Thursday, December 31, 2009

Middle East Weather

In a previous posting, 'The Dog River Tablets', we had indicated that the long history of conquest and empire in the Middle East had caused trauma and tight belonging and attachment to traditional cultures among the peoples of the region.

The following link depicts this history in a graphic and dynamic fashion:

From this bird's eye (satellite) view, empires moved back and forth, like warm and cold fronts, imitating the weather across the millenia, bringing both calm and storm to the people of the region.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Real 'Da Vinci Code'

"Those who know all, but are lacking in themselves, are utterly lacking."
- Jesus of Nazareth in The Gospel of Thomas


In December 1945, a peasant farmer from Upper Egypt named Mohammed Ali Samman made a most unusual discovery.

Digging near some limestone caves, Samman came upon a large earthenware jar. He knew that he had found something out of the ordinary and proceeded to smash the jar open, hoping to find buried treasure. He did indeed find a treasure, but not the sort that he had expected: contained within were some 12 leather-bound papyrus books written in the Coptic language.

This collection of books, which have since been translated, are known today as the Nag Hammadi Library or Nag Hammadi Codices - so named because of the proximity of their discovery to the town of Nag Hammadi in southern Egypt.

The books include fifty-two early Christian treatises that date back to around the 3rd or 4th century AD. The writings themselves are thought to be of an earlier origin.

It is believed that the books may have belonged to a nearby Christian monastery, which hastily buried the texts in order to save them from destruction at the hands of the church, which condemned the use of unsanctioned religious texts in 367 AD.

Among the more interesting and notable of the writings is a text called The Gospel of Thomas. This document is a list of sayings attributed to Jesus.

Stripped of context, and in many instances bordering on the indecipherable, these sayings give a very different impression of the Jesus we know in the New Testament gospels - all of which underwent considerable editing over the ages.

Certainly what comes across in the Gospel of Thomas is a Jesus somewhat removed from the more simplistic and didactic Jesus of the New Testament gospels. And as such it may be that the Gospel of Thomas is a more genuine and accurate representation of the historical Jesus.

The early Gnostics maintain that Jesus was not just a religious pep-talker or teacher of morals, but was a man who had a certain practical knowledge to impart.

The word Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis meaning "knowledge" or the "act of knowing.”

The Gnostics held "the conviction that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life.”

To the ancient Gnostics, Jesus was part of such a tradition and the Nag Hammadi Codices contain writings that view Christianity in the light of that very tradition.

The Islamic faith, which has its own traditions of Jesus (who Muslims view as a prophet and teacher), depict him similarly.

The Nag Hammadi Codices had a convoluted trajectory, passing through the hands of numerous people including historians, antique dealers, monks, and in the case of one of the books: the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich, before finding their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo where they are housed today.

The texts were rejected outright by the ruling authorities of Christianity and remain heretical.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Middle East Institutions - Charcuterie

Rabbi Hanina St., 3, Jaffa) is a Middle East Institution in the making. If it lasts long enough and maintains its excellent fare, it will be a place to resort to without fail.

Situated in the pedestrian streets around the old Jaffa Souk and flea market, it is a resto-bar that is highly conducive to conversation and late night cavorting. It has all the marks of a good "hang-out": with a full and relaxed atmosphere and enough surrounding competition to keep its standards up.

The food is superb, marked by
choucroute and the chef's sausages of all varieties. The owners and staff are part of the crowd that spills into the street on summer nights.

The restaurant is marked by a memorable stained glass image of the city where it is located.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chosen: The Litmus Test

To some, Israel represents a monolithic block of injustice against the Palestinians and disregard for its neighbours.

In fact, there are many vocal Israelis who query these relations and what it means to be Jewish in Israel today. They ask questions that cut deep about secular and religious Jewish identity. Even if their dialogues don't always see wide distribution, individuals like Menachem Klein, Avram Burg, and Shlomo Sand share a common desire, with varying approaches, for a critique of Israel beyond the question of its survival.

These individuals wish to move Israelis and Jews to a new understanding of their society. Like Old Testament prophets, they have a tough time of it, garnering as much criticism as their fore-bearers. Their words may seem like 'cries in the wilderness' while occupation and conflict continue.

As is the case with many Middle Eastern identities, the past remains a large ingredient of what it means to be Jewish today. The Jewish people have survived over millenia. Among many achievements, they have utilized a book of scripture to preserve their culture, resurrected a holy language and transformed it into a vernacular, and returned after centuries to a land described in these scriptures as their home.

Indeed, the commitment of Jews to their culture (and, by some, to their faith) is remarkable in its durability despite tribulation: Jews have survived a great number of the difficulties and traumas that history can inflict. That survival has resulted in the state of Israel: a country that represents a haven and fortress for a people that has 'wandered' and suffered for thousands of years.

Jews have indeed often overcome massive odds, preserved their identity and founded a state. But, is the purpose of all the triumphs and defeats of history only the survival of the group for its own sake? Or do Jews have a larger mission implicit in their compact with their scriptures and with themselves?

It is a natural human instinct to put the needs of our group’s survival above all else. If the main goal of the Jewish people is group survival for its own sake, then indeed Jews in Israel should fight at all costs to survive with few other considerations. The mission would be clear and simple and the litmus test would be, indeed, survival. If that is the case, then the question of any larger purpose is moot.

But, it is the Jews themselves who claim a higher calling.

Throughout history, Jews have been the reverse of simply a tribe: they have been also the source of many universal laws for greater human development. From Abraham the patriarch of three faiths, to the message of Jesus, to Freud's breakthroughs in psychology, to Marxist dialectics, to Einstein's laws of physics, Jews have contributed hugely to the discovery of universal laws of great utility to humanity.

Indeed, this tendency may derive directly out of the scriptures on which Jewish culture and bonds are based. These writings may reflect a deep interest in understanding a unifying and universal being; they may spur a millennial commitment and a longstanding search for universals.

Today's Jewish nationalism, and many actions of the state of Israel, have much to do with the preservation of a people, or a tribe, and little with that greater principle.

The fact is that the creation of Israel has resulted in the suffering and displacement of another people, the Palestinians, as well as chronic conflict with its neighbours. Yet, in all faiths and in most societies, healthy relations with outsiders is a consistent marker of properly meeting a larger reality.

If Israel and Jews have a larger road, then Israel's relations with its neighbours are today’s litmus test: Is the group effectively the centre of its universe or is it, like all things, a means of outreach to a greater whole?

In the early 20th century, Martin Buber, an early Zionist and philospher, believed that the Jews should live alongside the Arabs in a new enterprise. He pleaded with his fellow Zionists for a bi-nationalist project: Arab and Jew. He believed both peoples were there to serve the land, and not to compete over its acreage. In his view, the universal call in Jewish scripture would be the spark of a more constructive and less exclusive relation with others at all levels: political, social and moral.

Martin Buber lost his battle but the struggle has been picked up by others. Recently, Avram Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, wrote a book entitled 'Defeating Hitler'. It claims that Hitler had in fact won, not by destroying the Jewish people but by leaving them with enough trauma and fear to create an oppressive force for survival in the Middle East. 'Defeating Hitler' would mean moving away from this trauma and towards a renewal of the Jewish universalism cultivated so successfully in the past in the Islamic world, in Europe and elsewhere.

The basic question that Jews, Israelis, and all groups must ask is: What is the purpose of an identity? What is its litmus test? Only survival for its own sake? Or is it an instrument for larger growth, an extension from the particular towards universal qualities - a stretch that Jews have in fact excelled at for millenia.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Land Between The Rivers

For millenia, humans settled the land between the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, to grow their crops, raise their families, and build great cities. Indeed, the earliest human civilization came about there because of these grand rivers.

Today, due to a number of factors - mostly human - that water flow is in danger and the green Mesopotamian plain is threatened with becoming a desert. The European Water Association warns that the waters of these rivers could disappear by 2040. The amount of water in the Euphrates has already fallen by 75% over the past decade.

The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates originate in Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Damming and increased water storage upstream are diminishing the water flow into Iraq. Other factors including drought due to climate change, population growth in Iraq, the absence of economic water pricing and a lack of erosion control in Iraq, are heavily exacerbating the situation.

The result is desertification, a reduction of land for grazing, and more severe sandstorms in Iraq as the earth is loosened, gathered up by the winds, and scattered.

Steps are being taken by the Iraqi government to address the matter. However, like many challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere, moving rapidly and with great efficacy is imperative if one of the cradles of civilization is not to exhaust itself.

A recent article in the New York Times describes this critical situation in more detail.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Manual of Astronomy

This text is just one example from the over 10,000 Islamic manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics that have been recorded to date. Entitled Kitab al-Suwar (Manual of Astronomy), this manuscript is attributed to one Abir al-Husain and dates back to 960 A.D. It is housed in the National Museum of Damascus.

Astronomy and mathematics were considered sister sciences in the Islamic world. The former discipline, which Muslim scholars classified as "the science of the aspect of the universe" was treated as a special extension or branch of mathematics. One of the goals of astronomy was to study the visible movements of the stars and provide them with a geometric presentation. This, in part, helped to ensure that the five daily canonical prayers and various religious celebrations be carried out at exactly the right time.

Monday, November 2, 2009


"Seville feels very Arab," I recently told a Sevillian. "What do you mean 'feels'?", he responded. "We ARE Arabs."

This quintessential Spanish Andalusian city does indeed feel very Arab, with an enigmatic oriental spirit, a sense of cunning and a joie de vivre found among its residents. The city holds this spirit despite the echoes of the Inquisition and its very Christian and Catholic past demonstrated yearly in the spooky marches of Semana Santa - with capes, cones, and all.

Seville, once Arab 'Ishbilia', and before that, the Roman 'Hispalis', is a city that during the right season appears like a collection buildings strewn about a large orange orchard with cobbled streets. Some of the remaining Moorish city walls can be seen from the top of the Giralda, the massive minaret turned steeple. The walls embrace and contain this large urban space situated on the Guadalqivir River (from Arabic 'Wadi El Kebir' or the Big Valley). It is here, where the river stops being navigable for ocean-going ships - a convenient stopping point - that Seville was founded.

In the rabbit warren of low rise buildings below the Giralda, a rich history unfolded: Yemenis rose up against the great Abdel Rahman I, the exiled Umayyad king from Damascus; it is where sailors readied to sail to the Americas and drank themselves to oblivion, as many still do today in the Sevillian night; and where the great Ibn Khaldun came to look for his family's roots.

The city was the setting for the infamous Don Juan, from the play the "Trickster (Burlador) of Seville" by Tirso de Molina. Seville was also the centre of the "poetry mad" Abbadids - Muslim strongmen of the 11th century, and rivals of the rulers of Toledo. It remains today a centre for play and cunning.

Many things in Seville are interestingly odd. The city's motto, on its flag, is NO8DO. The "8" apparently represents yarn, or "madeja" in Spanish. The motto when read aloud would be "NO madeja DO" mirroring the words "No me ha dejado" or "it has not abandoned me."

The city's apparent oddness comes from its succesful mix of cultures: the mosque turned cathedral, the minaret turned steeple, the Andalusian Arabs turned Andalusian Spanish, and Hispalis turned Ishbilia turned Sevilla. Castillian monarchs even decorated their palaces with the Muslim inscription: "Wa la ghalib ill Allah" which translates to "There is no Victor but God".

This is indeed still today an 'Arab' city. It is mysterious, on the edge, and full of street humour and trickster-like personages. Like most matters in Seville, the Giralda has a twist: it was built with a ramp, not stairs, to reach its distant top. For centuries, early in the morning, Sevillians would hear the sound of horseshoes on cobble stone as the Muezzin rode horseback up the tower to sound the call to prayer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Margaret George, Bandita

Margaret George, an Iraqi Assyrian Christian, joined the Kurdish resistance movement in Northern Iraq in 1961 at the age of 20. One of the first female rebels in the history of the Kurdish resistance, she quickly asserted herself as a capable fighter, commanding at the head of an otherwise all-male unit.

Within just a few years she became a legendary hero figure whose military exploits, bravery and leadership in the isolated mountain passes of Northern Iraq echoed throughout all of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdish leaders deftly transformed her into a local version of Joan of Arc and handed out portraits of her to the peshmerga rank-and-file who carried her photos into battle in the manner of a talisman.

“Margaret liked people to buy photographs so they knew she was a peshmerga and so that other women would go to the mountains like her,” says Zaher Rashid, George’s portraitist, who photographed her at his studio in the town of Qala Diza, near the border with Iran.

Accounts of Margaret’s life - and death - are sketchy at best. Depending on which version you believe, she is said to have met her end in 1969, after many difficult battles, either at the hands of a jealous lover, or the rebel Kurd leadership, the latter of which viewed her popularity and Assyrian nationalism as a threat to their interests and designs.

To this day, Margaret George remains famous among Assyrians and Kurds and some Kurdish fighters still carry photographs of her.

The photos included here are those of Zaher Rashid published in Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History.

Margaret George posing in traditional Kurdish dress with her sister (left); and with her father in military gear (right).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wilfred Thesiger, Photographer

“In Arabia I kept my camera in a goat-skin bag to protect it from the sand – and have done so ever since.” - Wilfred Thesiger

The late Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), one of the 20th century's most intrepid explorers is remembered for his works of travel literature documenting vanishing cultures, and namely for his landmark books, Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs. Few people know, however, that he was also a prolific photographer, having taken thousands of human portraits and landscapes throughout his travels into some of the most isolated parts of Africa, the Middle East and West and Central Asia.

What started off as curious experimentation with his father’s Kodak roll film box camera turned into a lifelong passion for documenting traditional peoples and places that were then on the cusp of an irrevocable transformation at the hands of the modern world.

“I started to take photographs when I hunted in the Danakil country immediately after I had attended Haile Selassie’s coronation,” Thesiger wrote later in life, referring to the time he spent as a young man in Abyssinia in the early 1930s.

Carrying a Leica II 35mm camera, some Ilford black-and-white film, and a yellow filter, the explorer took advantage of his intimate access to places off-limits to most foreigners to take some of most remarkable photographs of his time. Travels to Hazarjat and Nuristan in Afghanistan, the tribal areas of modern day Pakistan, Sudan, the Empty Quarter of Arabia, Kurdistan, Yemen and beyond resulted not only in the adventures that would inform his prose, but also a corpus of first class documentary photographs that would endure into the next century.

Thesiger had an instinctive sense of composition but admitted to having very little technical knowledge of photography. Yet his images evoke a sense of effortless mastership. His human subjects are all the more memorable, not only for inhabiting what are now long-lost epochs, but because they knew little or nothing of photography and therefore adopted no self-conscious poses.

Most of all, Thesiger’s photos powerfully invoke the passion, pain and inconveniences of old world travel in all of its patient detail.


Second from the left, the late Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al Nahyan, a highly respected leader of the Bedu, and former President and founder of the United Arab Emirates. 1947.

Iraqi Jews living in the Hajar region of what is today Iraqi Kurdistan. 1950.

Morocco. 1955.

A compilation of Thesiger's best images can be found in his photo book, A Vanished World.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Round City

In August of 762 AD the second Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, decided to relocate his residence from the city of Kufa in modern day Iraq, to a nearby area which he would call Dar al-Salam (the Abode of Peace). His new capital, which would also be referred to by its pre-Islamic name of Baghdad would become the seat of the Islamic empire and one of the greatest cities of its time.

Its convenient location with caravan routes to Syria, the Hijaz, the Iranian plateau, as well as its easy access to water sources, made it an ideal spot for a new city. The Caliph assembled engineers, surveyors, architects, artists from around the Muslim world to come together and draw up plans for the city which was designed with the utmost beauty and technical perfection in mind. Work was completed on the capital about 4 years later in 766 A.D.

The original framework of the city was circular, being over 2 km in diameter, causing it to be also be known as “al-Mudawara” or “the Round City”. This design has its roots in the Parthian Sassanid tradition and some of the key masterminds of the project are reputed to have been Persian.

Three concentric circular walls made of towering mud brick enclosed residential, administrative and business quarters. Within the innermost circle stood the caliph’s residence and the mosque. The walls were pierced at inter-cardinal points by four gates that opened towards Kufa, Basra, Syria and Khorasan - with roads radiating out in those directions.

With the city eventually outgrowing itself and then later being destroyed, nothing of Baghdad's original construction remains and whatever ruins might still exist are likely buried deep beneath the modern city.

Click here to view a video showing a digital recreation of the city.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Foundation Stone

"Dignifying Security and Securing Dignity"

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is known for its intractability. Soon, it is expected that President Obama will try to bring together Israeli and Palestinian leaders for yet another round of negotiations.

He has a chance to succeed - possibly by sheer will power, if he exercises it - but it is not very likely.

There is another possible approach. It is one that has not been properly tried, and that Obama hints at in some of his speeches. This is to come to an explicit agreement on something more basic before beginning negotiations on such thorny issues as Jerusalem, the refugees and borders.

According to this approach, Israelis and Palestinians would agree beforehand that they both have a common set of human needs that are essential to their future, but that if these needs continue to be unmet, it will simply perpetuate the conflict between them. These fundamental needs underlie and fuel the problems between the two peoples and remain unaddressed because they are intangible by nature and are not traditionally considered in the realm of statecraft.

At a general level, these 'human givens' (1) include, for example, the need for security and safe territory, a sense of autonomy and control, meaning and purpose and the need to be valued by a wider community, among others.

All humans, no matter their identity, will spiral into dysfunctional patterns of behaviour and resort to violent reactions and unsuccessful management of differences if these basic elements of our nature are left unfulfilled.

In the case of the Middle East, the two sides have specific unmet needs: after decades of occupation and no Palestinian state, Palestinians need a sense of autonomy and control over their lives without outside interference; Israelis need security and safe territory in order to provide Jews with a national home. Both sides have denied the other this basic requirement.

Ironically, both peoples also need to a strong sense of legitimacy from and to be valued by others. For Jews, their experience in Europe as the victims of capricious history was the source of this lack, and it was followed, ironically, by their arrival in the Middle East, where their takeover of land - in their minds for a good cause - ensured that Arabs would in turn deny them legitimacy.

For the Palestinians, the rule of the Ottomans gave way to the rule of the British and from there directly to the creation of Israel on their land, reaffirming a consistent pattern of being 'lesser' in the eyes of others. This lack of legitimacy is an unacceptable status for any people.

It is these unmet and very human needs that lie, like phantoms, behind the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No amount of political activity, innovativeness, even will, can resolve the situation if these basic needs are not agreed to as the basis for negotiation. Many have referred to these needs in various forms in their analysis of the region, but few have recommended that talks explicitly be held on the basis of addressing these needs.

As difficult as it may be to agree to recognize an enemy’s needs, this mutual agreement can greatly facilitate agreement and lead to known answers:

• For Palestinians, the need for autonomy and control can be met through the creation of a Palestinian state

• For Israelis, security can be met by normalizing their relations with neighbours and ending the state of conflict, as offered, for example, in the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

• The need for legitimacy from and being valued by others can be further met for both through recognition of Jerusalem as their respective capital and of their links to the city on the basis of religious heritage.

• Resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem by recognizing refugees' rights without endangering the status of Israel as a Jewish state, providing refugees with permanent and stable conditions through citizenship, employment opportunities and compensation for suffering can go a long distance to making Palestinians feel less as the nation undeserving of a national status.

Experts will look at the above and say the most talented negotiators have tried to tackle these issues and failed and that this is more easily said than done.

But they have not. They have dealt with Jerusalem, Israeli security, a Palestinian state and the refugees as issues in themselves. They did not come to an explicit, mutual recognition of the common human needs behind these issues first - pinning the phantoms to the ground - before entering the issues and their details.

An initial, explicit recognition by Israelis that Palestinians share these of their common human needs may greatly facilitate negotiations by providing an equivalence between the sides based on a common human condition and a perspective and foundation to return to if talks become heated, hit an impasse, or sink into a quagmire of details. Over decades, both sides needs may have spiraled beyond these basics; however, this may be a way to return to the necessary basics.

Admitting the existence of basic human needs as the basis for any negotiation may seem odd at first. It appears to pull the carpet from right under the feet of the politicians and demystify apparently intractable and addictive, angst-ridden processes. Yet, this basic human recognition of the needs of another, even an enemy, may right decades of wrong and provide the foundation stone for greater contentment and a future for Israelis, Palestinians, their children, and their children’s children.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mulla Nasrudin

The Smuggler

Time and again Nasrudin passed from Persia to Greece on donkey-back. Each time he had two panniers of straw, and trudged back without them. Every time the guard searched him for contraband. They never found any.

‘What are you carrying, Nasrudin?’

‘I am a smuggler.’

Years later, more and more prosperous in appearance, Nasrudin moved to Egypt. One of the customs men met him there.

‘Tell me, Mulla, now that you are out of the jurisdiction of Greece and Persia, living here in such luxury – what was it that you were smuggling when we could never catch you?’


From the Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, © 1983 The Octagon Press


In different cultures around the world, particularly in those of the Middle East, traditional stories, fables or tales serve numerous functions and can operate on different levels. A tale - listened to or read - might entertain, serve as a joke, be used to illustrate something moralistic, or it can have an even higher purpose of conveying something far more subtle – the first steps on the road to greater awareness and wisdom.

One of the more familiar characters found in the traditional corpus of tales from the East is the joke figure known as Mulla Nasrudin. The Sufis, the traditional psychologists of the East, maintain that they have used Mulla Nasrudin stories, in part, to help fine-tune the perceptual abilities of the human mind. And according to the late Afghan author, Idries Shah, a collector of these tales, Mulla Nasrudin stories “constitute one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics.”

Mulla Nasrudin tales are similar to other collections of stories such as Aesop’s Fables, the Greek Myths, and the Arabian Nights collection – all of which were originally, for their own times and places, written to provide a vehicle for esoteric psychology and to symbolize aspects of human behaviour and the human mind.

As for Nasrudin himself, nobody really knows who he was, where he originated, and whether or not he even existed. His elusiveness is mirrored in the stories in which he appears. Here he takes different forms from an often bumbling, pathetic and self-deprecating fool to a man of deeper insight who has knowledge to impart.

Nasrudin tales can be found in different parts of the world from Iran and Afghanistan where he is best known; to Turkey where he is called Hodja Nasreddin; to the Arab Middle East where he is referred to popularly as Joha; to other local versions of this personality found in Italy, Greece, Bosnia, Russia and beyond to China.

In the same way that the smuggler Nasrudin and his donkey slip past the border guard in the story above - a representation of the ability of tales and humour to transcend political and cultural borders - these traditional stories are of such a refined subtlety that they have a way of also bypassing the borders and obstacles of the mind.

How do Nasrudin tales work exactly?

According to Shah and to others, Nasrudin tales are not meant to be didactic, nor are they meant to be decoded, taken-apart or analyzed by the rational mind. They are instead meant to simply be read and re-read and absorbed until they take form holistically in one’s mind. The tales can form patterns or templates in the mind which at certain moments can match up to reality, allowing us to see ourselves and the behaviour of others – including thought patterns, habits, behaviours, and even aspects of reality - which would otherwise be out of waking consciousness.

These amusing stories, told orally, have entertained countless people in the East for centuries. More recently they were collected and put into book form by Shah who spent his life researching and collecting the Eastern heritage of Sufi knowledge and relating it to the science and psychology of the West.

Friday, September 4, 2009


The Middle East has been imagined and depicted in many ways throughout history and into our time. Maps have been one way of doing so. From Roman impressions to the modern satellite image, the region has been seen through different eyes, and with a different shape or meaning.


(1) Map of internet usage in the Middle East:

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Cult of Khat

“Khat makes you happy. Khat makes you crazy. It can also make you cry.”
- Hisham al-Khamisi, taxi driver

Any travel to Yemen nowadays, particularly by those for whom the Middle East is something of a novelty, tends to include dabbling in the popular Yemeni pastime of chewing khat Рa locally grown flowering plant that contains an amphetamine-like stimulant causing a mildly euphoric, uplifting effect. Trying khat and reporting on its subtle, amorphous effects to friends back home has become so de rigueur that it is now almost something of a clich̩ Рnot to mention a kind of right of passage or experiential badge for aspiring Arabists travelling the Middle East circuit.

Not that they can be entirely blamed. For this socially-sanctioned drug is employed ritualistically and en masse in Yemen, with a large portion of the day being allocated to its use. It is an omni-present fact of life as well as a tool of social cohesion that is difficult to avoid for any visitor seeking an easy inroad into the local culture.

This widespread practice of chewing khat, which in recent decades has grown to become a national addiction, was neither always the problem that it is today nor is it an issue confined to just one or two dimensions of consequence. It can even be said that the future of Yemen and its development as a nation is powerfully impacted by the question of khat use and the implications surrounding it.

The plant is believed to have come to Yemen around 400 years ago from Ethiopia. Similar geographic and climatic conditions made it a perfect transplant location. For centuries, it was only the very rich and the elderly who chewed the plant, and only occasionally; often during official meetings and political discussions to empower and enliven debate. Otherwise use of the drug was strictly confined to only a few hours in the early afternoon.

It was only in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when approximately 4 million Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia for their government siding with Iraq against the international coalition, that the khat industry exploded. Many of the unemployed repatriated Yemeni workers took to the khat fields to find work, while others, with little to do, began to use the drug themselves. The wave soon spread to university students, women and children (some as young 7) - traditionally non-users of the drug.

Today, khat production constitutes a major industry in Yemen with powerful vested interests. Countless people are employed in the business of growing, delivering or selling khat – around 10% of the population. The Yemeni government itself derives money from the taxing of wealthy khat merchants and the slapping of tolls on the transport of the drug, by way of checkpoints along the roads on which they’re delivered.

The plant is mainly cultivated in northern Yemen, especially in and around the towns of Sana’a, Haja, Taiz and Ibb. Numerous varieties of the plant are grown, and like all fruit or vegetable produce can be divided into superior and inferior strains reflected by price and availability. The “best” quality khat can be described as having the smallest leaves and is light green in colour, with thick, whitish stems. Red stems reflect a lesser quality plant which translates into lesser or negligible psychological effects.

Less known or discussed are the numerous problems associated with the growth and consumption of the drug, which include:

The large-scale use of pesticides which have been known to cause disease and in some cases has poisoned and even killed consumers

The loss of precious arable land which is used to grow khat – land which could be used to grow other important staples lacking in Yemen

The loss of even more precious water resources used to cultivate khat. Estimates are that 40% of Yemen’s water supplies are being used to grow the drug.

Too much money being spent on khat by an underclass that has very little income to begin with, thereby helping to perpetuate poverty in Yemen.

Human inactivity and a productivity drain attributed to whole afternoons and evenings being lost to chewing khat

The negative physiological effects, chemical dependency and long-term changes to the brain resulting from prolonged use of the drug

The environmental cost – millions of clear plastic bags used to bag khat can be found strewn across the Yemeni countryside

With millions of Yemenis using khat on almost a daily basis, it is easy to see how any discussion about the future of this ancient country (one of the oldest and most culturally intact in all of the Middle East), will depend upon the ability of Yemenis to end their dependency on, and reduce to the most moderate levels, their use of this powerful plant.

All images and text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hobeika - Super Agent

The Middle East is full of intrigue, or so we are told. Dens of spies, spymasters, vast conspiracies - these are the warp and woof of the place, we imagine. On January 24, 2002, Super Agent Elie Hobeika was blown up in his car near his home. His body was flung 60 meters by the blast, possibly landing on a nearby balcony - so far that was he expelled from his previous spy status.

Elie Hobeika was the incarnation of duplicity in the shifting sands of the Lebanese civil war. He is reported to have executed the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees after Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by a large detonation at his party's headquarters in East Beirut. Hobeika is even reported to have been behind this very act, killing the President he later revenged by assisting the convicted perpetrator to gain access to the necessary explosives and to the site.

He is reported to have worked with the Syrians to help destroy the Christians' military power which he had previously built up. He was notorious for having been involved in the bombardment of the mainly-Christian town of Zahleh by Syrian and pro-Syrian forces. Finally, he was named as member of the government of President Hrawi - a man from that very Zahleh - and so became Minister of Electricity of Lebanon.

Beyond these major events, Hobeika may have been involved in untold numbers of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, briberies and blackmail. He exercised each and every one of these crimes with a great passion and a kind of blindness one only sees in saints and the greatest criminals. He was so efficient at the task that every side - Lebanese, Israeli, Syrian - is reported to have gladly drawn on his services.

No one dared touch him until that January 24, a decade or more after his major crimes. Many are convinced that former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon ordered his death after Hobeika agreed to testify against the Israeli leader in a Belgian court over the Sabra/Shatila massacres. Others believe the Syrians took advantage of his expendability to signal that Lebanon remained very shaky and needy of their presence, or to confirm that the Israelis are still meddling in Lebanon. So clear are the muddy waters of Middle Eastern politics. Hobeika's assassination was cloaked in the confusion and duplicity of his very life.

There are some who believe that Hobeika worshipped regularly at the tomb of the Maronite Saint, Mar Charbil, whose corpse remains miraculously uncorrupted by the ravages of time, and that Elie held a bottle of oil in his palm and recited prayers before entering battle, where he would often be seen to laughing like a hyena at times of extreme crisis, shouting "You fools! You don't know what you're doing!".

Some women were also strangely captivated by the green-eyed man, loving him with a desperation suitable to his extreme criminality. Despite the logical pleading of family and friends, these women would gladly go to his bed for the experience of Hobeika. He was greatly feared when he walked his own neighbourhood; all knew of the wrath and vengeance that awaited any who would dare cross him.

There are many who cheered and sighed 'good riddance' when he died. Most of the Lebanese political elite - except the brother of the assassinated Bashir and including many former enemies - attended Hobeika's funeral.

A woman with henna-coloured hair, whose age has only softended her magnificent figure, is reported to be seen placing a red rose at his grave at regular intervals.

(Most of this entry is true; the additional fictions are in line with the general course of events)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Text and photo copyright (c) John Zada and John Bell 2009

“My whole life was preparation for this job,” says Ismail Serageldin, as he sprouts a wry smile and gazes out of his 5th story office window overlooking the Alexandria corniche.

What might otherwise seem like an unusual comment coming from a man who gave up a sparkling career in international development to return to Egypt to take up a job as the head of a library, begins to make sense as the scale of the enterprise to which he heads comes into focus.

Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank and longtime socio-developmental guru is today commandeering of one of Egypt's most ambitious projects: he is the Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a gargantuan library-cum-cultural centre inspired by Alexandria's ancient library of antiquity.

The $220 million brainchild of Alexandria historian, Mustafa al-Abbadi, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (meaning “Library of Alexandria” in Latin), is the modern incarnation of one of the most esteemed institutions of learning and knowledge in history. The Bibliotheca, whose ancient predecessor vanished under dubious circumstances in the late Roman period, took several years to build and first opened its doors to the public in October 2002. In addition to providing Alexandria University with a top-notch research facility, the library was undertaken as part of a larger effort to reinvigorate Egypt's second city by recapturing the same spirit of learning that once made Alexandria one of the epicenters of knowledge in the ancient world..

To read this article in its entirety click here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Dog River Tablets

The Middle East is the invaded civilization: it is the occupied territory par excellence.”

The Lebanese coast consists of a series of regular rock outcroppings reaching out into the sea. Some of the most well known are Ras En-Naqoura on the border with Israel and Chekka between Byblos and Tripoli in the north. One such jutting is known by the "Dog River" (or "Nahr El Kalb") that flows by it into the Mediterranean.

These massifs separate areas of Lebanon, creating coves, and bays - effectively districts - helping to define the geography and even the politics of the area (the local "geopolitics"). They create separations and serve to point the locals outwards towards the sea, rather than inwards towards each other.

The Dog River was also a key passage for any army moving along the Lebanese coast. It was sufficiently dramatic and scenic that it inspired the conquerors to chisel their passage in stone. Each left a plaque announcing himself usually on his way elsewhere: Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzer, Alexander the Great, the Roman Emperor Caracalla, Salah al-Din, and Napoleon III of France were all here. In one glance, the tablets at the Dog River speak of the passage of armies and the multi-layered and convoluted history of the Middle East.

The Middle East has been the thoroughfare of conquest because it stands at the intersection of the continents. It has served as a commercial and cultural crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa; a kind of permanent distribution network of scriptures and goods, as well as the locus for a clash of cultures and peoples - and the very human reflexes of defence that are then provoked.

All cultures in the Middle East have a long memory of conquest and the brutal tides of history. Cities like Sidon, Jericho, and Aleppo have each been ransacked over and over again and contain the sediments of devastation beneath today's streets. The Mongol invasions, the rule of the Byzantines, the cruelty of the Crusaders, or the arrival of the Islamic faith from the Hijaz in Arabia, each left its impact in a bristling civilization - and in the traumas of the local inhabitants.

Hyper-vigilance, chronic distrust of outsiders and concern about the future would seem to be natural reactions to this longstanding process of invasion and destruction. This naturally led to tight belonging and identification within a group - once upon a time, a critical survival mechanism in an environment of regular threat. If you and your group did not stick together, the game was over.

Issues of identity and belonging in the Middle East are thus unconsciously understood as existential – or so they appear. Survival techniques became cultural habits over time. The passage of conquerors is not just carved on the rock of the Dog River, it is etched into the amygdylas of the people of the region and perpetuated today in their cultural habits.

Therefore, the people of the region come to their challenges today with their minds occupied with past trauma and past responses which seemingly need to be relied upon. A need to protect and maintain traditions that ensure survival, including close, almost cult-like, group-belonging appears essential.

In a mutable world, however, the challenges ahead today - environmental, economic and political - may require new responses based on more reflective and holistic answers rather than the reflexes of history played out over and over again. "Eye for an eye" or "kill or be killed" may have once been essential but today they may very well be the instruments of extinction.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Understanding Iran IV - Mutual Respect

We have put forward the possibility that relations with Iran are handicapped by narrow perceptions of that country, and that Iran's behaviour, including some of its excesses, can be explained through its search to have its 'intangible' needs met in the face of considerable international barriers. This is especially the case in a country with a powerful sense of status and entitlement driven by millenia of sophisticated culture and political history.

We believe there are two basic approaches to deal with Iran. Either we use what Ornstein calls our "old brain", rely on its caricatures and act on that basis and continue to deprive Iran of its needs, or we derive a new more nuanced and realistic approach to the matter, unfamiliar as it may seem.

As we have indicated, we have in our minds only slim pictures of a fuller reality, including that of another society like Iran. All can appear terribly simplified through the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or, indeed, of George Bush. It is also plain that not only the USA suffers from this problem; Iran has the same simplistic understandings of the USA (and of Israel) that Americans have of it. This is a two-way street where a sense of moral superiority, a black and white world of right and wrong, drives both sides.

Iran is a country seeking basic, if intangible, needs of legitimacy and respect. Many of the policies that have been under consideration do not sufficiently consider this. Iran will neither be bribed into a deal, nor threatened out of its ambitions. This is a cold reality. Therefore, the whole diplomatic approach of "carrots and sticks" that has marked American diplomacy will not work here. Furthermore, limited and cartoon perceptions not only limit our views of another society, they can cause misjudgments regarding the consequences of our actions:

  • Sanctions on Iran, even very heavy sanctions, will not likely make it bend nor stop it from enriching uranium. In fact, it will likely only strengthen the Iranian hardliners and radicals making them pursue uranium enrichment at an even faster pace, which, theoretically, is counterproductive to the international community's goals.
  • A military attack on Iran will not likely destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities nor its desire to pursuit it, but it will certainly destroy a country in the process. Hatred for the USA and Israel will be beyond the pale after such an attack with many currently incalculable consequences. Furthermore, in response, Iran can unleash a mixture of terror and missiles at Israel, American targets and other strategic sights in the Gulf, wreaking havoc in an already heavily destabilized Middle East.
Therefore, military strikes and sanctions cannot assure that Iran will not go nuclear; but they can assure that Iran will strike back, and that the atmosphere between the USA, Israel and Muslim countries will be deeply poisoned.

The reality is that this mindset may still, sadly, prevail. Both sides still feel the need to punish the other for past misdeeds, and expectations of threat can easily morph into an uncontrolled spiral of violence.

The key to avoiding this human disaster is to engage Iran on the basis of mutual respect and equality, which meets Iran's needs and may yield positive results for all concerned. Negotiating while threatening sanctions does not meet this criterion.

Although this second approach may be may be difficult and counterintuitive because of understandable aversions to the Iranian government's policies, especially over human rights, or Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel, it may only be this reality that can move matters forward constructively.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Understanding Iran III - A Question of Needs

Recent advances in the field of psychology, in addition to shedding light on our own behaviour as individuals, can also provide valuable clues as to what may be happening below the surface with regards to such things as conflicts between groups. Our awareness of the subtle, and perhaps more fundamental, aspects of the Iran-West conflict may be measurably heightened by our consideration of some of these new understandings.

We are fast learning that mental health and well-being (and the actions that arise from those states) depend highly upon certain emotional needs being met. It is being demonstrated that in addition to important physical needs of food, air water, and shelter, human beings need and require:

* security
* attention (to give and receive)
* a sense of autonomy and control
* to be part of a wider community
* a sense of status within social groupings
* a sense of competence and achievement
* meaning and purpose

When enough of these emotional needs are unmet within a person or larger community, psychological disarray, suffering and conflict may result.

Iran’s political and diplomatic behaviour, posturing and rhetoric which is often characterized as “extreme” or “rogue” and is sometimes depicted as being intrinsic to Iranian culture, is more likely related to its needs as a nation being deprived than it is to some inherent evil. And western countries may be quite complicit in this situation.

The ongoing effort by the West to sanction and isolate Iran, as an uncreative standard operating procedure, may be a primary cause. In fact, it might be said with some degree of certainty that the reason for which tools such as sanctions exist is to deprive countries of their needs in order to exact punishment, or to force capitulation on an issue or range of issues.

Decades of Western hostility, suspicion, forced isolation from the global community, and a devaluing of all things Iranian, go completely against the grain of the needs listed above: security, the ability to exercise attention through official relations, autonomy, control, being part of a community, and enjoying a certain national status and the fruits of growth and achievement. The implications of this, as profound as they are on their own, are further bolstered by the fact, often unappreciated, that Iran is a historically and culturally rich nation with a deep sense of pride. It’s needs for recognition, respect, and status perhaps run even deeper than other nations.

How does this bear upon the conflict and on our perception and understanding of Iran as whole?

If Iranians, or others in a similar situation, cannot have their needs met through the usual avenues that modern nations and people do, they will try to fulfill them in other ways.

For instance, what the west takes to be actions that are purely hostile towards it, may in fact be alternate and/or misplaced avenues for Iran to pursue its needs:

  • Iran’s continued revolutionary struggles, especially by its elites, against its “enemies” that include extreme rhetoric, action and political – may constitute an alternate form of pursuit of meaning and purpose, whose more appropriate forms are denied by sanctions and isolation
  • The development of a nuclear program (either energy or weapons or both) is a pursuit of security, status, competence and achievement, again, where isolation and sanctions prevents Iran from attaining these goals in other areas
  • Iran’s controversial relations to other groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria, North Korea can easily be understood in terms of its needs to share attention, have relations with others, and feel part of a larger community, since it is currently excluded in various ways from the community of nations
  • Iran’s intentions to become a regional power in the Middle East – something construed as hostile and ill-intentioned – may be seen through the prism of Iran’s need to have a sense of autonomy and control denied to it by the wide range of economic and political strictures imposed by the world community
  • Any one of these actions can be related to other unmet needs cited in the other examples.

A dialogue with Iran can be entered into to both understand these needs as well as to discuss such possible excesses.

What is the impact of all of this for our understanding of Iran?

These behaviours, seen as pure hostility and apart from their other motives, re-enforces and feeds back into our already skewed caricatures of Iran. Our responses further alienates Iran and produces more behaviours that we use strengthen our models. The cycle seems to have no end. Iran itself, or its leadership, may not be fully aware of the needs as described above and may be trying to compensate for those starved needs in excess.

The first step away from the precipice of the deadly violence which looms above this long-standing conflict, and towards more flexible policy options and improved relations between Iran and the West is for not only elites, but also regular citizens to learn and better understand why we see each other as we do, and how we might be able to bring our perception, even slightly more in line with what the reality might be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Understanding Iran II - A Distorted View

In order to appreciate the notion that what we as humans actually perceive is often far removed from what is actually there, we need to draw upon recent understandings in the fields of psychology and human behaviour.

Dr. Robert Ornstein is an American psychologist whose pioneering research and work in the areas of brain functioning, consciousness and human nature has transformed the way in which we understand ourselves. Among other things, he has shown that contrary to what we think, we as human beings do not perceive and experience the world as it actually IS, but instead as a distorted picture or caricature of that reality.

According to Ornstein, because of the evolutionary imperative over millions of years for humans to survive, our brains have evolved to filter in only certain information relevant to our survival while ignoring a multiplicity of other stimuli and data which exists in the external world.

Once we have experienced any given thing - whether it be a person, a place, an object or an environment - our minds create visual models and slots those things into simple and generalized categories, which we subsequently re-experience as we understand them in our own minds, rather than they actually exist.

Our views and experiences become “habituated” or “automized”, as kind of natural shortcut to ensure survival. Things like assumptions, biases, and prejudices are all part of the way in which our minds generalize and simplify the world around us, in order to see and react to those things that may be most relevant to our survival. The end result is that we can only see what our minds have allowed us to see at any given time. Whatever we do “see” or “experience” is almost always done so in an incomplete fashion, and as we know it to be in our minds.

Far from being a far-flung theoretical exercise with little relevance to the real world of people and events, these contentions have been confirmed by science and apply to all aspects of human life and human interaction. Because reality feels to each of us so convincing, so rich and so complete, and because we are not otherwise taught about the limitations of our cognition, it seldom occurs to us that our perceptions are incomplete or flawed. We are thus convinced of our views, and are too often compelled to act upon them.

We tend to see a country like Iran primarily in terms of its potential dangers and its propensity for aggression because that is how we have come to identify, categorize and model it, both individually and collectively in our brains. We have become habituated to that generalized perception.

Our distance from the reality of the country itself, its people, and its rich cultural heritage, combined with media coverage filtering in stories that confirm our viewpoints further strengthens our incomplete picture. A country like the United States which has been conditioned by its past experiences with Iran, or like Israel, whose predominant collective paradigm on the outside world is that of threat and the possibility of persecution, are both more susceptible to these processes.

But the cycle of misunderstanding does not end there. It is further heightened by our own actions on the political stage, which are essentially our responses to these entrenched viewpoints, which then play back into, and further enforce, our incomplete and lopsided perceptions.