Letter from Middle East by Local

August 17, 2006

Nephew of Pensacolian Connie Acevedo: 

Well, I’m sure glad I didn’t try to fly through London yesterday! I am flying to USA via Paris next week, and I am frickin’ ready to get the hell out of here. Very tempted to just show up at the Amman airport wearing only a loincloth and a smile, with no baggage whatsoever.

I  am looking forward to getting back to the USA after 28 months in the Middle East, and being able to say ‘mission accomplished’! By that I don’t mean being able to say that I contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East. That s**t ain’t happening in our lifetimes. Cameron Diaz will return my phone calls and emails before that happens.

No sir, I am talking about realizing my objective of eating falafel in 7 different Middle Eastern countries. “Keep your goals simple and you’ll never be disappointed.” That’s what dad always taught me.

Just finished a few days in the ancient city of Petra with my Iraqi buddy. Petra is a fascinating spot (you have to walk through a steep, mile-long gorge just to reach it), and a very well-preserved place for an Arab country, where not much these days seems to be well-preserved.

My friend had completed many important projects in Iraq and he took a weeklong break from Baghdad to come here so I could show him around. He wanted to drink every night, and I guess I can’t blame him. He told me that the latest terrorist fad in Baghdad these days is killing ice vendors and barbers. The logic is that there was no ice in the time of Mohammed, and it is forbidden for men to cut their beards.

Bakers are also being targeted. Not sure what the logic is behind that though. Guess somebody is pissed off because there were no chocolate chip muffins in the time of Mohammed either.

He told me all about his one brother who studied engineering in Tulsa, Oklahoma for 4 years and his other brother who was a prisoner in Iran for 8 years during the Iran-Iraq war. And every bar we went to he asked the bartender to play Kenny Rogers. Surreal.  I spent a lot of time trying to convince my friend to take his family and get the hell out of Iraq.

Also managed to squeeze in a 4-day trip to Jerusalem. Fascinating city, but a complicated history to be sure. Glad I got to see it before leaving this part of the world and they start pounding the crap out of each other again.

It really is humbling to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and so many other biblical and historical figures. I even found the Austrian Hospice with the awesome rooftop view and Viennese cafe with Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte, and beer brewed by Germans living in the West Bank. Weird.

Israeli security did not like my passport to say the least.

Ever been in a casino when somebody wins the jackpot? Bells, whistles, sirens, flashing lights, heads turning. That’s kind of what happened when I handed my passport to the border official at the Allenby Bridge, which marks the border between Israel and Jordan. All those funny stamps from Arab countries, not to mention the impeccable timing of my recent Lebanon/Syria trip. I had a lot of explaining to do.

Sweating profusely, I fumbled through my wallet and all my papers to find anything that would prove I was not delivering plastic explosives to Hamas. The only good thing I found was my Association of Graduates credit card which shows a photo of West Point cadets marching in a parade.


“I was in the US Army for 10 years, do I get any points for that?”


“Depends. Were you Special Forces?”


“No, I was a tank officer.”


“Sorry, no extra points.”


As luck would have it, my interrogator had spent 3 months at West Point as a guest instructor in the 90’s, and when I told him I was a graduate he reached over the desk, shook my hand, and said with sincerity “It’s an honor to have you here.”



The young security guy who had been standing behind me the whole time relaxed somewhat and removed his hand from his holster. “I hope you understand our security concerns”. “No problem” I said, “I wouldn’t let me in either”.


They went through every page of my passport, and after I knew I was in the clear I showed them something suspicious they had overlooked.


“You guys missed this one.”


“What’s that?”


“Turkey, November 2003.”

(You could see the gears turning in their heads).


“I spend six weeks in the country, and two days after I leave Turkey for Rome, three bombs rip through the Istanbul financial district and a synagogue, killing 60 people including the British Consul General. Deadliest bombings in Turkish history.”

Taking a deep breath, I added: “Coincidence? I think not.”


Luckily, they had a good sense of humor. I was on a roll. I wanted to mention that my office in New York City was two blocks away from Ground Zero, and I happened to be on vacation in Europe during the 9/11 attacks. And to show them the page proving that I happened to be trekking in Nepal in 2001 when the entire Nepali Royal Family was assassinated and most of the country was placed under martial law. Better not push my luck, I thought.


“Will there be a sniper team waiting to take me out when I walk outside”, I asked as I got up to leave. “Not today” the security boss answered. “Stop in and say hello to us if you come back through here” he said with a smile.


I’d call me a liar if I hadn’t been there myself.


Took me 6 hours to get through there and they did everything except the triple body cavity search.


This whole situation in Lebanon, as well as the one in Iraq, is depressing to be sure and does not bode well for the future. I will be leaving the region with relief but also with sadness for the people I left behind.


Don’t feel bad if all this Middle East stuff sounds confusing. It is. Frequently I feel more ignorant now than before I got here. Trying to think of realistic solutions but I am no closer to the finish line than I was two years ago. If nothing else I have gained a better understanding of the human element. Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, Israelis and Palestinians are now actually real people and faces (and friends who I worry about) instead of just statistics on TV or in a newspaper. People who pretty much want the same things for their families and communities. People who, in virtually all cases, showed me heartfelt hospitality and extended the hand of friendship to me without caring about what country I was from, or what I did or didn’t believe in.


For all the talk about creating a “new Middle East”, long term success boils down to getting people to change the way they think, rather than just how they act. How long does that take? My guess is two generations, and maybe that is being generous.


Anyway, not many stateside plans so far: Go home, do laundry, eat barbecued ribs, then spend a little quality time with my two 90 year-old grandmas. It’s kind of sad: a 40 year-old man with no job, house, or car. Then again, it’s kind of cool too.


I will be staying with my parents in Florida for a while, or until I empty the fridge, whichever comes first.


Hope to link up with you guys somewhere in the months and years ahead.


Last call from the sandbox,


PS: Somebody asked me what was the most interesting thing I learned during my experiences here. I have to admit that I am more confused now than when I got here in 2004, but I do know this for a fact: Iraqis love pickles. No joke.


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