"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Friedman + Yemen = Christmas in February

Some years ago, a friend of mine and I ran a site dedicated to fisking the columnists at the New York Times.  Our ethos was: why should such a great paper have such mediocre, boring, and lazy writers, on the most valuable page of editorial real estate in the world?   Also, we wanted to swear a lot.   More recently, of course, I was doing Waq al-Waq, a far more serious look specifically at Yemen.  So imagine my delight when today, Thomas Friedman, he of the mustache that launched a thousand ships, popped up in San'a.   I am almost dizzy with snarky lust.   It's like I get two Super Bowls today.

So I don't know if this is going to be more about Yemen or Friedman or what.   For the record, most of this is always in sadness rather than anger.  I like Friedman, think he is a good guy, and rarely outright disagree with him.  But there is no one who resorts more quickly or lazily into hacky tropes and surface-level investigations.  It is maddening.

OK, ready?

Yemen’s former prime minister, Abdul Karim al-Iryani, got right to the point when I arrived at his Sana home for dinner: “So, Thomas, did it take Abdulmutallab to finally get you here?”

 Bam!  Right off the bat we get my least-favorite Friedmanism- the "See Who I Talk To?"  It is as if this Pulitzer Prize winning, rich, best-selling author always has to remind us that he is famous and important and people know his name and have him over for dinner.  However, I do like that he is using that as a frame for talking about his shortcomings in Yemen.  So this is a wash, I guess.

Yes, it is true, I admitted, because that young Nigerian, trained in Yemen by Al Qaeda, tried to blow up a Northwest jetliner on Christmas Day, I decided I had to see Yemen firsthand. I further confessed to Iryani: “I was a bit worried coming here. I half expected to be met at the bottom of the stairs from my Qatar Airways flight by Osama bin Laden himself.”

Lame joke?  Check.  Mentioning the high-end product he used?  Check. (Too good for Yemenia, Tom?) And thank you, as always, for subtly reminding us that Yemen is (altogether now) the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden.  Clearly, someone never read Waq al-Waq.

Fortunately, though, I found that Sana is not Kabul, and Yemen is not Afghanistan — not yet.

Where did you steal that from, you sneaky little devil?

The Walled Old City of Sana, a U.N. World Heritage site with its mud-brick buildings adorned with geometric shapes, was bustling with coffee shops at night and vendors by day. Walking through its streets with a Yemeni friend, we came upon four bearded, elderly Yemeni men — traditional daggers tucked into their belts — discussing a poster taped to a stone wall urging “fathers and mothers” to send their girls to school. When I asked what they thought of that idea, the oldest said he was “ready to give up part of a meal each day so that my girls can learn to read.” Moreover, he added, the poster had just fallen down and he had just taped it back up for others to see. Not what I expected.

Real mixed bag of a paragraph here.  For starters, I have no idea why "Walled" is capitalized.   Also, "geometric shapes" are generally shapes without curved lines.  This is: not the case in Yemen. If you are adding something for color at least make sure it is slightly correct.  It is a rare gift to be able to add an adjective that invalidates your description.  At first I was mildly irked by his need to mention the daggers, but it became a nice little anecdote, and a valuable one.  One of the main stories of the Middle East is the pull between tradition and modernity, and nowhere, I think, is this felt more acutely or more interestingly than in Yemen, a place with living memory of the Imamate.  He kind of elides over this, but I think he presents at least the emotional idea.

Nor did I expect to find civil society organizations here staffed with young American volunteers — and, in the case of The Yemen Observer, an English-language newspaper, a whole newsroom full of them. All I could do was look around at these American college students and wonder: “Do your parents know you’re here?” They just laughed.

I like to think that no one answered him- they just laughed and went about their day, ignoring him.
Every shopkeeper I spoke to in Old Sana spat out the words “Al Qaeda,” which they blamed for killing tourism. Who knew Yemen had tourists?

Presumably the foreign policy columnist for the New York Times might.
No, this is not Afghanistan.

But?  But...

But this ain’t Denmark, either.

You're fucking kidding.

I love- but love!- how Friedman uses that as a kind of shocking pivot, with the idea that his reader will be nodding in comfortable liberal complacency, nodding along before coming to that and spitting their coffee all over their bull terrier.

But to be fair, most of the rest of the column is not bad.  It is pretty much a laundry list of woes.  They are no different than anything else we have read in any news articles or excellent, departed blogs.  This begs the question of: why did the Times have to send Friedman all the way over there just to recycle conventional wisdom and UN poverty stats?   If you are wondering why they are in such a financial mess, you might want to think a little bit about Tommy.

I think though that they sent him in order to provide the most laughably wrong-headed thing anyone anywhere has ever said about Yemen.  No, it isn't: "Most people live on less than $2 a day — except those who don’t," the second clause of which is made redundant by the "most" at the beginning.   It is this.

This isn’t helped by the Yemeni tradition of chewing qat, a mild hallucinogenic leaf drug, the cultivation of which consumes 40 percent of Yemen’s water supply each year.

This really ups the ante on writing about qat, doesn't it?  Not just a narcotic, or a stimulant.  It is a mild hallucinogenic.  So mild, in fact, that it causes you to see things exactly as they look when you aren't on it.  Or maybe- and I don't know if we'll ever get to the bottom of this- maybe it is so strong it causes hallucinations that look just like the real world, and imposes them over reality.  You don't even know you are hallucinating.  Trippy, right?

So, that is Friedman in a nutshell.  Name-dropping, recycled stats, fake shocks, a colorful anecdote that isn't elaborated upon, and re-iteration of themes. (In this case, the virus of al-Qaeda and Yemen's "immune system").   The theme isn't wrong, exactly, but it is cloyingly distracting and does assume a universality where one doesn't exist.   I don't think Friedman actually believes that the world can be reduced to a series of bullet points, but he writes as if they can, and that is what makes him maddening.  Is it too much to ask that the number-one foreign policy writer in America write something that couldn't be cobbled together from wire reports?   I suppose so.   


  1. Hmmmm. Those hallucinations do sound vivid. Sadly, I have no room in my garden for this "qat" you speak of, having already planted row after row of high-yield opium poppies.

  2. I'm a first time reader coming over from Waq al-Waq and I must say that the occasional f-bomb and the satirical style of your prose suits me quite well. I look forward to reading your blog as regularly as possible.

  3. did you see this article?


  4. as one of the "young college students" that was in the room with him at the yemen observer office (i am youngish, not a college student, none of us are currently in school...) i thought you might like to know that the anecdote you mentioned abover NEVER HAPPENED. he never asked us if our parents knew we were in yemen...we never laughed.

  5. Fantastic, Anon. Though, to be perfectly fair, he only says he "wondered" and you guys laughed. There may have been a point during the day when you laughed, sometime after he wondered about that to himself, and his mind connected the two. He's a wierd guy.

    Seriously, though, thank you for that. It made my day.