Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ryan Kushner, an Unofficial Ambassador from Pittsburgh to Palestine

Jerusalem – Ryan Kushner, a professional film editor from Pittsburgh, brought some New York and Hollywood to Beit Sahour and Ramallah last week. Ryan, who is also my brother-in-law, came to visit us for a post-Thanksgiving break. His trip was full of the usual tourist highlights – Ryan walked the ramparts of Jerusalem’s Old City, hiked in the Mitzpe Ramon crater, and went for a run along the beach in Tel Aviv. He ate cheese fresh from the goat on a Jerusalem-area farm, floated in the Dead Sea, and even visited mini-Israel, where he “saw it all … small.”

What was different about Ryan’s trip, though, was that Ryan served as an Unofficial Ambassador, volunteering his time and expertise to two Palestinian non-governmental organizations, in Beit Sahour and also in Ramallah. In Beit Sahour, Ryan spent a few hours at the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement – an organization that does community service projects and also streams daily local news on their website. PCR just completed a three-week training course on how to develop and produce public service announcements. Ryan was able to follow up on the recent training and spoke about his own experience working in film and on PSAs. He also demonstrated how to color shots in Final Cut Pro, and answered specific questions about other editing techniques.

In Ramallah, Ryan visited the Palestinian office of DPK Consulting and met with a group of interns who will produce two PSAs about the recent successes in reform and modernization of the Palestinian justice sector. Ryan offered suggestions for organizing their video projects, spoke about key elements of pre-production planning, and screened examples of both a successful and non-successful PSA. Together, the group brainstormed ideas and direction for their projects. Perhaps most importantly, in both places, Ryan offered each group a continuing resource (himself) for questions and feedback.

While Ryan didn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while he was here, the couple of days that he spent volunteering in the West Bank made a difference both for the people he worked with and for himself. The little things that Ryan and other Unofficial Ambassadors contribute on visits like this and on longer trips add up to real and positive change at the grassroots level. Not to sound cliché, but in the absence of major political solutions, those little changes are big.

On a professional level, Unofficial Ambassadors fill gaps in a substantive way. Ryan offered his Palestinian counterparts something tangible – the people he met now have a better idea of how to approach the challenges that they face in their work. On a personal level, Unofficial Ambassadors represent an America that wants to engage with other cultures. In many parts of the Middle East, locals make a distinction between the U.S. government and the American people. While most are critical of U.S. foreign policies, they admire the American people, who they view as representatives of a land of opportunity, freedoms, and innovation. To the Palestinians he met – people who are likely critical of U.S. foreign policy but who don’t have everyday contact with Americans – Ryan offered a first-hand example of the positives of the American people. The Palestinians who met Ryan went home and told their families that they met an American from a place called Pittsburgh who was nice and cool and who helped them with their work. In a part of the world where anti-American polls are off the charts, that’s a beginning.

It isn’t a one-way street, though. Ryan benefited from the experience, too. He had never been to the West Bank before, and now, whenever he hears about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the separation wall/barrier, or mention of Ramallah in the news, he will have a visual. He’ll know that the place is not a war zone (though it has been at times), but rather a city of hilly, twisting streets with office buildings, coffee shops, and restaurants. He’ll think of the real people he met, who work in the same field as him, face similar work-related problems, and may not be all that different on some of the other issues, too.

While I believe that Ryan enjoyed all the tourist activities -- especially mini-Israel where a petite elephant squirted water from its miniature tusk in Ryan’s general direction -- his Unofficial Ambassador moments in the West Bank made his trip special, for him but also for others. The more exposure that everyday people here and in other places around the Middle East have to Unofficial Ambassadors through organized volunteering programs or through the individual efforts of journalists, teachers, or in this case, film editors, the better off we all are back home.

Last year, instead of giving my family gifts for Hanukkah, I made contributions to organizations that do the work of Unofficial Ambassadors. This year, supporting the economy may be a heroic deed, but I imagine that these organizations are hurt by the economic meltdown, too. In addition to the worthy groups that I contributed to last year (listed below), I’ve added Peace Players International, an organization that I recently learned about that also works with children. If you can’t volunteer your time -- and you can do that through organizations like Cross Cultural Solutions -- consider spreading the holiday spirit and contributing to one of these groups:

Peace Players International brings together kids in conflict areas through basketball. I visited their project this past week in Jerusalem and watched 8-10 year-old Israeli and Palestinian girls learn about each other’s holidays and then play basketball games together for two hours.

No More Victims
assists American communities in providing direct assistance and medical treatment to Iraqi children war victims. In the process, the organization creates personal linkages between the Iraqi children (as well as their families) and the community that has sponsored the treatment for the injured child. Their website has inspiring stories from Greenville (SC) to Pittsburgh to the Portlands.

Land Mines Blow and Adopt a Mine Field are two organizations that combat the heinous and continuing problem of landmines in post-conflict, developing countries. $3 to produce, $1000 to remove -- Landmines maim or kill 15,000 – 20,000 people a year, a third of them children.

Critical Exposure is an alternative for those looking to give to a good cause that benefits kids a little closer to home. Critical Exposure buys cameras for inner-city kids, trains them in documentary photography, leadership, and advocacy, and gives them a platform and the tools to raise awareness about the conditions in their public schools. $35 provides a student with a 35mm camera. Their website has some terrific student photos.

Happy Holidays to all -

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Beatlemania in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv – A little more than a week later and the Beatle’s invasion can still be felt on Shankin Street, Ibn Gvirol, and along the Ayalon Freeway. From the windows of passing cars and descending from the second and third stories of downtown apartments come the sounds of All You Need is Love and Let it Be.

Last Thursday night, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people converged on Park HaYarkon in the heart of Tel Aviv to hear Sir Paul McCartney in concert. In the days leading up to the concert, the local papers covered the legend’s comings and goings. He visited the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, his entourage spent about $110,000 on hotel rooms, and streets were closing to prepare for the thousands of pedestrians trying to make up for lost time.

In 1965, the Israeli government banned the Beatles from performing in Israel, fearing they would corrupt the morals of the country’s youth. Earlier this year, the “ban” was formally lifted and an apology was issued to McCartney, Ringo, and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison. Forty-three years later, it was Islamic militants who tried to keep McCartney away. A radical preaching from Lebanon threatened McCartney’s life for performing in Israel. To the joy of Israelis, Sir Paul paid the threats no mind.

VIP seats in the open air HaYarkon Park went for about $1500 and the cheapest seats – on the lawn, where I swayed with thousands of others – were about $150 a pop. My wife bought the tickets and I only found out how much they cost the day of the concert. Had I known the bill, I probably would have missed something rare and beautiful. With the U.S. economy melting down and people losing their homes, it is hard to write these words, but Paul McCartney live was worth at least a few nights of pasta at home and the sandwiches I’ll be eating for lunch for a while.

At about half past 8 last Thursday night, he burst on to the stage and sang Hello, Goodbye. Under two towering video screens that projected his image into the night, with a slideshow backdrop of flashing oranges and yellows, he belted out the lyrics and the crowd loved him for it.

Maybe he starts every show that way – I don’t know – but I suddenly realized that I was at a Beatles concert. True, it was just a single Beatle with one of the greatest cover bands ever (honestly, I’m not even sure if they have a name), but it occurred to me that I was watching history. Those clips I’d seen over the years, of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, being chased around the world by hordes of screaming women, and performing against seemingly every possible backdrop, and here they were, right in front of me!

Okay, okay, it was just one Beatle, but I found it overwhelming to think about the people he’d met over the last forty some years, the places he’d been, and the things he saw. In 1965, when he and the others never made their trip here, Israel was a farm-in-the-desert country, its existence threatened by its neighbors. The civil rights movement was ascendant in the U.S. as we sunk into Vietnam. And Paul McCartney was a 23 year-old kid with the world in the palm of his hand.

So much is different, some is very much the same; unquestionably, Paul McCartney held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He started speaking in Hebrew, thanking us and wishing all a happy Jewish new year. Later in the show, in Hebrew, he dedicated songs to his late wife Linda, George Harrison, and John Lennon. As A Day in the Life, the tribute to John Lennon, wound down, McCartney broke into a chorus of All We are Saying is Give Peace a Chance. The crowd erupted, hands in the air, we chanted along not wanting the night or the moment to end.

He thrilled the crowd with “Ahlan, Jude.” Like a pinball bouncing around, McCartney switched instruments between guitars, the piano, and a little mandolin. When he played Live and Let Die the concert was transformed into a pyrotechnic bonanza with fireworks blasting into the sky. My favorite part of the two and a half hour show was when he sent the band offstage and crooned Blackbird. The crowd sang along softly, waiving their cellphones in the air. No longer a farm-in-the-desert country, Israel is a high tech capital and people are just as likely to have a blackberry as they are a lighter, at least with this cost of admission.

On a Thursday night in Tel Aviv, with boundless energy, eyebrows reaching upwards, and his face fixed in a smile, Paul McCartney took 40-some thousand Israelis and assorted expats to another place and another time. And at the end of the show, after a couple of encores, he wished us a Shana Tova and Ramadan Karim, and sent us off humming into the night, a part of history.

Americans Overseas: Register to Vote and Request an Absentee Ballot Here

Tel Aviv - I thought 2004 was going to be the most important American election of my lifetime. The way the last four years have gone, it turns out that this election is more important. Next month, we have a chance to regain our country's future and to deal with the challenges that we face to our national security, civil liberties, and economy.

The road to recovery starts with voting, though. The deadlines to register from overseas are fast approaching. Pennsylvania's deadline is October 6. If you are living overseas and haven't registered yet, please visit the website below. It will only take 10 minutes to fill out the forms. If you need to request an absentee ballot, you can do it there as well.

Lastly, please forward this website to the Americans you know who are living overseas and the Americans you know that have friends overseas. As we saw in 2000, every vote counts.

Here is the website:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Squirrel Hill Native Recognized for Work in Middle East

Tel Aviv - The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a nice article about Live from Jordan and the Linowitz award that I received in September. Given that the Post Gazette is the homepage on my computer and its sports page is the first thing I read in the morning, I'm humbled. Thank you -

Here is the article:

Squirrel Hill native recognized for work in Middle East
Thursday, October 02, 2008

By Dev Meyers
Fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, Benjamin Orbach has traveled around the Middle East. But he admits he often finds himself "talking incessantly" about the Steelers.

A self-appointed, unofficial ambassador, Mr. Orbach is committed to presenting the Arab world with a wholesome and caring picture of Americans.

In September, his accomplishments were recognized in Washington, D.C., when the National Security Education Program presented Mr. Orbach with its 2008 Sol Linowitz Award.

Mr. Linowitz was a diplomat and major supporter of international education and NSEP.

NSEP is a major federal initiative within the Department of Defense and is designed to build a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills.

The goal is to strengthen national security and competitiveness by forming a partnership with the U.S. education community through language and cultural initiatives.

Mr. Orbach, 33, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, studied Arabic in Jordan as a Boren Fellow. His experiences as a Boren Fellow formed the basis for a book, "Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East" (Amacom Books, 2007).

Each year, NSEP honors one Boren Scholar alumnus and one Boren Fellow alumnus for their outstanding federal service and academic achievement.

Boren Scholarships provide funding for U.S. undergraduate students to study in areas of the world that are critical to U.S. interests and underrepresented in study abroad. Boren Fellowships provide funding for U.S. graduate students to study and conduct research in these same areas of the world.

Mr. Orbach worked for three years for the State Department in the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative and for a year as the MEPI coordinator at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. He is currently Creative Associates International's resident country director for the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Orbach, a 1993 graduate of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Michigan and a master's in international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

"In all of my travels to the Middle East, when I was a student and when I was a U.S. government official, I kept in mind that I was from Pittsburgh and representing the people of Pittsburgh," he said.

"I'm very proud of where I'm from and the values that I grew up with, and I've certainly confused more than a handful of people with my incessant talk [in Arabic] about our mighty football team."

Mr. Orbach has traveled to 12 countries.

"I've represented the priorities and programs of the United States to hundreds of people in the region as an Arabic-speaking American who cares about their needs, aspirations and the relationship between our respective countries and people," he said.

"The official awards are excellent achievements, but I am most proud of the positive impression that I've left -- through words and deeds -- with these great people who are the future of the region and whose attitudes and opinions matter greatly to the national security of America."

His mother, Linda, of Squirrel Hill, is "thrilled" that her son has been recognized for his work.

"He has many gifts and has received many opportunities," she said. "But what really matters is he is making the most of them -- and for the greater good."

"Live from Jordan" explores key issues in the Middle East, such as anti-Americanism, the absence of peace, Islamist terrorism and the causes of 9/11.

At the same time, the book puts words to the beauty and color of everyday life in Egypt, Jordan and Syria -- the camel markets, deserts, nightclubs, coffee shops and people.

"While I was living in Jordan and Egypt, and especially after I returned in the late summer of 2003, I was appalled by how the administration took advantage of our country's knowledge gap rather than took the opportunity to educate the public on the issues and engage Americans on solving our problems," he said.

Mr. Orbach encourages Americans to get involved and become unofficial ambassadors.

"People in [the Middle East] make a distinction between U.S. foreign policy -- which they are adamantly against not just for idealistic reasons, but because it has an impact on their everyday lives -- and the American people.

"Mariah Carey, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan, our democratic processes, minimum wage, our rags-to-riches stories -- these are all icons and things that provide hope and are the picture of American people.

"When Americans come and bring our processes, education systems and entertainment icons in the form of the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, other development work, cultural and educational exchanges and other international volunteer efforts, it not only humanizes America, but empowers our friends to improve their communities and lives."

Mr. Orbach's father, Alexander, a teacher in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Religious Studies, is impressed by "Live From Jordan."

"[It] is not only informative, it is eloquent in its careful and considerate depiction of a world that we too often stereotype in extremely negative and frightening ways," the elder Mr. Orbach said.

"The book also reflects the maturation of an engaging young man who, through the course of these experiences, evolves from a naive observer into a confident commentator on a culture and on communities that, while seemingly distant from his own, still share many similar human aspirations."

For more information about NSEP, go to

For more information about Mr. Orbach, go to or

Dev Meyers is a freelance writer who can be reached at
First published on October 2, 2008 at 6:13 am

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bilerico Project Review of Live from Jordan

Tel Aviv - The Bilerico Project reviewed Live from Jordan earlier today. You can read the full review, "An American in the Middle East," here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Benjamin Orbach Wins NSEP’s 2008 Sol Linowitz Award

Benjamin Orbach Wins NSEP’s 2008 Sol Linowitz Award
Award Ceremony Honors Author of Live from Jordan

Washington, DC – September 19, 2008 – Benjamin Orbach, the author of the acclaimed Live from Jordan, will receive the 2008 Sol Linowitz award from The National Security Education Program (NSEP) at a ceremony on September 22, 2008 in Washington D.C.

Each year NSEP honors a Boren fellow alumnus and/or alumna for outstanding service and achievement through the Sol Linowitz Award. NSEP is a U.S. government-funded program to strengthen national security through initiatives that improve critical foreign language proficiency and cultural expertise. Since 1992, NSEP has awarded David L. Boren Fellowships to support graduate students studying language and culture and conducting research in countries critical to US interests. The Boren Fellowship builds a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international competence.

Benjamin Orbach, a 2002 Boren Fellow, studied Arabic in Jordan and then Egypt after evacuating from Amman with the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Over a 13-month period, Orbach took his study of Arabic from the classrooms of universities and language institutes to the coffee shops, markets, deserts, and night clubs of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East. Along the way, he discovered everyday people with problems that he could relate to and a world more complicated and more beautiful than many Americans imagine. Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East (AMACOM, 2007) is the incredible story, told via his eloquent, thoughtful, and irreverent letters home, of Orbach’s 13-month journey through the Middle East.

Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross called Live from Jordan “an extraordinary picture of attitudes in the Arab world.” Ross said, “Orbach is a wonderful observer.... and in reading his book—and absorbing his letters—it is possible to gain a better appreciation of our problems and possibilities in the Middle East."

Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc. called Live from Jordan, “humane, well-informed, and charming.”

Library Journal reviewed that Live from Jordan “is an optimistic work, one that informs Americans about the everyday problems experienced by Arabs and . . . that promotes the idea of real dialogue in and with the Middle East.”

Orbach, currently the Resident Country Director for Creative Associates International in the Palestinian Territories, said, “I’m honored to receive the Sol Linowitz award. The year I spent living, traveling, and studying in the Middle East was one of the formative experiences of my life. It led me to write a book, to serve in government, and to work in the field of development – all different paths that with the same dedicated goal of helping others on behalf of my country.”

NSEP will present the Sol Linowitz award to Orbach at a ceremony to be held on September 22 beginning at 6:00 pm at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel located at 415 New Jersey Ave., NW, Washington, DC.

Media wishing to attend should contact Laura Porter, NSEP Communications Strategist at or 703-696-9598.

Benjamin Orbach is available for interviews through The Rudy Agency. Contact Maryann at or 970.577.8500.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Words to Mouth

Jerusalem - Check out this recent interview with Words To Mouth, an Internet talk show and companion blog. The highlights: Live from Jordan, Big Hair, and surprise Polish-American art shows in your apartment.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

6 Under-the-Radar Destinations In The Middle East

The great pyramids of Giza, the pink facades of Petra, the blue minarets of Istanbul, and the storybook walled cities of Jerusalem and Damascus are some of the highlights that lure travelers to the Middle East. If you make it to these postcard spots, you won’t go home disappointed.

But there is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Jerusalem called Rahmo, where they serve the best kubbe soup this side of an Iraqi or Kurdish grandmother’s kitchen. And deep in the Western Desert, between the oasis of Siwa and Egypt’s border with Libya, there is a place where the stars shine brightly and rocket across the sky.

Whether you are traveling in pursuit of history, good food, nightlife, nature, spirituality, or the journey itself, here are six suggestions for lesser known stops across the Middle East that will make your trip truly one-of-a-kind.

Click here and read more at Matador Trips.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Egyptian Paradise

The warm breeze blows in from the Red Sea as I lie on a thin mattress, wrapped in a pale sheet on the sandy beach. Basata, simplicity in Arabic, is about 20 kilometers north of Nuweiba in Sinai, the peninsula south of Israel and Jordan, east of Suez, and across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.

Read more about "Egyptian Paradise" at Matador Trips, click here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Travel Moments Backpacking in India

Jerusalem -- An essay from India, just published in Brave New Traveler, about those precious, vivid, and sometimes rare travel moments. Read the essay here.

If you can't picture it, check out these pics from Kerala, set to Jimmy Cliff. They are from the same trip, just further south.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Marrakech Show

I was in Marrakech, Morocco last month for work. In addition to the conference I attended, I spent two eight hour days in Djemaa al Fna -- Africa's most fantastic square, filled with snake charmers, fortune tellers, henna artists, dancers, drummers, diaper-clad monkeys, medicine men, and thousands of locals dressed in colorful jedi-like robes.

Take a look at Djemaa al Fna in this photo essay:

Music by Rusted Root (from Pittsburgh).

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jerusalem Stories

Jaffa – On Thursday night in the Old City of Jaffa, I went to a place called the Arab-Hebrew Theater to see a performance of Jerusalem Stories, first in Arabic and then in Hebrew. Jerusalem Stories is an innovative idea in conflict resolution. It is a collection of Jerusalemites’ narratives, told in theatric monologue form, about their personal struggles, feelings, and losses inside the holy city.

Over three hours, six stories were recounted with much passion. Among them, there was an elderly muhajiba woman who traverses checkpoints daily to sell olives and dried fruits at Damascus Gate, a Kipah-wearing bus driver whose bus was bombed by a young suicide bomber, an aggrieved Palestinian man whose nephew was killed by the Israeli army on the day that Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, and a distraught Israeli mother who lost her young son to Palestinian suicide bombers in downtown Jerusalem.

What’s unique about these Jerusalem Stories of sadness and suffering are how they are told. There were actually two performances. First, the talented Mazin Safadi and Hiba Muffatesh delivered all six of the monologues (three Israeli and three Palestinian) in Arabic. Then, after a thirty-minute break, and to a different audience (with some exceptions), the equally strong Royi Nave and Hava Ortman performed the exact same six stories in powerful fashion, in Hebrew.

Since I stayed for both performances, I had the chance to hear, in Hebrew, about the muhajiba woman’s struggle at checkpoints and with Israeli soldiers. Similarly, in Arabic, I listened to the story of an Orthodox Israeli woman recite her favorite of the tehillim or psalms, which she reads for the victims of terror. At moments like these, the presentation was paradoxical, in a smile-inducing way, which was not altogether natural.

That wasn’t the case though for the stories of the deaths of Magdy or Assaf, young Jerusalemite boys, a Palestinian and an Israeli, struck down during the al-Aqsa intifada. As the actors playing Magdy’s uncle, first in Arabic and then about an hour and a half later in Hebrew, expressed the anger and grief of the loss of a loved one outside of the expected sequence of life, the language melted away. The story stopped being Arabic or Hebrew and it was just about the tragedy of the death of a boy. It was the same for the death of Assaf. The grief on the Arabic-speaking actress’ face and the distress in her voice as she described the absence of her son and the void in her life was moving. It wasn’t Israeli or Palestinian -- it was purely human and very sad.

And I guess that is where the conflict resolution comes to force. People identify, rather easily, with the suffering of their own kind. Carol Grosman, the project director and chief storyteller, and Mohammed Thaher, the project’s Palestinian director, have taken an innovative route. In addition to the stories there are post-performance facilitated discussions, other educational workshops, and a photograph exhibit. The stories, though, are the centerpiece, and they bring each community, in their own language, face-to-face with the horrors they know and carry around, but also with the tragedies and difficulties of the other community, which they may not have previously seen or recognized. To watch these stories recounted, in such a meaningful way, one can’t but walk away with an idea of the other’s loss and suffering as well as a sense for each people’s attachment and affection for Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Stories convey a powerful message, but I was just a few steps outside the theater when I was reminded that there is so much more than conflict, pain, and suffering here. Walking through Jaffa’s Old City, I passed sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea and downtown Tel Aviv. The Old City’s cobbled streets were quiet and the Mediterranean breeze made me feel like I was in Southern Europe. On my way to my car, I passed Abu Lafya, an Israeli legend of a bakery in Jaffa.

During the day, Abu Lafya is bustling. Arabic and Hebrew speaking customers swarm the counter and order fresh pastries that are baked in gigantic fired-ovens and filled with cheese, zatar, potatoes, eggs, and other favorites. Tonight, though, Abu Lafya was still. Abu Lafya family members sat in plastic chairs behind the counter drinking tea. I ordered a potato pastry in Arabic from a youngish guy with gelled black hair. A middle-aged guy with glasses came up beside me and ordered his pastries from the same young man, but in Hebrew. We each got the same thank you and good night, but in different languages.

The pain of the stories inside the theater, the tales of personal heartbreak, spiritual commitment, national love, and justice denied are all true, but there are so many other stories of co-existence and normal daily life, that are also true and less frequently told. There are lots of stories here, of all varieties.

My stories will be interrupted, though, for a little while. I’ve got to take a break from the "Live from ..." blog to work on larger projects. Full-time work is more than full-time, and I have to ration and channel my words, at least for now.

Until my next "Live from ..." column, all the best-

Monday, January 7, 2008

Heartbreak, Again

Jerusalem – Yesterday, at a little before 7AM, the Steelers’ season ended in gut wrenching fashion.

The last few weeks have been a struggle for my favorite team. We’ve lost a key player each week, and with each individual loss, the team has taken a body blow. Willie Parker broke his leg; we could no longer run the ball. Aaron Smith tore his bicep; we could no longer stop the run. Marvel Smith had back surgery; we could no longer protect the quarterback.

Still, the Steelers have heart. It was only two years ago that the team sliced through the playoffs, won three games on the road, and made the big plays in the big game to win the Super Bowl. Despite a blowout loss to the Patriots earlier this year, I wanted to see the Steelers get another shot at the best. You can’t count out a champion, no matter what the odds – nobody wants to play an elimination game against die-hards like Hines Ward and James Farrior.

Still, when I woke up at 3AM on Sunday, I knew that it might be my last chance to watch the Steelers for eight months. Thankfully, ESPN broadcast the game live. Clad in my 2006 Super Bowl t-shirt, I was so happy for the normal sized screen that I didn’t even mind that ESPN showed the same two soccer commercials at every break.

For 3+ hours, we watched the Steelers leave it all on the field against Jacksonville. Their second half comeback was poetic; it was almost impossible to believe that we could lose. The impossible happened, though, due to a terrible play-call, a missed tackle, and a game-winning field goal that knocked the wind out of me until this morning.

After the game, I folded up my Super Bowl t-shirt, crawled into bed, and buried my face in the pillow. I slept for four hours and spent the next 24 hours in my own personal salt mine.

There’s no longer a reason for me to check in the middle of the day for a new Steeler story. The playoffs go on, but not for us. Another year goes by for Ward, Farrior, Casey Hampton and others. Great players can’t stay great forever. The window of opportunity closes, and we’re left with memories of passes batted down in the end zone, special teams break-downs, interceptions at the worst moment, and championships that could have, should have, might have been won.

So how does a fan recover from a game that he had no impact on? It’s not like I can review film and figure out how to cheer better, or that I can switch shirts or buy a new Terrible Towel. Well, “context” and “hope” are the bitter pills that people like me swallow on days like today.

This morning, I was emailing with a lifetime Red Sox fan. Before the Sox won two World Series in the last four years, my friend lived through 40 years of following a team best known for its curse. As I collected his e-sympathies, I realized again why our 2006 Super Bowl win was so special.

The 90s were filled with great Pittsburgh teams that couldn’t write their names in the books. Setting aside Mario Lemieux and a Penguin dynasty cut short by injuries, we loved a Steeler team that lost three AFC Championships at home to inferior opponents over an eight-year period (including 2001), and a Pirates team that lost three consecutive pennants at the start of the decade. The final time, the Pirates choked in such a life- draining way (the Francisco Cabrera moment) that radio stations put psychologists on the air the next morning to help the public deal with the trauma and depression. For good measure, since the turn of the century, Pitt basketball has made it to the Big East Championship game six times. We’ve won once.

It adds up to a lot of disappointment. As a fan, you get up for these championship or playoff games. Especially in our case, you imagine your small market team dropping the hammer on the Yankees, Patriots, and UConn Huskies of the world. But it just doesn’t happen often enough.

Sometimes dreams do come true, though. And when you have moments like Antwaan Randel El completing a gadget-play pass to Ward to win the Super Bowl, all those sour defeats make winning that elusive championship taste so good. I’d guess that it might even taste better than championship moments that have become an end of the year habit for some spoiled fans.

The other bitter pill that we swallow at moments like this is called “hope.” It is cold out now, but only four more months to the NFL draft. Young stars like Ben Rothlisberger, Willie Parker, and Troy Polamalu who are just reaching their prime are reasons for optimism. And between now and the start of training camp in July, Penguin Phenom Sidney Crosby may well take over the NHL. And maybe, despite Pitt’s December injuries, Sam Young and Dejaun Blair will put the program on their backs and carry it to that elusive Final Four.


So, that’s it for the 2007 Steelers season. Next year, I hope.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hold the Public Praise, Please

Jerusalem – Last night, I was on the edge of my seat for 2.5 hours, watching a re-broadcast of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Jerry Yang defeated Tuan Lam to win $8.25 Million cash.

The WSOP is the biggest poker event of the year. It takes place in Vegas, has more than 50 events, and finishes with a no limit Texas Hold’em tourney. To qualify, a player needs to win a satellite tourney or post the $10,000 buy-in. 6,358 professional players, internet poker sharks, and garage game hopefuls participated this year leading to a huge pot (Lam won $4.8 Million as runner up).

2.5 hours of WSOP led me to two conclusions:

First, poker attracts a diverse group. The final table included a Dane, a South African, a Brit, and a Russian, all ranging in age from 22-62. The final two players were both refugees. Yang, a Laotian-American therapist and social worker, came to the United States in 1979. He spent four years in a camp in Thailand, where two of his siblings died. On the other side of the table was Lam, a Vietnamese-Canadian who worked as a laborer for a metal company and who was a refugee in an Indonesian camp.

What are the odds? I only wish Bob Costas covered poker so that I could know how many times a refugee has won the WSOP in odd-numbered years, at night.

In the match’s closing minutes, Lam’s supporters pulled out a Canadian flag and waved it patriotically, a la those annoying backpackers who sew flag-patches to their bags to distinguish themselves from Americans. In a Rocky IV moment, Americans in the crowd chanted “USA, USA” for Yang, the Laotian refugee turned Californian.

The second thing that occurred to me during the WSOP was how much I hate the invoking of Jesus (or any other God) at sporting events. I wanted to cheer for Yang – he donated 10 percent of his winnings to Make-A-Wish and other charities, making him a stalwart unofficial ambassador – but he kept calling upon Jesus for help throughout the match.

In tight situations, he’d kiss a picture of his family, and then say things like, “Lord, have a purpose for me to today,” or “Jesus, make us a believer.” After winning the showdown, Yang would thank Jesus, and his family in the stands would call out “Hallelujah!” At one point, Yang went head to head with Lee Watkinson, a 40-year-old from Washington. As the two faced off, the camera flashed between Watkinson’s wife who had her hands clasped together and was vocally asking for Jesus’ intervention and Yang’s family doing almost the exact same thing.

It was an internecine poker Crusade. Unlike when Yang eliminated Alex Kravchenko and his boisterous Russian cheering section, this was a showdown between fellow congregants believing that Jesus had a direct stake in their win.

Even here in the Holy Land, I find it both divisive and pretty self-involved to believe that God is taking an interest in poker flops and game-winning touchdown drives. Nothing makes me reach for the remote faster then a post-game interview that starts with a star or a coach thanking God or Jesus. It is hard to believe that God cares so much about converting a 3rd and 16 but not about stopping genocide in Sudan.

Last year, after the Colts won the Super Bowl, I was feeling happy for Tony Dungy, the first black coach to win the big game and someone who comes across as a very decent man. When asked how it felt to be the first black coach to win the Super Bowl, Dungy responded, "I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this. But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith [the Bears Coach] and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that."


Did all the Colts players do it the “Christian way?”
Were the teams the Colts beat comprised of infidels and polytheists?
And, how did the Colts non-Christian fans feel about Tony Dungy’s post-game speech? If I was a Colts fan, I’d feel left out for no reason.

Think I’m making a big deal over nothing?

How about if your boss ended each meeting at work by thanking God for enabling him or her to be your supervisor? Or how about if Tony Dungy were a Muslim and looked into the camera and stated the Islamic equivalent, “Allahu Akbar!” I wonder if that would have gone over with football America in the same accepting way.

Religion and belief are wonderful, but bringing them into the public space and forcing them on to others – whether that is the intent or not – is more often divisive than uniting. In America, religion is a personal and private thing, something that I realize from living in the Middle East, that we sometimes take for granted. So, if you win the Super Bowl, the WSOP, or anything else, I’m not against you thanking God for giving you the strength to win. I’d just like to ask that you save the thanks for your place of worship, a private moment with like-minded individuals, or your own self-reflection.