January 30, 2023

Miniseries Review: "Fauda - Season 4" (Netflix 2023)


Fauda (the Arabic word for chaos) Season 4 is now available in the United States, much to the delight of fans of the series – I’m one. The first three seasons* were all “must see,” and this season again is in that category. I will try to avoid spoilers in my review.

This season’s action shifts to the international stage with operational activities in Belgium, Syria, and Lebanon as well as the usual venues of Israel and the West Bank. The antagonists of this season’s operations are also international – Lebanese Hizballah.

The former chief of the IDF special operations unit, Captain Gabi Ayoub, is running an intelligence source inside Hizballah via the Mossad station in Brussels. The source reports that Hizballah is planning a large operation in Israel and the West Bank. This is unprecedented for Hizballah – normally they strike Israeli targets from their home territory in Lebanon. Operating within the Palestinian Authority is an escalation and exactly what Israel does not want – cooperation between Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Gabi and the main character Doron – now brought back out of retirement – travel to Brussels to make contact with the asset. As with many intelligence assets, at times the case officer has to do a bit of “hand-holding” and reassuring. Suffice it to say that once the two get to Brussels, things go downhill quickly.  The team follows in support.

The asset Gabi is running – Omar Tawalbe – turns out to be the brother of an Israeli Arab – a female Israeli police officer. Lucy Ayoub’s performance as Maya Binyamin (née Tawalbe) is stellar.

As I have advised in the past three seasons, pay attention to the languages being spoken. For the most part, if the characters’ voices are in English, what you are listening to is Hebrew dubbed into English. When the characters are speaking Arabic, the audio is played in Arabic and subtitled. The Arabic subtitles are an interpretation rather than a literal translation, and are generally well done.

I especially enjoyed this season’s Arabic dialog as the characters not only were speaking the Palestinian Levantine dialect, but also the Lebanese Levantine dialect, depending on the venue of the action. For the most part, the Arabic was excellent, although at times a bit of an Israeli accent was evident. This is important since the special operations team often impersonates Arabs. If you are going to do that, your accent has to be perfect.

There are letters and sounds in Hebrew that do not exist in Arabic, and vice versa. During one of my liaison tours with an Arab intelligence service, the officers explained that when they create security challenges and responses (the “password”), they always chose words that are difficult for native Hebrew speakers to vocalize correctly.

For example, Hebrew-speakers have problems with the Arabic aspirated HAH (what we Arabic linguists sometimes refer to as the “hard H”). Hebrew speakers tend to say the Arabic KHAH – Hizballah normally sounds like Khizballah, which raises a flag that the subject is not a native Arabic speaker.

I will complement one of the actors, Itzik Cohen (playing Captain Ayoub), on his vocalization of Arabic. Cohen does not speak Arabic, and is coached on his lines before each scene. It sounds native to me. In episode 1 (minute 26:45), Cohen/Ayoub breaks into an Arabic song (Habibi ya ‘ayni – My love, my eyes) at a wedding, and it is well done.

Season 4 is a definite must watch. As I have commented in the past, enjoying good fiction requires the literary concept of “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, even though you know that some of the things that happen in a book, movie, or show range from “that’s a stretch” to “that’s not possible,” you suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story. 

While there was quite a bit of the suspension of disbelief required in this season, especially the scenes in Syria and Lebanon, it was never to the level that I was tempted to stop watching – in fact, I couldn’t stop watching.

Watch it on Netflix.


*My reviews of the previous seasons:

Season One

Season Two

Season Three

January 7, 2023

Miniseries Review: "Rise of Empires: Ottoman – Mehmed vs Vlad" (Netflix - 2022)


The second season* of this docudrama about the Ottoman Empire focuses on the rivalry/enmity between Sultan Mehmed II** and Vlad III Dracula (also known as Vlad the Impaler), the Voivode of Wallachia, a vassal state under the Ottomans.

The two leaders had a complicated relationship spanning two decades. In 1442, when Vlad was only 12, he and younger brother Radu were sent to the court of Ottoman Sultan Murad II (Mehmed’s father and predecessor) as collateral to assure the sultan that their father – Vlad II, then Voivode – would support Ottoman policies. It was here that Vlad learned to speak fluent Turkish and studied Ottoman culture, including its military strategies and tactics. It was also the time in which he was exposed to Mehmed, who was just two years his junior.

Vlad was released in 1448 after the assassination of his father and elder brother. Although he was able to replace his father, his reign lasted only two month. It was not until 1452 that he was able to reclaim the voivodate.

At this time, Wallachia was required to pay tribute to the Sultan. In return, the Ottomans stayed out of Wallachia’s internal affairs. It was a beneficial arrangement for both sides – Vlad had a throne, and Wallachia served as a buffer to the Kingdom of Hungary, which Mehmed, who had acceded to the sultanate after the death of Murad II, regarded as a threat.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the victorious 21-year old Mehmed set his sights on expanding the Empire further into Europe.

Mehmed continued his conquests in Anatolia with its reunification and in Southeast Europe as far west as Bosnia. During this time, Vlad paid the tribute and remained on the Wallachian throne.

In 1459, Vlad stopped paying the tribute to the Sultan, considering a possible alliance with Hungary. Mehmed sent two envoys to remind Vlad of his obligations and to collect the tribute. Vlad ordered them to be impaled — his preferred method of execution. 

This act of diplomatic perfidy was too much for Mehmed – he mobilized an army of as many as 150,000 troops, including the well-disciplined and highly-trained Janissaries,*** to subdue Wallachia and remove Vlad from the throne.

Without spoiling the outcome of the struggle between Mehmed and Vlad, the conflict reached its zenith during the battle for the Wallachian capital city of Târgoviște in 1462.

After the battle, Vlad left a field filled with thousands of impaled victims as a deterrent to the Ottoman forces. He remains a Romanian folk hero for his fight against the far superior Ottoman forces.

I recommend it, but suggest keeping your internet search engine of choice handy to clarify things that might not be well-known to people who do not have a background in Middle East or Central European history. I needed it as well, since I normally begin my presentations about the Middle East with the defeat of the Ottomans in World War One and the breakup of the empire shortly thereafter.

Watch it on Netflix.


* The first season of this series dealt with Mehmed’s successful conquest of the Eastern Roman Empire capital of Constantinople in 1453, after which it was renamed Istanbul. I reviewed the first season, and highly recommend it.

** Mehmed is the Turkish rendition of Muhammad. His full title was Fatih Sultan Mehmed II (Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror).

*** The Janissary corps was originally manned by Christian youths taken from the Balkan provinces, converted to Islam, and drafted into Ottoman service. Subject to strict rules, including celibacy, the Janissaries were known particularly for their archery, but by the 16th century had also acquired rudimentary firearms.

January 4, 2023

Movie Review: The Swimmers (Netflix - 2022)


Sometimes you need a story that reminds you of the power and resilience of the human spirit. This movie does that in spades.

By August of 2015, the civil war in Syria had been going on for over four years. Having lived in Syria and covering much of the civil was as a military analyst for CNN, this was of great interest.

The violence was non-stop; irreplaceable antiquities were destroyed as multiple factions began killing each other; a flood of refugees* created a humanitarian disaster and forever changed the character of numerous European cities; our nominal Turkish NATO allies strained the unity of the alliance with senseless interventions focused not on the new threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but on a generated/perceived threat from the Kurds in northern Syria while turning a blind eye to their almost open borders allowing jihadi terrorists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe to join ISIS in Syria; and American air support of the only group – Kurds – willing to take on ISIS.

The situation was so chaotic that a month later, the Russians deployed troops to bolster – and save – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, their puppet in Damascus. The Russian intervention was not driven by love for Bashar al-Asad, but to guarantee continued access to a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast at Tartus, and an air base just south of the port city of Latakia.

It was against this backdrop that two teenage sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, decided that the violence in their Damascus suburb of Darayya had gotten so bad that they would try to leave Syria and seek refuge in Europe.

I am very familiar with the Darayya area. When I was posted as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, I lived a mere half of a mile from the area. It is located on the edge of a Syrian air force base which was often the venue of sensitive activities. I took note – the role of an attaché is to observe and report.

Darayya saw massive destruction as the city was initially controlled by opposition groups. Given the sensitive location near the al-Mazzah air base, the regime decided to commit whatever force was necessary to bring it back under control. There was substantial damage to the city, and there were numerous civilian casualties in what became known as the “Darayya massacre.”

These two sisters are not just any teenagers. Both of the girls, especially the younger Yusra, were world class competitive swimmers, and had competed internationally.  Yusra’s goal was to swim in the Olympics. Training at that level during the ongoing civil was impossible, despite being trained by their father, a champion swimmer himself.

I did note that there is almost no mention of the Bashar al-Asad regime in the movie. I am not surprised - the family appears to be proud Syrians, and, the key here, Christian. During the civil war, most Christians sided with the government, fearing the backlash if a more Islamist regime replaced the secular Ba'ath party regime.

I do not want to spoil the flow of the movie. It is an incredible story of the Mardini sisters who finally realized their dreams. I am sure some of it is dramatized, but considering what these girls went through, I can live with it.

Yusra has become a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and Sarah became a volunteer assisting refugees in 2016 on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they arrived in Europe in 2015. Although she was arrested for her activities, she was allowed to post bond and leave Greece. Note to Sarah: Don’t go back.

Sarah and Yusra Mardini
Sarah and Yusra Mardini

When the movie was released at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience gave a four-minute standing ovation for the two sisters and the two Lebanese actresses (Manal and Nathalie Issa). Well deserved, in my opinion.

It’s a good movie and a great story - watch it on Netflix.


* I think the correct term is refugee. These people are not going back to Syria. Why would they?