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: