Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A View from the Citadel

Aleppo, Syria

Photo copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Aqabat Esh-Sheikh Rihan

Old City of Jerusalem

Photo copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Making Bread

Bakery, Kabul, Afghanistan

Photo copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Reconstructions of skulls of Jews living in Galilee at the time of Jesus show a face a little more robust than the ‘Roger Moore’ look-alikes, the haunted blonde archetype, that signify the Christ for modern Western Man. It is likely that Jesus did indeed look more robust than these fair depictions: the azure eyes are basically not very likely.

Nassim Sayah, a friend of mine from Aalma As-shaab, a village in the south of Lebanon, a stone’s throw from the border with Israel, has a Gallilean’s skull. And, like Jesus his possible ancestor, it is sure that it his eyes speak a kind of truth. They are golden, and twinkle about some hidden secret.

The region he comes from is a rural suburb of Galilee, an area of olives and blue sea between Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre and Sidon. Beyond, to the east, lies distant Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon, "Jabal el-Sheikh" as it is called, for the snow on its peak is reminiscent of the white skull caps that elders here, “sheikhs”, wear.

Nassim survived the 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon by the Israelis, miraculously and happily managing to avoid serving in Israel’s proxy at the time, the South Lebanese Army. This is despite the fact that he’s a sure shot, practiced in years of boar hunting in Aalma, and is an excellent diver among the rocks of the nearby Mediterranean. His family has adapted, somewhat, to the presence of Hizballah who are now in the South.

He’s done some strange things in his life from working at the medical station for the UN peacekeeping Force in the South, to running a restaurant in Stockholm, to being the driver, majordomo and security detail for the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Southern Lebanon.

Nassim is very ready to help anyone who comes across his path. He lifts, picks up, fixes, soothes and caters to the views of a Noah’s Ark of opinions and characters. The smile rarely leaves his face. He does get frustrated occasionally, feels unappreciated, but this does not prevent him from continuing to be of service in every way – a boon to anyone who comes across his way.

He’s not a big believer in religion, he plays trump, and he likes to drink Almaza beer. He befriends all faiths, all colours, and assists anyone in his path. 22 years of war, of shelling, fear, and terror have left him strong, self-reliant, joyful and hating no one.

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008


The Middle East is adrift as never in my lifetime. There is no political framework that anyone takes seriously, no "Middle East peace process", "Arab Peace Initiative", nor "Road Map", no serious role by a superpower, and no regional "architecture".

Simultaneously, it also appears that no one wants a war. Neither Barak, nor Olmert, nor certainly Ashkenazi, nor Syria, Iran or Hizballah. Not even Hamas want the situation to get out of hand. They all have too much to lose.

Strangely enough, there is an implicit acceptance of a strange kind of conflict management that also ironically involves the creation of minor kinds of conflict that then require - managing. It’s a way for everyone with a gun, a militia or an army to assert themselves, to show that they are relevant, and then back off when matters get too hot.

This scenario also avoids serious compromises and sacrifices, never mind new political direction, because, well, you just can’t really trust those neighbours.

This situation suits some in the region quite fine. One could make the case that low grade conflict and conflict management are indeed quite suitable for the ambitions of parties such as Hizballah, Hamas and Syria, who can grow with it over the long term. This includes certain political dynamics in Israel that use this context to maintain the status quo, including the situation of settlements - the least cost scenario, politically, for Israel in the short term.

Some might even argue that this situation may also inevitably lead to unexpected positive developments:

  • Israel cuts a deal with Hamas that effectively leaves the latter running Gaza, and yet still somehow a partner with Abu Mazen in the West Bank.
  • Hizballah finally cuts a deal with March 14 over the Cabinet and Presidency under Syrian tutelage.
  • The Islamists are effectively introduced into governance - Syria proceeds towards some kind of peace arrangements with Israel because its players are in place in Lebanon and Gaza, and Iran keeps going towards its nuclear goal and with its strategic assets now also in place.

There results a kind of peace and calm that slowly but surely marks the beginning of understanding - no one wants to spoil what they have gained. We can foresee a strange hybrid situation in the West Bank and Jerusalem (Israel, P.A., Hamas, Jordan and internationals all working together to manage the situation?), and even in Gaza (Hamas and Egypt together and quietly, through Egypt, with Israel).

What is wrong with this scenario? Is this not as good as it gets for the current reality? Conflict management followed by practical initiatives may have their virtues. The lessons of the summer war of 2006 appear to have been absorbed.

Or have they?

Can a region adrift avoid the risk that any violent act will not thread the needle (whether it is Hizballah’s revenge for Mughniyeh, or Hamas’s rockets on Sderot, or Israeli attacks in Gaza) and create, once again, the spiral towards all-out war?

No political direction, no clear framework means, at the end of the day, that violent actions can spill over non-existent boundaries into endless horizons and dreams, a world without limits, where the enemy exists no more, that lurks just below this conflict-management in the minds of many Middle Easterners…

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Border Town

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Majdal Shams is a Druze village located on the northern side of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Its name in Arabic (derived from Aramaic) translates into "Tower of the Sun" and nestles the slopes of the uber-strategic Jebel al-Sheikh, also known as Mount Hermon. Home to roughly 8,000 inhabitants, the town, along with the rest of the Golan Heights was seized by the Israeli Army from Syria in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.

The town is located along the militarized and heavily mined border that divides Israel from Syria.
Although liberated by the Syrians for a handful of days during the October War of 1973, it has remained firmly under Israel control ever since.

The eastern side of Majdal Shams is perched on an incline facing Syria and the verdant valley through which the invisible border runs. When the town was captured by the Israelis in 1967, Majdal Shams was automatically cut-off from neighbouring Druze villages in Syria with which it had very close ties for centuries. Friends and families alike became separated by that invisible line carved into a landscape that had never before known borders.

Since then, under the intense and watchful gaze of Syrian and Israeli army garrisons, as well as an observer force of the United Nations, Druze families have intermittently gathered on either side of the border to communicate with one another across what has come to be known as "the Valley of the Shouts."

Using megaphones and at times screaming at the top of their lungs, Druze families have remained in touch, exchanging news as well as coming together at times to deliver brides for arranged marriages taking place across either side of the frontier.

The below photos were taken on the Syrian side of the border where a group of students, originally from Majdal Shams but now studying in Damascus, came to make contact with their families across the valley.


A United Nations peacekeeper watching the students from his tower.

Two other peacekeepers keeping on eye on things from the Syrian side.

One of the students yelling to get the attention of residents across the valley.

Residents of Majdal Shams communicating back.

Curious bystanders watching from the Syrian side.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Travels of Ibn Battutah

Review: The Travels of Ibn Battutah
Editted by Tim Mackintosh Smith
Macmillan UK, 400 pages.

The Travels of Ibn Battutah recounts a 14th century Moroccan’s wanderings through Europe, Asia and Africa on the eve of the Black Death. Translated in the 20th century by British scholars H.A.R. Gibb and Charles Beckingham, The Travels is a work which until recently was only found in university libraries or by way of the antiquarian book trade.

This abridgement of the Gibb-Beckingham translations by British travel-writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith is the latest refinement of a travel classic which may yet receive the wider audience it deserves.

Born in Tangier in 1304 and raised as an Islamic jurisprudent, Mohammed ibn Battutah left home at the age of 21 intent upon visitting Mecca. He appeared to have little more in mind for himself until meeting early in his travels with the Alexandrian sage, Burhan the Lame. In a pivotal encounter, Burhan prophesies Battutah’s travels to the Far East and requests that he convey his greetings to his spiritual brothers in India and China. “I was amazed at his prediction,” Battutah recalls, “and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named.”

Battutah's circuitous journey takes him across three continents - tripling the distance covered by his predecessor Marco Polo a generation earlier. After spending roughly ten years exploring the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, Battutah arrives at the wealthy Sultanate of Delhi in the mid-1330’s.

Here Battutah settles after finding employment as a magistrate and is appointed the emissary and head of a delegation in 1341 bound with gifts for the Emperor of China. But the journey is cut-short by a maritime disaster in which the greater part of the delegation and its gifts are lost. Rather than return to Delhi empty-handed, Battutah pushes eastward on his own, accepting work again as a magistrate on the Maldive Islands, before travelling to Ceylon, Burma, Sumatra, and finally to China. In what may be the climax of his journey, Battutah visits a venerable cave-mystic on the outskirts of Canton, who upon meeting him sniffs his hand and turns to his interpreter and says, “This man is from one end of the world, and we from the other.”

Returning home in 1353 by way of a Middle East smitten by bubonic plague, Battutah would dictate his journeys to “Ibn Juzayy” who completes Battutah’s memoires in 1356 and titles the book, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and Marvels of Travelling. It is the largest travel book ever written in terms of distances covered.

The immensity of The Travels is due to more than just the sheer scope of its geography. Ibn Battutah’s observations cover a wide range of subjects qualifying it as a work of scholarship as well as a travel journal. His Travels teem with vivid accounts of the ceremonies, benefactions and cruelties of the various royal courts that hosted him.

He catalogues the exploits of long-dead rulers, and proffers descriptions of never-before-seen flora and fauna. His unusual accounts range from those of dog-sledding in the semi-legendary “Land of Darkness” of Siberia, to an encounter in southeast Asia with the formidable princess-warrior Urduja, who would only marry the man who could defeat her in combat.

No less fascinating is Ibn Battutah himself, whose personality is marred by the struggle between the competing impulses towards worldliness and asceticism. Throughout his travels, Battutah seems to inhabit two planes of existence simultaneously: one peopled by yogis, faqirs and dervishes, the other by sultans, court officials and diplomats.

Seldom does Battutah pass-up an opportunity to visit the local sage, and on numerous occasions the author interrupts his official functions by disappearing on lengthy spiritual retreats, of which he gives little account. His love of women is the only thing that keeps rescuing him from the clutches of his self-imposed austerities. Time and again, Battutah takes up with an ever-changing entourage of female slaves and wives. This, however, does not prevent him, as magistrate, from trying to force the topless female inhabitants of the Maldive Islands to cover their breasts.

A longtime resident of Yemen and author of the much-acclaimed Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith distills the essence of Battutah’s journeys from Gibb’s original five-volume text. He excludes some of the lengthier descriptions of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, and of the holy sites and rites of Mecca. In their place he retains the complete account of Battutah’s abduction in northern India by brigands in 1342, as well as the author’s tropical sojourn in the Maldives. Smith preserves all of Gibb’s immensely detailed and informative footnotes, which provide an invaluable context to the body of the work.

The Travels of Ibn Battutah offers a remarkable and unparalleled view of the eastern world as it was between the golden age of Islam and the European revival. It is also a colorful autobiography of a little-known caricature whose epitaph could easily derive from his own description of the saint and fellow-traveler, Abduallah al-Masri:

“He journeyed through the Earth, but he never went to China, nor the island of Ceylon, nor the Maghrib, nor al-Andalus, nor the Negrolands, so that I have outdid him by visiting these regions.”

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008