Monday, 28 January 2008

Is There Life on Mars?

These pictures are not from Kuwait's desert but have rather been released by NASA. They were taken by the Mars robot "Spirit" and show a man-like formation, a sculpture, or a shadow (or a creature?, apparently praying?) on the surface of the Red Planet.

Published by SPIEGEL ONLINE on January 25, 2008.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Almost a Significant Emotional Event

Where had I been in late April 2004? I remember (as an almost significant emotional event*) an afternoon in Damascus. I had invited an Iraqi Professor of Geophysics to my room in the Cham Hotel. I was a tourist, and he had just brought his family with the car from Holland, where he worked, to Baghdad. Right now, he was on his way back to Amsterdam in order to quit his job and then permanently move to Iraq. He had some hope of getting a position at Baghdad University. The stopover in Damascus provided him with the opportunity of visiting some of Islam's holiest places.

Dr. Saad had noticed me when entering the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most awesome buildings in the Islamic world. It was my first visit of a mosque ever, and I had been stumbling into the smooth as glass-like courtyard, when I suddenly heard his warning: “Better remove your shoes!” With an apology I did, and when I entered the gorgeous prayer hall itself, I met him again.

We chatted, about Kuwait, Iraq, Holland, Germany. Besides tourists, many families with their children were visiting the mosque. Adults were talking and kids playing. Some people prayed in groups, others alone. The stained glass windows, allowing streams of sunlight coming in, almost reminded me of a church. In fact, this is the haram for St. John the Baptist’s shrine (now one of the prophets of Islam), which can be visited in a prominent place in the mosque. During the period of 706 through 715 CE, the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I reconstructed (rather than demolished) the once Christian church into one of Islam’s most significant mosques. But one minaret still reminds one more of a church tower. Pope John Paul II had visited the site in 2001.

Dr. Saad, who hasn’t been in Damascus either, suggested that we can learn more about the city when strolling together through the streets. After we had left the Umayyad Mosque, we visited the Holy Shrine of Imam Husayn’s little daughter Ruqaiyyah, and I saw the plenty of toys in her grilled little tomb. The next day, Friday, we went to Lady Zaynab’s shrine in the vicinity of Damascus, a sister of Husayn who had survived the Battle at Karbala in the 7th century. For the first time, I participated, as a calm observer, in the Friday prayers.

Back in the hotel, we switched-on the TV and suddenly, he asked the most disturbing question: “Do you understand what you see there?” I didn’t. It was a report on an incredible crime in, one has to call it, a dungeon in Baghdad, called Abu Ghuraib. Only days later, when back in Kuwait, I began to realize what was soon considered the day, when G. W. Bush lost the war in Iraq. It was almost a significant emotional event, one which you never forget in your life.

Dr. Saad and I went also to the Anti-Lebanon Range and to small villages where rich Syrians (and also rich Kuwaitis) keep their chalets as summer getaways.

In Damascus’ wonderful and big bazaar, I met Ali, a young carpet dealer, also a Shiite. We did not talk about Abu Ghuraib. I suppose, he had not even heard about it. But we talked about Karbala and that a couple of weeks before, for the first time since many years, two millions of pilgrims had visited the holy places there on the day of Ashura.

The old city of Damascus, probably the oldest city in the world, harbors other significant Christian sites, for instance, the Catholic Syriac Church, St. Mary's Church, and St. Paul’s chapel, the site where he had climbed the city wall and escaped from his enemies.

What has happened to the Iraqi Professor? He has moved his family back to Holland. A life in Baghdad is no longer possible, he recently told me on the telephone. Alhamdulillah, he has now got a position at Delft University.

* A Significant Emotional Event (SEE) is an experience (or experiences) that creates an emotional meaning which affects us in later life. Examples may be 9/11, or the assassination of JFK. The pictures of Abu Ghuraib may last for a long time in memory.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Eventually Sunrise

Tromsø, January 23, 2008

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Ya Husayn

Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib and his family left Madinah on the 4th of Rajab in the year 60 AH and reached Makkah on the 4th of Shaban. They stayed there for some time, but they did not complete the hajj as they had pretended to do. Rather, on the 8th of Dhu’l Hijjah the small caravan set out for Kufa in Iraq, Ali’s former Capital. It was on a hopeless mission. The plot against Yazid, the infamous and so much hated Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya’s dissipated and incompetent son in Damascus, had been betrayed. When they reached the Euphrates, the local ringleaders had been executed already. Husayn, his family and his men, not more than a few dozens, would have better been advised to surrender. The enemies' army consisted of thousands. But the brave knights didn’t.

The battle on the banks of the Euphrates at Karbala on the 10th of Muharram in the year 61 AH, the day of Ashura, didn’t take long. Although Husayn was wearing his grandfather’s cloak and had taken-up the Dhul’fiqar, Ali’s famous double-bladed sword, it didn’t help. He and all men of his army were slain, and women and children deported to Damascus. Yazid himself ordered the mutilation of Husayn’s body.

After the battle, Lady Zaynab, Husayn’s sister, became for a short while the leader of the Shi’at Ali and the guardian of the orphans of Ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet. The heads of the martyrs and all womenfolk and children were sent to Yazid in Damascus. When Yazid was presented with Husayn’s head on a gold dish he started to poke his lips and teeth with a cane, to the disgust of a venerable companion. ‘Take your cane from those lips,’ he cried, ‘for by Allah, I have seen the lips of the Prophet (pbuh) kiss those lips!’

Husayn's little daughter Ruqaiyyah, who was desperately asking for her father, was shown the head, and she died on the spot. Her shrine in the old city of Damascus is full of toys. She was only 5 years old when she died in a shock. Lady Zaynab was later sent back to Madinah where she died the following year. Her shrine is in a mosque in the vicinity of Damascus. Another is in Cairo, Egypt. Some people assume her tomb in Madinah.

Wilfred Thesiger, an extremely knowledgeable British explorer who in fact lived with the people in the vicinity of the Holy Cities of Karbala and Najaf (the former Kufa) in Iraq, wrote in his famous book Marsh Arabs (1964) on page 53:

“Shiism had started as a political movement among the Arabs to advance the claims of Ali and his descendants to the Caliphate. But after the martyrdom of Husain, it established itself as a new religious movement and soon became especially powerful in Iraq and Persia, embodying the social discontent of the indigenous population with the Arab aristocracy. In time, Shiism split Islam as decisively as the Reformation devided the Catholic Church. Whereas the orthodox Sunnis recognize Ali as the fourth of the Caliphs, or successors to Muhammad, the Shias regard the first three Caliphs as usurpers. They believe in an apostolic succession of Imams who followed the Prophet. Most of them believe in twelve of these, of whom Ali, Hasan and Husain were the first three, the others being Husain’s descendants. According to the Shias, the last Imam was Muhammad al Mahdi who mysteriously disappeared at Samarra and whose return they await in the fullness of time as the Mahdi or Expected One.”

The first 9 days of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, are dedicated to intense mourning in any Shi’a community, be it in Iran, Iraq, in the Emirates of the Gulf or in the Eastern regions of Saudi Arabia. The Ashura Festival on the 10th of Muharram commemorates the events of the Battle at Karbala and the Martyrdom of Husayn with vivid performances, processions, and a shocking brutality of self-flogging of young men and boys. If you won’t believe that there is a close, at least spiritual, relationship between Roman Katholic Church and Shi’a Islam, have a look at (very realistic if not real) crucifixion scenes on the Good Friday in the Philippines.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Huge Expense, No Recompense?

George W. Bush has accomplished his first visit to Israel and Palestine. On January 5, 2008, just hours before heading to Jerusalem and Ramallah on a trip mainly scheduled for pressing ahead the Middle East peace process, an obscure and difficult-to-judge ‘incident’ in the Strait of Hormuz had occurred, when 5 Iranian speed boats approached 3 American war vessels, allegedly threatening them to blow them up. Videos made by both sides have been released and broadcasted in the meantime, not really giving the impression of a serious incident.

While Bush absurdly admonished Mahmoud Abbas to exerting his influence on Gaza Strip's Hamas, talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah did not really prove particular knowledge of the World’s single superpower's leader about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, it is hoped for both peoples (and the Americans and us, too) that the Annapolis Peace Conference of November 2007 will not be in vain, and Bush’s promise of a peace treaty in 2008 will not be entirely hollow.

When traveling further to Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Emirates, it became more and more disturbing that Bush again used very hard words towards Iran, “the world's leading state sponsor of terror. It (Iran) sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home.” Hence, the old 'axis of evil' rhetoric. All Gulf States have cultural and economical connections, and deep interests in Iran and its people. All have Shi’a minorities. The last they would appreciate in the present situation would be a military strike in the last minute of Bush's presidency.

It might be possible that the IAEO Director General Mohamed ElBaradei's visit in Tehran this weekend who even met the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Bush’s strong rhetoric may have a combined impact on important decisions to be made in Iran’s complicated administration with regard to its nuclear program.

There is a grave concern, however, that any warmongering speech only helps hardliners in the upcoming majlis elections.

Isaiah’s Tomb

On the 25th of Shawwal (November 5, 2007), a public holiday is celebrated in Iran, commemorating the martyrdom of the 6th Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq. Thus, the old quarters of Esfahan, in the 11th to 13th century the capital of the Seljuk Turks, with the gorgeous Masjed-e Jomeh, were very calm on this morning. But the shops in the bazaar opened later.

Men were gathering for mourning, and banners and black flags could be seen in many places of the bazaar.

Imam Hossein’s half brother, Abbas ibn Ali ibn Abu Talib, who was martyred at the battle of Karbala, too, is displayed on the picture at the entrance of the little mosque in the bazaar, with beautiful tile patterns on one the main iwan. While walking through the narrow lanes of the old city, the two minarets of Soltan Bakht Agha and Baba Qassem’s mausoleum, both from Seljuk’s era, attracted my attention.

In the northeastern direction a significant landmark is a single, more than 50 meters high, Seljuk minaret, Monar-e Sareban, the 'minaret of the camel driver'. The respective mosque has vanished. The slender shaft shows kufic inscriptions and geometric patterns of turquoise tiles. To the north, there is an even older minaret, Monar-e Chehel Dokhtaran.

The whole quarter was once inhabited by Jews which may still comprise a small but significant part of Esfahan’s population. It is said that Imamzadeh Isma’il in the Yazd Abad quarter contains Isaiah’s tomb. Near the small mosque from the Safavid era, a truncated small Seljuk minaret can be seen (with a later more slender addition) as well as a bulky Turkmen dome.

On the roof some openings can be identified where the ruins of the much older previous mosque and the remains of the Jewish prophet may be assumed. Great view of other mosques, especially that of Ali in the southwest with its 50 meters tall minaret.

A pretty large Jewish cemetery from the 2nd Century CE is said to be located in the small village of Landjan, about 25 km southwest of Esfahan’s city center. What we finally found was a small synagoge which is still used by the local Jewish population as burning candles indicate.

The guard was rather suspicious when a Christian and his two Muslim colleagues asked for permission to have a quick look.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Adverse Effects

About 10 years ago, the infamous impeachment attempt of former President Bill Clinton took place. The public scandal started when Linda Tripp provided Kenneth Starr with her surreptitiously recorded tapes of talks with Monica Lewinsky. On February 12, 1999 the attempt to remove Clinton from office eventually failed. Clinton’s impeachment was based on an alleged, negligible sin; not of having sex with a trainee, but rather not admitting that in public. His prosecutor Kenneth Starr as well as Monica Lewinsky later vanished from the scene. Starr himself was applying the morals of a hypocrite.

When focusing on tackling foreign affairs, Clinton was certainly one of America’s weakest presidents. Only 5 weeks after his inauguration, on February 26, 1993, the New York’s World Trade Center was shaken by an enormous bomb blast in the underground garage. The explosion yielded a 60 meter wide crater in the car park. One may wonder what Clinton would have done if the Twin Towers had actually collapsed with probably far more casualties than the second attack of September 11, 2001. The 1993 bombing was the first assault on American territory by Al-Qaeda, which wasn’t known at that time very much. I remembered the attack recently when listening to a CD with Steve Reich’s ‘City Life’ (Warner Nonesuch, 1995) which contains original voices of fire fighters after the assault in the WTC. Clinton’s later military activities and skirmishes in Mogadishu, Yugoslavia, or Operation Desert Fox in Iraq were generally strictly local operations not with the claim of a global war, which wages his successor now in the 7th year.

It is an interesting speculation how the Lewinsky Affair would later have occupied the ’lame duck’ of 1998 so that urgent tasks with regards to foreign affairs in Afghanistan with its catastrophic development under the Taliban regime were carelessly neglected. Or with respect to Iran, which had just ‘elected’ his more liberal reform president Mohammad Khatami, who would have deserved any support from the US Administration.

Clinton’s emotional condition in early 1999 may be better understood when reading his biography (Clinton, B. My Life, Hutchinson, London 2004). He writes, for instance, on p. 854:

"After the impeachment ordeal, people often asked me how I got through it without losing my mind, or at least the ability to keep doing the job (sic!). I couldn't have done it if the White House staff and cabinet, including those who were angry and disappointed over my conduct, hadn't stayed with me. It would have been much harder if the American people hadn't made an early judgment that I should remain President and stuck with it. If more congressional Democrats had bailed out when it looked like the safe thing to do in January, after the story broke, or in August, after I testified to the grand jury, it would have been tough; instead, they rose to the challenge. Having the support of world leaders like Mandela, Blair, King Hussein, Havel, Crown Prince Abdullah, Kim Dae Jung, Chirac, Cardoso, Zedillo, and others whom I admired helped to keep my spirits up. When I compared them with my enemies, as disgusted as I still was with myself (!), I figured I couldn't be all bad.

"The love and support of friends and strangers made a big difference; those who wrote to me or said a kind word in a crowd meant more than they will ever know. The religious leaders who counseled me (!), visited me at the White House, or called to pray with me reminded me that, notwithstanding the condemnations I had received from some quarters, God is love (!).

"But the biggest factors in my ability to survive and function were personal. Hillary's brothers and my brother were wonderfully supportive. Roger joked to me that it was nice to finally be the brother who wasn't in trouble. Hugh came up from Miami every week to play UpWords, talk sports, and made me laugh. Tony came over for our family pinochle matches. My mother-in-law and Dick Kelley were great to me.

"Despite everything, our daughter still loved me and wanted me to stand my ground. And, most important, Hillary stood with me and loved me through it all. From the time we first met, I had loved her laugh. In the midst of all the absurdity, we were laughing again, brought back together by our weekly counseling and our shared determination to fight off the right-wing coup (!). I almost wound up being grateful to my tormentors (!): they were probably the only people who could have made me look good to Hillary again. I even got off the couch (!)."
(Any additions in brackets).

And all the rest of it. A completely paralyzed president of the only superpower. A few months before that, Pakistan’s atomic bomb had exploded (May 28, 1998), American Embassies in Dar es Salaam und Nairobi had been bombed (August 7, 1998), the Mazar-e Sharif massacre of the Hazara had taken place (a full week in early August of 1998). Osama bin Laden had moved from Sudan to Afghanistan and had already started operating from Kandahar and even Tora Bora, and he and Zawahiri had written and signed a Fatwa of the Islamic Jihad against Jews and Crusaders (see Wright L. The Looming Tower. Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2006).

As compared to the massive impact on global peace of the current administration in Washington, the Lewinsky affair appears completely ridiculous, of course. One might speculate, however, whether assaults which had been prepared during periods of forced inactivity of a more self-absorbed president could have been prevented if the American public had not paid so much attention to that kind of absurdity (given the support of other world leaders was in fact granted as described by Clinton). Nota bene, not of having sex with a trainee in the Oval Office or White House’s kitchen, but not saying the truth when it came to admit that in the public. I remember the day well when the Starr report was published in the internet and people all around the world could see the deconstructing of the most powerful man on Earth.

The most significant adverse effect might indeed have been the catastrophic escalation of global terrorism two 2 years later and, as a consequence, what people sometimes call World War IV.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Marsh Arabs

A sort of marshes in southern Iraq I noticed only once, when I was on my return to Europe in May 2007, a rare day-flight. The rivers in the glistening desert and some vegetation were a bit stunning to me. But is that what had been left after Saddam’s draining by building a dam for the Euphrates?

The first time I heard about the Marsh Arabs was shortly after my arrival in Kuwait in 2001. A luxurious reprint of the book by Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the last of the great British explorers of the last century, was lying on the coffee table of a colleague. Thesiger had visited the Marshes several times in the 1950s, and in fact had lived with the people there.

The book immediately fascinated me because of the completely different way of life of these Arabs. They were not Bedouins but rather had settled in the swamps and alluvial salt marshes in Southern Iraq, the land in-between the Tigris and Euphrates, Mesopotamia. These Arabs built large reed houses used for conventions, called mudhif, and smaller one-room houses, raba, on artificial islands made of mud and reed. Some islands were even floating. In their slender canoe boats, meshuf, they were fishing. They raised water buffalo and hunted ducks and the wild boar. Later, when reading my own copy of the book, which was originally published in 1964, I learned that they were Shi’a and not well-reputed by Sunni Bedouins. The Marshes provided plenty of refuges for escaped slaves and later persecuted convicts of Saddam’s brutal regime.

In late 2003 an exhibition was held at Dar Al Cid in Jabriya on which occasion artistic photographs of Southern Iraq and the Marsh Arabs by Tareq Rajab from the 1960s were displayed. They showed an ancient world which I was told had completely vanished during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who largely drained the marshes and brutally urged the people, in retaliation of a failed uprising (or intifada) after the 2nd Gulf War of 1991, to settle in the bigger cities like Basrah. In a few weeks tens of thousands of civilian Marsh Arabs were killed by soldiers of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Their hope that President G. Bush would prevent these atrocities was in vain, and they had not forgotten when his son ‘freed’ the people of Basrah 12 years later.

The once fertile marshes, which had been inhabited since Sumerian ages, were quickly deserted. Vegetation and animals vanished largely, and heavy dust storms became normality. The very basis of existence for non-nomadic life disappeared as well.

After the 3rd Gulf War, attempts were made to revitalize the Marshes. Despite some promising efforts reported already in local newspapers, Tareq Rajab, a former Director of Antiquities and Museums of the Kuwait Government, remains more than skeptical. What had been destroyed within less than a decade, a world in balance for thousands of years, cannot be restored within a couple of years. According to him, also the people have changed. Their way of life is lost. After having tasted a taste of modern life in big cities, why should they come back to their reed huts? "People romanticize about that simple way of life, but they cannot recreate it."

It never happened that I had the opportunity to visit southern Iraq. There was a time after Saddam had been toppled when millions of Shi’a pilgrims visited the Holy Cities of Karbala and Najaf, harboring the shrines of Imam Hossein and Imam Ali, respectively. But crossing the northern borders of Kuwait and driving to Babylon or Ur with its Ziggurat was out of any consideration during my six years in Kuwait.

Shortly after the respective war in 2003, the northern borders to Iraq at Abdaly opened and more and more Iraqi dwellers visited the Friday market in Rai and Souq Mubarakia. It was then when we Westerners saw for the first time the beautiful handcrafted work of the women of the Marshes. They very colorfully embroidered blankets, not kilims, and Jehan Rajab called them, in her 2003 publication “A Glimpse of the Marshes and the Marsh Arabs”, izars. In very bright colors, the daily life of the women was displayed, their special feelings for beauty expressed. Besides geometric figures, not only plenty of small animals and camels, fish and ducks can be seen, mosques and palm trees, and flowers all over; but occasionally even humans appear, which is quite unusual in a Muslim society.

The borders to Iraq had been closed again for some time, and the at a time so popular search for the most beautiful izars in Kuwait’s Souq al-Jum'a ceased in recent years. The blankets represent now a special type of textile in my collection. They are very unique and rare, and precious witnesses of the past, of a culture which has vanished.

More about southern Iraqi weavings here.