How I nearly pulled the plug on Obama... and other stories
In the second of our two-part series, The Independent's foreign correspondents pick their biggest adventures of 2012 - from a close encounter with the President to a night-time tour of a former war zone
Wednesday 26 December 2012
The US election, by David Usborne
It was a hairy moment. Barack Obama was about to deliver his victory address in Chicago and I was stumbling around in the dark under the scaffolding platform for the television cameras. I was pushing towards the front edge hoping for clear view of the President when I felt a thick cable looping around my neck. It was almost electrocution for me and blank screens for the nation.
As I look back at the election it is the assorted screw-ups and follies that come to mind first. The best of those moments I did not actually witness. It happened at a dinner for fat-cat Republican donors in Boca Raton, Florida, when Mitt Romney said something deeply dismissive about 47 per cent of Americans.
I was at the primary debate in Michigan in January, however, when Rick Perry, the Texas governor, began a sentence with a pledge to close down three government departments in Washington and ended it with an "Oops" that was heard from coast to coast. He could recall only two. He withdrew from the race the next day.
There is usually schadenfreude attached to those days when a candidate, who for months has been evincing such confidence about their suitability for the highest office in the land, has to concede that actually they are not quite up to scratch. Why Michele Bachmann ever thought she was up to the task remains a mystery. It's juicier still if they pull out under a whiff of extra-marital scandal. Remember pizza giant Herman Cain?
The threat of storms forced Mr Obama to move his big acceptance speech in Charlotte indoors, but far more consequential was his out-to-lunch performance at the first presidential debate in Denver. Like everyone I went there assuming the country would see the same Romney I had come to know – wooden, listless and generally unappealing. That it was the President who played that part was altogether flummoxing. In the end, of course, Mr Obama recovered from his errors. Mr Romney did not.
Jaipur Literary Festival, by Peter Popham
It was funny: we were all there to talk about ourselves – or, to be generous, about the great themes our great tomes brought stunningly to life. We were all authors, with the famished ego-hunger common to the tribe. Yet we ended up spending most of our time and emotional energy talking about Another: the biggest beast of the lot.
The Jaipur International Book Festival is, as it declares: "The most prestigious celebration of national and international literature to be held in India." And I was there, not to report it for The Independent but to participate, discussing my newly published biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock.
Yet no sooner had we landed at Jaipur airport than my mobile rang. Independent foreign desk on the line: can you give us a page lead about Salman Rushdie?
Sorry, about who? "Rushdie, you know he's supposed to be speaking but Muslim groups have called for his visa to be cancelled and there's doubt about whether he'll show up…"
Born and raised in Bombay, Rushdie had in fact made several visits to his homeland since the Iranian fatwa. The bad luck this time was that elections were scheduled for Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which has long been a stronghold of the Congress Party, and where Muslims account for 18 per cent of the population. If Rushdie came in the teeth of Muslim rage there was a strong risk that the Congress – in power at the centre – would suffer at the polls. We suspected the mischief was being stoked by the Hindu nationalist BJP.
Would he come or wouldn't he? How would it look if the festival dis-invited him? Should we protest? Would we be arrested if we read publicly from The Satanic Verses? Nobody wanted to talk about anything else. Rushdie, in absentia, carried all before him.
The looting of Egypt's biggest museum, by Patrick Cockburn
Revolutions and wars are a good moment to visit museums and historic sites at other times swamped by tourists. So it has been with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, particularly the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, display cabinets that in pre-revolutionary times were difficult to see because of the jostling crowds.
In fact the Tutankhamun treasures could easily have become a casualty of Egypt's revolution, because on 28 January 2011 police and security guards vanished from Cairo's streets. It was the day that made the regime's fall inevitable. Among those who departed were guards from the Egyptian Museum.
A guide explained to me earlier this year that thieves then quickly climbed onto the roof of museum, broke through a window and let themselves down about 30 feet to the floor. They landed right in the middle of the Tutankhamun display with his golden sarcophagus, jewellery, chair and other wonders. But after 3,500 years even these looked a bit dowdy to the thieves. They took a few items – I think some golden trumpets. But they found the objects on display in the gift shop, such as the gaudy and freshly painted heads of Nefertiti, much more attractive. They took as many of these $100 curios as they could carry, shinned up their rope and disappeared, leaving the priceless treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb largely untouched and unharmed.
On patrol with the Aboriginal Army unit, by Kathy Marks
Australia is home to the world's 10 most poisonous snakes. I thought of that as I unrolled my "swag" – a canvas cocoon incorporating mattress, pillow and sleeping bag – on the scrubby red-brown earth.
Inside, I gazed up at the star-studded Outback sky and revelled in the silence, which was broken only by the howling of dingoes and the snores of my companions.
I was in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, reporting on the remarkable Army unit Norforce, which patrols the country's wild and tropical "Top End". Norforce is one of the few organisations in Australia dominated by Aboriginal men and women; I had wanted to write about it for years, and my wish had been granted.
Norforce's Kimberley Squadron was on a training exercise in an exceedingly remote and inhospitable spot, a day's journey on bone-rattling dirt roads from the nearest town. The squadron was to spend 10 days here and I tagged along for four of them, sleeping outside without toilets or phone reception.
Watching indigenous people, including officers, working alongside and on equal terms with their white counterparts was a unique experience. And, I'm glad to say, I didn't see a single snake or crocodile.
My encounter with Georgia's zebra-loving leader, by Shaun Walker
Working in Russia you deal with a lot of opaque politicians and businessmen, and it is rare to get a glimpse into their private worlds. So it was a dream come true when Bidzina Ivanishvili, formerly one of Russia's most reclusive oligarchs, announced he was running for prime minister in his native Georgia. Ivanishvili, who had never given interviews or even appeared in public, suddenly had to put himself in the spotlight, and I was excited to travel to Georgia and take a tour of his Black Sea estate over the summer, a few months before the elections he would go on to win.
All the rumours about his exotic pet collection proved true: we met Zelda the zebra, as well as parrots, flamingos and peacocks.
Georgia is a fascinating country; in a region of dictatorships, it is one of the only post-Soviet nations to have achieved something close to a democracy. Mikheil Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution in 2003, and although his regime was now becoming unpopular, and people like Ivanishvili accused it of being a tyranny, the way people are happy to criticise their leaders is different to Russia or other countries nearby.
I found Ivanishvili charming, but detached from reality. His main criticism of Saakashvili? "He does not know what love is." Now he is Prime Minister, it will be fascinating to see whether this eccentricity, will help him or hinder his life in politics.
A night-time tour of Mogadishu, by Dan Howden
It was a night out like no other. The head of Somalia's intelligence service wanted to show me that Mogadishu was safe, even after dark, and invited me to come and see for myself. We set out in a convoy of four vehicles with a truck-mounted anti-aircraft battery bringing up the rear. I was sandwiched between two bodyguards hanging their assault rifles out of open windows. Outside on a warm August night I caught my first glimpses of the streets of the Somali capital by night.
We trundled past freshly painted restaurant signs; Ethiopian reggae blaring from a street corner in the bombed-out neighbourhood of Shangani.
There was time to stop at the Sixa ice-cream parlour on 21 October Avenue where at 10pm customers were still filing in for an evening treat. Shopkeeper Omar Nur Mahmoud's signature cup was the Neapolitan, a nod to Somalia's past as an Italian colony. The traditional trio of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla were present as colours not flavours – all three tasted of the same sugary cardamom. Next door in his barber shop, Bashir Said was watching English football on TV. In what many think is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, his main concern was that his beloved Arsenal had drawn a blank against Sunderland.
It was the most convincing evidence I had seen of a revival in the most ruined city in the world. A recovery that defied politics and logic, as well as the occasional suicide bombings. These images will remain as my most hopeful memories of 2012.
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