Sunday, March 9, 2014

Overland by Rickshaw

Canadian journalist, and friend, Adnan Khan, has been covering South Asia and Middle East for over a decade. When not traipsing around Turkey, his home turf, the Maclean's correspondent can usually be found in Pakistan or Afghanistan working on his next feature story.

In 2012, Khan took a much needed break from his reporting duties and embarked on an epic 8,000 km overland journey between Kabul and Istanbul. A trip like that is impressive enough given the distance and dicey nature of some of the areas he travelled through. But it was the underlying purpose of the journey, and the method of travel, that made the voyage even more exceptional.

Khan and his two travel companions blazed through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey in an auto rickshaw - that small, quirky three wheeled vehicle sometimes used for short jaunts in urban areas of the developing world. The trio bolstered that feat, by making several pit stops along the way to put on circus-style performances, and workshops, for underprivileged children.

The group dubbed their travelling road show "The Rickshaw Circus".

You can read all about his amazing journey here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Cult of the Leader

The 20th century has contributed more than its share of political strongmen idolized in propaganda art. Lenin, Mao and Kim Il-Sung are just a few examples of these powerful and enduring cults of personality. 

The Middle East, with its strong tradition of authority figures and periodic flights of ideology, has never been an exception to this tendency towards leader-worship. Travel to any country in the region and you will come face-to-face with these omnipresent images of "the leader”, often staring down from the inside of coffee shops, airport lounges, customs posts, offices - or from along roadsides or the exteriors of buildings. 

These images, which include photographs, are often less stylized than the colourful, dramatic and grandiose propaganda images born of the big Communist countries of last century (Qaddafi, Saddam and the Ayatollahs excepted). 

Drawing on older, more flattering poses struck in their youth, the images ironically come off at times as somewhat bland and unimaginative. Some past examples: a late 80s Hosni Mubarak trying to his best to hold a fine-tuned, friendly smirk; Jordan’s King Hussein beaming from under a red checkered keffiya; and Hafez al-Assad, leaning forward with a disarming grin meant to belie his legendary stubbornness and brutality. 

But outdoing them all, seemingly without effort, is the man whose cult of personality outlasted all others: Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 

Atatürk, who was the founder of the Turkish Republic, has long been treated with godlike reverence by many of his co-nationals. A turn-of-the-century Ottoman officer turned revolutionary, Atatürk seized power after the Ottoman defeat of World War One, beat back the remnants of occupying armies, and declared Turkish Independence in 1923. He then embarked on a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms meant to transform Turkey into a modern, secular, and democratic country. He remained in office until his death in 1938.

A few years before he died Turkey's parliament granted Mustafa Kemal the surname “Atatürk” (meaning "Father of the Turks"). By the same decree, the name was forbidden to any other person in the country. Ever since his passing, any perceived slight or insult toward the man was liable to be met with arrest and imprisonment.  

Whatever one thinks of him (he had, and still has numerous detractors), many Turks still see him as a kind of godman whose accomplishments represent an inviolable pinnacle never to be superceded or reversed. And with such cults of worship come the visual trappings meant to evoke emotion among the populace.

Like his counterparts in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, his pictures and statues grace every open space. Atatürk’s no-nonsense air of steely determination buttressed by good looks, sophistication and self-confidence stand out from the images of his Middle Eastern counterparts - past or present - who often appear insecure or bombastic in their attempts to charm their populations. 

Perhaps the images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reveal a man of a different mettle? And if so, one wonders what he would have thought of Turkey’s deification of both his character, and ideas?

The elevation of an authority figure to the status of a virtual god, not only plays upon the dependency wishes of individuals, but is also designed to help keep the masses controlled and easily mobilized in their internal and external struggles against the “other”. Where such idols thrive, there also exists the widespread problem of fixed thinking.

While Atatürk’s cult may be in decline today due to the continued rise of political Islam, and while some Arabs have awoken to the need to tear down their own political idols, the tendency by cultures in the region to revere authority figures as protective, all-knowing, parents remains very much a reality.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rug Merchant, Saida, 1940s

This photograph, likely of a rug merchant in in the 1940s, can be found in the Guardian newspaper's article on Chafic Ahmad Soussi, photographer of Saida (Lebanon).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Sayings of Omar Ibn El Khattab

Omar Ibn El Khattab was a Companion of the Prophet, conqueror of Persia, the second Caliph after Abu Bakr, and an expert jurist. He was also a man known for his justice as well as for his many sayings. Here is a short selection:

To eat less is healthy, to speak less is wisdom, and to sleep less is worship
To earn a suspicious living is worse than begging.
The person who calls himself learned, indeed he is ignorant, and the one who calls himself from the dwellers of Paradise surely he is from the dwellers of Hell.   
There are three types of people:
  •  Successful: he who listens to the advice of people and ponders over it.
  • Lazy or Lethargic: he who does what he wants without consultation or advice of people.
  • Corpse: who neither gives nor listens to advice and consolation.
The sound of music and that of a mourner are two of the worst sounds.
Do not forget about yourself whilst being concerned for others.
During his Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah, Umar ibn Al-Khattab heard one of the camel drivers singing. People asked Umar ibn Al-Khattab as to why he did not stop the camel driver from singing. Umar ibn Al-Khattab replied, "Music was the camel driver's provision for a journey."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Lottery in Babylon

In Ancient Babylon, once upon a time, a lottery helped to create reality. It began simply enough when commoners drew rectangular bones with symbols on them to see who would gain a certain prize. Some won, some lost, but, quickly, people began to lose interest in this simple game. 

An ingenious citizen suggested the introduction of a few unlucky draws among the "wins", e.g. a certain symbol would result in a monetary fine instead of a reward. Babylonians flocked to this innovation, the tickets sold out, and whoever did not play was considered a lowly coward.

The "Company" that ran the lottery needed to collect the fines in order to pay the winners, and it began to jail those who refused to pay for their unlucky draws. Soon enough, the jail sentence became part of the lottery, i.e. a losing number would land you directly in jail. 

This led to a further rise in popularity of the lottery, but also to demands that it become more accessible to the masses. Until then, the elites, with their resources, had a higher chance of enjoying the terror and pleasure of... chance. Demonstrations and riots ensued until the demands of the people were met. The Company took over all public power in Babylon to ensure equity and probity in the lottery. 

Soon enough, in an inevitable evolution, the lottery also became part of the magical intitiatory rites of the worship of Baal. Every sixty nights, draws were held that would decide a man's destiny. Depending on his draw, he could become a member of the council of Magi or mutilated and dishonored. This advancement meant that events, from murder to marriage, were the result of the confluence and combination of 30-40 draws. Spies were contracted by the Company, and dossiers kept in secret caverns, to make sure the players did not collude - and that King Chance still reigned.

Some blamed the Company of corruption and favoritism. It responded by an argument that has since become Scripture. The Company explained how errors had indeed been made, but that these had only increased the factor of chance, not lessened it. Importantly, it said, the lottery had permitted the introduction of chance into the order of the universe, a "periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos". This principle, however, led to the desire not only to decide a man's destiny by chance, but also the circumstances that led to that fate. The lottery, and the Company's activities, had become a tangle of infinite possibility, draws impacting draws in an endless kaleidoscope of change.

The evolution from there was endless. 'Impersonal drawings' began to take place: someone who bought an amphora of Damascene wine could find a viper within it; a scribe would always include a misrepresentation in his transcript that would be compounded with future transcription errors.

In effect, the Company's operations became a silent functioning everywhere in Babylon. Could every drunken man's screams and the murderer's stabs in the ancient city be a result of its secret agency? Its omnipresence grew until some denied its very existence. Others affirmed that the Company's reality or falsehood made no difference: Babylon was nothing but an infinite game of chance anyway.

Babylon itself experienced the grand lottery of history rising from small village to city-state by 1874 B.C. Later, it became capital of the Babylonian empire and holy city of Mesopotamia under Hammurabi, the great lawmaker. It met its demise through conquest by the Assyrians, Edomites and others, and, later, renewal under the Chaldeans and the "neo-Babylonian Empire" of the 6th century B.C. This incarnation included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Its final decline came under Persian, Macedonian and Roman rule.

Today, Babylon is a mound found between the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, i.e. literally a tell of Mesopotamia. 

'Babylon' is a Hellenization of the original Akkadian name "Babili" or "Gate or Gateway of God"

This post is a summary of a story by Jorge Luis Borges (including misrepresentations)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dealing with the Refugees in the Middle East

"There is no humanity in diplomacy," said a commentator on television recently when discussing the Syrian crisis. Indeed, many of the immediate concerns of "humanity" are left to humanitarian organizations to manage, while other critical dimensions - like providing dignity, legitimacy, and lasting answers - are lost in the turmoil of interest-driven politics.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, wrote an article in the Cairo Review detailing the refugee crisis in the Middle East today. He explains how the creation of a new refugee problem in Syria, combined with the older question of the Palestinian refugees and other lingering problems, have now overcharged the region. The challenge is now vast, leaving host countries with an overwhelming burden:
  • Syrian Refugees: 1.3 million refugees in other countries; 4,000,000 internally displaced
  • Iraqi Refugees: 94,000 refugees still in Syria and Jordan; 1,000,000 internally displaced
  • Yemen: 230,000 refugees in Yemen, most of them Somali; 400,000 internally displaced
  • Libya: 500,000 refugees of 800,000 from 120 nationalities who had originally crossed Libya's borders in early 2011; 60,000 internally displaced
  • Palestinian Refugees: 5,000,000 (eligible for UNRWA services) dispersed throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Without counting Palestinians, this amounts to 2,124,000 refugees and 5,460,000 internally displaced in the Middle East. The grand total who have been cast out of house and home is over 12,000,000. The scale can be likened to the situation of Europe at the end of the Second World War, but in the Middle East, this is happening during a rolling and ongoing series of crises. 

In some smaller countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the recent influx of Syrian refugees amounts to 10% of the local population. Host countries are doing their best but they cannot manage such numbers alone. Furthermore, their citizens feel threatened by unwanted strangers whose presence, they believe, is the cause of an increase in prices and crime. As Guterres points out, the Middle East's tradition of generosity and hospitality is now under heavy pressure. 

What can be done?

International humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR and UNRWA are doing all they can to deliver aid and services (and everyone can donate on their websites). They provide as much material aid as possible; however, the refugees' loss of status, legitimacy and security, equally important needs, are barely attended to. 

Can the region itself do more to address these problems? The automatic answer is that regional actors today are barely managing their own affairs and, although the Arab tradition of social hospitality is strong, it does not translate well into the political sphere. Interestingly, however, some Gulf states, especially the UAE, have become more active in providing funds or serving as logistical hubs. 

As we had mentioned in a previous post, a key problem in the region today is a lack of empathy between groups. There is a desperate need for common purpose and a greater sense of identity than family or tribe. Also, "solutions" in the region all too often take the form of local violent reactions, or, ironically, international intervention. But, there is a large spectrum of possible action in between, especially at the regional level.

Practically speaking, it may be more effective to meet the refugees and host countries' needs through a regional framework. Such an approach would provide greater autonomy and control over the problem, improve coordination between affected countries and the capacity to act locally, and create more organic and cultural links to the refugees, including improving their status in host countries.

Such a potential "Middle East Refugee Organization" can continue to work in close coordination with and through the support of international actors. Critically, such regional responsibility would begin to move the Middle East away from a deep reliance on others to solve problems, and also create a way to begin to chip away at the tribal reflexes that plague the region. Although distrust is rampant in the Middle East, and a core obstacle to cooperation, host countries, like the Lebanese, would do well to remember their own recent experience as refugees. Others may also yet suffer such a fate in the future, i.e. this is a common human problem.

There is no doubt that, as Guterres stresses, the ultimate resolution to this problem is through new political arrangements. However, until this happens, if regional actors and host countries attend to the refugees material and emotional needs, they are far less likely to become the threat that many in the region fear.

As much as this seems contrary to the tough political habits of the Middle East, dealing with the refugee issue regionally may spur a badly needed virtuous cycle in the region, and, in the process, infuse some badly needed humanity into diplomacy. It may also may add backbone to the resolution of other problems, such as regional economic, water and food security issues. 

At the end of the day, these millions of individuals that we call refugees are the victims of history and the dysfunctional politics of the region. Their lot does not mean that their basic needs have disappeared, including the need for dignity despite the loss of home and security. A greater attendance to these common human needs could at least mitigate their tragic experience. 

For a look at the state of Syrian refugees, see this powerful photo essay.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

'Khartoum' The Movie

In 1966, a movie was made about the struggle in Sudan between the British Empire and the 'Mahdi', the awaited redeemer who came to liberate that country from the colonial yoke. One of the two central figures in the film is 'Chinese' Gordon, a man known for his soldierly valour in China as well as his zealous pursuit of the end of the slave trade in the Sudan. In 1880, he was sent by his cynical masters in London to evacuate Khartoum and save British lives (only) from the wrath of the marauding Mahdi.

The film stars Charlton Heston as Gordon, and the great Laurence Olivier, with much dark make-up, as the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. Although the film contains some archaic portrayals that we would now term as 'orientalism', and some of the acting and scenery is ham-handed for our jaded 21st century tastes, it is still of great value.

'Khartoum', the movie, combines great adventure with some hard and true lessons about life. Gordon is suitably played in the classic Heston style, while the Mahdi is almost comically portrayed by Olivier: what kind of inspired leader sticks his small finger into the gap between his front teeth when deep in thought?  

They both represent men who have committed their lives fully to their purpose. Both are 'laws unto themselves', moving with certitude to realize their missions: Mahdi to remove the British; Gordon to save Khartoum from annihilation. Both are fiercely independent. When Gordon is asked why, as a committed Christian he would not turn the other cheek to an enemy, he casually says,"because I am not Jesus."

But, there's an added twist, not only are the two protagonists highly self-motivated, they are also essential to each other. They know one is not fulfilled without the other; they are effectively collaborators in a grander scheme. Gordon cannot live himself out as guardian of Khartoum without the Mahdi's predations, and Muhammad Ahmad cannot rise to glory without the presence of Gordon Pasha in Khartoum. 

In a climactic scene, they meet to negotiate terms only to find that each is ready to die for his cause. And so, in turn, they do, always retaining the greatest respect for each other, opposites fulfilling a hidden purpose.

After Khartoum is taken by the Mahdi's army, and Gordon is killed, his head is brought to the Sudanese leader stuck upon a long spear. Mahdi/Olivier gazes at it in horror, and screams with anger at his henchmen for having so defiled a great man, his enemy, Gordon of Khartoum.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Tragedy in Syria and the Blindness of all Actors

The ongoing tragedy in Syria speaks to the failure of the international system and today's politics. There is a reality and a cause behind this debacle.

All the major actors at play in the Syrian drama are somehow blind to their own motives, and to other key dynamics around them, i.e. they have an inability to see beyond their own nose while dealing with complexity. This context blindness has been given a name by psychologists, 'Caetextia', and it may be to blame for the inability to find solutions.

All sides are acting like conflicting vectors without reference to one another; the result is tragedy, death and destruction for millions of Syrians and potentially for surrounding countries. The recognition of this blindness - this inability to read context - is a first step in finding answers. The full article on this matter can be found on The Planisphere.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

'The Sufis' by Idries Shah

Years ago, while living in Cairo, I was invited by some friends to a poor corner of the city to watch a weekly performance of “Sufi musicians”. The no-frills, nighttime shows were set in a dusty, open-air courtyard deep in a maze-like neighbourhood and were frequented mostly by Egyptians.

At that time I held the all-too-conventional notion of the Sufis as the reveler-mystics of Islam. Previously, I'd visited the much-touted (and touristed) "whirling dervishes" across from Khan al-Khalili bazaar who entrance visitors by drumming and spinning their conical skirts about like tilt-a-whirl rides at an amusement park (their Turkish counterparts have achieved global fame with their own version of the same show). I’d also read about other permutations of the sect worldwide defying nature by eating glass, walking on hot coals and piercing their cheeks with shish-kebab skewers. 

These exotic stunts were doable, its performers said, by virtue of sheer faith and the divinely inspired powers, which were its fruits.

As it turned out, the show in the dusty courtyard was in much the same vein as the others, replete with pendular motions, gyrations and rolling eyeballs. Though mildly entertaining (the music was good), it didn’t do much to add to, or dispel from the idea that Sufis were soft religionists expressing their love of God through frenetic personal rapture.

Later that same year, I stumbled across a book which was written, in part, to shatter those prevailing notions and to set the record straight about what Sufism is – and isn’t. 

In the appropriately titled, The Sufis, author Idries Shah argues that the West, lacking information known in the East for centuries, has cultivated an incomplete and distorted picture of Sufism - and of spirituality and mysticism in general. What we tend to call Sufism, he says, are the outdated forms of that movement, or amalgams of those forms, repackaged to appeal to our emotions. 

Genuine Sufis, the booked asserts, are followers of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge, that is flexible and ever evolving, and which aims to bring its adherents to a true understanding of the nature of reality – which the biological brain, operating in a certain mode, cannot ascertain on its own. Sufis, Shah says, far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity that predated Islam. 

If we find it hard to resist the reflex to associate Sufism with anything other than Islam, it’s because it was in those Muslim regions, during the Middle Ages, that Sufism saw its most rapid flowering. The artistic and intellectual achievements of that period are not only too numerous to catalogue (encompassing every known discipline from chemistry to cartography to psychiatry), but are also difficult to overstate in terms of their importance for humanity. Those high pinnacles of achievement that was Sufi knowledge constituted the very foundations upon which succesive civilizations would rest. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Troubadours, the Knights Templar and Freemasonry are just a few of the numerous examples of Sufic influence upon the West.

Shah, who was part of a long lineage of savants (he died in 1996), also tried to emphasize in The Sufis that the West still had a great to learn about the process of learning higher things. 

For one thing, many people still tend to confuse emotionalism (feeling) with real spirituality (higher perception). It's partly because of this that people continue to be drawn to the more colourful trappings of traditional eastern religions (and their cultic offshoots), with their chants, costumes, gurus, symbols, and feel-good rituals.  Excessive emotion, like that seen among the Sufi musicians in Cairo, for instance, rather than being a true refining quality as is generally still believed, can instead be a blunting instrument.

There is a real path of inner development, say the Sufis, but it does not appeal to or feed that part of the self that seeks the lower gratifications on offer from cults. Real knowledge is said to come experientially, and in a prescribed fashion. Much of that process involves taming our blinding animal nature – an entity described by the Sufis as “The Commanding Self” - whose fundamental purpose is its own unrelenting aggrandizement and survival.

These, plus many other fascinating revelations abound in The Sufis, helping to propel the book into a classic; one which has been described as “a seminal book of the century.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Joy and Pain of Beirut

Tom Young is a British painter who has developed a fascination for Beirut and Lebanon and depicted it in his work. He points out that the city provided him with the symbols of both 'joy and pain' and their co-existence. No doubt, there is little shortage of either in Beirut and Lebanon.

Tom Young's attitude and craft are discussed in this pleasant video that also depicts photographs of a Lebanon long-gone, one that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who lived there during that era.

Young states that his work focuses on memory and longing, as well as rebirth and recovery. Lebanon is indeed penetrated with sentiment and melancholia; the people's faces, and often their taste in music, reflect these longings. Their actions do also speak to the patch-up and the constant recovery from war.  

The video also has a quote which may be relevant in these circumstances: "There is a circle called sentiment and there is the compulsion to break free of it. In the negative space between contraries we learn to venture."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Egyptian People

Once, while having coffee at the Shepherd´s Hotel in Cairo, I was told that Egypt had never had more than 2-3 million people until the early 20th century when the population exploded reaching the 80-90 million people of today. Disease and child mortality had kept Um Eddunya (¨The Mother of the World¨) to an organic size until modern sanitation and medicine arrived from the West, bringing with them longer and healthier lives and a massive population explosion.

Cairo, and other places in Egypt, are a testament today to this overpopulation. High density streets, noise pollution, miasmic air, more suggestive of a gas chamber than an atmosphere, and a murky Nile all speak to this reality. And yet, a walk through Cairo remains a window onto the unique beauty of the Egyptian people, despite their vast and considerable tribulations.

A cripple with crutches clambers on to a Vespa and putters off into the crowded streets. A stranger helps two ladies, old and young, cross the maniacal traffic (the way they relate suggests long term intimacy rather than the distance common to strangers in the West's public space). Taxi drivers outside the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel dance to Arabic tunes beside their empty cars even though tourism and their revenues are very much down.

The Egyptian people demonstate warmth, humour and resilience where many others would be be wallowing in a somber depression. There is also a sense that all individual Egyptians belong to one human organism stretching from Alexandria to Aswan. From Nasser´s state socialism, to Sadat´s private sector experiments, to Mubarak´s oligarchy, to today´s amateurish rise of the Muslim Brothers, Egyptians have not been well served by their governments. Differences of economic class and political views now abound, especially after the Pandora´s box was opened through the revolution. But the hand -  and what is in it - remains outstretched from Egyptian to Egyptian, helping all manage from day to day.

Of course, this is also partly the problem. The country needs a long term economic plan and new social mechanisms to compete and thrive in the 21st century, not just this organic form of care. Poverty, ignorance, and many archaic and oppressive norms continue to plague the country and thwart new development.

Despite this harsh reality, there remain lessons to be learned for the rest of us. Unlike in the West, and even in some Middle Eastern countries, many basic emotional needs are met in Egypt day-to-day. The once-powerful civilization has also left its distant imprint in the sense of belonging to greater context, and to each other. These are two golden strands of human potential amidst Cairo´s brown and dusty chaos. Somehow it still seems more fundamentally human than the cold towers and technological efficiencies of more modern realms.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Three Portraits of 20th Century Egypt

By Photographer Angelo Boyadjian, Cairo, 1950s
Dalida, singer (left); Egyptian fruit vendor (centre); Omar Sharif, actor (right)

Friday, April 19, 2013

A New Green Arabia

Most analysis points to economic failure, unemployment and corruption as the lead causes of the uprisings in the Arab world. Certainly, the frozen and oppressive political cultures have not delivered what people need, neither materially nor, equally importantly, psychologically in tems of dignity, autonomy and other key needs. 

However, there is mounting evidence that changes in the Arab world are also the result of a larger global process: climate change and the poor human response to the changes we are creacting on the planet. The Center for American Progress, the Stimson Centre, and the Center for Climate and Security have produced a collection of essays that demonstrate how climate change has disrupted the Arab world.

Climate change is causing fluctuations in food supplies and prices across the world, but the top nine wheat importers in the world are in the Middle East, and seven had political protests and violence in 2011. Furthermore, the Middle East is already one of the driest regions of the world, with considerable water security problems.  In terms of political culture and structure, the Arab world was and continues to be ineffectively set up to react to these very significant challenges. Indeed, the whole planet and all countries will have to manage and adapt to these human-created shifts. The Arab world may simply be the weak link in the chain in terms of both resources and political resilience and the ability to react successfully to these global challenges.

We have discussed before how our ¨old mind¨, with its simple and dramatic perceptions and built-in greeds, cannot perceive slower change or see the larger picture (Old World New Mind), such as how our behaviour affects the climate. We are all somehow victims of the world we ourselves have created, and the Arab world may simply be the worst victim of all.

Despair need not be the response to this realistic diagnosis. The report discussed here and others suggest constructive ways forward, including "greening" Arab economies (underway to some degree in some countries), adopting innovative technologies and aligning government policies with these critical steps. However, as we see every day, Arab politics, especially post-revolutions, are immersed in ideological or ethnic battles that suck up all the society´s resources in a massive distraction scheme from the necessary work of responding to these very real life challenges.

The Arab world and the Middle East can respond successfully to the water, food and resources needs of its populations and the inevitable pressures of climate change. This will demand, however, new kinds of thinking and paradigms: regional perspectives, cooperative rather than zero-sum game approaches, including between private and public sectors, and a considerable shift of understanding about human behaviour. One of the key paradigms that needs to be inculcated in this process of evolution is that human behaviour cannot be changed until it is better understood (see Human Givens and our posts on The Missing Piece).

If these steps are taken and greater awareness does occur, there is no reason why the future could not see a new "Green Arabia".

Monday, April 15, 2013

Armenia's City of Ghosts

Situated at the far-flung reaches of eastern Turkey, just metres from the border with Armenia, is the ghost city of Ani. The ruins of this once stately medieval capital - home to over 100,000 Armenians at its apex in the 11th century – sprawl across an undulating steppe land and hint at a civilization said to have rivaled Cairo, Baghdad and Constantinople. 

Armenian builders and masons, once famed throughout the Middle East for their ingenuity and mastership, reached the pinnacle of their craft at Ani, building magnificent structures of which only a few remain today. Although the city’s 5th century founders chose a site as defendable as any in the region, nothing could compensate for the fact that Ani - and Armenia in general - was parked in the middle of an ancient autobahn used by armies to cross continents.

The city was pummeled time and again by waves of marauders; its residents slaughtered repeatedly, only to re-populate the town and face fury of the next interloper. The Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and the warriors of Tamerlane each dealt Ani heavy blows in succession, bleeding it of its vitality until it became a dusty, ruinous shell in the possession of the Ottoman Turks. 

A visit to the ruins of Ani today is something of a poignant affair. Though nearly finished off by earthquakes and the ravages of time, the city emits the haunting emanations of a place still - somehow - occupied. Winds blowing into the site from Central Asia and the Caucasus carry Ani's forlorn whispers. 

Its great 11th century cathedral, gutted and empty, stands solitary amid the vast expanse of ruins with tufts of grass growing on its roof, looking like a titanic 19th century European cottage. The circular Church of the Redeemer, seen fulsome and intact from one side, becomes a half-circular shell when looked at from the other – a full side of the building was blown to smithereens by a massive lightning strike in 1955. Kurdish shepherds and their flocks move quietly through the site, with the sheep’s bells ringing to the sound of the wind and the enduring silence.

The kind of charged politics that led to Ani’s demise also endures. Atop an ancient castle, off-limits to tourists sits a garrison of the Turkish army. The soldiers face the adjacent border posts of the Republic of Armenia, situated across a deep ravine of the Akhurian River. 

Despite recent attempts by both sides to let go of their historical and political differences, the border between the countries remains closed, and both governments are still not talking. So stubborn and vitriolic is the hatred that the tourist billboards at the entrance to Ani don’t even mention the words “Armenia” or “Armenians” in conjunction with the site’s history.

Blood, trauma, ghosts, and layers of misperception and misunderstanding have created a politics of obduracy - and an invisible and unnecessary wall between peoples and cultures as thick and solid as the great stone wall that encapsulates Ani and its ghostly lamentations.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hassan Sabah and the Assassins

Of the many historical tales and anecdotes arising out of the Middle East, few offer the kind of salaciousness and intrigue as that of the story of “the Assassins”. It is a narrative both entertaining and fascinating, but when scrutinized, may reveal something about the way history is made.

As the Middle East of the 12th century buckled under the weight of the invading Crusaders and the ensuing political chaos that followed in their wake, a wave of brazen murders targeting some of the most powerful people in the region began in earnest. 

Representatives of different ruling powers – political, military, bureaucratic and religious – started falling to the daggers and arrows of shadowy murderers who killed with astonishing daring. With no obvious pattern or motive, these killings of mostly Sunni officials were seen as originating from outside the fray of the region’s overlapping conflicts.

Stories soon began to circulate of a strange figure said to be holed-up in an impenetrable mountain fortress in northern Persia with an army of fanatical disciples. This “Old Man of the Mountain” was none other than the formidable personage of Hassan Sabah. A religious leader of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, Sabah was the first in a line of politico-religious demagogues believed to be waging a clandestine war against the rulers of the Middle East. 

It was known that Sabah had studied at a religious school in Cairo, and had risen to become an outspoken and controversial figure. After falling out with authorities in Egypt following a failed power grab, he and a handful of disciples made their way to his native Persia. There he moved between principalities until finally settling at a place in the Alborz Mountains known “Alamut”. From a rugged alpine fortress, Sabah went about creating a rigid and messianic cult-like society devoted to attacking and destabilizing the region’s competing empires. 

The Ismaili Fatimids of Cairo, the Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad, various Seljuk rulers, and even the Crusaders, were all said to be targets of his army of shadow warriors. Numerous redoubts of this strange new sect had also reportedly sprung up throughout the mountains of Syria. Stories of these interlopers, which grew ever more outlandish over time, circulated in an environment of intermittent warfare where the lines demarcating friend from foe were in constant flux.

During the two centuries in which the Crusades were fought, this obscure sect, led by a succession of rulers, was known by various names, including: 


They were names that would ultimately morph into the English word “Assassin” – denoting a hired professional murderer who kills by stealth.

The stories depicted these partisans as an elite corps of fanatical religious killers who had infiltrated Middle East society at all levels, awaiting orders to plunge their daggers into the hearts of men of political prominence. “The Old Man of the Mountain” (a name attached to ALL the rulers of Alamut, even after Hassan’s death), was the chief mastermind of this menace, carrying out his plans from an unreachable castle perch.

The famous Venetian traveller and merchant, Marco Polo passed through the environs of Alamut in 1273, some two decades after the Mongols destroyed the Assassin headquarters. While there, Polo collected from the locals information passed down about this erstwhile group. 

Of all the depictions of the Assassins throughout history, Polo’s would be the most memorable – and most often quoted. According to the Venetian, the Old Man of the Mountain gained his adherents, his Ashishin, by some of the dastardliest methods of subterfuge. 

Male recruits were drugged to the point of unconsciousness and relocated inside a beautiful garden where they awoke and partook in all manner of sensual pleasures. This, they were told, was a foretaste of the rewards for those willing to sacrifice themselves to the political cause. The adherents were later drugged again and removed from the gardens. When they regained consciousness they were told that they had been given a sneak preview of paradise. Only through obedience and servitude could they return there again, post-mortem.

Marco Polo asserted that through these, and other manipulative techniques, The Old Man of the Mountain brainwashed his army of fanatical murders. European writers, stupefied by these romantic histories later added to them, suggesting that all the various names for the assassins - “Heyssessini”, “Assassini”, “Ashishin” - were derived for the Arabic word hashish (and its variations describing people who take hashish, i.e. - hashishiyun) – thus lending weight to Polo’s story. 

Different versions of this tale have endured over several centuries, inspiring many written works. Interestingly there is another little known interpretation of events, albeit less dramatic, and which depicts Hassan Sabah and his supposed assassin underlings in a less damning light.

In an article written in 1922 by Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah entitled “General Principles of Sufism”, Hassan Sabah is portrayed not as a killer, but as a mystic who led an Ismaili reform movement in isolated communities in Iran and Syria. According to Shah, his earlier training in Cairo took place at an esoteric school known as “The House of Wisdom” - an Ismaili version of its famous namesake in Baghdad that was devoted to the acquisition of knowledge. 

Shah suggests that Hassan, a natural luminary who had risen through the ranks of knowledge “saw clearly that the plan of the society of Cairo was in some respects defective.” He likely voiced his opinions and fell foul with the Ismaili religious leadership whose displeasure with his ideas forced him from Egypt. When he retired to Persia, he remodeled the Cairo coursework and set up his own esoteric school to inculcate the knowledge of Reality, which, mystics assert, lies at the heart of all religions.

What we might infer from this version of events is that Hassan and his pupils, operating in relative obscurity, may have unwittingly become the basis of a rumour that sought to explain the mysterious murders - and which then grew out of the control during the early Middle Ages.

“Around the figure of Hassan cluster many legends and traditions, most of which have been highly coloured by the passage of time,” Shah writes.

We will likely never uncover the real facts of that period - a confusing amalgam of power struggles and wars between shifting alliances and groups, both local and foreign; a situation which at times bordered on anarchy. 

But, bearing in mind the confusion of the period, the fact that murder for private and public reasons was common at the time, and that the human proclivity for assumption and imagination can be almost limitless, it seems possible that the story of the Assassins, as it has come down to us, may very well have been a distortion of some other reality. 

The Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, in his fictional novel Samarkand, puts forward an idea, which, when looked at closely, may lend credence to Shah’s argument. 

Referring to Assassins, Maalouf writes:

“[...] their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, 'hashish-smokers'; some orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word 'assassin'...The truth is different. According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning 'foundation' of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to 'hashish'."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Al-Mu'tasim - Mirrors

"He who goes in quest of aid"

Al-Mu'tasim is the name of the eighth Abassid ruler who was victorious in eight battles, produced eight sons and eight daughters, owned eight thousand slaves, and ruled for a period of eight years, eight months and eight days. It's also the name of a character from a Jorge Luis Borges story who has nothing to do with that Abassid ruler. Like many of the Argentinian writer's tales, we enter a world of mirrors and ambiguity, and of sudden discoveries at the most astounding times, and in the most unusual places.

A law student in Bombay renounces his Islamic faith, and finds himself in a battle between Hindus and Muslims during a Moharram procession. An anonymous figure is stabbed and dies; our lawyer enters the ensuing battle, and kills a Hindu. He runs, escapes a "lean and evil mob of moon-coloured hounds" and finds refuge in a circular tower. There, he climbs an iron ladder and meets a filthy old man complaining about Gujarati horse thieves. He flees further, engaging the zoo of humanity.

According to Borges, so begins the tale¨The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim¨, a fantasy story of this lawyer´s descent into iniquity, and from there into realization. He dives deep into confusion, fornicating in the Machua bazaar in Calcutta, and narrating the death of a blind astrologer in Benares, before hitting bottom. 

Finally, back home in Bombay, he suddenly sees in another abominable man, the reflection of a friend of a friend of a friend: Al-Mu'tasim, a figure of shining brightness and clarity. The lawyer suddenly realizes that we all have some aspect, a varying grade, of that ultimate incarnation.  He then begins his ascent in a devoted search for that bright light of humanity, mirrored in all that he meets.

Like the character of Jesus and his readiness to consort with the poor and the leprous, and like many Borges characters, the main protagonist in Al Mu'tasim realizes the presence of the divinity in the abominable. But, according to Borges, not only are all reflections, dim or strong, of that divine light, but the search is not limited to the lawyer from Bombay, or any one of us: ¨the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a superior...Someone, and so on, to the End...of Time.¨  

As the lawyer´s ascent proceeds, his search takes him from one meeting to another, until he meets a saint who precedes a Persian bookseller, who in turn precedes Al-Mu'tasim himself, a glowing light recognized only by his voice (at which point the novel ends).


Who knows what is fiction, fact or fantasy in the world of Borges? He uses the Middle East and Islamic world, its grand history and its attractive confusions, to cast a fun shadow on reality. 

In one chapter of this story, there are hints that the Persian bookseller's words to Al-Mu'tasim are, in fact, the lawyer´s. In another, the indication is that Al-Mu'tasim is the Hindu that the law student may have murdered. After the quest ends, and before it began, it seems the seeker and the sought may after all be one. Borges's specialty, in one story after another, is to take us to that reality. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The White Synagogue of Toledo

Today, Western style skyscrapers have spread to the desert of the Gulf and the Pacific coast of China. Once upon a time, Arabic-Islamic architecture also spread from its origins in the Middle East to Spain and other places where Islamic civilization blossomed.

One of the many stunning examples of the beauty of that style in the Andalus is the ´White Synagogue´ of Toledo, a building estimated to have been built in the 11th century. It was a centerpiece of the city's thriving Jewish community and was a typical case of mudejar art: Muslim architects building for non-Islamic purposes in Christian Spain after the reconquista - this time for a Jewish community. Its space of repeating white 'horseshoe' arches creates a unique sense of serenity and purity.

Under the Arabs, Toledo was a centre of learning that helped pass the knowledge of antiquity, and of the east, northwards to Europe. This tradition was carried on in the city after the Christian conquest, especially through the Toledo School of Translators. The spirit of tolerance of the city was sadly lost: Jews were slaughtered by Chirstians in this very synagogue in 1395. However, the building still stands, recently renovated: the oldest standing synagogue in Europe.