Murder in Somalia, &c.

Fartuun Adan, a Somalian human-rights activist: widow of Elman Ali Ahmed, murdered on March 9, 1996, and mother of Almaas Elman, murdered on November 20, 2019 (Oslo Freedom Forum)
On a great family, Russia, Ukraine, higher ed, language, and more

Last week, as Marie Yovanovitch was testifying before Congress, President Trump tweeted, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”

Somalia was indeed one of her first posts, in the mid-1980s, when she was in her twenties. She had recently joined the Foreign Service. She was not responsible for Somalia. She was a very junior officer. Plus, the United States is not responsible for Somalia.

That country has long been wretched, afflicted by war and epidemic rape.

Yovanovitch has served mainly in very difficult posts. She has been ambassador in three countries, all of them former republics of the Soviet Union. She has been appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. She grew up speaking Russian.

Her father was a refugee from the Soviet Union. Her mother’s parents were refugees from the Soviet Union too, and she — the ambassador’s mother — grew up in Nazi Germany. That required another flight, i.e., another fleeing.

Two days ago, I read a headline that jolted me: “Almaas Elman, Somali-Canadian Activist, Is Shot Dead in Mogadishu.” The article said, “A Somali-Canadian aid worker and activist was shot dead on Wednesday in Mogadishu, . . . dealing a new blow to efforts by the Somali diaspora to return home and help rebuild the country after decades of war.”

I knew that name, Elman. Earlier this year, I listened to Fartuun Adan, at the Oslo Freedom Forum. I wrote,

With her husband, Elman Ali Ahmed, she worked for peace and human rights. In the early 1990s, when threats against the couple intensified, they agreed that Fartuun would flee with their children to Canada while Elman stayed behind to continue the work. In 1996, he was assassinated (by warlords).

Have a little more:

Amazingly, Fartuun returned to the country ten years later, to run a foundation named after her husband. She helps people, of various sorts, in various ways. For instance, she helps rape victims, of whom there a many. A great many. Like Congo, Somalia has a “rape culture.” “I’m a mom,” Fartuun tells us. “I have girls.”

And finally,

She has received recognition in several quarters, including the U.S. State Department, which named her an International Woman of Courage.

Yes. These people often pay with their lives. First there was Elman Ali Ahmed, and now there is his daughter Almaas Elman. What a family. I admire them a great deal. Hard to find the right words.

I think of Fartuun Adan, whose husband was murdered, and whose daughter has now met the same fate — in the same work, namely human-rights work, or peace-and-reconciliation work. Again, hard to find the words.

• Yesterday, I wrote about Fiona Hill, the Russia expert who testified before Congress. She said, “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

She added, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016. These fictions are harmful even if they’re deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”

The day before — Wednesday — Putin had been feeling pretty good. He said, “Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

Not everyone has fallen for it. Many, but not all.

“I can’t believe we were at the same concert!” people will sometimes say to me, after reading, and disagreeing with, a review of mine. The current impeachment drama is a little like that. We hear and see the same things and come to radically different conclusions.

It is almost impossible to talk about — the current drama, I mean.

Some people look at the lineup of Yovanovitch, Hill, Alexander Vindman, William Taylor, et al., and say, “Trustworthy, patriotic, honorable.” Others say, “Dirty liars.” Then there is the lineup of Trump, Stephanie Grisham, Jim Jordan, Sean Hannity, Kevin McCarthy, et al., and you have the same reactions, radically opposed.

• Two years ago, I talked with Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader. Twice, he has been the victim of poisoning. Twice, he has survived. I asked him about Ukraine — why it is important in the context of Russia.

“The most important motivation of Mr. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine was not geopolitical,” said Kara-Murza. He was talking about the seizure of Crimea and the launching of war in the Donbass. “It was not related to foreign policy. It was domestic.”

He elaborated as follows: “When Mr. Putin saw those images of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Kiev, and those images of Mr. Yanukovych hastily boarding his helicopter and fleeing — he didn’t enjoy those pictures. It hit too close to home. Think of it: a kleptocratic strongman, forced out of power by mass protests on the streets of the capital.”

Viktor Yanukovych was the Ukrainian leader from 2010 to 2014. He was the one for whom Paul Manafort worked. (Manafort would later lead Donald Trump’s campaign, and he is now in prison.) Yanukovych is in Russia — to which he fled five years ago — and is wanted back in Ukraine for high treason.

In Kara-Murza’s view, Putin fears a Ukrainian-style democratic uprising in Russia. “That may sound unlikely now,” he told me,” but “it was unlikely in Ukraine, too, until a few years ago.”


• Last Friday, President Trump issued pardons for servicemen convicted or accused of war crimes. “We train our boys to be killing machines,” he had tweeted, “then prosecute them when they kill!”

I like something that Ben Shapiro tweeted on Veterans Day, November 11: “Thank you to those who have served and are serving in the US military, the greatest, most moral military on the planet.”

Someone responding to him said, “Not sure what a moral military is but happy Veterans Day.” I knew what Ben meant, and I bet most Americans — most people — do too.

• Another Trump tweet, on a different subject: “Our great Farmers will recieve another major round of ‘cash,’ compliments of China Tariffs, prior to Thanksgiving.” Compliments of China Tariffs? I used to say, “Economic ignorance is the greatest thing the Democratic party has going for it.” One could say the same now about the GOP.

• Andrei Serban is a theater director, born in Romania. He came to America in 1969, when he was in his mid-twenties. I have reviewed him at least once: here. I raved about a Faust of his at the Metropolitan Opera. At the time, he was a professor at Columbia University.

A friend has sent me an article from The College Fix, headed “Columbia professor who fled communism resigns, says university is becoming communist.” That is Serban. Fascinating story. Involves a transgender Juliet.

You would not want to drive such as Serban away, I wouldn’t think.

(By the way, I would last about two seconds on a college campus. The first day, I’d use the wrong pronoun or something, and that’d be it. Finita la commedia.)

• Another story out of higher ed: The chairman of the math department at the University of California–Davis, Abigail Thompson, says that “diversity statements” are like the loyalty oaths of the past. Darned interesting, and Professor Thompson is brave as hell.

To read about this, go here.

• Feel like some music? A handful of reviews, I mean? These are from The New Criterion (its website, in particular). For a review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, in an all-Prokofiev concert, go here. For the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Andris Nelsons, with Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, go here. For Tristan und Isolde — Act II, only — with the National Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda, featuring Christine Goerke and Stephen Gould in the title roles, go here.

• Two days ago, I had a piece called “Isn’t It Romantic? (Not Necessarily.)” It was about farm work, factory work, the Third World — and the error of romanticization. A reader writes to me,

Hi, Jay,

. . . thought you’d get a kick out of this bit of trivia: The shortest professional review ever given to a movie is Leonard Maltin’s review of the 1948 musical Isn’t It Romantic? The review reads, “No.”

• My Monday Impromptus, I ended with a language note, concerning “I,” “me,” and “myself.” People tend to screw those up, badly. A reader says,

You struck a nerve with your item on first-person pronouns. . . . I once considered writing an essay on the topic and calling it “‘Me’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word.”

Good one! Thank you for joining me, dear readers, and have a great weekend.

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