics of the Cold War. Mostly, there are ugly tunels and bunkers aimed to offer protection during a possible nuclear attack. It covers Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Lithuania and Latvia, on one side, and Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium on the Western side. The pictures are documentaries of a specific architecture and memories of a historical context. With some ironical notes not sure if intended by the photographer, with the details of the stomatological chair ready to be used by the communist leaders in case of nuclear attack. The exhibition is open to the public until 14 August.
Another event related to the Cold War is 14th of July exhibition at the Aliirten Museum that will last until January 2018 about 100 Objects. Berlin during the Cold War. It will feature various objects associated with that period and I will be curious to have a look at it soon. 
A research institute dedicatede to the Cold War was inaugurated the last year and regular events are supposed to take place here in the next weeks and months too. Berlin Center for Cold War Studies is part of Humboldt University and hosts an important archive covering this period. I hope to pay a visit soon and find out more about.
Shortly, it seems that the Cold War is still part of the daily German reality and an episode that still needs in depth consideration.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Machiavelli's advice to citizens for the coming American Elections

The coming American elections are an inspiration not only for journalists and power brokers, but also for political scientists. Maurizio Viroli is an Italian expert in Machiavelli whose writings are given a different spin than the usual focus on the leader: the electing citizens. Not extremely appreciated in the US and rarely associated with open and transparent democracy, the author of the Prince is now given an enriched interpretation. 
One of the most important assets of a real leader is to be voted by citizens involved in the everyday life of the Republic. Peacefully, they have to use the public meetings, rallies and debates for expressing their opinions about government and leadership in general and getting to know the candidates. With the democratic republic preferable to any other forms of government, Machiavelli's advice to the voters in Viroli's interpretation is to 'judge by the hands, not by the eyes'. In other words, to avoid evaluating politicians by their appearance. Although, we have to remember that one of the features outlined by the author of the Prince is eloquence but in this interpretation it is the role of the citizens to put facts and words together. 'Machiavelli's advice to citizens' is to choose that leader able to understand when the common good prevails over particular interests and able to adapt its politics to the changing context. Equally, they have to be careful with candidates that promise to achieve bold gigantesque political projects. Also, first priority of a president of a democracy is to promote peace and avoid war. Separation between state and church and religion in general is recommended for a democracy, as well as the need to have leaders knowledgeable about history and admiring 'the right people'. In the opinion of the author: 'The USA is the most successful example of a republic that has a strong civic religion, is acceptably tolerant and has been able to preserve a good separation between state and church'. Citizens should intend to limit the power of their leaders and avoid keeping them in power because power is a source of corruption and Machiavelli is not the only one to have outlined that.
An important asset of the book is also relying on various examples from the US history, offering a practical perspective on the political science texts.  
The book is expected to be published the 26th of April.

Disclaimer: I was offered the book by the publisher via, but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

EU-Peru Visa Waiver

High representatives of Peru and the EU signed the 14 March in Brussels an agreement for short-stay visa waiver. The agreement, that is applied from March 15 on a provisional basis until voted by the EU Parliament, provides visa free travel for EU citizens when travelling to the territory of Peru and for the citizens of Peru when travelling to the EU territory for a period of 90 days.
The provisions apply for valid ordinary, diplomatic or special passports, for all category of persons on any purpose - tourism, cultural visits, family, business - except for carrying a paid activity. Through this agremeents, both part hope to improve cultural connections, as well as political and economic improvement of the bilateral relations. 
EU is Peru's third trade partner after the US and China, and the largest foreign investor, with a 50% share of the total foreign investments. Between the two parts there are several cooperation programmes ongoing. During the 2007-2013 programe of 135 million Euro, Peru was supported to reduce the children malnutrition in remote and poor areas, to fight against illegal drugs and to create alternative development solutions and encourage ecological trade. During the various elections taking place in Peru, EU deployed Electoral Observation Mission.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Voices of conscience in the Middle East: Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi is famous for a sinister occurence: he was condemned by the Saudi Arabia authorities to 10 years of prison and 1000 lashes - yes, we are still in the 21st century - plus fines of an amount of the equivalent of 194,00 Euro, for his texts published on his blog. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is a strong militant for his release, run the country together with their 3 kids and is a Canadian resident. 
His only guilt is to have been approached sensitive issues for the theocractic Saudi Arabia, such as secularization, need to get rid of religious extremism, liberalism, pluralism, respect for diversity of religions and freedom of thought. The texts published on his blog between 2010 and 2012 were erased by the high tech authorities who are meanwhile maintaining a strict control of the www, in order to prevent any actions or writings against the predominant Islam. Some of the short written interventions were gathered in a thin book. Pledging for the adoption of a secularist model similar to that introduced in France after the French Revolution, he approaches various issues at stake in the Middle Eastern and particularly Saudi society: the contradictions between religious assumptions and scientific reality, the chutzpe of wanting a mosque close to the ruins of the WTC destroyed during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, equality between men and women, the rejection of autocratic movements such as Hamas. He also warned about extremists and the danger of the 'Caliphate'. There are a lot of interesting ideas and concepts outlined but unfortunately this is only the beginning of a larger discussion and clarification of concepts that as long he is in prison cannot be continued or developed. The original texts were published in Arabic, but translated in several languages. Personally, I've read the German version.
In December 2015, Badawi was awarded the prestigious European Sakharov prize by the European Parliament for freedom of thought. His condemnation is going on, with the last January 50 of the 1,000 lashes being done, although medical warning about Badawi's health situation were issued. At the end of the last year, he went on hunger strike for a short while.
He is not the only member of the family persecuted by the authorities. His sister, Samar Badawi, a human rights avocate was shortly detained this January. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Meir Dagan, almost the end of an era

The picture of his grandfather before death used to be in his office
The death of the former cheif of Mossad for nine years, Meir Dagan, can be almost the end of an era, of an old generation of public personalities in Israel whose personalities were defined by the World War II. Dagan, born as Huberman, on the train between Soviet Union and Poland in 1945, used to have in his office the picture of his grandfather down on his knees before being killed by Nazis, made a life mission that Holocaust 'will never happen again'. 
Dagan served as director of the Israel's most powerful intelligence agency beetween 2002 and 2011, under three prime-ministers: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. He ended his mandate on medical reasons, although during the exhange of declarations during the last years elections, Netanyahu affirmed that in fact he refused to extend his mandate. Dagan offered to the media the proof of his letter resignation letter where he requested the replacement. 
Officer of the Israeli Defense Force - IDF - he fought during the Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War. As chief of Mossad, he ordered several operations, some of them together with other secret services, aimed at killing terrorists who put in dangerous the state of Israel. During one of them, for instance, operated together with the CIA, was killed Imad Mughniyeh, the so-called Minister of Defence of Hezbollah. After becoming a public figure, he often criticised Netanyahu for the way in which he managed the Iran problem and was a harsh opponent of the idea of an Israeli attack against Tehran. In Dagan's opinion, the then and current prime-minister turned Iran into an Israeli problem, thus limiting the interest of the rest of the world in the issue. During the last elections, he supported Isaac Herzog, part of a tandem with Tzipi Livni that used to work for the Mossad during his mandate.
Dagan was also active in the business sector, and was an amateur painter and a vegetarian too. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Obama in Cuba: why and what to expect

President Obama's visit to Cuba between 20-22 March, the first in almost 90 years, will probably bring a lot of hopes and possible deals for US companies, but will not change too much the massive human rights violations on the island. After decades of economic and political isolation, Cuba is progressivelly opening to businesses, but the high number of arrests among dissidents in the last weeks - around 2,555 in the first months of the year according to local and international human rights NGOs - shows that there is a very long way till the country will achieve democratic standards, if ever.
Obama is accompanied by a massive delegation of business people, among which representatives of AT&T, Xerox, Marriott and Starwood hotel chains, as well as bi-partisan senators. In the next months it is expected that US airlines will start commercial flights to Cuba. A full lifting of the embargo is not possible too soon, given the strong opposition of the Republican-dominated Congress, many of them strongly opposing this visit. Over the years, the Congress created exceptions to embargo, allowing, among others, US companies to sell construction materials, or agricultural and telecommunications equipment. White Houe is considering revising various regulations to allow American dollars to be used in transactions with Cuba and give green light to Americans to travel individually in Cuba. As for now, after decades long when visiting the Caribbean island was definitely forbidden, American can visit only part of groups. 
Compared with Nixon's visit to China - except that Obama does not have a smart help as Kissinger - the coming agenda includes meeting with Raul Castro, the brother of the Fidel who used to throw diatribes against the US, a possible attendance of a US-Cuba baseball game - Major League Baseball is part of the delegation too looking for deals for getting easily Cuban players -, a public speech at the University of Havana and a meeting with dissidents, most probably carefully chosen by the authorities. What will be avoided at any price will be a photo opp with Fidel, but do not forget that Raul was comrade in arms with his brother and part of the same system. 
US consulting companies warn that given the difficult legal and economic environment in Cuba, it will be quite complicated for American firms to operate in the communist country, but probably there was little choice left to the US given the high interest of countries like France, Japan and Russia to start serious businesses with Havana government. If we think about the good Cold War relations between Havana and Moscow, it is hard to believe that Russians ever left, with many elites well trained in the Soviet institutions.
The official publication Granma, who over the years made a hobby from publishing many pages anti-American propaganda announced in one of its last issues that Cuba will not cede 'one inch' in its 'unconditional commitment to its revolutionary and anti-imperialist principles'. On the other side, Obama also announced in December, during a Yahoo interview, that he will not visit the island if the human rights conditions will not improve. It is hard to say now who won, but democracy and human rights did not for now it seems. 
The warming up of the relations started in September 2014, when Castro and Obama met during the UN General Assembly. According to the diplomatic practices, an official visit of Raul Castro to Washington may follow, but it is hard to say if it will happen during the mandate of the current president. 
To be continued...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: Aleppo, by Philip Mansel

Once upon a time, it was a city, with a vibrant life, and beautiful buildings and an European flair. Its name was Aleppo and was almost destroyed by the latest civil war, although escaped for centuries big wars, riots or earthquakes. I personally never traveled to this city, but luckier travelers friends of mine told or showed me interesting stories or pictures from here. All these pictures are mostly showing places that are just memories. 
In his latest book, Philip Mansel covers the history of the city as part of the greater Middle East and the main trade routes. It is the story of a city "with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish". 
Until the latest civil war, the city kept at a great extent a peaceful character and went through the big world conflicts without serious damage. Together with Damascus, to whom it places itself in antithesis, it is one of the oldest continously inhabited cities in the world. Faithful to the Ottoman Empire, it was used often as a basis during the frequent wars with Iran over the control of Iraq or the battles between Sunni and Shi'a. Although its commercial role will diminish by the 17th century, it will remain till the 21st century, an important hub of cultural, trade and diplomatic resources. The impressive number of sayings and proverbs typical for Aleppo that entered the public conscience in the region are an example of the special status of this city. My favourite by far is: "If you do business with a dog, you should call him Sir". It testifies about a special sensibility and a local code of values. 
The book has two big parts: one dedicated to cover various historical and political stages of development of the city, with its main benchmarks, and the other covering fragments from travel accounts about Aleppo. It is an interesting perspective which offers the chance to get a glimpse of the ambiance and profile of the city through direct accounts. 
It is an informative interesting read, of academic consistency and well written. My only regret is that the author commits the big sin of many historians approaching the 'multicultural' Middle Eastern cities of pretending that there was tolerance towards the Jewish inhabitants. Only at the beginning of the 19th century there were couple of infamous "blood libels" that are not mentioned in the book. Anyway, this was not the main topic of the book, but more attention to this detail will help countering the stereotype of the 'tolerance' in the Middle East. 
A lecture recommended to both historians and political scientiest, as well as to journalists covering the Middle East. 
The book will be released the 28th of April.
Disclaimer: I was offered the book for review via, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Faces of refugees

There is a lot to say about the refugee crisis that made the first page of many European newspapers for weeks the last year and still remains a very important challenge and test for the European policies and solidarity, especially at the EU level. There are dramatic aspects regarding the security, especially from the point of view of the terrorist threats, as well as of public diplomacy. or human rights.
As I am living in Germany, refugees are more than an abstraction or desperate beings shown on TV. Especially in some parts of Berlin, you can see them on the street and even approach them. A couple of days ago, while passing by a local office of Sparkasse bank, a human chain in the front of the door with a patch of paper on their jackets writing: Refugee Support. I also known quite a lot of people around involved on a regular or volunteering basis in helping the refugees and even telling their stories further.
Outside Germany refugees can be an abstraction and the representations of local population can be limited to the scary images of the yellow media. Again, I am convinced there are so many details and nuances to consider when it comes to this issue, but on the other hand it is important to embrace the entirety of the topic.
Thanks to social media though, the nuances can be offered, in their simple happening. A couple of days ago, when browsing the Instagram for new interesting photos from sunny places, I stumbled upon a reference to a project of the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, of documeting the arrival and life of refugees reaching the island of Lesbos in Greece. His account is: #aiww. I spent the next hour looking at the pictures or video gathered: first hand images of people, many of them children, upon their dramatic arrival on the island. Expressions of hope, happiness, relief, deep sadness, insecurity...the usual repertoire of humanity in its simplest manifestation. Especially the videos and the faces of small children are very moving.
Ai Weiwei's account is an example of the good changes that can be brought via social media. It also offers a chance to information and the possibility to make your own ideas and opinions based on what you see. The final political decisions are based less on feelings and emotions, but at least for us, the citizens, it is important to see all sides of the coin. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Germany for refugees, the information level

In order to answer questions and cover the lack of information about Germany among refugees, and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung released at the end of 2015 a bilingual book - German-Arabic - about Germany. Under the title 'First information for Refugees', it offers in a simple language - I can certify for the German as I am not familiar with different Arabic dialects - basic data about culture, work culture, everyday life, history, rule of law, food and drinking habits, transportation rules etc. It starts with a 'Welcome to Germany' address outlining the need to know the main rules in the society, The reader will learn that Germany is rich in forests, but also that there is a complicated tax system in place. On several occasions it is reminded the Shoah and the negative load of the WWII history. There are offered links about the halal food or circumcision. The authors mentioned that women can find in Germany in stores special outfits such as abbaya or hijab. Different stages of the registration process are also explained.
The readers are informed that beating your wife is not practised in Germany since 1928 and also that bigamy and poligamy are forbidden. Germans have many hobbies and are members of different associations and societies, and among others like to swim or do yoga. During the summer, the reader is told, women do dress light and it is ok. Also couples - gay or heterosexual - may manifest publicly their feelings. This is also ok. 
Talking about culture, it is mentioned that 'The situation of culture was never better'.but also that the role of the media is not only to inform but also to have a critical stance against the government. The readers are warned to avoid downloading illegaly documents from the Internet.
At the chapter regarding cultural habits in Germany, are mentioned, among others: being in time, not being very offensive towards women, respecting the time of rest during the day, not talking loud on the phone. There is also said about how important is to wash your hands but I suppose that the authors forgot the customs of the muslim society. Also at the hygiene part, there is extensively explain how to correctly use the toilet and what not to throw inside. Talking about practice, I suppose you do not have to be a refugee for being informed about that...Many locals also need some training in this respect.
Another important information for refugees: Germans love their cars and may overreact if their car will be scratched. 
At the end of the book, there is a basic vocabulary list. The booklet is also available as app.
How valuable is the information presented here for the refugees? Despite some clumsy approaches, it is useful, at least in the first stage of the journey. However, besides reading, many of the people reaching Germany would need some time to know the culture and the mentality. This cannot be done overnight and books do not always help, but the direct contact with the people and the society as such. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

How do I find the news

With over 10 years of practice in the traditional media, out of which more than 7 years dealing with foreign affairs and 15 years of various blogging, including in the field of foreign affairs and diplomacy, I am familiar with a lot of sources useful for finding inspiration for articles. Able to read and communicate in several languages, I have the advantage of getting first hand access to a variety of worlds. I am not a big TV fan, and I usually prefer once in a while some podcasts, so the non-written sources do not have too much chaces unless there is a high emergency.
I travel often and an additional source of inspiration is represented by the direct contact with people and eventually, participation at various events related to foreign affairs, such as international conferences or events.
As I also have an academic background, with PhD in history, I prefer to let the topic cold down a little bit, till will achieve a bigger understanding of the entire context. There is always a temptation to write on the spot and as a journalist I follow very often this impulse. After all, we always needed to cover what everyone covered and missing the big subjects of the day would have mean a disqualification of the paper and especially of the journalist. Hence, the joy of being my own boss, with the blog as my playground and no one else to held me accountable for my omissions. I love to wait and see the different angles and first and foremost to read as much as possible for properly covering the issue. When you need to cover an instant news, you never have more than maximum 5-6 hours to do the research, ask questions and finish the writing. As a blogger, I do not care to offer news - although I am still looking forward to share that big secret no one else know about it before - but perspectives and views.
But there are also some predictable aspects of my daily search for diplomatic meaning: I do  have also a schedule of big international meetings and events - such as international gatherings as NATO or EU summits or big benchmarks - trying to give an idea about the possible agenda and the predictable consequences. 
As for now I am based in Germany, covering the local topics is predominant but expect to have covered other perspectives as well. 

Egypt versus Iran, and not only

In an interview offered to a very pro-Iran sympathetic Dieter Bednarz from Spiegel the last week, the foreign minister of Egypt, Sameh Hassan Shoukry outlined several times the unsatisfaction with the constant involvement of Iran in the internal affairs of other countries from region, such as Syria, Bahrain, Iraq or Yemen.Following the latest evolutions in the region and the high proof of Iranian influence especially in Yemen and Syria, based on an expansionist conception focused on strengthening of religious - Shiilte - ties in the region, Egypt stays for now on the side of the opposition to Tehran politics, similarly with Saudi Arabia. Egypt does not  have diplomatic relations with Iran, following the peace treaty with Israel. 
Currenly, Egypt is coping with a resurgence of ISIS regroupement in Sinai,which jeopardizes not only the security in the region, but also tends to isolate Egypt. In the last years, the country kept losing significant amounts of money due to the diminishing of touristic presence. 
In the interview offered to Der Spiegel; Shoukry repeats on several occassions that Tehran involvement is wrong and the opposition against the Iranian officials is justified, including through the measures took against its influence agents, such it was the case of the Shiite leader Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. The Sheikh was condemned to death the 2nd of January. He often pledged for religious freedom in the Kingdom who practices a Wahhabi version of Sunni islam and considers the Shi'a as heretics. Western media and NGOs portrays the sheikh as a fighter for religious freedom. 
Shoukry, a close confident to current president Sisi and former ambassador in the US, Austria and Switzerland during Mubarak, gave the interview before his official visit to Germany.
As things look now, there is Iran against the rest of independent states in the region, with no benefits for anyone, especially for the regional stability.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Back on the writing track

For almost two years, this blog was silent. Other writing assignments and interests kept me away of one of my biggest passions: foreign policy. Now, with more time in my pocket and a lot of writing ideas, I am ready to continue.
The content will not change too much. I will try to post at least twice the week, analysis and researched articles on daily topics. I would also try to write once in a while fresh content with interviews with experts on different topics and book reviews on topics relevant to foreign policy. The focus will be on analysis, trying to understand current events and trends as well as to give different answers to common questions. We will always use a mixl approach, which combines the fine psychological observation with the deep historical knowledge and familiarity with the usual trends and tendencies in the political arena.
Although Europe and the US remain important global players, I will prefer as often as possible to offer more space for analysis to the countries and regions outside the usual mental comfort zone.
As I am preparing for this year the publication of two books on topics related to foreign affairs, one of them dedicated to the influence of social media to diplomatic trends, I will regularly write on issues of interest for my upcoming editorial projects. 
There may be many dramatic changes endeavoured but only in the second part of the year, after I have the guarantee that my blog is finally back on the track.
As for now, time for preparing the next posts and the editorial agenda for the coming days and weeks. I hope that this long silence was a useful respiro for a dramatic change of the blog, following the new insights and understandig that I won while being offline. 
Keep in touch with good writing news!