Dispatch from Qatar: Pigeons 36, Falcons 0

Joseph Hammond sent in this dispatch from Qatar.

This past weekend Qatari falconers and falconry fans gathered for the start of the 3rd Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival and event which will see some 1300 birds and their owners compete before it concludes on February 2nd. The festival will also include dog racing, target shooting demonstrations and a “Junior Falconer” competition all held under the patronage of Shiekh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Prizes include new luxury landcrusiers for the winners.

Journalists which made the hour drive near the Saudi border, where the event was held, had to wait on the roadside for off-road transport to the desert location of the event. A Qatari organizer arrived in his land cruiser. The driver tossed a dead pigeon from the backseat before journalists climbed in. As the press was taxied to the event, the owner’s prized falcon road “shotgun” next to him.

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Syrian Protesters using Russian flags?

A Russian flag in the center spotlight (click to enlarge)Early this week brazen pro-government mobs attacked the American and French embassies in Damascus. The assault left three French nationals injured and showed the increasing desperation of the Syrian regime in framing the narrative on unrest in Syria. The attacks have already drawn condemnation from the United States and the United Nations.

The attack was sparked by a visit from American Ambassador Robert Ford and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, to the city of Hama in central Syria last Friday. There they met with anti-government protesters who warmly greeted them.

One seemingly bizarre detail from reports of the riot suggests that the Russian flags were carried by some protesters mixed in of course with the pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and of course Syrian flags. 

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A gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield

 (J. Hammond)

We blogged before about the man who wanted to fight a lion. Unfortunately, he went ahead with his plan and our correspondent J. Hammond was there to witness it all.

Update: Now with images.

Al-Sayed al-Essawy claims to have dreamed of facing a lion since age thirteen. This weekend al-Essawy finally got his chance. The 25 year old resident of Mansoura proved to be one of Egypt’s most able showmen in creating international attention for his match. Despite arrests by the Egyptian government and international campaigns to stop the fight, al-Essawy faced the lion and in doing so fulfilled his dream.

Journalists and well-wishers were driven to a secret location on the edge of an open field a few hours north of Mansoura for the fight. After much hype, al-Essawy finally entered the cage in front of a hundred or so cheering onlookers. Al-Essawy bristled with melee weapons: a two pronged spear to keep the lion at bay, a machete strapped to one leg and a shield made from an old satellite TV dish. He yelled at the crowd to be quiet so he could focus on the lion. Al-Essawy’s facial expressions alternated between fear and bravado, even when taunting his feline opponent. He yelled at it, stuck his tongue out, and at one point poked at it with his trident. Al-Essawy’s provocations were all completed from a safe distance and at one point he sat on a green lawn chair brought into the cage for his comfort.

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A New Map of Yemen?

In an attempt appease anti-government protestors Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has called for the drafting of a new constitution. Saleh has already announced he will step down in 2013. Reuters reports that Saleh has also announced a plan to "regroup Yemen's 22 provinces into larger regional blocs…this would allow wealthier provinces to support poorer ones." The move is in keeping with Saleh's interest in infrastructure development. Saleh has earned the moniker Ali al-Tariq or "Ali of the Road" for his drive to build new roads and other infrastructure projects  in Yemen. The anti-government opposition reacted negatively to this announcement seeing it as political gerrymandering. A map of Yemen's airports and coasts suggest that only four provinces currently are both landlocked and do not contain an airport. Two them are northern provinces where the Houthi rebellion against Saleh's government is located.

From an economic perspective Saleh's idea is an interesting one. Global development expert Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion notes that being a landlocked country is a poverty trap. The poorest countries in South America, Africa, and Asia are all landlocked. The problem also appears on domestic level as well. In the United States the landlocked states are poorer than the coastal ones. None of the Arab League members are ofcourse entirely landlocked. Saddam Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq war in part to ensure Iraq's continued access to the sea.  Yemen has remapped its provinces before ofcourse and it is not the only Arab state with landlocked provinces as this map makes clear.

“A Rose in the Desert”

"My husband's family tortures people for fun, but I'm hot so who cares"

From  Imelda Marcos of the Philippines to Asma Al-Assad, the western media has had a long love affair with foreign first ladies.  Perhaps this is the result of some subconscious attachment to the disappearing world of queens and princess. Indeed there is a touch of the royal in Vogue’s well-written profile of Asma Al-Assad, First Lady of Syria. As written the courtship between the future first lady and President Bashar Al-Assad seems to be missing only a glass slipper. The author’s profile includes a visit to the presidential residence in Damascus where the Al-Asad family makes decisions “on wildly democratic principles". The reporter also steals a few moments to chat with Syrian President. In a candid moment, the former eye-surgeon and rock fan characterizes the world of ophthalmology: "it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood” he says.  The reader is left to wonder how Al-Asad would characterize the world of Middle Eastern politics.

Omar Mukhtar, icon of the Libyan uprising

Omar Mukhtar

This is a first contribution by Arabist reader J Hammond.

On social media associated with the Libyan uprising of 2011, two images have become ubiquitous. One is the pre-Qaddafi flag of the Libyan monarchy. The other is the image of Omar Mukhtar, a guerrilla leader killed by the Italians in 1931. For Libyans, Omar Mukhtar has become what Mohamed Bouazizi symbolized for the Tunisians or Mohammed Khaled Said for Egyptians.  

Such a powerful symbol is Omar Mukhtar that 79 years after his execution both the protestors and the Qadddafi regime have battled for his legacy. Qhaddafi mentioned Omar Mukhtar during his rambling hour and half speech on February 21st. Qhaddafi’s  first speech as chief September 16th, 1969 as the first date to give his presidential address to mark the 38th anniversary of his death. Qhaddafi also financed a major Hollywood film about Omar Mukhtar titled “The Lion of the Desert” and starring Anthony Quinn. The film was released in 1981 and portrays Omar Mukhtar as an honorable fighter and hero. The film was banned the following year in Italy and not shown on Italian television until Omar Ghaddafi’s official state visit in 2009.  A 2009 Vanity Fair article points out that Qaddafi pinned an image of Omar Mukhtar to his uniform when meeting Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi.

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Qaddaffi paying a fortune for soldiers of fortune

A recent piece in The Guardian reports that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has ferreted away billions in oil revenues. Some of which the writer argues has ended up in the hands of the mercenaries now fighting for Qaddaffi's survival in Libya. While on Twitter, Martin Chulov a correspondent also with The Guardian is reporting that an Air Force officer in eastern Libya has reported that 4,000 mercenaries have arrived into the country since February 14th. Additionally Qaddafi’s tribal allies in the south maybe bringing in additional mercenaries from Chad, The Bangkok Post quoted an unnamed analyst who said Qaddafi’s tribal allies in the south have been bringing in mercenaries as well. Additionally, the Facebook group “Dear Mr. President,” organized by anti-government activists alleges that Bangladeshi and Koreans are serving as mercenaries. 
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