Friday, February 26, 2010

The Village of Ghajar

According to UN cartographic teams, the village of Ghajar lies bifurcated between two countries. Its northern two-thirds is in Lebanon, its southern third in the Israeli-occupied Golan. The village is in a true no-man's land. It was the route of passage of the Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem - just before the swamps of Hulah, the cliffs of granite to their right and the vast Golan to their left. It is also the road of thieves and drifters who hid in the contours of the land, belonging to no one, distant from the Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem or the coastal towns of Tyre and Acre.

The village was originally called Taranje, before the arrival of the Kurds who changed its name to Ghajar, or 'Gypsies' in Arabic. It is very possible that a tribe of the Romani ended up there, as they did in valleys and plains throughout the world. Under the Ottoman Empire, Alawites from northern Syria settled in Ghajar, as well as two other nearby villages in the Golan: Za'ura and Ayn Fit.

Once upon a simpler time, a bus line connected Marjayoun in Lebanon to Qunaytra in the Golan. Ghajar was a stop on that route - its only connection to the rest of the world. Today, the town finds itself in a strange seclusion, surrounded by fields of land-mines to the north (placed there by Israel during its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon), and a fence erected south of the village, similar to the electronic sensitivity grid Israelis have placed elsewhere to detect attempts to cross from Lebanon.

Today's Ghajarites are, however, well adapted to their context. They live in a large village with well-off homes, different in style and size from the poorer Lebanese villages to their north, or the tidy California-style spreads of Israel at Metulla and Kiryat Shemona to their southwest. Source of income of the village: unknown; "border enterpreneurs", if you wish.

The Ghajarites claim they are Syrian, descendants of a man who ran from trouble in the Alawite regions in the north-west of Syria, and who settled in this strange and barren corner. However, they also hold Israeli passports and speak Hebrew, with many of their children educated in Haifa at the Technion University or elsewhere - a function of their adaptation to Israeli rule since 1967. The Ghajarites claim allegiance to Syria, demand the fruits of citizenship in Israel, and want nothing at all to do with Lebanon, where half of them now technically belong.

They are victims of war, the march of history, modern cartography and the borders that have carved up the Middle East. During the rush to create a line of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the UN partitioned the village into two sovereignties. Indeed, it may be that the partition of the village was decided under the pressure to complete the Israeli line of withdrawal from Lebanon, and may not present the most accurate picture of history.

Maps depicting Ghajar, including those made prior to the Israeli invasion of 1967, are very inconsistent. The 2000 partition may have been based on historical and cartographic errors; Ghajar could have been part of any of the entities created at the end of the Ottoman Empire: Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine (1). Indeed, Ghajar is an example of a general problem, the lack of exact border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria. Here, however, the problem is exacerbated by the human dimension: nowhere else does the border apparently cut through a village.

At one point, Ghajar became a flashpoint between Israel and Lebanon/Hizballah. Because the town was a potential infiltration point into Israel from Lebanon, the Israelis took it upon themselves to occupy the northern two-thirds of the village. The Ghajarites have demonstrated actively against being divided, fenced in, and handed over to countries where they do not belong.

Ghajar speaks to a day when political identity mattered much less, and when states did not measure borders to the inch. Certainly, these villagers were once the victims of marauding armies, and, no doubt, they swayed with the prevailing political winds to survive and thrive. But, nobody had previously thought of bisecting their village and its surrounding fields in the name of a proper border. That act took the brilliance and exactitudes of modern diplomacy.

Like other unfortunate "political gypsies" of our time, including the Palestinian refugees, they belong nowhere, in a sense, at a time when everyone must belong somewhere, or suffer the consequences.

(1) This entry is based partly on the study by Asher Kaufman, "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: On Ghajar and other Anomalies in the Syria-Lebanon Tri-Border Region."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Human Journey

Those who liked the subject of our last post, will be interested to hear about a new website which tracks the development of human beings over the last 100,000 years.

The Human Journey is a longstanding web project of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK) - an organization which has been working for decades to increase public awareness about human nature and human capacities and potential.

Drawing upon the latest discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, anthropology and linguistics, The Human Journey website traces the development and evolution of human beings with a view towards our future.

To quote from the website:

The future depends on how we understand who we are, and how that past has made us so: what is unchanging about Human Nature and what we CAN and MUST change to face a world that is far different from our ancestors... If we don't know our history, social and biological, we can't adapt fully to a world that we made.

The website will also be relevant to people interested in the Middle East, not just in terms of its portrayal of early human development in that part of the world, but more importantly, in terms how the past has shaped us into who we are today. This knowledge might provide us with a better understanding of - and could help us to mitigate - the conflicts in the region.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mahmoud Marai, Desert Adventurer and Explorer

Located off a busy Cairo square, in the bucolic and tree-lined district of Maadi, is a small and inconspicuous basement-level office space. At first glance, the room looks no different than most of the dusty and austere apartments that sometimes double for offices in Africa’s largest city. But upon closer inspection, an entire universe spanning eons, opens up.

Found along the office shelves, on its walls and in its corners are curiosities that speak to a succession of bygone eras of natural history: old topographical maps North Africa, prehistoric stone tools, alien-looking rocks and crystals, ancient tribal artifacts, colonial-era regalia, and dusty old journals and academic periodicals.

This veritable storehouse of treasures, flying stealthily below anybody’s radar, is the headquarters and personal sanctuary of Egypt’s youngest Saharan explorer, Mahmoud Marai.

For more than a decade, Marai, age 35, has been at the forefront of deep desert exploration in Egypt. His journeys have taken him to the furthest and most inaccessible corners of the country.

A high-school chemistry teacher by trade, he has spearheaded dozens of journeys to the Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat regions of the Western Desert (also known as the Libyan Desert) – a still somewhat unexplored wasteland of over 700,000 square kilometers known for its cave paintings, prehistoric relics and concealed wadis.

“People say Egypt is ‘The Gift of the Nile’,” says Marai. “But Egypt is also the gift of the desert.”

Undaunted by his lack of experience or training, this self-taught adventurer started by making solo expeditions in a single vehicle between 1998 and 2003 – an almost unheard of (and some would argue foolhardy) - undertaking that nonetheless earned him the respect of other desert guides. After staking out his own claim to the Western Desert, he began work as a professional guide, desert outfitter and explorer-for-hire in 2004.

Unlike other guides, Marai has become known for his preferred method of doing trips into the desert, either largely - or entirely - on foot.

“You can’t find anything by car,” says Marai. It’s totally useless. Most people who travel into this area bypass a lot of rock art and artifacts because much of it needs to be seen on foot.”

During his short career, he has crossed the Great Sand Sea numerous times, has walked hundreds of kilometres overland to the Gilf Kebir, and has explored most of the hidden wadis of the majestic Jebel Uweinat.

His experiences don’t end there. While at Karkur Talkh at Uweinat, he was abducted and held, along with two others, for weeks by a rogue North Darfur paramilitary organization operating along the porous Sudanese-Egyptian-Libyan frontier. The experience, which was life-threatening, shook Marai to the core. But he nevertheless, intrepidly, went back to explore the desert he loved.

In late 2007, Marai, along with Maltese adventurer Mark Borda, stumbled upon Neolithic cave paintings in the Uweinat Desert, some seven hundred kilometres west of the Nile Valley, near the twin massifs of Peter and Paul. Then, at another nearby location, the two surveyors found engravings on a large rock consisting of hieroglyphic writing: a Pharaonic cartouche, an image of a king and other ancient Egyptian iconography.

The implications of the discovery appeared to be significant. The consensus among Egyptologists up until then was that the ancient Egyptians did not penetrate the Western Desert any further than around 80km southwest of Dakhla Oasis – an area of sandstone hills containing hieroglyphs discovered by German explorer Carlo Bergmann. Marai and Borda’s discovery seemed to indicate that the Ancient Egyptians had in fact penetrated much, much, further into the desert than had previously been believed - all the way to the area near the Libyan border.

“The ancient Egyptians had the means, the methods and knowledge to undergo very long journeys in the desert,” says Marai.

Photos of the inscriptions, whose location has been a tightly held secret, were taken to the UK to be looked at by a hieroglyphics specialist. A preliminary translation determined that the hieroglyphs mention the name of a region where they may have been carved – the fabled Land of Yam: one of the most mysterious nations that the Ancient Egyptians traded with in Old Kingdom times.

Marai and Borda both believe that Yam, which has never been positively identified, lay somewhere in the area where they found the inscription.

Despite his best efforts to get the academic and Egyptology community as a whole to recognize his discovery, there has been relatively little interest in the Yam inscriptions. This due perhaps to a lack of willingness to budge an iota from the accepted historical narrative, which sits heavily in text books with the weight of dogma.

Because of the worldwide recession of the last few years, there has been far less of an appetite for internationally sponsored desert expeditions, and much less demand for Marai’s skills. He has since fallen back on teaching high-school chemistry.

But ever the dreamer, Marai looks ahead to the day when he can pick up where he left off and perhaps contribute in his own way to the story of history, which, he maintains, will continue to be re-written, despite of the intransigence of the “experts”.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Changing a Flat

Somewhere in the Nubian Desert between Wadi Halfa and Dongola, Sudan. Winter 2004.