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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Were You Thinking About A Trip To Luxor In Egypt?

Egypt is one of the world's original tourist destinations. People have been traveling there to see the wonders-- whether built by man or alien-- since the beginning of recorded time. Roland and I decided to spend a month there just after Thanksgiving, 1997. Egypt is usually overrun with tourists from around the world. But the month we were there, we basically had Egypt to ourselves (not counting the Egyptians). Luxor (ancient Thebes), with the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Karnak, were especially empty. That's because just as we were leaving L.A. in November, a bunch of religionist fanatics slaughtered a busload of tourists from Switzerland or Austria and Japan. It was really a spectacular horror show with scimitar-wielding terrorists chasing unarmed tourists through the ruins and mercilessly slashing them to death. It was a bloody slaughter; 5 dozen were murdered. All the tourists left Egypt just as we were arriving. And they stopped coming (at for a couple weeks). I feel terrible for the Austrians and Japanese, of course; I mean what a way to go! But... well, Roland and I pretty much had Egypt to ourselves. I mean it was just us and the Egyptians, who, except for the scimitar-wielders, are an extremely generous, friendly and gracious people.

As for modern Luxor, the prosperity and the economy is almost entirely based on the steady influx of tourists from around the world. So when President Mohammed Morsi appointed a new governor of Luxor who was connected to the scimitar-wielding Gamaa Islamiya terrorists, the people of Luxor freaked out. The Minister of Tourism, Hisham Zaazou, resigned, saying the appointment would have "dire consequences" for tourism in Egypt. The new governor, Adel al-Khayat, is best known in Luxor as a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a group remembered for devastating the city's economy for several years. Demonstrations haven't been as reported on as the ones in Turkey and Brazil, but they were big and they were getting out of hand all last week. Some started calling for Morsi himself to step down.

Yesterday, there was some confusion over whether the new governor would step down or not. Rumors that Morsi had told him to forget the whole deal were denied on Saturday.
Khayyat told Turkish news agency Anadolu that he is not thinking about resigning, although he is currently in his hometown of Suhag, awaiting the outcome of recent events. “There will be no resignation Insha'Allah (God willing),” Khayyat said.

Senior figures from the group’s political arm, the Construction and Development Party, told the London based pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat earlier Saturday that Khayyat had resigned over mass protests demanding his ouster.

“Al-Khayat resigned so that people could realize that we are not interested in the job and are not clinging to it,” Construction and Development Party head Nasr Abdel Salam reportedly said.

...The governor failed to reach his office on Wednesday as angry protesters blocked the road to the governorate building, setting tires on fire. Residents, tourism sector employees, and secularist groups have all joined the demonstration.

Khayyat had postponed starting his work to “ensure everyone's safety,” according to Abdel Salam, and in fear of clashes between his opponents and supporters, after the latter have had to form a human shield around him to protect him.
But today he made it official; he resigned "to prevent bloodshed."
"I discussed with my brothers from the Construction and Development party, and we agreed that I should present my resignation as Luxor's governor because we don't want bloodshed," he said in a statement. "We cannot accept the shedding of even one drop of blood for a position that we never wanted."

El-Khayat was one of the 17 provincial governors appointed last week by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. His appointment steered anger among tourism workers and activists in Luxor and hundreds of people have protested Morsi's choice outside the governor's office.

El-Khayat's party calls for strict implementation of Islamic Shariah law, which includes imposing an Islamic dress code for women, banning alcohol, and preventing the mixing of the sexes. Workers in a city as heavily dependent on tourism as Luxor worried that such policies would further hurt their business.

Officials of the Construction and Development party said on Sunday that el-Khayat's resignation decision was not made under pressure and that it showed the party's political maturity.

The party has in recent weeks emerged as a strong backer of Morsi against the opposition, which plans massive protests on June 30 to force him out of office. Leaders of the group have declared the protesters non-believers and have vowed to "smash" them on June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi's assumption of office as the nation's first freely elected leader.

UPDATE: I Hope You're Not In Egypt Today... Totally Unsafe

An American student was killed this weekend and millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets to try to oust Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been overplaying their hand. This isn't just in Cairo's Tahrir Square. This is everywhere.
At least four people have been killed and nearly 200 wounded in clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, security and medical sources say.

All four dead were shot in Nile Valley towns south of Cairo, one in Beni Suef and three in Assiut. Across the country, the Health Ministry said, 174 people were given medical treatment as a result of factional fighting in the streets.

In Cairo and Alexandria, more than one million took to the streets on the first anniversary of Mursi's inauguration to demand that he resign.

Waving national flags and chanting "Get out!", a crowd of more than 200,000 had massed by sunset on Cairo's central Tahrir Square in the biggest demonstration since the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mursi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

"The people want the fall of the regime!" they shouted, echoing the Arab Spring rallying cry that brought down Mubarak-- this time yelling it not against an ageing dictator but against the first elected leader in Egypt's 5000 year recorded history.

Many bellowed their anger at Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, accused of hijacking the revolution and using electoral victories to monopolise power and push through Islamic law.

Others have been alienated by a deepening economic crisis and worsening personal security, aggravated by a political deadlock over which Mursi has presided.

As the working day ended and 38 Celsius heat eased, more protesters converged through the eerily deserted streets of the shuttered city centre, while smaller crowds protested in several other areas of the capital.

The veteran leaders of Egypt's secular, liberal and left-wing opposition, including former chief of the UN nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei and leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, joined protest marches in Cairo.

A Reuters journalist said hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters marched through the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, Egypt's second city, and a military source reported protests in at least 20 towns around the country.
The are rumors that Morsi has fled from Cairo-- on the one year anniversary of his election victory. You don't want to be walking around in this:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Visit Italy's Tremiti Islands?

Rightists through history-- always looking for easy scapegoats for an unpalatable agenda that can't survive without divisiveness-- have been obsessed with homosexuality. This week we saw Florida's Tea Party junior senator, Marco Rubio, shrilly threatening to scuttle his own immigration bill if it includes protections for LGBT families.
While discussing Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) proposed amendment to the immigration bill-- which would grant same-sex couples the same protections as heterosexual couples by making the law recognize “any marriage entered into full compliance with the laws of the State or foreign country within which such marriage was performed”-- Rubio insisted that he could not abide by such a rule.
Halfway round the world-- and two thousand years ago-- a very uptight Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter, Julia the Younger, to Isole Tremiti, a tiny archipelago off the coast of southeastern Italy in he Adriatic Sea. She had committed adultery and she died there. Later, in the early 1900s, when Italy embarked on rebuilding an empire, they used the Tremiti Islands as a prison for dissidents from the conquered province of Libya. When Mussolini took over he decided to use one of the islands, San Domino (the only one with a sandy beach and, today something of a tourist mecca) as an internment camp for gays. As obsessed with homosexuality as Rubio or any other right-wing loon, Mussolini claimed Italy had no homosexuals-- "In Italy there are only real men."
Seventy-five years ago in Fascist Italy, a group of gay men were labeled "degenerate," expelled from their homes and interned on an island. They were held under a prison regime-- but some found life in the country's first openly gay community a liberating experience.

...Back in the late 1930s the archipelago played a part in the effort by Benito Mussolini's Fascists to suppress homosexuality.

Gay men undermined the image that the dictator wanted to project of Italian manhood. "Fascism is a virile regime. So the Italians are strong, masculine, and it's impossible that homosexuality can exist in a Fascist regime," says professor of history at the University of Bergamo, Lorenzo Benadusi.

So the strategy was to cover up the issue as much as possible.

No discriminatory laws were passed. But a climate was created in which open manifestations of homosexuality could be vigorously suppressed.

...The whole episode has been largely forgotten.

It's thought that nobody who endured this punishment is still alive today, and there are few detailed accounts of what went on there.

But in their book, The Island and the City, researchers Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi talk of dozens of men, most but not all from Catania, enduring harsh conditions on San Domino.

They would arrive handcuffed, and then be housed in large, spartan dormitories with no electricity or running water.

"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'," says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive.

"We would go and watch them get off the boat... all dressed up in the summer with white pants-- with hats.

"And we would watch in awe-- 'Look at that one, how she moves!' But we had no contact with them."

Another islander, Attilio Carducci, remembers how a bell would ring out at 8pm every day, when the men were no longer allowed outside.

"They would be locked inside the dormitories, and they were under the supervision of the police," he says.

"My father always spoke well of them. He never had anything bad to say about them-- and he was the local Fascist representative."

...[S]ome of the few accounts given by former exiles make clear that life was not all bad on San Domino.

It seems that the day-to-day prison regime was comparatively relaxed.

Unwittingly, the Fascists had created a corner of Italy where you were expected to be openly gay.

For the first time in their lives, the men were in a place where they could be themselves-- free of the stigma that normally surrounded them in devoutly Catholic 1930s Italy.

What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare interview with a San Domino veteran, named only as Giuseppe B-- published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia-- who said that in a way the men were better off on the island.

"In those days if you were a femminella [a slang Italian word for a gay man] you couldn't even leave your home, or make yourself noticed-- the police would arrest you," he said of his home town near Naples.

"On the island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint's days or the arrival of someone new... We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything."

And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers.

...It is deeply ironic that in the Italy of that time, they could find a degree of freedom only on a prison island.

The party of gay and lesbian rights activists who gathered on the archipelago the other day put down a plaque in memory of the exiles.

It will be a permanent reminder of Mussolini's persecution of homosexuals.

"This is necessary, because nobody speaks of what happened in those years," said one of the activists, Ivan Scalfarotto, a Member of Parliament.

And the suffering hasn't ended for Italy's gay community, he says. They are no longer shackled and shipped off to islands-- but even now they are not regarded as "class A" citizens.

There is still no real social stigma attached to homophobia in Italy, Scalfarotto says, and the state doesn't extend legal rights of any kind to gay or lesbian couples.

Their struggle for equality goes on.
Today San Domino Island has 607 reviews by Trip Advisor users of two dozen hotels. Over 100,000 vacationers descend on the island each summer. People fly into Bari's airport and either take a boat from Manfredonia, Vieste and Peschici, Vasto, Pescara or-- most popular-- from Termoli on the coast of Molise. The fast boat is 45 minutes and the slow boat in almost 2 hours. Prices range between €13 and €18€. If you're feeling flush you can take a 20 minute helicopter ride from Foggia for €50. You can't bring a car to the Tremiti Islands-- and they're small enough to explore by foot.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Protests In Istanbul: "Those Who Present Themselves As Conservatives Only Care About Profit Maximization"

Once a week I like to hike up to the top of the biggest peak in Griffith Park. It takes 2 hours but when you arrive, you have a 360 degree vista of Los Angeles. Griffith Park is one of the biggest urban parks in America-- 4,310 acres. I sometimes ask Roland if he thinks Angelenos will fight when the big developers finally get politicians corrupt enough to start allowing commercial development in the park. He thinks I'm crazy and that (commercial development) that would never happen.

My first trip to Istanbul was early in 1969. It was a major resting spot on the Hippie Trail to India. Conventional hippie wisdom warned that the Turks are a bunch of a-holes and to get out of Istanbul as fast as possible and just drive through Iran towards Afghanistan as quickly as you can. The hippies all gathered in the Sultan Ahmet district-- and so did the people who wanted to prey on them, the dregs of Turkish society including the police. I was actually in the Pudding Shop when the events that soon turned into Oliver Stone's movie, Midnight Express, happened. The whole Sultan Ahmet area was a den of inequity back then-- crawling with hippies coming and going and with people selling them drugs and people ripping them off and police busting them... I couldn't wait to get away.

So I left the Hippie Trail terminus and drove across town to Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. I found Gezi Park immediately, a refuge of peace and quiet in the middle of the bustling city. My escape from Sultan Ahmet helped me understand the nature and worthlessness of conventional wisdom. Sure, the lowlife Turks the hippies were encountering were a-holes. But that's like judging all Americans by hanging out in Times Square (or the old Times Square before they made it into Disney Land). In Gezi Park I met normal Turks and had a completely different experience than the Hippie Trail experience of Istanbul was.

Since then, I've been back to Istanbul over a dozen times. Ironically, Sultant Ahmet-- which does have the best tourist attractions-- has been cleaned up and is now home to the best hotel in the country, the 4 Seasons and lots of other high end places to stay. Lately I've gravitated back to that part of town. But for decades I always tried staying close to Taksim and Gezi Park. We had decided to rent a house in Istanbul this summer-- on the Princess Islands-- but it fell though, or else I would be busy trying to get my deposit back now.

You probably heard by now that the government has used excessive police violence-- even tossing tear gas canisters out of helicopters-- against demonstrators in Gezi Park who oppose tearing it down to make room for a shopping mall.
Ayaspasa Environmental and Urban Beautification Association board member Cem Tüzün told reporters that the construction work is illegal. “We have submitted a petition to the Regional Board of Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets. We told them that the construction work currently being conducted is out of line with the construction plans prepared at the beginning and with an ongoing highway project,” he said. He added that they hope the construction work stops at once and that the trees that have been uprooted are replanted.

A senior Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) official stood in front of a bulldozer after bypassing a police barrier and forced the machine to stop, in protest of the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park.

Arriving at the scene of demolition along with other protesters in the afternoon, BDP deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder told reporters that the project does not reflect the environmentalist spirit of Mehmed the Conqueror, believed to have said he would give orders to kill those who uproot trees, in open criticism of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

“Those who present themselves as conservatives only care about profit maximization through such projects regardless of concerns over the environment,” Önder said.

The BDP deputy then asked the officials in charge of the demolition of the park to show the legal document permitting the work at the site and stood in front of the construction machine.

The officials halted the demolition as they did not have in their possession any document giving them the go-ahead for the work at Gezi Park.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be a "friend" of President Obama's but his conservative, socially backward political party is corrupt and authoritarian at its core. With tens of thousands of protesters demanding his government resign and chanting "united against fascism," brutal police-- mostly from the Anatolian provinces-- brutalized demonstrators. Over 1,000 people were injured on Friday alone. Erdogan, who I'm guessing is making a fortune from the crooks who want to develop Gezi was arrogant about the protesters who want to protect it from the bulldozers. “Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice. Those who have a problem with government’s policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy." He demanded they stop protesting. Instead, protests spread across the whole country.

Yesterday police were using tear gas against protesters in Istanbul and Ankara. Anger against Erdogan's corrupt government has no supplanted the original environmental objectives of the demonstrations.
One Istanbul resident, who gave her name as Lily, told the BBC's World Service: "There are 40,000 people crossing the bridge between Asia and Europe today. All the public transport is on lockdown."

She said that police had dropped tear-gas canisters from helicopters overnight.

"About half past one the entire city started to reverberate. People were banging on pots, pans, blowing whistles," she said.

The BBC's Louise Greenwood in Istanbul says police from as far afield as Antalya are being drafted in to help quell the violence.

She says the central Taksim district and surrounding areas remain cordoned off and bridges are closed to traffic.
"Quell the violence?" Good old BBC. The police are the violence-- especially the ones from the distant (backward) provinces. Turkish spring? The President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, is worried that the situation is spiralling out of control. There have been rumors that the military could move in if the police violence doesn't stop. And this morning, Erdogan was pressured into withdrawing the police from Taksim Square and allowing the demonstrations to continue unmolested... for now. There are also widespread reports that his government is trying to block social media sites. The corporate media hasn't covered the demonstrations and the only way word is getting out is over the Internet. So Erdogan would like to shut that down as well.

UPDATE: Turkey Isn't Safe For Tourists

As the police of an uptight, authoritarian government brutalize demonstrators in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities, CNN is warning tourists away. "Ongoing local protests, government retaliation and related unrest in the city have many wondering if they should pull the plug on upcoming trips or make any new plans at all."
According to the 2012 MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index, Istanbul is among the fastest growing tourism markets in the world, receiving 11.6 million international visitors and earning $10.6 billion in travel revenue in 2012.

The Turkish Statistics Institute reports the country's total tourism revenue for 2012 was $29.4 billion. According to an April report by TradeArabia, Turkey expects to receive 33 million international visitors in 2013.

..."Istanbul, a city that has always been known as Turkey's cultural heart, is turning into a war zone," says Royce Yakuppur, a local who has been to Gezi Park several times in recent days. "Although the feeling of solidarity (among locals) should be applauded as a virtue, it is not enough to overcome the fears of tourists."

Unsurprisingly, local travel agencies report that some travelers have recently canceled trips to Istanbul or are having second thoughts about coming in the next few weeks. Yet "many" are still going ahead with their plans.

Inside the 5-star Divan Hotel in Taksim Square