Archive for September 7th, 2014

Steve Sotloff’s letter to Qatar University: “I want to spend a large part of my life in this part of the world”

Sunday, September 7th, 2014
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“Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

Some have reproached the media for the comparatively scant coverage of the murder of journalist Steve Sotloff on September 2, after the outpouring for death of photojournalist James Foley only a few weeks ago (we wrote about that here).

I plead guilty. I was so revolted by the endless cycle of atrocities coming out of the Middle East, that I couldn’t bring myself to read the news for several days, nor listen to his mother’s desperate plea for mercy on a youtube video. Let me make amends now. Sotloff’s memorial service was on Friday, September 5  – but the mourning will continue for some time to come. Kaddish, I understand, is said for 30 days after the death.

Sotloff had worked for the news magazine Time, as well as Christian Science Monitor, The National Interest, Media Line, World Affairs, and Foreign Policy, and has appeared on CNN and Fox News. A list of his Time articles is here. A list of his Foreign Policy articles is here.

Sotloff was also a practicing Jew – something he hid from his ISIS captors over the last year, for good reason. He pretended to be ill on Yom Kippur, to keep the Jewish fast. He held dual citizenship with Israel, and his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. His friends worked diligently to keep any mention of his Israeli ties off the internet – you can read about that effort in the Los Angeles Times here.

“He said it was scary over there; it was dangerous. It wasn’t safe to be over there – he knew it. He kept going back,” said Emerson Lotzia Jr., Sotloff’s former roommate at the University of Central Florida, told the Central Florida Future. “A million people could have told him what he was doing was foolish, it seemed like it to us [as] outsiders looking in, but to him it was what he loved to do and you weren’t going to stop him.”

ISIS thugs had him read his “last words,” denouncing America, etc., etc., but his real last words were read at his memorial, one of two letters that were smuggled to his family while he was in captivity: “Everyone has two lives,” Sotloff wrote. “The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

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“Stay positive and patient.”

“Do what makes you happy. Be where you are happy … Love and respect each other. Don’t fight over nonsense … hug each other every day. Eat dinner together … live your lives to the fullest. Stay positive and patient. God rewards those who are patient. … If we’re not together again, perhaps God will be merciful enough to reunite us in Heaven.”

He loved his work in the Middle East, and he lived its culture, so much so that he applied to Qatar University to study Arabic. Al Jazeera retrieved a draft of the letter:

May 29, 2010

Dear ANNS Faculty of Qatar University,

I have been aware of the mysterious and romantic qualities of the Arab world since I was a child. Hollywood and cartoons have reinforced such an image of the East for over 100 years. This stereotype has been replaced by another in recent decades, one which portrays this part of the world as dangerous and backwards. In both narratives, the environment is forbidding, and perhaps this is what lured me to the Arab world in the first place.

I had to see this far-away land for myself, and it has been one of the most influential choices in my life. I spent weeks in Lebanon, soaking up the rich, if not delicate diversity that sews that land together. The social tension is so thick there you can cut it with a butter knife, yet my heart is there forever with a love of those people. The feel of turning the corner from a Shia neighborhood to a Christian one is an incredible experience I do not think I will find elsewhere.

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Krak de Chevalier

Syria offered more surprises, for in America we are told that Syrians hate us, and it is a rogue nation. Yet, the people are just as kind, if not more so, than the Lebanese. The rich history of peoples that have conquered the area, from Byzantine to French is apparent as you leave Damascus to the rich countryside and visit magnificent sites like the Krak de Chevalier.

From the tripartite power sharing democracy of Lebanon, to the minority led Syria, to the Jordanian monarchy that claims lineage to The Prophet, peace be upon Him, the Arab world has broken each stereotype the West holds of it and has shown me it is not entirely monolithic, but culturally rich and diverse. To be able to use one language to explore so many different varieties of a culture in so many different countries is a blessing and a gift. However, one can only truly appreciate this gift if he has the ability to speak this language.

I now find myself in Qatar, enjoying a stopover before my several month stay in Yemen to learn Arabic. Yemen is an ideal place for me at the moment because very little English is spoken there, and it will force me to practice in the souks and beyond. It also offers an Arab culture that has been largely untouched by the modern world, and perhaps this can give me a better understanding of the Arab people.

I have tried to learn Arabic in the past, but taking a language course that offers only several hours of instruction each week, and having no native speakers to practice with can only develop one’s skills so far. I believe that a year of university level Arabic in Doha will offer me the ideal atmosphere with great instructors and peers as committed as myself to learn, as well as the ever important social environment to take what I learn in the classroom to my everyday life.

I have decided I want to spend a large part of my life in this part of the world, and I can only do that successfully with the proper skills. Doha amalgamates Qataris with their gracefully flowing white thobes with businessmen from all over the world. This growing hub of the business world makes for a perfect environment to master Arabic and build lifelong networks that will help me succeed. I look forward to the opportunity to study at Qatar University under the Arab hospitality I have grown to love.

As for the snuff video that was made of his beheading, I couldn’t agree more with William Saletan at Slate: “Don’t watch them. Go read about the dead boys, the raped girls, and the captive villagers gunned down for refusing to renounce their faith. Those are the people who die every day at the hands of ISIS. They’re the people whose countrymen we can still save, as we did on Mount Sinjar and in Amerli, by defying the message in the videos. Foley and Sotloff risked their lives, and ultimately gave them, to tell the world about these people. Don’t let it be in vain.” Read the whole thing here.