Friday, 28 December 2007

The Short Way from Dubai to Rawalpindi

One year of secret diplomacy between the US Administration and Pakistan’s Musharraf is in vain. Benazir Bhutto returned in October to Pakistan only for surviving an assassination attempt upon arrival and eventually being assassinated on December 27. She knew that she had mortal enemies in Pakistan, in particular in the immediate vicinity of Pakistan’s President.

Apart from the personal and national tragedy, Benazir’s assassination is a great threat to the whole region. As commentators describe it, America’s Pakistan policy, which had recently urged Benazir’s and Musharraf’s cooperation, is in tatters. It is revealing that Musharraf, who had survived several assassination attempts in the past, did not provide security to his opponent in the election campaign, and thus is at least indirectly responsible for the disaster.

It seems so as if Bush has counted again for too long on the wrong buddy.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

A Common World

Dear friends and colleagues!

In my first year in Kuwait it happened that Eid al Fitr was about at the same time as Christmas. When I bought some Christmas flowers the man in the flower shop congratulated me and I said Eid Mubarak! And he told me that he was very glad because Muslims and Christians can celebrate at the same time and even together.

Six years later, it happens again that now Eid al Adha (or Eid-e Ghorban) is being celebrated more or less at the same time as Christmas. According to the course of the moon this coincidence of holidays will happen only in 26 years or so again, then again with Eid al Fitr.

So, this time is also very special and I am very glad that I can wish my dear Muslim and Christian friends

Eid Mubarak and Merry Christmas! And a Happy and Successful New Year 2008!

Khoda Hafez!
Take Care!
Ha det bra!

A Common Word greetings

Thank you Saad, Lothar, Fatimah, Saeed, Jawad, Dora, Mohammad Reza, Julie & Uwe, Lars & Karin, Christel & Ernst, Michael & Sybille, Daniyal, Shirin, Ghaneema, Solmaz, Adel, Mervi & Ulvi, Golfam, Yunus & Amera, Adi & Birgit, Kefah & Yazeed, Abbas, Mitra, Sisko & Eino, Gerhard & Alexandra, Eija & Mauno, Abdulaziz, Keth & Frank, Ridwaan & Nazreen, Linda, Eero & Heidi, Birgit, Muawia, Arjuna, Jaber, Mona, Qoot, Faraj, Anja, Subhadra & Santosh, Asma & Athbi, Neda, Alireza, Faisal, Lars & Steffi, Gerd, Ehsan, Robin, and Maryam for most pleasant responses!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Iranian Baluchis

The Kuwaiti pilgrims who I accompanied on their visit of Mashhad last year were neither interested in the tomb of the great Iranian poet Ferdowsi nor in that of Harun ar-Rashid in the near-by village of Tus. Harun ar-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, had poisoned the father of Imam Reza, Musa al-Kazim in 799 CE. In the West admired for developing art and science in the Islamic world and known for his correspondence with Charlemagne, whom he sent two albino elephants, Shi’as have grave resentment and disdain for his dissipated and sinful life style. Ferdowsi (935-1020 CE), on the other hand, is not really known among the Arabs.

I had visited both mausoleums already in 2005. About Ferdowsi it is said that he preserved, in his monumental collection of pre-islamic national epics, called the Shahnameh, Persia’s language (Pahlavi) after the conquest of Iran by the Arabs in the 7th Century. His tomb, built by Reza Shah in 1925, evokes Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum in Parsagadae. The small museum contains many scenes of the life of Rostam, the mythical hero.

Tus was ransacked and vanquished by the Mongolians in the 13th century. There are some clay walls left, while some recent archaeological activities can be seen. Back to Mashhad we passed Harun’s mausoleum, a plain, unembellished building.

There is a carpet bazaar in Mashhad which I had not visited on my last trip in the summer of 2005. Looking for some authentic pieces, preferably old/antique Iranian Baluchis, I was referred to Mr. Abbas’ little shop. He had folded his pieces in the right way, pile inside. There were no spectacular rugs exposed to visitors. We chatted for a long time, about God and the World, I suppose. Iranians love to talk about politics, and it turned out that Mr. Abbas was an ardent devotee of the Revolution and even the current president. His younger son Ramin was with him in the shop, listening attentively to his father. Abbas mentioned that Iran is now the freest country in the world. While he looked over my surprised face, he explained. Iran is autarkic in any respect, the resources of the country are sufficient for supplying the people with everything. And while other countries completely depend on the United States of America, Iran does not. I haven’t thought about that so far, but I agreed in a way. At least a different kind of freedom as Westerners usually seek.

After almost two hours (and having finally agreed to having a cup of tea), I asked him whether he could also show me some of his carpets. It turned out that Mr. Abbas’ business was twofold. First, he is still collecting old and antique Baluchi carpets from the Mashhad area. Second, he provides women in the not-so-far villages in the mountains with high-quality handspun wool, which he dyes in his workshop with natural dyes for weaving authentic new Baluchi carpets. Customers, mainly from Europe and especially from Germany provide him with special designs. Most interestingly, he told me that the women in the villages have more or less lost their memories about the beautiful Baluchi designs. The longer I listened to Mr. Abbas (and I had more opportunities in the coming days since I was invited several time to his home), the more I was surprised to learn about nowadays’ tribal rug production in Iran. In his home, I saw a (new) carpet in the hallway whose design I was very familiar with. The original carpet was displayed on the cover of a catalogue of a famous exhibition organized by Peter Bausback in Mannheim in 1980 about Baluchi carpets, the first of its kind, I suppose. And Mr. Abbas owned even the catalogue.

The next day, January 2, 2007, I went with Mr. Abbas’ eldest son Sirus with the family’s Pajero to the villages. Sirus had new design templates and wool for the weavers and wanted to visit and talk to the women in the villages. It was a cold winter day. Sirus explained the pretty harsh life of the half-nomads in the vicinity of Mashhad. During the winter they seek shelter in houses but the rest of the year they live in tents. He stressed that the Revolution has brought the people there, for the first time, electricity and running water. We passed ancient hamlets where Sunni and Shi’a were living in different districts. When we reached the village, I was introduced to what was probably the mayor, an old man with a white turban, who kissed me on the cheeks and welcomed me cordially, the Almani Doctor. The young women in the houses were warned by calls of Sirus that males were approaching, so they had some time for covering their hair. Inside, we were welcomed. The generally young women were very curious. They discussed their work with Sirus who made some constructive suggestions. The looms had been placed horizontally on the ground, and sometimes they filled the entire room. Some husbands and fathers of the women approached, too. Several homes were visited before we returned to Mashhad.

On our way back, we saw two lads on the road desperately waving. Sirus was hesitant, his father had exhorted him not to take hitchhikers. But I convinced him that they looked harmless. We went back and picked them up. They told us that they had missed the bus to Mashhad and we gave them a lift.

On my several visits of his shop in the bazaar and his home Mr. Abbas introduced me to his big family. He told me wonderful melancholic stories of the old times when he was a young man. Many hippies had traveled to Mashhad at that time, the mid 1970s, who were on their way to Afghanistan for buying hashish or opium. He also showed me a photo album with old pictures of him, his wife, and their friends, some of them have become his customers now. In his workshop’s cellar he demonstrated the way of dying the wool for his carpets and showed me certain old pieces for sale. Mr. Abbas may be contacted by potential customers here.

Iranian Baluchi carpets have very dark colors and usually modest designs. They are rather small, frequently made for praying. But that doesn’t mean that they do not have a great variety of styles. Before leaving Kuwait, I bought in Feruz' little shop in the old Souq a special piece with a typical Dokhthar-e Gazi design made by the Timuri tribe in Western Afghanistan. It has a very high density of knots, I suppose 50 per square cm. The beautiful brown and dark blue of the ground field blends almost into green. The Dokhtar-e Gazi design is explained in some detail on this wonderful web page.

Another piece I bought there is most probably a Kurd-Baluchi (Ali Mirzai) from the Sarakhs vicinity. It shows the characteristic small cocks. Remember that Baluch means cock, or the comb of a cock.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Lady Shatita

In order to learn more about Shi’a Islam and the piety of ordinary people it would have been most helpful to visit at least some of the plenty of Emamzadehs (holy sites) all over Iran. So, it was a most welcome opportunity and, in fact, great honor when my Kuwaiti friends invited me to accompany them on their several bus trips in Khorasan on the occasion of their 2006 pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mashhad.

Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires each embraced half of the then known world when they climaxed. And even when Iran was under the reign of Seleucids, Arabs, Seljuks, or Mongols, the Iranians imprinted their lifestyle and culture on the non-welcome invaders, who in any sense immensely benefited. So, the austere new religion Islam, which replaced Iran’s state religion Zoroastrianism, was fundamentally reorganized, and, as I see it as an outsider, filled with life. The rapid and shocking decline of the Sasanid Empire at the end of a century-long fight with Byzantium, and the unexpected takeover by Arabs and their culture of the deserts (in fact, they probably only filled a vacuum) had a deep impact on the souls of Iranians which can be felt even today. So, they made something new out of Islam. It is a backward, (re-)creation of legends and saints, which may much better fit the taste of a highly civilized nation than the Puritanism of orthodox Islam. Form follows function, the two dimensions of architecture, and Iranians are experts in it. Shi’a Islam developed here in Iran and seems to scare nowadays more than ever the people in the mainland of Islam, Arabia. People who do not understand the function of a religion in daily life in general (and do not know anything about the more than bloody history of the Imams, in particular) might perceive only irrational issues in it. But isn’t that a characteristic of all religions?

Iranians are masters in telling legends and stories about saints and pious normal people. When in Mashhad, I heard numerous tales about miraculous healings of fatally ill people visiting the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza; stories of the wondrous appearance of Imam Hossein. And legends of God-fearing normal people who lived a normal life in what is called in the West the Middle Ages, at a time when Persia might have been more advanced than any other country.

The province of Khorasan is a lush country with fertile farmland and orchards, a rather lovely countryside in the east of the great deserts Kavir and Lut. On New Year’s Eve 2006 our bus took us to the former Capital of Khorasan, Nishapur; for me mainly the home of the great mystic Fariduddin Attar and the great mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam.

My hosts were not so interested in an ancient caravanserai of the Silk Road. But they stopped in Qadamgah near the village of Mahmudabad, where a shrine holds the footprint of Imam Reza, and a spring supplies fresh water which is said to have sanatory effects. All of us filled our plastic containers.

Further in Nishapur, the Iraqi Seyyed who guided the group of Kuwaiti pilgrims and provided them with the historical backgrounds of the sites, made finally in Mohammed Mahrugh’s mausoleum an attempt to convert me to Islam. But that was even too embarrassing for the Kuwaitis, who later apologized. To be honest, I didn’t mind, had I already expected that for some time.

In the same garden, the quite modernistic monument over Omar Khayyam's tombstone attracted my interest far more. Known in the west mainly for his Rubayyat, Iranians revere him as one of their greatest mathematicians and astronomers.

The sad story of Bibi Shatita, as the Kuwaitis called her, is really touching and may be particularly revealing when learning more about the deep piety of the normal people in Khorasan. It took some time to find an interesting link in the internet which explains in considerable detail what the Seyyed told us in her own small Emamzadeh in Nishapur. The story entwines around the seventh Shi’a Imam, Musa al-Kasim, who lived in the second half of the 8th century in Madinah (before Harun Al-Rasheed detained and later poisened him in Baghdad). When collecting money and goods for the Imam, the pious, old, and very poor Shatita in Nishapur could afford only a small piece of cloth and a Dirham. But besides foretelling that she would soon die, the Imam very much acknowledged her gift and even appeared on a camel at her funeral in Khorasan.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Mashhad’s Haram

The 3-million city of Mashhad in the northeastern corner of Iran has virtually no history unrelated to the Holy Shrine of Ali ibn Musa Al-Rida. The Eighth Shi’a Imam, Reza as he is called, died in 818 CE (203 AH) in the ancient city of Tus nearby. According to Shi’a beliefs, he was poisoned by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun, the son of Harun Al-Rashid, whose mausoleum is in nearby Tus. Imam Reza’s resting place in the small village of Sanabad was soon attracted by pilgrims since there was a saying that a pilgrimage to Imam Reza’s tomb would outweigh 70’000 visits of Makkah. And gradually the city of Mashhad, literally “place of martyrdom”, developed.

Al-Rida’s tomb is one of the most significant places for veneration and worshipping of Shi’a muslims outside Iraq. The huge circular island in the center of Mashhad is under permanent major construction since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. From space (which might actually be the best way to get a complete overview of the site) you can see that several courtyards of the Astan-e Qods Razavi are covered by hundreds of mainly red carpets.

The complex, or haram, is dominated by the two major buildings, the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza and the fine Azim-e Gohar Shad Mosque both from Timurid era. They were commissioned by Gohar Shad and designed by the famous Qavam ad-Din bin Zayn ad-Din Shirazi in the early 15th century. (The Darb-e Eman in Esfahan with its bulbous domes on high drums is another example that Timurid architecture was not confined to Transoxiana, for example in Samarqand or Bukhara.)

Gohar Shad was the wife of Timur Lenk’s (Tamerlane) eldest son Shah Rokh, who was residing in the city of Herat in what is now Afghanistan. It was under Gohar Shad's influence that Persian language and art became central elements of the Timurid dynasty. It is amazing that architectural masterpieces were built in Persia by Timurids only a few decades after Tamerlane’s sacking of Esfahan in 1387 where he built a pyramid of 70’000 skulls of the unlucky Esfahanis and took along a large company of architects, artists, scholars, painters, and craftsmen.

The ablution fountain in the main courtyard is a small copy of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

My Kuwaiti friends visited the Holy Shrine each evening after 11, definitely too late for me. So, early Saturday morning I entered the huge complex by myself. There were many sick people in wheel chairs. I managed to come close to Imam Reza’s gild Shrine within only five minutes or so. I did not enter the special room since the faithful kneeled before passing the door, and the room was overcrowded with pilgrims touching and kissing the Shrine.

Apart from these two significant buildings, the complex consists of museums, iwans, madrasehs, libraries, and a vast cemetery. The carpet museum contains some of the most stunning pieces of carpet weaving art in Iran. In the main museum, the work of contemporary Iranian artist Mahmood Farshchian is featured including the dazzling Fifth Day of Creation and famous Afternoon of Ashura. I have taken a picture of a poster with that touching painting in the Holy City of Qom. It displays the mourning womenfolk of Imam Hossein when, after the battle of Karbala, his horse arrived without him at the camp.

Before sunrise on December 30, the very day of Eid-e Ghorban, Saddam Hussein, the former tyrant in Iraq, was executed. The Kuwaitis congratulated themselves and decoration of the complex culminated as the holiday was celebrated in Mashhad.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Diplomacy Now

When recently visiting Iran, I saw a framed picture of Mohammed Mossadegh on the mantelshelf in the living room of a friend. In our discussions he told me that Iranians would not forget Madeleine Albright’s apology in March 2000 for the 1953 C.I.A. coup and reinstatement of the Shah. Albright, then Secretary of State in Clinton’s Administration, said:

“In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs. Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent. As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations.”

Very few Americans today know anything about the first C.I.A. coup ever. Even during the so-called hostage crisis of 1979 most Americans could not comprehend why Iranians were hostile to their government, despite of having supported the Shah for so many years. They did not consider the fact that it was because of that. And the disaster went on when Saddam used chemical weapons of mass destruction in the war against Iran, while America and the world public did not intervene or even mind.

The deeply messed-up relationship between the US and Iran is mainly due to these two events: the coup in 1953, which was called Operation Ajax; and the hostage crisis of 1979-1981. The two peoples do not trust each other anymore. And there are good reasons for distrust for each party. I do not think that the present, now heavily damaged, US Administration is willing or able to improve the situation with Iran. But the new Administration has to recall “the coup” and consider Iranian sensitivities, undoubtedly an influential middle power in the Middle East. Although not being very optimistic as regards to the present regime in Tehran, I suppose that it is also high time for the Iranians to eventually apologize for the hostage crisis.

Diplomacy is the art and practice of negotiations based on mutual compromise, talents especially the Iranians have developed during the millennia of their long history.

Monday, 10 December 2007

This is Not a Nuclear Plant

Mashhad, December 28, 2006


The National Intelligence Estimate which has considerably relieved the strain on Iran’s nuclear program was not entirely new. While IAEO Director General Mohamed ElBaradei wrote in October 2007 that there is no evidence that Iran was working actively to build nuclear weapons, largely confirming NIE, Seymour Hersh reported already one year ago about clandestine results of the C.I.A. activities which were perceived in the White House with hostility. He wrote in The New Yorker on November 27, 2006 (!):

“The Administration’s planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The C.I.A. declined to comment on this story.)
The C.I.A.’s analysis, which has been circulated to other agencies for comment, was based on technical intelligence collected by overhead satellites, and on other empirical evidence, such as measurements of the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and power plants. Additional data have been gathered, intelligence sources told me, by high-tech (and highly classified) radioactivity-detection devices that clandestine American and Israeli agents placed near suspected nuclear-weapons facilities inside Iran in the past year or so. No significant amounts of radioactivity were found.
A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it.”

Bush was not delighted or so. He was annoyed. The article was published a week after Hersh's interview with CNN, where he mentioned the secret C.I.A. report.

So, the same evidence or lack of it was present in late autumn 2006, but preparations for war went on. Several aircraft carriers were located in the Arabian Gulf, and warmongering rhetoric culminated in October. When I left Kuwait in May, I felt the situation being at least as or even more dangerous in the Middle East as just before the Iraq war in 2003.

Hersh asked, in his article in The New Yorker, the question: Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more? The damage for the US Administration is now even greater. An imminent attack of Iran, that is the general appraisal in Monday morning’s newspapers, has become rather unlikely.

Irony of history has it that the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, talks about a “quasi-Putsch” of the intelligence. Fifty-four years after Operation Ajax.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

A Pilgrimage

End of last year one of my Kuwaiti colleagues invited me to join her family and a group of Shi’a pilgrims heading for the city of Mashhad in the northeastern corner of Iran. For me it was to be the second visit of Emam Reza’s Holy Shrine after 2005 in hot summer. This time of the year, Christmas, the Christian New Year, Hajj, Eid-e Ghorban, Eid-e Ghadir, and the expected execution of Saddam Hussein would more or less coincide when I was in the wintry Holy City. It was a special experience I would not want to miss at all. I have heard that many Europeans nowadays follow the hype and hopes of hiking on St. James Way in Spain. A certain longing for spirituality and even mystic experiences may be the thriving force for bored Westerners searching for meaning. So, I was somewhat curious about what I could get from that trip.

The nowadays more and more emerging problems for Westerners of getting a visa for Iran were to be solved by the Shi'ite organizers, who were located in Bayan, close to the US Embassy. There were some direct calls by cell phone necessary until I eventually found the private house with the organizer’s office. Street addresses are not very reliable in Kuwait, and prominent landmarks (a mosque is not a landmark) were missing in that residential area. Sheikh Nusrallah’s smiling face in a frame was hanging in the office (fortunately, no current plans for visiting the US). Plenty of friendly and hospitable, middle-aged, short-bearded men in their dark winter dishdashas, offering me tea and cookies. They took it very seriously. My little concern that they might secretly smile about the crazy Westerner was probably not justified. I left my passport and KD 260 and was promised that everything would be in order, and the hotel in Mashhad which was owned by an honorable Kuwaiti and located close to the haram, would be nice.

At the airport, the group checked in for the charter flight directly to Mashhad. I noticed that my luggage erroneously wasn’t tagged. So, no wonder that I lost it finally. After arrival in the Holy City we were asked to a waiting hall until the immigration formalities had been accomplished. Then we entered the bus to the hotel, and a hired Seyyed from Iraq, who was supposed to explain the meanings of the various holy places the group wanted to visit in Khorasan, welcomed me, the Almani, cordially as a guest of honor. For several days I had some hope for eventually receiving my lost luggage. Finally, I was shown a similar suitcase which had been checked-in in Jeddah, and which obviously belonged to a Bangladeshi hajji who had been in Makkah. So, I had to buy some more clothes in cold and snowy Mashhad.

Snow was a special attraction for the Kuwaiti kids in the group. That they could create a snow man was kind of a sensation and many pictures were taken.

On our first trip (in our “Beuti Full Bas”) we took the road leading to Sarakhs at the Turkmenistan border. Near the little village of Miami (not in Florida!), the Friday prayer was to be held in the small Emamzadeh Yahiya, an obviously ancient site under some reconstruction. Yahiya was a grandson of the fourth Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who is also known as Al Sajjad. While threatened by the Umayyads, he migrated from Kerbala to Khorasan, where he was martyred at age 18. Snowball fights of the youths after the prayers in the mosque.

Then back to Mashhad. Strolling through the buzzing streets of Mashhad I found that beautiful Hezardestan traditional tea house again which I remembered as one of the coziest in Iran.

The huge 75 hectare complex of Astan-e Qods Razavi is seen at the end of Imam Reza St., heavily illuminated and decorated for the upcoming holidays. Construction work will not be finished for several years. Twelve million pilgrims a year demand a lot of space for worshipping.

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Estimate

This week’s published summary of the Iranian National Intelligence Estimate has considerably lowered apprehensions of new military actions in the Middle East. The American President is now personally addressing North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il for some further nuclear clarifications. Anyway, G.W. Bush's last year in office might become more boring than had been suspected so far.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Tromsø, November 30, 2007, Noon

From Abyaneh to Natanz

From Kashan on my way south, the highway followed the fringes of the great Dasht-e Kavir to the left, while to the right it nestled close to Iran’s Central Massif, a ridge which is running parallel to the Zagros Mountains. The taxi driver followed the sign to Abyaneh, the ancient village from the Sasanid era. Until the founder of the Safavid Dynasty in the early 16th century, Shah Ismail I, persecuted them so that most flew to Yazd and further to India, the village was mostly populated by Zoroastrians, as Sylvia A. Matheson writes in her archaeological travel guide. The village is located at the northwestern foothills of Mt. Karkas which is about 3900 meters high.

It is a lush country with wide and fertile fields and plantations of fruit and walnut trees. We had a lunch in the only restaurant, and then I walked down the narrow lanes through the beautiful village. The red mud brick and clay houses lie at twisted and steep, climbing, lanes. They display beautiful wooden lattice windows and fragile balconies. Women wear very colorful cloths here while at the same time, of course, observing the Islamic dress code one hundred percent. The wooden scaffold seen on one of the balconies, a nakhl, represents the coffin of Imam Hossein and is carried by men inside on the occasion of Ashura every year, then covered with black and green cloth. The Islamic Republic of Iran has very recently submitted to UNESCO its request of Abyaneh being fully acknowledged as World Heritage.

Further to Esfahan we passed, to the left, the small town of Natanz, and to the right what my driver called Iran’s atomic bomb project (“Don’t take any pictures!”). A heavily fortified plant with numerous watchtowers, even artillery. So, foreign visitors are not really welcome. Most probably the first target for now awaited air strikes on Iran.