15 November 2005


Is how you stand! Some alert delegates were puzzled by the seating of Secretary General Kofi Annan when Chief Investigator Paul Volcker presented his latest report to delegates. Volcker had already presented it officially to the Secretary General who did not, in fact, have to be present at the wider delegate-oriented presentation. Having gone there, however, he could have been advised better about where to sit (depending upon where he stood?). Instead of being on the position next to Volcker where he could have received the report ceremoniously and made his brief statement, it was noted that he sat among the audience. His comment on the report was issued later as a press release -- obviously with less impact.


We have to wonder. Former Secretary General Javier Perez de Ceullar and his wife happened to be in New York during this October's U.N. Day celebration. They were invited by Secretary General Kofi Annan to the concert. He and his wife, Donna Marcela, responded graciously, showing up as requested on time at 6:45pm, fifteen minutes before the proceedings. It was one of the very few occasions that he visits U.N. Headquarters. We have to ask: Why couldn't Mr. and Mrs. Annan and Mr. and Mrs. Perez de Ceullar have been seated together? If not out of courtesy, at least as a display of solidarity -- which is certainly much needed these days. Mr. Annan mentioned his predecessor's name swiftly in his address (a reference eventually lifted from the officially circulated text!). But could he not have added a few thoughtful gracious remarks? (To his own advantage as much as to his guest's effort.) Curiously, an empty seat was left next to the de Ceullar's until Deputy Secretary General Louise Freschette slipped in hurriedly after the orchestra started. After the concert, couldn't they have walked together towards the reception in the nearly Delegates' Lounge? Why was it left to well wishers and loyal former staff to escort Don Javier with the crowds? Even when they met at the reception, observers nearby noted a brief, correct yet almost cool greeting. Why invite such a special -- and valuable -- guest if he was not to be treated specially? Why was such a wonderful -- and pleasurable -- opportunity blown for no obvious reason?


U.N. Protocol Chief Amenata Djermakoye will be moving to Geneva by early next year. Word at the Palais des Nations is that the gracious lady from Niger (who smiled as she rode on a tiger!) will take over as Director of Administration. Having done an excellent job in New York, she will be moving to untested territory. She most likely had hoped to get Conference Services -- an area she knew fairly well in an earlier capacity while at the Director General's Office. But that particular post is already spoken for -- to a Russian who had worked on the 38th floor. Ms. Djermakoye may feel that she has done her duty by seeing through the high level reform Summit last September. She now has to arrange for her future residence around Lac Lemain upon retirement. Bon chance.


There was Mr. Toh. He did a special favour, upon someone's request, to help extend the contract of certain individuals in field operations. Briefly, he changed the rules. A maximum extension beyond retirement age for anyone on a mission was one year. Mr. Toh arranged to prolong it to THREE YEARS. Who requested bending the rules? Look at the list of those extended recently and you will find out. A clue: they all share the same Asian nationality.


When all else fails, some are tempted to blow. Or at least try. The job may be futile; but it displays an appearance of earnest determination. Now, U.N. staff are being tutored through varied reports and guidance manuals on: how to act responsibly; how to be transparent; and -- most important -- how to blow the whistle. Let's see what it will all lead up to. There is a suggestion to set up an award for Blower of the Year. Many may have an idea who the winner would be. But it has to be put to the test. A review committee may be required. And that tucked blonde with that fake Britain accent could sit on it for a change.


"The U.N. is back" proclaimed hot air balloonist Tharoor to no one in particular. Any listener would do. Finding no takers in New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Delhi, there was finally an echo in the Rotterdam's Handebled, where he was able to assure avid readers that the recent New York Summit was "the beacon not the destination." He did not elaborate, however, on the "blizzard of initiatives" he had in mind to boost the sagging U.N. image under his watch.


One of those promised "blizzards of initiatives" turned out to be one more expensive farce. With the approach of the September General assembly Summit, U.N. accredited press was pompously advised by a special briefer about a great media campaign to connect New York with our Organization and make it relevant to their everyday life. By mid-November, nothing seems to have transpired except a poster at airports advising hurried and possibly confused travelers: "You are a delegate," and an electronic signal at various roadways blinking "U.N. meeting; expect delays" to angry commuters. A bargain at the declared cost of over $400,000. Who was laughing all the way to the bank, we wonder.


No more confusion for those of us who can't live without feta cheese. In an open market like the U.S., a visitor to any supermarket, let alone Zabars or Dean and Deluca, one had to choose at least between Bulgarian, French, Turkish, Greek or local. Now the European Commission in Brussels has ruled officially that only Greece can sign off on feta. But then what about Cyprus? Would its Greek sector be entitled to the name, or would we be limited to Halloumi? What do you say, Glafkos?


India cautioned that it might pull out of U.N. peacekeeping operations "if the country continued to be kept out of the decision-making process." The statement made at the General Assembly reflects the irritation of a major U.N. power, traditionally supportive of the Organization since its inception. It confirms the view expressed earlier that elevating Shashi Tharoor (an Indian who believes he's British) from D-1 to Under-Secretary General as head of the Department of Public Information is not considered to be representative of that great sub-continent.


It would seem like an episode of British farce series "Faulty Towers," if it were not for the frustrating inconvenience for every visitor to the U.N. building recently. Starting from that day during the Summit when electric power failure (a wild rumour first claimed it was a bomb!) led the Secretary General, U.S. Secretary of State Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and other distinguished company to change their lunch venue on the 38th floor, taking the stairwell all the way to the Delegate's Dining Room on the 4th floor. There were also computer glitches and wire network breakdowns that drove particularly visiting reporters into frantic encounters of the very jittery kind. By October, matters got more erratic. Some electronic equipment overheated. Elevator service was reduced. Ventilation, heating or air conditioning were drastically reduced, particularly between 21st and 40th (roof) floors. Distinguished Huffers and Puffers up and down the Tower did not seem amused.


An interesting comment by Professor Paul Kennedy. The U.N. these days functions like a British murder mystery: there is no victim but plenty of suspects. Suspected of the slow leakage of its power. One wonders whom -- or is it who -- did he mean?


A new book by the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein's personal doctor (and part-time artist) Dr. Ala Bashir gives a glimpse into the strained relationship within his family and entourage. Describing his attitude to rude and presumptuous aides, the Iraqi dictator told his Doctor it was like dealing with dogs. "As long as your dog is young and little you can kick and punish it as you wished. But when it grows bigger and stronger you have to think carefully because your empowered dog may end up biting you." Dr. Bashir then quotes Saddam as commenting: "Imagine how would it feel when you are surrounded by hundred of such dogs." In another chapter he mentioned that Saddam personally placed young attractive women in all governmental departments to report to him directly. He would meet them separately during evenings, enjoying more than just their feedback. He did occasionally converse with some of them. One woman thought she had become intimate enough to respond frankly to one of his political questions. She responded that invading Kuwait was counter-productive -- indeed bad luck for Iraq. He was so upset he literally kicked her out, warning her not to return. The following day he sent her a bundle of cash to ensure a "prosperous retirement."


Will the country that gave us "14 Juillet" give us a revolt of "14 Novembre"? This time however, instead of blasting the Bastille, the rebels will storm the Internet. Turns out interns are fed up and won't take it anymore. The best and the brightest college graduates are picked up by the richest and strongest companies -- on the cheap. Being interns does not give them the same rights and privileges of regular staff. Their salaries are less and their prospects of continuity remain hanging on the whims and wishes of "changing bosses." So, a "generation precaire" decided to blog it. They will go public; ask their compatriots for support and sharpen their focus on overturning their submissive status. 14 November is the day. 14 November is the time to overrun those dismissive administrators with their Balmain suits, Vuitton briefcases and Hermes ties. Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de "blog" et arrive.


African delegates were delighted at the appointment of Ibrahim Gambari as Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs. Finally, a prominent African was appointed to head a major department since Kofi Annan took over nine years ago. A grand party in his honour was given by the African group mid-October. He was toasted, cheered and commended for the initial steps he has taken in that crucial department. One pending question on the minds of many African diplomats is: where did the post of Special Advisor for Africa, which was occupied by Ambassador Gambari, go? As it is at the Under-Secretary General level, some expressed personal interest, others were curious to find out what was happening to it. Those usually in the know say the post has traveled north to pay for maintaining outgoing U-S-G Sir Keiran Prendergast while still available to the Secretary General as he devotes his time to research at Yale University. The arrangement reportedly expires by the end of this year. Yet African diplomats, including those from Ghana, are -- to say the least -- puzzled.


A high barricade built as a security measure on one side of U.N. Beirut headquarters seemed to provoke some Lebanese creative artists among many others who felt that the city centre should be liberated from any sign of security presence. Early November, a number of painters surprised U.N. officials by surrounding the building and covering the high sandy wall with a huge colourful canvas displaying beautiful scenes of Lebanon's mountains, greenery, and traditional houses. Daily An-Nahar reported the story under the banner: "Beirut Rejects Barricades."


Syrian officials who held a press conference in Damascus following the release of Judge Mehlis report on the terrorist murder of Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri referred to him repeatedly as "Al-Marhoom," that is the "departed" or literally "the departed with God's mercy." The Lebanese press, even officials, have been referring to Mr. Hariri as the "Martyr."


That's the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Why? Did you think it was FCOCC?


The Lebanese government decided to pay $21 million toward rental of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission (ESCWA) in the centre of Beirut for the years 2004 to 2008. It had already paid $56 million since U.N. offices moved to the premises on a land owned by SOLIDAIRE, a construction firm owned by the murdered Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who propelled the rebuilding of the Lebanese capital centre. That means that U.N. staff will remain in the middle of town for the next three years. In peaceful time, that will be most convenient; but in delicate times, it will require extra security precautions.


At these desperate times, it took Anzho, the maintenance man, to restore faith in good U.N. people. Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward recounted how she had frantically returned to the Ladies room after forgetting her wallet during the busy Summit. It had been a rough day for any reporter; failing electricity, technological glitches, and the collapse of the U.N. wireless network did not help raise her morale. When she was just about to lose hope in the "international community," Ward found her wallet through Anzho. A tall, quiet-spoken man in a U.N. maintenance uniform, the equivalent of a cloak of invisibility. A man who went about his chores unseen and anonymous, passed daily by people with better things to do. A man whose salary would scarcely keep a family in the viciously expensive confines of Manhattan, but who found, and returned, my wallet. And who now stood in front of my desk, saying, in soft, Polish-accented tones, "I hope you found everything as it was. I was afraid you'd be worried about it." Embarrassed, and with reluctance, he accepted the reward I pressed into his hand. But my reward went far beyond the chunky leather billfold crammed with plastic cards. "The personal is political," the old slogan went. Too often I'd seen it played out at its worst: in slaughter, rape and catastrophic cycles of revenge. In the destruction of lives and reputations. In the hacking off of the extended hand. But there was also the will to do good, even at the expense of personal and political gain. A recognition of common good, however rare, even in the corridors of an edifice that was built for the purpose...?


Secretary General Kofi Annan took time in the days following the publication of the Volcker report to urge all countries with great ape populations to "consolidate progress" in protecting them. He was addressing a special gathering in Kinshasa, Congo, of the "Great Apes Survival Project." Mr. Annan saw "signs of hope," though the number dwindled from 2 million to 400,000 over the last fifty years (guess who's counting?!). Conservation moves would mean that "the great apes still have a chance, but their fate is entirely in our hands." And as with all other issues, if we fail, it will be, of course, the failure of "us all."


Some of those politically appointed senior officials either know that no one is actually listening to what they say or feel confident enough that there will be no accountability for their claims. Take for example Antonio Maria Costa, the politically appointed head of the U.N. European Office in Vienna and head of the Anti-Drug Office. While visiting New York recently, he pontificated to the U.N. accredited press about his determination to combat corruption (a resigning employee had charged him with corruption a year earlier but the case was closed). He also stressed his achievements against drugs. None of the reporters brought up a "prediction" made by the pompous Italian in earlier appearances. In July 2003 Maria Costa expected Opium production in the Golden Triangle region of Asia to drop sharply. "Within years," he claimed, he will be able to "close the century old chapter" of drug traffic.


Or perhaps it was Paul Volcker's photo moment? Anyway, the day the final report on Oil-for-Food was to be delivered to delegations (after copies had been given to the press), there was another meeting in the building attended by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter -- something about "good governance" or "transparency" to which everyone now stakes a claim. After Mr. Volcker's presentation, he spoke to microphones outside Conference Room 4. An official from the 38th floor brought around the former President to say hello. He said hello. He said good-bye. The press remained with Volcker.


Been there, done that. Secretary of ECOSOL, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, first rate mediator in and out of Afghanistan who arranged for the first agreement signed by the Russians (Soviets) and Americans in Geneva, Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Corporate international lawyer, Special Representative of the Secretary General. Diego Cordovez has done it all -- his way; that is, with a wry smile and sharp mind. This month, he presented his credentials to the Secretary General as Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the U.N. We were told that last year was a fairly peaceful one for Diego until he spotted from his home in Quito near the airport the unpopular President attempting to flee by helicopter. He called a popular radio show host and through their popularly overheard dialogue, crowds moved to block the tarmac and had the man arrested. Although overqualified for his new incarnation in New York, Ambassador Cordovez was already treated to a jolly lunch by a number of his loyal friends of all ages and at all levels who were glad to see him back. They know that in whatever capacity, he will turn any assignment to an outstanding accomplishment. Let's hope for the best.


Apparently history has overlooked one of its shapers. Brian Mulroney, Canada Prime Minister from 1984 - 1993 has been talking unguardedly to a reporter with a recorder about his memoirs, bad-mouthing every Canadian politician, including his female successor at the leadership of the Conservative party. Mulroney blamed losing the elections on her sneaking around hotel corridors to rendezvous with her Russian boyfriend. He referred to casual friendly conversations with former U.S. Presidents Reagan and Bush to claim that it was he who helped shatter the Berlin wall and bring the downfall of the Soviet Union. His main complaint was that no one seemed to take note -- even in Canada.


* Tell me, are you innocent?
- No, are you?


The Pope was on his way to the U.N. building, to give a very important speech. But his plane was late and there was a lot of heavy traffic. He kept telling the chauffeur to go faster.

The chauffeur turned around and said: "Your holiness, I'm trying to go as fast as I can. If I go any faster, I will get another speeding ticket and I will lose my license."

And the Pope said: "I understand, I will drive!"

The Pope got up into the driver's seat and he started going 100MPH. So a cop pulls him over and says: "Oh I am sorry, your holiness, go along."

Then the cop takes out his cell phone and dials the station and says "Guess who I pulled over?"

"Who, the Mayor?"

"Bigger than that!"

"The Governor?"

"Bigger than that."

"The President?"

"No, bigger."

"Then, who?"

"I don't know, but his chauffeur is the Pope."
(from sellini.com)


Mustapha Akkad, a Hollywood producer famed in the Islamic world for films like "The Message" (about enlightened Islam) and Omar Mukhtar, about North African struggle for liberation, was killed during the bombings in Amman by self-styled Islamists. Akkad, who also made "Halloween," had arranged to meet his daughter who lived in Beirut. As she approached to embrace him at the hotel lobby, the bomb went off. As she fell bloodied on the floor, he rushed to cuddle her. His heart, literally, broke. It is revolting that those criminals who hijacked Islam's name have seized on the most joyous of human occasions, a wedding, to murder Moslems. One of their many innocent victims was one of the most accomplished creative Moslems who was spreading the enlightened message of a religion of peace and transparent harmony. His tragic loss as a communicator and a warm intelligent friend was compounded by the tragic death of his young daughter, like all those others who had assembled in Amman for moments of happiness and hope. We mourn them deeply as we strongly condemn their ruthless killers.


"Do not destroy a home. Do not cut a tree. Do not kill a woman or child. Do not humiliate a prisoner. Fear God Almighty and protect people's dignity in everything you do."
From "The Message," a movie about Islam.


In her debut novel, DIAMONDS TAKE FOREVER, United Nations staffer Jessica Jiji draws on her Arabic heritage to offer tender descriptions that provide a refreshing alternative to the prevailing images in the US media of Arabs involved in war or terrorism. She notes, for example, that the Arabic language "has nuances and poetry and a mellifluousness that are impossible to interpret into the limited dialects of the West." The music of Umm Kalthoum and Omar Hakim are invoked with the respect and admiration they deserve. Jessica even manages to make the Egyptian soap opera Ayna Qalbi sound entrancing. In the imaginary world of the novel, there is a market on Ninth Avenue named after the famed General Jabel Tariq, because the heroine's father, who owns it, so admires the bravery of the conqueror.

Beyond these cultural trimmings, the author uses her modern voice to convey the expansive spirit of the Arab people. Speaking of their generosity, she notes that, "Traditionally, a Bedouin will kill the family's last camel for someone he's just met. Nowadays, they just comp the tab."

The tangled political situation in the Middle East is not the subject here, but reading between the lines one can discern the irony of its dominance in the US media to the near total exclusion of any appreciation of the Arab world's vast and rich cultural wealth. Jessica describes an old woman from Syria by saying she "looked like she was straight out of old Damascus - no, out of a much smaller village, the kind not recorded on maps until there's a military strike, at which point it makes headlines."

DIAMONDS TAKE FOREVER, out this month, serves as an antidote to the "if it bleeds it leads" mentality prevailing in the mainstream media, and we're happy that Harper Collins is betting Americans won't need a violent angle to be enthralled by a story featuring Arabic culture. Ma'sha Allah. .