Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thank God for the Conscience of the Nation

Chinatown - The camera zooms in on Hadassah Lieberman’s hands as they sort through the day’s mail. She comes across a bill from FirstCare and tears it open. $243 for ear wax removal for the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman’s recent blockage!

No co-pay, no more.

That $243 will be coming out of pocket!

That’s a scene from the new reality TV show, “Caring for the Conscience of the Nation … and his family.” In discussions on the Senate’s version of the proposed health care bill, the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman has asserted, “If the public option is in there, as a matter of conscience, I will not allow the bill to come to a final vote.”

It is only logical that if the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman scuttles an agreement in the days ahead and keeps some 30 million Americans from attaining health care, there are three things we have to do as a nation:

(1) Pass legislation that bars the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman, his wife Hadassah, his four children, and five grandchildren from carrying any form of health care. This might not seem fair. But it isn’t easy being right when everyone else is wrong. The Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman is willing to prove it. Besides, while it might get painful when it is time for more grandchildren or a root canal, this arrangement will give the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman a better chance to be in touch with his public. See below.

(2) Bestow the official title of “Conscience of the Nation,” upon the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman. I propose a nationally televised ceremony where a council of elders led by Bob Dole, Angela Lansbury, John McLaughlin, and Rue McClanahan present the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman with a certificate proclaiming his official authority as the “Conscience of the Nation.” No longer will he be called “Senator Joe Lieberman” or even “Shoeless Joe” for his hi-jinks in the Dirksen cafeteria. Instead, on all talk shows, committee hearings, public events, and religious occasions, the Senator formerly known as Joe Lieberman will be referred to as “The Conscience of the Nation.”

For example, at TGI Fridays, the waitress will have to ask, “Does the Conscience of the Nation prefer soup or salad with his Johnny Walker salmon filet?” Or when he is dunking at Madison Square Garden, Marv Albert will have to yell, “YES! The Conscience of the Nation serves up a facial to Nate Robinson.”

(3) Produce a reality TV show called “Caring for the Conscience of the Nation.” A weekly half-hour show which tracks the highlights of Lieberman family’s new health-care less life -- this will blow the Kardashians out of the water! Some potential classic scenes:

· The Conscience of the Nation explaining to his grandson that he can’t ever play sports because of the risk of injury. He then presents his grandson with War and Peace and some $9 reading glasses from CVS and tells him to “grow wise like his grandfather.”

· A minor auto accident sends the Conscience of the Nation to the emergency room with a stiff neck! The Conscience of the Nation is forced to endure a six-hour wait and 20 pages of paperwork that he can’t lean over to fill out.

· H1N1 circulates through our system, so it is time for a chicken soup cooking lesson with Mrs. Conscience of the Nation. Who needs immunizations when you’ve got kreplach?

At the end of each episode, Bernice, a snippy, short-haired, glasses-wearing British accountant will review the Conscience of the Nation’s finances. We find out how much the Conscience of the Nation paid in medical costs that week and receive updates on his financial worth as well as projections about what an extended stay in the hospital will do to his grandchildren’s prospects for higher education and/or vacations outside of Connecticut.

Each episode would also include an Andy Rooney styled address from the Conscience of the Nation. This would be a chance for the Conscience of the Nation to share his feelings about current events. I think I speak for us all when I say I’m dying to know the Conscience of the Nation’s thoughts on Tiger Woods. This segment would also be an opportunity for the Conscience of the Nation to enlighten us on the ins and outs of how we should live our daily lives. When riding the subway, when is it okay to stretch across three seats, for example?

For the Conscience of the Nation, this segment would be a grand opportunity to connect with the millions of Americans who need his help and guidance. There are so many of us who just don’t have access to the wisdom and moral superiority that the Conscience of the Nation offers so effortlessly. Of course, they’ll have to vary the time during the show that the Conscience of the Nation offers his monologue. If they are back-loaded a la Andy Rooney, some Americans may tune out before the program is over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pittsburgh Book Talk this Saturday

New York - I'll be in Pittsburgh this Saturday for a Live from Jordan book talk at the Waterworks Barnes and Noble. The talk is in support of the Lauri Ann West Memorial Library. Barnes and Noble is donating a portion of all sales proceeds that day to support the library. Just tell them that you want them to make the donation at the cash register when you make your purchases.

The benefit for the library begins at 1 PM with Rob Rogers, the famous Post-Gazette cartoonist, doing an author talk. My Live from Jordan talk will be at 3PM. For directions, click here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama Expands the “Base”

Jerusalem - With a respectful but forceful tone, President Obama did what he does best in Cairo – he educated the public about the problems that we face in a way that was intellectually grounded, empathetic, and clear. If you consider the audience that President Obama was appealing to, his speech was a homerun in that it opened the door with large silent majorities for relationships based upon mutual interests.

The Cairo speech, dubbed “A New Beginning” was a policy overview of US interests in the Muslim World wrapped in a cultural overture to people of Islamic faith. President Obama quoted from the Koran and he used the language of the moment, beginning his speech with “Salaam Aleykum,” and dabbling in other cultural niceties, such as saying “peace be upon them” when referring to Islam’s prophets.

Beyond the culturally respectful framework, the speech was a clear and unapologetic overview of America’s priorities and interests amid the tangle of varying problems in the Muslim World. The President focused on seven issues: confronting extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Iran and nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and economic development and opportunity. With all of these issues, the President neither pandered nor preached. He explained US positions and intentions truthfully and eloquently while also clearing a path for cooperation with those who seek to partner in solutions.

I found seven points especially noteworthy in the President’s speech:

1) On the issue of confronting extremism, President Obama took on the conspiracy theorists. His stark description of al Qaeda’s actions as related to 9/11 and his delivery of the statement that, “These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with” was very strong. There are still many throughout the Muslim World who refute al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, and lay blame elsewhere, particularly with Israel and the Mossad.

2) President Obama implicitly acknowledged the mistakes of the Iraq war and the torture of detainees, but he did not offer apologies. This was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that to apologize to this audience would be to accept a false linkage concerning the Muslim World. Apologies are issued to the people who were wronged, whether by direct actions or by actions undertaken in their name. The audience at Cairo University or watching in Bangladesh or Indonesia may be outraged observers on these issues, but they don’t deserve an apology any more than a Catholic in Rome or a Hindu in Bombay.

3) Obama was masterful in expressing empathy for Israelis and for Palestinians. Similar to his comments on 9/11, his words on the Holocaust and the tone in which he delivered them were important to deflating conspiracy theories. Given Obama’s personal story and achievement, it can’t be emphasized enough what a unique messenger he is to the Muslim World, but also to the developing world. Obama has a credibility and authenticity to him that will allow many people to accept his well-constructed arguments as an authoritative source. On issues such as this one, as well as religious freedom and women’s rights, he can lead a revolution in thinking.

In addition, by raising Israeli settlements – though his actual language does not make clear whether settlements or settlement building needs to stop, a big difference – and speaking to the details of occupation, the President did something important vis-à-vis Hamas. He recognized Hamas as part of the Palestinian political spectrum and called on them to take on their responsibilities. Contrary to the wishes of many, Hamas is not a foreign usurper who will melt away. They have true local support and they will have to be integrated into any future Palestinian political framework to some degree for a Palestinian state and a peace agreement to be possible. By alluding to Palestinian unity, Obama spoke to the issue that is most important to Palestinians today.

4) On the point of supporting democracy, it was no accident that the President thanked his hosts, the Egyptian people. He mentioned al-Azhar, Cairo University, and the “timeless city” itself. He did not mention President Mubarak – a departure from protocol and a clear message. There was a lot of concern about President Obama’s choice of locations for this speech given the Egyptian government’s human rights record and almost three decades of emergency rule. This omission was as strong as any of his words on governance, human rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights.

5) Obama’s points on economic development and opportunity as well as education and women’s empowerment were significant. For Americans watching the speech, this is the area where we can come forward as unofficial ambassadors to contribute to the “new beginning” and to work on the human development issues that are the root of many of the problems that the President raised. President Obama put out some general ideas as well as some hefty commitments from women’s education to science to health issues. As is the case with the other policy points, there will have to be follow-up with programming and initiatives to make these commitments whole. As important, Americans will have to step forward to participate in these programs and to offer their time, efforts, and expertise.

6) If I were a Hindu or Buddhist watching this speech, I would feel left out to the point of being offended. The President referred to “non-Muslims” in the speech, but given the great efforts he made to weave together a common cloth of the three monotheistic religions, the exclusion of non-monotheist religions in the religious freedom section of the speech was glaring. The genocide in Darfur, the India-Pakistan relationship, and the treatment of third country nationals in the Gulf, in particular, are all areas that demonstrate a need for greater religious freedom and tolerance in the Muslim World.

7) Lastly, the speech did not contain a foreign policy bombshell. To many people around the world, Barack Obama appears to be a grand departure from previous U.S. leadership. Certainly, in some ways he is very different. But he is not a revolutionary in the sense that some in the Muslim World were hoping for. The United States isn’t going to assume the historic burden of guilt for western colonialism, transfer wealth from North to South, abandon our relationship with Israel, nor seriously consider the liturgy of populist leaders whose logic is based in schemes and conspiracies. If that wasn’t clear before, it is today.

Yesterday’s speech in Cairo was an overture to America’s world “base.” President Obama spoke to the silent majority of fence sitters – the people who are deciding how they feel about America and how they feel about their own involvement in their communities. Since World War II, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, America has been the world’s leader. Over the last eight years though, people throughout the Muslim World and the developing world have begun to ask questions like: is America still worth listening to and partnering with? Will America help me improve my life and my community? And significantly, is America a just power?

From the text of the speech to its delivery to the messenger himself, President Obama gave Muslims around the world reasons to answer “yes” to these questions and to be willing to judge the United States and Americans by our future actions on these outlined issues. In that regard, more important than anything President Obama said will be turning his words to deeds and his policy statements and plans into actual accomplishments. President Obama earned America a “new beginning” yesterday with that base of fence sitters, but it is up to all of us – at home and abroad, in government and within civil society – to do something with that beginning and not to squander this moment.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Obama in Cairo – An Opportunity to Open the Door for More Unofficial Ambassadors

Jerusalem – Tomorrow in Cairo, Barack Obama will address the Muslim World. His speech is an opportunity to redefine the relationship between America and the Muslim World and to challenge us to personally contribute to confronting problems that threaten us all.

Presidential speeches delivered to audiences that numbers in tens or even hundreds of millions are a big deal. They are a moment for grand ideas and an opportunity to deliver a vision or political horizon. President Obama has already committed to a timetable for Iraq as well as to closing down Guantanomo; and he is also at work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are the overarching political issues that interest a lot of the people in the Muslim World. It doesn’t seem necessary to use such a stage to re-commit to goals and processes already set in motion just a few months ago. People are looking for action on these fronts, not a repetition of promises. So what will the President say in Egypt?

I hope that President Obama will reach below the layer of international conflicts that plague parts of the Muslim World and speak about the core human development problems that afflict many Muslim-majority countries. Dictatorial and corrupt governments, the absence of economic opportunities, poor education systems, and unequal and unempowered women are characteristics of many of the countries whose populations President Obama will be speaking to on Thursday, including his hosts in Egypt (and Saudi yesterday). Throughout the Muslim World, why is it that political systems are characterized by authoritarian rule? Or that women suffer from an absence of opportunities in every sector of society? To his credit, George W. Bush asked these questions and gave a couple of powerful speeches about the universal right to liberty.

In some cases, the messenger can be as important as the message, though. For many in the Middle East, the election of Barack Obama was not just a seminal moment in America’s history, but a turning point in their own personal evaluations of what is possible in life. President Obama is the ultimate spokesperson for a campaign to build empowerment and opportunities. In each place that I’ve lived or traveled in the Muslim World, I’ve found that on a popular level, the appeal of America is its people, culture, and open system. Our foreign policies may be almost unanimously opposed, but the promise of our rags to riches stories is the stuff of dreams. And nothing embodies the possibility of America as a land of dreams more than the election of a biracial son of an African immigrant to the most powerful position in the world.

Similar to his speech on race last year, President Obama has the potential to challenge the status quo, in this case the stagnant systems and authoritarian leadership of many of the countries in the Muslim World. He could question the personal accountability of his audience and call upon community leaders and young people to lead the way in taking responsibility for creating change in their own societies.

There is no guarantee that the right rhetoric, even delivered by the right messenger will equal success though. In fact, the problems that we talk about and work on in parts of the Muslim World are more than generational problems and they require long-term commitment and incredible personal will on the part of the people who want for change to occur. For this reason, if President Obama takes up the call for empowerment and opportunity growth, his speech must address not just his Muslim viewers, but the people who voted him to office last November.

While the President sets a vision, it is up to the rest of us to follow it and work towards its achievement. In this case, this means the strategic use of foreign assistance and diplomatic initiatives by our government, but that is not enough. The missing component since the 9/11 attacks has been the lack of an American service initiative in the Muslim World. America needs more unofficial ambassadors – global citizens who volunteer or work in the Muslim World.

Unofficial ambassadors, the embodiment of America’s appeal in this part of the world (the American people), can be the difference in communities from Morocco to Indonesia. From teachers to accountants to journalists to doctors there is integral work for Americans to do with civil society and government leaders who are trying to address the pressing human development challenges in their communities. Americans who can spend anywhere from a two week vacation to a year volunteering or working in their area of expertise can make contributions that not only help address some of these root causes, but also reinforce the positive Obamania images of our country.

What exactly do I mean? My latest example of an unofficial American ambassador making a difference is my father-in-law, Louis Kushner.

A few weeks ago, Louis, an expert mediator from Pittsburgh came for a short visit and volunteered his time to an ongoing Rule of Law training program in the Palestinian Territories. Louis taught a daylong mediation seminar and simulation to judges, representatives of the contractors’ union, and ministry of Justice officials. The training was based on methods that are universal, it was useful to the participants, and it was supportive of Rule of Law concepts that enable a society to settle a dispute through mediation rather than 1) litigation in an overburdened court system or 2) other less honorable means.

In addition to the formal training, Louis connected with the 20 Palestinian men and women attending the seminar on a personal level. Louis had never been to Ramallah and he found a vibrant city rather than the war zone he expected. He remarked to me several times how the training was almost the same as if he were doing it in Pittsburgh. Some of the disputes discussed were different but a lot of the questions were similar, and the people themselves were mostly the same.

At the same time, Palestinian participants were appreciative of the opportunity to learn from an American expert and to make the professional connection. Representatives of the contractors’ union were enthusiastic about using mediation to resolve payment disputes. At lunch, when I asked one contractor if any of this was useful, he pulled out his wallet, showed me a roll of unpaid promissory notes for past work, and said “definitely.”

Ideally, Louis would have stayed for a week or ten days and taught a comprehensive seminar; one day of mediation training alone will not resolve that engineer’s unpaid promissory notes. But the creation of cross-cultural linkages and the sharing of expertise is a fine start. In the case of Louis, he now has a better concept of the problems people face here and an open invitation to return for a longer training. The Palestinians he worked with have a better idea of how mediation can work in their society as well as a connection to an expert mediator in the United States.

I don’t expect President Obama to speak about the Louis Kushners of the world in Cairo, but I hope that he speaks to them, not just to the people of the Muslim World. The election of our new President offers a unique opportunity to correct some of our post 9/11 mistakes. One of these mistakes was not educating the public about how the human development challenges found in this part of the world impact our national security. Another mistake was not encouraging Americans to do our share in addressing these challenges.

Tomorrow, Barack Obama has the chance to speak to these issues on a pretty large stage. Insha’allah, he won’t miss this monumental opportunity.

No, There is a “Muslim World”

Jerusalem - In the run-up to President Obama’s address to the “Muslim World” in Cairo on June 4, a number of experts have declared that the “Muslim World” is a figment of Usama bin Laden’s ideology. They argue that by accepting a division of the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, President Obama is entering into a field of play into which we as multicultural pluralistic Americans who cherish the separation of church and state can’t possibly succeed. While this is true to some degree it is an oversimplified argument.

Americans certainly have no interest in dividing the world between us and them on any category – Muslims vs. non-Muslims, men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, etc. Our society is based upon the concept that there is strength in diversity and that there are equal rights and the rule of law for all. We do not want to force Muslims to choose their identity as a Muslim (or any other specific identity) over other ties that bind – nationality, ethnicity, gender, and world-view for example. Our society and culture succeeds through inclusion, not by making people choose A and reject B.

So, of course it is a mistake to address Muslims from Indiana to Indonesia with the assumption that each individual prioritizes foreign policy issues based upon his or her religion. The issues of Palestine, Iraq, and Pakistan are important, but for a British teenager in London whose Muslim parents emigrated from India, do these issues trump anti-Muslim discrimination? Or for a 40-year old mother of nine in Sanaa, do these foreign policy concerns matter more than low literacy rates and high unemployment rates of women in Yemen? I don’t think so.

But the U.S. President hasn’t gone to Egypt in search of a new Caliph who will represent the views of all Muslims worldwide. President Obama has demonstrated that he is culturally and intellectually aware enough to understand that the Muslim World is not a united monolithic bloc with a joint platform of priorities that transcends all other concerns. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that at some point in his speech he will offer language that praises the diversity and therefore strength of the Muslim World.

What critics of the use of the term “Muslim World” shortchange is that while there may be more divisions than connections amongst Muslims worldwide, there is undoubtedly a “Muslim World.” The Muslim World is the space and the community that is interested in issues related to Islam. It isn’t a world of borders per se, but of shared ideas and interests that range from discussions about the Koran, to “call to prayer” cell phone ring tones, to foreign policy issues related to the persecution of Muslim minorities. If not the “Muslim World,” than what should we call this intersection and collection of interests among people who practice the faith of Islam? In the same way that there is a Muslim World, there is a Catholic World, an Arab World, a Women’s World, and even a Runners’ World. The list could go on.

If President Obama wanted to go to the Sixth and I Synagogue in DC or to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and give an address to the “Jewish World” about his policy on Israeli settlements, I would be quite happy. Perhaps because of my belief that President Obama is intellectually capable of making the distinction between Jewish Americans, Jewish Israelis, and Jewish Iranians, I would be very interested in hearing the President’s thoughts on issues that jointly impact the “Jewish World” and Americans. I would hope that the President would put his policy on settlements into the full context of international law and the peace process and educate the public about the choices that America is making and why.

I have similar hopes for President Obama’s address to the Muslim World. The President has already committed to an Iraq timetable and the closing of Guantanamo – two of the biggest political issues of interest in the “Muslim World” – so maybe he will address some of the human development problems, such as the absence of personal freedoms and economic opportunities that characterize life in many Muslim majority countries. Or perhaps he will discuss the gap in understanding that has grown between the general American public and Muslims since the 9/11 attacks. These are both worthy topics. There is little reason to express outrage about the proposed audience and to deny Muslims all over the world as well as Americans the opportunity to hear more about these issues and hopefully chart a course in dealing with them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Tel Aviv – With the academy awards approaching, I’ve decided that the best film I saw this year was Waltz with Bashir, nominated for best foreign language film (Hebrew). An animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir presents the experience of war in a unique and powerful way.

While the impending doom of the Sabra and Shatila massacre pervades the movie and pulls the viewer towards the culminating final scene, Waltz with Bashir is about the experience of young men sent to war. The story is told through the lens of (writer, director, and producer) Ari Folman’s struggle to recollect his wartime experiences. When a friend tells Ari about his reoccurring nightmare in which a pack of Lebanese dogs races through Tel Aviv to find him, Ari is confronted by his own nightmare as well as an inability to remember his time in Lebanon 20 years earlier.

In Ari’s nightmare, he and two other young men float ashore to downtown Beirut, M-16s in hand. The city is dark, lit only by the light of flares, drifting like shining feathers to the street below. The three young men rise naked from the water and look like a cross between emaciated concentration camp survivors and gangly teenagers. Ari and his two comrades don army uniforms and glide through the streets of war-torn Beirut, presumably in the direction of Sabra and Shatila. This nightmare sets Ari in motion on a journey to remember what he did in Lebanon, in particular during the 1982 massacre of the Palestinian refugee camp.

If the film was comprised of actual video interviews and newsreel clips, it would be a collection of soul-searching testimonies and horror-filled depictions of war and death. It would appeal to a select audience and be difficult content for everyone else. For this reason, the film’s animated style is remarkable. The animation presents the brutality and trauma of war in a way that allows all viewers to absorb the full picture, beyond the gore. The curly locks of a child beneath the rubble and the flies swarming the glassy eye of a fallen horse remain disturbing, but the animated versions make the images bearable and allow the viewer to consider elements of war beyond the in-your-face destruction.

While the animated style dulls the carnage of war, it deepens the humanity of the film’s main characters. As the now bald, long-haired, or bearded men recall their days as young men in Lebanon with vivid flashbacks, the age is clear on their faces and the scars shine through in a brilliant and simple way. In particular, Ari’s eyes, as well as those of his friend Carmi, have a depth to them that would be hard to achieve with live footage. The animated “sets” are equally remarkable, capturing the drama of each moment in an impossible way. There are poignant shots of Ari standing outside his car in the rain at the Tel Aviv port, of a Palestinian man with a cross carved into his chest being driven away in the back of a truck, and of the Beirut coast lit up at night by those drifting flares.

Further, the documentary’s animated style masterfully reinforces the message of “boys sent to war.” The animation accentuates their youth and irresponsible behavior, as Israeli teenagers machine-gun their way across southern Lebanon, crush parked cars with their tanks, and drink themselves into the night on a boat off of the Lebanese coast. For some reason, the sometimes jerky and sometimes repeating movements of the characters make the involvement of teenagers in the details of war more heinous. Watching a young Ari and his comrades float naked towards Beirut’s darkness, I couldn’t help but think of child soldiers in Africa. They are more like lost boys than an invading army.

It would seem that several of the boys remain lost 20 years later – the characters ring true and offer insight into another part of war. Carmi, the exile, is a boy genius who made a fortune selling falafel in Holland. Ronny, the “anti-hero,” is the now bald boy whose tank was blown up, his comrades killed, and who escaped, alone, swimming south along the Mediterranean coast. And then there are the traumatized ones, too, like Boaz who is haunted by the ghosts of the Lebanese dogs he killed years before and Ari, who in his dreams emerges again and again from the Mediterranean under the lit-up Beirut night.

Military service is compulsory in Israel and there isn’t a generation here who hasn’t had combat experience in the state’s 60-year history. Of course, mandatory service (in this case in Lebanon) is not a pass for shrugging off individual responsibility for one's actions, an area that Folman does not explore in this film. However, beyond this point, Waltz with Bashir successfully offers a sliver of insight into the effects of war on citizen-soldiers. With today’s news cycle, there is no shortage of coverage of the terrible impact that war has on civilians, most recently in Gaza in this last round of fighting. While the psychological trauma of soldiers returned home does not compete with the massacre of civilians and the destruction of cities and homes, Waltz with Bashir is successful in making clear that young men sent to soldier for their country are victims, too.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Black and Gold Cupcakes, a Breakfast of Champions

Tel Aviv - It turns out that American football and the Super Bowl are not the biggest draw at 1AM on a work night in Israel. We invited about 25 Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians to our Steeler party last night and the turnout was a little less than what we expected.

It didn’t bother me at all that some of our guests took turns napping in the back room. Ashley made delicious Steeler cupcakes with black and gold jimmies, the terrible towels were waiving all game, and we even shot off some fake Chinese firecrackers in the living room. I don’t think the neighbors minded at all. I’d already woken them up with my yelling.

Most importantly, we won. What a moment of exhausted satisfaction. By the time we made it to bed it was 6:15AM.

As I wrote to the Sports Guy in his Friday Chat (unpublished for some outrageous reason), “With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, down by four, I’ll take ‘Ben’ over Warner any day.” The guy is a winner – a totally clutch player. For the last two decades, the Steelers have won despite the play of their quarterback. This year, our defense was like something out of Greek mythology, but we were the best last night because of our quarterback.

Put Ben Roethlisberger on that list of champions with Montana, Elway, and Brady. It is a list of legends, of multiple Super Bowl winning-quarterbacks, who shouldn’t be counted out until the clock hits zero. Now Roethlisberger, like Montana and Brady before him, has turned what seemed like inevitable victors to stunned losers under the brightest of lights and on the grandest stage. Like Elway, he has lifted a city, and in this case a nation, to a place where anything is possible. At the same time, he grabbed the state of Arizona and ripped the beating hearts of adoring fans straight from their chests. Their dreams of a victory parade, Rose Garden photo ops, and believing that their one shining moment had come, evaporated into the Tampa night with Santonio Holmes' Swann-like catch.

What an unbelievable game, what an extraordinary finish. Troy Polamalu put it best: "We're the first to win six [Super Bowls] and the way we've done it, with humility, is a great example to carry forward. It's a team that has really taken on the personality of its city. We're very blue-collar, and very hard working. And very nasty as well. This game was so amazing. You are seconds away from me crying in the locker room, and [the Cardinals] being out here. I can't believe it.''

He wouldn’t have been the only one crying, not by a long shot. To love Pittsburgh's teams is to remember red-eye mornings that followed the exploits of Larry Brown, Francisco Cabrera, David Volek, and Jason Goheen. But not this year. Our super season ended with the ultimate outcome. There is a lot to relish between now and the start of training camp this summer.

Yet, even with the championship won, it is sad to see the season end. I might get more sleep, but Sunday nights will not be the same. And I’ll miss those Monday mornings these next six months…

Of course, the good news is that until baseball season starts and the Pirates roll into town, there is always room to hope for more. Pitt basketball is #3 in the country and Dejaun Blair had 22 rebounds against Notre Dame on Saturday. March Madness is right around the corner :)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Steeler Fever and the Super Bowl

Jerusalem – It doesn’t matter how old I get it, how far I travel from Pittsburgh, or how much responsibility they give me when I get there. I can’t picture a fall Sunday without the Steelers or imagine a Monday morning that doesn’t involve the Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports section.

I’m sick. I’m totally sick.

I live seven hours ahead of Pittsburgh and watched 13 games this year. I missed two others because I was on international flights. The blessing of having a good team and cable TV is that with ESPN, FOX sports, and Middle East TV--a Christian satellite channel--I’m almost guaranteed Steeler coverage every week. There have been a lot of late games this year, with 4:15 games starting at 11:15 here and usually going to 3AM. For our Sunday night and Monday night games, I set my alarm for 3:30 or 4 and then go straight to work after the game ends. As David Puddy said, clad in Devil face paint “You gotta support the team.”

The playoff schedule has been tough so far – an 11:45 pm start time for the Chargers and 1:30 AM for the Ravens. I took a nap before both games, drank some coffee, and then jumped on the sofa throughout each game, panning for luck, screaming at the TV, and waiving one of our Terrible Towels (we have like six of them). When Troy Polamalu scored in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, my screams of joy woke up half of the apartment complex.

Post-victory euphoria has carried me through some bedraggled Monday mornings these last few months. My Monday ritual starts with reading the Post Gazette’s coverage front to back. I then hit to check whether they’ve given the Steelers sufficient credit for their greatness. With certain exceptions (Merrill Hoge), the praise there could be more effusive for the Black and Gold. The Sports Guy has been a hater most of the year – probably because the Steelers win late and close and don’t usually cover the spread. My Steeler sickness reaches beyond the sports pages though and into the world of semi-talk radio. I say “semi” because they talk and I listen to pre-recorded podcasts.

I spend a lot of time commuting. During the campaign, I must have listened to every Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, and Political Gabfest recorded. The euphoria of the election left me ODed on politics, though, and I’ve traded Jim Lehrer for Tony Kornheiser. PTI with Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon is great – they’re funny, outrageous, and sufficiently appreciative of the Steelers. There is no excuse though for the time I spend listening to ESPN’s Football Today, a show filled with puddle-deep analysis and minutiae scraped from Bob Costas’ editing room floor. Still, they might say something about the Stillers, so I tune in for as much as I can bear.

I told you, I’m sick.

Every Monday, I try to squeeze the Steelers into my work meetings. That might be ok if I worked in the Athlete’s Foot at Monroeville Mall. But I work in the West Bank, with Palestinians, in villages. No one has ever asked me about why Jerome Bettis was nicknamed “the Bus” or when the lob to Weegie Thompson ever actually worked. Usually, the best I can do on this front is when I’m asked where I’m from; I always answer (in Arabic) “Pittsburgh -- we have the best American football team in the country, the Steelers.” People nod sagely, sometimes confused. Other times they smile at the mention of football. Palestinians love soccer.

Several months ago, I went to the first ever Palestinian-hosted national game. It was at the newly minted Faisal Husseini Field just outside of Jerusalem in Ar-Ram. The roofs of the buildings surrounding the packed stadium were crammed with cheering fans. FIFA officiated the game, stamping it with international legitimacy. As the refs took the field, a Palestinian friend turned to me with tears in his eyes, and said, “FIFA… I can’t believe FIFA is here!” Palestine tied Jordan 1-1; but there couldn’t have been more enthusiasm in the air had the team qualified for the World Cup. National aspirations and soccer – combined together it was a moment of sheer joy.

Is that what it is for me and the Steelers? I love being from Pittsburgh, but it is more than Pittsburgh pride that has me bouncing off the walls in the wee hours of Monday morning. The Steelers do it right. They don’t show up the other team with antics. They aren’t flashy. They are tough and determined and their team effort is beautiful. In years past, we won with defense and a bruising running game. This year, our defense is again legend-worthy, but our team has a clutch toughness. We own the big-play and gut games out in the midnight hour.

In the 70s, the Cowboys were dubbed “America’s Team.”


The Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game in years and now have a reality TV show.

There is something very American about turning ordinary dreams into extraordinary greatness. That’s the Steelers, Pittsburgh, and the Steeler Nation -- that’s how we see ourselves or at least how we’d like for it to be.

Around 1AM on Monday morning, I’ll be waiving my terrible towel in the Holy Land.

Steelers 24, Arizona 20.

We win, America’s Team.