Monday, 29 October 2007

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Upcoming Morgenlandfahrt

Not East and not West. That is and always has been Iran. Since ancient days Persia not Turkey, which truly belonged for so many centuries to the former, was the real bridge between Europe and Asia. Persians tried to conquer the classic old world, of course, and only the incomparable Alexander could stop them, at least for some time.

The influence on European civilization has always been tremendous. Persian poets are not only highly revered by their own kinsmen. Goethe was inspired by Hafiz and Attar for writing his Westöstlicher Diwan. The amazing astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam became incredibly famous in 19th century’s America after Edward Fitzgerald’s evocative translation of his Rubaiyat.

The Achaemenids, the Sasanids, Safavids, Qajars, all of them left behind mind-blowing monuments and architectural pieces of pure beauty. Seeing this would change anybody’s thinking about history, the coming and going of Empires, the origin of monotheism and its influence on Jews in the Diaspora. Then, values and virtues of Islam, Shi’ism, submission to God, sincerity in religion. All aspects of humanity, and a melancholic humor in always difficult times.
Iran is, and has always been, the favorite destination of so many of us searching for eternal wisdom and beauty. The entrance door to the mysteries of the Orient.

But today’s Iran added another unique aspect. It is now the only frankly declared theocratic state, ruled by mullahs which have not really (some say in no way) been elected by the people. These days the country is threatened with war, and prices are exploding because of severe sanctions. So, when visiting the country next week, I will, as usual, keep an eye on the situation and conditions when normal people try to manage in daily life.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

One Palmtree is not an Oasis


Temperatures between June and September may rise well beyond 45 centigrade in Kuwait. For someone that might be a constant cause for expressing discomfort and suffering. Others simply enjoy.

Public beaches in Kuwait can be found everywhere at the seafront between the Kuwait Towers and Ras Salmiya, and further south. Kuwait’s multicultural society is nowhere evidenced better. The Islamic dress code has to be observed, of course. Jet ski racing has become very popular in Kuwait Bay, and it is mainly the young lads who really love showing their daring and acrobatic maneuvers.

Camel Race

A great spectacle on Thursday afternoons, Kuwait’s camel race. When it was made public that the boys were usually kidnapped from Pakistan, 'robots' suddenly replaced them as jockeys all over the Emirates of the Gulf.


Tehran is buzzing, an exploding city of 14 Million. In very rare circumstances breathtaking and quite horrible air pollution from the exhaustion pipes of a million or so cars, and 2-wheel vehicles as well, may have been washed away by some rain showers giving sight to the marvelous snow-capped peaks of the Alborz mountains. Or even the near-by, 5671 meters high, sleeping volcano Kuh Damavand. It is a perfect cone, as that of Mount Fuji in Japan, but 3000 meters higher! Be aware of the taxi drivers at Mehrabad Airport in the very center of the city! They know their job well. Trust them as long as you know the difference between Riyals and Toman. And the true distance from one terminal to the other! In any case, if you have not an urgent appointment there, avoid that city.

Unlike on other occasions I arrived at Imam Khomeini International Airport on November 1, 2006. That modern airport had been finished in 2005 and it is a more or less empty place. It is located far outside the Capital.


I had some eight hours left for my domestic flight, from Mehrabad, scheduled to Shiraz, where the conference was about to take place. I made a quick decision. A friendly taxi driver would rather take me to the Holy City of Qom, about 100 kilometers southwest of Tehran. Qom is the home of the Holy Shrine of Fatema Masumeh, a sister of Imam Reza, who died on her journey for visiting her brother and was buried here. From here the decline of Persia’s Shahs began. Legend has it that one day in 1928, Reza Shah’s wife visited the Shrine of the Innocent and when showing her face was dispraised by an ayatollah there. Next day, Reza entered the Shrine showing his anger and contempt and did not remove his boots. He even maltreated the mullah whom he had identified. They never forgot. Later Qom became the residence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Revolution.

The center of the city is the marvelous Meydan-e Astan, from where the golden dome of the Holy Shrine can be seen very well. I had stayed overnight here a year or so ago in the Aria Hotel, a place under heavy renovation, as I noticed. Pilgrims inhabit the city all around the year. Qom is a main religious center with plenty of theological seminaries. The output of new mullahs is high; they are visible all over the place.

Reza, the friendly taxi driver, and I searched some time for a small restaurant which was still open. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, not really lunchtime. Iranians are fond of eating kebab. Reza was in a very good mood. The trip gave him the opportunity of praying at two of the holiest sites in Iran on the same day, Jamkaran and Hazrat-e Masumeh. When I paid for the meal, Reza’s mild protest was of course taroof. Taroof, that is not so seriously meant invitations, may be a dangerous field full of land mines as long as you don’t know. But don’t even think about traveling in the Middle East with not having at least some sort of intercultural competence!

Three little boys asked me if I could take a picture. Very self-confident, at least two of them.

After lunch, Reza 'adopted' me without further ado and guided me to the men’s entrance of the Haram. I guess Hazrat-e Masumeh is open for the pilgrims 24 hours a day for 365 days a year. In large waves one climax of mourning after the other is reached, while people push themselves to the golden, grated shrine, which they touch and kiss. Ten minutes, at most, the non-Muslim can stand this picture without feeling too uncomfortable in the environment. But the faithful are occupied, of course, with other sorrows than watching the foreigner and outsider.

On the way back to Tehran, we passed Qom’s salt lake in the near-by Dasht-e Kavir and had a short excursion to the mausoleum of Imam Khomenei with its 91 m high minarets. Reza admitted that he didn’t like the Ayatollah. Nevertheless, he wanted to pray there again. A complex as impressive as a hangar.

It was the next day, when Iran tested the new Shahab-3, a medium-range ballistic missile in the desert next to Qom. I read about the exercise only when I had returned to Kuwait after the conference in Shiraz. That might have been the reason why it was so difficult to get the visa.

Friday, 26 October 2007


Six kilometers east to the center of the holy city of Qom, at the fringes of the great Dasht-e Kavir desert, lies the mosque of Jamkaran. It is a holy place where it is said that Mohammad Mahdi, the 12th Shi’a Imam, had appeared in 373 AH, together with Al-Khidr. There is a well where the faithful drop their letters with wishes and desires. Not from Jamkaran but Samarra in what is now Iraq, the Mahdi will reveal himself at the end of all time. One of the first acts of the government of the new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to donate $10 million to the mosque in Jamkaran.

My visit of Jamkaran was mainly inspired by an article by Ulrich Ladurner in the German weekly DIE ZEIT from October 2006. Ladurner painted a most strange picture of Iran and the Iranians, emphasizing special features of Shi’a beliefs in the return of the Mahdi. The article conjured up a completely irrational society waiting, and indeed preparing for, an apocalypse. He argued that the current President of the Islamic Republic of Iran had promised the awaited return of the Mahdi during his term. It has to be noted that the Mahdi, by Shi’a belief, is the hidden 12th Imam, who will return only in a state of great injustice and in fact chaos and turmoil. In that context, Iran’s ambitious nuclear program would get another dimension since the West suspects Iran of building an atomic bomb and fears that Israel will be a first target.

Ladurner's article strangely demonized Iran as an inherently evil dictatorship, in which people follow apocalyptic visions. It was supplemented with rather weird and unprofessional snapshots of boys, women in chadors, and some men who submitted extreme religious feelings at the particular well where the faithful dropped little pieces of paper with their most intimate wishes and desires. In a first response I mailed a comment in which I doubted that it was well-investigated. In fact, it turned out to be the first in a series of articles with the intention to incite a discussion in Germany in which the people were prepared for an upcoming military conflict.

When I visited the place there was nothing special, however. Of course, taking photographs was, as usual in holy places, not allowed, which was indicated by little signs everywhere. I have seen other holy shrines in Iran where religious feelings were more obviously shown. Knowing about Ladurner’s article, I got a feeling that it was nothing else than fake, with the mere purpose of manipulating the German public, at least readers of DIE ZEIT. The previous months have unfortunately confirmed fears that the Middle East is on the brink of another warlike conflict.

While the breakdown of the fragile administrations in Iraq and Afghanistan is foreseeable, borderline or even failed states, the likelihood of another military conflict has consistently increased after the present US administration used an unprecedented strong, and indeed warmongering, language to warn Iran.


Belonging to the Arabian Shelf in the Western part of the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait is extremely flat. It is mainly made of sand of sediments which once were covered by the sea. In fact, the area is a sedimentary coastal plain with no real mountains or rivers. The only prominent natural feature in the country is the escarpment of Jal Az Zor which runs about 60 kilometers along the North shore of Kuwait Bay. To the North and Northwest, the desert extends up to the Iraqi border without any uprisings. The sand- and limestone cliffs of Jal Az Zor may rise up to 130 meters. Its sedimentary origin can easily be seen from the exposed strata and further proof may be marine fossils that can be found there. The gully systems along the escarpment are gradually being eroded by wind and rainfall and slowly being filled in by sand. The beauty of the desert in this part of Kuwait and its peaceful atmosphere can be soaked in particular in wintertime and spring.

A New Beginning

It was exactly one year before the abject, world-shaking September 11 attacks of Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in September 2000, when I stumbled over a large advertisement in one of our professional journals which told me that the new Faculty of Dentistry at Kuwait University was seeking applicants for academic positions. I have to admit here that I had never ever considered moving to an Islamic country, in particular not working there. But that was entirely due to lack of information at that time. What Islam meant was not clear to me at all. I was not even interested very much.

A quick check on the internet told me that this was a project mainly engaging well-known international academicians, most of them from Scandinavian countries, with a quite good record of publications. So the question came to my mind, would I fit in that environment? I read Kuwait was the hottest place in the world. But a dear friend who had been traveling in the Middle East in the 1970s and who apparently was still dreaming her oriental dreams now and then quickly convinced me of sending an application, just for fun, of course.

One year later, exactly 10 days after that infamous September 11, I arrived in Kuwait, quite anxiously, of course. It turned out that I was now the 15th academic staff of Faculty of Dentistry, Kuwait University. The adventure began and it certainly did change my life. The Middle East turned out to be one of the most exciting, thrilling, amazing, mind-changing environments I could imagine. Apart from sincere commitment in teaching our so self-confident, diligent, most talented, in fact just wonderful students, I was mainly occupied these six years in Kuwait with a tremendous personal development of new and deep social, cultural and even religious interests in this multicultural society living in the State of Kuwait.

I would like to describe the urban life in modern Kuwait, but even more the nature of this small, oil-rich desert state in the corner of the Arabian (or indeed Persian) Gulf. And of course document my extensive traveling in the Middle East which brought me to Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and many times to Iran, whose rich and eternal history and culture, and spectacular landscapes as well, I could only marginally explore during my numerous visits there. While I have been moving in the meantime for meeting other challenges in a part of the world which cannot be a greater contrast, I hope that my general experience in the Middle East, namely the overwhelming friendliness of its people, be it Kuwaitis or ‘expats’ from so many other countries living in Kuwait, and at the same time that of Jordanians, Syrians, Omanis, Yemenis, and, in particular Iranians, is well-reflected here. As well as my growing concerns regarding an uprising new military conflict in the region.