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Jul. 29 2010 — 7:36 am | 9,826 views | 0 recommendations | 16 comments

Last post on True/Slant

This is my last post for True/Slant. The site, unfortunately, is winding down operations at the end of July.

I have enjoyed myself greatly while writing for True/Slant. The staff, including Lewis D’Vorkin, Coates Bateman, Michael Roston, Andrea Spiegel, and Steve McNally, have done a marvelous job in working with us writers and creating a truly unique platform for us to work in.

To be honest, I’ll miss True/Slant. The idea of matching experienced writers with a guaranteed network of advertisers and readers and a salary is a good one. After all, we’re writers and journalists. SEO and targeted marketing for our personal blogs can reap only so much dividends.

Writing about the Middle East is difficult, even if you know the region. People can become passionate about the most innocuous of topics; throw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a mix that includes Yemen, Egypt, Iran and Iraq and you have a thankless task. I have received emails from supporters of the Israeli cause complaining I am overtly pro-Palestinian, while Palestinian sympathizers email me to complain I was too pro-Israeli. Both emails were over the same story.

However, here’s the thing. Many readers took time to write in and I’ve received active feedback all over the board. For a writer, there is no greater compliment.

So what now? In September, I hope to rejoin some former True/Slanters at a new — as of yet disclosed — project. Otherwise I’m busy working on a couple of magazine articles. I have an active Twitter account, please follow it.


Jul. 28 2010 — 12:09 pm | 562 views | 2 recommendations | 9 comments

Predicting the Israeli-Iranian war

A political and geographical map showing count...

Image via Wikipedia

Let us say it. Barring the unforeseen, there will be a major Middle East war in the next two years.

On one side will be Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and possibly Syria. On the other side will be Israel… and likely just Israel.

Furthermore, odds are that Israel will initiate the war.

But they will have Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United States quietly (and not so quietly) offering support. The United States, for reasons of its own related to both the continued Iraqi occupation and support of the Saudi and Israeli governments, may even enter the war. If the war goes especially bad, the Arab powers may even enter as separate combatants agaist Iran. Turkey, meanwhile, will say platitudes in support of Iran while profiting off of both sides.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is at death’s door. Whoever his successor is will face a lively Islamist opposition movement. Over in Saudi Arabia, the King is gravely ill. It’s a bad time in geopolitical terms.

As much as Israel is disliked in the Arab Middle East, Iranian hegemony is feared more by old-line powers such as Saudi Arabia and Mubarak’s Egypt. Syria is not necessarily opposed to it due to their own unique situation.

In the thinking of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Iran simply appears more dangerous than Israel. Their fear is that a nuclear-armed Iran will upend the regional balance of power and endanger their regimes. From the viewpoint of the rulers, it is a rational fear.

So in a word, the situation is a catastrophe. But how will this war play out?

The Los Angeles Times’s excellent “Babylon & Beyond” blog has a list of possible Iranian war scenarios with a wealth of links. The Los Angeles Times says the unsaid — that in an Iranian-Israeli war, Saudi Arabia will likely grant Israel rights to their airspace.

Israel and Iran share no land border and are on opposite ends of the Middle East.

The Atlantic’s equally invaluable “Atlantic Wire” blog has a list of reasons Israel has not bombed Iran yet that is a must-read.

Meanwhile, the American neoconservative-leaning journalist Michael J. Totten jokingly wrote on his blog that he was headed to the Middle East to bring his readers “pre-war coverage from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.”

Unfortunately, Totten is right. He may be flip about it, but the coming war will be especially bad for the Middle East.

Israel will suffer greatly. Iran will suffer greatly. The Palestinians will suffer greatly. Lebanon will suffer greatly. At the end of the war, there will likely be no winners. There will still be no Palestinian state and the Islamic Republic of Iran will still be in power. Israel will likely incur the world’s wrath, given the state’s leadfooted inability to gain public sympathy. Odds are that the regional power balance will shift greatly. Odds are that Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese and Iranians will suffer mass civillian casualties. Whatever power shifts may happen in the region, millions will suffer. Greatly.

The only consolation is that the war will not occur in the coming months unless Israel decides to attempt a Ramadan attack before the rainy season kicks in. Odds are unlikely, but in the Middle East, nothing is impossible.

This war will be nothing to laugh about. Writing as an American, as a citizen of the one true global hegemon, I’m intensely worried about what the coming years will bring for us. How will America cope when the entire Middle East, from Cairo to Tehran, goes to war?

Jul. 27 2010 — 10:54 am | 320 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

Dubai’s newest craze: Camel milk chocolate

Your giving me the right Hump...HFF...:O)))

Image by law_keven via Flickr

Ever have a candy bar made of delicious camel milk chocolate? Or how about a glass of refreshing camel milk? Over in the United Arab Emirates, several firms — including a company owned by the Emir of Dubai — are betting gourmands will go crazy for them.

Al-Nassma, founded in 2008 by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has launched a campaign to sell European, North American and Chinese wholesalers on the virtues of camel milk chocolate. As with all things in Dubai, the company does not do novelty food marketing on a budget: the firm owns a farm of 3000 camels and is expecting to produce 100 tons of premium chocolate annually. Rather than producing budget Hershey’s or Cadbury’s-style bars, Al-Nassma is instead producing high-end bars with flavorings such as coriander and dates.

Meanwhile, two companies are applying for permission to export camel milk to the European Union.

If all goes well, Al Ain Dairy’s “Camelait” and the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products’ “Camelicious” will be on European shelves in 2011. Camel milk is a popular drink in the United Arab Emirates and in some other parts of the Middle East: Camelicious produces 5000 liters a day.

Camel milk tastes largely similar to cow’s milk but has vastly more vitamin C and insulin.

A major selling point in efforts to market camel milk to Europe, China and North America is the beverage’s lack of lactose: Lactose intolerance-sufferers can drink camel milk with no problems at all.

This reporter has sampled camel milk before. While it does not taste unpleasant, it’s not going to go in his fridge anytime soon.

But the important question: How does camel milk chocolate taste?

The good people at Candyblog gave it a try:

The Whole Milk Camel Milk Bar is nicely molded and tempered. It’s quite a dark looking milk chocolate bar. It has a distinct, thick snap to it.

The flavor is immediately a bit salty to my tongue. The caramel flavors are noticeable as is the smooth texture but still on the rustic side. It’s not quite fudgy but also not completely slick or oily like some milk chocolates. It’s sweet but also well rounded with toasted notes and maybe a hint of malt and cheese. The ingredients on all bars list honey, though it’s far down on the list and I didn’t really get the honey notes here. The chocolate flavors are mild but more to the malt and woodsy side of things than raisins/berries or coffee.

But standing in the way of Al-Nassma’s cornering of the gourmet chocolate market is one thing: Dubai (and the Emirates) lack a processing facility for high-end chocolate. Al-Nassma sends shipments of camel milk to Vienna, where high-end manufacturer Manner processes the chocolate and sends the bars back to Dubai to have flavoring added.

Al-Nassma is opening retail outlets throughout the UAE and is beginning to sell their chocolates through retailers such as Harrods in London; Americans eager to give camel milk chocolate a shot can contact San Francisco store Chocolate Covered, who already stock them.

Sheikh al-Maktoum, Al-Nassma’s founder, is widely believed to have causd Dubai’s economic meltdown through his poor business decisions.

Jul. 26 2010 — 10:45 am | 305 views | 1 recommendations | 4 comments

Wikileaks, journalism and me

Front page of The New York Times on Armistice ...

Image via Wikipedia

92,000 documents. This week, Wikileaks unloaded on the world the greatest leak since the Pentagon Papers. On one level, the five years of secret documents obtained by Wikileaks and released in conjunction with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel tell a harrowing tale of the Allied failure in Afghanistan. But they also represent a sea change in journalism.

I’ll leave the parsing of the documents — which tell of Pakistani treachery, government corruption and of everything from botched operations to pederasty — for another occasion. What really matters is the role of the internet in 2010.

I am 29 years old, a journalist and a native New Yorker. My CV includes work for Slate, Wired, Foreign Policy and some of the biggest dot-coms in the world. In career terms, that means I have been blessed. I am grateful.

Growing up, my family always had a newspaper in the house. These days, my parents — divorced now — both read the paper online rather than buying a paper copy. For lifestyle and sport stories, they often read the email forwards their friends send them or the content that pops up on their ISP’s homepage instead of reading newspaper content. They’re just two examples out of millions of Americans who no longer read the daily newspaper.

It’s no secret that the journalism business is a mess. Publications are folding, salaries are getting slashed, the old guard is regrouping in every possible permutation. But newspapers also sponsor incredible investigative journalism. The kind of stories that can’t be completed in a day or a week. The stories that citizens — taxpayers — have a right to know.

In this case, Wikileaks did the work. Wikileaks, unlike the Times or the Guardian, makes no pretense of objectivity. They are expressly partisan, expressly anti-war. Every time I read about Wikileaks, it seems like they stepped out of a 1990s Bruce Sterling story. In fact, hell, they are the dream of the old cyberpunk aesthetic writ large. They’re also saving investigative journalism.

I started my BA at the relatively late age of 20. I studied journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia — a school I enthusiastically recommend to anyone crazy enough to consider that career. The learning was vocation oriented — by the time I graduated, I knew LexisNexis and the arcana of Philadelphia’s City Hall inside out. My first major gig was writing over at Gawker Media’s Wonkette during the 2004 Presidential Election. Me and about a third of my classmates stumbled into digital journalism; most of the others fell into print. The print journalists seemed to denigrate the web journalists with the claim that “blogs weren’t journalism.” The only problem is that most of the web isn’t blogs… and that blogs are just a platform, rather than a genre. Thousands upon thousands of journalists research, source and verify stories that are published only on the web each day. I should know; I’m one of them.

The variety of original information and research posted to the web is staggering. Covering the Middle East here at True/Slant, for instance, I have become familiar with sites that collect and translate Jihadist literature, clearinghouses for translated articles for Arabic newspapers and offer first-hand reports from warzones. But so much information is only read by experts and enthusiasts — especially here in the United States where global ignorance is an art form.

No matter what, someone needs to keep serious enterprise journalism going. Newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian will keep on producing serious journalism even as they transition from “newspapers” to “brands.”

The switch from reading news on printed ink-stained paper to computer screens, iPads and smartphones is a strange one. In the past it was only the young and tech-savvy. Now it’s everyone. Just as the music industry suffered an upheaval in the wake of too much connectedness, so did journalism.

Nonetheless, a few operations are out there keeping the work of enterprise journalism alive. Wikileaks, ProPublica and the few dozen thinktanks that offer funding for investigative reporting, for instance. But we need more.

In the meantime, Wikileaks is fighting the good fight of allowing journalists to do what they do best — and we can only thank them for it.

Jul. 23 2010 — 10:54 am | 66 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Yemen attacked by al-Qaeda and Iranian proxies… at once

Footbridge in Shaharah, Yemen

Yemen: Beautiful country. Shame about the bloodthirsty insurgents. Image via Wikipedia

Heavy fighting has resumed in northern Yemen, threatening a fragile truce between the Yemeni government and Houthi separatists. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda is launching a fresh assault in… southern Yemen.

Reports of mass violence in the north are trickling up through the world press. Agence France-Presse reports the death of 20 tribal militiamen allied with the government and 10 Houthi separatists. The Tehran Times reports 49 total dead and al-Arabiyya has a separate death count.

Adding to the troubles, al-Qaeda has just claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack against Yemeni intelligence services:

The militant group’s regional wing, known as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, said in an Internet statement Friday the attacks were in retaliation for the killing of at least one militant fighter in Yemen’s southern Abyan province.

On July 14, gunmen on motorcycles using mortars and rocket-propelled grenades opened fire on people inside the two buildings in the provincial capital, Zinjibar.

After the assault and subsequent clashes with police and guards, the attackers fled.

The al-Qaeda press release, which circulated through waves of jihadi forums, was simple and succinct:

“The two blessed raids resulted in the death and injury of dozens of officers and soldiers [...] one of our heroes was killed while the rest members returned unharmed.”

According to al-Qaeda, the attack was welcomed by the Yemeni people.

So, why should Westerners care, besides the fact that Yemen has turned into a safe harbor for jihadists from around the world?

It’s simple: The northern insurgency has existed for a while — Houthi separatists professing a local variant of Shiite Islam are rebelling against the central government, which has a Shiite leader but is mostly Sunni. The separatists are widely believed to be backed by Iran and the government is receiving military aid from Saudi Arabia. In other words, it’s a proxy war.

But what is new is the southern insurgency. Northern and southern Yemen were embroiled in a violent civil war for years that is now — as the al-Qaeda attack is proving — flaring up again. Southern Yemeni insurgents are claiming that they are fighting for economic justice against a corrupt government, but al-Qaeda’s local affiliates — who are carrying out attacks on their behalfs — are not necessarily so interested in “economic justice.”

The Yemeni government, facing two separate insurgencies, risks becoming a failed state. The worst case scenario is simple: Somalia lies right across the water.

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    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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