1 September 2004


Early September Rym Brahimi will become officially a Princess of Jordan. She will be wed to Prince Ali, brother of King Abdullah II. Rym, who became a CNN media star during the first stages of the war in Iraq met the Prince while in Amman. She had made her way in journalism, including a stint at U.N. Headquarters, under her own steam. One of her impressive feature projects was about the Moslem Haj season where she combined her normal Westernized surroundings with her deeply felt roots. No more journalism for her now. But she did make her mark as a reporter, a friend and a person. It is rare that such a princess of a woman becomes a real princess. Mabrouk Rym.


Mediterranean women navigators are initiating a competition covering one of the oldest routes in history. The Phoenicians, who carried the alphabet to the world were the first sailors. When one of their queens, Elisar, had to navigate for her life as her greedy brother killed her husband and uncle, she sailed 1450 miles from the Lebanese port of Tyre arriving in the North African port of Carthage, now near Tunis. Under the banner of "peace and development through sports," a pioneer group of Arab and European women will be racing across the Mediterranean to replicate that trip. History regards Elisar as a creative survivor. Upon arrival in a distant lonely land, she was authorized by the neighbouring King of Lybia to run a territory "as wide as a cow's hyde." She picked up some hyde, chipped it into tiny pieces and spread them over a wide range of land known today as Tunisia. No wonder many Lebanese and Tunisians look alike!


During a visit to Beirut, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was asked about an expanded list of those who had received oil coupons or other food for oil deals from the former regime. An initial list of Arab and international individuals was reported by Baghdad daily "Al-Mada" and carried by the media worldwide. Also, Ahmed Chalabi had stated in his prime time role that he had elaborate documents with facts and figures. The Iraqi government had started a wide investigation based on seized documents, particularly at the ministry of oil. Hence the special interest by Lebanese media in finding out at least some partial results. Interestingly, Mr. Allawi responded briefly and swiftly in Arabic: "Fat Mat," literally "what is past is dead," let bygones be bygones. Or the deal is done!


With the absence of any impact by the newly appointed Special Representative for Iraq, some are wondering whether naming him was part of an understanding already reached about accommodation over Iraq in return for no embarrassment over Food-For-Oil. The Pakistani ambassador took his time taking over his post, went hesitantly to Baghdad, agreed with everything -- in fact heaped praise on a process he hardly witnessed -- got out just before someone else brokered a peace in Najaf and is likely to stay some time in New York for briefing, de-briefing, re-briefing, etc., then possibly collecting his "stuff" in Washington. His next trip to Iraq may take a while. What substantive role would he have in the forthcoming elections next January (four months time) is unclear. But then, the fate of these elections is unclear. Remember the statements about their possible postponement -- by the Interim Prime Minister and the Secretary General in Bangkok? They know more than we do -- or more than Gazi knows for that matter. Meanwhile, Benon Sevan, former Food-For-Oil Director is awaiting a Volcker "inquiry" and double-checking whether he should get a lawyer as he entertains friends at the "Patio."


It seems that the Chef de Cabab had not enjoyed that secret Victoria recipe for a while. Since Thanksgiving, the basic ingredients were unavailable, stashed in a Latin American location; no special effort was made to bring it back to Headquarters. Meanwhile, the Chef has reportedly experimented -- discreetly of course -- with some African dishes. A totally different gender, however, remains in the Asia category -- with mainly Indian spice.


It is not only senior Annan-appointed officials who get into public controversies these days. Most recently, a picketing group drew traffic snarls on Manhattan's 57th Street. They were carrying placards against demanding fair and just treatment for "Marie." The francophone African young woman claimed that she was mistreated and cheated of her pay by her employer, a Belgian diplomat whose name was plastered on nearby cardboards. It was not long before some politicians rushed to exploit the crowd. One representative started a speech by shouting "Kofi Annan: take action now." A passerby who attempted to explain Annan's innocence in this particular case, was told off by a woman walking her poodle on a Park Avenue corner. She thought the Secretary General needed to provide further proof that he was pro-American: rush to rescue Marie.


The Nigerian flag is proudly flying again on top of the Nigeria House on 2nd Avenue and 45th Street. After we reported that the flag was torn by the wind, it is with pleasure that we report that the mission took the right action. Nigeria is not only one of the most powerful and resourceful countries in Africa, but it is home of some outstanding individuals who represented their country -- and Africa -- with distinction. Hence, our special affection for that great country and our special care that its flag remains intact, proper and proud.


Newly appointed U.N. envoy to Iraq Ashraf Qazi is described by most of those who know him as an experienced diplomat, who is somewhat familiar to the region in which he is designated to serve. He may require some better advice on what he tells the media. Local media should be no problem -- they are so interested that they wil be impressed whatever he says or does. Arab media will most likely overlook certain shortcomings in their keen desire to have a special U.N. role in Iraq. What he says to the international media will have to be less glib and more substance. For example, during the National Conference meeting while fighting was going on in Najaf, he responded to a foreign correspondent by saying: "There is light at the end of the tunnel even if the end of the tunnel is not exactly visible immediately!" Giggles all around. Stick to the point, you are already more in trouble than you know.


As fighting spreads in many flashpoints of the Arab world, a majority of television viewers have taken refuge in music. A competition for a superstar singer drew viewers from Ramallah to Benghazi. When a Jordanian woman won last year, she was encouraged by King Abdallah and Queen Rania. As two finalists -- a Palestinian and Lybian -- were selected out of thousands of aspirants, destitute crowds found in them some ray of hope. To those militants who irrationally claimed that interest in a Palestinian artist would take away from the "real" struggle (!), the singer Ammar Hassan said: "I want to reflect the human face of my people, that despite all the difficulties we face, we exist, that there are people like me and that creativity is our weapon." The young artist continued: "The occupation is not afraid of kids throwing stones. The occupation is afraid of scientists, intellectuals and musicians who reflect their humanity and express the message of their people. Do you think throwing stones will lead to victory? There is no victory with ignorance. Let's educate our children and plant the seeds of hope and humanity in their hearts." Amen.


When Ashraf Qazi was about to go to Iraq, the U.N. Press Officer in Beirut Nejib Friji was asked to lend a hand -- temporarily. Instead, Friji announced officially to the Lebanese and Arab media that "Secretary General Kofi Annan has appointed Najib Friji as Spokesman for the S.G.S.R. in Iraq." While in Baghdad, he also managed to have some news reports in Beirut papers mainly promoting himself rather than his immediate boss -- a habit practiced earlier on two ESCWA Executive Secretaries, both of whom wrote officially to Headquarters asking for a replacement. It did not take too long for matters to be clarified. Ayman Safadi, director general of Jordan Radio and Television Corporation was just appointed as full-time Spokesman for that mission. Safadi, 42, had worked as Editor-in-Chief of Jordan Times and served as director of the press department at the Royal Court as well as press adviser to HRH Prince Hassan. While the U.N. mission is a new experience, his professional background and political connections are likely to come in handy. A Jordanian is an appropriate choice. Besides, he can read and write Arabic.


Every now and then more funds from Oil-for-Food seemed to be unaccounted for, yet no one really raises further questions. Most recently, British engineering firm Weir Group announced that it was unlikely to track down about $7.8 million in irregular payments it made while working for the program in Iraq. You can bet your jolly good you-know-what that if that money had gone to politically unprotected pockets it would have been already presented for eventual leakage to the press.


Despite a decision by Secretary General Kofi Annan to close a sexual harassment case against UNHCR Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, the case may not be totally closed. At least one of the women involved is asking where is the report on which Annan based his decision. Could she look at it? As Annan would know since his days as head of Personnel, these cases don't just go away. Why is he trying so much to accommodate Lubbers will remain an open question.


A correspondent of Al-Jazeera who accompanied the Secretary General on his visit to Darfur produced a feature mainly taken during flights between Doha, Sudan and Nairobi. Qatar has a tradition of offering a U.N. Secretary General a private plane as he would start a trip from there to hotspots not easily connected by commercial airlines. With a lack of substance, the feature dealt with a wider question of dealing with conflicts. It concluded that present day U.N. seems helpless and unable to play its designated role. But there were lots of photos.


If it was not catastrophic, it would have been truly comic. The New Special Representative in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, either has no sense of timing or is being misled into a ludicrous situation. The day when Najaf was caught in the fierce fighting and Sadr's district of Baghdad an open battlefield, Qazi, who had done nothing to help, met the Minister of Planning in Baghdad "to discuss the U.N. role in assisting Iraqi authorities in the reconstruction efforts of cities like Najaf and Thawra City" (the term used by Saddam Hussein's regime for Baghdad's renamed Sadr City). How dim and insensitive can you get. It reminds one of a famous British farce entitled "Carry On." It was mainly about bunglers.


It was noted that photos of Benon Sevan published with stories on Oil-for-Food show him either during a visit to Baghdad next to a photo of Saddam Hussein or looking like a deer caught in the headlights. A proposal to approach the newspapers concerned was turned down. It was also noted that a one-page story on the Volcker investigation had almost no reference to the current Secretary General but carried on the top a photo of his predecessor Dr. Boutrous-Ghali signing the agreement. Could that be an indication of a new spin?


A staff demonstration in New York around the Secretariat fountain carried several placards as witnessed by media representations. However, a press release limited their text to: "We Shall Never Forget" or "Never Again." Actually, most placards demanded a fuller investigation, a refusal of the "collective accountability" approach which picked on lower staff and averted senior ones with political backing. Someone may have figured that what mattered was not the facts but the widely circulating more controlled version. But word of mouth goes round quicker particularly when it relates to dearly beloved colleagues.


It is now the turn of the Turkish Cypriots to complain about Kofi Annan. After an angry Greek majority denounced him by using his name in every imaginable way, the Turkish minority found out that little of the promised rewards are coming their way. A European diplomat heard from a disgruntled Turk that the U.N. Secretary General did not seem to be fully aware of the details or implications of his own plan (which in fact was not actually his -- that's the point!). Reportedly, Annan was startled when told by Turkish Cypriot leader Dr. Denktash that the proposed plan would displace about 80,000 people. Annan turned to one of his main aides and wondered if that was true. The answer was affirmative. However, the "compassionate" senior official explained, the number may be slightly less -- like 60,000. Anyway, they are dispensable Cypriots, not valuable members of the brainstorming team.


Greece surprised common wisdom that it could not conduct a modern day Olympic. The country to invent the marathons and Olympics seemed lagging behind for all arrangements, until the last few weeks to zero hour. Then suddenly, as only Greeks could do, all the stops were pulled and events went on without a hitch with fun, music and emotions habitual to a Big Fat Greek Olympic wedding.


One of the longest serving ambassadors to the U.N. Abdullah Al-Ashtal of Yemen just died. He had arrived in New York during the seventies, representing Democratic South Yemen and then, after a unity with the North, the Republic of Yemen. He served admirably in the Security Council, keeping open bridges with his fiercest adversaries. A man of principle and dignity, Al-Ashtal was highly regarded by all Secretaries General he worked with including Kofi Annan who knew him well. His private dinners, co-hosted with his charming and brilliant wife Vivian were a who's who of international power brokers and decision makers. He will always be fondly remembered. May his soul rest in peace.


The California Governor took time off the Republic National Convention to stroll on upper Madison Avenue. It was about lunchtime and typically star-gazing socialites in outdoor cafes like Nello, like Galoue, pretended not to watch but several made pretences to step off and follow his pace. The bodybuilder turned politician was accompanied by "Happy" Rockefeller, wife of the late New York Governor. The evening before the Republican Arnold who is married to a Kennedy, had addressed the convention giving an opening to the vivacious Bush daughters who followed to quip coyly "thanks to him, if one of us gets married to a Democrat, it should be no problem."