15 September 2008

OCTOBER SURPRISE:

While closely following the neck and neck U.S. presidential race, there are those who whisper that an "October Surprise" could relate to the fate of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who is thought to be along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. That, speculators add, was part of the deal allowing the election for the very vulnerable Asif Ali Zardari as the new President of Pakistan. It may explain the swift "co-ordinating and solidarity" meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

GANDHI/OBAMA:

One of the most impressive sound bites during the U.S. presidential election campaign so far is Barack Obama's admonition that "You are the change you have been waiting for". Very few have pointed out that the line actually belonged to Mahatma Gandhi who said: "You are the change you wish to see."

SIR DAVID'S MEMORY:

When one of the most outstanding diplomats in U.N. history produced a memoir, it confirmed that everything about him was exceptional -- except his memory.

Actually Sir David Hannay's memory, like his diplomatic style, is exquisite. Reputed to have been the model inspiration for "Sir Humphrey's" personality in the British TV political satire "Yes, Minister," he is a master of the spoken -- and unspoken -- word. In the case of his new book, the unspoken seemed to take precedence. For example, he was a leading member of the Security Council in 1994 when the Rwanda massacre was allowed to happen. He must have been connected enough to know about General Dallaire's message to Peacekeeping Chief Kofi Annan and the harsh response by his deputy Iqbal Riza. Yet, he dealt with that tragic event almost fleetingly and did not even mention Annan's name. One could not help but wonder whether the omission was due to the special attention that the outgoing Secretary General lavished on the former U.K. Permanent Representative. Some point to the Cyprus issue, claiming that the failed Annan plan, overwhelmingly rejected by the Greek community, was actually Sir David's. Again, on the Bosnian war, the omission is more glaring. With his usual elegance, the British diplomat's diplomat weaves a number of theories about lack of adequate consensus among allies. No comment, for example, on the role of Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. commanding officer. As to the role of Sir David himself, forget about it. In typical British self-deprecating style, he (unconvincingly) claims that the role of a Permanent Representative is merely that of a message carrier of his government's policy; he had nothing to do with shaping it. Admirers of Sir David beg to disagree.

QADDAFI'S LEEZA:

Announcing that the U.S. had no "permanent enemies," Dr. Rice's visit to Colonel Qaddafi was the first by a Secretary of State since 1953. In an obvious turn, it was noted that the U.S. delegation displayed even more enthusiasm than their Libyan counterparts. Dr. Rice declared that she "looked forward to hearing the views of the leader's world view" before having a Ramadan Iftar meal with him. In obvious symbolism, Qaddafi received her in a tent placed at the house destroyed by U.S. bombers in 1986 upon President Reagan's instruction, in retaliation for bombing a U.S.-frequented bar in Berlin. While he shook hands with the rest of the delegation, he greeted Dr. Rice by merely placing his right arm on his chest. That was a much more reserved gesture than his amorous declaration on Al-Jazeera about "Leeza...Leeza...Leeza" of whom he was proud as a "black African woman who sits back and orders Arab leading men." Local traditional allies of the U.S. in the region watched with special interest as one of their guiding lights was consumed by that "historic" visit. Some wondered: when you say you have no permanent enemies, does that mean you have no permanent allies? Other, more down to earth observers thought that Dr. Rice may be preparing for her next job -- in the private energy sector.

WAITING:

"I'll be back."
-- Godot

TOMMO:

Such is diplomatic performance at U.N. Headquarters that some delegates are larger than their small countries and others are smaller than their big countries. Michel Tommo Monthe, who presented his credentials to the Secretary General on 8 September as the new Permanent Representative of Cameroon, has always played roles much larger than his officially assigned level. Having worked for his country in different capacities over the years, that modest yet confident, unassuming man was a singular force at whatever committee.

His sense of humour kept him going despite very difficult situations at the U.N., particularly when an African was Secretary General and African diplomats were caught between supporting a brother while pointing out to shortcomings towards their continent. His valuable advice was not adequately used by officials at U.N. Headquarters. His country, however, appreciated his work. So did an overwhelming majority of diplomats and Secretariat staff. He is honest, enlightened, and always very well-informed. His new appointment is a gain not only for Cameroon, but also for the U.N. Good luck, brother Tommo.

LIMERICK:

A baby sardine
Saw her first submarine
She was scared and watched from a peephole
"Oh, come, come, come"
Said the sardine's mom
It's only a tin full of people.

THATCHERISM:

If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something DONE, as a woman.

"CHASTITY" BANKER:

Something interesting is happening amongst the powerful in Cairo. One of the most prominent leaders within Egypt's ruling party, billionaire businessman and Parliament member Hisham Mostafa Talaat, was held as a suspect in the murder of Lebanese minor actress Susan Tamim. The main suspect, a bodyguard at a luxury hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates, where the crime happened. But Mr. Talaat participated "in instigating, agreeing and helping the first accused," according to a surprising indictment by Egypt's Attorney General. His parliamentary immunity was withdrawn and was held incommunicado to ensure he doesn't slip away. Whispers about his role had been circulating among Cairo's media for days. The swift announcement and the indictment surprised everyone because of the accused's overwhelming influence. Not anymore. He must have crossed more than one red line in his hurried rise to the top of the Pyramid. Only weeks before his arrest, as news of his role in the murder started spreading in Cairo, an official TV station presented the influential billionaire/politician in two programs within one day -- the first showing his "positive role" in building Egypt's economy and the second a promotional show where he explained his new initiative to start a non-profit "Chastity Bank" to help poor men get married "to avoid being tempted into tempting dangerous female liaisons"!

PROFESSOR SHALEV:

The number of female ambassadors to the U.N. will be increased by one when Professor Gabriela Shalev takes over as Israel Permanent Representative, succeeding Ambassador Gillerman. The Rector of the Ono Academic College and Professor of Law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was the personal choice of Foreign Minister Livni. Reports in Israeli media indicated that Prime Minister Olmert favored Alon Pinkas, former Counsel-General in New York, who was also backed by President Peres and Defense Minister Barak. Apparently Ms. Livni insisted on having "her own man" at the U.N.

PROTOCOL CHANGES:

With all due respect to Chief of Protocol, most delegations and security people dealt mainly with one poised, presentable, sometimes sun-tanned always gracious Mary-Beth. During the forthcoming session of the Assembly, you may spot her somewhere -- as she was offered another post. But she will no more be the ever-present face around the Assembly entrance, the VIP area, or the lines following visiting dignitaries. She has been replaced by Ms. Wai Tak Chua, whom many will recognize as a former effective aide to former Deputy Chef de Cabinet, Elizabeth Lindenmayer. Her new task is certainly different than that on the 38th floor. But she is a fast learner.

A TAMIL QUESTION:

At the first NGO annual conference held outside U.N. Headquarters at UNESCO Paris, there was an accreditation problem for a Sri Lankan Tamil-related group, whose accreditation was withdrawn the day after the opening. Apparently, they had not obtained the right sponsorship. The interesting question was that the main theme was Human Rights and the newly-appointed Human Rights High Commissioner, Ms. Pillay, is herself South African of Tamil descent -- though Indian -- not Sri Lankan. Could she have helped accredit the group; or was she reluctant to antagonize the government in Colombo?

DIPLOMAT/TIGER:

August is Hamptons' season for New York's seasoned diplomats. Those well-connected either respond to standing invitations or hint their way to a friend's summer house. For some reason, a gracious family with a wonderful residence in Southampton was reminded of the known story of a tiger who shows up at the door while the mother and daughter of the house were having tea. Thoughtful, they invite him in. The tiger swiftly eats the cakes, eats everything available in the house and leaves not a single drop of water. When the father arrives, and having nothing available, they go off to a quaint restaurant on Main Street. They enjoy it tremendously. The following day, the wife goes to the supermarket and buys enough in case the tiger shows up again. He never does.

DOORS CLOSED:

Visitors to the U.N. Headquarters' premises noticed that glass doors have been erected in places which had been open thus far. Also, doors that used to be left open all the time, like the one between the General Assembly entrance and the one leading to the Delegates' Lounge have been folded. Even the staff Cafeteria now has closed doors that keep swaying in both directions as colleagues hurriedly come in and leave. Some say it is an outcome of an intervention about the building's safety by the Mayor of New York. Others wonder whether it is a security precaution, an oversight, or a reflection of a closed door approach.

PAUSE:

Teacher: George, go to the map and find North America
George: Here it is
Teacher: Correct. Now, class, who discovered America?
Class: George.

FIRE DRILL:

On a hot Friday afternoon, Secretariat staff were instructed to leave their offices swiftly because of a fire drill. Exits on 43rd and 46th Street were packed with insiders trying to get out and occasional visitors trying to come in. The plaza across the main entrance was cramped with waiting staff preoccupying their time reading the inscription on the wall of Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares." At least that was an enlightening minute. Those on the 46th Street area made it to the Patio Cafe on 47th Street across from the closed garden where St. George could be seen in a street fighter's uniform, riding on a horse and killing the dragon. Another interesting minute. At least the staff got a better briefing outside than what some of them had been getting inside the building.

DISASTER!:

It certainly was a mere coincidence -- an attempt to effectively abbreviate a long title. But it looked awkward at first sight. One of those internal feedback bulletins toward the end of July had the following heading: "SG - Natural Disaster." Was it drafted by a diligent member of the Secretary General's Spokesman's office? We wonder.

DIPLOMAT'S BIKE:

At a jovial summer party, someone recounted a story of a diplomat on a mission who decided to volunteer teaching English language to the natives, starting with the big Chief. At the first encounter, he pointed upwards and said: "Sky." The Chief quickly repeated: "Sky." At another encounter, he pointed to the green around them, saying: "Trees." The Chief quickly repeated the word. With improved educational delivery, the diplomat took his host on a walking tour when were startled to see a man and a woman huddled in the bush. The nervous diplomat regained his composure and pretending nothing unusual said slowly: "Man riding bicycle." The Chief pulled his bow and arrow hitting the man. He then curtly said: "My bicycle."

QUOTE OF THE MONTH:

Loss leaves us empty; but learn not to close your heart and mind in grief. Allow life to replenish you. When sorrow comes, it seems impossible -- but new joys wait to fill the void.
-- Pam Brown

YUSUF CHAHINE:

When Venice Film Festival gave its 2007 annual prize to movie director Yusuf Chahine, it was not for one film but for all his cinematic work. A brilliant cross between realism and fantasy, the 82 year son of Alexandria, who passed away in a Paris hospital, was faithful to himself, to human dignity and to the honest simple people who go around their daily work with heroic simplicity. He was close to the people, reflecting their dreams and disappointments. He loved Egypt, offering it tough love when needed and tender love always. He so much enjoyed visiting the original country of his grandparents, Lebanon, especially their mountain town of Zahleh, which by the way is Columbian singer Shakira's grandparents' town. The French President, together with senior Egyptian/Lebanese and Palestinian officials, issued condolences. All the main actors participated in his funeral in Cairo, where a mass was officiated by Melkite, Catholic Patriarchate. President Sarkozy stated that Chahine's talents enabled him to develop creative ways of expression. The statement added: "He was an intellectual and an artist with a great sense of independence and a fierce defender of cultural interrelations." May his soul rest in peace.