Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ciao, Bella

The man looked to be in his 70s.

Normally, this time of year, he would be taking care of the lawn in preparation of spring.

Instead, he spent most of his afternoon
swatting at the falling snow with a small
whisk broom.

'Scusa,' I said finally, trying to squeeze by him and onto the narrow walkway between us.

'Prego,' he gestured with a friendly wave of
the hand.

In Italy, 57 million people drive 30 million cars through streets lined with 2,700 years of cultural history, yet there exists not one single shovel.

Instead, the natives dealt with the freakish snowstorm much as they do with any crisis.
They pulled brooms out of closets. They attached 'chains' - little more than red and yellow paper clips hooked together - onto the tires of their cars. And the children used scraps of
cardboard, flying discs and their own backsides as makeshift snowboards to go giddily gliding down winter-slick hills.

This is a culture of people who know how to live their whole lives every single day.

I began my winter vacation 37,000 feet above the earth, rushing more than 600 miles
per hour from the edge of lower Manhattan and nose forward heading to Rome.

The ancient city revealed itself in a rich architectural tapestry of temples and domes, cathedrals, bell towers and ancient structures wounded - but not obliterated - by time.

Surrounded by walls, it is a civilization mostly unspoiled by modernization, despite the
occasional McDonald's restaurant boasting Doppio Cheeseburger and Patatine Grande specials.

Giant flashlights strung across a clothesline act as street lamps along the Via Nazionale,
where smart cars zip across cobblestone streets in a challenging game of James Dean-like 'chicken.' Inevitably, someone yields the right of way - always at the last moment.

From the traffic lights to sticker prices, natives will tell you that the rules of the country are best used as guidelines than mandatory bylaws. 'It's only a suggestion,' they say.

In the early morning hours at the Campo de Fiore, shoppers line up at a multitude of pale, sun-muted tents in search of that day's fresh fruit, meats and vegetables that will be
prepared for that evening's meal.

Their faces wear the emotional intensity mixed with irony captured by Rossellini, DeSica
and Fellini - the country's great filmmakers of the 20th century, and poke among the fresh fruit oblivious to the dark, brooding figure of Giordano Bruno, a statue erected in the center of
the square where he was burned at the stake in the early 1600s.

Some congregate outside the cafés for a smoke and argue about country's new indoor
smoking ban. Recently hung signs on cafes read 'Vietato Fumare.'

Everyone is concerned with the health of the Pope, who they like, although the Vatican itself, many will offer, is commonly thought of as being more interested in the business of making money than it is in the work of helping the people.

Guidebooks list the names of the popular places, from The Forum and the Colosseum to the Fontana di Trevi. What they cannot accurately translate, however, are the feelings of awe
that comes with standing inside of the Pantheon - a remarkably intact structure built in
125 A.D. - or the stunning contrast of standing on the 96th step of the historic
Piazza di Spagne and overlooking the elegant string of shops whose signs boast: Prada,
Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

Leaving Rome, heading north and cruising along the Autostrada, there are joys to be found everywhere.
There are pleasant discoveries inside of a nondescript building in Umbria, where a man painstakingly uses a brush-stroke to hand-detail an original design on cups, plates and pottery.

In another room, shelf after shelf is lined with local flavors, from truffles to wines to bottles
of olive oil - whose icy-glaze show the effects of the cold press.

In Assisi, a towering city hovers on the mountaintop in an ode to St. Francis;
Pisa boasts its famous crooked tower and, in Siena, the sky is poked with the
black-and-white marble of its Gothic cathedrals.

Most stunning of all is the city of Florence - Firenze to the local ear - which lies in the region
of Tuscany - land of language and of art, piazzas, domed cathedrals and the winding
River Arno.
It has been home to Giotto and Dante, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Michelangelo -
whose sculpture of 'David' just celebrated its 500th birthday. It is housed in the Galleria
del Accademia, a gallery outdone only by the Uffizi Gallery nearby.

Among the sprawling 13th century villas and hidden palaces of Tuscany a few kilometers
away, an old man with a whisk broom continues with the task of swatting away the snow.

A few meters away, stone balconies and massive arches rise from piazzas, lined beneath
with fruit stores, 'tabacchi' shops and cozy storefronts specializing in everything from
chocolates to gelato to risqué women's underwear.

Cafés are everywhere and, opposite of the American way of life, this is the only place
where Italians will make haste. A quick shot of espresso and then it is on to the day of work
and nights of multiple-course meals and beautiful wine - each of them moments to be

In the setting sun, the church bells ring on the hour from the bell towers in the main square. The sky fills with a million birds that scatter in flight, as if they were startled by the mighty clang of the bells, before finally settling atop the snowy branches of the cypress trees to
collect their wits.

The old man with the broom, meanwhile, is done for the day. He pulls on the massive, fortress-like doors at the rear of the villa and opens a panorama of clay-orange roofs
and old church towers.

The snow-topped mountains are illuminated by the setting sun and topped by a smoldering blue-red skyline of billowing clouds that are every bit as deep, exotic and seductive
as this land of itself.

'Buono Sera,' the old man says, which in this land does not mean 'Good night - the day is over,' but 'Good Evening,' - as in the night has only just begun.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, March, 2005.

Faces of Iraqis: where are they now ?

Their names could be Mary or Robert, Ashley or Joan.
They are painters, teachers and artists. They live in an ancient city, surrounded by desert.

For some time now, they have lived in a heightened sense of awareness; Theirs is a psyche wavering between worry and salvation, of an uncertain future over which they have no control.

''There were constant rumors that the war was coming, either in the next few days, or sometime next week,'' says Troy resident Joe Quandt, who lived among those waiting for the bombs to fall.

''It was very interesting seeing what the mentality was; how the people would go about their day-to-day business. Sometimes they would look at me though, and ask : 'Joe, when is it coming, the war?'
I would say... 'I don't know.'''

Quandt visited Iraq in October, making many new friends during his monthlong visit.
He was especially close to four artists whom he met in Baghdad.

Zienab Aisa is a gallery owner with a raspy laugh. Yusraa Al-Abaddy claims Picasso as one of her biggest influences. There is also an artist named Nazar, and another named Sa'ad.

A painting by Al-Abaddy hangs on the wall of Quandt's house in Troy.
''They all spoke a fair amount of English, and like all the Iraqis, they are a warm,
generous and hospitable people,'' Quandt says.

''These are people who shared their food with me, and told me about their lives. People who asked about America and about what the Americans are thinking,'' Quandt says.
''They are people who care about their children, and for children everywhere.''

Quandt is especially concerned about them these days. He has been unable to contact with them, and has no idea where his Iraqi friends are. He has posted a message online in the hope that they will see it.

''An Open Letter To Baghdad'' from Albany, Quandt's message begins:
''Dear Sa'ad, Zienab, Yusraa and Nazar, I did try to post a letter to you, but it came back. I know you understand about this.''

Quandt doesn't know whether they were able to escape Baghdad, or if they have remained in the city.

''If you have money to be able to leave, you get out. But the vast majority of the people cannot leave the country - and if you are anywhere near any kind of telecommunications area, you
are especially in danger. Once it starts to come, large numbers of refugees will be sent
(fleeing) in all directions.''

He remembers what Nazar told him about what it felt like to be living in Baghdad with war looming on the horizon. ''It's like Iraq was put in a hole,'' she told him. ''It's like we are
watching a movie about the world, and we are not in the movie.''

The whereabouts of Ghazwan Al-Mukhati is a foregone conclusion. When Quandt conducted
an interview for ''CounterPunch'' with Al-Mukhati, the openly vehement denouncer
of Saddam's regime responded: ''I can't leave here, I'm too old.''
He and his wife planned on staying put. '
'We'll stay in our house and wait for the bombs,'' said Al-Mukhati,
a 1967 graduate of Marquette. ''What else can we do?''

Half of Iraq's population is estimated to be 18 years of age or younger, but many
remember the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Quandt met a young man who worked
in Baghdad as a waiter. ''He was talking about the Gulf War and he said he remembers
people crying, buildings falling and people being killed. There are people who were children
at the time. The memory of it is very frightening to them.''

Quandt says he was motivated to learn more about Iraqis and their culture when he
first learned of how children were dying as a result of the United Nations sanctions.
He joined the ''Voices in the Wilderness'' group and traveled to Iraq in October.

''I wanted to go visit with the people, to witness what was going on, to photograph them
and tell their story.'' His journey took him to Karbala, and Najif, but most of his time
was spent in Baghdad.

He says he was impressed by the gentle demeanor of the people and the beauty of
their surroundings.

''The architecture of the buildings is fascinating, the public sculptures, the gardens,
the rows of palm trees. The Tigris River ran right by the window of the hotel
where I was staying, five floors down.''
He also remembers the heavy smog and the stifling heat, which, even in October,
was 107 degrees.

The self-described grandfather/actor/teacher/cab driver/activist has been writing and
talking about his experiences in Iraq since his return in November - sharing stories about
the friends he made, and putting a face on the people who told them.

He also took many snapshots, although this was, at times, a risky proposition.
''They see an American in a public place taking pictures with a camera and they say:
'What's going on here ?''' Quandt recalls.

Communication restrictions can be oppressive, as well.

''There is television, and you would watch a few musical acts, but mostly TV is all Saddam,
all the time,'' he says. ''And the Internet is completely controlled. There are one or two (browsers) and they are heavily monitored. You can send e-mail, but you can't say anything negative.''

Government monitoring aside, there is a strong presence of and appreciation for art,
with 45 galleries in Baghdad, Quandt says. As far as a normal routine, he says the people
work six days a week, with Friday being ''Mosque Day,'' a day off from work.

''Iraqis are very proud of their culture - their writing and music, their art and astrology,'' Quandt says. ''It is the Garden of Eden and it is the Tower of Babel. This is Iraq.''

It is also a region in conflict. ''They are aware of what is coming,'' Quandt says. In preparation for the war, he says, people were digging holes and trenches in their back yards and filling them with sandbags.

''They really don't know what to expect,'' Quandt says. ''And the type of weapons
that they will be subjected to, nobody knows. I only wish that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney
had friends there.''

As far as gauging the thoughts of the people he met in Iraq, Quandt replies, emphatically:
''They don't want Mr. Saddam.'' But he also responds just as emphatically that the citizens of Baghdad don't want to be attacked - that having their city totally destroyed is not a viable option, either.

And so it was on Thursday, at 5:30 a.m. Iraqi time, that the first signs came that everything was about to change.

By Friday, rumors were plentiful: The Iraqi military had built trenches and filled them with flammable oil throughout the streets of Baghdad; Saddam Hussein was taken out early, in an orchestrated strike by the U.S.; the Iraqi military was negotiating their surrender.

The world tuned to its televisions, where cameras sat on tripods pointed at Baghdad
waiting to capture the visuals of something that was called the ''Shock and Awe Campaign,'' bringing it live, in real time, into homes around the world.

by Thomas Dimopoulos originally published in The Saratogian, March 22, 2003 (photograph of three young boys in Iraq, before the bombings, by Joe Quandt)

Bombs and Guitars: Songs from Iraq 2003-2004

Twenty-seven-year-old Shane Claiborne returned to America last week, his left arm in a sling, injured in an accident while exiting Iraq.

He came home with a heart heavy with the thoughts of friends still in Baghdad.

''I spent about 2 1/2 weeks in Baghdad,'' Claiborne says, visiting with relatives in his native Tennessee.

Claiborne, of Philadelphia, arrived in Baghdad on March 12, joining a group of about 30 others from the Iraq Peace Team, an organizational arm of the Voices in the Wilderness group,
based in Chicago.

Since September, more than 150 Americans from about 40 states have traveled to Iraq to live among the Iraqi people and to offer help in hospitals and schools and to document the lives of people in crisis.

Claiborne's arrival in Baghdad coincided with the opening days of the war. He became a part of IPT members-turned-reporters, interviewed by phone and by e-mails from the media for a sense at what the war looked like from the inside.

Since his return, Claiborne says the images he sees on American TV are limited in their
presentation of what is really going on.
'You're only seeing one side of the story. It is very difficult to find the truth of what is
happening there. My heart is very heavy. Because I love the Iraqi people,
and I love the (U.S.) soldiers, I grieve for my country.''

When he first arrived in Baghdad, Claiborne says he was afraid of what the reaction would be when he said he was an American.

''I didn't know what the Iraqi people would think, but they said 'We love Americans.
We love the American people.' They have the ability to separate between the American government and the American people,'' Claiborne says. ''What they couldn't understand
is why we, as American citizens, couldn't stop the government from aggressive actions on the Iraqi people.''

Claiborne's e-mails while in Baghdad became part of daily diaries posted on the IPT's Web site.

His group erected a camp site in a residential neighborhood in between the Al Monzer
Pediatric Hospital and the Al Wathba water plant.

''Each night, about 10 of us sleep there, spending time with (Iraqi) workers and neighbors.
They have brought us blankets, fresh cookies, let us use their phone,'' Claiborne wrote in his diary. ''They stay up all night with us, telling stories. When the bombs begin to drop each night, we light a candle and sing songs.''

Claiborne remembers seeing a flock of geese ''flying in V-formation,'' that seemed to signal the first wave of aircraft overhead, describing the thunderous sound of bombs dropping,
the shaking earth, the smell of smoke, and the desperate-sounding howling of dogs
in the alley behind him.

His notes of the first hours of the air invasion: ''I can hear the bombs falling as I write this.
I find myself curling up like a little child at night in a lightning storm. Every time I see
a flash of light, I begin to count - 'one thousand-one, one thousand-two' -
to see how far away it is. Now when I count, I rarely get past the first 'one thous...'''

The lesson he learned, he says: 'There are better ways to deal with conflict than shooting the enemy.''

''People throughout the world know that Saddam Hussein is a wicked leader, and that he
has an oppressive regime,'' Claiborne says, but after the bombing began, many Iraqis were asking, ''Is this what liberation looks like?''

''We saw so many beautiful kids, they were scared and confused. I was with a man who was standing next to his child - the child shredded with shrapnel, and the father was saying,
'What kind of liberation would do this to my child?'
It breaks my heart, I don't believe with this action we have made a safer world. Violence only spirals and begets the same things it seeks to destroy.''

One of the fondest memories Claiborne has of his time in Iraq is of the day they celebrated the 13th birthday of a girl named Amal Shamuri.

''It was a tremendous day, the resilience of the children continuing to sing and laugh and celebrate the day," Claiborne says, "even as the bombs were falling.''

One Year Later

First they fired the rockets and missiles and launched the grenades. Then they sent in the bombers and battle tanks, dropped bunker busters and cluster bombs, and only then - after they placed more boots on the ground than lined Imelda Marcos' closet - only then did they finally bring on the noise.

The volatile streets of Fallujah, Iraq, were wired for sound last Friday, the Associated Press reported. U.S. troops turned their attentions to the high-watt loudspeakers that lined the city. They turned the volume up to 10 and blasted the town with the sounds of rock 'n' roll in hopes of getting the bad guys to give up.

The musical overtures blaring through the streets of Fallujah embraced some well-chosen
sonic barbs: Metallica's 'Enter Sandman,' Jimi Hendrix's rendition of 'The Star-Spangled
Banner' and an assortment of AC/DC tunes.

In a particular stroke of genius from the U.S. Defense Department's Psychological Operations Branch (PSYOPS), the mission was the repetitive broadcasting of the theme song from
'Barney' mixed with an assortment of verbal assaults like 'You shoot like a goat herder.'
An achievement as near to a slam-dunk as possible to disassemble and disorient the
insurgents we keep hearing about.

The playing of obnoxious tunes came at the same time that the folks at Blender magazine
issued a list of what they called the worst 50 songs of all-time.

Among the most horrific on the list are Wang Chung's 'Everybody Have Fun Tonight,'
Billy Ray Cyrus' 'Achy Breaky Heart' and Whitney Houston's 'Greatest Love of All.'
With some last-minute tweaking, the play list of sonic sludge being blasted throughout
Fallujah could benefit with the addition of some selections from Blender's list of truly bad tunes.

The government's policy of delivering the noise that annoys is not a new idea. When General Manuel Noriega fled for cover during the Panama invasion in 1989, loudspeakers blared Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile' and Linda Ronstadt's 'You're No Good.'

In 1993, David Koresh and a group of Branch Davidians spent more than a month surrounded by FBI agents at their Waco, Texas, compound while a PA system blared Nancy Sinatra tunes, Tibetan chants and the sounds of sirens, seagulls, crying babies and dental drills.

The problem came when the playlist was programmed to include Alice Cooper tunes.
This was vintage, classic Alice and the sort of stuff that any kid growing up in the 1970s
would enjoy hearing again. Big mistake.

The selection of more recent Alice Cooper tunes, where much of the dreck resides, would
have done the trick.

More recently, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin tore a page out of the PSYOPS book
when they got married in 1998. The couple kept gawkers and paparazzi at bay outside
their Malibu estate by blaring White Zombie tunes.

So there is this note of caution: As anyone who has seen Jack Black in the recent film
'School of Rock' will attest, rock 'n' roll can be an empowering and unifying force.
But the tunes must be chosen wisely.

Selections like REM's 'Everybody Hurts,' B.J. Thomas' 'Hey Won't You Play Another
Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,' or Bruce Springsteen's 'Badlands' would
just be unwise.

On the other hand, the English-speaking world might shutter and recoil if Blondie's
'One Way or Another (I'm gonna get-ya, get-ya, get-ya, get-ya)' and the Police's
'Every Breath You Take (I'll be watching you),' blasted interminably.

Others tunes falling under the barrage of noise banner, could be riskier. While pieces like Philip Glass' 'Einstein on the Beach,' or Patti Smith's 'Radio Ethiopia' might drive many to near madness, 'Hey Ya' may have too much rhythmic intensity to disorient the masses.

In a compromising move to coordinate federal agencies working together, FCC exiles like Howard Stern, Janet Jackson and Florida disc jockey Bubba the Love Sponge could be
exported from the banned America airwaves and delivered directly to the offending
source at full volume.

The safest thing of all is to stick with the bland stuff. Classicists may want to venture
back to the days of Pat Benatar and Richard Marx, of Styx and Huey Lewis & the News.

For the truly awful, there are the likes of Rick Dees and his 'Disco Duck' and the
Captain & Tenille's 'Do It To Me One More Time.'

And something as innocent as a tune as 'It's a Small World After All' could easily be spun
into a nightmare for listeners forced to endure its repetitive play at full volume,
over and over and over.

With contemporary music, just about anything from today's Top 40 will do the trick,
filling even the most tenacious of souls with a lazy malaise.
It seems to have worked just fine here back home.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
originally published in The Saratogian, April 13, 2003 and April 23, 2004.

(Photograph courtesy of Shane Claiborne, pictured blowing bubbles at a young Iraqi girl's birthday party in a residential neighborhood in Baghdad on March 23, 2003.)

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Russians Are Coming (and they're planting lilac trees)

SARATOGA SPRINGS – What once would have been an inconceivable notion
became reality one Friday afternoon in the fall of 2004,when a group of young musicians
from the Schuylerville Central Schools performed the Russian national anthem
on a sun-filled day in Congress Park.

The moment was not lost on school Principal Michael Mugits.

'We once grew up in fear of each other and as adversaries, but now we are partners,' he said. ‘Even as the two nations are joined together as unfortunate victims of terrorism, they are
also united in a hopefulness of a prosperous and peaceful future.”

They then planted a lilac tree - a favorite of the late writer Anton Chekhov and the Russian city’s namesake - near the park’s carousel.

The occasion of the ceremony was to welcome Russian educators visiting the Spa City, commemorating the bond of sister cities shared between Saratoga Springs and
Chekhov, Russia.

The first meeting between the two cities originated a few years earlier on a memorable day that had a welcoming committee of Spa City residents waiting for the Russians to make their entrance by descending from high atop one of the city’s buildings.

They waited and waited. Then, they waited some more, eyes fixated on a woman pacing
back and forth with a walkie-talkie in her hand.
She wore a dark suit and had an ominous air about her. Her hair was pulled back tightly,
in a bun. There was a cool, detached grace to her as she moved and when she squinted
her eyes, an icy stare pierced the stillness that sent shivers running up and down the spine.

“The Russians... are on the roof,” she announced, walkie-talkie clutched in the
white-knuckled grip of her palm.
“They know you’re here,” she said, “and they are on their way down.”

Moments later they appeared, eight members of the Chekhov delegation led by their mayor, Gennady Mikhailovich Nedoseka.

Each of the group is a leader of industry, business, arts and education in their
homeland of Chekhov, home to a population of 100,000. Their reason for coming here was to exchange ideas and form a bond that would asisst each of their respective cities to become a better place.

If there was any trace of a vintage paranoia in the souls of old timers waiting for the
Russians to appear, the fears disintegrated as soon as the music of an electric keyboard
filled Broadway with the traditional Russian gypsy romance, “Ochi Chornye,” (“Dark Eyes”).

The lilac tree that was planted in Congress Park will grow approximately 20 feet tall
and 15 feet wide.
It is expected that it will continue to grow well into the future, at least until the young
musicians who performed in Friday's ceremony reach well into their golden years.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
originally published in The Saratogian, 2003-2004.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

‘Palestinian-Israeli’ attempts to bridge divisive gap

SARATOGA SPRINGS -They came carrying spiral notebooks and wearing trendy, black-framed eyewear.
They were dressed in jeans and miniskirts and Day-Glo leg warmers.

Mixed among them was a generation born before the formation of Israel in 1948.

Young and old gathered at Skidmore College’s Emerson Auditorium to listen to a
young Arab man who calls Israel his home.

‘My name is Forsan Hussein,’ the 26-year-old speaker introduced himself. ‘I am a Palestinian-Israeli.’ The thrust of Hussein’s talk was to build what he called ‘a peace’ in a ravaged region.

Hussein was born and raised in a small Arab village of about 5,000 in northern Israel.
His village is surrounded by three mountains; on top of each is a Jewish settlement.
‘I was born to a Palestinian family inside of Israel,’ Hussein explained. ‘I am a Palestinian:
I eat Palestinian food; I share the Palestinian history but, maybe, not their future. I am also
an Israeli. This is the place that I call home. My family has been there for 13 generations. This is where I was born and where, I think, I will die.’

Hussein grew up in an era of conflict and violence, ignorance and bloodshed. Of these, he said, perhaps the worst is ignorance.

‘That ignorance leads to a stereotype of people. If you don’t meet the ‘other,’ you believe what you hear,’ he said.

On a personal level, he is an advocate for rights as an Israeli citizen, opposed to what he calls that government’s discrimination against Arabs. He stresses coexistence, and says his work is about helping to discover similarities as well as appreciating and respecting differences.
The ignorance, Hussein says, stands in the way of the learning.

‘I grew up thinking the Jews had horns. That they were there to kill the Palestinians.
That they would destroy our homes,’ he said.

At the age of 10, two of his schoolteachers organized a trip to visit and meet ‘the others.’ Alongside 35 of his fellow students, the 10-year-old boy started walking.

‘I remember marching through fields of olive trees in my village of Sh’ab. The further we walked to the Jewish town of Shorashim, the faster my heart was beating. There was a man with a beard who approached us. He was holding something in his hand. I thought ‘It’s a gun. This is it. We are done.’ I could see what he was holding was a tray, and the tray was filled
with chocolate chip cookies. He offered a cookie to every child. I had my share of cookies, too. But I was feeling very confused.
‘I was wondering: ‘Where were the horns?’ ‘

The young Hussein met and befriended some of the Jewish children of the neighboring village. To the children who spoke Hebrew, and Hussein’s classmates who spoke Arabic, language was not a barrier.

‘A few weeks later, two of my Jewish friends were coming to visit me in my hometown.
I didn’t know how to explain this to my parents. I taught my new friends how to say ‘good morning’ in Arabic. They came to my home, and my mother opened the door. There were the two kids saying ‘good morning’ in Arabic. My mother’s face broke into a big smile, welcoming them,’ Hussein recalled.

‘It was the most important moment of peace building I had ever witnessed. That is why I say today, a chocolate chip cookie changed my life.’

As he got older and studied Hebrew, Hussein began to realize how deep the stereotyping
was on both sides.

‘After being able to communicate with my Jewish friends, I told them I grew up thinking that they had horns,’ Hussein said.

‘They said to me, ‘We were told that your people had long tails. That’s why you wear
long robes. To hide your tail.’ ‘

As an Arab living in Israel, Hussein witnessed what he called inequalities and discrimination toward Arabs living in Israel, citing a higher-than-average unemployment and lower
per-capita income for Arabs. Twenty percent of the population of Israel is Arab.

Hussein’s talk drew a reaction from some in the audience, who asserted that discrimination could be said of Arab treatment of the Jewish population in places like Yemen and in Egypt.

‘If it seems I am being harsh on Israel, please understand that it is not that I hate Israel, but that I love it,’ Hussein replied.

He also realizes he is more the exception than the rule for Arabs growing up in Israel,
referring to himself as ‘the luckiest person in the world.’ Placing blame will not produce
a peace, he says.

‘I think for lasting peace to come to the Middle East, there needs to be a grassroots
movement from the bottom up and from the top down. I am an optimist.
I believe in the peace. And I believe new leadership needs to emerge.’ Hussein said.

The dissenting voices heard earlier praised his mission.

‘I pray that you are successful,’ one said.

Before the crowd filed out, Hussein quoted a passage from Martin Luther King Jr:
‘People don’t get along because they fear each other.
People fear each other because they don’t know each other.
And they don’t know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other.’

‘We don’t know each other,’ Hussein said. ‘In Israel, we don’t even make the effort to get to know each other. We Arabs and Jews have created such complicated mechanisms to hate
each other and we have been living in that existence for more than 50 years now.

Bringing Arabs and Jews together is not going to happen by itself,’ he said.
‘We either coexist. Or we co-destruct.’

by Thomas Dimopoulos
Originally published in The Saratogian Nov, 2003.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Family Hangs with Headhunters

Jim Rogalski stared at the seven words taunting him.

To take
The challenge?

‘Take the challenge of a lifetime,’ the information read. ‘Forget the comforts of home
and prepare to embrace another way of life.’

Rogalski answered the call and along with wife Susana and children Taylor, Marshall
and Helen, spent nine days with a tribe of headhunters in the Malaysian jungle.
Their story was filmed by the National Geographic Channel for broadcast
in the series ‘Worlds Apart.’

The family was in the process of unpacking and settling into their new home in North
Carolina when the casting call for the National Geographic Channel caught Rogalski's attention.

The new reality series was searching for 12 American families to travel abroad for two weeks and become immersed in a foreign culture. All the while, the cameras would roll. After submitting an application and undergoing a series of interviews, the family was selected to
visit Malaysia.

‘They said to us, ‘Can you leave next week?’ says Rogalski, who spent 17 years as a journalst before heading to North Carolina. ‘We traveled together as a family to Disney World, but
never anywhere quite so exotic,’ he says.

The show follows the family on their adventure, beginning in their Chapel Hill home on the day before their trip halfway around the world.
‘I still can’t believe it,’ young Taylor says early on in the episode, spinning a big blue globe in
his hands. ‘We’re going from here,’ he says pointing to the East Coast of North America,
‘to here,’ his finger landing on Malaysia, just south of Vietnam.

‘It took 40 hours of travel time just to get there,’ remembers Taylor's dad. The trip totaled
15 days in all. ‘The first two days we stayed in the Holiday Inn in Kuching, Malaysia, to recover from the travel. It was the last time we ate well on the entire trip,’ Rogalski says.

Their destination was the state of Sarawak in East Malaysia, where the flowers can grow to
3 feet in diameter and weigh more than 25 pounds.
Two million people live in Sarawak. One-third of them belong to the Iban tribe, nomadic farming descendants of the most feared headhunting tribes on the entire island of Borneo.

In a remote Malaysian village, the show follows the Rogalskis sharing a communal longhouse with the Tinsang family of the Iban tribe. It is a culture where monkey is cooked over an open spit for dinner; where people bathe in the river. The two brothers’ American games of catch with a football were replaced with cockfighting competitions.

The shaman oversees all aspects of spiritual life.

Rogalski drew a line between the very different cultures and found common purpose.
‘I was struck with a revelation that making and offering of food to the gods is very similar
to us making an offering of money when we go to church,’ he says.
‘If you boil it down to just spirituality of human beings, I think there are more similarities between Western culture and (Malaysian) culture than there are differences.’

While Rogalski's rural Vermont upbringing and deer hunting expeditions provided some experience with nature, nothing prepared him for joining the Iban tribe hunters
with their rifles, spears and poison blow darts heading into the forests in search of wild boar, monkey and tree squirrels.

Nor was he and his family prepared to maintain a steady diet of rice, rice and more rice.

The family is shown taking long hikes, chopping down trees and pineapples for food. On one walk, Susana and daughter Helen trekked for three hours over rough terrain with other
women of the tribe to trade goods at a neighboring longhouse.

Imagine hiking uphill three miles to go grocery shopping.

In the meantime, Jim and son Marshall had a run in with a nest of stinging red ants as they were chopping down a tree for wood. Their dancing around was comical; their discomfort wasn’t.

It was their introduction into a culture where animal sacrifice is a daily ritual, often
graphically depicted as jungle drums beat in the distance.

In addition to the cultural clash, there was also the natural strain of personalities beginning to wear on each other, as newly learned tribal responsibilities were doing battle with a lifelong Western upbringing.

After the family returned from their Malaysian adventure, Rogalski says many lessons were learned.

‘It was a great benefit for the kids as well as for the adults. We got to see, up close. just how little (materially) people really need to be happy.
I learned that I am such a consumer of things - ‘gotta have this, gotta have that’ -
and it makes you think about priorities.
That saying is so true: You don’t need material things to be happy.’

Wife Susana is back at work and Rogalski is back taking care of the home and still job hunting.
Things have started to return to normal.

‘Slowly,’ says Rogalski, ‘We are starting to go back to Chinese food.’

by Thomas Dimopoulos
Originally published in The Saratogian, Nov., 2003.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mission Guatemala

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Dr. Fred Jacobs’ office sits on a quaint city street within walking distance to Saratoga Hospital.

A half-dozen seats in an L-shaped pattern line the waiting room.
The tools of the podiatrists trade - assorted foot creams and ankle supporters line one shelf;
toe cushions, bunion shields and heel cups are displayed on another.
At the receptionist’s area, a simple white bucket carries a handmade sign that reads,
“Medical Mission to Guatemala - any donation appreciated.”

“The money deposited in the donation box will be used for buying toys for the children of the village,” Jacobs said.
He will be delivering them personally to the Central American country as part of a team
of 40 other medical practitioners and assistants that will head for the rural village of
Nueva Santa Rosa.
It is trip taken twice a year, organized by the Glens Falls Medical Missionary Foundation.

Richard Leach, a local doctor, was in the process adopting two children from Guatemala
when he became aware of the medical needs, particularly in the southern part of the country.
There were no resources to provide health care for the area.
‘These kids are dying,’ they told Leach. ‘Is there anything that you can do?'

The foundation began medical and dental mission trips to Nueva Santa Rosa in April 1997.
An eye program at the hospital in the village of Cuilapa was added to the mission itinerary
in 1998. More than 1,500 patients are treated during each of the weeklong clinics.

“Last year was the first time I went. I will be going next week, then hopefully again in next year,” Jacobs said.

A typical team includes doctors, physician assistants and nurses for each of the general medical, pediatric and women’s clinics. There are also dental, physical therapy and eye clinics staffed
by trained volunteers.

“It’s a third-world country. They don’t have running water. And it’s a place where the rich
feed upon the poor,” Jacobs said. “There is also not a lot of help from the government, so it keeps you on your toes.”

During last year’s trip, teeth were the biggest concern. “They pulled something like
800 teeth during that week,” Jacobs said.
The doctor also learned his services would be used for more than treating heel spurs,
toe warts and varicose veins.

“On the second day I was there, they found out I knew about more than feet, so I was
involved in different medical procedures. Suturing is suturing, and a medical background
lets you help in areas that are most needed,” Jacobs said.

“A little girl came to us with a broken jaw she got in a car accident. The girl’s mother
didn’t want us to get a dentist to help her,” Jacobs said. Later he found out why.
The woman’s husband and son had died six months earlier in the hospital where they
went for treatment after an accident.

“She thought that hospitals killed people,” Jacobs said. By sending her daughter to
the doctor, she feared the little girl would meet the same fate.
Eventually, they convinced the woman that they were only going to wire the girl’s jaw.

Safety is also a concern.
“We have armed guards around us. We don’t go out at night. It’s not the type of place
that you go wandering around if you don’t know where you’re going.”

The team sets up at a clinic in a converted church in the village near the El Salvador border.
The clinic is built like an old fort, Jacobs said. “It’s all walls.”

Volunteers travel to surrounding villages weeks in advance of the medical teams’ arrival.
The advance team issues different colored tickets to residents that are specifically
coordinated with clinic visits and each day has its own color representing one of the
surrounding villages.

The medical team stays at a family-run hotel about 40 miles from the clinic site. Every
morning they board vans and buses for the two-hour trip. The journey allows for a
sharing of experiences.

Guatemala is bisected with a row of rugged mountains called the Highlands that extend
across the center of the country. Culturally, Guatemalans are divided into two groups:
the descendants of the Maya Indians who continue to follow the ancient native way of life,
and a mixed group from Indian and Spanish ancestry called Ladinos, who follow
Spanish-American customs and language.

The country is similar in size to Tennessee. It has a tropical climate and is bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. More than 12 million people
live in Guatemala. The missionary foundation is involved in the southern area of the
country, where medical assistance is most needed.

“There is not too much help from the government in terms of supplies or medications.
Mostly, we bring everything down with us,” Jacobs said.

This year, the mission is donating an ambulance which some EMTs are driving down
through Mexico for delivery and Jacobs expects the team will see about 400 people each day.

Mixed in with the new faces, he hopes to revisit with some of the villagers he treated on a previous trip last year.
Jacobs carries around a stack of photographs with their images on them as a remembrance.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
originally published in The Saratogian, Oct. 11, 2002

Sunday, October 09, 2005

In Tuscany: A Peasant Stew

TUSCANY, ITALY - In Tuscany, in the northern part of the country, the region is known for its olive groves and vineyards that produce some of the purest extra virgin olive oil and wine in the world.

At Villa Casagrande, the head chef (pictured
at right)
is cooking up a storm.
Multiple burners going at once.
His hands are a blur of motion.

He adds a glass of white wine to a pot that
gently cooks chicken livers, which will be added
to thin slices of toasted bread to make a Crostini Neri.

Red wine is poured into a second pot, where small chunks of steak simmer for a meat sauce that will be added to pasta.
Simultaneously on a table, cookies are being dipped into coffee and prepared for tiramisu.

Olive oil, carrots, onions, rosemary and sage are plentiful in the chef's kitchen, and
are a basis for many meals.

A funnel-shaped foil points upward, releasing steam from beans cooking in the pot, for placement in the Ribollita - a seasonal peasant stew, and ancient Tuscan vegetable stew recipe.

'Ribollita' refers to the 're-boiling' of the stew, which he says tastes better with each re-boiling.

RIBOLLITA (From Tuscany)

Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 finely chopped cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
6 large white potatoes, cubed
2 large zucchini, cubed
4 carrots, sliced
2 large bunches of chicory, rinsed well and chopped
4 large celery stalks, chopped
1 sprig of fresh parsley
1 quart of vegetable stock
2 cups of water (or enough to cover the vegetables)
1/2 cup of Chianti wine
2 cups of white cannellini beans (soaked overnight and steamed)
High-quality peasant bread, sliced

Add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a medium saucepan. Heat the oil and sauté the garlic and onions until golden (make certainnot to overcook or caramelize the garlic).

Add the tomato paste, salt and pepper and cook for several minutes until blended.

Add the potatoes, zucchini, carrots, chicory, celery and parsley and an additional
2 tablespoons of oil to the tomato mixture, coating the vegetables.
Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper and stir until well blended. Allow the greens to wilt.

Add the vegetable stock, water and wine and an additional tablespoon of oil.
Stir to ensure a thorough blend and allow to come to a rolling boil.
Simmer for 3½ hours, adding additional liquid as necessary.

Mash 1 cup of beans and stir into the mixture. Add the other cup of beans whole.
Cook uncovered for an additional half hour.

To serve, put one ladle of the mixture into a soup bowl. Top with one slice of bread.
Add additional mixture to fully cover the bread.

Serve with the remainder of the bread, toasted and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, March, 2005.

Roman Recipe

ROME, ITALY - Under the cover of darkness,
the Eternal City sleeps.

The first stirring comes from the town square.

As the sun rises over the Adriatic Sea,
vendors roll open their gates and busily begin
carting out boxes of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses,
and an assortment of meats.

On the west side of the peninsula, half way up the boot of Italy, Rome is blooming.

Food buyers for city restaurants and everyday
home cooks alike shop side-by-side in
search of the day's best stock.

Surrounded by laterias, pizzerias and trattorias, Antonella Chiaranzelli offers the opinion that for all the culinary expertise in this city of experts, the best Spaghetti Carbonara in town is made at home, by her mama. Chiaranzelli produces the address of a restaurant just outside of town where
mama will be.

Just outside central Rome, in the San Giovanni district, Mama Chiaranzelli is enjoying
the fare at Il Ragioniere.
Buffalo mozzarella the size of a baseball sits on a bed of lettuce surrounded by ripe
tomatoes, melted cheese and thinly-sliced prosciutto.

The restaurant's owner and chef is a man named Ercole (pictured above) .
The restaurant has been in the family for more than 50 years, and Ercole explains
the local fascination with food.

'In America, it's rush, rush, rush,' he said. 'It's so different here. For the Italian people,
we all get together, we eat together. Eating is our culture. It's very important.'

In between servings of the neighborhood dinner, Mama Chiaranzelli makes good
on her promise and shares her secret Roman recipe.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Mama Chiaranzelli's recipe from Rome)

16 ounces spaghetti
8 ounces bacon
Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Chop the bacon into small cubes and brown in a pan together with a few spoonfuls
of oil and the garlic.
Remove the garlic when the bacon begins to brown.
In a double boiler, mix the eggs and yolks together with the grated cheeses,
season with salt and freshly ground pepper to obtain a creamy sauce.

The sauce should be prepared while the pasta is cooking.
As soon as the pasta is ready, strain and mix the pasta with the egg mixture
and the crunchy bacon.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, March 2005.