Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Most Important Nowhere on Earth

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

In brackish Arabic laced with Farsi and Hindi, Captain Abdul-Fatah al-Shehi orders a young deckhand to steer his boat along a sharp bend in the coastline. As the wooden dhow veers from the open water into a rocky inlet, al-Shehi grins with satisfaction, the vessel now navigating a course of placid water between two desolate mountains rising sharply from the Persian Gulf.

“Do you have something like this where you are from?” al-Shehi asks in heavily accented English.

On the horn of the Arabian Peninsula, the Musandam region is a place characterized by – of all things - fjords. These coastal mountains, barren and fissured, are the Middle East’s answer to the giants that guard the coasts of Alaska, Norway and Greenland. Though less grandiose than their cousins, Musandam’s fjords are an enchanting feature of an area full of strange and intriguing oddities.

Part of the Sultanate of Oman but separated by a 70km strip of the United Arab to the south, the Musandam Peninsula remains an enclave of nature and traditional Arab culture on the fringes of Dubai’s mega-urbanization project. Here steep mountain-hugging paths, isolated coastal villages, and an endless series of wadis where lone Shihuh tribesman shepherd their small flocks of goat, exist in a centuries-old time-warp.

This rocky headland of the Hajar Mountains also happens to be one of the most strategically important points on the planet: the rugged cape guards the southern side of the Straits of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf narrows between Oman and Iran into a busy thoroughfare that sees 90 per cent of the Gulf’s oil transit to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the geopolitics of the area, Musandam is one of the quietest and most pristine areas in the Middle East. Its deep blue waters are home to thriving coral reefs, and countless other marine species, including whale sharks and dolphins. And so inaccessible is the peninsula’s mountainous interior that it is believed to hide a small population of the elusive and critically endangered Arabian leopard.

Once a military zone largely off limits to foreigners, the area was opened to travellers in the late 1990s to attract some of the burgeoning tourist activity taking place across the border in the United Arab Emirates. Soon afterward, local businessman such as al-Shehi, emerged from Musandam’s quieter nooks to take advantage of the windfall. “Before the foreigners came, I had only one dhow boat that I used only to catch fish,” says al-Shehi, whose Musandam Sea Adventure Tour Company, is based in Khasab, Musandam’s capital. “Eventually this one boat became four, and now we make many runs a day from the port.”

Nestled in a wadi full of palm groves between the mountains and the sea, Khasab feels entirely cut off from the world. But its small port bustles day and night. As al-Shehi quietly points out to us while we are still moored, the area is teeming with Iranian smugglers – a big part of the local economy. They come to purchase commercial goods in Khasab by day - cigarettes, televisions, stereos, DVD players, refrigerators and almost anything one can find in the town’s market - then carry them across the Gulf to southern Iran in speedboats by night, carefully avoiding detection by the Iranian police boats that wait in ambush on the other side. “It’s a very dangerous job,” al-Shehi says. “Two years ago some smugglers were killed by pirates in Iranian waters - local criminals, hired by the police to stop these people.”

Parked near the speed-boats are the much slower-moving dhows that are owned and manned by Omani sailors. These wooden craft, some of them examples of ancient designs and building practices, constitute one of the oldest continuous seafaring traditions in existence. The waters off the Arabian coast are dotted with these vessels, which carry their cargo as far away as India and Pakistan.

Of course, in recent years, sailors such as al-Shehi have also become tour guides, refurbishing their boats with cushions and light canopies to ferrying travelers comfortably along the Peninsula’s circuitous coastline.

He sees it as a sustainable industry and is keenly aware of the area’s environmental sensitivity.

“It is a business, yes, but we also want travelers to continue to appreciate the beauty here,” he says. “We value nature and are working to protect it – unlike what is happening in other parts of the region.”

His dhow comes to a stop a few hours later at the end of the fjord and moors beside a tiny islet known as Telegraph Island. This, he explains, was once the site of a strategic base where the British Empire’s telegraph lines connected London with the Indian subcontinent.

The coral reef below hosts a riot of colourful fish. The passengers are handed snorkeling gear and given 45 minutes to enjoy the show while al-Shehi prepares a lunch of fish biryani and other local delights prepared beforehand by his wife.

“Maybe these fjords are not as large as the ones you know,” al-Shehi says while heating up the biryani. “But I’m sure you will not find another fjord in the world where you can do what we are doing here right now.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria

Review: The Rise and Fall of Alexandria - Birthplace of the Modern World, by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. Penguin Books, 300 pps.

This book in fact has two titles. The one above, and the one as registered in the Library of Congress, “The Rise and Fall of Alexandria – Birthplace of the Modern Mind”. It is much more the latter: Justin Pollard and Howard Reid do a great job at taking the reader through the intellectual adventure of the city and its contribution to the way moderns think.

Through nineteen chapters, the authors take us through the history of the city by looking at a series of geniuses, inventors and critical figures and what they contributed to the unique development of Alexandria.

The story begins with Alexander the Great, the founder who laid the outline of the city and its harbour with barley flour as birds dived to devour the seeds. He used the meal because of the lack of chalk in Egypt – a practical act that threads through the city’s classical history. Although this is the story of the scientists and philosophers of Alexandria, many of their findings, from the inventions of Archimedes to the geometry of Ptolemy were geared towards the practical and not just the speculative. The city’s history is replete with eccentrics creating odd devices and tricks through such things as steam power, or determined minds seeking to circumnavigate the globe.

Some stand out above the others. Erastothenes, who worked at Alexandria's great library, set out to measure the earth’s circumference. Despite ancient measuring devices, he was only off by 225 miles.

Another savant was Philo, who stated that God is creativity itself. He was a believer in the “Great Chain of Being” and a man who mixed his Jewish heritage with Hellenism as the city itself merged Greek thought with Egyptian cosmology.

The revered Hypatia, teacher, mathematician, and leader of the city’s academic elite in its late Classical period - an era of decline that witnessed battles between its “pagan” roots and its newfound zealotry, Christianity. Hypatia was killed on the floor of the nave of a church by a Christian mob that “set upon her with broken pieces of roof tile, flaying her alive.”

Alexandria was the great cosmopolitan experiment in its time. It housed large, Egyptian, Greek and Jewish communities among many others. Its library provided a cultural hub and its merchant class and location meant it was the New York of its era, being connected to but also beyond the continent it sat upon.

However, another city today also offers a parallel: it has a kind of “library”, is a leading edge cultural hub, has a “Pharos”, a global wonder of architecture, and like ancient Alexandria, serves as an entrepot where many millions are made. That city is Dubai with its “Media City” and its great Burj, soon to be by far the tallest building in the world. Like Alexandria, it may even end up with a battle between a “pagan” or secular culture and the surrounding religious zealotry.

But Dubai has yet to show us its Hypatia, Erastothenes and Philo. Indeed, the book begs the question: where today are those figures that give birth to the future?

Monday, April 14, 2008


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

“I have a wonderful idea for a novel,” wrote a clerk of the British Information Office in Egypt, in a letter to a friend in Big Sur, California in 1944. “A nexus for all news of Greece, side-by-side with a sort of spiritual butcher’s shop with girls on slabs.”

When novelist Lawrence Durrell confided his idea to his lifelong literary confidant and friend Henry Miller, little did he know he would construct a piece-de-resistance from which all references to a city would be forever drawn. His celebrated four-decker novel, The Alexandria Quartet chronicles a city in which every international crossroads today claims some sort of lineage.

A town of auspicious, mythological beginnings, Alexandria would engender herself to every cosmopolitan soul throughout her recorded history. From the moment of her conception in the mind of her namesake, Alexander the Great, in 331 BC, foreigners flocked to her shores. Situated on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast with her back to Africa, the town fixed her gaze northwards towards Europe in a gesture of perpetual invitation.

Within decades of her construction she became lord and locus of world knowledge carrying humanity further in her first six hundred years than in all previous millennia combined. Beyond her initial burst of brilliance Alexandria would continue to radiate her eminence as the influential bride of many a conqueror. From the Dark Ages onwards, she bore witness to waves of successive invaders who parked their ships in her crowded harbours: Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, French, and later the British.

Yet it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that this erstwhile cosmopolis saw its latest incarnation as an international entrepot. This was the Alexandria that stoked the Durrellian imagination. That no other writer of modern fiction had before drawn upon the city’s storehouse of anecdotal riches, gave Alexandria yet another new form in which to be realized.

As colonial avatar, Durrell’s Alexandria was a confluence of agendas. It was where British soldiers and bureaucrats refined and executed their imperial designs, and where merchants from across the Mediterranean came to make their fortunes. In her souqs and on her palm-lined esplanades, English, French, Arabs, Italians, Greeks, Armenians and Jews all intermingled in a dizzying frenzy of work and play; churning an economy that thrived on the exchange of gossip and goods.

Day and night, the city seethed with intrigues. It was in its sweltering heat mitigated by a northwest breeze that “Monty” planned and won the war in North Africa. Where writers like E.M. Forester and Constantine Cavafy immortalized a decadent epoch through their respective brands of myth-making. Every word spoken, every move made, during this time, later became a nostalgia to be clung to by her aging denizens.

Yet, this was but one Alexandria. Despite her modern renaissance, this city of pashas and aristocrats was but a mere approximation, an unconscious and fleeting parody of an earlier self. For entombed beneath the concrete of the modern town, were the undisturbed remains of one of the greatest cities the world had ever seen. This, the Alexandria of antiquity, brought together all previous crossroads, setting the standard for every great international city that would follow in her wake.

The Alexandria of the ancients was a civilization unto herself -- an epicenter of human achievement. Within her boundless parameters thrived a people devoted to scholarship, invention, technology, commerce and leisure. Today, this memory echoes as an endless catalogue of peoples, personages and achievements. Her success was predicated upon the wiles of Egyptian priests, Greek aristocrats, Jewish merchants, Persian middlemen, and Phoenician sailors. Visitors from Iberia to India to sub-Saharan Africa came to explore the city’s bi-ways. From the labyrinthine crypts of the city’s great library come to us the calculations of her immortalized savants: the geography of Strabo, the astronomy of Hipparchus, the mathematics of Euclid. Flourishing side-by-side with this rigorous scholarship was a mélange of pseudo-sciences that operated with unprecedented freedom: Gnostics, neo-Platonists, and Hermetic philosophers shared the city’s pulpits with the cults of Mythra, Isis, Christ and Yahweh – to name but a few. Without doubt, Alexandria was an interzone par excellence - a powerhouse of civilization - where every idea, philosophy and project coalesced into perfection.

Yet, the passing of time would exact its inevitable toll. Today Alexandria stands as little more than a maritime suburb of Cairo. Squalid, dusty and ghost-ridden, she exists as a husk of laundry-bannered tenements and European motifs held captive by the hinterland she had always rejected. Upstaged as a seaport, much of the traffic to-and-from the town nowadays enters and exits from the desert to her rear – perhaps the greatest indication of her tragic descent into irrelevance. Even the reincarnation of her legendary library in the architecturally savvy Bibliotheque Alexandrina (a structural epitaph to a bygone moment) inspires the pathos of a past utterly unattainable.

But from Alexandria’s poignant decay comes the glory of a life lived to its fullest. She remains the original exemplar of the international crossroads whose legacy resides in her many progeny in which so many of us today call home. Whether or not she is to be re-born, is left purely to Providence. In the meantime she sleeps, forever exuding the past beneath that same Mediterranean breeze.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wings Above 'The Empty Quarter'

Over the al-Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia

Photo copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008