Friday at the Wall

Last Friday I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem. There is nothing like standing under those stones, feeling the touch of history, thinking about all those generations, about the hands that build it. Being in the shadow of the wall, hearing the prayers whispered all around you, you are at the very center of the Jewish universe, the place where everything began.

And then, shouting.

Just above the Wall, on the Temple Mount, the weekly Muslim prayer was turning into a riot. Stones flew down to the plaza of the Wall, on the heads of some Nigerian tourists that just happened to be there. A thousand voices screamed praises to God, as they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks on His behalf. Suddenly Israeli police rushed the wooden deck, leading to the Temple Mount, and in a few seconds a series of explosions shook the city, echoing from the rooftops, scarring the pigeons up to the cloudy skies. “Stun grenades,” I thought. People were getting wounded on both sides.

The Wall on a morepeaceful day

The Wall on a morepeaceful day

Then I looked around. Some of the Jewish worshipers never moved from the Wall, not even raising their eyes to the sounds of the clashes over their heads. Behind me stood a Franciscan monk in his brown robes, holding a Polish flag. The Nigerians slowly moved back to the Kotel and two elderly Arab men, wearing their keffiyehs, passed through the square on their way to the Muslim Quarter. It was the most peaceful image, while fighting took place just few seconds away.

And it was the Middle East, a place where peace and war sometimes work differently than they do in the West. It was my home and my reality, one that is often hard to imagine, hard to understand, unless you come here and you stand for a while in Jerusalem, on a Friday, next to the Western Wall.

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Wearing the Green

Sirens in Tel Aviv, shelling in Gaza. Children crying in Ashkelon, a building goes down in Rafah. Fire in Netivot, smoke over Jebalya. And all this time heavy clouds are coming from the grey sea and first rains fall, shy autumn rains, a wisper of winter as we fight again.
As we take our old uniform from the closets. As we kiss our wives (or husbands). As we hug our children before going down the stairs. As we notify our work places that we also received the phone call. As we gather together, wearing our olive greens. As we look west, on the houses of Gaza in the distanse and the clouds of rain and smoke. As we see the trails left by the missiles you fire at our cities. As we stand together one more time we remember – we didn’t want this.
We spoke, but no one heared. We warned, but the world remained silent. We waited as rockets, thousands of rockets, fell from above in random indifference – but no one seemed to care. And now, again, we wear the green. Not for conquest, not for occupation, not for empty words but for life. For the smiles we left behind.
Yes, this is a tragedy. And yes we are angry. We are angry that they made us come here once again. We are angry that they don’t care about their children. We are angry that they can not see behind the curtain of hatred that they put in front of their own eyes.
And yet, we stand still. We are getting ready. And soon we may move. Because in times like this we leave our differences behind. We see everithing clearly. We recognize the price, we see the pain of the other side and we are hurting with them – but we are getting ready to move. Sometimes there are things you have to do. Sometimes they don’t live you any choice.
As the clouds of rain are gathering I ask you, on the other side of those empty fields, to remember that we are not your enemy. We’ve never been. All we ever wanted, all we still want, is to build our home, to plant our fields, to raise our children. As we did from the very beginning – we offer our hand in peace, we dream about creating a new future here for all of us. Yet still you choose not to see that. And so we wear the olive green today.
Rain is falling on me. Rain is falling on the houses in the distanse. We are ready. We are strong and firm. Tomorrow we will dream again. Today we wear the green.

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To my Egyptian Brother.

Old winds are blowing…

I am Israeli.  I am Jewish. I am from these hills. My grandfathers worked the terraced fields. My grandmothers brought water from the springs. My uncles fought the Romans – the same Romans who took your Egypt – and lost. And my family was sentenced for exile. For years we travelled, until we came back home and here I met you again – after all that time.

Do you remember how we grew up together at the dawn of days? We had our share of argument, but all brothers do. All neighbors do. And now, I came back carrying gifts of peace. I came back to live among the brothers I used to know, the brothers who used to know me. All I wanted – all I still want, is to spend my life in peace, to rebuild my home on the hills of my fathers, to sit at my place as it should have been.

But I found no peace. My brothers forgot me while I was away, and I forgot them. And now, after wars and after peace bad winds are blowing again, winds that we knew before, with the sounds of sirens – the horns of war. I do not wish to fight, my Egyptian brother. I do not wish to fight you, for war is nobody’s friend. My hand is still reached out, my heart is still open – it is not too late to make this place flourish again.

Will you take this hand, brother? I know that not everyone rushes to the battlefield; I know that many gaze from the windows with pain when they hear those songs of war. Will you listen? Do you have time to stop?

Those songs, they are getting stronger. Brother, they are getting louder. Please know that I have no hatred in me. Please know that I want to visit your home, to walk the streets of Cairo, to ride through the endless desert, to stand in the shadow of pyramids. Please know that I want you to come here and for us to walk the Galilee and the hills of Judea, where my family was born.

I do not wish those winds to blow and yet they do. Stronger and stronger and we can almost see the storm on the horizon. Please know – I never wished it.

If you had only remembered me, my long lost brother, the storms would’ve spared us both.

Salam.

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On Memory and Future

When we began to return, we understood the ways of the Middle East. Maybe we came with this knowledge from Eastern Europe, from Yemen and Persia. Maybe we learned here. This way or another, we knew what a world without Israel is, we thought in terms of history, of forty generations in exile, in terms of coming home. We came to the land like the long separated lovers we were, we came back to the landscape of our childhood, to the mountains and valleys we sang about for two thousand years.

We spoke the language of the Middle East, and even if we didn’t know the words, we shared the meaning. Home, family, history, honor, tribe. We understood our neighbors and they understood us – not always agreed, but understood. We knew why we are here, we knew who we are and we spoke about it openly and directly, we celebrated it and this harsh land, hard soil, grey rock and yellow sand, became a land of milk and honey.

But then we began to forget. We forgot what a world without Israel is, what it was. For the new generations it is given, it is obvious that we are here. We forgot the sense of history and the long way our family, our tribe, our nation walked to come back home. Now we are celebrating the present, and both the past and the future pay the price. We adopted the thought of the West, the notion that only today matters, that the only true values are consumerism and entertainment, that every movie has a happy ending. We let others dictate a story for us, while our story is forgotten.

But the Middle East is still here, all around us. And though our neighbors face the same pressure of foreign thinking, they are still in the house of history, while we are one foot out. Focusing on today, focusing on personal wellbeing, we are losing touch with our roots, with our land, with our story. People without a story, people without roots going deep into the ground, people whose thought is in the West while they are in the East – they will not remain in the East for long.

It is simple enough, and yet we don’t see it. We don’t remember the names of our heroes anymore, we stopped to sing the songs of yesterday – and it is mostly old men who still speak loud about true love. The love of the land, the fields, the rain. The love of the desert and the empty roads. The love of sunrise. The love of creation. The love of home. Without memory there is no understanding, without love there is no connection. Without meaning, there is no future.

It is simple enough, and yet we do not see. We speak about peace, we dream about peace, but we fail to find it because we do not understand that it is the wrong language. In a region of memory and tradition, a region of calm winds and slow changes we speak the language of the instant, the language of the immediate. And we do not have true peace, Eastern peace, one that means acceptance and readiness to share the land and the waters of its wells, one that grows over time. We are surprised when our neighbors rise against us – but why shouldn’t they if they never truly accepted us? We allowed us to sink in a pond of wishful thoughts, forgetting that instant houses come with no foundations, forgetting that instant food has no health in it, forgetting that instant coffee may be sweet, but it is not true coffee at all.

And we have to wake up. We have to remember. We need to find our story again, embrace it with both hands, tell it to us, tell it to our neighbors, tell it to the world. We have to tell it, because we are home. We belong here – but without history, without memory – we belong nowhere. We have to tell it, because nothing is given. Nothing is obvious. In order to have – you need to create, and the creation is not done. It can never be done. And we have to tell it, we have to remember, because eventually your future will treat you the way you treat your past.

“Yor future will treat you the way you treat your past.”

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The (new) Islamic Revolution

Today the Egyptian election commission declared that the Islamic parties won 71% of seats in the lower house of the parliament. In an exemplary procedure, following the holiest principles of democracy, the Egyptian people went to the polls and spoke. And for the first time in this great – truly great – land, just as the fathers of the democratic idea dreamt it, the nation freely choose its leadership. The revolution won. The Islamic Revolution.

The leaders of the Brotherhood.

It all happened again, just like 30 years ago. The demonstrations on the streets, the pro-western authoritarian regime, the hopes for democracy and the theocratic disappointment – nothing new. Nothing, but the fact that meanwhile the west refuses to admit that something went wrong, that the young and bright symbols of the Revolution (“they are just like us,” told me a girl in New-York few months ago) stayed out, and the bearded grown men with the worn out jackets went in. So what went wrong?

The answer is surprisingly simple – absolutely nothing. Things happened exactly as logic, history and basic understanding of the ME said they will. Egypt was – is – home to a powerful Islamic movement, calling to change the structure of society to fit the Islamic laws and what they see as the Islamic way of life. “Islam is the solution” they say, as they did since the 1920’s, when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded. And in Egypt, the poor, unemployed, misgoverned Egypt, it was the authoritarian regime that kept them from power.

But they got powerful; they became the most powerful political force in Egypt, because they gave the man on the street something that the regime failed to do – hope. Through clinics and kindergartens, social aid and religious sermons they entered most of the Egyptian houses, offering food and help, giving a sense of belonging, a common fate, a common goal. They were there – not the government, not Mubarak, but the Brotherhood.

Long live the Egyptian Revolution...

As the regime was crumbling during the last decade, they used every opportunity to gain more influence, sometimes with the kind help of the White House. And when public disapproval of the system crossed the red line of tolerance, it was clear that there is no other alternative but the Brotherhood. Islam is the solution.

The west applauded, as one of its closest allies in the ME lost his throne. It praised the revolution, naming it “the Arab Spring”, looking at it through the pink lenses of CNN and BBC. The mass media told a romantic tale of the brave bloggers who rode the Facebook white horse to Tahrir square, and slain the terrible dragon of autocracy. They did what they are good in – telling a story. Only that stories are known to have difference of opinion with the reality sometimes. And truly, the awakening of the Facebook generation, the wind of democracy touching he ancient stones of the pyramids, people taking their future in hands and fighting tyranny – what is better than this for the eight o’clock?

Only that the masses – who really did rise against autocracy – were long ago taken by the Brotherhood and its kind. And now, at last, the victors take their pace, their throne. And this is a tragedy. For Egypt, for my Israel, for the ME. A tragedy, because Egypt’s economy is already crushing, and a theocracy will not stop the slide. A tragedy, because the Brotherhood already questions the peace between this new Egypt and Israel. Millions of hungry, unemployed, desperate people, are being told by the clergy that we are the enemies of God and we are to blame.

And the west still applauds, maybe because finally there is a democracy in Egypt. The people have spoken. Does someone care what they said?

A protester in Cairo - "Death to Israel". Long live the Egyptian Revolution...

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The Future, Saddam and the Wizard of Oz

Everything begins with the laws of physics. If you’ll drop an apple, it will fall. This is an undisputed truth, a rule of nature; this is how the universe works, this is the world we live in. Another truth, another rule, another fact, speaking about the ME, is that it is ruled by kings. This is the way the word is built; this is how the system looks like. They may be called “presidents” or “chairmen”, but they are kings, sultans, tribal leaders. In the ME, this is a truth absolute just as Newton’s apple. Or so it was.

Nine years ago, two images cracked this truth. And to the ME it was a shock equal to an apple that refuses to fall. A king was dethroned, but even more – he was humiliated, his honor was lost in the Iraqi mud, when the soldiers pulled him from his hole and checked his teeth, as if he was a potentially sick animal. Such things didn’t happen in the ME for generations – and when they did, it wasn’t transmitted to every home and every coffee shop from Kabul to Marrakesh.

A king humiliated.

In the ME, honor is life. There is nothing more important than face, and when someone looses face he needs to do something drastic to return it. Otherwise he will spend his life humiliated and mocked. All of his life, because the ME does not know how to forget. Here everything that happens echoes forever.

An old Syrian tale speaks about a prince who was first in line to inherit his father’s throne and become the sultan of Damascus. As many other princes, he was proud and arrogant. One of the days, as he walked in the market, an old man was passing by. The old man didn’t pay attention and the sack he was carrying touched the shoulder of the proud prince, leaving a muddy mark on his silk robe. You cannot ignore something like that. Another man could have laughed, dismiss this with a joke, give the old man a dinar and tell one of the bodyguards to help him with his burden –  such a man would be loved by the people and respected.

But this prince was young and unwise, and so he pushed the old man in anger, and he fell to the ground. A crowd gathered around, standing in silence. The old man slowly stood up, looked around, and then, before anyone of the prince’s bodyguards could move, slapped the sultan’s son loudly and with great intention.

And humiliated again.

Of course, in a second he was dead on the market’s floor, but the sound of the slap echoed through Damascus’ alleys for days, and then weeks, and then months. Wherever the prince went, people laughed behind his back, whispering the story from ear to ear. The sultan in anger published a law, forbidding talking about the slap – which made it the most popular subject in every coffee shop. Poems were written about it and storytellers told about the old man and the evil prince. Eventually the prince couldn’t bare it anymore and he ran away.

For many years he traveled the world. He had many adventures, he got married, he had children and grandchildren. One day he understood that he missed home and decided to go back for a visit. He wore simple clothes and entered the Damascus by foot. Happy and exited he walked the markets, until on one corner, not far from the butcher’s shop, he heard a young mother telling her little boy: “Do you see this place? This is where the old man slapped the prince…” And he slowly walked away, never to return.

When Saddam was pulled from his hiding place, it was his problem. When the picture appeared on every screen in the ME it became the problem of the existing regimes – the seed of what we’ve seen this year in Tunisia and Libya, Egypt and Syria. For suddenly, the farmers and the shoemakers, the students and the shopkeepers saw that the laws of physics as they knew them do not apply any more. The apple remained floating in the air. A king lost face. The sultan of Baghdad, the butcher of Kurdistan, the marshal of the Iranian war, the invader to Kuwait became a dirty and frightened old man, being stepped on by soldiers. And immediately people thought about their own kings, such as king (president) Gaddafi, king (president) Mubarak or king (president) Assad, now fighting for his life.

And now another king is in a cage.

It all began there, with that picture. It continued with the trial, in which the old lion tried to roar at the face of the laughing mob, and the execution at midnight. The king was gone.

More than a century ago, Lyman Frank Baum wrote about the Wizard of Oz:

…They saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice.

And so the king was gone. And the West applauded. He was an enemy, a murderer, a terrible man, yes, but even enemies have to be respected. Now other kings are gone, not all of them enemies. And the West applauds. But while they are not effective, cruel, even murderous – those kings are, were, the system. Now, that system disappears. Tomorrow the sun will rise over a much more religious, much more radical, much more reactional Middle East.

Because that what happens when you act without understanding why and where and how and whom. When you pull out a card from the bottom, the tower will fall eventually. This is a law of physics.

You exposed the Wizard, but what will happen to Oz now?

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The Mirror and the Aquarium

Hope?

There is an old tale about a sultan, who liked fish. And because he was a sultan – and because fish liking wasn’t the worst thing he could do – the richest merchant in the land (seeking a favor, no doubt) made him a present. From the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean he brought him the Emperor Fish. It was a marvelous creature, golden and red, a size of a cat, wearing a thin line of silver scales as a crown around his head.

The sultan was amazed, and after rewarding the merchant with gold and jewels, he ordered to construct an aquarium worthy of the Emperor Fish. The best craftsmen in the kingdom worked for weeks, until the wonderful aquarium – aquarium? It was a small palace by itself – was created. And, with a royal ceremony of course, the Emperor Fish was put in his new residence.

The sultan asked for the aquarium to stand just next to his throne. He wanted to be able to look at this rare creature all the time. He also wanted his subjects to admire his new friend (and the sultan’s own glory and wealth on the way). Being just a bit eccentric, he saw the Emperor fish in a way as a colleague, a fellow monarch, if you want. He wanted him to see the court and himself – the sultan – at work.

... began looking quite feeble.

But the days passed, and the fish, truly amazing when he first arrived, began looking quite feeble. The sultan was worried, as he saw his fish friend becoming weaker and sadder with every new day. He brought in the best doctors in the kingdom, but they just pulled their shoulders – they knew how to cure people, not fish. He tried astronomers, then magicians, but they couldn’t do a thing. And then, on one rainy afternoon, one of the guards standing in the throne room and looking at the depressed fish and the not-less-depressed sultan, coughed.

–          My father, oh great sultan, lives in a village not far. He is known as a very wise man. And he is very good with animals. Maybe he can do something, oh you glory of the earth.

And the sultan, having nothing to lose, sent his best rider to call the old man. He came later that evening, complaining loudly. When he saw the sultan he bowed indifferently and then turned to the aquarium.

–          So this is the patient?

He asked and walked around his glass palace. He looked at the fish and then came closer and stared deep in his eyes. He knocked on the glass and tasted the water. Then he turned to the worried sultan.

–          There is nothing complicated here, sultan. It is clear. You see, this fish is royalty. And a very spoiled one, I think. Back at home, he probably had servants and all kinds of underwater goods. Here, looking at humans passing by all day long, he is just bored. I think he simply needs something beautiful to look at…

The sultan was amazed. All his wisest scholars couldn’t think about a solution and here he got one in seconds. He applauded, ordered the vizier, the prime minister to reward the old man and began planning.

The next day, the most beautiful clothes from the palace and the market were brought and presented to the fish. The creature showed some interest for a minute but then the empty look returned to his big eyes and he turned way. That was a failure.

The day after, servants began carrying paintings into the hall. Each of the paintings was truly a unique piece of art, a marvel among marvels, but the Emperor Fish didn’t seem to care.

Then the sultan brought gold and later diamonds. He ordered the prettiest dancers to perform, but the fish couldn’t care less. In a splash of straight thinking he ordered another aquarium, full with the most exotic fish, to be installed in front of the Emperor Fish, and for a day – oh, such a happy day – it seemed that he had found the solution, but then the creature lost interest again.

After a week or so, the old man was called in again, and again he came complaining. Without even looking at the sultan, he approached the aquarium and stuck a finger in the water. Then he walked back and forth, and finally preformed what seemed to be a little dance in front of the bored fish, the baffled sultan and the completely embarrassed guard, his son. Then he blinked few times and said:

–          He is much worse than I thought. I never saw such self-adoring creature. The answer is, once again, simple. You have to put a mirror in front of the aquarium. The only true beauty in his eyes – is himself.

And the old man walked away. Within an hour a huge mirror stood in the throne hall and the Emperor Fish was completely captivated by his own image. He began to eat properly, his movements became fast and strong and his silver crown sparkled once again. The sultan was overjoyed, the old man was announced as the head of his village and his son made an officer of the guard.

***

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US began to talk about democratization. It was a euphoric time, when the West thought that we’ve reached the “End of History” and the credits are about to begin any second now. “There will be no more wars,” thought the West, as any other self-concentrated empire would have, “because we just over lasted a great enemy”. Surely, a steel-strong logic. In a very Western way, only few spoke about the most amazing notion that history didn’t exactly began with the Boston Tea Party, and probably won’t end with the Communist Party gone.

Under the banner of this wisest idea of the premature ending of history, the US went establishing a new order. The problem, one of those appearing each time when someone thinks he knows what is right for all, is that… Well, he doesn’t. And so, in the ME, the White House began to tango. Or maybe, in a local manner, to belly-dance. It tried both to appease the Arab states and to promote democracy.

Now democracy, just like ballet on ice, is something to grow in to. The West had few millennia to think about the idea, and most of the time it preferred to devote its’ efforts to other fields of interest, such as killing. Or the inventing of curling, which is in no way better. The ME, Israel not included, had not a second of democracy, since the city-states of the Hellenic period, and even then it wasn’t quite like DC., although they are surely some parallels.

It is a different place, our ME, a different civilization. It is based on different values, different patterns of thought. And when you bring your mother to the poker night, expect misunderstandings.

The previous administration choose a simple path – bombing. And the ME complained, but understood. Here, in a society still thinking as a Bedouin tribe living in the Great Desert, the strong is respected. The US wanted something; the US went to war to get it. Simple and clear, just like the rizu – the raid against another tribe, against the “them”, in which Bedouin men show their bravery. Sure, it was violent, but violence is part of life in the desert. You have to survive, so you push around others. And the Bush administration stayed within the borders of the paradigm. There were “friends” (good) and “enemies” (bad). We help friends, we fight enemies. Simple and clear.

The current administration is a different being. Nothing is clear anymore. It made a unique move, which would surely confuse any self appreciating chess player. It first apologized and promised eternal friendship for all, and then went home, leaving both friends and enemies standing in front of the chess board in amaze. You see, the US still has interests here, and for some reason it now thinks that they will be guaranteed by themselves. Why by themselves? Because the “friends” basket is getting emptier. Fast.

The Turkish navy. Clouds of confrontation?

Obama and his scholars decided to do something truly revolutional and give the ME to the people. Which is a great idea in general, but it has its’ exceptions. Take Turkey for example. It was founded as a secular republic with a failsafe mechanism built in. Each time an Islamic regressive player will get closer to power, the army will step in and push it away. Otherwise – please, enjoy democracy. Ataturk, the truly great founder of the republic, saw the dangers waiting within his own society. But when it did happen not so long ago, the US kept the Turkish army from doing what it was created to do – saving Turkey. And now, as – sadly – usual, Israel is the first to pay the price. It was democracy in the ME that brought Erdogan to power, but it was the White House that kept him there. First it wasn’t too bad but now, in only two years, we went from being allies to being the “main potential enemy” in Turkish strategic papers. Thank you, oh wise sultan of the White House.

And, of course, Egypt. I still recall being in NY earlier this year and hearing applause from all around to the great Egyptian revolution. The US did nothing as its’ best friend in the Arab world, a friend that had nothing to sell to the US except his support, was brought down by a cheering mob. It was the same mob, whose leaders refused to meet with Hilary Clinton, when she came to speak with them. The same mob, which burns the American flag as a relaxing afternoon activity.

So, to conclude, here is something that is painfully obvious here in the ME. We are an ancient region, which follows ancient traditions. The Arab world – and in a way Israel – is a tribal world. The core thinking is “us” and “them” and the loyalty goes from family to tribe, and then to nation or religion. The US is a classical “them”, as “them” as they get. We, Israel, also have some hard time becoming “us”. The local rulers are called “presidents” or “prime ministers” but this is a charade. The proper word is “sultan” or “amir”. They are authocratic, and some of them are not the type of men to invite home, but they keep their countries – these huge oceans of tribes, faiths, interests, causes, feuds and rivalries – together.

By letting the people to decide, you don’t get western democracy. You get a power-striked mob. In best case, like in Turkey, order is kept. The people decided to go to radicalization, and they do. Although, if you’ll look closer on the way Erdogan deals with opposition, you’ll see very little democracy. The worse case – Iraq and Egypt. Anarchy.

In a previous post I wrote about Saddam Hussein, who wasn’t exactly a gift to mankind, but he kept Iraq together. Now, there is no Iraq and Egypt, when it will appear again, will be a different player. And again, Israel pays the price, with terrorists running freely in Sinay, with thousands calling for canceling the peace agreement in Cairo, with the Israeli embassy looted and the personal evacuated by the IAF back home.

You see my friends, the White House, its’ heads and maybe the West in general are much like the Emperor Fish. They are happy to see a reflection of themselves, without dealing with the fact that it is just a reflection and the real world keeps going on without them. “Living in a movie,” we call it in Israel.

In the ME, when you speak about Israel, there is a strong tendency to rejection. We are still considered as “them” in the eyes of our neighbors. Our understandings with other countries in the region, our peace agreements, are not with the people but with the rulers. When, in the name of democracy and freedom you take out the leaders, you create a void that invites demagogues, who will follow the mob, or power-hungry extremists that will lead it. The strong get the crown, and pro-western, peace-thinking leaders are not too strong around here. And you get conflict.

So, thank you, oh great and wise president Obama. Thank you for soon-to-be nuclear Iran. Thank you for soon-to-sail Turkish warships. Thank you for the devastation of our embassy in Egypt. And thank you for all the great gifts that your wise leadership is going to create in the future.

And to my friends in the US – if the Emperor Fish is overwhelmed by his own reflection, there are only two things to do. The first is to take away the mirror. The second – to find another fish.

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