Friday, 23 November 2007

Business as Usual in Tehran

Unexpectedly, Tehran presented itself in early November this year more than charming. The air was clear and sun shining every day while temperatures were very comfortable at 22 centigrade. An obligatory visit of the Carpet Museum at the north western corner of Lahle Park with its small but selected collection and exhibition of pieces mainly from the 18th and 19th century would prevent me from buying more carpets in Tehran’s bazaar. The nearby Museum of Contemporary Art is also interesting. Besides displaying paintings, sculptures and very interesting installations by local artists, the fine collection includes works from Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte, Miro, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, even Francis Bacon.

Our hosts took much care of us so that we were guided, on a special tour, also through the Archaeological Museum (part of the National Museum of Iran), Golestan Park, and the incredible National Jewels Museum which is located in what can be called a walk-in bank safe in the Islamic Republic's Central Bank. And, of course, a short visit of Tehran's big bazaar.

Of course, taking a taxi was hazardous as usual, including the mishap of a minor traffic accident. The motorcyclist who hit us drove against driving direction in a one-way street. But that can happen everywhere in the world. Traffic in this 14 million city is enormous, and even Iranians feel sometimes as driven crazy by their drivers. Restricted petrol doesn’t make it easier. I always had in mind the very nice ‘adventure report’ of a visitor which had been published in Lonely Planet’s Iran travel guide: Better consider Tehran’s taxi drivers as really good drivers! And remember, a ride in a roller coaster would cost you a considerably higher amount of money for just the same sort of fun.

While waiting for the return flight to Europe very early on Saturday morning I had nice company with some of my colleagues from Esfahan University who would have a meeting of the Deans the next day in Iran’s Capital. So, let’s see, how much fun we could have in vibrant Tehran …

Alighapoo restaurant is a large tea house and restaurant. It is located northeast of Laleh Park. It may actually be one of the very few restaurants in Tehran where live bands play every night. You wouldn’t expect Western pop music here, but the performance which started with traditional folk music (which I knew already from several recordings at home) quickly developed into loud and rhythmic, yes, sort of dance music, while the crowd, young couples in love (nobody would ask whether married or not), youths, families with children, and tourists, became more and more enthusiastic. Singing and ‘rocking and rolling’ went on until late night, and the Iranian president wouldn’t be amused if he knew, I was told. I suppose, he knows. And maybe he would enjoy, too. Smoking qalyan had suddenly been prohibited in Esfahan, but here it was possible. When planning travelling to Iran, I felt grave concern about the warmongering language the present US administration used to warn the mullah regime in Tehran. I did not feel any new restrictions in the country. Especially in Tehran, people openly discussed political issues. Lots of talks about lizards and snakes. The country’s leaders were as criticised as was G. W. Bush in Washington. Political talks, masses of young people, young couples in the streets, business as usual on Tehran’s famous Valiasr Ave.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Museum of Contemporary Art

Tehran, November 2007

A Disneyland in the Desert?

Certainly not! Kuwait University has still a strong vision and enormous capabilities and facilities for developing and maintaining its status of a real frontrunner institution in the academic world of the Gulf States. Founded already some 40 years ago, there are now about 20’000 students who are taught in 13 Faculties. A new project is the University City which is located in Al Shadadiyah, about 30 km south of the Capital in what is so far desert. There will be also a University Hospital which is urgently needed since the old Mubarak Hospital in Jabriya with its limited space and facilities is not very suitable for the growing numbers of Medical students in Kuwait.

Working at Kuwait University as a teacher with a Western academic background may be a challenge. It has led to mixed if not ambiguous emotions. The exotic place cannot be compared with highly effective and productive Academia in, for example, the USA or Europe, where teaching is well-organized, standardized, streamlined, and mainly independent of social, cultural, or religious affiliations of teachers and students: textbook- and evidence-based. In Kuwait, to the contrary, religion determines 90% of daily life, thoughts and action. The strict consideration of this simple fact may be one aspect of indispensable intercultural competence. Respect, tolerance, acceptance are some of the urgent virtues a Western expat at Kuwait University should adopt first. And never forgetting his or her privileged status, since most of Kuwait’s workforce does not earn more than 200 dinars a month, an equivalent of about 700 US dollars! Five per cent of what a Professor at University gets on his current account each month! As a matter of fact, salary plays unfortunately a major role for signing a contract with Kuwait University. And the Administration in Khaldiya is aware of that.

In any case, Kuwait University relies heavily on teachers from the West. With 800’000 native Kuwaitis or so it might in fact be difficult to establish an academic teaching institute of a high standard. And the State of Kuwait, while being capable of hiring only the best, has to think about the future when gigantic oil reserves have been emptied. Thinking of the future is always the best argument, and investing in knowledge is the noblest way of caring for the coming generations.

But do they get the best? My first visit of my new Institute's website told me that an international Faculty had been assembled already, with a clear Scandinavian preponderance. Some of them with a good record of publications, some even well-known. Was it an advantage that most of them had been in other places in the Middle East before? What I learned to know later were certain people who do not really represent their home countries but create problems wherever they appear. Sad to say: even typical show-offs.

I am afraid that failing of Faculty of Dentistry at Kuwait University as an ambitious project will be inevitable. This is mainly due to the fact that incompetent people in the Administration could prevail, those with the weakest record but being much more familiar with survival in the ‘outback’. The more competent ones had left the place after some time, be it because of some frustration or be it because they were offered a more serious academic position somewhere else. Corruption has to be fought everywhere in the world, but that becomes difficult if it apparently belongs to the culture. Kuwait is, as any Arab country, a wasta society, where professional success mainly depends on good social relationships. Arab Times, one of the two daily newspapers in English, has published some time ago confessions of a Kuwaiti researcher at Kuwait University about how local academics promote their careers with the help of diligently publicizing Egyptians. And a recent scandal at the Health Sciences Center about the more than questionable attempt of an academic promotion of a Kuwaiti has to be regarded typical for the whole system. Not at least, Research Administration at Kuwait University constantly develops new rules and regulations, which are not compatible with the ethical standards of the scientific community, but should only make overt scientific misconduct more difficult, rather than expel the misdemeanants. The system of being offered only renewable 2-years contracts and a premature and offensive pressure of locals for occupying key positions in their own University, which might be more than understandable (but has to be guided by seniors, of course), made an exodus of the Westerners finally inevitable. We had to learn that the founding generation was no longer needed after the first 10 years, and the new generation will be Kuwaitis.

My thoughts go back to our just wonderful students who regard ‘their’ Faculty as the best teaching institute in the World. To our diligent new colleagues who pursue their academic career in the US. And to lavish celebrations on occasions of award ceremonies and semester-end parties.

Good luck and God’s blessings to all of them!

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Strolling Along the Corniche

Oil will inevitably come to an end in the region. How will the small emirate in the corner of the Arabian Gulf look in, say 30 years? As compared to Bahrain and Qatar, not to mention Dubai, Kuwait has definitely fallen behind as regards to developing alternatives. Endeavors are, however, considerable. Never having really been a touristic hub, Kuwait now tries hard to catch up.

The Waterfront Project has considerably beautified the seaside to the East and South of the Kuwait Towers, Bneid Al Qar, Sha’ab, East Hawalli, and Salmiya, but also to the North and West, up to Shuwaikh. The Corniche now roughly stretches between the famous Kuwaiti Towers and the Scientific Center in Salmiya, some ten km. Ninety percent of all expats of Kuwait are living in booming Salmiya. Salam Al Mubarak St., Kuwait's buzzing, but still somewhat cozy, main shopping street, is (and it is not a joke) called by many The Sultan Center St., since the city's main grocery store is located here. Besides typical American housewifes, rich Kuwaiti families are seen here, together with their house maids, shopping with already incredible amounts of food and stuff in their shopping carts. Towers are raised here and in other parts of the State of Kuwait at a fast pace, and whenever you return after long summer holidays, the view has changed.

Salmiya has become a major attraction for the Kuwaiti youths and tourists as well. The seaside is famous for the mighty Marina Mall, plenty of fancy restaurants, playing and sporting grounds, artificial harbors, five-star hotels, an excellent conference center, and the Scientific Center.
It can be very pleasant to stroll along the Corniche on a sunny Friday at the end of November when the very high temperatures during almost endless summer have dropped to bearable levels, and people meet for sport activities, hiking, or just enjoying life in Kuwait.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Kuwait Bay

Most of Kuwait Bay is lined by extended mudflats. The Bubiyan island in the Northeast is also mainly formed of mud. It is connected with the mainland by an impressive bridge but still public traffic is not permitted.

The Arabian (indeed, the Persian) Gulf has only one major fresh water source, the Shatt Al Arab. Together with great heat in summer and, therefore, enormous evaporation, water is very salty, even more in enclosed bays or in intertidal pools. Nevertheless, life is abundant, and fishing may still be an important source for food. Typical Hadra traps are found in the mudflats, complicated maze of sticks in shallow waters. Fish will not be able to find a way out and will be picked by the fishermen at low tide. Another trap is Gargoor which is portable. The principle is generally the same. Fish will swim into the trap through a funnel but certainly are not intelligent enough of finding a way out.

Near the Bubiyan bridge the remains of the Iraqi invasion, ruins and vessel wrecks, can still be found at the shores.

Esfahan's Living Museum

Being located in the heart of the old capital of the Seljuks, Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jomeh belongs to the most wonderful Islamic buildings in the world. More than 1300 years of Persian history may be studied in its architecture. It is the biggest mosque in Iran. Under the supervision of vizier Nizam al Molk the famous Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam, who lived at that time in Esfahan, planned and constructed parts of the complex.

Kufic calligraphy and a more sturdy architecture make Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jomeh so special. It is a mosque like a museum with different parts from eras as far ago as Sasanid Zoroastrians. It is said that the first mosque here was built in the early 8th century which was later enlarged by Abbasid Khalifs. The Seljuks rebuilt the mosque in the 11th century. The two domes over the northern and southern iwans have survived Mongolian storms and time.

On the portal of the northwestern iwan of Esfahan's Friday Mosque girih tiles can be found, which have been described in a recent article in Science by Lu and Steinhardt, enabling artisans to design never repeating decagonal and quasi-crystalline tilings. Further descriptions are given below.

An example of the richness of decoration may be found on the western side of the courtyard, the room of a Timurid Sultan from the 14th century with a stunning stucco Mihrab with Qur’anic inscriptions.