Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Special

Witches, bats, spiderweb, creaky floors in old houses, grinning jack-o-lanterns and spooky shadows and flickering candles are for babies.

For those of you who are looking to be really scared, I put this Halloween Picture Special together entitled:

The Glorification of Military Service

Times Square Subway Station at around 6 p.m., 30 October 2008

Set a good example. -Mom

I hope you realize there are starving kids out there. -Mom

Play nice. -Mom

Your face will freeze that way. -Mom

Respect your elders. -Mom

Be good. -Mom

Be home by dark. -Mom

And what if your friends jumped off a cliff? -Mom

Again: I hope you realize there are starving kids out there. -Mom

Mom: you gave them the values. The US army gives them the opportunity.

Subway indoctrination like you never knew it.

Now. I know this is a really well done campaign. Really, really well done. Great shots. Phrases that speak to your emotions. A campaign that speaks to your will to make this a better world--it stills your bad conscience a little and makes you straighten your back and go, "Yeah, we do perform a lot of good in this world." It makes moms proud of what their navy kids are doing out wherever they are stationed. And it makes moms who do not yet have their kids in the navy feel that this is, after all, something you can't be selfish about--you want your son or daughter to stay at home, but look at all the good they can do out in the world.

Like, I said. It's really, really well done. And this is what scares me. Because anybody even remotely familiar with what's going on in the world knows that the US military isn't exactly always playing this good-deed-doer role around the world. Iraq. Afghanistan. What's going on in Syria? (In case you haven't heard, Syria claims that there was a US airborn attack against civilian targets on Syrian territory last Sunday, but Washington has neither confirmed nor denied anything as of yet). I'm not saying that a lot of kids don't go out there with the intention of doing good, I'm sure they do. But regardless of that, the glorification of military service is after all glorification of war, and the killing of countless civilians who most likely don't want anything to do with the whole thing.

I'm sorry if I'm not very patriotic, but the American half of me has to excuse the half of me that is European.

But the European half has to excuse me because it's Halloween and I'm going to have a slice of pumpkin pie and hopefully, hopefully get my aunt to come with me and watch the Halloween Parade.

Happy Halloween!

Lounging with Delegates

New York City is like a giant sleeping dragon puffing out white smoke through hundreds of nostrils in the cold October air. With concrete scales and steel horns. Every day I travel in its veins squeezed together with thousands and thousands of others who have grown used to its smells and its quirks.

Or something.

Today I bought a free newspaper for five dollars. He said he was homeless, and I thought that it would be a good thing to support a homeless newspaper project in this city where people still sleep in cardboard shacks under bridges even though Mayor Bloomberg has done away with most of them. Cardboard shacks, that is. I'm sure the homeless are still around, and probably in greater numbers since the economic turbulence started shaking people out from their homes onto the streets lately.

But when I got the newspaper in my hands, I saw that it was one of the free newspapers that you can pick up everywhere on the streets. I smiled. A man next to me smiled too. A woman opposite me got up as she was getting of and said,

"You just bought a free newspaper."

I said, "Yeah, I know. But that's okay."

Because it really is. It's his karma. I acted in good faith. I even gave him five dollars for something he said cost 2 dollars. But things like this matter little when you're in a place where you've decided that you're really quite content with your life, in spite of the fact that it's not at all what you planned for it to be. But when things happen they probably happen for a good reason. (Well, I don't know about the good reason thing, but at least life is ever so much more interesting than what it had been had we had complete control over everyting that happens--a black homeless guy would never sell you a free newspaper for five bucks if life always turned out the way you had planned).

This Tuesday I met with Ammar Hijazi. The First Secretary of the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations at the Delegates' Lounge down on the second floor.

See, I can't really go to the Delegates' Lounge. Mainly because I'm not a delegate. And also because my UN pass has a big brown A on it, which means that my security clearance is restricted. I can only go in through the north entrance, for instance (but I can exit at the south entrance), and I can normally not visit the second, third or fourth floors. This is where the Security Council, General Assembly, and ECOSOC chambers are. And the Delegates' Lounge.

But I became friends with the guard outside the Lounge. He wouldn't let me in first, which was okay because I was early. But then we started talking, and it turns out his sister wants to come to New York for an internship, so I gave him some tips and told him what I thought of the whole internship program. He was nice. From Serbia. And before I knew it, he said that I could go inside and see if Ammar Hijazi was there.

The only problem was that I've never met Ammar Hijazi before. But somehow we found each other, and I got my interview for my thesis. Good, good stuff. And it didn't take long before we became friends, too, and we will have lunch sometime next week.

"I knew right away that I would like you," he said when we walked away from the Delegates' Lounge towards the conference rooms on the bottom floor. (His liking me right away might have something to do with my attempts at speaking Arabic with a Palestinian dialect in the beginning of the interview, but I choose to believe it was because I'm such a likeable person). And then he asked me to be sure to send my course paper on Israel, Apartheid and the UN, and not to forget to set aside one day next week for lunch with him.

For sure.

I also got an interview with Nikolai Galkin at the Secretariat Branch of the Security Council. Very useful information on how items end up on the Security Council agenda; who puts them there, and how things are decided upon. Being here, talking to people and seeing how things work, has changed my entire take on the research project I am to write when I come back to Sweden (on the role of the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). The general arguments stay the same, but they've become greatly nuanced and expanded upon since I came here.

This insight makes me look at this whole New York internship trip in a different light. I might not have found the place where I will settle down and start my life after I graduate, and in fact I might be more confused about where I want to go than was before I came. But at the same time, I see things, I meet people, and I have experiences that all feed into the great database inside me where the map of my next journey is starting to take form.

I wonder where I'll go.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Something From Your Heart

I'm rubbing shoulders with the... well, not rich and famous, but the important government, non-governmental organization, and civil servant people of the world.

Feeling more relaxed? Not really, but I play along. I don't initiate conversation, but will always chat away with anybody who makes the effort to address me. Haven't gotten a hang of that polite, witty, cosmopolitan jargon yet, and I still can't make my body behave as if it's a natural element of the diplomatic surroundings it is in. I compensate by keeping a low profile. Sometimes I try to take on a disinterested look, and hope that it will pass for an I'm-such-an-experienced-UN-person-I-can't-even-be-bothered-with-shaking-the-Secretary-General's-hand look.

I lie. Actually, I always introduce myself as the intern in order to account for my lack of expertise and experience in certain areas. Better to be transparent from the first handshake, than have somebody call your bluff half-way through the meeting. But I do keep a low profile.

I got the veteran New York subway traveler mien down to an art, though. I sweep by lost tourists with a scent of true New York that lingers in their nostrils as they watch me walk away with quick steps towards wherever it is that real New Yorkers go. Sometimes people stop me and ask for directions in heavily accented Englishes and I find myself actually knowing where to point them to.

I don't have this air of experience at the UN, but I noticed that carrying the UN card comes with a certain level of respect nonetheless. Like last Friday at the conference at NYU School of Law, when the lady signing us in was just about to ask me if I had registered for the event when she looked up and saw my UN card dangling from its silver chain around my neck. "Oh," she said as if she had demanded something of me that was completely off grounds. "I'm sorry."

Today was another conference Friday. This time it was at the UN, in the ECOSOC Chamber, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (yes, the very same Ban Ki that I didn't shake hands with), Henry Kissinger and a bunch of other distinguished speakers convened to discuss concrete steps to achieve global consensus on disarmament and weapons of mass destruction. I was there to take notes of anything that might be relevant for the UN counter-terrorism work.

I'm becoming quite the counter-terrorism expert. After weeks of extensive research and briefings for my supervisor, I was asked to write the first draft of an article on the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. Of course, it's all still very confidential at this stage (of course), and it's just a first draft. I suspect my supervisor will have lots of comments and things she wants to go over and change, but that will have to wait until next week.

Oh, speaking of things I can't tell you about, I spent the afternoon in a room on the 7th floor of the Ford Foundation building on 43rd Street in an informal, but confidential, meeting on how to address the issue of regional imbalance and proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and how to achieve a nuclear free zone in the region. Quite interesting (and I got to shake the hand of the permanent representative of Egypt to the UN--take that Ban Ki).

Something I can tell you, though (I think... to be honest, I have some difficulty knowing exactly what is off the record, what is confidential, and what is public, but I'll take a chance on this one), is that I was at a brownbag meeting with Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, where he presented the report he was handing over to the General Assembly the following morning. It was strange to have all these places and events that I visited or heard about this summer being referred to and recounted to you in an official UN report.

The little Palestinian boy who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The increased so-called flying checkpoints that Israel sets up all around the West Bank at will, apart from the permanent ones that are always there. The Jenin students who were killed in Nablus. The peaceful demonstrations against the building of the Wall on Palestinian territory that were cracked down on by the Israeli military. I mean, I had to pass those checkpoints. I've seen the Wall and the way it tears through the landscape and breaks people's lives. And in the mornings on my way from my little apartment atop the sheep to the taxi station, Samer would stop me outside his store and tell me the latest news on where the Israeli soldiers had done their nightly raids this time, if they had arrested somebody. The times they had killed people.

When I introduced myself at the meeting with Richard Falk I decided to throw my low-profile approach in the bin.

"I'm Ruby," I started. "I'm an intern at the Department of Political Affairs."

And then. To hell with it.

"I spent my summer in Palestine, and I decided to write my thesis on the role of the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I get back to my university after this internship. That's why I came to this meeting."

And it paid off. After the meeting a very nice lady from the Division of Palestinian Rights started talking to me and asked me about my thesis. Without mentioning names (you know, this whole confidentiality thing... it's driving me nuts), she is by far the most helpful person I've run into at the UN since I came here. She invites me to her office, sends me articles, goes through her archives, refers me to others who can help, suggests topics.

I got some new ideas that are really useful for the development of my thesis, in part thanks to her help. But I think the most important thing she said, was right before I got into the elevator to go back up to my floor (she's on the 33rd).

"Look at these articles, and check these websites, and come see me next week. I think it will be useful for you," she said. And then she paused for a moment and added, "You have to do something from your heart."

She is right.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Winds are A-Changing

Walked up the stairs of West 4 subway station yesterday morning at around 8.40 am to a scene of blinding golden sunlight bathing a street of autumn leaves made of gold and an old brick building painted an English red. The air was a little chilly. I walked towards all that bright sunshine to find my way to NYU Law School's Lipton Hall and thought to myself that maybe, but only maybe, the air was different than before. I took a deep breath and squinted against the sunlight to try to make out the street signs.

It must have been the night before that the air started changing, come to think of it. I got home when it was dark and all the street lamps shone orange and the pavement was a dance court for yellow leaves that swirled around each other in a mad autumn dance. The wind had picked up and there was a sense of freedom in the air. That must have been when it changed, because I find myself having stopped counting the days because I want them to pass quicker, and having started counting them because they're running away so fast and by counting them maybe I can control them a little and slow them down. Because New York is after all a city where little 17-year-old braided boys say "Take care, sweetheart," when you get off the train for no other reason than to be nice.

And even the UN is probably quite another place than what I've experienced so far. On Thursday morning I got two invites within the course of maybe 10 minutes. First, it was the young woman sitting outside my office who said we should have a cup of coffee in the afternoon (but both of us were busy, so we'll do it on Monday), and then it was the freckled man who always says hi to me in the corridor. He started talking to me on this day, and said that we should go for a drink sometime when I'm not busy working on the counter terrorism thing.

But I'm busy working on the counter terrorism thing. So busy that I spent 8 hours yesterday inside Lipton Hall with about 80 or so Afghanistan experts, government advisors, Pentagon people, Afghanistan ambassadors and journalists who have had tea with the Taliban, had meetings with the Taliban, been kidnapped by the Taliban (one of them in that exact order).

Aside from the fact that I need to build up tons and tons of confidence in this area (that is to say, in the area of meeting with government and NGO people that all are wearing suits and exchanging business cards), the experience of attending that conference yesterday was really good. When Joanne Mariner from Human Rights Watch spoke of the prisoners picked up all around the region by the US and put in the blackest hole that exists in justice (yes, even Guantanamo pales in comparison)--where they are hidden away from the world without charge and without being heard, under physical and psychological stress and duress, where everything that is known about what's going on is pieced together from those that actually eventually get out and can be tracked down and interviewed by Human Rights Watch--I decided I want to work with that. Reviewing governments' practices and uncovering human rights violations.

Then when Clare Lockhart from Institute for State Effectiveness talked about the problems with the thousands of aid projects and programs in Afghanistan that lack a common strategy and fail to achieve any real change because of this. It's mostly just a bunch of overlaps and projects that work against each other, and in the end the village people are left with empty school houses but no teachers, tomato fields but no way to get around the corruption and actually enter the market without going through Pakistan. When she talked about this, I decided that aid and civil services is really what I should get into. But in Palestine.

And finally when Sean Lagan told his story about how he had tea with the Taliban, and met with different Taliban leaders several times, and reported home, and made documentaries, I decided what I really, really want to be is a journalist like him. And shed light on things that look dark to some. Make them see that we're all human when all is said and done. Tell stories from places that few people dare to go. Except I don't want to be kidnapped by the Taliban, and I don't want to see people get executed and beheaded.

But today is another sunny day in New York and I should probably leave the future to the future and concentrate on what I have right now, right here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Developed Country's Cairo

Welcome to Ruby's Zoo. Nice of you to stop by. Cockroaches by the kitchen faucet and in Ruby's middle drawer (the one in which she keeps tops and tees). Spiders in the bathroom. Mice under the kitchen sink. Please do not feed the animals. Pictures without flash only. Be sure to visit our gift shop on the way out. Thank you!

I know I just ate, which might have something to do with it too, but I kind of lost my appetite.

One month, habibty, one month left.

I criss-cross my way past a thousand bodies on the streets after work, some wear suits, some wear jeans, some wear the hejab, some wear crosses around their necks or the kippah on the top of their heads. I stand in the subway and look into pink, brown, olive colored faces. I hear a symphony of a dozen muffled songs that leak out through iPhone headphones. I listen to a medley of a handful of spoken languages wherever I go. I eat Chinese buckwheat noodles and Arabic hummus and Italian fresh pasta. I think to myself that in a city such as this city, you must be open-minded or you'd move. There's little space for people who are intolerant and discriminatory (but there has to be some space, or else the rest of the inhabitants would be intolerant too).

There's a debate between the two presidential candidates on tonight, and somehow it seems that the entire city of New York supports Obama with Obama t-shirts, Obama earrings, Obama bumper stickers, Obama pins and Obama everything. I saw one lady with a McCain t-shirt the other day.

I think she was an out-of-towner.

My Cairo music composer friend Moustapha Halawany sends me this link on msn:

It's Cairo traffic, it's Cairo people. It's beautifully shot. And the music is perfect. Hani the Egyptian intern says that Cairo is like a chaotic developing world version of New York. Dad says Cairo is like the New York he remembered from when he was growing up.

Today at lunch we had a brownbag meeting with Martin Pratt from the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University. Maritime border disputes. Rivers. Resources. Conciliation. Negotiation. Track Two Diplomacy. Just before he was wrapping up I said to myself: I have to ask.

"Excuse me," I said. "Is there time for one more question?"

Not really, but they consented.

"Is demarcating physical boundaries the only solution to territorial disputes? Or do you have any other ideas on ways to settle such a dispute. I'm thinking of the question of Palestine whose prospective territory is not only split up, but also perforated by all the illegal Israeli settlements."

Martin Pratt gives you the impression that he thinks he doesn't have as much to say as he actually does. His cheeks flush and he gets a little jittery when he speaks. But his words are stable and they go something like this:

There are a number of ways we've tried to solve territorial and resource problems without resorting to demarcating physical boundaries over the course of the past century or so (before that, borders really didn't matter as much, but since the whole world was divided into separate nation states European style in the last century, states got really picky about where to draw the line--and this is essentially because national borders decide what resources are legitimately yours, which peoples are legitimately your citizens (and similarly which peoples don't have the right to a share in your resources).

We've had buffer zones and internationalized territories, and soft borders sound nice and fluffy enough, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that really matters in the long run is clear, agreed-on physical boundaries that are recognized by all parties. It costs so much in terms of personal freedom and human rights, and it requires such a heavy military presence to enforce any other type of solution we've thought out so far.

I go a little sad, but I realize he's probably right. As long as we entertain the idea that we are separate peoples and that we as these separate groups of people have the right to self-determination (which makes sense if we see ourselves as separate peoples), there's no fair and just way of organizing our self-determined enclaves that's better than the territorial solution.

Sorry all nomadic peoples.

But managing two groups who wish to exercise their right to self-termination on one and the same territory will, all other problems aside, leave you with one very complicated issue: namely that of how to decide who belongs to which group. This is a question that's not easy to decide as it is--what if you have parents who were born outside? Or if you were born outside but grew up on this territory? Or what if your parents were born here, but they moved and you grew up somewhere else? Deciding who is a rightful citizen of a territorial state is pretty tricky as it is, but imagine not having the final sort of territorial test to fall back on. How do you decide? Hair color?

Let's say that you settle on having one territory, but two governments and two sets of law. They could, in a best-case scenario, negotiate which government gets access to what resources and so forth, but how would they decide who--that is to say, which individuals--has a right to these negotiated resources? Who has a right to their national health care plans? Who is subject to which set of law? Hair color obviously won't work. But neither will religion. Or ethnicity. Because all identity boundaries are essentially fluid when it comes down to it, and this is why territory provides us with an easy, all-but neutral way out.

If you're born within these and these lines, or if you later on come here and create a life here, you have the right to this and this and this, and in return you have to do this and this and this.

I know that the Israeli state is trying to settle these identity issues with ideas of religious and national heritage (or conversion or affiliation-by-marriage), but this is obviously going against most ideas of fairness and justness that have developed in the past half century or so.

In any event, I have scheduled an interview with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations in two weeks. They kindly consented to assisting me in my research for my master's thesis. I'm excited.

My supervisor wants to see me before I go, because this is "a controversial issue." It's not like I'll be representing the UN when I see Mr Ammar Hijazi, but I don't mind talking to her.

The debate between Obama and McCain is over. If Obama doesn't win this election, I think New York will have to refer to the international law on self-determination and declare its indepedency.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On the UN and Marilyn Monroe

There's a crack in the UN building. Just at the base, in the window pane. I saw it yesterday, and acquired evidence today:

As you can see in the background of this picture, the flags are down. I never thought of it before, but I guess they must take them down every day around 5 pm. Can you imagine having to wake up at the crack of dawn every day and hoist 192 flags in time for when all the civil servants start their day at around 8 or 9, only to go and take each and every one of them down again a few hours later? Every day.

Poor guy.

Yeah, I know. But anyway, I noticed the crack on my way out of the Secretariat building yesterday after work, and immediately my mind started making all kinds of connections. Or actually mostly one, and it went something like this:

"Hmm. Could it be that this crack at the base of the UN Headquarters is a symptom of the state of the Organization?"

And in my ear-popped state (you try going down from the 37th floor in an elevator that might stop at one or two other floors in the thirties, but always goes directly from 28 to 1 (there are other elevators serving the other floors) at a stomach-turning speed, without having the change in pressure seriously affect your hearing) I was walking out to the avenue thinking about this. The symbolic crack, not my ears.

See, some people asked me that before I came here. If I thought that the UN would continue to exist for much longer, considering how weak it is, and how little it does, and how certain super powers don't think so highly of it and all. And yes, the UN is restricted in many ways because, just like a Realist would predict (in International Relations Theory, pessimists are rather confusingly called Realists... and sometimes Marxists, but that's another blog post altogether), Member States won't give up enough power and control for the Organization to actually be able to achieve any real and structural change in the international system. Hence the weakness of the Organization when it comes to real "high politics".

But let me tell you a few things that might convince you that the rumor of the demise of the UN is greatly exaggerated.

1. Exactly because the structure of the UN makes it comparatively weak, or "toothless", when it comes to sanctions against dissident states, intervention in critical situations, etc., it can sleep dreamless sleeps at night--why should anybody want to dismantle an organization that essentially never meddles with their affairs? If it can lend you legitimacy.

2. Which brings me to my second point: The UN still does lend legitimacy to policy implementation of all kinds and sorts, and perhaps more importantly, it lends legitimacy to the absence of action too. "We couldn't reach consensus, so there's really nothing we can do about this conflict/crisis/situation." And then, all you have to do is shrug your shoulders and walk away. Who doesn't want a scapegoat like that when times get rough and your conscience weighs you down?

3. The third reason why the UN isn't going to fall to pieces any time soon, is that it's way, way too large an organization, and there are way, way too many people and governments that have way, way too much invested in the Organization, and it is way, way too institutionalized to just fall apart. Institutions like this get a life of their own and keep going no matter what those who started it might think, and no matter how toothless or bureaucratic they may become.

4. I don't know if this is a reason why the UN won't crumble, but it's a small effort from my part to defend the UN and provide a reason why it shouldn't be allowed to collapse, if it were the case that it was. And this defense is as follows: Even if the UN looks like it has a toothless grin when it takes on new tasks, or when it speaks out about situations, this doesn't mean that there aren't healthy teeth in the back that we never get to see.

On my first day , I sat in a meeting (for reasons of confidentiality, I can't disclose any information on what the meeting was about... and yes, that makes me feel very important and privy to the real stuff of high politics) where they were discussing the success of previous UN-lead peace negotiations, and concluded that only the failed mediation efforts make it to the news, or at least the very problematic ones. When the UN is successful or when things run too smoothly, nobody really picks up on it. And, trust me on this one, there's a lot more going on than we get to read about in the papers. It's not secret work or anything--most of the things that go on at the Organization become available in the form of official transcripts or reports online eventually. It's just a matter of finding your way through the information jungle on their vast set of web pages (mirroring the confusing amount of programs, agencies and sub-organizations that make up the UN).

And the UN is more than a peace resolver and a conflict preventor, too. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different programs aimed at fostering sustainable development, providing economic relief, combating poverty, reducing child mortality, addressing health problems, supporting youth and women. Certainly, these programs can be criticized, but it would be wrong to say that the UN isn't doing anything, because there's lots going on all around the world.

And this August, when I met Jan Eliasson (the Swedish diplomat/mediator/ex-foreign minister who was the president of the 60th UN General Assembly a few years back) on a Stockholm subway train (I wasn't sure if I should walk up to him, but I did... and put myself through that month's most embarassing moment when I realized I had completely forgotten his name--"Excuse me, aren't you... didn't you use to work for the UN?"), he said that people expect too much of the UN. They don't realize that it just doesn't have the mandate to do all those things that people expect it to do.

Anyway: 5. The last reason why the UN isn't going to fall apart is also a reason why it shouldn't:
during the General Debate that opened the 63rd General Assembly the other week, I kind of almost fell asleep from listening to statement after statement by president after prime minister, but I walked away with one lasting impression. That all of those who spoke there, respect the UN. And take it seriously. They wouldn't bother to even come out here, if they would rather see the Organization be put to sleep. I think many take pride in speaking in front of the Assembly.

I walked away (or I stayed at my computer, but figuratively speaking) thinking that if nothing else, then at least the UN is a fantastically managed machinery (if a little rusty here and there) that brings together leaders and people of power and of conviction from all over the world and provides a forum for them where they can present and defend their opinions, come with suggestions, disagree on things, agree on others, compromise and argue. Even people without a state can send a representative to speak for them--Mahmoud Abbas was there!--and even non-state actors get to have their say on a regular basis.

And do you know what the most amazing part is? That it may look like they're speaking to a half-empty General Assembly, and that most of them get very little media coverage, and that nobody cares much about what they have to say. But in that 38 storey building in which I currently inhabit a small space on the 37th floor, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who actually listen to them. And follow up on it. They plan policy based on wishes expressed in the General Assembly; they analyze the statements put forward; they set up working groups; they device new projects.

Heck, they don't, we do. That's what I've been doing since I got here. Even if I don't get to have the last say. But neither do they--because the Member States do.

So do you know what I concluded on my way away from the UN building, westwards on 42nd Street? That the crack I saw in the window will be fixed sooner or later--probably sooner than later, for security reasons and whatnot--and this, this will be a symbol for the prospects that the flaws in the Organization will be fixed, too, and that the restructuring and democratization called for by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as several Member States will actually take place in the near future.

Then I yawned and my ears popped back and I decided to go to Sephora and check out some perfumes before I took the subway uptown.

In other news, living in New York is a little bit like finding out that life is pretty much like a movie when all is said and done. Or that movies are like life. Only my movie keeps changing the story line and the setting ever so often. But nevertheless, I have all these movie moments. Or movies have life moments. Either way, when I got out of the subway and walked over the ventilation metal bars, a train went past underground and a puff of air caught hold of my skirt and turned me into a brown-haired, black-skirted Marilyn Monroe for a second.

Go to and check out my roomie Galia. She's the one on the left.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ode to a Laundromat

My UN office computer (that first saw the light roughly about the same time as my little sister was born... she's now 23) and I have developed a special relationship. It will take about five minutes to start up (which by today's standards is an eternity), I will politely sort out papers and place my lip balm and my cell phone (put on silent) on the desk in the meantime.

It will do as told (albeit somewhat reluctantly) the first half of the day. It's not the fastest collection of ones and zeros in town, but I can handle it.

In the afternoon it will grow slower and slower, and I will grow more and more impatient and open more and more browser windows so that I can have several things going at the same time so that it feels as if I'm filling the seconds of idle waiting with something productive. But of course this just makes it go slower and slower until it reaches a point where it just collapses in a fit of senility and forgets what it's doing at either one of the windows.

I start sighing.

But all of this, really, is okay. You must be patient with friends, and I am a patient person. (No witty remarks, thank you very much).

But when it starts telling me what to do. That's when I have to put my foot down.

"Sorry, you do not have permission to press this key" my butt.

In any event, this trip is a never ending string of first times. I just came back from my first time ever at an actual coin operated laundromat. It's about half a block down on my avenue, and nobody in there seems to speak English, and since I seem to have the kind of look that blends in no matter where I find myself (I haven't found myself in Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East yet), the nice lady who works there tried to explain things in Spanish to me.

I improvised.

And now my little room smells of fresh laundry. O, how thy sweetly scented breath lingers on my garments, and thy warm murmuring sounds still ring in my ears. O, Laundromat, may thy existence be long and fluff-free.

I also had my nails done properly (not amateur style like the last time) after work last week. Manicure and pedicure. Done by a Chinese lady. That was also a first. But I messed up my toe nails the first thing I did, and managed to chip off a piece of the white on my French manicured left ring finger when I was making salata arabeya (super delicious cucumber, tomato and mint leave salad). But still.

And I had pancakes with maple syrup (actually containing a certain percentage of real maple syrup) at a diner out in Montauk on Saturday morning. That was probably a first and a last. American pancakes ain't my style.

And it wasn't really a first, because I vaguely remember having pancakes on a diner on a roadtrip from Seattle to San Diego when I was little. But that wasn't in Montauk.

And to complete my list of first time experiences for this time, I got my first real assignment at the UN yesterday. I've had plenty of semi-real assignments that have had one thing in common: they've all been more time consuming than they have required brain power. But yesterday I got an assignment that had a 24 hour deadline and involved actual analytical skills on my part.

My brain leaped with excitement.

It's still having to do with counter-terrorism, much in line with the work I've been doing for the past three weeks. But unfortunately, I can't tell you much more than that. I'm bound by a signed contract not to disclose any information pertaining to the meetings, documents or work I come across during my internship to third parties. Unless this material has been published already, of course. But my work is top secret, hot off the presses, high priority stuff, so... I'm sorry.


Friday, October 3, 2008

The Start of Something New

The things you hear.

Yesterday evening, after having gone all the way down to 23rd Street in some weird diary writing dream world, when I was really supposed to be heading up to 103rd Street... I looked up, perplexed for a split second or so to see the numbers 2 and 3 outside the subway window, and not... I don't know, 9 and 6--the station right before mine?

I realized that I had gone down the downtown stairs, when I really should have gone down the uptown stairs (that also go down, confusingly enough), and that I had gone several minutes worth of subway traveling time in the wrong direction.

I quickly collected my things and jumped off right before the doors closed behind me. I looked around. No Exit. Exit Only at Middle of Platform.

"But that will take me out on 7th Avenue. Not to the uptown platform."

Stupid crappy loud rackety no-good crowded construction-site New York subway system.

As I finally had found my way to the uptown train and got out on Broadway and 103rd (with my diary now safely tucked away in my briefcase--because, yes, I have a briefcase), I clickety-clacked my way home with my black office style shoes, scarf wrapped around my shoulders.

"Aw, man. You and I could never rob a bank together."

"Sorry?" I turned around to the short-ish Hispanic looking man I had just passed on the sidewalk.

Did I tell you I live in the outskirts of Spanish Harlem? In any event, there are lots of people with Latin American descent on my portion of the Avenue.

"They would hear you coming a mile away."

Like I said. The things you hear. I laughed, and said no problem, I could take them off. Just for that occasion.

"Yeah, I'd have to get you a pair of rubber shoes." His intonation pattern an African-American sitcom actor's.

I laughed and walked on. Clickety-clacking my way to my cockroach apartment.

Oh, and if you would like to know what somebody who had their yesterday go down in history as the day they actually did shake hands with the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has to say?
He's the Egyptian guy in my office I've been telling you about. My life jacket in a sea of suit-wearing, sit-up-straight (some would say stiff) UN colleagues. Actually, to tell you the truth (because who would dream of doing anything else) others are beginning to warm up a little in my presence (or is it me who's beginning to relax a little?), but it's still nice with somebody you share a piece of history with. Because even if we never knew each other in Cairo, we've been to the same places, we've eaten the same food, drunk the same juices (well, actually, he's never had peanut juice at Toot Eksbress, but you can't have everything).

I just saw that they passed the bill. The House of Representatives voted 263-171 in favor of spending 700 billion USD on buying up bad Wall Street debts and throwing a bone or two to Main Streeters.

Georgia Democrat John Lewis said it well: "I have decided that the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of doing something."

Now let's see if this will turn things around so that we get to see our stock markets pop their heads out of the water and gasp for some air. Because after all, the end of an era (if that's what this has been, or is, or whatever) never comes unless something new takes its place.

Anyway, this week's bathroom update:

The view is still amazing. The windows just as large. I told the new intern--Julius from Germany--all about it, and was still laughing about some joke we had made when I opened the door to visit the ladies' room. Another lady was just in front of me, so in an effort to explain my mirth about going to the restroom (man, there are so many different ways to say it, and I've only used the polite synonyms so far), I said I was telling all the male colleagues about what they're missing.

"Oh yes," she said. She wasn't wearing a suit, by the way. Her clothes are relaxed, colorful and stylish. Her hair is Hennah-colored. There are some others like her. Some women who wear saris with beautiful patterns and colors; some men who wear galabeyya-type dresses from African countries I've never visited.

"Oh yes," she said, "they don't have anything like this at all." (So the rumor about the men's room seems to be true!)

She told me that as it gets colder, though, the view gets even more spectacular. I should wait until December perhaps (I won't be here, but I'm hoping she confused the months and really meant November... after all, they do rhyme with one another), and go to the bathroom (yeah, I'm avoiding the less polite words for said room) at around 5.30 P.M. "And look down there," she said and pointed downtown. "The sky will be all golden and red from the sunset. Especially on cold days. There is something about the cold that really brings out the colors, you know. And look over there, you can see all the way to the river on the other side."

So you can. The entire street with Grand Central in the middle; tiny yellow cabs going, stopping at the lights, turning down the avenues; and all the way to the other side of Manhattan and Hudson River.

I'll end with what my dad always says when New York is the setting for some movie, or in the news: What a city!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The End of an Era

This day is the day that will go down in history as the day I almost shook hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside my office.


But this being my history, and the room being full of about 100 Department of Political Affairs staff, and me being... well, me... I only almost shook his hand.

See, the thing is that I suffer from the disease of always having to act unaffected, I think. While others treated him somewhat like a rock star and asked to have his picture taken with them as he walked around the room and shook people's hands as a way of thanking them for all the hard work during the General Debate last week, I didn't even feel comfortable stepping forward and stretching out my hand. I mean. He's just a normal guy.

Anyway, I just discovered we have cockroaches in our apartment. I saw one in the kitchen. I pretend that they don't come into my room, or if they do, only when I'm away.

And the world economy is crashing. I really do pick strange times to go to New York. The last time, four planes crashed into buildings and in the fields of Pennsylvania and the world hasn't been the same since. This time the financial system is crashing down around us and the US Congress don't seem to think they need to do anything about it.

But if September 11 threw the US into a frenzied spiral of Taliban hunting, WMD seeking, dictator toppling, democracy spreading, war mongering attempts to control the world, the current financial crisis is like a sluggish cold that you've felt coming creeping for weeks, but nevertheless catches you off guard when it finally breaks out. There's just no way to prepare.

I wouldn't be too quick to herald the end of US world dominance, however. Mainly because those who did so before always seemed to have their statements come back and bite them in their butts. After all, the US remained a global power to reckon with even after the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the partial collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system as the dollar no longer was directly convertible to gold in the 1970s.

But this time, there is something. I'm not going to try to foretell the future, or even assess the magnitude of what is going on. Because you just don't know the significance of something until after it has happened, and you see in which direction the waves ripple out from the center.

But look: the international terrorism threat and whatever else keeps the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is eating away at the US, and has it spending billions of dollars on military operations. Military operations that swallow resources like black holes eat energy, without even generating the sought-after outcomes.

Great powers of before used to have to give up their colonial quests when local forces became too burdensome in their fight for freedom.

The global structure is changing. Not only are other huge nations growing stronger economically (and therefore politically) as we speak--China, Brazil, India--and not only is Russia flexing its muscles again in its Georgia gym, but the food and fuel crises are potential restructuring sparks that might set the whole North-South/Developed-Underdeveloped divide on fire and change the world system as we know it. Yes, poor people are hit hard by the rising food prices, but so called developing countries are also food producers. =They will ultimately gain from increased revenues from their food exports, and their fuel generating crops.

Hegemonic powers of old used to tumble as other actors gained speed on them and as the global structure was reorganized.

And then there's the current financial crisis. This crisis is undermining the economic strength of the US (obviously) and will therefore limit its power (at least for the time being). But it might also have much deeper consequences than this. This crisis is a potential crippling blow against the very ideology that has been the organizing principle behind our entire economic system that was more or less put in place by the US about 60 years ago.

If the US House of Representatives will indeed accept the 700 billion bail-out plan, then that means that the US is going directly against its own recommendations to other countries that have faced financial crises of their own. The policy is always: privatize, free the market--it will take care of itself. So what happens if the principal promoter of this ideology suddenly decides to nationalize economic institutions and regulate the market? What can they say against socialism and communism then?

Great powers need three complementing power sources: military, economic and ideological might. If the economy is collapsing, the military will have to cut back. And if these two pillars cave in, the ideology pillar cannot carry the weight on its own.

But. Having said all this, things don't just collapse over night. And the US, as well as capitalism, have a history of bouncing back. Adapting. And there are, we must not forget, countless other actors, state as well as non-state, that have considerable stakes in the current system. The EU, anyone?

But one thing is probably for sure: that things are changing. Even if the power structure should remain largely intact in the foreseeable future on the international scene, things are still changing. And this isn't just a lone intern in the outskirts of Spanish Harlem making things up. It's on the BBC website: there is a sense of an end of an era.

Go look:

One last thing before I sleep: Melvin the Doorman from the Dominican Republic said that there is no need to worry, after all. Not even if people are lining up at the bank to get their savings all the way over in Sweden. Things will pick up pretty quickly again. We're all alright.

With that: good night.